Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Honoring Christmas in 2012

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

 In memory of my soul friend Terry Flynn, who kept the Christmas spirit the whole year ‘round. May he rest in peace and rise in laughter.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, after the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future have each paid Ebenezer Scrooge a visit, Scrooge vows to the latter spirit, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

And when the phantom leaves him and Christmas morn arrives, a redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge vows again, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.” This is something to consider as we enter a new year.

One could say that the spiritual vitality of faith and its many stories and expressions derive from honoring the past, the present, and the future, letting them all strive within us. The nomadic Hebrews’ understanding of their spiritual ancestors going before them, as in a caravan, helps us look to our spiritual forebears who still lead our way. Buddhists realized the eternal in the now, illuminating our present. Christians keep us mindful of the inbreaking commonwealth of God manifest in serving “the least of these.” The Iroquois concept of the Seventh Generation reminds us to be faithful to our posterity in our stewardship of the earth—environment, resources, and creatures. And Latin America’s liberation theology speaks of the “memory of the future” which keeps God’s faithfulness in past generations (or in our own past) before us as we contemplate future possibilities.

Charles Dickens was a writer concerned for economic justice. He knew that in most of our hearts there is a little bit of Ebenezer Scrooge. “Bah, humbug,” we sometimes say, under our breath, when we hear a “naïve” or “impractical” or “idealistic” message. As Dickens completes the tale of a transformed Scrooge, he writes: “Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset…” Even so, Dickens tells us, Tiny Tim did not die, concluding the story, “And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Put Yourself in the Nativity Story

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Hobbes, Calvin, & Chris in the Nativity Scene
of Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church, Atlanta.
Photo by Wade Jones.

In his autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest, novelist and sociologist Andrew Greeley writes that most Roman Catholics in the U.S. are not “propositional” Catholics who assent to a number of “propositions” or doctrines. For example, a majority of American Catholics do not agree with the Vatican’s teaching on sexual ethics, dismissing its teaching on contraception altogether and questioning its positions on other reproductive choices, premarital sex, and homosexuality.

Greeley concludes from his research that they are not drawn to their church by dogma, but by the story—the biblical narrative, particularly the narrative about Jesus. I think that’s true of Protestants as well. We wonder why many Christians only come to church around this time of Advent and Christmas, but I believe it’s because we love the story of the baby Jesus born to Mary and Joseph, cradled in a manger, endangered by Herod, visited by shepherds and kings.

In the words of Kathleen Norris, “Human beings, it seems to me, require myth as one of the basic necessities of life. Once we have our air and water and a bit of food, we turn to metaphor and myth-making.” To me, myth is not a story that is untrue, but a story that carries a deeper truth that draws us in. As a 5-year-old once said, a myth is a story that is true on the inside. (Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells this in Here All Dwell Free.) Within the words is a Word.

In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore suggests that imagination is one of the most underutilized and undervalued spiritual gifts. So I invite you to put yourself in the story of Jesus’ nativity. Jesus is not simply born to Mary. He is born to us, if only we use our imagination!

Are you King Herod, fearful of losing power or privilege as God is doing a “new thing”? Or an Eastern sage enduring academic malaise, seeking a star of inspiration? A shepherd routinely going about your business when the skies seem to open up? A prophet crying in the wilderness?

Are you a religious leader holding on to tradition at all costs? An empire’s bureaucrat missing the unfolding human drama? Or one whose life is too full to welcome a homeless, unwed mother-to-be? Joseph, serving quietly on the periphery of sacred drama? Mary, with an unsought calling to do the dirty and painful and lonely work of birthing a new movement? Or a vulnerable child born into a vicious and violent world?

Truth is, over a lifetime, we may play all of these roles in this story. Good to remember, at this time of year, that we hinder or help, blink or behold this nativity of God’s Word to us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wise as Serpents

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

During a Q&A following my presentation on “Reconciliation” this past weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a young woman commented on the difficulty having true dialogue with an opponent who feels free to attack in a way that same opponent would resent being attacked.

I recognized the experience. Many religious and political conservatives seem to require a lot of coddling when we try to offer liberal or progressive alternate views. I try to say nice things about their heroes or values or viewpoints while they seem to feel no compunction blasting mine!
I had just contributed reflections to a lectionary resource book on Jesus’ admonition to his disciples as he sent them out to proclaim the commonwealth of God: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The King James Version has “harmless as doves,” suggesting gentleness.

But this counsel seems only to be expected of the underdog facing off with the powerful and privileged. And so in recent centuries we honor the wisdom and gentleness of people like Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sanger, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, and Desmond Tutu.

But why aren’t those who oppose movements of the Spirit similarly counseled to wisdom and gentleness? Why are they allowed to get away with ignorance and harshness?

Wise and gentle Mary’s anticipation of the commonwealth of God was read in the Pittsburgh churches I preached in Sunday: “God has shown divine strength, scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting the lowly; filling the hungry with good things, and confounding the privileged.”

In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris reminds us that Mary’s song was considered so subversive that “the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation” in the 1980’s!

Like mother, like son.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On the Threshold of the Church

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Perhaps the best known quote from Simone Weil is “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” But few know that she purposely chose to wait on the threshold of the church rather than enter to the exclusion of anything God loves.

