The Early Demise of a Wooly Worm

I like caterpillars! I like the fuzzy fur and stripes of orange and black. The way in which their bodies move up and down as they move across trail, field, or deck fascinates me. But it is their hopefulness that enthralls me most. They will transform in a dramatic way becoming what appears to be an entirely different species.

Photo by Tim Graves

I examined the tiny legs; the dissipated life force had ceased to propel and inhabit this creature. Photo by Tim Graves

Serving as metaphor for the nature of existence, with its cycles of death and resurrection, butterflies-to-be inspire and remind me of the divine essence moving through us all. They remind me that who and what we are now is only temporary. All things change.

Existence is a continuous process of change. We exist both in this moment and in our becoming. I am wooly worm living in the now and am content with myself. I am also butterfly-to-be divinely lured in each moment to become more loving and more in-tune with the whole of creation.

***

Kneeling beside the caterpillar, camera at the ready, I waited for it to move. Gently touching it, despair washed over me! This tube of hope was not going to move! Immediately, I sought an answer for why the small creature was no longer a butterfly-in-becoming.

No predator had snatched its life from it. There was no apparent injury. I examined the tiny legs; the dissipated life force had ceased to propel and inhabit this creature. Why? What do I make of this creature whose existence ended before becoming that which it was destined?

A lifeless caterpillar seems more analogous to an unexpected death. It is an inexplicable event; it is the death of hope. A dead wooly worm will never become a butterfly. Yes, everything is temporary. Even our becoming will end.

***

The fire-devastated environs in which I stood reflected the harsh news. Photo by Tim Graves

The fire-devastated environs in which I stood reflected the harsh news. Photo by Tim Graves

Standing in the middle of the woods — woods that burnt in a recent wildfire — the words coming through my mobile phone stung me. A beloved member of the extended community in which I serve as pastor was dead.  A woman I perceived as joyful, confident, and butterfly-bound ended her own life! The fire-devastated environs in which I stood reflected the harsh news. I pondered the deep pain (and desperation?) this beloved of God must have felt to have taken her own life.

After talking with her brother and sending an email with the sad news to the church community, I lifted my pack out of the ashes where I’d dropped it. Dusting it off, I embarked on my long pilgrimage back to the trailhead. Trudging through blackened trees, charred leaves, and scorched cones, I pondered shortened lives of wooly worm and human. Despair, deep sadness, shock, and sobs took their turn with me.

Each step became a prayer. The grassless meadows and hollow trunks were symbols of the evil and hardships of life. They pointed toward the emotional state that would drive a beloved child of the Divine to take her life. My pilgrimage to the trailhead was a blessing as I identified both my personal reaction and  my pastoral response to the difficult news in my community.

***

There is a harmful stream in my faith tradition that says that suicide is a sin. While that is not a belief in my particular theology or that of my denominations (see About), it has made the grief of family members and friends of those who die at their own hand more difficult. I unequivocally reject the notion that the one I call God chooses to further punish a wounded soul with eternal damnation.

The essence of the creating energy of the universe (that which I refer to as God) is love. Love is empathy. Love knows and feels with each wooly worm, with each wildflower and stem of grass, and with each human being. In the words of process theologian Monica A. Coleman, God “knows us from the inside out” (see Life After Death).

The blackened leaves of a scrub oak in the McCall Preserve near Rowena, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves

Trudging through blackened trees, charred leaves, and scorched cones, I pondered shortened lives of wooly worm and human. Photo by Tim Graves

The one divine essence, whether envisioned as energy or old man with a long white beard, knows us better than we know ourselves and desires the best for each one of us. When free will and the complexities of our interrelated existence, combine to lead a person to choose suicide, God feels with us. The Divine feels not only our emotions of dismay, shock, and grief, but the sense of hopelessness of the deceased. Taking those feelings into godself, the Divine Love nudges us to listen to one another, to wipe tears, and to act for good.

Though I reject the notion that God creates hardship to teach lessons, I do perceive the divine one using even the most traumatic life experiences for good. When faced with suicide, the sacred spirit moves within and between us calling us to care for one another as we grieve. We are encouraged to work for changes to our cultural and mental health systems that prevent people from perceiving hope in our fractured and temporary existence.

***

Both my spiritual tradition and the nature that surrounded me as I moved through burnt forest and meadow, teach me that not every wooly worm becomes a butterfly. Life is filled with both despair and elation. As every child is loathe to hear, life isn’t fair. But the sorrow of the now will end just as moments of euphoria end.

The good news obvious in nature and reflected in the sacred writings of multiple traditions, is that even in death there is new life. To be sure, without death new life does not exist.

