The Myth of Human Separateness

The Spirit moves us together,
she dances around the edges.

An opening appears,
and she oozes into the space between us.

The Spirit fills the space with respect,
laughter, and comfort.

She dances joyfully,
overjoyed at our response to one another.

The Spirit smiles and nods,
bursting with joy.

“Aha!” she says, “I told you:
human separateness is a myth.”

 

Sacrificing for the poor & afflicted

I cannot get past the first clause in Isaiah 61, the scripture reading for this week.(1)

The LORD God’s spirit is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me.
[God] has sent me
to bring good news to the poor (Isaiah 61:1a CEB)
Specifically it is the “anointed me” and “good news to the poor” that bogs me down. This passage is deeply unsettling. I perceive the the presence of the still speaking God, of the Holy Spirit in my reading of these ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. We are embarking on an era (at least in the US) in which compassion and supports for the poor are likely to be rolled back rather than improved. They are not good now. There is very little good news for the poor (or oppressed, or meek, or afflicted depending upon translation) in 2016.

The good news for the poor/afflicted/oppressed will very likely have to come from outside government. In an era of declining revenues, the church would appear to be wholly unprepared for picking up the slack and speaking good news in action for the poor.

Yet…that is what I perceive God calling us to become. Jesus was not a landowner. He didn’t have a home and a paying profession. He sacrificed all that — and his life on the cross — to bring good news to the poor and afflicted living on the margins of ancient society.

BUT it is more than just the role of the church.

This stuck in my craw feeling feeling I have is personal. It should be personal for all of us claiming to follow Jesus. Our baptisms, whether with water or just spiritual, are our anointing. Isaiah was speaking to our ancient kindred suffering humiliation and discrimination 400 to 500 years prior to the birth of Jesus.

Liberation theology rightly claims tells us that Jesus has a preferential option for the poor. Both the Hebrew texts and the New Testament emphasize care and compassion for the orphan, widow, poor, and others living outside the power structures of his day. In the fourth chapter of Jesus reads this very passage from the prophet:

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
    and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” Luke 4:17-21 CEB

This is our task if we are to follow the Christ. Like Jesus, our task requires sacrifice. Bringing good news to the poor, the afflicted, and the oppressed has always been threatening to the powerful.

___

(1) This is a reflection on the narrative lectionary reading for Sunday, December 11, 2016. The full reading is Isaiah 61:1-11.

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!

Being Up, Getting Up

Being Up, Getting Up
Olympus. Photo by Tim Graves. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/
Divine Pinnacle. Photo by Tim Graves. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

I dance at the party of wildflowers in higher altitude grassy meadows. Perched on craggy ledges, my eyes drink in the meandering blue waters from above. Before the divine pinnacle, I bow my head and receive a blessing at the snow-streaked top of the world.

Trail to the Clouds. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

I choose trails that torture muscles while amplifying my heart rate. Often I question my choices during the first third (or more) of the journey. I whine and plead with myself, “What were you thinking? Can we pleeeease turn around?”

But I don’t turn around. I like being up. I like going up, though you’d never believe it if you could feel my feels on that first part of the journey. Despite my self-complaining, I like going up.

With each step and stumble the angst, hurts, and the grief of living are revealed and faced preparing me for the mountaintop.

