Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Justice: Delightful Pleasure or Grim Duty?

Given challenging political times, I believe liberals and progressives need to reconsider our strategies to be effective.

Anyone who has read my books or this blog probably knows I believe people are best motivated by the pleasure principle. Better, in the words of The One Minute Manager, to “catch somebody doing something right” than “catch somebody doing something wrong.” Best, in the view of Pollyanna, to know and proclaim there are more blessings than curses in The Bible.

Many of us got so “judged” by the biblical god that we turn around and judge others harshly too.  And this is not just those who are fundamentalist or biblical literalists; liberals and progressives do it too. A progressive friend of mine once said that the word “justice” had become a weapon that we use on those we believe don’t measure up to our standards. And I’ve written before that progressives and liberals can have our own fundamentalism.

Two weeks ago I wrote of multiculturalism and multinationalism as a pleasurable thing, explaining how my spouse and I “delight in finding out the origins of someone’s name, or accent, or heritage.” I added, “This is the pleasure of a multicultural, multinational world.”  I was attempting to lead all of us out of a fear-based nativism by presenting a positive case for welcoming others—into our countries, into our lives, into our neighborhoods and homes.

Admittedly I had intentionally tweaked the beak of those who consider it a “micro-aggression” to ask “Where are you from?” I said as much in the first paragraph.

On one of the progressive Christian Facebook pages where I post the link to my blog posts, I was taken to task by someone—white and well-informed—for my “racist” assumptions that clearly came from my “white privilege.” Ironically, my intention had been to address a nativist rant, and I had referred to white privilege that shields many of us from its sting.

In several back-and-forth volleys, I explained that I exercise discretion in discovering someone’s origins, just as I do in conversation with someone who may not be “out” as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

But the point of my post was to help others see that multiculturalism can be fun, not just an exercise in a dry diversity training program, not just a grim duty that justice or God requires of us.

There are times when justice may be a grim duty. Even then it can feel good to do what’s right. But if it is most often or always a grim duty, then we might wonder at our motives for pursuing it. If it is not also a delightful pleasure, then we might question our character or values or personalities.

Multiculturalism doesn’t exist for my pleasure or delight, I was told. Now, I have wondered about a kind of cultural imperialism whereby a dominant culture appropriates habits and customs and dress and wisdom of other cultures. As a Hispanic, third-generation Californian friend of mine observed, witnessing a white minister in traditional African garb, “Why do you guys have to take on other people’s cultures?”

My Facebook opponent ultimately retorted with her own brand of “micro-aggression”:  “Check your privilege.”

Weeks ago I considered writing a post about white privilege, but didn’t get beyond my opening illustration. As Wade and I took one of our neighborhood walks, it occurred to me that even in our multiracial community, if we weren’t white, we might be regarded suspiciously as we pointed out features of a house or its yard.

We all have the privilege of welcoming those different from ourselves and celebrating those differences. I do not do it simply because it’s “right” or “just” or “liberal” or “progressive,” I do it because it is beneficial, healthy, wise, and wonder-full. And dare I say it? Pleasurable!

Think what a better world we’d have if everyone felt that way.


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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Grunion and Grace

Photo thanks to Haris Lakisic at Grunion.org

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With a pickup load of high school friends I traveled to a beach designated a likely site for a grunion run. Grunion are silvery fish that come ashore at this time of year along the Southern California coastline to lay and fertilize thousands of eggs (per couple!) in the sand before they catch the next wave out to sea.

Hundreds of people were gathered on that beach that night, excitedly awaiting the spectacle. Many had buckets for our catches, as I recall, though I’m not sure we intended to do anything with the fish afterward. But the grunion never showed. Maybe the noise and campfires of the partiers signaled them this was not a good place for their mating ritual.

Another group did catch one lonely grunion, however, and generously turned it over to our group so we didn’t go home empty-handed. We all piled into the back of our old pickup for the return home, not entirely disappointed, as the whole point was to spend time together as friends on the beach under a starry night.

Flash forward more than a decade. Back in California after seminary in New Haven and a campus ministry internship in Philadelphia, I was serving a ministry that challenged the church’s long held grudge against LGBT people.

Given the earnest nature of my work, I was held in balance for a while by a very funny boyfriend. Bob Barnes had joined the migration of would-be comics from the Midwest (Ohio, specifically) to try his luck at onstage improv comedy. He could make me LOL before that was a texting cliché.

