Within One Flower

Life and Death WM

Those horrible shows,
loathsome portrayals,
at our worst.

The glory of ugliness,
violence, hate, death,
only self.

Others as objects,
to be groped or killed,
mostly both.

I sob.

 

Those horrible souls,
our human leaders,
real people.

Hurting others, self,
compassionless works,
for power.

“For me! For mine! Us!
But not for those ones,
they are evil!”

I ache.

 

Is this how it is?
Is this how we are?
Imperfect.

Fallible. Hateful.
Doomed in disregard.
Abhorrent!

Is this our essence?
Must we die hating?
Our nature?

I sigh.

 

Nature replies, “Look!”
Extravagantly,
life springs.

Glorious joy speaks,
we’re naturally,
beautiful.

Greens, purples, yellow!
Abundant red & blues!
Colors sing!

I hope.

 

But, death, pain, win-lose,
storms, quakes, heat, eaten.
Our Ecosystem.

Colors sing and fade,
joy comes, goes, returns,
life and death.

This is how it is.
Good, evil, hurt, joy.
Love and hope.

I see.

 

Within one flower,
budding, wounds, and death,
and rebirth!

In each life is love,
suffering, trauma,
and deep loss.

Grief, joy, grace each come,
brokenness wants Hate,
it will call.

I choose.

 

Just like the flower,
fiend and saint within,
Choice abounds!

Inside one human,
pain, healing, joy, love,
I can dance!

Within one flower,
both bud and wilt charm,
beautify.

I can, too.

___

Photo: Life & Death, 2017 © Tim Graves
Poem: Within One Flower, 2017 © Tim Graves

 

 

Cookies of Fear

Cookies of Fear
Source: Church World Service
Source: Church World Service

When distressed, we tend to use whatever tools we have to try to alleviate our condition. For example, if I have a headache I will take two tylenol. That is unless all I have in the cupboard is ibuprofen, in which case I’ll take ibuprofen.

We tend to use the things we have at our disposal to solve problems. Toddlers, for example, will sometimes resort to hitting or biting when feeling threatened by another. They use these strategies because they do not yet have the social skills necessary to remedy the situation.

I have multiple tools to cope with personal stress. The healthiest are getting rest and exercise. A good vigorous walk or run does miraculous things to my ability to cope with challenges. Regular sleep results in a more rational and loving me.

Though I know this, too often I turn to the cookie in the cupboard to deal with stress. Briefly, the cookie makes me feel better. Soon, however, it actually makes things worse. I feel bloated. The sugar disrupts my mood.

The suggestion that our nation refuse to accept Syrian refugees or accept only Christian refugees, as some have suggested, is a cookie. Rufusing our sisters and brothers may make us feel safer for a short time but it only breeds more hostility and bigotry.

Rather than gorging on cookies baked in the oven of bigotry and fear by opportunistic politicians, this is a time to slip on our running shoes and exercise our social skills, our hearts, and our faith. We need to look inside ourselves for the divine love with which we have each been created and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-30).

Voting No While Standing With

Voting No While Standing With

Three caveats before I start: 1) I failed to do my homework before the CPCUCC Annual Meeting which led to my failure to speak out to the assembled; 2) I feel woefully inadequate to address solutions to conflict in the Mid-East; and 3) I am deeply troubled by Israel’s actions directed at the Palestinian population.  

***

The Palestine-Israel Network of the CPCUCC calls the gathered to pass "A Resolution of Witness " Photo by Maggie Sebastian
The Palestine-Israel Network of the CPCUCC calls the gathered to pass “A Resolution of Witness ” Photo by Maggie Sebastian

The Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ met last weekend for their Annual Meeting. The gathering passed “A Resolution of Witness Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” I voted against this resolution which can be read here. (This is the original version without friendly amendments added during the meeting.)

My concerns about this document began when I read materials on the information table. Terms like “European Jewish colonialism” and frequent use of the term “Jews” in background materials are at best vague and imply or place blame on whole swaths of people rather than Israeli decision makers. The tone of the materials and their reliance upon the Kairos document, which one Conservative Jew whom I respect calls “antisemitic at its core” were red flags for me.

When a proponent of the resolution described Gaza as an open-air prison, I was appalled. If our goal is peace and reconciliation terms like that only polarize. Peace requires the concerns of all parties be recognized and heard. As an American Christian that term was loaded with innuendo and implication that failure to pass the resolution was tantamount to condoning Israel’s actions against the people of Gaza.  How might a phrase like that be heard by Israeli Jews who live within a context Americans — especially Christians — can barely imagine?

It is no secret that embedded anti-semitism is both a contemporary and historical sin of the Christian church. Our sacred text itself has been used as a weapon to blame our Jewish sisters and brothers for killing Christ! This, of course, is historically inaccurate. The only entity that had the ability to crucify Jesus was the occupying Roman authority.

