Wednesday, August 31, 2011

To Stop and Think, Not Click and Link

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

On the occasion of passing the milestones of having had 10,000 hits (not including the 135 weekly subscribers) and six months of weekly blogging, I offer some thoughts about why I am doing this.

The artist who designed my website mentioned when helping me set up this blog site that she used the internet primarily for information, not contemplation, though she became my first subscriber. Probably most people use the internet for information, social and professional networking, their work, arts and entertainment, shopping, and, according to a recent study, a lot of pornography.

A fellow blogger who has encouraged me from the start and given me much useful counsel recently advised me to provide links in my posts. He was absolutely right about a post quoting a New York Times article, and right about the advantage of reciprocity (a link working both ways). But, as I told him, my purpose for this “contemplative blog” is to encourage readers to stop and think, not click and link. This goes against the grain of our ADHD cultural mindset.

Teresa of Avila warned against exchanging “the language of tranquility” for “the language of the world.” “Out goes peace and quiet for the soul and in comes a wearying restlessness,” she wrote in The Way of Perfection. And yet the sentence that follows suggests Teresa may have done quite well in our computer-driven, internet/Facebook/Twitter/texting age: “I only wish I could write with both of my hands, so I wouldn’t forget one thing while I’m writing down another!”

I began this blog partly because someone in publishing told me that there is no market for devotional materials among progressive Christians. I was told the same thing when I began writing prayers and meditations for the LGBT community, but have since published three such books that have enjoyed multiple printings, one of which has been translated into Spanish and now, on a daily basis, into Estonian. I’ve written two additional books of meditations for the general public, one of which is also available in Spanish.

My spiritual discipline of morning prayer has been encouraged by using contemporary and not so contemporary devotionals, so these ventures have been my way of encouraging others to do the same. Beginning my morning reflecting on the larger picture and greater purpose of life anchors me, as well as prompting mindfulness of those I will meet and things I will do that day.

I chose a weekly rather than daily format because I doubt anyone would want to hear from me every day! And because there is a plethora of “Monday morning” meditations available on the web, I chose “hump day”—Wednesday—as a good time to take a break and reflect. I’m glad and grateful that so many of you have joined me along the way. Thank you!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Praying for "Enemies"

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

A week ago I had an altercation with a runner in the park, who read me the proverbial riot act for having my dog off-leash. Nothing had happened, but a friend and neighbor of his had recently had a dog lunge at her when she was running, and she overcompensated, suffering serious injury. Later I reasoned his anger may have been displaced from that other, perhaps careless, dog owner. It couldn’t possibly be intended for me—innocent little me—could it?

But I was stunned, and it was hard to let go of his anger. Simply raising your voice at someone causes shame to kick in, according to studies. I felt like what my dog produces on her walks. All the more so, because I thought the runner’s obvious change of course to come over to me and my dog was a friendly gesture to say hello and perhaps pet her. Even my dog looked guilty!

All I could think to say was that I, too, was a runner, so I understood the concern. What I wished I had added is that I always keep my dog—on or off-leash—away from people, let alone runners, because you never know when people might be afraid of dogs. I had made an exception in this runner’s case, because, as I said, I thought his motives were friendly. My own big fear running past dogs is that I might trip on one or the owner’s leash. And my experience is that a leashed dog is more likely to lunge, because it is defending the one holding onto the leash.

In recent years, during morning prayers, I adopted a policy of praying first for those people with whom I was having difficulty. This was a particularly good practice during my three interim pastorates! My reason is three-fold. First, just to get it over with! Second, to change my attitudes toward the individual, like a Buddhist lovingkindness exercise. And third, for them—whatever bears were in their caves, however I might have set them off, inadvertently or intentionally.

So, the morning after the incident, I prayed first for this runner. Rarely do I have immediate gratification when praying, other than the satisfaction of prayer itself. But on the walk with my dog that followed, in the opposite direction from the park, we found yesterday’s runner doing yard work! 

