From stories shared by Nels at the celebration of Andrew Sears Barden (12/18/72 – 10/8/17).
Andrew was my “brother from another mother” and co-founder of In Jest. Though he moved to the west coast and on to other pursuits, he remained a lifelong friend, fellow oddball, entrepreneur, tree hugger, lover of souls, and peace seeker. Along with my mom, he was an instigation… I mean, inspiration in many ways.
Andrew and I first met while still in our mothers’ wombs. Both our parents were ministers and active with United Methodist ministries in central New York.
At his parents’ 50th anniversary party, we shared how we first played together under tables at conferences in our diapers. Andrew quipped, “We were 12 years old. Still wear yours?” I said, “Depends!” (I never knew what he might throw at me.)
Though we lived in different places, we became best friends from an early age. When we were young, he’d pour a heaping bowl of dry cereal and then add milk. Predictably, the cereal would spill onto the table. Every time. I asked, “Why not take less?” “I’m hungry.” “You can always get more.” He’d just grin, wipe his chin, and already be moving on to something else.
That was Andrew. He wanted a big bowl of life and wasn’t too concerned about details.
. . .
Many early memories involved juggling and clowning around, especially at Camp Casowasco in Moravia, NY. He was typically the more adventurous one. We’d get hopped up on Skittles and Mountain Dew, and he’d propose something brilliant like, “Let’s throw these clubs at each other!”
Our friend Eric was the guinea pig for one misadventure. We said, “We want to pass these clubs around your head.” Eric said, “Sure.” Andrew added, “Oh, and hold this pen in your mouth.” Eric shrugged, “Okay.” On our first attempt, we knocked Eric in the nose. He shook it off and said, “Try again.” After several tries, we were able to knock the target out of his mouth.
The challenges escalated after that. “Why not fire? Why not unicycles? Why not fire while ON unicycles?!” Well, here’s why not…
As teens, we showed off our fire juggling skills at camp. And it worked! However… We did it indoors with a low ceiling and set off the smoke alarms, and the campers had to evacuate the building. We said, “That was stupid. Let’s not do that again.” Yet we did!
As college students, we upped our game. We considered torches again at a performing arts ministry conference held at Roberts Wesleyan College. “What about smoke?” “No problem, high ceiling.”
This time it was in a big theater, on a narrow stage, in front of the main curtain, with Andrew on a balance board and me on a tall unicycle. And it worked! However… After a clean finish, I came down off my unicycle at an angle and fell off the stage. He hopped down with me, then we both popped up and said, “Ta da!” Everyone exhaled and applauded. Unfortunately, smoke rises. We set off the alarms and everyone had to evacuate. It was deja vu, all over again.
. . .
In Jest Co-founder
In college, Andrew found out about The Circus Kingdom, a nonprofit Christian circus devoted to spreading joy and good will. While I was doing more soul searching than adventure seeking at the time, we ended up touring the northeast U.S. together.
Along the way, we developed our talents and tried everything from acrobatics to wire walking to fire breathing. (My mom was a fire eater, so you’d think that last skill might come easily. You’d be wrong. Fortunately, my eyebrows have grown back.)
Soon after the circus, we co-founded In Jest: The Antic Arts Company. He jumped in with both feet to pursue performing, while I was finishing school and starting a family. Then he chose to go back to school, right when I decided to become a full-time performer and speaker.
Looking back, I can’t imagine doing all that I’ve done apart from his influence. Sure, I can point to the encouragement of others. After all, I had a mom who was a fire eater and mime, among other things. But so did my brothers. And they turned out normal. Okay, that’s debatable! The point is that they didn’t have Andrew. I did.
. . .
And Much More
We’ve only touched on friend, oddball, and In Jest co-founder. We haven’t gotten to entrepreneur, tree hugger, lover of souls, or peace seeker. And there are more great stories I could share… Boating, fishing, and fireworks at the cottage… The time I told a spooky campfire story and Andrew charged out of the woods to scare the campers, causing a stampede… His 30th birthday, when he insisted on going to Chuck E Cheese and playing in the ball pit with my kids and his mother…
There was also him living in an RV and making his way to California, where he considered joining a monastery. That’s where he met his wife, Sunny. (Let that sink in…)
Interestingly, we both married Asian Americans. Yet I think the real quirk of the universe is that Andrew and Sunny met through a monastery. How’s that for unorthodox? I still don’t get exactly how that went. How do you relinquish worldly attachments and get a woman’s phone number? In the end, they were both pursuing not monk-hood but meditation, mindfulness, and living well. Those were the things which brought them together.
However unconventional, the fruit of Andrew’s spiritual journey was evident… His heart for service, environmental consciousness, and non-aggression… Choosing unity over division and building up over tearing down… His ideas for compassionate capitalism or “philanthropic entrepreneurship”… How he was just as comfortable hanging with yogis, church youth, hippies, and corporate executives…
. . .
Closing Thoughts & Prayer
The word fool can refer to someone who is senseless or unwise. But the court fool brings joy to the king’s court. The dancing fool loves to dance. The holy fool “subverts convention or orthodoxy or varies from social conformity in order to reveal spiritual or moral truth” (see American Heritage Dictionary). These were all reflected in Andrew’s life.
Andrew respected the tradition of Kriya Yoga and Paramahansa Yogananda, who believed in the harmony of the teachings of Jesus Christ with all true spirituality. Yogananda taught some things which I believe might help when we’ve lost someone, if we listen with our hearts:
“We would not be human if we did not miss loved ones. [Yet…] When a dear one dies, instead of grieving unreasonably, realize that he has gone on to a higher plane at the will of God… Rejoice that he is free…” (PY)
“Our real self, the soul, is immortal. We may sleep for a little while in that change called death, but we can never be destroyed. We exist, and that existence is eternal. The wave comes to the shore, and then goes back to the sea; it is not lost.” (PY)
We can grieve reasonably, as we acknowledge our sadness. We can rejoice, as we embrace remembrance over regret. In time, we can find peace, perhaps as we watch the waves on the lake and realize that souls are not lost, except to waters of joy.
From joy people are born; for joy they live; in joy they melt at death.
–The Bhagavad Gita
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Within my soul I possess the unconquerable, unchangeable, ever new bliss of God.
O divine silent Laughter, be enthroned beneath the canopy of my countenance and smile through my soul.
–The Light of Smiles, a meditation of Yogananda which Andrew treasured
. . .
Our Father in Heaven, I desire…
To honor your name.
To see your kingdom come, your will be done.
To that end, and to celebrate Andrew’s life, I intend…
To embrace the adventures and the mysteries.
To remember that we are all connected.
To be present, playful, and thankful.
To know the bliss of God and to smile through my soul.
To have a big bowl of life.