Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Miss the Rapture?

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

I don’t know how long I have, as I am writing this on May 21st, which billboards in my city declare is the day of the rapture, when the saints of God will be caught up in heaven with Jesus and the world will begin its final tribulations.

Of course, writing this is pointless, as there will be no readers to see this post, scheduled for Wednesday, as the God I believe in will leave no one behind.

In honor of this day, last night we watched the film 2012 about the Mayan prophecy of the end of the world. Unfortunately, we were too tired to finish watching it, and now there’s probably not enough time.

Occasionally I have found myself in conversation with others who were taught about the rapture as children. Everyone has their own stories about how they handled this terrifying and traumatizing bit of Christian teaching, sharing them like veterans exchanging war stories. I, for one, feared being cast down into the pit of hell, but at the same time feared being caught up in the skies with Christ because of my fear of heights.

Someone from a small town once told me that, if he or any of his friends discovered their parents gone from the house unexpectedly, they might fear the worst—that their parents had been raptured and they themselves had been left behind. Together these friends came up with a plan in such an event: they would call, say, Mrs. Smith, the most saintly person they knew, and if she answered her phone, they knew the rapture had not occurred.

The “Left Behind” series exploits this fear of God’s eternal abandonment. I have heard that recent books in the series have become slow and plodding—stretching out the publishing viability of additional volumes. My attitude toward those who misconstrue Jesus and the Book of Revelation is “Leave already!”

Truth is, we are more likely to abandon God than the other way around.

Our dog Hobbes could write her own “left behind” series. We leave her behind when we go to work or the store. We leave her behind when we go out to dinner. We left her behind with a friend when we went to Chile for a visit. She is constantly being “left behind,” but she knows that when we return, things will be better. She’ll receive a pat on the head and a rub on the tummy. She’ll be fed and get to climb up on the bed. She’ll walk in the park with us and join me for morning prayers on the deck.

That’s the sort of thing we should be looking forward to. Simone Weil wrote, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” In expectation of the good, I would add.

How Hobbes looks when "left behind."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Gospel of Glee

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

In thanksgiving to God for the life, ministry, art, and friendship of Bill Silver, a fellow openly gay candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian Church in 1975.

For another blog and another purpose, I recounted Jesus telling his disciples “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” It is the story of a widow—vulnerable because of her lack of marital status as well as her gender—seeking justice from an unjust judge, a judge who cares neither for God nor people. For a while the judge refuses, but finally concludes, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:4-5).  Jesus’ point is that no one should feel discouraged from praying for the good, because God is all the more swift to grant justice.

God’s swift justice, however, is nonetheless retarded by unjust judges. Jesus’ parable has given me heart in our struggle to persuade the church that it has unjustly judged and excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Like the persistent widow, meeting after meeting, in every denomination, our movement has petitioned for justice—membership, ministry, marriage. After one defeat, one of the last things my supportive father said to me before his death in 1991 was, “The next time you go tilting at windmills, I hope they fall down!” It seems finally we have worn down resistance in several denominations. The windmills are falling.

Yet the ratification of an amendment to the Presbyterian Church’s constitution last week that plucks out the prohibition of LGBT ordination is a mere whisper of justice. The prohibition that dared not speak our name (requiring heterosexual marriage or chastity for ordination) is replaced by an affirmation that also dares not speak our name!

I found myself grieving and angry over hundreds of friends and colleagues who did not live to see this sliver of “More Light” dawn on a church in which they had been raised to believe they belonged but who died being told they did not.

But I didn’t feel my rage at “justice delayed / justice denied” until I watched the Glee episode “Prom Queen” broadcast the same Tuesday evening of the deciding presbytery votes. A vision of God’s commonwealth always makes reality pale in comparison. Though I initially resisted becoming a fan, I believe the program is the most uplifting hour on television. Glee blessedly proclaims the Gospel the church has resisted, in one way or another, throughout our history—that all of us belong, equally, of whatever color, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, gender.

An artist who proclaimed a similar Gospel was Vincent van Gogh, but only after he was removed by the institutional church from his pulpit as a Calvinist minister because he identified too much with the poor and marginalized he had been sent to serve. He went through an idle wilderness period to discern his new call, as a painter of the overlooked and marginalized. His sermons, he wrote to his brother Theo, would be his paintings, offering the consolation that the Christian religion once gave.

