Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Butterfly Effect

Partial view from our deck.

Those familiar with chaos theory may be thinking that’s what this post is about: how something so small as the flutter of a butterfly in one part of the world may cause dire weather elsewhere. This was a metaphor used in a paper by Edward N. Lorenz for the notion that one slight event can affect a complex system. Chaos theory was the theme of one issue when I edited Open Hands. (Click on the highlighted phrase and scroll down to my opening essay. Note designer Jan Graves’ creative arrangement of the columns.)

But if the flutter of a butterfly may have disastrous results, a butterfly that is still can have peaceful effects.

I learned that the morning I write this during my reading and prayers on our deck, which blessedly looks out at a ravine verdant with shrubs, kudzu, and very tall, leafy trees on either side of a narrow creek.

A small butterfly or large moth landed on the other side of an arm of a wooden chair beside me. I saw it land, but had to peer over an edge of the arm to see the tips of its wings and large round eyes. Otherwise it was hidden. I liked that it made no difference if it was a moth or a butterfly for its effect on me.

The motionless creature prompted me to remain still, lest I scare it away. (Wade has noted how still I can remain in bed at night, even when I lie awake, my brain going at full speed. Sometimes I silently do the verbal part of my morning prayers, which may return me to a peaceful sleep.)

My lack of movement gave me opportunities to observe:

+the gently creeping fingertips of light on the leaves of trees as the sun rose;
+the flicker of moisture in the mulch beneath the bird bath, then the rare drops that created it dripping from a crack in its basin;
+Luna the cat hanging on to the top of a neighbor’s fence while batting away at something on a shrub;
+a majestic hawk flying overhead in the blue sky, wings spread wide;
+the humid and warm stillness of air suddenly becoming a gentle, cooling breeze;
+the wisps of clouds moving swiftly above me;
+the unusual hush of the cicadas.

My very long pause seemed a proper preparation for resuming my reading of Thomas Merton’s Mystics and Zen Masters, which I referenced three weeks ago. I began by re-reading phrases and sentences I had underlined the previous day, and decided to share them in this post, as I did when I wrote of reading the mystical Cloud of Unknowing, leaving the reader to relate it to your own experience.

Merton describes the Tao Te Ching written by the mystic Lao Tzu. What follows are Merton’s words; but words in quotes are from the Tao.  I’ve made the language inclusive, but their relevance stands on its own:

+ The sage and the wise ruler are those who do not rush forward to aggrandize themselves, but cherish, with loving concern, the sacred reality of persons and things which have been entrusted to them by the Tao.

+ In the Tao, “which is queer like nothing on earth,” are found three treasures: mercy, frugality, and not wanting to be first in the world.

+One of its most astute sayings is that in a war the winner is likely to be the side that enters the war with the most sorrow. “To rejoice over a victory is to rejoice over the slaughter of others… Every victory is a funeral.”

+ “Heaven arms with love / Those it would not see destroyed.”

+ One “reaches” the Tao by “becoming like” the Tao, by acting, in some sense, according to the “way” (Tao). For the Tao is at once perfect activity and perfect rest.

+ The way of the Tao is…the way of supreme spontaneity, which is virtuous in a transcendent sense because it “does not strive.”

+ As soon as a human being becomes aware of doing good and avoiding evil, he or she is no longer perfectly good.

+ For Lao Tzu, if one were to be righteous, that one should first of all fly all thought of righteousness, and put out of one’s mind any ideal image of oneself as a “righteous person.”

+ The way of the sage is the way of not-attacking, not charging at one’s objective, not busying oneself too intently about one’s goals.

+ Taoism is not complete non-action but rather non-activism. It is supreme activity, because it acts at rest, acts without effort. Its effortlessness is not a matter of inertia, but of harmony with the hidden power that drives the planets and the cosmos.

As Merton understands the Tao, it is neither quietistic nor a doctrine but a “wisdom” and a “way of life.” He concludes of the West, “It is absolutely essential to introduce into our study of the humanities a dimension of wisdom oriented to contemplation as well as to wise action.”

Reflecting on these words underlined yesterday, I felt no need to go on to the next chapter of the book. The butterfly was still there; I was there, still. 

I pulled out my phone to take a picture of the butterfly for you, the reader of this intended post, but the moment I stood, it flew away.

Its flutter may wreak havoc elsewhere, but its rest had kept me in the tranquil eye of the storm.

