Fireworks and Stories: Creativity Aboard the Easter Vigil

Noah’s Ark: Fresco, Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, France (c. 1100).

My sister Martha Stevens is a marvelous storyteller. It was her profession for a long time, as she traveled far and wide to hold listeners spellbound with tales from many centuries and cultures. In the late 1980s, inspired by her work, I began to foster retellings of biblical narratives at the Easter Vigil—Creation, Flood, the Binding of Isaac, the Red Sea and the Valley of Dry Bones. Over the years, these Vigil retellings expanded to include theater and multimedia as well as individual storytellers. 

Although I have curated creative Easter Vigils with story teams in a wide variety of parishes over the years, I began with an 8-year stretch at Christ Church, an Anglo-Catholic parish in Ontario, California. When I introduced the storytelling component in 1988, the church already had a famously distinctive practice for welcoming resurrection. 

While a joyful noise is customary in most churches after the first shouts of “Christ is risen,” this usually means the ringing of bells and the organ’s roar. But to these were added not only dozens of wind chimes placed within the reach of every worshipper, but the boom and blaze of fireworks. After his first experience of the Christ Church Vigil in 1989, visitor David Trowbridge wrote down his impressions. His description of the fireworks reflects the assembly’s collective astonishment in that moment:

“Well, at this point, everybody for at least three miles in every direction who wasn’t awake woke up and knew that it was Easter again at Christ Church. There was a shattering explosion from the courtyard [visible through the nave’s glass wall] as the first of at least 10,000 LARGE firecrackers went off. Then the pinwheels, then the Roman candles, and then the 10-foot high cross in red fireworks with blue fireworks (representing the water of baptism) underneath. Everybody started laughing and exclaiming and jumping up and down, but nobody could hear anything. 

“The contrast between the mystical beauty of the Kyrie just before and the almost orgiastic release of the fireworks was exactly right—nothing I have ever experienced has so truly expressed the joy and release that Christians should feel in celebrating the mystery of the empty tomb. We tend to take the story for granted, but at Christ Church, the noise and the excitement made it all new again, and we all felt, for a few minutes, a little of the unbelieving excitement that the disciples must have felt that first Easter Day, when they found that He, first of all [human beings], had conquered death.”[i]

The previous year, I had approached the church’s longtime rector, Jon Hart Olson,[ii] about adding storytelling to the Easter Vigil. Jon, a brilliant theologian, exquisite liturgist, and a generous encourager of my own priestly imagination, welcomed the chance to offer fresh versions of the old stories. The people of Christ Church embraced the idea as well, and it became part of their annual tradition. When I had a chance to revisit their Vigil 20 years after leaving the parish, I was delighted to see the creativity continuing, as Dry Bones came to life in the form of two break dancers in skeleton suits. As they gyrated beneath a blacklight, all we could see in the dark was their dancing bones.[iii]

In his account of the 1989 Vigil, Trowbridge found the storytelling as compelling as the fireworks: 

“The priest who told the story of Noah and the Ark was especially entertaining. At one point, describing the animals boarding the ark two-by-two, he named about 100 animals in alphabetical order … He described how cranky and bored everyone got on the Ark, and how Noah organized singalongs for the animals. At this point he got everyone making their favorite animal noises all together. Pandemonium! I was screaming like a chimpanzee, which seemed to provoke the rector, who was sitting nearby, into a fit of laughter. At the end of the reading, the [storytelling] priest unfurled a long cloth rainbow across the room …

“After the [fireworks], the Eucharist proceeded as usual, or so we thought, but there was one more surprise in store for us. At festal Eucharists, it is customary to read the Gospel lesson with much ceremony. The Bible is carried from the altar, the deacon who is to read it is blessed by the priest, it’s carried out into the midst of the congregation with candles and incense … and so it was here. Then, as is customary, the deacon lifted up the Bible and intoned, ‘The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Luke,’ and we all responded, ‘Glory to You, Lord Christ.’

“And the back door of the church swung open with a loud crash, and a disheveled woman in a purple sweater and black pants rushed in! She shouted, ‘Sit down, all of you,’ and pushed her way to the front, rudely shouldering aside the deacon with the Bible. ‘Sit down! I’ve got something important to say.’

