Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Wounding God

Something burning in my heart is demanding the oxygen of expression.

Regular readers of this blog know I am not persuaded by one line of thinking about the crucifixion: I don’t believe God demanded the death of Jesus to forgive our sins. Of the Passion narrative, I’ve written that the crucifixion was our idea, while the resurrection was God’s idea, however we understand resurrection.

Yet I do believe the story of the crucifixion reminds us that we wound God.

I know that’s not an original thought—many theologians, contemplatives, writers, and preachers have written about this. But it’s being brought home to me in several ways that culminated this past Holy Week as I read again The Temple of God’s Wounds.

Monday night of that week I attended the fourth and final class on the themes of the Confession of Belhar, which the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is in the process of welcoming into its Book of Confessions. It was adopted during the days of apartheid in South Africa by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church resisting the government’s separation of the races.

Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary offered it online, but I attended its meetings in person at the Martin Luther King Center near our home in Atlanta because I wanted to engage in the conversation directly. I thought this would be a way to hear concerns that current movements such as Black Lives Matter raise, but in a context of shared faith. As an aside, I felt very welcomed as a gay man.

The class was small, about 70% African American and 30% Anglo-European, though the final Monday I was the only white person attending.

Long before the course I had concluded that there is no way white people will ever understand the experience of black people in American society. The brutalization of slavery and the degradation of racism and segregation that followed (and still follows) cannot be erased, no matter how forgiving African Americans may be and no matter how transformed Anglo-European Americans may become.

During one class session, we listened to the tape of the families of those murdered in the Charleston church offering forgiveness to their vicious and racist assailant, and I noticed that alongside “I forgive you” were cries of pain and anguish and grief at their loss, calls for repentance of the perpetrator and an expectation of justice for the victims so that “hate doesn’t win,”something the media largely left out in its eagerness to report their forgiveness.

Their mercy was transforming for South Carolina, bringing down the confederate flag, while affecting broader American sensibilities as well.

But, as one woman pointed out to me after class, “There was a lot of anger in black communities for how easily they forgave” that young man. Yet hearing their forgiveness while holding him accountable suggested they were not offering cheap grace.

In class I told the story of participating in a “dog and pony” show at four venues around the state of Iowa for UCC pastors as their denomination was changing its positions on LGBT issues some years ago. One pastor had asked, “Where’s the repentance?” At first we thought he was expecting repentance from LGBT folk, but what he meant was, where was the church’s repentance for its mistreatment of LGBT people?

I suggested to the class that maybe the church needed something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission where wrongs could be named—the wounding of all kinds of folk because of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity.  Ultimately this is how we wound God.

By the next session of the course I had learned that several presbyteries have passed “A Healing Overture for the Admission of, and Apology for Harms Done to the LGBTQ/Q Members of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Family and Friends.” Hallelujah!

When I’ve written on this blog about the need of being forgiving in the spiritual life, I’ve sometimes received friendly pushback from those who have been abused or work with the abused. It’s been pointed out to me that forgiveness in certain circumstances may not always be possible, even may not be a healthy choice. 

In “Forgiveness: The Last Step,” Marie Fortune writes in the context of family violence, “Once justice has been accomplished, even in a limited way, forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity. Prior to justice, forgiveness is an empty exercise.” She points out that Jesus said, “If another sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” [See Luke 17:3-4 NRSV.]

That suggests at least four steps toward reconciliation: confrontation, confession, repentance (as in metanoia, an “about face”), followed by forgiveness. Only when justice is served, she writes, is “a victim of violence and abuse…freed to forgive.”

On Maundy Thursday last week, Wade and I were part of a support community for a friend in a recovery program. After an afternoon meeting with our friend, a counselor, and a dinner out, that evening we attended what was essentially an Al-Anon meeting for support communities of others in recovery. Emotions ran high, as they must have when Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples: communion and hope, but also shared grief and feelings of betrayal, denial, abandonment.

