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The Crimson Face of God

Ascending,
muscles speak,
breath shortens,
and the cool, fresh air invigorates,

Photo by Tim Graves

Photo by Tim Graves

On the boulder strewn summit,
with its vestiges of snow,
and grey moon dust,
green patches cling close to the ground.

Between the stones and rocks,
within the moist canyons,
green grasses and blooms thrive,
in the late summer.

Beyond the trees,
beneath the late summer sunshine,
the mountain peak dominates,
the deserted ski slopes.

In hopes of snow-to-be,
the lift clangs and beeps,
as it moves in anticipation,
of white mounds of snow.

Beneath the cables,
the rock and grey dust,
are stirred by foot fall,
and breeze.

It is here,
in this alien and sacred place,
that God reveals God’s face,
in crimson leaves.

Photo by Tim Graves

God reveals God’s face in crimson leaves. Photo by Tim Graves

Bursts & Sudden Stops

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She touched my heart which has been grieving the disappearing summer and gave me joy for the seasonal shifts, each with purpose and presence worthy of my notice. Photo by Tim Graves

If I were a car, I’d be annoying to follow. I hike in bursts and sudden stops. Moving, moving, go, go…HALT!  If I were following myself I’d be hard-pressed to anticipate my own stops. I stop first, then think about stopping. On a preconscious level, I note something I want to examine or photograph and I cease moving.

I’m sure a brain researcher could explain the neurological functions that occur when this happens. Perhaps my brain is primed and looking for creatures and plant life of interest to me. I do hike with my camera intentionally.

However, I prefer to interpret this biological behavior metaphysically because for me hiking is as much a spiritual experience as a physical one:

Leaving the trailhead, I embark on a journey with the one I call God. Typically, I fail to notice my traveling companion during the early miles of my hike. For awhile my divine hiking partner, allows me to set my own pace. As my muscles move, the toxins I carry with me are released. A space opens up within me that is open to creator and creation.

Photo by Tim Graves

From my extravagantly bedazzled flower, I learned to live fully in the moment. Photo by Tim Graves

Once my being is open to the divine under my feet and surrounding me, I begin to notice the divine in the chattering squirrel, the towering pine, and the rock face.

But.

But even so, sometimes as I’m hoofing it I run the risk of passing by someone I should meet. The divine hiker, stops me suddenly. It’s as if my hiking buddy shouts, “Wait! Look at this!”

In that moment my eyes focus on someone from whom I can learn. The most remarkable encounters I have on the trail are typically the result of these sudden stops.

This morning, I met the first wooly worm of fall from whom I learned that there is beauty and purpose in all seasons. She reminded me that life is cyclical. She touched my heart which has been grieving the disappearing summer and gave me joy for the seasonal shifts, each with purpose and presence worthy of my notice.

Photo by Tim Graves

The morning sun had conspired with semi-transparent seed pockets to garner my attention. Photo by Tim Graves

Earlier, my divine hiking partner grabbed my arm and pointed to the lavender robes in which the late summer flowers clothed themselves. From my extravagantly bedazzled flower, I learned to live fully in the moment.

Cool nights are upon us already. Bitter winds filled with snow will mark the end of lavender displays along the trail. Rather than worrying about what is to come, my floral friend celebrates the present in his best outfit.

As I neared the end of my hike, with trailhead and my car in view, I raced downhill only to have my victory burst halted. The morning sun had conspired with semi-transparent seed pockets to garner my attention.

From this friend, I learned that the future is within the now. While we are influenced by our past, the future beckons us in our becoming. Using not only the raw materials of the past and now but the future we are in the perpetual process of becoming. In this becoming, is where we are most wholly (holy) ourselves.

 

 

 

 

I’m On to You! (An Ode to Poison Oak)

Photo by Tim Graves

Photo by Tim Graves

I’m on to you.

After that one time,
you know the time I’m talking about,
the time you infected my skin with your invisible weapon.

You ask will I ever get over it,
it’s been two years hence.
Did I mention I was miserable for weeks?

My skin puffy and crimson and the itch unbearable,
because you felt a need to protect yourself from my bare leg.
You could’ve just asked me to stay away.

You could stay in your area,
and I’d stay in mine.
But noooo, you encroach on my path.
Did I mention I was miserable for weeks?

But I’m on to you now.

I see you lurking beside the trail.
Your evil ways are known to me,
and I protect me from you.

I wear long pants when I’d rather wear shorts,
leaves of three invade my psyche and my nightmares,
but I know you now.

Sometimes I even protect me from benevolent three-leafers.
You should be ashamed at the bigotry you’ve created in me now.
I avoid raspberry plants and trillium and banana plants because of you!

Did I mention I was miserable for weeks?

The Moment Autumn Began

I watched as it caught the wind.

Photo by Tim Graves

Photo by Tim Graves

Gently to my right,
then my left,
over this way and that,
the brown leaf rode the invisible air.

Westward, then that
and downward it slowly moved
until it came to rest amid
the blades of green
and the seed-bearing cones.

Pausing to acknowledge its journey,
I knelt on rock and soil.

Packed clay and sharp stones
greeted my middle-aged knees
as I thanked the brittle leaf
for the joy it had given me as
hope bloomed in emerging spring.

I eulogized the formerly green one
t
hat had cooled me in its summer shade.
I bid farewell as it embraced its journey
toward becoming nourishment for the seeds of cones,
and the acorns of its descendants.

Our paths intersected,
in the moment that autumn began,
the brittle one and I,
and diverged again as our journeys continued.

             

Quick to Listen

The first major decision I made was racist.

