Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Grief Observed

Hobbes resting just last month. Photos by Wade Jones.

Maybe a scholarly English gentleman like C. S. Lewis can observe his grief with detachment, but most of us would rather write something like “Wracked with Grief” to best capture the panic that ensues with great loss.

I read Lewis’s A Grief Observed in youth when I knew far less about grief than I do now. I can’t find my copy, but I remember a passage in which Lewis describes wanting to bang on the gates of heaven after the early death of his wife, to whom he was married late in life and for only a few years. As I recall, he came to believe his panic shut heaven’s gates even tighter.

Right now I am preparing to facilitate a spiritual formation course on the Beatitudes, based on a text by its instructor, my friend J. Marshall Jenkins, entitled Blessed at the Broken Places. Hemingway’s concept in A Farewell to Arms that we become “strong at the broken places,” spiritual director, campus chaplain, and therapist Jenkins adapts to interpret Jesus’ sayings that the poor in spirit, those who grieve, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on, are “blessed”—not “happy” as the Beatitudes have sometimes been mistranslated—but “blessed” with sacred possibilities.

He reminds us that much in the Bible is a crying out from a poverty of spirit or goods or well-being or freedom or equality, from Exodus to Job to the Psalms to the Prophets to the Gospels. Thus I would challenge Lewis’ notion (as I recall it) that panic automatically closes doors to God’s comfort and care and compassion. “Out of the depths I cry to thee,” the psalmist and our liturgies cry. “I have heard their cry,” Yahweh says of the oppressed Hebrews.

That may be why Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We need to know our need, to have humility, to ask for help, whether from God or others.

Though some may think this an unworthy grief, the death of our beloved dog, Hobbes, two weeks ago came crashing down on us. (See last week’s post, “Hobbes Found Me,” for her great significance to me.) After months of stressful caregiving, we made the difficult decision to have an in-home euthanasia when she could no longer walk or stand, having lost weight and muscle mass because of her greatly diminished appetite and nausea related to a mass on her liver. She was also nearly 16 years old, aged for a Lab/retriever mix. 

Wade and I sobbed at the choice, and, as I had done when I needed to do the same for her companion dog, Calvin, I wailed like a banshee! And unanticipated grief comes here and there and now and then, as we notice her missing, from our walks and naps and meals to her many corners and places in our home where she liked to sit or sleep or look out. Think Tiny Tim’s empty chimney corner multiplied by the dozens.

And then I have been wracked with guilt about our decision to euthanize her. Multiply that second-guessing many times and you know the wariness of making end-of-life decisions for family members, or a woman’s decision to end a pregnancy. That’s why those families and those women need all the support we can provide.

Something in the not-yet-published Blessed at the Broken Places helped me with my second-guessing. Jenkins points out that Jesus does not say that those who are righteous will be blessed, but rather those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be blessed. Believing one is righteous easily leads to self-righteousness, an absurd notion of perfection, with no need for God’s help. It is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who will be blessed.

Trying to do the right thing for our dear dog was our hungering and thirsting for the good, the right, the compassionate. My preoccupation with whether or not we did the right thing at the right time was coming from my perfectionism, a need to justify myself (even in this post!), rather than rely on God’s grace (and that of my readers, as well as of Hobbes!).

I also realized it was a way to avoid fully embracing my grief at our loss, and in “our” I include Hobbes as well as Wade and me. Over-analysis was causing paralysis in my grieving process.

In my book, Henri’s Mantle, I described our need to “stand under” grief rather than attempt to “understand” grief, using a concept of the novelist Albert Camus that trying to understand something is often a wish to be in control, to have “superior” knowledge, to be on top of things, as it were.

Jesus’ Beatitudes are all about “standing under,” knowing our needs, trusting his path.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We’re still a mess, but neighbors, friends, and family have offered comfort with visits, hugs, Facebook “likes” and messages, e-mails, cards, phone calls, flowers, wine, and even brownies. Thank you! And Jesus has offered comfort through the Beatitudes, and providentially at this time, a fresh interpretation of them.

