Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Peace of Mind

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, photo (c) 2018 by Wade T. Jones

In recent troubles and dark days, personal and political, my peace of mind has been “saved” by reading one poem a day by J. Barrie Shepherd, an octogenarian retired Presbyterian pastor but unretired author who this summer sent me his “chapbook” (a small collection of poetry) entitled, If You Don’t Have Twenty Minutes Don’t Stop! The title is a reference to a sign on Chebeague Island off the coast of Maine that graced the garage door of an inveterate storyteller who loved chatting people up.

After floundering for morning prayer reading material following the eventually overwhelming Tao of Physics, which regular readers will remember, I chose Barrie’s brief book of poetry. Initially I read several poems at a time, but soon realized contemplation was better served by reading only one per day. “Be here now!” each poem urged, as poems tend to do, much like pericopes of scripture, exactly what I needed as Wade and I dealt with the vicissitudes of a friend dealing with mental health and addiction issues, even as we in the United States deal daily with a leader like that in our government.

Focusing on one-a-day made me think of that wonderful Psalm 131 (NJB):

Yahweh, my heart is not haughty,
            I do not set my sights too high.
I have taken no part in great affairs,
            in wonders beyond my scope.
No, I hold myself in quiet and silence,
            like a little child in its mother’s arms,
            like a little child, so I keep myself.
Let [us] hope in Yahweh
            henceforth and for ever.

Barrie and I have exchanged emails from time to time about this blog, and I am grateful to have his encouragement and readership. I have told him that his books of poetic meditations helped me, early in life, to maintain a steady prayer life. Knowing I had one of his books made me eager to make time in my morning routine to read and reflect and pray. His gifts and those of others whose meditations I have used inspired my own books of meditations and prayers, including this blog to encourage progressive Christians to take time for contemplation.

Longtime readers will remember that I began this blog when I was told by publishers that there was no market for meditation books for progressive Christians because we supposedly don’t take time for contemplation! My first publisher told me the same thing about LGBT Christians when I wrote Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families and Friends. Publication of those prayers by another publisher helped create a market, and then my first publisher asked me to write a daily med book for LGBT Christians, which I entitled The Word Is Out.

As we approach and begin a new year and through the season of Epiphany, I’ve decided to  re-present some of my writings for you in the hopes that they will have the same effect Barrie’s poems have had on me during the last several weeks, offering you peace of mind. I begin with Day 10 of Coming Out to God, a book whose prayers are broken into phrases not with any poetic pretensions but to slow the reader down:

All-embracing Spirit,
I don’t know what to say to you today.
It’s like sharing a meal in silence with a friend,
or dropping wordlessly exhausted once home from work.

I do not believe
I will be saved by my words,
though I usually feel compelled
to say them.

I do believe, God,
your grace is sufficient
to save me
even if I were silent.

I believe
I need times
to express your grace
in words.

I also believe
I need times
to experience your grace
in silence.

Intimate Spirit, today
I simply want to be in your presence.
Speak to me in this silence,
and let this silence speak to me.

Copies of either J. Barrie Shepherd’s If You Don’t Have Twenty Minutes Don’t Stop! or his latest chapbook, A Piper Shores Christmas may be purchased @ $10 + $2 shipping by writing: J. Barrie Shepherd, 15 Piper Road, Apt K325, Scarborough, ME 04074. Proceeds go to charities. (Remember, there are twelve days of Christmas to use the latter chapbook!) You may also write him at 

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Jesus Returns!

The world tried to keep Jesus at bay.

Obscurity. Poverty. Illegitimacy. Dislocated. Refugee. Semitic. Subjugated by empire. Resisted by clerics. Blasphemer. Heretic. Unpatriotic. Treasonous. Arrested. Tried. Tortured. Executed. Buried.

Odds were against a comeback.

Then the church elevated Jesus beyond reach.

Born of a virgin. Sinless. Messiah. Christ. Son of God. Divinity. Savior. Ultimate sacrifice. King. Godhead. Heavenly. God’s right-hand-man. Supreme judge.

