Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spiritual Ballet

I was astonished when I saw my first ballet performed on stage. I had seen ballet in films and on television, accompanied only by the music of an orchestra. But as I sat in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (Eugene Ormandy conducting, of course) in 1975, I also heard the sounds of the dancers’ feet as they pivoted and pirouetted, leapt and landed on the floor of the stage, a gentle brushing as windblown leaves on a sidewalk punctuated by occasional, muted squeaks from their soles and the barely audible groans of the floor boards.

It brought my ethereal fantasy of ballet down to earth! Until then it had seemed lighter than air, with moves and postures and flights that seemed wholly spiritual, not the performance of flesh and blood, muscles and gravity.

You know where I am going with this. My surprise is paralleled by the disillusionment of spiritual seekers discovering that our liturgical choreography, no matter how sublime or how simple, cannot cover the reality that we are bodies whose friction with earth, with God, with ourselves and with one another reminds us that spirituality is flesh and blood, muscles and gravity.

That means training is required. And forgiveness when someone misses their cue. And Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”

That was the case when scenery fell over with a crash during one of the premiere performances of the start-up Los Angeles Ballet. So supportive was the audience, we felt the embarrassment of the performers and stage crew while continuing to enjoy their inaugural efforts.

Boredom is another matter. When I saw the Bolshoi perform in Los Angeles before the demise of their country’s totalitarian ideology, their rigidly conservative ways of doing ballet literally put me to sleep.

Spiritual communities have much to offer, but only if we individually practice what is preached. Houses of worship cannot do our work for us.  But they remind us that the spiritual enterprise is not an out-of-body, out-of-community experience. In truth, they incarnate the very muscle and gravity, flesh and blood we need on the spiritual path.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.


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Wednesday, May 22, 2013


“Be perfect as your God in heaven is perfect.”

Easy for Jesus to say! But as a fundamentalist Christian kid, I believed this was my goal. It made perfect sense to me. Except there was one area of my life in which I would never be “perfect”: I had these feelings for other boys, not just of attraction, but of love. And such tender feelings had no place between boys in the 1950s.

A recent study verifies “the best little boy in the world” syndrome among gay men, according to a New York Times op-ed. To make up for our “deficit,” we had to be the best somewhere else—in studies, sports, stage, spirituality, social action, or service, to name a few that alliterate nicely.

Long before I learned that the term translated “perfect” actually suggests “complete” as in “mature,” I had exchanged my childish goal of perfection for a spiritually mature goal of integrity, to the benefit of my spiritual, mental, and physical health and well-being.

Integrity itself is a lofty goal, of course. And it is a lifelong process. Perfection has the feeling of having arrived, being complete in and of oneself. But integrating your beliefs, thoughts, feelings, experiences, speech, and actions is a daily process that is never completed. I like to say that, in the spiritual life, there is no “finish line.”

It was not until later that I paid adequate attention to the alternate version of Matthew’s “be perfect as your God in heaven is perfect.” I don’t know how I overlooked Luke’s version, “Be merciful as God is merciful” or, in another translation, “Be compassionate just as God is compassionate.”

That to me would have been an attainable goal even as a kid. Needing compassion myself for my “flaw,” I readily offered compassion to others. Even adults felt encouraged to share with me their most deeply felt feelings. I had a good ear. Intuitively, I was Henri Nouwen’s “wounded healer.” That’s one of the reasons why I felt called to ministry.

Listening to—at first, dozens, and by now, thousands of—people gave my call to ministry a prophetic edge. I just wanted to be a pastor, but now, I had a mission. Or, better said, a passion. Nouwen liked to parse words, and pointed out that “compassion” literally means “suffering (passion) with (com).”

At first my passion was largely expressed in the movements for Civil Rights, Peace, and LGBT inclusion and equality. But it was always felt for ALL those excluded and diminished by the church and culture, those made to feel that they were not “perfect,” but who nonetheless struggled for integrity, and struggled to be compassionate. I imagine most readers of this blog know that experience.