“Aren’t you the fellow who came up to me yesterday?” I asked, somewhat rhetorically. I immediately sensed he felt he had come on a little strong the day before. And we talked in a reconciling way. We still disagreed, but he took off a work glove and extended his hand, introducing himself. He explained why he had expressed himself so passionately—again, his injured neighbor whose ankle was swollen. And I had the opportunity to explain how I normally steer my dog clear of people unless they want to come close.

The serendipitous nature of a second, friendly encounter after our first hostile one just seemed too much of a coincidence—especially directly after my prayer. It felt more like what Jung called “synchronicity,” what the Bible calls miracle, and what we might call grace. Inwardly I thanked God as my dog and I moved on.

Please consider registering now for a retreat I am co-leading November 10-13, "Gratitude in Three Movements: Forgiveness, Acceptance, and Thanksgiving." Find out more at

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Progressive Christians Need Contemplation

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

[These thoughts have been further clarified from my post on the blog of Episcopal Divinity School around the time I began my own.]

Jesus told his disciples “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart,” and, in his earliest known correspondence, the apostle Paul advised the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.”

The first Christian contemplatives took the notion of “praying always” to heart, and went out into the desert to pray, to preserve the “edge” of Christian faith even as church and state colluded in the fourth century. As Thomas Merton explained in The Wisdom of the Desert,

The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a [ship]wreck did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers believed prayer was not about changing God’s mind or heart, but about their own transformation. God brings justice and mercy into the world one person at a time. Thus prayer and contemplation serve as grounding for those of us who seek the transformation of the world. This passion for transformation is one dimension of progressive Christianity.

A second dimension is that we use our minds, our critical faculties, to approach our faith—texts, tradition, history, present, and future. But in the use of our minds we must not lose heart. We are not spiteful children who run around proclaiming “There is no Santa Claus!” to innocents. We are faithful people who affirm spiritual truths without literalist trappings. It is true that much progressive Christianity is about demythologizing and deconstruction. But in so doing, our hope is to recover the ancient meanings of the stories of our faith tradition, as well as their meaning for today.

One way of recovering the ancient meanings of our faith tradition is through prayer and reflection. To participate in the biblical dialogue about God, meaning, virtue, and so on with our hearts as well as our minds is to be an authentic and integral part of an ancient tradition that was diverse in its viewpoints, heterodox in its theologies, and multiple in its expressions.

A third dimension of progressive Christianity is that we plumb the depths of our faith even as we value other faiths, including agnosticism and atheism. Our multicultural world—not as different from the ancient world in its diversity as is often thought—offers opportunities for dialogue, not only across religious and cultural boundaries, but across disciplinary boundaries as well, as I recently wrote on this blog. Science, for example, is not an adversary, but an aid in understanding the world, religion, and spirituality itself.  The way of art and literature is another.
Just as some Christians seem to have lost their minds, progressive Christians cannot lose our hearts. As Jesus said, “What benefit is there if, in gaining the whole world, we lose our soul?” We are not modern-day Gnostics who believe our “secret wisdom” will save us. Rather, we believe that knowledge frees us from superstition, sentimentality, and the “elemental spirits” that the apostle Paul confronted in Galatians. Our faith is not stupid, nor is it heartless. Prayer and meditation afford us the opportunity, as the Desert Mothers and Fathers taught, for words to descend from our minds to our hearts. Thus prayer and contemplation must become a fourth dimension of progressive Christianity.

We may feel overwhelmed by the diversity of texts and traditions about Jesus, about God. Biblical scholars discuss the authenticity and accuracy of these accounts. Theologians debate their authority and application. Contemplatives reflect on their inspiration for the present.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Exorcising Demons

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

The people of Jesus’ time assigned behavior or ailments they did not understand to demons inhabiting the individual. Any of us who have witnessed a friend in the throes of severe suffering, chronic pain, addiction, or mental or physical illness can understand how these things may so transform a person as to seem possessed. Naming the demon is the beginning of compassion, and possibly, cure.