To “wait for the Lord” is the advice of the Psalmist. To be patient is to endure, advice Jesus gave his disciples, as stamina is a necessary gift in the spiritual life. And to expect is to watch for and be open to those thin places where we may catch a glimpse of the eternal.

Simone Weil was a young French Jewish woman who lived during the first half of the 20th century. She earned a doctorate in philosophy and began a teaching career, continuing to study religion, especially Hinduism and Christianity. She was a social activist who decided to leave academic life to work in a factory in solidarity with underserved factory workers. A pacifist most of her life, she supported in peaceful ways resistance movements in the Spanish Civil War and then her own German-occupied France. The French novelist Andre Gide called her “the most spiritual writer of this century,” and Albert Camus designated her “the only great spirit of our time.” Her health was always a challenge, and her solidarity with those suffering in her native France led to an early death in 1943 at the age of 34.

In her “Spiritual Autobiography,” a letter to a priest, she explains why she did not join the Roman Catholic Church:

I have never once had, even for a moment, the feeling that God wants me to be in the Church. … So many things are outside it, so many things that I love and do not want to give up, so many things that God loves, otherwise they would not be in existence.
And here she refers to all that is outside the church: the centuries of human history that preceded the establishment of the church, other countries and races where Christianity is not embraced, secular life, “traditions banned as heretical,” and “all those things resulting from the Renaissance,” which would include the Enlightenment. Thus she concludes that she must remain where she has been since birth, “at the intersection of Christianity and everything that is not Christianity”:

I have always remained at this exact point, on the threshold of the Church, without moving, quite still, en hupomene (it is so much more beautiful a word than patientia!).
The latter is Latin for patience, which is related to the Latin word for suffering, but she prefers the Greek (here transliterated by me) en hupomene, which means to “endure, hold out, and stand firm,” a far more active stance.

Personally I have often found myself in that same place, hanging with others on the threshold of the church, the margins of institutionalized religion, standing firm with Simone Weil to keep the doors of the church wide open to all that God loves. After all, that’s where Jesus would be.

This weekend in Pittsburgh, PA - Hear and meet Chris at these public events:

Fri. Dec. 9, 7 p.m., Sixth Presbyterian Church, speaking on “Reconciliation.”
Sat. Dec. 10, 10:30-Noon (light lunch included), Covenant Presbyterian Church, Butler, PA, speaking on “Bullying is Not Just About Youth!” Butler LBGTQ Interfaith Network, Persad Center's Community Safe Zone, Butler Chapter of PFLAG.
Sun. Dec. 11, 10:45 a.m. Community House Presbyterian Church, sermon.
Sun. Dec 11, 7:00 p.m., MCC Pittsburgh, sermon (different from sermon above!).
Sponsored by Ministry with Sexual Minorities, A Task Force of Pittsburgh Presbytery.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Interrupted Lives

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

My friend, fellow writer, AIDS volunteer and chaplain Pat Hoffman gave me a copy of Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life during the early years of the AIDS crisis in southern California. She thought Etty’s diaries witnessing the Nazi takeover of her native Holland and the deportation of Jews to German death camps might speak to the experience of the prematurely interrupted lives we were beholding.

As I read, Etty also spoke to my sexuality, my writing, and my progressive faith. Unbound by religious trappings, subsequently claimed by both Jews and Christians, this young Jewish woman wrote, “When I pray, I hold a silly, naïve or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for convenience sake I call God.”

As the editor of her letters, G. K. Garlaandt explains in the introduction, “Her mysticism led her not into solitary contemplation but squarely back into the world of action. Her vision had nothing to do with escape or self-deception, and everything to do with a hard-won, steady and whole perception of reality.”

Etty claimed a sense of equilibrium in the face of virulent madness as she wrote, “I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life. For belief in God and for a miserable end.”

And, as she anticipated being transported to Germany and its concentration camps, she boldly prayed:

Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. I shall promise You one thing God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.
Speaking about Etty Hillesum this past Sunday as an example of “Our Lives as Sacred Texts,” I was reminded that today, November 30, is the anniversary of her death at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29. And this is the eve of World AIDS Day, December 1.

Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen advised against comparing the intensity of one’s suffering with that of others, explaining, “Your suffering is your own.” Yet Etty’s interrupted life shares a continuum with other interrupted lives, just as her words speak to my own vocation of writing:

Such longing to jot down a few words! Such a strong sense of: here on these pages I am spinning my thread. And a thread does run through my life, through my reality, like a continuous line. … It’s not so much the imperfect words on these faint blue lines, as the feeling, time and again, of returning to a place from which one can continue to spin one and the same thread, where one can gradually create a continuum, a continuum which is really one’s life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanking God Anyway

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Mostly we are willing to look back at our lives and say: “I am grateful for the good things that brought me to this place.” But when we lift our cup of life, we must dare to say: “I am grateful for all that has happened to me and led me to this moment.”
Henri Nouwen wrote these words the final year of his life in a book entitled, Can You Drink the Cup? Henri wrote of holding, lifting, and drinking the cup of life. We hold the cup in contemplation, lift the cup as a toast or a blessing for others, and drain the cup in thankfulness for both sorrows and joys.

