Monthly Archives: November 2021

I Know Things Now

At age six, I saw the local high school production of West Side Story.  While I didn’t file away many memories of the show, I remember how it felt, the sensation of magic, of witnessing something that transcended every experience I’d ever had.  During the tragic ending, I cried, and I remember my mother leaning over, her breath too hot in my ear: “It’s all pretend. Everybody’s okay.” And though I didn’t dare say it to her, I thought, You’re wrong. It’s pretend-but-not-pretend.  Leave me alone.  I’m trying to crawl inside it!

Sondheim wrote lyrics for West Side Story, his first highly successful, highly visible musical.  He was irked to share a music-and-lyrics credit with Leonard Bernstein because he knew even then: “I don’t just do lyrics.” He longed to live into the fulness of his gifts.  He’d have the opportunity, eventually.

In high school, a friend introduced me to Into the Woods, and that show can take a lifetime to understand.  Much of it went right over my head despite being a narrative of children’s fairy tales.  I could not figure out, as a teen, why we needed the second act when the first act ended as fairy tales are meant to: granting of wishes, marriages, children. I had neither the perspective nor the experience to understand why Sondheim let things fall apart afterward, not knowing that things do fall apart, that many times what we wish for is not what we need and that marriage and children–even coming of age–are neither endings nor fulfillment but a piece of a growing story, and if we’re lucky, we grow until we die.  

But even not understanding all this, I fell in love with “I Know Things Now,” Little Red’s commentary post-wolf-consumption.  My life was still at the beginning of the song–“Mother said, ‘Straight ahead,’ not to delay or be misled,’ but I sensed a kinship with what happened next…”I had been so careful, I never had cared…down a dark slimy path where lie secrets that I never wished to know…everything familiar seemed to disappear forever…I know things now, many valuable things that I hadn’t known before…though scary is exciting, nice is different than good…now I know: don’t be scared, Granny is right, just be prepared; isn’t it nice to know a lot! And a little bit not.”  How many times I’ve lived this since first I heard it!

Around the time I left home for college, I came upon the soundtrack of Merrily We Roll Along, which many people know as Sondheim’s famous flop.  Deeply flawed in every way, from casting to narrative structure to costume design to set, it lasted just a few performances on Broadway.  Even Stephen Sondheim could fail.  But what is failure, anyway?  If the end-all goal is making money, then on Merrily, Stephen Sondheim failed.  But if it’s about inspiration and art, then Sondheim succeeded triumphantly.  Between ages seventeen and twenty-seven, I must have listened to “Opening Doors” three or four times every week. That song is the story of three young people struggling to make it in New York City, and it fed my courage to try it myself.  And this, of course, is the theme of Merrily.  When your work becomes about money, power, or fame–when you lose your passion for what you love–then that’s the point when you’ve lost the thread.  Every other failure will pass.

“Hey,” said a friend of mine, halfway through my sophomore year of college, “want to come with me and a couple of friends to see a production of Sweeney Todd?  They do it at midnight on Halloween night outside on the grounds of the state mental hospital.”  And it was a full moon, no less.  I wore about six layers of clothing and shivered, mouth agape, through two and a half hours of a comedic epic tragedy about cannibalism.  This is a musical?  It pushed the limits of acceptable art, and going to see it in the nighttime with a mixed-gender group pushed the boundaries of allowable behavior at Brigham Young University.  I felt daring and rebellious, two things I rarely experienced, and I gathered groups to go with me Halloween night both junior and senior years.

I moved to New York City in 2007, and Broadway was right there, as I’d always known it would be.  I saw Gypsy with Patti LuPone, and she came up right behind me in the house to bark that famous first line: “Sing out, Louise!”  And A Little Night Music, for which Catherine Zeta-Jones received top billing, but what I remember is Angela Lansbury.  She sang “Liaisons,” never moving from her wheelchair, eighty-four years old, and the woman can’t even sing, really–but she kept a house of a thousand people motionless, silent, perfectly still, and I thought, “I want to be her when I grow up.”

“Take Me to the World,” Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration, streamed on YouTube April 26, 2020.  We’d been in lockdown for more than a month, but it still felt new and deeply traumatic.  I distinctly remember still running on high, adrenaline streaming unceasingly, not sleeping much, working ten or twelve hours every day and then pacing in circles for 20,000 steps because I simply could not stop moving.  Every great Broadway performer filmed a tribute.  Neil Patrick Harris brought his kids.  Laura Benanti sang from her bathroom–“the acoustics are better”–and Chip Zien wore the original baker’s hat.  Donna Murphy was, as always, quiet perfection.  And there was this, which I still go back and watch when my spirits are dragging.