We are also blessed by our many happy memories of our dear friend, Hobbes, whose absence highlights the joy she brought us and the love we exchanged that will endure long after our present pain. Thank you, Hobbes, and thanks be to God for you!

Hobbes waiting for a treat from our table.

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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hobbes Found Me

Hobbes on the beach in San Francisco

Our beloved dog, Hobbes, passed on last Thursday. This post explains how we met and became friends. Photos were taken by my partner, Wade Jones.

Conceivably, it was the worst year of my life. The relationship that brought me to Atlanta ended (to my complete surprise and utter dismay), my loving mother died, my half-time employment as an editor was threatened, and, given my limited income, it was not a slam dunk that I could assume full responsibility for the mortgage.

Grief and fear alternated as guests in my home, and when I began dating again, I swore I would someday write a book entitled, “Dates from Hell.” A few of them would have made hilarious Seinfeld episodes, and a couple were worthy of Stephen King.

Along with a few select friends, Calvin got me through much of this. Not the theologian and Reformer—my dog, of whom I had demanded custody. That’s how we came to encounter Hobbes on a walk in Grant Park.  Jealous Calvin wouldn’t let me near her, so I drove him home and returned with a leash and a collar, without thinking of bringing a treat to lure her.

I had become accustomed to seeing dogs loose in that park, without realizing that it was a dumping ground for unwanted pets. I had already found one dog and returned it to its owner, but other dogs were skittish or without tags, and I had long before decided to let them find their way home.

What was different about Hobbes was that she was repeatedly crossing an adjacent street, and I could not have borne it to find her body by the side of the road on a subsequent visit.

Upon my return to the park, I did not immediately see her, but some homeless men who had witnessed me approach her earlier waved me in her direction, deeper in the park. It was not lost on me that homeless men were helping find shelter for this homeless dog, and that our sympathies for the homeless are more frequently directed toward pets than people.

Without a snack to entice her, I simply sat on a slope near where she was roaming. She circled me until her circling brought her close enough to say hello and put on a collar. She did not resist, and I drove her home, carefully introducing her to Calvin.

I put up signs in the park’s neighborhood and contacted animal shelters, in case her owners were looking for her. She was never claimed, and by the first week I was already in love with her, dreading her owner might call.

Calvin, of course, had been named for the Reformer, but I gave Hobbes her name because she reminded me of the canny tiger in the comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes. Both were mixes that included golden retriever and Labrador, and though Calvin was larger, they looked like siblings. Initially Calvin was top dog, but Hobbes soon learned how to give him “what-for,” and may have proved to be the alpha dog.

The veterinarian gauged she must be about nine months of age and had not been spayed. I waited weeks, in case her owner appeared, but finally decided to have her “fixed,” as they say. I cried as I drove home after leaving her at the vet’s office for the procedure. Though I realized the necessity of it, I recognized the human hubris of having it done without her ability to make the choice. I was taking away something that might have delighted her: motherhood.

After a year of dating dangerously, even living dangerously, Calvin and Hobbes kept me tethered to home. They were both dating service (“Oh, aren’t they cute! What are their names?”) and editorial board (“No, not that one. Not kind enough. Probably won’t share the bed.”).

Then I met Wade (we joke that Hobbes was born out of wedlock), and though he was a bit overwhelmed by a man with two dogs, their love for him seconded my own. When I took a temporary position at MCC San Francisco, they kept me company in Wade’s absence. And, as Calvin had licked my face when my mother died, Hobbes comforted me when Calvin died.

My L.A. brother visited me in S.F. and told me how moving it was to witness Hobbes longingly watch me walk to the BART station in the distance and then return to that front window periodically to check if I were headed home. And now that I live with Wade, she was always looking for me, either from her ottoman beneath a front window, or by checking my office off our garage before heading upstairs. And, of course, she got loved on more than we do!

She was with us nearly sixteen years, and I can’t imagine what life will be like without her.

