Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Trouble with Oscar


A friend had a very old cat named Oscar. At age 22, Oscar died. My friend chose to bury his ashes in his front yard and plant a maple tree on his resting place. A cat that he’d never seen before came by and respectfully watched while he dug the hole, spread Oscar’s ashes, and planted the tree in his memory. The cat then walked away. Moments later, neighbors who had just moved into the neighborhood walked by and asked, “Have you seen our cat, Oscar?”

Not long after I was out running and heard a cat crying loudly, hidden on the sidewalk behind a recently-emptied trash bin. It looked unwell or injured.  I was headed home to shower and get dressed for work at a church I served as interim pastor. I don’t have time for this, I thought, thinking of the story of the Good Samaritan in which the lay minister and the priest ignored a beaten up traveler on their way from Jericho to the Temple at Jerusalem.

My vacationing neighbors’ cat had recently bitten me when we played while checking his food, water, and litter box.  So I was hesitant to pick up an injured cat that might be defensive, especially since I was dressed only in running shorts and shoes.

Home was not far, so I ran there, cleaned up, and returned in my car with water, tuna fish (my closest approximation of cat food), and my dog’s pain medication, leftover from a previous need. At first I didn’t see the cat, his having moved from the sidewalk.  At that moment, a neighbor happened to come out of her house on her way to work, and I told her about the distressed cat just as we found it again on a driveway.  The cat did not seem responsive either to the water or the tuna.

Lisa, the neighbor, thought the owners were out of town, but it had always been a neighborhood cat, left behind by the previous owners of the house, and many of the neighbors provided him food and water. I went up to the front door and found a note that the residents were out of town, a note which included a cell phone number, so I phoned and left a message.

It so happened that Lisa was a cat lover, owned a cat-carrier, and we shared the same veterinarian group, Ansley Animal Clinic. She offered to drop him off on her way to work and let the owners know.  Relieved, I went off to work myself.

A few days later, running in the neighborhood again, I wanted to find Lisa and discover how things turned out. I couldn’t remember which house was hers. Serendipitously, she emerged from her house once more, and I was able to learn the cat’s fate. He had been extremely dehydrated, and the speculation was that he had fallen into the trash bin a few days before and liberated by the refuse collectors the day I found him.  The vet gave him an IV to rehydrate him, and later that day, the owners retrieved their recovered cat. A small neighborhood miracle! And to think, I had not wanted to get involved!

Intending to thank the vet during my dog’s next appointment, I asked Lisa what the cat’s name was. “Well,” she said, “His owners call him ---, but all the neighbors call him Oscar.” I was so astonished by the name “Oscar” I totally forgot the other name.

Goosebumps all around. Yet another Oscar!

I believe we all have such stories to tell. They may or may not fit neatly into our theologies, but they surprise us with grace in a seemingly ungracious world. Toward the end of his career as a 20th century Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner famously wrote, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.”

According to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, “A mystic is someone who has the gnawing suspicion that just beneath the apparent contradictions, brokenness, and discord of this everyday world lies a hidden unity.”


I couldn’t obtain a photo of any of the Oscars in this post, so for fun I’ve included one of the Abercrombie cats generated by college students that made the rounds on the internet and Facebook. 
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Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wishful Thinking

Surprisingly, Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan has found in a recent study that beliefs about such things as evolution and global warming are not necessarily based on ignorance, but often on a knowledge of the scientific facts that is wilfully resisted because of a person’s political or religious identity and affiliation. In other words, engaging in what the economist Paul Krugman characterizes as “wishful thinking.”

I first found out about the study from New York Times columnist Krugman’s application of the principle to economics in “Belief, Facts, and Money.” Then I read the Times article by political scientist Brendan Nyhan that Krugman references about Kahan’s discoveries, “When Beliefs and Facts Collide.”

People may be current on the science of evolution and global warming, but because of their identities as evangelical Christians or conservative Republicans, they reject the science because it doesn’t fit their faith and values. Surveys indicate the gap between facts and beliefs are wider among those believers familiar with the facts, because, apparently, they know what facts to reject!

This explains so much.

