When my wife is twenty minutes late getting home I’ve imagined what my life would be like if the worst happened. This intellectual activity has been part of my routine since the eighties when my 5-1/2 month old nephew died in a freak accident. Nonetheless, up until my surgery some sixty-seven days ago I was immortal.
Perhaps it was the look on the faces of my children, who raced via airway and roadway to be with me that made me mortal. Perhaps, it was the seriousness of my wife’s tone and her diligence in caring for me that made me human. If you’ve been following my blogs, you know I thought the removal of my right colon was No Big Deal. So, that couldn’t be what did it.
Though I’ve told my children since they were tiny that I planned to live to be one-hundred twenty, I wonder now. It’s still my plan; I have a lot of living to do yet.
But I recognize that at fifty-five, I may not live another 65-years, plan or not.
Somehow, the suddenness of major surgery jolted me into mortality. I did not expect it. I went in for a colonoscopy, a routine screening procedure for cancer and other issues, because I am in my fifties. I perceived no problem but rather than heading to the local pizzeria that evening, I was talking about the possibility of cancer with my wife.
Even talking about the c-word with my son wasn’t enough in and of itself to jolt me into mortality but here I am. Mortal. Tim Graves is mortal!
Reflecting, I think I became mortal the Sunday following my surgery. It was the look on the face of my first-born — my baby girl! I always get a hug but somehow her hug was more. More something. More fearful?
On the other hand, looking back it may have been on the day before my colectomy. I drove to Portland to pick my son up from the airport and lost the car in the parking garage. I had no idea where I’d left it except that it was facing an outside wall.
Isaac, my son, said to me, “This is kind of an old man thing to do, Dad.” His words were a joke but his face revealed another emotion. He knew this was out-of-character for his detail-oriented father. It might have been in that moment when I became mortal in his eyes and my own.
Or…or it was the day I finally returned home from the hospital and finally read my wife’s blog in which she writes, “An instant can change everything. A routine screening can morph into urgent, major surgery. Uncertainty can overwhelm normalcy. The daily routine of work and home becomes the routine of vital signs, meal trays, and pain management. Roles can be frightfully altered” (It’s Three in the Morning).
I have come to realize that my superhero immortality belongs to the world of fiction. The concept of immortality separates us from one another and from the Divine. Immortality is about permanence and control. Endless life — the ultimate control of the uncontrollable — eliminates our need for the Divine in one another.
But we need one another. The One who I call God exists most fully in the spaces between us. The Divine spark exists within each of us but that loving spark burns brightest and fully in those times when we touch another.
I became mortal when others considered the possibility of life without me. When I experienced the emotions of others — through a hug, a joke-less jab, or in an altered relationship — I became what I’ve always been. I became a part of a bigger whole.
I became a part of the river of humanity and creation that flows ever onward. The drop of moisture that I am will eventually evaporate. When my essence one day transforms, I will remain within those I have known. My moisture will seed another tributary or be present in a joyful tear.
As I give up the charade of immortality and with it my make-believe control and pretend permanence, I travel a divine path. I have lost nothing. Instead I have gained a glimpse of the wholeness of creation. I have glimpsed a signpost encouraging me to exist in being who I am and striving to love more fully.
This is the fifth of multiple posts about my experiences of surgery and recovery following a colonoscopy.
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.
I typically script my sermons. It keeps both my time and topic under control. Sometimes, however, that process leaves too little room for the Holy Spirit to speak through me. That is, scripting sometimes prevents the unexpected epiphany, the words that even I do not expect to come out of my mouth.
Last Sunday, I veered from my normal style and preached primarily from notes. The result was that my sermon ran nearly thirty minutes. More significantly, however, was that my sermon spoke even to me. The Holy Spirit surprised me with epiphanies and challenged me.
I discovered through preaching this sermon that though I had told myself that during the years we lived in West Virginia we were secretive about my daughter’s sexual orientation primarily to protect her; we really did so to protect ourselves. While there was some truth to protecting her, it was a secondary reason. We hid who she was and failed to talk about our joy at the love she’s found with her partner because we were afraid the church that my wife was serving as pastor would react harshly.
But the Holy Spirit spoke to me last week, nudging me to confess this past sin of self-protection while refusing to allow me to do the same again. Listen to Boldness in the Spirit using the audio player below. The text for the sermon is Acts 4:23-31.