Glee gives me the consolation and the inspiration the church is called to offer. When the church fails, Jesus speaks to us any way he can.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Shoveling Manure

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

Jesus described a fig tree that had borne no fruit for three years, and the owner wants it cut down. “Why should it be wasting the soil?” the owner questions the gardener. But the gardener patiently replies, “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

The subtext is what will happen to a spiritual community that does not produce fruit. Yet Jesus offered hope for its redemption. The owner is ready to cut the tree down, but the gardener says, let me put a little more manure on it and give it another year. This is a story about being given another chance, another opportunity—in this case, to bear fruit.

I love the relationship of manure to fruit in this story. Too many Christians have a high propensity for manure and a great tolerance of manure. We prefer to speak of bearing fruit, but it’s important to remember the manure we plow through just to be in church on Sunday mornings.

There is a Buddhist story of a monk who went from monastery to monastery, trying to find the right one for him. He would spend six months at one, then pick up his bag and leave. He spent three months at another, then pack his bag and leave. A year at still another, then pick up his bag and leave. Observing this over time, one monk said to another, “His bag long ago got dipped in manure and he carries it wherever he goes, thinking the smell of manure is coming from the monastery he’s visiting rather than from his own baggage!”

Many of us are carrying religious baggage that long ago got dipped in manure, and we smell it whenever we even think of church. If we don’t give up altogether, this is what makes us hungry for progressive theology and thirsty for an inclusive spiritual community. The manure from our past bears fruit in those of us who have had it with bad theology and damning rhetoric. We still get a whiff of it from time to time, sometimes in a scripture or a hymn or a sermon, sometimes in a conversation or an e-mail or a meeting, but we try to counter it with the aromas of opening blossoms and ripening fruit.

Speaking to a conference of clergy, William Sloane Coffin said that ministers are like manure—effective when spread out in the field, but when heaped together, a little overwhelming. All Christians are ministers, and heaped together, we can be a little overwhelming!

But if we indeed remember and act as if each of us is a minister—that is, a prophetic voice, a pastoral ear, a “wounded healer,” and a priestly actor, we will reach those who need to know about this thing we call progressive Christianity. Encouraging us is this parable of the fig tree, this parable of another chance, this parable of redemption, this parable of using the manure we’ve been given to bear fruit. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Where Is God?

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

I received the news of Osama bin Laden’s death with grim satisfaction, but only after the immediate lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I recalled once more those trapped in the crashing planes and falling buildings of 9/11. And their loved ones.

In the face of all terrorism that wounds and kills and destroys, we have cause to wonder “Where is God?”

Invited to speak on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past Sunday, I quoted one of the characters in Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s novel Night, who asks this very question. In a concentration camp, a mere child is sentenced to hang, and as the sentence is carried out, the young narrator hears someone behind him asking, “Where is God, where is He?” And when the child does not die right away, but suffers, lingering between life and death, again, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…’”

That’s what Jesus’ followers discerned, as they witnessed Jesus on his cross. “For God’s sake, where is God?” they surely wondered. And from within them, they heard a voice answer—perhaps the Holy Spirit?—“Where is God? This is where—hanging from this cross…”

As I wrote in this blog during Holy Week, this is how the crucifixion speaks to me—God identifies with all innocents who suffer violence for who they are, whether hung on a fence post in Wyoming, drug behind a truck in Texas, or last week, beaten in a McDonald’s in Maryland.

Those of us who watched the royal wedding Friday morning were reminded that it was the feast day of Catherine of Siena, who admonished, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire!” I might add, if the world doesn’t set you on fire first!

One who did not survive the Holocaust, or Sho’ah, Etty Hillesum, wrote a prayer in her diary [published in English as An Interrupted Life] on July 12, 1942:

Dear God…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. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.
And later she adds, “There will always be a small patch of sky above, and there will always be enough space to fold two hands in prayer.” She died at Auschwitz on November 30, 1943.

“Safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.” “Safeguard”—as in preserve, protect, and treasure. “And perhaps in others as well.” That’s the tough part, thus “perhaps.” Disrespecting God’s dwelling place in others is the root of all terrorism.