In college, when I spoke out against the Vietnam War, from churches to Rotarian groups and Kiwanis clubs, I believed that if people knew the factual history of Vietnam from French colonialism to American involvement, they too would oppose the war. I produced a page-long summary of that history for distribution, certain that would convert my listeners.

What I found was that the historical facts didn’t matter to most, even when they supposed them to be true. “My country: Love it or Leave It,” was not just a bumper sticker to them, it was a belief system. And the myth of the Domino theory of how communism spread further undergirded support of American intervention.

In churches, when I spoke for the full welcome and inclusion of LGBT people, listeners resisted current biblical scholarship and contemporary scientific studies. John Boswell’s landmark tome Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and his subsequent Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, revealing that historically the church has not been of one mind on homosexual persons and relationships, did not convince those Christians most opposed to homosexuality, nor did it convince those gays and lesbians most opposed to the church. Indeed, Boswell told me that he had anticipated vigorous attacks on his work from the church, but not from the LGBT community!

Long after HIV was identified as the culprit causing AIDS, and long after it was proven that HIV could not be communicated by casual contact, a well-informed evangelical Christian friend of mine insisted that she believed it could be, thus warranting caution and quarantines. Today there are still myths held dearly around HIV/AIDS by those across the political spectrum and around the world in spite of exhaustive medical evidence that contradicts them.

Niehan writes, “One implication of Mr. Kahan’s study and other research in this field is that we need to try to break the association between identity and factual beliefs on high-profile issues” such as evolution and climate change.

Progressive Christians know about this process. We identify as Christian, but we don’t feel compelled to express our faith as “old time religion.” It’s vital that we out-evangelize our evangelical brothers and sisters by spreading the good news that Christians can be Christians without taking the Bible literally, without accepting doctrine without question and reason, without losing our minds or our hearts.

We too engage in “wishful thinking”: that all might honor human rights, hunger to know the truth, work agreeably with those with whom they differ, accept responsibility as careful stewards of the earth, and practice a vocation of compassion for all.


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Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC.
You are its sole source of financial support. Please click here to make a tax-deductible contribution. Please invite your congregation to include it in its mission budget. Thank you!

You are encouraged to use a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite, catalogued by year and month. For specific topics, use the search feature in the upper left corner of the site.

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Literalism vs. Spirituality

I will be preaching during the 11 a.m. worship of Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in Atlanta this coming Sunday. And please “like” my recent Huffington Post column. Thanks!

The trend of people identifying as “spiritual but not religious” is sometimes a rejection of biblical literalism, religious fundamentalism and orthodoxy. To me that can be a good thing, and, in my reading of a recent translation from Middle English by Bernard Bangley of the book, The Cloud of Unknowing, very traditional.

The anonymous author encourages readers to discard what’s not helpful in the book, and so I freely disagree with the writer’s rejection of physical and sensual experience as unspiritual, even ungodly.  This 14th century English monk must not have met the 14th century English nun, Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “In our sensuality, God is…”

The beliefs of the church regarding creation, incarnation, and resurrection all support a hallowing of bodily experience. As James B. Nelson and a diverse group of other contemporary Christian body theologians have affirmed, we know God through our bodies or we don’t know God at all. Nelson goes so far as to add, “Pleasure is the strongest argument for the existence of God.”

Yet I wholeheartedly embrace The Cloud author’s understanding that literalism interferes with our spirituality, and he offers many examples. I once wrote that we do a disservice to religion when we treat matters of faith as matters of fact.

For example, the writer cautions against taking the ascension of Jesus literally. As a college professor of mine once said, “If Jesus had ascended at the speed of light, he still would not be outside the known universe.”

The Cloud of Unknowing asserts that “the spatial references are only symbolic. … The spiritual realm is always near, enveloping us on every side. Whoever has a strong desire to be in heaven is already in heaven, spiritually. Measure the highway to heaven in terms of desire rather than miles. … Love determines a soul’s location.”

