Jessie meets Isaac
My daughter meets my son for the first time. Photo by Maggie Sebastian, Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0

Though the big event is still several months away, my hands know the softness, the feel of his healthy pudginess. My arms and back anticipate his weight. The soft, smooth feel of his hair long ago embedded themselves on my soul. Even the texture of the unpleasant, though common, are familiar. The feels of my unborn grandson are already writing themselves to my hard drive.

My nose tingles when I think of the smells. Both virulent and healing aromas weave themselves together in memory and hope. The smell of both rancid and aromatic are equally regarded when they tangle with my already boundless love for the boy to come. Hasn’t he always been? (Jeremiah 1:5)

Impulsive, divine tears and silly grins compete for top bill at the sounds of giggles and gurgles months before the first sound wave reaches my ear. Angst and worry have their moments as well when I well up at shrill sounds of illnesses that will have to be endured by the small one. He won’t understand and my heart will break. My limbs tense into rescue mode as I think about the communication sounds that will burst forth from one so new to earth.

The half-smiles, the pout I’ll love so much, that expression my son used to make that I’d forgotten, and even my grandfather’s nose have already inscribed themselves upon my heart. All of God’s hopes and dreams have conspired to create this winsome sight.

I can taste the boundless joy. My own, that of the remarkable woman who carries him in her womb, my very tall baby boy, and the confident and optimistic God who still believes in humanity.

Arms that Ache

“Touch has a memory.” –John Keats

After his death, my mother described her grief in physical terms, "my arms ache to hold him." Photo by Al Graves
After his death, my mother described her grief physically, “my arms ache to hold him.” Photo by Al Graves

After my 5-month-old nephew died, my mother described her grief physically, “My arms ache to hold him.” That was thirty years ago. And still sometimes I  remember the feel of Darren in my arms. I recall his ravenous appetite and his eyes. Darren’s bright, curious eyes would move about the room absorbing all there was to learn.

I saw Darren today.

At an adjacent table I spied the bald baby with the round face. His eyes moved about the fast food restaurant watching. I imagined how he would feel in my arms; I pictured his wise eyes looking at me as I fed him a bottle.

Though I am a professional baby-watcher, my emotional reaction to this child of strangers was more intense than my typical delight. Initially, I thought that I was so drawn to this particular child because of his physical similarities to my own children. Both my daughter and son came into this world quite round-faced and bald.

Darren saw me today.

That’s when he and I connected visually. As not-really-Darren surveyed the room, his eyes met mine. In a moment, Darren was still with us. In a flash, my brother and sister-in-law still had a five-month-old child who was beloved and filled with their hopes and dreams. Their intense grief and pain never happened.

Photo by Al Graves
In a moment, Darren was still with us. In a flash, my brother and sister-in-law still had a five-month-old child who was beloved and filled with their hopes and dreams. Their intense grief and pain never happened. Photo by Al Graves

I even imagined fond memories of placing my newborn daughter in the arms of her toddler cousin when my brother’s family came to welcome my firstborn home. When toddler Darren’s eyes met hers, they locked and a bond of friendship began.

But that is not how it happened. Darren did not live to be six months and my firstborn never knew her cousin.

Still, Darren’s influence within my family far exceeds his short five and one-half months.

Darren Michael Graves
From the backside of the photos included in this post.

Though I do not believe in a god that would ever intentionally bring this kind of grief on anyone, though the God I perceive is never arbitrary nor “needed Darren” more than his parents, the One still moves through grief, growing love. Despite and through the heartache of a tiny casket, God advanced love.

Not-really Darren reminded me that love is like that. The five-month-old infant of strangers reminded me that love can move through loss, grief, and even death if we respond to the whisper in our ear.

The extravagant love that undergirds and moves throughout our existence does not accept “no” as a final answer. The Divine spirit will use a rock, a twig, a sparrow, me or you, or even the infant of a stranger if we are open to the loving prompt.