But the moment I’m revisiting this morning?  Mandy Patinkin did a tribute a cappella in the middle of a grassy field, and he introduced it with the words we all long for today: “Sondheim says everything I wish I could say.”

There’s a production of Company on Broadway right now, and in it is Claybourne Elder, who I worked with a few times and who is still a Facebook friend.  I want to share what he had to say Friday evening:

After the matinee our producers gathered us on stage, which is never good news. We were all still in our costumes, getting ready to have our dinner break before the evening show. We gathered in a circle, many of us holding hands or with our arms around each other. Our director Marianne Elliot told us that Steve had passed, that it had been easy and that his loved ones were with him. Today was our 10th performance of the show, before the pandemic we had 9 performances then the theatres closed because of covid. We were celebrating that we had crossed that barrier and then this news came.

Steve spent his whole life championing young artists. At 25 he gave me my first job starring in his last new musical Road Show at the Public Theatre. I had gone to the open chorus call and the director John Doyle and Steve Sondheim took a big chance on me, an unknown actor without an agent.

He loved authenticity and new ideas. His shows have been reinvented and revived with his blessing; he loved having his words reimagined. So many writers are precious with their material, but Steve was always open to new ideas.

On our first preview of Company, the director had the cast come out on stage right before the show. The audience went wild, we were very emotional. It had been such a long wait to return to Broadway. After our director introduced us, Patti Lupone stepped forward and dedicated our performance to Steve Sondheim. They threw a spotlight on him and he stood up, the light was so bright – I hesitate to say that he looked like an angel, he would have hated that. But he did.

In his youth, Stephen Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II.  He himself went on to mentor Lin Manuel Miranda, Jonathan Larson, and countless more, as Clay references in his reflections.  Sondheim once said, “I just hope that I’ve paid back some of the debt I owe to Oscar.”  I affirm that he has.  Sondheim not only mentored and inspired; he served as a model of how one mentors and inspires.  He’s been with me through every stage of my life, and he’ll be with me through many more, without ever needing to meet me.  

This is what it looks like: gifts well used, a life well lived.  As Stephanie J. Block tweeted last night, “There’s a giant in the sky.”

Being the Church: “We are the church.”

“Church is not cancelled.  We are the church.”

Remember that, from March and April of 2020?  How we needed to hear that line!  We passed it around to one another through social media channels and phone calls and texts.  We needed—needed—to know that our beloved faith communities were not disappearing, and we needed to know that we, ourselves, were still empowered to exist in the world as the church.  God was with us, and we were with God.

Flash forward to now, and I’m left with some questions.  Are we the church?  Are we really?  I mean, I want to take that on faith.  Certainly, we people, guided by God, are the church more than our buildings and property are, but what does that mean?

“We are the church.”

We—which we?  Everybody?  Certain somebodies?  It’s not that I’m desperate to know who’s out, but I want to know who’s in.  Who’s on my team?  Whose hands can I hold?

Are—in what way?  By a set of actions or a state of being?  To bring it down from the clouds, what is this on the average Tuesday?

The—does that imply there’s only one church?

Church—is there a difference between being church and being God’s people?  If the church is not a building, what is it, then?

We

You just know different groups would define this differently.  I tend to stretch for the broadest possible definition because my gut instinct is to include.  But I know, at the same time, that many groups of people—many congregations, even whole denominations—would draw a circle around “we” with me outside of it.  I can live with that, but actually, I think that just because someone else says I’m not on their team doesn’t mean I can’t decide that they are on my team.  I think maybe I can draw my own circle as big as I like.

When I try to think who I’d include in my “we,” I just can’t find a place to cut it off.  Sure, there are people I like more than others.  And there are people whose actions horrify me.  I don’t mean to imply a big, friendly cuddle pile.  Some people do things that are literally evil.  I don’t want to make nice with everybody.  In fact, I can’t; making nice, tolerating, would sometimes be immoral, contrary to God’s commandment to do justice and love mercy.

What I’m talking about is something else, something about the way I approach another person’s deep wrongdoing—or, for that matter, the way in which I listen to someone who criticizes me.  I approach this differently if I’ve decided they’re on my team.  If I disassociate from someone, drawing my circle with them outside it, then I’ve given myself permission to ignore or despise them.  Why not?  That person’s not part of my “us.”  I have no responsibility for them, nor they for me.