Thanks be to God, Hobbes found me!

Hobbes wrote one post herself, “Hounds in Heaven.”

A post about Hobbes’ illness, “Misplaced Devotion?”

Hobbes made it onto the pages of The New York Times.

Hobbes awaiting my return in S.F.

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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

You're Gonna Need a Bigger God!

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” Actor Roy Scheider’s ad-libbed advice in the 1975 film Jaws came when its human protagonists first saw the size of the shark they were up against.

I waited till the end of the summer of its release before seeing the movie; I didn’t want to be afraid to go to the beach! That August I watched it in a crowded Philadelphia theater with two friends, both Roman Catholic priests. When a severed head popped into view through a gash in the underwater hull of a boat, one of my friends let out a scream that sent waves of screams and shouts in the rows in front of us and behind us. One of those behind us popped the head of my other friend with his finger, saying, “Don’t do that, man!” I caused a similar stir when I greeted fellow seminarians watching it in a New Haven theater a few weeks later: they leapt in their seats.

Perversely, perhaps, I thought of this as I finished reading Julian of Norwich’s mystical writings. Her God is so much bigger than most, with a love that preexisted all that is loved and flows to all eternity. No wonder she approaches her visions with “reverent fear,” what we might call “awe.”

“You’re gonna need a bigger God!”

My big “ah-hah,” my own revelation as I finished contemplating Julian’s Revelations is that we cannot know God. The whole of the Bible and church tradition is but a glimpse or glimmer or even a shadow of divinity. Using pronouns and metaphors or equating God with Jesus limits our ability to recognize our profound ignorance.

“Duh,” you might say, “But of course!” I might have said exactly that had I not felt our unknowing so deeply.

Paradoxically, that’s what the Bible is all about: our infinitesimal, limited view of God.

Jacob wrestling with the mysterious Stranger. Sarah laughing at her Guest’s promise of a child. The Voice from the burning bush, refusing to be named, declaring “I will be what I will be.”

On Mt. Sinai, Yahweh holding a hand over Moses’s eyes while passing by, with Moses glimpsing only the afterglow. Elijah hearing simply “the sound of a gentle stillness” or “a still, small voice.”

The Dove at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus proclaiming an invisible Reign of God through homely, puzzling parables and countercultural beatitudes and teachings. The enigmatic Cross. Jesus’ Easter message to Mary, “Do not hold on to me.” Seeing in a mirror dimly.

How, then, can we know, in the words of 1 John, that “God is love”?

It really is a matter of faith to affirm cosmic or divine benevolence. Yet life and love, pleasure and joy, wisdom and compassion have come to be, surely clues to the yearning of the universe or of divinity. Small wonder that Julian concludes that our part is “thanking, trusting, rejoicing,” three dimensions of a contemplative life.

Earlier that week I had read an article about the science of all this that pointed out: 
If a number called alpha, which governs the strength of electromagnetism, were infinitesimally larger or smaller, stars could not have formed, leaving a lifeless void. … Other values, like the mass of the Higgs [boson], or the strength of the force that binds together the cores of atoms, appear to be just as finely tuned. Bump the dials just barely, and nothing like our universe could exist. 
If that doesn’t give rise to reverent fear, doesn’t send you to your knees or to a house of worship, I’m not sure what will.

My June sermon for New York’s Fort Washington Collegiate Church is now available at this link: “When God’s Will and Human Will Coincide.”

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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Spirituality Is Not Optional

Reading a review of a book about America’s faltering infrastructure, I thought of how spirituality is our infrastructure—how necessary it is to keep our lives together, to make sense of things, to provide a path, and how little attention is paid to it by so many, just like the bridges and schools and roadways we take for granted and fail to attend and maintain.

