Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Finding Walden Where You Are

I offer an excerpt from my paper for a Christian Poetry weekend course I recently took through the Spiritual Formation program of Columbia Seminary. The paper was to be about one’s own spiritual pilgrimage. 

Writing is my central spiritual discipline. Kathleen Norris considers writing her form of lectio divina. This is where and when and how I figure out the why and the who. The word “saunter” is believed to come from the practice of spiritual pilgrims meandering here and there on their way to holy sites, and that’s what I do, in words, hoping that I might happen onto a sacred place or two in the process, perhaps encounter God, or the Word made flesh, or the Spirit’s pentecostal gift.

I do not outline beforehand, I do not “plan” the outcome, but “wait for the Lord” and the serendipitous gifts of water from rock, manna from sky, quails overhead, a still, small voice or “the sound of sheer silence,” the providential beauty of lilies, the promised land and commonwealth of God, the birthpangs of all creation.

Like Emily Dickinson, I don’t need to go somewhere to witness these wonders—I experience them in my room, in my case, a tiny office off the garage with a window to see outside. I identify with Mary Oliver’s reaction to friends suggesting she visit Walden, in her poem of that name.  I checked Mapquest and found she lives just three hours from Thoreau’s paradise, the transcendentalist prophet whom Oliver characterizes:

They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!

She resists making the trip, realizing she can do so in her imagination, reminded by his book of that name:

Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

I understand her resistance to friends’ suggestions she go there, because some of my friends have suggested I visit the monastery in nearby Conyers, when indeed, I live in some ways a more monastic lifestyle than if I had been a monk! Such is the life of the writer, the self-employed, those who work from home. 

And besides, as I tell those attending my workshops and retreats, the “trick” is finding Walden “where you are,” finding the contemplative life within one’s own space and schedule and work.


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

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Sound of Eden

I look forward to seeing some of you at the Georgia Winter Institute next week.

These thoughts may not be ripe enough for picking for a post, but several encounters prompt this. Sunday I preached at St. Paul UCC in Barrington near Chicago during their lively monthly praise service. At the O’Hare Hilton that afternoon just before my flight home, I delightedly met two longtime friends who are gifted church musicians, Jan Graves and Mark Bowman, both of whom I worked alongside on the magazine Open Hands, and we talked about many things, including music in worship. I shared some of Hildegard of Bingen’s thoughts on the subject, which I had just read about on the flight to Chicago in preparation for a weekend course in February.

As many of you know, Hildegard was a visionary abbess of a Benedictine community of women in the 12th century who composed music and verse for worship. While I personally stumble on her visions, I am taken with her attitudes toward music.

Hildegard scholar and editor Barbara Newman writes, “For Hildegard, not only inspired canticles but all music was associated with prophecy and the nostalgia for Eden. That is why, she says, ‘a person often sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of the celestial harmony’” before human beings were, in Hildegard’s words from another context, “lured…away from the celestial harmony and the delights of paradise.”

Newman explains Hildegard’s view that “Music could not only express the prophetic spirit; it might even awaken that spirit,” offering the example of Elisha calling for a musician and, upon hearing the music, “the Spirit suddenly descended upon him and he prophesied” (2 Kings 3:15).

Newman observes that Augustine found the sensual nature of music problematic, but for Hildegard, “liturgical song was a medium that perfectly united soul and body.” Personally, I have thought of church music as an integration of word and sacrament, because it’s verbal as well as embodied.  Thus how appropriate that my sermon about “Discerning the Body of Christ” in one another enjoyed the context of a praise service led by four outstanding female singers, one of whom is the pastor. Hildegard viewed Christ as a second Adam, weaving the broken body of humanity into the one body which God shaped “in the primal dawn / before all creation.”

What also strikes me as I study Hildegard is that her theology of music was developed during a period when she and her community were forbidden by the church hierarchy to sing, a punishment for their refusal to exhume an “unworthy” body from their churchyard. Newman summarizes Hildegard’s adamant defense to church leaders in this way: “To silence music in the Church is to create an artificial rift between earth and heaven, to put asunder that which God has joined together.” Want often makes us more keenly aware of the meaning of what we’re denied.

Those of us who have been denied by the church because of our own embodied praise—women, LGBT, racial minorities, those with disabilities, those with reasoning brains, and so on—have our own theologies that the church needs to hear.  May we be as adamant as Hildegard opposing “an artificial rift between earth and heaven.”


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Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com.
Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

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

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why Must Politics Intrude on Our Faith?

Join me near Chicago this Saturday for a 4 p.m. lecture on “Creating Community” (based on Henri Nouwen) and Sunday 9:30 a.m. worship “Discerning the Body of Christ” at St. Paul’s UCC in Barrington, IL.

