Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why Can't It Always Be This Way?

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

The two Emmaus disciples say this to each other, together, reflecting on the mysterious stranger who joins them on the road and for a meal. Luke’s gospel does not say that one said it to the other. “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” They spoke as one, in unison, as if from a liturgy, as if two had become one.

That is spirituality. All of our particularities, our differences, our edges, our boundaries, our isms—all melt in the presence of the eternal, the cosmic, God, love, justice, faith, truth—whatever word captures for us ultimate reality.

It is where we encounter the fragility of our own lives and yet where we encounter the ultimate and eternal meaning of our life together. Our hearts burn within us as we discover the truth, the meaning, the context of our own lives and of life itself. And to do so with another—a friend, a lover, a fellow person of faith, a spiritual community—is exquisite.

These two disciples who traveled to Emmaus have the dream of disciples throughout the ages; they have enjoyed a revelation that is the object of all spiritual quests. The eros of their hearts has been unleashed and ignited and they burn as one. It doesn’t matter who said what to whom, who said it first, whose idea it was, who gets the credit for the observation, insight, or conclusion, or who should get footnoted. Personal or private ownership no longer matters. They own it together, this most holy communion.

Why can’t it always be that way?

That’s my question every time I complete a retreat or a course in spiritual formation.

Last week I mentioned I was reading a lot of Evelyn Underhill. It was for a course in the spiritual formation program at Columbia Theological Seminary here in Atlanta this past weekend, expertly led by Underhill’s biographer, Dana Greene, with morning and evening prayers created by Linda Abel, using Underhill’s writings. These courses always include small groups and spiritual friendships, rare opportunities for spiritual intimacy.
No doubt you have had similar experiences. Soul friends. People with whom you’ve intimately and passionately connected in prayer-making, truth-seeking, justice-making, and possibly, love-making. Friends who can finish one another’s sentences. Shared spiritual searching makes us one with people with whom we may have little else in common. It opens doors to a communion hardly thought possible by our privilege or lack thereof.

I’ve learned that Evelyn Underhill’s spiritual development began as theocentric, with intellectual curiosity about Mysticism, the title of her first book on the spiritual life. Only gradually, under the guidance of a spiritual director and her initially reluctant embrace of spiritual community (the church), was her intellectualizing transformed to a more incarnational faith, realizing we are called to union with Christ’s “redemptive work always going on in the world.”

I recognize the experience, though my faith began more incarnationally and became more theocentric. Yet I find that when I need forgiveness, compassion, and encouragement, I turn to the more incarnational expressions of our faith, such as friends, family, Jesus, and spiritual community.

In their own need for consolation, the Emmaus disciples invite the stranger to dinner and suddenly, at table, their fellow pilgrim is revealed to them not as their guest but as their host, blessing and breaking and offering them their own bread as a sacrament, and their eyes are opened and they recognize their hope alive again, their passion resurrected.

Posts referencing the Emmaus disciples:

Progressive Christian Reflections is an unfunded Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

This Post Is Irrelevant!

Reading the morning paper, listening to or watching the news, I am only too aware of the many topics I might address on this blog. Ferguson, Missouri, reminds the U.S. that we are far from “post-racial,” and even conservatives are alarmed about “the cartoonish imbalance between the equipment some police departments possess and the constituents they serve” (Rand Paul).

North Korea shoots rockets as Pope Francis visits South Korea, Hamas shoots rockets and Israel retaliates, Russia continues to threaten Ukraine, while Yazidis flee the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And still unresolved is what could be called another “Children’s Crusade” of Central American children coming across U.S. borders.

Progressive Christians tend to be progressive politically, and might expect this blog to concern itself with political realities, rather than serve up “sentimental nonsense” as an anonymous comment labelled the last post, “A Church and World Re-Imagined.”

I do know that visitors to my blog increase exponentially whenever I am politically “relevant,” but I don’t purposely appeal to that, because my hope has always been to enhance the spirituality that undergirds our actions to make the world a better place.

Presently I am reading a lot of Evelyn Underhill, an English mystic of the first half of the twentieth century. There are so many of her insights I have wanted to share with you, that I hardly knew where to begin. Reading her this morning gave me the concept for this particular post.

Yesterday I read of her emphasis on the “homeliness” (in other words, the everyday qualities) of the spiritual life. She observes, “The Christian’s life is lived in the open, not in a pious cubbyhole.”

“There is nothing high-minded about Christian holiness. It is most at home in the slum, the street, the hospital ward.” She explains further that “the God of our natural life makes of that natural life the very material of [God’s] self-revelation. [God’s] smile kindles the whole universe…”  I especially love that last sentiment.

