General Conference 2019: A Failure of Theology

In a previous post, I began to sketch out some parameters for a conversation I very much hoped we might have within the United Methodist Church. My hope has always been that our very polarized and politicized discussion of human sexuality might become a deeply theological conversation that would edify all, regardless of their ultimate theological opinion when it comes to the definition of Christian Marriage and Holy Orders.

I have said very little publicly about the debate over human sexuality in the United Methodist Church. I have, however, led multiple groups through a study of this issue centered on a Wesleyan way of reading the Bible and a theological and sacramental overview of marriage and ordination. The purpose of this exercise has always been to give people the opportunity to see for themselves the complexity of this issue and to invite them into a conversation that seeks to plumb the depths of Christian theology in order to understand how we, as a Church, might find a way forward that is faithful to the historic traditions and teachings of the Church while being open to how the Spirit might be speaking to us in community today.

I don’t describe these efforts as a way of patting myself on the back. Leading these studies was very hard, as well as emotionally draining. I am certain that I did an imperfect job as a leader and as a teacher. Nevertheless, I am happy that I did it. It was, I believe, a constructive project undertaken in a time of great anxiety over what destructive outcome this debate might ultimately have. My previous article on this subject was a further attempt at offering a constructive alternative to the debate that has been raging over this issue. One consistent frustration I have experienced in leading my studies, and in attempting in my own small way to open a theological dialogue on this issue is the fact that, as a Church, we have no robust teaching document on either Christian Marriage or Holy Orders.

I believe that marriage and ordination are sacramental. In fact, I am prepared to go so far as to call them sacraments, even if they are not, perhaps, to be equated with the Dominical Sacraments—that is to say, Baptism and Holy Communion, the two sacraments historically understood to have been instituted by Jesus himself.

This is not current United Methodist sacramental theology, and I admit that my interpretation would be considered novel. However, I have studied extensively the Articles of Religion. This foundational document for both the Anglican and Methodist traditions offers a definition of the sacraments; and it separates the two “Sacraments of the Gospel” from “those five commonly called sacraments” (Article XVI). I have also read carefully Resolution 3144 (in the United Methodist Book of Resolutions), which enjoins us to interpret things like Article XVI “in consonance with our best ecumenical insights and judgment.”

In other words, we are invited as theologians in the United Methodist tradition to seek to understand and interpret the Articles of Religion without any of the polemical subtext of the era in which they are written and with the benefit of ecumenical dialogue and understanding.

I feel I am standing on firm ground.

Further, I believe that if the United Methodist Church had taken these two seriously as sacraments—had we issued white papers offering theological grounding for why we solemnize marriages and why we ordain persons to ministry; had we adopted resolutions that augmented our doctrinal standards with robust teaching on these sacramental actions—we might have avoided what amounted to theological what-about-ism, name calling, and genuine rancor that the world witnessed at General Conference 2019.

In other words, in absence of documents similar to “By Water and the Spirit” and “This Holy Mystery” dealing with ordination and marriage, what the world witnessed was argument on the basis of emotion, personal preferences, and a view of the Bible that many will see as laughably simplistic.

It seems inevitable now that we are going into a period of schism, uncertainty, and—very likely—more loud and rancorous disagreement. And I believe that much of it could be avoided by simply doing what the Church has done for centuries: thinking theologically and sacramentally about what it means to be human and alive in God’s world. I sincerely hope it isn’t too late for some serious theological reflection, discussion, and perhaps even the publication of a robust theological statement on what we, as the United Methodist Church, believe about Christian Marriage and Holy Orders as unique and wonderful callings in which we live out our Baptismal promises.

That would truly be a resurrection moment.

Is There a Theological Way Forward for the United Methodist Church?

For the past 45 years, The United Methodist Church has been discussing human sexuality. Our current Discipline is clear on the sacred worth and human dignity of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation or relationship status. What we are debating now–in the days leading up to a called General Conference that could very well decide the future of our denomination–is whether or not the Church will bless same-sex marriage relationships, and whether or not the Church will license, commission, and ordain persons who are, as the Book of Discipline phrases it “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.”

