The second commitment of Cabaret Church is compassion—for all beings and without limit:
Compassion for self
Compassion for our communities
Compassion for the stranger
Compassion for our enemies
Compassion for all
If you have been paying attention, you may have noticed that the wording of this commitment has changed over the months. It began as “community,” became “connection” and grew into compassion. Each time the word changed, the commitment became larger and more challenging.
Cabaret Church is a community of people who believe that compassion is powerful and necessary. We are well aware that we are human and that means we make mistakes. We fuck up. We hurt people. In our commitment to art and resistance, we push boundaries and break rules. Sometimes we struggle to live up to our commitments and instead stay silent when we should have spoken up. We need compassion.
We know that in order to live in a compassionate world, we have to practice compassion. We understand that our heroes, our friends, and even our enemies are human. While that doesn’t keep us from feeling angry and calling out mistakes and demanding change, we try to do so without adding more insult and hatred to the world. And when we are the ones who screwed up, we not only respond to whomever we hurt with compassion, we extend that compassion to ourselves as well.
Compassion is, in a very real way, the thing that makes both art and resistance possible. We can explore art freely, express ideas and feelings, experiment with form and content, confront injustice and engage deeply with each other when we trust that we will be met with compassion. We can build the compassionate community that we long for and that inspires us. We can be Cabaret Church.
People often ask me how I ended up being a minister— which is a long story, but always begins the same way–I was fascinated by the whole idea of church. I loved that there was a place we went to be inspired to become better people. I was intrigued by the sense that being human is a kind of project that we can work on together. This started when I was very young, maybe four or five years old, yet last night at the splendid Chicago house party, when it was Amanda Palmer asking the question, that fascination is still where my answer began.
But before I get to that, I have to admit that the night did not begin as I hoped. If you know anything about me, you already know that means we were late. I hate being late. In spite of the fact that I woke up at 4 a.m. feeling like it was Christmas morning, and we fretted and timed everything in order to arrive right on time and before Amanda, a number of things (including Chicago traffic) conspired to make us almost an hour late.
Even so, we were greeted by our gracious hosts and given directions about how things would work. People were already spray painting on a giant canvas and filling their plates from an enormous table, and I hurried through the crowd to add our food the the potluck. I was frazzled and rushing; not at all how I wanted to be.
As I was trying to navigate the crowd, I saw Amanda and she looked up and broke into a big smile. I was unprepared to be recognized. I had been carefully managing my expectations and practicing casually telling her my twitter handle and explaining who I was. To be suddenly face-to-face with her and to be known was a complete surprise. I managed to give her a startled look and a freaked-out smile and scurry away.
After getting my bearings and taking care of the required details, I worked my way back to the food. As I stepped into the garage (where the feast was laid) there was Amanda. She smiled and said something like, “Hi! I want to sit my ass down next to you and talk.” I sputtered out, “Okay, that would be great,” and added, “Give me a couple of minutes to get through…this…” My words trailed off. How does one name the profoundly strange combination of anxiety and joy that makes your entire vocabulary disappear? Luckily, she seemed to understand.
After we got our food, we found a place to sit in the grass and talk. I told her a little story about the last time we’d met and how I forgot to look at anything but my shoes. That led to a moment of intentional eye contact. And then, amazingly, it wasn’t awkward any more. That’s when she asked me how I became a minister. Or did she ask how I became me?
All I know is that I unwound the strands of my story, laying them out in rows, trying not to leave too many dangling or tangled. Amanda listened and I felt a genuine connection, not to Amanda-Palmer-the-rock-star, but to Amanda-Palmer-the-human-being. For those few minutes not one person interrupted us–not with words or bodies or impatient eyes–and I felt like we were inside the fairy circle in TheOcean at the End of the Lane, protected by old magic. (Ocean is the most recent book by Neil Gaiman, who is married to Amanda, and it is a book I already cherish. A post about that will happen when I can find the words.)
