Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In the Company of Birds

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

On Maundy Thursday last week, I discovered an empty turquoise shell beneath a tree. At first I was saddened to think an unhatched bird had met its demise in a fall from a nest or in the claws of a predator. Then I realized it was more likely safely hatched, and the shell cast from the nest, no longer needed.

Our dog Hobbes and I had just begun our walk to “her” church, the neighborhood Seventh-Day Adventist Church. She’s actually a “Fifth-Day Adventist,” because we go there on Thursdays. In truth, it’s the panorama of trees and kudzu along a ravine behind the church that is the draw. As Hobbes was doing her “scratch and sniff” routine along its edge, I caught sight of a huge, predatory bird on a high branch of one of the tall trees in the ravine. At first I thought it an owl, but soon determined it was a hawk, common in this part of Atlanta.

At that moment, to my dismay, I saw a much smaller bird fly right into the hawk. I was sure the predator would swoop down and devour this pest. Thinking it had been an accident, I was surprised to see the little bird again hit the larger bird, this time using its small body to dive bomb the predator, literally ruffling its feathers, and I realized it was trying to drive it off, probably to protect eggs or chicks in a nearby nest. The hawk didn’t budge. I guess the third time is the charm even for birds, because its next plunge prompted the hawk to fly away. I was amazed.

The next day, Good Friday, I was enjoying morning prayer on our deck, Hobbes, as usual, at my feet. A pair of finches had built a nest above one of the outside music speakers, laid and hatched three eggs, and the baby birds were sitting patiently waiting for mom and dad to return with food. From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I just happened to be reading my most visited scripture, one I selected for my long-awaited ordination, on God’s Providence. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Closing with the Lord’s Prayer, just as I prayed “Give us this day our daily bread,” as if on cue, it was feeding time for the young birds, who erupted in a chirpy, ecstatic frenzy.

I chose an unusual spiritual discipline for Good Friday and Holy Saturday: re-reading a book that had meant much to me in my young adulthood, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It describes the opportunity of a middle-aged man to leave his frenzied work and world to enjoy a more contemplative and fulfilling life. “Lost Horizon” refers to Shangri-La, a land beyond a mountainous portal with a verdant valley overlooked by a well-appointed lamasery; but it also serves as metaphor for the protagonist’s own “lost horizon” of moral purpose and aesthetic pleasure.

As I sat reading this novel from the 1930’s, I was afforded the repeated spectacle of the parent finches returning from food gathering expeditions to feed their hungry babies—about every half-hour or so. This is the pleasure of contemplative life, I thought, to attend to things from which our schedules and schemes and self-importance distract us.

In a book about Celtic Christianity, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell writes that John Scotus Eriugena, a ninth century philosopher, taught that Christ walks among us in two shoes—that of Scripture and that of Creation. Celtic Christians recognized Creation itself as an epiphany of God. So do I.

The empty shell had reminded me of the empty tomb. The defeat of the predatory hawk made me think of our soulful resistance to bullies. And, though on Sunday morning we attended worship and brunched with family and friends, our household Easter this year occurred as we watched the finches finally leave their nest.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Faggot" Jesus

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. Painting Copyright © by Becki Jayne Harrelson. All rights reserved. 

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ first appeared in movie theaters, a Jewish friend of ours asked if my partner and I would go with her to see it. She wanted to view it with Christians, she said, to get our perspective.

The severity of Gibson’s religion, combined with the film’s alleged anti-Semitism and blood-soaked violence, had kept it from my Top Ten list of films to see. Drawn partly from the visions of mystics of the 17th and 18th centuries, the film also carried for me a misogynistic and transphobic feeling, as evil was incarnate in an effeminate, androgynous figure.

I flinched and squirmed watching the film’s gore. Yet all I could think of is that people in this country and around the world are still enduring such vile and extreme suffering at the hands of others.

Long ago I wrote that, though a Protestant, I think we may have overstepped by taking Jesus off the crucifix. As much as I don’t wallow in bloody atonement scenarios, a body on a cross should awaken our repulsion at violence and our compassion for those who suffer it, what the 12th century teacher Peter Abelard considered the true basis of our at-one-ment with God.

The epithet “King of the Jews” at the top of Jesus’ cross was the Roman Empire's way of mocking anyone who claimed their people’s dignity in the face of oppression. It was an insult not only to Jesus but to his people; thus the chief priests are portrayed in John's Gospel as unsuccessfully petitioning to have the epithet changed.

My friend and web-designer, the artist Becki Jayne Harrelson, has captured the concept of the crucifixion as a hate crime in an outstanding painting depicting Jesus on the cross with the epithet “FAGGOT” above his head. [See painting below.] You could imagine any slur against a group of people in that slot, and understand the blood-curdling intimidation intended by those who perpetrate hate crimes, whether through physical violence or through religious or political violence.

The message for me in the story of Christ’s Passion is God’s identification with all who suffer violence. Despite our bloody church history, I do not believe that God consecrates violence. As I’ve written elsewhere, the crucifixion was our idea; the resurrection was God’s.

