Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Newtown to Newcountry? "We Must Change."

Working from home a week ago, Wade mentioned he had received a CNN news flash on his phone that there had been another mass shooting. Busy finishing up the duties of my online course on sexuality and Christianity, I acknowledged this latest shooting with an “uh-huh” and continued working.

Only toward the end of the day did I learn the victims were children and the site an elementary school. I lost it. Tears immediately came to my eyes. First graders, six- and seven-year-olds, are particularly precious innocents to me. “Thy childish essence was from God,” Charles Dickens wrote of another such child. I lost it again when it was reported that wails could be heard coming from inside the fire station when their parents learned their fate. And the educators—principal, teachers, teacher’s aide—who  lost their lives, trying to protect “their kids”: OMG, OMG, OMG.

Moments of silence are being observed the day I write this, one week later, in memory of those so brutalized. Silence is good; it reminds us that there is nothing to be said adequate to this occasion. It gives us a chance to catch our breath and remember theirs. It gives a chance to reflect. But I’ve needed more than a moment. I’ve needed a week, which is why this wasn’t last week’s post. And even now it seems presumptuous, even dangerous to venture thoughts on the incomprehensible tragedy. I felt sorry for all those pastors and rabbis and imams who had to preach that weekend.

In his public reflections, President Barack Obama said of us Americans, “We must change.” Having both worked and volunteered in congregations, on campuses, and in community organizations, I have learned that those are the three most challenging and most resisted words. “We must change.”

Psychologist M. Scott Peck defined evil as “the unquestioned self,” which he saw at work both in institutions and individuals, an inability even to imagine one’s self or one’s group being wrong. I have used it to describe the church’s resistance to gay people. Whereas gay people, like all outsiders, usually grew up questioning ourselves, the church resisted questioning its prejudice and exclusion.

“We must change” is predicated on questioning ourselves and our institutions and overcoming our inertia, something we are reluctant to do. For Christians, this means also considering how Jesus would view us.

On departure from the presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned of the “military-industrial complex,” which he had earlier warned would take food from the hungry. But his original draft warned of the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” He was persuaded to take “congressional” out, but how needful the warning is today, as we witness congressional impasse and collusion with weapons manufacturers, other major corporations, and the National Rifle Association. (See the New York Times editorial explaining that the NRA actually represents gun manufacturers, not gun owners. Btw, in my view, the NRA’s proposal of a guard in every school is the solution of a third-grader [apologies to third-graders] that would only add to the body count and further burden insufficiently-funded schools.)

When the Virginia Tech mass shooting occurred years ago, I led a prayer for that campus during a regularly scheduled prayer service of a church I was serving in another part of the country. I was stunned to have another progressive Christian offer what amounted to a “rebuttal” prayer, deriding our horror at that violence when things like that happened all the time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course we frequently prayed for Iraq and Afghanistan in that service. But that night, I felt particularly close to those on the Virginia Tech campus because I had spoken there, made friends there, one of whom I called to see how everyone was coping and if any I knew were among the casualties.

Similarly, I felt close to those on the campus of Sandy Hook Elementary School because my mother spent her entire professional life teaching first-graders, and I remember every day after school seeing how those innocents hung affectionately on my mother, even when they had moved to upper grades, because they loved her so and she loved them so. I could see her also putting her body between the shooter and those innocents.

At the same time, I am mindful of the ten Afghanistan schoolgirls, all under 12 years of age, killed in the blast of a Soviet-era landmine as they collected firewood for their homes on the Monday following the Newtown shootings.

“We must change.” That means me, and you, this nation and the world.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  This ministry is entirely funded by your donations. Please click hereto make a tax-deductible contribution. Thank you! 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Magic Kingdom

In memory of the children, who love stories, and the educators, who tell stories, who lost their lives in Newtown, Connecticut, and in solidarity with those who grieve.

From my first book, published in 1988, I most often referred to the “commonwealth of God” rather than the “kingdom of God.” I did so not only to avoid the feudal, patriarchal, and hierarchical connotations of “kingdom,” but more importantly, to convey my perception of the realm of God as one in which we share a common spiritual wealth, equally citizens and inheritors as beloved daughters and sons of God. And I do not think of that commonwealth as exclusively Christian. I know that “commonwealth” may have negative connotations to some of those who think of the British Commonwealth, a product of colonialism, but I wanted a term with more gravitas than “realm” and didn’t sound made-up like “kindom.”

But when I say The Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, I still say “Thy kingdom come.” That’s because I associate the term with fairy tales and storytelling and, truth be told, The Magic Kingdom—er, Disneyland.

A little backstory: I grew up in Southern California, and Disneyland was completed there when I was five years old. So I grew up going to Disneyland occasionally, watching The Mickey Mouse Club, and yearning to be home viewing The Wonderful World of Disney rather than attending our far less interesting Sunday evening worship service. Whereas other kids idolized athletes and actors, I idolized Walt Disney, drawn by his enormous creativity and willingness to experiment in disparate fields, but mostly by his ability to tell stories. As a child, I thought the world would end if Walt Disney died, and I still have the newspaper with the headline announcing his death when I was 16 years old, as you can see.

I once saw him at Disneyland showing a foreign dignitary around Frontierland near the paddle-wheel steamboat on the faux Mississippi River. My eyes widened in wonder seeing god a few feet away! And somewhere in storage, I have a photo of him taken that day.

Even in adulthood, I dreamed Disney had hired me as one of his Imagineers, though I wondered what he might do if he found out I was gay. Bob Thomas’s biography of him mentioned an occasion when a gay Disney employee had been arrested in a compromising situation and Disney was asked if he should be let go. “We all make mistakes,” Disney reportedly said, retaining the worker.

