Cherry festivals and the church’s focus

It’s funny, the way God can teach you something through events that would, to worldly eyes, seem totally unrelated to issues of faith.  A chance remark can prompt in your mind a Scripture reference, or an article on your Internet homepage causes you to recall a sermon you once heard.  Even a movie might hold (for those who have ears to hear …) a spiritual lesson that likely never occurred to the film’s director, writer or actors.  That’s the way it often is when you’re a Christian – if you give your life over to Jesus, you have to expect that He’s going to do things like that.  The trick is to be paying attention, so that when He does, you don’t miss it.

I had one of those moments this weekend, thanks to an event that seemingly would have very little to do with the kingdom of God: the Linden Cherry Festival.

Linden is a small rural town about 15 miles east of Stockton, and is surrounded by fruit and nut orchards.  I passed through it on the way to my personal Easter service a little over a month ago, and when I did I saw signs up all over for the Cherry Festival to be held May 16th.  I filed it away for future reference, thinking it might be fun for the Supermodel and kids.

Me, I spent seven years living in Woodland (a larger agriculture-oriented town in California’s Central Valley), so I had an idea of what an ag festival involves.  I’ve been to festivals for pears, tomatoes and asparagus – Stockton is in the midst of the largest asparagus-growing region in the country and hosts an annual festival dedicated to that vegetable – not to mention rural county fairs, and they do tend to be fairly similar.  So I knew what to expect, and I had a specific “to do” list in mind for when we went up to Linden:

  • Find some fun rides for the kids to go on (there are always carnival-style rides).
  • Check out some of the classic cars (likewise, there’s always some sort of car show/competition).
  • Eat a hearty lunch (lots of barbecue/meat products in play, not to mention imaginative uses of the featured crop).
  • Buy a few pounds of cherries to take home.

The first three were easy – my kids enjoyed the jump houses and tiny trains immensely, the car show was genuinely impressive (and I’m not a big car aficionado), and we ate well – pizza for the Supermodel and my son, a sausage sandwich for my daughter, a BBQ brisket sandwich for me, and “cherry aid” (Kool-Aid, I suspect, with a couple of cherries dropped in) for us all.  The kids also got to watch a sheriff’s department K-9 demonstration and go on a waterslide, and despite the heat – it got close to 100 F/38 C by the time we headed home at 2 p.m. – none of us got sunburned.  (That was a real surprise, especially for the Supermodel, who has that Irish peaches-and-cream skin that burns if you leave the lights on in the room too long.)  So a good time was definitely had.

But we ran into a difficulty when it came to purchasing some cherries.  “Cherry aid,” we found; there was cherry ice cream and cherry cheesecake clearly displayed.  But actual cherries?  The Supermodel said she’d seen a person with a bag of them, but after over two hours I had yet to spot a place where there were honest-to-goodness just-plain cherries for sale.  Finally I found a shady location for the family to settle and went on a thorough search, booth by booth.

And on the third pass through “Cherry Lane,” I spotted it.  A booth with a tiny sign in front at about knee level, saying, “Cherries 3.00 a bag, 2 for 5.00”.  That’s it.  And it was the only one of its type.  At a cherry festival! It seemed like the organizers wanted us, as attendees, to focus on the kiddie rides, the cars, the cops, the brisket, the mediocre rock band doing oldies covers, the craft and tchotchke and political party booths … everything but the cherries, the ostensible purpose for the festival.

But after I came home and was pitting cherries for the cherry-banana smoothies I was making for the family, it hit me … we humans do that a lot, don’t we?  How many events do we have that started out as being centered on a particular idea or thing or person, but eventually become excuses for parties where the original focus is recalled only in name?

Seriously.  You go to a baseball park nowadays, and the home team seems to throw in item after item that does more to distract from the baseball game than enhance it – contests, dot races, kids’ play areas, goofy advertisements up the gazoo.  (At minor league games, the ratio of non-baseball entertainment to baseball entertainment is even higher.)  Congress often seems far more focused on enhancing the power of each representative’s political party than on running the country.  Millions of people trundle blithely through Easter Sunday, hunting eggs and picking out children’s outfits without giving a thought to the Messiah’s resurrection.

And the church … heck, if you read this blog regularly, you KNEW I was coming around to the American church here, didn’t you?  (I’m so darn predictable.)

Think about it: what is the purpose of the church?  Isn’t it to be the body of Christ, to act as His representatives on earth and to be in close relationship with Him?  That’s what I was taught, anyway.  But how much of the activity of the church has much of anything to do with relating to Jesus or representing Him to others?  If you look carefully – like I’ve spent much of the last couple of years, and especially since the start of 2009, doing – the answer is, “not a whole heck of a lot.”

Like the cherry festival that had very little to do with cherries except for little pictures (stickers, temporary tattoos, antenna toppers) of them everywhere, you look at the American church and find a lot of crosses displayed, but very few people who seem to be living a life sacrificed to Jesus – “taking up their cross and following Him,” to use the Biblical phrase.  You can find veritable skyscrapers of “worship music” CDs and tapes, but not many folks who really worship – really pay attention to God – once the music stops.  (Candidly, how many do you find that really pay attention to God when the music is still playing?)  You can find plenty of emphasis on the Scriptures, but the members of your average congregation who not only read but study, meditate on, and attempt to live according to what the Bible contains is a small percentage.

Instead, what I’ve usually found – and I’ve been in the church for over twenty years – is layer after layer of institutions, rules, cultural expectations, activities and displays that, if you really want to know Jesus and follow Him, you have to dig through or go around or just plain ignore.  The people I have met who most resemble the Christ of the Bible are people who have found themselves on the outside of the usual systems of Christian religion in America in one way or another.  Members who have been ostracized or marginalized for their unwillingness to conform to doctrinal or social views that God’s Word doesn’t necessarily support.  Attendees who suddenly realized that not only had they heard every lesson their pastors could teach, but that they could poke holes in the lessons.  Pastors who became burned out by all the political B.S. that many people bring to local congregations, or who have been isolated by revelations that don’t conform to a denomination’s stance on an issue, or who have been laid up by injury or illness.  It’s like they found an easier and closer path to Jesus only once all the busyness and expectations are shoved aside.

Which makes you wonder why we spend so much time on all the busyness and expectations.  Do we, as a body, just not realize that we’re trading diamonds for pennies?  Are we such creatures of habit that we can’t break away from our rigid Sunday-service mentalities?  Or – and this is a scary thought, one I don’t like to consider – are we doing all of this stuff that keeps us at a distance from our Savior because we want to keep our distance, because we’re avoiding following Him and giving up our own agendas?

I hope that last one isn’t the case.  Don’t you?

Either way, when I come to a cherry festival and find only one isolated, half-hidden booth selling cherries, I have to wonder if maybe the reason for having the festival isn’t being lost, if the whole event has just become one more generic party with little or no relationship to its original intent to celebrate a successful harvest.  And when I come to a congregation and see everyone busy about the events in the service order but no one focusing on the Christ whose body we are … well, does it really matter how fun the party is if the Person we’re supposed to be holding it for is ignored?

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One Response to Cherry festivals and the church’s focus

  1. theoldadam says:

    Ray,

    What a wonderful piece of writing!

    First of all, thanks for painting a picture of the cherry festival for me as you enjoyed it with your family. You brought me back to the good ol’ days when my kids were little and we would go to events like that. Sadly, those days are long gone for us.

    Next, I think you are right about losing sight of the original intent. In so many ways in our society, and in the church, we have forgotten what we are really celebrating.

    More signs (I guess) of a fallen creature in a fallen world.

    Take care, my friend!

    – Steve Martin San Clemente, CA

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