One Way or Another

I’ve seen images this week of my old teenage stomping grounds under siege. I’ve seen the area where I began raising my own children torn apart when a young man was shot dead by a police officer.

michael_brown_portrait_brother600

I graduated from McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri. My best friend in high school, who was later the best man at my wedding, lived in Ferguson.

After college and a brief stint in another city, Maggie and I began to raise our family in St. Louis. We bought a house that is only 4-1/2 miles from the QuikTrip that was burned Sunday night.

My Dad passed that very convenience store twice last Sunday as he gave someone a ride to church and back home.

My dad lives 2-1/2 miles from where some of the looting took place. When our kids were small, my folks, my sister and brother and their families, and Maggie and I with our own kids would gather at a restaurant in that shopping plaza.

When I talked to my Dad on the phone this week, the man who is rarely rattled, seemed unnerved by the events in his own backyard. He told me stories of my nephew Jacob and his friends (all young men of color) being harassed by police.

And, so, this is personal.

My emotions are invested in this national story because people I love are a part of it.  I have heard on-the-ground reports from my former church youth group leader, a former employee, and my other nephew Bryan. 

But even if this weren’t personal, as a Christian I should be appalled: an unarmed 18-year-old boy was shot dead on the street.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine the grief of that mother and father? Can you? I’ve tried but somehow I can’t quite put myself in their place. Maybe that’s because I’m white. Maybe that’s because the mental picture is too horrifying and my psyche is protecting me.

When I was in my teen years, my friends and I did some stupid things in that area of St. Louis. Once, for example, I was stopped by the cops for a, um, questionable driving maneuver. My biggest fear was getting a ticket and having to tell my parents. I got off with a stern warning and I didn’t tell my parents.

It never even occurred to me that my life might be at risk. It never occurred to me that I should put my hands on the outside of the car door as actor Levar Burton does to assure he’s not shot by a nervous police officer because of the color of his skin.

It is within this context that Michael Brown was shot. I don’t know the circumstances of the shooting anymore than any one of you does. What I do know is that we have a race problem in this country and we refuse to talk about it in a productive way.

Those of us who have light skin, may not be actively racist but we all have racist imperfections having been raised within our culture. We may not be actively or verbally racist but we still benefit from the color of our skin because of systemic racism that views us as the norm. We benefit from things within our institutions and culture simply because of the color of our skin.

Talking about race is hard. It is messy. It is uncomfortable. It can be painful!

It’s also easy to ignore when you’re white.

But avoidance doesn’t work. When we fail to talk about racism the problems don’t go away. They just come out in unhealthy ways. We don’t grow as a human family…we just stagnate and learn to mistrust our sisters and brothers. When we don’t talk about race, when we ignore the problem we find ourselves drawing circles of insiders and outsiders.

***

Our human inclination to define boundaries of worthiness between ourselves and others is not new to our age. Our desire to  claim God’s love for ourselves, and those like us, while excluding folks who are different has been going on for a very long time.

In our scripture lesson from the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul addresses the drawing of circles that exclude others from God.

Early in the history of the church, the gentile Romans to whom he writes had already drawn a circle that excluded those Jews who did not view Jesus as the messiah. They thought that because some Jews did not accept Jesus as Christ that they were outside God’s love.

Paul reminds the Gentiles that he himself is a Jew when he writes,

I’m an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. Romans 11:1b CEB

He reminds them that God made a covenant with Abraham and God doesn’t break promises. Paul reminds them that,

God hasn’t rejected [God’s] people, whom he knew in advance…God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back. Romans 11:2:a, 29 CEB

God’s love is not conditional. God created each human being in the divine image, God’s hopes and dreams for each of us is endless. As Paul wrote earlier in his letter to Rome, “nothing can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 CEB).

And, so, when we draw circles that exclude others from our love and from God’s love, we sin. When we participate in racism, a hateful and extreme form of exclusion, we participate in sinfulness.

When we fail to recognize that racism is real because, well, we’re white and we have that option…

We sin.

When we fail to see racism because we have a black president and that means racism is over…

We sin.

When we fail to speak out when a friend begins a sentence with, “those blacks”…

We sin.

When four unarmed black men have been shot by police this month alone and we fail to ask why (1)…We sin.

When our inactions & indifference tell our sisters and brothers of color that their boys are outside of our circle of concern and God’s circle of love…

We sin.

***

The Good News is that God’s plans for humanity are,

plans for peace, not disaster, to give [us] a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11b CEB

It is time to take our heads out of the sand about racism and strive to be a part of God’s plan for love, for peace, and for hope for all peoples.

We can do that by opening our minds and our hearts. We can do that by listening to the mothers and fathers who fear for the lives of their boys <> on August 12, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.and to those who have already lost their sons.

As followers of the One who endured ridicule, torture, and who overcame death we are each called to love. We’re called to love,

God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength…[and] love [our] neighbor as ourselves. Mark 12:30-31

The Apostle Paul says God’s call is irrevocable. Open your hearts and minds to our neighbors who suffer under the scourge of racism. Face the challenges and messiness of racism and work for justice.