When it was time to move on, I ended up with the task of keeping Amanda’s kimono from harm, which somehow felt important. (It was the very same kimono featured in her recent musical retort to the British tabloid The Daily Mail.) Later, when she needed the kimono for photos, she asked me to hold her phone and take some pictures. That led to me becoming the “official” cell phone photographer, trying to capture candid moments happening before, after, and around each person’s formal picture with Amanda. I had great fun balancing two, three, and sometimes four cell phones, trying to catch the sweet, poignant, and happy moments of connection between Amanda and her fans.
Watching those connections allowed me to notice and observe the spirit of the night, quietly and beautifully shaped and guided by Amanda: a transcendent mix of art, conversation, hugs, tears, and courage. In a recent blog post Amanda wrote about the power of the house parties and the atmosphere of pure connection that pervades them. Last night, fifty strangers chose trust over fear and created something real together. What we created was the very thing that fascinated me as a child and started me dreaming and writing, curating and creating Cabaret Church.
Even now, long past childhood, I am fascinated by the possibilities of the human project I first saw in church. I still long for a community where people support and challenge each other to break free from a culture that wants us to exhaust and anesthetize ourselves with conformity and consumerism. I’m still determined to spend my life trying to create and support spaces where people can grow and become more authentic, courageous, and kind. I saw that happen last night, around and within me.
There’s a lot to be learned from these amazing gatherings that could help make church more relevant, meaningful, and fun. And there are and will always be things we can learn from old spiritual wisdom, tradition and practice. As Amanda told me last night, “We suffer from the separation of church and art.” Maybe it’s time for a reunion.
Special thanks to Andy, Siouxi, Dave, Kate, Amanda and all the other wonderful people who made last night possible.
I am a minister. Maybe that is why people give me strange looks when I tell them I am a big fan of Amanda Palmer. I guess the word “minister” conjures an image of uptight, scowling old men with nostrils permanently flared from sniffing out the faintest scent of the carnal. When confronted by someone as free-spirited as Amanda—who is prone to displays of public nudity; uses the word “fuck” with both ease and power (it is, after all, her middle name); writes, sings and screams songs like “Do it With a Rock Star” and “The Killing Type;” and uses social media to share much of (if not every corner of) her mind—I guess I am supposed to immediately condemn her or run away screaming.
I may be expected to condemn, but instead I find myself drawn to Amanda Palmer’s work and her world. Her songs, her TED talk, her blog, her insistence on connection with her fans and even with her haters have all reinvigorated—resurrected, really—my passion for ministry and my vision of what liberal religious community can be.
Truth be told, I love all of it: the uninhibited self-expression; the nakedness of body, mind, and soul; the unabashed insistence that the power of art can change us and therefore change the world. “We are the Media!” Amanda Palmer sings. I want to add: “And we are the Church!” Or maybe: “We are the Sacred! We are the Holy! We are Everything That Matters and everything beautiful and ordinary and amazing…
Amanda Palmer makes me think about church. Yeah, church: the place where, for centuries, power and greed and transcendence and sin and art and ritual and life and death have been playing their parts in a grand mythic drama. Church: the place where people try to work out what it means to be human and how to make life more graceful and meaningful. Church: the one thing that has both saved my life and broken my heart so completely that I ran away screaming in pain and fury. And yes, church. The community that always draws me back and helps me recognize and serve something larger than my own ego, something like Hope. Even though I am often frustrated at the forms the institutional church takes, I can’t shake my conviction that if we don’t despair, we can return the church to being a catalyst for empowerment, inspiration, justice, and liberty in our own hearts and in the world.
Alfred North Whitehead called God “the poet of the world.” The central story in every religious tradition is always the story of creation: God dividing light from darkness, the Goddess giving birth, or Turtle rising from the primordial ooze with the muddy earth on its back. These primal stories are the centerpiece of religious myth not only because we humans are eternally curious about our origins, but because the ability to create is and has always been considered sacred. For centuries, if you were looking for art you went to church, where poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and composers were lauded for their ability to make a way for the sacred to enter the ordinary world. Beauty and creativity were portals to the holy.
