One Way or Another

One Way or Another

I’ve seen images this week of my old teenage stomping grounds under siege. I’ve seen the area where I began raising my own children torn apart when a young man was shot dead by a police officer.


I graduated from McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri. My best friend in high school, who was later the best man at my wedding, lived in Ferguson.

After college and a brief stint in another city, Maggie and I began to raise our family in St. Louis. We bought a house that is only 4-1/2 miles from the QuikTrip that was burned Sunday night.

My Dad passed that very convenience store twice last Sunday as he gave someone a ride to church and back home.

My dad lives 2-1/2 miles from where some of the looting took place. When our kids were small, my folks, my sister and brother and their families, and Maggie and I with our own kids would gather at a restaurant in that shopping plaza.

When I talked to my Dad on the phone this week, the man who is rarely rattled, seemed unnerved by the events in his own backyard. He told me stories of my nephew Jacob and his friends (all young men of color) being harassed by police.

And, so, this is personal.

My emotions are invested in this national story because people I love are a part of it.  I have heard on-the-ground reports from my former church youth group leader, a former employee, and my other nephew Bryan. 

But even if this weren’t personal, as a Christian I should be appalled: an unarmed 18-year-old boy was shot dead on the street.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine the grief of that mother and father? Can you? I’ve tried but somehow I can’t quite put myself in their place. Maybe that’s because I’m white. Maybe that’s because the mental picture is too horrifying and my psyche is protecting me.

When I was in my teen years, my friends and I did some stupid things in that area of St. Louis. Once, for example, I was stopped by the cops for a, um, questionable driving maneuver. My biggest fear was getting a ticket and having to tell my parents. I got off with a stern warning and I didn’t tell my parents.

It never even occurred to me that my life might be at risk. It never occurred to me that I should put my hands on the outside of the car door as actor Levar Burton does to assure he’s not shot by a nervous police officer because of the color of his skin.

It is within this context that Michael Brown was shot. I don’t know the circumstances of the shooting anymore than any one of you does. What I do know is that we have a race problem in this country and we refuse to talk about it in a productive way.

Those of us who have light skin, may not be actively racist but we all have racist imperfections having been raised within our culture. We may not be actively or verbally racist but we still benefit from the color of our skin because of systemic racism that views us as the norm. We benefit from things within our institutions and culture simply because of the color of our skin.

Talking about race is hard. It is messy. It is uncomfortable. It can be painful!

It’s also easy to ignore when you’re white.

But avoidance doesn’t work. When we fail to talk about racism the problems don’t go away. They just come out in unhealthy ways. We don’t grow as a human family…we just stagnate and learn to mistrust our sisters and brothers. When we don’t talk about race, when we ignore the problem we find ourselves drawing circles of insiders and outsiders.


Our human inclination to define boundaries of worthiness between ourselves and others is not new to our age. Our desire to  claim God’s love for ourselves, and those like us, while excluding folks who are different has been going on for a very long time.

In our scripture lesson from the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul addresses the drawing of circles that exclude others from God.

Early in the history of the church, the gentile Romans to whom he writes had already drawn a circle that excluded those Jews who did not view Jesus as the messiah. They thought that because some Jews did not accept Jesus as Christ that they were outside God’s love.

Paul reminds the Gentiles that he himself is a Jew when he writes,

I’m an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. Romans 11:1b CEB

He reminds them that God made a covenant with Abraham and God doesn’t break promises. Paul reminds them that,

God hasn’t rejected [God’s] people, whom he knew in advance…God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back. Romans 11:2:a, 29 CEB

God’s love is not conditional. God created each human being in the divine image, God’s hopes and dreams for each of us is endless. As Paul wrote earlier in his letter to Rome, “nothing can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 CEB).

And, so, when we draw circles that exclude others from our love and from God’s love, we sin. When we participate in racism, a hateful and extreme form of exclusion, we participate in sinfulness.

When we fail to recognize that racism is real because, well, we’re white and we have that option…

We sin.

When we fail to see racism because we have a black president and that means racism is over…

We sin.

When we fail to speak out when a friend begins a sentence with, “those blacks”…

We sin.

When four unarmed black men have been shot by police this month alone and we fail to ask why (1)…We sin.

When our inactions & indifference tell our sisters and brothers of color that their boys are outside of our circle of concern and God’s circle of love…

We sin.