The Crucifixion of Christ by Becki Jayne Harrelson -

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spiritual Freedom

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

Paul reminded the church in Galatia that he had been very religious. He wrote, “I advanced in [religion] beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” What that meant was following to the letter every religious law and performing every required religious ritual. But what that also meant for him was intolerance of any who did not rigidly adhere to the same laws and rituals—thus his persecution of the freewheeling sect who were followers of Jesus.

But then Paul had a spiritual experience. It was a spiritual experience that did not conform to his tradition. As is true throughout the Bible, personal experience is thus counted as a sacred source, alongside religious teaching and ritual. Our lives are sacred texts that we may consult alongside scripture and tradition. Spirituality is not something imposed by external requirements, such as circumcision. Spirituality is something inspired by internal freedom, a circumcision—transformation—of the heart.

The apostle Paul addressed a crisis in the life of the congregation in Galatia in which some of its members were trying to impose traditional rituals and requirements on its converts. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” Paul virtually shouted at them. But freedom itself can be inhibiting, when we face so many possibilities! What do we preserve and what do we transcend? How do we make the choice? Who makes that decision?

From childhood I remember an episode of a TV program called Crossroads in which two angels come to a village. The angel in the white suit claimed to have come from God, as did the angel in the dark suit. The villagers did not know which angel to believe, so they challenged them to engage in a staring match. Two chairs were set opposite one another on the main street, and a wide circle was drawn around them, lest someone get in the way of their spiritual warfare and be harmed.  The angels sat in the opposing chairs and stared intently into each other’s eyes without blinking.

Unaware of what was going on, a little girl playing nearby chased her ball into the circle, to the alarm of the villagers. Suddenly she was struck down by the spiritual powers wrestling for control. But before she fell to the ground, the angel in the dark suit turned to catch her before she hurt herself, breaking his gaze at the angel in the white suit.

“Ah, now we know which angel is from heaven,” some villagers concluded, “The angel in the white suit did not look away.”

But other villagers wondered allowed, “But wouldn’t an angel from heaven be more concerned for the child’s welfare than with winning a stupid contest?” And so the villagers were divided between the angel with power and the angel with compassion.

It has been said of our own era that the most needed spiritual gift is an ability to discern the spirits. The Galatians were similarly torn between the traditions of their spiritual ancestors and their newfound Christian freedom. So Paul gave them a way to test the spirits in their freedom: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” But lest we focus on judging others, Paul continued, “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride.”

A conservative Christian once remarked about a festive gathering of progressive Christians, “You do seem to have better parties.” The progressive Christian to whom he spoke laughed, observing, “There may be a theological reason for that!”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

We've Got the Whole World in Our Hands

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

During recess in the second grade, my friend Mary and I enjoyed swinging as high as we could on the swing set, singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” It’s a great song of comfort, basically affirming that, no matter what, God is holding us. Note the song doesn’t say God is in control, just that God is there for us. And I still believe that.

These days we have a better grip on what it means for God to hold the whole world because we have the internet and a 24/7 news cycle. Now we too have the whole world in our hands every time we log on.

The narrator in my as-yet-unpublished mystery novel so reveres the internet that, just as many of us only visit God on Sunday mornings, he only visits the internet on Saturday mornings. Comparing it to touching the forbidden Mt. Sinai, he drolly writes:

The internet is such an awesome god—so extensive we can only glimpse a part of it, so powerful that it has crashed many a computer, so desirous that many humans and their marriages have been sacrificed on its local altars. Okay, I’m a little over the top here, but it’s an amusing analogy, don’t you think? My point is, like any powerful and overwhelming god, the internet must be approached guardedly, with respect, on appointed days and at appointed times, lest we take it for granted (as if our computers are always up) or believe we can domesticate it (making it entirely user-friendly). Just as the ancient monastics limited human intercourse of all kinds, even so, those of us who practice an ascetic lifestyle must limit our intercourse with the internet, lest it lead us into idolatry or distract us from reality. To switch mythological metaphors, the internet is the Medusa’s head of our time, a face whose tresses are cables rather than snakes, but still able to turn men to stone.

Demonstrating a similar reverence, only recently has my spell-check stopped correcting me when I fail to capitalize the word “internet,” though it never corrects me when I fail to capitalize “god”!

A retreat leader once scandalized my progressive theology—you know, the theology that tells you to have the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other during your morning prayers—by observing that the omnipresent news cycle hooks us in other people’s stories before we know our own story for the day. And, during a retreat I was leading on finding space in our busy lives to rest in God, a woman had the “aha” moment that she was busy even in her prayers, listing the world’s concerns, as if the whole world were not already in God’s hands!

Now more than ever, we have the whole world in our hands. And more than ever, we need to step back, take a breath, take moments of Sabbath rest, and resist the temptation to use Eden’s apple or the Silicon Valley’s Apple to be like the gods.

Yet we are not absolved of responsibility. Now, also more than ever, the internet gives what we do and say the power to transform the world for good or for ill.

We’ve got the whole world in our hands. If we are God’s, then that should be a comfort rather than a concern.