I believe that’s what progressive Christianity does in its finer moments: gathers outsiders as “a mother hen gathers her brood under her wing,” just as Jesus wished.

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Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I Don't Believe, What I Do Believe

News flash: My dog, Hobbes, was mentioned in yesterday’s New York Times!

Kierkegaard echoed the apostle Paul’s spiritual counsel to work out our own salvation “in fear and trembling,” and many if not most of us know exactly what that means. “The fear of the Lord” is so entrenched in many of us that we have dearly struggled to ‘fess up to what we do and don’t believe, for fear of angering a jealous deity, or incurring the wrath of fellow believers (and sometimes, strangely as insistently, of nonbelievers) for not “toeing the line” of standard Christian doctrine. I can do little about the latter, what others think, long ago taking as a mantra (though insufficiently realized) the title of a book I never read, What You Think of Me Is None of My Business by Terry Cole-Whittaker.

But it still feels like my business what God thinks of me, and I have had the fear of the Lord assuaged in me by Brother Thomas Keating’s observation that biblical “fear of the Lord” was less that of anxiety than of awe. I do believe in an awesome God, but what keeps me from quivering (most of the time) is that I TRUST God rather than FEAR God, which seems to me what the gist of the biblical witness is about. I say all this as preface to what follows.

I don’t believe Jesus died for my sins. At least, not exactly. Human sin tortures, torments, and kills people every day, and I do my fair share of causing that, either by sins of commission or omission. But a god who requires the blood of a scapegoat, a lamb, or a child of God to forgive me is not worthy of my praise. The God I believe in is bigger than that.  I do believe in a God willing to sacrificially forgive, which to me is the spiritual essence of the story.  And I do believe that Jesus lived and died and still lives on our behalf.

Jesus is not the only son of God. Remember, the Hebrews thought of themselves as the children of God. And the Gospel of John says Jesus came into the world that we all might be children of God. I do believe Jesus reminded us of our divine imprint, the imago dei of creation, and the apostle Paul called us to live up to our inheritance as sons and daughters of God—an awesome task, not to benefit our self-esteem as in self-help movements or “extend our territory” as in the prosperity gospel, but to “be the change we seek in the world” (Gandhi).

“One holy catholic (as in universal) church.”  Notice I did not preface this with “I don’t believe” nor “I believe in…” “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” I would say. I have seen this holy universal church in my dreams as well as in my waking hours. It is not confined to the institutional church, of course, but includes those “standing on the threshold of the church” with Simone Weil, and those well beyond that threshold, “the least of these.” This includes those of us who carry invisible wounds of the church’s abuse and abandonment, like my rescued dog, Hobbes, who ducks when somebody reaches to pet her because she was apparently mistreated before I found her, abandoned in the local park, thirteen years ago. For us and for her, it’s not really about forgiveness, it’s about trust.

I don’t believe in hell. What good is it? What good does it do a deity to enforce eternal suffering? Purgatory makes more sense to me. I’m not quite sure what to make of heaven either, except I’ve long believed that heaven on earth is where God’s will and our wills coincide. I would like to think that those I love who’ve died are with God. I do believe God loves us always, and in that love (again) I trust, so, blessedly, I don’t have to have a fully-formed opinion.

I don’t believe in original sin. This one’s way too easy. With Celtic Christianity and specifically with Pelagius, I believe each of us is born good and essentially are good, though we may be blemished, disfigured, or held captive by sin. Thus redemption may be viewed as liberation to be who we really are.

“Jesus  loves me, this I know.” And not only because “the Bible tells me so.” Mere words could never convey the love I have felt from Jesus. It came from my mom and dad, from Christian friends, teachers, professors, clergy, guides, soul friends, and lovers. And it came from the Holy Spirit, opening scripture to me, opening my heart and mind, and releasing me from the whitewashed tombs of doctrines that no longer resonate.

“To God be the glory.” This seems too obvious, but needs be said in a culture and church where everyone’s glory is noted in the phenomenon of celebrity. No matter how “glorious” one becomes, including even Jesus, all glory ultimately rests with God. Else, how would it be there?

