Sometimes, the pre-ordained destination is the only thing that will give me peace. I must reach the end of the trail, the waterfall, the lake, or the top of the mountain to feel a sense of completion.
But not always.
As I begin to wear out, as my motivation and ever-loving oomph dissipates I find a rock. It might be halfway. It might be three-quarters of the way or even nine-tenths of the trek to the anticipated destination.
But when I find my rock, I sit.
“I’ll sit for just a moment,” I tell myself, “and then I’ll get up and go the final distance.” My muscles relax and my breathing slows as I sit, snack on a trail bar, and immerse my spirit in this place.
I breathe in the scents. I drink the tall trees or scrub brush. I reach deep into the earth as my body connects through stump or rock.
And God shows up.
The cooling breeze carries with it words. I become dizzy as the words swirl around my head. Tears or sobs, a smirk of contentment, or a huge grin emerge as the words demand to be written down. Pulling out my ragged journal, I write as fast as I possibly can.
That is the moment I realize that this rock is my destination for today. This is the moment and the place for which my soul aches.
When all the words have run dry, I load up my pack and return to the trailhead, content and satisfied.
“I looked it up. It’s true,” she said.
“No,” I said sticking to my guns.
“Um, yes dear. Mt. Adams IS taller than Mt. Hood.”
“Nope,” I said, “Mt. Hood is the best, the tallest of all mountains!”
In my unbending insistence, I was a five-year-old defending my dad as the strongest and smartest. (He is, by the way.) That’s the trouble with dogma; it often ignores facts. Though institutional religion is the quintessential dogmatist, it is far from alone. The laying down of ideas as beyond reproach is common among human beings.
My mother-in-law even once criticized the color we painted our house because, she pronounced, “houses are white with black shutters.” There was no room in her thinking for cheerful yellow.
Partisan politics, brand loyalty, American exceptionalism, the importance of eating locally, the definition of marriage, the best mountain, paint color, and even atheism can become dogmatic. Anything from which we find identity or meaning can become dogmatic. All it takes is a little passion and a dash of inflexibility sautéed over a bed of unquestioning spirit to cook up dogma. Spiced with fear or ignorance and the dish becomes poisonous.
Since the deadly dogma that led to the murder of nine African American men and women at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I’ve been reflecting upon my theology and found it wanting.
Theology, or how we understand and experience the divine mystery, hints at the nature of the one I call God. Though it seeks to explain the divine nature, my personal theology reflects as much or more about my nature than that of God. Though useful, any theology has its limitations when faced with the mysterium tremendum (literally, tremendous mystery).
I lean toward a process understanding of the inexplicable One. In Process Theology, God allows evil in the world because God cannot prevent it. In simplistic terms, the killing of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson is the result of human free will.
The coercive God of most theologies could have prevented the shooter from his deadly action, leaving us with the question, “why?” In the Process view, God is non-coercive and was incapable of directly preventing the killings. God seeks to lure, beckon, or encourage each of us toward the most loving action in each moment. Evil happens when we make choices contrary to God’s desired (loving) action for us.
In the case of Charleston, we collectively allow racism to fester. Instead of heeding the luring spirit to eradicate this American sin, we make other choices. Within this context, relationships influence each of us but it never means the individual perpetrator is faultless. Given his free will, the shooter ignored God repeatedly. The final and deadly action was the result of utter disregard for the non-coercive God’s preferred action. He instead chose evil.
So, what do I find wanting about my theology following the heinous crime at Emanuel AME Church? The non-coercive nature of the divine seems to explain why God allows evil to exist. Isn’t that enough?
No. What I find lacking in my theology is an attribute which I perceive to be in God’s nature: passion. My pedantic explanation of how a young man could sit in Bible Study with nine men and women and then shoot them is too-tidy, too-easy, and too-sterile. Like my ancient forebears in the faith, I perceive God as passionate.
“The Lord was angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord the God of Israel”. 1 Kings 11:9 REB
I imagine God raging, not only at the shooter but at those of us who are white. For too long, we have allowed the poisonous dogma of white supremacy and privilege to fester. Having constricted racism with color blindness, we are culpable.
At worst our white failure to confront our personal and collective roles in the scourge of racism caused the killing of the nine women and men of Emanuel AME Church. At best, our failure to question the dogma in which we were raised sanctioned not only killing the nine at Bible study but the countless other people of color who are killed daily in our nation.
LORD of Justice, Your anger is justified. We have been ignorant and indifferent to the lives of others. Clinging to personal comfort and the dogma of whiteness, we’ve failed to listen and learn and grow. Confronted with the sin of white supremacy, we explain it away.
Help us to see the road ahead. Taking responsibility for our personal and collective sin, may we listen, follow, and move to act in ways that bring forth justice for our sisters and brothers who have suffered at our expense for too many generations.
