Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A Death in the Neighborhood


This is a true story, but the names of the family members have been changed to protect their privacy. A few weeks ago I showed it to “Susan” for the first time, and asked her permission to use it on my blog, and she gladly agreed. I gave it as a talk for Atlanta’s Midtown Spiritual Community on July 28, 2004.

An order of the day for me is walking my dogs, and before the summer day became a furnace, I decided to take them. Outside was bright and colorful and inviting. Royal blue sky above the lush green Southern urban-residential landscape of my Atlanta neighborhood called Ormewood Park: undulating rises and ravines draped with kudzu, wisteria, and ivy out of which grow tall oaks with thick limbs reaching high, alongside squat magnolias with thick limbs reaching wide, their leaves filtering morning sun like light or dark green stained glass. Standing out in furry golden contrast to all this green, my dogs inspected and sniffed the usual places en route: telephone poles, mail box bases, root systems of trees, tall grasses, stones and curbstone. They left their messages for other canine passersby to read with their all-knowing noses.

As usual, we passed Jim’s house. The screened porch veiled the presence of Jim initially, but he spoke out in greeting. I asked how the chemotherapy was going. He said fine, that they had stopped it in preparation for the surgery. Today he was going in for a test to see if the surgery would be done to remove the original cancer. I made my usual commitment to pray for him, as well as my customary “if there’s anything I can do, let me know.” He belongs to the church down the street to which I also belong but seldom go. On another walk I had met some of his neighbors who were checking in to see how he was doing.

My dogs and I continued down his street toward the church. In front of another church, where the homeless congregate because of an outreach program there, we make a decision whether to turn onto a street, which we often do, or go further along this street, always the choice of the doggies who usually have me in tow rather than the other way around. But the next block had an emergency vehicle, paramedics, with flashing lights on the other side of the street, and a police car on our side—always problematic for my dogs, who do not take well to men in uniform, either because my dogs are pacifists, which I doubt, since they bare their teeth when it suits them to intimidate each other or a potential intruder or even me when I try to move them on the bed, or more likely, because police look like those delivery persons who invade their turf: our yard and porch.

As we approach, my intuition tells me of trouble and I wonder do I want to get involved, especially with the dogs pulling on their leashes and work waiting for me back home. The paramedics made me think perhaps some older person on the block is ill or reluctantly given up the ghost, but the police caused me to consider foul play. CJ, also a member of the church down the street, drove by me, waved, and parked, but not to greet me. She ran across the street to the house behind the box-like paramedics’ truck. I figured it was someone she knew. Doggies and my curiosity won out, and we continued down the street, alongside the police car now, then rounding the paramedics truck that blocked our view. I had already heard sobbing, and now saw its origin, young Jeff on his knees in the front yard, seemingly inconsolable but being consoled by two women, one being Sharon, the pastor of the church. Jeff is home from college for the summer.

Sharon saw me and came over to explain. He had just found his father dead in the bedroom. Jeff had laundered the cat and was bringing it into his father’s room for help drying it when he made the terrible discovery.

His father Dennis flashed in memory, not an old person, younger than me as it turned out, approaching his fiftieth birthday, but he looked way older and always smelled of alcohol. Later a neighbor said bluntly to me he had drunk himself to death, and, at his subsequent memorial service, his alcoholism was talked about openly. He hadn’t eaten in weeks and a case of beer was found in his room. He had simply collapsed in the night on his bedroom floor. I had known he had a problem with alcohol. And I know alcoholism is a disease. But other people fight life-threatening diseases, like Jim down the street. I wondered what had broken Dennis’s spirit or his heart for the fight against his own life-threatening disease?

Sharon kindly held the dogs so I might offer condolences to Jeff, still sobbing on the ground. I was self-conscious, both because I never know what to say in the face of such grief and because I was shirtless, feeling a little naked, and I doubted a half-naked gay man hugging Jeff would have felt comfortable for either of us. Thankfully, another person on the ground between us served as a buffer.

“Jeff, I am so sorry...” is all I could say and probably all I should have said. Too many words at such a time often prove to be facile, sentimental, or sophomoric. We all sat there in silence and let Jeff cry. I realized as we crouched facing the sidewalk that this was the house with the tree with an intricate root system above ground which the dogs loved to sniff and I loved to imagine is inhabited by leprechauns and gnomes, perhaps even the site of Middle Earth. I had never been in the house, but I had been in the backyard for a fireworks display, though I can’t remember whether it was on a New Year’s Eve or a Fourth of July. Then I returned to Sharon and the dogs, so she could get back to Jeff.

The dogs were well-behaved. They seem to understand grief. God knows they’ve comforted me when I’ve cried, either watching the news or a nostalgic movie. When my mother died and my then partner left, Calvin was my only child and had seen me collapse in tears, and like a St. Bernard—which he is not—came to my rescue with an elixir better than alcohol, his own sloppy licks and kisses, trying to make me better. As I say, though they were well-behaved, I pulled them away from the police officer who was trying to make nice with them, for fear they might prove distrustful. As I later found out, the policeman lives across the street.

