Is it an Apartment or Swiss Cheese?

Screen shot of trail map.
Screen shot of trail map.

Climbing the Cook’s Ridge trail I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!”

So, who was right? Were either of us right?

In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my human conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.

Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves
Is is a Rodent Apartment or Swiss Cheese? Photo by Tim Graves

I didn’t ask my partner about her thought process. I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at swiss cheese. Yes, she may have thought, this tree stump looks most like swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.

Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.

We all do this. A lot. We use our own internal thoughts and ideas to describe the external, particularly when encountering the novel or new. The creatures that live in the holes (if any even do) have no conception of apartment building. The holes in this stump were most likely not created in the same process that results in holes in swiss cheese.

The trouble with using our own internal thoughts and ideas to describe the external is that we can begin to think of our descriptions as objective fact. For example, we may describe someone else as “liberal” or “conservative” using our internal ideas of those terms. Our definitions may not be the same as another person’s definition.

We also do this with the one I call God. (I use the term “God” to describe the loving, non-coercive essence that connects each of us, that lives within each of us, and that encourages all that is to respond in each moment to respond in the most-loving way.) For me, the Christian narrative helps me to make sense of the divine. The person of Jesus serves as my teacher, rabbi, guru, and model for how to respond lovingly and become who I am created to be.

However, if I become so tied to the Christian narrative as objective fact that I do not respond in love to others, then I’ve not only become idolatrous, I’ve missed the truth: the love and interconnectedness that underlies all that is.

If I become so convinced of the rightness of my description of the hole-y tree stump as Rodent Apartment versus my hiking partner’s Swiss Cheese, I risk severing our relationship. That’s serious business when it is neither.

Perceiving & Becoming

Joy of Wet
The clouds hung over the summit like a wet towel and, as if the bathroom fan were broken, my eyeglasses fogged up. Photo by Tim Graves

The clouds hung over the summit like a wet towel and, as if the bathroom fan were broken, my eyeglasses fogged up. My first hike to the top of Washington’s Wind Mountain was ill-timed for taking in its views of the Columbia River Gorge, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Adams.

Though I appreciate new trails, I often visit the same trails multiple times. And so it was that two days after my initial hike I was back on this challenging, though relatively short trail. Unless I’d time traveled between seasons, the weather could not have been more different. On my first journey my focus was on small details. A myriad of miniature suns lining the trail lifted my mood. The drops of rain collected on vegetation while moisture saturated my skin and clothing.

A foggy view toward the northwest from the top of Wind Mountain. Photo by Tim Graves
A foggy view toward the northwest from the top of Wind Mountain. Photo by Tim Graves

Conversely, my attention the second morning was drawn to expansive vistas peeking through tall trees. My yellow mini-suns seemed duller and fewer as Sol peeped through trees. Upon reaching the pinnacle of my journey, rather than a windowless penthouse, I arrived in a glass house affording phenomenal views of the river below and snowcapped mountains above.

Each journey afforded me perspectives I needed to intimately know my new friend, Wind Mountain. Both trips around switchbacks, under and over fallen trees, and along its rocky, muddy, and packed dirt surface taught me something about its character. While each perspective is true, neither one fully reflects the who of the mountain. Two summer mornings spent with my new companion do not wholly inform me of the mountain’s nature either.

Approaching the thirty-fifth anniversary of our wedding, I know my wife better than any other human being. Yet, I do not know her

thoroughly nor she me. Part of the challenge in understanding and empathizing with others — even those we’ve known for decades — is that we are moving targets. I am not the same person at this moment as I will be this evening. Like Wind Mountain, we are each living, growing, and evolving life forms.

A view Photo by Tim Graves
A sunny view  toward the northwest from the top of Wind Mountain. Photo by Tim Graves

Change is inherent in our nature. If we are undistracted, we perceive it in ourselves, our relationships with one another, and with the Divine. For many, it is in Nature that this universal characteristic is most obvious.

Gaia, our living planet of which we are a part, is in the continual process of becoming. As part of the living body that is creation we, too, are becoming. Consequently, as I re-hike a trail or relate with my wife, we influence one another. We have a novel experience.

And, so, I wonder. I wonder why we insist on quantifying one another. Why do we label ourselves and others? When we label or quantify, we seek to define the indefinable. We seek to control the Divine mystery when all we can really do is be. All we can do is be present with each other. All we can do is become together.