We would not stop at naming a disease, but try to provide treatment. So, to stop at simply naming a disorder or dysfunction and using it as an excuse for bad behavior or an occasion for getting on Dr. Phil, makes us enablers. Cultural anthropologist Rene Girard writes, “Possession is not an individual phenomenon..[it] is always contagious; those who are [so affected] are likely to communicate their desire to you, or in other words, drag you along their same path…” As Dr. Phil would ask, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

Jesus might as well have been working with an addicted family member, a dysfunctional congregation, the Washington quagmire, or the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate when he confronted the Gerasene demoniac’s “Legion”—a hostile army of demons that caused its victim to live naked among the tombs, exiling himself and stoning himself, the standard punishments (Girard points out) of Middle Eastern societies.

The Greek word for devil in the New Testament is “diabolos,” which means “divider” or “adversary.” I believe that “discerning the spirits” empowers us to name and cast out divisiveness, but not diversity, even of points of view. According to Girard, the demoniac was a convenient scapegoat for the Gerasenes, reflecting their own dysfunctionality. Jesus casts the demons into a herd of pigs which runs off a cliff into a lake to drown, another style of execution. His fellow villagers find the formerly possessed man at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind” and they are afraid, and ask Jesus to leave their community.

Who exorcises demons in our world today? Whistle-blowers. Prophets. Mediators. Systems analysts. Interim pastors. Therapists. Spiritual directors. 12-Step sponsors. Soul friends. Researchers. Scientists. Journalists. And more.

In our own divisiveness and dysfunctionality, Christians may take comfort as well as challenge in these words from the epistle to the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” May we become “clothed in Christ” and in our right minds.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Worthier and Larger Idea of God

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

[Note on last week’s post: Those of you who receive my blog posts in your e-mail or who read my post in the morning last Wednesday will not know that I removed the reference to social activism later in the day. I realized readers might misunderstand Andrew Greeley’s thinking, which is, that “social activism is a consequence of religious faith, not a substitute for it” (emphasis his).]

“Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”

The outgrowth of the spirituality that Jesus practiced and preached led to this early affirmation of the church. Peter says this after witnessing the Spirit manifest in the character and compassion of people very different from himself, Gentiles.

Peter’s testimony is almost a genetic code in Christianity that could make it adaptable to our 21st century multi-faith, multicultural, multidisciplinary world. You might expect the words multi-faith and multicultural. But I add multidisciplinary because I believe that religion, science, and the arts may all work together for good rather than be pitted against one another as adversaries.

The Spirit gives the slip to orthodoxies that separate “us” from “them,” any religious forms that set up barriers to keep others out, any sacred ritual that makes us “holier than thou.” Each generation needs to imagine a bigger and better God, not in the sense of more powerful and holier and distant, but in the sense of more inclusive and gracious and intimate. If we are to do greater things than even Jesus did, we must follow Jesus into the commonwealth of God—the common spiritual wealth that we share with every creature.
The central trouble in the religious thinking of many people lies here: the new knowledge of the universe has made their childish thoughts of God inadequate, and instead of getting a worthier and larger idea of God to meet the new need, they give up all vital thought about God whatsoever.
Who do you think wrote these words? Bishop Spong? Marcus Borg? Elaine Pagels? Some New Age guru?

No, it was a Baptist preacher in a book entitled The Meaning of Prayer, published by the YMCA in the year 1925: Harry Emerson Fosdick, a renowned preacher of his time, a social activist and contemplative progressive. (For more of his efforts to bring religion into a modern age, read Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion [Harper & Row, 1961], which, though dated, is remarkably relevant to what progressive Christianity is attempting to do now.)

Wanting to be confined to a God who only embraces Christians lacks imagination and probability. To paraphrase Peter, May we truly perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, religion, condition, vocation, and discipline, those who revere God and do what is right are acceptable to God.