Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My "Dark Night of the Soul"

Reading Walter Brueggemann’s contrasting of Psalms 73 and 139 in an essay entitled, “The Cunning Little Secret of Certitude,” in his book The Covenanted Self (see a previous  post), I remembered how Psalm 73 saved me from my own “dark night of the soul” that followed the ending of what I thought would be a lifelong relationship within weeks of my mother’s death in 1999.

The psalmist compares our lot with the prosperous who are “sound and sleek…always at ease, they increase their riches.” I wrote about it in The Final Deadline:What Death Has Taught Me about Life (pp 119-121) and I offer excerpts here in the hopes that those who experience their own “dark nights” may find encouragement: 
I felt worse than unloved, I felt unlovable, unattractive, undesirable. Life now seemed like such a challenge that taking things “one day at a time” seemed like too big a chunk. It was “one thing at a time” for me: “Okay, I’ve completed this task. Now I will…” …

Three more friends died of AIDS that year. I worried if I would be able to keep my home or manage the bills that we had paid jointly. I endured a bad working relationship that threatened the greater part of my income. I dated people who turned out to be scary in one way or another. I drank too much. I acted out sexually. My car died on a busy interstate in downtown Atlanta in the middle of the night. Over the course of several months I had three flat tires. My wallet was stolen. The final insult came as I watched helplessly—despite my best efforts—as a fungus killed my lawn!

That year I scrutinized myself, and not just in relation to the death of the relationship. I considered also the death of my relationship with the church, called to ministry yet denied ordination because of my sexual identity. My hopes to reform the church remained, but I came to believe for the first time that it would not happen in my lifetime.

If I had been straight or closeted or already ordained or simply less visible as a spokesperson for our movement, I might have been gainfully employed all these years, increasing my seniority and salary and benefits and retirement with each passing year, plus having ample time and income for study leaves and sabbaticals and vacations.

As it was, I had little to show financially for all the speaking and writing and editing and ministry and unrelated jobs I had cobbled together over the years to survive. I am chagrined to say I began to look with envy at those whose heterosexuality or closet or prior ordination or minimal visibility afforded them more profitable positions and opportunities in church work.  Underemployed men and women find it difficult to hold our heads high in a culture that not only views prosperity as a sign of worth, but advantages it.

Even leaders of my own LGBT community treated me as deficient because I did not have the title “reverend,” even though it was solely because I was out as a gay man. And younger people who were the beneficiaries of my and others’ early activism seemed to have little idea or care for who we were and what we had done.

In a dream I had, a colleague pushed me aside in favor of a new cause cĂ©lebre, saying “You’re Old Testament!” implying the other was “New Testament.” By my opponents I had been accused of being a “militant,” while a leader in my own movement actually implied I was an “Uncle Tom.”

I had already stopped going to church, but for broader reasons than my denomination’s prejudices. It just wasn’t working for me anymore. The worship experience no longer inspired me. It did not help me think. It did not make me wonder. I found my morning-prayer time much more helpful.

I noticed a gnawing skepticism and cynicism growing within me by the second year after my great losses. My anger and impatience with the church and the government failing to recognize gay rights and marriages filled me with disgust for both. Saccharine-sweet people got on my nerves. I read most of Gore Vidal’s books, reveling in his cynicism about American society and culture, amused by his cutting remarks about “sky-god” religions. I had been quite the optimist all of my life. I was becoming a curmudgeon. The Psalmist captured my experience:
My heart grew embittered,
my affections dried up,
I was stupid and uncomprehending,
a clumsy animal in your presence.
Even so, I stayed in your presence,
you grasped me by the right hand;
you will guide me with advice,
and will draw me in the wake of your glory.
Psalm 73:21-24 (NJB)
“Even so, I stayed in your presence.” In my morning prayer, I discovered something new in one of Jesus’ parables, one that I had read dozens of times over the years and about which I had reservations. Jesus tells the story of a wedding feast to which the invited guests will not come. And I “heard” God saying to me, “Come in to the party.” Let go of your negative feelings, however justified you may feel in having them. “Come in to the party.” And that became my mantra whenever I sensed resentment, envy, bitterness, anger, or withdrawal bubbling up within me.

I remembered also the elder brother whose father begs him to “come in to the party” celebrating his prodigal brother’s return, and of the master who asserts his right to pay his kvetching servants equally though they were hired at different times of the day.

Believe it or not, this simple little phrase did much to get me over myself and into showing the proper reverence for the joy that is life, what the poet William Blake called “organized innocence” that can wonder at the world, play while experiencing suffering and addressing injustice, pray in the midst of distractions and disillusionment, achieve in the face of setbacks and failures, and love while enduring rejection and isolation.

“Come in to the party” is another way of hearing “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This was and is the gospel Jesus and his followers proclaim in our better moments. “Come in to the party.”

