Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Spiritual Dyslexia

This post has been read and approved by the person of whom I write.

Given my vocation as a wordsmith, it is an ironic gift that one of my closest and dearest friends is dyslexic. He has a tough time reading my blog, let alone one of my books. But he believes in God, so he is not the dyslexic agnostic insomniac who lies awake at night wondering about the existence of Dog, as the joke goes. But he finds worship boring, and a wordy liturgy off-putting.

Dyslexia is a learning disability, not a mental disability. Yet what prompts me to write about this now is that I’ve been thinking about the prolific and profound spiritual writer Henri Nouwen’s decision to live the last ten years of his life in community with people with mental disabilities. He took satisfaction that members of the L’Arche community welcomed him for who he was, not for what he had done. What a contrast to Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, where he taught much of his life!

Most of us want to be welcomed for what we have done, yet all of us also want those experiences of grace in which we are simply welcomed for who we are. That’s why a stranger’s friendliness or a baby’s smile means so much, why a therapist’s empathy proves healing, why sharing with a soul friend touches us deeply, why family, whether biological or chosen, is often the model for homecoming.

That is among the reasons I enjoy my friend. Other reasons are that he reminds me there is more to life than words: leisurely time with friends, a fine dining experience, a carefully selected and aged wine, contemporary and classical music, helpful electronic and digital tools, comfortable and aesthetically eclectic environments, art and plants, dancing and laughter, films and television programs. To others he might be viewed as a materialist; to me, for him, matter matters—what creation and incarnation and resurrection imply.

It took some years before I began to realize he might be dyslexic. And then, as is typical of me, I began to broach the subject tentatively. Yet he was ready to talk about it, and subsequently, as we watched a couple of current documentaries about dyslexia, he was almost overjoyed as he confirmed over and over again what was being said. Many children with dyslexia are called “slow,” even “retarded,” yet a disproportionate number of dyslexics become successful entrepreneurs, even academics.

Since the condition became known, I have wondered if I am slightly dyslexic. I read slowly. I remember a teacher pulling my hair as a child because she thought I was intentionally making mistakes as we went through a phonics chart together. While I earned high marks in school, the idea of remaining in academia was unappealing. A neurolinguistic therapist once told me that we often choose our work in the area of accessing information in which we have “issues”—for me, that was writing. In more recent years, I have been able to recognize signs of dyslexia in others, from acquaintances to public figures, finding it more common than I once thought.

So it makes sense to me that many people may also live with a kind of spiritual dyslexia. They might not quite “get” God or spirituality. I’ve met people like that, who have no disdain for the spiritual life and who have had no bad religious experiences, but just don’t understand. My late friend Scott Rogo, who wrote thirty books on paranormal activity, once told me that there is a part of the brain associated with religiosity, discovered when it is damaged and produces an individual who say, for example, compulsively reads the Bible from cover to cover over and over again. I must admit I was a little depressed to learn that spiritual interests might thus be predetermined.

Yet Simon LeVay, the neuroscientist who discovered differences in the brains of gay men, explained to me there’s a kind of “chicken-and-the-egg,” which-came-first question in neuroscience. Does behavior develop a part of the brain, or does the brain’s difference cause certain behaviors?

I believe that’s why the spiritual life needs both intention and attention. We all have something that gets us out of bed in the morning, some belief system that gets us through our day. Discerning this is the foundation of the spiritual life; cultivating this is building our spirituality on that foundation. Yet we don’t have to do this alone. All religions have our foundational figures, myths, and stories on which to build. All religions have traditions and histories and houses of worship on which to draw and in which to participate.

In addition, those with spiritual dyslexia may be our spiritual entrepreneurs who lead us to greener pastures and fresher waters to restore our souls. Maybe that’s the inspiration of Progressive Christianity, the Emerging Church, Creation Spirituality, New Age Spirituality, as well as renewed interest in contemplation, Celtic Christianity, and the interfaith movement, maybe even the passion behind current expressions of atheism and agnosticism. Perhaps spiritual dyslexia offers a different or nonlinear way of conceptualizing God, reality, and the life of the spirit.

Copyright © 2013 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 join me at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio March 9-10 for a Saturday retreat on Henri Nouwen, “From the Heart,” and on Sunday morning,  interviewed in the Dean’s Forum about “Progressive Christianity” and preaching at the 9 am jazz mass and 11:15 am choral Eucharist on “The Holy Place: Mercy and Reconciliation,” on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal.

