The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Look at the bigger picture

Christmas Eve

In the name of Christ.  Amen.

Christmas is supposed to be about joy and peace and happiness.  But sometimes it can be a little bit frustrating, can’t it?

One of the things that can sometimes be frustrating for me about this time of year is the way that it brings out so many “experts”.  From the pseudo-documentaries about Jesus and the Bible that you find on television, to news personalities talking about Jesus’ ethnicity, to the many contacts we all have on various social media sites - it seems that during this time of year, particularly, everyone is an expert.  Expert theologians, expert philosophers, expert historians…  Everyone seems to KNOW - beyond the shadow of any doubt - the right answer.

Maybe it’s just me, and the circles that I run in, but it seems that this year it’s even more pronounced than usual.  With the marriage equality developments that have happened in New Mexico and Utah, and the law in Uganda to persecute gay and lesbian people, and the Duck Dynasty controversy: all coming together in the week before Christmas and all with religious overtones, there seem to be even more “experts” than normal.  They’re everywhere you look.

On all sides of all of these debates in the public square, I’ve been hearing self-proclaimed “experts” spouting all kinds of opinions about what Jesus wants and what God wants and what the church wants.  Everyone seems to be able to point to one or two verses from the Bible here or there that supports exactly what they think.  And everyone seems to think that anyone who thinks differently is utterly, and without question, wrong - even if the people they think are wrong have their own biblical citations to add to the stew-pot of opinions.

The mistake that most people tend to make in thinking about faith - and perhaps even about most other debates - is that they think too small.  God requires big thinking - expansive thinking.  Easy answers are never enough.

No stories from our faith illustrate this more than the stories that we tell again and again around this time of year - the stories of the incarnation; the stories of God walking among us as Christ.

If we look at just the tiny bit that we hear here tonight, the story is pretty unimpressive: a young woman has a baby alongside the man who would soon be her husband.

Sure, there were choirs of angels, but I’d bet: if you’re a parent, or if there’s some other child in your life that you spent months anticipating - I bet you’ve heard those same choirs of angels rejoicing their arrival.  I know I have.

The real miracle of Jesus’ birth is in its ordinariness.  It was just a night like most any other.  It was just an unimpressive little town.  Two parents who had never before made great waves in the world around them had a child.  A child just like you and I were.  A child just like all the children that make our Christmas celebrations so special as we grow older.  A child who was innocent, and beautiful, and full of promise - just like every other child.

I’ve often said that for me, the really thrilling thing to think about when it comes to Jesus is not that a person could become God, but that God could become a person.  The really exciting thing to imagine is that God could want so much to feel connected with all of creation and to have all of creation feel connected with God, that God would become like us: to share our experiences, to feel the joy, and the pain, and the anger, and the hunger, and the excitement, and the curiosity… of being a person.

That’s the miracle of the incarnation for me - not so much the power of a person, but the compassion of God.

But you wouldn’t know all of that if the lesson that we hear tonight was the only lesson there was.  It’s so much more than just a birth.  It’s so much more than just one story.  It’s so much more than just any one verse.

The metanarrative of the story of God that we hear in the story of Jesus is one of God reaching out - further and further until God could touch the very face of the earth; until God could feel what it’s like to live among the creation; until God could know us as only we could know ourselves.

That’s the bigger picture that lingers beyond this familiar Christmas story.  It’s not so much about miracles, as it is about connection.  It’s not so much about lordship, as it is about familiarity.  It’s not so much about power, as it is about love.

And in the metanarrative of the whole Bible, Jesus is simply one more example.  The story of our faith is the story of a God who strives from the beginning of all creation to help that creation know that God is as close as our next breath.  God is not far off or high or away, but right here - longing to know us and longing to love us.

In our awe, we imagine a God that we can’t reach.  But even so, God is reaching toward us.

That’s what we celebrate here tonight: that even in life’s most ordinary times, the extraordinary love of God is longing to breaking through.  Even when there’s no room in the inn, even when our circumstances seem most grave, even when the nights are darkest, or coldest, or we are most alone, God is reaching forth, in every way we can imagine and in ways we could never imagine, calling us into love.

All “experts” aside.

No matter who tells you that you’re wrong, or sinful, or not good enough - the bigger picture reveals the truth: God is reaching out.  God will move heaven and earth to have you know that you are loved.  God has moved heaven and earth to let you know that you are loved.

That’s what Christmas is about.  That’s what our whole faith is about.  It’s about the bigger picture.  And the bigger picture is painted with God’s love.  Amen.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A gay Christian from Louisiana responds to the Duck Dynasty controversy

I've been watching with interest the controversy that's been emerging over the past couple of days around
Phil Robertson, of "Duck Dynasty" fame, and the interview he gave to GQ magazine that many people found offensive.

The truth is, it was offensive.  But the further truth is, it wasn't surprising at all.

I'm a fairly recent fan of "Duck Dynasty".  I only started watching a couple of months ago.  I don't generally enjoy so-called "reality TV", but something about this show captured my attention.  I first sat down to watch an episode because my oldest nephew, who is nine years old and who lives in Mississippi, talked about it.  I decided to see what it was about, because I expected as our time together over the holidays approached, we'd probably be seeing it together.

I quickly started to enjoy the show.  There are elements of the show that, like all other "reality TV" shows, are almost certainly exaggerations of reality.  But there is also something about it that is authentic.

I know those people.  I'm related to those people.  Not those people particularly, but people just like them.

My mother's side of the family is actually named Duck.  That's their actual name.  (I even have an uncle Donald Duck, though no one ever believes me when I tell them that.)

The Duck side of the family are big duck hunters.  My grandfather owned several duck blinds in lakes around central Louisiana, and some of the fondest memories of my childhood are waking up hours before dawn and shuffling out with the men of the family into the crisp air of the rural central Louisiana winters to go duck hunting.

I never actually hunted - I was just a child.  But we, the children, would sometimes go along, ride out in the boat to the duck blind (which was like a really well-appointed tree house in the middle of a swampy, shallow, cypress-laden lake) and sit with my grandfather and uncles as they quietly waited for opportunities to hunt.  While we waited, we got to know our family better.  We learned about our shared heritage.  We learned the values of stillness, and quiet.  And we drank Dr. Pepper and ate Moon Pies to our hearts' content.

They were good times.

My family - the Duck family - was, in a lot of ways, very similar to the Robertson family.  And sometimes - not always, but sometimes - the values that were expressed in my extended family were a bit different from the values that I learned at home, with my immediate family.

Sometimes there were overtones of racism.  Sometimes there were overtones of heterosexism.  Sometimes there were overtones of gender inequality.  Those times made me uncomfortable, even as a child - even before I knew how to stand against them.  I knew they weren't the dominant values with which I was being raised.