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized 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, September 17, 2014

War and Peace

Looking for a letter about WW II by my grandmother, I happened onto this pencil drawing I made during the Vietnam War of a news photo of an American soldier mourning the bombing death of his Vietnamese wife.

“Christianity and war are incompatible, and nothing worth having can be achieved by ‘casting out Satan by Satan,’” English mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote in a 1941 letter a month before her death.

But I’ve wondered if she would have felt the same way if she had lived to see how WW II turned out. The destruction of fighters by fighters could be said to illustrate her point, even that of citizens of warring nations caught in the crossfire. But what of the millions murdered in death camps? Shouldn’t they have had someone fighting for them?

To her credit, Underhill wore her pacifism modestly, never claiming it to be a universal path and taking issue with pacifists who themselves became “warlike” in impressing that standard on all. In the same letter quoted above, she wrote of the choice between the war and the cross:  “And only a very small number are ready for the Cross, in the full sense of loving and unresisting abandonment to the worst that may come.” Earlier she had realized that her own spiritual progress required “learning more about the Cross,” and claimed “We must accept the world’s worst if we are to give it of our best.”

During the Vietnam era, I sorely wanted to be a pacifist, but I believed there were justifiable wars like WW II. I was absolutely supportive of friends who willingly or unwillingly served in Vietnam, corresponding with them, including one who wrote that he saw his buddy “blown to bits.” Though I could imagine dying for my country, I couldn’t imagine killing for it. Thankfully, my number in the first draft lottery was too high to be drafted.

Nonetheless, I had my desired pacifism challenged in an independent study of Christian ethics by Dr. Thomas Love, the founding chair of the Religious Studies Department at California State University, Northridge. “You’re an excellent marksman with a rifle,” he hypothesized, “And you’re at one end of a hallway. At the opposite end, a madman is slitting the throats of children one by one. He is about to kill another child. What would you do?”

“I’d shoot him,” I replied without hesitation, realizing that I was not really a pacifist. My college friend, Gary Hall, now (thankfully) dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., told me at the time that the hypothetical was unfairly manipulative. But the point remains that I would kill to defend an innocent. And I understand why so many war veterans talk of doing what they did to protect their buddies.

It’s pretty obvious I am writing this in light of recent “wars and rumors of war” regarding Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Syria, ISIS, and President Obama’s recent speech. I had another post written, but couldn’t resist speaking up.

In high school I saw the then newly-released 6-hour-plus Russian film epic of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1967). The only scene I remember clearly is of a miles-wide battle in which two armies engage in a bloody fight. At first you see the soldiers distinctly, but as the camera pulls back to a distant height, all one can see is a whirlpool of tiny figures on horseback drawn into a swirling vortex, illustrating war’s futility.

I can’t claim an easy answer about war for myself or anyone. The cross scares the hell out of me. But so does using the sword.

Related post: A Pre-emptive Peace

For other posts on peace, enter “peace” in the search blank in the upper left corner of the blog

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized 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, September 10, 2014

May I Be the Person My Blog Implies I Am

This coming Sunday (Sept. 14) I will try to apply Walter Brueggemann’s concepts of “Forgiveness and Neighborliness” to the epistle and gospel of the day, speaking during the 11 a.m. worship of Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church here in Atlanta. For other engagements in Georgia and Maryland, please scroll down to “upcoming events” on my homepage. 

Whenever I read Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, I am reminded of how much I do not know. Presently I’m reading The Covenanted Self, a book of his essays exploring the theme of covenant, edited by Patrick D. Miller.

“I understand covenant in our own time and place to be a radical alternative to consumer autonomy,” Brueggemann prophetically writes in the very first paragraph of the very first essay. Amen!

Drawing on Jewish wisdom, narrative, and liturgy, he asserts that “spirituality is the enterprise of coming to terms with the other in a way that is neither excessively submissive nor excessively resistant.” By “the other” he means both God and neighbor, and the “neighbor” is the church, the world, and we could say, the universe.

While acknowledging the possibility of presenting a “false self” to manipulate either God or people (what he refers to as “a life of bribery”), relations with God or others that have a “dual capacity to assert and to yield” [emphasis his] are “liberated, healthy, [and] evangelical.”

“My simple observation is that Israel learned to relate to this God of threat and gift by the sustained, delicate practice of praise and complaint. … I read the Psalter as a dialectic of self-assertion in complaint and self-abandonment in praise” [emphasis his]. 
Thus I suggest that covenanting (and spirituality) consists in learning the skills and sensitivities that include both the courage to assert self and the grace to abandon self to another. Such covenanting recognizes that both parties have claims to make, and that one must learn the right time in which to pursue and honor each claim, and then have the confident, unencumbered freedom to move in both directions. My sense about much of theological education is that we tend to be either piously deferential or brazenly self-preoccupied, but neither alone leads to a “true self” nor to a faithful covenant. 
Further, this covenanting also occurs “within the self or among the selves,” an ongoing “process [that] admits of no settled self, because the self is always reengaging self in an ongoing covenanting exercise.”