“All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose,” the apostle Paul wrote, suggesting that a context of meaning gives one the opportunity to “be grateful in all circumstances.” Jesus said it isn’t what goes into a person but what comes out of a person’s heart that is spiritually vital, implying that it is not who we are or what happens to us that “defiles” us, but how we respond.

In his book Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore describes spirituality as soul-shaping: all that we experience, good and bad, shapes the soul we are becoming. And in Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh concludes, “Faith is the outcome of your life.”

These spiritual insights were embodied for me on a visit to St. Louis years ago. A woman I had not seen in decades surprised me wearing a clerical collar. “What prompted you to enter the ministry?” I asked, only to discover it was two horrific events—one of being beaten up at her front door by three men, another of an attempted rape by an intruder in her home. She had the presence of mind to say to the latter, “Jesus is watching us,” and it so disturbed him, he ran out. Yet in these two events, she heard a call to ministry!

That same visit I stayed with a couple whose previously closeted son had returned home just days before he died of AIDS. The terrible surprise transformed these conservative, Midwestern, Presbyterian Republicans into AIDS and gay rights activists!

As Nouwen astutely observed, “When we are crushed like grapes, we cannot think of the wine we will become.”


Sunday, November 27, 11 a.m., Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega, GA. Chris will speak on “Our Lives as Sacred Texts.”

Thursday, December 1. World AIDS Day resource written by Chris in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, pp 6-11.

Saturday, December 3, Noon to 2 pm ET. First class in Chris’s online course, “Christianity and Sexuality,” see syllabus, or register.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kirkridge: Where Retreats Become Advances

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

I just returned from a retreat with forty men at Kirkridge in Bangor, Pennsylvania. I was reminded of a minister friend who led so many retreats, we kidded him that it was time for him to stop leading “retreats” and instead lead “advances.” This annual retreat may be characterized—along with other Kirkridge retreats—as an advance for the participants.

Founded by a progressive Christian minister and administered by and host to progressive Christians since, Kirkridge’s motto is “To picket and to pray.” Social justice, personal growth, and progressive wisdom are reflected in its programming and even its operational style—for instance, it costs a little more than some other retreat centers because staff are paid fairly and provided health benefits. Yet the cost is less than most secular conferences.

Kirkridge’s spiritual roots are found in Celtic Christianity—an expression of our faith in which women could be spiritual leaders as well as men, clergy could be married or celibate, clergy and lay people were equally regarded, Christ walks among us in two shoes: scriptures and creation, there is no such thing as original sin, and what sins there are can be removed by Christ or an experience of nature without the church’s intervention. The Beloved Disciple that lay his head on Jesus’ breast during the Last Supper, “listening for the heartbeat of God,” is the patron saint of this contemplative movement that predates much of the present day church. The “soul friends” (anamchara) of Celtic spirituality led to the rite of reconciliation, the pastoral counseling movement, and present day spiritual directors.

Kirkridge and its adjacent Columcille (called “America’s Stonehenge”) have spiritual kinship with Iona, a center for Celtic spirituality on that isle off the west coast of Scotland.

A week before the retreat, the 85-year-old founder of Columcille, Bill Cohea, phoned me. “How are you?” I asked. “Well, I died a few months ago,” he said, chuckling, “I was having a procedure and my heart stopped for awhile. I was so prepared for whatever’s next that when they revived me, I said, ‘Shit! I’m still here! Shit! I’m still here! Shit! I’m still here!’"

I laughed and told him I just learned that Steve Jobs’ dying words were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

Celtic spirituality recognizes those thin places on earth through which the awesome is revealed. The entwined threads on Celtic crosses and artifacts symbolize how heaven and earth intimately interweave.

Kirkridge is one of those “thin places” of Celtic spirituality. Though I’ve been going there for decades, only this weekend did I realize the significance of its name: it not only provides  a spectacular view from a ridge, but also a sacred vision of the forty men with whom I advanced as “church” (“kirk”).

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Spiritual Yearnings

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Forgive the alliteration, but I have come to understand that three primary spiritual yearnings are to belong, to believe, and to be loved.

Process theologian Daniel Day Williams wrote about belonging in his book, The Spirit and the Forms of Love:

…The fundamental human craving is to belong, to count in the community of being… If we begin here we can say that the root anxiety is that of “not-belonging,” of not counting. [Human beings] are not afraid of not existing nearly so much as they are afraid of not being wanted.
This confirms my own experience when I responded to an altar call in my Baptist church at the tender age of six or seven and was baptized. I did so because I wanted to belong to God and Jesus and my family forever.

Research of social scientists exploring the origins of religion reveals people who join a New Religious Movement (NRM) do so first of all because of a connection with someone in the group, a sense of belonging. 

The same researchers have discovered that belief is secondary in associating with an NRM. But I would say that to believe is to the head what to belong is to the heart. For the intellect, shared belief is a way of belonging.

But to belong and to believe is not enough. We yearn to be loved. We all know marriages and families and churches that are based more on belonging than on love—and we now label them more or less “dysfunctional.” This dynamic is most radically manifest in hate groups where belonging is based on a shared belief of who is to be feared and hated and excluded. Unfortunately, that has become a litmus test for belonging to some religious groups. 