To me, the kingdom of heaven is THE magic kingdom, the originator of biblical and apocryphal tales of mystery, hope, and striving. And what better time of year to write of this than Christmas, when we are overwhelmed, not only with the magical stories of Jesus’ nativity, but all kinds of Christmas stories about Grinches and Scrooges, magical golden retrievers and Polar Expresses, The Bishop’s Wife and how, after all, It’s a Wonderful Life. Other than Jesus (of course!) the best thing about Christmas is that it has breathed life into so many wonderful stories, including our own.

I have a very progressive Christian friend who is admirable and smart, wise and insightful, compassionate and a justice advocate. She spends a lot of time demythologizing and deconstructing in a quasi-scientific intellectual and academic search for truth. When I told her about my as-yet-unpublished novels, I learned that she never reads fiction. And my eyes were opened. She doesn’t enjoy stories that are not true, thus her continual reductions and redactions of the biblical story; whereas I enjoy all well-told stories. Even the Hallmark channel can make me cry and rejoice.

Walt Disney said that the Magic Kingdom would never be finished as long as there was imagination left in the world. That’s exactly how I feel about the Kingdom of God, as long as there is spiritual imagination, it will never be complete.

P.S. Go see The Life of Pi. Or better yet, read the book! And Merry Christmas!

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  This ministry is entirely funded by your donations. Please click here to make a tax-deductible contribution. Thank you!

You may also want to read last year’s Christmas post, “Put Yourself in the Nativity Story.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Our Own Fiscal Cliffs

Many who follow this blog have been involved in non-profits and congregations professionally or as volunteers, so we know about things like “fiscal cliffs,” when expenses exceed donations. And many of us have coped with minimal incomes as clergy, teachers, writers, artists, and service providers, and have braved fiscal cliffs of our own when bills exceed income.

Some years ago I was grateful to have income from leading a weekend retreat, glad to be slightly ahead of the game financially. Then I broke a tooth, requiring unexpected dental costs that emptied my checking account. There were two ways I could interpret that situation: feel despair that my earnings had been depleted by this incident; or feel blessed that I had the resources to cover the unanticipated event. I chose the latter, though I teetered precariously on the brink of a less grateful response!

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has suggested that Jesus’ appeal to the poor came because of his attention to the body and its needs, thus the healings, thus the references in the Lord’s Prayer to “forgive us our debts” and “give us this day our daily bread.” Crossan says that bread and debts “are the two ancient ghosts that haunt the peasant imagination.” Often ours as well.  

Those of us in helping or creative vocations often struggle to make ends meet. In the early ’90s I took a job that required me parking my car in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood. Walking past one fine home after another, I thought how Hollywood occasionally makes movies about rich people who have an epiphany and give it all up to serve the less fortunate. I joked with my coworkers that I thought there should also be films about people who have spent their lives helping the less fortunate who have an epiphany and give it all up to become wealthy! (I can guess that you might now be thinking of prosperity gospel and mega-church pastors!)

Preliminary studies indicate that the area of the brain stimulated by winning the lottery is similarly stimulated by giving to charity, a kind of neurological “reward” for doing good. That may be why the best book on serving others that I have read, How Can I Help? (Ram Dass and Paul Gorman) offers examples that the least patronizing and most satisfying help is experienced as mutually beneficial.

When his cheery nephew comes to wish him “Merry Christmas” and invite him to Christmas dinner, Scrooge resists and, regarding his poor nephew’s observance of the holiday, retorts, “Much good it has ever done you!”

To which the nephew replies, “There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say.”

Many of us have derived and even promoted good without much profit. Thus we are more likely to take seriously all those end-of-the-year requests for donations from charities and ministries.

Let’s all feel good this Christmas by making it a little easier for our favorite do-gooders to avoid fiscal cliffs.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  This ministry is entirely funded by your donations. Please click here to make a tax-deductible contribution. Thank you!

For a partisan political take on the government’s fiscal cliff, read my latest Huffington Post post: Pushing Tiny Tim Over Fiscal Cliff.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Gandhi Died Today

Today I read a few of the final entries of The Gandhi Reader (ed. Homer A. Jack) about Mahatma Gandhi’s death. And I cried as if I were there.

I’ve been re-reading passages regarding Gandhi’s belief that non-violent direct action could have challenged Hitler or even atomic bombs, just as it brought British colonialism to an end in India and Pakistan; his concern about Europe’s anti-semitism as well as the establishment of a state of Israel in Palestine; his encounter with the African American preacher and civil rights leader Howard Thurman and his wife; and his multiple fastings to stop the bloodshed among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Whatever you make of his ideas, his compassion is unquestionable, even in death.

I have visited the site in India where his body was cremated. In college I occasionally meditated and studied on the peaceful grounds of the Self Realization Fellowship in southern California’s Pacific Palisades, where some of his ashes are interred in a World Peace Memorial (pictured above) near a “wall-less temple.”   

The Richard Attenborough film Gandhi was released the week before I went to India on a Fordham University religious studies tour. I managed to see it twice before I left, and so, on my first day wandering the neighborhood of our hotel in New Dehli on my own, I discovered Birla House, his last residence, and the garden behind, where he led prayers and met his death. Now a museum, I visited his small room at the rear of the house and followed his final steps in the garden, footprints cast in bronze.

As sacramentals of the visit, I purchased three sets of companion posters, one with Gandhi’s photo and another with a quote of his, two of which I gave to close friends, the Yale historian John Boswell, who contributed so much to the history of gay people in the church; and the other to Linda Culbertson, currently the executive of Pacific Presbytery, with whom I had seen the movie. My friend George Lynch framed my set for my home office, and they serve as a constant reminder of Gandhi’s self-less perseverance to empower “the poorest and the weakest.”

Dr. Thurman asked Gandhi how to train people in the “difficult art” of Ahimsa, non-violence, to which Gandhi replied, “There is no royal road, except through living the creed in your life which must be a living sermon.  … Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and everything else shall be added unto you. The Kingdom of Heaven is Ahimsa.”

Gandhi died today, and still he lives, offering his darshan, the joy of his spiritual presence, to all who read his words and remember his deeds. 

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  This ministry is entirely funded by your donations. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Religion Is Not a Conspiracy

A writer from Iceland questioned this phrase from a New York Times book review: “the negatives that have made Christianity a byword for tyranny, cruelty and licensed hatred.” She wrote, “The simple exercise of substituting any other institution with a history of ‘negatives’ for ‘Christianity’ in this phrase might have quickly showed up the hurtful error of dismissing the religion of Dorothy Day, St. Augustine, Lutheran World Relief, or the Amish, for example, as a byword for cruelty.” She then offered examples of institutions and categories of people that might similarly be impugned unfairly.

Does our culture automatically assume malignant conspiracies when it comes to religion? And what about progressive Christians?

Recently I began watching a documentary-style film that began with an overlong collage of violent images with no explanatory narrative. Growing impatient, I fast-forwarded to the eventual narration, and was met with a male voice speaking declarative “certainties” oracle-fashion about the destructive conspiracy of religion to control us and take over our innocent and inherently divine planet. I escaped the sermon, turned off less by its criticism of religion than its presumptuous certainty!

It reminded me of a book I read that had many insights, but whose perspective viewed religion as a sinister plot. I began circling loaded words the author chose, highly judgmental words that might sell books but limit understanding. On two pages alone, I found religion associated with these words and phrases with no “ifs ands and buts”: weapon, conformity, self-serving, defensive, false piety, God-manipulation. Oddly, the writer’s eventual conclusions are those of any enlightened religion.

Perhaps what I witnessed in the film and the book was actually anger over a restrictive religion in which the narrators were reared. I too was taught biblical literalism and religious fundamentalism, but I no longer view either as a malicious conspiracy, just a misunderstanding of what sacred texts and religion are about. In truth, I wonder if I would still be writing about the Bible and Christianity had I not been given the zeal of that upbringing!

I do not think of religion as a conspiracy. It was an attempt by people as good as you and me to comprehend the incomprehensible, and to discern and affirm our place in the universe.

Do people use religion to their own ends? Of course, just like they use the computer and government and science to get what they want.

Is religion co-opted and manipulated by “the powers that be”? You bet. Over and over, in human history, you can find evidence of that. You can see patriarchy in the male-dominated church, for example, evidenced as recently as the Anglican Church’s vote that narrowly rejected female bishops.

Can religion make itself a god? Yes, and that’s when we must be iconoclastic—when we must demythologize and deconstruct.

As Christianity began to blend with imperial culture and political power, the Christian monastic movement began. According to Thomas Merton, it saw civilization as a shipwreck that needed to be abandoned, with the hope that those who safely escaped to the shore might reach out to others trapped in the wreckage.

Those we consider founders of world religions—among them, Moses, the Brahmins, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed—all had to contend with the powers that be, religious, cultural, political, and define their spiritual views in those contexts. 

You and I have a similar role, in our own small way. We must step back, step away, gain a contemplative perspective, employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” of both contemporary culture and religious tradition, questioning both our unique personal perspectives as well as our commonly shared views.

Religion is to spirituality what a question is to the answer. One may lead to the other, but the answer may require the reframing of the question.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  This ministry is entirely funded by your donations

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Everybody Has a Story

Prayer was saved for many progressive Christians of my generation by Malcolm Boyd’s landmark book of prayers, Are You Running with Me, Jesus? For Protestants, his book and others like it served as our Vatican II, putting religious expression in the common vernacular. He and I were introduced by a mutual friend the year his courageous coming out memoir, Take Off the Masks, was published. We first came to know one another taking my favorite walk along the Santa Monica shore at sunset.

Malcolm is a great storyteller, and one story in particular has stayed with me in the decades since, one about him on an airplane, sitting next to a self-important man who was sorting through stacks of papers related to his work, infringing on Malcolm’s own space. As I recall, he even told Malcolm how important he was as he asked him to hold a stack of papers for him.

“I don’t look for this sort of thing,” Malcolm tells the story with obvious delight, “But a stranger came up to me at that moment and said, ‘Your writing has changed my life—would you mind autographing a book for me?’” At which the self-important man eyed Malcolm from the corner of his eye, took back his papers, and never said another word to him during the flight!

I have sometimes thought of that story when I meet a stranger, sit next to someone on an airplane, or stand in line with people I do not know. It may occur to me when seeing hundreds pass through an airport, sitting in an audience, or gathering for a cause.

Many of us are so preoccupied with our own stories, we fail to recognize that the person before us, beside us, or behind us also has a rich and complex story.

What I have discovered when I am attentive to another’s story is humbling: they are the stars of their own biographies, and often with good reason. And I have found many have a spiritual autobiography worthy of the telling. I have led workshops and retreats on “Our Lives as Sacred Texts,” encouraging people to look at their own stories as a sacred source, just as they might biblical stories. Using an idea from Matthew Fox, I have encouraged workshop participants to draw their own spiritual maps, imaging barriers they broke through, mountains they climbed, swamps or deserts they traversed, dragons they fought. Or create spiritual timelines, revealing times of growth, change, or conversion.

