Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Cuddling with Jesus

I can imagine red flags going up for my more progressive readers, fearing I’ve gone evangelical on them with a title like “Cuddling with Jesus.” And my more mainstream readers may fear I’m getting too familiar, even sexual, with our spiritual leader.

But the deity with whom Jacob wrestles in Genesis becomes the deity with whom the Beloved Disciple cuddles during the Last Supper in John. It’s okay for males to wrestle (God was imagined as male, remember) but not to cuddle (Jesus was imagined as God, remember).

In my book, As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage, I pointed out how recent translations have distanced the Beloved Disciple, believed to be John, from Jesus. In the King James Version “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” The Revised Standard Version describes him as “lying close to the breast of Jesus.” But the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible have the Beloved Disciple simply “reclining next” to Jesus. As the Beloved disciple moves farther away from Jesus with newer versions, I imagine in the next translation he will be in another room!

In his book, The Man Jesus Loved, Theodore Jennings translates the passage this way: 
One of his disciples was lying in Jesus’ lap, the one Jesus loved; so Simon Peter nods to this one and says: “Tell, whom is he talking about?” That one, falling back on Jesus’ chest says to him: “Lord, who is it?” 
Imagine watching TV with a group of close friends, some of whom are seated on the floor. Arms may rest on knees, heads lean on shoulders, hands draped affectionately on legs. This would be like the scene of the Last Supper, where the custom would be for everyone to be on the floor with cushions or mats, not seated upright at a table.

This is the casual intimacy between John and Jesus, but it affords John the opportunity, in the understanding of Celtic Christianity, to “listen for the heartbeat of God” with his head on Jesus’ breast. It is a symbol of mysticism, not sexuality, though mysticism is also erotic, understanding “eros” as the force that compels us toward God or another human being.

What prompts this reflection is a recent opinion piece by Stanford anthropology professor T. M. Luhrmann, who suggests the success of evangelical churches is that they promise such a personal relationship with God, but then overstates the case by claiming—mistakenly, I believe—that mainstream Christians do not imagine a God so intimate. (Since writing this I discovered agreement from a Letter to the Editor by Sister Mary Ann Walsh.)

I do believe mainstream Christians have a problem with intimacy. I once heard seminary professor and author Carter Heyward describe their God as a “Gentleman God,” embarrassed by sexual passion, yet too polite and dispassionate to be rabidly anti-gay. And the changing position of the Beloved Disciple may have to do with a fear of homoerotic implications.

But I believe the broader fear is intimacy with God. I’ve noticed that the same translation that has John “reclining next” to Jesus in John 13:23 also translates John 1:18 about Jesus’ intimacy with God as “who is close to the Father’s heart” when the actual text reads “who is close to the Father’s bosom.”

Yet I believe many mainstream Christians’ embrace of contemplation also chooses an intimate relationship with God. And though it may seem new, it has always been with us, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, monastic communities, and Celtic spirituality to our present day interest in all things spiritual.

My purpose in writing this blog is to encourage progressive Christians, too, to come out of the closet about their intimacy with God, with Jesus, and with the Spirit. Ours may be a different experience, but no less worthy to strengthen our resolve, challenge others’ certainties, and enjoy communion with all we hold sacred and dear.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

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Much to my surprise, in finding the link to “Do Progressive Christians Pray?” I discovered three recent posts reflecting on that post! To read them (in reverse order), click here.

Please join me as I lead a free public workshop on Just Love entitled “Body Boundaries and the Question of Consent” this coming Saturday, April 27, 2013, from 10 a.m.-1:00 p.m. (free lunch follows) at St. Francis Episcopal Church, Macon, Georgia. We will explore the spiritual dimensions of physical encounters. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Spiritual Community

Church is not for everyone. Even for those who like it, there are as many distractions as attractions to the spiritual life there. I thought of entitling this post “spirituality for loners” because I want to suggest eight ways of experiencing spiritual community outside of church!

