Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Risking the Brokenness of the Body, Part 1

Mt. Calvary courtyard

I occasionally took personal retreats at an Episcopalian retreat house overlooking Santa Barbara. Mount Calvary was run by the Order of the Holy Cross. As one might suspect with names like that, there were many depictions of Jesus on the cross in sculptures, carvings, and paintings.

One stormy afternoon, sharing pizza and wine in front of a cozy fireplace, one of the brothers and I discussed the ramifications of the relatively recent decision of the Episcopal Church in the United States to ordain women. I was surprised that, despite his liberal views, he opposed women’s ordination. He did so not because he opposed it per se, but because it would interfere with any hope of reunion between the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions. “I’d have no problem with it if Rome ordained women,” he explained.

I considered the many similar objections to the ordination of lesbians and gays in my own Presbyterian Church. The impending reunion of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church, U.S., which had split over the abolition of slavery one hundred years earlier, might have been impeded if the more liberal northern congregations had approved ordination of homosexuals.

So the constant cry that ordaining homosexuals would split the church was sounded even more to muster our defeat. (I believe the church would do more to keep its dwindling fold if it banned ordination of boring preachers and belligerent clergy!)

Also fresh in my mind were the recent concerns expressed over the unity of the National Council of Churches in the United States, if it accepted the membership of the predominantly gay Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.

As I considered all these perceived threats to the church as the Body of Christ, I reflected on the many images of Jesus on the cross in the retreat center. Repeatedly reminded of the brokenness of our Lord, a response to the brother who opposed women’s ordination came to me. I rhetorically asked him, “When Jesus was faced with the choice of doing what was right or keeping his own body from being broken, which did he choose?”

Paul wrote to the church at Philippi that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in our likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

“He learned obedience through what he suffered,” affirms the epistle to the Hebrews, which some biblical scholars assert may be the only book in the Bible written by a woman (Heb. 5:8). But, she explains, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Heb. 5:7).

This is clearly a different vision of God than the Almighty presented in the Old Testament. This is a God who, out of sacrificial love, leaves the closet of heaven to descend to earth and become like us, “tempted in every way as we are,” willingly living and working among us and dying at our hands—all to bring us God’s Word of love (Heb. 4:15). This is a deity who risks the brokenness of the body to call us home to God.

Many Christians feel uncomfortable with this image of God. They want to believe that God is all-powerful as well as all-loving. Our imperfect world belies the possibility that God is both. If God is both, God may be blamed for either causing or allowing human suffering.

In his book The Divine Relativity, process theologian Charles Hartshorne suggests that, facing a contradiction between an all-loving yet all-powerful God, it would be better to sacrifice our understanding of God as all-powerful than to sacrifice our understanding of God as all-loving. We conceive of God as the best possible entity, and when we think of the best possible person we know, we are more likely to choose the most loving over the most powerful. Even the Superman hero in comic books is not attractive because he is super powerful, but because he uses his super powers for good, in other words, lovingly.

For many years I found this reasoning worked for me. But then it occurred to me that perhaps our understanding of power was distorted, for we think of power in terms of possession and control. In my own loving experiences, I found that my attempts at possession and control had nothing to do with love, nor did they bear any resemblance to the spiritual power I witnessed in others whom I considered more mature in faith.

In his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus’ response to the Tempter’s offering him possession and control of all the kingdoms of every age on earth was, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and God only you shall serve’” (Matt. 4:10). Possession and control do not characterize God’s power. Love is God’s power. Possession and control is worldly power, love is spiritual power.

Process theology understands God as one whose love is persuasive rather than controlling. Biblically there is much basis for that perception. God leads us as a shepherd, challenges us in a prophet, models human life for us in Jesus Christ, influences us as a teacher, empowers us like a counselor, and inspires us as the Spirit.

This and next week’s posts are excerpts from the chapter “Risking the Brokenness of the Body” from my 1990 book Come Home! Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians, published by Harper & Row, with added chapters in its 1998 Second Edition, published by Chi Rho Press. These excerpts fit well the themes of the present season of Lent. Today, of course, I would add transgender, intersex, and bisexual people. 

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

An Unfinished Mystic

Henri Nouwen puzzles over a question.
Presbyterian General Assembly, Indianapolis, 1985 (crg)

I have finally read Michael Ford’s most recent “portrait” of Henri J. M. Nouwen. I didn’t jump into it when I received it last summer partly because I needed a kind of sabbatical from Henri for a few of the same reasons I kept my distance in real life. Paulist Press, at the behest of Mike no doubt, sent it as thanks for including some of my thoughts on whether Henri was a mystic.

