Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Resurrection Today - Part One

Beverly Wildung Harrison was a delightful twentieth century theologian that I held in high esteem. Our paths crossed occasionally, but the first encounter I remember distinctly was a cocktail party near New York’s Union Theological Seminary where she taught. I was finishing my service on a Presbyterian Task Force on Homosexuality that was split on the ordination of “avowed, practicing homosexuals.”

She laughingly asked me if it was true that a member of the opposition on the task force had been paid a million dollars to serve as consultant on a film about the antichrist, The Omen. It was the first I had heard of it. She was right about the consulting, I later discovered, but the compensation was greatly exaggerated.

I tell the story to set in context a later conversation we had over brunch when I served a congregation in West Hollywood. A relative of hers, knowing her as a renowned feminist and body theologian, had been quizzing her about whether she believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Finally, with her usual “cut-to-the-chase” practical style, she said to him, “Really, does it matter to you, living in the twentieth century, whether Jesus’ resurrection was a physical or spiritual encounter?” He allowed as to how it didn’t; that a spiritual experience of Jesus’ presence was satisfying enough.

One of my college professors recounted his ordeal seeking ordination before a church committee determined to discover if he shared their understanding of resurrection. “Tell me this,” one queried, “if you were present at the tomb on that first Easter morning with a Polaroid camera, would you have been able to take a picture of Jesus coming out of the tomb?” The professor thought a moment, then replied, “Yes, but only if the camera were equipped with the lens of faith!”

As Christians, we stumble over the resurrection when we confuse a confession of faith for a statement of historical fact. It is when we treat matters of faith as matter-of-fact that we miss the mystery, the meaning, and the extraordinariness of our faith. Peter pointed out that only people of faith were given sight of the resurrected Jesus: “God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses” (Acts 10:40-41).

From the first Easter, Christians have held different views on the nature of the resurrection. The author of the gospel of John apparently believed that Jesus’ body was transformed spiritually, leaving his shroud in place. Several resurrection stories in the other gospels confirm this physical transcendence, reporting Jesus’ request not to be held, his appearance through locked doors, and his disappearance after breaking bread.

Others suggest Jesus’ bodily presence as he eats with the disciples or encourages Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and his side. The latter story combines physical presence and mystical vision, for though the disciples are able to touch Jesus, he appears in their midst through locked doors.

With all these variant descriptions of the resurrection, it’s safe to say Jesus’ first followers were not nailed down to a bodily interpretation! If the early Christians were not of one mind as to the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, why should Christians today expect uniformity of belief?

Watch for next week’s post, “Resurrection Today - Part Two.” The final five paragraphs of today’s post are adapted from the chapter, “Manifesting Christ’s Glory,” in my book, Come Home: Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians (Harper & Row 1990, Chi Rho Press 1998).

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Jesus' agony in the garden may be seen 
in the twisted trees of Gethsemane.

I once witnessed someone become distressed when it was suggested that Jesus might have been able to tell his disciples on which side of the boat to cast their nets because he could see a school of fish from his vantage point on the shore. For that person, it “destroyed” the miracle.

And a 7th grade teacher at my fundamentalist school got very upset when my oral book report included a character’s thought that the food with which Jesus fed the multitude might have been food that the crowds had brought but kept hidden lest they be expected to share. For her, it became less of a “miracle.”

That Jesus had the common sense of a fisherman to look for a dark patch near the surface of the water and the prescience to know his followers would share what food they had are, to me, examples of “futuring,” having knowledge of what is to come. And such abilities are often associated with contemplation, serious thought about the nature of things, as well as practical application of ancient and modern wisdom.

Some of you will be relieved to know that this may be my last reference to Teilhard de Chardin’s The Future of Man, which I’ve been reading during morning prayer. This has not been my only source of meditation, as I am usually reading several books during any given period. But it has both lifted me up and caused a “downcast spirit within me” as I’ve considered his optimistic view in the light of so much distressing news in this and other countries.

But as a Jesuit and a paleontologist, he shares the long view of human history. He sees the future in terms of our evolutionary past, that what took millions of years to evolve may still have millions of years to mature and further evolve. That he could do so in the midst and aftermath of two world wars suggests we may share his faith in the future in our own difficult times.

