Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Grunion and Grace

Photo thanks to Haris Lakisic at

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With a pickup load of high school friends I traveled to a beach designated a likely site for a grunion run. Grunion are silvery fish that come ashore at this time of year along the Southern California coastline to lay and fertilize thousands of eggs (per couple!) in the sand before they catch the next wave out to sea.

Hundreds of people were gathered on that beach that night, excitedly awaiting the spectacle. Many had buckets for our catches, as I recall, though I’m not sure we intended to do anything with the fish afterward. But the grunion never showed. Maybe the noise and campfires of the partiers signaled them this was not a good place for their mating ritual.

Another group did catch one lonely grunion, however, and generously turned it over to our group so we didn’t go home empty-handed. We all piled into the back of our old pickup for the return home, not entirely disappointed, as the whole point was to spend time together as friends on the beach under a starry night.

Flash forward more than a decade. Back in California after seminary in New Haven and a campus ministry internship in Philadelphia, I was serving a ministry that challenged the church’s long held grudge against LGBT people.

Given the earnest nature of my work, I was held in balance for a while by a very funny boyfriend. Bob Barnes had joined the migration of would-be comics from the Midwest (Ohio, specifically) to try his luck at onstage improv comedy. He could make me LOL before that was a texting cliché.

For example, watching on television the flamboyant and lisping evangelist Ernest Angley lay hands on followers who announced their particular need of healing, one approached wearing a loud red plaid blazer with neon green pants. “Oh God, give me taste,” Bob  mocked.  Once, receiving Communion, the priest eyed him suspiciously. “You Catholic?” he questioned. “From cradle to grave,” Bob quipped without missing a beat. Bob’s friends, also comics, referred to me as “the Pope” because of his upbringing.

Bob also had a romantic side. We had dinner one evening at a popular seafood restaurant beside the beach on the southern end of Malibu. Afterward we walked alone along the shore as the waves crashed at our feet. We began noticing silver flashes, which at first I speculated to be plankton in the sand, a phenomenon I’d experienced before in which I could kick the sand with my foot and see phosphorescent sparks, reminiscent of Disney animation of fairy dust from a wand.

Then we realized it was grunion coming ashore, a few at first, and then by the hundreds. The crashing waves were full of them and then the beach was covered with writhing, copulating grunion as far as we could see in the moonlit night. Bob and I shared a look of absolute delight as we stood there, transfixed by this natural wonder that neither of us had ever seen and would never see again.

The last time I saw Bob was when I spoke on a college campus in Ohio, where he had returned, now living with AIDS. For our visit, he had put together an elaborate platter with a variety of cheeses and roasted vegetables, my first time eating roasted garlic. We had a wonderful visit, his easy smile and laughter, as always, uplifting my spirit. After his death I would learn from his partner that they had spent his final days in a treatment facility along the shore where they could hold each other watching the sun set over Lake Erie.

When I decided to write this post after reading a recent article on grunion, I intended to suggest that Bob and I had an experience of grace that night serendipitously happening onto grunion running ashore, contrasting it with the unsuccessful effort with my high school friends to witness such a miracle.

But as I finish this post, I realize everything mentioned was an experience of grace: my friends in youth gathered in anticipation; my opportunities participating in ministry and in a movement; the smiles and laughter that Bob gave freely and prompted easily; the remembered glowing sparks of plankton in sand; our dinner and walk and conversation along the shore as well as the silver flashes of flopping grunion; our last visit and the platter Bob so painstakingly prepared; the lover that held Bob in his final days and the sunsets they shared; and now, my memories of all of these.

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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, May 10, 2017

"Go Back to Your G--D--- Country!"

In some perhaps too tightly wound circles, it is considered a “micro-aggression” to ask “Where are you from?” or “Where are your ancestors from?” The prejudice of those who think this way is that the questioner has a hostile intent.

But Wade and I delight in finding out the origins of someone’s name, or accent, or heritage. This is the pleasure of a multi-cultural, multi-national world.

Lazy Eye, a recent gay film, mentions the classic Harold and Maude. The unusual relationship between a morbid young man and a vivacious old woman—a Holocaust survivor, no less—contains a scene in which they are walking among daisies as she explains her love for flowers. He grimly observes, “They’re all the same.”

“No, each one is different,” she points out, naming how so.  “Much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this,” as she holds up one daisy, “but allow themselves to be treated like that.” As she gestures broadly, the camera pulls back to show them sitting in a veterans cemetery covered with identical grave markers.