Some could tell stories in which the recoveries of their loved one held; others told stories of multiple heartbreaking attempts; many acknowledged that they too were powerless over what addictions were doing to their loved ones. I was deeply moved by the love and commitment in that room. I awoke Good Friday morning with involuntary tears streaming from my eyes thinking of them.

The Twelve Steps are all about truth-telling, another requirement of justice. And the eighth and ninth steps are about making “a list of all persons we had harmed” and making “amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

I had thought that I should find some service to attend the evening of Good Friday, when a close friend told us that the day was the 20th anniversary of the death of his beloved partner to AIDS. So he came over and we ordered Chinese take-out. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Good Friday. And I better understood his flash of anger about the Reagans when Hillary Clinton misstated after Nancy’s funeral that they had been instrumental in the “national conversation” about AIDS.

A blog reader once pointed out to me that Jesus did not forgive those who betrayed, denied, abandoned, tortured, and crucified him, but rather, asked God to forgive them. That makes sense, for only God could administer the justice required for mercy. Could that be how Jesus’ sacrifice came to be understood as expiation for our sins?

It is a sacred challenge to administer justice without vengeance. Jesus calls us to go the extra mile beyond retribution (“an eye for an eye”) and love our enemies. But real love holds the beloved accountable.

The biblical witness is of a God of justice and mercy. Both are required for transformation. But scapegoating is never just, even if it is Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. Justice requires truth-telling, changing our ways, and making amends (penance).  Only then, to paraphrase Psalm 23, can “mercy and justice follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Last week, subscribers received an incomplete link to a reading recommended for Easter, a post related to today’s blog: How Did Jesus Let Go of His Cross?

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What Right-Wing Talk Radio Would Make of Jesus

Okay, listeners. Today we’re going to take on the myths surrounding this Jesus who has come to our fair city of Jerusalem to cause trouble. He’s ghetto trash that has fooled a bunch of illiterate peasants and bleeding heart liberals into thinking everyone deserves to be fed and healed and welcome in the temple.

What are his credentials? Does he have a degree? NO! Does he have a doctorate? NO! Does he come from a good family? NO! Rumor has it that he is the bastard son of an unwed millennial teen—born in a barn, no less.

Apparently his family headed south to Egypt, but migrated north again to Nazareth—that’s why we need that wall on our southern border, to keep out such refugees. And how do we know for certain he was even born in this country, anyway? Maybe he’s an Arab—after all, he came “out of the land of Egypt.”

He doesn’t come from the priestly class, and he prides himself on having no home and no financial stability. His followers smell of sheep and fish, fields and laundry—one of ‘em was a Roman collaborator, a tax collector for our overgrown government.  He declares we should turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile when it comes to those of the opposing political party—I say, hell no. They’ll get no hearings from this quarter!

He’s supported by feminazis—y’know, women who think they have as many rights as men, deserve equal pay and control over their own bodies, but are weak in the knees when it comes to orphans, widows, eunuchs, and the poor who only take from our society and contribute nothing.

He defended that adulterous woman, remember. And what’s going on between him and that unnamed “beloved disciple”? More than one woman has been seen anointing his body, kissing his feet, washing them with tears and even drying them with their hair! Now that’s twisted! And what’s with his deep love for Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha? Can we say “poly-a-mor-y”?!

Sunday he charged into Jerusalem, appropriately on an ass [braying sound effects], causing a riot as people cheered him on, tearing branches off our trees to lay before his feet, crying “Blessed is one who comes in the name of the Lord.” They act like he can do no wrong, even walk on water!

What crap! I’ve never heard such B.S. in my life. They acted like he was a king, God’s chosen one! The decent people of our city held back, so I challenge them, do something about this maniac before it’s too late, and he incites a revolution that brings Caesar’s armies down on us, let alone give power to those who have never worked a day in their lives.

Then he attacks the business owners in the temple, overturning their tables, claiming they are exploiting and profiting off worshipers, declaring the temple is to be a “house of prayer for all peoples”—wherever did he get that notion? Are we to let just anybody in there? He acts as if one of our great prophets said that, like Isaiah, but I can’t find it anywhere in my Bible. Next he’ll be bringing in the lepers, the lame, the unclean, and—God forbid—Gentiles. Makes me want to puke!