But if somebody’s inside my circle, I respond to their behaviors very differently.  Suddenly, they are precious to me.  I want to build them up, not tear them down, and if they’re doing something terrible, I want to say so—but with love and mercy and assuming they’d make better choices if only they could see a way.  I care about them and what their choices do to their soul.  And if they’re inside my circle, I know my team can’t succeed without them.  Success is no longer a zero-sum game.  We all succeed, or none of us do.

I can’t despise a person once I’ve decided they’re part of we.

Are

Sixth grade, listing the state-of-being verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.  That was twenty-nine years ago, but I can still recite them.

The verb are is inherently plural.  I can’t are all by myself.  Which right away goes against the grain, because I’d very much like to just put together a to-do list and check things off as I move through my day, and by the time I go to bed, I can say that I’ve completed this.  That’s much more efficient.  But it’s not being church.

To are the church is to manifest collectively.  How does this happen in day-to-day activity?  How to understand this plural state of being?

One part might be a state of flawed striving.  Almost no one describes any church as a group of perfect people.  So we are the church when we name each other and ourselves as imperfect but trying.

Another part might be divine potential.  Embedded in church is the possibility of being better.  We are the church when we affirm our collective capacity to do better than we’re currently doing, with the guidance of God.

And another part might be interconnectedness.  This is that inherently plural thing.  My favorite metaphor for the church comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, and he reminds us that we are like a body, in which the parts are all necessary and fundamentally interdependent.  I cannot fully function without you.  You cannot fully function without me.  We are the church when we recognize and act upon the necessity and preciousness of every person.

What does this look like on a Tuesday afternoon?  Recognizing mistakes as part of life; giving each other the benefit of the doubt; knowing that we all can do better; supporting each other’s ability to thrive.

Forgive, believe, envision, feed.

The

Just to continue a grammar theme, “the” is a definite article, indicating something clearly defined rather than just one example of something.  (Not “an” apple, but “the apple.”  Not “a” church, but “the” church.)

If we’re the church, that seems to indicate some definite something, not that we’re just church in general.  It could be a reference to one’s local faith community, but if feels to me like it’s also a reference to something much larger.

I’ve been using the phrase “being the church” throughout this series because I don’t have a better phrase to indicate what I mean.  But like I’ve said above, I don’t limit “we” to a specific circle.  And if “we” isn’t limiting, our “the” can’t be exclusionary.

So what is “the” church, beyond institutions?  Something larger than an individual denomination or local congregation.  Something larger than even a broad definition of Christianity or even of interfaith.  

Church

The word’s inaccurate.  I don’t have an adequate word in English and don’t know any other languages to try.  The word “church” only makes sense if you’re coming from at least a vaguely culturally Christian background.  But I’m going to struggle on anyway.

What’s this church thing that we are being?  When we forgive, believe, envision, and feed, what does that cause us to be?  I almost want to say that church is the place of gatherment in the arms of God, the place of being infinitely precious to divine eternity, the place of being held alongside our dear siblings, human and non-human, every living thing.

But.

If that’s so—if church is the place of gatherment—then I have to go back and shift what I’ve said, because that is not earned.  That simply is.  We are held in purest love always and always.  We can do nothing about it—not to receive it, and not to lose it.

If we are the church no matter what we do—if God cuddles us close automatically—then we are not the church because we act like we are the church.

We act like we are the church because we recognize that we are the church.  That’s what it looks like on a Tuesday afternoon: abiding in the power of God’s love for all the we.

Being the Church: Evangelism

So—new people showed up on your Zoom or your Facebook Live!  Hooray!

No, really—hooray!  Let’s stay in the celebratory moment before going on to the questions.  This is amazing.  People have discovered your faith community in a time when many people are desperate for connection…to God, to their fellow humans, to hope, to faith.  And if they’ve kept coming, that means that your faith community was giving them something that they really needed.  Good job.  Thank God.  That is fantastic news.

I wonder what brought these new people to your faith community.  I wonder how they found you.  I wonder what they found in you.  Do you know?  Have you asked?  Have you considered how to welcome them?  Are they ready for further involvement?  Do you know how to support their belonging?

We used to have a sense of rules and pattern and predictability about newcomers.  For example, I used to tell faith communities that the people most likely to visit their congregations were people who lived within twenty minutes’ travel.  They might get someone who drove forty-five minutes, but this was statistically unlikely.  That meant that congregations could get a sense of potential newcomers by just studying their local neighborhoods.