Not-really Darren, the child of strangers, opened himself to that loving prompt today. At a mere five months a round faced cherub touched me. He reminded me that neither death nor three-decades of aching arms can thwart love.

Ignore the Baby Behind the Curtain

The Baby Bird's head can be seen at the bottom of the image just left of center. Mama Bird is in the
Baby Bird’s head can be seen at the bottom of the image just left of center. Mama Robin is in the branch at the top of the image just right of center. Photo by Tim Graves

When I first approached the tree, I noticed Mama Robin feeding Baby Bird a plump worm. I switched on my camera but I was too late. Mama Bird had spotted me. Counter-intuitively, she abandoned her child and moved to a higher branch. She began to make loud noises to attract my attention. It was as if she were shouting, “Over here! See me! Pay no attention to the baby behind the curtain!” Presumably, this was her way of protecting her youngest.

In a rare moment, Humming Mama stopped moving. Photo by Tim Graves
In a rare moment, Humming Mama stopped moving. Photo by Tim Graves

I’ve observed a similar behavior with the hummingbird nest at my back door. When I open the door,

Humming Mama leaves Tot in the nest and buzzes around my head. When she has my attention, she moves to a branch in the nearby tree. She continues to attention seek until I go back inside.

Neither mother is close enough to me that I could harm them. Their behavior is designed to self-preserve while protecting their vulnerable and weak offspring. Their behavior safeguards the weakest member of their communities.

Maybe we could learn something from the birds.

 ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ Matthew 25:40b CEB

No Big Deal

“It’s no big deal,” I said.

My first colonoscopy was performed on a Wednesday. The doctor was concerned enough with the results that he scheduled a colectomy — an invasive abdominal surgery — two days later. No big deal, I said. I even objected when my wife suggested that I would have to cancel an eye exam the following week. “I can make it,” I said.

Several things were happening when I denied the seriousness of the news the

This is a photo in my pre-op room the Friday morning before my right colon was removed. Photo by Maggie Sebastian
In the pre-op room the Friday morning before my right colon was removed, I still did not exhibit (or feel) intense anxiety. Looking at the photo now, however, I feel some anxiety. Sometimes not-knowing is bliss. Photo by Maggie Sebastian

doctor gave me following my colonoscopy. One, I was starving. My mind was not at its peak. At that point in time I had not had solid food beyond clear liquids for three days. I was functioning on about 500 calories a day; there are only so many cups of vegetable broth you can stomach.

Second, I think I knew at some level. I heard the words the doctor said. I even heard and intellectually accepted the seriousness of abdominal surgery of any kind. With a day-after-tomorrow surgery appointment, I did not have much time to process what was happening. Though, my wife and I talked some about the possibility that the biopsy following surgery would indicate cancer, we had very little time to discuss it. I had life-routines to reschedule and bow out of before surgery.

There were a few quiet tears that Wednesday evening as my wife and I pondered the unknown. It was my son Isaac, having flown in from Oakland to be with us, who raised the question most directly with me the next day. His pastoral tone was reassuring. He allowed me to entertain and discuss as much as I was comfortable with discussing. So, while I did not totally ignore the possibilities, I did not yet have time to explore in depth the magnitude of what I was facing.

I think my mind was protecting me. Human psychology sometimes builds up our acceptance of reality in small bits over time in much the way physical exercise gradually builds up muscle tone. Just as I had an unexpressed just-beneath-the-surface expectation that the colonoscopy would find a problem, I had an expectation that all would be well. Though it is irrational, I trusted my instinct that there was no cancer.