Lichen of Hope

The good news obvious in nature and reflected in the sacred writings of multiple traditions, is that even in death there is new life. To be sure, without death new life does not exist. Photo by Tim Graves

The grasses burned by wildfire will return in the spring with a vibrancy that the thick, overgrown brush lacked.  The trees that survive will emanate a beauty in their scars that a perfect life could never reveal. The fallen trees will provide homes for small rodents and insects. And the inexplicably deceased caterpillar I encountered on another trail, will provide food for a passing bird or decompose and become part of the soil upon which life depends.

Because we are interconnected with one another, the essence of the one who takes her own life or the one who dies at one-hundred-twenty years, remains within our diverse Gaian whole. We are forever connected with one another in the present, the past, and into the future. And, so, the wooly worm whose life ended before its incarnation as butterfly remains constituent of the living earth. Though no form lasts forever, through the Divine One we remain eternally connected to each other in the becoming realm of love that slowly unfolds outside of time.

Into the Sacred Fog

I didn’t plan well. I didn’t think about the difference one-week makes at the top of Oregon. The result was my double-nickel aged fingers could barely move by the time my short, two-hour hike in the alpine areas of Mt. Hood ended.

Red and White Hood

The lingering red vegetation of fall contrasts with the white hints of snow to come along the Mountaineer trail on Mt. Hood. Photo by Tim Graves

There is something about the mountaintop. The divinity surrounds and I feel compelled to climb higher and higher. As I moved up from the trailhead in the breezy thirty-seven degrees I soon came upon snow. It began as polka dots on rock and vegetation but soon a half-inch covered my path. The gullies were filled to the brim with fluffy white mocha.

My fingers complained, cowering inside my pockets but my spirit kept climbing. The lingering red vegetation of fall contrasted with the sparkling white skyfall from overnight. In the brisk pilgrimage through fog forecast to be inches of snow later in the day, the divine warmed me.

From now on my eyes will be open and my ears will pay attention to the prayers offered in this place. (2 Chronicles 7:15 CEB)

I’ve Even Done It in Church

I’ve done it in the car. I’ve done it in a restaurant and on a boat. I’ve done it in the bedroom. I’ve even done it in the sanctuary of a church! Today, I saw someone else do it while hiking the snowy alpine trails of Mt. Hood.

I heard the young couple before I rounded the bend with its cluster of shrublike trees. I recognized the sound of people enjoying a private conversation. As the couple came into view, I witnessed a shared kiss — a peck really — between the two women.

Photo by Tim Graves

I saw someone else do it while hiking the snowy alpine trails of Mt. Hood. Photo by Tim Graves

This should be unremarkable and certainly not blogworthy. People kiss everyday. People, especially young people, kiss in public places and I don’t give it a thought. But I was disturbed by this experience. The kiss itself didn’t bother me but the look on the young woman’s face when she saw me has stuck with me. On her face I saw the surprise of being witnessed. Her expression revealed concern, maybe even fear of my response. I smiled what I hope was a reassuring smile and nodded my head as I continued on my way.

Driving away from the trailhead, I played her expression and response through my mind. I felt angry at a culture that would make someone fear kissing the one she loved. I felt ashamed at my own Christian faith that too often implies the love of these two young women is sinful or repulsive. Love is never repulsive. Love is never something to be discouraged but something that should be encouraged. Love is the language of the divine.

In my passionate musing about the encounter, the divine spirit renewed my resolve to lead my rural, eastern Oregon congregation to officially and publicly become open and affirming of people “of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” (1) The love represented by this couple’s kiss is sacred and should be celebrated.

I smiled. Once again I met God on the sacred mountain.

Arachnid Folk Art. Photo by Tim Graves

Arachnid Folk Art

The artisan was camera shy. Photo by Tim Graves

The artisan was camera shy. Photo by Tim Graves

The gate was locked.  That was my reminder of the season. Without the typical fall rains of the Columbia River Gorge where I hike or the grey glums of my drier eastern Oregon home it is hard to know the date without a calendar. (We’ve had a warm and sunny autumn so far.)

As I turned the car in a tight circle to park outside the gate, my hiking partner exclaimed, “Look at those spider webs!” Glistening in the early morning sun two labyrinth works of art flanked a worn stop sign. You know it’s going to be a good hike when you get a bonus moment before you ever start! (See Just One More Bonus Moment.)

As I stood trying to simultaneously focus my camera on both webs, the owner showed herself. She was a tad camera shy; she moved out of my focus each time I set up. And, though, I was not successful in capturing the two webs side-by-side or getting a clear image of the creator, I witnessed her efficient food gathering device capture a small flying creature. My hiking partner, waiting about thirty-five feet away, reminded me she was ready to begin our trek and scramble to the Gorton Creek waterfall.

A smile on my face. I bid spider farewell with an appreciation for the utility and beauty of arachnid folk art.