I last hiked along Oregon’s Deschutes River at the end of February. Though I saw early signs of spring, it took some optimism to do so.
If you squint you can imagine flowering vegetation in the Deschutes River Canyon in late February. Photo by Tim Graves
The blue sky is reflected in the waters of the Deschutes River. Surrounded by hints of green along the canyon, spring is on the horizon in late February. Photo by Tim Graves
My hike yesterday, however, required no faithful optimism to see the season of resurrection in the midst of nature. Trees budded, many blossomed. Wildflowers and green sprouts enclosed the brown dirt upon which I journeyed. It was easy to believe in Mother Nature’s resilience and the god of resurrections in early April.
Zoom in past the green hue of the Deschutes River canyon and you will find plant life abloom. Photo by Tim Graves
Budding trees have turned to colorful blossoms in the Deschutes River canyon. Photo by Tim Graves
Low lying vegetation emerges from its winter hibernation in the Deschutes River canyon. Photo by Tim Graves
Spiraling out of winter, vegetation is blooming in the Deschutes River canyon in early April. Photo by Tim Graves
Wildflowers line the middle trail at Deschutes River Recreation area. Photo by Tim Graves
Wildflowers line the middle trail at Deschutes River Recreation area. Photo by Tim Graves
The trees on islands and along side the Deschutes River leaf in joy in early April. Photo by Tim Graves
The most notable contrast between my late February hike and this week was not the flowering trees or wildflowers, however. It was the non-plant wildlife that has emerged. I saw beetles and huge-whiskered squirrels. Crows were in flight, the bumblebees and yellow jackets diligently moved from flower to flower. Elusive Western Meadowlarks rustled leaves while the lizard darted across my path evading the camera lens. The Deschutes canyon is full of life emerging from winter hibernation. New life and creatures that have returned from southern migrations abound between the canyon walls.
A crow takes flight in the Deschutes River canyon in early April. Photo by Tim Graves
An emerging beetle crosses the hiker’s path in early April. Photo by Tim Graves
Bees are active in the Deschutes River canyon in early April. Photo by Tim Graves
Like bird and beetle, people emerge from their warming enclosures in the spring. In my late February trek, I was alone on the dirt ribbons that parallel the river. This week I encountered several people walking the trail.
Though we forget when trees and foliage fade to browns and yellows, spring comes reliably in the northern hemisphere. In the frozen precipitation and the browns and pale yellows of winter our moods drive us to feel that the darkness of the present will be endless. We fumble through February and early March convinced that we are alone in our winter wandering and seclusion.
But the God of resurrections and seasons never abandons even when we distance ourself from divine love. The Divine within all and between all of creation, loves and cares as deeply and as fully in the grey days as in the midst of blossoms. Like nature and Jesus in the Christian narrative of faith, we are resurrected from times of distress, anxiety, death, and fears to a world clothed in purples, greens, oranges, and hope.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life . . . Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these.If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! Luke 12:22a, 24-31 CEB (Read in context.)
“Isaac, go find your shoes so we can go to the store.”
We’d say that.
Most of the time he’d even cooperate. That is, 2-year-old Isaac would go into his less-than-immaculate room to find his shoes. When he didn’t come back we’d go looking for him. More times than I can count we’d find him standing in the middle of his room staring at the ceiling.
“I can’t find my shoes.”
Sometimes, he’d even do a little spin around as he looked on the ceiling for his shoes.
We’ve spent the last six weeks or so on a journey with Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem. When we finally got to Jerusalem, we, like the disciples were overjoyed. We waved palms, we laid our coats down on the ground for Jesus. We rolled out the red carpet and thought we’d finally arrived at God’s promise.
God in Jesus was called to Earth to fix everything. Like a repairman we thought Jesus would fix things up and make us all better. Or so we thought.
Within a week things went bad. By Friday, Jesus was dead. The disciples scattered, hiding for fear of the same fate. Peter even denied he knew Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. All was lost or so we thought.
“Hello, yes, uh huh, yes the repairman didn’t fix the fridge. We’re gonna need another guy out.”
Then, rather than sending a new guy out to us and the disciples, God did one better. Jesus rose from the dead. Ahhh, now it was all better. The fridge was humming away. The kingdom of Israel was getting a new king. Rome was on its way out and all was cool in the fridge.