“At this point, I’m sure many people (I know I was) were thinking that one of Ontario’s street people had crashed the service. After a long moment of embarrassment and that ‘what should I do? … should I do anything?’ feeling, the woman identified herself. It was Mary Magdalene, who told us, in the vernacular, instead of in the elevated style of the Bible, what happened when she went to the tomb that morning to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. What a way to hear the Gospel! It was like hearing it for the first time.”

I do wish there were more storytelling in church. There’s nothing wrong with a well-read passage of canonical text—I’m quite fond of a good reading by a practiced and thoughtful voice—but sometimes a telling can reach places which a reading cannot. Instead of a reader as a passive, transparent window for a sacred text to pass through without inflection or distortion, a teller embodies the text in breath, intonation, gesture and movement, making it alive and present and urgent in the moment of its speaking. A story told rather than read has a unique kind of authority, coming from the heart instead of a book. God is not ink. God is breath. 

Not everyone is prepared for the energy—and occasional lack of decorum—of good storytelling in church. But many find it engaging, even revelatory. Dennis Dewey,[iv] a brilliant storyteller, is careful to deflect the inevitable praise evoked by his creative delivery of Bible stories: “You make the Bible come alive!” people tell him. “No,” he says. “The Bible already is alive. I just try not to kill it.” 

At this year’s Easter Vigil, pandemic protocols were still in place, so we were streaming the liturgy. For the Flood story, I solicited participation by asking parishioners to send me videos of themselves entering the ark (their front door) and staring out the ark’s portholes (their front window). Since we have all been on our separate arks for the past year, I wanted to acknowledge the challenge of our collective pandemic experience, while affirming our enduring faith in the rainbow promise. We’re in the story, and the story is in us.

I added voice-over to the submitted clips, and inserted a segment from a video of my Vigil stories, The Electronic Campfire: New Storytelling from Scripture (1991), made in collaboration with the amazing storyteller Angela Lloyd.[v] I hope you enjoy this short video, “The Flood and the Ark.” Even more, I hope you will be inspired to explore storytelling—and storylistening—within your own faith community. 



[i] David Trowbridge, unpublished manuscript (April 1989). David’s wife Nancy sent me this writeup at the time, encouraging me to share it “here and there if you wish.” It only took me 32 years to do so. My memories from several decades of creative Easter Vigils tend to conflate and become less true as memory simplifies and smooths out the details, so I am happy to possess this vivid firsthand impression from an attentive observer having the Christ Church Vigil experience for the first time. 

[ii] The Rev. Jon Olson preached at my ordinations to the Diaconate and the Priesthood, and taught me so much about liturgy and spirituality. He was the kind of friend who kept you up well past midnight with luminous (and hilarious) conversations. I cast him as Lazarus in my 1970s film The Investigation, which explores the Jesus story in a modern setting. I will always be grateful that Jon gave this itinerant priest an abiding place of welcome in the unique community he served at Christ Church. 

[iii] The break dancers were young men, part of the parish family, who danced professionally at Disneyland. They raced to the church after work to perform Dry Bones (those Vigils started at 9 p.m. and went past midnight). The teller of the story spoke, unseen, from the balcony at the back of the church, while the skeletons danced before the altar. 

[iv] I had the pleasure of taking a workshop in biblical storytelling from Dennis Dewey. Find his website here: https://sacredstoryjourneys.wordpress.com

[v] The Electronic Campfire, not currently available on disc, may be seen here: https://youtu.be/sDDdSKFSWoE   Angela Lloyd is not in the Flood story, but is featured in most of the others. Angela took part in most of my Christ Church Vigils. She is not to be missed (“a combination of Maria von Trapp, Mary Poppins, and Tinkerbell”—Donald Davis). For her website: https://www.angelalloyd.com

Words and Memories: Recollections on My Birthday

Kenneth Patchen, “Moon, Sun, Sleep, Birds, Live.”

Live long enough, and a single word can acquire a multitude of associations. Pick any word in Kenneth Patchen’s poem, for example. What images and narratives does it summon from your memory? What feelings does it unlock? I’ll get us started with the five large words.