Way out of our league, beyond our capabilities, out of this world.

Sophisticates simply dismiss Jesus.

Myth. Fairy tale. Unrealistic. Idealistic. Impractical. Parochial. Unnecessary. Confining.

Yet Jesus returns.

Jesus returns again and again to every generation, to every nation, to every culture. We may fail to see him because of color, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, and every other way Jesus is manifest in “the least of these” who are ignored by “the powers that be.”

The “second coming” has multiplied exponentially and yet we still miss out when we are distracted, literalistic, pessimistic, cynical, selfish, egotistical, xenophobic, or just plain stupid.

Jesus is as near to you as yourself. As near to you as another person and creature and landscape and horizon. As near to you as the deepest need, the greatest joy, the most passionate love, the most inspired art, the most enduring peace. Jesus is everywhere, if only we taste, touch, smell, listen, look, feel, think, contemplate, and breathe.

Jesus is as natural as we are. And we have as much potential to be his presence and recognize his presence in others when we make room for him in our schedules, provide for him in our economies, and allow his values to shape our policies and politics.

Move aside, headlines and headliners! Jesus returns.

According to the Gospel according to Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis’ real life friend and fictionalized protagonist:

Christ is born, my wise Solomon, my wretched pen-pusher! Don’t go picking things over with a needle! Is He born or isn’t He? Of course He is born, don’t be daft. If you take a magnifying glass and look at your drinking water—an engineer told me this, one day—you’ll see, he said, the water’s full of little worms you couldn’t see with your naked eye. You’ll see the worms and you won’t drink. You won’t drink and you’ll curl up with thirst. Smash your glass, boss, and the little worms’ll vanish and you can drink and be refreshed! 

This post appeared December 24, 2014. Merry Christmas everyone!

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Christmas for the Spiritual but Not Religious

This is an excerpt of my sermon for Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marietta, Georgia this past Sunday, December 9. Many thanks to my friend Jeffrey Jacoby and the worship committee for the invitation! I found the congregation vibrant and friendly. For the bulletin cover I created The Centering Thought: “What if everyone had told me I had a spark of divinity in me when I was born?” For the Chalice Lighting, I wrote:

Light comes into the world
through every baby born.
May we do everything possible
to let that light shine,
openly, honestly, imaginatively,
so other lights may be inspired
with wisdom, compassion, and awe,
bringing our world out of the shadows
and into the rainbow that is light’s spectrum.

You don’t have to listen to me to recognize over and over again how Christmas has become culturally relevant—just watch the Hallmark Channel and Netflix Christmas movies, Christmas mixes on radio stations, as well as media reports of compassion and kindness toward the under-appreciated and underprivileged that are more plentiful at this time of year to know that the spirit of Christmas can lift everyone’s boats, regardless of belief.

It’s believed that the observance of Christmas that we have come to experience in the West was expanded by Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” a favorite of mine—so much so that last year a commercially well-received film about Dickens’ creation of the story was entitled, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” In all his novels, Dickens promoted social justice and equality while casting a critical eye on the treatment of the poor in England. As a child, he himself had spent time in a poorhouse that incarcerated those without resources, and his writing of “A Christmas Carol” prevented him and his family from sharing a similar fate.

Every Christmas season there are some Christians who gnash their teeth at the “commercialism” of Christmas. “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas,” they say, verbally and on their bumper stickers, without realizing the success of Christmas marketing is that the story of Christmas is so universal. Its “good will to men and women” and “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” speak to people of every faith and of no religion at all.

Christmas has become about more than Jesus. It’s about the lifting of the human spirit. It’s about kindness and compassion and the glory of being alive!

Years ago, the late sociologist, novelist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley reported from his scientific surveys that the reason Christians are more likely to attend church in this season is simply because they love the nativity story, not because they hold to the theological assertions of the church about who Jesus was.