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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why Didn't Jesus Write?

This is not intended as an academic treatise—scholars can research and write those! This is a speculative opinion piece of imagination.

If the biblical witness is to be trusted, we know Jesus could read, because he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in his home synagogue in Nazareth. And we know Jesus could write, because he “bent down and wrote on the ground” when a woman accused of adultery was about to be stoned. Columbia seminary professor Anna Carter Florence has pointed out that, having come between her and her accusers, bending down would have forced her executioners to look her in the eye. Maybe it was not only his extemporaneous “Let him without sin cast the first stone” that dissuaded the would-be judges, but also whatever he wrote in the soil at their feet.

But why didn’t he write down all his thoughts and parables on a scroll somewhere, and put the Jesus Seminar out of business? Here are a few possibilities:

There wasn’t time. When one sees fire, the natural inclination is to warn “FIRE!” rather than pen a treatise on the dangers of combustion. Jesus saw the imminence of the inbreaking commonwealth or kingdom of God, and realized transformation (repentance) was needed immediately to embrace it. And once the commonwealth was among us, what need would there be of additional scripture?

Of course, there’s another way “there wasn’t time,” as Jesus died an early martyr’s death at the hands of the Roman Empire, who executed hundreds of Jewish zealots on crosses. By today’s standards, he still would have had time to write a memoir about the trauma of his childhood experiences, from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents to his mother’s reprimand in the Temple (you know, as in “no more wire hangers!”). But philosophies as wise as his are generally written by sages late in life.

Perhaps he needed a good editor. Steeped in the oral traditions of his Hebrew upbringing, with the knowledge that their stories and wisdom were passed down orally through generations before being written down, Jesus might have considered it presumptuous to put in tablets of stone for the world to see teachings he wanted to test among his own people first. Maybe there were others like the Syrophoenician woman who challenged his religious perspectives that limited him initially to “the lost sheep of Israel.” Maybe the Samaritan woman at the well taught Jesus as much about spiritual unity over religious differences as he taught her. And could his strong reaction to Peter’s denial of his anticipated suffering in Jerusalem (“Get thee behind me, Satan!”) reveal his own doubts of his trek toward martyrdom?

It could be that his disciples and the early Christians and his followers throughout the ages served as an editorial prism through which to see his rainbow promise, to harden his break with the religious parties of his time, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, as well as reveal “the new thing” Isaiah had prophesied God doing and “the law written on their hearts” that Jeremiah proclaimed. There may have been copyright issues with his borrowing verses from Moses’ Pentateuch for his core beliefs of loving God and neighbor, though there was no Fox News to call him on his socialistic plagiarism. And  his lumping of the scribes with the Pharisees meant they were not likely to take dictation from him.

Actions speak louder than words. Talk about Incarnation! Jesus’ dining with religious outcasts spoke more disturbingly to the religious leaders of his time (and ours), as did his free social intercourse with women, even disreputable ones. His willingness to touch lepers, the hearing impaired, and the blind is worth a thousand of his words. His ability to discern and cast out demons is sorely needed in our own age of addictions and violence. Jesus could have been a mime and we would still get his central message!

“It’s not about me!” Could Jesus’ self-effacing deference to a God beyond our abilities to know, explain, and confine, and his claim to be one of “the least of these” whom we are to clothe, feed, shelter, and visit have made him resistant to writing what would have been a bestseller (eventually) because  its inevitable temple merchandising and self-promotion might have distracted us from our own callings to follow him in ministry and mission? Though I would have loved to see him on “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report,” maybe he is all the more memorable in his simple plea to “Remember me” when we dine with him in our hearts.

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This month, Presbyterian Promise invited me to write a letter of encouragement to my 17-year-old self as a gay Christian. Click here and scroll down to two such articles.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Jesus: Introvert or Extrovert?

Reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, was like coming up for air! Or eating an entire box of See’s chocolates at one sitting, enjoying every morsel! As one friend said to me on Facebook, reading the book was her own “coming out” experience.

