Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jesus-Ween?!


I was watching Colbert last night and first learned about Jesus-Ween - the latest attempt by (a small group of) Christians to suck what joy there is out of something and replace it with unsolicited cheesiness. My fist reaction was an audible groan. Apparently, the suggestion by this group is to dress up all in white and hand out Bibles and Christian Tracts. This is a perfect opportunity for unsuspecting children who otherwise might actually be quite fond of church and Jesus to turn them off at an early age. I mean, the gospel means the good news, right? So in my way of thinking it should sound like good news, or at least have a reasonable possiblity of sounding like good news. Not..."What the...you've got to be kidding me."

I mean, I remember rejecting actual candy as a trick-or-treater. Those coned shaped orange things. Ugh! And word travels fast. In my small hometown if someone was giving out king sized candy bars, come November 1st, the entire 3rd grade knew about it. Other neighborhoods we knew to stay away from because they would stiff you with like one laughy-taffy or a loose bag of caramel corn that we were pretty sure was laced with something. This was, after all part of the thrill of Halloween - It might taste delicious, or...it might kill you! Every year my parents gave us the speech about how people might be trying to poison us, or put razor bladed in apples, and every year I wondered, if this is so incredibly dangerous why are you just sending us out to wander strange dark streets? I was pretty sure, at the time that my odds of dying were probablty like 1 in 3.

When I was growing up we celebrated Halloween. We didn't know it was Satan's Holiday. We simply didn't know better. We just thought it was fun to dress up and GET CANDY! Although my parents did have some kind of rule against dressing up as a devil or demon, which made that option sound the most appealing. I can remember my Christian friend tell me about how his family didn't believe in Halloween but that they had a Harvest Party where they played games and got loads of candy. I remember him telling me how fun it was, and it sounded a little forced. He was Apostolic Lutheran, so all I knew about his religion was that his family didn't have a TV. Which meant that when he came over to my house watching TV was the most appealing option. All this to say, I had my doubts about how much fun they were really having.

The first few years, our costumes consisted of things we could readily find around the house. My parents had the double gift of being both thrifty and also not crafty. So I'm pretty sure my first two costumes were hobo and pirate. All I really remember is that both required smearing coffee grounds on my face, which to me at the time was incredibly gross. And I remember my mom being weirdly persistent. Like she knew my costume was basically awful but that she believed the coffee grounds could save it. Like it was basically me wearing a stocking hat. But add a few coffee grounds and whalla! Instant Hobo. And as a side note, where have all the hobos gone? I don't mean homeless people, I'm talking hobos. Everything they own in a bag on a stick, walking the railways, singing Jimmy Crack Corn.

When my kids got old enough to celebrate Halloween I was faced with the question: Is this something that we want to do as a family? My gut was telling me yes. My wife was one of those Harvest Party people (put your hands in the air), and it turns out she loved Harvest parties almost as much as my friend pretended to. The other problem was, we just really didn't (don't) eat candy. So having them "earn" a whole bag of candy seemed like a bad idea. But, we decided that we were going to do it, and my wife went trick-or-treating for the first time. And the kids through the years have had either homemade (but actually good) or Goodwill costumes. I think the reason we decided to go along and do the Halloween thing, is that we're probably weird enough as it is, so when we get a chance to do something fairly normal, where we get to go out and meet our neighbors, we do it. Also, the kids Halloween candy keeps me supplied with Snickers and Baby Ruth's for most the year. Most of the candy we end of throwing away right before the next Halloween. And then we repeat the pattern all over again.

I don't know if there is some proper Christian response to Halloween. But I find it funny that originally it was Christians that kind of started this whole thing with All Saints Day It was probably synthesizing some pagan Holiday related to the Harvest. And now it's Christians who are rejecting Halloween and celebrating with Harvest Parties? But this is what I think. If you can be normal in ways that don't matter, that's probably a good idea, and if you can be peculiar and set apart in ways that do matter, that's probably a good idea. It seems like we often reject some fairly innocuous things and don't even know we are buying into more insidiousness things like materialism and consumerism.

If you are ready, here are last years reflections about the war on Christmas.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Top Ten Autumn Things to do in the NW


I love seasons. But it's funny how often I am living at least one season into the future. When it's winter I crave the warmth and sunshine and fragrances of spring. In the spring, I look forward to swimming and freedom and camping of summer. By the end of summer, I am missing the crisp mornings, colorful leaves, and Chi tea of autumn. In autumn, I think about snowflakes and Christmas lights, singing songs with my brothers, and toasty fires.