This is a very important point—even Christians themselves are not necessarily drawn by theological propositions, but by how the Christmas narrative touches their hearts: an unwed pregnant Mary threatened with scandal, a reluctant Joseph, a sweet baby in a manger, whose life is threatened by the government and whose family has been displaced by governmental policies, a star of hope overhead drawing sages from afar, and more angels and dreams per cubic foot of any biblical story, influencing Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men, and still others. This was the original Christmas pageant!

Like all mythological stories, there are parts of the Christmas tale that are fanciful or exaggerated, unbelievable or unverifiable. Those who told these stories wanted to convey meaning rather than history. They were looking backward from their experience of what Jesus had achieved in his life and ministry, his extraordinary teachings, his healing touch, his compassion and grace, his humility and faithfulness. The Christmas narrative was devised in hindsight, what should have been the world’s welcome of one who would transform so much of the world.

Yet the few stories of Jesus’ birth are found in only two of the four gospels. Notably, the first gospel about Jesus written, Mark, included none of these stories—either because they were already well known or, more likely, because they were unknown to Mark or unnecessary to Mark’s story. The last gospel written, that of John, also contains none of these stories. John is the most mystical of the four gospels, and the author’s interest is in explaining the cosmic purpose and nature of Jesus. He grandly describes Jesus as God’s Word made flesh, an embodiment of God’s hope for the world.

It is the gospel writers of Matthew and Luke who give us the nativity stories of how Jesus was born. You will probably recognize parallels in this story to our world today.

Jesus was born in troubled times. As part of the Roman Empire, his people and his country of Palestine were not allowed control of their own land. His parents, though poor, had to deal with the unequal tax plan of a demanding ruler—Caesar Augustus—requiring their migration from the ghetto of Nazareth to Bethlehem, where his pregnant mother and doting father ended up homeless.

But they, like all parents, believed there was something special about the baby born to them in a cave used as a stable. Maybe he might be the one to deliver his people from bondage to Rome, like their ancestor Moses delivered them from Egypt in the exodus. Maybe he might be the one to unite his people from their partisanship, like their ancestor King David united the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Maybe he just might be the one to save the whole world. You know how parents dream!

So Mary sings of their vision for their child who might possibly transform life as they knew it:

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
[God] has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts,
Bringing down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifting up the lowly,
filling the hungry with good things,
and sending the rich away empty.

Talk about ending income inequality! Talk about removing unjust, arrogant rulers! Talk about empowering the marginalized!

No wonder King Herod, a collaborator with their Roman oppressors, was terrified that he might be displaced, and tried to destroy the child. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would have to flee for a while to Egypt, migrants fleeing the terror of their homeland.

No wonder that poor shepherds had a vision of an angel declaring, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Deliverer.” Then a vision of a multitude of angels singing, “Peace on earth, and good will among people!”

No wonder that astrologers from the East came from afar at the sight of a new star in the heavens! They believed the world’s fortunes were about to change.

No wonder that poor shepherds and privileged magi alike came to his crib to pay him homage, the latter with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Ultimately, what the Christmas story affirms is the vital importance and necessity of spirituality in our world. Almost every founder of a spiritual path has such stories told about them, either of their birth or of their lives. Those we might name as saints from old or saints of our own time have wondrous stories told about them as well.

And I daresay that everyone here has stories of wonder to tell—how you came to be here, in this world and in this congregation. If only we all had been told when we were born of our divine spark, of our sacred worth, of how we participate in divinity, what a different world it would be!

That, I believe, is the Gospel of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. You value all spiritual paths and everyone’s spiritual life.

As Tiny Tim, the most vulnerable and marginalized character in Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” might say in the spirit of Christmas, “Bless us, everyone!”

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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Disruption of a Child

God has been imagined in a myriad of ways, but for me, one of the most profound images of the deity is fantasizing God as a child.

Almost any parent will tell you that having a child will disrupt your life, waking you at all hours, interrupting your plans for the day or your life, on occasion breaking your heart with their discoveries of human limitations and frailties—including your own—and their willfulness and resistance to your best of hopes.