A spider web glistening at the entrance to the Wyeth Campground and trailhead. Photo by Tim Graves

A spider web glistening at the entrance to the Wyeth Campground and trailhead. Photo by Tim Graves

 

 

The Before & After

Gorton Creek Bridge, near Hood River, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons copyright (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The morning sun emerges behind the Gorton Creek Bridge, near Hood River, Oregon. Photo by Tim Graves. 

After the dry summer,
before the frigid winds of winter.

Before the mountaintop snows,
host skis and snowboards.

Before the spring sunshine transforms meter and yard of white fluff,
to icy, exuberant, baptismal waters.

In that moment after and before,
I find my rest beside the gentle flow,
as it gurgles and bubbles around exposed rock and creek bed.

In that moment,
the divine voice softly whispers,
“I am still creating!”

After the Fire

The Lichen & Leaves of Hope

McCall Point Trail still smells of burn. Containment lines are marked as no-hike, restoration areas in the natural preserve. In many ways, my first journey on the trail since the early-August Rowena Fire was sad. The loss of brush and many trees is significant.  To contain the fire, firefighters had rightly destroyed delicate vegetation to build containment lines.

But the grasses will return in the spring. The many surviving trees have already started to sprout new leaves despite the season. The lichen in all its delicate beauty has found sustenance in scorched fenceposts and tree stumps.

New leaves sprout from a blackened tree. Photo by Tim Graves

New leaves sprout from a blackened tree. Photo by Tim Graves

Photo by Tim Graves

The delicate and hardy lichen finds a home on a burnt fencepost. Photo by Tim Graves

Related

Additional Post-Burn Photos of McCall Point

In the Valley of Dry Bones (photos)

McCall Point Trail, June 2012  (photos)

 

Voting No While Standing With

Three caveats before I start: 1) I failed to do my homework before the CPCUCC Annual Meeting which led to my failure to speak out to the assembled; 2) I feel woefully inadequate to address solutions to conflict in the Mid-East; and 3) I am deeply troubled by Israel’s actions directed at the Palestinian population.  

***

The Palestine-Israel Network of the CPCUCC calls the gathered to pass "A Resolution of Witness " Photo by Maggie Sebastian

The Palestine-Israel Network of the CPCUCC calls the gathered to pass “A Resolution of Witness ” Photo by Maggie Sebastian

The Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ met last weekend for their Annual Meeting. The gathering passed “A Resolution of Witness Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” I voted against this resolution which can be read here. (This is the original version without friendly amendments added during the meeting.)

My concerns about this document began when I read materials on the information table. Terms like “European Jewish colonialism” and frequent use of the term “Jews” in background materials are at best vague and imply or place blame on whole swaths of people rather than Israeli decision makers. The tone of the materials and their reliance upon the Kairos document, which one Conservative Jew whom I respect calls “antisemitic at its core” were red flags for me.

When a proponent of the resolution described Gaza as an open-air prison, I was appalled. If our goal is peace and reconciliation terms like that only polarize. Peace requires the concerns of all parties be recognized and heard. As an American Christian that term was loaded with innuendo and implication that failure to pass the resolution was tantamount to condoning Israel’s actions against the people of Gaza.  How might a phrase like that be heard by Israeli Jews who live within a context Americans — especially Christians — can barely imagine?

It is no secret that embedded anti-semitism is both a contemporary and historical sin of the Christian church. Our sacred text itself has been used as a weapon to blame our Jewish sisters and brothers for killing Christ! This, of course, is historically inaccurate. The only entity that had the ability to crucify Jesus was the occupying Roman authority.

Too many Christians believe that Jesus’ criticism of religious leaders of his day implies a rejection of his own Jewish faith.  The biblical witness does not bear this out. His criticism of leaders and arguments with other Jews is analogous to differences argued within any mainline American Christian denomination. Our supersessionist reinterpretation  of some passages of the Elder Testament (e.g.; Isaiah 7:14) to have meanings never intended by the original authors too often affirms embedded anti-Jewish attitudes.

None of this is to suggest that the proponents of the resolution passed at the CPCUCC Annual Meeting last weekend are antisemitic in intention. We must stand with our Palestinian sisters and brothers — Christian and Muslim — who are victimized by the actions of the Israeli government. The conditions under which they live are abhorrent.

That said, when those of us in the United Church of Christ, a denomination committed to Christian unity and positive interfaith relationships, stand with oppressed peoples in Palestine we must do so without relying on antisemitic documents. We must intentionally seek to uncover the embedded antisemitism of our tradition. Until we do, our voice calling for justice will lack credibility.

In short, we need to stand in witness with our Palestinian sisters and brothers but we must do so without perpetuating the sin of antisemitism.

___

Related

My Speech to the Presbyterians, Rachel Lerner of J Street

Cautions to US Churches Regarding the Kairos Palestine Document

I Will Vote No on Divestment, Rev. Chuck Currie