Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Judas Kiss"

A week ago today during prayers I suddenly felt grateful for embodiment. First, for my own body. Even when it feels pain, I realize it’s the body’s alarm system that something has gone wrong. And when it feels pleasure, ecstasy lifts me onto a different plane of reality, and I know what’s good and true and beautiful.

I did not stop at thanking God for my own body, but began a stream of “thank you’s” for the embodiment of others. For my parents: my mother’s body growing me, my father’s body making love with my mom, together conceiving me. Then the bodies of my partner, family, friends, pets, as well as lovers of times past. And nature and community and the cosmos. It was becoming an American-Psalmist-Walt-Whitman-style song of praise. I thanked God for their touch, their warmth, their holding me, their smiling at me, their crying with me.

But as quickly as gratitude flooded my thoughts, a stream of confessions followed: times when I mishandled or demanded or exploited or ignored or judged or passed by bodies,  including the earth’s body, the Body of Christ, and my own body.  The elevation of Paradise is never far from the Fall of human mismanagement.

Then I remembered Becki Jayne Harrelson’s painting, Judas Kiss, and its discomfiting, tender, and sensuous depiction of Judas handing over a nearly naked and thus vulnerable Jesus to suffering with a kiss. We most often hurt those we love, and they us. Many of us have been “handed over to suffering” by a kiss in various expressions, from the kiss of baptismal waters, to the kiss of  the laying on of hands, to the kiss of promising relationships. And our own bodies have handed us over to suffering through artificial pleasures that seemed good and true and beautiful at the time.

The eroticism of Becki Jayne’s painting cannot be missed, the eros that impels us both to another’s body and to another’s spirit, and to God’s body and Spirit. (For more about the artist and painting, see below.)

The day after these revelations, I found myself praying that I wish I could see God, who evolved a wondrous world and whose creative work also evolved you and me. I opened my eyes as another realization came—I was seeing God. Pictures of family and friends and ancestors on the credenza, the tree outside the window holding a nest of baby birds, the fuchsia-colored orchid flowering in the other room after a long dormancy, our dog Hobbes snoring on the sofa, the furniture and rugs and the people who crafted them, my own arms and legs. And again my gratitude was followed by confession: for betraying, denying, abandoning, and doubting this face of God.

As if that were not enough, the next day on the front page of the newspaper appeared an image of the cosmos as it looked 370,000 years after the Big Bang, looking like an elongated speckled Easter egg in blue, red, orange, and yellow. Inside the paper I read the article associated with the picture, reporting that the age of the universe has been upgraded to 13.8 billion years old. As I turned back to the front page, the unfolded paper revealed again the colorful cosmos, but this time juxtaposed by a full page ad on the back page featuring a model—and all I could think of in that moment was, “from this (the universe) to this (the human being).” God’s countenance is constantly lifted upon us, no matter how much we look away, turn away, are blinded by tears, have doubts, or simply fail to see.

“Judas Kiss” image Copyright © 1993 by Becki Jayne Harrelson. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

“Judas Kiss” words Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. Past posts are available in the archive in the right rail on the blogsite.

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Becki Jayne Harrelson painted “Judas Kiss” during Lent and Easter 1993 “in response to the verbal gay bashing that Congress was doing” over then President Clinton’s attempt to rescind the ban against gays and lesbians serving in the military. It is part of a series of Christian iconography intended to serve as “a narrative about sexuality in harmony with spirituality.” For further explanation, click here.

See another in her series in the post, “Faggot” Jesus.
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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Common Touch

Listen to a podcast of Chris interviewed about “Progressive Christianity” in the Dean’s Forum, Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland OH, March 10, 2013.

During the recent conclave at the Vatican, I prayed that the cardinals would choose another Pope John XXIII. He had a common touch that appealed to me as a Protestant just about to enter my teens. And he led the Roman Catholic Church into Vatican II, a hopeful sign of what the church could become.

So I was pleased by the new pope’s choice of name, Francis, after another soul of God with a common touch, Francis of Assisi. And since his selection, there have been so many reports that Pope Francis I has a common touch, endearing himself to many, beginning with requesting the crowd’s blessing in St. Peter’s Square before blessing them. My prayer now is that his “common touch” will come to include women’s ordination, married clergy, LGBT people, and those who stand up to dictators—even those within the church, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox.