All this, and yet a child has promise, promise of companionship, promise of an unbreakable bond, promise of a better future for the world.

That’s why the Christmas nativity stories speak to me.

And to think of God as vulnerable, weak, needing care and protection, so that the promises of God may be fulfilled! This is the spiritual life for the followers of Jesus: to be attentive to Jesus’ incarnation of God as compassionate, fatherly and motherly (think of the “Our Father” and the mother hen gathering her brood), creating and nurturing the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, feeding the multitudes, healing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving the crucifiers—remember, all these things Jesus asked of God in prayer. Jesus was the embodiment, God was the inspiration.

These thoughts came to me Sunday as I was part of a cluster of congregants (alongside similar clusters) creating Chrismons, symbols of the Christ, for our “Chrismon tree” at Ormewood Church: chalices, crowns, crosses, and more. Half of our cluster would be identified as “children,” but we were all children, both at heart and in reality: somebody’s children as well as children of God. We enjoyed the interruptive playfulness of creation in the midst of worship.

Children are welcome in our services, and though their drawing and coloring can sometimes distract from our pastor Jenelle’s or our seminary interns’ theological insights, many of us believe that their “disruptions” open our hearts to the serendipity, creativity, refreshing playfulness of God.

A dropped crayon rolling on the floor can be as much an occasion for joy as a spiritual insight.

And yet we did not miss a central message in Sunday’s sermon, that despite everything going on in our troubled world, we are to lift our heads in hope, in action, in resolve. “Stand up and raise your heads,” was the repeated sermonic refrain from Jesus in Luke 21:28, to which Jenelle would plaintively but rhetorically ask, “Really?” in a kind of litany contrasting the admonition with one trouble after another in our world.

Raising our heads in hope, in action, and in resolve is the ultimate disruption of the status quo, “the powers that be,” the way things are.

Jesus was the great Disruptor, challenging empire, income inequality, self-righteousness, political and religious authority, vengeance, and indifference.

May we follow his lead.

Photo courtesy of  The African American Lectionary.

This Sunday, December 9, 2018 I will be speaking for the 9:45 service of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Marietta, Georgia, on “Christmas for the Spiritual but Not Religious.” The public is welcome!

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Thanksgiving and Addiction

This past Thanksgiving weekend was largely given up to work around a friend with mental health and addiction issues. As I considered writing about this, I found myself getting angry, given that every day of the weekend—Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—was largely given over (by multiple people) to attending to this person, one way or the other.

The crescendo of my anger came as I thought of entitling this post, “You Probably Think This Post Is about You,” alluding to the song lyrics, “you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” And here I was again, in writing this blogpost, devoting time to the individual in question.

But I realize I am not writing this for that person, but for you, the reader who has, has had, or will have the experience. And for those who think a minister or a friend should not have anger about a loved one with mental health and addiction issues: I daresay you have not yet had the experience yourself. Anger is good for boundaries, for setting limits, for speaking truth to the power of demons overtaking another’s life and those who care.

Jesus himself rebuked crippling demons, disbelieving doubters, even his disciples when they got stupid in his presence.

The friend I write about is the same for whom we held out such optimism upon entering a recovery facility in March of 2016 in a post entitled, “Wounding God.” Despite everyone important to this individual participating in the recovery process at this person’s request, our friend eventually bolted when challenged by a counselor in a group setting. It happened the night I was attending a wedding rehearsal and dinner, and I was on the phone with our friend, who was still in the parking lot of the recovery facility. I urged a return to the group to no avail.

Since then have come many a reconciliation followed by reversals and “episodes,” some of which have been threatening, dangerous, or destructive. An otherwise privileged, well-educated, and gifted person “acting out.”

I believe our friend must exercise responsibility to take prescribed meds, attend therapy, and participate in recovery programs, but there is a factor I’ve observed that may weaken our friend’s resolve. When involved in a restrictive religious environment, everything could be held together tightly, including sexuality. But finally realizing that one can be gay and Christian, all the religious trappings that held everything closely bound together were loosened.

