Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

As the first Jesuit pope visited the United States, the first openly gay Jesuit priest went to heaven. As John McNeill passed through the pearly gates, Saint Peter asked, “Where’s your partner, Charlie?” “Oh,” John said, a little absent-mindedly, “He’ll be along. He just didn’t think he should leave the country while Pope Francis might stop by.”

John tried to begin his talks with a bit of humor, sometimes as offbeat or puzzling as that. “Let me have too deep a sense of humor ever to be proud,” his fellow Jesuit, Daniel Lord, wrote in a “Prayer for Humility.”

And it is with that glee that he insisted his publisher keep his chosen title of his autobiography, Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair. Both his editor and I tried to dissuade him from the title, lest it be misinterpreted, but he loved that that’s how a former professor characterized him: “There’s goes John J. McNeill, both feet firmly planted in midair.”

John McNeill, SJ, not only wrote but published a book with the Roman Catholic Church’s imprimatur in 1976 that changed many of our lives in the LGBT Christian community, The Church and the Homosexual

It was the first such tome since Derrick Sherwin Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition two decades earlier, and appeared more than a decade before John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, though McNeill credits Boswell’s as-yet-unpublished work as contributing to his own.

Soon McNeill’s book would be joined by Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1978) as prompters for the church to reconsider its views.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual seminarians of the 70s were beside ourselves with hope that these books portended a change that would permit our ordinations and ministries in the church. Having just purchased McNeill’s book, a friend of mine set it down with her school books on a table in Yale Divinity School’s refectory en route to the lunch line. She turned it face down so no one would see the title, then had second thoughts, and boldly turned it face up.

When she returned to the table, a classmate, observing the title, said, “So, is John McNeill a homosexual?” “Why would you ask that?” she inquired, guessing more than she let on. “Well, if he’s homosexual, he’ll be biased.” I can’t recall if she said it or thought it, “Don’t you think a heterosexual would also be biased?”

I had the privilege and honor to get to know John as we shared leadership of a number of retreats at Kirkridge, inhabiting rooms across the hall from one another. On many occasions there and elsewhere, I came to know his steadfast, lifelong partner Charlie Chiarelli. So I was saddened for both to hear of his death last week in Ft. Lauderdale, where they retired some years ago. They have been and will be in my prayers.

It so happens I am reading and using in my morning prayers The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, along with a companion text, Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits. I am doing so in preparation for helping with a spiritual formation course on Ignatian Spirituality the week of November 9-13.

Despite an accessible translation, I confess I have had to work hard at translating The Spiritual Exercises to meet my own spiritual needs. Reared a Baptist, I have regularly and often immediately observed and confessed personal sins, and as a Presbyterian and MCCer I learned also to confess corporate and systemic sins, and I don’t think rehearsing these would be spiritually helpful, except for the most obsessive-compulsive among us!

And some of the recommended objects of devotion and reflection don’t match my progressive theology. But I do get Ignatius’s point, that there’s work to be done to eliminate all that gets in the way of God’s presence.

The prayers in Hearts on Fire have been more helpful—for example, I am eager to do a personal retreat focusing on “Testament,” a guided meditation by the well-known Jesuit from India, the late Anthony de Mello, which is, as the book describes, “a creative alternative to examining one’s conscience.”

So, as I prepared to write this, I looked for things I had underlined in my reading thus far that might speak to John’s life, and that’s how the quote about humor above came to be included. But the quotes I want to use now are my own responses written in the margins!

After reading a contemporary paraphrase of the Anima Christi by David Fleming, SJ, I wrote, 
Death is the final praise,
            the final ecstasy
            giving up one’s spirit
            unto the Spirit.
And after being challenged by Ignatius to contemplate hell, something I cannot believe except metaphorically, I wrote: 
Hell is the place of not feeling love.
It can be anywhere and everywhere.
Love gives rise to purpose, meaning, hope, fulfillment—heaven.
Sin is being unloving, unkind—to myself, to others.
And then I added: 
Grief is hell. 
John has now offered “the final praise.” He saved LGBT Christians from hell, and reminded us of God’s love, giving rise to the “purpose, meaning, hope, and fulfillment” of our movement, a taste of heaven, reminding us what sin truly is: “being unloving, unkind” to ourselves and to others. Our grief may be hell, especially for one as close as Charlie, but we pray with Joseph Tetlow, SJ’s version of the Anima Christi, “make my pain pregnant with power.”