I learned from Sharon that Dennis’s wife, Jeff’s mother, did not yet know. She was flying home at that very moment, having visited her daughter Anna, who has spent the past year in Germany as a student. Anna didn’t know either, intending to follow her mother home a week later. How horrible, I thought, not to know one’s partner in life is dead, and having to come home to discover it. And yet it was worse. Their dog, Shelly, had died unexpectedly just two days before. Jeff was sitting with her in the vet’s waiting room when she passed. I felt overwhelming grief for the family. The memorial service bulletin, as it turned out, was to have Dennis’s picture on the front and Shelly’s photo on the back.

As with Jim earlier in the walk, I told Sharon I would be glad to help, if there was anything I could do. She said, as a matter of fact, could I come and sit in the house while they went to pick up Susan at the airport? She said she didn’t think the house should be left empty. I’ve learned not to question requests made in the throes of grief. They must be honored as if they have their own logic, because they do. I said sure. She told me when to return that afternoon.

Upon my return I learned that all sorts of neighbors had been over cleaning the house and the yard. Some were going to be bringing back laundry and needed to be able to get in. Other friends and coworkers who had been notified might stop by or call. Everyone seemed to know what had happened except Susan. An email had been sent to alert church members. So there was a reason for me sitting in the house after all. And, as it turned out, this was all just the beginning of a week-long effort of neighbors and fellow church members to provide food and comfort and care to the family and the several dozen family members and friends who came from near and far for the memorial service.

But I found quite another reason for being there. I had my Dr. Zhivago in my car to read, but I left it there, feeling it might seem less than reverential to sit in the house reading. I chose instead to sit in the house reflecting on the awesome event that had transpired there that day, a death in the neighborhood. There was something almost tangible in the quiet empty house that was holy and sacred and worthy of awe. I thought of all the drama of the day, and it surfaced deep emotions from my heart and involuntary tears to my eyes, especially Jeff’s initial heartbreak and now burden of telling his mother. Strangely enough, instead of making me feel gloomy, it made me feel privileged and even uplifted to be a part of it, no matter how small a role I had been given. I felt honored.

The house was not really empty. It reminded me of the home I grew up in, filled to capacity with things: for some, a cluttered look; for others, a lived-in look. Lots of knickknacks and tchotchkes. Sitting in one of the few empty chairs, I looked up and realized I was surrounded by angels. At first I saw a dozen, and then a multitude of the heavenly host maintaining reverent silence. No, it wasn’t a mystical experience. It was a collection of wooden, plastic, porcelain, stuffed, woven, and ceramic angels that covered all horizontal surfaces: shelves, table, cabinet tops. And then I saw the candles, as many candles as angels, everywhere—unlit, of course, but with the promise of light.

And then I saw an identical shape everywhere, on fabrics, as sconces, on tchotchkes, in pictures, hanging in groups on the wall. I recognized the shape but couldn’t remember what it represented. Some were shaped by angels or the candleholders that had arms or leaves. Only later did I discover that it was the Scout fleur-de-lis or trefoil, an iris-shaped insignia whose three parts signify the three parts of the Scout promise of duty to God and country, to others, and to self. This trefoil was so pervasive it served as a house theme, like one of those geometric patterns that architect Frank Lloyd Wright would repeat in one of the homes he designed. It was a fitting graphic for a family devoted to Scouting.

The Scout emblems were all sizes and colors, but those that bore the official colors were blue to represent the sky and gold to represent the sun, and the flame at the base, I have learned, symbolizes love of humanity. In essence, then, it is a religious symbol, and I realized I was in a house of prayer, surrounded by angels, candles, and icons—a good place to reflect on death and life, and more specifically to pray for Jeff and Susan, as Jeff went with church friends and neighbors to the airport to meet and tell his mom, Susan.

I sat there, mostly in an absorbing and friendly silence, for two hours. Friends Michael and Bob brought laundry and we made the bed. A neighbor dropped over. A coworker of Susan’s from the Scout store stopped by, and we chatted for a while. She was my relief keeper of the house. She intended to stay until Susan got home, spending the night if needed, so I left soon after her arrival. I had hoped to be there when Susan returned, to offer a hug, but her passing through customs was an unusually slow process and I had an evening commitment.

One week later I made the same walk with my dogs before sitting down to write this. But I chose to turn down the side street rather than proceed past the house I had spent two hours in just one week earlier. Before reaching that corner, I again passed Jim on his porch. How did the test go? I asked, referring to the one he was to take before proceeding with the surgery. Not good, he rasped, his throat swollen from enlarged lymph nodes. Matter-of-factly, he explained, “They’re not going to do the surgery. The cancer has spread all over and there’s nothing they can do.” I was stunned. Again I committed to keep him in my prayers, again I offered to help if I can, even if it’s just to talk. He expressed his appreciation, and then added, “I have neighbors who are watching out for me, and friends from the church.”

Indeed.


Apologies to all who read the original version of last week’s post. I mislabeled Gov. Wallace's speech. It was "Segregation Forever" not "Integration Forever." I guess I was trying to right a wrong of history unconsciously!

