Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Scariest Book I've Read

I will be speaking on “Generosity in Three Movements” during the 11 a.m. worship of Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church this Sunday, Nov. 2, and leading a free workshop on The Cloud of Unknowing immediately following the service. (Pizza will be served, and remember that Daylight Savings Time ends at 2 a.m. that morning, so we “fall back” an hour.)

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, I recommend a book that makes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol feel likes romps through a garden.

I am presently reading, or trying to read, or avoiding reading Laurel Dykstra’s book, Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.  It is the scariest book I’ve ever read.

“Rather than claiming that Christians are subject to a higher authority than others, I suggest that we in the radical discipleship movement admit that we are subject to lower authorities, the dubious and multiple authorities of the most oppressed speaking on their own behalf,” this member of Tacoma’s Catholic Worker Community and Episcopal Divinity School graduate writes in her introduction. In the margin beside this quote, I wrote, “Off to a good start!”

But halfway through the book, I feel like I’m reading The Grinch Who Stole Exodus.

I have always taken heart in the Exodus story, that of Israelites escaping the bondage and oppression of Egypt, as a model for the Civil Rights Movement, Liberation Theology, and for others seeking freedom, including my own LGBTQ community, in which both Dykstra and I identify. Rather than negate this, she suggests yet another way of reading the story.

More than once I heard biblical scholar Jim Sanders say, “When reading a biblical story, if you’ve identified with the good guys, you’re probably not ‘getting’ it. Read it again and identify with the bad guys,” he would say.

After all, we think WE would never crucify Jesus, but today it would be the U.S.A. and the privileged First World, the Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists, for example, who might find his so-called “gospel” intolerable.

In other readings I have had inklings that WE are Egypt: that we live well at the cost of others’ deprivation and suffering and exclusion. But in no book I have read has the message been so unrelenting and clear that developed nations and multinational corporations are the new Pharaohs with hardened heart.

I cringe when even liberal U.S. presidents declare our foreign policy should be based on OUR national interests, rather than the interests of the whole world. As this book implies, our neocolonialism smacks of the same paternalism as its predecessor.

This is not just about the very rich, the fraction of the one per cent who benefit the most from the way things are. Those of us in the middle class and those of us in the church are also complicit with this power structure that continues a new “middle passage” and “trail of tears” of the downwardly mobile because we too benefit from their impoverishment and enslavement and do little to prevent it. “For most of us trying to get along, finding a bargain does not seem like an act of violence,” Dykstra observes.

I’ve been reading Set Them Free in my morning prayers and have wondered if I should rather read it later in the day. This morning I felt so debilitated by what I read that I didn’t feel worthy of being in God’s presence. I felt downright shame. I tried to pray, but all I could do was ask forgiveness. My concerns that I might have otherwise eagerly lifted felt parochial and self-absorbed.

Blessedly for writing this reflection, Dykstra quotes Phyllis Trible saying “reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance.”

And Dykstra quotes and paraphrases the Pan African Healing Foundation: 
They raise the question, “Are people of privilege capable of change?” There is an old African American proverb that says “it is easier to get the people out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of the people.” It refers to the responsibilities of freedom. But for people of privilege, for whom Egypt and empire have offered not only security and comfort but everything we have known, leaving Egypt and ridding ourselves of egyptian (sic) ways and habits will be slow and hard. Acknowledging our role in empire is a first step in the long, slow journey out of it. 

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Please support this blog ministry by clicking here. Thank you!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Forgiveness and Neighborliness

I will be leading a FREE virtual Advent retreat online beginning Nov. 22 entitled, “Nativity Stories.” All are welcome!

I recite the Lord’s Prayer daily, and often the most challenging phrase for me is the second part of “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Though I’ve received everything I have from a generous and gracious God, it’s hard to let go of grudges and wrongs and the feeling that others owe me something or that somehow I have unfairly missed out.

Or if I pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I think about how often I impinge on God’s territory by profaning the sacred, by judging or pre-judging others, by invading the space of one of God’s creatures, by polluting God’s property: earth, water, and air; or by playing God—a role which, in all modesty, I play rather well. 

