Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spiritual Autism

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

I was invited to preach for a new church start. I was told that the Sunday before I was to preach, the congregation would be voting on whether to affiliate with the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian Universalist Association. Of course, both denominations are progressive, but Unitarian Universalists do not necessarily regard Jesus as central to their faith. Thus I urged them to call me as soon as possible after their vote! My sermon would depend on the outcome.

When the pastor called to tell me that the congregation had voted to join the UCC, I breathed a sigh of relief, as I was more accustomed to preaching to Christian congregations at the time. For this new UCC I preached on the challenging text from the Gospel of John that depicts Jesus telling his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood so that they may abide in him and he in them. I used these words to talk about how God welcomes embodiment. Spirituality in Jewish and in Christian traditions is not an “out of body” experience, but very much embodied, whether within an individual body or the body of a spiritual community. That was the gist of what I was trying to say, but boy, did the members of this congregation take offense! Taking me to task in the talk-back session that followed, they seemed to stumble on Jesus’ metaphor. It reminded me that progressive Christians at times can also be literalists.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about how we evaluate information in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In one section on autism, Gladwell writes, “People with autism find it difficult, if not impossible…drawing understanding from anything other than the literal meaning of words. … In anything less than a perfectly literal environment, the autistic person is lost.” 

My judgmental side goes directly to thinking of biblical literalists as suffering from a kind of spiritual autism. But research indicates that any one of us can become functionally autistic, if even for a moment, when there are other factors involved. Gladwell writes, “Our mind, faced with a life-threatening situation [for example], drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with. Sound and memory and broader social understanding are sacrificed in favor of heightened awareness of the threat directly in front of us.” 

And it doesn’t even have to be a life-threatening situation. Anger, fear, passion, sexual arousal, hurry, drugs, alcohol, abuse, addiction, religious or patriotic fervor, or feeling threatened in any way can render any of us temporarily autistic, incredibly focused on the literal. We have seen this in the heated discussions of vital topics, such as abortion, sexuality, marriage, and war, as well as discussing lesser things when limited by time, ignorance, prejudice, or reason-altering substances or conditions.

Returning to my preaching experience, I didn’t realize that a sort of spiritual autism might have been kicking in. Perhaps the congregation could not hear Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood metaphorically because the literal application of this idea in their previous religious traditions had been used to threaten and intimidate and even exclude. It was good they took offense at what I said, because it surfaced issues within the congregation that had not been resolved by a simple vote to join a progressive denomination.

Many disciples of his own time also stumbled on Jesus’ words, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” They questioned, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” I believe this teaching may serve as a spiritual metaphor for the truth that, first, spirituality cannot be separated from our bodily experience and our physical actions. And second, how we experience or embody God in the world reveals our inner life, what we have first received in our own communion with God. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” Jesus concludes. The Gospel writer John, who begins his story with God’s Word of grace and truth made flesh, now suggests that Word may be incarnated in us.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the chief end of humanity is “to enjoy God and glorify God forever.” How many of us actually “enjoy” God?

A former missionary told me a childhood experience of being taught in church that if he prayed diligently enough, God would heal his ailing grandfather. So he prayed three times a day on his knees. When his grandfather died anyway, he felt terrified, believing that God must be some sort of monster to let such a beloved man as his grandfather die. He told me that’s why, a few weeks later at a revival, he “accepted Jesus.” He wanted to be on the good side of this Monster God.

That week, walking my dog, I noticed lettering on a fence that was intended to read, “Beware of the dog.” But two of the letters were missing—so that it read “Beware of the g.” My mischievous mind couldn’t help but think, “Beware of the god,” and I thought that would be an appropriate sign to have on too many churches: BEWARE OF THE GOD. Believe me, you can’t enjoy a God of which you have to beware, nor can you enjoy God in a church that bites you.

As a teenager, C. S. Lewis was the first intellectually rigorous Christian writer that I read. He gave me a framework of reason on which to hang my more intuitive faith of the heart. Not long ago, I picked up Walter Hooper’s C. S. Lewis: Readings for Meditation and Reflection, and began using it during my morning prayers. But in the weeks that followed I found I disagreed with some of Lewis's notions and switched to a different writer. Lewis was too reminiscent of the God I had grown up with, who, while not a monster, is not the God I enjoy today.  Not long after, I gave Lewis another try and decided that there was enough helpful stuff to put up with areas of disagreement.

As with the Bible, we may read all inspirational books critically, as well as listen to every sermon and reading and hymn with the questions: 
Does this speak to me?
Does this match my own experience?
Do I really believe this? 
What’s wrong with this picture?
What part is really helpful?
One entry from Lewis was entitled, “We delight to praise.” He pictures our ultimate enjoyment of God to be like lovers spiraling higher and higher in their love as they praise one another’s attributes: “You have such a great sense of humor.” “I like the shape of your nose.” “Your eyes are so expressive.” “I admire your integrity.” “I appreciate your honesty.” “I love being close to you.” “I love holding you…you holding me.”