Our friend’s obsessive-compulsive disorder no doubt meshed with a church’s obsessive-Christian disorder, but sexuality, like spirituality, needs room to breathe.

Jesus’ friend Lazarus was neatly bound in funeral swaddling cloths. “Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus commanded. Resurrection requires loosening up, letting go.

The very term religion denotes being bound. But the only thing that should bind Christians is expressed in a song I alluded to in last week’s post:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love.

To my friends in Southern California, please attend Pat Hoffman’s latest book launch Friday, Nov 30, 5:30 pm, in the Pavilion at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 East Main Street, Ventura, CA 93001. The memoir recounts her ministry of accompaniment with people living with AIDS. My blurb for her book, entitled Summoned and Shaped:

“When the church equivocated in the early years of the AIDS crisis, Pat Hoffman boldly initiated a ministry with persons with AIDS, many of whom were wary of anything religious. This moving and poignant story of how her own life prepared her to gently join them on their journey may help all of us who serve the ‘spiritual but not religious.’”

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

When God Gets Too Big

As a child my parents told me not to take more on my plate than I could eat. When I did, I dawdled at our table after everyone left, expected to finish my meal. I won’t make that mistake tomorrow as we celebrate Thanksgiving in America.

I’m aware of a similar dynamic as I have paused reading The Tao of Physics. Not only the science got a little too detailed for me, but the God in the details got too large, too impersonal and even frightening, more than I could “eat”! My bookmark with excerpts from Psalm 139 kept tempting me to abandon God’s incarnation in reality to welcome God’s intimate presence, “you who formed my inmost being, knit me together in my mother’s womb.” “Comfort food” theology, so to speak.

Maybe that’s why the ancient Hebrews chose to follow one God out of the pantheon of gods polytheism offered. Maybe that’s why the first Christians chose to follow Jesus out of the panoply of prophetic voices in Judaism. It was a matter of focus, a matter of admitting, in the words of Psalm 131:

My heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

I am now contemplating the Psalms in the 130’s, their uplifting poetry a pleasant contrast to dispassionately documented subatomic and cosmic interactions, though still filled with “signs and wonders” (Ps 135:9). I’ve been yearning to walk naked with God in the cool of the day in the Garden of Eden, or to share “the sympathizing tear” with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This coming Sunday is traditionally the end of the Christian calendar, “Christ the King” Sunday, when Jesus is celebrated and elevated as sovereign of the universe. By the following Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, we once again await his nativity, a baby born in a barn. Thus I’m following a pattern, perhaps, of being overwhelmed theologically and then discerning divinity in something tiny as an infant. God is indeed in the small things.

The Tao of Physics informed me, in the words of astronomer Fred Hoyle:

Present-day developments in cosmology are coming to suggest rather insistently that everyday conditions could not persist but for the distant parts of the Universe, that all our ideas of space and geometry would become entirely invalid if the distant parts of the Universe were taken away. Our everyday experience even down to the smallest details seems to be so closely integrated to the grand-scale features of the Universe that it is well-nigh impossible to contemplate the two being separated. [p 195-6]

And, addressing Yahweh, Psalm 138:3 reminds me:

On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.

I once wrote a piece entitled “Advent Is a Time to Look for a Star.” It should not surprise us that the star of Bethlehem may portend an answer to a prayer like the psalmist’s.

Dear Readers,

Recently my visitors per post dropped from a couple thousand to around a hundred. Because most come from Facebook, I gather it has something to do with Facebook algorithms. Facebook would probably like me to pay to boost my posts, but I’ve never done that—it feels like “cheating,” and I couldn’t afford it anyway.

You can help me—if you like a particular post, please share it with your friends and/or groups. Subscribers have an email option and a “share on Facebook” link and Facebook also provides a “share” option, or, if you are on the blogsite,, you will find tiny icons at the bottom of a post for various ways to share it by clicking on one.

