Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Toxic Dumps

Sorry to disappoint fellow environmentalists, but the toxic dumps I write about today would not be of interest to environmental protection agencies, but they would be of interest to departments of the interior—yours and mine.

Sorting through papers to be sent to my archive, I happened onto one that sent me into a downward spiral emotionally and spiritually. To leech the toxins from my system that evening, I had to watch an episode of The Waltons, which fortunately still plays on a cable channel. And I had to write a response that I stapled onto the document, a response I never got to write because, at the time, I had to defend myself orally, having not been given it before its presentation.

And of course, now I get to conclude my “therapy” by writing this post!

It is small comfort to know that anyone who does anything worthwhile is bound, from time to time, to receive a response calculated to destroy your character and reputation, and call into question your integrity. And it doesn’t help “knowing” that often such responses represent a troubled personality or a misperception of reality of an individual or a cohort.

That I found it amidst hundreds of notes, letters, and e-mails thanking me for my writings and ministry might only imply that I “fooled” everyone else!

Off the top of my head, I can list at least half-a-dozen “bombshells” that archivists will find in my papers, and I can only hope to God that they can contextualize complaints as I at least try to do, though such toxic dumps can temporarily poison me.

I admit I did consider shredding the paper, but I have tried to be above board and inclusive in my self-documentation. Given that it must exist somewhere else, too, I felt it better to attach a brief response.

I’m not delusional enough to think that any researcher would want to wade through my files of “too much information,” but I do fancy a student might someday want to write a paper on what it was like be a gay Christian activist over the past four decades. Even more important, many if not most of the communications are outpourings of the lives of a broad spectrum of LGBT people of faith and their family members, their friends, and their advocates.

The irony is that I am minutely aware of my “character defects, limitations, and sins,” in the words of Henri Nouwen, alluding to his own. What seems contradictory is that those who have endured my shortcomings the most have been the most forgiving, while those who have endured my limitations the least make the most of them!

But I am also aware of my intentions, and to have them misunderstood wounds me, going back to a couple of childhood incidents I described in my autobiographical Uncommon Calling. I suggested in that first book that I believe that being misunderstood is a common fear for us all.

My original title for Uncommon Calling was A Profile in Grace. But fear that that title would be misunderstood—as if claiming I was gracious—my editor and I looked about for another. What I intended was that we all live by grace, God’s grace, and I felt blessed by that grace.

I also concluded in that book that perfection is not the goal of the spiritual life; rather, integrity is. And integrity is a never-ending process, as “new occasions teach new duties,” in the words of the old hymn.

Another little irony is that the person who wrote the toxic piece is presently a Facebook friend.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Man Facing Southeast

Scene from Man Facing Southeast

Man Facing Southeast is a 1986 film from Argentina. It depicts a man who commits himself to a mental hospital, while claiming to be an extraterrestrial. Every day, he stands in the same place in the hospital yard, facing southeast, contemplating or communicating with his planet of origin.

As I write this, it suddenly occurs to me I do the same thing during my morning prayers on our deck, facing southeast while seated, contemplating and “communicating” with my point of origin, as well as yours! But this is not why I’m writing this post.

Wednesdays, after promoting my blog on 30 or so relevant organizational Facebook pages, I walk in nearby Grant Park, a walk I used to take with Hobbes. Over the past month or so, I have encountered a man standing in the same place along my path: a 30-ish African American, neatly dressed in vintage clothing, a roller bag at his side, maybe homeless, and intently gazing straight ahead. Sometimes he has something in hand, his free hand gesturing, occasionally moving his lips. Sometimes he is standing motionless and staring straight ahead. I try to acknowledge him with a simple nod or a one-word greeting as I pass, not wanting to interrupt his focus.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed he was holding a clump of pages from a Bible. He looked as if he was soundlessly mouthing words, his free hand motioning to an unseen audience, and it occurred to me that perhaps he was practicing a sermon. I wondered if he served a congregation, or if, as a modern-day Saint Francis, he was offering his words to the birds in the branches of the tall old trees before him.

This man facing northwest made me think of the movie Man Facing Southeast. I wondered if he too was in contemplation and communication with his place of origin.

I was shown the film by my friend Scott Rogo, who thought I would appreciate its spiritual intimations. To this day I have the video copy he gave me after we watched it together. Scott wrote 30 books as a parapsychologist, his interest in the paranormal initiated by an out-of-body experience in high school.