The Good News is that God’s plans for humanity are,

plans for peace, not disaster, to give [us] a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11b CEB

It is time to take our heads out of the sand about racism and strive to be a part of God’s plan for love, for peace, and for hope for all peoples.

We can do that by opening our minds and our hearts. We can do that by listening to the mothers and fathers who fear for the lives of their boys <> on August 12, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.and to those who have already lost their sons.

As followers of the One who endured ridicule, torture, and who overcame death we are each called to love. We’re called to love,

God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength…[and] love [our] neighbor as ourselves. Mark 12:30-31

The Apostle Paul says God’s call is irrevocable. Open your hearts and minds to our neighbors who suffer under the scourge of racism. Face the challenges and messiness of racism and work for justice.

One way or another, God’s love will prevail. Choose to be a part of it. Live your calling so that one day humanity can say,

Look at how good and pleasing it is when families live together as one (Psalm 133:1 CEB)



This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Condon is a tiny town in rural, eastern Oregon. The church community, reflecting the larger community, is nearly all white.

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It Was Bound to Happen

It Was Bound to Happen

Yes, I’m the pastor. Yes, I’ve been praying the prayer since childhood. Yes, I lead the prayer every Sunday.


Still, it was bound to happen.

I’ve feared it would and it finally did. I messed up the Lord’s Prayer. And I don’t mean I substituted trespasses for debts forgetting the tradition of this particular congregation. (There are many slight variations of the prayer.) I mean I jumped from the first lines to the end of the prayer. The congregation confused by my mixup, sat in silence and I had to return to the beginning of the prayer to get back on track.

I guess this kind of thing is why I consistently find reassurance from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Writes the apostle about prayer,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Romans 8:26-27 NRSV

As one who is often called to lead public prayer, the experience of forgetting lines of a prayer so well known is a humbling experience. It is also a reminder that it is not the words I speak but the content of my soul that reaches God. It is also an opportunity to display my humanity before my congregation and give them the opportunity to love me and forgive me through my human flaws.

Altogether, not a bad experience.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

Why’d the Caterpillar Cross the Trail?

Why’d the Caterpillar Cross the Trail?

Had I not be on the ground, literally on my hands and knees, I would not have noticed the difference in the trail surface. Part of the trail was made up of loose dirt while another area of it was packed densely like asphalt. The trail sloped downward.

When I first noticed the caterpillar, it was on the rough, loose dirt. It moved forward and then gravity and the loose dirt caused the caterpillar to roll over, landing on its side. Righting itself, the elongated creature proceeded to move forward across the trail again. This time it landed completely on its back. Once again it righted itself. It moved forward a fraction of an inch only to slide downward and onto its back again.

Eventually through a combination of perseverance and gravity, the caterpillar was on the densely-packed area of the trail. Once it reached dense-pack, the caterpillar quickly reached the other edge of the trail.

I don’t know why the caterpillar crossed the trail but I know it did. It didn’t make it to the other side because it was easy. It didn’t make it to the other side without the protection of circumstance. (If I’d not been nearby, a bird could’ve swooped in to make it dinner.) Of course, where some see luck, I see the involvement of the one I call God.

Perhaps the Divine energy that connects human beings, every rock, each spring wildflower, and the majestic bald eagle persuaded me to pause and marvel at the caterpillar’s journey. Perhaps, in this moment the One who knows all the possibilities that free-will might create used the persuasion available to divinity and lured me to take the most loving action in that moment.

The caterpillar beginsits journey across the trail. Photo by Tim Graves
The caterpillar begins its journey across the trail. Photo by Tim Graves
The caterpillar is the victim of gravity and the shifting ground. Photo by Tim Graves
The caterpillar is the temporary victim of gravity and the shifting ground. Photo by Tim Graves
The caterpillar struggles on the loose ground. Photo by Tim Graves
Rolling back right-side up, the caterpillar continues the struggle to move across the loose ground. Photo by Tim Graves

But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Romans 5:3-5 CEB

Service of Scripture & Prayer (In Empathy & Solidarity with the People of Boston)

Service of Scripture & Prayer (In Empathy & Solidarity with the People of Boston)

Service of Scripture & Prayer

In Empathy & Solidarity with the People of Boston

Condon United Church of Christ

April 19, 2013

The stained glass window at Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ. Photo by Tim Graves
The stained glass window at Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ. Photo by Tim Graves

The People Gather

Prelude When Night Becomes Dark (Taize Community)

Call to Worship (Please say responsively)

L: We gather this evening to express our anguish and horror at what our sisters and brothers are experiencing in Boston. Connected as one human family, we feel their fear, their anxiety, and share the urge to hold our children and one another tightly.

