Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Near Death Experiences

Morris Chapel, Oaktown, Indiana, where Wade's mom was baptized at three months of age.
Yes, that's a cornfield on the left.

I have put off writing this post for several weeks, using the excuse of describing my workshop on self-care and then explaining my guilty pleasure watching old episodes of Frasier and Murder, She Wrote and finally, using photos of signs I’ve taken in recent years.

But this picks up where I left off with “A Mother’s Work Is Never Done” about my mother-in-law’s death. I had thought to save you any more reflections on death, lest you roll your eyes or click “delete” or find something more pleasant on the internet. But, like death itself, writing about it is inescapable.

I wrote a whole book about death, The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life, describing many experiences finding myself in proximity to someone’s death, so you might think I’d be used to death by now. But, while more experienced, I still am at a loss when someone dies, especially as I come closer to my own final passing or “transitioning,” as a hospice worker referred to dying.

As I write this, I look out at our backyard lawn dying from prolonged lack of rain and unrelenting summer heat despite my best efforts at watering. At least it can look forward to being aerated and reseeded this fall when cooler temperatures prevail.

I am interrupted by Wade explaining he’s taking his mom’s Christmas ornaments to our nearby Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and my mood lightens as the question crosses my mind if that’s where I’ll end up!  ( ;  

When we talked about afterlife, a neighbor who looks every bit the part of a Hindu sage with long greying dark hair and beard and flowing attire and sandals, suggested humbly that expecting life to be eternal is “a bit greedy, don’t you think?” His comment made me smile appreciatively. Maybe this desire for everlasting life is simply a reflection of our acquisitive, self-indulgent culture.

In my book I wrote that belief in an afterlife is more important for me when it comes to other people I care about, especially those whose lives have been cut short or ended before fulfilling their life dreams.

In seminary I read an essay that explained early Christians weren’t thinking of life that extended forever, but rather, life that has eternal significance and thus, an eternal “view,” perspective, and effect. Earlier, in college, I became enamored of process theology, in which we live on eternally in God’s memory. This hardly seems satisfactory to those of generations past who spent their lives enslaved, marginalized, or closeted or of their descendants who become the victims of violence.

Nearer to home, I wondered what life would be like without Wade or he without me, the more likely scenario.

Wade and I spent a week in Indiana that included another memorial service for his mom and scattering of her ashes in their hometown of Oaktown. We spent part of our time finding and visiting and, in two cases, adorning the graves of his relatives.

Cemetery next to the chapel.

That’s also how I spent part of my May visit to California, but this time, not just visiting graves of my relatives, but finding and visiting the graves of two friends.  One died as a child when I was a child after initially surviving one of the earliest open-heart surgeries. The other became one of my best friends in high school and later in college after the untimely death of his nineteen-year-old brother. I discovered to my surprise that the latter friend, who died in 2009, is buried in the same grave as his brother, and has no marker of his own.

I thought of my maternal grandfather, who lived to be 95, wryly saying to me on a cemetery visit, “When you get to be my age, you have to come here to visit some of your friends.”

I also visited the grave of a friend’s brother. A promising songwriter, his life was cut short by gun violence at 29. On his grave marker are these words:

Always documenting my discoveries through music…
The music is a part of me that I received from God.
I acted as an instrument and God as the musician.
For many years I was lost…
looking the wrong way for the wrong things.
“The end justifies the means”—No, I don’t think so.
It is the journey, not the destination that is vital.

Life is meant as a gift to enjoy,
to experience, to give and to receive.
The simplest, smallest gestures can be of greatest essence.
So don’t hold back. Make life whole and complete.
Seek not material things but fulfillment of the soul and spirit.

A reminder that "God Loves Us."

Here is the Amazon link to my book: The Final Deadline

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Signs of the Times, Ominous and Hopeful

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Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: Scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

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

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Gospel According to Jessica Fletcher and Frasier Crane

Okay, I’ve written enough heavy posts in recent weeks to warrant one that’s just for fun. I mentioned in passing in last week’s entry that one of my self-care habits is watching old episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Frasier.

First, both TV programs overlapped my move from Los Angeles to Atlanta, so they gave me continuity. And I shared Murder, She Wrote with Mom and Frasier with both Mom and my brother, more continuity. (This may make you nostalgic for the days when we all watched the same programs on the same day at the same time and thus could  talk about them the next day!)

