Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"Don't You Want Me?"

Hobbes hangin'.

Last week, the day before a spiritual program was to begin, I was asked to take care of all the meals. Though it was last minute, I rearranged my week to accommodate the request—happily, because I enjoy serving in this way, especially those tending to their souls and the souls of others.

On one of the several daily drives to and from the site, tears came to my eyes when the radio played Ed Sheeran’s pop song, “Photograph.” I have come to associate the song with our dog, Hobbes, who died last July, specifically the line about a loved one’s photograph:

So you can keep me
Inside the pocket
Of your ripped jeans
Holdin’ me closer
‘Til our eyes meet
You won’t ever be alone
Wait for me to come home.

You see, I keep the above photo of Hobbes on my cell phone inside the pocket of my blue jeans. Every time I check my phone, she looks at me with those eyes, eyes that wanted me always.

The song that immediately followed on the radio brought up a different kind of grief, The Human League’s song with the plaintive refrain, “Don't…you…want…me?” I remember dancing to it during afternoon tea dances on the deck of the Boat Slip, a popular gay bar in Provincetown, in the summer of 1982. I spent a few days there with friends after yet another defeat at a Presbyterian General Assembly, that year, in Hartford, Connecticut.

What was particularly disheartening at that G.A. was that Bill Silver (the candidate who occasioned the denominational debate on the ordination of “avowed, practicing homosexuals”) and I had consulted the Stated Clerk on a strategy that he subsequently arranged to torpedo, now that he knew our plans. Bill felt so betrayed, he ripped off his visitor badge and tossed it over the balcony, yelling at the gathering that he would have nothing more to do with the church. He never attended another G.A.

At the time, we could not know we were at the precipice of a soon to rapidly-descend rollercoaster called AIDS. The devastation we felt at that national church convention was nothing compared to a disease that could strip us of whatever dignity we were trying to embrace, a disease that would accentuate our loss of spiritual support from the church. Many, many years later, Bill too succumbed to it, but without ever losing his feisty spirit and sardonic wit. Bill died with more integrity than many of us will see.

Like “Photograph,” the song “Don't You Want Me?” is about a yearning love, a love translatable to an institution like the church.

“Don't…you…want…me?” The song’s repeated, wistful questioning became the question of a generation of LGBT people.

And now, in our senior years, it still seems relevant. Earlier that morning I had looked through a couple of church publications, recognizing names of peers who have done well in the church, attaining positions openly LGBT Christians of an earlier time could never aspire to.

“Don't…you…want…me?” I realize old age plays tricks on our perspectives, that many seniors have the same question, as younger people, and yes, the church and culture, move on, unaware of the cost older generations have paid to make things better.

I thought of how excited my mom was when Tom Brokaw heralded “The Greatest Generation” that saw the world through the Great Depression and WW II. “Somebody’s finally giving us the credit we deserve,” she told me, and Brokaw’s book was the last book she was reading when she died at age 84.

A similar generational gap is explored in a touching article, “What My Mother Sees in Hillary.”

Prompting these reflections last week was the awareness that openly LGBT United Methodists were once again experiencing rejection during their 2016 General Conference, meeting in Portland.

In my view, that denomination’s attempt at globalization has meant throwing its LGBT members under the proverbial church bus. Not all cultures are as welcoming as Western cultures in regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Thank God that the denomination that ordained me in 2005, Metropolitan Community Churches, takes its “good news” of LGBT welcome to every country it serves, even at great risk.  That’s an example to follow! And I am grateful that, in 1982, the Hartford MCC pastor then, the Rev. Steve Pieters, offered visiting activists the welcome denied us by Presbyterian polity.

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!

Quoted lyrics copyright © by Ed Sheeran.

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Out of the Closets and into the Kingdom

Forty years ago this coming fall I wrote a paper for liberation theologian and feminist Dr. Letty Russell, for her course “Issues in Liberation Theology.” I had forgotten its title until decades after, when I returned to speak on the campus of Yale Divinity School and Letty introduced me.

She proudly held up the paper, still in her files, “Out of the Closets and into the Kingdom: The Call of the Kingdom for Gay Christians within Liberation Theology.” Some of you will know the title is a play on a rallying cry for the nascent LGBT movement, “out of the closets and into the streets!”