P: We are speechless and horrified by what has become of our world and our nation. 

L: Our Lord and Savior, too, experienced grief in our human condition saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Luke 13:34 CEB

We gather in the presence of friends and neighbors to console one another and to reach across the continent in prayer and solidarity with your people in Boston.

Invocation (Please say together.)

Make yourself known in Massachusetts, in Texas and Florida, in Oregon and every place in between. Heighten our senses that we might focus on your love that transcends evil in this world. Remind us tonight that we are one human family across the globe. Amen.

The People Express their Woe to God

Music In Our Darkest Hour (Taize Community)

Ancient Words of Terror

My whole body is completely terrified! But you, LORD! How long will this last? Come back to me, LORD! Deliver me! Save me for the sake of your faithful love! I’m worn out from groaning. Every night, I drench my bed with tears; I soak my couch all the way through. My vision fails because of my grief; it’s weak because of all my distress. Get away from me, all you evildoers, Psalm 6:3-4, 6-8a CEB

Silent Prayer

Response (Please say together.)

   Lord have mercy upon us.

   Christ have mercy upon us. 

   Lord have mercy upon us.

Today’s Words of Terror

L: We stare at the television, yearning to know what is going on in the East. Our anxiety grows and we wonder, “could it happen here?” We empathize with our those in Boston. while the announcers speculate and chatter.

P: The announcers seek to explain but it is inexplicable how one of our fellow citizens could blow up children and runners. We don’t understand; we’re afraid. We hear the words and see the pictures from our homes. 

L: We went about our daily routines while our kindred were confined to their homes for fear of a young man’s anger. We’re afraid. We feel the terror of a world filled with anger and hatred. Hear these words from Facebook, from a daughter talking about her mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

“My mother, who is 81, lives in Cambridge, just a few blocks from Memorial Drive. Some of last night’s events happened near her home. She’s at home, with food and water and is “fine”. But on the phone with her this afternoon, she started rambling about cars that have come down her street sounding funny (one of which she reported to the police), about how it feels like during WWII when there was a neighborhood air raid warden who would come around to check if your black out curtains were letting any light out, about how many suspects there are and where they are (not agreeing with the news coverage). And alot more.

It brings home to me how HUGE a shock it is to have this attack happen. Mum can ramble some, but it was much worse this afternoon – a sign of how this is really affecting her, even though she is safe. Feels a little like the canary in the mine – we are all affected, but it just shows in different ways. Let us all be extra kind to each other, reach out to our Boston friends and family, and remember our elders – who may be having flashbacks to another time of war..…”

P: The safety, the security, and all that we thought was possible within the borders of our great country have once again been shattered by hatred and violence. We weep as children and runners are victims of gun violence and bombs.

Silent Prayer

Response (Please say together.)

   Lord have mercy upon us.

   Christ have mercy upon us. 

   Lord have mercy upon us.

The People Plead for Help

Ancient Words of Pleading

LORD, hear my prayer! Let my cry reach you! Don’t hide your face from me in my time of trouble! Listen to me! Answer me quickly as I cry out! Because my days disappear like smoke, my bones are burned up as if in an oven; my heart is smashed like dried-up grass. I even forget to eat my food because of my intense groans.  My bones are protruding from my skin. I’m like some wild owl— like some screech owl in the desert. I lie awake all night. I’m all alone like a bird on a roof. All day long my enemies make fun of me; those who mock me curse using my name! I’ve been eating ashes instead of bread. I’ve been mixing tears into my drinks because of your anger and wrath, because you picked me up and threw me away. Psalm 102: 1-10 CEB

Silent Prayer

Response (Please say together.)

   Lord have mercy upon us.

   Christ have mercy upon us. 

   Lord have mercy upon us.

Today’s Words of Pleading (Please say responsively.)

L: Enough! Put an end to this now we beg you, God. Enough is enough. We endured 9/11 and said, “no more.”

P: And yet there have been more.

L: Enough! Put an end to this now we beg you, God. Enough is enough. We endured the separation from our sisters and brothers as they fought for ten years in Iraq. We continue to endure separation from our sons and daughters as they fight in Afghanistan. We say “no more.” Put an end to this now we beg you, God.

P: And yet evil continues. Evil is still in our midst. 

L: Children are killed in their schools and at the Boston marathon. Our countryfolk huddle in their homes afraid to venture out. Our children are traumatized.