That’s when a belief in yourself as a beloved child of God who belongs here is needed, one of the central messages of the Christian gospel. Daniel Day Williams wrote that sin can be “unbelief in ourselves”:

We betray our real self, with its struggling, its hopes and fears. We refuse to trust ourselves in our real relation to anything. We refuse to believe that life is good and worthy for us as we really are, that our small margin of freedom with all its risks makes the difference between fulfilling life and destroying it.
My spiritual mentor Henri Nouwen became known for an early book that describes the minister (every Christian) as The Wounded Healer. Yet later in life, he felt compelled to remind himself that “your true identity is as a child of God” in his journal The Inner Voice of Love, warning that people try to hook us in our wounds:

When you let your wounded self express itself in the form of apologies, arguments, or complaints—through which it cannot be truly heard—you will only grow frustrated and increasingly feel rejected. Claim the God in you, and let God speak words of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, words calling to obedience, radical commitment, and service.

People will constantly try to hook your wounded self. They will point out your needs, your character defects, your limitations and sins. That is how they attempt to dismiss what God, through you, is saying to them.
To paraphrase Williams, we are not as afraid of dying as we are afraid of being dismissed.

Join Chris for an online seminar open to the public, “Sexuality and Christianity,” Saturdays at noon ET, Dec. 3 & 17; Jan. 7, 14, 21, & 28. It will be largely conversational, based on readings for each session.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Colored on TV!"

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Sing My Song, the engaging new HBO documentary on Harry Belafonte and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, includes a clip of Julian Bond saying that when the singer began appearing on TV, calls would go out among friends announcing, “Colored on TV!”—it was such a rare occasion.

It reminded me of the rare occasions when an LGBT person or character appeared on television not long ago, how the word would go out so we could quickly tune in. And it prompts me to write about my gratitude for the Civil Rights Movement, having just visited the newly-dedicated Martin Luther King memorial on the mall in Washington, where I fought back tears. This movement shaped us and inspired us.

I was 12 years old when I witnessed the 1963 March on Washington on rows upon rows of television sets in the window of a store while my family was shopping at a newly-built mall in Southern California. Later, at our doctor’s office, I looked with wonder at the Life magazine photo coverage of the march. Among the celebrities I could identify in the pictures at the time were Charlton Heston (having seen him play Moses) and Harry Belafonte. The multitudes attending made me think this must be something important.

A tattered 1962 paperback edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird stands on my bookshelves, read after I saw the film released that same year. I read it a little at a time over the summer, savoring my imaginary friendship with Jem and Scout and Dill and sharing their discovery of injustice, while identifying more with the closeted Boo Radley than the falsely accused Tom Robinson.

My high school principal was the one who made me want to speak and write as eloquently as he: James B. Taylor, who had served as boys’ vice principal was championed as principal by parents, yet, as an African-American, real estate practices prevented his family’s purchase of a home in the neighborhood! Through another teacher I learned he was married to a niece of U.N. shaper and Nobel Peace prize recipient Ralph Bunche. A tenor in the school choir, we loved singing Principal Taylor’s favorite song, “When You Walk through a Storm” from Carousel. He was beloved by all, and knowing he was religious, one class gift to him was a large family Bible. In 1996, I would dedicate to him a Presbyterian curriculum I wrote for older youth entitled Unlearning Racism.

I left my Baptist church in the L.A. suburbs toward the end of high school partly because of something I overheard during coffee hour. Two black ladies had visited our all white worship, and one of our members said snidely to a friend, “I bet they came to try this integratin’ stuff! But we showed ’em they were welcome even if they are Negroes.”

When I was 17, my mom and I were standing in our kitchen when my brother came in to tell us that the radio had just announced that Dr. King had been shot. That Sunday, at the Free Evangelical Church I was now attending, the youth pastor read as the evening sermon King’s profound “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” available in his book, Strength to Love.

The Civil Rights Movement helped bring me into the Presbyterian Church. Now in college, the first Sunday of 1970 I attended the First Presbyterian Church of Van Nuys and was surprised that the seminary intern, Jim Nicholie, preached on the previous ten years of the movement. He was part of Project Understanding, a local program in churches intended to overcome racism. I would later learn that a church elder once circulated a petition trying to oust the senior pastor, Dr. James King Morse, calling him a Communist partly because he had preached on the “Christian” way to vote on Proposition 14 (no!) that would have nullified California’s Rumford Fair Housing Act that eliminated the racial barriers Principal Taylor had faced. The then recently approved Confession of 1967, which spoke of reconciliation among races and nations, clinched the deal for me and I became a member within three months.

In my own search of self as a gay Christian, it was visiting MCC Los Angeles in 1972 that for the first time, I witnessed a racially integrated congregation. And if it weren't for the strong support of a black pastor named Robert Jones, an instructor in field work, I would never have been able to do my first ministry within the LGBT community while attending Yale Divinity School.

My first visit to the Washington mall came on my way to seminary in August, 1973, and I was very aware that it was the tenth anniversary of the 1963 march. By myself, as I ascended a rise near the Washington monument, I caught a glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial in the distance as the sun was setting, and I could hear King’s words resound through time, “I have a dream…” During the 1983 commemorative march I snapped a photo of a little black girl carrying a picket sign as large as she was that read, “The Dream lives on!” 

