Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Spiritual Skinny-dipping

Rarely am I given an opportunity to skinny-dip these days, but I used to love it. The sensuality of slipping into the waves on the shore or into a pond or pool awakened my body not only to my physical senses, but to my full-bodied communion with earth.

The photo above, taken in Hawai’i in 1985 by my friend George Lynch, was modestly posed and, for this purpose, even more modestly edited!  But I use it to illustrate a story of mysterium tremendum, what happened just before I swam back to stand on the rocks surrounding this natural pool at the base of the towering waterfall in the background.

For me, stripping and stepping into an unknown body of water such as this was an act of both courage and vulnerability. I didn’t know what else might be in the water and to what I might be exposing my most personal parts; yet it was thrilling and enlivening to do so. The depth of the pool and whatever currents hid beneath the gently rippling surface were also unknown to this less-than-expert swimmer.

Three times I swam toward the base of the waterfall that spewed from rocks some fifty feet above, each time a little closer, and three times I returned to the shore without daring to swim beneath the roaring, hard-falling water. This was reasonable, given that the water might have knocked me out.

But approaching the danger, I was filled with an exquisite, fearful awe; my mysterium tremendum. It had parallels to leaving behind religious fundamentalism and biblical literalism, or taking on public speaking and activism as an introvert, or coming out of the closet, or making love for the first time. There was something sacred and awesome beyond each seeming terror.

For those of us who are stripping ourselves of unnecessary religious constraints, baptizing ourselves in progressive Christianity, we approach in awe and terror a different God. Does God really love us unconditionally? Does God really live “in our neighborhood,” in our house? Can God forgive without demanding such a price as the sacrifice of Jesus or the damnation of unbelievers? What currents or creatures lurk beneath the surface that may threaten our most personal selves?

“Wonder calls us to disorientation, unsettling pathos that it is, and to new orientation,” William Brown writes in the concluding paragraph of Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, borrowing Walter Brueggemann’s categories.

C’mon in! The water’s fine!

This was my post on September 16, 2015, and I thought current blog readers might like to read it.

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Photo copyright © 1985 by George F. Lynch. Used by permission. Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Love that Does Not Die

Early Sunday morning before Christmas I learned that my first long term partner had died. It took me by surprise and grabbed me in the gut. I wanted to talk to somebody about it, but I didn’t think anyone could understand. So I’m talking about it with you, the reader of this blog. Some of you have followed my life not only during part or all of  the nine years I’ve been writing this blog, but in the decades since my first book was published in 1988 and before, in the multiple columns I wrote for several periodicals and newsletters.

It was to that first book that I returned to remember “John,” one who saw me through some of my roughest times as a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church. I first wrote of him recounting my first Presbyterian General Assembly in Baltimore in 1976 as a gay activist:

My loneliness grew from having completed the fulfilling ministry internship at the Christian Association [of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia] the week before. I had not only said goodbye to a number of friends at term’s end, but I had also broken off a relationship with a man whom I will call John, a name that means “The Lord is gracious.” … *

John, a graduate student, had sought me out for a relationship. His presence in the months that followed comforted me… While he respected and admired my commitment to the church, he was not similarly inclined, and this limited the depth of the relationship for me. On the other hand, though severely closeted, John at least was not inhibited by the church.

At the close of the spring semester he completed his studies and returned to his home in California, where he intended to become a millionaire in his chosen career, a priority I did not share. Unblinded by passion, we made a mutual and rational decision to bring our relationship to a close, since I would only briefly be in California before returning to New Haven for my final year of seminary.

But something happened as I drove him to the airport: he cried. I had never witnessed his poker face display emotion. I was moved, and fell in love with him for the first time. He was vulnerable, capable of an intimacy never before revealed. Then he was gone. Lost love frequently prompts me to write, so I wrote him a poem. I did not know it would rekindle our love, but I hoped that it would.  Uncommon Calling, p 143.

I did not hear from him at the time, but later learned he carried that poem in his briefcase for a month before responding, favorably. I returned for a visit with my family in California before my final year at Yale Divinity School, and we renewed our relationship, despite the distance to come.

After graduation in May of 1977, I returned to California to accept a position as Director of the Lazarus Project, a first-of-its-kind ministry of a mainline denomination intended to reconcile the church and the LGBT community. Because I was “under care” as a candidate for ordination in a neighboring presbytery, I was required to seek its permission to “labor outside its bounds” to accept the call, permission denied me during an unusually well-attended summer meeting.

A church leader remarked to me afterward that the presbytery was so hostile to me, “They wouldn’t let you clerk in a grocery store!” I was devastated. … I phoned John from the meeting, barely able to speak, embarrassed by my church family’s treatment, crying that these who did not know me personally could be so angry with me. Stunned and hurting with me, John comforted me as best he could.  Uncommon Calling, p 166.

So that I could accept the position in the neighboring presbytery, a special meeting was called to consider my transfer as a candidate for ordination to that presbytery.

This time my lover, John, was present for moral support. Fears had been expressed that the presbytery might defeat my transfer out of sheer vindictiveness. After an hour’s debate in which hostile questions surfaced, such as whether I were repentant enough to be transferred, the vote was taken.

Because of voting irregularities at the earlier meeting, a written ballot was requested. The stated clerk, appointing neutral people to count ballots, pointed at John (not knowing his relationship to me) as a potential volunteer. “And you—who are you?” the clerk asked. John, caught off guard, stuttered, “I’m not a member of this church!”

“Then you ought to be fair,” came the clerk’s mischievous rejoinder, breaking the gathering’s tension with laughter. Later, John told me, in tabulating the ballots, he seemed to open all the negative ones!  Uncommon Calling, p 167.

