Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"One Nation Under God"

Copyright © 2012 Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

God does not unite the United States of America. Otherwise our nation would exclude Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and those uncommitted to any theological viewpoint. 

Rather, Enlightenment values, such as liberty, equality, and inherent human rights unite the U.S.A. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries which inspired our founders emphasized reason, science, religious tolerance, and freedom from political tyranny. One could readily see how these values are rooted in both Judaism and Christianity, but to make of our founders evangelical Christians is historically untrue. 

We eschew theocracies when Islamic in nature; why would we seek a theocracy that is Christian? 

I am not one who believes those who hold religious values should not express them in the public square—after all, religion-based civil rights and antiwar movements have appropriately challenged our national conscience. So do the pro-choice, anti-abortion, and anti-capital punishment movements. 

However, I for one would like to see a candidate for elected office conclude a speech not only with “God bless America!” but also “God bless the world!” Yes, I know, I’m a political Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!” But it would demonstrate a kind of religious humility, as well as keep those who believe in God mindful that “the whole world,” in the words of the spiritual, “is in God’s hands.” 

A January 18th op-ed essay in The New York Times (“For God So Loved the 1 Percent…” by Kevin M. Kruse, a Princeton professor of history) reminds us of the origin of “one nation under God” in Lincoln’s hope expressed in his Gettysburg address that “this nation, under God, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s use of the phrase “under God” called for the kind of humility I describe above, especially of both sides of a divided nation. But, Kruse explains, a version of the phrase, “freedom under God,” surfaced in the 1930s and 1940s in an attempt by corporate leaders to use conservative clergy to derail Roosevelt’s New Deal and give God’s imprimatur to unregulated capitalism, despite the recent Depression. Eventually, in 1954, “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance. 

According to a recent survey, the #1 burning issue in voters’ hearts and minds this election is the increasing wealth gap between the 1 percent and the 99. Now there are those who are resurrecting the phrase “one nation under God” to declare how ostracized that 1 percent feels! 

Jesus told a parable of a good shepherd leaving the 99 to seek one lost sheep. Let’s hope this doesn’t get reinterpreted to mean abandoning the 99 percent to appease and coddle the 1 percent.

This Sunday, Jan. 29, Dahlonega, GA: Chris will speak on “Death as Soul Friend: What Death Can Teach Us about Life” at the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Univeralist Church at 11 a.m. Following the service and a light lunch, he will lead an hour-long workshop at 12:30, “Our Lives as Sacred Texts.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Let God Rub Your Belly

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

Okay, so I’ve put off writing this particular reflection because I know you’re going to say its opening illustration is way too cute. So be it.  

Our dog Hobbes likes to join me on the deck for morning prayers. She sits at my feet as I read, but when I put the books down to pray—which for me is lifting people, the world, and the day’s agenda prayerfully, closing with the Lord’s Prayer—she rolls on her back, expecting me to rub her belly. After I rub one side, she flops over so I can rub the other side. 

For nearly a year now, that’s what I’ve been encouraging progressive Christians to do through this blog: let God rub your belly. That’s one of the reasons I do my morning prayers—to bask in God’s unconditional love. It helps me get through the day, willing to “rub the bellies” of others by acknowledging with cheer and regard all those I encounter, whether strangers, opponents, or friends. And it keeps me aware that I too deserve respect as a child of God. 

I am reminded of my father’s experience when he used “belly” in a headline while serving as editor of his high school newspaper in small town Kansas in the early 1930s. To characterize a particular football game, he used the term “belly flopper.” The powers that be found it unseemly that he had referred to a body part with a “vulgar” term.  

I have been teaching an online course entitled, “Christianity and Sexuality.” One of its purposes is to overcome the erotophobia of the church that would inhibit our understanding of literal belly-rubbing as a deeply spiritual exercise. Just as God rubs our spirituality in prayer-making, we may roll over and allow God to rub our sexuality in lovemaking. 

Creation, incarnation, and resurrection all affirm the sacred nature of our bodies. Lovemaking, like prayer-making, is an opportunity to let God rub your belly. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to exclaim at the conclusion of lovemaking what we say at the end of hearing God’s word of love, “Thanks be to God!” or at the end of prayer-making, “Amen!”?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A New Underground Railroad

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

One of my speaking venues in Pennsylvania mid-December was a church that served as a “stop” on the Underground Railroad. To show me, the pastor opened a door in the floor of the foyer so that I might descend a rough wooden staircase that led to the sanctuary’s original foundation, under which I could peer into a low and narrow tunnel. Through this, slaves escaping north crawled to hide in side tunnels carved out of the soil beneath the church. Any who looked into this crawl space would see neither persons nor side tunnels, so carefully disguised was this hiding place. 

