As my wife and I were leaving Starbucks in downtown Portland last Friday night, a young man sitting with his friends asked us, "Do you love Jesus?" My wife, Heather, easily responded with a soft but affirming, "I do."
Without missing a beat, the teenager posed what seemed to be an adjoining question, "Do you love smoking weed?" This time Heather simply replied, "I do not," as I and the female couple behind me shook our heads. Unbeknownst to my wife, I debated turning around, allowing some capitalist yearnings to surface, and determining what kind and quality was being sold.
Think about it: Those who live on the West Coast know medical marijuana is fetching a pretty nice price. The idea of having this become a money-maker circled my over-stimulated intellect. Nonetheless, in that millisecond, I promptly realized that being busted with pot would not be good for my reputation nor my employment. I quickly decided to join my wife, who was walking across the street to check out the sweet "ska" band. We ended up dancing the night away without any entrepreneur activity.
"Ah, welcome to Portland," were the words uttered by my wife's childhood friend after listening to my experience. The fact is I love Portland and the Northwest. The mountains, beaches and food are some of the best. Creativity is encouraged at all levels, and people really support the arts. Coffee, good coffee, is king and easily is recognizable with coffee shops on every street corner. If I were to continue stereotyping, I also might imply that most families own at least one Subaru, and it rains eight days a week. But for me, an addicted book collector, Portland's claim to fame is it is home to the cathedral of all book stores: Powell's.
But the fact is ... I sort of can't stand Portland. I hate the traffic, and the people don't even acknowledge your presence when you walk past them. Unlike the Northeast, they will give you eye contact, but when you say hello, they look like deer that have just been caught in your headlights. Could it be they become comatose? I suppose they can't believe they were greeted and therefore become emotionally paralyzed. Uncle Vic would say I have become suspicious of their suspicion.
Yet, in this attempt to be truly transparent, I must confess that there is something else that deeply disturbs me about Portland: It is different from where I call home. What we in western Kansas value and call conventional generally is considered abnormal or archaic on the West Coast. And what they consider normal, in their own words, is just "weird."
Change or getting acclimated to West Coast weird isn't easy. We Midwest folk get so comfortable in our own skin and culture that moving into something much different is more than awkward -- it is mental vertigo. In Detroit, we would call this freaking out. And in family systems theory, it is called becoming anxious.
You might have guessed it -- I struggle with differences. I want to blame my anxiety and insecure feelings on someone or something else. In this case, Portland will do. Yet, as you also know, my struggle has little to do with Portland and much more to do with me.
As God would have it, I continue to contemplate on what that young man initially asked Heather and I. Do I love Jesus? Do I truly love the risen Lord?
I remember Christ's words to Peter in the Gospel of John. Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" The third time Peter once again responds, "Yes ... you know I love you." Jesus then commands Peter again to ... do what? Go on a retreat and get spiritual? Contribute more money to the church? Donate time at the local shelter? Don't engage in premarital sex?
No, it wasn't any of those. Jesus simply instructs Peter to feed his sheep.
Feed sheep? What? It says we have to feed sheep, even if those sheep say some crazy things (like asking me to buy dope).
Maybe this young smoker earlier in the story wasn't only asking me if I believed, but could he belong (could he and I become community). Maybe his questions were an opening for future conversation, sharing and a chance to spiritually feed one other. But I never will know. Like St. Peter, I was scared and denied both the pothead and the Holy Spirit that opportunity.
Evidently, it appears like I have a lot to learn about hospitality and sheep feeding. Maybe I will think more about it as I pack my bags so I can return to home sweet home, Kansas.
Joel Maiorano is supervisor of the pastoral care department at Hays Medical Center.