Too many Christians believe that Jesus’ criticism of religious leaders of his day implies a rejection of his own Jewish faith.  The biblical witness does not bear this out. His criticism of leaders and arguments with other Jews is analogous to differences argued within any mainline American Christian denomination. Our supersessionist reinterpretation  of some passages of the Elder Testament (e.g.; Isaiah 7:14) to have meanings never intended by the original authors too often affirms embedded anti-Jewish attitudes.

None of this is to suggest that the proponents of the resolution passed at the CPCUCC Annual Meeting last weekend are antisemitic in intention. We must stand with our Palestinian sisters and brothers — Christian and Muslim — who are victimized by the actions of the Israeli government. The conditions under which they live are abhorrent.

That said, when those of us in the United Church of Christ, a denomination committed to Christian unity and positive interfaith relationships, stand with oppressed peoples in Palestine we must do so without relying on antisemitic documents. We must intentionally seek to uncover the embedded antisemitism of our tradition. Until we do, our voice calling for justice will lack credibility.

In short, we need to stand in witness with our Palestinian sisters and brothers but we must do so without perpetuating the sin of antisemitism.

___

Related

My Speech to the Presbyterians, Rachel Lerner of J Street

Cautions to US Churches Regarding the Kairos Palestine Document

I Will Vote No on Divestment, Rev. Chuck Currie

A Prayer from Those Living in a Powerful Nation

God of all peoples,

We come before you today, a hardy but small group gathered in your presence, gathered to worship you and thank you for all that you have done and will do for your people.

We rely on you because you are a steadfast God. And, yet, God…

And yet, God, we turn on our televisions and read the news online. We hear of more violence and impending war in Ukraine. We pray that Russia does not escalate matters in the Ukraine but we know our righteous indignation is hollow.

As Americans we know we have intervened in the affairs of sovereign nations when it has suited our purposes. As beneficiaries of power and wealth, our nation has manipulated matters in places like Guatemala not as a matter of helping but because it suits our country’s needs.

Help us to hear the words of the prophet Micah through the ears of the Guatemalan and Ukrainian people as the prophet calls out,

Hear this, leaders of the house of Jacob, rulers of the house of Israel, you who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice! Micah 3: 9-10 CEB

Help us to hear the voices of the Guatemalan and Ukrainian and so many other peoples through the Psalmist who cries out,

“Don’t let the feet of arrogant people walk all over me; don’t let the hands of the wicked drive me off.” Psalm 36:11 CEB

Help us to hold our leaders accountable to your ways of love, your ways of justice, your desire for peace for all of your people not just those of us who live in powerful nations. Lead us toward personal and communal actions that respect and honor the dignity of all peoples within and outside our own nation.

In our worries, in our feelings of guilt, in our feelings of helplessness, we turn to the One through whom we know you best. We turn to you through Jesus.

Amen.

***

I offered this prayer at the Condon United Church of Christ on March 2, 2014.

The Realm’s Rules or The Culture’s Commands?

The following sermon was delivered at the Condon United Church of Christ on September 1, 2013. The text for the sermon is Luke 14:1, 7-14. The video above is referred to in the sermon.

***
I was too young to serve in the Vietnam War. But I had the stateside nightmares of a child terrified by images on the television. The images of Viet Cong soldiers in my own living room are still etched in my memory.

But that was a child’s nightmare. A dream. It wasn’t real. It has long since lost its emotional hold on me.

I delivered newspapers for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the war. Each afternoon, a bundle of papers would show up on my front lawn, I would cut open the bundle, place them in my delivery cart, and take them to each home on my route.

One afternoon as I was cutting open the bundle, my next-door neighbor darted out of her house. Frantically, though not a subscriber, she begged to look at the paper.

“I’ve gotta know. I have to see the numbers.”

You see, for those of you who don’t know, they would print the draft numbers in the newspaper. These numbers would tell you whose teenage son would end up on a battlefield in the jungles of southeast Asia.

This mother was terrified — terrified — that her son, the baby she nursed at her breast, the not-yet-man to whom she read Dr. Seuss stories only a few years ago, the boy who never seemed to put his boxers away in his dresser drawer after she folded them…

She had to know if he was being called up. She was terrified that he was about to be ripped out of her arms before he had completely grown up.

That was a mother’s nightmare. It was not a dream. It was real. The emotional impact of that day has never — never — left me.

And, so, yesterday as the President spoke, I burst into tears because though we’ve sanitized war, it is still turning our back on God. It still involves killing someone’s child.  I weeped because once again, as a nation, we will likely be playing by The Culture’s Commands. Someone’s child will be killed by a bomb paid for with our taxes.