So, here is my post dedicated to Fall. As I look out my window right now into the hills and forest below, I see the alders' and cottonwoods' yellow and orange offset by the steady, relentless green of the Douglas Fir. It's time...to compile...the greatest list... of Fall Stuff ever experienced (in the greater Portland Area, by me).

Brad's Top Ten Autumn Things to do in the Northwest
10. Corn Maze: Besides the opportunity to make some really corny (yes.) jokes... ("are you stalking me?" "Man, you are talking my ear off," "I'm having an amazing time...") a corn maze is a great one-stop-everything-you-love-about-fall-topia-extravaganza. We went to the Bi-Zi Farm in Vancouver, WA last weekend and shucked the husk off that thing! Corn Maze, pumpkins, blue grass band, hay ride, they even threw in a free hot beverage! Of course Sauvie Island is another popular destination and has the first Portland Corn Maze.

9. Pumpkins: Step one, picking out the pumpkin. We all have our own rubric for what makes a good pumpkin. Small ones, tall ones, bright ones, green ones. Sometimes I wonder do we pick the pumpkin, or does the pumpkin pick us? The bring it home and carve it up (not too soon, as this sets the rotting process in motion). Kids love getting hands on, scooping out the guts, drawing faces, roasting the seeds (some pumpkins are sold specifically for the better seeds. Make this a whole fun-filled evening with pumpkin milkshakes, pie, seeds...all from your very own pumpkins.

8. Hiking: I know that some people think spring or summer, but I think autumn is the best time for hiking. Leaves, crackling underfoot, crisp mornings, leaves changing color, Fall is the best time to be in the forest, and when you are hiking in the NW, we're talking forest. A few recommendations for Autumn hikes: Beacon Rock State Park, a 30 minute drive from Portland/Vancouver has some beautiful trails, waterfalls, and overlooks of the Columbia River Gorge. The rock itself is a fun hike, but if you park in the day park area you will find even some even better hikes. Second, anywhere off the Historic Columbia River Highway in the Gorge.

7. Scenic Drives: The Historic Columbia River Highway from Troutdale to Multnomah Falls would be a perfect day trip. Don't forget to pop in to Mcmenamins Edgefield in Troutdale for a bite or a pint.

6. Parks: My favorite Fall park pick is Lewisville Park in Battleground, WA. This is the counties oldest park. It includes 154 rustic acres of beautiful deciduous trees, trails, river views, playgrounds. A second choice might be Lake Sacagawia in Longiew, WA.

5. Cedar Creek Gristmill: (Pictured Above) If you do decide to head out to Lewisville Park (which I thoroughly recommend, you can take some beautiful backroads from there to the Cedar Creek Gristmill. They open every weekend in the afternoon to show how this functioning mill works today. Powered by a mountain stream, huge belts and pulleys turn and churn to produce flour and cornmeal. And on October 29th at the Aplle Cider Pressing, they will turn 8,000 lbs of apples into fresh delicious cider.

4. Music: Jon Foreman's (of Switchfoot) Fall and Winter. It is this wonderfully understated, mellow, haunting album that somehow captures the flavors and undertones of this season without the use of any glib cliches. Or if you're looking for a great local band check out Despair by Portland band Come Gather Round Us , a folksy, indie, rock band led by husband wife team Sebastian and Catherine. Check out my concert review here.

3. Movies/Shows: Confession/Suggestion...Gilmore Girls, any season. Very Fall. Very cozy, small town. Funny, heartwarming, witty, entertaining. Seven seasons. They had a good run. Movie...Charlie Brown and Snoopy, The Great Pumpkin

2. Coffee Shops: Hmmm... My picks would be Cafe Piccolo in Camas (if you live in my hometown) and Vivace Coffeehouse and Creperie in Portland, Alphabet District. Or, you could stay home and make your own Fall/Winter hot bevies. Try this one: Heat up half or quarter cup of eggnog in the microwave. Mix that with a steaming cup of strong Chi Tea. Very yummy

1. Leaves: This one's simple. Get some young kids, a rake, and a big leafy/post-leafy tree. Make a huge pile and jump in. Also, throwing huge hand fulls and letting them fall on you is fun. Take lots of pictures!

Related Posts from Brad:
october-observations-fall-findings
Funny Church Potluck Interviews

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Wall and the Egg


This last week I was listening to some radio program and I heard this fascinating quote from a Japanese Novelist named Haruki Murakami . He had the Jerusalem Award for literature. He traveled to Jerusalem to give this speech. He was warned not to go. He was told that if he accepted the award people would boycott his books. "The reason for this was the fierce battle raging in Gaza - more than a thousand had lost their lives, many of them unarmed citizens children and old people," he explained to the crowd. The reason he did come was this, to give this one personal message. He said that when he writes books he has this expression carved into the wall of his mind. It goes like this:

"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?”