I would say that too many of us have a “lazy eye” when it comes to appreciating differences and diversity.

Nelson Mandela insisted on a staff that mirrored the diversity of the new South Africa when he became its president. He and the people he represented had more than a little right to exclude those Europeans who had come to their country and excluded them from rights, privileges, and participation in government. But he insisted on modeling the necessary collegiality among the races to bring his post-apartheid nation together.

This was brought home to me as I read the memoir of an Afrikaner whom he chose as his personal assistant, Zelda la Grange. The book, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, was lent to me by the twin sister of one of our close friends. They are themselves Afrikaners, but she resides in South Africa, while he is a naturalized citizen of the United States.

A few weeks ago, Wade and I were enjoying drinks and dinner out with him when he described an incident at a market here in Atlanta.  He was checking out, and his order included the last banana cluster on the shelves. “Are you going to take those bananas?” an older woman behind him in line questioned. Taken aback by her accusatory tone, our ever polite friend explained in his accented English, “Yes, but I’m sure they have more in the back.”

Angered, she stormed off, admonishing him, “Go back to your goddamn country!”

“Go back to your goddamn country!”

He said he was stunned beyond belief.  “Why would bananas be so important?” he wondered, aghast.

Mocking her rhetoric, this became the toast of the evening. More than once, we lifted our glasses, laughing, saying in unison, “Go back to your goddamn country!”

Admittedly her nativist rant was less damaging to three privileged white men, but still, to a foreign born citizen like our friend, it must have stung.

In that moment, she proved herself to be less of an American than our friend.

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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, May 3, 2017

Jesus, A New Adam

Jesus as the new Adam is a trope familiar to Christianity since Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians. It has come to be reinterpreted by others, and perhaps what I present here has already been imagined, as anyone reading this blog knows my knowledge is limited. But I want to offer what meaning came to me as I grappled with the notion of Jesus “dying for my sins” during this recent Holy Week.

I have flat out written on this blog that the God who is worthy of my devotion would never require the death of any kind of scapegoat as a stand-in for me taking responsibility for my own sins.

But I have also written that the sacrificial love represented in the story of the cross mythologically conveys the absolute and eternal depths of God’s compassion. Many theologians have focused on the concept of God dying on the cross rather than “his only son,” taking the onus of a demanding, bloodthirsty God off the table. And anyone who has had a terrible sin to forgive of another knows the suffering such compassion entails.

Longtime readers may remember that one of my Holy Week practices is to read one chapter each day of a short book, The Temple of God’s Wounds, in which the narrator visits a mythological monastery at a turning point in his life. I’ve written that I overlook his transactional understanding of atonement to contemplate other, deeper spiritual wisdom contained therein.

This time I focused on how difficult it is for him (and  for me) to face that which is absolutely holy. I understand better the “mysterium tremendum,” the “terrible” face of God or, as the OED adds in its definition, of existence itself.

During our last visit shortly before his death, an elderly dedicated churchman and beloved professor surprised me by his sudden tears and seemingly non-sequitur confession, saying something like, “I hope dear old Mother Church can forgive me for any embarrassment I’ve caused her.” I don’t think this was prompted solely by his having been a closeted gay man.

Age may make us aware how far we have fallen short, not only of the glory of God, but of the glory of being a child of God, because I found during Holy Week that, along with the writer of The Temple of God’s Wounds,  I felt such a need for forgiveness! Now, I know, as an introvert, that even the good I may do can embarrass me; but I’ve done plenty of things I’d prefer not to have in my eulogy!

I have a depiction, acquired in Egypt, of a Pharaoh being weighed on scales opposite a feather. The tradition was that if the Pharaoh’s heart was heavier than a feather, he could not enter eternity.  Few if any of us could pass such a test!

I have been reading The Islamic Jesus by Mustafa Akyol. A reader and contributor to my blog had asked me if there was a book I was eager to have in my library. Having just read a review of this book, that’s what I asked for. What’s remarkable to me is that the Qur’an, while not supporting Jesus’ divinity, reveres him as a prophet, like Moses and Muhammad. The writer suggests that this was the view of the Jerusalem church and its Jewish Christians led by James, and represented in Christian scriptures by the epistle of James, which does not refer to the divinity of Jesus and famously includes, “Faith without works is dead.” This contrasts with other Christian emphases on mere belief, and specifically belief in Jesus’ divinity and substitutionary atonement.

