“Happy Last Supper”
That was the closing remark from a songwriter as he finished his original song about the loss of a recent relationship.
I decided this year to observe Maundy Thursday in the community and Good Friday in a church. The experience was eye-opening. It gave me more to ponder and wrestle with than I had imagined. I bought a ticket to the Songwriter’s Soiree in Portland. This is a community of nearly 300 people that has grown over the past fifteen years around the commitment to create “a culture of appreciation for vulnerability,” as one member framed it. The vulnerability is getting up in front of an audience to perform an original song, often for the first time.
While I was sitting in my chair pondering the liturgy of Maundy Thursday services in our churches I was also aware of how much the themes of Maundy Thursday kept showing up in these original songs. In many ways, I think it was coincidence. Songwriters tend to write what is on their hearts at the time and the songs that were showing up kept going back to themes of death, grief, loss, longing and heartache. It is not difficult to imagine that those same emotions were playing out during the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples. In this time of pandemic and war, death, loss and grief is pretty much what all of us are thinking about.
But, back to that one offhand comment, “Happy Last Supper.” First, the comment did elicit a knowing and polite laugh from some in the audience. It was clear that at least some knew that they were holding this Songwriter Soiree on the same night other family members, friends and neighbors were in churches observing Maundy Thursday.
But it was the tone of the comment and the ensuing chuckles that struck me. This was not the comment of some rebellious child giving the proverbial middle-finger to an older generation of parents and grandparents. There was a maturity to the comment as if his experience had been polished over time. The comment sounded less like, “Screw you,” and more like, “We are aware that we know something that you don’t.”
It was as if the comment was a way of saying, “Look, mom and dad, we respect your tradition, but we think we have outdone you on this one.” It wasn’t arrogance speaking, just honest self-reflection.
It was a marvelous evening of vulnerability, creativity, and reflection. Even a little “Passing of the Peace” and “sharing around the table” was observed and spiritually reflected upon.
There are two things I am taking from the evening that are worth sharing with you:
First, they take the Da Vinci Last Supper painting seriously, if not literally. The positioning of the disciples in that Da Vinci painting show the disciples basically reclining against each other. This is not the table where elbows are not allowed to touch and everyone is equally spaced apart. No, live bodies are actively touching in this painting.
At the Songwriter’s Soiree, the front of the room closest to the stage was set up with loads of large pillows and cushions. They called this area the “Cuddle Cushions.” It was for anyone who wanted to enjoy the evening nestled up against another human being. Anyone was welcome but all needed to comply with the rule that all touching had to come by mutual consent. Look at the Da Vinci painting. The disciples were cuddlers.
Secondly, one of the things that we keep hearing about what younger generations want from religious services is more participation. They don’t want to be preached at by one credentialed person; they want to interact with stories and themes.
We were settled into this night of singing for nearly five hours. Over that time, about 125 people enjoyed the program and about fifty of those people WERE the program. Each of them had original songs to share with the audience. Here is what I think they got right with regard to the culture of younger people. The organizers of the Songwriter Soiree didn’t provide a program for the audience to consume; they simply provided the container for the audience to participate in.
What would happen if the role of the clergy was simply to create a “culture of appreciation for vulnerability” and leave the preaching to the people?
I know, I know! This is a dangerous question to ask a group of Reformed Presbyterians who pride themselves on an educated, scholarly clergy. But I want us to be honest with ourselves. If you had a choice between hearing one charismatic, compassionate and amazing preacher preach on Maundy Thursday themes or hearing fifty of your friends share their original songs or poems or art on death, loss and grief, which would you choose?
We have some good preachers. But that’s hard to compete with—especially if cuddling is also thrown in.
By Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades