Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Calvin Taught Me about God

Calvin as a puppy.

This is an abridged reprise of a column I wrote for the September, 1995 issue of the More Light Update, the publication of Presbyterians for Lesbian & Gay Concerns (now More Light Presbyterians) edited by James D. Anderson.

Total attentiveness.
Unconditional love.
Limited judgment.
Irresistible grace.
Providential play.
T.U.L.I.P.

This is what Calvin has taught me about God. And if it varies from the TULIP acronym for John Calvin’s teachings, it’s because this list summarizes what I’ve learned from quite another Calvin—our dog.

Calvin is a golden retriever/Labrador/shepherd mix we adopted from Atlanta’s Humane Society on the last day of 1994. We got a house partly because we wanted a dog. We heard a voice that said, “Build the house, and he will come.” And so it was.

“Only Chris would find mythological import in getting a dog,” I can hear you saying. But life is filled with opportunities for spiritual metaphor.

“Nothing more zealous than a convert,” someone else might be thinking—that is, anyone who knows me well enough to know that I was never a “dog person” before now. I had grown up being bitten by my brother’s dog on arbitrary occasions. My mother theorized that our dog’s behavior was the result of some neighbor children abusing Freckles when we were away.

Though enduring a relationship with an abusive canine never landed me on Oprah, it nonetheless inhibited my establishing close relations with any dog. I eventually learned to handle my fear and be friendly to friendly dogs and keep barking dogs at bay, but the idea of ever developing an intimate relationship with a dog was far from my mind.

The closest I ever came was a friendship with Smokey, a retriever mix that lived in a house I also lived in when I was in college. Smokey helped me overcome my caninephobia and dogged doggy stereotypes.

I took him to worship one Sunday for the children’s sermon to show them how he reminded me to play by dropping a ball in my lap while I studied. The kids took turns throwing the ball for him to retrieve, and I made the point that children play the vital role of reminding their parents to play. Smokey did not bite any of the children nor relieve himself on a leg of the Communion table, so I realized that at least some dogs could assist in worship and serve as limited role models.

But, if you’ll forgive the seemingly trivial comparison, it required an incarnation to completely overcome my dogma. Between the two of us, my [then] partner was the dog person and the motivating factor of our finding a dog. But when we went to the Humane Society “just to look,” it was I who pushed to adopt our puppy. Somehow I sensed we were a fit, the three of us.

Soon I was transformed. My partner could not believe my conversion. When I went to Los Angeles to visit my mother, she, too, was astounded at how differently I responded to her own dog, a beagle named Schultze.

But Calvin’s unconditional love had introduced me to a dog’s irresistible grace.

While I am aware of the creaturely paternalism inherent in “owning” a dog, Calvin is happily codependent. He follows us around the house and plops beside one or the other of us wherever we are. And Calvin, like Smokey, reminds us both to play.

We haven’t needed our alarm to wake us in the morning since our dog came to live with us. Calvin knows I’m the first to get up, so he starts licking me awake at the appropriate time. Later, when I call my partner to breakfast, Calvin does the same for him. It’s obviously more pleasurable than being awakened by an irritating buzzer.

Though we read a book about raising a dog, we made mistakes along the way. Thankfully, puppies have short memories, so we had many opportunities to do things better. We enjoyed unlimited atonement—though I doubt that would have been true if we had taken advantage of that and either poorly cared for him or abused him.

Rather than “obedience” school, we took him to dog training classes, which was more about training us than him. Trying to be model parents, we both attended every class with Calvin. I’ve said in a variety of contexts that I believe “control” is the central spiritual issue with which we all struggle, and I learned this was also true of dogs.

As “lead dogs,” though, we had to learn not to “pull against resistance,” because a dog will resist being forced to do something. Rather, Calvin was to learn “attentiveness” to us. I thought to myself that, equally important, we needed to learn attentiveness to him. How else would we know when he needed to go out? Or be fed and watered? Or play and rest? Or go to the vet’s?

We also learned how to get Calvin “down,” how to, in a sense, give him permission to chill when he gets anxious or hyperactive. How many of us could use someone doing this for us?

And finally, whenever he wants it, Calvin turns on his back with paws in the air to welcome our loving scratches and rubs.

What I’ve learned from Calvin prompts me to re-view my theology:

+God wakes us every morning by “licking” our bodies with sunlight and shower, bedding and breakfast, and for some, the touch of someone who loves us.

+Attentiveness is required to follow God’s lead. The spiritual life is all about attentiveness to the sacramental nature of existence, mindfulness of the present holiness. And, as a worthy “lead dog,” God is both attentive to our needs and intent on shepherding rather than “pulling against resistance” as well.

+Spiritually, we need to work through our control issues to sometimes “let go and let God.” We also need to re-evaluate the concept that God is in absolute control, since that appears to make God responsible for evil as well as making God coercive rather than persuasive. (Calvin seems to realize our limitations as lead dogs, too.)

+Practically, God is more concerned with the present than with past mistakes.

+Providentially, playing and resting and pleasuring in God gives us peace and joy in the present and a foretaste of the commonwealth of God to come.

But, in my lessons from Calvin, there is something yet more unique to the experience of those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. If I could change in my attitudes toward dogs, then those who fear us may similarly be transformed in our close relationships with them—relations already existing or that we form.

And yet more significantly for us: if I could experience the revelation that a dog may truly be a best friend, then those of us who have been repeatedly and arbitrarily “bitten” by God may yet have the revelation that God is truly our best friend, that the god that bit us was not truly representative of God, but was a manifestation of spiritual abuse at the hands of a homophobic church.


Postscript: As a result of an exchange of letters with Schultze, Calvin went on to write his own philosophical “take” on things in a 1998 book, Unleashed: The Wit and Wisdom of Calvin the Dog (excerpts here and more photos here). In 1999 he adopted his own dog, Hobbes, abandoned in a local park. For more on Calvin, read The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life. He went to dog heaven in 2007.

Copyright © 1995 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

I am mentioned in a blog I highly recommend: http://www.jmarshalljenkins.com/2014/11/13/van-goghs-sermons/

Calvin grown up, always happy!

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here. Or please 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!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Our New Cathedral


I’ll be creating the liturgy and preaching for Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in Atlanta Sunday Nov. 16 and 23, 11 a.m.

Sign up now for my free Advent retreat on-line beginning Nov. 22, “Nativity Stories.”


No, I’m not thinking of the new One World Trade Center, or a skyscraper in Dubai, and certainly not a megachurch or other megastore. I’m thinking of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, seeking understanding of the origins of the universe. Its outsize dimensions and outsize hope remind me of the great world cathedrals.

A similar collider in the U.S. was attacked by American politicians who thought they already knew the origins of the universe (Creation) and the site lies incomplete and abandoned in Texas, a testament to the puny mindedness that pervades Congress.

Particle Fever is an inspiring documentary available free on Netflix right now that tells the story of the 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries trying to recreate what happened minutes after the Big Bang and discover the Higgs Boson that could lead to an explanation of how matter came to be.

In the film, during a briefing on the collider, an economist bluntly asks, “What is its economic value?” A scientist responds, “There is no known economic value—we will just understand everything.”

What is the economic value, say, of Wells Cathedral? Or Notre Dame Cathedral? Or National Cathedral? They not only help us understand our humble place in the cosmos, but the grandness and abundance of that universe.

In an essay entitled “The Truth of Abundance: Relearning Dayenu,” biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann argues for recapturing the concept of “dayenu,” Hebrew for “there is enough.” He writes, 
In the Bible, ‘creation’ is primarily an exuberant, lyrical, doxological expression of gratitude and amazement for the goodness and generosity of God. The theme that recurs is generosity and abundance. There is enough! There is more than enough! There is as much as the limitless, self-giving God can imagine! 
He writes that over against this experience of abundance is cast “the myth of scarcity,” the fear that there is not enough to go around, encouraging hoarding by a range of characters in our world, from the Pharaoh of the Exodus story to today’s “‘money economy’ driven by corporate power that recruits even the government as a company security force.”

A fraction of one percent hoards the majority of the world’s wealth, or capital, or mammon.  They remind the rest of us, not of our humble place in the economic universe, but of our economic humiliation.

Wells Cathedral and the Large Hadron Collider could remind the very rich that “there is enough” for us all, not only to survive, but for all to live well, to live abundantly. “For what does it profit one to gain the whole world, but lose one’s soul?” Jesus asked, rhetorically.

Brueggemann rightly asserts, “The alternative to oppression is sharing, not sharing as isolated acts of charity, but as public policy.”



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Please support this blog ministry by clicking here. Or please 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!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"For Thine Is the Kingdom (burp!)"

Just a couple of weeks ago I mentioned I say the Lord’s Prayer every day. This morning I burped after praying “for thine is the kingdom.” I immediately apologized (to God) and went on, “and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

But then I thought better of the apology. This is the way God made us, to burp and to fart and to do all those things we’d rather not do or say in God’s presence, let alone talk and write about them!

Yet, choosing an alternative to the scary book I wrote about last week, I had just been reading a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual writings, bristling a little at her insistence on traditional Christianity, while intrigued by her notion of the importance of belief in writing fiction, in an excerpt from “Novelist and Believer” (1963). So I reviewed what I had underlined, “this physical, sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source.”

Could this Southern Roman Catholic lady living in rural Georgia have felt the same way about my burp during prayer, especially our Lord’s prayer? I daresay she’d join Gone With The Wind’s mammy, saying of Scarlett’s unladylike behavior, “Tain’t fittin’. Just tain’t fittin’.”