One thing that has been disappointing to me as I listen to and observe our denominational conversation, is how, for lack of a better way to put it, political this debate has become. I haven’t come close to reading every word written on this issue, but most of what I have read, or heard, or seen is focused on delegate counts, procedural rules, constitutional amendments, and how the standing rules might be deployed at General Conference to give the advantage to one side or the other.

I’m not naive about the inevitability of politics. I fully understand whenever two or more Methodists are gathered together, a committee will form–and this can be a good thing. Humans are political creatures, and the organizational abilities of the United Methodist Church are well-known in ecumenical circles. If you want something organized, ask a Methodist. The problem with being so organizationally focused is we can begin to see every issue as an organizational issue. People don’t agree on marriage and sexuality? Here are three ways to organize ourselves out of the problem. It’s just the way we approach things.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am in no way denigrating the incredibly dedicated work of those tasked with finding a way forward for our denomination. They were given an extraordinarily difficult set of tasks and parameters. I think the work they produced is of the highest quality, and it should be carefully considered by all United Methodists as well as the General Conference. The Commission on a Way Forward’s final report does include a great deal of deep theological work. Primarily the Commission’s work is in the vein of ecclesiology–the nature and mission of the Church.

However, in the midst of this debate, I have not seen much written to engage theologically with the nature of marriage itself. The conversation has, for the most part, assumed some in our Connection are going to bless same-sex relationships, some are not, and we must find the best way to navigate this reality.

And, yes, this is certainly the practical situation facing the United Methodist Church in the coming months, which General Conference 2019 is tasked with figuring out. I still think there is something to be gained from a serious attempt to articulate a particularly United Methodist understanding of marriage, and why or why not it could include provision for some among us officiating same-sex marriages.

I know we all believe marriage is important. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be debating the future of the United Methodist Church primarily around this single issue. I believe something this important deserves theological treatment. United Methodists (and in more general terms, Evangelical Protestants) have shied away from making very many theological claims about marriage. In the process, we have ceded the definition of marriage to the civil authorities, leaving a very important question unanswered: What is the difference between civil marriage and a Christian marriage?

In the next several paragraphs I will offer my attempt at an answer.

In civil marriage the persons who enter into the marriage contract are recognized as a new societal unit for a variety of purposes: taxation; inheritance; health insurance and other medical benefits; the adoption of children; establishing the legitimacy of children born as a result of the union; financial matters and the ownership of property. The list could go on. A Christian understanding of marriage must go beyond simply these legal implications and present a theological case for marriage. United Methodists understand many of these legal issues to be part of the covenantal nature of marriage, however, we view marriage as more than a legally binding agreement. To put it another way, we believe something happens in marriage that makes two people more than just two individuals sharing a house. One way to describe this is to say Christian marriage is sacramental. It is inextricably intertwined with baptism.

Confirmation, ordination, marriage, anointing of the sick, and reconciliation are not considered Sacraments in the United Methodist Church. They are, nevertheless, important aspects of the Christian life. These sacred actions are, in important ways, remembrances of our baptism. Sacramental theology is, by its very nature, a theology that interrelates numerous aspects of the Christian life. This is particularly important to keep in mind when we discuss marriage, because here we are not only intertwining theological concepts, but also legal and societal concepts as well.

In sacramental (Christian) marriage, as in civil marriage, the persons who enter into the marriage covenant are recognized as a new societal unit. We call this new unit a family, and in this family, the husband and wife are co-equal and complementary partners who are considered to be one flesh, utterly inseparable save by death (Mt. 5:32, 19:6, Mk. 10:9). Such a union is a re-membering of the created order in the Garden of Eden (Ge. 2:23-24, quoted by Jesus in Mt. 19:4-6). The marriage relationship also has theological implications for the whole Church. The wedding rite, and the marriage itself, is an image of the relationship Jesus has with his Church (Eph. 5:22-23, Re. 19:7-9).

A Christian sexual ethic has always encompassed the idea of covenant relationship between the partners. The covenant relationship of marriage is a unique way of living out the baptismal covenant between Christians and the triune God. The primary covenant relationship in a Christian’s life is the baptismal covenant that unites the Christian with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. Christian Marriage is the joining together of two baptized persons into a covenant relationship for the mutual edification of the partners and ultimately–especially in our Wesleyan understanding–mutual sanctification. (It is, however, important to acknowledge there are marriages blessed by the Church in which only one of the partners is baptized.)