Scott and I had barely known each other then. He was in band and I was in choir in adjacent classrooms. Our first semester in college, we happened to take the same “Man’s Religions” course, and my Pollyanna spirituality seemed distasteful to his skeptically agnostic view.

A decade later, our mutual concern about the AIDS epidemic led to meeting again “as if for the first time,” learning each other was gay. He was already a published author and I was trying to complete my first book, and our shared interest in very different expressions of spirituality prompted us to meet every couple of weeks for lunch. He once visited the church I served, but felt more comfortable in the familiar surroundings of his home synagogue, though he did not attend regularly.

He was as an early reader of my first book, giving me its title, Uncommon Calling, and encouraging me to write its hopeful epilogue, observing that throughout the book I had followed every “crucifixion” with a “resurrection,” and I should do the same with its conclusion.

I wrote about our unique friendship and his shocking murder at age 4o in my last published book, The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life.

So Man Facing Southeast means a lot to me.

The doctor treating its protagonist comes to question his own science, as he “recognizes his new patient’s special abilities and contagiously humanitarian outlook on life,” in the words of one reviewer.

No wonder people thought Jesus was an “extraterrestrial.”

Donations to this blog ministry may be given 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, August 17, 2016

Killing God

             Michael Christman illustration for Coming Out to God

His five-year-old daughter offered a prayer while burying a sparrow who died flying into a window pane. “Dear God, we have buried this little sparrow. Now you be good to it, or I’ll kill you.” When told by her mother she didn’t need to threaten God, she said, “I just wanted to be sure.”

John Fraser tells this story in a collection of essays entitled, Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen, to which I also contributed a chapter. Fascinated by the story, Henri wrote about it in his book, The Road to Daybreak.

I once buried a sparrow who died similarly, trying to fly into what appeared a welcoming space within glass walls of a campus chapel. I wrote about it in my book of prayers, Coming Out to God. It made me think of many who hit invisible barriers trying to enter our churches. Jesus once told his followers not to be afraid, that not one sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing.

What strikes me is that this prayer of a five-year-old is often the prayer of adults. Karen Armstrong says as much in her “Death of God?” chapter in her History of God. When we conceive an all-powerful God, then God is responsible for all that’s wrong with the world—in her word, “a monster.” And I have pastorally and personally witnessed those who suffer or those who suffer loss doubting God’s intentions or God’s existence. An omnipotent God who fails to care must be distrusted or killed.

I believe Christianity is conducive to this way of thinking, as it conceptualizes a God of compassion, willing to be vulnerable to the point of death—all out of love.

We often conceive of God as “the best” at everything. When you consider your “best friend,” do you think of someone who is powerful or someone who is loving? Just as we would classify a best friend as loving, so is our best God. It could be said that love is God’s power.

When we look for love, would we choose a lover who is dogmatic and demanding, or one who is trustworthy and welcoming? Even so with God, for biblically God’s love is steadfast and inclusive.

And when we consider our best leaders or pastors or teachers, do we think of someone who is controlling or one who is persuasive? Just so, our “best God” is persuasive, a good shepherd, one who stands at our door and knocks, one who wants to be invited in to commune with us, one we want to follow.

And lest God become thought of as just another thing or being as “best” implies, it’s better to think of God as the most: the most loving, the most welcoming, the most loyal, the most inclusive, the most persuasive. To borrow a word from comedian John Oliver, that’s the God with the “mostus.”

This line of thinking is how process theology “saved” God for me long before I went to seminary.

Armstrong observes, “Throughout history people have discarded a conception of God when it no longer works for them.” And later, “Those of us who have had a difficult time with religion in the past find it liberating to be rid of the God who terrorized our childhood.”

She suggests that often what “saves” God are poets, artists (of all kinds), visionaries, and mystics who glimpse something through the imagination, through their disciplines, and through silence, something that cannot be known so much as witnessed. In Care of the Soul Thomas Moore noted that imagination is perhaps our most underutilized spiritual gift.  And Saint Ignatius, who gave us his Spiritual Exercises and founded the scholarly Jesuits, believed the spiritual life required imagination.

I would add that too many readers of the Bible refuse to see it as the work of poets, artists, visionaries, and mystics—not an objective record or rulebook—rather, one that invites our own imaginations to play and to pray as we discern God for a new generation.