Both helped me survive the death of my mom, followed by the death of what had promised to be a lifelong relationship, followed by the death of Open Hands magazine, whose editorship accounted for about half my income.

I know you’re thinking, where’s the lighter part of this post?

At the time, Murder, She Wrote episodes aired twice in the morning and twice in the late afternoon. I would only allow myself one episode per day, given my work ethic! But escaping to the homely and picturesque Cabot Cove, Maine, and hanging out with both a writer and a motherly figure (pardon me, Angela Lansbury) trying to solve a mystery was just the escape I needed. I preferred the episodes in her hometown to the ones on location or in New York City. (Of course I noted the scenes filmed in my home state of California, which I missed.)

What I subsequently discovered is that many clergy LOVE crime dramas, maybe because the solution to a life’s mystery can be discovered within an hour, whereas most life mysteries require a lifetime to solve, if then.

Plus, watching the show encouraged my own new project, writing a mystery novel and spoof about a “spiritual profiler” named John Boswell, not to be confused (wink) with that medieval history professor at Yale. Every afternoon I would escape to my fictional town of Crowbar, Mississippi (the prototype of which I discovered on a solo road trip) where Boswell interviewed, one by one, selective citizens of the town to determine who murdered the pastor of Primitive Presbyterian, Angus MacDonald. Originally I called it A Presbyterian Murder, but later renamed it Angus Dei.

In his sometimes stodgy first person narrative, the Roman Catholic Boswell describes how he realized his gift of spiritual profiling:

As I look back, my adulthood prescience of the spiritual dimensions of traffic accidents should have intimated to me the possibility of applying my gifts to crime scenes. One traffic accident I happened onto, for example, I sensed, came from one driver’s inability to forgive the trespass of another, and that first driver’s insistence on his right-of-way brought them together in death, though never meeting in life, giving a spiritual if not ecumenical twist on the traffic instruction, otherwise ignored, to “merge.” And another: A one-way street seemed to confirm the theology of one driver, only to run into a universalist going in the other direction. Unbelievably, only their theologies were badly shaken. And you can imagine the multiple car pile-up when a fundamentalist refused to “yield.”

Back-to-back Frasier reruns came on twice in the evening between 6 and 7, my dinner hour. And since I was now eating dinner alone (though my dog Calvin was mindfully aware of any dropped or leftover food), far from family, the ensemble cast of characters became a kind of substitute family. And it was a non-traditional family, and the stories were often about love sought and found and lost, with the “loser” always able to return to the bosom of the extended family. Of course, there were some hilariously gay episodes, my favorite, and plenty of gay sensibility humor in others, which got the series written up in a New York Times article lauding subtle gay themes and jokes in otherwise mainstream sitcoms!

The truth is, Frasier can still make me laugh out loud! So when I need a laugh, I watch an episode on Netflix or Cozi TV, the latter of which also runs Murder, She Wrote.

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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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Caring for You

South African sunset last August. Photo by Wade Jones.

This past Sunday afternoon I was invited by St. Julian's Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia, to lead a session on “Care for the Caregiver” as part of a long series supporting lay people in ministry. I was a little overwhelmed by the detailed content I was given to present in an hour’s time. The night of the day I began preparing I of course had a dream of leading the event, and I feared running out of time, though in the dream I had a whole day to work with, not just one hour! But my sleeping brain (or should I credit Holy Spirit?) gave me an idea how to approach the challenge.

Part of the challenge was that the small group attending had either been part of a centering prayer group for years or were enrolled in an Episcopal Church multiple year program about faith and ministry fundamentals, or both! In my dream I said to them, “I am stepping into a river that has flowed a thousand years,” meaning their combined experience, and added, “I have more to learn from you than you from me.”

Yet we are all part of a two-thousand-year-old movement initiated by followers of Jesus who were so good—so kind, compassionate, and hospitable—that others wanted to be like them. And here I refer to Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief, in which she affirms that this evangelism by attraction is how the first “Christians” inspired converts.

I realized “care for the caregiver” is what this blog has always been about. I wanted to equip progressive Christians, who are not only care-givers but justice-seekers, with what I had been given to sustain my activism: a prayer life, contemplative ways of undergirding, strengthening, inspiring, and (perhaps most vitally) sustaining a ministry of compassion and care.

