Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What Is Your 32nd Floor?

Courtesy of ABC News.

There is a search for the motive of the Vegas shooter, as in any mass shooting. Part of it is that we can’t fathom an irrational act, but part, I suspect, is that we want to find a way to distance ourselves from the act and the actor.

(It’s a bit harder for me to distance myself from the shooter knowing that he graduated from the same Los Angeles area high school and college as my sister and brother and I and lived in our area.)

It’s easier when we can blame an evil act on racism or sexism or fundamentalism or political ideology or ineffective gun regulations or mental health issues, as examples. Did the shooter have an aversion to those who loved country music or just hate that genre? Had he been jilted by his girlfriend or did he have a fatal medical diagnosis or a financial downturn or a narcissistic passion for infamy when fame itself was unattainable?

Every reason gives us a way to exclude ourselves from the possibility of such an evil act.

Though we may never know his mind, we can search our own minds. What is my 32nd floor suite of isolation, anger, bitterness, and envy from which I rain down death-dealing judgments on others below?  When I can’t seem to make “my” unique mark on the world, do I rely on marksmanship to shoot down the ideas, experience, identities, and influence of others?

What is my secret place to which I refuse admittance to housekeepers, whether psychological or spiritual or emotional? What weapons of hurt and chaos and destruction have I hidden there? And how have my weapons become automatic?

I’ve written before that I don’t agree with Jesus that the thought equals the act. “One who lusts has already committed adultery.” “‘You shall not murder,’ but I say do not even be angry with a brother or sister.” I believe one who does not give in to temptation is better than one who does.

But maybe I’m missing Jesus’ point. Even to entertain the temptation distorts my soul, disfigures the beloved child of God that I am. Many of us in this political climate want to return “an eye for an eye,” failing to realize that even that form of justice was intended to limit our retribution, not even the score.

I—and I believe each one of us—was “comped” a suite on the 32nd floor of our minds upon birth where we could wreak our secret vengeance on the world, even if it meant hurting innocent people, sometimes especially if it hurt innocent people. After all, we too were born innocent: it’s the world’s fault that we’ve been injured, ignored, and excluded. Somebody’s got to pay, even if that someone is simply one caught in our crosshairs on a given day.

What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Those shots were shots heard ‘round the world. What happens in Vegas or Paris or Orlando, what happens in Washington or Moscow or Beijing, what happens in Puerto Rico and Niger and Kabul and the West Bank and North Korea reverberates throughout our global web and wounds everyone, distorts our souls, disfigures our outlooks, and disrupts our planet.

These thoughts came to me as I read and reread and read again Thomas Merton’s words contrasting two kinds of monasticism represented in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in Merton’s final book, Contemplative Prayer: 
The conflict between the rigid, authoritarian, self-righteous, ascetic Therapont, who delivers himself from the world by sheer effort, and then feels qualified to call down curses upon it; and the Staretz, Zossima, the kind, compassionate man of prayer who identifies himself with the sinful and suffering world in order to call down God’s blessing upon it.  … Thus the Zossima type of monasticism can well flourish in offbeat situations, even in the midst of the world. Perhaps such “monks” may have no overt monastic connections whatever (p 28). 
We are in an “offbeat” time when we need monks like Zossima—and may I say, monks like you and me—called to identify with the sinful and suffering world in order to bring God’s blessing upon it. 

Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer is one of two texts for a contemplative retreat I will be co-leading for Columbia Seminary’s Spiritual Formation Program at Sacred Heart Monastery, in Cullman, Alabama, April 30-May 4, 2018, entitled “Beside Still Waters.”

Related Posts:
Wounding God (Charleston)

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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, October 4, 2017

Saint Francis Feasted on Poverty

On the coincidence of my 32nd birthday and the 800th anniversary of the birth year of Saint Francis of Assisi, my friend Linda Culbertson gave me a beautiful book about him with text by Lawrence Cunningham and photography by Dennis Stock. To prepare for his feast day today, I decided to reread it now, 35 years later. A saint’s feast day is observed on his or her first day in Paradise.

I had thought that Francis’s gentle spirit, from his love of the earth and its creatures to his befriending a ravaging wolf, is just what we need in these days of human-caused climate change and dealing with the ravaging wolves of our time, from fearful electorates to elected officials who feed off their anxieties and fears.