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, goes into detail on his views on marriage (you can find the whole discourse in chapter 7). The majority of Paul’s statements on marriage take the form of strongly worded advice for both the married and the unmarried to remain in their present state (7:25-28). Paul also offers advice to married couples not to deny one another sexual companionship except by mutual consent (7:1-7). Paul shifts from advice to command when he discusses the dissolution of a Christian marriage (7:10-11). In short, his command (actually, the Lord’s command, as Paul states quite clearly in verse 10) prohibits divorce.

Paul echoes the commands of Jesus regarding adultery and divorce (Mt. 5:27-32). Paul also describes marriage in terms of mutual sanctification. The marital relationship (in addition to creating covenant families, providing for companionship, and other benefits) provides a sanctified outlet for sexual desire. Paul asks married couples to be kind and generous to one another in their physical relationships in order to avoid various temptations to break the covenant. Jesus disallows lustful looking, and Paul suggests an appropriate sexual relationship in the context of Christian Marriage provides a way of pursuing holiness as Jesus commands.

All four gospel witnesses as well as the New Testament epistles clearly teach a Christian sexual ethic which precludes non-covenantal sexual encounters. In fact, the teachings of Jesus lead us to understand even nurturing impure desires in our heart of hearts is no less than tantamount to adultery. Christian Marriage provides for the mutual sanctification of the partners not least because it provides a covenantal relationship within which it is appropriate to express and act on sexual desire. To sum up, a Christian, sacramental view of marriage is far more expansive than the civil definition. Christian marriage, like everything else in the Christian life, is about us becoming more like Jesus. In a larger sense, Christian Marriage, like everything else in the Christian life, is about the redemption of the cosmos, participating with Christ in reconciling all things (including sex) to God.

The decision we face is whether or not Christian Marriage (sacramental marriage) should be made available in the United Methodist Church to persons who are in same-sex relationships. The decision we reach will ultimately depend on the way we choose to interpret what the Bible says about the meaning of marriage. Even if we don’t realize it, we will as a denomination be making a declaration on the nature of marriage. Whatever our practice becomes will define our theology of marriage.

My hope in writing this article is to offer a pause in the political wrangling about what our practice as a denomination might become. This piece is offered as an invitation to contemplate what marriage means for Christians. Ultimately, I hope contemplating a theology of marriage might inform our practice of marriage, and lead us to a theological solution to the current impasse. If nothing else, such theological contemplation can perhaps lead us to better understand the positions of those who hold opinions different than our own.

There are a number of questions I have purposely left unanswered in this brief offering, such as: Is it possible to define marriage using gender-neutral language? Does our denomination’s general practice of allowing for divorce and remarriage have any bearing on our conversation about same-sex marriage? Can we responsibly baptize and receive into membership persons in same-sex relationships while at the same time denying them marriage and ordination?

These are questions I am personally wrestling with as my own theology of marriage comes into focus in light of the situation in the United Methodist Church. Perhaps these questions will help spark theological engagement on this issue, and give food for thought and conversation among United Methodists. I am praying for the future of the United Methodist Church, that it will remain united, offering a strong Wesleyan expression of the catholic and apostolic faith and the great theological tradition we have inherited with it. I believe doing theology is a form of prayer, and I hope you will join me.

Breathing New Life into an “Old” Eucharistic Prayer

In the current United Methodist Hymnal, there is a seldom-used (at least in my experience) rite for the celebration of Holy Communion. “A Service of Word and Table IV” is a service that draws heavily on the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren liturgical traditions which in turn share common DNA–through Wesley’s Sunday Service–with the English prayer book tradition going all the way back to 1552.

The Great Thanksgivings provided for the modern United Methodist services of word and table are by and large based on the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus both in structure and language. These are excellent prayers, but they do represent a shift in our Eucharistic praying away from the Anglican roots of our tradition and some of the English distinctives that Wesley and the earliest Methodists maintained. I imagine that is why there is a “Rite IV” included in our current hymnal. It offers some continuity with the United Methodist Church’s foundational liturgical tradition.