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Woke and Awakening

My well-worn copy

I love that “woke” is related to “awakening.” “Woke” as an adjective is from African American vernacular, and, as employed by Black Lives Matter, entails social awareness, especially of racism and social injustice. It is now used ubiquitously to suggest someone who is politically aware.

In spirituality, “awakening” suggests spiritual awareness. An early twentieth century authority on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, describes “awakening” as the first stage of a mystic’s lifelong process. She described five stages of a mystic: awakening, purgation, illumination, dark night, and union.

What brings this to mind for me are two recent articles evaluating Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird. One article reviews a book that offers a disconcerting analysis of Lee’s novel as a defense of upper class educated Southern whites distancing themselves from racist “white trash,” as if the latter were entirely responsible for racial barriers, while excusing themselves with the actual economic, political and social power to end segregation.

Jarring as this is for me as a fan of the novel, this appears to be true, and, I hate to admit, could also be said of those who insist President Trump was elected by that infamous “basket of deplorables” rather than by educated, middle and upper class white voters.

The other article, reviewing another related book, explains the writer’s disdain of the novel as insufficiently aware of the African American experience. Only Scout’s character is fully developed, she writes, not that of Tom Robinson or even of Atticus Finch.

I wanted to counter that this is because the book is not about Tom Robinson or Atticus Finch: the book is about Scout and her transformation in the light of her personal experience of events and characters in the narrative. The most authentic representation of African American experience would most likely be found in the writings of African American authors themselves.

The novel's film was released a month after Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous “Segregation Forever” inaugural speech. Though the sterling character of a small-town Alabama lawyer like Atticus Finch might have been a stretch, given the times, as one writer suggests, he serves as a counter to the prevailing ethos of racial prejudice. He gives white readers someone to emulate, something lacking in Lee’s original version, Go Set a Watchman. Thanks be to God for a good editor who advised her to revisit and reshape the story!

All this is to say, as I’ve written in my books and on this blog, To Kill a Mockingbird served as a “woke” experience for this 12-year-old boy from California who had never even visited the South. That, coupled with the Civil Rights Movement and good teachers and preachers, began for me a lifelong journey toward a better understanding of racism and social injustice.

The books of African American authors furthered my growth: Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Stephen Carter, Eldridge Cleaver, James Cone, Frederick Douglass, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, and Cornell West. Articles, reporting, firsthand encounters and presentations by numerous others also contributed to my “woke” process.

Just as “awakening” is only the beginning of a mystic’s lifelong path, maybe we might consider “wokeness” as only the start of political awareness. Maybe we could speak of a “woke-consciousness” that allows further development as well as application to other social issues of our times.

I was struck by the spiritual parallels as I completed reading this past Sunday Howard Rice’s book, Reformed Spirituality. He quotes Flora Slosson Wuellner’s description of spiritual growth in her book, On the Road to Spiritual Wholeness:
As we are healed and pulled together into wholeness, we are shown many things that we had not seen before. We are shown feelings we have had, but which have been repressed. We are shown things we have done, judgments we have made during our days of blindness and insensitivity. We are shown relationships in a new light, and facts to which we had not awakened. And as we wake and see, decisions about what we see begin to rise in freshness and power.

Related Post: Black Lives Matter

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Make America Great Again


What makes me most proud of the United States of America is not its competent armed services, not its vibrant economy, not its “alabaster cities” or “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.”

What makes me most proud of America are our values, values too many have forgotten.

And we share those values with many other nations around the globe.

Welcome, not mere tolerance. Diversity, not mere democracy. Compassion, not mere duty. Justice, not mere equality. Liberty for all, not just the privileged.

We grapple with our sins, whether the displacement of native peoples, the still open wound of slavery, the distrust of difference, the despoiling of our land, income inequality, and our uninvited intrusions into other countries.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with countries who share our values, including our neighbors to the north and south.

We share our abundance with one another, after all, in Jesus’ words, “to whom much is given, much is required.”

We protect one another from ignorance, from want, from illness, from harm, from bigotry, from bullying, even from despair.

We invest in our future generations by celebrating knowledge, science, the arts, values, faith, wisdom, and the environment.

This is the America I know and love. This is the America of which I am most proud. This is the America which brings tears to my eyes when rising for our national anthem, seeing the Statue of Liberty, or witnessing the “naturalization” of immigrant citizens.

This is the America closest to my own values as a follower of Jesus.


Thanks to Raymond Moorea Jones of CNN for the photo.
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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Lost Gospel of the Woman at the Well

This is the lost Gospel of Marah, the woman at the well to whom Jesus spoke while travelling through Samaria, as described in the Gospel of John, chapter four. It was recently discovered wedged behind a stone of a well in Samaria. This is the Contemporary American Version translation. Text allusion references provided in brackets.

Have you ever met a stranger who seemed to know you inside and out, but without judgment or romance? One who looked straight into your eyes and saw every wound and hope and fear and love? One who valued you, your questions, your opinions, your relationship with all things spiritual?