When you consider how full your life has been, and then multiply that by the billions around the globe, you realize God has filled all of our baskets to overflowing. And that’s an occasion for both listening and thanksgiving.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  This ministry is entirely funded by your donations.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Pragmatic Guide to Prayer

Prayer is unfamiliar territory to many people, even those reared in spiritual communities. Many fear they’re not up to the task, having heard eloquent prayers of others. Some progressive Christians doubt the effectiveness of prayer. So I thought I’d jot down some simple guidelines from my reading and experience to prompt but not limit readers’ personal practice and experience of prayer. Take these suggestions less as prescriptive than descriptive. And if any sound too preachy, just go on to the next!

Prayer takes you to another place. There are many ways of saying this. Prayer may lift you up, take you deep within, broaden your horizon, make you feel close to God and all that is, or all of the above. The vital thing is that, in your spiritual imagination, your perspective changes, enlarging or focusing, withdrawing or connecting, detaching or more deeply involving. And it brings us into proximity with our better selves.

Prayer consists of words, silences, and actions.  Most of us know about words and silences in prayer and meditation, but actions may prove a new understanding. I believe that Martha in the kitchen preparing a meal could be praying as much as Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and pondering his words. And I don’t mean Martha is saying the rosary while cooking, but that cooking itself may be a form of prayer when conscious intention is there, as is true of acts of justice and compassion. To stretch our imagination further, I believe lovemaking may be a form of prayer.

Prayer is presence, mindfulness, and listening. Prayer is a time to be attentive to surroundings, people, feelings, the day’s expectations, God’s hope for you—listening for God and your inner voice in all of them. Repetition of short scriptures (such as “God is love.”) or meditative chants may help one’s focus.

Readings are helpful to praying regularly. What helped me keep to a regular prayer time was the use of reading material that made me want to sit down and set aside time for reflection—that’s why half of the dozen books I’ve written consist of daily meditations. Scriptures, books of prayers or reflections, spiritual or theological or biblical treatises, and even op-ed opinion pieces have proven aids to meditation and prayer. Others may find poetry, art, or music helpful.

Saying the Lord’s Prayer is sufficient. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples has every ingredient needed in prayer. Having said it daily for most of my adult life, I still wonder at how new meaning comes to familiar phrases, given where I am and what my experience is. I see it less as a prayer asking for things like bread and forgiveness than as a way of aligning myself with the inbreaking commonwealth of God, in particular being gracious as I have received grace. As Thomas Keating has recommended, if one can’t pray anything else, say the Lord’s Prayer.

Less is more. Too many words, too many “issues,” too many confessions, too many requests make prayer burdensome and more of a duty than an experience of God’s grace and love. An abundance of thanksgivings can lighten the load, as long as they are not simply obligatory.

Prayer transforms you, not God. The Desert Fathers and Mothers held this view; prayer is about our transformation, not God’s. When we pray for someone who is ill or in prison or mistreated, I do not believe God “fixes” these things, but that we become better caregivers, liberators, and advocates.

Enjoy being God’s beloved child. Join Adam and Eve walking naked with God unashamedly in the Garden, Isaiah comforted and dandled on Mother God’s knees, and Jesus hearing “You are my beloved on whom my favor rests.” Prayer is the pleasure of basking in the glory of God’s unconditional love, remembering God’s best hopes for us and the world.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Love Force

Mid-October I read in the morning paper about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, the Taliban shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for encouraging the education of girls in Pakistan, and the death of George Whitmore, an African American whose life was never good after a reckless prosecution and wrongful conviction for murders committed while witnesses actually placed him in a catering hall where he was employed, watching Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech on August 28, 1963.

Not exactly the stuff of contemplation, you might think.

Yet exactly the reason we need contemplation. In Soul Friend, Kenneth Leech echoes Merton and other contemplatives when he writes:

The contemplative is more of a threat to injustice than the social activist who merely sees the piecemeal need. For contemplative vision is revolutionary vision, and it is the achievement of this vision which is the fruit of true spiritual direction. A spirituality of clear vision goes hand in hand with love. To see with the eyes of God is to see truthfully and lovingly. Such a love is not sentimental or naïve: it is a love which undermines oppression and burns away illusion and falsehood, a love which has been through the fire, a love which has been purified through struggle. It is a love which has known solitude and despair.

I’ve been re-reading insights I’ve underlined in books I read long ago. The morning that I saw the above articles, I happened onto one of Mahatma Gandhi’s ruminations in The Gandhi Reader (ed. Homer A. Jack) on satyagraha, variously interpreted as love force, truth force, and soul force, politically expressed in non-violent direct action. “The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth,” Gandhi wrote.

When asked for proof of its existence in history, he replies, “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.” He uses the illustration of two siblings arguing. If they go to war or sue (for Gandhi, a lawyer, another form of violence) their quarrel will be remembered, but if their love for one another is reawakened and they reconcile, few notice because that’s as it should be. “Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history,” Gandhi explains, declaring that what’s true of families is true of nations.

The next day our newspaper carried an article about studies indicating we retrospectively characterize a week or a time in our lives by its peaks rather than intervening constancy, which to me seems to validate Gandhi’s point.

But I would add that satyagraha is revealed in history when love stands up to the test, such as Gandhi’s challenges to injustice through civil disobedience. This may give us a new way of understanding the cross: Jesus’ love force stood up to “the powers that be,” and the crucifixion interrupted the natural trajectory of truth, love, and soul of the inbreaking commonwealth of God, just as it was subsequently interrupted by the persecution of early Christians who tried to live into that commonwealth. Thus Easter is an affirmation of the triumph of truth, love, and soul and non-cooperation with the forces of violence and death.