For example, watching on television the flamboyant and lisping evangelist Ernest Angley lay hands on followers who announced their particular need of healing, one approached wearing a loud red plaid blazer with neon green pants. “Oh God, give me taste,” Bob  mocked.  Once, receiving Communion, the priest eyed him suspiciously. “You Catholic?” he questioned. “From cradle to grave,” Bob quipped without missing a beat. Bob’s friends, also comics, referred to me as “the Pope” because of his upbringing.

Bob also had a romantic side. We had dinner one evening at a popular seafood restaurant beside the beach on the southern end of Malibu. Afterward we walked alone along the shore as the waves crashed at our feet. We began noticing silver flashes, which at first I speculated to be plankton in the sand, a phenomenon I’d experienced before in which I could kick the sand with my foot and see phosphorescent sparks, reminiscent of Disney animation of fairy dust from a wand.

Then we realized it was grunion coming ashore, a few at first, and then by the hundreds. The crashing waves were full of them and then the beach was covered with writhing, copulating grunion as far as we could see in the moonlit night. Bob and I shared a look of absolute delight as we stood there, transfixed by this natural wonder that neither of us had ever seen and would never see again.

The last time I saw Bob was when I spoke on a college campus in Ohio, where he had returned, now living with AIDS. For our visit, he had put together an elaborate platter with a variety of cheeses and roasted vegetables, my first time eating roasted garlic. We had a wonderful visit, his easy smile and laughter, as always, uplifting my spirit. After his death I would learn from his partner that they had spent his final days in a treatment facility along the shore where they could hold each other watching the sun set over Lake Erie.

When I decided to write this post after reading a recent article on grunion, I intended to suggest that Bob and I had an experience of grace that night serendipitously happening onto grunion running ashore, contrasting it with the unsuccessful effort with my high school friends to witness such a miracle.

But as I finish this post, I realize everything mentioned was an experience of grace: my friends in youth gathered in anticipation; my opportunities participating in ministry and in a movement; the smiles and laughter that Bob gave freely and prompted easily; the remembered glowing sparks of plankton in sand; our dinner and walk and conversation along the shore as well as the silver flashes of flopping grunion; our last visit and the platter Bob so painstakingly prepared; the lover that held Bob in his final days and the sunsets they shared; and now, my memories of all of these.


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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Go Back to Your G--D--- Country!"

In some perhaps too tightly wound circles, it is considered a “micro-aggression” to ask “Where are you from?” or “Where are your ancestors from?” The prejudice of those who think this way is that the questioner has a hostile intent.

But Wade and I delight in finding out the origins of someone’s name, or accent, or heritage. This is the pleasure of a multi-cultural, multi-national world.

Lazy Eye, a recent gay film, mentions the classic Harold and Maude. The unusual relationship between a morbid young man and a vivacious old woman—a Holocaust survivor, no less—contains a scene in which they are walking among daisies as she explains her love for flowers. He grimly observes, “They’re all the same.”

“No, each one is different,” she points out, naming how so.  “Much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this,” as she holds up one daisy, “but allow themselves to be treated like that.” As she gestures broadly, the camera pulls back to show them sitting in a veterans cemetery covered with identical grave markers.

I would say that too many of us have a “lazy eye” when it comes to appreciating differences and diversity.

Nelson Mandela insisted on a staff that mirrored the diversity of the new South Africa when he became its president. He and the people he represented had more than a little right to exclude those Europeans who had come to their country and excluded them from rights, privileges, and participation in government. But he insisted on modeling the necessary collegiality among the races to bring his post-apartheid nation together.

This was brought home to me as I read the memoir of an Afrikaner whom he chose as his personal assistant, Zelda la Grange. The book, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, was lent to me by the twin sister of one of our close friends. They are themselves Afrikaners, but she resides in South Africa, while he is a naturalized citizen of the United States.

A few weeks ago, Wade and I were enjoying drinks and dinner out with him when he described an incident at a market here in Atlanta.  He was checking out, and his order included the last banana cluster on the shelves. “Are you going to take those bananas?” an older woman behind him in line questioned. Taken aback by her accusatory tone, our ever polite friend explained in his accented English, “Yes, but I’m sure they have more in the back.”

Angered, she stormed off, admonishing him, “Go back to your goddamn country!”

“Go back to your goddamn country!”

He said he was stunned beyond belief.  “Why would bananas be so important?” he wondered, aghast.

Mocking her rhetoric, this became the toast of the evening. More than once, we lifted our glasses, laughing, saying in unison, “Go back to your goddamn country!”

Admittedly her nativist rant was less damaging to three privileged white men, but still, to a foreign born citizen like our friend, it must have stung.

In that moment, she proved herself to be less of an American than our friend.