She accepts her limited role in the scheme of things, rather than “fussing about the things other souls do and feeling despondent because I cannot do them!” She adds, “We are all inclined to be a bit romantic about religion. But God is a realist. God likes home-grown stuff. [God] asks me for a really good apple, not for a dubious South African peach.”

At the same time, today’s readings of Underhill on the subject of retreats suggest we need time with God variously to “give one’s soul a chance,” “to recover if we can our spiritual poise,” and “for realizing our spiritual status.”

Referring to Jesus’ admonition to enter one’s closet to pray, she writes, “It is no use at all to enter that closet, that inner sanctity, clutching the daily paper, the reports of all the societies you support, your engagement book, and a large bundle of personal correspondence. All these must be left outside.”

“By a curious paradox, as our physical universe gets larger, our true horizon shrinks,” she writes elsewhere, so we need retreats “quickening that which has grown dull and dead in us”: 
We forget that awestruck upward glance which is the mark of the spiritual person. Then we lose all sense of proportion; become fussy, restless, full of things that simply must be done, quite oblivious of the only reason why anything should be done. Our prayers become more and more like supernatural shopping lists, less and less like that conversation between one friend and another which is the ideal of Thomas a Kempis. We can’t rest in the Lord; there really isn’t time for that. 
Finally, regarding each time set apart for God, “We do not come for spiritual information, but for spiritual food and air—to wait on the Lord and renew our strength—not for our sakes but for the sake of the world.”

My hope for this blog is not necessarily to be relevant, but to remind us of our footing to be relevant in the world.

Synchronicity would have it that this past weekend I finally found and watched one of my favorite films (1990) on YouTube: Mindwalk, a conversation on the nature of reality (that includes philosophy, science, politics, and poetry) among an expatriate U.S. poet (John Heard), a former presidential candidate (Sam Waterston), and a physicist (Liv Ullman), as they wander around Mont Saint-Michel. Still relevant!

The books I have been reading are Concerning the Inner Life with The House of the Soul, by Evelyn Underhill, and Daily Readings with a Modern Mystic: Selections from the Writings of Evelyn Underhill, Delroy Oberg, editor. I am only providing a link to the first book, as the second one, which I bought used for less than $7 through Amazon a couple of months ago, now ranges from $164-414 on every site I’ve tried!

Progressive Christian Reflections is an unfunded Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Church and World Re-Imagined

Last week’s anniversaries of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reminded me of a deeply moving visit to a church that had faced a difficult transition.

Nearly 30 years ago I led workshops for a congregation in the state of Oregon. The next day, the pastor who was hosting me took me to “his” church—not the congregation he pastored, but the one he attended when he just wanted to be on the receiving end of ministry. As we drove through the hamlets and villages of the state, he told me how this church experienced a crisis when its sanctuary burned down to the ground and they had to decide what to do—whether to rebuild or buy another property.

My new friend continued his story as we drove into what appeared to be a motel and parked in its parking lot. The church decided, he said, to practice what it preached, and instead of building some grand new sanctuary with the insurance money, to purchase this motel instead. Services were conducted in what had been the motel’s large lobby, and its rooms were made available to the homeless.

As if that were not enough, the speaker that day was a survivor of Hiroshima, it being the 40th anniversary of the bomb being dropped on his city. Some of you may know that Hiroshima was not so much a military target as a spiritual target, intended to strike a demoralizing blow to the Empire of Japan.

As the gentle, elderly man rose to speak, I was mindful that my father, en route to Japan during WW II, was said to have been saved from actual combat by the dropping of the bomb. Eventually my father saw the devastation of Nagasaki firsthand, debarking from his troop ship in its harbor. Soon, as part of the occupying forces, he was welcomed into one family’s life in another part of the country, to whom my family sent packages of goods long after his return to California. At the same time, a Japanese-American family down the street from us, who became friends, had been among those sent to a so-called “relocation center” during the war.

The dignified survivor stood behind the pulpit. He carefully pulled his notes from the pocket of his suit jacket, and unfolded the silk scarves in which they were wrapped. The effect was that of unveiling the Holy Grail.

He spoke of being a child in school when the blast occurred; of hearing planes overhead and taking cover; of being burned by the flash and bloodied by flying glass, yet having somehow survived radiation poisoning. He described losing family and friends, either immediately or eventually. He told us of the physical devastation to the city and to his own body.

Yet he did not speak of recrimination. He spoke of redemption. Having seen the horror of war, he had devoted his life to peace. And that was his gospel to us that morning. Peace. Peace on earth, good will toward all. In that former motel lobby, I both saw and heard the gospel of peace and redemption.