But of course, those weren't the only values that were passed on in those duck hunting trips.  We were also taught to care for nature.  We were taught to appreciate the beauty of the natural world.  We were taught to value our family, and to respect our elders.  We were taught things like gun safety.  We learned to take pride in providing for our family with the ducks we brought home.

It wasn't always the "heritage of hate" that people in the Northeast and on the West Coast think about when they conjure their icons of the South.

That's what drew me in with "Duck Dynasty".  It reminded me of home.  Sure, there were elements of it that made me uncomfortable, but there were elements that reminded me of the good times - the good people - that are a part of my own upbringing.

I haven't watched every episode of "Duck Dynasty".  It's not the kind of show that I schedule my life around, or even set my DVR for.  But when there's nothing else on, it can be fun to have on in the background - just as those people represented on the show are an ever-present part of the background of my life.

A few weeks ago I was watching a rerun.  It was an episode where Willie - the CEO of the family
business - had given his parents a gift: a session with a photographer to get portraits of them with their dogs.  The photographer was a somewhat flamboyant (at least by Louisiana standards), "fashion forward" kind of person.  It was never mentioned whether or not he was gay, but that was clearly the implication.

As I watched that episode, a familiar sense of dread washed over me.  I knew what was going through Phil's mind.  I could see it in his guarded, uncomfortable movements.  I could hear it in his carefully chosen, self-censoring words.

Finally he said, "Clearly he's not from around here."

It didn't get the attention of the GQ interview, but I assure you, those words were just as homophobic as anything he said to the magazine.

That familiar sense of dread that I felt was because I knew what he meant: "He couldn't be from here, because he's not like us."  "He couldn't be from here, because he doesn't share our values."  "He couldn't be from here, because we don't let our boys grow up like that.  We don't let our boys turn into sissies."

Of course none of that is true.  I'm from there.  I know lots of guys like that from there.  Whether or not the photographer is actually gay doesn't matter.  His presentation was outside the norm, so he was the recipient of homophobia whether it was applicable to him or not.

I recognized the dread I felt, because I'd felt it before so many times myself.  I'd felt it from attitudes and biases directed toward me in my family, in school, and even in church.

But my dread wasn't so much about learning the truth of Phil's beliefs.  I knew them - or at least suspected them - before I'd seen that episode.  Homophobia, racism, and misogyny are the dominant cultural norms in that part of the country.  Perhaps they are in other parts of the country, too, but in the Deep South they're dominant enough not to be hidden.

No, my dread wasn't about learning Phil's beliefs, my dread was that he'd say something embarrassing to the network that would mess up a show that I was enjoying.  My dread was that I'd have yet another occasion that would lead me to have explain myself to people - yes, I'm a Southerner.  Yes, I'm from Louisiana.  But I'm not that kind of Southerner.  I'm not that kind of Louisianian.  Yes, I'm a Christian, but I'm not that kind of Christian.

My dread was the same kind of dread I'd feel if I had a friend at a family gathering and some aunt or uncle would say something just as embarrassing.

Of course Phil didn't say anything overtly embarrassing in that episode.  Or, if he did, the people at A&E edited it out for the sake of the show.  But I knew it was only a matter of time.  I knew he'd do an interview one of these days that would throw the whole enterprise into peril.  It was only a matter of time.

And that time came this week.

It would have been nice if this older, white, affluent but formerly poor, Christian Southerner had surprised us.  It would have been nice if, when asked about sin, he'd said something progressive or inclusive.  It would have even been nice if he'd said, "Sure, I have the beliefs you'd probably expect from someone of my generation and upbringing, but to each his own.  Who am I to judge the actions of another?"

Yeah, any of that would have been nice.  But it's not who he is.  I'd love it if it were, but it's just not.

The real point of my writing here is this: that internal challenge that many fans of the show are probably feeling right now - that challenge of liking the show, but not liking the beliefs of a person on the show - that's normal.  And it's worth thinking about.

It's an internal challenge that I feel all the time.  There are a lot of people from back home in Louisiana who have a different set of beliefs and values than I have.  They often believe things that I not only disagree with, but that I think are flat-out wrong.  Sometimes they believe things and support positions and people that I think are downright immoral.  And I know they think the same about some of my own beliefs and values.  Sometimes we even have it out with one another on Facebook.

But even through this disagreement - even through the big, painful disagreements that strike to the core of who we each are - they're still my family.  They're still my friends.  We still love each other.

That's right - WE LOVE EACH OTHER.

Core disagreements between people who love each other are painful.  But they're not as painful as not loving each other.  They're not as painful as broken relationships are painful.

So we stay in touch.  We stay in conversation.  We continue to chip away at each other, even though we know that we'll probably never convert each other to our positions.

But while the end result of that probably isn't conversion, we do end up seeing the humanity in each other.  We may never agree, but we have a chance to continue to love.

It's not perfect, but it's what we've got.

So no, I won't be boycotting Duck Dynasty.  I still won't be scheduling my life around the show, but I wasn't doing that anyway.  But I will still watch it now and then if nothing else is on and I feel like it.  I won't be buying any Duck Commander or Duck Dynasty merchandise, but I wasn't going to, anyway.

Instead, I'm just going to live into that tension.  I'm pretty good at it.  To some degree, it's my home.

But I'm not going to vilify anyone who disagrees with me.  It's simply not worth it.  For a gay Christian from Louisiana, it's just too slippery of a slope.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Spiritual Whiplash and Sovereignty Through Love and Grace

Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Luke 23:33-43

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There are certain dates and transitions on the liturgical calendar that can leave you feeling like you’ve been struck by a kind of spiritual whiplash.

To be fair, the lectionary progression over the past few weeks has been trying to prepare us for this.  It was introduced a couple of weeks ago when Jesus and the Sadducees got into a discussion about the resurrection.  Remember that?  If a woman has been married to too many husbands, how could a resurrection-reality handle that?  Whose property would she be?

Jesus, of course, said it wasn’t about that.  It wasn’t about working out justice among the dead, or ownership, but more about celebrating life that, through God, was eternal.

Then last week, we got one of those familiar warnings from Jesus about difficult times to come.  He warns his disciples not to get too lost in the good times they were having, because there are even better times coming.  But those better times wouldn’t come easily.  There will be valleys to cross and trials to face before we can get to the mountaintop that’s in store.

Even so - even though there has been foreshadowing and warning, even though there has been talk of suffering and even resurrection - even so, this morning’s lessons came as something of a shock.