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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Jesus, A New Adam

Jesus as the new Adam is a trope familiar to Christianity since Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians. It has come to be reinterpreted by others, and perhaps what I present here has already been imagined, as anyone reading this blog knows my knowledge is limited. But I want to offer what meaning came to me as I grappled with the notion of Jesus “dying for my sins” during this recent Holy Week.

I have flat out written on this blog that the God who is worthy of my devotion would never require the death of any kind of scapegoat as a stand-in for me taking responsibility for my own sins.

But I have also written that the sacrificial love represented in the story of the cross mythologically conveys the absolute and eternal depths of God’s compassion. Many theologians have focused on the concept of God dying on the cross rather than “his only son,” taking the onus of a demanding, bloodthirsty God off the table. And anyone who has had a terrible sin to forgive of another knows the suffering such compassion entails.

Longtime readers may remember that one of my Holy Week practices is to read one chapter each day of a short book, The Temple of God’s Wounds, in which the narrator visits a mythological monastery at a turning point in his life. I’ve written that I overlook his transactional understanding of atonement to contemplate other, deeper spiritual wisdom contained therein.

This time I focused on how difficult it is for him (and  for me) to face that which is absolutely holy. I understand better the “mysterium tremendum,” the “terrible” face of God or, as the OED adds in its definition, of existence itself.

During our last visit shortly before his death, an elderly dedicated churchman and beloved professor surprised me by his sudden tears and seemingly non-sequitur confession, saying something like, “I hope dear old Mother Church can forgive me for any embarrassment I’ve caused her.” I don’t think this was prompted solely by his having been a closeted gay man.

Age may make us aware how far we have fallen short, not only of the glory of God, but of the glory of being a child of God, because I found during Holy Week that, along with the writer of The Temple of God’s Wounds,  I felt such a need for forgiveness! Now, I know, as an introvert, that even the good I may do can embarrass me; but I’ve done plenty of things I’d prefer not to have in my eulogy!

I have a depiction, acquired in Egypt, of a Pharaoh being weighed on scales opposite a feather. The tradition was that if the Pharaoh’s heart was heavier than a feather, he could not enter eternity.  Few if any of us could pass such a test!

I have been reading The Islamic Jesus by Mustafa Akyol. A reader and contributor to my blog had asked me if there was a book I was eager to have in my library. Having just read a review of this book, that’s what I asked for. What’s remarkable to me is that the Qur’an, while not supporting Jesus’ divinity, reveres him as a prophet, like Moses and Muhammad. The writer suggests that this was the view of the Jerusalem church and its Jewish Christians led by James, and represented in Christian scriptures by the epistle of James, which does not refer to the divinity of Jesus and famously includes, “Faith without works is dead.” This contrasts with other Christian emphases on mere belief, and specifically belief in Jesus’ divinity and substitutionary atonement.

Thus I realized that progressive Christians have that in common with the early Jewish Christians, not to mention Muslims and Jews. We may or may not hold to Jesus’ divinity, and consider that doing justice and practicing charity and showing mercy are what the Lord (i.e. God) requires of us.

For me as a progressive Christian, Jesus is the “new Adam”—not the innocent and perfect and beautiful (and initially sexless) Ken and Barbie doll of Adam and Eve; rather the tried and tested, unappealing and vulnerable and wounded one, acquainted with sorrows and grief, the bearer of the sins and injustices of the world—political, religious, and personal. Treasonous and blasphemous, betrayable and deniable, because compassion was all he held dear.

Thus he knows the trouble I’ve seen, the trouble I’ve gotten into, and the trouble I’ve caused, not just personally but throughout the world. He is the real human being that Adam and Eve could not even imagine in their innocence and privilege. They were rough drafts, prototypes, not as fully human.

So when Jesus prays, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” it seems genuine, true, and possible.


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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Resurrection Today - Part Two

Today’s post is adapted from the chapter, “Healing AIDS,” in my book, Come Home: Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians (Harper & Row 1990, Chi Rho Press 1998).

During one Holy Week, I found myself immersed in grief at the widespread experience of death from AIDS in our community. A close friend infected with HIV and searching for spiritual hope commented on a 1989 Newsweek survey, “If half the clergy doesn’t believe there’s an afterlife, why should we?”

My pastor’s sermon on Easter Sunday was the kind of sermon I would have given, the kind that I have given in the past. Humorously confessing a desire to avoid heresy and controversy, she chose not to discuss whether there was a physical or spiritual resurrection of Jesus.

Instead, she focused on the question put to Mary Magdalene as she wept in the garden of his tomb. Jesus asked her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Mary’s grief blinded her at first to a vision of a living Christ. I recognized the connection with my present grief that was blinding me to a living God who is “God of the living, for all live to God,” in the words of Jesus refuting those who didn’t believe in resurrection.

