Wednesday, May 4, 2016

New Meaning in the Cross

“Don’t you believe in the Trinity?” a friend asked last week, after I reacted negatively to a stranger saying that Jesus is God. I admit, I overreacted a bit, calling the latter belief idolatry, though discretely not to the person who asserted it. The person declaring Jesus their God did not affirm this in the context of Trinity: Jesus apparently stood as “Lord” all by himself in this man’s view.

I believe Jesus would be horrified. As a good Jew, he might at best have believed himself part of a chosen people, the children of God, and as a uniquely called prophet. To the person who asked about the Trinity, I rather lamely replied that I believed Jesus awakened us to the understanding that we are all beloved children of God. I added that the Trinity wasn’t devised until centuries after Jesus lived.

If I had had my wits about me, I would’ve explained further that the Trinity as three separate persons is not how I understand God. Previously on this blog I implied that early Eastern Orthodox mystics’ Trinitarian thinking was more about God’s activities than essence or personhood. To the extent we “see” the face of God, it is by God’s activities in the world. This was also the understanding of some Judaic and Islamic philosophers and mystics.

I believe we may see God in creation, compassion, and inspiration—the actions corresponding to what is designated Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. And the writer of 1 John saw God as love, and I see God there too.

The Romans thought of the first Christians as atheists because they didn’t believe in the many gods that filled up their pantheon and the many cultures they ruled. The Christian “pantheon” came to be populated in popular imagination by Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

But to me, this limits our experience of God. Every time I write about God, I realize how much I limit God. God has more than three “faces,” as evidenced by the wide variety of religions and faiths there are on our planet alone.

Remembering that in religion “myth” is—in the words of a child—“a story that is true on the inside,” the cross may be seen as a story of how “the powers that be” seek to diminish God’s activity in the world. The resurrection may be viewed as a story of how God’s activity in the world is renewed and refreshed. And Pentecost may be understood as a story of how transforming God’s presence can be, making us able to speak in the languages of strangers, share our possessions, and proclaim God’s love to the world.

Over the past year or so I’ve experienced a series of physical “issues” that remind me I am not always going to be this body. Not going anywhere soon, mind you, but I decided finally to read Sherwin B. Nuland’s 1993 book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, which has sat on my bookshelves unopened since a friend left it to me.

I like Nuland’s frank admission that, though society and the medical profession like to assign “causes of death,” sometimes we simply die of old age. The body was not designed to last forever. It wears out!

And I was fascinated to read a quote from Michael Helpern, the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City: “Death may be due to a wide variety of diseases and disorders, but in every case the underlying physiological cause is a breakdown in the body’s oxygen cycle.”

This brought new meaning to the myth of the cross, that God incarnate suffered and died. Crucifixion, as is commonly known, achieves its end by suffocation: as the body weakens and sags, air flow is cut off, and the crucified dies by asphyxiation.

Many Christians have believed that Jesus or God suffered for us or in our place, which to me diminishes the fact that we too suffer and we too will die. Others of us have seen Jesus’ death on the cross as God’s suffering with us, the literal meaning of “compassion”= “to suffer with.”

Now to know that lack of oxygen is the cause of every death is to see the cross in every death—to believe that, in compassion, God is with us as we part this world.

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing 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 © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The World's Wounds and Ours

Nouwen brings Glaser a cross from El Salvador.

Rarely but occasionally I re-read my own books to see how well they hold up. Because I’m attending an international conference on Henri Nouwen in June and will be leading a weekend course on Nouwen (open to the public) in September, I am re-reading Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy (2002, 2010), which I am offering as a gift to donors to this blog of $100 or pledges of $10 monthly.

Given what is going on in the world these days, the U.S. presidential race, the damage many of us have suffered at the hands of our spiritual communities, and my personal involvement as part of a support team for a friend in recovery, this meditation for Day Fifty-Eight seems particularly relevant. Each med begins with a quote from Henri and is followed by a brief prayer.

¼We are part of a chain of wounds and needs that reach far beyond our own memories and aspirations.”
Henri Nouwen, The Road to Peace, edited by John Dear

This posthumous book is a gift from Henri’s friend and justice activist John Dear. I’m grateful that this manuscript is now available. When talking about our various book projects, Henri had once told me about an unfinished book on peacemaking that had seemed to him to have passed its time. Not true, as it turns out. Our quote from the book today still speaks strongly to our journey on the road to peace, whether individually or internationally.