I’ve done it in the car. I’ve done it in a restaurant and on a boat. I’ve done it in the bedroom. I’ve even done it in the sanctuary of a church! Today, I saw someone else do it while hiking the snowy alpine trails of Mt. Hood.
I heard the young couple before I rounded the bend with its cluster of shrublike trees. I recognized the sound of people enjoying a private conversation. As the couple came into view, I witnessed a shared kiss — a peck really — between the two women.
This should be unremarkable and certainly not blogworthy. People kiss everyday. People, especially young people, kiss in public places and I don’t give it a thought. But I was disturbed by this experience. The kiss itself didn’t bother me but the look on the young woman’s face when she saw me has stuck with me. On her face I saw the surprise of being witnessed. Her expression revealed concern, maybe even fear of my response. I smiled what I hope was a reassuring smile and nodded my head as I continued on my way.
Driving away from the trailhead, I played her expression and response through my mind. I felt angry at a culture that would make someone fear kissing the one she loved. I felt ashamed at my own Christian faith that too often implies the love of these two young women is sinful or repulsive. Love is never repulsive. Love is never something to be discouraged but something that should be encouraged. Love is the language of the divine.
In my passionate musing about the encounter, the divine spirit renewed my resolve to lead my rural, eastern Oregon congregation to officially and publicly become open and affirming of people “of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” (1) The love represented by this couple’s kiss is sacred and should be celebrated.
I smiled. Once again I met God on the sacred mountain.
Mountains in ancient literature are places in which the gods reside. They are the places where the bold mortal who risks climbing to the divine homestead will come face to face with magnificence. Among others, this view of mountaintops is reflected in both Greek and Judeo-Christian literature (including the Bible).
At a gut level, I experience the divinity of mountains. The journey to the top of a peak is particularly satisfying when it requires effort to reach the gods. With some regularity, I have hiked a couple thousand feet to sit on a precipice more than once. The most strenuous hike I’ve taken is to hike over 4000 feet via the Starvation Ridge trail to the top of Mt. Defiance in Oregon. (Of course, winter’s gift of an extra ten pounds means I will need to get in shape before trying this again.)
The gods who dwell up high have never — NEVER — failed to provide celestial hospitality once I’ve entered the domain they share with the clouds. Each time I’ve been blessed with a revelation about myself and the spiritual path upon which I journey. I confess I frequently crave the holy time alone in the clouds with the One whom I call God.
Some mountains are beyond the reach of my physical endurance. One of those is my beloved Mt. Hood. Recently, I experienced a not-to-be ignored urge to journey up to Hood. And, so, I drove southwestward from my home. I paused at waterfalls and admired one-room schoolhouses. I stopped and walked along rivers and in small town parks. I was driving hairpin roads and stared in admiration at the beauty of tribal fishing areas.
At one point, I was even turned back by residual snow on my chosen path. Temporarily stuck in mis-interpreted snow depth, I struggled in the midst of tall evergreens to avoid panic. Finally arriving safely at Timberline Lodge, I marveled at the power of winter snows. Though spring melting had clearly begun, the alpine trails that I hiked in August of last year were buried deep beneath tens of feet of snow. The wildflowers of spring are still months away.
So, what epiphany did perpetually snow capped Mt. Hood offer me this time? The One manifests to each in appropriate ways for each. To some, God is an alpine trail surrounded by wildflowers in August. To others the One is a risky slalom to be skied or a place to snowboard with your beloved soulmate. Some perceive the One as a distant image shrouded by clouds. And for still others, God is a warm fireplace safe from snow that piles up outside or a constant presence in the rearview.
May the One be who we need in each moment of our lives. Amen.
Mt. Hood’s peak behind Timberline Lodge. May 2013. Photo by Tim Graves.
August Wildflowers. Photo by Tim Graves
Meadow of wildflowers. (August 2012) Photo by Tim Graves
Residual Snow on Mt. Hood during August 2012. Photo by Tim Graves
Though melting has begun, much snow remains at the Timberline Lodge in May. Photo by Tim Graves.
White River Falls on a May day. Photo by Tim Graves.
August wildflowers from the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Tim Graves
Tribal Fishing Grounds near Tygh Valley, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves.
White River Falls. Photo by Tim Graves
A May Day on the slopes. Photo by Tim Graves.
September wildflowers behind the Timberline Lodge. (2011) Photo by Tim Graves
Mt. Hood from US 35 in Hood River County. Photo by Tim Graves.
Mt. Hood from Trillium Lake during August. Photo by Tim Graves
Snow is still piled up behind Timberline Lodge. Photo by Tim Graves.
A snowboard rests following use on a sunny May day. Photo by Tim Graves.
A quiet lift above snow removal equipment in May 2013. Photo by Tim Graves
Mt. Hood follows me as I leave the mountaintop. Photo by Tim Graves
A warm hearth at the Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. Photo by Tim Graves