That’s kind of a relief to hear.

You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that reads, “May I be the person my dog thinks I am.”

With its understanding of original blessing, Celtic Christianity’s version could read, “May I be the person God thinks I am.”

Well, while not exactly The Three Faces of Eve, I find myself holding in tension my progressive, Christian, and reflective selves every day, not just when I write this blog. I daresay that’s true of most of you who read this. In homage to the late Joan Rivers, she advised, “It doesn’t get better. You get better.”

Covenant also means it’s never “all about us.” Referring to five major thinkers of the early 20th century who wrote independently of the same concept, Brueggemann writes: 
“The dialogical principle” is the insistence that the self is always a self in relation, and therefore reality is at core a relational interaction: that is, no autonomous, fixed, self-sufficient self. Most radically the principle may even suggest that not even God may be understood as an autonomous, self-sufficient agent, but is always known in a relational interaction that impinges even upon the character of God. 
Science reminds us that everything that is interacts continually. Spirituality asserts the intentionality of these interactions, and “covenant” is a good metaphor for this, meaning simply we belong to one another and there’s no such thing as “going it alone.”

A previous post citing Walter Brueggemann: “Bad Theology”

Progressive Christian Reflections, entirely supported by readers’ donations, is an authorized 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, September 3, 2014

"I Had No Idea Your Blog Was Gay"

After posting the link to my blog last Wednesday on a number of Facebook pages, I took our dog Hobbes to the park, and began to wonder what I would write for today’s post. I returned to an e-mail asking to be unsubscribed from my back-up list (those whose servers do not allow Feedburner delivery of my blog) which simply said, “Unsubscribe me. I had no idea that your blog was gay.”

Surprised, I responded, “My blog is not gay, I am.”

Now I had the opening of this post, and one of my longer runs to contemplate it.

The person apparently was subscribed for some time, and I wondered what prompted this realization. Was the Emmaus disciples’ story somehow misunderstood? I had written, “The eros of their hearts has been unleashed and ignited and they burn as one.” Perhaps this was understood as sexual, when in fact I view eros simply as “the urge to merge” which drives both the mystic as well as the lover.

I remembered once, when reviewing scriptures said to be about homosexuality for a congregation, a listener asked me to turn to a biblical passage in which Jesus describes the end times: “Two men shall be sleeping in a bed—one shall be taken, and the other not; two women shall be grinding in the field—one shall be taken, and the other not.”

I gathered the questioner was thinking of the couple sleeping in one bed, so I played dumb. “There’s nothing about homosexuality here,” I observed. She responded, “You mean to tell me that two women ‘grinding’ in the field, isn’t about homosexuality?” The gathering burst out laughing, and her pastor rose to his feet to explain that “grinding” did not mean that then!

But the subscriber’s decision prompted me to think of larger issues (of course).

First, the person had apparently appreciated the posts he or she had read, perhaps even benefiting spiritually. Only when realizing their source did they become unwelcome.

Second, so many Christians throughout the centuries have been blessed by reading LGBT mystics and spiritual writers, though they may not have known their sexual or gender identities.

Third, Christians of the 20th and 21st century had so many opportunities to grow from the spiritual experience of openly LGBT Christians denied membership, marriage, and ministry in the church. Denominational publishers and periodicals initially would not publish us, Christian book catalogues would not carry our books, and religious bookstores would not stock them.

Perhaps worst of all and best of all, my colleagues and I were often forced to write and speak about sexuality rather than spirituality! (Worst of all, because of the limitations; best of all, because the church REALLY needed to grapple with sexuality—any kind, not just ours.)

We had so much to share about our spiritual experience, yet the church, for the most part and until recently, missed out, unless we stayed in the closet. Denied access to pulpits and to a large extent, teaching positions from Sunday school to seminaries, we formed our own spiritual support groups, congregations, and a denomination, Metropolitan Community Churches.

One of my reasons for writing this blog is to share what I’ve learned and am learning spiritually with other progressive Christians. It’s not a “gay blog” (though there’d be nothing wrong with that!) but the blog of a progressive Christian.

Yet the unsubscribed subscriber is not alone in refusing the spiritual writings of someone who is different: we do it all the time, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes purposely when we do not read people because of their gender, race, religion, sexuality, education, culture, politics, you name it.

I thought of a white friend who intentionally taught in black neighborhoods. Holding a little African American girl on her lap, the child revealed her distrust of white people. My friend explained, “Well, I’m white.” The child jumped off her lap and looked at her disbelievingly, though my friend’s skin is white as it comes. “No,” the child said, “You can’t be.” White had become a label, rather than the color of someone’s experience.

I think of all the labels that have prevented me over the years to attend to the spirituality of so many who had so much to teach me about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, what it means to be deeply spiritual, and what it means to be a citizen of the world.

I am grateful to God for the world’s diversity that challenges me more and more to open my mind and my heart.

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.