Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Open Your Refrigerator

During last week’s Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School,  Anna Carter Florence illustrated what congregations expect of preachers with an unforgettable metaphor, that of teenagers opening the refrigerator, looking at the foodstuffs therein, and complaining “There’s nothing to eat.” Translation: “I need you to prepare me something to eat!”

The Columbia Theological Seminary professor compared this to our expectation that preachers will prepare something to satisfy our spiritual hunger. And both parents and preachers try to fulfill the demands of such expectations, sometimes simply because we can or should, given our expertise and duty, but sometimes also because we feel needed and even powerful. But, just as parents need to equip kids with cooking skills so they can leave the nest, so pastors do best to equip parishioners with spiritual skills.

Anna suggested that right in front of those sitting in the pews are mini refrigerators—Bibles, hymnals, prayer books—waiting to be opened in their pew racks. And, I would add, many of us have books at home, blogs on the internet, blank journals for our own musings, spiritual guides and soul friends, retreat opportunities, and those Celtic “thin places” in nature waiting to be “opened,”  if only we opened our minds and hearts and schedules to their spiritual possibilities.

Anna’s metaphor captured one regret I have about church—that many prefer worship “to do it all for them” rather than embracing their own spiritual adventure. Please don’t misunderstand me: attending worship is a valuable spiritual discipline, but so much more is possible. That’s why I liked Anna’s other metaphor, that of a repertory church whose members actually engage with scripture. As she led us in various exercises to accomplish just that, I experienced what Presbyterian pastor Rick Spalding alluded to in the Q&A that followed: the disciples on the road to Emmaus reflecting on Jesus’ scriptural interpretation, “Did not our hearts burn within us as the scriptures were opened to us?”

I thought of another kitchen metaphor from professor Henri Nouwen’s days at YDS, the opening of his Road to Daybreak when a member of the L’Arche community prepared him dinner in his own home, using fine linens, china, crystal, candles, food and wine. “Where did you get all this?” Henri asked her. “In your own kitchen and cupboards,” came her reply, “You obviously don’t use them too often!”  Suddenly Henri’s eyes were opened to new spiritual possibilities from his own cupboards!

In the story of Martha and Mary offering hospitality to Jesus, Mary is upheld by Jesus himself as choosing “the better portion,” listening at his feet, while Martha is portrayed as distracted, busying herself preparing food in the kitchen. Thus Mary became a symbol for contemplation. But now I wonder if Martha might equally be a role model for many of us, who need to do our own work in our own kitchens, independent of our spiritual gurus.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Watch the You Tube video of the panel Chris Glaser moderated last week at Yale Divinity School, “Religion in the Public Square.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to Fight

Today, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 10:30 am to 12 noon Eastern Time zone, you are invited to watch the webcast of a panel moderated by Chris Glaser on “Religion in the Public Square” at Yale Divinity School.

“Because church people tend to think they should not fight, most of them are really bad at it,” Barbara Brown Taylor rightly observes in her book, Leaving Church.

I think this applies not only to congregations. Couples, families, colleagues, coworkers, communities, citizens, elected officials, liberals and conservatives (the latter two for different reasons) do not know how to fight in a way that is mutually beneficial. Winning is more important than compromise, scoring points is worth more than mutual growth, attacking individuals has more traction than evaluating and even understanding another’s positions.

Many of us liberals and progressives fear conflict, and thus bend over backwards to accommodate opposing views, sometimes to the detriment of what is right. Many conservatives and neoconservatives enjoy the fray, as if going to holy war, sometimes to the detriment of what is just. Liberals by definition are to be open to all viewpoints; conservatives by definition are resistant to progressive views.

In high school, one of my least favorite extracurricular activities was debate club. The research involved, the requirement to argue each side of an issue, the inherent public speaking as well as the evaluation of the judges all made it undeniably challenging. And the topic that year was “socialized medicine,” hard to believe less controversial then than it is now but difficult nonetheless.

