Question: How do you talk about Jesus’ crucifixion at an open mic show with spiritual- but-not-religious types, many of whom have been badly burned by Christians and the
Answer: It’s a trick question. You don’t talk about it – you embody it.
The idea first occurred to me during the winter of 2008 after I had completed 3 weeks at LSTC immersed in Professor David Rhoads’ Biblical Performance Criticism seminar, “Scripture by Heart.” By three weeks from class-end I had Mark 1 neatly stored in my brain – every wilderness-shouting, Holy-Spirit descending, demon-screaming juicy drop of it – before heaving it out before the crowd at the In-One-Ear Open Mic in Roger’s Park one deep midwinter Wednesday. As the years flowed on I would perform most of the material from Mark 1 – 13, inspiring many conversations and confessions along the way, but I always stopped short of the Passion. Why? Cuz that story couldn’t be served one pericope at a time, and doing it justice would require a block of 20-30 minutes – hence being made the evening’s “featured performer.” Between work, seminary, my fiancee and 20 billion other things it wasn’t doable so I had to let it slide ’til it was time. Then one day in June/July of 2013 that time came around and the Holy Spirit hit me hard during a late-night stroll – bellowing in an insistent tenor like my old preaching prof: “Do it. Do.. IT! You know you must. I’ll handle the rest. Be bold and fear not.” So there it was, the call… again. No more waiting, no more denial, no excuses.
Then came the hesitations and apprehensions – or rather came back. For, truth be told, there was another reason why I kept Christ’s Passion at bay. I did learn it once, all the way back in the Summer of 2008, five years previous to be precise. But despite my ease with the other chapters whenever I approached how to ‘do’ Jesus’s final, desperate days my imagination froze – became colder and harder with each line taken to heart, each time I struggled to sculpt the movement and delivery. Frustrated and slightly desperate I made a final, earnest attempt to break the chill that Fall semester. Quietly shielded by the neo-gothic stylings of Chicago Theological Seminary’s Graham Taylor Chapel, I had a long palaver with my theological mentor – Associate Professor of Ethics, Theology and the Arts JoAnne Marie Terrell – to flesh out some ideas in the hopes of tackling that most horrid of days but we couldn’t touch it. The immensity of that bloody, evil execution overwhelmed us and we did little more than sit and share our feelings and convictions sotto voce while holding back tears and five years later all those feelings came back plus one.
For you see these folks at the In-One-Ear, these friends – the live-reactor and soul of so much of my theology – though they all knew, knew how much I loved Jesus I couldn’t help but ask myself: Would they get the crucifixion? Could they handle that? As I said earlier, they tended to be critical of Christians in general – living through livid litanies of abuse from Jesus-Lovers tends to do that – so what’s to say that this wouldn’t be a last straw of sorts? A final line-crossing after which they would forever lump me into the few, the proud, the Pharisita-hypocritical against whom Jesus so regularly railed? How could I do this? Could I do this? Would it dredge up old monsters? Would they tell me I had finally gone too far?
Do it. Do… IT. You must. I’ll handle the rest. Be bold and fear not.
So I thought, prayed, wrestled with how begin a story like this – how to get a crowd “in the mood” to watch the arrest and public killing of a man. It wasn’t fun and the old fears and doubts remained. Then one hap-hap-happy day it came to me in a flash, or rather a water-logged splash and a breath, while doing my daily laps at the local gym:
“Were you theeeeeeeere when they crucifiiieeed may Looooooooooord [Were you there]?”
I would start with a song, one almost as old as the US of A itself! And the whole evening began to map itself out in my mind, by punctuated splashes and wet inhalations as I started my forward-crawl reps.
“OooOOOOOOOOH… [splash!] “…ooooooh-OOOOH! [splash!] Sooooometiiimes… [splash!] …it caaaau…” [splash!] …ses me, to tremble…” Splash!
I would start the Passion moseying in and singing – even sing other verses later to give those assembled time to breathe, reflect, to punctuate the darker moments. And that’s all it took. A chlorinated baptism. Hallelujah. I had my beginning. The ice had cracked and the Spirit coursed anew – helped me piece together what to do, how to stand, how to move. Praise be to God, praise be! Revelation No. 1 and there was more to come for all good things come in three’s.
Then next I prepared. And prepared. And prepared and re-memorized, self-produced mp3’s of the text forever in my ears as I resurrected what I’d begotten then buried years before – and yes, most of the words were still there – they’d been fresh-frozen after-all! To keep the text and my heart warm and flowing I recited wherever and before whomever I could, eventually creating an internal contest to seek the most non-sequitur situations where I could recite the thing – under my breath on the slow seminary elevator rides a standard fave – until recall weren’t no problem at all.
But then I came to my final hurdle – the Last Supper.
And here is when it got tricky, or rather – to be honest – subversive. Being Lutheran and all, my heart beats loud and proud for the Real Presence and I couldn’t help but see the performance as a chance to sneak a little Jesus into the audience. Interactive and meaningful – sharing (consecrated) bread and wine with the attendees would a perfect cross-over point between me and all assembled but again imagination failed to give me a ‘how.’ Should I say something before hand – inviting people to pass the plate and the cup along if they didn’t want to take part – or should I just run the thing down and stay mum and watch what happened? LSTC Chapel Dean Ben Stewart helped me out here. His advice was simple – don’t look at it as the Eucharist, an entirely different beast with readings, processions and bells and smells. “This is more like performance art,” he said, “so just tell everyone one: ‘Hey, later on we’re gonna pass around some bread and some wine and please feel free to share’ and leave it at that.” Revelation No. 2, and when a generous member of my home church surprised me with some of his surplus grace by making me a wooden cup and paten based on crude napkin scribbles I had everything I needed.
Then the day came – Wednesday, April 9, 2014. My buddy Stan agreed to be an audience for my dress-run so that morning I ran the whole thing down in his living room to work out kinks and get feedback. And it went okay, but I realized something a bit shocking. News flash – we may like communion and may make it the high point of every Sunday meeting but that morning it suddenly seemed very small. Important? Yes. Moving? Yes. But not central. It’s really just a three-verse highlight to a tense dinner soon crashed by swords and clubs. And at the actual performance I almost breezed through it – felt myself trying to hold on to the moment, that moment that Jesus shared with his disciples and I’d hope to share with those who’d paid the $3 cover. No – the power didn’t lay there. And from verse 14:27 all the way to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome running out of the tomb in terror and amazement – in some little place in my mind I laughed at myself.
Because the audience was riveted. Riveted. Pin-drop riveted.
For it’s right after the Last Supper that it all hits the fan. The prayers in anguish, the arrest, the interrogation, and all of us assembled were with there – yes, we were there. We ogled, winced, shook our heads, some even cried. Had I been afraid that being in-your-face Jesus-y might turn them off – that the crucifixion would be a deal-breaker? Yep. Was I right to be? Nope. Crucifixion was the communion that night, Jesus’ arrest and interrogation, and the way that every blessed one of us were wholly wrapped-up in the story of the end of the life of this man called Jesus. The Holy Spirit, as she has over and over again through the centuries, brought communion to the masses through the honest and brutal testimony of Jesus’ life. I could tell by their eyes and obvious attention, that the story had gripped them. And if they had never seen or ever picked up a Bible ever again in their lives they would likely never forget that night, the night that some crazy, loud, naive seminarian threw himself at their mercy for 30 minutes so that he might share the story of the One he loved so much. Revelation No. 3. Glory be, another trinity. Needless to say, when I surveyed the paten and the cup before packing-up every morsel and drop was gone. I went home content.