What struck me reading the book this time is how Cunningham clarifies that “the simple life” many of us try to follow is not equivalent to poverty: 
In its essence, poverty means radical insecurity about the basic means of life. Poverty is literally not knowing where the next meal is coming from, or the frantic fear of getting ill because there is no money for a doctor, or the gnawing despair when one recognizes the gap between the next possible time when money will come and the actual needs of the household. It is, in short, a knowledge that the world is not solid, secure, and benign. Poverty is not only want; it is the fear and dread that derives from want (p 58). 
Like many of us, I have only experienced that fear and dread intermittently. That’s why I chose for my ordination (and for my memorial service) my most often read words from Jesus, words of God’s Providence, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. … Look at the birds of the air… Consider the lilies of the field… Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Consider reading the whole text: Matthew 6:25-35.)

But as I contemplate what a chronic experience of such fear and dread can do, I realize what creates ravaging wolves, whether at the polls or in poor neighborhoods. The way Francis befriended a ravaging wolf was by persuading villagers to make sure it is fed and cared for: a social safety net that is mutually beneficial. Francis tells the wolf, “I understand that you did these evil things because of hunger.”

Francis wanted to depend solely on the providence of God, ultimately exemplified for him in the poverty represented in the cross. Joy for Francis came in self-sacrifice, even in—especially in—a world that did not value (and even hated) such service or such servants.

“If one lives purely in the providence of God and after the manner of Christ’s self-emptying, one’s awareness of the world as gift is sharpened,” Cunningham writes. Poverty provided Saint Francis a feast those who are rich often miss.

I think here Celtic Christianity can claim Francis as one of their own, as he viewed the world as a sacrament of God’s presence, and of Christ’s presence. 

For Francis, “cortesia” should characterize our relationship with the world.  For us, “courtesy” is simply “manners,” though in today’s world simple manners would go far toward healing our relationships, politically and personally. 

According to Cunningham, cortesia was far more for Francis: “Cortesia was a way of seeing and a way of acting towards others. … Cortesia is the recognition of rights, duties, gifts, and privileges as they exist in relationship. … The implicit notion in [Francis's] simple observation [of earth as mother] is that the earth is courteous to us…and we, in gratitude, owe an act of courtesy to it.”

Other of my posts that reference Saint Francis:

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Photo (Hawai'i, 1985) and text Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What the World Needs Now Is Grace (Sweet Grace)

Wildflowers in the Swiss Alps, 1973.

Oh, isn’t that sweet? Chris is getting sentimental in his latter years, you might be thinking, out of touch with reality, pining nostalgically for an ideal world of lovingkindness. Next he’ll be composing rhymes for Hallmark cards.

But grace is countercultural, haven’t you noticed? Watch, read, listen, or click the news and you will find much that is ungracious. As a cure and balance, I’ve been paying attention to stories that don’t make it above the fold of the newspaper (for those who remember such a reference), are not “trending” or on the bestseller list:

+A doctor walking twenty blocks through rain to see her 91-year-old Filipina-American patient hours before she died, and the daughters who cared for her.
+A book about Darwin’s understanding that beauty and artful behavior, not just natural selection, influenced the shaping of species. And females had much to say in the process!
+How three friends worked together to prove that upside-down jellyfish sleep, indicating a brain is not required for slumber. (I think not having a brain would help!)
+A columnist’s pilgrimage to the Vatican and a pope who cares about refugees, immigrants, climate change, war and peace.
+Admiration for an unsung Civil Rights activist from the 50s, Rev. Joseph De Laine, involved in Brown v Board of Education.
+Understanding how feminism has positively affected the future direction of philosophy.
+Artists who make a statement with their artwork shortly before they die.

I wanted to title my first book about seeking ordination in the church as an openly gay man, A Profile in Grace. I was tentative about it, though, because it could imply that grace was something I had achieved or was gifted on my own, when my intent was that I, like everyone else, live and love and work by God’s grace. Harper & Row, its first publisher, preferred a title that suggested the story line, and my friend Scott Rogo suggested Uncommon Calling.

But God’s grace is what called me out of the closet and into that uncommon calling, a lifelong ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community, and more broadly, between sexuality and spirituality.

