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.

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.

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.

Enough Culpability to Go Around

Enough Culpability to Go Around

When I was trying on pacifism in my formative years, my peers would begin the classic argumentative questioning. “Would you kill if someone threatened your sister?” “Would you kill if it was the only way to save your own life?”

The goal — if there was an articulated goal in my society of children and teens — was to prove pacifism flawed because it was impossible to practice.

As a mature pacifist I know that given the right circumstances I could be driven to violence against another. Though I understand the harming of others to be out of bounds, I understand violent urges. I am human.

None of this negates my belief that pacifism is consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the interconnected divinity of creation. Harming another ultimately harms self.

***

Anytime we resort to violence, in the language of my faith, we sin. Violence, harming of another, is a tragedy and a failure because it breaks relationship. The perpetrator of violence is not the only one at fault. Typically there is plenty of sin to go around.

Context matters. When basic rights and needs are denied, when people are oppressed, and their call for relief and change go unheeded, the likelihood of physical violence increases.

When people go unheard, the ones who fail to listen and respond are at least as culpable as those who are driven to violence. My dog can accurately be called sweet and loving. However, if I were to taunt him, fail to meet his basic needs, and abuse him, couldn’t he be pushed to the limits of friendliness and lash out?

***

Now is the time for whites to accept our culpability in the pattern of police killings of blacks. Now is the time for us to stop tsk tsk-ing about property damage when our sisters and brothers are being killed!

We must listen to and believe our oppressed kindred and follow them in insisting on change. Despite what our media tell us, this is not about property damage. It is about the  taking of lives.

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On Forgiveness

On Forgiveness
Somehow, and I don't quite know how, my daughter helped me to forgive Richard.
Somehow, and I don’t quite know how, my daughter helped me to forgive Richard.

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22 CEB

Twenty-five years ago, I got a call on a Saturday morning that had me racing out the door within seconds. My sister had been beaten by her husband. As I drove at breakneck speed between our homes my heart, like the Grinch’s heart, constricted as I thought about that man!

My sister’s now ex-husband Richard had chipped her ribs and bruised her body when he came in from a drunken all nighter.

I have not forgotten. I also did not forgive him for two decades.

In those two decades I spoke ill of him at every opportunity. My stomach became a knot when his name came up. My face turned red and I could feel the anger rise in me when I remembered.

It wasn’t until my daughter, my beloved ginger haired baby girl began a writing project about Richard and his role and relationships within our family that my heart was finally released from its grinch-like prison.

My daughter Jessica barely remembered Richard but traveled to Wisconsin to see him. She later spoke and wrote about a deeply wounded but good man who was suffering the consequences of many bad life choices.

Somehow, and I don’t quite know how, my daughter helped me to forgive Richard. Somehow I released my anger and my constricted heart grew.

I did not and have not forgotten.

But in the releasing of my anger and hatred for him, I discovered some of the royalty within not only myself but in him. I glimpsed the image of God which we both share as human beings.

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Related

The Telephone Call May 17, 2012

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.

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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)

Amen.

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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.

(1) (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/3-unarmed-black-african-american-men-killed-police)

Aliens Among Us?

There are two ways to read a mystery novel. You can start on page one and read from start to finish. The reader who reads this way allows the story to unfold in its own time. Some would say in the way the author intended.

Another way to read a mystery novel is to skip to the last page first to find out whodunit before returning to the beginning. This reader — knowing the ending — watches the story unfold but enjoys spotting the literary clues the author has left.

***

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 7.35.26 AMChristians start reading the Bible with Jesus. We read Genesis through his life, death, and resurrection. We read the prophets through his life, death, and resurrection. We read the Psalms ever mindful of Jesus. Even Christians who read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation already know what happens to Jesus. Since we know what happens, we understand the rest of the Bible in a particular way.

Our elder testament — the Old Testament — accounts for approximately 75% of our sacred text. Yet, we spend most of our time reading and preaching the younger testament.

