Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What Jesus Wants

I’ve been rereading Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry for a contemplative retreat I will be co-leading this spring. It’s amazing how much one can get out of what seems a simple little book each time it is read. This time I realized why Henri became popular among evangelical Christians. He emphasizes a very personal relationship with Jesus, so personal that “Christ…lives in us, that he is our true self.”

In the margin beside that assertion I countered, “? not a false self?” In other words, both Nouwen and Merton warned of living the inauthentic or false self. In Merton’s words from Contemplative Prayer, even or especially “the ‘approved way’ may in fact be encouraging us in falsity and illusion.” And, in Way of the Heart, Nouwen warns against “the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness.”

I take this to heart because I frequently wonder if this blog is “one restless effort to convince [myself or perhaps readers of my] virtuousness”!

I grew up in a Christian milieu that defined JOY as J.O.Y.—Jesus, Others, You, in that order. “The wisdom of the desert,” Henri writes, “is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ.” I put a question mark beside this assertion, too.

I guess that surrender was the idea behind sitting with Henri very early one morning in his first improvised chapel at Daybreak (the L’Arche community of Toronto) silently contemplating the Host for an hour.  Henri fidgeted continually, undoubtedly wrestling with what he called his “banana tree of monkeys.”

I sat, for the most part, still, but found little meaning in the exercise. Have me contemplate a scriptural phrase or story, or a work of art or icon, even a window with a view of nature, and the silence would have been more spiritually fulfilling. Simple adoration of a transubstantiated wafer within the glass heart of a cross was not in my Protestant bag of tricks!

But giving myself to Jesus Christ was. That’s what I thought I was doing at the tender of age of six or seven when I went forward at an altar call. But that meant following Jesus, not losing myself in Jesus. I do believe Christ “lives in us”—for me, the meaning of the Resurrection—but Chris, not Christ, is my true self.

When I served on my seminary’s worship committee more than forty years ago, I disagreed with those members from “higher” church traditions who believed a worship leader should serve only as a kind of “invisible window” to God or Jesus or the Kingdom. This concept might have suited me well: I am grateful that my parents intentionally gave me the name Christopher, because it means “Christ-bearer,” and that my last name, Glaser, comes from a German ancestor who must’ve been a glassmaker.

But at the time, I pointed out to the committee members that Yahweh was the God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and his sister Miriam, Jesus and his mother Mary, and that their particular personalities gave very personal faces to the Almighty and God’s Commonwealth.

No doubt my view was influenced by my Baptist upbringing, with much emphasis on personal testimonies, including those of our occasional evangelists or the even rarer visits to one of the late Billy Graham’s “Crusades” in my hometown of Los Angeles.

Twice on this blog I’ve quoted the Hasidic Rabbi Zusya, “In the life to come, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

In his book, Reaching Out, Nouwen suggests, “The great saints of the past don’t ask for imitation. Their way was unique and cannot be repeated. But they invite us into their lives and offer a hospitable space for our own search.”

I feel much the same way about Jesus. What Jesus wants, I believe, is for each of us to manifest God’s glory in our own unique way. We can be members of the Body of Christ, his spiritual community, and still be and become ourselves.

In the life to come, they will not ask me, “Why were you not Christ?” They will ask me, “Why were you not Chris?”

A post for St. Patrick’s Day: Easter Rising

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Warm and Friendly Dream

My dear friend Rev. Steve Pieters brings out the "warm and friendly" in me 
when he took this photo over dinner in L.A. in the fall of 2016.
On his Facebook page he points out the dove on my shoulder!

The morning I am writing this, I awoke at 2:30 a.m., and my mind started bouncing around. I remembered it was my parents’ birthdays, born on the same day one year apart. I gave thanks in prayer for them, then said the Lord’s Prayer, all silently, in my heart as well as my head. As sometimes happens, the prayers “rested” me back to sleep.

And I had a comforting dream.

It began as a funeral, but morphed into a wedding. It began at a church, but morphed into a large living room in a home with family history, not mine, but that of either the bride or groom, and the father of one of them explained what it had meant to the family after the divorce. I knew a few of the people, but in a distant way, as those I might see occasionally. We sat comfortably around the perimeter of the living room on sofas and chairs.

I was the officiant. I felt inadequately prepared, but went with the flow. I’ve written before that I am often working in my dreams, but this was not heavy duty, rather, relaxed and comfortable. To pad the service, given that I had prepared no homily, I began asking the family members about their experience with marriage. The wedding became a kind of group therapy.

As I indicated, the parents of one of the couple were divorced, but both were in attendance and friendly with one another. The other parents had had a long and satisfying marriage. As I encouraged them to speak of their relationships, one of the guests said, not rudely, “Shouldn’t we be about the service? That’s what we came for.” Probably this represented another part of me, schedule and goal oriented, a contrast to the casual part that was enjoying the conversation.

The brother of one of the principals explained that he and his husband, sitting beside him on a sofa, had recently decided to “open” their relationship, and he assumed that I, as a minister, would disapprove. I explained, to the contrary, that I believed every couple had to make their own choices on how to live out their commitment.