I “won” that vote, given permission to transfer, but, though it had approved the mission and ministry of the Lazarus Project, the receiving presbytery delayed a vote on receiving me until after the denomination had decided on the question of ordaining openly gay and lesbian clergy the following year, in May of 1978. The denomination rejected such ordination and in June, the presbytery considered my transfer and rejected it. Unintentionally ironic, the presbytery then asked me to pray!

After the prayer I walked down the center aisle of the church to the narthex, followed by a few supporters, mostly women, who offered me tearful hugs outside the sanctuary. There my grateful eyes saw John. He had hurried from work to the evening meeting, hurried so fast he had been stopped for a speeding ticket, at which time, flustered by the delay, he had locked his keys in the car!

But he’d arrived in time for much of the debate, and he was there for me. He gave me a hug, and we drove home. Entering my apartment, the phone rang, an elder from a Baltimore church calling to hear how things had gone. I could hardly bear his sobs on the phone as I told him. Then came the task of informing my parents. I phoned them the news, and they too cried, hurt and angry that the church could reject me. 

And then John offered me the love the church denied.

Uncommon Calling, p 205-206.

I cry even now as I copy this from my first book, hurt by the rejection, moved by John’s love, grieved at John’s death. We remained friends for nearly two decades, but lost touch for a variety of reasons after my move to Atlanta, though I continued to pray for him and his partner. His love then, our love then, remain forever.

In loving memory of Tom Halliday.

*He puzzled why I would use a pseudonym for him in my book, and I explained because he was not openly gay then. He appeared again as Tom in my book The Final Deadline, pp 38-39, 42.

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Copyright © 1988 and 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Why Must Politics Intrude on Our Faith?

Photo by Bassam Khabieh for Reuters and The New York Times.

A few days after Christmas [2014] I picked up our morning paper and, before I put on my reading glasses, I saw on the front page a child on a sled in the snow, confirmed by the caption that began, “Heavy sledding…” I wondered where in the world the photograph was taken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I wrote this prayer for the children of the world:

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

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

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

I posted this on January 15, 2014 and thought new blog followers might like to read it. Have a meaningful and hopeful new year!

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Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Christmas Memory

"Tree of the Gods"

In thanksgiving for the life and pastoral and prophetic and priestly ministry of the Rev. Peter Denlea.

Christmas morning [2016] I awoke from an extremely pleasant dream. I was back in the home I grew up in, in Southern California, with my mom and dad, sister and brother. I looked out of our living room windows, and discovered it had begun to snow, a rarity in L.A. The window frames had a white dusting, as did our deodara outside, a tree that had been our Christmas tree one year. Only checking on its spelling for this post did I discover the term deodara’s mystical origin, meaning “tree of the gods” in Sanskrit, a sacred forest for Hindu sages.  And “dara” is related to the words Druid and truth!

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I had read once more Truman Capote’s story, “A Christmas Memory.” Some months ago I rescued it from storage in my crawl space, a bit damp from its place of safekeeping. I allowed the boxed edition to dry, and now it has character: a bit warped, like its author and the true life characters he writes about.

I know the story well. For years I read it at Christmastime to a Wednesday night Bible study. I’ve also viewed two film versions, the most memorable having Geraldine Page as the doting and doughty elderly cousin who befriended the author as a boy, otherwise  abandoned until the age of ten.  

One day, late in the fall, she would announce, “Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather,” and together they assembled the ingredients and prepared the Christmas fruitcakes that they sent to everyone from President & Mrs. Roosevelt to that nice California couple who spent an afternoon on their porch when their car broke down.

As I read the story once more, I was delighted by Capote’s turns of phrase, painting a portrait of a time long past—yes, harsh in its poverty and sad in its way, but with a kind and gentle lilt to its voice that uplifted my spirit.

What surprised me on this reading, however, was the glimpse of grace toward the end of the book, reminding me of another Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, at the end of her story, “Revelation,” of which I wrote in a post entitled “Tricked by Grace.”

The boy and his cousin fashion kites as their Christmas gifts to one another, as they had done the year before, and the year before that.  They go out to fly them with their terrier Queenie in a neighbor’s meadow, when the old woman has a startling revelation, “like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven”:

“My, how foolish I am! You know what I’ve always thought? I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes that the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—“just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

“As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

I thought back on their sacramental preparation of a communion of fruitcakes, and of the many, often women, who consecrated our kitchens with the incense of baking, the breaking of bread, the squeezing of juice. I thought of my mother baking Christmas cookies, red and green, and giving me the “failures,” the ones that didn’t look as good as they tasted, as she sorted them in tins for relatives and friends.

In her poem “Answers,” Mary Oliver envies her unlearned grandmother picking and canning fruits in the kitchen even as Mary “wakened / To books and music and circling philosophies” at the kitchen table, concluding:

My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career.
So to please her I studied—but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

This poem brings back the aroma of my maternal grandmother’s Swedish pancakes, the colors of my paternal grandmother’s jars of fruits and vegetables at the farm, the salty crunch of the batter on my mother’s fried chicken—and it honors them all as gods bringing order from chaos, as priests and poets and psalmists reminding us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” even as we are, in Mary Oliver’s words, “sorting through volumes of answers / That could not solve the mystery of the trees.”

We didn’t have a Christmas tree this year, because we are downsizing, packing, and moving. But I had the mystery of home and our deodara in my dream. And, as I fixed breakfast for us, I heard Eugene Peterson (The Message) on the radio program “On Being” say, “Prayer matures into the practice of memory.”

I thought of a spiritual formation program paper I’d read earlier in the week by a minister who works with the elderly, and how those with dementia and Alzheimer’s seem to remember the ritual of Communion, even as they forget so much else.

The Lord has already shown herself.

Though the memorial line is new, I posted this on December 28, 2016 and thought new blog followers might like to read it. Have a meaningful and hopeful  Christmas!

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