One way or another, God’s love will prevail. Choose to be a part of it. Live your calling so that one day humanity can say,

Look at how good and pleasing it is when families live together as one (Psalm 133:1 CEB)

Amen.

___

This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Condon is a tiny town in rural, eastern Oregon. The church community, reflecting the larger community, is nearly all white.

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

The Truths in Tears

Photo by Tim Graves

Photo by Tim Graves

Those pesky involuntary tears came on my first adult visit to Florence. It began in the saltwater taffy shop where childhood feelings of trips to the Oregon coast surfaced after five decades of dormancy.

These are the tears of significance. These are the tears not of sadness but of spiritual meaning. They say, “This place mattered to you, Tim. Pay attention, there is something to be learned here.”

They come in new places, too. Those pesky involuntary tears came again as I wandered through Saturday Market in Eugene, Oregon. They began when the Chinese American children sang. They continued as I walked in the midst of the artists. They reached their crescendo among the vegetables and berries where the violinist played his emotion-laden tune for passersby.

These are tears of significance. These are the tears not of sadness but of spiritual meaning. They say, “This place matters to you, Tim. Pay attention, the One is speaking to you. There is something to be learned.”

The beach was devoid of humanity except for me. I stood at the edge of vastness. Waves edging ever closer to me, those pesky involuntary tears came again. Calm and damp eyes combined to form the peace of being beloved and a part of creation.

These are tears of significance. These are the tears not of sadness but of spiritual meaning. They say, “This place matters to you, Tim. Pay attention, you are a part of a greater whole. You are beloved by the One who loves in the now, in the then, and in the time to be. There is something to be learned.”

Sometimes, A Bridge

A Bridge

As you emerge from beneath the canopy, you come upon a bridge. Photo by Tim Graves

On the trail, you sometimes wander. You wonder how you came to be on this path when you really want to be on another. You thought you read the map. You thought you understood the trail markings. And…

And still you find yourself on this path when you really want to be on another. So, you keep moving forward. Placing foot ahead of foot, you whine at your aching muscles. You allow yourself to be bored by the beauty surrounding you. But…

But this is your path and aching muscles can become stronger. This is your path. It is your journey. And, so, you try to convince yourself that this trail is the trail upon which you belong. But…

But this is not an easy journey. Switchback after steep switchback you move. In the struggle you forget to complain. Your thoughts drift and you wonder. Where will it end? Will there be vistas of ocean or mountains? Will you find a bench beside a clear stream babbling over jagged rocks to rest your tired feet?

A sound pulls you out of your wandering wonder and you notice those who inhabit the nearby trees and bushes. The jays scold you. The squirrels alert their kindred of your presence. And you find joy in their presence. A smile and a chuckle escape your lips. As…

As you round the bend you see the sunlight touching the ground. As you emerge from beneath the canopy, you come upon a bridge. Sometimes…

Sometimes, you come upon a bridge.

Carefully, you step upon its aging planks. Will it hold? Where does it lead? Arriving on the other side, you realize this is the path upon which you wanted to journey all along. This is your path. This is your bridge.

The Urban Trail on a Saturday

The directional sign at the Spencer Butte trailhead. Photo by Tim Graves

The directional sign at the Spencer Butte trailhead. Photo by Tim Graves

The shiny and clean luxury cars in the parking lot were my first clue. The glossy trailhead directional sign was my next. I was not in eastern Oregon (or even my beloved Gorge)!

It wasn’t a bad trail. Quite the contrary, the hike up to the top of  Eugene, Oregon’s Spencer Butte was a physical challenge (though short) that elevated my heart rate. As I made the final rock climb to the top, my endorphins were already doing their job with my mood. Still.

Still, it wasn’t quite right in other ways. Maybe “right” is the wrong word. It wasn’t what I’m accustomed to on a hike. Even the less-used, more difficult west route was less rustic than most of the trails I hike. Sanitized is too strong a word to describe it but, well, even with the forest around me, even with the cougar and bear warning sign at the trailhead kiosk, it was hard to shake the city around me.

Most cluster in groups Photo by Tim Graves

Most cluster in groups at the top of Spencer Butte on a Saturday morning in Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

I know. I sound like a purist, or God-forbid a snob. Still.

When I reached the top there was a crowd! Most of the folks were chattering to one another. You know, that kind of  chatter? It was the kind of chatter with a wall around it that says, we are a group and you are not a part of it. “We don’t even see you.”

It is not that I expect to have long conversations with those I encounter while hiking. (I usually hike to be immersed in nature and the One I call God.) Typically hikers acknowledge one another’s presence. Sometimes we comment on the natural beauty that surrounds us.

Instead, I heard people chattering that kind of chatter with a wall around it. From time to time, phrases about peoples’ daily life escaped the walls. One woman even stared at her smartphone!

As I hiked down the crowded but easier, if longer, trail back to the trailhead I thought. Maybe the One I call God was still speaking to me even in this environment that felt simultaneously familiar and alien to me.

