All I Really Need to Know I Learned in WE LIKE SHEEP

This is the next post about my Metanoia Season of spiritual renewal. Here’s the full list of related posts.

And while you’re here, have you heard about Anti-Famine 40?

For the first 18 years of my life I was much in church, and that meant the Episcopal Church. Ages 18-34, with some gaps, I was fruitfully involved with other styles of Protestants. Now, age 39, I’m back in the Episcopal fold.

Being among the smells, bells, familiar hymns, clergy in complex vestments, genuflecting, wine instead of grape juice, and so on has fed a rich sentimental journey in the last couple of months. Not only do I find myself thinking and saying ‘we did it this way in the church I grew up in,’ I’ve also felt a longing to re-experience the art and the habits of my youth. I am about to turn 40, and maybe I would have been rehashing the past even without the incense. But this season it hasn’t been a midlife crisis so much as a midlife Christus.

Some of the manifestations:

Bible Musicals. I pulled out my old CDs and popped Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Prince of Egypt on my iPod. Children of Eden and, oh dear, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were on there already. For the record, the new Broadway cast of Godspell is the bomb (Telly Leung!), I still only like about two songs from JCS plus it’s freakin’ antisemitic, and I really, really love Brian Stokes Mitchell singing ‘Look Through Heaven’s Eyes.’

(Oo, this one’s even better.) Rock on, Stephen Schwartz!0781805503_b

Henryk Sienkiewicz’ Quo Vadis. During Holy Week I suddenly dropped everything and re-read arguably my favorite huge nineteenth-century novel. (OK, probably still Les Misérables, but it’s a close call.) This gorgeously written epic about a handful of real and fictional Christians and patricians in Nero’s Rome grips just as much as it did when I first read it around 1997. DO track down the most recent translation, by W.S. Kuniczak; DO NOT, for the love of Peter and Paul, see the 1951 film that really wanted to be Ben-Hur.

Ken Medema. If you were a kid in a church anytime in the past four decades, you know Ken Medema: he wrote ‘The Tree Song.’ He’s also created dozens of lovely, funny, thoughtful pieces for the kind of worship that verges on musical theater. I knew a bunch of his songs in childhood, and learned a heap more in college, where they were a staple of my church at the time. I’d’ve listened to little else the past few weeks except that much of my collection is on cassette tape, but I have ‘Kingdom in the Streets’ on CD, and it’s touched me all over again.

That Church I Grew Up In. I described my most vivid recent dream that took place sort of in that church building with its unique stained glass, but it’s not the only one I’ve had. Though the last time I set foot in the place was, I believe, 2006, I keep somehow opening doors and expecting to be entering its narthex, or remembering moments of daydreaming in its classrooms. I guess it’s not surprising, since I attended not only Sunday services in the sanctuary but also kindergarten through sixth grade in the attached parochial school. Yet I seem to have been suppressing a lot of the sensual memory of being there, until recently.

Chapel. Every day of those elementary-school years started with half an hour of chapel: three songs, a Bible lesson, a priest with hand puppets. Now, in my new church, my most consistent practice has been Morning Prayer – no singing or puppetry but otherwise similar. Every time it concludes “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord/Thanks be to God” I expect the celebrant to add, “Have a good day in school!”

Hot Cross Buns. I vividly remember hanging around in my grandmother’s pale-wood 1970s-style kitchen waiting for hot cross buns to come out of the oven, and how I’d get a few without the raisins, because at the time I only liked my raisins uncooked. So this year I tried baking the family recipe twice. Neither batch rose. If only we were celebrating the martyrdom of St. Stephen, I said, instead of the Passion.* I managed to make pretty decent biscuits and gravy out of the first bunch, and yummy bread pudding out of the second, but still no hot cross buns. Not every sentimental gesture pans out. Below: Me (far left) indicating an early preference for uncooked raisins.


We Like Sheep. When I joined the church children’s choir, it was new to doing musicals, and we were fortunate to debut with Kathie Hill‘s We Like Sheep. I thought for years that only my fellow Music Makers and I remembered this delightful pint-sized show, but lo and behold, it’s lately out as an mp3 album, so I bought it. I still remember all the words.

We Like Sheep tells the simple story of a flock of sheep whose shepherd is Jesus. A misfit sheep runs away, Jesus goes to find same, and the other sheep have a fluffy little conversion experience as they realize how deep their shepherd’s love is and how they can better live up to his expectations.

I say ‘his,’ but actually our Jesus was a teenage girl, a casting choice that would’ve struck me as more radical had I not been under ten. I, meanwhile, played a sheep called Whitey – in other words, best casting ever.

I also say ‘a fluffy little conversion experience,’ but in fact that’s selling the show short. Though aimed at the Mister Rogers crowd, Hill’s tuneful work introduces the concepts that wannabe Jesus freaks of any age must wrestle with.

The sheep are complacent, despite having Christ in their midst daily: “We like sheep ’cause sheep is what we are.”

Misfit sheep Grimey calls the rest chickens until they all run away. Grimey stays gone, while the rest stumble back in confusion. Romans 7:15, NRSV: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

The sheep debate why the shepherd would go to such trouble to bring back the annoying Grimey. ‘No Matter How Baaad We Are, the Shepherd Loves Us,’ they conclude – but ‘Jesus is a Gentleman‘ who, despite his great power, doesn’t force the good on anyone.

Then why is Grimey such a misfit? The other sheep realize that they’ve lived alongside Grimey but not really considered him part of the community. “How can Grimey feel Jesus’ love when he doesn’t feel love within his flock?” a wise older sheep points out. “You gotta admit, he’s not very lovable,” another character complains. “Jesus loves him,” the old sheep nails it. Then they sing this song, which ranks among music’s great earworms – but there are many worse notions you could get stuck in your head.

Jesus restores Grimey to the flock, and everyone confesses that they haven’t been their best sheep. The one that ran away, and the ones who sat on their haunches, they’re all imperfect. “All we like sheep/have gone astray,” Grimey quotes the prophet Isaiah, in a line that’s both a deep truth and a slick pun on the play’s title.

Seriously, how many small groups have you sat through that didn’t get as spiritually acute as this sweet little show?

I didn’t even mention that it coins the word ‘Abundawonderful,’ but it does.

So here I’ve been, dreaming of the old stained glass, re-reading favorite books, humming ‘Sittin’ By the Window Prayin” and ‘Love One Another’ (and ‘Love One Another,’ and ‘Love One Another’) and Holy Week happened, and Easter happened, and then this past week it pretty much stopped.

Suddenly not everything is a reference to something that already took place. Not every word reminds me of a song I already know.

It’s not like I’ll never listen to Godspell again. But last week’s lectionary included that random line during the pre-arrest sermon in John’s gospel where Jesus says “…I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.” (John 14:31, NRSV).

Rise, let us be on our way. A tossed-off sentence, hardly equal to the deeply meaningful sayings that surround it, yet it struck me. We’ve had “Previously, in your spiritual life…” for awhile, it suggested to me,  and it’s been nice, but you’re thirty-nine, not nine. Get on with it.

I wonder what will happen next?

Quo vadis, Domine?

*Hot cross buns commemorate crucifixion as a method of execution. St. Stephen was stoned to death. Get it?