New weekly feature! Posts you may have missed:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It's a Small, Small World

“Most of the time we can forget the universe, frankly,” said Stephen Baxter, president of the British Science Fiction Association and the author of books like Space and Last and First Contacts. “But today, there was ‘a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down,’ to quote David Bowie. It reminds us of our true location, so to speak.”

This comes from a New York Times article by John Williams about last week’s meteor explosion over Russia. Referring to the 1908 Tungusta Event in which a passing asteroid flattened a large area of Siberia, fiction writer Tom Bissell was also quoted as saying, “Can you imagine that happening above a major metropolitan area? It would either fill the churches or empty the churches.”

Most of us live in our own little worlds, living and moving and having our being as if not surrounded by and immersed in an ocean, not just of stars, but of galaxies. Earth is the proverbial grain of sand in multiple quadzillions of miles of a metaphorical cosmic shoreline.  And, if the universe is infinite, probability theorists tell us there is another planet not just with life, but specifically with you, [insert your name], and me. The late television series Fringe was not so “fringey” after all.

Location, location, location! The mantra of real estate agents should be our own to gain perspective on our own pet peeves, Washington dysfunction, and Middle East tensions, to name a few examples. Repeatedly the Psalmist got this, as did the writer of Job and the Hebrew prophets, including Jesus. We sometimes get it too when observing the beauty of a clear night sky, enduring suffering or suffering catastrophes, falling in love or giving birth—all opportunities for Bowie’s “crack in the sky” through which we may reach for the hand of God.

When religion no longer opens the sky for us, it is no longer useful in the spiritual quest. Then science or poetry or nature or art or life events may step in to save us from closed hearts, closed minds, and closed church doors.

Copyright © 2013 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.

New weekly feature! Last week’s “top ten” most visited posts inspired me to highlight two previous posts each week that you may have missed. Click on each title to read:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"A Trust beyond Betrayal"

Readers, happy second anniversary! This weekly blog began on February 16, 2011. Below today’s post I’ve listed the “top ten” posts, those most visited since “Progressive Christian Reflections” began. Contributions to this ministry are welcome. Thank you!

The presentation I refer to in this post is now available on YouTube (18 minutes).

A campus is often a fearful place to speak. I am more likely to be challenged for my religious views than for my sexual orientation. But early in the 20th century, Martha Berry founded a Christian school for enterprising rural boys in northwest Georgia that has blossomed into a co-ed college that welcomes religious values. Invited to speak by Berry College as a gay Christian to (as it turned out) 160 students and members of the faculty and administration, I feared that conservative and fundamentalist students might play “gotcha” with scripture or outright condemn me.

Instead, I was asked questions by those truly seeking answers, those who actually listened and tried to understand my point of view, even when they disagreed. During the reception that followed, the conversation continued, and one young man asked me to elaborate on something I had said toward the end of my presentation: “As is often true in the spiritual life, along the way I have let go of things and beliefs and practices I no longer need to have faith in God, that can even get in the way of complete trust in God.” And I explained that’s why I embrace progressive Christianity, letting go of incomplete and confining images of God—why the second of the Ten Commandments forbids such images. I concluded, “I like to say that the less one believes, the more faith is required.”

This last sentence had puzzled the student, and I tried to explain this phenomenon further, but unsatisfactorily, in my own judgment.

In preparation for teaching a weekend Spiritual Formation course on the Christian writer Henri Nouwen at Columbia Theological Seminary, I am re-reading the three books I’ve assigned to the class. One is Can You Drink the Cup?, a distillation of the spiritual life written in Henri’s final year of life. Reflecting on the crucifixion, when Jesus felt most abandoned, Henri writes, “Jesus still had a spiritual bond with the one he called Abba. He possessed a trust beyond betrayal, a surrender beyond despair, a love beyond all fears.”

This would have been a fine example to illustrate my point “that the less one believes, the more faith is required.” Stripped of his believing disciples and adoring multitudes and even religious certainty, betrayed and denied and offered up to death by his own, tried and judged and tortured by the religious and political establishment, accused of blasphemy and treason and arrogance, and finally lifted up on a cross of shame, suffering, and death, Jesus “possessed a trust beyond betrayal” in his spiritual intimacy with God.