Though my pastor’s Easter sermon was excellent, provocative, and comforting, it did not make me celebrative that day. Who was my friend infected with HIV looking for, and whom did I seek? Someone who would tell us that God loved us, loved us eternally, gave us life eternal.

My lover and I walked along the cliffs and beach of Santa Monica that afternoon. Santa Ana winds had cleared the sky, and the air was cold and crisp, the sea blue and choppy. But, unlike previous walks in this flood of God’s natural grace, the beauty did not heal my troubled soul.

At the end of our walk, we entered a bar named the S. S. Friendship to get some warming coffee. This had once been the gay writer Christopher Isherwood’s neighborhood hangout.  Sitting down, I looked across the room at a vaguely familiar face. “John?” I said, just as he asked, “Chris?”

We had not seen each other for over five years. Typically, on seeing an old friend in our community, I thanked God to find him still alive. George and I invited him and his friend to join us. He seemed relaxed and content, and I was happy to discover that he had been with a lover for five years with whom he had bought a home. With so much death in our neighborhood, I enjoyed finding him well and happy and in a relationship.

He shared his spiritual journey. He reminded me that he had begun as a Catholic. I remembered that he had been a Lutheran shortly before joining the Presbyterian Church. Now he told us that most recently he’d been attending the Church of Religious Science.

“I got something I needed in each church, without getting involved in the garbage of each denomination,” he admitted. I envied, admired, and resented his ability to avoid the garbage, myself feeling buried in the Presbyterian refuse of committee meetings, petty bickering, and outrageous injustice toward gays and lesbians.

As I asked him about his lover, he said simply, “He died last week.” “AIDS?” I asked, astounded that even this idyllic picture could be shattered. “Yes,” he said. “He was diagnosed two years ago, and he used what time he had left to help others. It was wonderful to see. We had a good time together. I have no regrets. He died in my arms. I felt him leave his body. That’s why I’m sure I’ll see him again.”

As we later took our leave and I hugged John goodbye, I whispered in his ear, “Thank you for giving me the Easter message I needed to hear today.” I had somehow heard the gospel in a gay bar. Just as Mary had been called by name and thereby recognized the risen Christ, so I had been called by name and thereby witnessed a resurrection.



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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Resurrection Today - Part One

Beverly Wildung Harrison was a delightful twentieth century theologian that I held in high esteem. Our paths crossed occasionally, but the first encounter I remember distinctly was a cocktail party near New York’s Union Theological Seminary where she taught. I was finishing my service on a Presbyterian Task Force on Homosexuality that was split on the ordination of “avowed, practicing homosexuals.”

She laughingly asked me if it was true that a member of the opposition on the task force had been paid a million dollars to serve as consultant on a film about the antichrist, The Omen. It was the first I had heard of it. She was right about the consulting, I later discovered, but the compensation was greatly exaggerated.

I tell the story to set in context a later conversation we had over brunch when I served a congregation in West Hollywood. A relative of hers, knowing her as a renowned feminist and body theologian, had been quizzing her about whether she believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Finally, with her usual “cut-to-the-chase” practical style, she said to him, “Really, does it matter to you, living in the twentieth century, whether Jesus’ resurrection was a physical or spiritual encounter?” He allowed as to how it didn’t; that a spiritual experience of Jesus’ presence was satisfying enough.

One of my college professors recounted his ordeal seeking ordination before a church committee determined to discover if he shared their understanding of resurrection. “Tell me this,” one queried, “if you were present at the tomb on that first Easter morning with a Polaroid camera, would you have been able to take a picture of Jesus coming out of the tomb?” The professor thought a moment, then replied, “Yes, but only if the camera were equipped with the lens of faith!”

As Christians, we stumble over the resurrection when we confuse a confession of faith for a statement of historical fact. It is when we treat matters of faith as matter-of-fact that we miss the mystery, the meaning, and the extraordinariness of our faith. Peter pointed out that only people of faith were given sight of the resurrected Jesus: “God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses” (Acts 10:40-41).

From the first Easter, Christians have held different views on the nature of the resurrection. The author of the gospel of John apparently believed that Jesus’ body was transformed spiritually, leaving his shroud in place. Several resurrection stories in the other gospels confirm this physical transcendence, reporting Jesus’ request not to be held, his appearance through locked doors, and his disappearance after breaking bread.

Others suggest Jesus’ bodily presence as he eats with the disciples or encourages Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and his side. The latter story combines physical presence and mystical vision, for though the disciples are able to touch Jesus, he appears in their midst through locked doors.

