Learning how to do Church from the Blue Man Group

What could our churches learn from the Blue Man Group?

It was probably a year ago or so that I was weaving my way down Highway 17 towards Santa Cruz busting through my neglected list of podcasts. After listening to a few theologically deep podcasts, I needed a palate cleanser of sorts. I turned to The Moth podcast which is one of my favorites for easy listening on long drives. The podcast I clicked on featured a story told by a man who used to be a part of the Blue Man Group. While I’ve never seen a Blue Man Group show, I’ve always been a fan of what they do and I dream of watching it live some day. This was an easy choice to listen to for me. Little did I know that this podcast would open my eyes to some deep Christian truth and theology. If you want, please take some time to listen to the story.

To set the stage, he reveals some of the elements of the show. He discusses that the show is essentially about “connectedness and community” with the audience. The audience has come to not only enjoy, but be engaged by the show. One guest is chosen to be a “feast guest” who is invited on stage to participate in the show and serve as a sort of surrogate for the audience. This is all accomplished in typical, non-verbal, Blue Man Group style. It was the responsibility of the Blue Man telling the story to pick whoever would be the guest for the night. He has been doing the whole “Blue Man” thing for so long that it has lost a bit of its initial luster. So, he’s looking for a way to breathe some life into what has become rote to him. This one evening he goes out into the crowd to find a “guest” for the evening and out there he discovers a lady who he describes as “bright and beaming” and totally excited to be there. Figuring there is no better person, he invites her on stage. Once on stage they remove her poncho (ala, “splash-zone” poncho at Sea World or whatever) and everyone in the room discovers a very important fact about this woman…

She only has one arm.

I don’t want to spoil the whole talk (again, you really should go and listen to it), but initially everyone is a little shocked. Except for the woman, who is still as excited and beaming as before. The Blue Men are, non-verbally, trying to figure out how to adjust the show for this woman. Hoping to not offend or make too much of a joke about her just revealed, one-armedness. The audience is breathlessly awaiting how they’re going to make this awkward situation go away. What then transpires is a surprising mix of the Blue Men trying to adapt to the situation but the woman revealing unique ways she has adapted to her world and teaches the Blue Men new ways to live. Her one-armedness does not slow her down a bit and she becomes an essential (and very successful) part of the show.

And it all revolves around a Twinkie. Seriously…go listen for the Twinkie.

And as they wrap up the show, he describes what it felt like:

“The audience bursts into this enormous applause for her…she was the catalyst for this whole thing to happen…that ability to remain present and be honest and fearless…the space has completely changed…the theater has become as large and as opulent as the Bolshoi.”

And these three Blue Men burst into tears as they pound on their drums and conclude the show.

Honestly, I was crying a bit by the end of the podcast as well. It is a beautiful story of humility, selflessness, service and openness to the stories/lives of others.

While that Blue Man show was not held in a church, cathedral, sanctuary or previously holy place. I believe something very close to Church happened in that space. I believe this story illustrates how we in the church are supposed to operate when others enter our midst. There is a temptation to silo off and make allowances for others who do not fit into whatever our definition of “normal” may be.

Put the singles in that group.

Send the kids over there.

Don’t let those people in.

Give the seniors an early morning service.

You can’t do that and come here.

Most of these are well-intentioned, but they miss a very important opportunity that this story highlights. The Blue Men learned how to live in a new way by inviting this woman to their feast, they began to see life through her eyes and she through theirs. She had the time of her life all because they invited her to their table in-spite of her disability. In fact, her disability melted away into ability as they all shifted their actions and outlook towards each other.

When he said, “the theater has become as large and as opulent as the Bolshoi,” I believe they essentially felt the space became holy. What was meant for one purpose, was turned into something wholly other. That show room in New York was transformed into sacred space.

The moment became holy because the Blue Men ceased to be the only entertainers in the room.

The moment became holy because the woman’s one-armedness became essential rather than an exception.

The moment became holy because every person felt whole, accepted and part of the feast.

The moment became holy because even in a moment of weakness, they offered mutual grace and support.

And everyone in the room felt the change.