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Entering Jerusalem

This sermon was delivered March 24, 2013 at Condon United Church of Christ. Listen to it here.
Getting off their private jets the executives, in their crisp white shirts and well-tailored Italian suits, were ushered to waiting black limousines for the journey to the downtown hotel.
***
Getting out of church, the people in their holey socks and their out-of-fashion Sunday-best, moved to the parking lot where they prepared to walk to the downtown hotel where the oil executives were meeting.
***
Arriving at the hotel, the executives were ushered into the lush room, where they were served a delectable meal topped off by the pastry chef himself serving the flaming dessert. As the executives, in their crisp white shirts and well-tailored Italian suits, lingered over coffee, they looked out the window. If they’d looked down they would’ve seen the ragtag church group arriving at the hotel.
***
Gathering in the church parking lot, the people, in their holey socks and their out-of-fashion Sunday best, ate sandwiches and grapes. Their meal was topped off as a Tupperware container of Aunt Ernestine’s homemade chocolate chip cookies was passed around.
As the churchfolk, and others who had joined them, began their walk downtown they held signs high and shouted, “Out of South Africa!” and “Hey Ho! Apartheid Got to Go!” They stopped at multiple Shell gas stations along the way to shame patrons who bought their gasoline from a business that perpetuated the racist apartheid system in a country far away.
Nearing the downtown hotel, the people, in their holey socks and out-of-fashion Sunday best, walked through canyons of skyscrapers where their singing and chants for justice echoed off banks and luxury hotels.
***
The executives, in their crisp white shirts and their well-tailored Italian suits, giving little thought to those far below, moved into the well-appointed meeting room. The oil executives met high above the people, in their holey socks and out-of-fashion Sunday best. The oil executives met faraway from the women and men and children in South Africa as they looked at financials and strategies. Profits and risks.
Immersed in power, they couldn’t imagine any rational reason to stop doing business in South Africa just because a few whiny churchfolk didn’t like apartheid. Far below on the street, the justice-seeking churchfolk and those who joined them, imagined a world where, in the words of the prophet Amos, “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 
And in the end, those who ate sandwiches and grapes topped off with Aunt Ernestine’s homemade chocolate chip cookies applied enough pressure on those who ate delectable meals topped off by the pastry chef himself serving the flaming dessert… In the end they applied enough pressure and changed the course of history.
The majority in South Africa and their justice-seeking allies around the world could not be silenced because they knew that even if they were silenced, the stones themselves would shout! In the end, they applied enough pressure and the racist system of apartheid fell.
***
Our gospel passage this morning is a rich tapestry with many layers of meaning. I suppose that’s a good thing as we hear this story in one form or another each year. It is a part of all four gospels. Most respected scholars believe that Mark was written first. The writers of the other gospels used Mark as a resource as they wrote their interpretation of Jesus’ life. 
Luke has his perspective as do each of the other gospel writers. Sometimes the facts of the gospels vary. For example, did Jesus preach the sermon on the mount or on the plain? Did magi or shepherds visit young Jesus? And today, did the people wave palms or did they lay their cloaks along Jesus’ path as he entered Jerusalem? Or perhaps they did both.
Worrying — or worse, arguing — about factual details, however, can distract us from God’s voice. Either way, the details each gospel writer chose to include give us a hint of how he or she experienced God. An interesting aspect of Luke’s version is that those who cheer are already disciples of Jesus. That is, though it is more than the twelve apostles, the people of Jerusalem do not come running out to embrace and cheer on Jesus. 
In fact, it is the religious leaders of Jerusalem who tell Jesus to silence his followers. Hear verse 39 again:
Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” Luke 19:39 CEB
Jerusalem was believed in the Jewish tradition of the time, to be “the point of contact between heaven and earth.” (FOTW, loc. #5565) Here’s my point, or rather Luke’s point, the religious leaders in the holiest city were offended by the loud praise Jesus’ disciples were heaping on God. They were bothered by people praising God. In verse 37, 
 They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. Luke 19:37b CEB
And the religious leaders didn’t like it. They tell Jesus to tone down the rhetoric of his people. The people of Jerusalem — who did not come running out to greet the arriving Jesus — are unable to hear God’s voice through Jesus. The story for Luke, according to one scholar is “not about God’s kingdom but the reality against which Jesus proclaims God’s kingdom.” (FOTW, loc. #5585)
And, so, our Palm Sunday processional is about praising God in difficult times. It is about doing God’s work even when all those around us seek to hush us.
I think about the UCC’s brave action — the wider church’s voice of justice that spoke out early on behalf of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers because they perceived it as where God calls this denomination.
I think about those who occupied Wall Street because they perceived the Spirit calling them to protest economic injustice, because they believed opportunities are for all of God’s people not just some.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus is not greeted with accolades and joy from all. In fact, he rides a colt into a hotbed of resistance. That is bravery. That is listening to the luring voice of God even when there’s a risk. That is taking God seriously.
And, so, when the religious leaders tell Jesus to control his disciples, to quiet down their praise of God, he says, No. He tells them that even if his followers were quiet, the stones themselves would be shouting praise.
Though I don’t believe Jesus knew all the ins and outs of how the next week would play out for him, he knew that it’s risky to follow God’s will. But he also knew who to trust. He knew that that in the end, God’s extravagant love always wins.
And so, just as my story of the oil executives and the protesting churchfolk, offered two very different paths to the downtown hotel, the writer of Luke offers us a glimpse of two very different paths into Jerusalem.
Prefect Pontius Pilate, in the rigid and harsh uniform of an oppressor, entered Jerusalem accompanied by horses, chariots, and soldiers in gleaming armor. The Roman leader stayed in a palace and maintained his power with force and wealth.
I suspect that Pilate was focused on maintaining order as people flooded into Jerusalem for the Passover. He also probably was convinced that with the army he’d brought with him, he could — and would — maintain order. He could — and would — maintain the status quo of Roman oppression in Israel.
But on the other side of town, in an ordinary robe and sandals, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem riding a colt. His ragtag disciples are overcome with joy. They praise not him but God because of all that they have witnessed. They praise the One from whom all things flow. While in Jerusalem, Jesus will stay in a commoner’s home as a guest.
He was focused not on himself, not on keeping order but on God and he willingly followed the Divine claim on his life. He knew that whatever would come over the next week, that God’s extravagant love for him would win in the end.
Beginning this holy week, may we fully trust in the One who beckons us through difficult times. May we trust that despite betrayal, humiliation and torture, despite whatever may befall us, that God’s love remains with us.
May we reflect that love to everyone with whom we meet. May we seek God’s justice for all and love with abandon.
Amen.