The thing is, Word and Table IV is not widely utilized. So, while the rite exists as a document that provides some historical continuity, it’s essentially a museum piece–a relic of a bygone era that serves mostly for the sake of curiosity.

One of the great strengths of the liturgical forms given in the current hymnal is the highly flexible struture of the Eucharistic prayer. It’s exceedingly easy to write custom propers within the framework offered by the rites in the United Methodist Hymnal. This incredible flexibility is displayed in a couple of ways. “A Service of Word and Table II” (page 13 in the Hymnal) provides an essentially complete Eucharistic prayer with two places where a pastor or liturgical writer may insert seasonal or occasional propers. (For the liturgy geeks who may read this, those places are the preface and the post-Sanctus.) In other words, this prayer may be used as is–as a somewhat briefer form of the Great Thanksgiving compared to Word and Table I–or may be modified in the appropriate places to “customize” it to the occasion at hand. An even more flexible, customizable format for the Great Thanksgiving is found in “A Service of Word and Table III” (page 15 in the Hymnal). Word and Table III provides only the congregational responses for the Eucharistic prayer along side a few “cue words” that should appear in the prayer offered by the presider, along with some rubrics. In essence, one can write an entire Eucharistic prayer within this framework. So long as the basic structure is left intact and the “cue words” are included in the appropriate places, it should be possible to write an entirely original Great Thanksgiving that is still recognizable and usable by United Methodist congregations.

One of the reasons I think Word and Table IV is underused today is simply that it does seem so anachronistic, particularly in its use of archaic language. But there is a lot of rich theology in this Eucharistic prayer, and Word and Table IV offers a visceral sense of connection to the deep Anglican roots of our church that should not be easily overlooked or discarded. In case it isn’t clear, I love this Eucharistic prayer, and I wish it could be used more frequently.

Then one day, it occurred to me that an answer was right in front of me. (I really wanted to type “‘rite’ in front of me” but I restrained myself.)

Why not use Word and Table III as an opportunity to reintroduce this old Eucharistic prayer to a new generation? So that’s exactly what I did. What follows is my “update” of the Great Thanksgiving from Word and Table IV. I have updated the language to remove archaisms and ordered the prayer such that it fits into the structure of Word and Table III. In my adaptation, I have tried to retain the character and thought patterns of the older prayer while modernizing and “tightening” the language. I have also taken the opportunity to strengthen the epliclesis (in line with the epicletical langauge of our more modern prayers). Regarding the epiclesis, there is an interesting problem to be tackled. The older prayer positions the epliclesis right before the Words of Institution. However, the rubrics for Word and Table III state that “The pastor invokes the present work of the Holy Spirit …” after the Verba. In the prayer as I present it below, I’ve kept the epiclesis before the Verba as it is in the older Eucharistic prayer. I hope that I may find forgiveness in the rubrics for this minor deviation.

I think the prayer is fairly cohesive with the epiclesis either before or after the Words of Institution, but it seems to have more internal sense when the epiclesis remains in the older position. Depending on how you choose to position the epiclesis, the resulting prayer will resemble either the Book of Common prayer 1552—1662, or the Book of Common Prayer 1928. Either way, the prayer looks an awfully lot like the Book of Common Prayer, and therefore shows how thoroughly Anglican our worship tradition is.

Oh, one more thing. I haven’t adapted any proper prefaces for this prayer yet. I think it would be very easy to adapt the language of the seasonal prefaces provided in the Book of Worship if you wanted to use any of those.

The prayer is provided for your use below. I think it would work well as an option for any United Methodist Eucharistic Celebration. What do you think?

The Lord be with you. And also with you.

Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, O Lord, Holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.

Here the pastor may add a preface proper to the season.

And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, because of your tender mercy, you gave your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by the one offering of himself, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; and instituted, and in his Holy Gospel commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death until his coming again:

Hear us, O merciful Father, we humbly pray; and bless and sanctify with your Word and Holy Spirit these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, that we, receiving them according to his holy institution, in remembrance of his passion, death, and resurrection, may be partakers of the divine nature through him:

Who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Likewise after supper he took the cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying, “Drink all of this; for this is my blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins; do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Accept, O Lord, this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; and grant that, by the merits and death of your Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and your whole Church may obtain forgiveness of our sins and all other benefits of his passion. And here we offer and present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice, humbly praying that all who share in this Holy Communion may be filled with your grace and heavenly benediction.