The image is not lost on me that this is the power of the Table of Christ. When we sit at the table and share this “body and blood” of Christ with other followers we all become whole and accepted. We have all been invited by Christ, not because of who we are, who we are not, what we have or what we don’t have. We have been invited because Christ selflessly stepped down so that we would have a seat at his table. When we partake and participate with others, in that mutual sharing, we all become “whole.” Obviously all the pain and suffering in the world does not melt away just because we ate some bread and grape juice. But, in that moment we acknowledge that Jesus has created space for us all to be whole and see each other as whole in this broken and painful world.

Man, woman, child, senior, Blue Man or One-armed woman, we mutually create the sacred space that Christ has invited us into for the healing and wholeness of the world.

And that, my dear friends, is Church.

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 2:1-5 (CEB)

Selfies with the Cross

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Kevin Lee Light, dressed as Jesus, takes a selfie in London (Click for story)

I don’t know how hip you are to current trends, but in case you’ve missed the last few years of pop culture and technology…selfies are a thing. This phenomenon created by having cameras wherever we go that can be used to easily take self portraits have elevated the concept of a selfie to our almost daily vernacular. You may have seen this photo last year…

86th Academy Awards - Audience

Apparently, it “broke” the internet.

So, here we are in a culture where people are taking pictures of themselves in (what they deem as) notable situations and sharing them publicly for all their friends to see (yes, I’m still thinking about all this social media stuff). What strikes me as interesting about the selfie is that it allows people to connect themselves to certain people and places. On one level, the selfie is “proof” that you were there, you touched them, you climbed it, you ate it and/or you saw it. But, I also think, the selfie subtly and subconsciously communicates that we are attempting to identify with whatever or whomever is also featured in the selfie. Sure it’s about the moment, but what does that moment say about who I am, where I’ve gotten and who I’m with?

Selfies communicate identity. 

Or, at least, our concept of what our identity is.

I began thinking about the selfie on Sunday during the sermon at our church. Our pastor shared this painting of the crucifixion by Rembrandt.

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Rembrandt, Raising of the Cross (c. 1633) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

In this painting, there are many highlighted people. It was odd for me that even though this is a painting of Jesus on the cross, my eye was not immediately drawn to Jesus. I saw the odd man wearing a turban in the back, the man in the blue hat/beret holding up the cross and even the soldier pulling the cross up before my gaze ended up at Jesus. Our pastor pointed out that the man in the blue hat helping raise the cross was actually Rembrandt. Rembrandt had included himself in his painting helping hoist up the cross with the crucified Christ. Some people even say that the man in a turban on the horse is also Rembrandt overseeing the crucifixion. Many painters did this as a sort of signature or simply that their face was the most readily accessible for reference. Either way, it is very interesting to me that Rembrandt included himself in the action of the painting. He is not detached from his work, he knows he is involved in it. From the choice of colors to the setting (which is decidedly not first-century, Roman occupied Palestine) Rembrandt is a part of the work and he has included himself in it.

In this painting, Rembrandt has identified himself with the crucifixion (like a selfie) but he has also involved himself with the action. He is part of raising the cross, he is part of the crowd, he is part of the action.

I see this as a strong challenge to our “selfie” culture, especially within the church. Often people just want to identify with Jesus or with the traditions of the church. But, the true challenge of Jesus is for his followers to, “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Selfies are often not about involving yourself, or picking anything up but a camera. Followers of Jesus are invited into his story and seek to identify with his humility, service and sacrifice. This involves not only picking up our own cross to bear but, much like Rembrandt, realizing our culpability with powers and oppression that allowed God in Christ to be executed and crucified.

We carry our cross at the same time we acknowledge our participation in raising Christ’s.

We are not just bystanders observing, letting the world know we were there by snapping a photo. We are to see ourselves as part of the crowd, yelling “Crucify him” and “Give us Barabbas!” We are Simon, called out of the crowd to help Jesus make his appointment with the executioner. We are Pilate washing our hands of the matter, and (hopefully) we are the centurion acknowledging that “Surely, this man was the Son of God.”

What I Learned Giving Up Social Media for Lent

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Happy Easter, Christ is risen (He is risen indeed) and the tomb is empty. Along with that, I’m reinstalling my various social media apps back on my phone.