Earlier the writer explained, “Similar in nature to heavenly bliss, divine contemplation already participates in eternity.” I once wrote that people we recognize as living saints are those who experience God’s commonwealth here and now. Spiritually they have found heaven in their desire to love and serve others. Heaven for me is where God’s and human will coincide. Saying the Lord’s Prayer (“on earth as it is in heaven”) is a way of aligning ourselves to that greater purpose. That’s why Jesus could say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” or “among us.”

There are many pearls of wisdom about the spiritual life in The Cloud of Unknowing. Here are a few quotes I underlined in my copy:

+ Remember your spiritual needs rather than your spiritual achievements.
+ Continue until your prayer life becomes enjoyable.
+ You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God.
+ Loving contemplation destroys our tendency to sin more effectively than any other practice.
+ The essence of contemplation is a simple and direct reaching out to God.
+ Judging others, pronouncing them good or bad, is God’s business. We may evaluate behavior, but not the person.
+ Christ taught us in Matthew’s Gospel that spoken prayers are best when they are not too long.
+ A little prayer of one syllable pierces heaven because we concentrate our entire spiritual energy into it.
+ The person in great distress will continue calling for help until someone hears and responds.
+ The little word “God” can flood your spirit with spiritual meaning without giving attention to particular activities of God.
+ I desire to help you tighten the spiritual knot of warm love that is between you and God, to lead you to spiritual unity with God.
+ Love functions as your guide in this world, and it will bring you to grace in the next.
+ [After meeting our physical needs,] sensuality urges us to take more than we need, encouraging lust.
+ The important consideration is not what you are, or what you have been, but what you want to be.

Finally, this anonymous monk seems to echo the axiom that spiritual guides remind us of what we already know: 
Writers used to think that humility required them to say nothing out of their own heads, but to corroborate every idea with quotations from Scripture or the [Church] fathers [and mothers]. Today this practice demonstrates nothing but cleverness and education. … If God moves you to believe what I say, then accept my ideas on their own merits. 
Given its encouragement to surrender certain knowledge of God for intimacy with God, I can’t help but think The Cloud of Unknowing would be a great text for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. As they say in recovery programs, religion is for people afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there.


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Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC.
You are its sole source of financial support. Please click here to make a tax-deductible contribution. Please invite your congregation to include it in its mission budget. Thank you!

You are encouraged to use a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite, catalogued by year and month. For specific topics, use the search feature in the upper left corner of the site.

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Does a Corporation Have a Soul?


The U.S. Supreme Court has launched an entitlement program for corporations. They are now considered individuals, and individuals with faith. Makes me wonder, if corporations go bankrupt, will they dream?

Will the Court soon assert that corporations have a soul, and cannot be aborted from the moment they are conceived?

If corporations have a soul, they have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do before the Supremer Court of the Heavenly Realms. BP, how dare you foul the Gulf coastline? GM, what took you so long on that recall? Walmart, kudos for your environmental policies, but why not share your huge profits by paying your employees better wages and benefits? Hobby Lobby, why do you impose your personal interpretation of your religion on your employees? Well, you get the idea. Supply the name and sin of your most offending corporation.

Of course, churches are corporations too. And too many times they have sold their souls to the highest bidder: those who can pay for that new building, those who withhold funds if the church doesn’t toe their particular line, or those who threaten to leave if the church is too prophetic or inclusive.

I can imagine corporate evangelists who offer businesses “come-to-Jesus” moments, exhorting them to repent of their evil ways. C’mon down the aisle while we sing a couple of additional verses of our final hymn: 
Just as I am, without one plea, but that we make more mo-ney
For our stockholders and our bonuses,
And super PACs we fund, we fund.
Maybe it’s time for corporations to live on free will donations, issue quarterly statements of confession, and be given penances serving the poor.

Jesus was once asked by a corporation, “What must I do to be saved?”

“Go and sell what you have, and give to the poor.”

And the corporation went away sorrowful, for it had many acquisitions.

There will be no corporations in heaven. No churches either.

Only souls.


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Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC.
You are its sole source of financial support. Please click here to make a tax-deductible contribution. Perhaps your congregation might include it in your mission budget. Thank you!

You are encouraged to use a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite, catalogued by year and month. For specific topics, use the search feature in the upper left corner of the site.

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