Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Healing Touch

With Mom on her 84th birthday in 1999.

As I get older, I have fewer opportunities to be touched. I knew that about old age even before I got there, and that’s why I’m sitting so close to my mother in the above photograph, my arm around her. I had noticed the need particularly among the older women of our neighborhood church. The passing of the peace was an opportunity for older folk to receive and give full-on hugs. Now I am grateful for such hugs in greeting or in parting worship.

Perhaps it’s because we regard older people as fragile. Perhaps because of due respect for the aging process, a reverential aspect. Perhaps because we older people are less attractive or no longer “breeding material.”

I have written of an experience of lovemaking that restored my sense of lovability in my book, Come Home! The “healer” in that case visited Atlanta last year and I was able to give him a copy of the book, marking the passage and expressing my gratitude.

But those opportunities are rarer as one ages, even when in a relationship.

In an email exchange with a friend and reader of this blog concerned about losing the gay parts of himself as he enters an assisted living program, I waxed philosophic about my own situation:

As a youth I had fantasies. As an adult I had experiences. As a senior I have memories. I need to hold on to my memories even though they don’t have the anticipatory ecstasy of fantasies or the existential bliss of experiences.

So, simple touch becomes all the more important.

When I was a kid, I used to love sitting in the car as a gas station attendant cleaned our windshield, enjoying the gentle rocking of the car—oh, the olden days of full service stations! I also enjoyed getting my hair cut, and my initiation rite into manhood was when, after many years, the barber finally honed a straight razor to trim my sideburns. These were gentle and safe ways to have a man touch me, and I found them healing.

My father enjoyed telling the story of rocking me as a baby while I steadfastly refused to go to sleep. I no doubt simply enjoyed my father or mother’s touch, being held close to their hearts. (As late as my teens, my joke with Mom was that I could still sit on her lap!) No doubt my body remembers and that’s why I enjoy cuddling so much.

All of this comes to mind because of a transforming incident during my recent contemplative retreat. Though our Roman Catholic hosts were welcoming beyond mere hospitality, their church does not allow offering Communion to Protestants. I do not like this, as you might guess, and I had decided not to go forward to merely receive a blessing. But in moving out of the way to let others in my pew pass by, a smiling sister gently urged me to go forward for a blessing. So I did, crossing my arms to indicate my heresy of being a Protestant.

I expected the tall and very aged priest to simply make the sign of the cross in the air and say a blessing. Instead, he gently touched my forehead while saying a blessing. The power of his touch jolted me. I immediately felt good inside, and the bliss remained with me for an hour. I could not help but think his power was deeply spiritual.

The next time I went forward for Communion, another aged priest made the sign of the cross on my forehead with oil, and I did not experience the same jolt of spiritual power. And I realized I couldn’t even remember if the earlier priest had made the sign of the cross on my forehead; I just felt power from the palm of his hand on my head.

With all the conversation these days about inappropriate touching, by priests and other professionals, I sorrow that this may lead to less healing touch. I remember how my mother’s first graders used to hang on her, begging to be touched and hugged, even after they went on to higher grades.

Being old, I have during this same time had to go to a dentist, an orthodontist, and an oral surgeon to repair or remove two “virgin” teeth which broke. My dentist praised me as one of his best patients, I think because I have a high tolerance for discomfort and pain, no doubt learned in part as a gay activist in the church! (Smile)

But their healing touch also made it possible for me to sit still for some difficult procedures. After two root canals, I explained that the orthodontist’s abdomen pressed against my head during the procedure was somehow comforting. I asked if he did that intentionally to calm his patients, but he explained it was just ergonomically sound, otherwise his reach over me would tire his shoulders as he worked on my teeth with the help of the lens of a microscope over my head.

I thought of Temple Grandin, the autistic expert in animal science who discovered she could calm herself by a device of her own invention that held her and later applied that to an invention to calm cattle on the way to slaughter. There is something calming about being held and touched, whether facing life or death.

As a progressive Christian, one of my reservations about Jesus being known as a physical and mental healer is that such magical qualities do not fit my desire for him to be known rather as a spiritual mentor and healer.