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

White Supremacy: Fifty Shades of White?

Courtesy The Star.

Since the Unite the Right demonstrations and counterdemonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, I have alternated between rage and tears.

Why do Jews become an automatic scapegoat? Why are blacks and Muslims and immigrants viewed as “stealing” our country? Why are liberals the “bad guys”? Why has the Confederacy become for some the icon of American values? Why should Anglo-Europeans have a corner on American culture?

When it comes to white supremacy, I want to ask which hue of white? Off-white? Ivory? Cream? Eggshell? Almond? Vanilla? Manila? Navajo white? Are freckles allowed? How many? How deep a tan is permitted? Would I have to be an albino to qualify? White supremacists should consult interior designers and fashionistas to list fifty shades of white that are welcome in their movement.

All those classified as “white” come from cultures and countries that managed to create angry divisions all on their own, long before they stepped onto the global stage to conquer and colonize and “civilize” peoples of color, including the only Americans who can claim they were here first, Native Americans.

And white “civilization” could not make it on its own, but depended on slavery and spreading their empires to succeed, exploiting the resources of other civilizations that were not recognized as such. Granted, Anglo-Europeans were not alone in the world doing this, but why elevate any civilization that did so?

And for those white supremacists who claim “Christian” as their religion: Jesus was a Jew from the Middle East, and more than two-thirds of the Bible are Jewish scriptures. Even most of the New Testament was written by Jews.

Jesus lauded faith where he found it: the Gentile centurion who sought healing for his servant, the Good Samaritan who rescued one who had been brutalized, the Samaritan woman at the well to whom he revealed his mission, the Jewish widow who gave all she had to the Temple treasury, even, after a little hesitation, the Canaanite woman who sought mere crumbs.

From the cross, Jesus assured a criminal that they would be together in paradise, and he prayed God’s forgiveness for his executioners.  For generations, white supremacists have mocked Jesus by burning crosses to terrorize people, acts of domestic terrorism.

From those who claimed President Obama was not born in the United States to those who lynched minorities, whether by rope, weapon, or jury, white supremacists are anything but supreme. They are threatened not by external factors, but by their own insecurities and inadequacies.

On the radio Sunday, I heard an African American theologian say we must not believe anyone is beyond redemption. From her lips to their hearts.

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

In the Shadow of the Moon

Solar eclipse at your feet!

The coming solar eclipse on August 21 prompts me to tell a story on myself from a partial eclipse some years back, here in Atlanta. I believe I wrote about this in one of my books, but I can’t tell you which one!

I was out running toward the middle of the day when it seemed a little darker than it should be with a cloudless sky.  Then I remembered that the moon was going to be passing between the sun and earth on this day, and apparently at that time.

As I ran, I noticed on the sidewalk beneath my feet tiny crescent shapes of light that appeared to be coming through the leaves overhead, and I laughed to think I was witnessing the eclipse in miniature. I wrote it off to my overactive imagination; probably the sun always filtered through leaves like that, and I had never before noticed.

Months later, in Madison, Wisconsin, I was in the home of a young lesbian couple. At my feet played two tow-headed children, a boy and a girl, and I learned that each woman had given birth to one, with the help of the sperm of gay partners, friends of theirs living on the West coast. It was a remarkable reimagining of what family could be!

I happened to look over at one woman’s home work space, and noticed pinned above her desk several newspaper photos of crescent shapes of light like I had seen during the eclipse. Her photo appeared in one of the news articles beside this phenomenon. As it turned out, she was a meteorologist and she confirmed that what I had “imagined” was in truth, reality!

“It’s like when you put a pinhole at one end of a shoebox to see an eclipse,” she explained. “The light at the other end of the box is what you saw many times over on the sidewalk beneath your feet.”

In his book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore wrote that imagination is the most underutilized spiritual gift. Saint Ignatius believed that imagination is needed in the spiritual life, and those who have tried his rigorous Spiritual Exercises know the necessity of the imagination in accomplishing them.

Every human endeavor requires imagination. Whether you’re bagging your groceries or developing the theory of relativity, creating a work of art or doing a house repair, imagination opens us to new ways of accomplishing our tasks, being creative, and understanding the universe.

Albert Einstein’s imagination prompted him to suggest that light could bend, demonstrated by Arthur Eddington in documenting the “shifting” positions of two stars during a solar eclipse, an early confirmation of the theory of general relativity.