What follows is the introduction to my paper. I’ve only changed spacing, bolded some sentences, and included references in text rather than as footnotes. At the end I’ve also added a sentence from the paper’s concluding paragraph, quoting Letty.

There is a knock at the door of my closet. I tremble with fear. It is the persistent Jesus again, asking that the door be opened, asking to be given hospitality, asking me to remove the walls between us and between me and the rest of the Kingdom.

“I don’t want any!” I shout, in my desire to live in peace. But the possible joy, despite my initial denial, eventually overcomes my fear, as it has in the past and will again in the future, and I open the door. Jesus comes in, smiling, hugs me. He sometimes chastens me for taking so long to answer the door. As we drink the new wine which he brings, in my ecstasy I see the walls of another closet disappear. And I inevitably think with surprise, “He’s done it again,” and smile at my lack of faith.

For gay people and indeed for everyone, the Kingdom of God is somewhere outside the closet.  A closet is a cramped place in which to hide, with little room to breathe and the inevitable storeroom for unwanted items and unsightly clutter which one also wishes to hide.

It has similarities to a box, and for some, a box belonging to one Pandora, which has been forbidden to be opened. Humans prefer boxes in which to live, travel, file, categorize, love, find entertainment, worship, pray, etc. At their worst these boxes symbolize death (coffins); at their best they symbolize the Kingdom which is yet to come (churches), though they are never to be confused with that Kingdom.

As Letty Russell speaks of the constantly changing horizon of freedom, in the same way it is possible to speak of the constant opening of each of our successive closet doors. Sometimes we who are inside open the door to the Kingdom outside (conversion); sometimes the Kingdom “breaks in” (incarnation); and sometimes the door rots and simply falls off its hinges (novelty, chance, serendipity, time).

But the nature of the Kingdom, from this perspective, is that it is always outside of the closet, waiting to enter or waiting to be entered. It is the Kingdom which inspires movement or moves itself; it is above all a moving event. It is “the driving force of salvific history,” and as such is “the very key to understanding the Christian faith.” [Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, 162.]

As a fundamentalist I identified the Kingdom with a literal understanding of God setting up the Kingdom on earth at the end of time—sort of a heaven on earth. As James Cone, however, aptly points out, to the oppressed with whom I began to identify, the “eschatological promise of heaven is insufficient.” [James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 44.]

As a social activist I identified the Kingdom with a kingdom on earth which we “liberals” were going to bring into existence—the old social gospel. Here Gustavo Gutierrez’s differentiation between promises and the Promise proves helpful. [Gutierrez, 162.] Though the in-breakings of the Kingdom may occur in the process of social activism, they cannot be understood as the Kingdom itself, or the fullness of the Promise, but rather only as promises of the future fulfillment of God’s Promise of the Kingdom.

As Günther Bornkamm puts it, “the Kingdom of God cannot be described as can an earthly thing or distant wonderland—every attempt to ‘define’ it can thus only come to grief—for it is a happening, an event, the gracious action of God.” [Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, 77.]

The Kingdom of God is not a static reality, but a movement. Bornkamm also states “all the beatitudes are directed towards the coming Kingdom of God and are embraced in one idea, that God wills to be present with us and will be with us all, in as manifold and individual a way as our needs are manifold and individual.” [Bornkamm, 77.]

God wills to be present with gay persons and all who wish to be free in their movement from their closets of humiliation, despair, loneliness, isolation and secrecy to the kingdom of exaltation, exultation, companionship, community and openness (which includes freedom and responsibility).

As the experience of many gay persons will testify, “coming out” is not a once-and-for-all experience, but a continuing process. So the movement towards the Kingdom, somewhere outside the closet, or the Kingdom’s movement toward the closeted, is one which continues until the final Promise is fulfilled: God’s gift of God’s own future, the Kingdom.

As the Church, as people who wish to be free in the Body of Christ, whether female, male, black, brown, red, yellow, white, gay, straight, and so on, we must respond to our “calling to be a community that lives, not by the standards of the world, nor of the past, but by the memory of hope.” [Letty Russell, Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective, 162.]

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 © 1976 and 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Eight Steps toward Sainthood (Wink)

These days of “do-it-yourself” improvement techniques have spawned an industry of providing sometimes simplistic solutions to life’s problems. So my title is a little tongue-in-cheek.  I don’t present what follows as “dramatic truth,” or “divine revelation,” let alone “the secret”!