In a sense, he too sees the fertile “dark patch in the water” that Jesus saw, and has the prescience to know we already hold the resources to address our common human concerns, just as Jesus had by providing food to eat and food for thought to a multitude.

Which brings us back to Jesus, our exemplary contemplative, whose time in the wilderness and whose prayers in lonely places gave him perspective and hope. He could see a realm beyond religion and Israel and Rome, a “kingdom not of this world” yet “in the world” and “among us” when healing and reconciliation occur, where mercy and grace are experienced, and as compassion informs our every choice, political and spiritual.

He saw those who needed “catching” for this new world (“the harvest is plentiful, but the harvesters are few”), and knew offering his own “loaves and fishes” would prompt others to share ours. He warned of trials and tribulations to come, foreseeing his own martyrdom and that of his followers, while promising to be with us through the ages.

One could say that his “last supper” with his loved ones served also as the “first supper” of the world to be, as he offered meaning to what was to come this holy week and the means by which to hold the community together afterward, by remembering through shared bread and wine, rituals and words. A recent social science study reveals that shared ritual increases trust even among strangers.

These six Wednesdays I have offered memes of contemplative prayer and of contemplative life. I consider myself a “contemplative-wannabe,” wanting to incorporate these practices into my life more and more: remembering, solitude, unceasing prayer, holding myself “in quiet and silence,” spiritually struggling like the psalmists, recognizing the sacred everywhere and in everyone and in everything, treating life as a pilgrimage, and anticipating the possible.

Many progressive Christians hope to do the same: we realize that without a strong spiritual center we can neither transform ourselves nor the church nor the world.

Like other “contemplative-wannabe” writers, I take comfort in John of the Ladder, a seventh century ascetic of forty years, who wrote: 
If some are still dominated by their former bad habits, and yet can teach by mere words, let them teach…For perhaps, being put to shame by their own words, they will eventually begin to practice what they teach. 

Previous posts in this contemplative series:
Remember the Gift – The role of memory in contemplation
“Peace! Be Still!” – The prayer of the Desert Mothers and Fathers
Rage to Ecstasy: Praying the Psalms – Monastic use of the psalms
Altars in the World – Contemplative vision of the sacred everywhere and in everyone
Pilgrim’s Progress – Pilgrimage as an aid to contemplation

The next two Wednesdays: “Resurrection Today: Parts One and Two”

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Pilgrim's Progress

Hindu pilgrims, India

My third-grade teacher at my Christian school, Mrs. Olive Sandvig, was innovative, teaching us things like how to churn cream into butter, and inviting us to listen occasionally to stories on the radio, helping us, the first television generation, learn the power of words without pictures.

For a while, during quiet time, she read to us from Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s metaphorical tale of Christian’s pilgrimage to the Celestial City. Though Christian met with dangers and challenges and temptations, the spoken words had a calming influence on me, and to this day, I can place myself at my classroom desk with my head laid down, eyes closed, imagining the trip.

When I was spiritual leader of Atlanta’s Midtown Spiritual Community, a congregation that had left the Unity denomination because it was “too Christian,” I appreciated the challenge of talking about spirituality in a more generic way. I still had much to learn. Once I spoke of the need to move and to travel in order to grow spiritually—in essence, the need for pilgrimage, and I was taken to task by my dear friend Linda Pogue, who explained that a neighbor in her English village had never gone anywhere all his life, yet she knew of few as spiritually mature as he! For some of us, our only necessary pilgrimage is through time.

Due to economic limitations, my own pilgrimages these days are mostly limited to my imagination and my morning walks. But I have travelled widely when my circumstances permitted it.

During my first decade of ministry at a Presbyterian Church, I was expected to take study leaves, and I travelled on two Fordham University religious studies tours led by Byron Shafer: one to Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel; the other to India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

Though we were visiting sacred sites of the world’s religions, these were not billed as “pilgrimages,” but I approached them as if they were. My personal text for the first trip was The Bible, and for the second was Gandhi: Selected Writings.

Given last week’s post on “Altars in the World,” blog readers may not be surprised that the open, natural places I encountered felt more “spiritual” to me than the closed, box-like structures (as beautiful as they are) that housed religious meaning.

