Step One: Decide It’s Funny

This has a real potential of coming across vain, but I won’t be bothered. Many people have suggested I write a book about my life. I’ve considered it, more recently, and created this blog as a channel in which my creative juices can flow.

I love memoirs, but only ones written by comedians. The first book I ever bought with my “own money” (aka allowance), was Mark Lowry’s “Out of Control. For those who don’t know him, He’s a Conservative Baptist comedian, singer-songwriter, most known for writing “Mary, Did You Know?” Since I also grew up Conservative Baptist, he was an early role model (along with one Kimberly Shivers).

Being “a comedian” is weird, because it starts innocently enough: a bunch of people calling you funny, followed by a personal decision to take that somewhere. You could say I “got my start” doing mission trip reports at church. I found myself on stage, microphone in hand, hundreds of people watching and subsequently laughing harder than you’re supposed to laugh in church. I was alive.

I only ever experienced mild stage freight, as a kid performing piano recitals. That was nerve-wrecking, because I have not-a-lot of control over my hands. The day I added singing to recitals, I discovered all nervousness left once my hand was preoccupied with a microphone.

So let’s say my future memoir is decidedly funny. Life is a mixed-up thing, and writing about it can present a lot of angles to choose from: Do I write about my numerous near-death experiences? Do I write about theology? Do I write about vagrancy and the many cities, states and countries I’ve lived in? This all sounds serious. I am serious, thoughtful, observant and funny. Can it be all those things too? Why not, if I’m all those things? How can I do it? How can I write the true me? Probably start by not overthinking it.

Ah, overthinking. My nemesis. Overthinking makes me anxious and certainly less funny.

During, what could be referred to as, a “peak” in my comedic life, I was emceeing a summer camp. Specifically, Camp Tadmor, summer of 2007. That was the year Andy O’Hara was my co-Emcee. We could read each other’s minds, on stage, and improvised everything. Our only prep was scrounging through costumes, backstage, saying, “I’ll wear this, you wear that, we will do this, and GO.” The only times we didn’t have people doubled over in laughter was when we over-planned.

I’ve read both of Mindy Kaling’s books: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (and other concerns) and Why Not Me?, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please!, Ellen’s Seriously…I’m kidding, and Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn. (I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, Bethany, call the Oprah book club! You read 6 books!” To which I’ll say, “Yeah yeah, and I didn’t finish 3 of them, I’m too social to read, okay?!”) What I found, is a surprising sadness in each of their stories (Especially Tiffany Haddish, oh my gosh, that woman’s life is heinous). Life is sad, and comedians want to talk about it, but their first defense and processing filter is comedy. Life is only tragic if we can’t find these silver linings of laughter by the grace of God.

So I’v laid a few ground rules:

  1. Don’t take yourself seriously
  2. Don’t get preachy
  3. Ascribe worth and honor to people

We shall see where this goes. In the meantime, tell me about your favorite comedians and what you connect with them about. Let me know if there’s a certain story you feel I need to tell. And, if you’re having a rough day, decide it’s funny.

Brush Your Shoulders Off

I’m trying to kick a pretty bad habit of taking on things I shouldn’t. Whether this habit was formed by way of an adolescence of being a common scapegoat, or something I came up with all on my twisted own, I tend to take responsibility for things I’m not responsible for.

I could hardly handle being on a leadership team at work, because I didn’t like knowing about every conflict, problem or tension happening outside my department. Ignorance is truly my bliss. The internet hasn’t been a good friend to me either, suddenly knowing about all the news (fake or real) all the time.

At first, I was thinking about this in a ministry context, but it really applies in every relationship in all of life. Some of us just feel a pressure to pick up the slack when it looks like other people are dropping the ball.

The government doesn’t provide this service for it’s citizens so it all falls to NGOs.

People are selfish with their times so volunteers are spread too thin.

Not enough missionaries go to the 10/40 window, so if I go, I’m going to have to save 10,000 people.

My roommate must not know how to change the toilet paper or do the dishes.

I tend to react one of two ways: wear myself out, trying to fix it, and make everyone happy. Or put my fingers in my ears and go “LA LA LA LA LA!”. Why can’t I just hear about things and not be bothered or embittered by them?!

Do you know what God has been trying to tell me for the last, I don’t know, 20 years? RELAX. CALM DOWN. HOLD STILL. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul.”

Yoke. The literal burden that goes on shoulders. I’ve heard that verse a ton of times (Matthew 11:28-29), but never stopped to ask the question, “Okay, Jesus, what is the burden you want to share with me?”

