Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Paradise Lost and Paradise Found

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

I’ve been reading Andrew Greeley’s autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest, during my morning prayers. Yesterday I read of his seminary experience at Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago: “I came to Quigley with a religious faith as unexamined as it was intense. I learned during those years to examine it candidly and objectively without losing either the faith or its intensity.” He describes this as a movement between Paradise Lost and Paradise Found, referencing Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of this journey as a movement from the First Naïveté to the Second Naïveté, “from the uncritical acceptance of a religious symbol through a time of analysis and ‘unpacking’ the symbols to a critical acceptance of and commitment to the symbols.” Greeley uses the example of his own movement from the devotion to Mary as the Mother of God to understanding Mary as signifying God’s Motherhood.

When I was in college and seminary, we talked a lot about “demythologizing” scriptures and tradition, and I must confess my love of story caused me to argue for “re-mythologizing.” Today much is made of “deconstruction” of practically everything. While I believe these practices may be necessary and helpful, they remind me of the time, as a child, when I took apart all my mechanical toys to see how they worked. I couldn’t exactly put them back together again, and they never worked the same afterward.

Greeley is critical of religious leaders who remain in what I would call “deconstruction purgatory,” resisting movement to the Second Naïveté, as well as church members who resentfully reject the symbols and stories altogether, instead of engaging them further. My best friend in high school and college could represent the latter, disgusted that he was taught the biblical stories as if they were true by nuns in elementary school, only to have the priests contradict that in junior high. There are parallels among Protestants, obviously—in fact within all religions that have progressive and fundamentalist/literalist divisions.

I believe one of the reasons that the scholar Joseph Campbell was so beloved was his ability to take a myth apart for his students and listeners and put it back together again, having even greater meaning than before. Thank God for clergy and educators who can do that! The progressive Christian movement needs more Joseph Campbells in our pulpits, classrooms, and lecture halls to move us from Paradise Lost to Paradise Found, but it is incumbent on us all to find such teachers.

Chris will be speaking on “Spiritual Abuse” this Sunday, July 31, during the 11 a.m. worship of the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega, Georgia.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"The Sound of Music"

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

This past Sunday afternoon I wanted to attend The Sound of Music sing-along at Atlanta’s classic Fox Theatre. My consolation prize was watching my DVD copy at home on our flat-screen.

I first saw it in 1965 at the age of 14 or 15 during an exclusive run at another famed movie palace, the Carthay Circle Theatre near Beverly Hills, demolished a few years later. Subsequently I would enjoy its first sing-along version at a theater in London’s West End. Twice I’ve visited Salzburg and twice I’ve taken the American Express Sound of Music Tour (smile). The only song I learned to play well on the piano is “Edelweiss”!

My mother had the Broadway recording, so I already knew most of the songs and the general story line from listening to it repeatedly (wink). And I wanted to be Maria von Trapp. Not the children’s nanny or the baron’s wife, but the nun who sang in the convent and hills of the majestic Austrian Alps. Though a Protestant heretic, I romanticized and yearned for the contemplative life. 

But Baptists and Presbyterians did not have contemplative orders. The nearest I could come was Mt. Calvary Retreat House in Santa Barbara, run by the Episcopal Church’s Order of the Holy Cross, and destroyed in the 2008 Montecito fire. Overlooking the entire Santa Barbara shoreline, beneath towering mountains and star-filled nights, I enjoyed personal retreats walking the surrounding hills as well as reading, writing, praying, and being reminded of God’s presence in scripture, sacrament, community, and nature.

As has happened throughout my ministry, I once had an appointment with a priest seeking advice. As he spoke of spending time at a family-run music lodge in Vermont, I looked down at my appointment calendar and remembered his last name was von Trapp! When I learned his relation to Maria von Trapp, I asked if she could autograph one of her books for my mother.

A few year’s before my mother’s death, she suggested I take the book. I said, “But she autographed it for you!” Mom corrected my memory, “No—her note was to you.” Of course, I still have the book entitled simply Maria, in which she wrote, “To Chris—When we fill our lives with love and express this in doing whatever we can for others we are on the right path. Love believes that every turn in the road reveals God in a new way. God bless you for your love for my [relative]. Love, Maria von Trapp.”