I schedule my posts on Tuesday for Wednesday publication, so this was put in final form on election day in the U.S., which means I do not know the outcome. Indeed, the outcome may not be known by the time you read this, given the anticipated closeness of the presidential election and the possibility of contested election results.

No matter. Whoever is elected will have to deal with those who want to make a name for themselves or their party or their ideologies by exploiting division and divisive issues—in other words, making history rather than letting the forces of love, truth, and soul bring reconciliation, mercy, and justice to Washington, D.C. As much as I believe in recovery programs and understand alcohol may easily exacerbate orneriness, I long for the time when lawmakers would end their day having cocktails together and trust working together and compromise without looking to give the latest sound bite to inflame their constituencies, satisfy their contributors, promote their ideologies, and enlarge their egos.

What we need in government—as elected officials and voters—are more contemplatives.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please visit Chris Glaser's website  to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Open Your Refrigerator

During last week’s Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School,  Anna Carter Florence illustrated what congregations expect of preachers with an unforgettable metaphor, that of teenagers opening the refrigerator, looking at the foodstuffs therein, and complaining “There’s nothing to eat.” Translation: “I need you to prepare me something to eat!”

The Columbia Theological Seminary professor compared this to our expectation that preachers will prepare something to satisfy our spiritual hunger. And both parents and preachers try to fulfill the demands of such expectations, sometimes simply because we can or should, given our expertise and duty, but sometimes also because we feel needed and even powerful. But, just as parents need to equip kids with cooking skills so they can leave the nest, so pastors do best to equip parishioners with spiritual skills.

Anna suggested that right in front of those sitting in the pews are mini refrigerators—Bibles, hymnals, prayer books—waiting to be opened in their pew racks. And, I would add, many of us have books at home, blogs on the internet, blank journals for our own musings, spiritual guides and soul friends, retreat opportunities, and those Celtic “thin places” in nature waiting to be “opened,”  if only we opened our minds and hearts and schedules to their spiritual possibilities.

Anna’s metaphor captured one regret I have about church—that many prefer worship “to do it all for them” rather than embracing their own spiritual adventure. Please don’t misunderstand me: attending worship is a valuable spiritual discipline, but so much more is possible. That’s why I liked Anna’s other metaphor, that of a repertory church whose members actually engage with scripture. As she led us in various exercises to accomplish just that, I experienced what Presbyterian pastor Rick Spalding alluded to in the Q&A that followed: the disciples on the road to Emmaus reflecting on Jesus’ scriptural interpretation, “Did not our hearts burn within us as the scriptures were opened to us?”

I thought of another kitchen metaphor from professor Henri Nouwen’s days at YDS, the opening of his Road to Daybreak when a member of the L’Arche community prepared him dinner in his own home, using fine linens, china, crystal, candles, food and wine. “Where did you get all this?” Henri asked her. “In your own kitchen and cupboards,” came her reply, “You obviously don’t use them too often!”  Suddenly Henri’s eyes were opened to new spiritual possibilities from his own cupboards!

In the story of Martha and Mary offering hospitality to Jesus, Mary is upheld by Jesus himself as choosing “the better portion,” listening at his feet, while Martha is portrayed as distracted, busying herself preparing food in the kitchen. Thus Mary became a symbol for contemplation. But now I wonder if Martha might equally be a role model for many of us, who need to do our own work in our own kitchens, independent of our spiritual gurus.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Watch the You Tube video of the panel Chris Glaser moderated last week at Yale Divinity School, “Religion in the Public Square.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to Fight

Today, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 10:30 am to 12 noon Eastern Time zone, you are invited to watch the webcast of a panel moderated by Chris Glaser on “Religion in the Public Square” at Yale Divinity School.

“Because church people tend to think they should not fight, most of them are really bad at it,” Barbara Brown Taylor rightly observes in her book, Leaving Church.

I think this applies not only to congregations. Couples, families, colleagues, coworkers, communities, citizens, elected officials, liberals and conservatives (the latter two for different reasons) do not know how to fight in a way that is mutually beneficial. Winning is more important than compromise, scoring points is worth more than mutual growth, attacking individuals has more traction than evaluating and even understanding another’s positions.

Many of us liberals and progressives fear conflict, and thus bend over backwards to accommodate opposing views, sometimes to the detriment of what is right. Many conservatives and neoconservatives enjoy the fray, as if going to holy war, sometimes to the detriment of what is just. Liberals by definition are to be open to all viewpoints; conservatives by definition are resistant to progressive views.

In high school, one of my least favorite extracurricular activities was debate club. The research involved, the requirement to argue each side of an issue, the inherent public speaking as well as the evaluation of the judges all made it undeniably challenging. And the topic that year was “socialized medicine,” hard to believe less controversial then than it is now but difficult nonetheless.

What I learned, though, was that attacking an individual rather than his or her facts lost points. Attacking an opinion rather than its underlying bases lost points. Attacking an idea rather than cogently presenting an alternative idea lost points. Lack of humility and lack of an ability to “see” the justifiability of the other side’s position lost points, as well as the understanding required to refute those justifications. Winning the debate was as much about remaining agreeable as it was about being right. (Presidential debates are closer in form to raucous wrestling matches than debate formats we were taught!)

That’s why I both loved and was challenged by the television series The West Wing.  Though fictionally based on the administration of a liberal president, it nonetheless tried to show divergent opinions on a wide variety of subjects, and the bases of those opinions. I remember one episode in particular that felt like a slap in the face, when a conservative staff member said to a liberal staff member, “It’s not that you just want to regulate gun safety. It’s that you don’t like the people who like guns.” And I had to admit, that at least for me, this was somewhat true. The gun aficionado to me was of a different class—my classism revealed.