Full moon rising on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch (July 16, 2019).

Moon:   Since the day of my birth, 912 full moons have risen into the evening sky. Whenever I am able and the sky is clear, I find an open view to the east and wait for its appearing. The moon’s predictability has never dulled the thrilling instant when its bright curved edge breaks the horizon. Over the four weeks of waning and waxing that follow, its slow dance of vanishing and renewal attunes us ever so gently to the temporal flow. The diurnal sequence of sunrise and sunset seems rushed in comparison.

I’ve had my eye on the moon since I was old enough to notice the sky. I remember specific moons the way one remembers luminous conversations: the Wyoming moon sparkling the fresh powder in a midnight ski run down Teton Pass; the Minnesota moon rising beyond the Mississippi River as we warm ourselves by a driftwood fire; the Florida moon shining down on the circus tent where 400 Episcopal collegians celebrate Epiphany all night till dawn; the Los Angeles moon traversing the sky behind a 7-hour performance of Indonesian shadow puppets; the glowing tip of a rising crescent climaxing a night of falling stars in the High Sierra; the lunar eclipse stunning three priests with wonder on a Northwest beach; the many moons lighting the way on mountain trails and desert dunes; and last year’s spectacular birthday moon, rising on the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first trip to the lunar surface.

The most recent full moon rises over Puget Sound on the Fourth of July.

When the full moon first appears, silence is best. It resembles the host of the Blessed Sacrament, a white disc lifted up before our contemplative eyes. The only words I can specifically recall from a moonrise were spoken by an American woman on the Scottish isle of Iona. “You know,” she said, “I’m 55 years old, and I’ve never seen the moonrise before.”

The sun sets over “the edge of the world” at Finisterre, the western terminus of the Camino de Santiago.

Sun:   The sun is a perennial symbol of life-giving energy and joyful radiance. And while climate change has certainly complicated both its literal and metaphorical meanings, we still welcome its warmth and light after a freezing night or a long winter, we still feel uplifted by its brilliance after a dreary stretch of sunless days. Even as we address the growing imbalance in our weather and our seasons, we remember to treasure in every moment the blessings we struggle to preserve.

A benevolent sun still has the power to cheer us, and the rhythms of night and day remain foundational for an embodied and temporal spirituality. Embrace each morning as the gift of creation’s new-made world, make each evening a vesper song of thanks. And in between, let us live as children of the light. Love whatever is good and beautiful and true, and work to transform whatever is not.

Sunlight, like our own breath, is easy to take for granted. Without it, life would be impossible. Even when night comes and goes, the transitions are gradual enough to ease the shock of the sun’s disappearance. We never experience the sun being abruptly switched off, except during a total eclipse. Watching the sun become a black disc, which can be viewed with the naked eye, is pure wonder, one of this world’s most unforgettable experiences. But the sudden disappearance of light from earth and sky is eerie and unsettling—so sudden, so absolute, like an apocalypse. Its return is equally swift, like the first moment of creation: Let there be light.

I shot this video clip of an Oregon landscape during the 2017 solar eclipse. I was gazing directly at the sun, of course, but the camera recorded what was happening on the earth. The shot is in real time. It only takes about 30 seconds for the darkness to vanish.

 

Sleep:  In 1979, after several days of sleep deprivation, I grabbed a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York to visit my brilliant friend Bob Sealy, a critical mentor to me in cinema, theater, the art of conversation, and all things New York. I arrived in Manhattan around 8 a.m., utterly exhausted. Bob was busy with revisions of his new play at Café La MaMa, and had arranged a place for me to nap while he worked––a windowless storage room in a seedy building reminiscent of Forties film noir. I stretched out on a dingy couch. When Bob closed the door I was left in total darkness, and soon fell into a dreamless sleep.

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)

Hours later, the door swung open, awakening me from the depths of slumber into a confused state of mental fog. The room was still so dark. A faceless silhouette loomed in the doorway. For a moment, I didn’t know where I was, who he was, or what I was doing there. It was a nightmarish scene straight out of Fritz Lang. Then Bob switched on the light and my stupor began to fade. He led me out to the daylight world, the realism of city streets. But I had not entirely quit the darkness. The noirish image of that moment lingers to this day.