But maybe his touch was like that of the priest’s, or that of the orthodontist’s, or that of a hugger, or that of a lover—especially when visited upon so many people who were “untouchables”: lepers, epileptics, the sick, the dying and dead, those with physical or developmental disabilities. Women of his time were considered untouchable during menstruation. Children were assumed unclean, one of the reasons his disciples tried to send them away.

“Suffer the little children to come unto me” could as easily mean “Suffer those who are untouchable to come unto me.”

Related Post: Held by God

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Jesus' "Bad" Table Manners

Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in King of Kings.
(I took this photo the last time I watched it 
in hopes of being able to use it on my blog!)

Over religious objections, Jesus didn’t insist that his disciples ritually baptize their hands before eating, explaining it’s not what goes into a person but the bad stuff that comes out of a person’s heart that’s the problem.

He transformed jars of water intended for ritual use into wine during a wedding, and, on another occasion, defended his disciples eating grain they gleaned from a field on the Sabbath, despite religious prohibition.

Jesus did not object to an uninvited, “questionable” woman washing his feet during dinner, offending his Pharisee host. On another occasion, he defended Mary listening at his feet while her sister Martha was left to prepare their meal by herself. 

He invited himself to the home of the tax collector Zacchaeus, and commonly ate with tax collectors and sinners to the disdain of the truly religious people, who wouldn’t even dine with each other lest they be contaminated by another’s hidden sin.

He indiscriminately fed multitudes with meager resources, declaring the hungry will be blessed and full while those who are full now will be hungry. 

In Samaria he asked for water from a woman, multiply married and of a despised minority, and warned his disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees, while comparing the kingdom of heaven to the leaven with which a woman leavens a loaf of bread.

Jesus told kingdom parables of feasts missed by those with privilege because they were unprepared, inattentive, distracted, late, or dressed inappropriately.

He washed the feet of those attending his final meal over the objection of Peter, who apparently wanted to keep his rabbi on a pedestal. And Jesus had the audacity to confront them with the truth—their anticipated betrayal, denial, and abandonment. He was unafraid to spoil their camaraderie with the harsh reality of his impending martyrdom.

The traditional beginning of the Communion story is “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” But we did more than betray him that night; we denied him multiple times and abandoned him to the “powers that be.” We expressed shock that any of us would desert him, let alone betray him, and we each said, “Is it I, Lord?” Was our fear of authority figures and the awareness of Jesus’ and our vulnerability already palpable at the meal? Regardless, both believers and betrayers were welcome at his table.

Those shaping the story—the oral predecessors of the written Gospels and the Gospel writers themselves—would associate it with Passover, another ritualized meal commemorating salvation, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.

Nice touch, giving the meal a religious gravitas and connecting it to Jewish tradition as well as the metaphor of Jesus as the paschal lamb. But I happen to be of the school of thought that this “last supper” was actually a friendship meal that a Teacher would have with his disciples. That could explain the absence of the usual ingredients of a Seder. In my view, that would make it no less vital spiritually then or now.

Jesus gave the meal his own gravitas, declaring the bread as his body and the wine as his blood, a kosher faux pas given that blood was taboo. Earlier in his ministry he had offended and lost a lot of literalist followers when he told them they must eat his flesh and drink his blood to live forever. Jesus must have been a bad influence, because eventually his followers would set aside all dietary restrictions to eat whatever was set before them, in gratitude, even meat offered to idols—as long as it didn’t hinder another’s spiritual growth.

But not long after Jesus, the church at Corinth reintroduced table manners into their observance of Communion. Thus the Corinthians were reprimanded by the apostle Paul that their customary way of serving guests in Greek culture, separating them by class and desirability in different rooms, was failing to recognize the body of Christ—not in the bread, but in the body of believers, who were, he wrote in another context, no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female, but all one in Christ Jesus. The writer of James similarly felt compelled to chasten followers of Jesus who favored “a person with gold rings and in fine clothes” over “a poor person in dirty clothes.”