I had just met with the Butler LBGTQ Interfaith Network, the Butler Chapter of PFLAG, and Community Safe Zone organizers in the fellowship hall of this church, Covenant United Presbyterian Church in Butler, Pennsylvania. As organizer Ted Hoover from Pittsburgh’s Persad Center had warned, “This sounds like a huge crowd, but this is a very conservative area!” What struck me was that this congregation was still serving as an “underground railroad,” but this time, for those who want to create safe spaces for LGBT folk and their allies in the outlying and rural regions of southwest Pennsylvania.  

The small gathering included a young man and his partner whose Presbyterian pastor had thrown him out of his church on Facebook (!), though he is beloved by the congregation, served as a church elder, and plans to attend seminary! Also present were a transgender woman and her wife, the latter of whom lost her pastorate because they wanted to remain together after the first’s transition. For decades, this couple had been favorites of evangelical Presbyterians for their missionary efforts in Africa. All four of these individuals had since been welcomed by Covenant Church, yet another example of this new underground railroad providing sanctuary to those escaping the bondage of unwelcoming churches. 

That day I had originally been scheduled to give a presentation on “Reconciliation” in Pittsburgh Presbytery, in light of Presbyterians there resisting the new open door policy of the denomination that allows but does not require congregations and presbyteries to ordain LGBT people as elders, deacons, and pastors. Some are seeking ways to separate or segregate themselves from the denomination. But the Presbytery disinvited me, and I ended up giving my talk on reconciliation to a crowd at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh the night before.  

Among other things, I spoke of how the denomination’s Confession of 1967, that emphasized a ministry of reconciliation among races and nations, had drawn me into the Presbyterian Church in 1970, long before the church helped me reconcile my sexuality and spirituality.  I also explained that my first guest sermon in the church I joined as a college student was entitled, “Conflict and Unity Within the Church,” and I lauded the church as one of the few places where very different people could reflect on the meaning of their faith together—liberal and conservative, blue collar and white collar, more or less educated, of varying colors and ethnicities, and so on. This was in the days before the political and religious right claimed theirs the only legitimate form of Christianity, sending many progressives on our own underground railroad to find welcoming churches.  

Covenant’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Jim Swanson, not only recommended but sent me a copy of a book by Brad Hirschfield, an orthodox rabbi, entitled, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. I have since been reading it during my morning prayers and have found it as challenging as it is inspiring. On Monday of this week, I read of his opportunity to pray alongside Muslims, in Hebrew and in his own tradition, during a visit to the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the U.S., at its headquarters in Indiana. He writes: 

"To be a true monotheist is to understand that no one human understating of an infinite power can ever fully capture what that power is, or how, exactly, to relate to or honor it. To appreciate this is to become modest about claiming to know 'what God wants.' The more traditionally religious you are, the more deeply modest and radically inclusive you should be. … Too often we think that by making room for each other we are somehow surrendering our integrity… When we fight for the integrity of our beliefs, relationships, and communities, we are actually fighting to integrate that which seems alien or threatening. We will have the most integrity when we are integrating the widest range of people and ideas." [Emphasis mine.] 

The Gospel of the Lord. 

Thanks be to God!


Visit my homepage under "Recent Events" at to find my two Pittsburgh sermons on the LGBTQ Interfaith Network’s Facebook page. My gratitude to the sponsoring Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Task Force on Ministry with Sexual Minorities!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Spiritual Picassos

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. 

A young historian once told me that much can be inferred by what is notably missing in the public record. It reminded me of an assignment in a high school art class to draw the background around objects in the foreground that, though absent, may thus be “seen." 

Vincent van Gogh praised another painter’s masterly accomplishment depicting the landscape in a painting of Jesus’ birth, but then questioned why the artist added the nativity scene in the foreground! Van Gogh believed that religious sentiment is better implied in a painting rather than literally presented. Thus his response to Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives was his own depiction of Christ’s anxiety and agony in the twisted branches and gnarled trunks of the olive trees of that garden with no figure at all. 

I have always loved the shadows out of which Rembrandt’s figures emerge, as well as Van Gogh’s seemingly slap-dash, broad brush strokes that leave details to the imagination. In fact, that’s probably why I enjoy the Impressionists, whose styles are less literal and more (sorry to state the obvious) impressionistic. And I appreciate the boldness by which some painters, like some Modern artists, leave portions of the canvas uncovered. As a child, I thought Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished painting of George Washington intentionally had his head and shoulders floating on clouds to suggest his greatness!  

As a writer and editor, I can recognize the liveliness of writings that infer and suggest and omit, leaving interpretation to the reader, even though I can also find this frustrating! For example, I loved reading David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but other than its parallels to Hamlet, it left me mystified.  

Over the course of his long career, Pablo Picasso evolved in his art to infer and suggest and omit, eliminating unnecessary lines while preserving essential strokes. I believe this may be what we are called to do in our spirituality, letting go of the unnecessary and preserving the essential, thus becoming spiritual Picassos. That's the calling of the contemplative, compassionate Christian.