Then, according to Luke’s gospel, the repairman, Jesus that is, hung around very briefly before leaving.
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.Luke 24:50-53 NRSV
And so ends the gospel of Luke.
God in Jesus was called to Earth to fix everything. The fridge is fixed and humming away. And, so the repairman leaves and the disciples go about their business of praying in the Temple.
Fade to black. The movie is over. We’ve had our happy ending.
Like a lot of good movies, there’s a sequel. The writer of Luke is commonly believed to have also written the book of Acts. We don’t know exactly who he was. Some think he was Jesus’ disciple Luke. Probably he wasn’t. Scholars do think he was well-traveled and a Greek gentile with an understanding of Judaism. According to Acts, he sometimes traveled with the Apostle Paul.
And though he almost certainly was not the apostle Luke, we refer to him as Luke. We know that he wrote Acts sometime between 60 and 125 of the Christian era. That’d be three decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection at the earliest and most scholars place the writing of Acts closer to the year 80 or 90.
In any case, we know that sometime after his first installment, Luke set out to write the sequel to his gospel, Acts of the Apostles.
Only thing is the ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts don’t literally agree with one another. At the end of Luke, the risen Jesus only hangs around for a short time. While in the beginning of Acts, the resurrected Jesus hangs around for a full forty days.
This should not alarm or surprise us. As one scholar says,
“Luke had no intention of writing a scientific, disinterested history…” (Johnson, Sacra Pagina, Acts of the Apostles, p. 7)
Ancient Historiography is not the same as what we think of as a history. It is far more biased than any of our history books.Acts is a selective account of what happened in the days and years following Jesus’ resurrection. It is shaped by Luke’s theological beliefs and his pastoral purposes. In other words, the narrative unfolds to support Luke’s theological aim. It was written for believers to assist them in their faith.(Wall, New Interpreter’s Bible)
In other words, Luke can have a contradiction between the end of the Gospel and the start of Acts because his purpose in writing the sequel is different than his purpose in writing the original story. The gospel is a biographical theology about Jesus. Acts is a selective historical theology about the early church.
Acts is like movies that are “based on true events” but that don’t always get the facts exactly right. In the words of Methodist Bishop and scholar William H. Willimon,
“Luke was an artist, not a newspaper reporter.” (Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, loc. #583)
From the perspective of the disciples, God in Jesus was called to Earth to fix everything. I mean, he said so himself. During his human lifetime, Jesus kept talking about the kingdom of God, what I oftentimes call the realm of God.
And, so you can’t really blame the disciples when after the resurrection, while Jesus is inexplicably hanging around for forty days, they keep wondering when Jesus is gonna establish the Kingdom. And so they ask the risen Christ,
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Acts 1: 6b NRSV
They were getting antsy. They’d seen remarkable things. I think a guy rising from the dead AFTER three days counts as remarkable. But from their perspective he just hangs around then for forty days teaching them some more. I imagine they were getting impatient. I would.
And so like disciples, we get impatient. We want to know all the answers, all the details. We’re uncomfortable living in the ambiguity, in this time of the world’s and the church’s history when answers are not so simple…
We’re uncomfortable living in a time filled with rapid changes that we can barely understand. We want to sew up all the answers, put ‘em in a box, and tie a bow around ‘em.
Some of our evangelical friends even get so focused on the end-times that they see signs all around us. They see signs that have been misinterpreted from the Book of Revelation. They want to know — now — when Jesus is establishing the Kingdom. They want to know all about the end-times…every detail.
But its not just our more evangelical friends. It’s not just about the end-times. We, too, want to know and control the future, we want to know and control how we’ll eat, who we’ll marry, how our bodies age, and who gets into the Kingdom (us) and who does not (the folks we don’t like.)
We want the hopefulness that comes from God having the final word–especially in these troubled times and world–but we focus too much on that future and not enough on doing God’s will in the here and the now. We’re too worried about ourselves and what will happen to us rather than focusing on others and doing God’s will.
Like the disciples who were getting impatient during those forty days after the resurrection, we want Jesus the repairman to fix things all up for us. When the disciples ask,
“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Acts 1: 6b NRSV
he responds just as he did during his earthly life. He’s not telling.