Finally, I think our life-lens matters. That is, the lens through which we view events in our lives colors what those events mean to us. My life lens is colored in hope and love. Even if the worst were to happen there are several things I knew:

  • The Divine would never leave me. My experience of the one that I call God is pure love, is non-coercive, never throws “tests” in our path, or punishes sins with health problems or hurricanes. God is always with us. God feels our pains, our joys, and all that we experience with a depth. Process theologian Monica A. Coleman describes God as, “knowing us from the inside out.”
  • I am beloved. My wife of nearly thirty-five years is my Imzadi, my soul-mate, and my other half. Whatever I would learn about my health in the coming weeks I knew to the marrow of my bones that she and I would face it together.
  • My son, who I told, “you don’t have to come” loves me. He would not only take care of me but he would ground his mother, my wife, by his mere presence. Whatever was to come, his love is of divine origin even should I be diagnosed with cancer and face chemotherapy.
  • My daughter Jessie, who also rallied round us with the advent of this no-big-deal event, would make me laugh. My beloved first-born, Jessie, “gets me” in a way that Isaac and Maggie do not. Perhaps this is because our core personalities have many similarities. Not only did I anticipate her skillful use of humor when it was needed, I knew that she and I would have deep conversations when we were ready. I also knew that she would motivate me. (She was the first one to motivate me to take a significant walk in the hospital hallway post-operatively.)

My life lens and these fundamental knowings, gave me the luxury to slowly come to terms with the fears, anxieties, and significance of the surgery I awaited. These knowings allowed me to lament that God Hides God’s Face From Me without fear of retribution. My family’s loving presence, their patience with my denial, my perception of the divine, and my psychology allowed me to come to terms with my reality on, well, on my own terms.


This is the fourth of multiple posts about my experiences of surgery and recovery following a colonoscopy.

Related Posts

God Hides God’s Face From Me! May 20, 2014
Unnatural May 21, 2014
Out of Chaos May 27, 2014
No Big Deal May 29, 2014
Mortality June 3, 2014
Wiped Memories June 6, 2014
Perseverance June 10, 2014
Scars June 19, 2014

Why do I write about this topic?

Following my surgery I had a myriad of feelings. A myriad of web searches to find the stories of others, perhaps to validate my own emotions, left me empty handed. And, so, I write these posts to process my very real feelings and in the hopes that someone else finds them useful following their surgery and recovery.

Being Remembered

Being Remembered

Listen here or read below.

Molly was just a kid. She didn’t know why the bitter cold Chicago wind blew through the holes in Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 7.23.23 PMthe side of her dilapidated house. Molly didn’t know that not everyone had rats mating in the rafters above their beds at night. Maybe the other kids huddled around their wood stoves in one room because it was too cold to be in the rest of the house.

They didn’t say.

She only knew that the other kids laughed at how she dressed in hand-me-down pants, thrift store tops, and old lady shoes her aunt got her for free.

A twinge of guilt comes over Molly when she thinks about the time she dropped an open can of peaches on the floor. Her mother was soooo angry. Her mother said, “Molly! You careless child! What were you doing? You dropped the last can of fruit we have!”

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Sarah could feel the disapproving eyes on the back of her neck when she swiped her Oregon Trail card to pay for the groceries. Then it was the tap tap tap of the well-dressed professional woman’s fingers on the counter…

The tapping cut into her very soul as Sarah dug for and counted out pennies to buy a twenty-five cent candy for her three-year-old.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

At forty-five Delia still struggled to have a normal sex life with her husband. Bob was a good man but he didn’t understand why she sometimes cringed when he came up behind her too quietly and touched her shoulder.

Delia didn’t like surprises. She’d had too many of those from her mother’s boyfriends when she was growing up. Some of the boyfriends were nice and never touched her but Mom seemed to have a knack for finding the wrong man.

There was one boyfriend who moved in for two years. He seemed to take pleasure in coming to Delia’s room every night after Mom was asleep.

Delia didn’t feel safe during the daytime either. He would shove himself up against her while pretending to give Delia a fatherly hug. He would do it while Mom was making dinner and give Delia a look that dared her to say anything.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Frank had good days and bad days. Folks in town didn’t understand why he went through stretches of time — especially in the winter — when he never stopped in at the pub for a beer with the boys. His wife grew impatient with his seeming inability to do anything around the house.