It’s not to make sure the whole world is evangelized, because the rest of that “Be still and know” passage (Psalm46:10) is the promise, “my Name will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

It’s not to have perfect theology, and the width, length, height and depth of Christ’s love figured out for myself, because that’s something designed to be grasped by all the saints together, by His power (Ephesians 3:18).

It’s not to be self-sufficient, because He designed us all to have different gifts, talents, strengths and weaknesses so we’d work together (1 Corinthians 12).

It’s not to work harder, because He is really serious about taking days off. Remembering the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, plus, “the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5).

It really is to love and be loved. Receive love and give love. Walk in His love and with His power. Take it one day at a time, coming to Him for His daily bread, not stockpiling for later.

I keep running into this problem of when I try to love and serve people in my own strength and by my own clever methods, I eventually end up accidentally hurting them.

If we all just did our small part to love and serve the people God puts in front of us, listening to His leading every day, the whole world would be loved and served. I can’t let the fact, it doesn’t seem to be happening, make me feel like it’s all on me now. That renders me ineffective

A couple years ago I got buried in my sorrow about the refugee/migrant crisis. Working in Greece made me angry at what was happening to people, and even angrier at how other people were responding. I took way too much upon myself.

These days, I’m not “working with refugees” anymore. I am in Europe, but no where near a camp, although some of my dearest friends are immigrants and refugees. For awhile it didn’t felt like enough, but now I see that it is all God has asked me to do. Be a good friend and neighbor. Don’t overthink it. Don’t over-spiritualize it. Don’t look at what other people are doing, because comparison is the friggin’ WORST.

It felt like coming up for air and simultaneously getting excited about life again. There are beautiful things happening all the time. Friendship is wonderful, food is delicious. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and crushed beneath the weight of the world’s problems, but take it from me (and Jay-Z): “gon’ brush your shoulders off.”

Portland vs. Portland

For years now a battle has been raging inside my heart and head concerning the love/hate relationship I have with my hometown.

I grew up in the Mt. Tabor area of Southeast Portland. I attended Atkinson Elementary, Mt. Tabor Middle School and Franklin High School. I loved my experiences in these places. I revel in the memories I have of growing up on 57th avenue among some of the warmest neighbors anyone can find. We biked, be block partied, we “Ghost Buster-ed” cats, we weeded abandoned house’s yards. 57th was a great place to be a kid.

One day I plan to write more about the joys of Portland in the 90’s, but right now I want to sort out some misconceptions I’ve seen people making about my city.

Over the last few years, Portland has gone from being a best-kept secret beneath the Northwest clouds, to being a ridiculous hipster mecca and the most up-and-coming city in the United States. For all anyone knows, what it has become is what it has always been, but I dare say none of you have a clue what it used to (and in some places continues) to be.

To me, Portland was a safe place to develop as an individual. It was cool to be the purest form of yourself. Weird hobbies were encouraged and diversity was celebrated. And I’m talking about ACTUAL diversity. Atkinson Elementary had a huge E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) program. One of my favorite gifts from God was that I got to grow up with people from all over the world. I had friends from, seemingly, every Asian and Eastern European country: China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Russia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, even refugees from the war on Bosnia. The list goes on. It wasn’t until sometime in the 4th grade, learning about the Civil Rights movement, that I found out that racism still existed. I had made a comment in class about how idiotic it was for people in history to prefer races. That’s when they told me that people still do.

There was no segregation in our school. We were natural friends and always had each other’s backs. The hardest part of the day for a substitute was taking roll, so we would help them through the list, yelling out the right pronunciation of our friend’s names.

This continued on through high school. We didn’t have clicks like they do in the movies. Everyone kind of hung out with everyone and as long as you were true to yourself you were cool. I remember a Hispanic kid who used to always wear sweats and pull his socks up over his pants and insisted on wearing a helmet. He was always telling jokes and we laughed. You’ve got a respect someone so committed to a bit. I loved being surrounded by characters. Humanity unfiltered is a crazy mess, but it can also be enjoyable.

The worst thing you could be was fake for two-faced. This resulted in minimal gossiping and maximum punching. (I’m not saying we were perfect, just follow along). You never had to wonder what someone thought about you. It was always made perfectly clear. For me, this sometimes meant people cursed at me for being a Christian, but usually once they got it out of their system the case was closed. I only got a rock thrown at me once.