Or So I Thought

The hostility oozed out of the words on the screen. The disdainful sentences had nothing to do with the post.

Or so I thought.

I moderate comments on my blog to prevent hateful speech, spam, or personal rants unrelated to the topic. A few weeks ago I received two sequential comments from the same individual. 

The first asked why God would make a clitoris if not to use it. As part of the diatribe the commenter said, “You assholes have done nothing to promote this most wonderous [sic] of god’s creations”. She followed up the first comment with, “By the way have you tipped your waitress lately? She makes 3.63 an hour you cheap [expletive]”. 

Neither of these comments related to the post about the difference between ecumenism and interfaith. Her comments never appeared on my blog because of my own criteria of not allowing hateful speech or rants unrelated to the topic. They had nothing to do with a post clarifying terminology.

Or so I thought.

***

A few days ago I laughed out loud when viewing a cartoon drawn by David Hayward. In the cartoon, the church is a box trap. The bait is hearts representative of unconditional love. The church too often promises a loving community but fails to deliver. That is the trap. 

Hayward’s simple drawing captured my experience of too many churches. Love is promised if you’re straight, if you think the right way, or if you put the church china  away properly. Love is for insiders and those who make no mistakes.

Despite my own enjoyment of the cartoon, it had nothing to do with the unpublished vitriolic comments.

Or so I thought. 

Synapses Firing

Richard Beck suggests in The Bait and Switch of Christianity that the church, “has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else”. An overemphasis on “working on our relationship with God” results in neglecting working on being decent people. One piece of evidence he cites is the poor tipping behavior of churchgoers. 

Beck’s comment about poor tipping behavior caused a synapse in my brain to fire. Could there be a connection between the angry comments and my blog after all? What if she was commenting on my Christianity? Was the commenter angry at me because I am Christian?

Don’t dismiss me yet; I’m not suggesting that Christians are persecuted. We are not. 

In its history the Church has endorsed, done, and ignored heinous things. The children’s crusade, the witch hunts, and the anti-semitism leading to the second world war come immediately to mind. In contemporary times, those claiming to be followers of Jesus have been hateful and hostile to our GLBTQAI kindred, to women, to the poor, to Muslims, to Jews, and others. 

None of these hateful actions or words are consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. None of these actions reveal the abundant love of the Divine. Nonetheless, they’ve become associated with Christianity as a whole. 