This, after all, is our holy week of Passover, not a time to get political. Our founding fathers liberated us from Egypt, to be sure, but that doesn’t give Jesus and his followers the right to make a scene. I’d say bribe one of his minions to betray him, and let’s hoist him up on the nearest tree. Then we’ll see if he is truly sent by God.

I’m not a religious man, but mark my words, neither is Jesus. He’s blasphemed everything that a true patriot knows to be holy, from the temple to the Sabbath to our religious and political systems.

He preaches compassion, but shows no mercy toward the rich, the privileged, the powerful, the job-creators. He tells us we must be “born again” as if our births did not confer privilege; that we must sell our possessions and give to the poor—folks, this is communism, plain and simple. He says the meek shall inherit the earth—I say, over my dead body. They’ll have to pry my possessions out of my cold, dead hands!

Once he’s dead, we’ve got to seal up his tomb lest his disciples steal the body and launch yet another hoax on us, as if his words will resonate forever in the scheme of things. Let me tell you, a few years from now, people won’t even remember his name!

Blogger’s note: I almost didn’t post this, because it’s not uplifting; but then I thought, Jesus didn’t have a very good week either.

A reading for this week of Lent:

A reading for Maundy Thursday:

Readings for Good Friday:

Readings for Easter:

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Easter Rising

The 1916 Irish “declaration of independence” that referenced both Irishmen and Irishwomen.

Tomorrow I will fix my traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, and carrots that will have simmered a good part of the day in our slow cooker. Along with it we’ll have Irish beer and soda bread from a local bakery.  And our friend, Erin, will bring desert. Can’t get more Irish than that!

I’ve always loved the story of Patrick, an English youth enslaved by the Irish, who, after escaping, became a priest and returned to evangelize his former oppressors. And, in How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill asserts Patrick was “the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.”

Yet even more I love the stories of how Christianity blended with the earlier Celtic spirituality of the British isles to offer a spiritual alternative to Rome/Hierarchy/Augustine/Original Sin/Organizational Man/ Peter. 

Celtic Christianity, whose model was the beloved disciple whose head rested on Jesus’ breast during the Last Supper “listening for the heartbeat of God,” offered more equality between male and female leadership and less differentiation between clergy and laity, permitted married and unmarried clergy, innovated the use of soul friends/guides, believed redemption was possible through either sacraments or nature, recognized and valued the theophanies of the natural world, and recognized that everyone was a child of God, created in God’s image.

If only that characterized the global church today!

I fancy that I may be related spiritually and politically to Ireland, not just biologically. My Irish ancestral name is Plunkett. In the 17th century, Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, Primate of All Ireland, became its last Roman Catholic martyr. Canonized in 1975, he is regarded as Ireland’s patron saint for peace and reconciliation.

In the early 20th century, young poet and journalist Joseph Plunkett was one of the instigators (all ultimately executed by firing squad) of the Easter Rising of 1916, whose centennial this year I was reminded of by reading Timothy Egan’s recent column, “Irish Spring.”

Egan reminds readers, not only of the Irish struggle for independence, but of its seven-century history of having its culture disrespected and the resulting poverty, starvation, and injustice it endured. The “troubles” of Northern Ireland, he writes, were finally (mostly) resolved by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

As a progressive Christian, I appreciate the spiritual and political woven together in me/us like the intertwining strands depicted on Celtic symbols, from the Celtic knot to the Celtic cross. I like to think that Oliver’s spiritual fealty and Joseph’s political passion might be “genetic,” and that I may have inherited my spiritual/political bent.

What strikes me is that the Easter Rising, which occurred during Easter Week (which is not Holy Week but the week following Easter) may have had spiritual inspiration in the story of Resurrection. And that the Good Friday Agreement may have had spiritual impetus in the story of Atonement.

