Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Personal Face of God

Nicaragua, November 1984. 

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so: little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.”

We began singing this song during a Pride parade. Someone unsuccessfully tried to get us to sing a “corrected” version, one that edited out our “littleness” and “weakness” and, I suppose, our dependence on Jesus, giving us a more positive self-image.

But it is a children’s song, who need someone bigger and stronger and wiser to see them through the vicissitudes of childhood. And now, as I anticipate growing much older and a bit weaker, I may need someone younger and stronger like Jesus to steady my gait, lift my perspective, and remind me who I am.

When she was 79 years of age, my mother phoned me while I was working on my daily devotional The Word Is Out to ask me to include this scripture in my meditations: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (KJV). I realized Christ served as her beacon throughout the troubles and griefs and challenges of her life.

I remember her praying with me as a child. She prayed to Jesus, not God, and I wish now I had asked her in later life if that’s how she always prayed. Maybe she was just praying that way because I was a child, or because she taught first grade in a Christian school all of her life. Maybe not.

As Advent begins, we are reminded of the story of Jesus’ birth narrative, grand and glorious and dramatic as it most certainly was not. The Gospels which report it tell it the way it should have been in a world awaiting a personal representative from God to deliver it from Roman colonization and from a vain and abusive Caesar as well as those like the Herodians willing to surrender their principles to remain a friend of Caesar and Rome.  

The Gospels tell of Immanuel, God-with-us, coming to poor shepherds in a field and fishermen on the shore and hungry multitudes on a hillside and a thirsty individual at a well, reminding the poor that they too are blessed, that the humble should inherit the earth, that peacemakers belong in the commonwealth of God.

You who follow this blog know of my reservations about ever “knowing” God with certainty. The Bible uses many metaphors to help us wrap our minds and hearts around something we cannot know. Jesus, of course, is more than mere metaphor, but one who wanted, like any good messenger, to point us toward the God beyond our grasp yet within our reach.

Saints (both official and unofficial) and icons (in art and music as well as in nature) and charismatic preachers and prophets have helped us, in a sense, touch the face of God through their witness and beauty and spirit and teachings.

But strangers and the suffering, the vulnerable and the excluded, have also awakened us to the spirit of God, both in them and in us. That spirit is compassion, making us one, for “God is love.” “Love in fact is the spiritual life,” is my favorite Thomas Merton quote, as you probably have guessed by now.

God is not a “thing” to be grasped or known or understood absolutely; yet the entire witness of scripture and saints and Jesus is that God is within our reach.

For those who missed last week’s post because of the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., click here: Thank God You Were Born!

Thank you for any donation to this blog ministry
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thank God You Were Born!

"In your beginning..."

Or thank the cosmos!  Or evolution! Or your parents! Or “to whom it may concern”!

“Thank God you were born” is the message I often write on birthday cards or Facebook birthday messages. I intend it as my own thanksgiving for the birth of the person I’m greeting, but I realize it could be understood as a spiritual directive to the recipient as well.

As you might guess, this post is partly prompted by the American observance of Thanksgiving tomorrow, but it is mostly inspired by the words of an astronaut I heard last night watching PBS’s Beyond A Year in Space. Knowing the desert quality of much of the rest of the universe, seeing the “oasis” of planet Earth from afar, the astronaut said of life on earth, “When you’re born, you’re in heaven.”

Many of you know how much that sentiment resonates with me. In The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life, I wrote that if this is all there is, then, thanks be to God! But also, understanding that heaven is to be found in this life reminds me to see it, seek it, make it, create it, share it, and appreciate it.

I know that my suffering, though real and mine to claim, is minimal compared to the many who experience this life as hell through no fault of their own. But built in me is the ability for personal suffering to be turned into empathy and compassion for others. And I see this gift in those who have been through hell and back.

It was my own loneliness as a child and teenager that made me welcoming of others, to whatever extent I am. It was the denial of vocational goals and aspirations that made me wish better for future generations. It was the inequality and injustice I experienced personally that made equality and justice a wish for all, and prompted me to do what I could to help achieve it.

But this earth gave me a chance to breathe and to grow and feel pleasure and see beauty and hear harmony and dissonance, to know love, and to taste and see that life can be good. If and whenever these abilities are limited, there’s still a glimpse and a memory and a hope to sustain me, even inspire me.

It humbles me to know that dinosaurs reigned on this earth for 160 million years and were extinct for 66 million years before the evolution of mammals led to my distant ancestors. Humans almost seem like an afterthought or a blip in evolutionary time.

And it humbles me when I recognize our individual frailty and limits as I did last Wednesday sitting in a surgery waiting room as spouses and families and friends awaited word of their loved ones from their surgeons. Our time is brief, but oh-so-valuable, or all the more valuable.

A friend in mourning simply and respectfully described another’s death, “We all have a fragile grip on life, and she lost hers.” So, all the more reason to celebrate our birth days.

When I visited Nepal I learned that the local priest came to one’s house to offer a blessing the morning of one’s birthday. I can’t remember if the local priest was Hindu or Buddhist, but what a wonderful thing to emulate!

Birth days are a blessing, in and of themselves.