Perhaps this is why each trek on a particular trail inspires me. Each pilgrimage affords me another opportunity to experience the essence that permeates all that is,  the One I call God. Each hike is about being and becoming an integral part of the unfolding realm of extravagant love.

 

 

Scars

Scars
Gorge2
Westward view from Dog Mountain in the central Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves

By the end of the day my annoyance at the sensations brought on by my healing nerves and tissue crescendoes. Bending my abdomen as I sit in the bed the pain, though relatively minor, lashes out at me. I remind myself that these sensations in my belly are signs of healing and I am able to simply be with the process.

Undressed for my shower I glance at my wounds and my grief response overcomes me. Part sadness and part involuntary repulsion, I pause in the moment visually examining the two tiny laparoscopic scars and the 2-1/2 inch incision site.

I feel less-than. I am scarred, never to be the same. I touch the railroad track scarring above my belly button, pleased at its slowly fading crimson claim to my abdomen. I run my finger along its ridge that rises above my skin.

Reaching the scarring beneath my naval, my fingers gently move the skin on either side of the wound. Gently moving the injured area side-to-side, I note that while there is skin covering the formerly infected area, is not yet firm like prior to surgery. The area inside my belly seems to still be growing back together. Whether accurate or not, I perceive a hole just beneath a thin skin covering.

And I wonder.

I wonder if I will ever be whole again. I wonder if I will ever be comfortable removing my shirt at the beach or poolside. Though I know better, I wonder if my wife is as repulsed by my scarred body as I am. My self-image and sexuality is scarred along with my body.

Though the concerns of the day soon dominate my thoughts, overcoming my feelings of repulsion and sadness, they are not as easily repressed as the physical sensations I experience as my abdominal tissue and nerves regenerate.

At nearly twelve weeks post-op, I am ready for this to be over. Completely. Totally.

Horsethief Butte in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves
Horsethief Butte in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves

Diminished into nothingness.

I want the formerly infected incision site to fully heal so that I can imagine I am unchanged. I want to pretend that I never had to open and then keep a hole in my abdomen draining for weeks. I want to be able to pretend that I have a complete colon.

I tell myself that this should be easy for me.  I was not diagnosed with cancer nor do I have to face the inconveniences of a colostomy like others.

If this surgical site would just hurry up and heal, I could get on with the business of repressing my feelings. Heck, I whine if the hair shaved off my body prior to cutting would at least finish its regrowth, it would help.

***

As I drove through my beloved Columbia River Gorge, my thoughts turned to geology. I thought about the geological upheavals and ice age flooding that created this downright magical land. My thoughts drifted to the rocky scars among which I hike. The indescribable aesthetic of the region regularly brings me closer to the divine.

I thought about the wound inflicted upon Mother Gaia, our very planet, as this land of enchantment was formed. Out of a brutish force, a singular splendor remains and beguiles me. As I ruminated in appreciation at the result of violent scars to the planet, my synapses burst into action.

I made a connection and began to wonder. I began to reflect upon the hypocrisy of seeing beauty in scars on Mother Gaia but feeling revolted by my own. Though I have a ways to go in accepting my still-healing body, my worth, my beauty as a beloved child of God, is not contingent upon superficial perfection.

The same divinity that creates enchantment in the Columbia River Gorge is already in the process of doing the same with my body, mind, spirit, and soul.

For the Lord takes delight in [God’s] people
Psalm 149: 4a NIV

 ___

This is the eighth of multiple posts about my experiences of surgery and recovery following a colonoscopy.

Related Posts

God Hides God’s Face From Me! May 20, 2014
Unnatural May 21, 2014
Out of Chaos May 27, 2014
No Big Deal May 29, 2014
Mortality June 3, 2014
Wiped Memories June 6, 2014
Perseverance June 10, 2014
Scars June 19, 2014

Why do I write about this topic?

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.

Freak Accidents & God

Freak Accidents & God

Yes, the photo is gross. Without the photo, however, you would not grasp the severity of the burn on my toes. The unofficial medical diagnosis (via emailed photos) is that I received a second-degree burn.

I am en route to the International Democratic Education Conference in Boulder, Colorado from my home in eastern Oregon. I chose to drive the scenic route, taking my time. So, why when I am intentionally focused on God’s creation would God allow this to happen? Why Would a loving God allow my foot to get burned in a freak accident when I have trails to hike? 