One of the worst things that can happen to God, Armstrong suggests, is when “the more educated, sober, and responsible element” in a given faith discard religion altogether, instead of re-imagining God, because too many others prefer to worship the manmade* Golden Calf rather than the God hidden on the mountain, or in the sound of sheer silence, or in a newborn’s cry.

Armstrong recounts a story that echoes the accountability required by the five-year-old in my opening story. It is told that in Auschwitz, some Jews put God on trial for cruelty and betrayal. They found God guilty, worthy of death. A rabbi gave the verdict, and announced that now he would lead evening prayers.

The God who inspires human beings to be tenacious in the face of calamity is worthy of reimagining.

*The use of this non-inclusive term is intentional.

Related posts (also linked in the above text):
The Terrible God (Good Shepherd, Psalm 23)

Donations to this blog ministry may be given 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, August 10, 2016

Henri Joins the Circus

Henri catching the wing of a windmill.

I invite you to Be Still! Be Loved! Be Grateful!, a Spiritual Formation course that I will be leading at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA, on Henri Nouwen’s life, ministry, and writings Sept. 22-24, 2016 following the 2oth anniversary of his death Sept. 21, 1996. A technical glitch tried to put some registrants on a waiting list, but there are still openings.

Attending an international Nouwen conference in Toronto this past June and doing further reading in preparation for the course, I’ve been thinking about the research Henri did for a book he never wrote about the Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists in a German circus. He wanted it to say something about the spiritual life in more universal (rather than religious) language. So, last week, this children’s story came out of me!

Once upon a time there was a wide-eyed boy named Henri. He lived in Holland during a great war. His hands were large, his ears were large, he was clumsy and awkward, and he felt like a clown.

And so he went to clown seminary. He devoted himself to learning all the gestures a clown must use, flapping his oversize hands like birds, extending them at arms’ length in welcome, clapping them rapidly together as if offering multiple expressions of gratitude for everything and everyone he encountered.

He stuck his neck out, squinted his eyes as if to see better, turned a big ear to hear clearly, bowed grandly but deferentially, and stood on tippy-toes to accentuate his already great height when making a point. And he had a huge, goofy grin that revealed his absolute delight at encountering you.

Henri found a costume that accentuated his vocation, and learned how to apply garish makeup that sometimes covered his true feelings.

So Henri joined the circus, following the poet e.e. cummings’ famous advice: “damn everything but the circus.” He travelled hither and yon, over hill and over dale, as the circus wagons kept rolling along.

He stumbled and fumbled and tumbled and somersaulted his way into people’s hearts. “He is just like us,” they said, sometimes smiling in recognition, sometimes deeply moved as his familiar foibles and limitations tugged at their heart strings. His disabilities mirrored our disabilities. 

But Henri had a secret wish: to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Sometimes his height allowed him to catch an arm of a windmill, common in Holland’s countryside, and the uplift took his breath away. He could see great distances and imagine himself flung to the heavens before crashing to earth in a pile of hay, cushioning his fall.

And then Henri met Rodney, a trapeze artist. Rodney was strong and graceful, beautiful and amazing. He was everything Henri wished to be, and  HE COULD FLY! Boy, could he fly, doing doubles and triples midair without a care in the world.

“How do you do that?” Henri asked Rodney, appreciatively. “Being absolutely present in the moment,” Rodney explained. “I let go of everything that can hold me down: my cares, my doubts, my fears, even yesterday’s mistakes. And I trust. I trust the Catcher, and I trust the net. Gravity is not my enemy; it is the friend that brings me home. I can go up toward the skies knowing I will come home. I surrender to the moment and soar, knowing gravity will keep me down to earth.”

Then Rodney added, “It’s the same thing you do when you stumble and fumble and tumble and somersault into people’s hearts—except you do it grounded. Your gravity is compassion. Your home is the heart.”

Henri was stunned. He had never thought of his work in this way. Rodney’s words lifted him up, and Henri felt like this man on the flying trapeze.

My book about Henri:

Click here for my posts that mention Henri, and scroll down.

Tax-deductible donations to this blog ministry may be given 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, August 3, 2016

Reform or Revolution?

An 80-year-old Nicaraguan told us this was her first 
opportunity to vote for the candidate of her choice. 
Her red-inked thumb shows she has been to the polls.

Pat Hoffman, a spiritual guide for me, turned to me during a particularly dry presbytery meeting in the 80’s and asked, “Chris, would you like to go to Nicaragua?” Without missing a beat, I replied, “Sure! Can we go now?!” Anything to escape an ecclesiastical wilderness.