That was how I first encountered Jesus, the Jewish prophet avoiding the judgmental Pharisees of Judea en route to his home province of Galilee, who essentially was “slumming” it by crossing Samaria. Prophets are rare in this place. Most Jews do not hold Samaritans in high regard and will have nothing to do with us. They view us as foreigners, mongrels, half-breeds, not fully Jewish, and they believe we worship in the wrong way and in the wrong place.

Too, I am a woman, and holy men such as rabbis do not speak to women lest they be defiled by our perceived impurity, which would prevent them from going into the Temple of Jerusalem, for the same reasons the priest and Levite, on their way to the temple, passed by the man who had been mugged along the road, who was then helped by the Good Samaritan who had no such qualms. Yes, that parable of Jesus spread far and wide among us Samaritans. Here finally was a prophet who recognized our worth, and I too had heard this story.

Jesus also had a reputation of including women in his ministry, which scandalized both Jewish and Samaritan men. In fact, Jesus’ disciples were quite flustered when they found us talking. “What is he doing?” “What will people think?” “Does he even know this woman?”

Jesus knew without me telling him that I had had five husbands—two abandoned me for younger women, three were very old and died, and the man who now supported me refused to marry me. Tough times for women economically dependent on men, but Jesus was primarily concerned with the poor anyway. Somehow he knew my situation and I believe that’s why he had compassion on me, engaging me in a very real conversation about the very nature of things, and eventually revealing his calling from God.

The well where we met was already a holy place for me. I used to go there with my grandmother, who would tell me how our revered ancestor Jacob dug this well not only for his family, but for his descendants—all of us. My grandmother taught me that drawing from this well was drawing from our past, our heritage, our ancient story. She taught me that the purest water was to be found in wells dug over underground streams—she said such water was called “living water” because it flowed freely beneath the ground.

It was also at that well that my grandmother told me why she named me Marah, after the bitter water the Hebrews complained about shortly after crossing the Red Sea. Our ancestors were always kvetching with Moses in the wilderness, despite his having led them out of slavery in Egypt. Marah, you see, means “bitter.” Legend says that Moses tossed a piece of wood into the water, and miraculously, the water turned sweet [Exodus 15:22-25]. My grandmother named me Marah to remind herself, she said, that though her daughter died in childbirth, common among women of the time, her bitter grief was made sweet by my birth.

My grandmother’s name, incidentally, was Rachel, named after the love of Jacob’s life, and she told me many, many stories at our village well about those who go before us, those who precede us in life’s caravan, including one other story about the Israelites’ thirst being assuaged when God told Moses to go pound a rock, and up rose a spring in the desert [Exodus 17:1-7].

To me, her stories were my springs in our desert, pounded from the rock of our experience as a people, and after her passing, I passed them on to my only child to survive infancy and childhood, a girl named Mary, who was taken from me when she was only thirteen, by whom or for what purpose I may never know. The choice of my name, Marah, was perhaps prophetic.

This is why I liked to go to the well alone, in the middle of the day, not in the morning with the other women. I liked being alone at the well, thinking of my grandmother and her stories about our ancestors, thinking of my lost daughter and wondering if I would ever see her again.  And that’s when Jesus spoke to me, asking me for a drink of water.

I was surprised, but happy to comply, and in return he told me about spiritual things, how people would worship God in spirit and in truth, rather than in the Temple of Jerusalem or upon our holy Mount Gerizim, where we Samaritans once had a temple.  I gave him a drink of water, and he gave me living water, a Spirit that flowed out of him, into me, and on to all those I gathered from my town, asking them to verify that he might be our long awaited Messiah. They came to meet him at the well, and, our priest handed him a scroll from Isaiah, and Jesus read [from Chapter 55]:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
            come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
            come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
            without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money
            for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Incline your ear, and come to me;
            Listen so that you may live.
Says the Lord:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
            and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
            making it bring forth and sprout,
            giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth;
            it shall not return to me empty,
but will accomplish that which I purpose.

And Jesus rolled up the scroll, and gave it back to our priest, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth [Luke 4:20-22].

Then he began to teach us, saying:

Blessed are those who thirst, for they shall be satisfied. [Luke 6:21]
Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness, for their thirst shall be quenched. [Matthew 5:6]
Blessed are those led beside still waters, restoring their souls, for they shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. [Psalm 23]
Blessed are those who cast their bread on the waters, for it shall be returned a hundredfold. [Ecclesiastes 11:1 and Luke 18:30]
Blessed are those baptized with water and Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [John 3:5] Let no one forbid the waters of baptism to those baptized with the Spirit. [Acts 10:47]
Blessed are those who give one of my little ones a cup of water, they shall not be without their reward. [Matthew 10:42]
Blessed are those who will drink of the water that I shall give them, for they shall never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life [John 4:14]. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life [Revelation 21:6]. Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” [Revelation 22:17].

Then, passing my jar of well water around for all to drink from it, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” [Luke 22:19] And after all had partaken, Jesus said, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, for my love is strong as death, my passion fierce as the grave—many waters cannot quench my love, neither can floods drown it.” [Song of Solomon 8:6-7]

After two days in the presence of Jesus, my fellow Samaritans told me, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

I begged to follow Jesus anywhere, but he refused, saying, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what grace you have witnessed.” [Mark 5:19] And so I remained, and on the first day of each week, the day he came to us, we gather around the well of our spiritual ancestors and remind ourselves and others of all that he said and did among us, passing the jar of water around, drinking all from it, remembering his promise of living water.