The risen Christ replies,
“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. Acts 1:7b NRSV
After rebuffing them about worrying about when the Kingdom, the realm of God, would be established, he told them that their concern was not about when God’s love would finally be established throughout creation. Rather their focus should be about being his loving, “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Luke 1:8b NRSV)
He told them that they will be given the gifts of the Holy Spirit that they need in order to do as he commands. (Luke 1:8a) But after Jesus ascends, the disciples act like they didn’t hear what they should be concerned about. Their focus is misplaced.
After Jesus ascends the disciples stare at nothingness, staring at the clouds, looking backwards to the past, spinning around in a circle. Just like 2-year-old Isaac spun around looking at the ceiling for his shoes, the disciples spin around staring into the clouds.
Isaac & the disciples are both desperately in need of guidance. Neither are able to find their way, to find the shoes without help. Isaac needs to look under his bed, in the corner, and under his covers.The disciples need to look toward Jerusalem, in all of Judea, and to the ends of the earth. They are called to earth not to the clouds.
And like the disciples, like the 2-year-old, we too are spinning around confused when we try to do it alone, when we try to be in control. When we make ourselves in the image of this earth rather than being Christ’s witnesses to this earth, we fail to do God’s will. We fail to heed the risen Christ’s call.
We have been given the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We have what we need to be Christ’s witnesses in Condon, in all of eastern Oregon, the Northwest, and to the ends of the earth.
Listen to the Holy Spirit’s luring voice. Stop staring at the ceiling complaining:
“I can’t find my shoes!”
“I don’t know how to be a witness for Christ!”
“I don’t know what to do!
“Nobody comes to church anymore, “I remember when…””
Listen to the two men in white robes standing next to you while you stare toward heaven.
“Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1: 11 CEB
We are called to earth. We are called to be witnesses for the risen Christ.
We’ve been praying. We’ve been reading our Bibles. We’ve been worshiping together weekly. Those things should not stop. We will always need prayer, and Bible study, and worship.
Called to earth, however, we’re expected to do more than spin around in circles looking up at the clouds waiting for Christ to establish the realm of God on earth.
We’re called to participate in being the realm of God on earth. What is it that we, that you can do? What can you do to be the presence of God to someone in this community without a church home? How can we as the koinonia — as the people of God — witness to those in this community who are hurting, who need healing, or are wandering aimlessly looking for shoes on the ceiling?
These are not academic questions. These are questions that we need to answer…in the short term and concretely. By the beginning of next month, we will create small groups to prayerfully consider what we can do to be the risen Christ’s witness in Condon, in eastern Oregon, in the northwest and to the ends of the earth.
These groups will meet regularly for about six weeks. One group could meet at 3 in the afternoon on Thursdays. One might meet over breakfast on Tuesdays. One could meet at Summit Springs at 10:30 in the morning. I don’t know. That’s to be determined yet.
The key is we will have choices to suit your schedule. I’d like to see full participation as we strive to respond to the still-speaking voice of God.
God calls us to earth to be the risen Christ’s witnesses. The Holy Spirit has gifted us with all that we need to do and be Christ’s witnesses.
The time for staring at the clouds or the ceiling is over. The two men in white, the Holy Spirit is nudging us to be the church we all know we can be.
Please pray with me,
God of Mystery,
We Seek You.
We Desire You.
Yet we run the other way,
filling our lives with noise and busyness,
seeking to hide your voice from ourselves.
Slow us down.
Cause us to hear You in the unexpected places,
Cause us to hear You,
in the doing of laundry,
in the wheat field or the office,
and as we sing along to our iPods.
Cause us to hear you amidst the noise,
in the quiet,
and in the struggles.
Persuade us to heed your call,
to act as agents of your justice and love,
in Condon and to the ends of the earth.
In the name of the risen Christ,
This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, April 7, 2013.
I usually begin my preparation for Sunday morning on the previous Sunday evening. Exhausted but filled with the Spirit from spending time with God’s people, I open the Bible app on my iPad and read the scripture for the week to come. Then I close my eyes and drift off to sleep next to my beloved wife of thirty-three years with the scripture laying on the floor beside me.
Just being, just waiting for the puppy to bark…
Serious study usually begins on Tuesday when I lay various translations next to one another and look for differences and similarities. It is often in the differences that I find the Holy Spirit. Rarely are there conclusions. Usually there are only more wonderings and wanderings.