In response to a favorable review of Garry Wills’ new book, Why Priests?, a letter to the New York Times Book Review suggested that the church needed to adopt its hierarchical, corporate structure to demonstrate its worth to a culture whose institutions were based on such models. It reminds me of the children of Israel desiring a king like other nations in Hebrew scriptures, and God reluctantly agrees.

I’ve served churches that had members and leaders who wanted their congregations to follow a business model, and now many church growth models emphasize characteristics of growing a successful business, often featuring the notion that bigger is better, whether it comes to buildings, budgets, or membership.

During one such seminar I attended, the leader proudly described his staff constantly writing notes to church members and visitors during their staff and committee meetings, and I wondered how mindful they could be of the Spirit’s presence and leading in those meetings. He described a member coming to him one Sunday and telling him that he was the only person who remembered his birthday. The seminar leader smiled proudly and told us, “I didn’t know who the f--- he was, but he was grateful I had remembered his birthday.” Ah, that a churchgoer could meet Saint Francis and know, as G. K. Chesterton wrote, “that he himself was being valued and taken seriously and not merely added to the spoil of some social policy or the names of some clerical document.”

Jesus was attractive, I believe, because he had a common touch and took everyone and their troubles seriously. He associated with the poor and sick and judged and oppressed, and challenged those whose privilege distanced them from the people at large. He attracted multitudes, but failed to build membership, budgets, or buildings. And the first Christians were appealing, as Elaine Pagels and other scholars have written, because they were as compassionate as he, not because they were successful.

Though I believe that Jesus was a child of God and reminded us that we are all created and called to be children of God, I believe also that we Christians made a mistake making him “king,” or a part of the godhead, or the first CEO of the Christian corporation. In those capacities, he loses his common touch, and we can use his titles to excuse ourselves from following his spiritual path—after all, we’re not God like he was. Less is required of us. “His” work is “above our pay grade.”

But as the beloved child of God, you and I are blessed not only with God’s gracious love, but blessed, too, with Jesus’ calling to be compassionate toward all.  

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. Past posts are available in the archive in the right rail on the blogsite. Tax-deductible donations welcome! Please click here. Thank you!

For those in north Georgia, Chris will be speaking during the 11 a.m. service of Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega this Sunday, March 24, 2013, and after a light lunch, leading a workshop on “Claiming Blessings Anyway,” about finding blessings in unexpected, even unpleasant events.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sacred, Saving Texts

(To listen to a podcast of my sermon this past Sunday at Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral, click here.)

In a recent interview, Garry Wills said, “Nabokov was right: there is no real reading but rereading. I rummage in old favorites all the time.”

Having typed this, I look across the top of my laptop and see what remains of my copy of Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek on the bookshelves in my home office. The binding is completely gone. What I see are the pages pressed together by James Baldwin’s Giovanni's Room and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on either side. If I were to remove it, I would have to hold it as carefully as an ancient manuscript lest the pages spill all over the floor.

The professor who introduced me to this sacred text was convinced that Kazantzakis would have won the Nobel Prize for literature if he had not written in Greek. What a gifted storyteller! And thank God he met Zorba, who, in the book and possibly in real life, challenged him not just to write about religion, but to embrace a lusty, embodied spirituality.

In similar shape, on the bottom shelf, is my childhood copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, whose Boo Radley and Tom Robinson and Atticus Finch all spoke to different parts of me as a young boy who knew what it meant to be queer, to be unjustly judged, to want to work for justice. And Scout—dear Scout—I wanted to be a story teller like her. If one only reads or writes one book, this is the one!

Three books down the shelf is The (well-worn) Portable Mark Twain, whose keen wit and humor cut through my youthful piety, both religious and patriotic. Huck Finn, included in this volume, I consider the long lost friend I never met. And between Lee and Twain is James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, whose Shangri-La and valley of the Blue Moon cultivated my hunger for the contemplative life.

Worn Volumes 1 and 2 of my Norton Anthology of English Literature remind me of the road not taken as an English major (either as professor, novelist, or poet) yet revisited again and again as a reminder of the ecstatic possibilities of language. And in the center on top of my bookshelves is Shakespeare, a nine volume set published in 1863, less read than revered, symbolic of his many plays and sonnets I read and reread in less fragile editions, also on my shelves.