To the poor who followed Jesus, “forgive us our debts,” must’ve sounded pretty good. It sounds pretty good to us today, weighed down as we are with loans, credit cards, church pledges, expectations from elderly parents or children of any age or our beloved pets, not to mention Comcast bills.

To the sinners who followed Jesus, “forgive us our trespasses” or “sins” must’ve sounded pretty good. It also sounds pretty good to us today, burdened by moral failings, hurt we’ve inflicted on those we love most, toes we’ve stepped on or boundaries we’ve crossed, injustice we’ve ignored.

Thank God, there’s a lot of forgiveness in the Bible, and, according to Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann, longtime oracle of Columbia Theological Seminary, forgiveness may involve money, land, power, politics, morality, and religious pretensions.

Religious scruples are what the late-converted apostle Paul often addressed. Paul when he was Saul was a Torah fundamentalist who followed every jot and tittle of the Law of Moses, not simply the Ten Commandments on which it’s based, but all the interpretations, applications, court rulings, and explications of Mosaic Law.

As we know from our own Christian tradition, no one can claim the moral high ground better than a self-righteous legalist, traditionalist, or fundamentalist. As an aside, Brueggemann also points out that no one can claim the moral high ground better than a self-righteous liberal, progressive, non-literalist such as myself. All of us tend to equate God’s views with our own, what Brueggemann calls “the cunning little secret of certitude.”

And that’s the tension in the early church—legalists wanting other Christians to follow the Laws of Moses, including dietary restrictions and Sabbath observance, and others who experience freedom in Christ as to such spiritual beliefs and practices. Paul comes down on the side of freedom in Christ, but urges all Christians to respect and regard one another’s positions. Paul is truly a recovered fundamentalist, but doesn’t twist others’ arms to come to 12-step meetings of Legalists Anonymous.

“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Paul rhetorically questions the Romans, and then observes, “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Christians have entered into a covenant with Jesus and with one another that requires the interweaving of our lives, beliefs, and practices. Every strand is needed to create the fabric of our spiritual community, one that hopefully reflects Jesus’ meaning for our neighborhood and for the world.

Discussing the Ten Commandments in his book of essays, The Covenanted Self, Brueggemann affirms that the first three commandments about Yahweh give rise to the other seven, which all have to do with living in community, being good neighbors, and loving the neighbor as oneself.

In awe of God, we are called to, in a sense, privilege the neighbor to be truly neighborly and faithful to God. We are to consider their needs, their beliefs, their practices above our own needs, beliefs, and practices. It’s like what is said about marriage, each partner must give 150%. 50% doesn’t cut it, not even 100%. But if we strive to give 150% we are more likely to make a marriage or a spiritual community work.

That requires forgiveness—forgiving that the other is not all we expected, forgiving mistakes and ignorance and insensitivity, forgiving wrongs and inabilities and limitations. And forgiving ourselves these things as well. We are not perfect people. We are forgiven people.

Our model is Jesus, of whom our Christian tradition says that he emptied himself to be a servant. Jesus emptied himself into the neighbor, Brueggemann asserts, and urges us to “imagine that neighborliness is more important than good economics or good politics or good morality or good orthodoxy.” While accepting that challenge, I would add that truly good economics, politics, morality, or orthodoxy must be based in neighborliness.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of a woman who invoked the name of the Buddha hundreds of times a day for ten years, but “was still filled with anger and irritation.” Noticing this over the years, a neighbor knocked on her door and called to her. Annoyed, she struck her meditation bell hard to make it clear she was chanting. The neighbor called again and again, and finally the woman shouted, “Can’t you see I’m invoking the name of the Buddha? Why are you bothering me now?”

The neighbor responded, “I only called your name twelve times, and look at how angry you have become. Imagine how angry the Buddha must be after you have been calling his name for ten years!”

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here. Thank you!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Boys Who Never Grew Up

The LGBT Religious Archives Network is currently running an online exhibit of the quarterly publication Open Hands, which Chris Glaser edited from Winter 1998 through its final issue in the Summer of 2002.