Once again we as a people, are turning away from The Realm’s Rules, away from God’s dreams for us. Evil, in Syria this time, has left our leaders believing that the only choice is more bloodshed and violence.

***

I’ve spent the week studying and reflecting on our gospel passage from Luke. It is often preached as being about humility. And it is about humility. That’s a legitimate interpretation. One problem with reading it as if it is only about being humble is that it can lead us to think that Jesus is somehow doing us a favor.

He’s trying to keep us from being embarrassed. The CEB translation even uses the word “embarrassed.” Listen to verse nine again,

The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. Luke 14:9 CEB

And then in verse ten, as if Jesus is more akin to Miss Manners or Emily Post than the challenging prophet he is, Jesus says,

Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. Luke 14:10 CEB

No, to focus on the importance of humility runs the risk that we miss the critical point, the broader point that Jesus is making. Yes, we are called to be humble, to be servants of humanity but to focus on humility and humbleness alone is to miss the bigger message. Humbling ourselves to God is about trusting and following The Realm’s Rules. 

This passage is about rules.

It is about distinguishing between The Culture’s Commands and the nature of God’s unfolding realm on earth. Jesus is striving to make it clear that The Realm’s Rules are not the same as The Culture’s Commands. In this parable, we see that the ancient culture’s rules involved the most important person being given the highest position. Though our culture is more flat than that, more egalitarian, more equal, we are not immune to status worship.

Our culture idolizes celebrities, sports figures, and — though we like to deny it — the very wealthy. Why else would social media be abuzz this week about Miley Cyrus’ dance when we continue to have high unemployment and children — especially brown and black children — are daily victims of violence and poverty in this country?

Just as Jesus is telling our sometimes slow-to-understand ancient kindred that God’s rules are different than cultural norms, God is still speaking through this parable to us. As followers of Jesus, we are expected to follow The Realm’s Rules instead of The Culture’s Commands. Hear the eleventh verse again. Jesus says,

All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” Luke 14: 11 CEB

In other words, Jesus shouts, “New Rules!”

We are not called to be successful. We’re not called to accumulate wealth, to idolize celebrities, to look out only for ourselves. We’re not called to use our power to have our way — as individuals or as a nation. Quite the contrary, Jesus turns the rules upside down. Jesus tells us that we should do for those who can do nothing for us in return. Jesus tells us not to invite our friends, brothers, sisters, relatives, or rich neighbors to lunch or dinner.

Says Jesus,

Instead, when you give a banquet, you should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. Luke 14:13 CEB

Invite those who were unable in ancient culture to reciprocate. We’re called to give more than we take. We’re called to love people in the face of hatred. We’re called to welcome people even if it means they will never serve on a committee or give a dime to this church.

We’re called to introduce every single person we meet to the extravagant love and welcome of God — even if they never call themselves UCCers or cross our threshold. We are called to

love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] strength, and with all [our] mind, and love [our] neighbor as [ourselves.]” Luke 10:27 CEB

***

To live by The Realm’s Rules is not easy when we live within a culture that commands very different behavior. Some Christians, like the Amish, have chosen to live outside of mainstream culture as much as possible in their effort to be true to The Realm’s Rules and to avoid the pitfalls of The Culture’s Commands.

That is not the path any of us have chosen. We have chosen to live within the tension.

Some days I think it is the most foolish decision I’ve ever made. Sometimes I wish my faith allowed me to embrace The Culture’s Commands or that I could withdraw completely like the Amish, but my path is within the tension.

Living within the mainstream culture — within rules for living that are very different than Jesus’ rules for living — means we need one another more than ever. We need to call each other out when we stray too far outside of the unfolding realm and into our callous, me-first, violent, power-hungry, and wealth-idolizing culture.

We also need to challenge our leaders when the answer for evil acts is to punish an already-traumatized people with even more violence. This time, we are told, dropping bombs will somehow make the world a better place.

We’ve heard that line before and it is not the way of the unfolding realm of God.

The extravagant love of God dreams of a day when mothers and fathers no longer have their children ripped from their arms by poverty or war or our indifference.

The Good News is that the unfolding realm of God is up to the task. Love, God’s love,  is,  in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” The Good News is that we are not alone in our aching desire for Jesus’ upside down realm. Faithful people from Jews to Bah’ai to Sikhs to Rastafarians and, yes, even our Muslim sisters and brothers each have a sacred tradition of love for neighbor. We all have a variation on The Golden Rule as you saw in the video this morning.

Our calling as Christians is to open ourselves to the Spirit in prayer and to humbly interact with others.

When we do that, we will find the Divine using us to live peace and love into existence. When we do that, the unfolding realm of God will grow just a teeny bit bigger until the day when the One’s dream for humanity is realized. Amen.