The Psalmist’s imagination prompted an expectation that God is with us, even in “the valley of the shadow.”

And poet Mary Oliver advises us to “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

My scientific knowledge is, like all other aspects of my knowledge, probably dated. But a few years ago it was reported that astrophysical and cosmological measurements have suggested that the universe is 4% atoms, 25% dark matter, and 70% dark energy, a mysterious energy unrelated to dark matter that holds everything together.*

What that says to me is that we are only seeing with our eyes the manifestation of 4% of what’s here, the 4% of the universe that consists of atoms. We can’t see the 25% that is dark matter, or the 70% that is dark energy.

So, in this cosmic “shadow of the moon,” imagination may take us beyond our eclipsed knowledge and awareness, whether our own imagination or that of visionaries: scientists, artists, mystics, prophets, poets, lovers, and children.
Solar eclipse reflected through leaves.

*Thanks to Dennis Overbye’s reporting in The New York Times.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rediscover Your "Ox Mountain"

Living in China during the fourth and third century BCE, Meng Tzu* (Latinized by the West as “Mencius”), following in the footsteps of his sixth century spiritual ancestor, Kung Tzu (Confucius), represented their shared belief in the essential goodness of human beings and our “basic tendency to love” with the memorable Parable of Ox Mountain.

My paraphrase: 
Once upon a time there was a great forest on Ox Mountain, near an urban area. Residents of the city came and cut down all the trees, and the forest was no more. But nature tried to reclaim the forest, and the stumps sprang green shoots. The people, however, let their flocks loose to graze on the mountain, and they ate all the new growth. Their children and grandchildren never knew there had once been a grand forest on Ox Mountain, because now it appeared barren and desolate. 
In his 1967 book, Mystics and Zen Masters, (an unread copy of which I discovered a few weeks ago in one of those free libraries popping up in neighbors’ yards), Thomas Merton presents Meng Tzu’s conclusion: 
So too with man: he is naturally inclined to virtue, but his actions, in a greedy and grasping society, so completely destroys all evidence of his innate goodness that he appears to be naturally evil. 
This parallels the understanding of sin and human nature in Celtic Christianity, which I’ve written of admiringly.

To me, Meng Tzu’s experience gets magnified in a media culture, and magnified exponentially in our own time of a 24/7 news cycle on a global internet stage (or platform, if you will) in which the worst news gets our attention. Mahatma Gandhi once illustrated the problem with an example of two people locked in a dispute who resolve things peacefully, so do not get the attention they would draw if they fought publically or took the matter to court.  Gandhi suggested that’s why we have a skewed perspective on human nature. The good, the peaceful, the loving, the compassionate is not “news” because it aligns with how we believe things ought to be.

All of this flies in the face of what many of us are feeling these days, as we see fists raised angrily in the air in opposition to many of the values and people we hold dear.

But Meng Tzu, Merton writes, lived also “in an age (like ours) of war and chaos” (Parenthetical observation Merton’s).

Kung Tzu (Confucius) had not, according to Merton, entertained any sort of “sentimental humanitarianism.” Rather, he believed that people “could be good, but that for them to actualize these potentialities they had to live in a society that fully respected their hidden goodness, respected them as persons, with sacred and God-given rights, and educated them in the same respect…”

This sounds like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community.”

Merton explains that Kung Tzu’s understanding of personal development is very different from that of the West: 
Here we come closer to certain modern and pragmatic misconceptions concerning the development of the person: that is, the development of aggressiveness, of astuteness, of attractiveness, of diplomatic skills; in a word, the ability to succeed.  ‘Personality’ in this sense is the power to impose yourself and your wishes on others. For Kung Tzu, wisdom by no means consists in imposing your will or your ‘personality’ on somebody else, and making him serve your own ends by domination or by flattery. It is not that this is ‘wrong’ according to some abstract standard, but before all else it is unhealthy because it is unreal. The man who acts like this is untrue to himself and at the same moment, by the same token, untrue to heaven, whose will is embedded deep in his very heart. He can only act so because he has failed to get to the root of good action. He does not really know himself (p 63). 
Sorry for such a long quote! But I wrote “WOW!” in the margin beside this conclusion, because it opens my eyes to the stark contrast between views about the development of a person. It reminded me of Merton’s critique of the “false” or “inauthentic” self that too often characterizes our personhood. He writes of the feeling in his book Contemplative Prayer: “A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth” (p 24).