The short answer is like the major accidents, like hurricanes, like all manner of trauma in the world, God did not cause me to burn my foot. God did not cause the cheese on the microwave pizza to slide off the crust as I moved it to a plate. God did not cause bubbling cheese to land on my bare foot in a roadside motel. That is not the God that I perceive and experience.

My foot twenty-four hours later after a day of driving AND my insistence that I put on my hiking boots long enough to walk a trail at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Photo by Tim Graves
My foot twenty-four hours later after a day of driving AND my insistence that I put on my hiking boots long enough to walk a trail at the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Photo by Tim Graves

Sadly, that is what too many people perceive as God. Too many religious (and even too many atheists) define God as capricious, arbitrary, and a chess master with us as pawns. God in this view is all-powerful and all-knowing. The trouble with that God is that you end up blaming God for cancer, bad weather, and for scalding cheese.

For me, God is all-knowing only in the sense that God knew it was a possibility that, given the free-will I possess, I (and those who designed the cheese and microwave) that events might lead to a second-degree burn on my foot. God who loves each atom as much as each human being encouraged decisions that would lead to good. Sadly, free-will led to blisters.

In the moment of pain, in that time when I screamed out in my motel room, dancing with bubbling cheese on my foot, God felt my skin burning. Waking to the blisters on my foot, my disappointment at what this might mean for my planned journey, God also felt my worry and frustration. But the loving One who is in each of us (and each teeny speck of Creation), the loving One who is in the connections between us, and the loving One who lures us — never forces us — doesn’t allow bad things to have the final say.

Just as in the Christian narrative through which I come to the Divine, even something as heinous as a crucifixion does not stop the power of love from changing the world. God uses what happens for good. God does NOT cause bad things to happen. The distinction is significant because it speaks to the nature of love.

The Divine One continues to speak to me as I continue my journey, albeit driving in my slippers instead of my hiking boots. Extravagant & relentless Love is like that, it sticks with us, it empathizes with us, and it helps us and encourages us to see the unfolding realm of God no matter what challenges befall us.

Holistic Faith

Holistic Faith
This image was created by New Mexico artist Diego Gabriel Gonzales.

Click here to listen to Holistic Faith.

I found this print in the gift shop of an historic church in Albuquerque several years ago. I wasn’t going to buy it. I didn’t need it, I told myself. We couldn’t afford to buy a lot of trinkets on this vacation. I kept circling back to it in the shop. As testament to my strength, I left the shop.

Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This image has a spiritual power that beguiles and enchants me. We later came back to the shop for the express purpose of purchasing this print.

It is not lost on me that this image of Jesus shocks our Puritan roots, our Anglo prudishness, and our deeply ingrained thinking that the body and anything remotely sexual is inherently immoral.

The power of this image by New Mexico artist Diego Gabriel Gonzales is not the result of American oversexualization and titillation. It does not draw me in because breasts are sexual.

The power of this image is in the humanity of Jesus. What draws me in is THAT baby!

Jesus had a body like each of us have a body. He had a mother who nursed him at her breast. He undoubtedly cried, whimpered, got the occasional sniffle, and needed his diaper changed. He probably had to be burped from time to time. He may even have spit up once or twice on Joseph’s shoulder.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was human.

***

In the ancient world, there was a deep, cavernous divide between the spirit and the physical worlds. In greek thought — which heavily influenced western thinking — a god could not be human. A god by definition is spirit and cannot be incarnate, cannot be physical.

And, yet, we have Jesus.

There are those who clung so desperately to this idea of spirit-good, body-bad that they came up with wild theories about how the divine Jesus could appear — appear being the operative word — appear to be human. Some even came up with an invasion of the body snatchers theory in which God simply inhabited someone else’s human body.

And we still have this greek idea within our culture and too often within our faith. There’s a reason that many traditional theologians and scholars got totally freaked out recently over a scrap of parchment that seemed to imply that Jesus had a wife. To be married would have been to be physical with another human being. And we just can’t abide that the divine Jesus is also the human Jesus.

We are afraid of an angry Jesus, a sobbing Jesus, a laughing Jesus, a Jesus who is tempted to swear when he stubs his toe, and, yes, we’re afraid of a Jesus with sexual urges.