Perhaps it’s the festive holiday season that seems to be blossoming all around us.  There are television stations and radio stations that have already dedicated their programming exclusively to Christmas themes.  Store windows and displays look like winter wonderlands.  Christmas lights are even beginning to twinkle on the evenings’ edges.

Everything around us seems to be trying to push us toward joy, and hope, and celebration.

But in the church, we’re not quite there yet.  We’re not ready to blindly stumble into the holidays.  There are valleys to cross through before we get to that higher mountaintop that awaits.

So today - a day revered for its celebration of Christ the King - we first make a stop at the scene of Jesus: the crucified, Jesus: the oppressed, and even in the midst of that, Jesus: the loving, and Jesus: full of grace.

How else might he become a King?

The scene is shockingly graphic.  Three men: beaten, bloodied, and hanging in humiliating and painful display.  The crowds gathered to mock them and to abuse them.  They were there to assure that their deaths would hold no dignity and no peace.

But even so, the men found something of a community among themselves.  It’s hard to imagine them so casually chatting each other up in the midst of such unspeakable personal traumas.  But, I suppose, in all of our lives we have to make peace with our difficulties wherever they are, however we can.

So there they are, chatting.

One says to Jesus: if you’re so great, why don’t you just fix this.  Why are we here suffering if you’re who they say you are?  For that matter, why are you here suffering?

The other criminal intervenes: leave him alone.  He’s not like us.  He’s made enemies, but he’s done no wrong.  My only prayer is that he remembers me even as he earns his reward.

In the midst of the suffering and the humiliation and the world of these three men crumbling around them, a glimmer of humanity breaks into this unimaginable place.

One of the things that’s most moving for me about this exchange is that we never know the crimes these men have committed.  We don’t know who they are.  We don’t know their social standing.  And even though we know almost nothing about them, we get a glimpse into their hearts.

It’s that anonymity that gives this story real power.

When it comes to earning God’s forgiveness and Christ’s favor, it really doesn’t matter who we are, or how we got there, or even what we did.

Was this man sentenced to death for some small offense?  Perhaps he was stealing food to live.  Or was it something bigger?  Had he committed murder?

Through the frailty of our human lenses of judgement, these things matter.  We hear of “mortal sins” - those things which are unforgivable.

But through the love of Christ, the crime doesn’t seem to matter.  The power to forgive trumps any condemnation.  Love triumphs over criminality.  We’ve all heard that expression - “love the sinner, but hate the sin”.  In the presence of Jesus, the sin doesn’t even seem to matter.  The guiding principle is: “love the sinner”.  Full stop.

That’s Christ the King.

He may not have been a messiah or a king in the ways that the people expected him to be.  He may not have exerted his power in the ways that the one criminal wanted, or in answer to the mocking soldiers and crowd.  He may not even exert his power in the ways that we often hope or pray.

But Christ’s “kingship” - Christ’s power - comes through the power of an unimaginable power to love in even the harshest circumstances.

It doesn’t matter who we are.  It doesn’t matter what we do or what we’ve done.  We are never beyond the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  We are never too far gone that we can’t be brought back into the fold.

Even his own oppressors benefited from his unfettered forgiveness: “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This is “Christ the King”.  A king unlike any other.  With a life, death, and resurrection unlike any other.

We’ve come to the end of our annual celebration of remembrance, but we start again tomorrow - expecting the baby whose humble beginnings will be our unexpected savior and King.

This is Christ the King.  Amen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

FCS: A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair

Quick facts:
  • Show: A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair
  • Special Event
  • Date: Thursday, November 14, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: November 17, 2013
  • Venue: The Main Stage at New York City Center
  • Running time: 1:30 (no intermission)
  • My seat: Fair. Second row of the balcony, near center.  So no obstruction at all, but I was pretty high above the stage, so I spent the whole show staring almost straight down.  A bit of a pain in the neck - literally!
  • Ticket source: This is one of the rare times that I ACTUALLY paid full price for tickets!  This event was just NOT to be missed!
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A musical revue of the music of Stephen Sondheim as reimagined through the jazz lens of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center band - starring Cyrille Aimée, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis, and Bernadette Peters.

My thoughts: So I'll be honest.  I really can't believe I got to see this in real life.

I was a little nervous going into the show that I was approaching it with expectations set too high, but now I know the truth: there's simply no way that expectations for this assemblage of talent could have been set too high.  It was simply one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences I've ever had.

I've long been a fan of Stephen Sondheim - I mean, how can you not be?  Generations to come will study his genius in much the same way that we study Bach today.  Then, to have that genius paired with the unmatched jazz talents of Wynton Marsalis.  THEN, to take that product and hand it over to these brilliant performers.  I just can't.  Whoever had this idea - THANK YOU!

The cast was led by none other than Sondheim's own, Bernadette Peters.  It was indescribable fun to hear her give the "Bernadette treatment" to Sondheim favorites that she hasn't previously been associated with.  Standing on the shoulders of Elaine Stritch and Patti Lupone she gave brilliant service to a newly reimaged "Ladies Who Lunch" (from Company) in a unique medley which included "Agony" (from Into the Woods).  Another of the many highlights of her performance was her treatment of the classic "Broadway Baby" (from Follies).  Now that it's been done, you really haven't lived until you've heard Bernadette Peters interpret that classic!

She was joined by the always brilliant Norm Lewis.  I haven't often seen him live, but in the few times I have, it's been an unmatched joy.  He has a softness, and gentleness of spirit that makes his performances evocative and moving.

I was an early fan of Jeremy Jordan.  I first saw him in the out-of-town tryout for Newsies, the on Broadway in Bonnie & Clyde (which, I still attest, didn't get the loving it deserved!), then again on Broadway in Newsies.  I was his fan long before his movie with Dolly Parton or Smash!  But as much as I loved him in each of those roles, this performance really showed growth for him as an artist.  He was vocally stronger than I've ever seen him, and he also seemed more emotionally in touch with his characters.  It it great to see him developing into a legend!

In reality, Jordan got some of the best numbers of the night - and some of the ones that were most brilliantly re-imagined.  His two highlights for me were "Losing My Mind" (from Follies, and delightfully, in its most recent revival, sung by Bernadette Peters - that must have been daunting!) and the most engaging version of "Giants in the Sky" (from Into the Woods) that I've ever heard.

The one member of the cast that I hadn't heard of before was Cyrille Aimée - but wow!  Does she have chops, or what?!  If you haven't encountered her before - I highly recommend her.  The Washington Post describes her as having "a voice like fine whiskey - oaky and smooth, with a hint of smokiness."  I can't think of a better description.  With French and Dominican roots, she was raised in France and those tones continue to resonate in her jazz interpretations.  If you are at all a fan of leading lady jazz, you must look into Cyrille Aimée.  You won't be disappointed.