With all these variant descriptions of the resurrection, it’s safe to say Jesus’ first followers were not nailed down to a bodily interpretation! If the early Christians were not of one mind as to the nature of Jesus’ resurrection, why should Christians today expect uniformity of belief?


Watch for next week’s post, “Resurrection Today - Part Two.” The final five paragraphs of today’s post are adapted from the chapter, “Manifesting Christ’s Glory,” in my book, Come Home: Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians (Harper & Row 1990, Chi Rho Press 1998).

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Futuring

Jesus' agony in the garden may be seen 
in the twisted trees of Gethsemane.

I once witnessed someone become distressed when it was suggested that Jesus might have been able to tell his disciples on which side of the boat to cast their nets because he could see a school of fish from his vantage point on the shore. For that person, it “destroyed” the miracle.

And a 7th grade teacher at my fundamentalist school got very upset when my oral book report included a character’s thought that the food with which Jesus fed the multitude might have been food that the crowds had brought but kept hidden lest they be expected to share. For her, it became less of a “miracle.”

That Jesus had the common sense of a fisherman to look for a dark patch near the surface of the water and the prescience to know his followers would share what food they had are, to me, examples of “futuring,” having knowledge of what is to come. And such abilities are often associated with contemplation, serious thought about the nature of things, as well as practical application of ancient and modern wisdom.

Some of you will be relieved to know that this may be my last reference to Teilhard de Chardin’s The Future of Man, which I’ve been reading during morning prayer. This has not been my only source of meditation, as I am usually reading several books during any given period. But it has both lifted me up and caused a “downcast spirit within me” as I’ve considered his optimistic view in the light of so much distressing news in this and other countries.

But as a Jesuit and a paleontologist, he shares the long view of human history. He sees the future in terms of our evolutionary past, that what took millions of years to evolve may still have millions of years to mature and further evolve. That he could do so in the midst and aftermath of two world wars suggests we may share his faith in the future in our own difficult times.

In a sense, he too sees the fertile “dark patch in the water” that Jesus saw, and has the prescience to know we already hold the resources to address our common human concerns, just as Jesus had by providing food to eat and food for thought to a multitude.

Which brings us back to Jesus, our exemplary contemplative, whose time in the wilderness and whose prayers in lonely places gave him perspective and hope. He could see a realm beyond religion and Israel and Rome, a “kingdom not of this world” yet “in the world” and “among us” when healing and reconciliation occur, where mercy and grace are experienced, and as compassion informs our every choice, political and spiritual.

He saw those who needed “catching” for this new world (“the harvest is plentiful, but the harvesters are few”), and knew offering his own “loaves and fishes” would prompt others to share ours. He warned of trials and tribulations to come, foreseeing his own martyrdom and that of his followers, while promising to be with us through the ages.

One could say that his “last supper” with his loved ones served also as the “first supper” of the world to be, as he offered meaning to what was to come this holy week and the means by which to hold the community together afterward, by remembering through shared bread and wine, rituals and words. A recent social science study reveals that shared ritual increases trust even among strangers.

These six Wednesdays I have offered memes of contemplative prayer and of contemplative life. I consider myself a “contemplative-wannabe,” wanting to incorporate these practices into my life more and more: remembering, solitude, unceasing prayer, holding myself “in quiet and silence,” spiritually struggling like the psalmists, recognizing the sacred everywhere and in everyone and in everything, treating life as a pilgrimage, and anticipating the possible.

Many progressive Christians hope to do the same: we realize that without a strong spiritual center we can neither transform ourselves nor the church nor the world.

Like other “contemplative-wannabe” writers, I take comfort in John of the Ladder, a seventh century ascetic of forty years, who wrote: 
If some are still dominated by their former bad habits, and yet can teach by mere words, let them teach…For perhaps, being put to shame by their own words, they will eventually begin to practice what they teach. 

Previous posts in this contemplative series:
Remember the Gift – The role of memory in contemplation
“Peace! Be Still!” – The prayer of the Desert Mothers and Fathers
Rage to Ecstasy: Praying the Psalms – Monastic use of the psalms
Altars in the World – Contemplative vision of the sacred everywhere and in everyone
Pilgrim’s Progress – Pilgrimage as an aid to contemplation

The next two Wednesdays: “Resurrection Today: Parts One and Two”

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Pilgrim's Progress

Hindu pilgrims, India

My third-grade teacher at my Christian school, Mrs. Olive Sandvig, was innovative, teaching us things like how to churn cream into butter, and inviting us to listen occasionally to stories on the radio, helping us, the first television generation, learn the power of words without pictures.