Thank God you were born!

Thank you for any donation to this blog ministry
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Philadelphia Story

Philadelphia City Hall. Photo by Wade T. Jones

This past summer Wade decided he would like to see Philadelphia, so we just returned from a five-day visit to one of my favorite cities. We each used our airline mileage and his hotel points, so it was not a costly trip. We walked virtually everywhere, despite the cold, visiting historic sites (which of course are plentiful there) as well as two art museums.

My fondness for this walkable city began when I served as a campus ministry intern at the Christian Association, at the time a progressive enclave in a handsome old brick building (still there, but serving a different purpose) at the heart of the University of Pennsylvania campus, a four level structure that housed the offices of multiple chaplains and three interns, a feminist bookstore, an auditorium in which we showed thought-provoking films on weekends, and an eatery run by a commune that provided low cost meals. We also hosted two craft fairs featuring local artisans every year. At the time, it was the only campus facility that welcomed Gays at Penn, and it became home to a Gay & Lesbian Peer Counseling Program that I initiated, a first of its kind in the area.

I rented a room here.
No historical marker yet! 

I rented a room in a narrow row house across the Schuylkill River on South Street, and walked daily across a bridge to the campus.  The first night I was there, late in August of 1975, I met someone who would become a lifelong friend, one who graciously hosted Wade and me for dinner this past Saturday at the White Dog CafĂ© near the campus.

I was in Philadelphia during the U.S. bicentennial, and on that Sunday, July 4, 1976, a couple of friends and I ate breakfast at a Mexican restaurant, worshiped at Tabernacle, a federated Presbyterian/UCC congregation, attended the bicentennial symbolic ringing of the Liberty Bell, and ate dinner at a Szechuan restaurant in Chinatown—all of which seemed the American thing to do!

For the celebration, the city had painted many intersections red, white and blue, save for an intersection in Chinatown, which it painted (as I recall) green, red, and gold, to the dismay of the residents, who declared themselves “as American as any citizen,” demanding red, white and blue like everyone else!

Wade with the Liberty Bell.

What brought all these things to mind was holding back tears as I saw people of many nations and ethnicities as well as Americans of many national and ethnic origins visiting the Liberty Bell last Thursday, often proudly posing for photos beside it. 

At a time in the American psyche when we may not feel so proud of our attitudes and behaviors regarding racial and religious diversity and the welcoming of immigrants, it is good, even holy, to be reminded of our highest ideals as a nation “with liberty and justice for all”—not just for those who look like us and think and believe as we do, and, I would say, not just for Americans.

The recent flap about athletes “taking the knee” during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice has been called disrespectful of our armed services. I realize the anthem’s imagery is of a battle, but our national anthem is about ALL Americans who have contributed to our nation’s character, from the seamstress who made the first stars and stripes to the seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus.  The “land of the free and the home of the brave” values protest and the courage of activists. We actually have benefited from both. Important battles have been fought with picket signs, resistance, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and votes.

In these challenging times, I am grateful to be reminded of my country’s better self.

A demonstration we happened onto at the base of 
the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

My favorite Philadelphia Story:

The only financial support for this ministry comes from you
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.

Or mail 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!

Philadelphia City Hall photo Copyright © 2017 by Wade T. Jones.

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Who Are Your Neighbors?

A popular sign in our neighborhood.

I just returned from a gathering whose theme, Rolling the Stone Away, was presumably taken from the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. I say presumably because there was little reference to it, save one of the plenary panels I served, “Stories from the Heart,” in which we were asked to read John 11 beforehand and respond to the question, what stone did you personally have to roll away to be and become yourself?

Having served as founding director of a ministry called Lazarus Project in the 70s and 80s, I have read the story literally hundreds of times, and preached on it every anniversary for its first ten years. But I found the way the question was posed intriguing; after all, in the story, it’s the neighbors who are asked by Jesus to roll the stone from Lazarus’s tomb and unbind his death cloths. The question posed seemed to focus on my personal responsibility.

My response was that “I had to get over myself” to be and become myself—by which I meant my shy ways, being an introvert (I know, you who read this blog or my books may be surprised!).

Thus I prefer writing and editing to “performing” like my fellow activists in the church and culture. Now, don’t get me wrong, I admire performers—those who clearly enjoy performing, say, like Justin Timberlake. I even envy them! And I too can perform when required.

In my brief storytelling, I also associated my reticence with the “best little boy in the world” syndrome, common among minorities. It was only when I exchanged the goal of perfection for the goal of integrity that I was able to risk embarrassing myself and getting laughed off stage as I had been in my Christian junior high when required to give my “testimony” before the entire student body. Even now, after such risk-taking serving on two panels for last week’s gathering, I felt a keen sense of embarrassment the day after, as if I had stripped naked before them.

But all this serves as preface to the point of this post. Before answering the question, I explained that I loved the Lazarus resurrection story because it was not just about Jesus, it was about a whole community coming to Lazarus’s aid. I mentioned in passing that it was my community in high school that rolled the stone of conservative politics away from my own closet/tomb, and in college rolled away the stones of fundamentalism and biblical literalism.  