Though the friend who accompanied me to this production didn't agree with me, one of the more musically satisfying moments of the night for me was the instrumental version of "Send in the Clowns" (from A Little Night Music).  Though I do love this wildly popular song, it's not among my favorite Sondheim songs.  But this instrumental jazz interpretation nearly left me weepy.  It was woody and soulful with much of the melody carried in the deep resonances of the baritone saxophone.  An absolutely haunting rendition.

I really can't overstate was a deeply moving and joyful evening this was.  One of the things that I love most about live theater is that we, as members of the audience, get to participate in a moment.  We get to share space with talented people and ideas.  This felt like such an important "moment" in the history of musical theater.  As I said at the outset - I still sort of can't believe that I got to be a part of it.

My sincere hope is that the producers will have the wisdom and foresight to release an audio recording of this production.  As thrilling as it was to hear it, it would be equally disappointing to imagine that I might never hear it again.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  God, if only!!  It was a very short running limited engagement.  I seriously considered making a trip up to see it again before it closed, but it just would have been too irresponsible for me.  Alas, I'm left praying for a recording!
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  YES, YES, YES!  Everyone!
  • Twitter review:  Words can't describe the perfection of this engagement.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

FCS: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Quick facts:
  • Show: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, October 31, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: Open-ended
  • Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one 15 minute intermission)
  • My seat: Fair.  In the mezzanine.  Stage left.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: An Edwardian-set musical comedy about a man attempting an unlikely rise through the aristocratic ranks in England.  He is aided by chance, but does his bit to "assist" chance a bit as well.

My thoughts: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is a delightful, and delightfully original new work on Broadway.  It made its way to Broadway after out-of-town runs first at the Old Globe Theatre in California and then at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut before making the Broadway transfer this fall.

A rare treat in the current age of the Broadway musical, Gentleman... is truly a musical for musicians.  It is cleverly written in every aspect: wryly funny, smart musically, and with a tightly designed book.  It is masterfully performed by a team of highly skilled and artful singers - which is perhaps most surprising among its many attributes, in this current age of the "pop sound" that's so prevalent on Broadway.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not attacking the rise of pop music and singers on Broadway.  I loved Newsies, Rent, Wicked, many others...  But it is a bit of an increasingly rare treat to hear truly excellent, classically styled musical performances from the Broadway stage!

The cast is led by headliners Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham.  Mays receives much attention as the Tony award-winner who plays a stunning eight roles, but equal accolades should go to Mr. Pinkham in the role of Monty Navarro - around whom the story revolves.

As stunning as their performances were, they were matched in the enviable talents of the entire cast.  This is one of those rare ensembles that benefits from a strong cast at every angle.

One of the highlights of the production was the beautiful scenic design by Alexander Dodge.  He captured the Edwardian era completely and sucks the audience into the world of Monty Navarro.  The sets were a match to the superb, complex, and layered musical score (by Steven Lutvak).  It brought me back to my earlier theater-going days when I was regularly awestruck by the magic of changing sets.  Of course I knew that I was in the same place, and the stage hadn't moved, but with the revelations of each new scene I felt magically transported to a new world.  The book, by Robert L. Freedman, gave Mr. Dodge a lot with which to work, and his designs magnificently rose to the challenge.

The one area of disappointment in the creative design team was the projections by Aaron Rhyne.  They weren't a complete failure, but the work failed to live up to the standards of excellence embraced by all the other aspects of the performance.  There were a few moments when the projections were a bit over-the-top - I recall a moment where large Union Jacks were distractingly projected...  Fortunately, that wasn't the norm, but even when not over-the-top, the work was generally uninspiring and did little the advance the story.

My biggest fear about this production is that, on the whole, it may be a little too smart for most Broadway audiences.  It's the kind of show that serious musicians and serious theater aficionados will love, but I'm afraid the tourist crowd - with limited opportunities and time frames, and a penchant for the more familiar - might not gravitate to Gentleman... enough to keep it afloat for long.

But don't let the box office numbers fool you - A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is a magnificent execution of a magnificent show.  While it may not be destined to join the ranks of the legendary productions we all know and love, it probably should.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Definitely.  And when/if a cast album is released, I'll be among the first in line to buy.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Absolutely.  I really think it has a wide enough appeal that anyone who makes it through the doors would probably have a good time.  But it is a must-see for musicians, and people who see a lot of theater and have come to expect the best.
  • Twitter review:  A fun show that's defined more by it's brilliance than it's very present humor.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Beware that you are not led astray

Pentecost 26, Proper 28C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

In a gospel lesson that seems to be all about wars and famine and pestilence, those are the words to cling to.

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

It’s tempting on a day like today to turn away from the Gospel and focus instead on the Old Testament lesson, but we don’t even get much help there.  Malachi tell us, “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and evil doers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up…”

Where, then, is the hope?

Shall we focus on days “burning like an oven”?  Or shall we instead focus on Jesus, with his promises of wars and insurrections, and betrayals, and death?

The lessons today aren’t the kinds of lessons that are likely to inspire adherence to the faith.  They aren’t the kinds of lessons that tend to move poets and songwriters into responding.  They’re not the kinds of lessons that give us peace in our moments of deepest despair.

But they’re not all there is to the Christian story and experience.

“Beware that you’re not led astray…”

We’re nearing the end of the Christian year.  We’re one week away, actually.  And over this past year we’ve heard a lot about the life of Christ as well as the Christian life.  From the season of preparation in Advent to the celebration of Jesus’ birth; the giving of light and recognition at Epiphany; the long seasons of marveling at Jesus’ miracles and learning from his teachings; from journeying with him to the Cross in Lent to the exuberant joy and surprise of Easter and its succeeding celebrations of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  In practicing the Christian year, we practice the reality of human experience.  There are ups and downs and all of them add up to the fullness of God’s dream for us.

The worldview we hear from Jesus today comes near the end of his time on earth.  In the pages that follow, Luke walks us through the seemingly climactic last days - “seemingly”, because we all know that the real climax comes later - after the “last days”.  But in the midst of those “last days” - before any of us knew how the truth would unfold - there would be great pain and fear and uncertainty.  The disciples needed to be prepared.  Their faith needed girding if it were to endure the days to come.

There are moments in the Christian faith and life when we feel on top of the world.  There are moments when the lessons we read are all about hope and peace and prosperity.  There are moments when we look to the future with hope.

But then there are those other moments…

There are days when the weight of the world around us is a little heavier than we think we can bear.  There are days when we see the suffering of this world and we wonder where (and even if) God is.