What if the would-be commenter to my blog sought to comment on Christianity as a whole rather than a particular post? What if she had been hurt by the Church’s arrogance or by less than loving Jesus followers? Lord knows it’s we’ve hurt people before and still do so too often. 

Sins of the Church: Arrogance

There are more sins of the church than can be discussed in one blog post. The church is made up of imperfect humans after all. I suspect, however, that it is not our imperfections but our arrogance in implying that we have the one (and only) truth that offends those of other or no faith. Our unwillingness to take responsibility for the failures of our history and our contemporaries’ hateful rhetoric and actions undoubtedly are also offensive. We don’t always exude the love of the One we claim to follow.

Though I believe there are multiple paths to the Divine, I believe Jesus is the path God has set me upon. Within his humanity, we find a near-peer who serves as a guide for us on our journeys. As a follower of Jesus I strive, within the bounds of my own humanity, to love fully. I walk the path of following Jesus with billions of my contemporaries and with my historic kindred.

Our journey as Christians, as followers, as servants of humanity, includes sharing the joy we’ve found in our faith. Lest I be misunderstood, sharing is not force-feeding or dismissing other paths. Sharing is not arrogant nor is it judgmental. Sharing means living a life as consistent as we’re able with the extravagant love revealed in the biblical narrative and creation. It means love revealed in relationships and working for social justice. It can also mean talking with others about the love we’ve found in our faith.

Love, however, does not force others onto our freeway to the Divine. Love doesn’t restrict access. Jesus’ love is not a toll road. It is a freeway in which we are all welcome; but, there are other ways landscaped with God’s love. 

Or so I experience the Divine. 

The Evil Within Us

I wear my hoodie safely because of my pale skin.

I detest McDonald’s food. I suppose you’d expect that of a vegetarian. I do, however, stop to use the fast food restaurant’s public restroom while traveling. I’ve noticed that the McDonald’s breakfast hour tends to attract older men, presumably retired, clustered over coffee.

Recently at a McDonald’s in Portland, I overheard a comment about the Trayvon Martin killing. Following a long, somewhat winding description of the most recent news, an older white man concluded, “So we’ve got one man’s opinion.” He referred to the recent analysis by two voice experts of the 911 call which includes someone screaming.

During the earliest days of Internet research, helping my education students distinguish between information from a reputable source and information from someone with an opinion was challenging. We live in an era when everyone has the potential to air their opinion.

Not every opinion or conclusion is equally valid. For example, because of my training and experience in child development and early childhood education, I have some authority when talking about children and human behavior. Likewise, my education and ordination into Christian ministry gives me some authority and knowledge about pastoral care of others, spirituality, and theology. My preference for an Apple computer over a Windows computer, however, is just “one man’s opinion”.

I wear my hoodie safely because of my pale skin.
None of us know the full details of what led to the shooting and killing of teenager Trayvon Martin. I don’t know the heart of George Zimmerman nor Trayvon Martin. I do know about human behavior and relationships. While I am not a racism-expert, my web of unique experiences as well as my education convinces me that we cannot view the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin without an awareness of race.

Racism is insidious. It is systemic in our nation. As a white man I am privy to privileges that I often don’t even notice. I am not intentionally racist but I do benefit from racism. I also have unconscious racist attitudes simply because of the culture in which we live. To pretend otherwise is to increase the likelihood that I will take overtly racist actions. (I wrote about a recent encounter with my own subtle racism here.)

The overarching storyline of the Bible bends toward love. God adapts to our free choices, encouraging us to become more loving. The importance of radical hospitality to the stranger, flows through both Christian testaments. Always God desires us to become the loving human beings we were created to be. We show that love by reaching out to others. When we love, we reflect the Imago Dei (the image of God).

Racism buried within us, closes us off from the Imago Dei. Racism is the buried hatchet with the handle sticking out in America. It is real. It is here. It is hatred and it is evil. To say so is not to dismiss the progress made, but to pretend that we are post-racial is to risk losing that progress.

It is likely that the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin was frightened. It is possible that his unrecognized, racist attitudes and feelings propelled him to kill a boy walking to his father’s house with a bag of Skittles. This – THIS – is why it is critical that we’re aware of our own subconscious racism. Until we are, we have no hope of overcoming this evil. Until we are, Trayvon Martin will not be the last victim.