Just being, the puppy dozes nearby…
As I go about my week the scripture follows me like a puppy dog. When I do laundry the puppy cocks its head and looks me directly in the eye. At the grocery store, the puppy runs up to the stranger who smiles reminding me that we all manifest the image of God. When I take a hike — one of my favorite things to do — the puppy nuzzles me and nudges me to look at the scripture as manifest in mother nature. At home, I ramble on to my wife about the cute things the puppy did while she was away at work. “The fascinating thing about this section of Hosea is…” or “The Greek word in this passage is…” I excitedly tell her. “You should’ve seen the puppy today!”
Just being, just finding joy in being with the puppy…
Tuesday evenings or Wednesday mornings I read commentaries. Sometimes I underline or take notes. Other times I just read and allow the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work.
Somewhere in the week, however, sometimes in a conversation with another, sometimes when in prayer, and sometimes at a sporting event, the puppy leaves a ball at my feet. God lays the ball, the movement of my sermon before me. The ball represents a unifying direction or idea for the sermon. It is rarely fully formed. For example, a couple weeks ago it was simply a phrase “throw off the cloak” in response to the story of Bartimaeus’ encounter with Jesus (Mark 10:46-52). This week it was the image of Mary nursing baby Jesus.
Just being, just leaving room for the One who loves unconditionally to speak…
Then Saturday morning comes and, having not yet picked up the puppy’s ball, I wake earlier than usual. The metaphorical puppy barks and I can’t fall back asleep. It’s as if God is at the foot of the bed saying, “C’mon, Tim. We’ve got much to do today. Pick up the ball and run with it!” What I know is that this is the time to put my hands on the keyboard. This is the time to pick up the slobbery ball.
I shower and dress hurriedly and eat breakfast. The puppy dances around me excited that I’m about to play with the ball. I’m about to run with the unifying idea. Arriving in my workspace, I light a candle and incense to remind me that this is not my message but God’s message. Within three to four hours a formed sermon is drafted. Satisfied and content, the puppy snoozes in the sunbeam coming through the window.
This process cannot be rushed. If I try to start writing on Wednesday, no sermon comes. If I seek to impose my own agenda, to control the process, I may write words but they are mine and they are uninspired.
I wonder if this process is a metaphor for life. What if trying to control our experiences of God, makes it impossible for us to hear God? What if trying to control our lives, only makes it impossible for us to be who we were created to be? What if we need to just chill with the puppy for awhile? What if we need to spend more time being and leave more room for the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work?
Just being, just leaving room for the One who loves unconditionally to nudge us toward the path of love.
We were sitting in a rocky, high-meadow in the midst of the dry, parched grasses characteristic of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in late summer. It was a place of natural beauty but it was wilderness. Have no doubt about that, it was a place with few obvious signposts.
As we talked, the middle-aged, African American woman saw me. That is, she “got me.” I was an open book to her, yet she listened intently. Her expressions were earnest and encouraging as she nodded her head when I spoke. Her questions clarified. They were non-threatening and helped me to think and consider my future. I knew she was on my side. I knew that she desired for my welfare and not for my harm, to give me a future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11).
She touched my arm and patted my shoulders as I sputtered out tentative responses. She wiped my tears looking at me as if I was the most important person in her life. Her love poured over me like baptismal waters cleansing me of pain and hurt. I never wanted to leave her presence.
Don Draper, in his crisp white shirt, tie, dress shoes, and dark suit walked through the meadow. She didn’t look away from me. I looked away from her. The propaganda-creating Mad Men character distracted me from love that cleanses my wounds, washes the dirt from my hands, and removes the crusty conjunctivitis from my eyes. His church of self destructive desires, his sacraments that poison cultures of respect and caring distracted me from the One. The creeds of false needs and empty doctrines distracted me from the love for which humanity desperately yearns.
The Divine One of many ways never gives up on us. The healing waters that encourage us to love ourselves and others never stop flowing, but the mad men of religious and secular institutions seek to build dams to divert and distract. They push and shove us to fight over a few drops of moisture in a dirty glass while the voice of the divine woman in the dry meadow whispers in the breeze. She calls to us and waits for us to choose to live in her inclusive, expanding love.