And although we are not worthy, because of our many sins, to offer you any sacrifice, we ask you now to accept this our true and proper worship, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Father Almighty, now and for ever. Amen.

God With Us In Bread and Wine

In Evangelical circles, it’s not unusual to be asked if you’ve invited Jesus to come into your heart. As a young person, I never quite knew how to answer the question. Sure I had prayed the prayer, but I didn’t have any way of really knowing that Jesus had taken up residence inside me. I wanted his presence with me always, but I couldn’t figure out how I could be certain Jesus was with me.

I think it’s common for an Evangelical to feel some sort of angst about his or her relationship with God. I remember feeling as if I’d been left to discover it on my own. The only guide was how I felt. I found myself second guessing nearly everything about my relationship with God–I could never seem to find any peace, any assurance that Jesus was with me.

In my young adult years I was introduced to the sacraments. A good deal of my spiritual formation in those years took place in Anglican and Roman Catholic settings. Discovering that I could experience Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist with objective assurance that he was there was like being shown a globe for the first time. I had perspective; I could see where I was in relation to the spiritual world around me. God was no longer somewhere out there waiting to be found. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was with me, in me, through the mystery of the bread and wine, Jesus’ body and blood.

I’ll never forget a Mass I attended in my early twenties, at St. Paul’s Church, near the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. As the priest held up the bread during the fraction, he recited the familiar words of the Agnus Dei. But instead of saying simply, “The Lamb of God …” he added “This is Jesus. This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ was there.

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, in Holy Communion, God meets us where we are. The humble elements of bread and wine communicate the flesh and blood of the one who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Jesus, who poured out himself for the life of the world, offers us the food and drink of unending life in him. The holy mystery of Eucharist is also the mystery of the Incarnation: that God would deign to abide with humanity.

In all my life, I never would have imagined knowing God was as simple as eating and drinking. How gracious is Jesus – how gracious is our God, who reveals himself in bread and wine?

Today, whenever I’m asked if I have invited Jesus to come into my heart, I answer with a heartfelt “Yes. Absolutely.” And I invite him anew each time I receive Holy Communion.

Wild Eagle

I wake up at 7:30 Friday morning. The alarm is complaining on the bedside table, and I’m in the mood to join it.

Then I remember. Today’s the day. I’m scheduled to be among the first riders on Dollywood’s new “Wild Eagle” roller coaster. When you love roller coasters like I do, that’s enough to change the side of the bed you’re getting up on.

I’m up, suddenly wide awake. A quick peek out the window – and I’m scowling as I pull the curtain back into place. It looks like rain, and a glance at the weather app on my phone confirms it: more than likely it’s going to storm.

It’s not the kind of start I’d hoped for today. But I’m hopeful the rain will hold off at least until about 10:30 – my ride is at 10:00 and the weather can do whatever it wants as soon as I’ve got my feet back on the platform.

As I get ready for the day, I can’t help thinking about what the ride will be like. I’ve purposely kept myself in the dark about the new coaster. I want to experience it without any preconceived notion of what to expect. All I know is this ride is one of the most highly anticipated attractions opening this season.

The drive to Dollywood is fairly easy. Traffic is light this time of day. I keep an eye on the sky; the darker clouds on the horizon don’t bode well.

Once I’m at the park and checked in, it’s a ten minute walk to the ride site. As I come closer to the ride’s entrance, I begin to see the looping track poking between tree limbs. Then the lift hill comes into view. The fact sheet will later tell me that this towering steel length of track rises more than 20 stories – 210 feet – with a drop that hurtles the cars to a top speed of 61 miles per hour.

At the pavilion there’s a stage for Dolly Parton’s presentation that will officially open the ride. Hundreds of media people and invited guests are already gathered. All I can think of is whether the rain will hold off long enough for me to have my ride.

“9 to 5” blares through the sound system and Dolly is on the stage. She greets the crowd and immediately gives voice to my concern. “Let’s just hope and pray the rain holds off for a few minutes anyway,” she says.

