Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Everything You Wanted to Know about God but Were Afraid to Ask

Progressive Christian Reflections has been named one of the Top 100 Christian Blogs--number 27 in terms of quality and searches. Congratulations also to the designer of this blog and of my website, Becki Jayne Harrelson.

Months ago I mentioned on this blog that I had finally picked up Karen Armstrong’s book, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perhaps reflective of our desire for theological ignorance, I found it discounted on the remainder table at my neighborhood Barnes & Noble.

I must admit that, at times, I have been slogging through it, sometimes even setting it aside for days at a time. But I read all such books in the context of my morning prayers, hoping for inspiration along the way, so I just read a portion each day. The book is well-written and comprehensive, but overwhelming in its detailing of our fitful attempts to “know” God. Right now I’m flailing in the chapter on the Enlightenment and actually looking forward to next chapter’s “The Death of God?” Whew, what a relief after all this kvetching! (Apparently, making God a product of reason makes him/her more easily dispensable or at least optional. Stay tuned.)

Of course I’ve read other books on the history of religion, but there were many surprises and ahas for me in this book.

Armstrong not only writes of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also of Hinduism and Buddhism, though to a lesser extent. What surprised me is how various religions often paralleled and sometimes informed one another’s trains of thought. Given our contemporary insistence on religious divisions, I found it consoling that there are historically points of agreement and sometimes civil disagreement.

There are also periods of dysfunctional fighting within and among religions, and though each have suffered their unfair share of persecution and unpopularity, it seems to me that Jews got the worst of it, long before the Shoah, or Holocaust. Made me more sympathetic to the raison d’ĂȘtre of the state of Israel.

What struck me also is that all religions have had their intelligentsia—their philosophers and academics and scientists—which has helped shape the religions as we know it.  And that those who tried to make religion only “of the heart,” could be among the most dangerous because of their subjectivity that resisted intellectual scrutiny.

I had the biggest challenge reading about Islam. I was already familiar—if vaguely—with many of the names and general movements in other religions, but there were so many names and movements in Islam—both unfamiliar because of my lack of education as well as sounding exotic—that it reminded me of a classic Russian novel, having so many characters!

I found the chapter on the Reformers particularly disheartening, especially Armstrong’s treatment of Martin Luther—at this point I reminded myself that Armstrong is a former nun, but that gave me little solace, given her obvious command of religious history. Calvin came off better, I’m happy to say, given my Presbyterian background, though later development of his thoughts on predestination is scary.

You might have guessed that I would be drawn to the chapter and segments on the mystics and mystical traditions, by which all religions were blessed. I was already familiar with many, but now to read of their experiences and insights in relation to one another and their respective religious traditions made me esteem them yet more highly. To me, they provide a salvific thread to what was often a brutal enterprise of religion and theology.

Another salvific thread for me was Eastern Orthodox thinking that we can’t possibly know God as he/she is in actuality. Also I liked the idea that God is “no thing,” somewhat of a parallel to what I’ve read of Buddhism’s “no thing.”

By comparison, Armstrong explains how talkative Christianity became in the West, with its emphasis on doctrine and systematic theology. Instead, in Eastern Orthodox understanding, we need silence to understand/experience God, which I believe is central to a spiritual life. Of course, then we might come back to a religion “of the heart” and the subjectivity that is potentially dangerous. But communing with God was to be of the mind as well, and within the context of a spiritual community and a spiritual tradition that can serve as correctives.

As a progressive Christian, two other things were of particular interest:

First, literalism was rare and “untraditional”: there was a deep respect for and valuing of the place of myth in all religious traditions. Myth and storytelling reveal something deeper about our human experience than can be explained. To take them “literally” is to do them and us and even God, a disservice.