Today I moderate a panel for my Yale Divinity School reunion on the subject, “Religion in the Public Square.” Fittingly, it will be held in Niebuhr Hall on the campus, named for famed YDS theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, who taught and wrote of the need for “the prophetic strain” in Christianity. Two more recent books come to mind. One is Yale professor Stephen L. Carter’s book, a favorite of then President Bill Clinton, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, about how religious values have a place in the public square. The second is University of Massachusetts professor Glenn Tinder’s The Political Meaning of Christianity: The Prophetic Stance, about the role of Christianity standing over against popular culture as loving critic. I recommend both of these books as guides to fighting for what is right and just.

Many of our parents encouraged us to stand up to bullies when we were kids. Jesus stood up to the religious and political bullies of his day, unwilling to kill but unwilling to yield in the fight for what was right and just. While more humbly asserting what is right and just (given that we are not Jesus!), I believe we need to do this as well, “armed” with truth, passion, understanding, and compassion, just as Jesus was. As our YDS liberation theology professor Letty Russell once wrote, “We join in God’s work of liberation by reflecting on the meaning of that liberation in the lives of those who find themselves dehumanized.”


Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Et II, Benedict?

The 50th anniversary of the promise of Vatican II prompts me to remember Pope John  XXIII with fondness, nostalgia, and reverence. His life experience, according to John W. O’Malley’s recent New York Times op-ed piece, helped him know “diversity, turmoil, sin and evil firsthand, but he also knew goodness as he found it in people of other faiths and no faith.” That’s among the reasons he initiated Vatican II, though he did not live to see it through to its conclusion, let alone its implementation.

I grew up with anti-Catholic sentiment preached from our Baptist pulpit, but a saving grace was my mother’s reading of Catholic alongside Protestant writers. As a young woman, she had enjoyed a positive relationship with nuns who cared for her frequently hospitalized mother in their small town Catholic hospital.

I was home sick from school when a news bulletin flashed the news of Pope John’s death on our Packard Bell television set in 1963. Though only 12 years of age, I immediately felt sad, knowing a unique light had left our world. In 1973 I visited his tomb in the crypt underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, noting fresh flowers. It moved me in a way no other gravesite on my first trip to Europe did; his was the only grave at which I cried. On my most recent visit to Rome, I was glad to see he had been promoted upstairs to the main floor, now in a glass coffin. At first I wasn’t sure it was him, so I asked a guard, “Is that Pope John XXIII?” “Most of him,” the guard replied with a wink. That same visit we also saw a living pope, Pope John Paul II, old and frail.

There was resistance to the changing nature of the church signaled by Vatican II, with its intended consultative collegiality among bishops, priests and laity, ecumenical emphasis, interfaith dialogue, vernacular liturgy, and other attempts at modernization that made it less of a dinosaur still breathing fire at the Enlightenment.

My friend, David Mellott, Dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, suggests to me that Pope John could not have initiated reforms on his own had there not been a “sensus fidelium” in the Roman Catholic Church, “the sense of the faithful” that wanted change. It could be said that, had Pope John lived, that same “sensus fidelium” might have prompted even him to be more cautious in Vatican II’s application.  (Anyone who has served in ministry knows almost every congregation says it wants change until changes are actually implemented!)

In Vatican II, “The church validated for the first time the principle of religious freedom and rejected all forms of civil discrimination based on religious grounds. Thus ended an era of cozy church-state relations that began in the fourth century with Emperor Constantine,” the Georgetown professor, Jesuit priest, and author O’Malley observes. This is a very good time to be reminded of this in the United States.

In his 1986 autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest, diocesan priest and novelist Andrew Greeley tells of sneaking into the conclave of Vatican II with a faked pass and witnessing a battle between the conservative, turf-defending Roman Curia and the bishops who served the broader church, aided by more progressive theologians like Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. His analysis was that Vatican II irrevocably asserted that the church can change.

Greeley also mentions the present pope’s involvement in Vatican II, listing alongside Kung and Rahner “a much younger Ratzinger (who now conveniently forgets his contribution to the Council)…”—and Greeley wrote this before Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, when he was the Vatican watchdog for orthodoxy as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In a 1977 book that I used years ago for my morning reflections, Zen and the Bible,  Japanese Jesuit priest J. K. Kadowaki, lauding Vatican II, also refers to that much younger Ratzinger whom he met when doing research in West Germany:

While there I was invited by the Catholic theologian, Professor J. Ratzinger (now a cardinal), to lecture on “Zen and Christianity” to a group of his doctoral students.  … Toward the end of the seminar, Professor Ratzinger said, “How interesting it would be if we could compare the ideas of Zen with those of the Bible. If that could be done, it would be a great event, not only for the dialogue between Zen and Christianity, but also in respect to the ideological exchange between East and West.”

That’s in the spirit of Pope John XXIII and of Vatican II, though Pope Benedict might prefer to forget this too.  Now that Pope John has been beatified on his way to sainthood, progressive Christians might hope that he may intercede for the whole church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Many thanks to Dr. David Mellott for reviewing a draft of this post and contributing his wisdom from his Roman Catholic training.

Check out Glaser’s latest article on The Huffington Post: “Flag Pins & Crosses: ‘Mine Is Bigger than Yours!’”

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Spiritual Handcuffs

A church I once served here in Atlanta invited the Voices of Hope choir from the Metro State Prison for women to sing during worship. Their final song just commanded movement and clapping—and I smiled to see we obliged in a minimalist sort of way while remaining seated in our pews. It was the kind of song some other congregations would stand for and throw their whole bodies into it. I felt a little self-conscious being the lone one who stood among the pew-sitting dancers. 