Dolly begins her presentation by getting everyone to practice their eagle shriek. Two girls from the Knoxville Children’s Choir show us all how it’s done.

I learn that even though I’ll be among the first to ride the “Wild Eagle,” I won’t be in the first couple of trains to take the plunge. Those inaugural trains will be reserved for the winners of a special auction Dolly and her team have sponsored on eBay.

They’ve raised more than $30,000 – auctioning around 60 seats. Dolly calls Al Cecere, the president of the American Eagle Foundation, to the stage and presents him with a check. An eagle named Mr. Lincoln accompanies Cecere to the stage. As his handler is accepting the donation, and telling the crowd a little bit about the the work his foundation does, Mr. Lincoln occasionally interjects with a shriek of is own.

I guess the girls’ earlier demonstration put him in a talkative mood.

The American Eagle Foundation has been partnered with Dollywood for 22 years. In that time, the group has put on something like 20,000 birds of prey shows. I make a mental note to stop by the aviary before I leave Dollywood today. Visiting the bald eagles has become a tradition of mine; I try to see them at least once a year.

The bird show has also become something I try to see each year. Getting a chance to see and learn about hawks, vultures, the bald eagle and other large birds is one of my favorite parts of any visit to Dollywood.

I’m not the only one who’s enjoyed these shows over the years. The American Eagle Foundation has put on 20,000 shows at Dollywood since starting the partnership in 1991. Millions of people have seen these birds strut their stuff; and, more importantly, they’re getting the message about wildlife conservation.

“You’ve brought the greatest audience to us that we could ever have,” Cecere tells Dolly.

The foundation does more than just raise awareness; the group has hatched several eagles and been able to release over 300 of these birds back into the wild over the years.

Now back to the business at hand: getting me on the roller coaster before the rain rolls in.

“This year – we always say it, every year, you know I do – this is the best thing we’ve ever done. Well the eagle ride is the best thing we’ve ever done here at Dollywood,” Dolly says. The roller coaster is the most anticipated ride in the country, she tells us.

In fact, the only person not anxiously awaiting the ride is Dolly herself. “I’m a wild chicken, not an eagle,” she says. “I don’t think I’m gonna get on that.”

More Wild Eagle for me, I can’t help but think.

“Every year we just try to what we think the families would most like to see, and enjoy …” Dolly is continuing her presentation, and I can feel the excitement building in the crowd around me.

The first trains are about to roll.

“… everybody loves roller coasters,” she says. “So we thought this would be a wonderful thing for us to do. I’m sure we’re gonna have all the young folks out there and some of us old ones too. You’re not gonna see me on it though. You don’t wanna see what a bald eagle really looks like.”

The crowd goes erupts into laughter. Dolly just shakes her head.

“I ain’t bald but I am scared,” she says.

It wouldn’t be a Dollywood event without some music, and Dolly has written a special song just for the occasion. Backed by the Knoxville Children’s Choir and the Dollywood singers, she launches into “Wild Eagle.”

“Fly eagle, fly eagle, wild eagle fly,” the chorus saunters and Dolly struts across the stage as she sings. Then, with a burst of confetti, fireworks flash and Challenger the eagle soars majestically overhead.

It’s time.

The auction winners have finished their rides during the extravaganza at the foot of the roller coaster, and now it’s time for us media types to queue up for our own turns.

Some of the staff have already donned rain coats. I glance at the sky. I thought I felt a sprinkle or two during the opening festivities but so far the rain is holding off. One of the media guides points me toward the entrance to the Wild Eagle’s platform facade.

Nothing spectacular here, I think. A couple flights of steps and the standard corrals for those waiting. Themed artwork dons the walls. All in all, it’s a pretty standard Dollywood ride setup. One thing I notice is there’s less theme material here than, say, the Mystery Mine ride. Even in this relatively confined waiting area, there’s a sense of space, openness.

The line is short – a perk of being one of the first riders – and it looks like I’ll be on the next train.

As the cars pull into the platform, I notice the design. I heard the description earlier today: “Soar on the wings of an eagle with nothing above or below you.”

Billing: Lived up to.

