Wednesday, August 16, 2017

In the Shadow of the Moon

Solar eclipse at your feet!

The coming solar eclipse on August 21 prompts me to tell a story on myself from a partial eclipse some years back, here in Atlanta. I believe I wrote about this in one of my books, but I can’t tell you which one!

I was out running toward the middle of the day when it seemed a little darker than it should be with a cloudless sky.  Then I remembered that the moon was going to be passing between the sun and earth on this day, and apparently at that time.

As I ran, I noticed on the sidewalk beneath my feet tiny crescent shapes of light that appeared to be coming through the leaves overhead, and I laughed to think I was witnessing the eclipse in miniature. I wrote it off to my overactive imagination; probably the sun always filtered through leaves like that, and I had never before noticed.

Months later, in Madison, Wisconsin, I was in the home of a young lesbian couple. At my feet played two tow-headed children, a boy and a girl, and I learned that each woman had given birth to one, with the help of the sperm of gay partners, friends of theirs living on the West coast. It was a remarkable reimagining of what family could be!

I happened to look over at one woman’s home work space, and noticed pinned above her desk several newspaper photos of crescent shapes of light like I had seen during the eclipse. Her photo appeared in one of the news articles beside this phenomenon. As it turned out, she was a meteorologist and she confirmed that what I had “imagined” was in truth, reality!

“It’s like when you put a pinhole at one end of a shoebox to see an eclipse,” she explained. “The light at the other end of the box is what you saw many times over on the sidewalk beneath your feet.”

In his book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore wrote that imagination is the most underutilized spiritual gift. Saint Ignatius believed that imagination is needed in the spiritual life, and those who have tried his rigorous Spiritual Exercises know the necessity of the imagination in accomplishing them.

Every human endeavor requires imagination. Whether you’re bagging your groceries or developing the theory of relativity, creating a work of art or doing a house repair, imagination opens us to new ways of accomplishing our tasks, being creative, and understanding the universe.

Albert Einstein’s imagination prompted him to suggest that light could bend, demonstrated by Arthur Eddington in documenting the “shifting” positions of two stars during a solar eclipse, an early confirmation of the theory of general relativity.

The Psalmist’s imagination prompted an expectation that God is with us, even in “the valley of the shadow.”

And poet Mary Oliver advises us to “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

My scientific knowledge is, like all other aspects of my knowledge, probably dated. But a few years ago it was reported that astrophysical and cosmological measurements have suggested that the universe is 4% atoms, 25% dark matter, and 70% dark energy, a mysterious energy unrelated to dark matter that holds everything together.*

What that says to me is that we are only seeing with our eyes the manifestation of 4% of what’s here, the 4% of the universe that consists of atoms. We can’t see the 25% that is dark matter, or the 70% that is dark energy.

So, in this cosmic “shadow of the moon,” imagination may take us beyond our eclipsed knowledge and awareness, whether our own imagination or that of visionaries: scientists, artists, mystics, prophets, poets, lovers, and children.
Solar eclipse reflected through leaves.

*Thanks to Dennis Overbye’s reporting in The New York Times.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rediscover Your "Ox Mountain"

Living in China during the fourth and third century BCE, Meng Tzu* (Latinized by the West as “Mencius”), following in the footsteps of his sixth century spiritual ancestor, Kung Tzu (Confucius), represented their shared belief in the essential goodness of human beings and our “basic tendency to love” with the memorable Parable of Ox Mountain.

My paraphrase: 
Once upon a time there was a great forest on Ox Mountain, near an urban area. Residents of the city came and cut down all the trees, and the forest was no more. But nature tried to reclaim the forest, and the stumps sprang green shoots. The people, however, let their flocks loose to graze on the mountain, and they ate all the new growth. Their children and grandchildren never knew there had once been a grand forest on Ox Mountain, because now it appeared barren and desolate. 
In his 1967 book, Mystics and Zen Masters, (an unread copy of which I discovered a few weeks ago in one of those free libraries popping up in neighbors’ yards), Thomas Merton presents Meng Tzu’s conclusion: 
So too with man: he is naturally inclined to virtue, but his actions, in a greedy and grasping society, so completely destroys all evidence of his innate goodness that he appears to be naturally evil. 
This parallels the understanding of sin and human nature in Celtic Christianity, which I’ve written of admiringly.

To me, Meng Tzu’s experience gets magnified in a media culture, and magnified exponentially in our own time of a 24/7 news cycle on a global internet stage (or platform, if you will) in which the worst news gets our attention. Mahatma Gandhi once illustrated the problem with an example of two people locked in a dispute who resolve things peacefully, so do not get the attention they would draw if they fought publically or took the matter to court.  Gandhi suggested that’s why we have a skewed perspective on human nature. The good, the peaceful, the loving, the compassionate is not “news” because it aligns with how we believe things ought to be.