She told him to get his lazy butt off the couch but putting up the storms just seemed like an impossible task.  Frank couldn’t explain why he had no energy. No pep. No desire. Frank just knew he was depressed. It took every ounce of energy he had to go to work at all.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.


It seems kind of odd to have this passage in the lectionary on the Sunday before Advent. Why would we want to look at Jesus dying on the cross? It’s not like we even get the resurrection. We just get a depressing story of the One the disciples thought would restore Israel, hanging on the cross between two criminals.

Today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year is traditionally marked as Reign of Christ Sunday, sometimes it’s called Christ the King Sunday. As someone who has a low christology, meaning that in my personal faith, I relate to the human Jesus more than the divine Jesus, . . .

I’ve often found this special Sunday of the liturgical year to be less meaningful than others. The imagery of a king does not speak to me. I know it holds great meaning for others but for me, not-so-much.

Raised in a denomination that grew out of the American frontier, I find it hard to think of Christ as king. Christ as guide, that’s cool. Christ as teacher, that works. Christ as model, absolutely. Even Christ as companion works for me.

But I struggle with the concept and image of Christ sitting on a throne with a crown and scepter. Perhaps I’m too egalitarian, too ingrained in our American experience in which leaders are elected.

And, so, perhaps I’m more fortunate than the disciples when I try to understand this passage from Luke in light of Christ the King Sunday. Unlike the disciples, both the apostles and the other loyal followers of Jesus, I understand that Jesus is not a king in the ilk of David. He’s not a king who will restore the earthly kingdom of Israel.

Now…Like you, I know the rest of the story. This king — this messiah — who comes to us as an itinerant rabbi, who eats with tax collectors and the oppressed is not gonna kick Herod’s tooshie back to Rome. For the apostles and other disciples, the cross was a shock! The king to whom they and we claim allegiance, is dying on a cross unable, in the words of his tormentors, to even save himself.

What does this pericope, this section of Luke’s gospel tell us about the king we call savior? What do we learn about the kingdom of God, about what I call God’s realm?

First, we know Jesus is not going to kick Rome out of Israel. Jesus’ kingdom, God’s realm is not a military power. Of course had we been listening to Jesus as he wandered the countryside, we would know this already. As Nancy Lynne Westfield points out,

Jesus spends more time talking about the Kingdom of God than any other topic or issue…Jesus spent much of his ministry describing the kingdom of God as having different rules and different expectations from the rules and laws and penalties of humanity. (Feasting On The Word, Kindle loc. #12487)

Second, Jesus doesn’t stop thinking about and caring for others — for us — even as he is dying.

 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Luke 23:34a CEB

 I confess that when I am suffering, even if only from a nasty cold, I am less empathetic and less concerned about others. It’s not that I’ll cease to care about you when I’m under the weather but I am less likely to think about you. It’s not something of which I’m proud but it is true.

In Jesus, however, is a ruler who despite torture, beatings, mockery, and certain death prays for his enemies as he is dying at their hands. The Realm of God is a place of undying love. It is a place in which we are all beloved of God.

Third, we learn in this passage that God in Jesus remembers every single one of us. We learn that even a criminal who in his own words is “rightly condemned…[and] receiving the appropriate sentence for what [he] did” (Luke 23:41 CEB) is beloved by God!

Notice the sequence of events between the criminal who asks,

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t require a catechism class. Jesus doesn’t require recitation of a creed. Jesus doesn’t require the criminal to say, you are the only way to God. He doesn’t require the “correct” theology or that the criminal join the UCC. Jesus doesn’t even require baptism.

What Jesus does is, he responds immediately saying,“I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43b CEB

We learn that God’s Realm is open to the most incorrigible, those who have committed heinous acts, to mothers who scold children who drop peaches, to child abusers, and impatient professionals in the grocery line.

God’s Realm is open to each and everyone of us. Grace is grace is grace is grace.

 Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.


Molly’s mom was doing the best she could to hold the family together. Food was expensive and they had very little. She felt so guilty every time she thought back to the day she reamed Molly out for spilling those peaches.

It was just so hard to make ends meet. They were on food stamps after she’d been laid off, they were out of cash, they were out of everything…and it was still three days until her Oregon Trail card would be reloaded.

She wished she could tell Molly how sorry she was for that day, but she was just too embarrassed and too ashamed.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Phyllis was in such a hurry that day but she had to run into the market for just a few things. She got in a slow line and then — THEN — the woman in front of her whips out her Oregon Trail card. “Must be nice,” thought Phyllis. I have to make ends meet AND pay for her!

The woman in front of her looked so much more “put together” than Phyllis felt. Phyllis wished she could be casually doing the groceries with her children. She wished someone else would pay for her groceries.

Instead she was on the way to a high-pressure meeting.

Phyllis didn’t realize until the woman was on the way out the door that she’d been tap tap tapping her fingers on the counter.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Joe was in prison. He’d gotten sloppy. He’d molested the wrong child and he’d been caught.

Joe had found Jesus in prison. A lot of folks thought it was a ploy to get parole sooner. They didn’t think he was sincere.

Though Joe still had desires for kids, he understood that it wasn’t ok behavior. Joe was genuinely sorry for what he’d done through the years. Anyway, Joe found Jesus in prison. And he realized that regardless of what he desired, it was a sin to act on it. He realized that it was wrong to hurt others.

He also knew that though he didn’t deserve it, Jesus forgave him. The prison chaplain called that grace.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Finally, after three years of his friggin’ laziness, Frank’s wife kicked him to the curb. He just laid around the house. She couldn’t get him to even go out for a beer with his friends let alone take her out dancing or put up the storm windows.

Someone suggested he was depressed but she knew better. Frank was just a lazy good-for-nothing and she threw him out.

She wasn’t sorry either. She had to take care of herself. She had to start living her own life.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.


We are all sinners. Sometimes we ask forgiveness. Sometimes we know we should ask forgiveness and we don’t. Sometimes we’ve hurt others and we don’t even realize it.

Always God loves us. Always God nudges us, trying to get us to listen and change. Always God pushes us to forgo judging and empathize with others. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.

Always God loves. Love doesn’t give up. It doesn’t say, “yes, but”. It encourages us to right behavior. It nudges us to mimic Christ.

But always Love forgives. Love is grace.

We’re often uncomfortable with this kind of grace, this kind of love. It seems so impractical and over-the-top. We want to set boundaries for love. Writes Nancy Lynne Westfield,

This kind of forgiveness is a challenging notion for many of us. Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. (Feasting On The Word, Kindle loc. 12492)

But in the unfolding realm of God, we are called to live by different rules. In the unfolding realm of God, we are all beloved.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

[And] Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43 CEB



This sermon was preached by Tim Graves at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on November 24, 2013. Tim took the SNAP Challenge during the week prior; he was on the final day of the experience on the day he preached this sermon. The text for the sermon is Luke 23:33-43.

SNAP: Ouch, Ouch, Ouch

I came across this blog from Rebecca Barnes, who is also taking the SNAPChallenge this week. She is including her family in the experience. I teared up reading this c

omment from her blog,

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 7.27.16 AM“Last night, I actually pretended I couldn’t read my sweet girl’s pantomime of wanting a drink from the snackbar, during her second game of the evening for which she was working hard as a cheerleader. I thought, I should have made her take a water bottle. I should have planned better, even though earlier she said no, she didn’t want to take her water bottle. I can’t afford to go buy her a drink. But, she’s standing there, thirsty, and I’m looking away. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.”

I’m not teary because of this child; we know that the SNAP Challenge her family is taking is a contrived learning and advocacy experience. I cry because too many mothers and fathers and too many children live like this every day in the wealthiest nation on the planet.

“Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion?And, that, THAT is a sin for which we are collectively responsible. Luke 11:11-12 CEB

When we place mothers and fathers in the position of giving their children scorpions when they need fish, we sin. We live in the wealthiest country on the earth. When children are hungry, we have failed. All of us. We have all sinned.

Related Articles
Opening Our Hearts to the Hungry, Condon United Church of Christ website
SNAP Challenge, um, Maybe Not Today 11-19-13
SNAP: Getting Serious, Getting Anxious 11-20-13
SNAP: The Veggie-Noodle Balance 11-21-13
SNAP: The Glop That Plops 11-22-13

Through Others’ Eyes

Through Others’ Eyes

I am at the IDEC (the International Democratic Education Conference) in Boulder, Colorado. This is a uniquely structured, “unlike any other” conference of educators and students that is hosted each year in different locations around the globe. I am here seeking inspiration, to learn from my global kindred, and to be among people who envision a future in which every child and adult is affirmed as a beloved, respected individual.

My home-base group includes people from the UK, Mexico, Japan, and multiples US states. Photo by International Democratic Education Conference 2013.
My home-base group includes educators and others from the UK, Mexico, Japan, and multiple US states.IDEC 2013 includes participants from 36 countries. Photo by International Democratic Education Conference 2013.

One of the features of the conference this year are home-base groups. Each day, we meet with the same small group to reflect on our experiences of the day.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two reflections shared by two women this afternoon: one from England and the other from Japan.

Having spent some time observing people on Boulder’s Pearl Street (a closed street area of shops and restaurants) a woman from England characterized Americans as a people of openness and generosity. Describing the interactions between people and a street performer she said, “What a wonderful culture!”

I confess I felt pride in my homeland as I listened to her. Yes, despite our problems, we are a good people. However, I was quickly reminded that we’re also a people who are capable of unleashing violence on others.

Today was the 68th Anniversary of the nuclear strike against Hiroshima, a fact which was not in my consciousness. It was, however, on the mind of a Japanese woman in my group. She lamented the destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear power as evident in the Fukushima disaster. I detected no anger with Americans; she never mentioned us. However, our role in this human tragedy was not lost on me.

Her sadness with the evils humanity can wreak were superseded by her passion for changing the world. A young woman, I felt hopeful listening to her speak on this disgraceful anniversary in human (and American) history.

Human beings are messy. The same people — my people — who are open and generous are also capable of great evil. The truth is that humanity is imperfect and fragmented. Yet, at IDEC I feel hopeful; it doesn’t have to be this way.

And so this evening, I simply pray that we find the holy within each other that we might realize we are One. When we do, we will be reluctant to harm one another. When we do, I am convinced that God will dance a jig of joy!

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11 CEB

The Way It’s Supposed to Be


My mantra over the last few days has been, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way!” No, I’m not talking about my baby boy getting married. I always thought that would happen. Neither am I in any way disappointed in who my son Isaac is marrying. I adore Breetel; I couldn’t have picked anyone better.

Two weeks ago I got sick. Very sick. Sicker than I’ve ever been. It was (and is) serious, requiring treatment and time before I’m fully myself again. I don’t yet have the energy level that I’m accustomed to having. And, so, I tire before activities are over. I excuse myself and go to bed early when I’d like to socialize.

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” I whine. My image of this wedding weekend included a stamina that I simply don’t yet have. But I’ve been missing the point.

I’ve been looking at this the wrong way. I’ve been viewing this weekend, especially my role and my stamina, through the wrong set of eyeglasses. Two weeks ago, I would not have been able to be here.

I am here.

Though I am not at my peak, I am present in this weekend in which two families are getting acquainted. I am present as two families unite to celebrate that our children have found love. They’ve found the soulmate kind of love. They’ve found the kind of love in which one couple is greater than the sum of two individuals.

Slipping on the right the right set of eyeglasses, I realize this is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.