“You don’t have to be a member of this church or any church to be welcome at this table.” I learned this from my colleagues in Metropolitan Community Churches. Now these table manners, closer to those of Jesus, have spread to other denominations which want to welcome anyone and everyone to the table Jesus offers.

Just as Jesus welcomed everyone, regardless of belief or behavior, class or condition, so we who claim to represent his values to the world are called to do the same.


This post was inspired by an invitation this past Sunday to lead Communion for Ormewood Church, which welcomes everyone to the table every week.

Apologies to subscribers who received the uncorrected version of last week’s post, mistakenly referring to Joseph Campbell as “Bill Campbell” (a former mayor of Atlanta!). This is the challenge of working without a net—an editor and copyeditor. Though I read each post dozens of times before and after scheduling, I sometimes miss even an obvious error. Thanks to the readers who brought it to my attention!

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Invisible Means of Support


Years ago, a Japanese steamship for the first time went up the great Amazon river in South America. It was a long voyage, and they ran out of drinking water. Fortunately a British ship came by. The Japanese ship asked them by signal, “Have you drinking water to spare?” They signaled back, “Put your buckets down into the water, if you please.” The surprised Japanese crew did as instructed, and sure enough, it was drinking water. For the Japanese crew who were used to seeing small rivers in Japan, the River Amazon was too big for them to recognize as a river. They thought they were still in the ocean. Aren’t we, without realizing it, making such mistakes every day? 
A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, 93-94. 
This story reminds me of an exchange between the journalist Bill Moyers and the mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. After Campbell confirms his experience of “hidden hands” helping him when he is “following [his] bliss,” Moyers asks, “Have you ever had sympathy for the man who has no invisible means of support?”

Campbell replies, “Who has no invisible means? Yes, he is the one that evokes compassion, the poor chap. To see him stumbling around when all the waters of life are right there really evokes one’s pity.”

“The waters of eternal life are right there? Where?” Moyers asks.

“Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time,” Campbell answers.

In both stories, that of the ship’s crew and that of the person who has no invisible means of support, the waters of life are right under their noses—the first in potable water and the second in metaphorical waters of life, both potentially salvific. Both needed guides to help them see this.

The Moyers-Campbell exchange occurs in their conversation about the idea of bliss in Sanskrit, which Campbell regarded as “the great spiritual language of the world.” He explains:
There are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being” (p 120, The Power of Myth).
Shibayama writes that Zen Master Hakuin taught that we mistakenly try to look outside ourselves for Enlightenment, for Buddhahood:

Like water and ice,
There is no ice apart from water;
There are no Buddhas apart from beings.

Shibayama explains further, “If it is really like the relationship of ice and water, then we are Buddhas as we are. So he goes on to say, ‘It is like those who, being in water, cry out for water, feeling thirst.’” What follows is the story about the Japanese ship on the Amazon.

The organizing pastor of Ormewood Church, the Rev. Jenelle Holmes, gave an intriguing sermon during Eastertide about Simon Peter plunging into the Sea of Galilee when he realized a risen Jesus had just told them where to drop their nets for their big and only catch of the day, and awaited them on the shore with a meal prepared.

As I was still anxious about plunging into co-leading a weeklong contemplative retreat, I told Jenelle that her sermon really helped me. I needed to just plunge in the waters and trust that I would find Jesus on the shore, in the midst of those attending, in the silence that would surround us. After all, we had titled the retreat, “Beside Still Waters.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was following my bliss and relying on my invisible means of support, as were all who came on the retreat.

Frederick Buechner clarifies the nature of bliss for many of us: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”


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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ten Minute Christ

A singing bowl from Nepal given me by a 
Buddhist colleague when I completed an 
interim ministry at MCC San Francisco.

I am struggling to write about a book I first mentioned two weeks ago, A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays, a 1970 book by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama. There are so many stories and insights that I would like to list for you, as I did with the remarkable Cloud of Unknowing. But I feel called to do something more: to somehow translate Zen into progressive Christian experience.

