Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Natural World Is Super Enough

Last week, subscribers received a link that failed to work! I substituted a better one for Teresa of Avila’s quote.

Pope Francis recognized a second miracle associated with Mother Teresa, meaning she will soon be canonized as a saint.

When I visited her home for the dying in Calcutta, a woman in front of me whined contemptuously to a companion, “Do you think Mother Teresa is a saint?” I held my peace, as this woman had been antagonistic during most of our Fordham University religious studies tour of India, severely testing my contemplative reading about non-violence during the trip, selected writings of Gandhi.

To me, Mother Teresa’s whole life was a miracle, far surpassing any unexplained healings from those who pray for her intercession.

Miracles do not convince me. What Mother Teresa did “naturally” is enough.

I’ve been reading through Matthew lately and I love Jesus’ teachings, but am put off by the many miracle stories recorded in the gospel. I believe Jesus was a healer in a larger sense, bringing spiritual healing to individuals, neighborhoods, even rivals. But I can’t fathom the “unnatural” and, in my mind, unlikely restorations of sight, hearing, and speech.

I eventually stopped reading Autobiography of a Yogi by one of my spiritual heroes, Paramahansa Yogananda, when I became overwhelmed by the increasingly magical elements of his self-reporting, though I learned in a recent documentary about his life that the book was the only one Steve Jobs had on his iPad.

I feel pretty much the same way about Jesus’ miracle stories. For a long time I’ve interpreted these metaphorically, or considered them a retrospective hagiographical portrait of Jesus painted by his early followers.  “No signs shall be given this generation,” Jesus was believed to have said, but he ironically delivered many signs and wonders, according to the Gospels.

Personally I don’t feel a spiritual need for the supernatural; the natural world is super enough! That’s one of the things we learn from the great mystics, our spiritual poets, as well as scientists.

The natural world seems so miraculous, from infinitesimal neutrinos and organisms to galaxies far, far away (homage to the Star Wars’ fresh release, wink-wink) in space and time, one shouldn’t need an interruption or intervention of the natural order to believe in a Higher Power—why, it’s as plain as the nose on your face and the brain in your head and the heart of your compassion.

Even if there are dimensions of reality as yet unrecognized by our limited perceptions, that doesn’t make them magical or supernatural, just unperceived. I for one am hoping against hope that death is but an entrance into another dimension of existence. If not, the life I’ve been given is miracle enough.

Over the Christmas holidays, watching again several versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I realized that Scrooge’s resurrection is the most accessible and believable miracle that the birth of Jesus invites. Scrooge becomes downright giddy and playful, gracious and generous, embracing life and others and causes with gusto.

“God brought you to life with Christ,” Saint Paul wrote the church at Ephesus. Contemplating this long ago, I realized how true this was for me. And it’s taken a lifetime to get used to it.

Jesus has given me a life. You too.

A reading for Christmastide: The Soul Feels Its Worth

My personal pick for “the” Moment of the Year 2015.

Last call for a 2015 tax-deductible donation! Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Donations of $100 or more will receive a gift signed copy of a first edition of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Child Who Calls Us to Evolve

Why do we care so deeply for the child born to Mary and Joseph in a Bethlehem cave and not the millions of other children born into a poverty of one kind or another? Is it because of who he became, or simply because we can only care for one person at a time?

According to “The Arithmetic of Compassion” by professors and researchers Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic, our capacity for compassion diminishes when there is more than one to care for: “psychic numbing” takes hold. Their studies reveal a “compassion fade” when one person in need is joined by another, and we are less motivated to help either.

“Pseudoinefficacy” disables donors when it is felt their contributions would be “a drop in the bucket” facing a disaster or pandemic, a study I’ve cited before on this blog. And the “prominence effect” prevents interventions to halt such things as genocides and climate change when competing with our “near-term comforts and conveniences.”