For a while, during quiet time, she read to us from Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s metaphorical tale of Christian’s pilgrimage to the Celestial City. Though Christian met with dangers and challenges and temptations, the spoken words had a calming influence on me, and to this day, I can place myself at my classroom desk with my head laid down, eyes closed, imagining the trip.

When I was spiritual leader of Atlanta’s Midtown Spiritual Community, a congregation that had left the Unity denomination because it was “too Christian,” I appreciated the challenge of talking about spirituality in a more generic way. I still had much to learn. Once I spoke of the need to move and to travel in order to grow spiritually—in essence, the need for pilgrimage, and I was taken to task by my dear friend Linda Pogue, who explained that a neighbor in her English village had never gone anywhere all his life, yet she knew of few as spiritually mature as he! For some of us, our only necessary pilgrimage is through time.

Due to economic limitations, my own pilgrimages these days are mostly limited to my imagination and my morning walks. But I have travelled widely when my circumstances permitted it.

During my first decade of ministry at a Presbyterian Church, I was expected to take study leaves, and I travelled on two Fordham University religious studies tours led by Byron Shafer: one to Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel; the other to India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

Though we were visiting sacred sites of the world’s religions, these were not billed as “pilgrimages,” but I approached them as if they were. My personal text for the first trip was The Bible, and for the second was Gandhi: Selected Writings.

Given last week’s post on “Altars in the World,” blog readers may not be surprised that the open, natural places I encountered felt more “spiritual” to me than the closed, box-like structures (as beautiful as they are) that housed religious meaning.

Though early one morning I walked the Stations of the Cross alone along Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, what spoke more to me were the green pastures beside the Sea of Galilee, the great rivers of the Nile and of the Ganges, the Egyptian wilderness devoid of any visible plant life, the gnarled trees of Gethsemane, the everflowing sea of faces throughout India, the wild-elephant-populated jungles of Sri Lanka, the Himalayas as seen from Nepal, and the colors of the stone of Petra in Jordan, which I’ve written about earlier.

Given my predilection for open spaces, I found that the retaining wall that served as the Jerusalem Temple’s base, known now as the Western Wall, is a fitting place for prayer and contemplation all by itself, without reconstructing the temple.

And, in New Delhi, serendipitously stumbling alone upon the garden where Mahatma Gandhi was martyred gave me the opportunity to give in to my spiritual emotions un-self-consciously.



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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Altars in the World

Nature's baptismal font, Hawai'i

When you’ve finished reading this, I invite you to click on “comments” at the end of the post and share your favorite/most meaningful “altar in the world.” Click on “comment as” and if you do not have an account with one of the services listed, choose “anonymous” and enter your comment followed by your name, if desired. I will be publishing your comment later in the day. Thanks!

A seminary friend, Barbara Brown Taylor, has a book titled something like the title of this post. I haven’t read it yet, but having read three other books of hers, including Leaving Church, I have a sense that its theme parallels what I write here.

The contemplative life is about finding altars everywhere. Celtic “thin places” where heaven shows itself on earth. Creatures who, much like Meister Eckhart’s caterpillar, are so full of God a sermon is unnecessary. Leonard Cohen’s broken places that let the light shine in. Strangers who are angels unawares. The “least of these” who are Christ himself. People who, as in Thomas Merton’s epiphany at a city intersection, do not realize they are walking around “shining like the sun.” Maya Angelou’s “caged bird,” Ruben Alves’s datesRumi’s beloved guide ShamsMother Teresa’s “Christ in a distressing disguise.” 

For a contemplative like Hildegard of Bingen, music is another altar: “a person often sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of the celestial harmony.”

Etty Hillesum, who was to die at Auschwitz, might smile to be considered a contemplative, but who but a contemplative could observe the following in Nazi-occupied Holland, when Jews were forced to wear yellow stars of David? 
That man in Beethovenstraat this afternoon won’t get a mention in [the history books]. I looked at him as one might at the first crocus in spring, with pure enchantment. He was wearing a huge golden star, wearing it triumphantly on his chest. He was a procession and a demonstration all by himself as he cycled along so happily. And all that yellow—I suddenly had a poetic vision of the sun rising above him, so radiant and smiling did he look. 
In her “Spiritual Autobiography,” Simone Weil saw herself forever standing on the threshold of the church, because so much that she loved and that God loves is outside the church.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” Gerard Manley Hopkins declared, as so many poets, artists, visionaries, and mystics have witnessed through the ages.