He writes that such heavenly praise:
…Does not mean, as it can so dismally suggest, that it is like “being in church.” For our “services,” both in their conduct and in our power to participate, are merely attempts at worship; never fully successful, often 99.9 per cent failures, sometimes total failures. We are not riders but pupils in the riding school; for most of us, the falls and bruises, the aching muscles and the severity of the exercise, far outweigh those few moments in which we were, to our own astonishment, actually galloping without terror and without disaster.
As a runner, I love getting into a similar “zone,” that delightful focus “galloping” for miles in the sun and the breeze. One time, someone from a car distracted me with annoying questions, and I fell headlong onto the sidewalk, bloodying my hands and knees. 

For many of us, our disappointments in church or with God may distract us from enjoying God, and we can fall headlong into anger or resentment or self-pity. I was tempted in my running mishap to fall headlong into anger or resentment or self-pity. But I remembered the Brazilian marathon runner in the Athens Olympics who had his dreams of Olympic gold dashed by a priest knocking him out of the roadway in a crazy attempt to make some religious statement. The Brazilian, who came in third, receiving the bronze, was so gracious that he was also awarded the medal for the most sportsmanlike conduct of the games.

It’s too easy to be knocked out of the zone, enjoying God, by some misguided theology or religious zealot. Getting back on the horse or back in the race is too frequently our challenge.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Acts of God and Acts of War

Those who have suffered the earthquake and tsunami and threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan have seemed close at hand because I am currently transcribing and editing hundreds of letters between my late parents, exchanged during three circumstantial separations, the last of which occurred when my father served as part of the U.S. occupying forces in Japan at the end of World War II.

One of yesterday’s articles in The New York Times told how elderly Japanese, the most vulnerable in the several disasters, had not seen such devastation since that war. I remembered a touching letter my father, then 29, wrote November 18, 1945, on board the U. S. S. General W. A. Mann docked in Nagasaki harbor, as he awaited debarkation.

Dad describes a tiny boat sailing by their ship, whose occupant, a “little old man,” “first waved a white handkerchief above his head” to demonstrate his non-violent intent, then “started bowing very low and very vigorously” as he sailed by, finally holding “both hands high above his head” as he passed. The GI’s on board laughed that he worried they might think his little boat would attack their huge ship.

Then my father turns contemplative:
As the tiny boat went on, later rocking perilously from the backwash of a motorboat which rushed by him, many a GI’s face grew thoughtful. I suppose many wondered, perhaps, if this little old man sailing alone once sailed with sons or even grandsons of his own, now dust on the fields of Manchuria, or lost in the teeming jungle of Guadalcanal. … Somewhere nearby lay the ruins that resulted from one atomic bomb. One wonders what feelings stirred in these people as they stumbled their way through the dust that hovered for days after the explosion. …. They were terrified, but what followed terror when it had exhausted itself?

My hesitancy blogging on current events is that discovering their meaning requires time and thought, especially when considering so-called “acts of God” or acts of war. I can’t presume illumination on the recent events in Japan. Yet it feels wrong not to talk about them. Thankfully, my dad provides a little insight and comfort about such calamities in another onboard letter written to Mom on Thanksgiving Day, 1945:

Honey, in spite of the situation in which we find ourselves, I believe you will agree that we have many things to be thankful for. For many people, including us, war and the aftermath of war shrouds much of our happiness, like a fog whose murky mist hides temporarily the beauty of any landscape. We have only the memory of the landscape as it appeared in the brilliance of a sunny day to tell us that it is still there, hidden in the gloomy vapor, and will appear again, when the fog clears under a summer sun. For that memory we thank God, and until the fog clears we pray God give us faith that the landscape awaits us and that we will have the vision to see it when it reappears again.

For many less fortunate people the fog will never entirely lift again, no matter how bright the sun—little scraps of paper with the words “We regret to inform you” brought certain news that their landscape had changed, and though the sun may disperse much of the mist, there will be hills, once loved, that are hidden, and the vital brook that rippled with laughter no longer visible as it tumbles its way down the mountain to give its all to the lake that lay quiet and peaceful in the valley. God grant that these grieving souls find peace in the quiet tranquility of the lake, as it lay sleeping in the sun. God, please give them faith that their lost loved one has found peace and joy and rest in the sunlight, in that Landscape Somewhere, that sometime we all must see.

Dad was not a professional writer. Yet, as he says later in the letter, “Sometimes, quite often in fact, I am never quite sure just what will come out of this pen when I pick it up.” The same is true of my laptop.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Soul Feels Its Worth

“And the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope / The weary world rejoices…” 

It may seem strange, this first day in Lent, to quote this line from the Christmas carol “O Holy Night.” But this season, despite its emphasis on humility, is an opportunity for our souls to feel their sacred worth.

There is something almost mystical about the weaving of words with music. Hildegard of Bingen wrote that “Singing summons the Holy Spirit.” It can uplift the soul in a way naked words cannot. As much as we need to change the bad theology of old hymns, there are times when old phrases that resonate positively may be used as a kind of mantra, a form of lectio divina in which the phrase repeated over and over may descend, as the fourth century contemplatives described it, from the mind to the heart. For me, such is the phrase “and the soul felt its worth.”