Many in the West could not anticipate what would happen when the Soviet Union unraveled. An authoritarian government had held in check centuries-old animosities among peoples who, unshackled, began to fight amongst themselves. We witnessed in horror atrocities unleashed by age-old religious and political divisions. Northern Ireland and the Middle East might have prepared us for generations-old wounding and war, but even in those places and maybe especially in those places, we do not begin to understand the passions and the pathos.

And now the West faces religious fanatics of Islam, uncharacteristic of the religion as a whole, who hate us for our influence. And though we react with innocence, like a deer caught in the headlights, our ignorance of resistance to our far-reaching domination of the world must be overcome and the sources of the resistance better understood. Just as our personal relationships benefit by discerning a loved one’s wounds so as not to hurt them there let alone exploit their vulnerabilities, so international relationships benefit from careful discernment of old wounds and vulnerabilities.

Self-interest alone cannot be our guide in any relationship of integrity; rather our interest should be in that which is mutually beneficial.

But Henri points out that such altruism is difficult to achieve even in our personal relationships. When we are preoccupied with our own wounds, we are less able to recognize that others are wounded as well, especially those who have wounded us. Whatever type of violence caused the wounds—emotional, spiritual, sexual, physical—has its antecedents: violence begets violence.

Maybe that’s how we can make sense of original sin, or the concept of the sin of parents being visited upon their children generations later.

The only thing that stops us from recycling violence is forgiveness. Forgiveness to me is “for giving up” justifiable retribution. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye¼.’ But I say to you,¼if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also¼” (Matthew 5:38-39). Dag Hammarsk├Âld, who died working for peace as General Secretary of the United Nations, put it this way: “Forgiving is forgetting in spite of remembering.”

Admittedly, it’s hard enough to do this in the personal realm. Even more difficult to see this as a realistic solution in the political realm. Tending the beam in our own eye, the lack of forgiveness in our personal lives, maybe we can better see to take out the beam (the metaphor of splinter doesn’t work here!) in the world’s eye. We must try to forgive our parents, our siblings, our children, as well as our spiritual families, along our road toward peacemaking. Then we may address the wounds of peoples with greater experience and sensitivity.

Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Forgive me, for I know not what I do.

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing 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!

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Copyright © 2002 & 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author, book title and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Why Men Get Angry

Two weeks ago, grieving the death of my neighborhood church, I nonetheless felt self-conscious about expressing my wish to cry inconsolably on this blog. I was embarrassed to be so open about my feelings, but it met a surprising reward—that post’s visits hit an all-time record high in the first day and since.

“Real men don’t cry,” the adage goes, but I had always assumed my ability to cry (and more generally, my sensitivity) was the gift (or liability) of being gay—not quite the “real man” of folklore, legend, or even today’s politics.

The next morning I read a New York Times column by Andrew Reiner, “Teaching Men to Be Emotionally Honest.” Reiner, who teaches a course entitled “Real Men Smile” at Towson University, writes: 
Research shows what early childhood teachers have always known: that from infancy through age 4 or 5, boys are more emotive than girls. One study out of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital in 1999 found that 6-month-old boys were more likely to show “facial expressions of anger, to fuss, to gesture to be picked up” and “tended to cry more than girls.” 
“Boys were also more socially oriented than girls,” the report said—more likely to look at their mother and “display facial expressions of joy.” 
Even if this research were found to overstate the case, it still dispels the notion that boys are inherently less emotive than girls.

Reiner goes on to claim that “we socialize this vulnerability out of them,” beginning his column with an illustration of this socialization in a video of a father talking to his toddler son becoming agitated while receiving a first vaccination: 
“Don’t cry! … Aw, big boy! High five, high five! Say you’re a man: ‘I’m a man!’” The video ends with the whimpering toddler screwing up his face in anger and pounding his chest. “I’m a man!” he barks through tears and gritted teeth. 
These revelations stunned me. I realized that men’s default emotion is often anger because they are not allowed other, more tender, even more reasonable emotions. Studies indicate this affects everything from their academic achievement to personal and professional relationships. Boys and men want to be close to other boys and men, but may only do so through conventional means, such as sports, video games, combat, and shared attitudes toward women and sex.

Look at the angry bluster of all of our current leading American male candidates for the presidency, Republican and Democrat alike. And they only reflect the desires of an angry electorate, a large share of which is male. A more nuanced approach to domestic and world affairs is needed, especially given that a major portion of the world’s troubles come from angry men, from Putin and Kim Jong-un to ISIS.

“Real men love Jesus” a bumper sticker reads. I admit when I see it on a truck the sentiment makes me cringe a little, even though I too love Jesus. It makes me cringe because I assume the driver is an evangelical Christian, the stereotype of which is a conservative who hates queers, feminists, and liberals. 