My mother said that she never wanted to grow up.

That could be why she taught first grade all of her professional life and was beloved by her students. She was one of them. In her later years, she confessed with a laugh, she couldn’t quite “get” that she was the old woman who looked at her in the mirror! She felt so young, she said, despite her arthritis, macular degeneration, hearing loss, and aging body.

Now I know what she meant.

Saturday afternoon I sat in a gay bar with my partner Wade and our neighbor Marc, watching mostly men having a good time. Atlanta’s Pride shifted from June to October some years ago due to a drought and the toll it took on the lawns of Piedmont Park. The joke is that rain is traditional for our festival and parade no matter which time of year the events are held. And rain had forced us indoors from the Pride festival to Blake’s, an old establishment in Midtown with a usually younger clientele.

I have always loved watching people. And despite a more mixed-age gathering than usual, I thought of how young they acted, how animated: smiling, laughing, flirting and being downright charming with one another, a coping mechanism many of us developed as children to gain approval.

I admit that at first glance I judged their charm to be affected, just as Thomas Mann’s character Aschenbach near the beginning of Death in Venice judged the older man trying to fit in with younger men by affecting their style of dress and coloring his hair. By the end of the story, Aschenbach would do the same thing in pursuit of a beautiful youth.

But then I watched more compassionately. These were boys who never grew up despite the harshness they may have experienced being gay in anti-gay families, churches, schools, towns and workplaces, plus whatever personal and political efforts they’d made fighting inequality and AIDS. Not to say they hadn’t matured and adapted and managed, but they had somehow also preserved their boyishness in their playfulness, humor, dress and manner. They had grown up without growing old.

I thought of the friends I name during my morning prayers who died of AIDS. These too were boys who never grew up, or perhaps had to grow up too fast. I wish they could see the changes the LGBT movement has wrought over the decades, all the way to this week’s Vatican study paper saying that we have gifts to offer the church.

This is what I took away from Pride this year.

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here. Thank you!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What to Expect of a Pastor

This is as much about what NOT to expect from a spiritual guide or pastor as it is about what to expect.

We can expect pastors to be compassionate. Compassion manifests itself in a variety of ways. Maybe they take great care to get to know everyone—which, incidentally, most pastors say takes two to five years. Maybe they administer well and fairly. Maybe they spend a lot of time on lesson plans, meeting agendas, worship liturgies, or constructing a sermon.

Maybe a pastor emphasizes the “passion” of compassion, and can set a fire under your pew to help those in need and to work for peace, justice, and equality. Maybe a pastor manifests the “suffering with” that compassion literally means in pastoral care and counseling and spiritual direction.

The pastor may be gentle, someone you want to talk to, or the pastor may be charismatic, someone you want to listen to. The pastor may be introverted, more of a contemplative, someone who needs more time alone.  Or the pastor may be extroverted, wanting constantly to be among you. Compassion comes in many forms, and the majority of pastors would not be in their profession if deep down they were not compassionate.

Pastors may not have time to memorize a sermon, given other pressing responsibilities. They may not be natural speakers. We are spoiled by politicians and megachurch preachers who have the benefits of teleprompters speaking to us as if they are not reading what they are saying. Or we’re impressed by speakers who have the advantage of saying the same thing over and over again to different audiences. And some of us have been spoiled by senior pastors of large churches whose only job all week is to write and practice their sermons, while associate pastors do the day-to-day “hands on” ministry.

We can’t expect pastors to be like the pastor of our church in which we grew up; in some cases, we may hope they aren’t! We can’t expect a pastor to be a parental figure for us: he is not our father, she is not our mother. Though we can expect a pastor to be friendly and a kind of friend to all, and we might be blessed with a pastor as a personal friend, we cannot expect this. True friendship is a gracious gift, not something we can write into a job description.

The pastoral relationship is a professional relationship. You might be friends with your doctor or therapist or lawyer, but you would not expect this when engaging them to do their work. Indeed, close friendship might even interfere with the professional distance required to be effective, being of real help. Think of the things you withhold from a spouse or a friend. Think of the ways we avoid challenging a spouse or friend.