Honestly, I do not think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were things Christ had in mind when he breathed anew Easter morning. Yet, here we are 2000 years later wrestling with the technology in our pockets.

I chose to free myself from the various forms of social media for Lent because I could tell it was occupying a significant share of my time, my heart and my head. Some recent interactions on social media helped guide me to this choice and I honestly wrestled with the idea of dropping Facebook completely. I figured I would give it the 40 days of Lent to understand more the place of social media in my life and maybe some better ways to approach it. There’s nothing like dropping something cold turkey to see exactly how much it has wedged itself into your life. Here’s three observations I made as I walked through those 40 days.

Observation #1 – Why do I feel a need to share this?

I love photos and photography and shared a fair amount of my pictures on social media. After deleting the apps from my phone, I was almost instantly confronted with the temptation to share a photo. I think it was literally day one or two this came up for me. After taking a photo I felt the almost automatic urge to head over to Instagram, nostaligia-ize it and share it with my friends. After realizing this was not an option, I began to wonder.

Why the urge to share this photo? Was this photo really that important? Could I enjoy this photo and this moment without sharing it?

It was interesting to me how even the concept of sharing a photo and seeing responses to that photo gave me the impression I was connected to and connecting with people. We all do this. We love sharing common experiences and memories. That’s why we tell stories. It defines who we are and our space in our communities and world. How has this kind of sharing on social media (kids, food, cute cat videos, political ideas, etc.) changed the way we see ourselves in community with others? Just because they liked my photo, does that mean we share something in common? Sure it’s different if my mom likes the photo rather than a long lost acquaintance from high school. But, if I did not want to share much with them in High School, why would I care if they liked something now?

Observation #2 – Social media needs me

A couple weeks into my social media fast I wondered if people missed seeing me on their feeds. Certainly my friends and family were missing out on all sorts of wonderful thoughts and photos (see observation #1) that I was unable to share? But (probably not surprisingly) nobody, except for my mother, said they missed me posting to social media. Nobody sent me text messages, nobody called or emailed to tell me that they wished I would start posting again.

You know who missed me? Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I began receiving new types of emails from them beyond the typical notifications. “Check out this post…”, “Did you know who’s birthday it is?”, “Somebody uploaded a photo.” They knew I was gone and they wanted…no…they needed me to come back. I was not liking, commenting or clicking on things anymore and they were trying to get me to come back. The notifications about people I followed were really an act to get me back and see some advertising, a sponsored post or visit a sponsors website.

Social media outlets want you to think that you “need” to be on their sites so that you don’t miss out. You “need” to post something because all your friends and family want to hear/see what you are currently thinking/hearing/seeing. The reality is, nobody really “needs” to see what we share on social media. Social media needs us. Discussions about the viability of Facebook or Twitter are never about how many cat videos or cute baby photos are posted. They are always questioned about monetizing their feeds. They don’t need to know how much you love your mother, your baby, your significant other or your recently home-cooked, paleo-organic gourmet masterpiece. But, they need me to post that so that you will come look at it and maybe click on something sponsored.

Observation #3 – Being social > Social media

During this time I found myself hanging out and meeting up for drinks with friends more than I had in the past. I do not believe this was because I gave up social media, but was probably more due to the impending loss of my job (yeah for networking!). Either way, I found my social interactions IRL (in real life) to be much more rewarding, encouraging, soul-sustaining and generally nicer than what I had recently been engaged in on social media. It’s too easy to talk over someone, depersonalize them and scroll past things on social media. Face to face, I felt like I actually engaged in a conversation and got to know someone on a deeper level.

Let me give an example. A few days ago, I was at Chick’fil’a enjoying a spicy chicken sandwich. At the table next to me, people were engaging in a conversation that I disagreed with. I could have butted in, provided my counter-arguments, “dropped the mic” and walked away. This seems to be how most interactions happen on social media. There is very little relationship, very little aspect of being social, but a lot of butting in and talking because social media requires that we share so…we share.

I chose to keep quiet and enjoy my spicy chicken sandwich while looking forward to a conversation I was about to share with a new friend over coffee. If I didn’t feel like butting in then, why would I feel like I could on social media?