All of this flies in the face of what many of us are feeling these days, as we see fists raised angrily in the air in opposition to many of the values and people we hold dear.

But Meng Tzu, Merton writes, lived also “in an age (like ours) of war and chaos” (Parenthetical observation Merton’s).

Kung Tzu (Confucius) had not, according to Merton, entertained any sort of “sentimental humanitarianism.” Rather, he believed that people “could be good, but that for them to actualize these potentialities they had to live in a society that fully respected their hidden goodness, respected them as persons, with sacred and God-given rights, and educated them in the same respect…”

This sounds like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community.”

Merton explains that Kung Tzu’s understanding of personal development is very different from that of the West: 
Here we come closer to certain modern and pragmatic misconceptions concerning the development of the person: that is, the development of aggressiveness, of astuteness, of attractiveness, of diplomatic skills; in a word, the ability to succeed.  ‘Personality’ in this sense is the power to impose yourself and your wishes on others. For Kung Tzu, wisdom by no means consists in imposing your will or your ‘personality’ on somebody else, and making him serve your own ends by domination or by flattery. It is not that this is ‘wrong’ according to some abstract standard, but before all else it is unhealthy because it is unreal. The man who acts like this is untrue to himself and at the same moment, by the same token, untrue to heaven, whose will is embedded deep in his very heart. He can only act so because he has failed to get to the root of good action. He does not really know himself (p 63). 
Sorry for such a long quote! But I wrote “WOW!” in the margin beside this conclusion, because it opens my eyes to the stark contrast between views about the development of a person. It reminded me of Merton’s critique of the “false” or “inauthentic” self that too often characterizes our personhood. He writes of the feeling in his book Contemplative Prayer: “A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth” (p 24).

Merton earlier clarified that Kung Tzu does not describe “heaven” as a metaphysical concept but “a transcendent and objective reality,” parallel but more down-to-earth and anthropocentric than what his contemporary, mystic Lao Tzu, referred to as the Tao. Being in line with it brings order to chaos, harmonizing “with the ultimately real.” And it requires both religious community and sacred ritual, Li (“rites’), the way of life that gives “visible expression of the hidden reality of the universe”—in my view, a kind of living sacrament, which gives me new appreciation for the Christian Eucharist, whose central element could be said to be sacrificial love, another organizing principle bringing harmony out of chaos.

The Confucian ethic, Merton writes, “is the fruit of spiritual awareness. Thus, moral action is at the same time contemplative and liturgical.” Wow again!

My post on The Lord’s Prayer explained that it helps me align myself with the universe, so to speak: “Thy will be done in my earth and on this earth as it is in heaven.” For me, heaven is where human will is in sync with God’s will.

Our own “Ox Mountains” may have been deforested by the actions of the world and of ourselves.  Contemplation is an opportunity to let seedlings grow, replenishing our natural state. As the Ox Mountain Parable declares, “The moisture of the dawn spirit / Awakens in us the right loves, the right aversions.” 

*I am using Merton’s spellings of these names. I hope to explain the title “tzu” in a future post.

With colleague Debra Weir, I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat open to all April 30-May 4, 2018, at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama, entitled “Beside Still Waters.” Sacred Heart is a welcoming community and a beautiful place. Please come!

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

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Transgender Tweet

I had another post halfway prepared for today, but an image came to mind I could not dismiss in the face of President Trump’s tweet on banning transgender people in the United States military, a means of communication that seemed to trivialize both the armed services as well as transgender people.

Many years ago I was attending a men’s retreat led by Franciscan author Richard Rohr on the campgrounds of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  Rohr’s theme was the need for men to be initiated into manhood to avoid our sometimes loutish and confused and even violent behavior as adults.

If, as in some other cultures, men were taught how to be men through ritual and education from their elders, guidance about what it means to be a man could diminish the bluster, bullying, and aggressive ways that men today use to claim our manhood. For Rohr and the hundreds of men gathered from all parts of the world, it’s never too late for such initiation.

Richard attracts men who are justice-oriented and seeking to deepen their Christian spirituality. As a gay man, I found them either non-homophobic or self-consciously working on their homophobia and heterosexism, as well as their sexism. A few were gay themselves.

So when one young man followed me out of the initial gathering at the retreat, wanting to talk, I assumed I was going to hear yet another story of a gay Christian trying to live his faith and his identity. We had gone around in that first meeting introducing ourselves, and I had mentioned my ministry as a gay Christian.

Instead, here in the midst of a gathering of men learning to be men, and Christian men, he explained that he believed he was transgender and hoped to talk with me about it. I can still picture his face, modest and almost apologetic in asking my time and counsel.  I was moved by his situation, training for Catholic priesthood, and hope that he had, as I like to pray, “the best possible outcome.”