Read. I enjoy the most diverse, stimulating, informed, and wise spiritual community on my bookshelves! Fiction and non-fiction, sacred and profane, fantasy and factual—you name it, all connect me to other people, places, and things with whom and with which I may feel a spiritual kinship. Newspaper and magazine human interest stories, op-eds, obits, and news stories also open me to relationships often more spiritually intimate than possible in ordinary life. All are opportunities for witnessing spirituality at work for those who have eyes to see, fingers to feel Braille, or ears to hear recorded versions.

Pray. Immediately, praying puts us into a global and probably universal community of those lifting their hearts and their loved ones and even unloved ones to God, the eternal, the sacred, knitting our hearts with those with whom and for whom we pray. Prayer, meditation, and reflection make us more attentive to those we care about or want to care about, welcoming their presence in deeper ways.

Watch. Being mindful of surroundings wherever we are with all of our senses puts us in community with the material world. Matter matters. The touch of a fabric, the fragrance of a plant, the sound of rain, the vibration of a machine, the breath of  a lover, the view from your favorite chair or mountain ridge—all remind us, in Madonna’s lyrics, that “we are material girls” and boys. And watching films and documentaries can take us to people and places and events we otherwise might never meet or visit or experience.

Walk and Roll. I was asked this week what I would do if I knew I only had 24 hours to live. Promptly I replied, “I’d go walk in the park.” A leisurely stroll or roll on foot or wheelchair through parks, forests, beaches, neighborhoods, downtowns, and more give us an opportunity to relax and be part of something greater than ourselves. An acquaintance gave up city life and lights to work remotely in the countryside just to be able to spend time gazing at the planets, stars, and galaxies each night as earth strolls through the universe.

Communicate. Writing letters or blogs, sketching or painting, playing instruments or sharing CD’s, making videos or recordings, performing or cooking or phoning—finding ways to tell our stories, proclaim our “gospel,” give our viewpoints, share our talents—these are some of the diverse ways we may offer ourselves to spiritual community.

Volunteer or Vocation. Giving time, energy, talent, money, and possessions for a cause,  concern, or a calling connects us to other volunteers or coworkers but also to those for whom we do what we do, whether a movement, a non-profit, a community in need, or the environment.

Receive. It may be more blessed to give than receive, as Paul quoted Jesus in Acts, but being receptive is also a gift to those who want to offer us something of themselves, from company to caregiving. Gratitude “in all circumstances” may open us serendipitously to community.

Breathe. Breathing slowly and deeply and consciously is a common way to begin meditation. Spirit is in the very air we breathe if we are paying attention, if we imagine it, if we believe it. We take in the molecules ancestors breathed, brothers and sisters breathe, posterity will breathe. Every breath connects us with them.

No one should beat themselves up for not going to church, not joining a monastic community, or not belonging to a religion or religious organization. Spiritual community is to be discovered simply by attending to the spiritual life, that which connects us to all.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

This blog is entirely supported by your donations. Thank you!

Chris will be leading a free public workshop on Just Love entitled “Body Boundaries and the Question of Consent” Saturday, April 27, 2013, from 10 a.m.-1:00 p.m. (free lunch follows) at St. Francis Episcopal Church, Macon, Georgia. It will explore the spiritual dimension of physical encounters.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spiritual Struggle

One spring day I was taking our dog Hobbes for a walk and noted what a beautiful morning it was. The air was crisp, cool, and clear, the trees and lawns brightly green and gardens in bloom with a riot of colors. It was one of those e. e. cummings “most amazing days,” and I thought, how blessed I was to be a part of this universe, a part that could enjoy its beauty through the mystery of consciousness and self-consciousness, that somehow matter has evolved to the place of being able to see itself, to reflect on its own existence, inspired by that sacred drive for life that we call by many names, given our religious or philosophic perspectives. It was an ah-hah moment that came without struggle, that came naturally, that was an absolute gift.

That, I believe, is how many people think about spirituality and how I often experience the spiritual life: serendipitous, joyful, uplifting, insightful, broadening of one’s horizons. The idea of spiritual struggle seems contradictory, a paradox, a product of effort and dare I say “discipline,” as in practice? Do we really have to work at spirituality?

The truth is that we don’t always have “most amazing days” such as the one I described. That they are occasional is the very thing that makes them eventful and extraordinary. We go to work or we get sick or we have a colleague who bullies us or we wonder if we are loved or we live with or near or are related to challenging people. Community has once been defined as the place where the person you would least like to be with always lives.