This is a mistake. To understand Jesus and his teachings, we must understand his faith. To understand his faith, we must read and study his Bible.

***

In our scripture reading from Mark’s gospel (Mark 12:28-31), several Jews, of whom Jesus is one, are discussing the Torah. (The Torah is the first five books of our Bible.) 

Like UCCers, many Jews of Jesus’ time did not read the text in a rigid way. They believed, like we do, that the Bible is a living document through which God still speaks. Like us, they believed that the Bible is best understood within community. No one of us has the answer. It is in community that varied perspectives and voices are part of the conversation and more fully enable us to discern God’s will.

And, so, overhearing the discussion a legal expert asks Jesus,

“Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Jesus responds by quoting from Torah. He paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5,

Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.(Deuteronomy 6:4-5 CEB)

Jesus doesn’t stop with one commandment, however. He tells the legal expert that there are two commandments that serve as the foundation of our faith. And, so, he paraphrases from Leviticus 19 as well,

You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18 CEB)

Jesus tells the legal expert, “No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:31 CEB) 

If the teachings of Jesus are foundational for Christians, as we claim, I argue that when he tells us what the Greatest Commandment is, we should try to follow it. Says Jesus,

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.” 12:30-31a CEB

This. These words of Jesus quoting Torah can serve as the yardstick by which we measure our actions and relationships in the world.

These words are the sunglasses through which, as followers of Jesus, we view a brighter, a more hopeful possibility for the world. They allow us to see the world in a different way and determine the actions we will take in our personal lives and in our advocacy for others.

***

Many of you have been rightfully upset by the unaccompanied children who have been entering our country at the southernmost border. I’ve had multiple conversations about “What can we do?”

Here is a short video shared by Kate Epperly that I think frames the issue well. Kate is our UCC Minister on the Disciples/UCC Family & Children’s Ministry Team.

So, what do we do? What would Jesus do when faced with a complex political and ethical issue? He might pray; he might look at scripture. I suspect that he’d do both as he considered his actions. 

When he looked at scripture, he’d probably find any number of passages about God’s expectations regarding our response to this Hebrew word variously translated into English as alien, as immigrant, as sojourner, or sometimes traveler.

Contextually in the seventh or eighth century before Christ, when Deuteronomy was written, there are no Hiltons or Motel 6s. There were no McDonald’s or Denny’s. If you were traveling, you depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This serves a dual purpose. For the traveler, it meant a place to stay and food to eat. For the host it was a way to honor God.

To breech this obligation to care for others was to breech your very obligation to God. Writes UCC scholar Walter Brueggemann,

Deuteronomy has in purview a profoundly neighborly ethic that understands the formation and maintenance of a communal infrastructure as a primal mode of obedience to the God of covenant. (Abingdon OT Commentaries: Deuteronomy, loc. 122)

And, so, when Jesus looked at his scripture, he might’ve looked at Deuteronomy 10 in which the writer, speaking as if Moses, says,

Stop being so stubborn, 17 because the Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. 19 That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:16b-19 CEB)

Jesus’ Bible and our Bible is chockfull of widening the circle of love. Jesus himself widens the circle to include not only the Jewish people but Gentiles as well. Jesus himself spends much of his ministry at the margins of society, among those who are not fully included in society.

We are called to include all peoples within God’s circle because our God is an “awesome God who doesn’t play favorites! (Deut. 10: 18 CEB)

And, so, as followers of Jesus I ask you now, what does God ask of us?

When we view this crisis through the lens of the Greatest Commandment, what position do we take? How do we manifest loving God with all our heart, all our being, all our mind, and all our strength? How do we love our neighbor as ourselves?

What actions do we individually and collectively take? What would Jesus encourage us to say and do? How will we respond to the aliens among us?

Amen.

___

Following this short sermon, preached at the Condon United Church of Christ on July 20, 2014, the congregation had a lengthy discussion regarding ways to respond to the current crisis of unaccompanied children at the United States’ southern border.

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.