Throughout human experience and even still in our own lives, there have been radical ups and downs.  There have been lows from which recovery seemed impossible and highs so high we couldn’t see the ground.  And both are true.  Both represent aspects of the faith and neither negates the other.  Nor do any of the ordinary times in between.

It reminds me of a season in my own life, and one of the lessons I learned there.

Near the end of my time in seminary, I found myself reflecting on the experience: I remember thinking so vividly in my first year that I thought I’d found heaven on earth.  I had moved halfway across the country to a place I had never been and where I knew no one.  I had taken a giant leap of faith and it had seemed to be paying off more richly than I could have imagined.  New worlds were opening before me.  New ideas were forming within me.  New relationships were blossoming.  I was beginning to know myself more than I ever had before.  It was as if I were standing looking over the new heaven and the new earth about which Isaiah had prophesied.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my second year.  Suddenly, this “heaven on earth” seemed to be more like hell on earth.  What had once felt like a leap of faith began feeling more like stumbling toward a far-off finish line.  My “new world” turned out to be just New Jersey.  My new relationships had blossomed into deep friendships - but they weren’t without their own challenges.  And knowing myself turned out to be not quite as easy as it had once seemed.  There were days when it was hard to make myself get out of bed.  There was an insurrection gurgling up inside me - and it seemed to be not for me, but on me.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my third year.  By the end of that final year of study and formation things had balanced out.  I began to see that seminary was neither “heaven on earth” nor “hell on earth”, but instead it was just earth.  And like all creation, I could see that it was good.  But though my experience had evened out a bit, the “promised land” of my first year was no less true, nor was the anguish of my second.  Just like this Christian year has been, the highs and the lows were all part of the same existence - neither canceled the other.  Both represent truth.

Just as it would be unreasonable and untrue to expect everything to be perfect, and nurturing, and happy all the time, it’s equally unreasonable and untrue to get lost in the challenges of life.

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

Beware that you don’t get lost in a sea of unreasonable expectations of perfection - life doesn’t live up to that.

But also beware that you don’t get lost anguish and fear - that’s never the whole story, either.

God is in both.  Not either.  Not both individually.  But both together.  God is in the pain and the redemption.  God is in the suffering and the salvation.

The joys and pains of every human experience - whether it’s through parenting or love or whatever else - always adds up to the fullness of an experience more true than any one of its aspects.  And through the joys and pains of our lives the one common thread remains - just as it has remained through all of the highs and lows of the Christian life.  The truth is that whether we are on top of the world or in the pit of despair, there, too, is God.  No matter our circumstances, we are invited into deeper relationship with God.

It’s not always easy.  Jesus teaches that again and again.  But it’s also not always hard.  Christ teaches that.  Every Good Friday has on its heels an Easter morning begging to burst through. 

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

It’s the end of the church year, but there’s a new one waiting in the wings.  There are yet more ups and downs and good times and bad, and lessons to be learned in the midst of it all.  Beware that you are not led astray.  Because by your endurance you will gain your souls.  Amen.

(this sermon draws from a previous version published in 2010)

Sunday, November 03, 2013


All Saints' Sunday, Year C

In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

Sometimes I wonder why anybody would want to be a Christian.

There’s this great misunderstanding out in the world that says that Christianity is about being nice and doing good deeds.  But Jesus keeps telling us that it’s not.  It’s about turning the world upside down to deepen our relationships with God and with each other - even when that’s not easy or nice - no matter how much the world disagrees.

Sometimes, in our own efforts at either growing the church or trying to make ourselves feel better about a life that can sometimes be hard, we find ourselves perpetuating the misunderstanding: If only we could be nice and do good deeds everything would be okay.

If that were the case, I suppose more people might want to be Christian; but life proves, again and again, that that is not the case.  Sometimes life is hard - even for us good folks.  Sometimes the powers and structures of the world push us down.  Sometimes we catch ourselves participating in the powers and structures of the world that push others down.

You can see why most people might want a cleverly packaged Christianity that wraps everything up nicely with clearly defined borders.  It would be a lot easier that way.  It would certainly be easier than the Jesus way.

But instead we get this: “Blessed are you who are poor…  Blessed are you who are hungry…  Blessed are you who weep….”

I often joke with parents at baptisms.  So often they are nervous that the child will cry during the baptism, or make a fuss during the service, but I tell them that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact, it’s a good sign.  I tease that it shows that the child knows what they’re in for!

The gospel lesson for today is another example of how true that little joke is. Christianity would be a lot easier to swallow if Jesus had just said, “Blessed are the people who get along alright and mind their own business.”

But, no, that’s not the faith we have received through the ages and continue to receive in our own lives.

Today we have an interesting confluence of events.  It’s All Saints’ Sunday - the day we set apart to remember those saints, both known and unknown, who have led the faith through history even to us.  It’s also a day when we celebrate new baptisms and remember our own baptismal covenant - reminding us of and reaffirming the promises that we make to continue to lead the faith through to others still.

It’s a day of intersection: past, present, and still unfolding; in the presence of the God who was and who is and who is to come.

It might feel a little bit incongruous to celebrate a baptism - a young life and a new initiation into faith - on the same day that we remember the saints who have gone before.  But really, All Saints’ Day, and even the whole of the Christian life, is more about embracing those incongruities than we usually feel comfortable admitting.  It’s in turning the world upside down, and upending expectations, that we truly find Christ: the one who turned the shadow of death into morning; the one who triumphed over death on Good Friday to show forth the light of Easter Resurrection.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

“Do to others as you would have them do to you,” isn’t just about going along to get along.  It’s not just about playing nice so as to not upset the apple cart.

It’s actually more about intentionally upsetting the apple cart.  It’s about radically changing the way we interact with the world because through Christ, we’ve seen another way: the way of love, justice, and peace.

All Saints’ Day is about remembering the ones who showed us the way: the famous ones who are celebrated by the church around the world, and even the simpler ones.  The saints in our own lives who have taught us what it means to live lives of love, justice, and peace.

None of us stands alone.  We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, and we are the shoulders on which others will stand, and in fact, already do.

We are not only surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, but we help to make up that cloud for others on the way.

Today we welcome Isabella into that cloud, just as we remember all of those who have brought us this far.  Parents and grandparents.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters.  Teachers and mentors.  Friends, and even enemies.  All the ancestors of our faith.

They have brought us through the ages to this moment.  And they lead us, with all who follow us, into the upended faith that is still unfolding.  Amen.