Then we go out from the well, each with a jar of water, and look for those who are thirsty, and give them to drink in his name. Among those who have received this sacrament at our hands have been Philip, who used the water to baptize us when he came here to preach, and Peter and John, when they came to lay hands on us to receive the Holy Spirit. [Acts 8]

My daughter Mary was never returned to me; but I take comfort that Jesus’ mother was also named Mary, a name which is said to mean “child we wished for” and “visionary.”

May all who read this gospel be refreshed in Jesus’ name. Amen.


I gave this as a sermon for Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 23, 2014, using these texts: Exodus 15:22-25, 17:1-7 and John 4:1-30, 39-42. Copies of this Gospel were distributed. Afterward I passed through the congregation with cups of water that had been blessed.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Help Me Understand

"I am the mountain. The mountain is me." --A homemade Zen saying.
Look closely for me at the bottom of this photo of the Matterhorn, taken in 1973. 
I did not have the faith to move this mountain, but I did have the faith to be in awe.

Zen almost silenced me. Or it did, and still I’m blogging!

I’ve written several posts about a book on Zen Buddhism I’ve just completed reading. I found myself becoming quieter and quieter as I read a brief section each day during morning prayer. Part of it was that Zen was telling me to shut up, just be. And part of it was that the whole enterprise had the effect of a Zen koan like “the sound of one hand clapping” to still the mind.

I especially loved this example of Zen mondo (questions and answers): “What is it ultimately?” “Willows are green and flowers are pink.”

“Willows are green and flowers are pink.” I wish I had thought of that when asked some outlandish question during Q&A’s in the church or equally, in the LGBT community, on whether one can be gay and Christian. Or another, “Only those who know it know.”

“Willows are green and flowers are pink.” Also a good answer for thorny theological questions like, how can a good God allow suffering in the world?

“The ‘beauty’ of Zen is the inner power that unites nature and life from within,” Abbot Zenkei Shibayama writes.

I have only an inkling of what that means—some intuitive, receptive neuron in my brain that may or may not get it.

And that’s why I became quieter and quieter as I read. I often get quiet when I don’t understand something, which has saved me from embarrassing moments of pretense.

But I liked it. Like witnessing a magnificent waterfall cascading from verdant cliffs down the face of a grey stone canyon wall to a valley below. Like hearing a musical composition caringly played that lifts the soul to cosmic, heavenly realms. Like the final gasp of an instance of prolonged lovemaking so profound as to put the most elevated sacred texts to shame.

I don’t need to understand something to see its beauty.

Years ago, I occasionally worked with another activist who sometimes questioned my thinking with the words, “Help me understand…” Given the context of our connection and other put-downs of me, I always thought the words were patronizing, as in “Help me understand how you can come to such a crazy conclusion.”

Only recently have I thought perhaps the phrase came from PBS and NPR, whose news interviewers often use the phrase, “Help us understand…” to aid interviewees to better explain their thinking to viewers and listeners.

A seminary professor with whom I served on a school committee told me privately that I sometimes seem to speak aloud mid-thought, mid-thinking process, so that what led to my conclusions were unclear. Perhaps that’s what was happening with my fellow activist. Perhaps that’s what happens on this blog!

Long ago I learned that my own need to understand something could be a means of control. In college, French existentialist author and philosopher Albert Camus spoke to me when he described “true understanding as ‘standing under,’ receiving without being in control (as understanding or ‘superior’ knowledge often implies).” I wrote this in Henri’s Mantle (p 94).

So I have been standing under Zen Buddhism, hoping a little of its wisdom and beauty will gently fall on me.

A final thought from Abbot Shibayama (A Flower Does Not Talk, p 122):

Zen asks us to open our eyes to the realm where subject and object are not yet separated, and I and you are one; and then to live and work in this new dimension.


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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Healing Touch

With Mom on her 84th birthday in 1999.

As I get older, I have fewer opportunities to be touched. I knew that about old age even before I got there, and that’s why I’m sitting so close to my mother in the above photograph, my arm around her. I had noticed the need particularly among the older women of our neighborhood church. The passing of the peace was an opportunity for older folk to receive and give full-on hugs. Now I am grateful for such hugs in greeting or in parting worship.

Perhaps it’s because we regard older people as fragile. Perhaps because of due respect for the aging process, a reverential aspect. Perhaps because we older people are less attractive or no longer “breeding material.”

I have written of an experience of lovemaking that restored my sense of lovability in my book, Come Home! The “healer” in that case visited Atlanta last year and I was able to give him a copy of the book, marking the passage and expressing my gratitude.

But those opportunities are rarer as one ages, even when in a relationship.

In an email exchange with a friend and reader of this blog concerned about losing the gay parts of himself as he enters an assisted living program, I waxed philosophic about my own situation:

As a youth I had fantasies. As an adult I had experiences. As a senior I have memories. I need to hold on to my memories even though they don’t have the anticipatory ecstasy of fantasies or the existential bliss of experiences.