“Don’t watch the story,” Bob once told me about the movies. “Watch the image.” The story will go on its way toward a conclusion, but a vivid and suggestive image can detach itself from the plot to call up something deep and enduring in the psyche. Where is that dark room inside me? Who is at the door?

A goldfinch in our peach tree. They arrive at Easter and depart in the fall.

Birds:   As we shelter in place until the pandemic passes, our only regular visitors are the birds––robins, goldfinches, juncos, pine siskins, red-winged blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, spotted towhees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, house and purple finches, varied thrushes, cedar waxwings, sparrows, wrens, ring-necked pheasants, and a pair of mallards. More rarely, a bald eagle may perch atop a Douglas-fir, or a blue heron land on the grass.

A blue heron drops in for a visit.

But the specific bird that came to mind when I first looked at Patchen’s poem was a mountain chickadee in the summer of 1973. While backpacking in California’s Desolation Valley near Lake Tahoe, I had paused to stretch out in a green meadow, leaning back on my elbows with my knees sticking up. I was in no hurry, and had settled into the stillness of reverie when the little bird landed on my right knee. It perched there calmly for some time. I like to think it was being sociable, signaling across the gulf between species the underlying kinship of all created beings. Perhaps it just mistook me for a log. But I have never forgotten our brief communion.

The author at the family plot in Red Wing, Minnesota (June 2006).

Live:    My great-grandfather, John Michael Friedrich, immigrated to Red Wing, Minnesota, in the 1860s. He died young, only 47, and for his male descendants, longevity has been in limited supply. John Michael had two sons, Charles Edward (died at 67) and John Harry (34). Charles Edward had four sons: John (72), Edward (20), my father James (62) and his twin brother Louis (8 months). John had two sons, Jack (50) and Brad (75). I am currently the oldest living male of the line, and today I become the first to reach 76. It is a humbling milestone, and I feel my ancestors cheering me on.

In these latter days, to borrow a line from Blade Runner, I want “the same answers as everybody else: Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?” But meanwhile, more moons! More suns! More birds! More sleeping and waking! As long as God gives me breath.

And then? For the pilgrim, the road goes ever on and on, in this life and the next.

The road goes ever on and on … (Camino de Santiago, Galicia, 2014)

Lost at Sea: Retelling the Flood Story in a Pandemic

Row on, row on, another day
May shine with brighter light.
Ply, ply the oars, and pull away,
There’s dawn beyond the night.

–– Traditional sea shanty

 

At the Easter Vigil, we light a fire in the dark and tell our sacred stories. One of them is the saga of the Flood from the Book of Genesis. Tonight, as we stream the Vigil liturgy from our living room for our local parish, this is how it wants to be told. 

When we wonder about things, we tell stories.  One of our oldest stories describes a great flood that sweeps away everything in the world until there is nothing left but an endless sea. Some people say it’s a story about God getting fed up with the world’s violence and greed and wanting to start over. Others say the story is about everything being thrown out of balance by human sin––the harmonies break down, and God’s beautiful creation is swallowed up by chaos.

But tonight, when a new kind of flood is sweeping across the earth, washing away the world we know, maybe the story needs to be about the ark. We’re all in this boat together, hoping and praying we can survive the raging sea until the storms are over and we can anchor in some safe and peaceful harbor.

That’s where we are now, in the middle of the story––cooped up in this ark with a bad case of cabin fever, wondering if the flood is ever going to subside so things can get back to normal. It’s not easy, being stuck in this boat. It’s strange and stressful for us. Meanwhile, the sea gets rougher, the storms wilder.

It’s like that Psalm we say in Holy Week:

Save me, O God! The waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in a deep mire. The waves wash over me.
Do not let the flood swallow me up! (Psalm 69)

That’s how it feels, here in the middle of the story, in the middle of the flood. We have our fears. We have our doubts. We have our losses. And frankly, some of us are getting sick and tired of this stupid ark. Been in the storm so long, Lord! How long? Too long.