Merton earlier clarified that Kung Tzu does not describe “heaven” as a metaphysical concept but “a transcendent and objective reality,” parallel but more down-to-earth and anthropocentric than what his contemporary, mystic Lao Tzu, referred to as the Tao. Being in line with it brings order to chaos, harmonizing “with the ultimately real.” And it requires both religious community and sacred ritual, Li (“rites’), the way of life that gives “visible expression of the hidden reality of the universe”—in my view, a kind of living sacrament, which gives me new appreciation for the Christian Eucharist, whose central element could be said to be sacrificial love, another organizing principle bringing harmony out of chaos.

The Confucian ethic, Merton writes, “is the fruit of spiritual awareness. Thus, moral action is at the same time contemplative and liturgical.” Wow again!

My post on The Lord’s Prayer explained that it helps me align myself with the universe, so to speak: “Thy will be done in my earth and on this earth as it is in heaven.” For me, heaven is where human will is in sync with God’s will.

Our own “Ox Mountains” may have been deforested by the actions of the world and of ourselves.  Contemplation is an opportunity to let seedlings grow, replenishing our natural state. As the Ox Mountain Parable declares, “The moisture of the dawn spirit / Awakens in us the right loves, the right aversions.” 

*I am using Merton’s spellings of these names. I hope to explain the title “tzu” in a future post.

With colleague Debra Weir, I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat open to all April 30-May 4, 2018, at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama, entitled “Beside Still Waters.” Sacred Heart is a welcoming community and a beautiful place. Please come!

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Photo and text Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Transgender Tweet

I had another post halfway prepared for today, but an image came to mind I could not dismiss in the face of President Trump’s tweet on banning transgender people in the United States military, a means of communication that seemed to trivialize both the armed services as well as transgender people.

Many years ago I was attending a men’s retreat led by Franciscan author Richard Rohr on the campgrounds of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  Rohr’s theme was the need for men to be initiated into manhood to avoid our sometimes loutish and confused and even violent behavior as adults.

If, as in some other cultures, men were taught how to be men through ritual and education from their elders, guidance about what it means to be a man could diminish the bluster, bullying, and aggressive ways that men today use to claim our manhood. For Rohr and the hundreds of men gathered from all parts of the world, it’s never too late for such initiation.

Richard attracts men who are justice-oriented and seeking to deepen their Christian spirituality. As a gay man, I found them either non-homophobic or self-consciously working on their homophobia and heterosexism, as well as their sexism. A few were gay themselves.

So when one young man followed me out of the initial gathering at the retreat, wanting to talk, I assumed I was going to hear yet another story of a gay Christian trying to live his faith and his identity. We had gone around in that first meeting introducing ourselves, and I had mentioned my ministry as a gay Christian.

Instead, here in the midst of a gathering of men learning to be men, and Christian men, he explained that he believed he was transgender and hoped to talk with me about it. I can still picture his face, modest and almost apologetic in asking my time and counsel.  I was moved by his situation, training for Catholic priesthood, and hope that he had, as I like to pray, “the best possible outcome.”

The truth is, in my wide travels as a gay Christian activist, I have met many more self-identified transgender people than bisexual people—a surprise to me, because I have always assumed there are many more bisexual people along the sexuality continuum than there are gays and lesbians.  Beyond just listening to their stories and showing my support, I have been able to suggest transgender resources and mentors.

I once wrote a kind of initiation rite for LGBT Christians entitled “Coming Out: A Witness to the Resurrection.” Males are not alone in needing a ritual to affirm their identities.

Some years earlier, at an LGBT retreat, also at Ghost Ranch, one retreatant told me the story of coming upon a garbage can on the grounds emitting wild sounds. He almost did nothing, so afraid of what might jump out if he were to look inside. As it turned out, he was able to free a frenzied squirrel that had fallen into the can and could not escape without help.

What a metaphor for coming out! Someone inside us may feel trapped by the confines of our bodies or our cultures or our faith communities. We may emit wild noises in our panic to be who we are; others may be afraid to come near to help.

Tweets coming from the White House are scary and mean, demeaning and hateful. The person inside might have benefited from an initiation rite that taught him that being a man does not need to entail aggression, brutality, greed, lust, winning at any cost—or even winning.

Right now, though, he sounds like a squirrel raging in his own garbage.

Helpful curriculum for congregations: Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities

The Coming Out ritual is in chapter seven of Coming Out as Sacrament.

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.