The contemplative knows no bounds, no walls, no restrictive or exclusive way of experiencing the sacred. Altars are everywhere for those with fingers to touch or noses to smell or tongues to taste or ears to hear or eyes to see or bodies to be held or minds to imagine or love to be made or justice to be done. Anyone with any sense may know the altars of God’s presence and pleasure.

That’s why contemplatives often find more in common with mystics of other faiths than their fellow “believers,” why they find kindred spirits in so-called “primitive” religions that are more down to earth, or why, even among “godless” sciences they find a cause for awe and praise and—reverence.

Contemplatives do not have an exclusive view of their vocation: they learn from everyone, for, just as it is sometimes said “we are all theologians,” we are all contemplatives who do it more or less. The trick is to do more, to find ways to open ourselves to the altars in the world, to the sacred ways of other cultures, to the guidance and wisdom of other spiritual communities, to the diversity of spiritual experiences and practices even within our own faith traditions.

Listening is key. Self-Realization Fellowship founder and contemplative Paramahansa Yogananda wrote a song I use in leading retreats: 
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song;
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song:
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you;
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you—
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
“In this tempestuous, havoc-ridden world of ours, all real communication comes from the heart,” Etty Hillesum also wrote. Hearts may be altars as well, and listening is something we best do with our hearts.

Attending, attention, mindfulness, presence—these are our teachers, these are our guides, and these are the ways we bring healing to one another and to the world—one person at a time. “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” Woody Allen famously quipped--and yes, comics may also be contemplatives. We need more of them!

So many places to find God; so little time!


To support this blog ministry: 
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail 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!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rage to Ecstasy: Praying the Psalms

Prayers at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, 1981.

If I were to send into space one item that would explain the human experience to other civilizations, it would be the Psalms. They would serve as warning and explanation and exaltation of our capabilities.

Cross us, and we will dash your little ones against the rocks. Exile us, and we will nonetheless try to sing God’s song in foreign territory. Wow us, and our spirits and words will soar in thanksgiving and praise.

An agnostic boyfriend wanted to better understand my religious devotion, so I suggested that we read a psalm each day on our own, conferring occasionally. Soon into the exercise, he good-naturedly but definitively expressed dismay at the texts. He said something like, “I expected a more uplifting experience, but there’s a lot of vengeance and wrath.”

A retired church member whose lifelong partner died was about to go on his first trip without him. I suggested we pray the psalms together, one each day, as he travelled. Afterward, he said he felt less alone, knowing I was praying the psalms with him.

That’s a gift of the Psalms, that praying them, we feel less alone. Those who wrote the psalms were imperfect, much like us. They didn’t know everything, but they had feelings about everything. And, like us, they had multiple situations and events to have feelings about, some good, even great, some bad, even evil. They reflect the human range of experiences and emotions.

They are like us, but perhaps unlike us, they are willing to express even their uglier aspects. They are not pretending to “have it all together.” They are willing to offer their broken spirits to God, to one another, to us. They are the original 12 Step meeting, the first confessors, the first monastics using prayer as a place of transformation.

As much as they, like us, might pray that God will “fix” things, they understand repeatedly their need to hope in God, to trust in God, to witness the beauty and wonder of creation, from the heavens to the earth. And they give us wonderful images and metaphors for God: a good shepherd, a mother’s lap, the rising sun of justice.

For centuries, monastic communities have prayed the psalms during their daily multiple prayer services. My first real taste of that was visiting the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross at their Mt. Calvary Retreat House in the foothills above Santa Barbara, California. Over the years of my occasional retreats there, I found peace joining them in the reciting or chanting of the psalms. The brief silence between each line gave the words a chance to sink in, as one might pause after any line of poetry. And saying or chanting the words myself and with others gave the psalms an altogether different resonance than reading them silently on my own.

In praying the psalms, if we can’t identify with a particular mood or condition in the words, we might consider those in the world who are experiencing that mood or condition, praying with them or on their behalf. That makes the psalms at least one more way in which we realize we are not alone.

At the risk of offering a mere tautology: that the psalms are directed at the self and others and God makes them a resource of reflection and contemplation: an opportunity for dialogue with ourselves, with others, and with God.

The psalm that got me through my toughest times is the psalm divided between Psalm 42 and 43 that begins, “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.” The psalmist was prevented from going to God’s house, perhaps by illness, but the longing presented reminded many of us in the LGBT community of the church’s exclusion.

More than once I have prayed with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me” and “Restore to me the joy of thy salvation.”

And, during an extreme and extended period of multiple griefs, Psalm 73 spoke of 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” became my mantra and my discipline that year, else I would have been lost.

My favorite psalm for contemplation when leading a retreat is 131, whose key mantra is, “I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms” (NJB).