The cars are each designed to resemble a bald eagle. The bird’s head points forward, intent on the flight. His wings span the width of the train, poised mid-flap. This ride looks like it’s moving even when it’s sitting still.

The seats are positioned on the tip of each wing. Each chair is independent, with it’s own harness – the entire apparatus folds down over the rider and clicks into place. A safety belt latches the seat to the harness as a second layer of restraint. The seats are kind of like oversized bicycle seats. Riders’ legs dangle freely.

The gates open and it’s my turn. I scramble to my car and into the seat. It’s fairly comfortable, if a bit of a squeeze. I pull the harness over my head and …

This isn’t good.

The harness clicks, but the seat belt that holds the harness and seat together won’t reach. I wriggle around in my seat, make an attempt to suck in my gut and try to pull the harness tighter. The belt still won’t go.

As the attendant nears my car, I silently curse the 100 or so pounds I need to lose. It’s one thing to carry around an extra half-person’s worth of weight every day, but this is just ridiculous.

When the attendant sees my predicament, he frowns just a little. I can tell by the expression on his face that I’m not riding this roller coaster. But, as he pops the latch on my harness, he gives me a little hope. Motioning to the cars in the back of the train, he indicates I can try my luck back there. I don’t know for sure if the train has some seats that are designed to accommodate people of outsized girth, or if the attendant just wants to get me out his way. Either way, I go from consigning myself to missing out on the Wild Eagle to rejoicing that perhaps the engineers built this thing with me in mind. Even so, I promise myself not to let this joyous happenstance give me an excuse to have an extra dessert at lunch.

The seats in the back of the car are full for this round, so I maneuver myself back into line in a stall that will put me in the range of cars I hope to fit in.

A few minutes later I’m scrunching myself into the harness. It clicks once, but I waller around a bit and get a second click, just for good measure. The attendant comes around to help everyone buckle up. She grabs the safety belt and …

It won’t reach my harness. Less than an inch and it just won’t go. There’s no way I’m getting off this platform without getting a ride so I suck in my tummy give the harness one more tug and …

We’re in. I’ve made it. I’m locked and loaded and ready to fly the Wild Eagle.

What’s amazing is that despite the tugging and sucking in and general struggle with getting in my seat, now that I’m settled, it’s pretty comfortable. The chair makes a kind of bucket, like an old Camaro driver’s seat. The harness is snug and I feel safe, but it’s not too tight. There’s this strange feeling – it’s not weightlessness exactly, but I feel acutely aware of the fact that I’m suspended. Even though my car isn’t at the front of the train, I feel exposed and almost unaware of the apparatus surrounding me. Car, seat and harness all fade to the background. I feel free.

The call and response of safety checks between the attendants and the operator signals that we’re ready to roll. Like all roller coasters, the Wild Eagle gets off to an uneventful start. We glide gently around the first bend and approach the lift hill. And that’s when it hits me just how tall this thing is.

The glimpses I caught from the ground on the way in haven’t the least bit prepared me for the hill confronting me now. It’s not frightening; just, in the most literal sense, awesome.

The time it takes to climb a 210 foot lift hill isn’t a truly measurable value. Every rider experiences it differently.

There is a second at the apex, just before the car goes over the hill to plunge 135 feet into the first of four loop d’ loops (the industry folk call them ”inversions”), when, for me, time stands still. It’s a moment of pure anticipation. Then, in a heartbeat, it’s over and I’m hurtling downhill with nothing but the wind to slow me down.

The inversions happen fairly early in the ride and they’re perfectly spaced. I feel exhilarated, not dizzy. I lose all sense of my own weight and it truly feels like I’m flying. The back half of the ride accentuates that feeling of flight. Gentle swoops and cresting hills give the sensation of gliding, soaring on the back of a giant eagle.

The ride is so smooth it’s easy to forget I’m on a track. There’s no jerkiness in the curves and every element is gentle. The ride is, in some sense of the word, elegant, both in design and execution.

The track is built through a stand of trees, and it seems like the builders only cut down the ones absolutely necessary to erect the coaster. The remaining trees butt right up to the track. It seems as if I could grab a branch as I pass by.

In less than two and a half minutes we’re back to the station. Even though the train must stop abruptly to enter the station, it feels as if the car has glided to a stop. The sense of elegance and precision is featured in every second of the ride.