A few days after Christmas  I picked up our morning paper and, before I put on my reading glasses, I saw on the front page a child on a sled in the snow, confirmed by the caption that began, “Heavy sledding…” I wondered where in the world the photograph was taken.

As I drew the paper closer and put on my reading glasses I was stunned by my mistake. This was no child laughing as he rode a sled through snow—no, this was a child crying out in pain, being carried on a stretcher over a caption that read not “heavy sledding” but “Heavy Shelling…” as in “Heavy Shelling Reported Near Damascus.” What I imagined was snow on the boy’s clothing must have been debris from the blast.

I felt much the same way when I read the Gospel lesson for the Sunday following Christmas. After spending Christmas Eve hearing and singing about the holy infant Jesus, so tender and mild, enjoying a silent and holy night in which all is calm, all is bright, I found Matthew’s text about the slaughter of the innocents disturbing and violent (2:13-23).

Here Jesus had just been born to Mary and Joseph, and was lying in a manger, sleeping in heavenly peace, visited in Matthew by three spiritual sages from another country who brought gold and frankincense and myrrh and, in the Christmas carol, Silent Night, visited by shepherds enjoying the “radiant beams from his holy face” that meant “the dawn of redeeming grace.” The only thing that had disturbed their silent night earlier had been angels in the heavens singing “alleluia to our King; Christ the Savior is born.”

Why, oh why, must this beatific image be shattered by political realities? Escaping from King Herod, who, if he can’t find this baby that threatens his political power, chooses to slaughter all the innocents—infants the age of Jesus, causing wailing and lamenting in his birthplace of Bethlehem. And why, upon their return from Egypt, must Mary, Joseph, and Jesus go into hiding once more, this time in Galilee, to escape the even more heinous son of Herod, Archelaus, who had ascended the throne upon his father’s death?

Why can’t we just have a nice little Christmas? Why can’t we all just get along? And why must politics intrude on our faith, disturb our praise and worship, interrupt our contemplative mantra of “peace on earth, goodwill to all”? Why must we read of slaughtered innocents and wailing mothers? Why must I pick up a newspaper and see such a disturbing scene as a terrified child in pain after the president of Syria has bombed his hometown?

If we learn nothing else from the subsequent life of Jesus, it is that spirituality is never an escape—it is always an engagement with reality. Jesus’ prayer “forgive us our debts” meant a lot to his poverty-impoverished fellow Israelites. “Thy kingdom come” meant the end of the Roman Empire. If a Roman soldier compels you to carry his gear one mile, carry it two miles, because “Loving your enemies” is a revolutionary act.

“Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but give to God that which is God’s.” “Don’t be like these Pharisees…,” rather, “consider the lilies of the field.” Whether waiting for the bridegroom or your master or the owner of the vineyard, be strategic in your preparations. “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” “If a town (or church) does not welcome you, shake its dust from your feet.” “Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and come follow me.”

“Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” God’s “house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, but you have made it a market place!” All of these quotes bring to mind real world applications of Jesus’ gospel.

And then there’s the cross: a political execution awaiting our “holy infant, so tender and mild.”

So I wrote this prayer for the children of the world: 
In the name of Jesus who lifted children to his lap
and said “of such is the kingdom of heaven,”
we pray for the children of the world:

We pray for those who live in poverty,
            from our own neighborhood to those in hidden corners of the world.
We pray for those who live in danger
            of abuse, exploitation, violence, war, and disaster.
We pray for those who live in hunger and thirst,
            those who starve and those who are malnourished,
those enduring droughts and those whose water is polluted.
We pray for those who suffer illiteracy or disease, those who are refugees,
those who are illegal immigrants, those with disabilities,
those who are oppressed, those whose religion, culture, tribe, or nation distort their view of themselves and the world.

Your child, Jesus, suffered with all the children of the world
“because all our precious in his sight.”
In the name of Jesus who lifted children to his lap
and said “of such is the kingdom of heaven,”
we pray for the children of the world. Amen.


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

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Word Magic

The morning that I write this, I woke early thinking of how I would shape my talk on Henri Nouwen in Seattle this coming Friday. Some of my best ideas come to me in the middle of the night or early in the morning. Then it occurred to me that a friend, J. Marshall Jenkins, and the Dalai Lama were downstairs awaiting me for morning prayers. As I sometimes do, I got up at 5 a.m. to enjoy an entire hour alone with them, my thoughts, and hopefully with God. With coffee, of course.