We can’t expect the pastor to be psychic, always knowing when we need to talk. As our own best ministers, each of us must take responsibility to ask to talk with the pastor when her or his ear is needed. Some I have served have gone through tough times only to tell me later they didn’t want to bother me because I was so busy. Now this may be Southern for “mind your own business,” but sometimes I felt I was attending to lesser issues rather than vital issues.

A church member once laughed when she confessed that she was an adult before she realized that pastors got paid. Some of us have the feeling that pastors should do what they do for the mere love of it. This is where the distinction between ministers and pastors is helpful. All of us as Christian ministers are called to do what we do for the mere love of it, not for the reward of heaven or human praise, but because we can derive satisfaction by doing what is right, just, and charitable. Part of our own ministry must be to support pastors adequately so they may devote their time to shepherding our congregation.

We can expect a pastor to need our support. The best support a pastor could have is regular attendance at worship and any classes and special programs she or he devises.
Offer a pastor one-on-one positive and critical feedback, in person and in private, just as the biblical injunction suggests, rather than presenting it to anyone else through gossip or in meetings. Rage or blaming or innuendo works about the same with a pastor as it does with a spouse or a friend.

Have regard for her or his personal life, not expecting pastors to attend every event, not using their partner or child or friends as a means of communication or manipulation. All of this is a two-way street: you can expect a pastor to behave like a professional, offering one-on-one feedback in private when allowed, avoiding rage or blame or innuendo, addressing but not creating conflict through e-mail, not using partners or children or friends as a means of communication or manipulation.

Trust pastors to be professionals. If you can’t get them on the phone, or if you find them running a personal errand, trust that they have arranged their schedule in such a way to fulfill their professional responsibilities. Pastors I know work well over a 40-hour week, and even when not formally at work, they are constantly thinking about what could be done to improve the life of the congregation. That’s what pastors do.

Expect all church leaders to be professional, even as volunteers. Sometimes we excuse unprofessional behavior with the caveat, “Why, they’re only volunteers.” Expect church leadership to observe and preserve professional boundaries. Expect them not to be abusive verbally, emotionally, sexually, or spiritually. Expect them to live a life with as much integrity as possible. Expect them to confront anything that might interfere with their professionalism, even as volunteers, such as addictions, control issues, or problematic partner or child. Expect them to follow professional protocols, procedures, and decorum.

But then expect the same thing of yourself. Do not be seductive and abusive with your leaders. Have as much integrity as possible. Confront your addictions, control issues, or problematic partner or child. Behave professionally in your process and behavior.

And above all, don’t expect the pastor or any church leader to be any more perfect than you are! In the spiritual life, I believe, the goal is integrity, not perfection. Mistakes are made by all of us, thus forgiveness is foundational for a spiritual community. Perfection suggests that we may finally “arrive”—a source of false pride—while integrity is a lifelong spiritual progress of integrating our beliefs, words, actions, feelings, and wisdom. Think of it as juggling; you may drop a ball, but you pick it up and start juggling again. None of us are perfect jugglers, but we are steadfast jugglers or we give up all together.

Last week’s blogpost served as prelude to today’s post. Check it out if you missed it:

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here. Thank you!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

God Is Our Shepherd

I will be speaking Oct. 7 on the Prince Frederick (2:30 p.m.) and La Plata (6 p.m.) campuses of the College of Southern Maryland on the “Intersection of Faith and Sexuality” related to Coming Out Day. The events are free.

Pay no attention to the man or woman behind the curtain, behind the pulpit, or behind this blog!

Our first love, our first allegiance, our first lover, our first faithful relationship, is with God. No one will care for us as God does. No one loved us before we were born as God has. Few will love us forever as God will. “Till death do us part” we say in marriage, but even death does not separate us from God’s love.  I believe the scriptures witness over and over again that God is our Shepherd in life and in death and always.

Our faith in this God is not and should not be dependent on any leader, writer, or congregation. We have to work our own programs, as they say in 12-step groups. And, as Jesus said about the Sabbath, the day of rest and reflection on spiritual matters, the Sabbath is made for us, not us for the Sabbath.