What I learned, though, was that attacking an individual rather than his or her facts lost points. Attacking an opinion rather than its underlying bases lost points. Attacking an idea rather than cogently presenting an alternative idea lost points. Lack of humility and lack of an ability to “see” the justifiability of the other side’s position lost points, as well as the understanding required to refute those justifications. Winning the debate was as much about remaining agreeable as it was about being right. (Presidential debates are closer in form to raucous wrestling matches than debate formats we were taught!)

That’s why I both loved and was challenged by the television series The West Wing.  Though fictionally based on the administration of a liberal president, it nonetheless tried to show divergent opinions on a wide variety of subjects, and the bases of those opinions. I remember one episode in particular that felt like a slap in the face, when a conservative staff member said to a liberal staff member, “It’s not that you just want to regulate gun safety. It’s that you don’t like the people who like guns.” And I had to admit, that at least for me, this was somewhat true. The gun aficionado to me was of a different class—my classism revealed.

Today I moderate a panel for my Yale Divinity School reunion on the subject, “Religion in the Public Square.” Fittingly, it will be held in Niebuhr Hall on the campus, named for famed YDS theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, who taught and wrote of the need for “the prophetic strain” in Christianity. Two more recent books come to mind. One is Yale professor Stephen L. Carter’s book, a favorite of then President Bill Clinton, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, about how religious values have a place in the public square. The second is University of Massachusetts professor Glenn Tinder’s The Political Meaning of Christianity: The Prophetic Stance, about the role of Christianity standing over against popular culture as loving critic. I recommend both of these books as guides to fighting for what is right and just.

Many of our parents encouraged us to stand up to bullies when we were kids. Jesus stood up to the religious and political bullies of his day, unwilling to kill but unwilling to yield in the fight for what was right and just. While more humbly asserting what is right and just (given that we are not Jesus!), I believe we need to do this as well, “armed” with truth, passion, understanding, and compassion, just as Jesus was. As our YDS liberation theology professor Letty Russell once wrote, “We join in God’s work of liberation by reflecting on the meaning of that liberation in the lives of those who find themselves dehumanized.”


Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Et II, Benedict?

The 50th anniversary of the promise of Vatican II prompts me to remember Pope John  XXIII with fondness, nostalgia, and reverence. His life experience, according to John W. O’Malley’s recent New York Times op-ed piece, helped him know “diversity, turmoil, sin and evil firsthand, but he also knew goodness as he found it in people of other faiths and no faith.” That’s among the reasons he initiated Vatican II, though he did not live to see it through to its conclusion, let alone its implementation.

I grew up with anti-Catholic sentiment preached from our Baptist pulpit, but a saving grace was my mother’s reading of Catholic alongside Protestant writers. As a young woman, she had enjoyed a positive relationship with nuns who cared for her frequently hospitalized mother in their small town Catholic hospital.

I was home sick from school when a news bulletin flashed the news of Pope John’s death on our Packard Bell television set in 1963. Though only 12 years of age, I immediately felt sad, knowing a unique light had left our world. In 1973 I visited his tomb in the crypt underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, noting fresh flowers. It moved me in a way no other gravesite on my first trip to Europe did; his was the only grave at which I cried. On my most recent visit to Rome, I was glad to see he had been promoted upstairs to the main floor, now in a glass coffin. At first I wasn’t sure it was him, so I asked a guard, “Is that Pope John XXIII?” “Most of him,” the guard replied with a wink. That same visit we also saw a living pope, Pope John Paul II, old and frail.

There was resistance to the changing nature of the church signaled by Vatican II, with its intended consultative collegiality among bishops, priests and laity, ecumenical emphasis, interfaith dialogue, vernacular liturgy, and other attempts at modernization that made it less of a dinosaur still breathing fire at the Enlightenment.

My friend, David Mellott, Dean of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, suggests to me that Pope John could not have initiated reforms on his own had there not been a “sensus fidelium” in the Roman Catholic Church, “the sense of the faithful” that wanted change. It could be said that, had Pope John lived, that same “sensus fidelium” might have prompted even him to be more cautious in Vatican II’s application.  (Anyone who has served in ministry knows almost every congregation says it wants change until changes are actually implemented!)

