Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Call to Civility

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Civility is on many of our minds in the midst of Congressional quagmire and election year politics. Too many politicians resort to throwing red meat to their constituencies (chum to their chums, I call it), whether that of their opponents or of easy scapegoats. An election year is not the time, it seems, to give thoughtful, nuanced, even tolerant responses to another’s position; but in our 24/7/12 news cycle, every year has become an election year. Nietzsche’s Myth of Eternal Return translated into today’s politics means that every thoughtful, nuanced, even tolerant response is up for eternal review and rebuttal.

The fault lies not only in our political stars, but in our selves. I too can grow harsh and dismissive and ridiculing when I know I’m right. I’ve just learned, on my better days, to keep it to myself.  The proverb, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger,” comes to mind.

I’ve recently read two books urging civil discourse. Both are gifts from people I respect. The first was written by an orthodox rabbi leaning toward the left, You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism by Brad Hirschfield. The other was written by an evangelical Christian leaning toward the right, Lord, Save Us from Your Followers: Why Is the Gospel of Love Dividing America? by Dan Merchant. The first contains many quotable quotes, the latter includes interviews with such disparate characters as Al Franken and Rick Santorum. Each author made comments that made me wince as well as offering challenging insights.

Hirschfield quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, “Fanatic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt; it is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.” Then Hirschfield explains how he grew out of his youthful fanatic Zionism to pray alongside Muslims, even lead Havdalah (prayers at the close of Sabbath that welcome the new week) on top of the Reichstag (the onetime seat of Nazi power) in Berlin, as well as attend a Catholic mass at Auschwitz after opening a synagogue there. He says faith traditions should “help us imagine a better world and nurture our ability to get there.” He explains compassion “is about noticing the person in front of you before the ideology inside of you.” Ultimately, he says, “I have come to believe that religious traditions exist not to serve the faithful, but to help the faithful serve the world.”

A similar insight about religious traditions helping us serve the world occurred to Dan Merchant a year before he decided to address the “divisive rhetoric” of “bumper sticker theology” and “culture wars” in his documentary and book, Lord, Save Us from Your Followers. He personally witnessed Christians who preferred to be called “followers of Jesus” simply helping people in Ethiopia, observing, “these Followers of Jesus are here to meet a need and not win an argument.” He writes, “Our tendency to reduce the gospel of Jesus to a couple of isolated issues, our willingness to oversimplify this complex life just so we can be right and win an argument is, as a smart person would say, antithetical to Jesus’ teachings.”

He says, for example, that when evangelicals say they “want to preserve the traditional institution of marriage,” it comes across as “I hate gay people.” Merchant writes, “I can’t accept this communication breakdown. Should the burden be on my lips or their ears? I guess it depends on whether I really want to have a conversation or I simply want to be right.”

I was both challenged by and proud of the gay Washington state legislator who recently said it was important that those who voted against that state’s same-gender marriage bill not be called bigots, just as those who voted for it not be accused of undermining family values.

Though we may resist turning the other cheek, we might at least turn another ear.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mohammad's Child

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

On the cover of the February 9th New York Times I saw a familiar tableau, three robed figures with covered heads gazing at an infant in a manger beneath rough-hewn wooden beams. The darkness out of which the lighted figures emerged made me think, “Oh, a Nativity by Rembrandt. I wonder how many millions Sotheby’s auctioned this for? Will it go to a museum or a billionaire?” 

But, as I looked closely and read the caption, I realized this moving portrait was a photograph by Andrea Bruce of a three-month old child who died of the cold at a refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan. The story by Rod Nordland inside the paper gave context to this tragedy, deepening its pathos. “He was crying all night of the cold,” Sayid Mohammad explained of the eighth of his nine children to die, six of disease back home and now, two from the cold at the Nasaji Bagrami Camp, where a total of sixteen children 5 years of age or younger had died of the cold so far.  

In a headline just below this “nativity,”  “a wealthy backer” is betting on a presidential hopeful, pictured with pastors praying for the candidate, heads bowed with a laying on of hands.  

But my eyes are drawn to the trinity of women above, contemplating the dead child whose unseeing face looks upward at them, one grandmotherly figure with a slight fond smile (or grimace?), the central somber mother, Lailuma Mohammad, and a younger woman, kneeling with her face slightly turned away, forehead cradled in hand in grief, perhaps his 10-year-old sister who, earlier that day, had foraged some paper and plastic to burn to keep him warm.  

It was not a nativity by Rembrandt, after all. Not the Christ child, but Mohammad’s child. And no less sacred.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Valentine to You Readers on Our First Anniversary

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and tomorrow is the first anniversary of this blog, so I thought I’d write this “Valentine” of appreciation to its nearly 200 subscribers and those additional readers who made more than 26,000 visits to “Progressive Christian Reflections” since February 16, 2011. Thank you!

Most of us know that Valentine’s Day, as we know it, owes much of its evolution to the entrepreneurs who wanted another holiday to sell cards, gifts, romantic dinners and occasions. But if yesterday you gave the one you love a card that said, “Exchanging cards on Valentine’s Day to show one’s love is a mythological ritual invented by capitalists and nothing to celebrate,” I would imagine you probably would have slept alone!