Reflecting, this trail serves a very different purpose than most of the trails I hike. It is a place for a quick jaunt for exercise. For some, it is like a morning jog. For others it is a place to gather with friends as you might for brunch on a Saturday morning after a stressful week. Clearly, not my cup of tea (or cheese omelette) but legitimate use nonetheless.

Photo by Tim Graves

Roar, Crackle, & Squawk!

My toes warm,
As the fire crackles at my feet.

My breathing slows,
As the tide roars in the distance.

I am connected to the earth,
As the birds sing and squawk around me.

Peace descends,
And my essence remembers who I am.

Photo by Tim Graves

A trio of Steller’s Jays joined us at our campground in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area during August. This one shows off its bold blue tail feathers. Photo by Tim Graves

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.

The Things That Move

Eugene Fern's "What's He Been Up  to Now?" Photo from amazon.com

Eugene Fern’s “What’s He Been Up to Now?” Photo from amazon.com

Our eyes met. The spotted fawn looked at me; I looked at her. Reaching down to flip on my camera I silently chanted, “stay where you are, stay where you are.” She didn’t.

As I walk along the trail, I catch motion. Too fast for a snake and too small for a squirrel my eyes fail to focus before it is too late. As if to taunt me it happens multiple times. Sigh.

Far enough away, it didn’t seem to notice me. The coyote moved through the sage and grasses a few hundred feet below the trail. My camera beeped as it came on. I adjusted the zoom but my canine friend moved. He got away, too.

Catching the things that move on camera is full of near-misses, long-shots, and if-onlys. In my pursuit of the  things that move I often feel like Reginald, the elephant in a children’s picture book who falls into a deep hole in his pursuit of a butterfly. I confess that I give up sooner than Reginald. I also rarely need my father and mother to retrieve me from a deep hole.

Sometimes, I have unexpected successes that startle me as I download them from my camera. In late spring of this year, I captured an image of my very own butterfly at Dyer Wayside State Park near my home. It didn’t require a chase at all just a few steps.

A Butterfly on a lilac bush at Dyer Wayside Park between Condon and Mayville, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

A Butterfly on a lilac bush at Dyer Wayside Park between Condon and Mayville, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

Feeling empowered by my butterfly success, I chased some moths and dragonflies in Cottonwood Canyon State Park. Though I was satisfied with several of my moth photos, it was this dragonfly that surprised me when I downloaded it on my computer. Prior to the download, I feared my near-misses of stepping in water was all for naught.

I chased this moving thing through the marsh near the John Day River in Cottonwood Canyon State Park in June. Photo by Tim Graves

I chased this moving thing through the marsh near the John Day River in Cottonwood Canyon State Park in June. Photo by Tim Graves

As chasing the things that move continued into the summer months, I had a few non-insect successes. By observing squirrel behavior, I noted to myself that they run and hide from my approach. They tend to scamper into a tree or protected space in the ground. It is their equivalent to the President’s “undisclosed location” except that I see where they go. By waiting a few minutes, camera focused, they will return to the opening to peer out to check on whether I’ve left or not. Patiently and quietly I waited for this squirrel to reappear and was rewarded with this image.

This squirrel returned to the opening of its bunker at Columbia Hills State Park, near The Dalles, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

This squirrel returned to the opening of its bunker at Columbia Hills State Park, near The Dalles, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

Birds are particularly skittish of my approach. Their ability to fly also makes it difficult to follow or focus using my zoom. Too many of my photos of birds are blurs or of an empty sky or perch. Sometimes I am lucky. Most of the time I am not. I expected a blurry blob, particularly considering the distance from which I had to focus, when I downloaded this aviary image.

Surveying its vast domain along the John Day River in Cottonwood Canyon State Park, this bird of prey sits in its throne forty feet above mere mortals and photographers. Photo by Tim Graves

Surveying its vast domain along the John Day River in Cottonwood Canyon State Park, this bird of prey sits in its throne forty feet above mere mortals and amateur photographers. Photo by Tim Graves

Reptiles move at a pace that makes them difficult to shoot, however, I’ve discovered that a few varieties make assumptions about the quality of my vision. This one was convinced that I could not distinguish it against the rock upon which it remained perfectly still. In this angle, you can see that it is adept at blending into its surroundings.

The rocks of Deschutes State Park, near Biggs Junction, Oregon help this creature feel like a stealth jet. Photo by Tim Graves

The rocks of Deschutes State Park, near Biggs Junction, Oregon help this creature feel like a stealth jet. Photo by Tim Graves

Despite my aging eyes I spotted my camouflaged friend. Perhaps because I saw its movement before it became stationary. Perhaps because I could view the rock from more than one angle. (Remarkably its confidence at my poor visual acuity allowed me to photograph from only inches away.)

I recently encountered a friend who was convinced my vision could not make out his form on the rock. Photo by Tim Graves

I recently encountered a friend who was convinced my vision could not make out his form on the rock. Photo by Tim Graves

No doubt the things that move will continue to do so. I am committed to honing my skills and walking less obtrusively through their homelands. I suspect both actions will lead to more successful images. Nonetheless, I expect to continue to download a few blurred images as I chase my metaphorical butterflies. Just pray I don’t fall into any really big holes in the process.