So, simple touch becomes all the more important.

When I was a kid, I used to love sitting in the car as a gas station attendant cleaned our windshield, enjoying the gentle rocking of the car—oh, the olden days of full service stations! I also enjoyed getting my hair cut, and my initiation rite into manhood was when, after many years, the barber finally honed a straight razor to trim my sideburns. These were gentle and safe ways to have a man touch me, and I found them healing.

My father enjoyed telling the story of rocking me as a baby while I steadfastly refused to go to sleep. I no doubt simply enjoyed my father or mother’s touch, being held close to their hearts. (As late as my teens, my joke with Mom was that I could still sit on her lap!) No doubt my body remembers and that’s why I enjoy cuddling so much.

All of this comes to mind because of a transforming incident during my recent contemplative retreat. Though our Roman Catholic hosts were welcoming beyond mere hospitality, their church does not allow offering Communion to Protestants. I do not like this, as you might guess, and I had decided not to go forward to merely receive a blessing. But in moving out of the way to let others in my pew pass by, a smiling sister gently urged me to go forward for a blessing. So I did, crossing my arms to indicate my heresy of being a Protestant.

I expected the tall and very aged priest to simply make the sign of the cross in the air and say a blessing. Instead, he gently touched my forehead while saying a blessing. The power of his touch jolted me. I immediately felt good inside, and the bliss remained with me for an hour. I could not help but think his power was deeply spiritual.

The next time I went forward for Communion, another aged priest made the sign of the cross on my forehead with oil, and I did not experience the same jolt of spiritual power. And I realized I couldn’t even remember if the earlier priest had made the sign of the cross on my forehead; I just felt power from the palm of his hand on my head.

With all the conversation these days about inappropriate touching, by priests and other professionals, I sorrow that this may lead to less healing touch. I remember how my mother’s first graders used to hang on her, begging to be touched and hugged, even after they went on to higher grades.

Being old, I have during this same time had to go to a dentist, an orthodontist, and an oral surgeon to repair or remove two “virgin” teeth which broke. My dentist praised me as one of his best patients, I think because I have a high tolerance for discomfort and pain, no doubt learned in part as a gay activist in the church! (Smile)

But their healing touch also made it possible for me to sit still for some difficult procedures. After two root canals, I explained that the orthodontist’s abdomen pressed against my head during the procedure was somehow comforting. I asked if he did that intentionally to calm his patients, but he explained it was just ergonomically sound, otherwise his reach over me would tire his shoulders as he worked on my teeth with the help of the lens of a microscope over my head.

I thought of Temple Grandin, the autistic expert in animal science who discovered she could calm herself by a device of her own invention that held her and later applied that to an invention to calm cattle on the way to slaughter. There is something calming about being held and touched, whether facing life or death.

As a progressive Christian, one of my reservations about Jesus being known as a physical and mental healer is that such magical qualities do not fit my desire for him to be known rather as a spiritual mentor and healer.

But maybe his touch was like that of the priest’s, or that of the orthodontist’s, or that of a hugger, or that of a lover—especially when visited upon so many people who were “untouchables”: lepers, epileptics, the sick, the dying and dead, those with physical or developmental disabilities. Women of his time were considered untouchable during menstruation. Children were assumed unclean, one of the reasons his disciples tried to send them away.

“Suffer the little children to come unto me” could as easily mean “Suffer those who are untouchable to come unto me.”

Related Post: Held by God

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Jesus' "Bad" Table Manners

Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in King of Kings.
(I took this photo the last time I watched it 
in hopes of being able to use it on my blog!)

Over religious objections, Jesus didn’t insist that his disciples ritually baptize their hands before eating, explaining it’s not what goes into a person but the bad stuff that comes out of a person’s heart that’s the problem.

He transformed jars of water intended for ritual use into wine during a wedding, and, on another occasion, defended his disciples eating grain they gleaned from a field on the Sabbath, despite religious prohibition.

Jesus did not object to an uninvited, “questionable” woman washing his feet during dinner, offending his Pharisee host. On another occasion, he defended Mary listening at his feet while her sister Martha was left to prepare their meal by herself. 

He invited himself to the home of the tax collector Zacchaeus, and commonly ate with tax collectors and sinners to the disdain of the truly religious people, who wouldn’t even dine with each other lest they be contaminated by another’s hidden sin.

He indiscriminately fed multitudes with meager resources, declaring the hungry will be blessed and full while those who are full now will be hungry. 

In Samaria he asked for water from a woman, multiply married and of a despised minority, and warned his disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees, while comparing the kingdom of heaven to the leaven with which a woman leavens a loaf of bread.

Jesus told kingdom parables of feasts missed by those with privilege because they were unprepared, inattentive, distracted, late, or dressed inappropriately.

He washed the feet of those attending his final meal over the objection of Peter, who apparently wanted to keep his rabbi on a pedestal. And Jesus had the audacity to confront them with the truth—their anticipated betrayal, denial, and abandonment. He was unafraid to spoil their camaraderie with the harsh reality of his impending martyrdom.