Though early one morning I walked the Stations of the Cross alone along Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, what spoke more to me were the green pastures beside the Sea of Galilee, the great rivers of the Nile and of the Ganges, the Egyptian wilderness devoid of any visible plant life, the gnarled trees of Gethsemane, the everflowing sea of faces throughout India, the wild-elephant-populated jungles of Sri Lanka, the Himalayas as seen from Nepal, and the colors of the stone of Petra in Jordan, which I’ve written about earlier.

Given my predilection for open spaces, I found that the retaining wall that served as the Jerusalem Temple’s base, known now as the Western Wall, is a fitting place for prayer and contemplation all by itself, without reconstructing the temple.

And, in New Delhi, serendipitously stumbling alone upon the garden where Mahatma Gandhi was martyred gave me the opportunity to give in to my spiritual emotions un-self-consciously.

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Altars in the World

Nature's baptismal font, Hawai'i

When you’ve finished reading this, I invite you to click on “comments” at the end of the post and share your favorite/most meaningful “altar in the world.” Click on “comment as” and if you do not have an account with one of the services listed, choose “anonymous” and enter your comment followed by your name, if desired. I will be publishing your comment later in the day. Thanks!

A seminary friend, Barbara Brown Taylor, has a book titled something like the title of this post. I haven’t read it yet, but having read three other books of hers, including Leaving Church, I have a sense that its theme parallels what I write here.

The contemplative life is about finding altars everywhere. Celtic “thin places” where heaven shows itself on earth. Creatures who, much like Meister Eckhart’s caterpillar, are so full of God a sermon is unnecessary. Leonard Cohen’s broken places that let the light shine in. Strangers who are angels unawares. The “least of these” who are Christ himself. People who, as in Thomas Merton’s epiphany at a city intersection, do not realize they are walking around “shining like the sun.” Maya Angelou’s “caged bird,” Ruben Alves’s datesRumi’s beloved guide ShamsMother Teresa’s “Christ in a distressing disguise.” 

For a contemplative like Hildegard of Bingen, music is another altar: “a person often sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of the celestial harmony.”

Etty Hillesum, who was to die at Auschwitz, might smile to be considered a contemplative, but who but a contemplative could observe the following in Nazi-occupied Holland, when Jews were forced to wear yellow stars of David? 
That man in Beethovenstraat this afternoon won’t get a mention in [the history books]. I looked at him as one might at the first crocus in spring, with pure enchantment. He was wearing a huge golden star, wearing it triumphantly on his chest. He was a procession and a demonstration all by himself as he cycled along so happily. And all that yellow—I suddenly had a poetic vision of the sun rising above him, so radiant and smiling did he look. 
In her “Spiritual Autobiography,” Simone Weil saw herself forever standing on the threshold of the church, because so much that she loved and that God loves is outside the church.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” Gerard Manley Hopkins declared, as so many poets, artists, visionaries, and mystics have witnessed through the ages.

The contemplative knows no bounds, no walls, no restrictive or exclusive way of experiencing the sacred. Altars are everywhere for those with fingers to touch or noses to smell or tongues to taste or ears to hear or eyes to see or bodies to be held or minds to imagine or love to be made or justice to be done. Anyone with any sense may know the altars of God’s presence and pleasure.

That’s why contemplatives often find more in common with mystics of other faiths than their fellow “believers,” why they find kindred spirits in so-called “primitive” religions that are more down to earth, or why, even among “godless” sciences they find a cause for awe and praise and—reverence.

Contemplatives do not have an exclusive view of their vocation: they learn from everyone, for, just as it is sometimes said “we are all theologians,” we are all contemplatives who do it more or less. The trick is to do more, to find ways to open ourselves to the altars in the world, to the sacred ways of other cultures, to the guidance and wisdom of other spiritual communities, to the diversity of spiritual experiences and practices even within our own faith traditions.

Listening is key. Self-Realization Fellowship founder and contemplative Paramahansa Yogananda wrote a song I use in leading retreats: 
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song;
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song:
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you;
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you—
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
“In this tempestuous, havoc-ridden world of ours, all real communication comes from the heart,” Etty Hillesum also wrote. Hearts may be altars as well, and listening is something we best do with our hearts.

Attending, attention, mindfulness, presence—these are our teachers, these are our guides, and these are the ways we bring healing to one another and to the world—one person at a time. “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” Woody Allen famously quipped--and yes, comics may also be contemplatives. We need more of them!

So many places to find God; so little time!

To support this blog ministry: 
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.