I wept when Sondheim died.
I’ve done a bit of Community Theater, both on stage and backstage (nothing like a ham that can costume herself!) and those productions that had Sondheim’s name attached were easily my favorite. There were so many layers to his work. It didn’t matter if you were in the cast or painting the set, everything worked both independently and together to create something intertwined and profound. It’s one of the few times I’ve really experienced how the sum of the parts might be greater than the whole.
The other time I’ve felt this is within the church. There are so many moving parts in even the smallest congregation, and many of those parts have their own purpose and goals and yet when combined with the other areas there’s a blessing of synchronicity. When it happens, it’s glorious.
When it doesn’t happen?
There’s a scene in Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” where the characters perform a dizzying song entitled “It’s your fault”. Each of the characters finds a way to blame the others for the predicament that they are in. At the end of the song each of they find their victim and sing together: “You’re responsible! You’re the one to blame! It’s your fault!”
When things are going well in our families and organizations we get along just fine. We have our differences (in our family this was how to make the gravy for Thanksgiving) but in general we’re able to brush off minor offenses. When we’re under significant threat our fingers quickly point to others as the source of our discontent.
Who should the institutional church blame for its decreasing numbers?
The list of blame is a long one and changes depending on the perspective of the one pointing the finger. As blaming continues, we are unable to accept the consequences of our own actions (both individually and corporately) and are like the characters in the story.
I believe we are now facing the choice of whether we will continue to blame or if we will work toward something new.
This is not to be confused with the importance of understanding history so that we do not make the same mistakes again. This is believing that discovering who to blame will somehow be enough to reverse the current course. The witch who confronts the blamers understands this. She says to them “what really matters is the blame, somebody to blame” and invites them to place the blame on her. The witch, like a prophet from the Hebrew scriptures says what needs to be said regardless of how it might be perceived.
I don’t know what the future church will look like post-pandemic. I imagine parts of it will be familiar and feel like home, but I also imagine some of it will feel like a venture into unknown territory: into the woods, as it were. But the penultimate song in “Into the Woods” rings true here as well: “Hard to see the light now, just don’t let it go. Things will come out right now, we can make it so. Someone is on your side. No one is… alone”.
We know we’re not alone.