A word about Pat. We wrote our first books together, mine being Uncommon Calling, about LGBT efforts to reform the Presbyterian Church, and hers being Ministry of the Dispossessed, about ministry among the farmworkers of California. We met for lunch every couple of weeks, exchanging and reviewing each other’s books, chapter by chapter. Sometimes we met for tea at Trump’s (yeah, really!) in Beverly Hills; we couldn’t afford their formal tea, but we found we could share a pot of tea and two scones in its stylish bar for a total of $10.

Pat was helping organize a group of twenty Presbyterians, Disciples, and United Methodists under the auspices of Church World Service to witness Nicaragua’s first free and fair election after deposing the despot Somoza, occurring the same week as Reagan was seeking re-election while illegally funding the contras—the counter-revolutionaries who opposed the Sandinista government. A U.S. warship sailed menacingly off Nicaragua’s coast while we were there, and we heard two sonic booms each day as U.S. spy planes flew low overhead.

A Maryknoll sister (left) briefed us on what 
was happening. Pat Hoffman is in yellow.

There are many stories to be told about that trip, including the one when we decided to “crash” the American election party at the U.S. Embassy, where we had earlier met with a diplomat explaining what we considered misguided U.S. policy—after which Pat, with a mischievous smile, asked me, “Is he one of yours?” I laughed, realizing her “gaydar” was as astute as mine.

Anyway, about ten of us crammed into two tiny taxis and showed up election night outside the gate of the highly fortressed U.S. Embassy.  The taxi I was in arrived first, so I jumped out of the car and ran up to the gate. As quickly, I was met with bayonetted rifles of several soldiers running out of the waterless moat that surrounded the embassy! To the soldier at the gate, I explained why we were there. He put me on the phone to his commander inside, who politely explained that the party was not at the embassy itself, rather at a hotel, and that it was “by invitation only.”

A few days before we had been welcomed at the Nicaraguan election festivities, which required no such invitation. There we joined hundreds of Nicaraguans in an open soccer field listening to American music as election results began to trickle in—but only after walking through unlighted downtown areas of Managua destroyed by a devastating earthquake years before, never restored because Somoza drained the economic aid that came from other countries. In the darkness, we had to avoid manholes missing their covers.

Me, sitting beneath Che Guevara.

The reason I bring this up is all the talk about “revolution” in this current election. A history professor with us explained that Nicaragua had experienced a true revolution, but by contrast, she shared many historians’ view that the so-called “American Revolution,” was actually a rebellion, because it did not turn upside down the class system, putting “lower” classes, however defined, in charge. It was still largely governed by wealthy, educated, propertied white men.

I was a little peeved at her for disillusioning me about our seminal American event, but I saw her point. Still, our Founding Fathers and Mothers did set in place a system potentially “of the people” that would radically transform the government, society, and culture. Yet we are a representative democracy, not an absolute democracy.

So it gives me pause whenever the word “revolution” is tossed about so loosely as it has been this year. I had felt uncomfortable when activists in my own LGBT movement claimed ours was a “revolution.”  I thought it was too audacious and unrealistic to believe our activities could turn things upside down, as it was said of the first Christians (see Acts 17:6).

Others of us viewed our efforts more modestly and humbly as reformers. The system, both church and government, provided opportunities for reform, and look what the LGBT movement has accomplished in a generation!

Of course, self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” get the lion’s share of press, but in so many cases, the reformers deliberately sculpting our institutions accomplish more in the long run. Self-proclaimed “messiahs” lead to disillusionment because too many followers don’t have the patience to do the hard work—including voting in midterm elections, campaigning for down-ballot candidates and issues, paying attention to so-called “lowly” offices like school boards and town councils, networking with other movements.

Even revolutions require reformers, as we have witnessed in Nicaragua since that election day in 1984. In my journal on the trip, I wrote: 
Election Day
Sunday, Nov. 4 
It’s like watching the birth of a child, the blossoming of a fruit tree, the first green after winter. It’s one of the most exciting experiences I’ve witnessed. Not just history. Not mere accomplishment. It is hope in action—not a fait accompli, not an ultimate answer, not the promised land—but a signpost along the way. And that’s just it—along the way. Nicaragua is moving—its people are moving. I am grateful to watch from along the way, instead of being in the way or far away.
 Where people are on the way, God’s Spirit is at work.

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 and photos Copyright © 1984 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author, photographer, and blogsite. Other rights reserved.