July 15, 2012, the 6thSunday after Pentecost
Year B, Proper 10
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
Who here has been to the Oregon Country Fair? What are some words that you would use to describe it? _____ Windy the girls and I made our first journey to the Fair on Friday. I must say, I was a little hesitant going into it. There are all the stories; the crowds, the drugs, I had heard something about mud people, and of course, all that nakedness… And then there is the gospel this week, the beheading of John the Baptist. I was not worried about beheadings at the Fair, but the context of the beheading, Herod’s birthday feast, with courtiers and officers, too much drinking, too many dancing girls and goodness knows what else, the consequences of too much were on my mind. Honestly, I wasn’t sure that that was not going to be the case at the Fair. But the Fair is an iconic part of the culture of Eugene and some people that I trust are active out there, so I went trying to be wide open and non-judgmental. I want to offer a few reflections on the Fair because my experience there did not match my presuppositions. It was much better than that and there are some great things to learn from that community.
One of the things that Jesus did time and time again is to turn everything upside down. To take whatever social convention that was at hand and do the opposite, like the woman with hemorrhages getting priority over Jairus the leader of the synagogue that we spoke about a couple of weeks ago. Often Jesus seemed to go into situations and just shake it all up just to give everyone a different set of eyes with which to see the world through.
Wandering through the winding paths of the Fair, I saw a whole lot of turning things upside down, and not just acrobats. Priests notwithstanding, most men won’t wear dresses out in public. Many do at the Fair. Most grownups don’t dress as flowers or fairies or steam-punk gladiator knight magician princesses, or as dragons, even. Most of us don’t do that in our regular lives, but maybe we should. The girl’s whole world changes when they put on the persona of a princess, or Laura Ingalls Wilder, or a cat, and the fancier the costume they concoct, the deeper they fit into the character and the deeper the change in perspective they experience. I would love to imagine seeing the world through the eyes of a dragon or a dandelion and not just because that sounds fun. If I could truly walk for an afternoon in the leafy shoes of a dandelion I know that I would look at them differently next time I was mowing the lawn. Being in a place like the Fair, perspectives on right and wrong, good and evil, even possible and impossible are subject to change. This is a very, very good thing.
Bucking convention also has a lot to do changing everyone’s standard of normativity. Normative means basically what is expected, a standard or norm. I did not see many conventional norms in play, other than the big ones – everyone I ran into was friendly, kind, happy to be there, was very polite and helpful. I have rarely seen parents of young children or disabled or even elders treated systemically with more compassion. Twice folks offered to let us advance in the potty line with the little ones. You won’t see that at Autzen Stadium. Turning the normative on its head. And you know what, so much of we do consider normative in our world needs to be turned upside down. The Fair culture is founded in this providing a space to be what most of us cannot be in day to day life. It is the carnival impulse that has been with Christianity since Roman times. Everything needs to look different sometimes, if only for a long weekend.
The Fair was also an amazing portal into a world of extreme creativity. The amount of time and effort that goes into the booths and all of the crafts for sale, the costumes, the parades, the music and drama and juggling and sword swallowing and storytelling and stilt walking and dancing and everything else… the whole place is this amazing vortex of creativity, of beauty, of dreams made manifest in copper and wood, fabric and steel, movement and vibrations. Anytime you find yourself in a place of deep creative movement you are approaching God.
Then, there is the simple fun of it. Hannah Maeve was getting a very fancy bird painted on her arm when I looked up and there above me was a nose. It was a very large nose puppet worn by someone on stilts accompanied by 6 or 7 other very large noses on stilts with a moustache and a large finger in tow. All of a sudden the nose above me leaned back and sneezed a few blasts of a spray bottle while saying, “You wanna pick a winner?” If that is not fun, then I do not know what is. Seriously, what fun. All of that creativity, all done together resulted in great fun. I experienced better group laughing yesterday than I have had in memory. I guess being dressed as a lime green butterfly you sort of have to laugh a lot, but truly fun, honest, non-consumptive, self-generated fun for the sake of fun is pathologically lacking in our society. It is a shame that it is reserved for one long weekend a year, but the theme that you take a bit of fair home with you, if it is the fun part, I am fully in favor of it. Just speaking for myself, you’ll know how well my spiritual practice is going if I show up to Mass dressed as a lime green bumble bee.
It is a tragedy of the Christian Bible that the writers of the Gospels did not record Jesus having fun. They did not record Jesus laughing. A human being in perfect relationship with God and neighbor must have a brilliant sense of humor. There must have been laughter in the boat before the storm, laughter on the road to everywhere except maybe Jerusalem. My guess is that the evangelists, the writers of the gospels, they did not have much to laugh about because in the wake of the desolating sacrilege of the Temple things seemed very bleak. Sadly, when things seem bleak to humans we usually follow thatpath, the path of darkness.
But there are other ways, laughter is good medicine, and the likes of Patch Adams, the pediatrician who clowns with his young patients (a speaker at the Fair) demonstrates its efficacy. Dark times require fun more than easy times. Having fun can very much be a way of being the change in the world that we need. If nothing else, it is a lot better to be actively having fun and not helping out than moping around, doing nothing and also not helping out.
If there is one thing true about the Fair it is that most everyone has some feelings about it. From what I have discerned, the feelings, particularly the negative feelings, that people express are around the presence of drugs and the absence of clothing. (By that I mean I have not heard anyone say they love the Fair for the drugs or the nakedness only that people do not like it for those things, but I do realize my social contacts are churchy-er than most). I only saw one person smoking anything besides tobacco, but unless the trees in Veneta smell funny, there was a fair amount of marijuana being smoked. I do not advocate that. All I can say is that I felt more comfortable being there with the girls there than I would being with them at a concert or sporting event in a crowd that had been drinking as heavily as folks seemed to be smoking. The whole scene was entirely non-threatening, a little odd at times, but totally peaceable. You certainly can’t say that about West Broadway when the bars close.
And of course there was all of that nakedness. I do not think it is nakedness that people are nervous about but about the sexuality implied in nakedness occurring in unexpected times, places or ways. There is nothing dirty or lewd about the human body, it is just that our cultural convention says that certain body parts are to be hidden outside of the home. When body parts are exposed that are usually concealed, our American minds go right to sex. The vast majority of the nakedness I saw was not sexualized, but felt more like a conscious de-sexualization of the human body. All of the amazing body paint, henna and costumes held up the human form as something beautiful, something to be admired and enjoyed, and not soley (if at all) sexually. The nakedness I saw was not sexuality being bought or sold like the commercialized nakedness that is ubiquitous our conventional economy. What I saw seemed to be people having fun with their bodies in ways that they usually can’t because exposed breasts and buttocks’ are illegal in most places, and other’s who seemed pretty unconcerned with what anyone thought about them one way or another. Really the only thing I was concerned about nakedness-wise was how the naked guy kept his very precise fig-leaf from falling off. I did not get up the courage to ask him.
I offer these thoughts on the Fair because so much of the purpose of church is to help us keep things in perspective, to consider other ways of hearing stories, of seeing the face of God in places we otherwise might have missed. The Oregon Country Fair is not for everyone, but some of the impulses in that community are very positive if not downright Christian, and reminds us, as the bumper sticker says, that not all who wander are lost. AMEN