My Trip to a Gay Bar (#OrlandoShooting)

Friends,

A couple of my high school friends were visiting me at college. They asked my not-yet-wife and I to go with them to the local gay bar. Though I don’t recall a lot of details I have memories of discomfort and vulnerability.

13413757_10209876016319664_3928409912324737014_nI had never before seen men openly showing affection to one another.

Yes, I knew my visiting friends were gay. My best friend, who would later be the best man at my wedding, had already come out to me. My faith built upon the teachings of Jesus who tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31), had already allowed me to affirm a relationship that was kept closeted in the broader culture.

The biblical witness taught me that love is the core of the Christian faith. The Holy Spirit had already moved me to see that love might very well cross traditional cultural boundaries. Still, it took awhile for my gut emotions to catch up.

I suspect that is how it is with some even today, nearly four decades later. It is how I suspect it is for those who vehemently spew hatred toward so many of my friends, my clergy colleagues, and even my own firstborn child. It can be hard for emotions to catch up when you’ve been raised and taught in traditional ways of thinking.

The trouble with emotion-powered rhetoric regarding our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer kindred is that it can lead us to miss seeing the image of God in others. It can lead to violence toward others as it has too many times and in the early morning hours of June 12, it led to the massacre at an Orlando nightclub.

In my initial numbness, my spontaneous sobs, my deep desire to hold my children close, even my anger over this heinous act, I’ve thought about that night at a midwestern club. I went to that club because I knew it was important to my friends whom I loved. Looking back I see the Divine guiding me to overcome my discomfort and fear to be be present with my friends whose God-created sexuality was disdained by mainstream culture.

I did not yet know that the bars and clubs functioned as sanctuaries. I did not yet know that as one of my clergy colleagues wrote, “When churches would not let us cross their thresholds, the bars were where we held our memorial services and our weddings.” This shooting violated sacred ground as surely as the shooting at the AME church in Charleston did last year!

The arc of the Bible reflects a continuously widening circle of inclusive love. The narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah — despite what you may have been taught — is a parable about how important welcoming others is to God. Jesus regularly crossed the boundaries of ancient life, loving and eating with those his culture told him to despise. God still moves us to widen the circle of love.

In this era of alienation from the divine and one another, when politicians stir up hatred for their own ends, when violence seems impossible to stop, when even our own have too often turned to self-violence, we can make a difference.

We can open our hearts and minds, listening to other ways of thinking. We can choose to speak and act in loving and respectful ways about those in far off places and those we greet on Main Street. It really is that simple to change the world and be the people God created each of us to be.

Rev. Tim Graves
Pastor, Condon United Church of Christ

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I sent this letter to my congregation and to the small town local newspaper.

Only the Young are Healthy

Youth
One of the gyms I visit regularly is covered with inspirational murals. While the gym serves people of a variety of ages (many are decades older than I am), not one of those images reflects someone over thirty years old. Photo by Tim Graves. 

Only the young are healthy. Only the young are worthy of respect. Admit it, the older burden and annoy those who are doing the real work. They play their TVs too loud or keep closed captions on (as I do). They don’t understand modern technology or culture. They wear frumpy clothes and walk too slowly to keep up.

 

True. They can be amusing in their quirks, forgetfulness, and their little dances. (Google “old people dancing” if you don’t believe me.)

If I were to believe the dominant images of western culture, I’d believe all of this and more. I wouldn’t value the men and women with whom I minister in rural eastern Oregon. I’d detest my father, my sister, and even my younger brother. I might even divorce my wife because she’s not twenty-something.

I wouldn’t value myself. I’d be panicked about the worthlessness of my very existence as I approach yet another birthday.

Sigh. The truth is sometimes I do feel unworthy. It is hard not to feel less-than when you’re told you are no longer needed.

Thing is, there is not one experience I’ve had that I would give up to gain a year or two. Each of my adventures — the challenging and the exhilarating  — have made me who I am, and I like me.

Yep, I like me! Not only do I have awesome memories and experiences but I have so much more to do. I have dreams, new ideas, and creative abilities that will yet benefit my corner of the world. I am am not closed minded. I grow and change. Daily.