I read the extended version of this quote today as a part of a sermon I gave at Camas Friends Church because it spoke to me so fiercely. I guess I could insert for myself, what good would a pastor be, who spoke messages standing with the wall. My message came from Exodus 23, which has some pretty incredible passages about how we are to treat the poor and vulnerable: "You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard." When I started studying the Old Testament, one of things that really surprised me was to find a God who cares a lot about the poor and oppressed and vulnerable. One who cares about justice. Deuteronomy 15 goes into even more detail with this Seventh Year of Freedom commandment. "Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts." The passage goes on to say "do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor.You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be." The reason they are to be so generous is simple. "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt..."

I recently heard that something like 85% of people root for the underdog. People have studied this. All other things being equal, a huge percentage of people root for the underdog. It kind of makes sense right. Like if they better team wins, that's supposed to happen, so not a lot of emotional payoff. And if they lose then you're really steamed. But the cost/reward equation for the underdog has the possibility of a big emotional payoff if your guy/team/egg wins and little disappointment if they lose.

But sometimes something quite predictable happens. When we are the wall, we root against the egg. We root for the wall. Can you imagine letting the egg win. I mean, c'mon you're a wall. I can remember when I played basketball that it was far more frightening going against a much worse team that it was to go against a better team. And I can remember that once our team got pretty good then the pressure to win and to perform increased. We had to protect and defend. We weren't just some scrappy team fighting for a win. We had a record. One year we were undefeated at home! So when some struggling team came to play at our court... Our coach had all these diabolical ways to make us perform. He would tell us about what he had overheard the other team saying about us. How they thought they were going to cream us (that's how we talked back then, a lot of cream and whipping). And he would work us into a rabid frenzy until we were ready to come and and show no mercy. Sometimes it felt good to be the overdog.

I actually wonder if this isn't that uncommon. People and nations forgetting what it's like to be the alien, the oppressed, the underdog. Isiah and Micah and a bunch of other prophets chastise Israel for this very thing. In one passage God says "I hate your festivals with all my being. God says, your offerings are detestable to me. When you pray to me, I am not listening." And the reason God gives is simple, they are not seeking justice. God says in this same passage, "Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow."

And when I read Jesus' words about whose side he stood on, it's really no surprise that he got himself killed. Jesus was pretty unapologetic. Blessed are the poor, the hungry the insulted. Woe to the rich, the well-fed, the well-spoken-of.

(More from Haruki Murakami about the Wall and the Egg):
What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor. This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others - coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong - and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others' souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together. Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow The System to exploit us. We must not allow The System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made The System.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Motorcycle Driving Test

Yesterday Heather and I went to Vancouver to take our motorcycle drive test. Well, for us it was technically a scooter test. Same test. We got to the Licensing place and found the part of the parking lot where the course would be set up. A group of about fifteen guys began to gather. A few others have scooters like we do, some sport bikes, some big Harleys. We segregated into our various groups, swapping tips and asking about MPG and CC's.

These were mostly tough guy types. Except the funny thing about this experience is that they really weren't. At least not yet. These established, tough guys were sort of reduced to that awkward pre-drivers licence state of nervousness and vulnerability. With the rest of us looking on, the instructor could announce, you did not pass! You are not in the cool, tough guy club! (Since I was on a scooter I wasn't really even in the running). I loved all the nervous blustering comments. "Well, I'll go first, I'm not worried!" the first guy said with a little too much bravado. When he finished, he asked, "did I pass?" When the instructor said yes, he got this silly grin on his face like he just scored a date with the Homecoming Queen. "Not worried?" I guffawed under my breath. In the course of about an hour, we had quickly formed this little community. When someone failed, we shared in their pain. When they passed we celebrated with them.

Many didn't pass. One guy spilled his bike and got his leg caught under it. He couldn't get it off without assistance and he kept accidentally revving the engine really loudly. He said with a mixture of disappointment, shame, and maybe a little hope, "I guess that means I didn't pass." "Yeah." Was the only response the instructor could muster. We all avoided eye contact. We didn't want to share in his shame. Or maybe we wanted to save face. Whatever. He left as quickly as he could.

It was such an interesting experience because if I had seen these guys riding around in any other setting I would just assume that they were all badass dudes. But I was confronted with the awkward reality that they (read: we) were really, for the most part, just big kids wanting to play on our new toy.