Sure, there is great value in making new connections and being able to communicate with family and friends far away that social media can facilitate. I have made many new friends through connections on social media. Also, I actually had to ask people what was going on in their life as I had not seen their recent posts and photos on Facebook. It is much harder to pigeonhole someone when they’re sitting across the table from you. I can’t drop a well-researched and well thought out comment and just walk out when they are three feet away. I have to be engaged in the conversation and I have to be open to hearing what the other person has said or experienced so that they might offer me the same courtesy. Conversations and an openness to others ideas and experiences can happen over social media, but it is typically not required or even offered.

So, here I am. I’m back on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I hope to give more thought to my interactions and posts because, there is some value out there. Hopefully my observations have helped you out some. Feel free to leave a comment or share this post with your friends if you’ve found it helpful.

Prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent

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Lord, as we light another candle around the Advent wreath, we continue to pray for your light to shine in this season of darkness.

We pray that our fear would be pushed back as your light scatters the darkness.

Remind us of your strength so that we would not fear our affliction.

And in your strength, may we empower our afflicted brothers.

Remind us of your salvation so that we would not fear our brokenness.

And in your salvation, we may save our broken sisters.

Remind us of your comfort so that we would not fear our distress.

And in your comfort, may we comfort our neighbor in distress.

So that the shadow of fear may continually be scattered by your strength, your salvation and your comfort and the world would witness the arrival of your light through Jesus.

Amen.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light,
The hopes and fears of all the years,
Are met in thee tonight.

Missing the Path (Advent Lectio Luke 1:69-78)

Lamp of Wisdom

Lamp of Wisdom, Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire, Britian.

On December 2nd, our TV’s and social media feeds were flooded with the news of the shooting in San Bernardino. A day in which two people chose violence over peace. The week before, a man killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic. It was just another day in which somebody chose violence over peace. A religious leader stood up and declared that people should arm and prepare themselves for violence.

People regularly choose violence over peace.

It seems to be the way the world works. Violence is normal, expected and sometimes deemed rational.

Last Sunday was the Second Sunday of Advent. For many, the candle that was lit symbolized Peace. As this candle was lit, many read the words of Zechariah prophesying over his son John.

“Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.
Luke 1:69-78 (CEB)

The Jews in Zechariah’s time were well acquainted with violence as well. Rome was well-practiced in exercising peace through violence. The much promoted Pax Romana was maintained by Roman authorities quashing any hint of an uprising or disturbance. As the Roman occupation of Judea wore on and the Jews grew increasingly unsettled by their presence, more and more Legions showed up the help keep the peace. Crucifixions were regular and the threat of violence generally kept things from boiling over. For the Jews, Rome was the enemy. Many devout Jews hated the Romans, their occupation and their polytheistic, emperor worshiping ways. The Jews dreamed for a day that, like Zechariah says, “we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live.” Many hoped for a Messiah that would come, like King David, and slay the Goliath of Rome. The Messiah would raise up a holy army, cleanse Jerusalem and Israel of the unclean, Gentile Romans in order to restore and sanctify right worship of God at the Temple and in the land.

The Messiah would battle unjust, pagan violence with justified holy violence.

It’s the same story repeated again and again. Violence for violence so that some pale shadow of peace might come.

The problem is, when violence is the norm we are in danger of missing the true peace and salvation that God sends through Jesus. We look for salvation, rescue and redemption to come through violent and dramatic means. We have, for the most of human history, believed that violence is the means for peace. So, when an alternative shows up and tries to direct us down a different path for peace we are often unable to recognize it. Or, the worst of cases, we will flat-out deny the path revealed to us.

“Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.

The “path of peace” revealed in Jesus is not through dramatic strength or violence against the oppressors. It lead’s people away from darkness and the shadow of death. The “path of peace” is shown in a scandalous birth witnessed initially only by animals. Then, those who testified to this birth were typically untrustworthy shepherds and pagan astrologers from the East. This is the signpost of God’s path for peace and many missed in then, and I think we continue to miss it now. Spending too much time looking for our own vision of peace we miss out, “on this day what would bring you peace” (Luke 19:42, NIV) and continue our march towards darkness and the overwhelming shadow of death.

We light candles during Advent, not floodlights. We have to take care that we do not miss the faint light of peace that flickers when the flashing of bombs and smoking of guns dance across our screens and in our minds.