Thus I realized that progressive Christians have that in common with the early Jewish Christians, not to mention Muslims and Jews. We may or may not hold to Jesus’ divinity, and consider that doing justice and practicing charity and showing mercy are what the Lord (i.e. God) requires of us.

For me as a progressive Christian, Jesus is the “new Adam”—not the innocent and perfect and beautiful (and initially sexless) Ken and Barbie doll of Adam and Eve; rather the tried and tested, unappealing and vulnerable and wounded one, acquainted with sorrows and grief, the bearer of the sins and injustices of the world—political, religious, and personal. Treasonous and blasphemous, betrayable and deniable, because compassion was all he held dear.

Thus he knows the trouble I’ve seen, the trouble I’ve gotten into, and the trouble I’ve caused, not just personally but throughout the world. He is the real human being that Adam and Eve could not even imagine in their innocence and privilege. They were rough drafts, prototypes, not as fully human.

So when Jesus prays, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” it seems genuine, true, and possible.

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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 26, 2017

Resurrection Today - Part Two

Today’s post is adapted from the chapter, “Healing AIDS,” in my book, Come Home: Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians (Harper & Row 1990, Chi Rho Press 1998).

During one Holy Week, I found myself immersed in grief at the widespread experience of death from AIDS in our community. A close friend infected with HIV and searching for spiritual hope commented on a 1989 Newsweek survey, “If half the clergy doesn’t believe there’s an afterlife, why should we?”

My pastor’s sermon on Easter Sunday was the kind of sermon I would have given, the kind that I have given in the past. Humorously confessing a desire to avoid heresy and controversy, she chose not to discuss whether there was a physical or spiritual resurrection of Jesus.

Instead, she focused on the question put to Mary Magdalene as she wept in the garden of his tomb. Jesus asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Mary’s grief blinded her at first to a vision of a living Christ. I recognized the connection with my present grief that was blinding me to a living God who is “God of the living, for all live to God,” in the words of Jesus refuting those who didn’t believe in resurrection.

Though my pastor’s Easter sermon was excellent, provocative, and comforting, it did not make me celebrative that day. Who was my friend infected with HIV looking for, and whom did I seek? Someone who would tell us that God loved us, loved us eternally, gave us life eternal.

My lover and I walked along the cliffs and beach of Santa Monica that afternoon. Santa Ana winds had cleared the sky, and the air was cold and crisp, the sea blue and choppy. But, unlike previous walks in this flood of God’s natural grace, the beauty did not heal my troubled soul.

At the end of our walk, we entered a bar named the S. S. Friendship to get some warming coffee. This had once been the gay writer Christopher Isherwood’s neighborhood hangout.  Sitting down, I looked across the room at a vaguely familiar face. “John?” I said, just as he asked, “Chris?”

We had not seen each other for over five years. Typically, on seeing an old friend in our community, I thanked God to find him still alive. George and I invited him and his friend to join us. He seemed relaxed and content, and I was happy to discover that he had been with a lover for five years with whom he had bought a home. With so much death in our neighborhood, I enjoyed finding him well and happy and in a relationship.

He shared his spiritual journey. He reminded me that he had begun as a Catholic. I remembered that he had been a Lutheran shortly before joining the Presbyterian Church. Now he told us that most recently he’d been attending the Church of Religious Science.

“I got something I needed in each church, without getting involved in the garbage of each denomination,” he admitted. I envied, admired, and resented his ability to avoid the garbage, myself feeling buried in the Presbyterian refuse of committee meetings, petty bickering, and outrageous injustice toward gays and lesbians.

As I asked him about his lover, he said simply, “He died last week.” “AIDS?” I asked, astounded that even this idyllic picture could be shattered. “Yes,” he said. “He was diagnosed two years ago, and he used what time he had left to help others. It was wonderful to see. We had a good time together. I have no regrets. He died in my arms. I felt him leave his body. That’s why I’m sure I’ll see him again.”

As we later took our leave and I hugged John goodbye, I whispered in his ear, “Thank you for giving me the Easter message I needed to hear today.” I had somehow heard the gospel in a gay bar. Just as Mary had been called by name and thereby recognized the risen Christ, so I had been called by name and thereby witnessed a resurrection.

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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.