Progressive Christians have voluntarily followed Jesus’ sacrificial model, letting go of the trappings of religious certainty—the so-called “fundamentals,” including biblical inerrancy, as well as restrictive orthodoxy and religious exceptionalism—to nakedly trust in God as our spiritual hope and in Jesus as our spiritual guide as we quest for truth and justice, kindness and inclusiveness.

Lent, which begins today, Ash Wednesday, is a good time to let go of all hindrances to “a trust beyond betrayal,” whether doubts or sins or untenable beliefs.

May I suggest reading posts from this blog (using the archive in the right rail of the blog site) as a possible daily exercise for this season of preparation for Holy Week?

Copyright © 2013 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.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Bone to Pick with Scripture

By her mere presence, sleeping at my feet as I write this, our dog Hobbes reminds me to lighten up after my last post’s earnest struggling with the Book of Revelation. For me, she truly is one of those “thin places” of Celtic spirituality through which I glimpse heaven on earth.

And I repeatedly witness that she does the same for others. When she rides in the car with me while out running errands, she often elicits a smile from those we pass. For a moment they transcend their stress and preoccupations and the traffic and enter a place of joy, good humor, and tenderness, like a child glad to be given a new stuffed animal. At first I think they are smiling at me, and then I realize it’s my passenger of the canine persuasion sitting attentively in the front seat.  I don’t mind basking in the overflow of goodwill she generates.

A neighbor along our route home after walking in Grant Park has two bumper stickers on his truck: “I BELIEVE IN DOG,” says one, and “DOG IS MY CO-PILOT” says the other. And it’s true, I do believe in Hobbes, and she is definitely my anamchara, or soul friend, also from Celtic Christianity. She’s a very good listener, puts up with my singing, and is always looking out for me.  In turn, I take pleasure in her snoring, her big round eyes (alternately wistful, pitiful, or ecstatic, working her wiles), her sloppy wet ear kisses, and her nosing the doorknob when it’s time to go out.

That’s why I was shocked, toward the end of  Revelation, to discover it said of the New Jerusalem come down from heaven, that “Others must stay outside: dogs, fortune tellers, and the sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters, and everyone of false speech and false life” (22:15). And there was no footnote explaining the reference to dogs in the New Jerusalem Bible I was reading!

I immediately thought of what I remember as an old Twilight Zone episode, a story that not long ago found new life on the internet, about a man who refuses to enter heaven’s gate without his dog, only to find the true heaven’s gate further down the road and that the gate he resisted entering was, in fact, “the other place.” The true heaven welcomed man and dog.

In her early life, when I was out of town, Hobbes’s favorite dog sitters were both transgender. One was a Muslim, and I had to be careful scheduling around the holy month of Ramadan, when he could not be around a dog during daylight hours. Religion sometimes considers dogs “unclean,” and I wondered if that were the origin of the taboo in Revelation.

So I checked the Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version. It, too, listed “dogs” as unwelcome in the New Jerusalem, but this time a footnote clarifies it meant, “impure, lascivious persons,” though it also references Philippians 3:2, where dogs referred to those who insisted on circumcision—in other words, those who were religious purists, the fundamentalists of their time.

Hobbes’s companion, Calvin, who passed on in San Francisco when I served a church there as an interim pastor, wrote “On Dogs in Scripture” in his book Unleashed: The Wit and Wisdom of Calvin the Dog. Calvin noted that dogs were “not positively portrayed in the scriptures of various religions,” but “associated with depravity, paganism, heresy, enemies, and the lowest of the low.” Then he pointed out, “Jesus said not to give us what’s holy, but agreed, at least, that we had a right to eat the crumbs that fall from our master’s table.” He continued:

This last reference must serve as the can-opener [Canine for hermeneutic, or method of interpretation] to reveal God’s intentions with regard to dogs. Canine prejudice abounded when most religious canons were written. Surely this admittedly fleeting reference to our right to whatever falls from our masters’ tables gives dogs new status in scriptural dogma. Only those who don’t like us would use the other scriptures against us. And, reading scriptures as a whole, it’s clear that God is usually on the side of the underdog, and there’s nothing more ‘under’ than us dogs! (60-61).

Calvin sat in the back seat of the car when Hobbes joined our family. But he took a back seat to no one when it came to biblical interpretation.

For more excerpts from Calvin’s book, click here.

Other posts about Hobbes or Calvin:

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Photos and words Copyright © 2013 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.