In Vatican II, “The church validated for the first time the principle of religious freedom and rejected all forms of civil discrimination based on religious grounds. Thus ended an era of cozy church-state relations that began in the fourth century with Emperor Constantine,” the Georgetown professor, Jesuit priest, and author O’Malley observes. This is a very good time to be reminded of this in the United States.

In his 1986 autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest, diocesan priest and novelist Andrew Greeley tells of sneaking into the conclave of Vatican II with a faked pass and witnessing a battle between the conservative, turf-defending Roman Curia and the bishops who served the broader church, aided by more progressive theologians like Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. His analysis was that Vatican II irrevocably asserted that the church can change.

Greeley also mentions the present pope’s involvement in Vatican II, listing alongside Kung and Rahner “a much younger Ratzinger (who now conveniently forgets his contribution to the Council)…”—and Greeley wrote this before Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, when he was the Vatican watchdog for orthodoxy as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In a 1977 book that I used years ago for my morning reflections, Zen and the Bible,  Japanese Jesuit priest J. K. Kadowaki, lauding Vatican II, also refers to that much younger Ratzinger whom he met when doing research in West Germany:

While there I was invited by the Catholic theologian, Professor J. Ratzinger (now a cardinal), to lecture on “Zen and Christianity” to a group of his doctoral students.  … Toward the end of the seminar, Professor Ratzinger said, “How interesting it would be if we could compare the ideas of Zen with those of the Bible. If that could be done, it would be a great event, not only for the dialogue between Zen and Christianity, but also in respect to the ideological exchange between East and West.”

That’s in the spirit of Pope John XXIII and of Vatican II, though Pope Benedict might prefer to forget this too.  Now that Pope John has been beatified on his way to sainthood, progressive Christians might hope that he may intercede for the whole church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Many thanks to Dr. David Mellott for reviewing a draft of this post and contributing his wisdom from his Roman Catholic training.

Check out Glaser’s latest article on The Huffington Post: “Flag Pins & Crosses: ‘Mine Is Bigger than Yours!’”

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Spiritual Handcuffs

A church I once served here in Atlanta invited the Voices of Hope choir from the Metro State Prison for women to sing during worship. Their final song just commanded movement and clapping—and I smiled to see we obliged in a minimalist sort of way while remaining seated in our pews. It was the kind of song some other congregations would stand for and throw their whole bodies into it. I felt a little self-conscious being the lone one who stood among the pew-sitting dancers. 

We had planned a brunch in their honor after service, and though their accompanying guards required them to sit together, I was able to talk with them a little by visiting their tables. I was stunned to discover that this outing was a first for one woman incarcerated in her youth decades before. Another told of her astonishment when she first saw a self-opening door. 

When the women left, tears came to my eyes as I watched them march out the sanctuary’s front doors single file and now handcuffed. We exchanged smiles and farewells but of course no handshakes as, one by one, they passed by to the prison bus outside. Some of them had a sweater or something draped over their hands so the handcuffs were not so noticeable. 

I think of the handcuffs on many religious people who are bound by beliefs that limit not only their experience of themselves, of the world, and of God, but also prevent their embrace of so many people they think don’t belong in church or consider unworthy of rights and privileges.  I believe there is a direct relationship between opening our minds spiritually and opening our hearts to others. 

I’ve also seen handcuffs on those who long ago left the church, before their spiritual formation was complete. Their spiritual growth was stunted, many holding prejudices taught them as children in tension with the easy youthful judgment of hypocrisy. An example I’ve witnessed repeatedly are those outside the church who nonetheless say one can’t be progressive and Christian, while dismissing the church for being so conservative! 

I’ve just come from a retreat I co-lead annually for gay and bisexual Christian men at Kirkridge, a retreat center with many progressive Christian programs. One-third of the men were new to this retreat; two-thirds were returning after one to twenty retreats. All of us use the opportunity to discover new aps for old beliefs, as well as expanding our spiritual horizons to such new thinking as queer theology. We bond also as a church away from church, a home away from home. So important has this become that many who have passed on have had their ashes interred or sprinkled in the memorial garden. 