“Marriage is hard,” I said, “And a lifelong marriage is tougher still. Isn’t it helpful for married couples to share their experience with the couple being married today?”

And that was how the dream ended. Part way through the dream, I awoke, but fell asleep again, resuming the dream where I had left off, something I don’t recall happening before. Maybe because it was a warm and friendly place.

Of course, with dreams, I usually try to figure out what might have prompted the various parts. Yesterday I read a very satisfying belated Christmas letter from someone I had worked alongside in the church, and it was all about his family, his second wife and her siblings, their separate children and grandchildren. And recently, I had learned a gay couple, friends of ours, had decided to open up their relationship. So that helps account for some of the ingredients.

And the comfortable conversation about all this? Where did that come from?

I’ve written a much visited post about the death of my neighborhood church a few years back, Ormewood Park Presbyterian. I had stopped attending before I began serving other churches. It was not because I did not like the people, it’s that I thought it a terrible waste that we worshiped in the “traditional” pattern, when in fact, I thought we should be talking together about what makes life work for us, what our faith means, and so on.

Now Wade and I have been attending Ormewood Church, a new church start in the same place, in which a part of the service is dedicated to small groups, given a question for the day that relates to the worship. As an introvert, I find this challenging, but as a concept, I find this closer to what a spiritual community should be about. And we’re getting to know our neighbors in a whole new way. No doubt this is the predecessor to the warm and friendly place I experienced in the dream, a place that invites conversation about meaningful things, like marriage.

This will seem a non-sequitur, but I thought of an article I had read earlier in the week by a woman who had anticipated difficulty sleeping in the days following a laparoscopic surgery. She wanted a painkiller, but her doctors in Germany resisted, recommending simple ibuprofen, one telling her that “The pain will guide you. You will know when to rest more; you will know when you are healing. … All you need is rest.”

She explains she knows how to sleep, but not how to rest. Almost Zen-like her anesthesiologist tells her, “Drink a cup of coffee, slowly. And whatever you do, do not get it in a to-go cup. You must sit in one place and enjoy this cup, slowly.”

On my own I am fairly good at “resting in God,” Augustine’s stated spiritual goal, but resting in spiritual community is quite another challenge.

The link in the post takes you to Ormewood Church’s website. For its Facebook page, go to

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

When Are You Gonna Send These File Boxes to the Archives?

Some of my "stuff"!

This blog continues to be free. But I could sure use donations right now. Thanks, Chris

A good thing about being a writer and an activist is that often an archive wants your “stuff,” to allude to the late comedian George Carlin’s riff about why we get an apartment, house, or other living abode: so we have a place to put our stuff!

In my case it’s boxes of papers, sermons, manuscripts, correspondence, articles, periodicals, etc. having to do with my lifelong vocation of changing church attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. And the archive in question is at the Pacific School of Religion’s Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion in Berkeley, California, related to the LGBT Religious Archives Network (LGBTran), and administered by the Graduate Theological Union.

Half my office and half my personal closet and most of an attic storage space and some of our crawl space is devoted to storing this stuff. And though Wade would be justified, he only occasionally asks me the question that titles this post. Instead, it’s me that keeps harping on the question to myself as I walk around file boxes to get to my desk.

When I moved temporarily to San Francisco to serve First MCC as interim pastor, I sent 25 boxes of files to the archive. What remained was material I thought I’d someday make into a scrapbook (not going to happen!) or might need for future projects or could use to remind myself that I once was somebody! But also—look of chagrin on my face—were boxes of piles rather than files.

Y’see, I used to be pretty good at filing things, but I only have two file cabinets, requiring boxes. But more to the point, once I’ve finished with something, I’ve lost interest. George Lynch once told me I should never give a sermon twice, because I was obviously bored with it in my second delivery.

I would let finished projects pile up on my desk until, in a sprint of cleaning, I would sweep them off my desk into a box to sort through later, something that rarely happened. Now I know archivists love such archaeological “digs”—or so I am told—but I’m not convinced poring through unopened bulk mail or trying to figure out why I saved the odd printed matter would be to anyone’s liking. And they might miss something relevant. There may be things too personal to share or photos I’d like to hang onto. Books, as well—given that sometimes a volume from my library has sunk into the quicksand of my working detritus.

So what’s keeping me from going through these boxes of piles and files?

First of all, it’s just plain overwhelming. So many file boxes and so little time! And every artifact has the potential of sending me off on a reverie of remembrance of times and people and events past, not always happy, not always sad.

Recent research reports that the perfectionism of younger generations has increased dramatically. Perfectionism can prevent one from even starting something if it’s not going to be perfect. But I only want to prepare my papers reasonably well—let the archivists do the “perfecting.”

A few posts ago, I shamed myself by admitting that earlier last year I had read “most” of Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (2017). My wise friend, Jim Mitulski, once told me that if you don’t make it past the first 50 pages of a book, you’re never going to finish it. But I had made it within 20 pages of its end, and perhaps thought the 40-page bibliography and index meant 60 pages to finish. So this week I completed reading it.