Now in Atlanta, as often as twice a week, running errands, I pass by where Martin and Coretta are buried, near his birth home and next to Ebenezer Church. And somewhere in a storage facility in California, I still have my sister’s 45 of Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song,” listening to which was probably my first multicultural experience.

On the day that Chris visited the King memorial, Pittsburgh Presbytery voted to disinvite him! He had been asked to speak about reconciliation, not ordination. Read the story…

Join Chris, Robert V. Taylor, and Joseph Palacios discussing Three Movements of Gratitude, a retreat for gay and bisexual Christian men at Kirkridge, Nov. 10-13.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

The Christian teacher Abelard of the twelfth century explained the atonement this way: witnessing Jesus suffering on the cross awakens in us that which makes us one with God: our compassion. Compassion is our link to divinity. To witness suffering—whether firsthand or through the media—may draw out our divine urge to hold and help the vulnerable.

Zen teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of a man in Southeast Asia whose work was enforcing drug laws through arrests, imprisonment, and even violence. A relative, a wise old Buddhist nun, told him there was a better way. Under her influence, he became a Buddhist monk who was known for his austere spiritual practices. He founded a drug treatment center that has one of the highest rates of success in the region. His principle therapy to bring people back from the abyss is holding them like babies, telling them how much they are loved. They cry, they sweat, they scream, they listen, they feel, and the healing begins—one day at a time.

A few years ago I watched for the first time the Kenneth Branagh film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It prompted me to read Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, discovering that the film reflects many of its insights. The creature who has been given his creator’s name in the public mind is not the monosyllabic grunter of gay director James Whale’s 1931 film classic (whose own story is the content of another worthy film, Gods and Monsters), but an eloquent philosopher on being a creature abandoned by his creator and rejected by fellow creatures.

Asking for a mate “as hideous as himself,” the creature explains to his creator, Victor Frankenstein, “If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them an hundred and an hundred fold; for that one creature’s sake, I would make peace with the whole kind!” His creator writes, “His words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him, and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened, and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred.”

Branagh’s movie version of the creature’s words captures the sinister consequence of being denied: “I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” And only then concludes, “For the sympathy of one human being, I would make peace with all.”

I attended an ordination in San Francisco which featured two pastors giving “the charge” to one who would be serving as a chaplain and director of a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at a local hospital. The Presbyterian pastor gave an eloquent but long commendation whose content I do not remember. The MCC pastor gave a memorable two-point counsel. “The people you’ll be serving,” she said simply, “Basically want to know ‘Am I alone?’ and ‘Am I loved?’”

“For the sympathy of one human being, I would make peace with all.”

We are all creatures. We each have love in us the likes of which can scarcely be imagined and rage the likes of which can hardly be believed. If we cannot satisfy the one, we might indulge the other.

We need companions. We are all in need of being held. Maybe we should establish bars or coffee houses where we could meet someone simply to hold us for awhile or for the night! The only holding that many experience all week are the hugs before and after worship, and when passing the peace. Knowing that might slow us down when administering those sacraments.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wear Flowers in Your Hair

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Long before today’s stringent airport security, I carried a bouquet of flowers from my garden in Atlanta to my mother in Los Angeles. As I walked through airports, sat on planes, and waited in line for a car rental, I was surprised by the reactions that carrying a small vase of obviously homegrown flowers elicited: Appreciative smiles. Kindly looks and gestures. A twinkle in some eyes. Friendly conversations. And I thought this just might be a good way to go through life.

A song from “my time” once advised that, if going to San Francisco, one should “wear some flowers in your hair.” This may be good advice for any destination.

And it’s not bad counsel for greeting someone. Many of us have enjoyed getting lei’ed in Hawai’i, but I learned this was also the customary greeting as I traveled through India in 1982—and somehow there, less commercial, more genuine. India has also given us the greeting of bringing hands together and bowing slightly in the reverential gesture namaste, “I bow to you” in Sanskrit, what Joseph Campbell described as the most spiritual of languages. Throughout Asia the same gesture is called gassho.

Christians pass the peace of Christ in a hug, a handshake, or a kiss. A friend of mine who is a massage therapist secretly makes the sign of the cross over a client at the beginning of each session, signifying that body’s holiness.

In his milestone Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote of the importance of “over-beliefs”—beliefs that go beyond empirical evidence that help create their own reality. Writing about this in one of my books, I gave the illustration of getting on an elevator. If you enter believing everyone in the car is going to be friendly, you are more likely to elicit a friendly response.

Bearing flowers or offering flowers, greeting others with namaste or peace or the sign of the cross—if only in my heart—makes me far more likely, not only to experience others as beloved children of God, but to be treated as a beloved child.

Like Will Rogers, my parents never met a stranger they didn’t like. My sister and brother and I heard more life stories elicited by my parents’ Midwestern friendliness than could fill a book. Sales clerks. Servers. Repair persons. Mail carriers. You name it. Wish the whole world could be like them.