I want to expand on this to encourage you to consider your own neighbors and the stones they helped you roll away to be and become who you are today.

Because my mother taught first grade there most of her professional life, we were able to afford my attendance at a fundamentalist Christian elementary and junior high. These “neighbors” helped me better understand my faith and values as a Christian.

But thank God (literally) I did not stay there in that silo of experience! I went to public high school, encountering actual neighbors of different churches and other faiths or no faith background at all. Among my closest friends were Jews whose parents survived or escaped the Holocaust. My brother’s best friend’s family, who lived on our street, had been placed in one of California’s internment centers for Japanese Americans during WW II.

Though I had a couple of African American friends in my high school, the de facto segregation of Los Angeles meant that most black high school students I encountered I met through special exchange programs with inner city schools. And of course, Hispanic and Asian neighbors were so pervasive in my California experience that I missed them when I moved to Atlanta, only to find them largely in areas I did not live. 

And my teachers in high school were far more diverse and liberal in their political viewpoint than the ones in the Christian school I attended.

For all these reasons, I am not a fan of home schooling!

College brought theological and biblical challenges as one of my majors was in religious studies, enlarging my neighborhood to include those who read the Bible critically and appreciated religious diversity. I participated in demonstrations and organizations that broadened my political horizons, including a Presbyterian congregation that was actively working to dismantle racism as well as establish a community center in the neighboring barrio. At the gathering last week, I was pleased that the organizers brought in speakers from groups addressing St. Louis’s recent racial tensions, and took an offering for their causes.

I have written many times of the inspirational influence of the Civil Rights Movement in my own quest for civil and ecclesiastical rights. And both college and seminary brought feminist neighbors as well as LGBT neighbors.

During every period of my life, such neighbors have rolled away stones that prevented my full enjoyment of diversity. If only those who fear immigrants and Muslims and ethnic diversity could understand the full glory of God’s creation!

Wade’s and my favorite character on the Showtime series Billions is a non-binary person who goes by “them, they, and their,” but last week’s gathering was my first “immersion” with a half-dozen or more non-binary neighbors who do not identify either as female or male, and I liked it. I liked learning how much my reactions and responses to an individual are based on gender. And I liked them. These are my newest neighbors, rolling away one more stone to a fuller life and broader appreciation of our neighborhood.

The only financial support for this ministry comes from you
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

For All the Saints

My thanks to West Hollywood UCC’s congregation and church council, its pastor Rev. Dan Smith and moderator Dr. George Lynch, for making my presence here possible!

Today I am with a St. Louis gathering of saints of varying faith communities who have worked hard and suffered long to make those communities more inclusive of lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender and intersex people, aptly named Rolling the Stone Away: Generations of Love and Justice. (Click on the link if you wish to see any of it live-streamed.)

I know or know of most of those whose leadership has helped the reformation of our faith communities into more welcoming places for LGBT membership, ministries, and marriages. Even traditions and denominations which have yet to see “more light” have become better at acceptance than they were.

As a result of our efforts and that of activists of the broader LGBT community, the culture, at least in the West, has made an enormous shift in how it views us.

This week many of us observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation alongside All Saints Day. It’s important to remember that neither saints nor reformers are perfect people who “have it all together.” But they share a vision of our better selves, of our beloved selves, of our better and beloved communities.

Invited too to St. Louis are new activists who will carry us through generations to come. I have often said and written that movements are led by future generations.

During a Vietnam War protest on my college campus, one of the speakers railed against us, “Where were you when…” and then mentioned some earlier cause or demonstration. My friend and now Facebook friend, Lindsay Taylor, shouted back, “I was in the fifth grade!”

From 1977 to 1987, I served as founding director of the Lazarus Project, a first-of-its-kind ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community. During that decade we established the annual Lazarus Award, which was given to the often unrecognized and unheralded individuals bringing such reconciliation. It went to many obvious heroes and she-roes, including the Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson of MCC and the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr of the Presbyterian Church.

Years after I departed as director, the Lazarus board decided to award it to the former Presbyterian Stated Clerk, William P. Thompson, a controversial choice given his earlier opposition to LGBT ordination. I was asked to return to serve as emcee of the dinner. Though Thompson was being given the award because of his very public and courageous change of mind on the issue, feelings ran high among those unforgiving of his past opposition.

So I used Jesus’ parable of the laborers hired at different times of the day to work in a vineyard, yet given the same reward. It’s a parable about the nature of liberation.

“All those who supported welcoming gay people in the church in the 1950s, please stand or raise your hands,” I said. Then, “All those who supported it in the 1960s, please stand or raise your hands.” And on through the decades, till we reached the current decade, the 1990s, and, by then, everyone was standing or raising their hands. I concluded, “Just as the laborers who came at different times to work in the vineyard, we all came at different times to welcome LGBT people.” The point was we were all here now.

The gathering I am attending is a time for reunion and remembrance, reflection and thanksgiving, as well as passing the prophetic mantle on to those who will continue the reformation of our faith communities and of our world.  

As the sometimes missing verse of James Russell Lowell’s hymn “Once to Every One and Nation” goes: 
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

The only financial support for this ministry comes from you
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.

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