Citing the insights of psychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich from their decades-old book New World New Mind, we still have cavemen and cavewomen mentalities, ill-equipped to deal with the complexities and breadth of the world. Ehrlich and Ornstein prophesied we need a “conscious evolution” of our minds to care not only for those nearby but to embrace the world.

Enter spirituality. This is not what any of the experts above suggest, but this is what comes to my mind when they speak of our own evolution toward altruism. Spirituality recognizes our connectedness to all creatures and all creation.

Jesus understood our limitations and taught an ethic of the nearest neighbor, to quote musician Billy Preston, later set to music by Stephen Stills, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

Love your neighbors as yourself, love your enemies, greet and welcome strangers, visit the sick and imprisoned, proclaim release to the captives, give vision to those who don’t get it, comfort those in mourning, feed those in need, announce God’s common wealth to the poor.

G. K. Chesterton summed up this attitude in Francis of Assisi: 
To Francis a human being stays always a person and does not disappear in a dense crowd any more than in a desert. He honored all; that is, he not only loved but respected them all. What gave him extraordinary personal power was this: that from the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never one who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernadone was really interested in him or her, in his or her own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that each was being valued and taken seriously and not merely added to the spoil of some social policy or the names of some clerical document. … He treated the whole mob of people as a mob of kings. 
I particularly like the ending emphasis on social policy and clerical documents. Whether our goal is social justice or church membership, unless we regard each one uniquely and highly, we will fail.

Henri Nouwen quotes this in his Genesee Diary, writing, “I cannot embrace the world, but God can.

But it’s not enough to hold the world in our prayers. “GOD CAN’T FIX THIS,” New York’s Daily News reminded us in its headline after the recent mass shooting in California.

Our words, thoughts, and prayers are not enough.

Tradition has it that Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”

On earth Christ has no body but [our] own,” Teresa of Avila reminded us.

The holiest purpose of prayer, of meditation, of spirituality is that it fixes US.

It helps us evolve to embrace the world. Now our nearest neighbor is also in the news and on the internet. Our spirituality must keep up with our technology.

The Christmas story is that God wants to save the world, not just you and me and our neighbors. And we are to be, to paraphrase Francis, instruments of God’s peace on earth and goodwill to all. That should be the measure of our every act.

A reading for Christmas: Mohammad’s Child

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you! Donations of $100 or more will receive a gift signed copy of a first edition of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Youthful Exceptionalism

When working with young tigers...

We speak of American exceptionalism, a belief that we are special, uniquely able to bring peace and progress to the world. In this view, we are smarter than, better than, more prosperous than, more blessed than all the peoples of the world. These are sometimes experienced as gifts, but often, as entitlements.

Maybe we got this from our spiritual forebears, primarily from Christians who believed themselves especially called by God to inhabit this Promised Land, this new Eden of America, echoing the Jewish concept of being the chosen people to witness the one true God as well as inherit their Promised Land.

Maybe we got this from our struggle for independence and our form of government, shaped by enlightened Enlightenment values, a shining “city on a hill.” We were not going to make the same mistakes our Anglo-European ancestors did. 

In last week’s post, I used the phrase “youthful exceptionalism.” From my youth to old age, I have recognized youthful exceptionalism in myself and in others.

In my first book, Uncommon Calling, I wrote that my opposition to the Vietnam War may have been fueled in part by youthful arrogance, but I couldn’t let that keep me quiet. No doubt that also played a role in my early efforts to see the church reformed when it came to race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.

At the same time I tried to discover, as the saying goes, “the shoulders on which I stood,” those who had gone before me in the church and in each justice movement. The scene that troubles me most in a favorite film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is when the son, played by Sidney Poitier, berates his mail carrier father’s generation. In contrast, my 80+ year old mother was delighted when Tom Brokaw heralded The Greatest Generation. “I’m glad our generation is finally getting the recognition it deserves,” she said.

A longtime political activist told me that he works alongside young people who are experiencing “white male fatigue,” entertaining little interest in those who have gone before.  I myself have been accused of quoting too many dead white men on this blog. I kidded the critic by saying “some of my best friends” are dead white men, and I will soon be one myself!