There were many times that John’s pain was “pregnant with power.” Being silenced by the church and then ousted from the Jesuits gave him the opportunity to fulfill a greater calling than he originally anticipated when, as a starving prisoner of war during WW II, a slave laborer, at risk of death from a vigilant SS guard, tossed him a potato, making the sign of the cross. John dated his priesthood from the moment of that courageous and compassionate act.

Thanks, John, in turn, for tossing me a saving “potato”!

There will be a gathering at Kirkridge to celebrate John McNeill’s legacy, January 15-17, 2016.

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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, September 23, 2015

Pets as Theophanies

Hobbes on the beach in South Carolina.

Welcome, Pope Francis, to the U.S.A! Click here for posts that mention the pope, including one written by our dog, Hobbes.

I’ve been contemplating the depth of my loss in the death of our beloved golden Labrador retriever mix, Hobbes, this summer. Those who read my earlier posts may tire of hearing about this, but my hope has been in each one to speak to our common experiences, not just of pets, but of grief, loss, and love.

I can see very few stars in our sky over Atlanta. I have no nearby shore to walk and watch the waves rise and fall. Buildings obstruct the horizon in every direction.  There are no mountains to climb in our neighborhood.

Hobbes was my touchstone for nature. Gazing at her I saw the artistry of God. Being with her I also witnessed—in Evelyn Underhill’s words—the “homeliness” of God, God’s everydayness, familiarity, and steadfast presence.

My “congregation” is largely invisible and silent and at a distance: the readers of my blog and of my books. Facebook, e-mails, and letters intermittently give me chances to hear from you.

But Hobbes was my constant companion, particularly needed during times of stress, grief, anxiety, and loneliness. And, at the time of her death, she was the longest intimate relationship I’d had as an adult.

During her walks, she led me beside “green pastures” under the canopy of trees that cover our city, thus “restoring my soul.” If walking with God through the Garden of Eden was denied me, Hobbes was a qualified representative. Wade and I are still taking her longer morning walks.

When Calvin, Hobbes, and I lived in San Francisco, where I served as interim pastor for a little over a year, they led me “beside still waters” of nearby Lake Merced (“mercy” lake) and we played on the shores of Sunset Beach and Fort Funston.

Hobbes and I walked together “through the valley of the shadow of death” with Calvin when he was euthanized in our home there. Early the following Sunday morning, Hobbes and I witnessed a kind of “resurrection appearance” when on our walk we were joined by a collar-free silver-haired Calvin look-alike bounding in adolescent energy, as if reborn. (For more on this story, see chapter 8 of The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life.)

At Fort Funston, a doggy-friendly beach, we once encountered a baby sea lion. Hobbes’s eyes widened with wonder, and I leashed her lest she get too close. Together we watched as it returned to the sea. I walked on down the shore, not knowing that Hobbes, now unleashed, was not with me. I looked back several hundred yards later, and realized Hobbes was awaiting the sea lion’s return, gazing out to sea at the spot we had watched it go back in the waves. She had witnessed dogs go in and out of the water, and I guess she assumed the same of the sea lion.

She never fetched outside like Calvin, but she did love to play fetch and keep-away indoors with her squeaky “mousey.” And she enjoyed it when I got down on all fours, challenging me to chase her by slapping her front paws on the floor while bending toward me, grinning and eyes sparkling with glee. So she also brought me the re-creation of play.

Hobbes would join me, usually on our deck, for my morning prayers, eventually expecting a belly rub on each side. At night and during naps, she often slept on our bed, turning to face the open doorway, our protector as well.

Calvin’s eyes were always happy, but Hobbes’s eyes ranged from happy to wistful to sad, with soulful expressions, and she sometimes watched me longingly, especially in her latter days. At times I wondered if she were my mother reincarnated, so attentive she was to my presence.

Every death of a person or of a relationship reminds me of how imperfectly I have loved, and her death was no different.  In these final years of my life, I understand how imperfectly I have loved people and pets, as well as congregations and the broader church. Thus I am all the more grateful for God’s grace.