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

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Lord, as we light the second candle of Advent, for many this may be the hardest candle to light.

We pray for your light to shine, we hope for your kingdom come.

But we are reminded that there is still much pain and suffering in the world.

While two candles are lit, there are those that remain unlit and extinguished.

Open our eyes to the moments when we can catch a glimpse of your light.

Of the faintly flickering candle.

Open our ears to hear the cries of pain in the world.

To the dark corners of our neighborhoods.

Open our hearts to carry your light wherever we go.

To those who sit in darkness, may we shine your light.

By your mercy God, Amen.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine.

Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine.

Just Wait (Advent Lectio – Jeremiah 33:14-16)

Reading by Eduard von Grutzner, 1889.

This past Sunday began the season of Advent as many of us, whether in a church service or at home, lit the first candle of Advent. This is a very important time in the Church as we start a new year in the Christian calendar and begin to turn our hearts and eyes towards Christmas in expectation of the arrival of Jesus, the light of the world. With that in mind, I begin my annual walk through the Sunday readings of Advent. If your unfamiliar with the hows and whys of Advent, I encourage you to go back and read this introduction I wrote last year. I’m going to kick things off this year with the Old Testament reading from Sunday.

“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 (CEB)

The prophet Jeremiah is speaking these words to the nation of Israel as they sit in exile in Babylon. Having experienced the conquering of their nation, the destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple, the Jews have to come to grips with what it means to be a people absent from their home. They have suffered utter defeat at the hands of a pagan, Gentile nation and they have begun to question whether the god they worship, YHWH, is good and if he is able (or willing) to keep the many promises he has made to them. Were they still YHWH’s chosen people, was their land still the Promised Land, would the line of their king David indeed “endure forever” (2 Samuel 7:16)?

This is the context Jeremiah speaks these words into.

“I will fulfill my gracious promise…”

“I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line…”

“Judah will be saved…”

“Jerusalem will live in safety…”

To the people of Israel sitting in exile, this must have been exciting words to hear. God would indeed fulfill his promise, David’s line would continue and their land would be restored and safe. They were not forgotten in this foreign, pagan land. God was still good even though the land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins. But, like many of us, I imagine they began to wonder, “What’s the next step? What must we do?”

This seems typical of our human nature. We want to know the next step. What’s our “action items” or when can we get this party started? What does the blueprint look like so we can start planning? When should we save the date? We like to live in the future, planning ahead and figuring out where we need to go and what we need to do to get there. This is what ultimately seemed to trip up the Pharisees. They believed in following so closely to God’s law so that they might be considered righteous and holy when God finally showed up with the Messiah. But, I think this verse is asking for something else.

Wait.

If you read the verse closely, God is doing all the acting.

“I will fulfill…I will raise up…”

Judah is not responsible to save, instead it will be saved by God.

Jerusalem will not create peace and safety itself, God will secure its peace and safety.

We are not responsible for our own righteousness, instead we will be identified as, “The Lord Is Our Righteousness”.

God going to fulfill his promises and he is also going to take the responsibility to raise up the one who will help bring about the fulfillment of these promises. It is not the responsibility of Israel to bring about the fulfillment or to raise up or even be involved in the choosing of this “righteous branch” who will bring about the promised salvation and safety.

God’s got this thing under control.

The Lord Is Our Righteousness”

Wait and watch just like Abraham who, “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

This is the underlying theme of Advent. Waiting and expectation are central during this time in the Church calendar. It’s tough for us in our fast-moving, on-demand, culture to sit, wait and patiently light candles. Can’t we just light them all on one day and be done with this thing?

No.

To quote the great and wise Yoda:

All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing. Hmph!

We can get so wrapped up in the future and what we need to do to get there that we rarely look around and see where God may have already been paving a path. We shouldn’t light the first candle of Advent just so we can get to the second. We should light the first candle and take a moment to enjoy the time spent with that first candle. Recognizing who we are with, where we are and what God is trying to speak into that moment. During this season of waiting and expecting, we should remember that we are not the ones responsible for our own righteousness. We are not the ones doing the saving.

We are a people waiting for a good and gracious God to fulfill his promises at just the right time.