This effort recalls my college class on Asian Religions, taught by Professor Miyuki, a Japanese Buddhist. I was quite proud of my midterm paper for the class, but was dismayed that my professor deigned to give it only a “C.” Having read more about Zen training since, I realize this was the slap in the face that a Zen master might give a disciple, to awaken something in me.

But at the time, my rational, dualistic and discriminating side got the better of me and I met with the professor to explain that everything I had written came from the texts for the class. In accented English, he told me in words that “should” have been my complaint, “You just don’t understand.” In other words, I just didn’t get it.

As the Zen Master Enkan said to a scholar monk of the Sutras (Buddhist scriptures), “Your knowledge is not of any use, is it? It is like a small lamp under the shining sun. It seems to have no light.” As Shibayama explains, “In the face of real experience concepts are like flakes of snow fallen on a burning fire.” He describes words as “just the conceptual shadows of the facts.” As a writer, this is another blow from a Zen master!

So, for my final paper, I simply told a story, drawing from the intuitive, creative side of my brain rather than the rational, academic side. I don’t remember the story, but I remember that my guide in the story, who was also myself, was a little girl.  Professor Miyuki loved it, and gave me an “A,” and I think an “A” in the course as well.

Zen tries to recover the satori, or Enlightenment, experience, believing that Buddhist scholars “tended to place too much importance on the metaphysical or philosophical interpretations of the sutras.” Zen Master Sekito and his disciples were blocked along a mountain path by vines and creepers. The monk ahead turned to Sekito asking for his sword to clear the way, and the Master handed it to him blade first. 
“Stop the nonsense! Let me have the hilt!” the monk demanded. Sekito’s reply was sharper than the edge of the knife. He said, “What is the use of the hilt?” The monk could not utter a word in reply. We are apt to stick to the hilt which is of secondary importance, and miss the Truth altogether (p 26-27). 
This story made me think of how often we Christians “stick to the hilt,” the Bible, our theology, and miss Truth altogether. Scottish theologian P.T. Forsythe held that, “Prayer is to religion what original research is to science.” Spiritual practices open us up to Truth, even in scriptures. As Thomas Merton wrote in Contemplative Prayer, “God’s presence cannot be verified as we would verify a laboratory experiment. Yet it can be spiritually realized as long as we do not insist on verifying it. As soon as we try to verify the spiritual presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.”

Shibayama suggests, “Zen does not remain simply the core of Buddhism, but it works to deepen and revive any religion or philosophy. For instance, there can be a Christian Zen…”

For four or five years I served as spiritual leader of Midtown Spiritual Community here in Atlanta, a spiritually eclectic group, and their mission statement expressed a desire to have a direct experience of the divine. During the contemplative retreat I co-led a few weeks ago, participants told us they preferred our experiential emphasis on spiritual exercises over academic presentations.

When I served as interim pastor of MCC San Francisco, I occasionally sat with their Buddhist group, following the spiritual exercise of zazen. Shibayama explains that, in Japanese, “za means to sit cross-legged, zen, to calmly concentrate one’s mind.”

He says we are to directly realize that “All beings are primarily Buddhas,” and by this he does not mean simply humans or even all creatures, but all entities, from atoms to galaxies. He tells us that there is another saying in Zen, “If one sits for ten minutes, he is a ten-minute Buddha.”

Immediately my heart flew to the “ah-hah” that if Christians could sit still in contemplation for ten minutes, and realize our own incarnations of Christ, we could be ten-minute Christs! It would give a whole new meaning to the Resurrection and to the triumphal return of Christ to this world—beliefs that are often doubted by progressive Christians.

But, like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, we wouldn’t be doing this for ourselves alone. Buddhism teaches the practice of six virtues: generosity, observing precepts and other good deeds, patience and forbearance, zeal, meditation, and true wisdom. Generosity and good deeds are sometimes singled out. And generosity and good deeds are what singled out the first followers of Jesus and attracted others to our faith.

I’m sure what I’ve written here has stepped on a few toes in Zen Buddhism as well as in progressive Christianity, as I am a faulty and limited blogger. I apologize. But just as Zen wanted to enliven Buddhism, so I think a Zen way of practicing our faith could enliven Christianity.


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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.