At the same time, I remember a friend reared as a United Methodist telling me he had never been given a spiritual path until he was introduced to The Twelve Steps.  Another United Methodist—a college professor or mine—shocked everyone by candidly answering “no!” to an ordination question, “Are you on the road to perfection?”

Path or no path, I believe that integrity, not perfection, is the goal.

Henri Nouwen wrote in Reaching Out, “The really great saints of history don’t ask for imitation. Their way was unique and cannot be repeated. But they invite us into their lives and offer a hospitable space for our own search.”

So this is simply what I’ve gleaned from those we may consider saints, past or present. And you might note that every other step toward sainthood is humility!

Step 1. Awareness

Religious traditions call this by different names: awakening, conversion, enlightenment, mindfulness, transcendence, born again. It’s not so much “knowledge” as an eye-opening, perhaps heart-rending, experience. We have a taste of this when we fall in love, have a baby, or encounter injustice.

Something or someone draws us out of ourselves and our self-concerns. It might be an experience of awe—say, viewing the Milky Way in a very black sky. It might be an experience of terror, or of hitting rock-bottom, and realize our need to reach out to a Higher Power or other people.

However it comes our way, it’s an awareness that we are not alone, but not just that, that there is something greater than us, deeper than us, more vital than us. Some call this God, others call it Spirit, others simply the human community.

Many people think they have arrived, that they’ve done all that’s needful when they experience this conversion, this awakening, this awareness.

Maybe they’re right. Taking this step is a good thing in and of itself.

Step 2. Humility

Don’t think of ourselves as superior because we may be aware. This is perhaps the greatest liability of religion. Converts think they have arrived, that they have the answers, and that somehow they’re better than those who haven’t converted, sometimes even better than those who converted long ago, proving the cliché, “No one more zealous than a recent convert.” Cockiness, false-confidence, I know all there is to know, I’ve done all there is to do, and I’m saved, or enlightened, or complete—and you’re not.

True awareness makes me see my self, my experience, as only a part of the whole. True awareness makes me see “my” answer as only one among many. True awareness makes me see my lifespan here on earth as a second of eternity. This is the meaning of eternal life, that we have been given a glimpse of eternity, an eternal perspective through which to view our brief lifespans.

True awareness contextualizes my life, puts my life in its proper context, not greater than, not lesser than…

Step 3. Practice and expand awareness

Many stop at awareness, but an old awareness can become as stultifying, limiting, or paralyzing as no awareness at all, as a person who is clueless. I have been given a clue by my awareness, but it is only one clue, and does not solve the mystery of life, if solving such mystery is even desirable, let alone possible.

To practice my faith, I need to expand my awareness to avoid being entrapped. Buddhism calls it letting go of the lower rungs of the ladder. Zen Buddhism calls it “killing the Buddha.” In Christianity Jesus said he must leave for the Spirit to guide his followers into further truth.

As we deepen our faith, we may expand our awareness enough to embrace other faiths, other spiritual paths. We do this in prayer, meditation, using sacred and inspirational texts, participating in spiritual community, consulting diverse spiritual guides: those whose spiritual authority we recognize who may serve as soul friends or spiritual directors.

Step 4. Humility

I must not think I have “earned” awareness or its benefits.

The film Amadeus was about two musicians, Salieri and Mozart. Salieri thought by devoting his music to God that he would be rewarded with timeless compositions. Mozart lived a wild life, yet we are much more familiar with his name and music.

Though we practice awareness, we can’t expect, as Salieri did, that our devotion will earn us timeless illuminations. The Spirit blows where she will. We may only make ourselves available to feel it.

Step 5. Move

Much regard is given taking a spiritual stand, as in “I shall not be moved!” Yet to me, spiritual metaphors imply movement. Abraham and Sarah left Ur. The Hebrews were liberated from Egypt to search for a promised land. Christians took their gospel to the ends of the earth. The Buddha left his princely home. Think of the quest for the Holy Grail or Pilgrim’s Progress.

The spiritual quest means we are headed somewhere, if “only” spiritually.

Step 6. Humility

Don’t make a show of it.

In our recognition-hungry and drama-driven culture, I might want to make this spiritual movement a public production involving a cast of thousands. It might be valued if it makes a big splash, appears on TV, receives awards, and has a million Twitter followers.

But most spiritual quests are very personal affairs, often unseen. Jesus advised against praying on street corners, favoring going into one’s closet to pray.