After I moved out of SE I was struck with a pretty rude awakening. People talk crap on people, but they’re nice to their face. How confusing. People are insecure and desperately seek to jam themselves into a socially acceptable box. I came face to face with the dreaded “tools” I’d only heard about.

A groan would form deep in my stomach anytime I met someone who was spouting cliche’s and wearing the clothes people wear on television. I had to overcome a growing prejudice with rich white people. Who are they trying to impress? Don’t they “know” they’re already better than everybody? Do they think they can buy a personality? I remember a few times grabbing people by the shoulders and shaking them, “I know deep down somewhere you’re awesome! Show me that person!”

Living in Southern California was a dream. The sun is always out and in a perpetually warm way. I made some really great friends during my years in Ventura County, but there was an underlining quality I was seeing in way too many people.

“Why is everybody matching? Do you guys shop at the same store? Do you subscribe to a magazine that tells you what you’re supposed to do? Hey ladies, I’m wondering if someone told you you’re only allowed to wear boots, flats or TOMS and whatever those other plain-looking-shoes-that-come-in-every-color-but-have-white-laces are called. I’m pretty sure no one will arrest you if you wear different shoes, but what do I know? I’m not in charge.”

Then the unspeakable happened. Fred Armisen created “Portlandia”. I have to admit that I liked the music video he made at first, but then things got real… then overstated… then worse: TRENDY. Next thing you know, all these white people are looking to explore their same brand of “unique” up north.

I don’t know how to say this. There is a “stereotypical Portland” now. And it KILLS me. Especially since someone who could be considered a poster boy for Portland now, is someone I never saw once growing up. And let me tell you: I saw a lot of things.

Maybe I was wrong all along. Maybe I had a totally child-like view of Portland. We learned the history of the city and believe me that it is mostly about prostitution, alcohol and racism. Now as an adult, I see that Portland still has the most strip clubs per ca-pita than any US city, it thrives on its microbreweries and as it turns out: racism is still a huge problem. Especially for black people who are corralled into North Portland, not far from Vanport which was the only place they were “allowed to live” until it was flooded in 1948.

Now “Keeping Portland Weird” isn’t about people being the truest form of themselves. It’s about beards and bikes and shoving ideologies down each other’s throats. It’s about coffee snobs and vegan strip clubs. Priorities are getting straighter, right?

It used to be the hippie vs. the lumberjack, but now that the two of them have created some wacko hybrid baby its the pretentious vs. the natives (who still just wear whatever they want). What happened to appreciating each other’s differences? What happened to enjoying spending time with someone different from you? Have we all become so confused, yet so narcissistic that we just hang out with people who like all the same things we do? Nice work everyone. Let’s pat ourselves on our organic, free-range backs.

Don’t glorify Portland. I thought it was on to something as a child as we formed a tiny world where we appreciated people for being different. God has created us all uniquely. I love that He did. Don’t add insult to the Portland injury by all being the same.

Also, get the heck out of the west side and go hike the gorge, then maybe go home.

January 22, 2014

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Syncretism, Church & State, And Our International Confusion About God

“What is so great about Ba’al?!”

After years of studying the Old Testament and recapping Israel’s continual replacement of their LORD God (YHWH) for the gods of Canaan, I finally blurted out this frustrated question. Having some grasp on why the God of Abraham rocks, I, by contrast, didn’t know anything about this Ba’al guy who always won the hearts of the people in the end. What was his deal? And, while we’re at it, who is Asherah?

Ba’al was the king of all other local deities. He was thought to control the weather, seasons, storms, the sea, agricultural fertility and ancestral spirits. Since the Israelites were primarily farmers, living in the fertile crescent, defaulting to the god of rain when “everyone else is doin’ it” makes sense.

Asherah was the mother goddess of fertility. Most every ancient civilization, leading up to modern times, has a female goddess representing sex, life, fertility and all things powerfully feminine.

Sometimes the Israelites were abandoning YHWH for Ba’al and Asherah, and other times, they were marrying YHWH with Asherah. Oh, the glorious best of both worlds! In all cases, YHWH would respond through His prophets:

“I am God and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22)

This isn’t to say there are no super natural powers in this world besides YHWH. There are angels, who glorify Him, and demons who seek glory for themselves. Many times this means setting themselves up as local deities somewhere. The world is full of ancient writings of local deities. Hinduism, Greek Mythology, the Occult, Norse Mythology, Celtic, tribal, etc. Meanwhile Muslims, Jews and Christians believe in the supremacy of One Creator God, who has no equal and shares no glory.