What illustration could I use to get across the meaning of “the soul felt its worth”? Seeing love in the eyes of someone you love. Receiving praise from a person or group you respect. Being part of a good and just cause.

Yet what too often comes to mind are the many ways in which the soul does not feel its worth in today’s world: the maiming and killing of terrorism and war, the oppression of injustice and religious shaming, the hatred of prejudice, the violence of assault or bullying, the violation of theft, unfaithfulness or abuse or exploitation in a relationship, whether in the home, the workplace, the marketplace, politics, or religion. These are obvious examples when the soul doubts its worth.

But there are less obvious examples: when we are unemployed or underemployed, when we can’t afford food or healthcare, when we don’t have shelter or education, when slighted by society or religion. And less vital but no less devastating examples: a cutting remark by a family member, an impatient look from a sales clerk, the failure of a loved one to phone. All of these occasion times when the soul does not feel its worth.

A publisher once asked me to write a book entitled, “Why I Am a Christian.” I replied that all of my books attempt to answer that question. But what he meant was, despite everything, why I still valued my Christian identity. Now I realize it is because as I draw close to Jesus, to God, to all that I hold sacred, my soul feels its worth.  “We are God’s work of art,” the apostle Paul assured the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:10; NJB).

“O Holy Night” is not just a sentimental song that describes Jesus “born to be our friend” who “taught us to love one another,” whose “law is love” and whose “gospel is peace.” More than such sweet generalities the song proclaims:
      Chains shall he break / For the slave is our brother;
      And in his name / All oppression shall cease.  

The reason I follow Jesus is that I believe he somehow “got it right” about what true spirituality is, recognizing and reminding every soul of its sacred worth. I want to be like him when I spiritually grow up.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Right Word

We’ve all been there. Trying to find the right word to say. The right word to say to a friend who has lost her mother. The right word to say in a letter seeking acceptance. The right word to let someone know how much you love him or her.

It’s true that words are not the answer to everything. Sometimes silence is healing. Sometimes silence lets you think. Sometimes just listening, either to a friend or to God or to your own heart is all that’s needed. But when the silence is deafening, when the silence is lonely, we need to hear a word. A word of hope.  A word of encouragement. A word of love.

The Bible is the story of a God who tries a multitude of ways to speak to us. A voice in the wilderness. Commandments written in stone. Oracles of prophets seeking justice and mercy.

But then God changes strategy. Instead of speaking from the top down, from the outside in, God decides to speak from the inside out. Christian scriptures assert that God became Emmanuel, God-with-us, so as to be able to speak as an insider about the human experience. And began with the humblest human form, that of a baby. Then was manifest as a teacher and healer and martyr.

Instead of a commanding presence, God decided to manifest a compassionate presence. Instead of taking charge, instead of being in control, as in creation, God decided to persuade us rather than coerce us, to be our shepherd rather than our ruler. (Maybe even creation was less about manipulation than inspiration. Maybe that's why evolution took so long!)

God wanted to touch us, to teach us, from the inside out. And so touched our hearts with just the right word, the Word made flesh—a baby, a builder, a rabbi, a lover.

The mystic John had a vision that this was always God’s intention—that the Word made flesh was one and the same with the Word that was the inspiration of creation, the cause not only of our being reborn from above, but the origin of our being born at all. The Gospel writer John is cast as one of the first Christian theologians because of this. We may find that a little off-putting because we often associate theology with doctrine—things you have to believe even if you don’t. Many of us prefer “spirituality” to “theology” for that reason.

But for the Christians of old, the term “theologia” was used to describe their highest form of prayer: a mystical communion with God in which words were unnecessary. For them, theologia was an experience, not words. Theologia was what we call spirituality.

The Genesis passage of creation which John echoes depicts a God who simply speaks things into existence: light and dark, earth and sea, fish and mammal.  John gives us a vision of a primordial Word before words. I think of this as a mystical version of the Big Bang theory of the universe, in which something the size of a marble exploded into infinite galaxies. The Word exploded into many words that came to light.

You probably think the emphasis on this primordial Word and on the Word made flesh would please me as a writer. But it frustrates me more than it pleases me. Because I know that no matter what I do as a writer—find the right words, construct them in the best possible way, put as many together as possible—will never be complete, will never draw a breath, will never approximate either the primordial Word of awe and majesty or that Word made flesh full of grace and truth.

The only satisfaction I can derive from this metaphor is the knowledge that, as a writer, I am following a sacred strategy to transform things from the inside out. No matter how much I get a sense of being in control by putting words on paper, how it touches your heart is entirely up to you.

And, this may sound heretical, but no matter how awesome God’s power to speak universes into existence, no matter how awesome Emmanuel’s power to love us into abundant life, how either touches our hearts is also entirely up to us.

Because that’s what Love allows. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NRSV).

Love becomes flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. In our loneliness and in our solitude, in our relationships and in our congregations, in our communities and in our world, Love is the right word. And it never ends.