But this isn’t where the story ends, with us lost at sea, sinking into oblivion. The One who made us will not forget us. The One who loves us will not forsake us. Already, God is imagining a future for us. Maybe it will be something better.

God never said we won’t be afflicted.
God never said we won’t be disquieted.
God did say we shall not be overcome.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

The ambush of the marvelous

Jacob wrestling

Come, O Thou traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see;
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee.
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

The Sacred Harp

A century ago, Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth described prayer as a kind of spiritual tempest blowing away all our complacencies. While giving a nod to the contemplative and aesthetic dimensions of spirituality, he was blunt about its capacity to rupture the settled proportions of daily life:

We do need more reverence in our prayer, more beauty in our praise, less dread of tried and consecrated form. But still more do we want the breathless awe, and the stammering tongue, and the solemn wonder, and the passionate gratitude, which are the true note of grace, and the worship of a soul plucked from the burning and snatched by a miracle from the abyss.

Prayer is not for the timid. Better wear a crash helmet, as Annie Dillard advised. But the fierce energies of prayer are not God’s alone. We must bring the strong force of our own desire to the encounter, pressing God to keep the ancient promise of a world made new. Every prayer may inevitably end with “thy will be done,” but it often begins in a place of struggle, if we are honest. “Hear my voice when I complain,” prayed the Psalmist. Even Jesus argued vehemently for an alternative to the cross. We were not made to go quietly. God wants us to put up a good fight. “Prayer is wrestling with God,” wrote Forsyth. “It is a resistance that God loves.”

The Bible never names the stranger who jumps Jacob in the dark and wrestles him till daybreak (Genesis 32), but interpreters have always suspected his divinity. Delmore Schwartz, in his poem “Jacob,” describes the assault as “the ambush of the marvelous, / unknown and monstrous, / at the very heart of surprise.” Jacob couldn’t see his opponent’s face, but all his inner conflicts must have risen up to give him a name:

– It is the ghost of my father Isaac, from whose deathbed I stole the blessing, and he’s come to take the blessing back.

– No. It is the spirit of my brother, with whom I wrestled in my mother’s womb, with whom I must fight in the flesh tomorrow.

– No. It is my own shadow, the unloved child and desperate trickster, here to unmask the pretense of my so-called success.

– No. It is the angel of death come to mock all God’s promises of protection and future.

– No. It is God’s own self, that merciless opponent who will not let me be until I am broken open and made new.

All night long, Jacob fought against this stranger, this Other. The stranger wounded him, dislocating the socket of his thigh, but Jacob would not give up. When dawn came, the stranger tried to flee, but Jacob held on tight.

“Let me go,” said the stranger. “I do not live in the glare of your well-lit thoughts, but only in the shadows of your intuitions.”

“I will not let you go until you bless me.”

“What is your name?” asked the stranger.

“Jacob.”

“It is Jacob no more. Your name shall be Israel – the one who wrestles with God.”

“Then what is your name?” asked Jacob.

“Ah!” said the stranger. Then he gave Jacob the blessing, and vanished.

The sun began to rise as Jacob limped away from the river, forever wounded, but ready at last to meet his future.

I once led a workshop on this story at a church retreat. After digging into the passage for a while, participants were invited to retell it in their own way. One young woman, who was differently abled and emotionally troubled, did exactly what the Bible wants us to do with its narratives. She put herself into the story.

Jacob was having a lot of problems with his family. He needed to get away from them, to get his head together. He felt a great struggle inside himself. “Why can’t I deal with my anger and frustration?” After a while he began to realize that he was wrestling with God.

He wrestled with God all night long, but when dawn came he began to think God must be pretty tired of him by now, that God must be so sick of listening to his problems that he was just going to go away. Jacob felt afraid and alone but he didn’t give up. He held on tight and wouldn’t let go. He begged God to stay and to bless him.

“What is your name,” God asked him.

“Jacob.”

“I don’t think so,” God said. “I think it’s Israel, because you’ve had the guts to face up to your problems.”

Then the sun came up and God was gone. And as Jacob began to walk away from that place, he noticed he was limping. Suddenly he remembered that he had always had this limp, but it didn’t bother him anymore. It was okay. It was just part of who he was.