I remembered Evelyn Underhill’s understanding in The House of the Soul that our spiritual house never stands alone, but as part of something larger, the “City of God.” We must tend to it, remembering the role it plays in our urban spiritual environment: 
Christian spirituality…insists that we do not inhabit detached residences, but are parts of a vast spiritual organism; that even the most hidden life is never lived for itself alone. Our soul’s house forms part of the vast City of God…it shares all the obligations and advantages belonging to the city as a whole. … The way we maintain and use it must have reference to our civic responsibilities. … 
So into all the affairs of the little house there should enter a certain sense of the city, and beyond this of the infinite world in which the city stands: some awe-struck memory of our double situation, at once so homely and so mysterious. We must each maintain unimpaired our unique relation with God, yet without forgetting our intimate contact with the rest of the city, or the mesh of invisible life which binds all the inhabitants in one. 
So we maintain our spiritual house, in the apostle Paul’s words, our “temple of the Spirit,” not for ourselves alone, but for our neighbors and the citizens of the whole City of God.

Recently I was reminded of what I once asked volunteers at AIDS trainings: 
What in your belief system prompts you to volunteer?
What is your spiritual community?  
To me this was key to discerning their core spirituality, even apart from religion, a spiritual base line that might serve as an infrastructure for all they were about to face. 

I encouraged them to be creative when it came to defining their spiritual communities. One woman had an ah-hah when she realized hers was a group of women with whom she had played tennis for years. “We shared births and deaths, marriages and divorces,” she explained, “Supporting one another through them all.”

Recognizing and maintaining and building our spiritual infrastructure is necessary, not a superfluous “bonus” of life.

At the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus described this spiritual infrastructure. He said that one who hears his teachings and does them will be like one who builds a house on rock as opposed to another who builds a house on sand.  The first house remains standing in the storm and flood, but the second is swept away. 

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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Religious Liberty

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision broadening the understanding of marriage, those who have fought same-gender marriage now express fears that they will be called upon to do things their consciences will not permit and are clamoring for “religious liberty.”

It’s ironic that those who denied religious liberty to LGBT people in terms of church membership and leadership, ordination to ministry, as well as marriage, are anxious that this uppity minority will demand something of them.

I can’t help but smile at their naïveté that, when my partner and I marry, we would want other than a tasteful gay caterer, a lesbian cake designer, a bisexual soloist, and a transgender minister. And I don’t think any same-gender couple is likely to risk a pastry chef who might spit in their wedding cake batter!

Clergy and congregations always have the right not to marry a couple. I have declined officiating at weddings of couples I thought were not ready or entering into marriage for the wrong reasons.

In my years as a pastor, I have been called upon to serve adulterers, criminals, evangelicals, conservatives, and straight couples—after all, it’s the nature of ministry to serve all kinds of people whose lifestyles I might not emulate. Are the Christians crying “religious liberty” of such delicate character that they cannot bring themselves to serve or work or worship alongside those different from themselves? Are they afraid we might “rub off” on them?

Jesus spoke to this very issue when he criticized the self-righteous of his time for their obsessive-compulsive, over-the-top avoidance of ritual impurity, one that prevented them from dining even with each other lest they be rendered spiritually “unclean.”

Answering a lawyer’s question regarding the commandments and eternal life, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, contrasting his mercy with the priest and lay priest who passed by the roadside casualty, presumably to remain ritually pure, perhaps on their way to the temple at Jerusalem.

Jesus himself hung out with all the wrong people, allowed “unclean” women to touch him, and ventured into a cemetery, risking ritual impurity, to command Lazarus to “Come out!”

At Pentecost, the walls of the house where the disciples were meeting seem to disappear as the Spirit enables them to speak in the languages of the many foreign pilgrims on the streets of Jerusalem.

Later the Spirit falls upon disgusting and depraved Gentiles, prompting Peter to explain baptizing them to the earliest church council, “If God gave them the same gift given us, who was I that I could withstand God?”

Christians, get a grip. In Jesus’ simple admonition to greet strangers is your clue to do the same. “For if you greet only those you know,” Jesus said, “What reward have you? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?”

Today’s post also appeared yesterday on The Huffington Post.

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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.