And second, those who treated others badly and judgmentally were doing so out of their anxiety and fear of an angry god too demanding to please. 
Once the Bible begins to be interpreted literally instead of symbolically, the idea of its God becomes impossible. To imagine a deity who is literally responsible for everything that happens on earth involves impossible contradictions. The “God” of the Bible ceases to be a symbol of a transcendent reality and becomes a cruel and despotic tyrant. (p 283) 
Could it be that a deliberately imaginative conception of God, based on mythology and mysticism, is more effective as a means of giving his people courage to survive tragedy and distress than a God whose myths are interpreted literally? (p 286) 
Armstrong suggests the benefit of discovering God using “the imaginative disciplines of prayer and contemplation,” and the danger of assuming God as a “fact.” (p 291)

In one of my earliest books and again, in one of my posts on this blog, I wrote that we can get into trouble when we treat matters of faith as matter-of-fact.



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, July 13, 2016

"Turn To, Not Against Each Other"

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch:
"I ask you to turn to each other, not against each other."

Progressive Christian Reflections has been named one of the Top 100 Christian Blogs--number 27 in terms of quality and searches. Congratulations also to the designer of this blog and of my website, Becki Jayne Harrelson.

“Shoot first. Ask questions later.”
“The best defense is a good offense.”
These seem to be the mantras of our time. Waking as we do each morning to a new shooting in our country or bombing in our world, accompanied by sights and sounds of shots and explosions, shouting and screaming, followed by the heart-rending wailing of the grieving, gives new impetus to the cry: 
O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us. 
Decades ago, I read of a study revealing that U.S. soldiers grew increasingly willing to fire their weapons from WW I to WW II to Vietnam. I would not be surprised if this same “progression” could be documented in the civilian populace, including the police and the communities they serve.

Most of us only shoot our mouths off, but the principle is the same.  And it is multiplied exponentially through social media, where the snarky comment is common, where anger, paranoia, prejudice, and scapegoating present themselves as truth.

However we pull the trigger, we must take responsibility, and expect “an eye for an eye.”

I have worked with people who have taken on an adversarial role with others or with me, when they could have easily gotten what they wanted with courtesy and conversation.  

And I have experienced toxic environments with unexplained animosity and bickering, much like that old Star Trek episode in which the crew of the starship Enterprise could not explain uncharacteristic fighting among themselves, until they discovered a parasite on board feeding off their hatred, fear, anger, and violence; a parasite that could only be defeated by overcoming their animosities. (Gives a whole new meaning to “exorcism”!)

I do know how fear, anxiety, distrust, and poverty can make us more confrontational than we need to be. A small and everyday example: I have been undergoing a few sessions with a physical therapist for back problems. Having limited resources, I feared I was being taken advantage of, that I didn’t need a whole series of appointments. Apprehensive, I decided to talk things out with the clinic without expressing my worst fears, and found that indeed, they had my best interests at heart and were good people. The matter has been resolved without conflict or confrontation.

But not everyone has the opportunity to do that. Either there is such a long and painful history with “the system,” or “the system” is impervious to correction and change, that peaceful resolution seems impossible.

But as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn found himself entangled in the multi-generational feud between the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords. With the Grangerfords, Huck recounts: 
Next Sunday we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback. The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching—all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and pre-foreordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet. 
We need more brotherly and sisterly love, “and such-like tiresomeness,” without our defenses at the ready to blast one another.

Jesus’ answer to violence was vulnerability. Ask questions first, try to understand, and don’t shoot at all. His best offense was no defense. It has changed many hearts that otherwise might have remained hardened.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch proclaimed the gospel last week when she said, “I ask you to turn to each other, not against each other.”


Related posts:

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, July 6, 2016

An Extraordinary Friendship

Selfie taken by Erin Swenson with me when we took 
a walk along the Atlanta Beltline a few weeks ago.

I conclude a series of personal reflections on the LGBT Christian movement that posted each Wednesday of June, Pride Month, and now extended to this first week of July, given the “interruption” of my post on Orlando. For those unfamiliar with this blog, be assured that I will return to other topics next week! And for the dozens of activists I’ve encountered and have yet to write about, maybe I’ll tell more stories next June.