I wrote in my second book that the nexus of politics and faith is the cross. Every time we enter a church and see a cross or crucifix, we are confronted with a political reality, because the cross was a political solution of empire. So the political is at the heart of our spirituality. We cannot ignore it, nor can we segregate these two realms.

Jesus was a political victim, not a theological one. It doesn’t mean his sacrifice is any less noble or godly or transforming.

As I wrote in Coming Out as Sacrament, the crucifixion was our idea, not God’s. God’s will is made known in resurrection—always resurrection, however we understand it.

A reading for this week of Lent:

Readings for Palm Sunday:

A reading for the beginning of Holy Week:

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Adventures of a Gay Red-headed Boy in His Search for God

Washing my first puppy, Taffy.

Last week I referenced “The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search of God,” a George Bernard Shaw story about a young woman who takes the search for God literally, encountering various forms of the deity that require confrontation, sometimes with a knobkierre, a kind of club used primarily in southern and eastern Africa. At age 18, I was intrigued by gay icon Christopher Isherwood’s stage adaptation of the story for L.A.’s frequently experimental theater, the Mark Taper Forum.

In context, I mentioned that all my writings could be said to be “the adventures of a gay red-headed boy in his search for God.”

The adventure continues as I am (finally) reading Karen Armstrong’s 1993 tome, The History of God, which I found on sale on the remainder table of our nearby Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. As I read, I discover that many of the questions I have asked in my books and my blog have been asked before in the multi-millennia search for God!  As I have suggested on this blog, such books remind me of how little I know!

But reading about the fourth century Cappadocian theologians of Eastern Turkey puzzling over the essence and manifestations of God, I realized what I missed dropping a church patristics course my first semester of seminary.  I recognized the names of Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. Having their wisdom summarized by Armstrong reminded me that this is what I missed when I summarily dropped the course because it conflicted with a class on spirituality I happened into, Henri Nouwen’s “Discipline and Discipleship.”

At the same time, these theologians may very well have understood my need for spiritual experience over church doctrine. As Armstrong puts it: 
Plato had contrasted philosophy (which was expressed in terms of reason and was thus capable of proof) with the equally important teaching handed down by means of mythology, which eluded scientific demonstration. … Aristotle had made a similar distinction when he had noted that people attended the mystery religions not to learn anything but to experience something.
Basil expressed the same insight in a Christian sense when he distinguished between dogma and kerygma. Both kinds of Christian teaching were essential to religion. Kerygma was the public teaching of the Church, based on the scriptures. Dogma, however, represented the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which could only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form. …
Some religious insights had an inner resonance that could only be apprehended by each individual in his own time during what Plato had called theoria, contemplation. … As Basil said, these elusive religious realities could only be suggested in the symbolic gestures of the liturgy or, better still, by silence.
Western Christianity would become a much more talkative religion and would concentrate on the kerygma: this would be one of its chief problems with God. In the Greek Orthodox Church, however, all good theology would be silent or apophatic.*  …
[Quoting Basil:] “We know our God only by his operations (energeiai) but we do not undertake to approach his essence.” 
Paradoxically, I mistook church patristics with dogma as in doctrines, when I was looking for spiritual experience as in contemplation, which was how Eastern theologians understood true dogma. So I was drawn to a class whose notes would become Nouwen’s Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, the movements from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, from illusion to prayer.

“The adventures of a gay red-headed boy in his search for God” has been full of meandering such as this. When I wrote an occasional column for the progressive periodical Christianity and Crisis, my then pastor observed that, in my writing, I went hither and yon, letting everything from events to conversations shape my thinking, till I came to some conclusion reflective of the whole.

Etymologists dispute the following theory of the origin of the term “saunter” (which means “to muse, be in reverie” or “to walk with a leisurely gait”) but I like the myth that the word described the meanderings of those who went on pilgrimages. Though the OED thinks it unlikely, the Anglo-French sauntrer may have been derived from the French word s’aventurer, “to take risks.”

This to me describes the spiritual life. Like the black girl in search of God, this gay red-headed boy’s search has been convoluted and risky.