After a brief wait, we pull into the station and I’m back on the platform. A few deep breaths to lock this experience in my memory and I’m ready to go. As I exit the platform enclosure, the sky opens up. It’s a fairly gentle rain.

It feels pretty good.

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend.

Thomas the Believer

Jesus was dead. Anyone who said otherwise was either crazy or lying. Thomas had no desire to waste time entertaining the tales of hysterical women or deluded men. Jesus was dead and all the wishful thinking in the world wasn’t changing that. Ridiculous chatter about visions in gardens and visits from the master only made him miss his friend and teacher all the more.

So he’d skipped last week’s gathering. If Jesus’ other followers wanted to pick at grief’s open wound, that was their business. He’d just as soon try to put the whole thing behind him. Better to meditate on the Rabbi’s teaching than try to conjure the man’s ghost.

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Love, Change and Being Made Whole

Meredith Wilson tops my list of great American songwriters. In my mind, there’s a cage match raging between Meredith Wilson and Irving Berlin, but the Gershwin brothers are probably going to jump whoever wins in the parking lot.

Anyway, Meredith Wilson is one of my favorite purveyors of one of my favorite musical styles. Beyond Jazz, Rock, Bluegrass or Gospel (all great art forms which I love), the popular song stands as a definitive American craft. From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to the Billboard Hot 100, pop music is unique in its ability to create mood, tell a story and lift the spirit.
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Comedy and Prophecy

One of the most vibrant art forms of today is also one of the most overlooked. Comedy, as a performance art, a writing style and a genre, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, comedy has returned to its roots.

Renowned young adult novelist Richard Peck once said, “Humor is anger that was sent to finishing school.” Indeed much of the best comedy is rooted in a sort of righteous outrage against the status quo.

Mark Twain, reviled in some circles today for his use of provocative language, was writing “Huckleberry Finn” as an accusation. He used humor as a weapon against the ignorance and hypocrisy he saw in the world around him.

I sometimes think of comedians kind of like Old Testament prophets.

Comedians like Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and Sam Kinisin channeled anger into their work. Sometimes the anger was personal and visceral, like Kinisin’s trademark scream. Often the anger came from observing a world where common people find themselves nameless and faceless before powerful and unfeeling corporations and governments.

More recently, television programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have engaged current events –  especially politics and it’s attendant television news coverage – with as much pointedness and scathing wit as you might find in Twain’s work.

I sometimes think of comedians kind of like Old Testament prophets. Seems like prophets show up when a society needs a kick in the pants. In the Old Testament stories, the prophets would call for a return to truth and justice. The word of the Lord would, more often than not, be a reminder that society has a responsibility to the “least of these.”

More intimately, there’s been a spate of movies in the last few years from the stable of director/producer Judd Apatow that deal with family and relationship issues. The films are gentle, but provocative. They are often vulgar and at times profane (they certainly aren’t made for children), but they get to the heart of human relationships.

A film like “40 Year Old Virgin” may seem like a screwball, vulgar comedy on its surface. But as you watch the story unfold, and you meet the central characters, you begin to understand that, fundamentally, this is a movie about family. It’s a movie that offers a hope that even unconventional people and broken families can find peace and acceptance in the arms of love.

Even more to that point, “Knocked Up” tells two stories. One is the story of a new relationship, born (if you’ll pardon the pun) of an unplanned pregnancy; the other is a decade-long marriage, sliding into decay.

The movie traces the problems both couples face, and deftly intertwines the stories until we see that the fix for both relationships is one and the same. All these people need love and forgiveness.

These comedies, above all else, tell the truth. And that’s what comedy is best at. In medieval times, the court jester could say things about the king that would win anyone else a one-way ticket to the chopping block. Modern day comedy does the same thing for us. Comedy can tell us things about ourselves that we’d never hear if we weren’t tricked into listening through our laughter.

Art is a looking glass that shows us our world both as it is and as it ought to be.

Comedy is art because, like all great art, it teaches us how to be human.

I believe that John Keats was right when he wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Comedy tells the truth, and that’s why it’s so beautiful.

A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend, Maryville, Tennessee.