The dunes and yet-to-lift fog hide the ocean from my view. Photo taken at Holman Vista by Tim Graves

Seeking the Origin

A yellow gem emerges from its slumber. Photo by Tim Graves

A yellow gem emerges from its slumber. Photo by Tim Graves

Left foot, right foot. My legs move repetitively one after another. On the packed sand, I move at a good clip in the midst of the adaptable vegetation that thrives on the dunes.

Moving my whole body at an energetic pace en route to the ocean, I only pause to breathe in the noble vistas or tiny gems that border, and sometimes encroach upon, the trail.

The path does not remain an idyllic easy-to-traverse route. Much of the trail is loose sand as I journey over and through the dunes. Struggling as the ground shifts beneath my feet, my stride slows. I feel each step not in my calves but in my right hip (Genesis 32:25).

Left foot, right foot. I am determined to return to the sea from which Darwin posits all life emerged. With each footfall the stress of recent weeks moves through my muscles and exits my psyche. Yearning to commune with the One, my spirit moves my body toward the divine breath that sweeps over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2).

Signs of Confusion

Signs of Confusion. Photo by Tim Graves

As I near the sea, the blowing sands have covered my path. Signs placed to point the way perplex me. Confusion overcomes me. “Which way is the right way?” I lament. Without an obvious answer, without a simple answer or a definitive path to follow, a gut choice is all that remains. I stake out toward the sea of life through the final dune.

Left foot, right foot. My feet arrive on the beach as the wind blows away the morning fog. The sun warms my face as the breath of origin envelopes me.

Photo by Tim Graves

The Breath of Origin. Photo by Tim Graves

 

 

 

 

Contemplating Beauty

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

Rachel Carlson

The morning fog hangs over Dune Lake in Suislaw National Forest, near Florence, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

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.

What’d You Get Her For Your Anniversary?

"Growing Together 1" Photo by Tim Graves

On our hike this morning, we were both intrigued by this tree that seems to grow from two root systems. Photo by Tim Graves

Thirty-five sounds like we should have special plans. We should get all dressed up in our sexiest clothes and go out to dinner. If you believe the commercials, I should surprise her with an expensive gift. Perhaps a diamond ring or necklace. Maybe I should send her thirty-five roses?

Instead we’ve been hiking and now we’re hanging out together over fast food pizza. We might stop by the cherry stand in Mosier on the way home and we’ll probably cuddle with the dog this evening. We rarely put pressure on ourselves with the big days or the numbers. We also don’t spend money on each other just because some marketer says we should.

We spend time together. As we traveled from our remote town to the trail this morning, we talked about our future. I asked about how she was feeling about work which is currently in a state of flux. She listened as I reflected upon my hopes and dreams ministering with my congregation. We listened. We loved.

We did what we usually do on our Monday sabbath. We spend time doing things we enjoy and just being together.

Still, I’m more reflective today than most Mondays. As I look across the table at my Imzadi, my soul mate, my other half, my partner in life, my thoughts drift to where we were then and where we are now.

We were married young. Maggie was nineteen; I was a few months into my twenties. Objectively speaking, she has a few “blonde” hairs on her head now. My red beard is rapidly greying and we both wear bifocals now. We finished our childrearing a long time ago. We bicker less than we did during those years, perhaps because we have more rest and time to work on our relationship. Undoubtedly, because we’ve learned a thing or two about ourselves and one another through the decades.

"Growing Together 2" Photo by Tim Graves

On our hike this morning, we were both intrigued by this tree that seems to grow from two root systems. Photo by Tim Graves

Through it all — including the stormy times — our commitment to one another has remained rooted in our own mutual admiration society. You see, there is no one else. There is no one, including my children, with whom I’d rather be than Maggie. No one gets me like she does and I get her better than anyone else. I know and love her through her idiosyncrasies. She inexplicably finds my obnoxious morning (and afternoon and evening) songs endearing.

How could a diamond necklace or roses in any way represent the value of our thirty-five years together? Time together, sharing jokes with one another, talking about the next thirty-five, and simply being together are gifts that reflect our decades together. Those are the gifts we both expect from one another.

Related Posts

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s God! No, It’s Just My Wife
The Core Secret of Our Marriage
Keeping Covenant When the Storms Roll In

The view of Mt. Hood (on the left) and Mt. Adam (on the right) from the peak of McCall Point, near Rowena, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

Self-Care: I Am Important

One of the many remarkable views on the trail up to McCall Point near Rowena, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

One of the many remarkable views on the trail up to McCall Point near Rowena, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

The statistics about the health of the clergy are staggering. (See for example, Clergy Members Suffer From Burnout, Poor Health). We tend to be heavier, less active, and prone to depression.  I knew the problem before my mid-life call to ministry.

As the “pastor’s wife” for a decade I saw the toll that parish ministry takes on clergy up close. My wife’s physical health and mental health suffered at the hands of the church. I was frightened at the impact that congregational ministry had on her.

And, so, when I discerned a call to ministry, I was bound and determined to avoid suffering the same fate as my wife had in parish ministry. With a personal routine of working out at the gym five days a week prior to seminary I naively committed to continuing to do so in seminary.

Alas, poor habits of self-care are taught alongside theology and the Bible at clergy training institutions. I left seminary flabbier, more stressed than necessary, with a caffeine addiction of epoch proportions, and with extremely poor sleep habits. Within a year of of leaving school I’d unlearned most of the poor self-care habits.

Once ensconced in parish ministry, however, my health began to slide again. I had two significant health events within as many years of beginning parish ministry. The second, in which my right colon was removed, was the quintessential wake up call.  That surgery earlier this year caused me to think about what I would regret not doing should I die.