Decaying Beavers & Rainbows

I was hiking along the riverfront when it caught my eye. At first I wasn’t sure what it was and so I moved closer. I feared it would have that rank smell of death that gets into your nostrils and is so hard to get out, so I was cautious. I knew what it was when I saw its tail.


***


If you have followed any of my blogs or know me personally, you know that I’ve been on a journey toward “creating something new” since I experienced a Holy Spirit moment. I’ve let go of preconceptions, of possessions, and of identity to follow a call to Oregon. 


On this twisting river of a path, I have felt certainty and contentment simultaneously with doubts and desire to take action. Nonetheless, I’ve continued to hike toward the “new thing” trusting the Spirit’s luring. Though waves of doubt wash over me, I keep flowing. Though I long for a glimpse of the outcome, I’m rarely privy to the details of that I seek.


In this time in which I question my interpretation of the Holy Spirit moment which brought me here, I continue upon the path with an earnest certainty. Surprisingly to me, I find myself in a town of 430 people. And I grieve the loss of daily living in my adopted big city hometown.


And I experience angst and doubt simultaneously with serenity. In this time, 

  • I am steadily–though not spontaneously–growing fond of the 430 people here as well as the eight-thousand in the nearby town.
  • I am quickly growing to love the gift of having Creation at my doorstep.
  • I still don’t know how to describe for others, what it is I do. I perceive the call to co-create “something new, something that doesn’t look like church” but cannot describe that which the Spirit has not yet revealed.

So feeling uncertainty, I call out to the One. I whine to God,


GOD! I want to know,
   how to talk to others about my journey.


I want to know,
   and be in control of the path.
I want to pick the plants along the path,
   and engineer the turns and straight-a-ways.


GOD! I want to know the destination,
   precisely, exactly, and in detail.


And, God? If you can’t do that little thing?


Would you at least,
   give me a sign that you’ve got my back,
      that I’ve not misread the “Holy Spirit moments”,
          and that it is indeed you and your beckoning that I’m following?
Please?


In the name of the One who trusted you in the midst of his doubts,
   when he was ridiculed, beat, tortured, and
      killed on a cross by human fears. Amen.


***


At the beginning of this week, in which Christians began a time of penitentially journeying toward resurrections, I saw the bloated body of a beaver washed ashore. I was drawn to look at it closely, to see what had become of a mammal known for changing the flow of rivers. I was drawn to look at the bloated carcass that once full of life, vigorously controlled rushing waters.


I had that kind of morbid curiosity that accident gawkers possess. I moved closer to see. The eyes of this large water-controlling mammal seemed so small and insignificant. There was no strength left in this creature. There was no life left in this mortal creature that sought control of its environment.


Time flowed through the first week of my reflective, penitential journey toward Easter, and I forgot about the beaver.


I did not forget to whine, “I wanna know!” to the Divine. I was able to keep up my complaints to God all week without fail. 


On the last day of the week, I observed five rainbows. I tweeted about this remarkable series of colorful arcs:


I saw 5 rainbows [over] the course of today: two this morning &
three this afternoon. I think I must live in a magical land.
#ColumbiaRiverGorge



In this magical time in which I find myself, Creation answered me with the quintessential Judeo-Christian sign of covenant: a rainbow. Though I accept and understand the science behind rainbows, I believe the Divine works through each of us, through all of Creation, to lure us and communicate with us if we open our hearts. If we listen and respond in love, God’s will moves us a little closer to the ultimate.


Though I didn’t perceive it at the beginning of the week, my yearning for controlling the rushing waters, to landscape the path, leads only to a bloated carcass on the riverfront. 


Despite my petulant behavior worthy of disdain, the Divine answered my whine-ful pleadings, five times in one-day. I was reminded that the rainbows, are a sign of the covenant that God made with humanity, with all of creation. I was reminded that when God used a “Holy Spirit moment” to lure me to Oregon, that it was covenantal. I’ve journeyed here accompanied by the divinity that flows within, through, and between all that is. 

When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. Genesis 9:16 NRSV