Many of us in the early LGBT movement used our white male privilege, risking our lives and our livelihoods, to speak out for many who could not speak for themselves, those who were similarly privileged but afraid and closeted, and those who were already severely marginalized because of race, gender, or disability. We did not speak for them, but we spoke out for all of us.

I think I offended a young LGBT activist unintentionally by commending him for following in the footsteps of (and here I named earlier prominent activists in his religious tradition). I meant it as a compliment, but I haven’t heard from him since. Did he think his efforts were original?

Youthful exceptionalism can be as spiritually dangerous as American exceptionalism. To believe your generation has the answers or will solve our problems may be as narrow as believing that of your country.

At the same time, spiritual peril may also be a spiritual opportunity. I have often said approvingly that movements are led by their youngest members. Not having the baggage of us old-timers in the movement, all that held us back or prompted us to compromise too much, all our blind spots and missteps and mistakes—all provide an opportunity for a fresh start.

After all, we didn’t have all the answers either.

“Only with the calmness of Buddhist monks is breakfast with young tigers possible.” What sounds like a Zen saying about generational differences is actually a line intended literally from The Tiger & the Monk, a documentary I recently watched free on Netflix about a Buddhist monastery west of Bangkok that serves as a refuge for tigers.

But it may serve as spiritual guidance for the longer lived within any movement.

A reading for Advent: The Right Word

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you! Donations of $100 or more will receive a gift signed copy of a first edition of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What I Love About the U.S.A.

As I look upon the faces and read the names of the 14 people murdered during a holiday party of colleagues serving the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, I am reminded of why I love the United States of America.

I see men and women of diverse national and racial and ethnic ancestries: African,  Hispanic, Vietnamese, Iranian, German, English, Greek, Italian, Jewish, and more. I see Protestants and Catholics and Jews and possibly those with no religious affiliation.

They were charged with our public welfare as health officials, and some worked with the most vulnerable Americans, those with disabilities, including the partnered gay man who managed the coffee shop in the building and trained people with developmental disabilities.

I love that the United States is home to such diversity. Other nations are increasingly diverse and some are more welcoming than we, but I believe that our nation’s pride and strength comes from our multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-faith citizenry.

I hate that some would try to make us feel ashamed of our diversity, that some would try to make us fearful of the integrity that is the fruit of our unity, that some would try to prompt us to a “this is mine, not yours” mentality, that some would be divisive in pursuit of their political careers, that some would remove the welcome mat at the base of the Statue of Liberty. This is un-American.

The spiritually-impaired, the mentally-impaired, and the emotionally-impaired are not the only ones who need background checks; we must examine our own spiritual, mental, and emotional impairments. Almost any one of us can have a crazy moment when an easily accessible weapon may tempt us to destruction, whether a gun or the internet or a simple word of hate.

But there are those who more grievously enable mass killings: those who profit from the weapon-congressional-political complex*: the gun lobby and gun manufacturers, and the elected officials and presidential candidates funded by them. They all profit from those who resist our diversity with guns.

When I lived in West Hollywood, California, I participated in a conference sponsored in our community by the then-named National Conference of Christians & Jews. Soviet Jews were pouring into our community, and some of the elderly residents, often Jews themselves, felt threatened by their Russian “lifestyle” of congregating late at night on street corners to socialize, often talking loudly.

As I heard them express their fears—with some legitimacy, given the vulnerability felt by seniors—I couldn’t help but think they must have felt the same way about gay people flocking into their neighborhood years before.

As for me, I loved the fact that I could walk by a crowd of chatting people or go to a neighborhood deli and not understand a word that was spoken.

Of course some of this fearlessness was afforded me by both youthful exceptionalism* and white male privilege. But look today at those expressing the most anti-immigrant and racist sentiments, and they are predominantly white or male or both.