Coming up this Sunday:
Rockville, Maryland, Oct. 23. Chris will speak at the Rockville United Church, 355 Linthicum St. 20851 at the 9:30 am morning class on “Claim the God in You as a Progressive Christian” and his sermon title during the 10:45 worship will be “Jesus Was Not a Literalist.” Lunch follows with a question-and-answer period with Chris.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Richard Dawkins Has More Faith Than I Do

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

Famed evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins is one of those atheists who inspire faith in me even while dissin’ it. I found a recent New York Times interview of him by Michael Powell more uplifting than that week’s religious articles. Of course that’s because most media coverage of religion highlights faults more than insights.

I’ve written before that I am not an atheist because it requires way too much faith! It’s easier for me to believe that there’s a God than that there’s not, not just for psychological comfort, but to fully comprehend the awesome cosmos and all its living things.

I’m with Marcus Borg when he invites atheists, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” because the God I believe in is not the one on which I was reared. In fact, the more I might try to define or describe God, the more likely I am to be wrong, or idolatrous, or just plain presumptuous. At the least God is that “oomph” Dawkins implies when speaking of evolution as progressive, tending toward greater complexity. You could say that when I say the Lord’s Prayer each morning, I am aligning myself with that “oomph.”

The article quotes British literary critic Terry Eagleton’s observation that Dawkins offers “vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” I can’t say if that’s true, but atheists and progressive Christians probably have a lot more in common about the God they don’t believe in than atheists might think.

“If you look up at the Milky Way through the eyes of Carl Sagan, you get a feeling in your chest of something greater than yourself,” Dawkins tells Powell, “And it is. But it’s not supernatural.”

I agree. My feeling and faith of something greater than myself is NOT supernatural. It is an embodied experience. That’s the reality that the story of the incarnation is pointing to: that which we call God is with us, among us, within us.

And the “something greater than myself” also is not supernatural, but a natural and integral part of all that is. The Milky Way serves as an icon revealing that God is also beyond us and beyond our imagination.

“Religion teaches you to be satisfied with non-answers,” Dawkins is quoted as saying. Actually, I believe that much religion has too many answers. Spirituality teaches us, in Rilke’s well-used phrase, to live the questions. 

For those interested in listening to my sermon in Wilmington, DE this past Sunday, Oct. 9, on same-gender marriage, please click on: "The Wedding Banquet"
Coming up:
Rockville, Maryland, Oct. 23: Chris will speak at the Rockville United Church, 355 Linthicum St. 20851 at the 9:30 am morning class on “Claim the God in You as a Progressive Christian” and his sermon title during the 10:45 worship will be “Jesus Was Not a Literalist.” Lunch follows with a question-and-answer period with Chris.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Redeemed from the Pit

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

We were in Chile this time last year, visiting wineries, trekking the Andes, biking Santiago, and walking the shore. But the emotional highlight of the trip—one that brought tears to my eyes—was the rescuing of the miners trapped two months beneath the surface of the earth. Their families, wives and lovers had set up camp near the opening of the mine in solidarity, creating a community to welcome them home. Chile mobilized to save the thirty-three, bringing in experts in drilling, survival, psychology, health, and encouragement to see them through their ordeal. National flags flew everywhere in support of the effort, reminiscent of the U.S. after 9/11.

One morning I turned on the news minutes after the initial breakthrough of the shaft that would serve as an exit for the trapped men, and waited with the world as miners were brought up out of the mine one by one over the following two days. Our B&B was next to an elementary school, and each time a miner was brought up we could hear the children shout for joy and sing the national anthem. When the last miner was brought up, our hosts took us upstairs to their apartment and flung wide their windows overlooking the Santiago rooftops so we could hear the church bells ringing across the city in celebration. As one NPR commentator said later, the elation the world shared was akin to Americans landing on the moon, adding, in that week, we were all Chileans.

In a way, the miners served for me as a metaphor for Chile itself, emerging in recent years from the Pit of a dictatorship that severely restricted the people. We saw evidence of this newfound freedom in the experimentation and openness of architectural design in Santiago and the increase of public art in the city and parks after a period of utilitarian design and official distrust of artists.

Over and over again, in my heart, I heard the Psalmist proclaim:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
      and all that is within me
      bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul…
who redeems your life from the Pit
      who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…
The Lord works vindication and justice
      for all who are oppressed.  (Psalm 103)
My reading for the trip were several books by James Baldwin, an iconic gay African-American writer. In The Fire Next Time, he described, using different words, how difficult it is for the privileged to understand what it means to be in the Psalmist’s Pit, what it means to be oppressed. In 1960, Baldwin advises his nephew, “There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them…with love. … If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers [and sisters] to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it.”

Our trip coincided with International Coming Out Day, October 11, in which LGBT people and their allies are encouraged to self-identify, to paraphrase Baldwin’s words, forcing others to see us as we really are, forcing others to see their own homophobia and begin to change it. I could not help but imagine how wonderful it would be if the world mobilized its leaders and experts to come to the aid of those in the Pit of the closet, proudly flying rainbow flags in solidarity, and that, for every person who came out, families would eagerly embrace them, school children would shout and sing with joy, churches would ring their bells, the media would positively report it, and the world would rejoice!