Then I re-read the paragraph in which I had only underlined the above phrase. She starts with St. Augustine’s notion that God is poured out in the world in two ways: intellectually and physically: 
To the person who believes this—as the western world did up until a few centuries ago—this physical, sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source. The artist usually knows this by instinct; his senses, which are used to penetrating the concrete, tell him so. When [Joseph] Conrad said that his aim as an artist was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe, he was speaking with the novelist’s surest instinct. The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality. This in no way hinders his perception of evil but rather sharpens it, for only when the natural world is seen as good does evil become intelligible as a destructive force and a necessary result of our freedom. 
O’Connor fears “that religion will suffer the ultimate degradation and become, for a little time, fashionable,” reminding me of the first monastics escaping into the deserts to pray, wary of the popularization of Christianity in the Roman Empire of Constantine.

She then affirms, “Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.”  Despite this serious assertion, she adds, “it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy.”

Perhaps this allows my burp after praying “for thine is the kingdom”—a little comic relief to my earnestness.

This past Sunday, asked to speak about generosity to a congregation, I began by asking them which person they felt most relaxed around, inviting them to name the characteristic of the person that made that possible.  For me, I feel most comfortable with someone who has a generosity of spirit, a graciousness that sees my “divine source,” my “soul,” even as I burp and fart.


In memory of Pam Byers, one of those easy-to-be-with friends and colleagues.

Today is the 75th anniversary of my late parents’ wedding.

Please support this blog ministry by clicking hereOr please 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!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Scariest Book I've Read

I will be speaking on “Generosity in Three Movements” during the 11 a.m. worship of Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church this Sunday, Nov. 2, and leading a free workshop on The Cloud of Unknowing immediately following the service. (Pizza will be served, and remember that Daylight Savings Time ends at 2 a.m. that morning, so we “fall back” an hour.)

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, I recommend a book that makes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol feel likes romps through a garden.

I am presently reading, or trying to read, or avoiding reading Laurel Dykstra’s book, Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.  It is the scariest book I’ve ever read.

“Rather than claiming that Christians are subject to a higher authority than others, I suggest that we in the radical discipleship movement admit that we are subject to lower authorities, the dubious and multiple authorities of the most oppressed speaking on their own behalf,” this member of Tacoma’s Catholic Worker Community and Episcopal Divinity School graduate writes in her introduction. In the margin beside this quote, I wrote, “Off to a good start!”

But halfway through the book, I feel like I’m reading The Grinch Who Stole Exodus.

I have always taken heart in the Exodus story, that of Israelites escaping the bondage and oppression of Egypt, as a model for the Civil Rights Movement, Liberation Theology, and for others seeking freedom, including my own LGBTQ community, in which both Dykstra and I identify. Rather than negate this, she suggests yet another way of reading the story.

More than once I heard biblical scholar Jim Sanders say, “When reading a biblical story, if you’ve identified with the good guys, you’re probably not ‘getting’ it. Read it again and identify with the bad guys,” he would say.

After all, we think WE would never crucify Jesus, but today it would be the U.S.A. and the privileged First World, the Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists, for example, who might find his so-called “gospel” intolerable.

In other readings I have had inklings that WE are Egypt: that we live well at the cost of others’ deprivation and suffering and exclusion. But in no book I have read has the message been so unrelenting and clear that developed nations and multinational corporations are the new Pharaohs with hardened heart.

I cringe when even liberal U.S. presidents declare our foreign policy should be based on OUR national interests, rather than the interests of the whole world. As this book implies, our neocolonialism smacks of the same paternalism as its predecessor.

This is not just about the very rich, the fraction of the one per cent who benefit the most from the way things are. Those of us in the middle class and those of us in the church are also complicit with this power structure that continues a new “middle passage” and “trail of tears” of the downwardly mobile because we too benefit from their impoverishment and enslavement and do little to prevent it. “For most of us trying to get along, finding a bargain does not seem like an act of violence,” Dykstra observes.

I’ve been reading Set Them Free in my morning prayers and have wondered if I should rather read it later in the day. This morning I felt so debilitated by what I read that I didn’t feel worthy of being in God’s presence. I felt downright shame. I tried to pray, but all I could do was ask forgiveness. My concerns that I might have otherwise eagerly lifted felt parochial and self-absorbed.

Blessedly for writing this reflection, Dykstra quotes Phyllis Trible saying “reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance.”

And Dykstra quotes and paraphrases the Pan African Healing Foundation: 
They raise the question, “Are people of privilege capable of change?” There is an old African American proverb that says “it is easier to get the people out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of the people.” It refers to the responsibilities of freedom. But for people of privilege, for whom Egypt and empire have offered not only security and comfort but everything we have known, leaving Egypt and ridding ourselves of egyptian (sic) ways and habits will be slow and hard. Acknowledging our role in empire is a first step in the long, slow journey out of it. 


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Please support this blog ministry by clicking here. Thank you!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.