ALL: We don’t understand.

Silent Prayer

Response (Please say together.)

   Lord have mercy upon us.

   Christ have mercy upon us. 

   Lord have mercy upon us.

God Reassures the People

Words of Assurance

L: Though we live in a world in which it too often seems like evil has the upper hand, our holy texts remind us that this existence is temporary. Our Savior who roamed the countryside, the villages, and Jerusalem teaching and healing was rejected. He was killed on the cross by our ancient kindred.

P: All seemed lost.

L: Ah, but on the third day, when the women went to the tomb they found it empty. Our Lord and Savior lives! The extravagant love of our God is not contained by terror, by fears, or by hatred. The unimaginable and undeserved love of the One overcomes even death.

The apostle Paul writing to the Romans reminds us,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;

we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35-39 NRSV

P: Praise be to God!

Hymn Amazing Grace #547

Scripture Psalm 23 NRSV (Please say together.)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.


Postlude Make Me a Channel of Your Peace

Theologies Evolve as We Seek the Divine

A tweet by @MattRWilkins crossed my Twitter stream this morning. Wrote Wilkins, “Many are redefining the theology of the church today & in so doing they are redefining God. Mark it down, God is NOT up for redefinition!” Wilkins’ implications in this tweet are problematic in many ways. I will address five in this post. 

1) He implies that theology is somehow “of God.” Quite the contrary: theologies are “of people.” Theologies are human attempts at understanding the inexplicable. Much of the biblical witness is a collection of theologies by the original authors. They often vary because God is inexplicable. They conflict because each of the ancient’s experiences of the Divine were filtered through personal experiences, culture, time and place in history, and scientific understanding of how the world works. The same can be said of contemporary theologies. 

2) He implies that the church has a unanimity of opinion. The historical record contradicts the idea that “the church” has ever been of one mind theologically. The times when the Roman church had multiple popes, the Protestant reformation, and the Catholic counter-reformation are but a few examples of times when theologies were far from singular. The only way to argue that the church has ever had one theology is to exclude vast numbers of followers of Jesus from the church. 

All who profess Jesus and seek to follow his teachings, however imperfectly, are part of the church, of the body of Christ. We all have spiritual gifts to contribute to the whole.

3) He implies that the theologies of the church have never changed. As humanity has sought to understanding the spiritual realm ideas have evolved. This is true within Christianity. In seeking to understand the nature of God, for example, followers of Jesus developed trinitarian theology over centuries.

The trinity is a post-biblical interpretation of the scriptures which expands upon themes within the Bible. I tend to use trinitarian language because it helps me describe my experiences of God. This language is not the literal nature of God. It is a human construct designed to understand the Divine. Other followers of Jesus, part of the church, do not subscribe to trinitarian theologies. 

4) He implies that God is silent in our age. To suggest that our understanding of the nature of God was complete at some point in the past, suggests humans can define God. He intimates that God no longer speaks. To do so is to deny the entire Pentecostal movement, the everyday experiences of billions, and to restrict the Divine. A silent God is a dead God.

5) Most alarming is that he implies that he owns God. In dismissing all but his own theology, and those who agree with him, the tweeter himself defines God. To maintain this arrogance he must dismiss the experiences of those who find the Divine in other ways. He lays a stumbling block before others and acts as the gatekeeper to Jesus’ love.

Reading this tweet, I imagined a man standing with his arms crossed stubbornly in front of Jesus. Those willing to define God in the way in which he defines God, are welcomed and hugged by Jesus. Those who do not, are forcibly removed.

I experience God differently. The One I experience, stands before us all with open arms. Encouraging us forward, smiling and exuding joy in our mere presence. Like a toddler attempting a first step, if we fall God picks us up, brushes off our knees, sheds a tear with us, wipes our eyes, and wraps Divine arms around us. If we are able to take those first toddler steps, God’s face lights up and divine arms of joy wrap around us. Whether we fall or toddle forward, the God I know, whispers in our ear, You are my Beloved.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 38-39 NRSV (Read this passage in context.)

Praying as we ought


I wish you could see the Holy Spirit in your eyes like I do.

It is my pattern to pray with folks at the end of every pastoral visit. I often mention something that we’ve discussed or that I’ve sensed is on your heart. Sometimes I stumble over my words. Sometimes the words flow. Sometimes I don’t name that which you are most concerned to share. Regardless, when I finish my prayer and we make eye contact, as we typically do, I see the Holy Spirit has done the Holy Spirit’s work. Sometimes you express the feeling and tell me thank you. Sometimes you express it only in your eyes. However it is that you express it, I see in your eyes and demeanor that the Spirit has interceded and our prayer has reached God.