Coming up:
Wilmington, Delaware, Oct. 9: Chris will preach on the parable of “The Wedding Banquet” during the 10 am worship at Hanover Street Presbyterian Church, 1801 North Jefferson Street 19802 and offer “A Brief History of Marriage” for the noon adult class that follows. The day’s theme is same-gender marriage.

Rockville, Maryland, Oct. 23: Chris will speak at the Rockville United Church, 355 Linthicum St. 20851 at the 9:30 am morning class on “Claim the God in You as a Progressive Christian” and his sermon title during the 10:45 worship will be “Jesus Was Not a Literalist.” Lunch follows with a question-and-answer period with Chris.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Well Do Progressive Christians Fish?

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

When Jesus called some of his disciples, who were fishermen, he told them he would make them fishers of people. He used a metaphor for their calling that they could readily grasp. A net is flexible, stretching to include as many fish as possible.

In a resurrection story from John, Jesus tells his disciples on which side of the boat to cast their net. From his vantage point on shore, he could possibly see a school of fish—a dark patch in the water or the froth of swimming fish. He had the perspective and vision they lacked.

When they drew in the fish, we are provided an exact count: 153 in total. Jerome, an early interpreter of this story, perhaps mistakenly suggested that the number of species of fish known in the time of Jesus was—you guessed it—one hundred and fifty-three. Despite the possible error, I like the implication that this is an inclusive net and this is a most diverse school of fish.  And the net—the church?—didn’t break.

As progressive Christians sometimes embarrassed by our aggressively evangelical siblings, we might ask ourselves, “How good are we at fishing for people?” How flexible is our net? We pride ourselves at the diversity of people we “officially” welcome. But how many people are we actually “catching”?  Are we throwing our net on the correct side of the boat? Is our net strong enough to bring 153 varieties of people to the shore to encounter Jesus on their own? Can our net—of worship, of community, of service—stretch itself enough to include others? Can we summon the same audacity to “fish for people” that we do when collecting signatures on a petition, proclaiming justice from the pulpit, and protesting prejudice and violence?

I served with the late Louisville seminary professor George Edwards on a national church task force toward the end of the 70’s. He was adamant on calling himself “a liberal evangelical,” declaring passionately that he would not surrender the term “evangelical” to conservative Christians.

We too are “evangelicals,” bringing the good news of progressive Christianity to those who think they’re not following Jesus because they don’t profess the certainties of earlier generations or of present-day fundamentalists. Regardless of doubts, or rather, because of our doubts, our gospel may be more accessible.

As Tennyson wrote in his elegiac poem to his late friend, Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam A. H. H.:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Coming up:
Wilmington, Delaware, Oct. 9: Chris will preach on the parable of “The Wedding Banquet” during the 10 am worship at Hanover Street Presbyterian Church, 1801 North Jefferson Street 19802 and offer “A Brief History of Marriage” for the noon adult class that follows. The day’s theme is same-gender marriage.

Rockville, Maryland, Oct. 23: Chris will speak at the Rockville United Church, 355 Linthicum St. 20851 at the 9:30 am morning class on “Claim the God in You as a Progressive Christian” and his sermon title during the 10:45 worship will be “Jesus Was Not a Literalist.” Lunch follows with a question-and-answer period with Chris.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Keep East Atlanta Weird"

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

When I was young I theorized that old people slowed down because every experience was fraught with layers of memory to be savored. For those of you familiar with Nietzsche, it was reminiscent of the weightiness of life imbued by his “myth of eternal return” versus novelist Milan Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being.”

I had the wisdom not to share my theory, except with friends, and never in writing! But now that I am old (61 next month!), I see some truth to it. The occasion was Saturday’s East Atlanta Village Strut festival.

When I moved to the adjacent Ormewood Park neighborhood of Atlanta in 1994, East Atlanta Village looked like a ghost town: as I recall, having a barber shop, maybe a salon, an “iffy” grocery, and many boarded-up storefronts. Then the Heaping Bowl & Brew opened, the first restaurant, signaling to other urban settlers that this might be a place to come. A trendy martini bar named The Fountainhead soon followed, replete with an Ayn Rand quote at the entrance. Boutique shops came along, as well as other restaurants and bars (including a gay one), a couple of which featured alternative rock bands, reflecting the counter-culture that has long been a part of this neighborhood—thus the bumper sticker, “Keep East Atlanta Weird.”

It was while listening to one of these bands in the food tent that I had my Thomas Merton “aha” moment—you know, you’ve heard it a dozen times, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, his vision coming off the high of a contemplative retreat and recognizing citizens of Louisville at an intersection (now commemorated by a plaque) “walking around shining like the sun.”

Wade had made the “healthier” choice for lunch, fish and chips, while I went with a half chicken smothered in barbecue sauce out of one of those huge oil-drum barbecues tended by a cook that could have played that role in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. In the interests of full disclosure, my vision was helped by the street communion of draft Sapporo beer from the sushi bar across the street.

All my life, I have experienced pleasure simply watching people in public spaces. As a child of the 60s, I relished the diversity gathered at the Strut, from baby strollers to wheelchairs to walkers, longhairs to short hair to shaved heads, tattooed and pierced and neither, of different colors and ethnicities, sexualities and genders. As a man in his 60s, I “recognized” younger and older versions of people I once knew, now gone our separate ways, or lost to disasters like Vietnam, AIDS, cancer, addiction.