I am valuable. I have feelings, heart, and mind and so I won’t let our culture’s negative images about aging stop me from becoming who I was created to be. And if someone else finds my little dances funny, they should quit spying on me.

They will bear fruit even when old and gray;
they will remain lush and fresh in order to proclaim:
“The Lord is righteous.
He’s my rock.
There’s nothing unrighteous in him.” Psalm 92:14-15 CEB

 

An Open Letter to My Community

We’ve gone from the horror of the images out of Paris to a week of anti-refugee talk from media and politicians that is not only distasteful but contrary to the teachings of the biblical witness.

Sadly, we’ve been down this road before. Our immigrant-founded nation is filled with historical periods of fear and disdain of the newcomer. From fear of the Irish to the rejection of Jewish immigrants in the 1930s we too often reject our neighbors in need.

Giving in to fear has also created a context in which we blame Syrian refugees, victims of the same terrorist group as those in Paris. At a time when Syrian refugees need us the most, instead of loving our neighbor, we choose to fear them.

Our human inclination to be fearful is not new. There is a reason “do not be afraid” is such a common phrase in both testaments of the Bible. Like our ancient forebears, we need to be reminded to live into the people God dreams we can be.

When asked, “what is the greatest commandment?”, Jesus replied, “…you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29b-31 CEB)

Jesus named these two because loving God and neighbor are foundational. We show our love for God in our love for others. When we share items with our local Food Pantry, we show love for God. Similarly when we show compassion for Syrian refugees we show love for God.

Our stories of faith are brimming with commands to be hospitable to our neighbors. Immigrants, strangers, and aliens are frequently named as those who are worthy of our loving embrace. Whether we approach the Bible literally, as some do, or critically, as I do, hospitality for strangers is an expectation of the divine.

The most disturbing aspect of the hateful rhetoric spewed toward Muslims, Syrian refugees, and others is that too many of the speakers claim Christianity as their faith. It can be argued, given our history, that hospitality for the stranger is not an American value. However, claiming the Christian faith and not welcoming the stranger takes mental and spiritual gymnastics that are inconsistent with the biblical narrative.

The best of Condon is about compassion and love for our neighbors in need. As we move into Thanksgiving week and the Advent season that precedes Christmas, the writer of Deuteronomy reminds the faithful, God “…loves immigrants… That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19 CEB)

Let us love our neighbors as ourselves by opening hearts to Syrian refugees. In so doing we will share our love of God.

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).

A Prayer After Paris

For the people of Paris, we pray but we also pray for the invisible peoples whose

Image from social media. Origin unknown.
Image from social media. Origin unknown.

daily lives — in our own nation and across the globe — are enmeshed in violence.

We confess that too often we turn a blind eye to the pain that our choices cause. We confess that too often we grieve most for those involved in tragedies that remind us of our own vulnerabilities. We grieve for those who look and act like us forgetting that all peoples are your peoples.

As we focus our compassion on France remind us this day that our every action allows us the opportunity to expand love or contract love, to hear & see the divinity within another or disregard their humanity.

Remind us today that in the midst of the grieving you are present, saddened by the failure of your people — all of us — to live as we were created to live.

Move us.

Offer us the grace of one more chance to sow love and justice in a broken world of our own making. Open our hearts to changes in our own behaviors.

May our every action ripple out love, peace, and justice until all of creation is as you dream it can be. Amen.

My Daughter-in-Law

My daughter-in-law and daughter exchange vows. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
My daughter-in-law and daughter exchange vows. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

She married my daughter on Saturday. Though we have long considered her part of the family, I’ve struggled to tell others how important she is to me. I’ve been without a simple label that communicates who she is to me.

Calling her “my daughter’s partner” or “my daughter’s girlfriend” only explained who she was to my daughter.  The awkwardness of “my daughter’s significant other” did little to uncloak my love for her.

Add my fear of the bigotry of anti-LGBT sentiments to the failure of our language too often caused me to stutter. I’m ashamed to admit I sometimes avoided expressing my love for her because of fear of bigoted Christians.

I love that young woman. During a short period of time years ago when she and my daughter were apart, I went into a mild depression. Yes, she’s that wonderful! She’s also that perfect for my baby girl!