(portions of this sermon appeared previously here)

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Pentecost 23, Proper 25C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

One of the most amusing maneuvers in the world of political communications is the “Non-apology Apology”.  I’m sure you’ve heard them.  Some politician gets caught in a gaffe.  They’re overheard saying what they really think about their opponent.  When public pressure begins to mount, they offer a half-attempt at the appearance of an apology and say something like, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”

It’s not that they’re sorry for what they’ve said.  They don’t really see a problem with what they’ve said.  They just wish they weren’t having to live with the repercussions of their actions.

It’s a “Non-apology Apology”.

This morning, in the gospel lesson, we hear something very much like that in its style: “Ungrateful ‘Thanksgiving’”.

The Pharisee of the parable - supposedly a holy man - isn’t really grateful so much as he is bragging.  Bragging about all the pious things he does.  Bragging that he’s better than others.

It’s a bit of a silly prayer, because God knows not only all that he does, but all that is in his heart.  And his prayer tells us that it’s not really gratitude.

Last week, the message we heard was to “pray always and not to lose heart.”  But this week we hear that there’s a way that we do these things.

Yes.  We should talk to God.  More importantly, we should listen for God.  But until we figure that out, talking is a decent place to start.

But it’s not enough just to talk.  It doesn’t make sense to try to play politics with God.  It doesn’t make sense to try to reason with God, or to convince God of your way of seeing the world.

It’s true that we will all, at one time or another, probably argue with God, but that’s another matter entirely.  Where we go wrong is when we try to manipulate God.  It’s the most futile pursuit we might ever attempt.

One of the truths we hear from Jesus over and over again is that he has no time for hypocrisy - particularly among the pious.

False gratitude is a particularly insidious kind of hypocrisy.  The Pharisee knew that God required and expected gratitude, but the only gratitude he could muster was for himself: for how good he was; for how superior he found himself to be.

He wasn’t actually grateful to God.  He only tried to appear to be.

But God knows what is in our hearts.

That’s interestingly also one of the convictions we hear over and over again from people outside the church.

When I was first learning to preach, my mentor gave me an invaluable little bit of advice that I still take to heart.  She told me to never lie.  Never try to preach something you don’t really believe, because the congregation will recognize it instantly, and they won’t forgive you.  Never try to tell them what you think they want to hear in favor of what you think they need to hear, because they’ll stop believing you.

Don’t be a hypocrite.

It may seem like simple advice, but it’s worth remembering.  And not just for those of us who are called to stand in this pulpit and to preach, but for all of us who are called to share the love of Jesus with the world we inhabit (and that’s all of us).

One of the surest ways to drive away potential visitors to the church is for us to lie to them.

People have well-honed, built-in hypocrisy detectors.  Sadly, for too much of our history, we in the church have given people outside of the church too many reasons to need them.

I remember the story my father tells of one year when he was growing up: the First Baptist Church in town was holding its annual revival.  They decided to go around the countryside around the town trying to rouse up all of the heretics and backsliders to bring them to the Lord - which, of course, meant to bring them to the church.

A group of parishioners visited the home of one of the town’s most notorious “sinners”.  If Hance Koon had ever been to church, no one could remember it.

The good people of First Baptist Church put on the hard sell.  They told Hance about all of the rewards that awaited him in heaven.  They told him about how God so loved the world that He gave up his only Son, Jesus, to death on the cross.  They told him about the eternal damnation and punishment that awaited him if he failed to come along.

After all the arguments had been made, one of the men asked him, “Now Hance, don’t you want to come with us and be a Christian?”

Hance leaned back and put his feet up, he lit a cigarette and said, “I could haul every Christian in the First Baptist Church to the edge of town in a two-wheel wagon.”

Like most people we encounter today, Hance had a well-honed, built-in hypocrisy detector.

The church may have been full, but Hance suspected it was really empty.  He knew that these people weren’t really in it for God, even for Hance.  They were looking to make themselves feel good, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

As we interact with the world around us each day; as we each do our part to try to make this church grow and to help it succeed, we’d be wise to remember the story of Hance Koon.  We’d be wise to remember the story of the hypocritical Pharisee.

The people demand more of us, and so does God.

Fake apologies won’t work in politics.

Fake gratitude and conditional love won’t work in the church or in the world.  God and God’s people will see right through it.

Real Christians first have to be real - both in our prayer, and in all the rest of our lives.  Nothing less will do.  Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Pentecost 22, Proper 24C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Prayer is a touchy subject.

It’s easy to treat it like a letter to Santa or a birthday wish list mailed to Grandma.  And if that’s your mindset, it’s even easier to be disappointed by it.

There’s a degree to which the gospel lesson we read today even helps to feed that kind of misunderstanding about prayer.  A quick read makes it sound as if we can just stamp our feet long enough and get all of our demands met.

The persistent widow cried out for justice so long and so annoyingly that the unjust judge finally gave in just to shut her up.  Surely God is better than an unjust judge!?

But it doesn’t take very long in a life of prayer to get the idea that it doesn’t always work that way.

Last weekend, as I was resting on Sunday afternoon, I was flipping through the television for something mindless to half-watch while I curled up with the dogs on the couch.  That movie “Bruce Almighty” was on TBS.  Have you seen it?

Bruce is a struggling television personality in Buffalo, New York, desperately hoping for the anchor job, but he keeps getting stuck with puff pieces and so no one takes him seriously.  In the last straw, as he thinks he’s finally starting to move up the ladder, he learns that his nemesis has been given the job.  He explodes.  Aside from embarrassing himself on the air and loosing the job he did have, he cries out to God, whom he thinks is pitting the world against him - declaring that he could do a better job than God, whom he thinks has clearly been ignoring all of his prayers.

The next day, God contacts him, and offers to let him take over.

Of course, lots of humor ensues as Bruce explores his new divinity and all of the powers that it holds.  He uses it in lots of little ways to win his job back, to get his girlfriend to forgive him for being rude to her, even to wreak a little “justice” on some people who had done him wrong the day before.

But before long, the responsibility of being God begins to take over.  Most notably, the prayers overwhelm him.  It seems the more he answers them, the faster they come in.  To try to deal with it once and for all, he just ignores the particular prayers and blankly answers them all, “Yes.”

The next day, everyone has won the lottery.  But since the winnings had to be divided evenly among the winners, everyone just got their dollar back.

It’s a funny movie, and a sweet little reminder that God and prayer don’t always work exactly the ways that we’d want them to: that prayers aren’t just magic ticks on a wish list - because that wouldn’t work out; but even that’s not really the point.  The fact that it just wouldn’t work out isn’t the whole story.

One of the things that makes me nervous about this increasingly “spiritual but not religious” culture that we live in, is that I wonder what will become of people when they have their times of greatest need.