We had planned a brunch in their honor after service, and though their accompanying guards required them to sit together, I was able to talk with them a little by visiting their tables. I was stunned to discover that this outing was a first for one woman incarcerated in her youth decades before. Another told of her astonishment when she first saw a self-opening door. 

When the women left, tears came to my eyes as I watched them march out the sanctuary’s front doors single file and now handcuffed. We exchanged smiles and farewells but of course no handshakes as, one by one, they passed by to the prison bus outside. Some of them had a sweater or something draped over their hands so the handcuffs were not so noticeable. 

I think of the handcuffs on many religious people who are bound by beliefs that limit not only their experience of themselves, of the world, and of God, but also prevent their embrace of so many people they think don’t belong in church or consider unworthy of rights and privileges.  I believe there is a direct relationship between opening our minds spiritually and opening our hearts to others. 

I’ve also seen handcuffs on those who long ago left the church, before their spiritual formation was complete. Their spiritual growth was stunted, many holding prejudices taught them as children in tension with the easy youthful judgment of hypocrisy. An example I’ve witnessed repeatedly are those outside the church who nonetheless say one can’t be progressive and Christian, while dismissing the church for being so conservative! 

I’ve just come from a retreat I co-lead annually for gay and bisexual Christian men at Kirkridge, a retreat center with many progressive Christian programs. One-third of the men were new to this retreat; two-thirds were returning after one to twenty retreats. All of us use the opportunity to discover new aps for old beliefs, as well as expanding our spiritual horizons to such new thinking as queer theology. We bond also as a church away from church, a home away from home. So important has this become that many who have passed on have had their ashes interred or sprinkled in the memorial garden. 

In his book Soul Friend, Kenneth Leech calls a retreat “an essential feature of serious Christian living,” adding, “A retreat is a time of awakening, of new vision and new zest. Hugh Maycock once described the retreat conductor’s role as being to ‘astonish the soul.’ Another major part of a retreat is to allow an individual to relax and expand at leisure, to give some creative space in which to grow.” 

I would suggest a metaphor for the retreat experience is the story of Lazarus raised from a confining tomb, with fellow retreatants rolling the stone from its exit and removing the paralyzing death cloths (spiritual handcuffs) so he may newly engage Jesus, family, neighbors, and God. To Lazarus, Jesus said, “Come out!” And to his neighbors he said, “Unbind him and let him go.”

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Pre-emptive Peace

Walking our dog Hobbes in our neighborhood, we sometimes pass a car with a bumper sticker that reads, “I’m already against the next war.” It made me think of a church woman who complained about the student demonstrations against the Vietnam War, “Why can’t they be for something?” she asked. Another church woman responded, “They are—they’re for peace!” 

I like the idea of a pre-emptive peace to counter the justification for pre-emptive wars. Politically, a pre-emptive peace means using diplomacy and peaceful influence and pressure in concert with other nations, and supporting like-minded public servants who can win elections and achieve these goals. (My pragmatism as well as my sense of urgency will not let me waste votes on unelectable idealists. And I must admit to having little patience with those who refuse to vote because the electable candidates are not up to their standards of perfection.) 

Practicing a pre-emptive peace can also be disarming personally. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advised, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on your way to court…” Many of the sayings in that sermon suggest practical strategies of a pre-emptive peace: Greet strangers. Love enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Don’t exact revenge. Don’t be greedy. Don’t show off. Pray, remembering to forgive as you ask forgiveness. Tell the truth. Be faithful. Don’t be anxious. Trust God’s Providence. Avoid ultimate judgments of others. Practice discernment. 

Some years ago, I was stunned to meet a totally disarming man: Mister Rogers. I did not watch his “neighborhood” growing up, and I knew him primarily through parodies of him on programs like Saturday Night Live. I had just given the sermon at Pittsburgh’s Sixth Presbyterian Church, which he attended, and he was waiting in line to greet me after the worship service. A relative of his gave me a passionate, unexplained hug, and then Mister Rogers stepped forward. “I know who you are,” I said good-humoredly as I reached out my hand, aware and admiring of this man who had been ordained by the Presbyterian Church to do his television ministry.  

Now, I’ve met my share of celebrities, so I know the experience of a celebrity swoon that is sometimes felt in such encounters. But as he took my hand, smiling, this was not what I experienced. Rather, I felt complete inner peace. Gently, holding my hand, “the oracle” spoke: “You are very important to Henri Nouwen,” he said. “Mister Rogers knows Henri Nouwen?” I thought, amazed. As we talked, I knew that biblical “peace that passes understanding.” This is the peace that I imagine one may encounter with deeply spiritual people, such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, or Desmond Tutu.  I just was positively surprised to experience it with Mister Rogers! 

There are prophets who disturb us, pastors who prod us, teachers who unsettle us, therapists who challenge us. But even they may convey a pre-emptive peace. Rev. Jim Hughes, an NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) therapist, was one of the rare people who could offer me helpful critiques that from anyone else could feel devastating and debilitating, but in his framing of them made me feel complimented and empowered! 

I believe that many more of us may practice a pre-emptive peace, beginning each day by reviewing our agendas contemplatively, lifting all whom we will encounter and all the day’s activities in prayer, and then returning again and again to that place of peace throughout the day. After a spirituality workshop in which I led participants in singing the Taize version of “Ubi Caritas” from time to time, a seminary professor told me if she could just sing that occasionally during her day, she would be far more peaceful. 