Hobbes was a theophany for me, a living, breathing, furry icon of God’s wonder, grace, and love. As a blog reader comforted me, “She was God in Hobbes-clothing.” I will miss her. And she will always be in my heart.

Click here and scroll down for other posts that mention Hobbes, who even made it into The New York Times!

P.S. Since posting this, I discovered that Pope Francis, in his June 18th encyclical on climate change, wrote, “Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.” He ends the encyclical with prayers, including, “Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey toward your infinite light.” Thanks to Nicholas Kristof for his column, “A Pope for All Species.”

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Spiritual Skinny-dipping

Rarely am I given an opportunity to skinny-dip these days, but I used to love it. The sensuality of slipping into the waves on the shore or into a pond or pool awakened my body not only to my physical senses, but to my full-bodied communion with earth.

The photo above, taken in Hawai’i in 1985 by my friend George Lynch, was modestly posed and, for this purpose, even more modestly edited!  But I use it to illustrate a story of mysterium tremendum, what happened just before I swam back to stand on the rocks surrounding this natural pool at the base of the towering waterfall in the background.

For me, stripping and stepping into an unknown body of water such as this was an act of both courage and vulnerability. I didn’t know what else might be in the water and to what I might be exposing my most personal parts; yet it was thrilling and enlivening to do so. The depth of the pool and whatever currents hid beneath the gently rippling surface were also unknown to this less-than-expert swimmer.

Three times I swam toward the base of the waterfall that spewed from rocks some fifty feet above, each time a little closer, and three times I returned to the shore without daring to swim beneath the roaring, hard-falling water. This was reasonable, given that the water might have knocked me out.

But approaching the danger, I was filled with an exquisite, fearful awe; my mysterium tremendum. It had parallels to leaving behind religious fundamentalism and biblical literalism, or taking on public speaking and activism as an introvert, or coming out of the closet, or making love for the first time. There was something sacred and awesome beyond each seeming terror.

For those of us who are stripping ourselves of unnecessary religious constraints, baptizing ourselves in progressive Christianity, we approach in awe and terror a different God. Does God really love us unconditionally? Does God really live “in our neighborhood,” in our house? Can God forgive without demanding such a price as the sacrifice of Jesus or the damnation of unbelievers? What currents or creatures lurk beneath the surface that may threaten our most personal selves?

“Wonder calls us to disorientation, unsettling pathos that it is, and to new orientation,” William Brown writes in the concluding paragraph of Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, borrowing Walter Brueggemann’s categories.

C’mon in! The water’s fine!

Photo copyright © 1985 by George F. Lynch. Used by permission. 

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

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

When Your Religious Liberty Touches the End of My Nose

Since this appeared on The Huffington Post last Thursday, there have been nearly 600 “likes,” 200 “shares” and “tweets,” and 240 comments!

Do you know that the Kentucky county clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples has been married four times and allegedly gave birth to twins fathered by another man five months after her first divorce? At best, this is irony, at worst, hypocrisy.

In my book, As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage, I pointed out that a thrice-married Georgia congressman introduced the Defense of Marriage Act and it was signed into law by a philandering president. Irony or hypocrisy?

We live in a representative democracy, not a theocracy. This is neither the Vatican nor an Islamic nation. Nor should we be like Israel, dominated by one religious tradition.

It’s bad enough that our representative democracy, controlled largely by English-only-speaking, privileged, nominally-Christian, straight white males historically and presently has institutionalized many religious regulations and traditions in our legal codes and practices, despite our alleged separation of church and state. (Thank God for the colonial Baptists, who persuaded our federal-government-in-formation to include that principle. Many current Baptists apparently disavow that sentiment.)

What’s next? Civil servants refusing to issue marriage licenses to atheists? To interfaith couples? To interracial couples—oh wait, they tried to do that already, also on religious grounds!

If there is one religious principle I would legislate, if there was one commandment I would like to see engraved over the entrance of every public building, it would be:


That might stay the hands of those who work on Wall Street and in corporate offices, as well as legislators and judges and presidents and other public servants.