The truth is, in my wide travels as a gay Christian activist, I have met many more self-identified transgender people than bisexual people—a surprise to me, because I have always assumed there are many more bisexual people along the sexuality continuum than there are gays and lesbians.  Beyond just listening to their stories and showing my support, I have been able to suggest transgender resources and mentors.

I once wrote a kind of initiation rite for LGBT Christians entitled “Coming Out: A Witness to the Resurrection.” Males are not alone in needing a ritual to affirm their identities.

Some years earlier, at an LGBT retreat, also at Ghost Ranch, one retreatant told me the story of coming upon a garbage can on the grounds emitting wild sounds. He almost did nothing, so afraid of what might jump out if he were to look inside. As it turned out, he was able to free a frenzied squirrel that had fallen into the can and could not escape without help.

What a metaphor for coming out! Someone inside us may feel trapped by the confines of our bodies or our cultures or our faith communities. We may emit wild noises in our panic to be who we are; others may be afraid to come near to help.

Tweets coming from the White House are scary and mean, demeaning and hateful. The person inside might have benefited from an initiation rite that taught him that being a man does not need to entail aggression, brutality, greed, lust, winning at any cost—or even winning.

Right now, though, he sounds like a squirrel raging in his own garbage.

Helpful curriculum for congregations: Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities

The Coming Out ritual is in chapter seven of Coming Out as Sacrament.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Psalmist, Judas, and Today's Politics

“I never knew what the psalmist meant by ‘enemies’ until I came out in the church,” a seminarian told us. Her poignant words hung in the air, resonating in the experience of the small support group of LGBT Christians.

I’ve been revisiting the Psalms, and must admit many of them no longer touch me as they once did when facing opposition in the church. The praising and awe-filled ones still uplift me; but many more sound whiny, petulant, and self-absorbed—especially those attributed to the king: reminds me too much of the self-pitying tweets we’ve been exposed to lately.  I also cannot claim the innocence or the righteousness before God that many psalms do.

I believe it was Bonhoeffer who recommended understanding the psalms that plead for justice as voiced by someone else in the world more needful than we. But even this act of the imagination has taxed me during my morning prayers.

Until last night.

We watched Netflix’s Get Me Roger Stone, a film about a master of political dirty tricks, one arrogantly proud of his lies and innuendo and misinformation to elect his clients and betray their opponents.  And this morning I read Psalm 64 (NRSV), which I believe speaks to this betrayal of both the righteous and the innocent: 
Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
            Preserve my life from the dread enemy.
Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,
            from the scheming of evildoers,
who whet their tongues like swords,
            who aim bitter words like arrows,
shooting them from ambush at the blameless;
            they shoot suddenly and without fear.
They hold fast to their evil purpose;
            they talk of laying snares secretly,
thinking, “Who can see us?
            Who can search out our crimes?
We have thought out a cunningly conceived plot.”
For the human heart and mind are deep.

But God will shoot [God’s] arrow at them;
            they will be wounded suddenly.
Because of their tongue [God] will bring them to ruin;
            all who see them will shake with horror.
Then everyone will fear;
            they will tell what God has brought about,
            and ponder what [God] has done.
Let the righteous rejoice in the Lord
            and take refuge in [God].
Let all the upright in heart glory. 
Then I turned to my continued reading of Matthew, which happened to be the passage about Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. Judas tells his “clients”: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” The footnoted alternative, “Other ancient authorities read righteous,” seems truer. “Righteous blood” seems more valuable than “innocent blood,” as it suggests the life of someone who, against all odds, has done what was right and good and just.

That would be Jesus, in Matthew’s story. In our own story, that could be compassionate and justice-seeking leaders besmudged by false accusations.

“I would rather be among the killed than among the killers,” I once heard the German theologian Dorothee Sölle tell an anti-nuclear arms gathering in Los Angeles. She clarified, saying something like, “I wouldn’t want fear to change my nature as non-violent.”

Nor can we let anger change us or our methods.

“Hate is more motivating than love,” is one of Roger Stone’s axioms.

A case in point: a few verses after Judas’s betrayal in Matthew’s gospel, the fickle crowds, roused by Jesus’ enemies, elected the volatile and violent Barabbas over the peaceful and compassionate Jesus.

I pray to God that I may hate injustice rather than those who inflict it, hate “alternative facts” rather than those who promote them, hate the lack of compassion rather than those who fail at empathy.


Self-righteous straight Christians claimed (and many still claim) about LGBT people that they “hated the sin, but loved the sinner.”  But we knew this was misinformation.

And Holocaust survivors should not be expected to hate anti-Semitism rather than those who inflicted theirs.

That’s why the psalmist is so honest, so truthful, so real while saying of those “shooting from ambush at the blameless”:

“Because of their tongue God will bring them to ruin.”

P.S. After watching Get Me Roger Stone, watch HBO’s The Words that Built America to get the bad taste out of your mouth.

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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.