Remembering them, I fought back tears, caused also by realizing with Merton that there’s no adequate way to convey to those I watched the full value and fragility of their lives.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"I Love to Tell the Story"

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

In the discussion that followed my sermon in July at the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega, Georgia, I was asked why I had never become a member of their denomination. “Because I love the stories,” I said, referring to the biblical stories. For four years I had given non-sectarian talks for Midtown Spiritual Community, an Atlanta congregation that had left Unity because it was “too Christian,” and, while finding the challenge stimulating and the congregation loving, I missed being able to use more of the stories of my Christian tradition. But I do understand how the certainties portrayed in these stories, while attractive to some, can be off-putting to others.

For example, during different phases of my life I have liked and disliked the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  I love that John is a mystic and sees the deepest meaning in the life of Jesus. But at other times I have found the certainty of Jesus portrayed by John unsettling and unfriendly, formal and rigid. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” These self-affirmations seem audacious and self-centered even in this day and age when self-affirmations are all the rage!

I find myself wanting to see more of the struggling and human Jesus in this Gospel, rather than the so-sure-of-himself divinity. But then, the Gospel of John was written about 100 A.D., and rather than representing the certainty of Jesus, reflects instead the assertions his disciples came to claim on his behalf. In fact, all the Gospels reflect their certainties of who he was, whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

But I do love the way these certainties about Jesus are wrapped in really great stories.  Most of us understand the futility of the quest for the historical Jesus. Jesus is one of those people that, if he didn’t exist, we would have to invent him. Jesus becomes our spiritual leader, our “anointed one,” as he engages us in a way no one else can. If there is no other hint of divinity, it is this ability to inspire visions and dreams and stories.

In Susan Cheever’s book Home before Dark, a memoir about her writer-father John Cheever, she describes how he embellished stories. One was about a publisher making a special trip to Martha’s Vineyard to get him to sign a book contract. In each version of the story, the publisher’s arrival became grander, and, as I remember the story, the means of transportation changed from ferry boat to private yacht to a small fleet of ships—all to entice Cheever to give him one of his bestselling novels. A writer should be so blessed!

This is how stories about Jesus evolved. His followers wanted to say something about the importance of his life. At the same time, they wanted to say how simply and subtly Jesus entered and departed life’s stage, reflecting not only his humility but also why the whole world didn’t get his significance immediately.

“I love to tell the story, of Jesus and his love.” I grew up singing these words from Katherine Hankey’s hymn. That’s the purpose of all of the stories, I believe, “to tell the story of Jesus and his love.” That’s the certainty to cling to.

On Sunday, October 9, Chris will be in Wilmington, Delaware, preaching on the parable of "The Wedding Banquet" during worship at the Hanover Street Presbyterian Church, 1801 North Jefferson Street 19802 and speaking in the adult class that follows on "A Brief History of Marriage." His books will be available and the public is welcome!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

9/11 : When We Were One

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

In the days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, as people speculated as to the U.S. response, an unorthodox thought crossed my mind. “What if we did nothing?” I wondered. “What if we just took the brunt of their hatred and did not respond in kind?” We had gained the world’s empathy; why squander it on violent action?

It was an idealistic thought. Certainly easy to say for someone who only experienced the terrorism on live television; who had lost no one directly. And not pragmatic, as I pride myself at being. Probably would be interpreted as weakness, inviting more attacks. My experience with church bullies has taught me that not responding to attacks is an ineffective way to stop bullying. And I must admit I was glad to see the Taliban driven from power in Afghanistan—those who had blown up the giant stone Buddhas, those who wouldn’t let girls go to school, those who banned children from flying kites.

In a presentation in Chicago a week after 9/11 and in Dayton three weeks after, I pointed out that our immediate response to the attacks was heartening:

Categories seemed to disappear; divisive walls came down. We were no longer Democrats or Republicans, no longer black or white, no longer gay or straight. We were humbled, but not by the terrorists. We were humbled by recognizing our need for one another; that we do not, that we can not stand alone. Look how quickly Jerry Falwell was slapped down for his divisive comments that blamed gays, feminists, pro-choice advocates, and God! Remember how rapidly we sought to defend Arab-Americans and Muslims that some would separate out for retribution. And notice how we resisted those few who would divide us by blaming the victim, the U.S., in a way they would never blame the victims of any other form of violence, such as rape or spousal or child abuse. We are rallying around each other, symbolized politically by the flag, symbolized spiritually by our prayers. 

And then I cautioned:

Eventually, Americans and the world will move beyond the tragedies in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania countryside. Walls and differences and partisanship will be reconstructed.

I paralleled our experience as a nation in that moment of kairos—that moment of spiritual crisis and opportunity—to a conversion experience, an encounter with an awesome God that is humbling, prompting us to come together “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female,” remembering that we are ALL beloved children of God:

An encounter with God transforms us, and we are ready to love everybody. But then we return to building our walls, divisions, categories—reminding us that we have not yet recognized the kingdom of God in our midst, the commonwealth of God in which we share a common spiritual wealth.