The traditional beginning of the Communion story is “On the night that Jesus was betrayed…” But we did more than betray him that night; we denied him multiple times and abandoned him to the “powers that be.” We expressed shock that any of us would desert him, let alone betray him, and we each said, “Is it I, Lord?” Was our fear of authority figures and the awareness of Jesus’ and our vulnerability already palpable at the meal? Regardless, both believers and betrayers were welcome at his table.

Those shaping the story—the oral predecessors of the written Gospels and the Gospel writers themselves—would associate it with Passover, another ritualized meal commemorating salvation, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.

Nice touch, giving the meal a religious gravitas and connecting it to Jewish tradition as well as the metaphor of Jesus as the paschal lamb. But I happen to be of the school of thought that this “last supper” was actually a friendship meal that a Teacher would have with his disciples. That could explain the absence of the usual ingredients of a Seder. In my view, that would make it no less vital spiritually then or now.

Jesus gave the meal his own gravitas, declaring the bread as his body and the wine as his blood, a kosher faux pas given that blood was taboo. Earlier in his ministry he had offended and lost a lot of literalist followers when he told them they must eat his flesh and drink his blood to live forever. Jesus must have been a bad influence, because eventually his followers would set aside all dietary restrictions to eat whatever was set before them, in gratitude, even meat offered to idols—as long as it didn’t hinder another’s spiritual growth.

But not long after Jesus, the church at Corinth reintroduced table manners into their observance of Communion. Thus the Corinthians were reprimanded by the apostle Paul that their customary way of serving guests in Greek culture, separating them by class and desirability in different rooms, was failing to recognize the body of Christ—not in the bread, but in the body of believers, who were, he wrote in another context, no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female, but all one in Christ Jesus. The writer of James similarly felt compelled to chasten followers of Jesus who favored “a person with gold rings and in fine clothes” over “a poor person in dirty clothes.”

“You don’t have to be a member of this church or any church to be welcome at this table.” I learned this from my colleagues in Metropolitan Community Churches. Now these table manners, closer to those of Jesus, have spread to other denominations which want to welcome anyone and everyone to the table Jesus offers.

Just as Jesus welcomed everyone, regardless of belief or behavior, class or condition, so we who claim to represent his values to the world are called to do the same.


This post was inspired by an invitation this past Sunday to lead Communion for Ormewood Church, which welcomes everyone to the table every week.

Apologies to subscribers who received the uncorrected version of last week’s post, mistakenly referring to Joseph Campbell as “Bill Campbell” (a former mayor of Atlanta!). This is the challenge of working without a net—an editor and copyeditor. Though I read each post dozens of times before and after scheduling, I sometimes miss even an obvious error. Thanks to the readers who brought it to my attention!

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Invisible Means of Support


Years ago, a Japanese steamship for the first time went up the great Amazon river in South America. It was a long voyage, and they ran out of drinking water. Fortunately a British ship came by. The Japanese ship asked them by signal, “Have you drinking water to spare?” They signaled back, “Put your buckets down into the water, if you please.” The surprised Japanese crew did as instructed, and sure enough, it was drinking water. For the Japanese crew who were used to seeing small rivers in Japan, the River Amazon was too big for them to recognize as a river. They thought they were still in the ocean. Aren’t we, without realizing it, making such mistakes every day? 
A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, 93-94. 
This story reminds me of an exchange between the journalist Bill Moyers and the mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. After Campbell confirms his experience of “hidden hands” helping him when he is “following [his] bliss,” Moyers asks, “Have you ever had sympathy for the man who has no invisible means of support?”

Campbell replies, “Who has no invisible means? Yes, he is the one that evokes compassion, the poor chap. To see him stumbling around when all the waters of life are right there really evokes one’s pity.”

“The waters of eternal life are right there? Where?” Moyers asks.

“Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time,” Campbell answers.

In both stories, that of the ship’s crew and that of the person who has no invisible means of support, the waters of life are right under their noses—the first in potable water and the second in metaphorical waters of life, both potentially salvific. Both needed guides to help them see this.

The Moyers-Campbell exchange occurs in their conversation about the idea of bliss in Sanskrit, which Campbell regarded as “the great spiritual language of the world.” He explains:
There are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being” (p 120, The Power of Myth).
Shibayama writes that Zen Master Hakuin taught that we mistakenly try to look outside ourselves for Enlightenment, for Buddhahood:

Like water and ice,
There is no ice apart from water;
There are no Buddhas apart from beings.

Shibayama explains further, “If it is really like the relationship of ice and water, then we are Buddhas as we are. So he goes on to say, ‘It is like those who, being in water, cry out for water, feeling thirst.’” What follows is the story about the Japanese ship on the Amazon.

The organizing pastor of Ormewood Church, the Rev. Jenelle Holmes, gave an intriguing sermon during Eastertide about Simon Peter plunging into the Sea of Galilee when he realized a risen Jesus had just told them where to drop their nets for their big and only catch of the day, and awaited them on the shore with a meal prepared.