All Christians are ministers. I believe we are all called to extend the right hand of fellowship to one another in a myriad of ways. Nothing will tightly bind us together like sharing our selves. It’s risky, it’s vulnerable, we might disagree, but God is everyone’s Shepherd.

There are over five hundred references to sheep in the Bible. The references in Jewish scriptures are usually literal, while the references in Christian scriptures are usually metaphorical.

Lest we think the metaphorical reference to us as the sheep of God’s pasture in Psalm 23 is a pejorative image, one of docility, it’s important to know that sheep, like us, are highly gregarious. Because they look for adventure, much as we do, they are easily lost. Just as we know truth when we hear it, sheep know the voice of the one to whom they belong, and the shepherd of biblical times typically knew each sheep by name.

But sheep are unaggressive and defenseless, and thus dependent on good shepherds whose staffs guide them to quenching waters and nourishing pastures, those whose rods ward off predators: wolves and poachers—thus, in Psalm 23, the Shepherd God’s rod and staff comfort the psalmist, offering protection and guidance. Note that the rod was not there to be used on the sheep—only on predators.

The ideal religious leader has been patterned after God as Shepherd. Not just in Jewish  and Christian cultures, but others as well. God through the prophet Jeremiah despairs at the bad religious leaders of Judah, “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.” Jeremiah also speaks of religious leaders whose ungodliness has allowed the people to enter “pastures of the wilderness [that] are dried up.” He decries those who comfort rather than challenge those unwilling to make the personal transformations needed to be right with God and with one another.

I believe all ministers—which again, means all Christians—are called to confront our addictions, our rage, our bitterness, our self-absorption, our passive-aggressive behaviors, our manipulativeness, our materialism, our control issues, our violence (in whatever shape it takes), and our inattention and even apathy toward all things spiritual.

Each of us knows what we need to change within ourselves to make our spiritual communities work. When a congregation finds itself in a dry patch, Jeremiah’s  “pastures of the wilderness [that] are dried up,” it is not necessarily the fault of pastors, past, present, or future. It is because we have not taken our own ministries seriously.

Thus we may all, with Jesus, see the great crowds of those with needs, and have “compassion for them, because they [are] like sheep without a shepherd.” Having described Jesus’ compassion in this way, the Gospel of Mark says, “Jesus began to teach them many things.”

Some ministers have a vocation, a “still, small voice” calling them into pastoral leadership. Pastors are different from other ministers in job description but not in kind. They are given the leadership role of a flock, a congregation. “Pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd.” When we hire them, we covenant to respect their training, their experience, their guidance, and their leadership.

Toward the end of the film version of L. Frank Baum’s wonderful children’s story, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion, with Toto’s help, all discover the man behind the curtain manipulating images in an attempt to pretend he is a Great Wizard. This is a huge disappointment for Dorothy trying to get home, the Scarecrow wanting wisdom, the Tin Man wishing for compassion, and the Lion hoping for courage. When Dorothy’s dog, Toto, pulls the curtain back, they see the Wizard for who he is.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the would-be Wizard says in his artificially amplified voice. When they realize they have been duped, Dorothy says to the so-called Wizard of Oz, “You are a very bad man!” The would-be Wizard corrects her, saying, “No, I am a very good man. It’s just that I’m a very bad wizard.” Then he shows each of them that what they are looking for already resides within them, even the ability to find home.

Spiritual leaders are usually good people. But they are not wizards who can necessarily give us wisdom, compassion, and courage, or get us home.* At best they can help us find our own wisdom, compassion, and courage, and help us find our own way home. And all interim** and imperfect shepherds can only point to the One who is our permanent and perfect Shepherd.

God is our Shepherd.

This post serves as prelude to next week’s post, “What to Expect of a Pastor,” which is as much about what not to expect!

*I first used this metaphor in a sermon for my seminary community in the 70's.

**Having served as interim pastor of three congregations in transition, I have come to realize that all spiritual leadership is “interim,” that is, temporary.

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.