I was confronted with how much of our image is really just careful branding. Try to look tough. Wear the right clothes. Drive the right motorcycle. Grow the right beard. But every so often we are awkwardly reminded of the frailty, insecurity, and vulnerability of others. And I think this shared human experience brings me comfort.

Oh...and btw Heather and I did both pass with high marks.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mind the Gap

So last week I preached a sermon at Camas Friends about a topic that is near and not so dear to my heart... the annoying gap between theory and practice (a title borrowed from This American Life). The topic was about Sabbath, the text Exodus(don't worry, I won't give you all the details). Sabbath, in Hebrew understanding is this kind of symbolic return to a time when cosmic harmony was a reality. On the seventh day, God rested and all was right with the world. Sabbath is meant to remind us of that reality and that possibility. This one big shot Theologian put it this way, “The seventh day celebrates the possibility that the grandeur of God’s cosmic designs may be matched by the commitment of creation to live in harmony within God’s world.” The first Sabbath was finally celebrated in the dessert right after God rained mysterious bread called Manna, literally translated "what-is-it." Sabbath is first mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis and isn't celebrated until after the Exodus, isn't that strange? Why all those chapters and centuries later?

The gap...

The gap between the ideal and the reality. The justice and harmony and beauty and freedom that we get a glimpse of in the creation poem is thrown in chaos by the Fall (whatever our theological perspectives are, we feel it don't we). T.S. Eliot writes about it this way:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow

Has something like this ever happened to you...You get really invested, you put your heart into something and then you experience the gap between theory and practice. You experience...the shadow, the let down. Sometimes it's just annoying. Sometimes it's heart wrenching. Sometimes, on a cosmic scale, it can be catastrophic. Like God has this big, ambitious, grand, beautiful, idea. Maybe the angels are thinking you’re crazyYou're seriously leaving this whole thing, the whole order of creation to these fragile furless creatures that can’t even keep themselves warm. Yes. God does. And yes...bad stuff happens. And this pattern keeps getting repeated… I mean on and on and on. Creation, Fall, Redemption. New creation, Fall, Redemption. The Ideal keeps getting squashed by The Reality and then the disappointment sets in. And this cycle would continue in our lives if God didn’t initiate Rescue, Redemption, New Possibilities, New Patterns… God keeps sneaking in and doing something shocking and beautiful to break us out of our patterns.

There is this group called Improv Everywhere. http://youtu.be/J5gCeWEGiQI They create elaborate scenes that they call missions (really something between mission and prank). In one scene they coordinate droves of people getting out of cars with no pants. Then, suddenly another groups of people come on scene and start shouting pants for sale. We've got pants. Short ones, long ones...fat ones, skinny ones. In another mission, they stage a large fake audience for an unheard of band (unbeknownst to them) and shout and cheer as if they were the Beatles. In another they celebrate a guys birthday who they randomly pick out from a bar and call him Todd. Everyone knows Todd. They love Todd. They give him presents, a cake, hugs, high-fives. Girls are giving him phone numbers...He keep worrying that the real Todd is going to show up and catch him hugging his friends and blowing out his candles. At first Todd (real name Chris) tries to explain that he is not Todd, but eventually, he says, "It was pretty much my only option. I think that was the moment of the shift, was kind of realizing that I was like, OK, well, if they all think I'm Ted, then what the hell.”

The creator of Improv everywhere and one of its mad agents has this someone lofty goal for why they do what they do. He says, “I want to live in a world where anything can happen. ..It's like giving people a small, unexpected gift, and in the process, making the world seem a bit more enchanted.” -Gorge Just

Maybe God is like that… giving people small, or sometimes huge unexpected gifts…to show the world that anything can happen…and in these moments we are filled with hope and it seems like it really is within our reach. Jesus came with this sort of mission in mind to show people that world is far more enchanted than we have come to believe or in His worlds that the Kingdom of God is at hand, or within reach, or among us…

As for me, I know about my own tendencies toward reckless idealism. But, what are my options really? Should I just succumb to the bitter reality? I can remember so many times hearing about how things work in the real world. And something deep inside of me kind of recoils (maybe too strong a word).

After seven years of full time ministry, I am now in a gap place of sorts for myself. I have some space for thinking and dreaming. I also have all these good and lofty intentions about how I want to use my time, which leads to me then facing the reality of my own shadow, fragility, etc. But I can't help but wonder if, despite myself, God might have something up His proverbial sleeve, and I look forward to seeing what kind of pranks God might pull.