Less worn but more read than other books on my shelf is Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, whose anguish I better understood grieving his death and later, grieving the death of what I thought would be a lifelong relationship, and whose more positive entries I reread whenever I need to remind myself that I too am a beloved child of God.

Suffering severe book spine problems are books by Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, Mahatma Gandhi, J. Barrie Shepherd, Anne Lamott, Maya Angelou, and John Boswell. The most fragile of these is Mohan-Mala, A Gandhian Rosary, 366 “pearls of thought” from Gandhi, which I’ve read through daily for as many as a half-dozen years strewn throughout the decades since I acquired it at the Lake Shrine bookstore of the Self Realization Fellowship in California when I was in college. And on the same shelf is Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings and Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, both frequently consulted.

And I’ve already written of The Temple of God’s Wounds, which I have reread almost every Holy Week since a fraternal worker in India, Rev. John Cole, gave it to me during Eastertide, 1988.

Finally, the Bibles—the most used and worn of all. My clothbound Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version is going the way of Zorba, its binding barely hanging on, curled outward, and its back cover completely detached. Inside, the pages bear underlinings and markings of agreement and disagreement, exclamation points and question marks, a few coffee or wine stains, as well as occasional welts on the thin paper caused when we were caught in an unexpected rain doing our prayers.

I can’t find the exact quote on the internet, so I paraphrase Gertrude Stein: readers have no need of heaven, for they have had books!

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. Past posts are available in the archive in the right rail on the blogsite. Tax-deductible donations welcome! Please click here. Thank you!

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

If Jesus Read The New York Times

If Jesus read The New York Times, he would not see a world so different from his own, except in externals. He would still see the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized. He would recognize military occupations, tribal warfare (even in Washington), and rulers who act like gods. He would experience déjà vu as he read about a variety of attempts at world domination, this time not by the Roman Empire, but by corporations, governments, ideologies, religions, even terrorists. Misogyny, patriarchy, racism, and xenophobia would not surprise him. And misuse of God’s creation has been with us since Eden.

Religious battles, spiritual abuse, clergy misconduct, religious hierarchy, fundamentalism, exclusivity, scapegoating, judgment, and self-righteousness—he challenged all of these in his own time.  Wealth and greed in its myriad expressions (money, property, possessions, knowledge, ancestry, etc.) he has already testified as  stumbling blocks to entering God’s commonwealth.

Drones have replaced crosses, weapons of mass destruction have replaced the swords we were to beat into ploughshares, AIDS has displaced leprosy, terrorist acts by individuals and governments alike have more “sophisticated” expressions—but all still intimidate the human spirit. Equally harmful, they may distract us from the life of the spirit. There’s even been a recent slaughter of the innocents.

Violence comes neatly packaged in celluloid and video and digital formats, but the violent games of the Roman circus might also have been considered “wholesome” fun in their time. The internet provides just the latest opportunity for greedy lust to overrule the better natures of our hearts. Prisons, at least in the West, are more humane, but those in the U.S. house a higher percentage of the population than in Jesus’ time.

So Jesus’ calling still has relevance, as he quoted Isaiah, “to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of the vision we need, and to let the oppressed go free.”

And his calling to us still resonates. “Give to the poor.” “Feed the hungry.” “Provide shelter.” “Welcome strangers.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your neighbor.” “Love your enemy.” “Do not judge.” “Pray in secret.” “Seek, and you will find.”  “Do not be anxious.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Avoid anger.” “Do good to those who persecute you.” “Avoid revenge.” “Forgive as you have been forgiven.”  “Don’t shut others out of the temple.” “Woe to religious leaders who tie heavy burdens on others.” “Be compassionate as God in heaven is compassionate.” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

If Jesus read The New York Times, I believe he would lament over the world as he did over Jerusalem, “You who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. Past posts are available in the archive in the right rail on the blogsite.

Please join me this weekend at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland March 9-10, 2013 for a Saturday retreat on Henri Nouwen, “From the Heart,” and on Sunday morning,  interviewed in the Dean’s Forum about “Progressive Christianity” and preaching at the 9 am jazz mass and 11:15 am choral Eucharist on “The Holy Place: Mercy and Reconciliation,” on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal.

Thanks to Brian McNaught for this wonderful article, “Religious LGBT Folk Are Unsung Heroes.”

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