There are momentous occasions in our lives that cause us to remember details surrounding them vividly. It was inside the El Capitan Theater in downtown North Hollywood when I was 19 years old that I saw The Christine Jorgensen Story, a 1970 film about a transgender person, long before that term was familiar.

As a young gay man, I identified with her, though I did not think of myself as other than what we now call cisgendered. But that she crossed gender expectations was one more encouragement for me as a same-gender loving young man, and one more reason why I never resisted including “T” in “LGBT.” For me, it’s always been a “no-brainer” to do so, and I speculate my attitude originated from seeing that film.

It seemed fitting, then, when I learned that New York City’s Stonewall Rebellion that is heralded as the beginning of the U.S. queer rights movement was largely initiated by drag queens and transgender folk discontent with the abusive enforcement of gender expectations of our American society.

My first Presbytery of Greater Atlanta meeting after moving to this city was one that considered the continued ministry of the Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson after transitioning from Eric to Erin. Having been ensconced as a volunteer in presbytery and synod ecclesiastical committees and conclaves in Southern California—to my dismay having little effect on changing Presbyterian views on lesbian and gay Christians—I had delayed involvement in similar commitments in my new home of Georgia.

But I wanted to be supportive of Erin, whom I had never met, and see how this presbytery behaved in considering her ongoing calling. I was impressed with her pastoral approach, showing great patience in answering even the most insulting of questions. I was also impressed that, as a therapist who had “been there” for many of the presbyters as Eric, many of them were more receptive and respectful of her own choices.

When her calling was affirmed by a healthy majority, the heavens opened up for me, and the Spirit descended in a rare appearance at a presbytery meeting.

That began what I consider a beautiful friendship. I’ve spent time with her former and loving wife and her faithful daughters, with her father and her sister and brother-in-law, and a friend—whose Pakistani birth certificate read “female” when he knew he was male—and his wife, both faithful Muslims, whose wedding, celebrated by Erin, I attended in their Sufi circle. I also was invited to attend their festivities on Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

I think the most memorable holiday dinner I’ve hosted included LGBT Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and atheist/pagan guests and there were only seven people around my dining room table!

Erin was there for me the night when my mom died, the first to come to my house with Sharon Taylor, my pastor whom Erin had notified. Erin was there for me when Mark and I separated, helping me with my double grief, recommending a couples’ counselor and serving as our divorce negotiator as well. She retained me as her writing coach when she was writing her as yet unpublished but powerful memoir.

She gave the charge at my MCC ordination in 2005, and she served as celebrant of Wade’s and my wedding in 2015. And she was beloved by my dogs, Calvin and Hobbes, with whom she would stay when I was out of town, and last July, joined me and Wade and a few friends celebrating Hobbes’ life at a recently opened Mexican restaurant.

And she was among the “trinity” to whom I dedicated my book, Henri’s Mantle, for getting me through “the recent unpleasantness.”

I entitled this “an extraordinary friendship” not only because of Erin’s great friendship, but because I believe transgender folk have been great friends to lesbians, gay men, bisexual and straight people, enlarging our view of gender and gender possibilities.  To me, that is a spiritual value, and applies to our understanding of God as well.


The Religion and Faith Program of HRC, the Human Rights Campaign, contracted me to pull together their curriculum, Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities: A Congregational Guide for Transgender Advocacy.

Earlier posts in this series:


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, photographer, and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stranger in My Office

Gary Nixon & Mel White
Photo courtesy of Sean Hiller, Press Telegram.

I continue a series of personal reflections on the LGBT Christian movement that is posting each Wednesday of June, Pride Month, extended to the first week of July, given my post on Orlando. For those unfamiliar with this blog, be assured that I will return to other topics next month!

Yes, the title is a play on the title of Rev. Mel White’s “coming out” book, Stranger at the Gate, which changed so many lives and landed him on 60 Minutes.