In an apparent play for sympathy from a spurned lover, a kind of Valentine found its way not long ago onto a marquee of a shut-down fast food place near our home. Due to weather and vandals, eventually only its central message remained: “That which is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“That which is essential is invisible to the eye”—love, faith, hope. The famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, concludes, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”

Many people equate love with the infatuation we may immediately experience when we “fall in love” or when we “accept Jesus.” In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris reports a Roman Catholic nun’s profound talk on celibacy. I was surprised to find in that context a near-perfect explanation of true love. She said, “I found that love starts when you see the real person, not the one you invented.” She learned this in the context of once becoming infatuated with a priest, and concludes, “I learned from this experience that it isn’t ‘how good you are’ that matters—I was still full of a romantic desire to be a ‘good nun.’ … What matters is not that you’re good but that you trust. I had trusted God…to see me through this.”

Love starts when you see the real person, not the one you invented. This is as true of God as it is of a person. Progressive Christians don’t love God less because we search for the essential; rather we trust God more.

Please do me a favor: if you have read any of my books, please go to my book page on Amazon, click on the book cover, then "customer reviews," then "create your own review" and offer your rating and review (a sentence or more). This will balance out a couple of unusual reviews! Thank you!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Making of You

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.  

One day last week was my parents’ birthday. As you read that sentence, you may have made the same correction in your mind as did sales clerks when we as children tried to buy their gifts. “Oh, you mean their anniversary,” they would say with a “knowing” smile. “No, their birthdays—they were born on the same day, a year apart,” we would explain. 

During my morning prayers I thanked my parents and I thanked God for their having me, caring for me, nurturing me, and encouraging my independence. The previous Sunday, speaking on “What Death Has Taught Me about Life,” I had pointed out that, despite their deaths many years ago, they continue to teach me. Some new experience or wisdom will come my way, and the proverbial light bulb will go on over my head, “Oh, that’s what Mom meant! Or that’s what Dad  felt!” I noticed recognition of that experience on the faces of several in the congregation. 

I used to send Mom flowers on my birthday, following the practice I learned from a friend. After all, she was the one who did the labor that made it possible!  

On my own birthday last fall, I began thanking God for my parents, siblings, cousins, nephews, grandparents, aunts and uncles, Jesus, God, faith, and so on, and then I continued, thinking of all the people who had shaped me—lovers, friends, neighbors, church members, clergy, political leaders, communities, movements, environments, etc. A morning meditation became a day-long and then week-long reverie remembering all who touched my life in meaningful ways. The list became REALLY long when I began naming teachers! And then, authors! 

I can never claim to be a self-made man, thanks be to God! 

Who all made you?

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What about Sin?

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

Some of you may have gritted your teeth a little at this post’s title, “What about sin?” That may be because we hear the question filtered through the doctrine of original sin or hear it as a prelude to finger-pointing and judgment.  

In his book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, contemporary guru Eckhart Tolle advises that if we turn off when we hear the term “sin,” we might substitute other terms, such as “unconsciousness” or “insanity,” because sin is all about losing awareness of our deeper selves, our deeper connection to all that is. Tolle defines the word “sin” as “the suffering you unconsciously inflict on yourself and others as long as [an] illusory sense of self governs what you think, say, and do.” 

This illusory sense of self that Tolle asserts we feel called to defend reminds me of what Trappist monk Thomas Merton called the false or inauthentic self, that self that thinks of itself as autonomous, self-sufficient, unrelated to other human beings, unrelated to other creatures, and unrelated to the Creator. In his book, Contemplative Prayer, Merton calls true sin-awareness “a sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth” and claims that “society itself, institutional life, organization, the ‘approved way,’ may in fact be encouraging us in falsity and illusion.” 

In the fourth century, Pelagius and other Celtic Christians taught that sin was real, awaiting to tempt us from birth onward, but that it is not inborn and may easily be removed by an experience of grace, either in nature, by love, or through Christ. A contemporary of Pelagius, Augustine, got him declared a heretic in part because he opposed the doctrine of original sin which Augustine (and much later, Calvin) embraced. As Pelagius wrote, “You will realize that doctrines are inventions of the human mind, as it tries to penetrate the mystery of God.” 

In his book Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, contemporary writer Philip Newell explains that another Celtic Christian teacher, Eriugena, uses leprosy as a metaphor for sin. Just as leprosy can transform a human face into something scary, so sin can change the human soul into something monstrous. And just as leprosy causes numbness, so sin makes us insensitive “to what is deepest within us, and more and more we treat one another as if we were not made in the image of God.” 

Celtic Christianity recognized the image of God in everything, including ourselves, so following Christ was not about becoming something other than we are but rather embracing who we are, beloved children of God. And everyone was a beloved child of God, Christian or not.  

Imagine what a difference this attitude would make in how we reach out to others, whether among our neighbors or among the nations and religions of the world!