In his wryly-named book, Dirt, Greed, and Sex, Episcopal priest and professor William Countryman wrote that those of biblical times believed that they lived in a world of limited goods. Thus greed was possibly the most grievous sin. To want or to have more than one’s share was to take it away from somebody else, in effect, to steal.

The Ten Commandments could largely be described as opposing forms of stealing: you shall not take God’s image or name, you shall not take from the Sabbath’s holiness or from your parents’ honor, you shall not take another’s life, you shall not take another’s spouse, you shall not take another’s possession, you shall not take another’s reputation by bearing false witness, you shall not even yearn to have a neighbor’s house or anything belonging to the neighbor.

We too sometimes think we live in a world of limited goods, and environmentally and globally, there is some evidence of that.

But there should be no shortage of things that make a people truly great: diversity, equality, justice, mercy, compassion, and hospitality.

*These are phrases I’ve coined for this post. Next week’s post will explain “youthful exceptionalism.”

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you! Donations of $100 or more will receive a gift signed copy of a first edition of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

When Pastors Have Bad Dreams

Okay, so you may suggest I see a therapist rather than share this with you, but there’s something universal in the bad dream I had last night.

Pastors have all kinds of bad dreams: expected to preach when not prepared, missing your sermon as you walk to the pulpit, finding yourself naked in the pulpit, looking out at the congregation at 11 a.m. Sunday morning and seeing no one there, etc.

One of my preaching professors, Bill Muehl, once realized as he was about to preach in chapel at a girls’ school that the sermon he brought was the one he gave the same group the year before. Only it wasn’t a dream, it actually happened to him, and he had to use another sermon from memory, which he used as a “teaching moment” to advise his students to always have a back-up in memory. (I don’t re-use a sermon myself—I get bored with it!)

My most terrifying and recurring dream came to me when I served as an interim pastor: driving a dangerously slick winding road downhill in a thunderstorm at night with no headlights, no brakes, and/or no steering wheel!

Pastors also have good dreams: having just the right insights to offer in a sermon or talk, enjoying a committee’s embrace of your wisdom, seeing the sanctuary filled for Sunday morning service.

My dream last night was more of a nightmare.

I dreamed that there were a mere dozen in worship that morning, and one regular had brought someone new whom others did not like. There was fussing, even as I privately fussed with getting things ready for service.

It ended in a big squabble and as everyone was exiting before worship began, unhappy and disgusted with one another and with me, I suggested that the new person should be made to feel welcome. A friend in the congregation retaliated, saying that I myself had once said something derogatory about a visitor, which I denied, even if it may have been possible.

I awoke from the dream in the middle of the night feeling like a failure as a pastor. I became depressed, and had difficulties returning to sleep. Maybe I’d been a failure my whole life!

Pastors do make mistakes and pastors do fail. Sometimes it’s just not a good match. Sometimes either the parishioners or the pastor or church staff think they know better how to run the church.

Pastor or not, any of us can either unintentionally internalize a congregation’s dysfunction and/or become part of its dysfunctional family system. A congregation I know broke from another because of a dispute, but, when considering reunification decades later, the resentments of the congregation that had split had been passed on to new members not part of the original disagreement.

I witnessed that on a denominational scale when the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (the “northern stream”) and the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (the “southern stream”) considered reunion a century after Presbyterians had been divided by the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

My dream did have a sort of happy ending, however, even though the first part kept me awake wondering about past failures.

After everyone left, as I was putting everything back in place in the sanctuary, an old, grey-haired, heavy-set black man came in with his young son or grandson, hoping I would talk with him. He was thankfully oblivious to what had just happened with the congregation, but I was haunted by my old fear, “what-would-he-think-if-he-knew-I’m-gay?” Nonetheless, I was ready to help, and they were ready to talk.

This ending came to reassure me, and I hope I’m not just rationalizing. For everyone I may have failed, there were always more opportunities for ministry.

I daresay many a minister—ordained or lay—may take comfort in that realization.

A reading for Advent: Put Yourself in the Nativity Story

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you! Donations of $100 or more will receive a gift signed copy of a first edition of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.