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, na├»ve 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.