Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Saturday Night Massacre

Our dog chewed on Henri's words.

Recent events in the United States regarding President Trump’s firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey have prompted comparisons to the so-called “Saturday night massacre” in the fall of 1973, when then-President Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor of the Watergate affair, prompting the resignation of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general rather than comply. A newly-appointed acting attorney general then fired Archibald Cox.

That weekend I was taking a personal retreat at Mercy Center along the Long Island Sound. One of the Sisters of Mercy that ran the place confided to me that she thought the only thing left for Nixon to do was commit suicide.

I was there because I had just arranged and hosted the first openly gay speaker at Yale Divinity School: the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Churches. It was the most “out” thing I had done as I became the first openly gay activist on the campus.

The student body president had fought to prevent Troy’s appearance, telling me that “It’s time we remembered that most of the student body here are white, male, and straight,” apparently also miffed that women and racial minorities were getting attention.

I was warned by others that attendance at the lecture would be slight; as it happened, the large Common Room was packed. Henri Nouwen was the only faculty member I could identify at the gathering, and, as I recall, he asked the most penetrating question. Rev. Perry seemed to please his audience with his genuine faith and passion, as well as his sense of humor.

My book, Uncommon Calling, described my feelings arranging the visit as being like birth pains, and I was exhausted. As a student in Henri’s course (whose lectures became the book Reaching Out), we had been encouraged to take personal retreats, and so I opted for one that weekend at Mercy Center. That fall had been spectacularly colorful in New England: bright blue skies contrasted with the vivid autumn colors of the leaves just beginning to descend from the trees. I could hear the gentle lapping of the Sound on the shore.

It happened that Henri was also spending the weekend there, preparing a sermon, one of a series of three for the university’s Battell Chapel. He gave me the manuscript and asked me to take a look at it, offering feedback. I was thrilled to do so. Henri frequently sought advice from others on his writings, including his students.

When we met to discuss the sermon, we were outside, and as I recall, sitting on big boulders, but this could be my memory playing tricks on me. A comment I made to Henri found its way into what became the book, Out of Solitude: 
A student from California who had to leave many of his good friends behind to come to school at the faraway east coast recently said to me: “It was hard to depart; but if the good-bye is not painful, the hello cannot be joyful either.” And so his sadness of September became his joy at Christmas time. 
Tears are in my eyes as I write this sentence, because to quote the book accurately, I have opened my mother’s copy and saw for the first time that she had written beside the text, “Chris was the student.”

Quite a different “Saturday night massacre” occurred when our dog Calvin ate much of my copy of the book, apparently jealous I was spending so much time with Henri’s books as I prepared my first retreat on his life and writings after his death in 1996.

It was in our conversation about the sermon that I asked Henri what he thought of Troy’s talk. Hesitant to be critical, he finally said that he was looking for something more—how Troy’s spirituality strengthened his resolve to affirm his sexuality. It didn't occur to me that Henri’s wish for more might be personal.

But it did tell me that my own spirituality had to “come out” alongside my sexuality, and that is why my talks to advance the inclusion of LGBT people over the past 40+ years have always included spiritual dimensions. I’ve gone so far as to write that spirituality is the final frontier of intimacy, and that the failure of the church to be inclusive of LGBT people was a spiritual rather than sexual problem.

Beginning next Wednesday, I will be offering four posts during Pride month (June) speculating on what the LGBT movement in the church meant, for God’s sake!

I’ve joked that if the church had not been so concerned with my sexuality, it might have been more troubled (or perhaps more blessed) by my interest in progressive theology and contemplative spirituality!  I sometimes feel as if I’m trying to make up for lost time writing this blog.

It is said that at the height (or depth) of the Watergate affair, Nixon prevailed on Henry Kissinger to kneel with him in prayer. Such a humbling posture could make for better leaders as well as better activists.

View from Mercy Center, October 1973.

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

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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