But what if the driver is displaying a tender, countercultural side to masculinity? Wishful thinking, perhaps.

In response to my earlier grief I heard from many male readers who described the same level of distress when they lost a church home. I believe the church serves to humanize and sensitize us all. For men especially, it gives us a place to become our better selves. Too often, though, it gives men one more venue to display their angry bluster.

Recently I heard a veteran interviewed on the radio, asked if he missed “the adrenalin” of serving in combat missions overseas. He said no, that did not characterize what he felt. “What I miss is being part of something larger than myself,” he explained.

Being part of something larger than myself is also my reason for being involved in the Christian community and more broadly, the spiritual community.

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing 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 © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Scandal of Particularity

"Quick, Chris! Take a picture!" Henri said gleefully.

Former and present seminarians will recognize the phrase “scandal of particularity.” In Christianity, it has to do with the question of incarnation: why was a transcendent God manifest in a first century Palestinian Jewish male named Jesus?

But the phrase came to me as I read again Henri Nouwen’s description of Adam, the core member to whom he was assigned as assistant when he joined L’Arche, an international and ecumenical community for people with disabilities (core members) and their assistants who create a kind of family for one another, enabling all to live up to their potential.

“His heart, so transparent, reflected for me not only his person but also the heart of the universe, and indeed, the heart of God.” Henri wrote this in his posthumously published book, Adam: God’s Beloved. Like Jesus, Adam manifested God, indeed “the heart of the universe” to Henri.

I was reminded of this while reading Michael Ford’s Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen in preparation for a weekend spiritual formation course I will be teaching in September. I had read the British edition when the book was first published a few years after Henri’s death in 1996, but am now reading the U.S. edition. I didn’t read it earlier because I assumed it was primarily the same book, but after nearly two decades, it reads fresh and even more insightfully than the first time around.

Henri continued, “After my many years of studying, reflecting, and teaching theology, Adam came into my life, and by his life and his heart he announced to me and summarized all I had ever learned.”

Any of us who have fallen in love, given birth to a child, cared for a loved one, or even simply taken care of a pet or a garden might similarly testify. Roman Catholic training for the priesthood had denied Henri what is called “a particular friendship,” so, in a way, Adam could be said to be Henri’s first permissible “particular friendship.”

Anyone who met Henri knew, though, that when he was attending to you, you were the only person in the room, just as we would expect of the warmest pastors, politicians, and “client-centered” therapists.

His challenge was seeing himself also reflecting the heart of the universe, the heart of God.

As early as his 1966 book, The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery, Henri’s spiritual director John Eudes Bamberger had advised him to take as his koan, “I am the glory of God,” telling him that if the glory of God were not manifest in him, where then?

Henri was still struggling with that concept in The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, a journal released thirty years later on the day he died, September 21, 1996. In that journal kept eight years earlier, he had adjured himself, “Claim the God in you.”

Henri wrote of an experience common to many of us. It is hard to bear the responsibility of being a child of God, a child of the universe. Many of us treat it as “above our pay grade.”

A recent New York Times science article sought to correct the misimpression that “the universe started someplace,” saying that “The universe didn’t start at a place, it started at a time, namely 13.8 billion years ago. … When we look out, we look into the past… At the center is the present. … So where is the center of the universe? Right here. Yes, you are the center of the universe.”

Lest this sound like the teaching of EST (for those who remember it) or some other New Age* narcissistic notion, the article goes on to say essentially that we each have our own take on the universe, and that only together can we piece together our knowledge of reality.

The early Christians “got” this when they came to see one another as the Body of Christ. Working together, we can be Christ in the world, claiming the God in us, manifesting the heart of God. God is no longer simply to be found in a first century Palestinian Jewish male, but in every body, every time, every place, every culture, every religion, every race, every nation, every condition.

Try this mantra on for size: “I am the glory of God.” That should humble us, expand our consciousness, and enlarge our compassion.

Give God the opportunity to be particular in you.

*I don't mean to imply all New Age spiritualities are narcissistic. Many are just the opposite!

Consider joining me for a spiritual formation course on Henri Nouwen on the twentieth anniversary of his passing: Be Still! Be Loved! Be Grateful! Three Imperatives of the Spiritual Life, September 22-25, 2016.

The Henri Nouwen Society is hosting an international conference on Nouwen in Toronto June 9-11, 2016. Click here for more information.

Donate $100 to this blog or set up regular monthly giving of $10 and receive a signed gift copy of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy. Limited supply.

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing 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 © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.