But when he came into my church office claiming to ghostwrite for many of the major evangelical Christian celebrities, I have to admit my first thought was that here was another gay man with delusions of grandeur. Only they weren’t delusions.

He told me of his work almost confessionally, but he did not seek absolution so much as understanding and conversation as to his next steps. He believed his work moderated the tone of what each wrote about homosexuality. His subsequent memoir also explained that at least a couple of those who breathed fire upon LGBT people did so disingenuously, to raise money and their media profile. Several knew they had gay people on their staffs and valued their work.

I also learned the truth about at least some ghostwriting. An “author” might give Mel a few pages of notes about an intended book and let him run with it. Mel did the heavy-lifting, but the “author” got the glory and the bigger check. He did well, but not so well that when sent a first class airplane ticket he wouldn’t cash it in and fly economy to better support his family.

This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He and his partner Gary Nixon had visited West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, where I served from 1977 to 1987 as founding director of the Lazarus Project, a ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community. It was toward the end of my tenure that we met, and my then partner, George Lynch, and I became friends with Mel and Gary.

We liked hanging out with them because both included George in our conversations. George and I had endured the irritating habit of people addressing me rather than him, given my various roles, though he had more education in religion and a longer commitment to the Presbyterian Church! (He had been “outed” on his way to ordination in the “southern stream,” the Presbyterian Church, U.S., in which he had been born and raised.)

I have been blessed with partners who were always more computer savvy than me, and it was George and Mel I thanked in the acknowledgments for bringing me into the computer age with my second book, Come Home: Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians. Mel lent me his old computer, which worked fine until the ninth chapter, which kept disappearing before my eyes, forcing me three times to write it again one long evening! The next day I went to a discount store and bought my first computer.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. I typed my first bookUncommon Calling, on an IBM Selectric Mel had given me, and showed the manuscript to Henri Nouwen, who because of his closeted state could offer advice but no publishing connections, and to Mel White, who liked the book and gave it to his wife, Lyla, to read. She “loved” the book and took me to a fancy lunch to celebrate, as she was an acquisitions editor for Harper & Row’s religion division in San Francisco.

Lyla passed it on to them with a high recommendation for publishing it, but the manuscript was summarily returned to me rather than to her, not the protocol, by what Mel and Lyla surmised was a homophobic and closeted homosexual editor. Six months of trying other publishing houses made me so frustrated I submitted it again to Harper & Row, explaining it had been declined but asking it to be reconsidered, and got a favorable reply from editor Jan Johnson, who had not seen it when it came through the house earlier. She had just edited John Fortunato’s AIDS: The Spiritual Dilemma.

Mel made a huge splash when his own book appeared in 1994, becoming a media sensation, including the stint on 60 Minutes, which ended with the interviewer asking the inane “magic pill” question: “If there were a magic pill that you could take to make you straight, would you?”

After the interview, I called Mel in Texas to congratulate him. He asked me if I thought he had lost fellow LGBT activists in saying “yes” to the magic pill question.  I said absolutely not, that it was a stupid question anyway, and that he had replied honestly, which is all that is required of us.

A few years later, I was a guest in Mel and Gary’s home in Laguna, California, when both of us were speaking to an LGBT Christian conference in that seaside town. Mel received word that a huge shipment from India had arrived: everything Mahatma Gandhi had ever written. It was the beginning of Soul Force, the latest chapter in Mel White’s life.

Given that our finest times with Mel and Gary were often along the shore in Laguna, it pleases me to have a happy ending to this post. They now live in Long Beach near George Lynch and his spouse, Louie Tamantini, meeting for dinners and together attending last fall’s Pride celebration in Palm Springs. I only wish I could’ve joined them!


That All May Freely Serve recently made available a video of my personal account of the movement (11 minutes).

Earlier posts in this series:

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!

Photo copyright © 2008 by Sean Hiller.

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