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)

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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.”