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.