Not so much anymore.

So what does evangelism look like now?  For faith communities that intend to continue as hybrid or online worshiping groups, we don’t know what the new rules are yet.  We have no idea—no good data—about why somebody shows up on your Facebook Live from three states away when they could just as easily have shown up on somebody else’s.  The only person who knows is the person themselves, which makes me think that you might want to ask them.  Why did you come to us?  Why have you stayed?  Obviously (I hope), you don’t want to barrage people with these sorts of questions on their very first visit, but if you do have relative newcomers who’ve appeared online and stuck around for a while, they’re the people you want to engage as you start to explore your new approach to evangelism.

Asking what brought these new folks to your community might give you a sense of who you are perceived to be.  If what they say feels true, you can lean into that identity.  You can also talk (both online and in person) about the various ways in which your congregation is distinct.  “Welcoming of online participants” is no longer unusual, and you probably won’t continue to receive new visitors for that reason alone.  But being deliberate and specific about your identity as a faith community will encourage visitors.  They’ll be clear about what they’re invited to, and some people will hear your description as a direct answer to what they’ve been seeking.

It will also be important, as visitors come, to be aware of how you welcome them.  Are you prepared to greet visitors of all ages, whether online or in person, warmly but not overwhelmingly?  Have you figured out how to welcome a new person individually without putting them on lengthy display?  In person, this is relatively simple; you station a greeter in the hallway.  Online, you might want to make use of a tech host with strong social skills or assign somebody to greet people in the chat.

Do you have simple information about your faith community that’s easy for visitors to find?  In person, this means a good pamphlet table.  Online, this is a great website, or—if necessary—a simple link made readily available to a well-curated denominational site.

Do you follow up with visitors by phone or email within a few days of their first visit?  Some visitors—especially shy ones—might find this kind of follow-up intimidating, but they tend to self-select. If visitors are invited and encouraged to write their contact information in a book (or put it in a private chat box), they will decide for themselves whether to offer an email address, a phone number, a mailing address, or none of the above. Within days, they should receive a friendly follow-up—“I’m so glad you came. Here are a couple of upcoming events you might want to know about . . . can I answer any questions for you?” This kind of contact makes a visitor feel seen.

After the first visit, newcomers will need help finding a sense of belonging.  Can you invite the newcomer—whether in-person or virtual—into a formal or informal small group?  Sociological research tells us that it’s easier to enter a group in formation than it is to enter an established group. Established groups have unwritten rules and norms that can be tricky to learn and follow, but a small group that’s just being established is a lot easier to enter.  The newcomer can be part of the creation of the social norms.

Does your faith community have fun, preferably multigenerational activities—again, online, in-person, or hybrid?  Having fun together brings a community together in ways that nothing else does.  For many people, social time is where trust-building happens.  Even neuroscience supports the idea of community play.  Laughter stimulates chemicals in our brains that cause us to experience a feeling of bondedness to the people we laugh with.

And are you prepared to respond positively and supportively to newcomers’ suggestions, including those newcomers who appear online?  It’s about establishing a permission-giving culture: a place in which the default answer to newcomers’ ideas is “yes, and how can I help?” unless there is a compelling, Spirit-led reason to say otherwise. Newcomers develop a sense of belonging when their ideas are taken seriously. 

And eventually, your newcomers won’t be new anymore; they’ll need to become fully integrated members, experiencing religious formation and journeying with other community members.  Are you providing regular opportunities for religious formation and religious education for everyone—all ages, and all levels of experience?  If not, it’s tricky for newcomers to move out of their status as “new” because they don’t experience the group as one where everyone is growing.  When you’re all gathering together (in person, online, or hybrid) for discussions and religious formation opportunities, members of the congregation have the chance to journey together in their walks of faith.  It’s important to include talking about how each person’s faith influences their daily lives—otherwise, there’s danger that these gatherings will become intellectual exercises, which works okay for some people, but not for everyone.

Evangelism has been functioning a bit like catch-as-catch-can for most of us in the last couple of years. That’s reasonable; the tried-and-true predictable patterns keep shifting, and we’re just trying to cope.  But there are some things that will always be the same: bringing people good news, welcoming newcomers into communities, and walking together in faith as congregations.  We do this whether we’re gathering in person or in our jammies online.  Are we ready now to resume doing these things more deliberately?