Amanda Palmer’s work is a torrid, sweaty, sex-in-public affair with creativity. In the Punk Cabaret story of creation, creatrix and creature refuse to be separated by theological hierarchies, and are instead consenting partners in an ecstatic and slightly dangerous bump and grind. Bodies are celebrated, even flaunted, without embarrassment. After all, if it weren’t for our bodies, how would we create or experience all this beauty?
This, for me, is an awakening. For decades I have struggled with the ugly dichotomy that separates body from spirit and declares the material, the physical, the carnal to be dirty and sinful. I was moved to tears when I read Walt Whitman’s declaration, “If anything is sacred, the human body is!” That sacredness is too easy to forget, yet listening to Amanda Palmer’s music I feel the urge to move rise up in me and am reminded that my earliest spiritual or religious memories are of dancing. In dance class or at home alone with my record player, I experienced my whole heart and body absorbed in one transcendent “Yes!” I knew, as a child, that both the dance and the dancer were holy. I knew that I was inseparable from The Sacred.
I know, of course, that religion—especially Western Christianity—is responsible for much of this denigration of the body. I know that the unholy desire for power and empire led to the creation of systems and theologies that dismiss some bodies—brown bodies, female bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies—as worthless and only to be controlled. I see the results of this thinking in policies that demean and punish those who wear these bodies. I see this and I know that many will be unable to believe that religion, complicit in so much evil, is worthy of anything but disdain. I know. I see. I tremble.
And yet I cannot just walk away. I keep being drawn back. Or, to use an older term: I keep being called back.
You see, I didn’t go into ministry because I wanted to reenact dusty rituals, all the while keeping my hair neat and my overcoat buttoned. I didn’t go into ministry to write twenty-minute essays more conducive to checking one’s watch than to checking in with the state of one’s soul. I didn’t go into ministry to be considered an employee with a three word job description: keep people happy.
I went into ministry because I long for transformation. I long for revolution. I am called to make this world better and to heal what brokenness I can. I am called to help create communities that empower all of us to encounter and respond to the All that is bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us, and bigger even than anything we can imagine. I am called to look for and help create communities that are engaged in the work of the spirit together. Communities that are a lot like the crowds at Amanda Palmer concerts or the people telling their truths and tweeting love and support for one another on a Friday night, tagging Amanda in every post.
I imagine a church where every sweaty, glitter-drenched, dancing body is welcome. I imagine a church that can be loud and bold and angry when necessary. I imagine a church where we notice the many who say, “No one sees me,” and take time to stop, look them in the eye and say, “We see you.” I imagine a church where everyone is invited to not only attend the show, but to be part of it—to engage soul-deep in the art of living an authentic, embodied, meaningful life.
That’s the church I imagine, thanks to Amanda Palmer. That’s Cabaret Church.
This night is the most mysterious to me:
Saturday, the night between.
but what of tonight?
Some say that on this night
the meek man who would not claim
to be God, would not claim to be
King, was busy breaking down
the gates of Hell, almost by accident–
so holy they could not hold him,
he liberated all souls,
and Hades, empty, was the first
to know–even before the women–
that something beyond death
was happening here.
Ever since childhood, I’ve had
trouble sleeping on this night
afraid the sun might forget to rise,
afraid the stone, immobile, would
refuse to roll, afraid
that when they arrive
the absent angel will not appear
will never say the words
we long to hear,
the words that mark birth
the words of morning:
Boundaries. The word is overused and yet it seems that many people don’t understand it. That may be even more true in our congregations. What are appropriate boundaries in our congregations? Why do we need them? What do we do if someone doesn’t respect them?