You might also be interested in my article, “AIDS and A-Bomb Disease,” applying Robert Jay Lifton’s analysis of Hiroshima survivors to the experience of people living with HIV/AIDS. (After clicking on the title above, scroll down past the initial page to find the article.) It was first published by Christianity & Crisis in 1987 and then in the New England Journal of Public Policy in 1988. At the time I wrote the article, there was no remedy, and so I write that I had chosen not to be tested. Of course, once that changed, I was tested. If some of the sentences in the article sound familiar, it’s because they were used verbatim without attribution in a subsequent book by another author.

Progressive Christian Reflections is an unfunded Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Communion of Sweet Rolls and Coffee

I first recorded the experience that follows in a letter to the late Bill Silver during the summer following our (with many others) successful lobbying efforts to persuade the 1976 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to set up a task force on homosexuality and ordination. Bill and I had become great friends in the process.

This became my favorite passage in my first book, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church, which is not just my story but the story of many, as well as the story of the Presbyterian Church dealing with the issues involved. Published in 1988, the book had four printings with Harper & Row, and an updated 1996 version with photos had two printings through Westminster John Knox Press, totaling more than 20,000 copies.

It was Bill Silver’s candidacy for ordination that prompted New York City Presbytery’s request for “definitive guidance” on the ordination of “avowed, practicing homosexuals.” I too was an openly gay candidate for ordination in another presbytery, and had just completed a year’s internship in campus ministry, working with LGBT people for the Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

In July 1976, before moving from Philadelphia, I took my car for servicing and, as usual, waited for it in a nearby café. During a prolonged breakfast, I wrote of my experience to that point as a gay minister. At this relatively early time in my ministry, I already found myself describing a feeling that a primal scream lay buried within me—a scream that expressed the cumulative pain and birth as described to me by hundreds of gay sisters and brothers. I felt like their vessel, a vessel of their feelings, their stories, their hopes and fears entrusted to my care; and I felt as if I would burst if I did not write out their feelings.

The café waitress was unusually gregarious and solicitous, equally generous with coffee and conversation. She picked up an ongoing conversation with a regular customer, evidently begun when he was last in, about methods to avoid crib death.  She had a new grandson to worry about.

Now they turned to discussing an article in the paper about women as priests: she said “Why not?” but he was opposed. She spoke her mind plainly, without fear, as one might in a friendship of trust, in which the parties agree to disagree. She had already learned my intended profession, so she shouted over to me, “Hey Rev, what do you think of women priests?” I said I agreed with her, that women should be priests.

She brought me more coffee as a reward and whispered about her other customer, “He don’t like women, that’s his problem. Two divorces and can’t find anyone to marry him. Not surprising!” She said this matter-of-factly, not meanly.

Even more compassionately she added, “Y’know, the other girls warned me he didn’t tip when I started to work here, but I decided to be just real friendly with him, take some time to talk with him. I figured he was lonely. That’s what’s wrong with most people today—just plain lonely, just need somebody to talk to. Well, I’ve worked him up to a 50 cent tip! D’you know, he’s a shrink? People pay to talk to him, and he comes in and talks to me for free! Ain’t it funny?” The coffee fell a little over the brim of my full cup.

Noticing I was writing, and with my left hand, she exclaimed, “I was left-handed too, growing up. But the nuns made me write with my right hand. I’m sure that’s why I’ve been a nervous person ever since! When my kids were old enough to go to school, I went down and told those nuns that if any of them were left-handed, to leave ‘em be. I wasn’t gonna let the same thing happen to my kids as happened to me! Honestly, I think you got to be a genius to be left-handed in a right-handed world.” With that she returned to her post behind the counter.

I was stunned. I believed she was speaking about much more than which hand I wrote with. I looked down at what I had written about others who had been forced “to write with their right hand” in a sense, the anxiety and suffering church and society’s coercion had caused countless gay people. I believe the waitress intuited far more about me than I had disclosed.

I felt deeply moved by her unqualified affirmation. I smiled in gratitude toward this minister who dispensed wisdom and insight as readily as coffee and sweet rolls. Her counter was at once pulpit and communion table, an integration of word and sacrament. The church needed ministers like her. The commonwealth of God had come near.

Copyright © 1988 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit distribution with attribution of author and book title. Other rights reserved.

For more on the LGBT movement in five mainstream Protestant denominations, check out R. W. Holmen’s comprehensive Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism. For Holmen’s account of some of my personal involvement, please click here.

Those concerned for Israelis and Palestinians in the current crisis might want to read my earlier post: Peace in Jerusalem. Despite what I wrote then, I have resumed following Israel and Palestine’s struggles with dismay and grief.

On today’s anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Saturday’s anniversary of Nagasaki, you may want to read my post: Acts of God and Acts of War.

Progressive Christian Reflections is an unfunded Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.