I suggest we’re afraid of all these things because we fear them in ourselves, because we cannot control them in ourselves. We are uncomfortable with a fully human savior because while we’re human, we have neglected the love, the divine image of God within us. We too often fail to,

love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength.” (Mark 12: 30 NRSV)

We equate our physicality as separate from our spirituality because we can’t reconcile the two. We’re trapped by the greek thinking that spirit is good and body is bad. So, if we can’t be human and spiritual, we find it difficult to grasp that Jesus could.

And yet he did.

We underestimate the One who was born to a human mother, who nursed at her breast, skinned his knees, had conflict with other boys, and still grew up to be the Lord and savior of the world.

***

As an adult, Jesus was asked by a scribe, what is the greatest commandment? In typical Jewish fashion the faithful asked one another questions to help them to process and figure out the meanings of the scriptures. It’s not unlike what we do in our adult Sunday School class when we go back and forth about different aspects of the Bible passages we’re discussing.

In this case, the scribe was raising the question about what the unifying theme or principle of the scriptures are. Scholar Bonnie Thurston suggests that the question is more accurately put: “What is the one, fundamental thing, the building block or cornerstone, on which all the rest of the law rests?” (Thurston, Preaching Mark, p. 138)

And so when Jesus answers, he is telling us the core of our faith. The core of what it means to be a good Jew or a good Christian. He’s telling us not only that we must love God but about God’s nature — one — and about how to love God.

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one; You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:29-30 NRSV)

We’re called to love God with our whole selves but…

But how can we love God with our whole selves when we reject an integral part of who we are? How can we love God if we reject our physicality as somehow inherently bad? Consider, Genesis 1:27 in which the biblical witness tells us that,

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 NRSV)

The creator God made us as physical and spiritual beings. Created in the Image of God, my body is integral to who I am no less than my spirituality. We experience life through and from our bodies. Human physicality and spirituality are intertwined just as Jesus’ humanity and divinity were intertwined.

And so when we turn to love God, to follow the commandment that permeates all of the Bible and the whole of our faith, Jesus — quoting and interpreting Deuteronomy 6:1-9 for us — tells us that we must do so with our whole selves.

With Our hearts.

With Our souls.

With Our minds.

With Our strength.

***

Ah, but Jesus goes beyond the scribe’s question in our passage today. Jesus gives him a bonus answer,

The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12: 31 NRSV)

Commandment. Not commandments but commandment. I love how Jesus refers to two commandments here and calls them one. The implication is that you cannot follow one and not the other. It is impossible to love god with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and all our strength in isolation. We are created as communal creatures. We depend upon the pack. We need one another for survival. And so to love God is to love one another. To love one another is to love God.

To love God is to hurt when our community hurts. When the hopes of our kids are dashed by a loss at volleyball, we hurt because we love them. Likewise we ache when members of our community must give up independent living or face cancer. We desire the best for them. We love one another.

What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. Created in the image of God, we — like God — are one. We are physical and spiritual.

We are Andre and Jerry. We are Karsen and Jean. We are Chuck, who is down under, and Yvonne who is in Florida awaiting back surgery. We are Stacy, Lily, and Jason.

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one (Mark 12:29 NRSV)

But when we love God with all our hearts, all our soul, all our minds, and all our strength we are more than just Ione or Morrow county.

We are one humanity. We feel the pain of our kindred in New Jersey, on Staten Island, in West Virginia, and in lower Manhattan. We ache for the woman whose two children were snatched from her arms by raging, angry waters!

We love our neighbors as ourselves.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12:29-31 NRSV)

 ***

Is this image shocking to our sensibilities, especially in church? Perhaps.

Consistent with the gospels? Absolutely.

Of course, Mary nursed Jesus because Jesus was not just fully divine, he was fully human and because she loved God with all her heart, and with all her mind, and with all her strength, she gave birth to a son, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and loved him. She loved with her body to provide a necessity of life to the Galilean who became the One…

…the One who would be taunted, tortured, and killed but also overcome death to rise on the third day.

That, my friends, is Good News! Amen.

***

I preached this sermon at the Ione Community Church on Sunday, November 4, 2012.

The Rainbow of Humanity

When you say that marriage is only for one man & one woman, that who someone loves is a sin, or to wait for justice, I think you must know a different God than I do. When you say these things I hear that in your eyes, my family, my friends, my most beloved in Creation are somehow not worthy of God’s love. Well, I’m here to tell you I worship a God who loves extravagantly. I worship the One who is love. I worship the One who created the rainbow of humanity in all its diversity and promise.