For twelve years, I’ve been marginally successful at expressing my love for her to others. And then this year, the law finally caught up with love, allowing two soulmates who met in college to marry.

I am thrilled to call her my daughter-in-law!

Now when I tell someone about my daughter-in-law, they immediately know that the relationship is deeper and more important to me than a random friend of my daughter. Not only did the Supreme Court finally validate the legitimacy of love between my daughter and her beloved, they validated my love for her. My daughter-in-law is connected not just to my baby girl, but to me.

I love my daughter-in-law!

Between Here & There

Between Here & There

Photo by Neil Moralee. Creative Commons License, Some Rights Reserved.https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilmoralee/9034449643/
Photo by Neil Moralee. Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Between here and there, I chewed gum and sipped my iced tea. Between there and here, I listened to an audiobook before streaming music on my smartphone.

Nearly here, I exited the freeway.

The hybrid engine shifted to electric as I slowed. Adjusting the volume of my music, I read the cardboard sign as I came to a stop. I looked at the man holding the sign. His beard was more brown and black than my red but it featured the same expanding grey.

I reached over to the passenger seat for my wallet. Having broken my twenty as I came across the toll bridge, a ten, four singles, and a five occupied my wallet. I clasped the five and handed it to the man saying, “Bless you.”

That was when I saw a human being.

“Thank you, God bless you,” he responded with appropriate courtesy. Then he looked at the bill and exclaimed with excitement, “Wow! Thank you! God bless you!”

Given the joy in his voice, I wondered for a moment if I’d handed him a fifty but I never carry that much cash.

Between here and there, I was reminded of the sin of economic injustice wrought by the myths of rugged individualism and making capitalism an idol. On the corner of there and here, Jesus sported a scruffy beard and held up a cardboard sign.

Grandmothers’ Arms Are Aching

Grandmothers’ Arms Are Aching

When unaccompanied children were arriving at the southern border of the United States, grandmothers’ arms ached to hold and comfort. In my eastern Oregon town we talked about, “What can we do to help?”

When Mike Brown lay dead on a hot summer street for hours,  we didn’t talk. It was a foreign land; it was news from the big city back east. Grandmothers’ hearts were protected by ignoring and avoiding.

When burnt convenience stores awakened white grandmothers’ arms, I told my story of growing up near Ferguson. I told my story of my family still nearby. Grandmothers asked, “Is your dad okay?”

Assured my white father was safe, it no longer mattered that Mike Brown had lay dead on a hot city street for hours or that black mothers and fathers sobbed. White grandmothers’ arms crossed in defensiveness and talked about, “What did he do to deserve this?” and “Why are they burning buildings?” while  black grandmothers’ arms ached to hold grandbabies.

And so I told my stories of race, identifying my own sins, and our collective white sin of racism. I was dismissed, “You only told one side of the story.” We talked about anything but race.

When Freddie Gray died in police custody, white grandmothers’ arms ached again. We talked about, “something is not right” until we were reminded by power and defensiveness that Mike, Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Tanisha and so many more before and since were not worthy of due process.

We listened to the voices of power, fear, and sin justify shooting children of God because of skin melanin. We listened to white supremacy, fragility, and privilege as it determined the status quo, the truth, and our white history of subjugation must be hidden at the cost of black body after black body.

It is our turn to confess our sins. It is our turn to learn our history. It is our turn to bear the pain of  the truth of what white supremacy, ignorance, and fragility has wrought.

If our arms aren’t aching we aren’t paying attention.

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Other Suggested Reading
These represent a few of the many articles that I’ve found helpful as I’ve begun accepting my own white culpability and responsibility in responding to our nation’s race problem. 

I, Racist
Huffington Post

Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race,
Good Men Project
This article includes a reading list to help whites self-educate.

Dear White Preachers, Take Off Your Prophet’s Mantle
Rachel G. Hackenberg

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Race,
Good Men Project
This article talks about white reluctance to deal with issues of race.

One Way or Another,
Being, Wandering

Quick to Listen,
Being, Wandering

The Dogma of Mountains and People,
Being, Wandering

Condon & Ferguson: A Response
Condon United Church of Christ