Step 7. Arrive

A spiritual quest has a destination, a vision, a hope. A promised land. Peace and justice. A spiritual commonwealth, how I refer to “the kingdom of God.” Buddhahood. Nirvana. A future in which lion and lamb may lie down together.

Let’s celebrate whenever the commonwealth of God comes near or is in our midst!

Step 8. Humility

Don’t stay there. When I feel that I have arrived, that’s spiritually the most dangerous place. If I think I have no need to grow, nothing to learn, nothing to receive—well, “it’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am!”

The Bodhisattva is one who returns from Nirvana to show others the way. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we help others through acts of charity and justice.

“Faith without works is dead.”

A sociological axiom has it that, at an oasis in a wilderness, those who talk about where they have been rather than where they are going have been at the oasis the longest. They have contented themselves with the oasis and have an “oasis mentality.”  

One Jewish tradition has it that the Israelites spent most of their forty years in the wilderness at an oasis within sight of the Promised Land!

So I think of these eight steps as a spiral of repeating cycles. I believe that, in the spiritual life, there is no “finish line.”

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, May 4, 2016

New Meaning in the Cross

“Don’t you believe in the Trinity?” a friend asked last week, after I reacted negatively to a stranger saying that Jesus is God. I admit, I overreacted a bit, calling the latter belief idolatry, though discretely not to the person who asserted it. The person declaring Jesus their God did not affirm this in the context of Trinity: Jesus apparently stood as “Lord” all by himself in this man’s view.

I believe Jesus would be horrified. As a good Jew, he might at best have believed himself part of a chosen people, the children of God, and as a uniquely called prophet. To the person who asked about the Trinity, I rather lamely replied that I believed Jesus awakened us to the understanding that we are all beloved children of God. I added that the Trinity wasn’t devised until centuries after Jesus lived.

If I had had my wits about me, I would’ve explained further that the Trinity as three separate persons is not how I understand God. Previously on this blog I implied that early Eastern Orthodox mystics’ Trinitarian thinking was more about God’s activities than essence or personhood. To the extent we “see” the face of God, it is by God’s activities in the world. This was also the understanding of some Judaic and Islamic philosophers and mystics.

I believe we may see God in creation, compassion, and inspiration—the actions corresponding to what is designated Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. And the writer of 1 John saw God as love, and I see God there too.

The Romans thought of the first Christians as atheists because they didn’t believe in the many gods that filled up their pantheon and the many cultures they ruled. The Christian “pantheon” came to be populated in popular imagination by Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

But to me, this limits our experience of God. Every time I write about God, I realize how much I limit God. God has more than three “faces,” as evidenced by the wide variety of religions and faiths there are on our planet alone.

Remembering that in religion “myth” is—in the words of a child—“a story that is true on the inside,” the cross may be seen as a story of how “the powers that be” seek to diminish God’s activity in the world. The resurrection may be viewed as a story of how God’s activity in the world is renewed and refreshed. And Pentecost may be understood as a story of how transforming God’s presence can be, making us able to speak in the languages of strangers, share our possessions, and proclaim God’s love to the world.

Over the past year or so I’ve experienced a series of physical “issues” that remind me I am not always going to be this body. Not going anywhere soon, mind you, but I decided finally to read Sherwin B. Nuland’s 1993 book, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, which has sat on my bookshelves unopened since a friend left it to me.

I like Nuland’s frank admission that, though society and the medical profession like to assign “causes of death,” sometimes we simply die of old age. The body was not designed to last forever. It wears out!

And I was fascinated to read a quote from Michael Helpern, the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City: “Death may be due to a wide variety of diseases and disorders, but in every case the underlying physiological cause is a breakdown in the body’s oxygen cycle.”

This brought new meaning to the myth of the cross, that God incarnate suffered and died. Crucifixion, as is commonly known, achieves its end by suffocation: as the body weakens and sags, air flow is cut off, and the crucified dies by asphyxiation.

Many Christians have believed that Jesus or God suffered for us or in our place, which to me diminishes the fact that we too suffer and we too will die. Others of us have seen Jesus’ death on the cross as God’s suffering with us, the literal meaning of “compassion”= “to suffer with.”

Now to know that lack of oxygen is the cause of every death is to see the cross in every death—to believe that, in compassion, God is with us as we part this world.

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.