As we discussed prayer in one of my classes this week, I thought about you. I thought about the Advocate who takes our conscious words, thoughts, and feelings as well as that which we have not yet felt, spoken, or thought and intercedes with God with “sighs too deep for words.” This is what Paul wrote about in Romans 8,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Romans 8: 26-27 NRSV

In seminary this week, we’ve spent time trying to find just the right words to pray. We’ve been seeking just the right phrases and punctuation to use in public prayer. As Paul tells us, though, ultimately none of that matters. If you or I stumble in our prayers, God hears and knows. If you or I have poetic words, God hears and knows. If you or I say words that are far from the truth or brutally honest, God hears and knows. God hears and knows because we have the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who intercedes on our behalf. And it is the Holy Spirit that I see in your eyes after we pray.

An Irritated and Loving God

Daily Lectionary Readings
Job 38: 1-11
Matthew 17: 14-21
Acts 2: 43-47

God is so faithful to us and, yet, we forget our morning prayers or have the faith of a mustard seed not believing that God will do as God promises. I appreciate the image of the irritated God in Job and the aggravated Jesus in Matthew. It truly does remind me of parenting. As we step on a lego left in the middle of the floor we shout in aggravation, “How many times do I have to tell you…?” And, sometimes, when our children are whiny and they want what they want and they simply don’t understand the big picture of bills and work and adult responsibilities, we just go on a rant as God does when he is fed up with Job’s lamentations. I suppose I like these images of Jesus and God because 1.) I don’t feel as bad about my aggravations as a parent, and 2.) I know how very much I love my children even when I lose my cool with them. If God and Jesus love us even that much, and the Bible tells us they love us even more than that, then there truly is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8: 38-39)

Loving and forgiving father,

Thank you for all that you have done for me even when I forget my morning prayers because my routine has changed, even when I treat someone poorly because of my selfish feelings or needs. I am grateful that you love me as a father loves his child.


Cross-posted from

What is permanent?

Two weeks ago on the drive back from my daughter’s college graduation, we discussed Buddhism and her trip to Bhutan.One of the ideas that stuck in my mind was this: the reason we have trouble accepting things, death in particular, is because we view circumstances, feelings, and events as permanent.I have had a number of opportunities to reflect on this over the last few weeks and found this concept helpful.When I bumped the car door causing a big dent and feeling really stupid, I reminded myself that this feeling was only temporary.I found myself accepting my humanness and my dented door much quicker than I typically accept such things.

And then John Cole died suddenly in a motor scooter accident.(John Cole was the subject of a blog I wrote in January.)My initial reaction was one of disbelief and denial:“If I just wake up, this terrible dream will be over.”As his death becomes more real, I have been processing my feelings by reminding myself that these feelings of loss are temporary.All of life is temporary I remind myself.

So, has it taken away the feelings?Of course not.I am in pain, I am in shock, and I find myself bursting into tears or welling up as I feel the loss of this man who has influenced my faith by his words and deeds.

What is not permanent?

My time in relationship with John Cole was clearly temporary; I only knew him for a few years.Even my time with my wife of nearly twenty-seven will come to an end.Feelings of embarrassment, mistakes, war, and joy are also temporary.(I am reminded that there is a season for everything.)

I am finding, however, that this Buddhist concept of impermanence is helping me grow in my Christian faith. While my time knowing John Cole was temporary, the things that he taught me about a Christian lifestyle continue.I am already finding myself growing in my faith as a result of his death.I am committing myself to actions that may take me out of my comfort zone.If John is no longer around to greet everyone who enters my church on Sunday morning, I must come out of my introverted self to greet people.And what amazes me is that others in my faith community appear to already be feeling this growth, too.

This morning adults already began to find ways to fill the many—and there are many—voids left by this child of God who has left us so suddenly.I saw men pay special attention to John’s grandchildren.I saw mothers and fathers reach out to each other in support.I saw laughter as the joy of John Cole was remembered.

So what is permanent?

The unconditional love of God is permanent.If we let it, it can flow through us to others. This is the same love that each of us felt from John and it is what made John so special to us.John’s essence was the way in which he listened to the Spirit and allowed himself to be lured into joyful acts of compassion and love for others. That essence is still with us.

38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 38-39 (NIV)