And, as we look at our broader human family, we see poverty, hunger, disease, injustice, and violence interfering with the possibility of “most amazing days.”

But not to despair! In the retreats and workshops I lead I often do a meditation exercise in which people are invited to recreate in their imagination a moment when they felt most fulfilled, most connected, most loved and loving, most at peace. When time comes to share the images conjured up by this exercise, there are the usual, expected bucolic scenes like the one I just described. But there are just as often the unusual places, people, and things which despite all odds proved an environment or an occasion in which individuals felt complete, fulfilled, loved, loving, and at peace. Hospital rooms. Doing chores. Suffering a loss. Rising to a challenge. Comforting someone.

Perhaps that’s the wisdom behind the apostle Paul’s notion that “all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” It’s not that all things are good, but even the bad things might be transformed for the good in a person who “gets” the larger spiritual picture.

We just experienced the rare convergence of Passover and Holy Week, both observances  of spiritual struggles. Jews remembered their oppression in Egypt, and how they heard Yahweh call them out of slavery through a wilderness and to a Promised Land. Christians remembered the Passion and compassion of Jesus struggling with religious and political authorities on behalf of “the least of these,” his crucifixion at the hands of Rome, and his return to those who believed.

Spiritual struggle is called “jihad” in Islam, and Muslims in the United States are now reclaiming the word from terrorists through an advertising campaign. In a sense they are engaging in “jihad” against Al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s violent interpretations of the term.

Similarly, much of our spiritual struggle as progressive people of faith is reclaiming spirituality and religion from those who would coerce rather than persuade, control rather than cooperate, take rather than give, enforce rather than inspire, condemn rather than bless. And we each struggle with similar temptations within ourselves. Hopefully our struggle will lead to more “most amazing days” for all.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Resurrecting Jesus

Many of us have demythologized Jesus. Others have deconstructed Jesus. Now it’s time to give some thought to resurrecting Jesus!

I don’t mean we can assume divine power to restore life or create the eternal. But just as God is revealed in the sacraments only with our willing suspension of disbelief, the resurrected Jesus is said by scripture only to have appeared to believers. Some of those believers hesitated or doubted, but they showed up anyway. Many of us showed up this past Sunday for Easter celebrations of resurrection. Woody Allen once quipped that 90% of life is just showing up!

This train of thought began for me on Good Friday, in an afternoon conversation about “the empty tomb” with a friend from seminary days, Kim White, visiting us briefly in Atlanta en route home to Nashville. I asked him what difference the story of Jesus’ resurrection makes to his faith in the 21st century. Like me, he’s more interested in Jesus than the appellations attached to him, like “the Christ.” 

As for me, I have discovered the ongoing presence of those closest to me after their deaths, continuing to offer me their joy and wisdom and strength. It’s easy then to imagine that those closest to Jesus felt the same, and this intimacy manifested itself in the stories of resurrection we have in the Bible, including what some scholars consider to be a misplaced resurrection story we call the Transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John were given a mystical experience of Jesus’ spiritual intimacy with Moses the lawgiver, Elijah the prophet, and Yahweh, who proudly booms again about Jesus as a chosen child, just as Jesus heard at his baptism.

Literalists would say we have to take these stories as literal truth, not as mystical visions or explanatory mythology. But why? Even the early followers of Jesus differed on these manifestations of a risen Christ. Some biblical stories suggest a spiritual resurrection that allows Jesus to pass through locked doors or out of his burial garment, still in place. Others suggest a physical resurrection that allows Jesus to eat with disciples and permit them to touch his wounds. Some stories mix the two. And Mary Magdalene’s encounter and that of the disciples traveling to Emmaus indicate he is not immediately recognizable, and may be known in a garden (nature) as well as in sacrament (the breaking of bread), in grief as well as in hospitality to strangers.

For me, all of this is to say that we actively participate in Jesus’ resurrection by our own desire to see him, to experience his joy and wisdom and strength, to manifest his presence to those around us through  compassion for “the least of these” as well as our neighbors and opponents and sisters and brothers in faith.

I have always been fond of the concluding paragraph of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who he is.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

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