What I found was the author’s own wondering why he took so long to complete writing the book. He references Saint Augustine, for whom “a syllable, sentence, or stanza in motion was the embodiment of time; unfurling, it stretches between past and future, memory and expectation…” Then he writes:
Hypothetically, the same is true of a book: as long as it remained in motion, the author’s present would never end. You can see where this logic is headed. Immortality was a book that was perpetually unfinished. (p 257)
Now I have wondered if my procrastination with the file boxes is some sort of fear of shoveling dirt into my own grave. The author J. D. Salinger sent 60 boxes to his archive three weeks before he died. Have I been afraid that sending the remaining boxes to my archive would simply be punctuating my absence from the active life? (No, I won’t go so far as to say it would mean my death, like the grandfather when his clock stopped ticking!)

I have hoped for some kind of “after life” in which some cute gay researcher might be passionate about my papers and do some kind of thesis about me and my work. That would likely backfire, as future judgments might render me some kind of “dinosaur,” as Bill Johnson once referred to us LGBT “pioneers.” God knows that even now, I have not been considered transgressive enough by some Queer thinkers. (Though our transgressive president should teach us this is not always a “good.”)

But I’ve come to the conclusion that my dilly-dallying is the same phenomenon that caused me to sweep this material into boxes in the first place—I’ve finished with it. I want to do something new. I’d rather write this post for my blog than return to things I’ve done or left undone.

Fair warning though—when I finally go through these boxes, you might wish I hadn’t, as I might find things that prompt nostalgic posts!

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

An Early Christian #MeToo and #TimesUp Movement

Reading Laura Swan’s The Forgotten Desert Mothers as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and the like-minded #TimesUp movement (that also includes equal opportunity for women and minorities) were getting underway, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels with the women who, alongside the Desert Fathers, went out into the desert to pray, only to be overlooked and overshadowed by a patriarchal version of church history.

I am re-reading Swan’s book in preparation for co-leading a contemplative retreat with Columbia Seminary’s Spiritual Formation Program director Debra Weir, which I referenced  in last week’s post. It is one of two texts we selected for the course, the other being Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer.

It does not in any way diminish their genuine religious devotion to be struck by how many of the women evaded sexual abuse, forced or arranged marriages, and culturally-expected duties of women in the fourth and fifth centuries by pursuing their callings/vocations. And though, like MeToo and TimesUp, it was often women of privilege and wealth and education who initiated the exodus from mistreatment and exploitation, the monastic communities they founded became refuges for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, orphaned, abandoned, mistreated, and homeless.

Meeting recently with Debra for planning our retreat, I told her I was in awe how much the women sacrificed to follow the Christian way of giving up their possessions, land, and financial resources to the poor, denying themselves even the simplest luxuries like beds, food, and other-than-simple clothing for the sake of their spirituality and their sense of justice.

Some of them cross-dressed to escape and avoid detection, joining male monastic communities as supposed eunuchs, or traveling to distant and unfamiliar places where they were unknown. Others simply resisted their family’s wishes and practiced their asceticism in the family home or on family-owned property. Many led their family members into Christian faith and practices themselves.

Unlike their male counterparts, fewer of their sayings have been preserved in the church’s memory, but what is preserved is their benevolence, their service to others, saintly attributes, and sincere devotion.

Quoting Joan M. Petersen, “Their delight was in self-control; their glory was to be unknown; their wealth was to possess nothing… Their work…consisted only of attention to the things of God, prayer without ceasing, and the uninterrupted chanting of the Psalms.” The “things of God” included the upbuilding of the Christian community and its ministry to the world in the name of Jesus, serving “the least of these.”

Decades ago John Boswell taught me that LGBT people of earlier times were drawn to monastic communities for similar reasons. These were places where they were not expected to marry, and where they could find opportunities to serve the greater good. Though Boswell recognized the church had a patriarchal bias in terms of its leadership and teachings and history, he questioned the impression that it was only men who shaped the church and its theology. Men who dominated the culture and religion, he observed, were reared by women, taught by women, related to women, influenced by women, sometimes married to women, and served in spiritual communities alongside women.

One of multiple examples of this was how Gregory of Nyssa, considered one of the early Christian theologians, was absolutely influenced and inspired by Macrina the Younger, his elder sister, who encouraged his baptism and his memorialization of her community’s monastic way of life in the Short and Long Rules. Macrina was following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Macrina the Elder, who worked closely with the local bishop. According to Swan, he and his brother Basil “acknowledged [Macrina the Younger] as the primary influence in their theological education, and each finally embraced ascetic and monastic observance.”

When the church became entwined, sometimes strangled, by the culture of the Roman empire, the Desert Mothers and Fathers sought to “re-member” the Christian community’s countercultural roots. After all, its teacher, Jesus, was executed by Rome; it faced accusations of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6); its acts of compassion contradicted a worldview of self-interest; and it suffered persecution for refusing to bow to the gods of Rome, including the emperor, considered a god. Christians then were considered “atheistic” because they believed in only one God!

#MeToo and #TimesUp are countercultural movements that resist a world in which women are demeaned and exploited. In a church that has often followed the culture’s lead in the treatment of women, these movements should remind us of our own countercultural roots in which we are “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female…for all of you are one… (Galatians 3:28).”

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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 © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.