Lonely Mystic: A New Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen is the most intimate glimpse of Henri yet, if that’s even possible, given his intimate self-portrayals in almost every one of his own books. It may make those who want to see Henri canonized squirm a little, though not because of any illicit affairs or theological heresies or tasteless behavior. He was the consummate “best little boy in the world” that every gay boy and man wants to be, but his calling to a celibate vocation kept him lonely and needy and sometimes, broken.

I read with particular interest the chapter on Frank Hamilton’s close friendship with Henri. Begun as Frank eagerly sought out Henri for spiritual guidance, over many years it transformed to a friendship that I would describe as “soul friends.” I had heard some of the stories recounted in the chapter from Frank himself over a private dinner when he attended my first Columbia Seminary spiritual formation course on Henri. A few other stories are found in Henri’s own books. Btw, I’ve been asked to teach the course again September 17-20, 2020, and I’m thinking I will use this new book as one of the texts, prompting intriguing changes in the content.

Though I resisted the tug of Henri’s emotional needs as well as the spotlight of having a famous friend, I envied Frank a little for the spiritual intimacy he and Henri shared. Yet I had my own life to live as a gay activist and, I hoped, a spiritual guide within the LGBT community, and my notoriety as such even prompted Henri to decline a desire to dedicate one of my books to him, at least, while he was alive. After his death, I dedicated Coming Out as Sacrament to him, an ironic twist in that Henri never came out, though Mike points out that many a gay reader recognized their own experience through his books in his passionate reaching out to others and to God.

Mike asked me to reflect on the question, was Henri Nouwen a mystic? Using Evelyn Underhill’s stages of a mystic, I saw that Henri had experienced all five, though as “dimensions” of mysticism, cyclical rather than sequential. The final stage, union, is debatable. In that context, I suggested Henri might be considered an “unfinished mystic,” never having finally “arrived.” Like the chapters about various events in Lillian Helman’s memoir Unfinished Woman or Rembrandt’s many self-portraits over the years, each of Henri’s books may represent a self-portrait of Henri at that point in time, amid different circumstances, contexts, and communities.

I’ve written before that, in the spiritual life, there is no finish line. And that the greatest spiritual danger is to believe one has “arrived.” There are no “finishing schools” for saints, which accounts for their often eccentric, countercultural, and prophetic ways. For Mike’s purpose, I used as examples Henri’s unfinished books on Adam, his charge at Daybreak (completed by Sue Mosteller, his literary executrix), and the Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists,

who came to represent complete union with God. They had taught him the vital (life-giving) importance of “trusting the catcher,” in life and in death. That he never completed this book is emblematic of Henri’s own inability to let go. Instead of trusting, he was always trying to “catch the catcher” (take hold of God).
            [Lonely Mystic, 150]

As Henri explained in Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, the flyer is considered by the audience the hero in the trapeze act, as he or she lets go of the bar and does double or triple flips midair before being caught by the catcher. But the real hero is the catcher, whose timing is precise enough to reach for the flyer at just the right time. If the flyer tries to catch the catcher, the latter’s wrists might be broken, so trust in the catcher is key. Henri compared this to trusting God, the Divine Catcher, in life and in death. [Our Greatest Gift, 66-67]

Romantic Age poets saw worth and beauty in an unfinished work. Henri was a great romantic, and an “unfinished” mystic. That is what draws us to his writing—his vulnerability, his incompleteness, his wounds. Like the Jesus he followed, he was in every way like we are.

A couple of months ago, I considered bringing this blog to an end. Faced with the impenetrability of God in Christian mysticism, challenged by Buddhist mysticism and the concept of “no thing,” and only too well aware of my own limitations, I felt it was time to keep quiet, to keep silence. But angels keep troubling my waters, and I feel called to respond. And many of those angels are you, the readers.

To read other posts about Henri Nouwen, click here, and scroll down. For those of you who observe this season of Lent, they may add to your spiritual practice.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday

“Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Joel 2:13

“We are so damn proud of our humility!” The mother of my childhood best friend said this, though not to me. She had muttered it under her breath at church one Sunday in my mother’s presence, and my mother mentioned it approvingly in a family conversation. I’ve forgotten the context, but there are so many churchly occasions for which it would be appropriate that it doesn’t really matter.

Today many of us will attend, even lead, Ash Wednesday services. Pious sentiment will be running high, a flash flood in the spiritual desert. It will make us feel good to feel so humble. Some of us will have the opportunity to proudly display ashes on our foreheads. People will speak in hushed, gloomy, somber tones as clear evidence of their reverence. Oh, how godly we will be!