Please support this blog ministry: 
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail 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!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"Peace! Be Still!"

Full moon over the Sea of Galilee, 1983.
(Intentional double exposure.)

How easily my calm was shattered as I started to write this post! My mouse stopped working, and I had to figure out once again how to open it, and then find a fresh battery. Still, it wouldn’t work, until Wade figured out to detach and reinsert its wireless receiver.

Then Jesus’ words came to me as balm for my exasperation as well as the title I was trying to come up with for this post on the Desert Mothers and Fathers: “Peace! Be still!”

Those of you who read last week’s post on memory know that I am reflecting on six themes of contemplative spirituality, and today’s focus is on the contemplative practices of those escaping “empire,” both politically and religiously, in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Ammas and abbas, the “mommies” and “daddies” of this movement, felt called to withdraw from the corrupting influences of society even as Christianity was embraced and entangled by “the powers that be.” They were true radicals, as in going back to the roots of a faith and practice that had earlier been marginalized, persecuted, and martyred.

Today’s Queer movement within the LGBT community is culturally reminiscent of those Christians who feared the faith would lose its cutting edge qualities through accommodation and assimilation.

When today we screw up our faces (and our psyches) trying to understand how so many Christians reconcile inhospitality, xenophobia, the death penalty, sexism, torture, economic inequality, and preemptive wars with the teachings of Jesus, we get a smidgeon of the distraught felt by those who went out into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Persia to pray, following the advice given to Arsenius: Flee, be silent, and rest (fuge, tace, quiesce).

Thomas Merton pointed out that “quiesce” is so much more than “contemplation”: “Quies is a simpler and less pretentious term, and much less misleading. It suits the simplicity of the Desert Fathers [and Mothers] much better than ‘contemplation’ and affords less occasion for spiritual narcissism and megalomania.”* Quies is Latin for quiet, and quiescere means “be still.” It was about letting go of all human pretensions of self-sufficiency and control, even our drama!

For Merton, crossing “the abyss that separates us from ourselves” would prevent human atrocities: “the great travelers and colonizers of the Renaissance were, for the most part, men who perhaps were capable of the things they did precisely because they were alienated from themselves. In subjugating primitive worlds they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.”** I would think that today this could apply to globalization of economic or ideological interests.

And, of our own time, he wrote, “We can profitably reflect that modern mass-man is the one who has returned so wholeheartedly to fanatical projections of all one’s own evil upon ‘the enemy’ (whoever that may be). The solitaries of the desert were much wiser.”*** This could’ve been written yesterday!

So first, the contemplative way of life served as a prophylactic against visiting our toxins upon other people and other cultures.

It could be said that the early Christian monastics were first and foremost about removing the beam from their own eye so they were better able to help remove the splinter in another’s.

Merton compared civilization to a shipwreck, with contemplatives scrambling to shore, not solely for their own safety, but so that once on dry land they could extend a saving hand to others struggling to survive. This metaphor is particularly apt when we think of the many present-day refugees on overcrowded and rickety boats seeking sanctuary on distant shores, from the Mediterranean to the South Pacific.

So second, contemplation may serve as the first act of activism on behalf of others.

More than once I’ve used the story of Jesus and the disciples caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee as a way of contrasting our usual prayers with contemplative prayer. Jesus, who regularly prays alone, sleeps soundly in the heart of the boat in the midst of a storm, while his disciples, frantic, call to him, “Don’t you care that we might lose our lives?” Awakened, with spiritual power, he tells the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And it was so. And the disciples are in awe.

Three qualities characterize the Desert Mothers and Fathers prayer of the heart: they are short and simple; they are repeated, thus unceasing, as in “pray always,” joining the rhythm of their lives; and they are inclusive of all concerns and, I would add, of all people, of all creation. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” it is not just for the individual or a family or a nation or all human beings, it is for all of creation, for all of the cosmos.

As to brief prayers: “One phrase on the lips of the tax collector was enough to win God’s mercy; one humble request made with faith was enough to save the good thief,” Henri Nouwen wrote in The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry.+

Amma Syncletica compared the contemplative’s work to that of a homeowner: 
For if someone who owns a ruined house receives guests there, harm is done because of the dilapidation of the dwelling. It is the same in the case of someone who has not first built an interior dwelling; loss is caused to those who come.++ 

*The Wisdom of the Desert, 20.
**Ibid, 12.
***Ibid, 22.
+The Way of the Heart, 81.
++The Forgotten Desert Mothers, 52.

Highly readable and helpful:
Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert and Contemplative Prayer.
Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry.
Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women.

To support this blog ministry: 
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail 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!

Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.