This country supports freedom of speech, and the faith that I live by supports right relations and respectful discourse. But too often, a line gets crossed, and, by leaning too far in the direction of “one more chance,” or what we think is affirmation of “worth and dignity,” individuals who don’t observe boundaries and limits run all over due process and the basics of right relations. Sometimes, just saying no is the right thing to do.
I want to approach the topic slightly differently. I think good boundaries are a justice issue. Why? Because boundaries are about saying “no” to behaviors that cause harm to our communities, and especially the most vulnerable within them. They help us safeguard our children, but also people who grieving, and those who are engaging in activities and relationships that require trust, open-heartedness, and a willingness to try new things. Saying “no” to the unhealthy and disrespectful makes way for a new culture of right relationship based in holding us all accountable for the well-being of the whole.
I’d like to see our congregations say no to:
laissez-faire attitudes toward basic safety precautions: background checks, windows in classroom doors, etc.
silence in the face of mean-spirited comments meant to belittle the efforts of others.
nostalgia for the “good old days” when “everything was better.”
unwillingness to name and confront clear patterns of hurtful behavior.
belief that we will never have enough resources to do what we envision.
fear of conflict that allows anyone with a “gripe” to prevail.
complacency (often expressed as “Well, that’s how it’s always been.”)
distrust of leaders and leadership.
thinking “meeting my needs” is a sufficient purpose for our congregations.
uneasiness with sharing a liberal religious message with the world.
Saying no to these things, it seems to me, is a way of saying “yes” to growing into a bigger, healthier, more influential movement. Saying no to these old habits makes way for empowered congregations full of empowered individuals helping build a better world.
Appreciate. Appreciate. Appreciate. It’s nearly impossible to create a congregational culture where people feel too appreciated. And it doesn’t take long to cultivate an attitude of noticing the good things that people do. Look around for someone doing something to help out and say “thank you. “Hey, I saw you clear the table and make sure all the recycling got separated. Thanks!” “I think it’s wonderful that you give Walter a ride to church when you can.” “Your calm presence really made a difference in how that meeting went.”
Once you get used to it, a practice of appreciation is easy. It also benefits you as much as the people you appreciate. When you begin to focus on the good things, you see more of them. And the moments when people aren’t at their best are easier to handle because you can put them in context. When someone you know is usually caring and level-headed makes a comment that was uncomfortably pointed, you might think, “I wonder what’s wrong…” instead of “how dare she say that to me?” And if you ask, you may find out something that helps you build a deeper and more caring relationship.
A culture of appreciation is a great preventative to so much of what ails churches. When people feel noticed and appreciated they rarely get to a place of feeling burned out. When differences of opinion come up, people are likely to remember that the person on “the other side” is the same person who took out the trash or who noticed when they took out the trash. And best of all, a culture of appreciation and a culture of complaining can’t coexist. And that makes church more fun. Meetings are shorter. (It takes less time to say thank you than to complain.) People are more relaxed because they don’t feel they are constantly being judged. More people pitch in because people applaud good effort rather than awaiting perfection.
Personal appreciation can make using tools like Appreciative Inquiry easier too. People begin to understand that by focusing on what we do well we can learn what works and do more of it. We can even begin to apply what we learn to the places in congregational life that aren’t working as well. For instance, if a congregation learns that they are excellent at putting on parties and events, they can apply that to how they do social justice work, planning parties and events for communities that would benefit from celebration and social events.
Some people fear that appreciation is insincere and leads to a congregation that doesn’t see things clearly, but through “rose-colored stain glass windows.” I think it’s far more likely that people who feel appreciated and valued are willing to look at things honestly, assessing strengths and acknowledging weakness. There’s no need to “front;” no need to fake perfection. Instead, people can afford to take risks, be experimental, and try new things, knowing that what works will be appreciated and what doesn’t can just be let go. And that flexibility and creativity makes congregational life interesting, creative, and fun.