Let’s already be against the next war, politically and personally.  
Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Please make a tax-deductible donation to this ministry!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Thoughtful Pause

My quote from Viktor Frankl in last week’s post about our very human desire to leave “an immortal ‘footprint in the sands of time’’ made me remember a poignant archeological find. Fossilized footprints of several human-like ancestors crossing volcanic ash millions of years ago were discovered in Africa.  As archaeologist and anthropologist Mary Leakey described her discovery, at one point only the female paused and briefly turned, as if to gaze in another direction—at a scenic vista? Looking back toward home? The road not taken? Toward an ominous sound? Then the footsteps continue on an otherwise straightforward path. Leakey concluded, “This motion, so intensely human, transcends time.”

I was deeply moved to think that her momentary pause was recorded in the sediment of ground for all time, now known by people like me she would never know or even imagine but whose imaginations are captivated by her mysterious turn. Was hers an “ah-hah” moment, a sentimental reflection of things past, a vision of another possibility, or simply a cautionary glance? 

The image is an icon, the story is a parable, a Zen story or koan whose inscrutability is the very thing that attracts me, causing my own thoughtful pause, stilling what Buddhists call my “monkey mind.” 

In the preface to my book, Communion of Life: Meditations for the New Millennium, written for spiritual seekers rather than a particular faith group, I write of “the thoughtful pause.” I mention poets as “secular mystics” whose choice of words and cadences, like scripture, require a thoughtful pause after each phrase or line to allow seeds of comprehension to germinate. For me, the thoughtful pause is the food of the spiritual life. 

Lord knows we need thoughtful pauses, bombarded as we are continually by IMs, texts, tweets, e-mails, news, spam, ads, pop-ups, radio, TV, cell phones, iPads, iPhones, iTunes, honking horns, rumbling condenser units, sirens, overhead planes, police helicopters, and shrill beeps telling us our food is ready, the dryer is done, our time is up! I could go on Walt Whitman-like with several pages of things that vie for our attention, but you get the idea. 

To take a moment to turn, to gaze, to think, to contemplate, to reflect, to really see—is almost countercultural. Yet that’s a purpose of the contemplative life. During workshops I encourage what I call “monastic moments” for people to turn inward to consult themselves, their stories, their heart before engaging in dialogue. Otherwise, too often, someone else will speak up before others can formulate their own thoughts, their own answers. 

Jesus often searched out a lonely place to pray. If he needed to do so, given his apparently natural affinity for the sacred as well as the relative quiet of first century Palestine, think how much more we need to find such places!? And he said, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…” The room implied is a pantry, at the center of a house, with no windows—in modern terms, no distractions, no Windows (sorry, I couldn’t resist). 

My youthful prayers were filled with words. Now my prayers are filled with silences. I need the silence to offset the noise of my life, to (in the words of technology) re-set, re-boot, refresh. 

The woman who turned so long ago reminds me of all the saints whose thoughtful pauses gave rise to insights passed down to us. And she reminds me what I also need.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Donations to this ministry are welcome! 


Gay and bisexual Christian men are invited to join Chris Glaser and David Mellott as they lead a retreat on “Claiming the Blessings! (Despite the Burdens)” Oct. 4-7, 2012, on the scenic grounds of Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center in Pennsylvania. 

Readers of this blog are invited to check out the new content on Chris Glaser’s homepage.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Has Been

Not long ago I enjoyed a phone conversation with my brother in which we discussed looking back at our lives from the perspective of age, both being in our 60s. We laughed about our “tired gene” which has mellowed us, as well as made us less gung-ho to initiate major new life projects.  And we talked about what big dreams we had when young.  

What precipitated our talk was my volunteering with a task group of alumni from Yale Divinity School shaping our 35th “cluster reunion” (classes of ’76-’78) this October. I mentioned that one of the young reps from the alumni association working with us had suggested we might want to talk about how we are “winding down” our ministries and other careers. I caught a whiff of denial, perhaps, as one of my former classmates quickly countered we might not be winding down at all, but preparing for our “next big thing.” I told my brother that I kind of felt like I was winding down—working just as hard, mind you, but with no great expectations as in younger days.  

Propinquity would have it—maybe even grace—that a writer detailing the LGBT movement within mainstream Protestant U.S. churches asked me at this time to be among those reviewing the manuscript for accuracy. I am grateful to be remembered for the various roles I played as an activist helping LGBT people claim our memberships, ministries, and marriages within the church and culture.  And to know that we are at least on our way to complete success. Career-wise for me (he said wistfully) I just wish it had come a little sooner. 

As I encourage former classmates to come to the reunion, I am learning what high achievers they have been in their various vocations, denominations, non-profit organizations, academic institutions, and humanitarian causes. They have worked hard applying what they learned in seminary to the world. Jesus would be proud. 

As those who follow this blog know, I was also reading Viktor Frankl’s epic Man’s Search for Meaning during this time. I can’t help but chuckle at my choice of texts at a time when “man’s search for his glasses” might be more pertinent! But Frankl, a concentration camp survivor who founded the psychiatric school of logotherapy, remarks on our desire to leave “an immortal ‘footprint in the sands of time’”: 

Usually, to be sure, man considers only the stubble field of transitoriness and overlooks the full granaries of the past, wherein he had salvaged once and for all his deeds, his joys and also his sufferings. Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being. 

And, instead of envying the future of the young, Frankl says the old instead may affirm: 

“Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the thing of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”

Having been is the surest kind of being.” We can be proud of work done, love loved, joys welcomed, sufferings endured. Being a “has been” doesn’t sound so bad, does it? 

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite, Donations welcome! 

For a related post, check out “I Wanted to Be Famous!” (June 1, 2011) on this blog.