In his book Soul Friend, Kenneth Leech calls a retreat “an essential feature of serious Christian living,” adding, “A retreat is a time of awakening, of new vision and new zest. Hugh Maycock once described the retreat conductor’s role as being to ‘astonish the soul.’ Another major part of a retreat is to allow an individual to relax and expand at leisure, to give some creative space in which to grow.” 

I would suggest a metaphor for the retreat experience is the story of Lazarus raised from a confining tomb, with fellow retreatants rolling the stone from its exit and removing the paralyzing death cloths (spiritual handcuffs) so he may newly engage Jesus, family, neighbors, and God. To Lazarus, Jesus said, “Come out!” And to his neighbors he said, “Unbind him and let him go.”

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes.  Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Pre-emptive Peace

Walking our dog Hobbes in our neighborhood, we sometimes pass a car with a bumper sticker that reads, “I’m already against the next war.” It made me think of a church woman who complained about the student demonstrations against the Vietnam War, “Why can’t they be for something?” she asked. Another church woman responded, “They are—they’re for peace!” 

I like the idea of a pre-emptive peace to counter the justification for pre-emptive wars. Politically, a pre-emptive peace means using diplomacy and peaceful influence and pressure in concert with other nations, and supporting like-minded public servants who can win elections and achieve these goals. (My pragmatism as well as my sense of urgency will not let me waste votes on unelectable idealists. And I must admit to having little patience with those who refuse to vote because the electable candidates are not up to their standards of perfection.) 

Practicing a pre-emptive peace can also be disarming personally. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advised, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on your way to court…” Many of the sayings in that sermon suggest practical strategies of a pre-emptive peace: Greet strangers. Love enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Don’t exact revenge. Don’t be greedy. Don’t show off. Pray, remembering to forgive as you ask forgiveness. Tell the truth. Be faithful. Don’t be anxious. Trust God’s Providence. Avoid ultimate judgments of others. Practice discernment. 

Some years ago, I was stunned to meet a totally disarming man: Mister Rogers. I did not watch his “neighborhood” growing up, and I knew him primarily through parodies of him on programs like Saturday Night Live. I had just given the sermon at Pittsburgh’s Sixth Presbyterian Church, which he attended, and he was waiting in line to greet me after the worship service. A relative of his gave me a passionate, unexplained hug, and then Mister Rogers stepped forward. “I know who you are,” I said good-humoredly as I reached out my hand, aware and admiring of this man who had been ordained by the Presbyterian Church to do his television ministry.  

Now, I’ve met my share of celebrities, so I know the experience of a celebrity swoon that is sometimes felt in such encounters. But as he took my hand, smiling, this was not what I experienced. Rather, I felt complete inner peace. Gently, holding my hand, “the oracle” spoke: “You are very important to Henri Nouwen,” he said. “Mister Rogers knows Henri Nouwen?” I thought, amazed. As we talked, I knew that biblical “peace that passes understanding.” This is the peace that I imagine one may encounter with deeply spiritual people, such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, or Desmond Tutu.  I just was positively surprised to experience it with Mister Rogers! 

There are prophets who disturb us, pastors who prod us, teachers who unsettle us, therapists who challenge us. But even they may convey a pre-emptive peace. Rev. Jim Hughes, an NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) therapist, was one of the rare people who could offer me helpful critiques that from anyone else could feel devastating and debilitating, but in his framing of them made me feel complimented and empowered! 

I believe that many more of us may practice a pre-emptive peace, beginning each day by reviewing our agendas contemplatively, lifting all whom we will encounter and all the day’s activities in prayer, and then returning again and again to that place of peace throughout the day. After a spirituality workshop in which I led participants in singing the Taize version of “Ubi Caritas” from time to time, a seminary professor told me if she could just sing that occasionally during her day, she would be far more peaceful. 

Let’s already be against the next war, politically and personally.  
Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Please make a tax-deductible donation to this ministry!