Israel was governed by various prophets, judges and kings throughout their early history, and although they often corporately agreed to following YHWH, they didn’t all personally know Him. This began with Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when YHWH intended to meet with all the people, but He freaked them out.

“All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance.Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.”Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.”So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.”(Exodus 20:18-21)

Not everyone is going to accept this God when only Moses talks directly to Him. Local deities seemed more approachable, which is why, when Moses went up the Mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, the people were down the hill making a golden calf (in the image of the local deity Molech). This is why the heart cry of Moses was:

“Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29)

Follow me into the first couple hundred years of Christianity. It started with a resurrected Jesus who came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, God Himself becoming a man to be the New Moses, and as a movement of God’s power, giving His Holy Spirit to mankind–Jews and Gentiles alike, just as He promised He would.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

This was to be a display of God’s power in creation, the continuing partnership between God and man, putting them in a right relationship together, through the atoning blood of Jesus. He would make a new people to be as Abraham’s descendants were intended to be: Blessed to be a Blessing to others.

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, aholy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;  for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Then, in the early A.D.’s, something happened. Christianity became the official state religion of several countries and suddenly everyone was being baptized into giant churches controlled by the government. It is what we now know as Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox churches. It was no longer about who had received a heart transplant, entering into the divine family. Now it was mandatory for everyone.

What followed was centuries of people doing horrible things in the name of God. Crusades to the East, Conquistadors to the West. Soon the word “Christian” became tarnished with offense, genocide and oppression. A far cry from the words of Jesus:

‘By this all men will know that youareMydisciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Fast forward to today. I have spent a decent amount of time in several “Christian/Catholic Nations”: The United States, Armenia, Greece, Italy, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica and Mexico. Each one is vastly different along with it’s practice of Christianity. This comes from years of Syncretism; marrying the local to the divine.

Why do both Catholic and Orthodox churches over-emphasize the Virgin Mary? Could it be she reminds them of their dear, previous fertility goddess? When did people start praying to saints and making them “patrons” of something? Was it when they had to give up the familiar practice of asking specific deities for specific blessings? Like, “Please let it rain!” or “Please help me get pregnant!”?

Still, I can testify to finding the Same, true, Holy Spirit of God in people everywhere I go. The heart-of-stone-to-flesh transplant still happens every day around the globe. Our Creator God, who created us, binds us together through His divine nature, is continuing to build His Holy Nation. The Priesthood of God can be identified as people from every tribe, tongue and nation giving Glory to their Creator, by His Spirit, proclaiming His excellencies as ones called from darkness into His marvelous light. Please note the humility involved.

Observing the various manifestation of “Christianity” around the world made me take a long hard look at how much of my Christianity is American. Am I shaped by the God of the Bible or the expectations and ideologies of American values? Who is the Ba’al I default to when I take my eyes of the LORD? Who is the Asherah I combine with Him? What attributes do I ascribe to Him based on my own provincial context? Do I depend on my pastor to be my Moses, talking to God for me and telling me what the Bible says? Can I read it for myself, with the power of the Holy Spirit helping me to understand?

These are questions we must grapple with together. This is why I support separation of Church and State, although I wish Biblical concepts like the eternal value of humanity could be presented in school. Not everyone has to buy in to the teachings of the Bible, but I wish everyone could have access and the chance to know they are deeply and powerfully loved by their Creator God.

This is also why I strongly advocate for people to read the Bible for themselves. There are a lot of great pastors and religious teachers out there (the current Pope is pretty legit), but God’s Word is for all of us, and too much of human history is people of power manipulating His word to sell something or keep the people in fear. Go to your Creator, yourself, and ask Him who He is and what He expects.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?(Micah 6:8)

Something Fresh

It’s Springtime! 2018 is shaping up to be a little bonkers, and I want to make it extra, by challenging myself to write more. My BFF, Carly Cross, and I have been writing for an online Bible Study the last two years and in a few weeks, we will have covered the entire Bible. As we explore what’s next for biblewithus.com I knew I wanted to ensure I could continue to make a regular habit of processing through writing.

My goal is to write about life, holistically, and in a way that invites everyone into the discussion. Nothing is off the table, but I hope we can keep things honoring, remembering to value one another. Some topics may include, but are not limited to:

  1. Social commentary and current events
  2. Celebrations of people and milestones
  3. My love for comedy and pop-culture
  4. Experience in travel as I attempt to obtain Italian citizenship through decent and move to Europe
  5. Attempts to process life through a Biblical and Global perspective

Welcome to this new-to-me endeavor. I hope it’s something we can enjoy together.