As I was still anxious about plunging into co-leading a weeklong contemplative retreat, I told Jenelle that her sermon really helped me. I needed to just plunge in the waters and trust that I would find Jesus on the shore, in the midst of those attending, in the silence that would surround us. After all, we had titled the retreat, “Beside Still Waters.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was following my bliss and relying on my invisible means of support, as were all who came on the retreat.

Frederick Buechner clarifies the nature of bliss for many of us: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”


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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ten Minute Christ

A singing bowl from Nepal given me by a 
Buddhist colleague when I completed an 
interim ministry at MCC San Francisco.

I am struggling to write about a book I first mentioned two weeks ago, A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays, a 1970 book by Abbot Zenkei Shibayama. There are so many stories and insights that I would like to list for you, as I did with the remarkable Cloud of Unknowing. But I feel called to do something more: to somehow translate Zen into progressive Christian experience.

This effort recalls my college class on Asian Religions, taught by Professor Miyuki, a Japanese Buddhist. I was quite proud of my midterm paper for the class, but was dismayed that my professor deigned to give it only a “C.” Having read more about Zen training since, I realize this was the slap in the face that a Zen master might give a disciple, to awaken something in me.

But at the time, my rational, dualistic and discriminating side got the better of me and I met with the professor to explain that everything I had written came from the texts for the class. In accented English, he told me in words that “should” have been my complaint, “You just don’t understand.” In other words, I just didn’t get it.

As the Zen Master Enkan said to a scholar monk of the Sutras (Buddhist scriptures), “Your knowledge is not of any use, is it? It is like a small lamp under the shining sun. It seems to have no light.” As Shibayama explains, “In the face of real experience concepts are like flakes of snow fallen on a burning fire.” He describes words as “just the conceptual shadows of the facts.” As a writer, this is another blow from a Zen master!

So, for my final paper, I simply told a story, drawing from the intuitive, creative side of my brain rather than the rational, academic side. I don’t remember the story, but I remember that my guide in the story, who was also myself, was a little girl.  Professor Miyuki loved it, and gave me an “A,” and I think an “A” in the course as well.

Zen tries to recover the satori, or Enlightenment, experience, believing that Buddhist scholars “tended to place too much importance on the metaphysical or philosophical interpretations of the sutras.” Zen Master Sekito and his disciples were blocked along a mountain path by vines and creepers. The monk ahead turned to Sekito asking for his sword to clear the way, and the Master handed it to him blade first. 
“Stop the nonsense! Let me have the hilt!” the monk demanded. Sekito’s reply was sharper than the edge of the knife. He said, “What is the use of the hilt?” The monk could not utter a word in reply. We are apt to stick to the hilt which is of secondary importance, and miss the Truth altogether (p 26-27). 
This story made me think of how often we Christians “stick to the hilt,” the Bible, our theology, and miss Truth altogether. Scottish theologian P.T. Forsythe held that, “Prayer is to religion what original research is to science.” Spiritual practices open us up to Truth, even in scriptures. As Thomas Merton wrote in Contemplative Prayer, “God’s presence cannot be verified as we would verify a laboratory experiment. Yet it can be spiritually realized as long as we do not insist on verifying it. As soon as we try to verify the spiritual presence as an object of exact knowledge, God eludes us.”

Shibayama suggests, “Zen does not remain simply the core of Buddhism, but it works to deepen and revive any religion or philosophy. For instance, there can be a Christian Zen…”

For four or five years I served as spiritual leader of Midtown Spiritual Community here in Atlanta, a spiritually eclectic group, and their mission statement expressed a desire to have a direct experience of the divine. During the contemplative retreat I co-led a few weeks ago, participants told us they preferred our experiential emphasis on spiritual exercises over academic presentations.

When I served as interim pastor of MCC San Francisco, I occasionally sat with their Buddhist group, following the spiritual exercise of zazen. Shibayama explains that, in Japanese, “za means to sit cross-legged, zen, to calmly concentrate one’s mind.”

He says we are to directly realize that “All beings are primarily Buddhas,” and by this he does not mean simply humans or even all creatures, but all entities, from atoms to galaxies. He tells us that there is another saying in Zen, “If one sits for ten minutes, he is a ten-minute Buddha.”

Immediately my heart flew to the “ah-hah” that if Christians could sit still in contemplation for ten minutes, and realize our own incarnations of Christ, we could be ten-minute Christs! It would give a whole new meaning to the Resurrection and to the triumphal return of Christ to this world—beliefs that are often doubted by progressive Christians.

But, like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, we wouldn’t be doing this for ourselves alone. Buddhism teaches the practice of six virtues: generosity, observing precepts and other good deeds, patience and forbearance, zeal, meditation, and true wisdom. Generosity and good deeds are sometimes singled out. And generosity and good deeds are what singled out the first followers of Jesus and attracted others to our faith.

I’m sure what I’ve written here has stepped on a few toes in Zen Buddhism as well as in progressive Christianity, as I am a faulty and limited blogger. I apologize. But just as Zen wanted to enliven Buddhism, so I think a Zen way of practicing our faith could enliven Christianity.


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