One more twist. I briefly dated a gay porn star, though I was unfamiliar with his work, even his genre! He was very well-read, devouring everything from novels to philosophy. And he introduced me to Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the artist Don Bachardy. The gay red-headed boy, in his search for God, now encountered a gay pioneer, who was also, as it turns out, a Hindu scholar.

God is good—and full of surprises.

*The best way I could illustrate the term apophatic would be with my post, Spiritual Picassos.

A reading for this week of Lent:
“I Thirst.” (The water crisis of Flint, Michigan, has given new relevance to this post.)

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Nightmare of the Presidency

Regular readers of this blog know I often have revealing dreams, but I have never had the audacity to dream of myself in the Oval Office. Yet last night, in one of those waking moments that come around three in the morning for us older members of “the tribe” who were to rise, tend to the campfire, and keep watch for lions and tigers and bears in olden times, I began to consider what a nightmare it would be to find myself elected president.

The occasion was my careful announcement to my Facebook friends of the candidate I support for the presidency. Given Georgia’s and other primaries this week, the timing seemed relevant.  I say “careful,” because I chose a few words to support my candidate without overtly disparaging another’s choice. I was a little apprehensive about doing so, as we all know that the internet and Facebook can be a minefield, especially when sharing political views.

I received over 200 likes and over 50 comments, mostly supportive. A few expressed surprise, offering an alternative candidate. But the harshest comment came not from another political party, but from my own political framework. Someone asked how I could be a Christian and support this candidate, and said I must have been duped by the candidate’s “propaganda.”

Recent studies have suggested that political polarization is caused less by disagreement than by our failure to believe our opponents’ intentions are good, or at least justified or reasonable. This is the beam in my own eye that I stumble over when faced with my differences with the opposing political party. Now, I may be right in doubting their motivations. But it would seem that someone from my own party and bias might give me credit for making a reasoned choice that might not be theirs.

It makes me think of my biological family that never shied away from political arguments. Often political anger arose out of thinking that a family member I love would not be making such a stupid or heartless choice! In a perverse way, our political ire showed our deep respect for the person’s intelligence and moral compass.

Maybe the same thing is happening within the various “tribes” we belong to, whether a church, political party, circle of friends, or a nation as a whole. Maybe we think our better natures should make us all come out on the same page.

All of this is to say that at 3 a.m. I realized that to become president of the United States would be, for me, a nightmare. My tiny Facebook skirmish made me realize how vulnerable, how thin-skinned I can be. This may come as a surprise to those who know my lifetime of struggle for LGBT acceptance in the church, as well as other unpopular justice issues.  But that is a drop in the bucket compared to the struggle of a U.S. President.

If elected, whom could I trust? Could I even trust myself to make the right choices? I can’t imagine being adequately informed about any issue. If blocked, could I confront my challengers? Would I be willing to compromise, and would I compromise too much?

Having never served in the military, what would I do with the imposing and intimidating Joint Chiefs of Staff? And, being a member of a centuries-old marginalized tribe, the LGBT community, how would I or my opponents discern between disagreement and disrespect?

And how would I cope with the outrageous “slings and arrows” that come a president’s way—slights, hurts, attacks, as well as the omnipresent danger of a lunatic wanting to make a life while taking yours.

My inaction as well as my actions could spell catastrophe for huge segments of the world population, let alone the earth’s environment. In some ways, being president is kind of like being God—you can’t really have a day off. And if you’re having a bad day, multitudes may suffer.

Some of you might say, well, this is surprising coming from a minister who speaks for God.  That is the more audacious task, representing God.  But I have never viewed myself “speaking for God.” In my nocturnal reverie, a play I had seen at the tender age of 18 at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum came to mind: the Christopher Isherwood adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw story, “The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search of God.” I have always felt like my writings detail “the adventures of a gay red-headed boy in his search of God.” More on this next week.

It is an awesome task to be “the leader of the free world” or the leader of any nation. That’s why your vote and my vote count so much. We don’t want the presidency to be scarier than it already is.

A reading for this week of Lent:

Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Donations of $100 or more either at once or over 2016 will receive a signed gift copy of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.