It pleasantly reminded me of my visits to Mt. Calvary Retreat House in Santa Barbara, arising in the darkness, picking up a cup of coffee in the coffee room, and finding a nook or cranny or outside space to think, read, or pray—a memory reinforced when our dog came downstairs and I took her out for her morning necessaries and I saw a bright full moon and a handful of visible planets and stars—a contrast to the abundance of planets and stars in the night sky over Santa Barbara, but wondrous nonetheless. I picked up The New York Times in our driveway, remembering today was Science day, being a Tuesday, with its special science section.

And I realized my thrill—no doubt partly induced by my half-decaf coffee—was due to the magic of words. Thinking of Nouwen’s words and how my words might characterize them; anticipating Marshall’s words in his book, A Wakeful Faith: Spiritual Practice in the Real World, with which I’ve been doing a kind of lectio divina for a number of weeks, and my newly acquired book by his holiness the Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, experiencing both challenges and agreement in each; looking forward to reading the morning paper; and finally, eager to sit here writing this post and soon my Nouwen lecture.

I was so giddy by the time I concluded with the Lord’s prayer, I could hardly contain myself!  Those of you who are not morning people may be rolling your eyes right now, and believe me, I do restrain myself when Wade comes down for breakfast before going off to the office.

As if to sober me up, I happened onto a review of a novel by Bruce Wagner, who last year wrote of the “depravity” of Los Angeles in Dead Stars, and now apparently finds among “Buddhists, gurus and spiritual pilgrims” similar “narcissism, self-aggrandizement and the ravenous appetite for fame and renown” in The Empty Chair.

I gave myself up to a moment of self-doubt about why I write this blog, and in my younger years, this might have stopped me cold. But older, I have realized that everything we/I do is prompted partly by ego—how we view ourselves and how we think other people view us—and our need to be heard. In fact, one entry in psychologist and pastoral counselor Marshall Jenkins’s book confirms this: “What we think others think of us—or what we think they would think of us if they really knew us—shapes our self-concept.”

Too many of us are derailed by the snarky and sometimes jealous comments of others, those Henri Nouwen describes as trying to hook you in your wounds “to dismiss what God, through you, is saying to them.”

For me, the magic of words is that they engage me in a community of many voices, some uplifting and affirming, some challenging and humbling, even when I am alone.


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Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC supported solely by readers. Please click here to make a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!

Copyright © 2014 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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year


I miss a custom I created for myself when living in Southern California. New Year’s Eve parties left me wanting some more meaningful way of observing the passing of an old year and the welcome of a new year. I did not want to “pray in” the new year as we did in my Baptist church with us kids keeping one eye open to see the sanctuary clock silently clap its hands together on the number 12.

But the ticking of a clock or the descent of a ball in Times Square felt artificial, so I began watching the sun set as I walked along the beach in Santa Monica every New Year’s Eve. I would spend the time revisiting the events of the past year and imagining what the new year might bring, thanking God for the good and the bad as well as the possibilities. It was something I could do alone, well before the parties. And it felt more natural.

This bit of shoreline is the sanctuary where, in college, I ruminated on my sexuality, spirituality, and call to ministry. This is where I thought I’d like to be reincarnated as a seagull so I could stay near the shore and see my friends on the beach occasionally! This is where I stumbled onto a gay meeting place long before I knew about gay bars. This is where, on a day off from my church work, I would do a long run and work out on the outdoor gymnastic bars.

This is a walk I’ve shared with many friends, including some of you, and others you might know, such as John Boswell, Isabel Rogers, and Malcolm Boyd. This is the walk that Henri Nouwen declined, insisting instead that we sit down on my sofa and “have a really good talk”!

This is where I walked weekly on Thursday evenings with a partner to share whatever was on our minds and hearts. This is where we walked one Easter after worship, ending up at Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy’s hangout, the S. S. Friendship, bumping into an old friend there whose partner we learned had died the previous week, who gave me the Easter message I needed to hear, “He died in my arms. I felt him leave his body. That’s why I’m sure I’ll see him again.”

This is where I took my mom and her dog for her last walk along the shore a few weeks before she died, where she mischievously chose an ice cream cone over lunch. And this is where at least some of my ashes will be scattered.

Though I live far from that shore now, I go there often.

There is no lighthouse there, but in college I composed this poem using the metaphor, which feels all the more apt in later life: 
To Be the Sea

The sea beside, I stand alone,
By seasons, wait and search
To be discovered and to discover
In boundless quest.
The sea has all at any time—
No search nor wait.

At most a lighthouse
Can beam an instant
Before bowing to the sea.


The photo is an accidental double exposure taken by Beth Extrom, a friend from seminary who gave me the negative because I loved the picture so much!

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC supported solely by readers. Please click here to make a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!

Copyright © 2014 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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com.