A young white man in his twenties, I was going to change the world. The new director of an urban early childhood program dedicated to providing services within a multiracial, multicultural, mixed-economic setting, I was passionate about the mission. Giving my confession of faith in a storefront church with a strong emphasis on inclusiveness and educated in the St. Louis city and Ferguson-Florissant school districts, I was not a novice to racial tensions.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

When you’re white you journey through life assumed by our culture to be a worthy human being. My experiences with racial conflict in the late sixties and seventies, while upsetting and confusing for me, were still experienced through the lens of a white child. In my church I was blessed to have an African-American man, whose weekday ministry was about healing racial strife,  mentor and help me to process and understand race during that turbulent era. Looking back more than four decades later, I see the divine breath moving in our weekly conversations.

The pie is big enough for all peoples. It is time for those of us who are white to  respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security. Photo by Tim Graves

The pie is big enough for all peoples. It is time for those of us who are white to respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security. Photo by Tim Graves

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

Part of the problem is that I still understood racism in personal terms. I made a racist decision, not because I intended to favor a white employee at the expense of black employees, but because my white lens filtered out the experience of my African-American staff. Personal prejudice did not cause me to make a racist decision. Not understanding the systemic and institutional nature of racism, caused me to make a bigoted decision. The inability to perceive the whole picture particularly the role of power and privilege within which I was operating, caused me to make a racist decision.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

I’d like to be able to report that I was able to effectively and quickly fix my mistake. I cannot. The damage was done. I had stepped in the proverbial doo doo and early in my tenure I lost some credibility.

I was fortunate, however, to have a United Way representative — who herself was African American — help me to understand the significance of the mistake I made. I also was able to seek out an African American colleague, the director of a sibling early childhood program, a former professor specializing in racism, and several of my staff members. All were extremely patient with me. I am grateful for their help; they were under no obligation to teach me.

Still, the first major decision I made was racist.

As a result of that decision and other experiences I grew in my understanding and awareness of racism. I learned to accept the racist thoughts and impulses within me that are a part of growing up white in America. (Awareness of my shadow feelings, helps me to guard against acting upon them.) I made better, though imperfect, decisions after that day. I continue to learn about the insidious character of racism.

***

More than four decades later, I am no longer an active early childhood educator. I am the pastor of a small church in a tiny frontier town in eastern Oregon. By my count, we have no people of color within the membership of the church and less than a handful of African Americans among the 650 souls who live in our town.

During my nineteen months serving this progressive church, I have preached only twice about the injustice of racism. (This is a luxury that white pastors in white settings have which pastors of color do not.)  The first time followed the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and the second was in response to the shooting of Michael Brown by a white Ferguson, Missouri police officer.

Two weeks ago when I preached about the sin of racism, a couple of individuals pushed back against my words with examples of individual African Americans acting in prejudicial ways. This is not an unusual response among whites. It reflects a personalizing of racism (which is really about power and systems) and a failure to hear the voices of our oppressed sisters and brothers.

A recent tweet that crossed my feed implied that Progressive Christians are all talk and no action regarding racism. Sadly, I think there is too much truth in this perspective. In my case, I’ve talked about racism only twice in nineteen months. No actions have been forthcoming from my community of Christians.

It is time for substantive action to end the institutional racism that results in the shooting of young black men. Those in the African American community cannot be expected to wait one moment longer for change.

Nonetheless, as a white pastor in a white community, I know that until whites admit that racism is real, they will not be a part of a solution. In ignorance, we will continue to make racist decisions until we listen and believe the lived experiences of our sisters and brothers. We must pay attention to the teachings and modeled life of Jesus: we must hear the cries of the marginalized and oppressed! Then, we must confess our past sins, personal and collective. When that happens, I am convinced that we will respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security.

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak…
James 1:19 CEB

____

Related Posts

One Way or Another
Here Comes Trouble

 

 

Photo by Tim Graves

Revealing Leavings

Adjusting the camera to its closest setting, I got down on my hands and knees on the rough, trail surface. I was more careful than usual to support the camera in such a way that it didn’t slip and end up against the subject which lay less than an inch from my lens. I focused and clicked.

Yes, it’s true I took a photo of a bird droppings today.

I took this paparazzi style photo of a not-chicken along the Herman Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves

I took this paparazzi style photo of a not-chicken along the Herman Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Tim Graves

As I hiked the Herman Creek Trail today I spied a flock of birds fifteen feet ahead. I quickly turned on my camera and quietly approached. (One of my goals is to get more photos of  The Things That Move.) I snapped a couple not-so-clear photos. The birds reminded me of chickens. Not knowing what these birds were, I took a photo of the droppings they left to help me track down their identity.

After photographing bird poop, I continued on my way. My thoughts turned to the excrement I did not photograph on a recent hike in the Cape Perpetua. That turned out to be bear leavings.

Later as I continued my journey, I discovered the feather of a Steller’s Jay across my path. I confess it was hard not to grin in joy at its azure beauty. In each of these cases — the yet-to-be identified chicken-like birds, the bear, and the Steller’s Jay — the leavings tell us about the creature.

It is the same with people. There is a reason nurses and doctor’s monitor intake and outtake when we are ill. Our waste reveals something about us.

It’s not just physical but social waste, however, that reveals something about us.

Following encounters with others, what do we leave? For example, following an argument with my wife, do I do the work to reach reconciliation or do I leave the residue of hurtful statements? In the first, I reveal a commitment to my marriage and a respect for her as a full human being. In the later, I reveal an inability or unwillingness to do the hard work of relationship maintenance. In both I reveal something about my character and my personal journey.

Divine One, help me to remember my connectedness with and impact on others. Help me to consider what I leave behind as I journey this life. When I reach the end of my trail, may others find azure feathers of love, respect, and affirmation in my wake. Amen.

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.

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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)