Grace is tough and truthful and transformative and liberating. It requires strength and honesty and change and freedom. When I have encountered or beheld or experienced or witnessed God’s grace, I have become better, happier, more helpful, and more gracious. Grace begets grace.

We may all be profiles in grace. It is in the glory of God’s grace that each of us discovers who we are created and called to be.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

When You Walk through a Storm

Kirkridge panel about the future of our movement.

When witnessing disaster, the spiritual sage Mister Rogers would say, “Look for the helpers.” A corollary I would add is, “Look for community.”

As hurricane Irma passed over Atlanta, I was reminded of hurricane Opal, which did far more damage to our neighborhood. Though without power, what I most remember is the fun we had afterwards alongside our neighbors cleaning up debris in the street and yards, sharing what food we had in potlucks, grateful that none of us had sustained unrepairable damage or loss.

Of course I realize that those with more devastating losses caused by Harvey in Texas,  Irma in Florida, multiple hurricanes in the Caribbean, and the monsoon rains in South Asia may not have such a rosy response, but my cousin and family rescued by boat in Beaumont may have appreciated “community” in a more vital way.

Some years after Opal, the Atlanta tornado barreled through the adjacent neighborhood of Cabbagetown. Its “sound of a freight train” caused us to shelter in our first floor garage briefly that night. On our walk the following day we witnessed the community helping one another pull trees and branches off cars, houses, and streets, while the Carroll Street CafĂ© provided free coffee.

Historic Oakland Cemetery also got walloped, and out of respect for the dead, whose bone fragments got pulled out of the ground by uprooted trees and whose headstones got toppled by forceful winds, community members worked for months to restore its quaint beauty and solemn dignity.

Wade and Hobbes and I met a woman whose top floor flat’s roof had been taken off, and she was distraught over her lost puppy. A few days later, invited to dinner by a lesbian couple, we told them about the encounter. “They found the puppy!” they told us, “It was on the news. It was hiding under her sofa!” One of the better purposes of media (including social networks) is that they help community form.

Irma arrived in Atlanta the day after I returned from another community, one formed in the more disastrous days of homophobia and heterosexism. During its 75th anniversary of spiritual and political activism, Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center celebrated its 40 years offering sanctuary to LGBT people who struggled with the church and society’s rejection and violence. It was true joy being with people I have known and loved for decades. At one point, an actual rainbow graced the skies outside our meeting room.

I am looking forward to a more broadly interfaith and ecumenical gathering of LGBT saints in St. Louis October 31-November 2, “Rolling the Stone Away.” I hope you will consider attending. You can help young activists hear the stories of earlier generations in the LGBT movement by making a donation to their scholarship crowdfunding:

The Bible is, among other things, a reminder of how communities respond to disaster, hardship, and suffering.

In Coming Out as Sacrament, I suggested that it is in such vulnerability that we may experience God coming near to bring deliverance, healing, and resurrection—often through one another, often through one another’s stories.

The book included this wonderful story from holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: 
In The Gates of the Forest, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a rabbi who averted a disaster for his people by meditating at a certain spot in the forest, lighting a fire, and offering a prayer. The next time catastrophe approached, one of his disciples went to the same site, offered the prayer, but did not know how to light the fire—and still miraculously avoided disaster. Later, another rabbi went to the sacred spot, but knew neither the prayer nor how to light the fire; yet it was enough to save his people. Finally, another rabbi, in a similar desperate situation, knew neither the prayer, the fire, nor the place, but he could tell the story, and that retelling again prevented calamity. … Wiesel concludes, “God made [human beings] because [God] loves stories.”* 
Throughout its history, Kirkridge has been the “campfire” around which activists of all kinds have told our stories, including those in the LGBT Christian movement. St. Louis will prove to be an even more expansive opportunity for LGBT religious activists to shape community and share stories.

This is vital as we resist renewed attacks on us, and transform a world that does not yet view us favorably.

In facing disaster, look for helpers and for community.

Meet me in St. Louis!

P.S. Like scripture, we have our own “begats.” Stony Point Center’s 2015 “Rock Stars and Prophets” begat Kirkridge’s “40th Year Celebration of LGBTQ Lives” which begat St. Louis’s “Rolling Away the Stone.”  For a video of my personal narrative recorded at Stony Point, go to:

*Page 50 of Coming Out as Sacrament, paraphrasing Elie Wiesel in The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966).

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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.