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.