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?



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

Arms that Ache

“Touch has a memory.” –John Keats

After his death, my mother described her grief in physical terms, "my arms ache to hold him." Photo by Al Graves

After his death, my mother described her grief physically, “my arms ache to hold him.” Photo by Al Graves

After my 5-month-old nephew died, my mother described her grief physically, “My arms ache to hold him.” That was thirty years ago. And still sometimes I  remember the feel of Darren in my arms. I recall his ravenous appetite and his eyes. Darren’s bright, curious eyes would move about the room absorbing all there was to learn.

I saw Darren today.

At an adjacent table I spied the bald baby with the round face. His eyes moved about the fast food restaurant watching. I imagined how he would feel in my arms; I pictured his wise eyes looking at me as I fed him a bottle.

Though I am a professional baby-watcher, my emotional reaction to this child of strangers was more intense than my typical delight. Initially, I thought that I was so drawn to this particular child because of his physical similarities to my own children. Both my daughter and son came into this world quite round-faced and bald.

Darren saw me today.

That’s when he and I connected visually. As not-really-Darren surveyed the room, his eyes met mine. In a moment, Darren was still with us. In a flash, my brother and sister-in-law still had a five-month-old child who was beloved and filled with their hopes and dreams. Their intense grief and pain never happened.

Photo by Al Graves

In a moment, Darren was still with us. In a flash, my brother and sister-in-law still had a five-month-old child who was beloved and filled with their hopes and dreams. Their intense grief and pain never happened. Photo by Al Graves

I even imagined fond memories of placing my newborn daughter in the arms of her toddler cousin when my brother’s family came to welcome my firstborn home. When toddler Darren’s eyes met hers, they locked and a bond of friendship began.

But that is not how it happened. Darren did not live to be six months and my firstborn never knew her cousin.

Still, Darren’s influence within my family far exceeds his short five and one-half months.

Darren Michael Graves

From the backside of the photos included in this post.

Though I do not believe in a god that would ever intentionally bring this kind of grief on anyone, though the God I perceive is never arbitrary nor “needed Darren” more than his parents, the One still moves through grief, growing love. Despite and through the heartache of a tiny casket, God advanced love.

Not-really Darren reminded me that love is like that. The five-month-old infant of strangers reminded me that love can move through loss, grief, and even death if we respond to the whisper in our ear.

The extravagant love that undergirds and moves throughout our existence does not accept “no” as a final answer. The Divine spirit will use a rock, a twig, a sparrow, me or you, or even the infant of a stranger if we are open to the loving prompt.

Not-really Darren, the child of strangers, opened himself to that loving prompt today. At a mere five months a round faced cherub touched me. He reminded me that neither death nor three-decades of aching arms can thwart love.

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.