I couldn’t be Maria von Trapp, but I’m grateful for these consoling words.

Chris will be speaking on "Spiritual Abuse" at the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega, Georgia, on Sunday, July 31, at 11 a.m.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Better to Follow than to Arrive

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Mary Magdalene discovered Jesus’ body missing from his grave, perhaps a final insult after his shameful execution.

She turns to see a figure through her tears who asks, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”

She had been the leader of the women who followed Jesus for three years, learning the transformation needed to fully welcome the reign of God. What had she expected?

“If you have carried Jesus away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away,” Mary blurts out, supposing that Jesus is the gardener. Her only consolation is the lifeless body of Jesus, to protect him from further humiliation by taking him someplace safe.

Put your own name there, and imagine yourself in a place of great grief, a place of bitterness, a place of anger at “the powers that be” including God “himself”—imagine in such a place hearing your name being called by none other than Jesus! 

Mary knew him instantly, “Teacher!” she cries as she hears her beloved’s voice again as if for the first time. Her first feeling, her first thought, is to grab him, to cling to him, so that he doesn’t get away.

“Do not hold on to me.”

What? Are you crazy? I want to hold you, to touch you, to bring you close to my heart! To never let you out of my sight! To never let you leave me again!

“Do not hold on to me.”

The other disciples. His family. The multitudes. The mobs. The priests. The rulers. The soldiers. The cross. The tomb. If these couldn’t hold on to Jesus, how could Mary of Magdala?

“Do not hold on to me.”

And think of all who have tried to hold on to Jesus since? Gospel writers. Epistle writers. Gospels and epistles that didn’t even make it into the Bible. Theologians. Preachers. Priests. Liturgists. Ethicists. Artists. The church. Popes. Church councils. Reformers. Fundamentalists. Literalists. Contemplatives. Progressives. None of these can hold on to Jesus either.

Not being able to cling to Jesus serves as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Believing we have “arrived” or that we’ve “found it” is when we’re in the most spiritual danger. Better to follow Jesus than to nail him down.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"The God Whom Anger Never Touched"

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

When anger tries to burn up the temple of my body, I’ll look to the goodness of God, whom anger never touched. I’ll look to God whom anger never touched, and I’ll become sweeter than the breeze whose gentleness moistens the earth. I’ll look to God whom anger never touched, and I’ll have spiritual joy because virtues will begin to show themselves in me. I’ll look to God whom anger never touched, and—because I look to God—I’ll experience God’s calm goodness.
–Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias

I read these words on a Sunday morning when I was apprehensive worshiping with someone with whom I was angry, who had cost me money. And I would be worshiping in the local franchise of a denomination that had cost me much of my career, though not my vocation.

Raised on a theology of a God around whom we had to tiptoe because “he” was so easily provoked to anger, I have tried to avoid the progressive Christian temptation to exchange that God for a God also easily provoked to anger, but by injustice.

But to think of a “God whom anger never touched,” is truly revolutionary. Could Hildegard mean a God unmoved by our angry temper tantrums, above it all? Or the God of Eden before the first expression of human arrogance (pride goeth before The Fall)?

Rather, I hope she is imagining a different God than either conservatives or progressives can imagine. Our vengeful, punishing selves have projected onto the Divine Inspiration of the cosmos a rage that finally, even eternally, burns in hell the unconverted, the arrogant, and the unjust parts of humanity and of our selves.

She imagines a God who instead blesses us with sweetness, gentleness, joy, virtues, and calm goodness. I’ve often said that, in the spiritual life, we need to follow the business maxim offered in The One Minute Manager that we should “catch somebody doing something right” instead of “catching somebody doing something wrong.”

Maybe Hildegard was imagining just such a God.

Chris will be the guest preacher during the 11 a.m. worship of Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in Atlanta this Sunday, July 10. His books will be available.