My worry isn’t just about the survival of the church; the church will go on in one way or another.  My real worry is about all of these people that the church is failing to reach.

Every day, in churches across the country, priests are approached by non-members seeking the services of the church - baptisms, weddings, funerals - without any interest in becoming a part of the church.  People seem to remember that faith communities play a role at those pivotal moments in all of our lives, but they forget that that role is stronger and even more pivotal when it’s supported by all of the other connective tissue between those pivotal moments.

Faith is a practice of persistence.

It’s not just about showing up on Easter Day.  Easter Day doesn’t mean nearly as much if you haven’t journeyed through Lent.  It’s not just showing up on Christmas Eve.  The candles aren’t nearly as beautiful if you don’t watch them twinkle through the memory of hearing again the promise and expectation of hope that preceded it in Advent.  And none of it means much without the stories of Jesus and his followers that we hear all year long, week in and week out.

It’s not just about the big moments, or the products, or getting what we need when we need it.  It’s about that faithful persistence.

And it’s the same way with prayer.

You don’t have to sit at the bedside of many dying people before you realize that God isn’t just some genie in a bottle.

Many of our prayers are never answered in the ways that we want them to be.

But even so, prayer is significant.  And it helps.  It helps most when it’s a part of a pattern of persistence.  Prayer helps most when it’s the product of a relationship that’s been formed over time.  In good times and in bad times.

I started realizing that I was getting good at prayer when I caught myself arguing with God - sometimes even getting angry.  That’s when the relationship started getting real for me.  I’d moved on from wish lists, or even little “thank you note” prayers, into something more honest.  It wasn’t long after that that I figured out how to say what needs to be said, and then to shut up and listen.

It took persistence to get to that point.  Sometimes, even now, it still takes persistence to get back to that point when I’ve fallen away.  (And I’m always falling away.)

I still don’t always get what I want.  In fact, I don’t often get what I want.  But I have gotten a relationship with God.  A relationship that has been meaningful, and that has brought me peace, and that has guided me through difficult times.

It’s not magic.  Like all relationships, it’s work.  And like all relationships, it’s not just about the big moments, but all the sinews between those big moments that make those moments big.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

FCS: Big Fish

Quick facts:
  • Show: Big Fish
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, October 3, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: Open-ended
  • Venue: Neil Simon Theatre
  • Running time: ~2:30 (one 15 minute intermission) - I didn't watch the time too closely, but this is about what I recall...
  • My seat: Good.  I was on the 5th row, stage left, near the center of that section.  There were times when my view was obstructed, but on the whole it worked out alright.
  • Ticket source: Playbill Discount Club
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A stage musical following the same general story of the 1998 book and the 2003 film of the same name.  While I have seen the film, it's been a long time, and I don't remember a lot about it, so I can't speak to whether or not the stage adaptation is "true" to the original story.  But generally, it's the story of a father who tells tales of a wild life to his son, who never really knows what to believe, or even whether or not to believe.

My thoughts: Big Fish isn't one of those "important" works of the theater that changed my life or my worldview in any radical way, but it was a fine piece of theater.  The production was masterfully executed, which, quite frankly, is the least I would expect from such a masterful assembly of talent.

I've often recognized that one of the aspects of the theater that I feel least equipped to write about it the nature of directing.  I understand music enough to be conversant there.  I have enough of a gut instinct to speak about choreography - at least emotionally.  Over the years I've learned a bit about lighting and projection design from friends and observation.  But I've never really wrapped my mind around how to observe or judge the work of directors.  My guess is that the director is largely the "big picture" person behind a show - pulling together all of the smaller moving parts and using them to mold the larger narrative.  But I don't really know how that happens, or how to tell if it's happening well beyond my own "big picture" judgements about whether a production works or not.

But witnessing the work of five-time Tony award winner Susan Stroman - I can't say that I now really understand the role of the director any better - but I can at least recognize greatness when I've seen it.  Clearly she's doing something that works.  Everything, from the movement of the people and the sets, to the dynamics of the costumes (designed by the equally brilliant and Tony-winning William Ivey Long), to lighting and color palettes - every aspect of the production came together in a seamlessly woven story.  The aims of the book and score could not have been communicated more clearly.

If that's what a director does (and I think it is) it was done well in this production.

This was one of the shows that I was most excited about seeing this season - mostly because it was an opportunity for me to see "live in living color" the always brilliant Norbert Leo Butz.  He's one of those Broadway stars that I've admired and listened to for a long time, but have never seen live.  His performance, of course, didn't disappoint.  This Louisiana native wasn't terribly thrilled with his attempt at an Alabama accent, but c'mon...  He's Norbert Leo Butz.  Who cares?!  He clearly connected with his fellow performers and delivered a performance that was more emotionally stirring than any excellence in merely acting or singing might offer.

He was joined in the cast by the equally talented Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert.  It's almost hard to think about what the bright spots in the production are, because there are simply so many, but for me, one of them was clearly Bobby Steggert.  He captured a youthful, self-assured naivete in such a compelling way.  He gave himself over to his character and took me along for the ride.  I don't actually know if I've seen Steggert before or not, but it was hard for me to imagine him in another role.  As far as I can tell, he was born and lives as Will Bloom.  It's not that his performance was some sort of technical genius, but is was utterly honest.  I believed him from curtain up to curtain call.

(update: after writing these words about Steggert's honesty, I discovered this lovely blog piece he'd written about his surprising - and surprisingly recent - "coming out" story.  He talks about the ongoing work of coming out, and the benefits he's enjoyed as a gay man as he's perfected his craft as an actor.  This would be worth reading at any time, but as this Friday is National Coming Out Day, it seems particularly appropriate this week!  I heartily commend it to you.)

I'll admit that I'm a bit later writing this review than I normally am - I saw it in the final days of previews and had planned to publish on opening night.  Unfortunately, the weekend got away from me, and now I'm coming to it a little less fresh than I usually do.  This is exacerbated by the fact that I made a friend in the theater, and didn't do my usual note-taking during intermission.  It was more fun to chat!

But what I do remember, and what I do want to impress, is that it's a lovely show.  It's the kind of show I'd want to take my mother to see.  It's full of feel-good and emotional moments.  I left the theater energized.  So like I said at the outset, it's not "life changing" theater.  But it's good theater.  It represents some of the best that Broadway has to offer in terms of design, performance, and sheer magic.  It's definitely worth your time.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Sure!  I probably won't knock people out of the way to get tickets, but I'd definitely see it again.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Like I said above, this would be a great one for my mother.  It's the kind of show that you can proudly take out of town visitors to see.  They'll feel like they've had a great Broadway experience.
  • Twitter review:  A feel-good night studded with bright stars and lovely creative design.