That might also prompt restraint among religious leaders and communities, as well as their zealots and extremists.

It might change attitudes toward immigrants seeking a better life, toward the rights of women—including their reproductive choices, toward better integration of those with disabilities, toward all minorities’ hopes of representation (including D.C. residents!), toward the poor and disadvantaged, toward those who are incarcerated.

It might even change our approach to international relations.

This should become our new “gold standard.”

Related post: Religious Liberty

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Summer Christmas

The thought behind last week’s post, “Hevel Happens,” was confirmed by our delivery system sending it to subscribers a day late! Sorry!

I thought of writing this and posting around Christmas, but I am so overcome with something like a convert’s zeal that I can’t wait till then, even though each year summer’s end has the lowest ebb in terms of blog visitors who are not subscribers.  Earlier this season, for example, we enjoyed over 4000 monthly visitors but are now shy of 3000.  So I invite you to share this link/post with as many people as possible!

What excites me is yet another chapter in William P. Brown’s Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World: “Incarnational Wonder,” based on Gospel writer John’s prologue, the first eighteen verses of chapter one. See last week’s post on a different chapter.

What I “got” from it goes a bit beyond Brown’s actual elucidation of this text, though not beyond its implications. I suddenly understood that the “mystery” of Christmas (though of course mystery by its very definition can never be understood, only “wondered” at) is that early Christians finally “got” that God was in the world, in earth, in its creatures and in its matter, and in us—our very DNA.

And this is a tenet that we skeptical, doubting, deconstructionist, demythologizing, progressive Christians may affirm without reservation, I believe. 
“In the beginning was the word [logos].” … Typically translated “Word,” logos comes from Greek Stoic philosophy and refers to the structuring principle of the universe that makes all life possible. … Call it God’s Grand Unifying Principle (aka GUP). But Logos in John is more than a formal abstraction, more than a grand unified theory of everything as pursued by physicists (aka GUT). No, the Logos is embodied. 
The reason I write that my “ah-hah” may go a little beyond Brown’s interpretation is that I believe that, instead of this being the moment at which God entered the cosmos, entered the earth, inhabited “dirt”—that rather, this was the moment when we realized God’s essence or organizing principle or divine life was always incarnated in creation. That may be Brown’s intent as well.

I’ve written in an earlier post that the mystic Hildegard of Bingen believed that the Incarnation was not a result of “The Fall” or sin, but was intended by God from the beginning of Creation.

Physicists and theologians are engaged in similar tasks, discerning and discovering the “structuring principle of the universe that makes all life possible.” Scientists might say theologians are relying on “supernatural” phenomena or beliefs, when the Incarnation might mean there is nothing supernatural about God—that God is as “natural” and integral to the cosmos as we are.

Does that discount a “personal” God? It surely discounts a tribal, nationalistic, or parochial deity, but reveals a deity to be found in our very DNA, our skin, flesh, blood, eggs, sperm, tears, and bones—what could be more personal than that? And that we would attribute to that deity our highest values—love, compassion, justice, equality, shalom, and good stewardship—such as equal distribution of the world’s goods, care for “the least of these,” and respect for our environment—to name a few of those values, touches our deepest felt needs and lifts us to our highest aspirations, and it could be said, those of God.

Process theology posits a God that includes the cosmos, making in effect everything we can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste God’s “body.” Thus God is the ultimate altruist, sharing divine life sacrificially and universally, exemplified in Jesus of Nazareth’s living and dying for others, inviting his followers do the same. That is the path to resurrection, to new life, to new possibilities, to re-creation. Later in the book, Brown explains in his chapter, “Consummated Wonder,” that Revelation is about the earth’s renewal, not rapture, through God’s indwelling presence.

Brown notes that John affirms the darkness cannot overcome the light that is the life of the world and uses “a surprising word for God’s full-bodied embrace of creaturely existence, [that] has little to do with limitation: ‘fullness’ or pleroma in Greek (1:16). It is from God’s outward-extending abundance, from God’s pleroma that God becomes enfleshed. Divine pleroma is like an aroma that fills a room, like the costly ointment Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet… Or like God’s glory, which ‘filled the tabernacle’…”

These thoughts should make for us the merriest of Christmases!

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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.