You see, I am an introvert who nonetheless manages to play the extrovert—I do enjoy people, after all—but then needs a rest, alone, in quiet, probably why I’m a promoter of contemplation. Throughout my life, however, I have felt constantly compared to what Cain calls “The Extrovert Ideal,” sometimes by my own hand, and sometimes at the hands of others, including American culture and the church. For example, I realize now that preaching or even speaking from a manuscript is not deficient, as I have been told, but my strength. Oh, for President Obama’s teleprompters!

Acknowledging the need for both extroverts and introverts, Cain, an introvert, strikes a blow (though that’s usually an extrovert’s temperament) for the necessity of introverts. Studies suggest that introverts are usually “high-reactives” to stimuli, and thus need to limit our exposure. Another word that is used is “sensitive.” We need time to observe, reflect, and consider situations, people, and events prior to speaking or taking action.

That’s why I insist on a “monastic moment” of silence when I pose a question to people in a workshop or retreat, a moment to turn inward, consult one’s own experience and feelings and thoughts, before opening general discussion. My experience has been that others are quick to express their thoughts before I have had a chance to consult my own experience. I thought Sir Thomas More’s Utopia had it right when its legislature vigorously debated a concern but waited till the next day to take action! Cain writes, “Congress…is made up of some of the least sensitive people in the country” because to get elected and re-elected virtually requires an extrovert’s temperament.

That’s also why I wrote a post two weeks ago about experiencing spiritual community outside of church, what I had thought of calling “spirituality for loners.” Several pastors took me to task on Facebook, though in previous posts I have acknowledged that church and worship are worthy spiritual disciplines.  But as I have discovered the need for silence in my own spiritual practices, I have looked for more silence in worship, and when it is interrupted or when worship gets raucous it sounds to me like fingernails scratching a chalkboard. And I reclaim words I found appealing in college, words from Alfred North Whitehead, “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.”

The post opened me to pleasant conversation with Sam Troxal, a young and gifted blogger, and with a role model pastor and author, J. Barrie Shepherd. Barrie, a regular reader of this blog (I am proud to say), has written many books of poetry whose daily rhythms encouraged me to pray regularly long ago. I appreciate the fact that in poetry, pauses are as vital as words, and an economy of words are carefully, thoughtfully selected to convey exactly what is intended. In my book of “secular” poetic meditations, Communion of Life, I called poets “secular mystics.”

Barrie sent me his recent book, Between Mirage and Miracle: Selected Poems for Seasons, Festivals, and the Occasional Revelation, urging me to read his poem about church, “Why I Still Go,” which meaningfully concludes: 
For all my weary, reasoned doubt,
the continuing disillusion and despair
of this already blood-drenched century,
for all my anger at her blind echoing
of the worst that hides in all of us,
come Sunday morning, somehow,
I still find myself in church.
I have questioned whether it is the church’s “blind echoing” of prejudice against LGBT people that prompts me to seek other counsel and other forms of worship. But it is also true that the expected conformity and the lack of silence and gentle voices are also factors. And what presents itself as teamwork, collaboration, or democratic process is too often an opportunity for extroverts—sometimes with less experience and expertise, or worse, less compassion and wisdom—to outtalk and occasionally bully others! 

So I’ve been wondering about whether Jesus was an introvert or an extrovert. Obviously I may be projecting, but I believe he was an introvert. He was certainly a “high reactive” to religious hypocrisy and “sensitive” to religious outcasts. When tempted in his solitary sojourn in the wilderness by relevance, sensationalism, and power, he resisted. Though followed by multitudes seeking healings and teachings, he found lonely places to pray or a boat from which to preach. He called 12 disciples, and taught them privately. Perhaps it was the temperament of being introverts that Jesus shared with “the disciple whom Jesus (especially) loved” who gave us the most mystical gospel. But without extroverts like Peter and Paul, the world may not have been evangelized.

That may be the power of the Spirit, that gives even introverts the gift of speech. Yet it is also the Spirit’s gift to hear God’s voice in “the sound of sheer silence” that follows the storm, the earthquake, and the fire.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

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