Nearing the peak of McCall Point, Mt. Hood and I pose for a selfie. Photo by Tim Graves

Nearing the peak of McCall Point, Mt. Hood and I pose for a selfie. Photo by Tim Graves

I’ve re-ordered my priorities.  Since my surgery nearly four months ago, I have become diligent in taking care of myself. I hike and write — my preferred forms of physical and mental exercise —  at least three days a week. The mental shift I’ve had to make is this: instead of taking care of myself after X or Y is done, I do so on a, albeit flexible, schedule. Self-care is a priority.

I am as important as my parishioners. I am more important than administrative and other tasks. My self-care is non-negotiable.

And, so, today I prioritized myself. Though many things demand my attention in this extremely busy week (with another looming), I went hiking with God.

So you see that a sabbath rest is left open for God’s people. The one who entered God’s rest also rested from his works, just as God rested from his own.
Hebrews 4:9-10 CEB

Respect the Rattle

Photo by Tim Graves

Call it a transplanted midwesterner’s romance with the frontier or a foolhardy amateur photographer’s dream. Either way, today was my lucky day. Photo by Tim Graves

I confess I have been looking forward to meeting a rattlesnake since moving to the west three years ago. Call it a transplanted midwesterner’s romance with the frontier or a foolhardy amateur photographer’s dream. Either way, today was my lucky day.

On our weekly sabbath hike, my wife and I encountered a plump rattler along Oregon’s Deschutes River.  I powered up my camera while keeping a safe distance. I briefly debated whether to get on my belly in order to get an ophidian-eye view of my formidable friend.

The fears inherent in pre-adolescent stories of the evil rattlesnake (undoubtedly embellished) joined together with the tales of lifelong eastern Oregonians with a respect for the genus, to convince me that was unwise. Appreciating my zoom, I snapped multiple photos while kneeling on the ground.

Hiking away from my new rattler friend, I felt disappointment. I didn’t get the knockout shot I had imagined I’d get on my first encounter with a rattlesnake.

Sigh. On the other hand, I didn’t need a trip to the emergency room.

Learning From Fallen Rocks

The zen rocks as they appeared in June 2012. Photo by Tim Graves

The zen rocks as they appeared in June 2012. Photo by Tim Graves

Even from a distance I suspected something wasn’t right. Arriving on the sacred ground which lies part-way up the Coyote Wall trail my suspicions were confirmed. I don’t know what caused the rocks to tumble. Given the storms that I know they successfully endured, I am doubtful that a natural occurrence caused the fall.

I could be wrong.

Not knowing, my mind fills in the gap. I imagine a biker racing down the trails losing control and inadvertently sending the stones to the ground.

I could be wrong.

Not knowing, my mind fills in the gap. I imagine a group of people laughing and kidding around. Getting rowdy, one of the group inadvertently bumps into the sacred altar. Rocks fall.

I could be wrong.

Though I don’t know what caused the rocks to tumble, I find some solace in the attempt to re-stack them.  Did a remorseful biker frantically seek to restore the altar of small boulders? Did she reject antiseptic wipes and a bandage to her knee while she sought to rehabilitate the altar?

I don’t know.

Maybe the laughter and kidding around turned to shock and dismay as boulders tumbled to the ground, the very ground I deem sacred. Maybe formerly joyous hikers’ moods turned contrite and serious as they carefully sought to restore the zen rocks to their former state.

The zen rocks as they appeared in July 2014. Photo by Tim Graves

The zen rocks as they appeared in July 2014. Photo by Tim Graves

I don’t know.

I am not likely to learn what caused this sacred altar to be altered. My imagination can create a myriad of possible scenarios to explain the destruction and the attempt to restore the sacred space to its former condition. None of my imagined scenarios change the present condition of a the sacred site along the Coyote Wall rim trail. (See A Whisper of a Trail and Sacred Ground.)

Conjecture and supposition — my imagination — does not have the power to change the present moment. However, they does have the power to change me.

Each interpretation of the unknown is accompanied by emotions. Some of the emotions have the power to make me miserable. For example, if I chose to imagine (and believe) that vandals maliciously destroyed the tower, give feelings ranging from sadness to hurt to anger to overt hostility a green light.

And so it matters what I choose. I decide who I want to be. And so I choose to focus not on what I don’t know but on what I do know. I know that the rocks fell and have been reassembled in a new way by someone.

I am disappointed and grieve the change in the zen rocks. Those are legitimate emotions; I own them. I hold them for awhile and then I will let them go. Though I know those emotions are my human desire to prevent change, I take note of them. I learn about myself from those emotions.

I recall that during a wilderness time in my life, this sacred ground with its seriated rocks were important to me. I honor their contribution to my well-being. Like the transformed zen rocks, I have changed. I am no longer in that wilderness. Reflecting, I learn that in my humanity, I still fail to live fully in the present. In recognizing and learning from my emotions, I accept myself. Like every one of us, I am on a journey unique to me.

Because I want love to be the vehicle in which I travel, I focus on the zen rocks as they exist today and carefully choose what I imagine. I think about those who re-stacked the fallen rocks. Though I don’t know, I choose to see a group effort at restoration.

Pondering the sacred stones, I see an upper spire that grows out of many rocks. Combining my chosen imagined reconstruction with their present state, I am reminded that love is communal. Just as each stone in the altar’s reconstructed form depends upon many others, it is in our mutuality and interdependence that love grows.

Because I chose carefully how I would react to the loss (or transformation, really) of a physical monument, I perceive hope. I am reminded that our individual and mutual hope lies in our one-ness with and appreciation for others and their journeys. Our personal and collective hopes lie in choosing to interpret the experiences of our lives through a lens of love.

___

Related Posts

Sacred Ground July 19, 2012
A Whisper of a Trail October 24, 2012
Evolving Fish Loses Face June 27, 2014