The course was trying to impart the wisdom of Saint Benedict, who saw spiritual community as the stabilizing foundation of a ladder to rise to great heights, to touch the face of God as well as that of other creatures through work, study, and prayer, with order, balance, and moderation.

So, still in my dream and then after as I woke in the dark to reflect on it, I began coming up with questions to solicit the wisdom and experience of the group. The members of their Community of Hope are the ones who will be there for years after my “splash in the pan” appearance—best to help them remember that and for me to recognize I am their beneficiary not their benefactor.

I’ve decided to share with you some of what I shared with them.

How do you care for yourselves? I asked. I explained not to judge any self-care methods, just be honest. As an example, I listed my own self-care practices: morning prayer and reading, of course, running and weightlifting, healthy diet and a good night’s sleep—all admirable, but also, watching old Frasier and Murder, She Wrote episodes and comfort food and chips and wine.

Do you have difficulty saying “no”? A denominational church leader came to me for regular spiritual guidance for a season and I advised her to tape “I can say ‘no’” to her office phone. A book entitled Ministry Burnout points out that often it seems to take as much emotional and spiritual energy to tell someone “No, I cannot do that” than it takes to just do it! But, as Jesus sensed healing energy going out from him when the woman with a hemorrhage touched him, anything we do may deplete our energy and effectiveness, so focus and boundaries are needed.

Do you trust your spiritual community? What I meant by that is do you believe in the variety of gifts you’ve identified in one another as you’ve come to know each other? I invited them to speak about those gifts, and I was moved by their readily offered affirmations.

I explained the “joke” in the first church I served after seminary was that, if you identify a need the church should address, you take the lead in that ministry! After all, you are the church! That’s how we started our jail ministry for gay inmates, our outreaches to homeless gay youths, our sack lunch program for the homeless.

Identifying our own gifts, strengths, and weaknesses and inviting others in our spiritual community to identify theirs, we better know when to refer to meet an expressed need or how to best assign and offer assistance. None of us have to be everything to everyone.

What is your motivation? The curriculum provided an exercise to help us sort “sympathy” from “empathy,” listing distinctions that, to me at least, were too clever and convenient, suggesting the first was controlling and the second detached. Somewhere in between is the word I would use: compassion, which means “suffering with,” and compassionate has been applied to both the Buddha and Jesus who respectively represent detached mindfulness and sacrificial love.

Compassion requires attentiveness and listening. Henri Nouwen gave the example of an incident from his early years in ministry when he gave beds to a family that had been sleeping several to a bed. Upon his next visit he discovered they had sold the extra beds and gave a party for all their friends. What they needed was a celebration, not more “things.”

When I worked with first-time AIDS volunteers and workers in the early years of the pandemic, I invited them to consider the values motivating them and identify their “spiritual community,” encouraging them to be creative in discerning the latter. One woman had the “aha” that her women’s tennis group was her spiritual community. Over the years they had been there for one another through births, divorces, deaths, jobs, unemployment, illness, and emotional ups and downs. I suggested that their values and their spiritual communities would help sustain them in this new work.

What are your boundaries and limits? Recently, working with someone with mental health and addiction issues, I am cognizant of how narrow the line between compassion and enabling can be. This is where a spiritual community and/or a spiritual director can come to the rescue. The curriculum on care advised ministering in pairs, consulting each other, and gaining input and support from the larger group.

Do you trust healing is possible? Healing and growth and fruitfulness seem to me built into the very nature of things. As Henri Nouwen once wrote, if you keep digging up a seed to see if it’s germinating, it never will grow. A physical therapist told me that wounds heal from the inside out. A massage therapist friend begins each session invisibly making the sign of the cross over the client’s body before applying his healing touch.

During the commissioning service of a trainer of hospice workers, she was to be given a charge by two clergy. The first minister went on and on and I have no recollection of what he said. The second minister cut to the chase. She said, the people whom hospice workers serve want to know two things: Am I alone? And am I loved? I believe that’s true of all who need care.

I recommended the best book on care I’ve read, How Can I Help? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman. The authors’ presentation of first person narratives from care-givers and care-receivers from around the world suggest that the least patronizing and most satisfying care is experienced as mutually beneficial.

As an example of that, something I didn’t mention in my recent reflection on my mother-in-law’s passing was that, like other times we enjoyed talking, we continued to “talk” with each other in her final days when she rarely spoke at all. I brought reading material when visiting, but didn’t even look at it, I was so taken with simply watching her.  

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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.