I wonder if a more godly sign of penitence for Christians might be to rip up and burn our books of church polity. It could be a way of saying that, as useful an instrument as each may be, they are merely a human attempt to order God’s grace, which spills all over the place like rain and sunlight on the just and the unjust.

Some of us will respond that church rules and laws are good things, they just need reforming. I would think the prophet Joel considered the heart a good thing, too, but he heard God calling us to rend it, to tear it asunder, to demonstrate our repentance. Rending church polities might remind us that we need to repent of our order that has denied the supposed disorderly access to Jesus. Jesus didn’t get along too well with the religious lawyers of his day, who brokered the grace of God according to their own polity, the Law of Moses.

May your grace surprise us with its resistance to pride and prejudice.

I had planned to offer this today long before last week’s debacle of the United Methodist Church continuing its anti-gay policies in its own church polity. I have been grateful to work alongside so many United Methodists on progressive issues, from demonstrating at the Nevada nuclear test site and travelling to Central America in witness of justice and peace to editing Open Hands, a magazine for congregations welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, founded by the Methodist Reconciling Congregation program. I grieve with them today and all LGBT-positive people in every religious tradition and denomination whose polities attempt to refuse the grace of God to LGBT people.

This meditation is found on pages 222-223 of my 2001 book, Reformation of the Heart, daily meditations for Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week. Please use today’s post as you wish, as is advised of every post on this blog. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, which remembers Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism, undergoing temptations. For a creative variation of this biblical story, see last week’s post.

P.S. My friend Chris Iosso was inspired by this post to write one of his own that “connects the dots” of so many issues plaguing our world:

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Copyright © 2001 and 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

When Evangelicals Were Kinder

Qumran, West Bank, 
Palestinian desert, 1981 (CRG)

Christian got tired of hanging out with God in the wilderness and began having temptations to be something more than a mere follower of Jesus.

Turn these stones to “bread,” as in “money,” and with that money enjoy the prosperity you were intended to have! It’s long been believed that those with big houses and expensive cars and material wealth are especially blessed by God. You can’t live by God’s words alone!

See the high steeple of this megachurch: this will be yours—large and influential, popular and spectacular, maybe even global!—as proof of your faith and goodness and success to the world and to other churches. God will surely be tempted to reward you bigtime!

You will have political power if you bow to leaders who join you in abusing and controlling the bodies of others: workers, women, trans people, lesbians and gays, immigrants, people of color, the needy, and anyone who stands in your way. You can have all the power you need to make the world in your image! It will be sweet.

No, Jesus can’t come along. He would never understand. He had a good idea but just doesn’t know how to capitalize on it. You do. You’re better than he is. Remember even he said you’d do greater things than he did.  And such a loser! Got himself crucified!

This parable came to me in the middle of the night, as I thought about how much kinder my evangelical, fundamentalist parents were than the evangelical Christians of today. I realize, in their hunger for power, influence, and control, evangelicals have lost their way.

What got me to thinking of this was an opinion piece written by Liesl Schwabe, “Everything I Know about Feminism I Learned from Nuns.” It reminded me that many of the values I now hold and promote as a progressive Christian I learned from evangelical, fundamentalist Christians. Now, I know that many of you may have had quite a different experience, either of nuns and Catholic school, or of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but some of us at least have takeaways from those experiences that may never have been imagined or anticipated or desired by those spiritual communities.

“Jesus loves the little children,” we were taught to sing, “all the children of the world: red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” In no way does this support white privilege, let alone white supremacy. There are no boundaries or borders to God’s love; we are all God’s children.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.” The vulnerable, deprived, underprivileged, marginalized, and abused alike belong to those whom Jesus loves. And, as process theologian Daniel Day Williams pointed out, it is more vital (as in life-giving) and needful to belong than to believe.

How many times we were taught that Jesus welcomed lepers, children, women, people with disabilities, those with mental health issues, the poor, the oppressed, while, in the words of his mother Mary, “sending the rich away empty” and in his own words calling upon the wealthy to sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor! Jesus was an early advocate of health care for all and a challenger of income inequality.

We learned that Jesus praised the faith of a child, the faith of those outside his religious community, the faith of foreigners, the faith of outcasts.

And, as he was himself dying on a cross, he welcomed a convicted criminal into Paradise, surely a subversion of the death penalty.

Jesus witnessed a God of mercy that too many fundamentalist evangelical Christians have abandoned, ignored, or forgotten.

Related Posts:

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.