Friday, September 27, 2013

FCS: Once We Lived Here

Quick facts:
  • Show: Once We Lived Here
  • Off-Off Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, September 26, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: September 29, 2013
  • Venue: Urban Stages
  • Running time: ~2:30 (one 10 minute intermission)
  • My seat: Excellent.  It's a small venue (seats 76, I believe I read) with terraced seating, so it would be hard to go wrong, but it was general admission, and I sat half-way up on the center aisle.  It couldn't have been better.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The U.S. premiere (produced by Australian Made Entertainment) of Once We Lived Here explores the dynamics of a family reeling with loss: both of their father/husband, and the sheep farm that their family is losing to a severe drought after generations of living and working there.

My thoughts: After my last couple of outings having been sort of disappointing, I was starting to question myself.  I was starting to wonder if perhaps I was becoming a jaded theater goer.  Have I seen so much theater, and is the bar now so high, that now nothing can rise to meet it?  Can I only see negatives?  Will I only ever be annoyed?

Thankfully, Once We Lived Here, by Australian writing team Matthew Frank and Dean Bryant, has brought me back.

From the start, the show had me hooked.  The overture set the tone for a show that would be emotional, rich, and thoughtfully constructed, and it never disappointed.

I'd like to focus for a moment, however, on that word: thoughtful.  I often praise shows for being clever.  In some ways, that's among the highest praise I usually offer.  But this went a step beyond.  It was clever, to be sure, but it was more than that.  It was more than smart, even.

I've often said of preaching that crafting a sermon is more like writing a poem than it is like writing an essay.  Each word must be calculated - each pause, each breath.  It's not enough to write to convey a message, the preacher must endeavor to write to speak to his or her audience.  In my stronger sermons, that's what I'm reaching toward.

The same is true of the theater.  It's not enough to write a good song.  It's not even enough to tell a good story.  The book writer and the lyricist and the composer have to strive for something more.  They have to strive to really communicate - not just with words, but with emotions.

It's not enough to just do everything right.  Everything right must be constructed - painstakingly - to bring together a piece of art.  Each brush stroke must be delicately applied and necessary - never too much, always enough.

Once We Lived Here achieved this as masterfully as any show I've ever seen.  Thinking back, I can only think of one other show I've ever seen that reached this height: the 2012 Public Theatre production of February House.

The thing about shows like this, however, is that they're not just difficult to write.  They can be very difficult to perform and to produce.  You need a team of artists who will give it the attention and the quality that it deserves.

That's where this went from being a good show, to being a mind blowing night of theater.

Being Off-Off Broadway (a designation related to the seating capacity of the theater more than anything else), it could have been hit or miss.  I'm usually willing to take a chance on Off-Off Broadway shows, because, first of all, they usually don't require much of an investment.  Even full price tickets tend to be quite inexpensive.  Beyond that, it gives me an opportunity to see newer works (sometimes still in development), riskier works, and up-and-coming performers and creative designers.

The downside of that can be that you catch something (or someone) that misses the mark.  But every now and then you'll catch a moment of magic, like I did tonight.

The show opens with the number "All Roads Lead to Home".  There's a tint of sentimentality in that, but it's quickly revealed that the real purpose of the song isn't so much to elicit sentimentality as it is to remind us of the primary focus of the show: the baggage that we all carry related to our families of origin.

Years after the husband and father of the family had died and the family's parts had begun to splinter, they all come home for what would be one last visit.

Claire, the mother, is now dying, and soon the family home would have to be sold.  Shaun, the only son, is the heir of his father's depression.  Amy, one of two daughters - the one who stayed home - is desperately trying to become the best of her father, following in his footsteps.  Lecy, the one that got away, is just as desperately searching for her father's love through Burke, the one-time farm hand who becomes her best icon of her late-father.

The story and the music are intricate and complex, and nothing could have been achieved without an outstanding team to deliver it.  The cast was truly an ensemble, and everyone played their equally-significant parts beautifully, but even so, two actors in particular captured me.

The first was Adam Rennie in the role of Shaun.  His voice is simply thrilling.  I remember when I was in voice lessons and my teachers tried to give me an image for singing with strength - they taught me to imagine the sound coming from deep inside me and rising up through my front teeth and pounding into a brick wall across the room.  That seemed to happen with Adam every time he opened his mouth.  It was magic.  I can't wait to hear him again.  And again.

The other shining star of the night was Kathleen Foster in the role of Amy.  She brilliantly drew me into her character and emotions.  I've rarely been touched by any actors on a stage more than these two touched me tonight.

Even the best actors and the best shows need a team of creative people behind them helping to make it all happen.  Notable among the creative team were Scenic designer, Katherine Deneve and Lighting designer Anthony D. Freitas.

The set began to pull me in even before the show began.  I like to get to theaters early to absorb the space and to get comfortable with my surroundings before the show begins.  It occurred to me tonight, in this little theater, that getting into the theater the moment the house opens and waiting for the show is my favorite kind of meditation.  Tonight I had an interesting and engaging set to guide that process.

Deneve's set was simple and articulate.  From the loose pebbles edging the buildings to the perfectly distressed wood and aged hardware - it all communicated.  It didn't shout.  It didn't try too hard.  It was simply artful and compelling.

Similarly, the lighting design for this show could have been boring or unhelpful.  It could easily have been simply a matter of turning them on and off between scenes.  It's not the kind of show that lends itself to wild, rock concert kinds of displays.  But Freitas took things a step further.  The lights were elegant and unobtrusive, but gently guided us from place to place and time to time - from the present to the memory.  It pulled us in the audience along, giving us subtle cues as to where and when we were or needed to be.

Despite the difficult subjects explored in this show, it rises out of its darkest moments in the end.  The finale brings us back to the opening song, "All Roads Lead to Home".  It's still never "sentimental", but it has a hope that was somehow missing at the start of the show.  It's not exactly "happy" as an ending, but it's hopeful.  It's content.  And it points to something more.

Once We Lived Here is the kind of show that makes me optimistic about the state of musical theater.  It exemplifies what a show can do.  It reaches in your gut, squeezes you and twists you and pushes all of your shit aside.  Just when you wonder if you can take it anymore, it puts everything back, better than it was before.

It does more than entertain.  It informs a broader worldview.  It heals and caresses those once-hurting parts that we all have.  It speaks to the soul.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Absolutely.  No question.  I've already bought the original cast recording.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Anyone who appreciates real art.  Anyone who expects a little more.
  • Twitter review:  One of the most thrilling shows I've seen in a LONG time.  Beautifully written, beautifully produced.