Finally, subscribers may now have to click on “show images and enable links” to see the photo(s) provided in each delivered post and to use links.

I am also aware that some of us have missed delivery of some posts, including me! Check spam filters and be sure your server allows delivery, though it may be a fault with the delivery system.

Thanks for your patience and support!


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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

My Grandmother, Another Kind of Veteran

[This image can be enlarged on some devices for easier reading.]

My maternal grandmother in Kansas wrote this letter to my mom and dad in California as U.S. involvement in WW II was unfolding. She references her youngest son, Roy, and eldest son, Lee, and a son-in-law’s mother (Mrs. Huston), as well as my sister Sharon, who was my parents’ only child at the time.

Veterans Day (Remembrance Day in Canada) this past weekend, marking 100 years since the end of WW I, “the war to end all wars,” reminded me of this letter, proudly given me by my mother many years ago, and I’d like to share it with you. For the sake of privacy, I am not including my grandmother’s name.

This letter reminds us that “veterans” of war are not only those who serve in the military, but their parents, spouses, and families as well. To recognize them, I believe, should not diminish but rather enhance the sacrifices made by those who serve in the armed forces and diplomatic corps, the Peace Corps, the CDC, and service-oriented NGOs.

Related posts:

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Tree of Life

Sunday morning, I read of Western science and Eastern spirituality agreeing that everything, every thing is interrelated, and dynamic, in ceaseless change, and that anything that seems unchanging is illusory.

Sitting on our deck, I look up from my book and experience this truth firsthand: leaves drop one by one from the tree in our backyard against the backdrop of a vibrant blue sky and an intensely green lawn on this crisply cool fall day that has followed the weekend rain. The azaleas are in lively red bloom as the dead brown leaves collect.

Last week I witnessed an old friend dying in a hospital bed. The next day around 3 a.m., I awoke in my own bed thinking of him, unconscious, mouth agape, yet breathing on his own, and I felt for him. And I also thought, this could be me or Wade or my sister or brother. Later I would learn he died within the hour I unknowingly sat vigil.

That had been a hard week, nation-wise. Probably world-wise too, if we Americans could look beyond our own troubles to see others’ suffering as well. It was a week that started with the federal government planning an attack on the rights of transgender and intersex people, continued with pipe bombs mailed to progressive leaders from a right wing fanatic, included another hate crime against blacks, the disenfranchisement of voters in advance of the midterm elections, troops being sent to intercept those on a pilgrimage for asylum, and a week that ended with a massacre of Jews worshiping in their Pittsburgh synagogue, Tree of Life.

As I read the news story of the Tree of Life, I could not stop crying. It may have been grief accumulated over that week, but I think also it is the grief that accumulates over generations of virulent anti-Semitism, unintelligible to me. Several of those who died there were survivors of the Holocaust.

My LGBT community and its allies have often gladly utilized the work of the late Yale medieval historian John Boswell, documenting the treatment of Queer people in Europe and the church through the Middle Ages. But many miss the overall theme of his short life’s work, which was the treatment of minorities at the hands of majority cultures. Maybe his work was inspired by horrific scenes he witnessed as a youth as an “army brat,” like the heads of a hated group stuck on spikes along a road in the Middle East. Undoubtedly it was also inspired by his own experience as a gay man.

On one of his several trips to give the Lazarus lectures in Los Angeles that I organized, we arranged a lecture at UCLA that I took him to. He began the talk by announcing he would be describing the treatment of a minority in medieval Europe. He wanted the audience to discern if he was talking about the mistreatment and prejudices of Jews or of gay people. His ironic conclusion was that his description covered both groups!

When asked about gay rights in another context, he said it would be better if the LGBT community fought for rights across the board rather than for just ourselves, because it was too easy for a dominant culture to pick off one group at a time, as is happening now in the U.S. with transgender and intersex people, as well as current immigrants.

Boswell’s most memorable story came during that same series in a lecture entitled, “Why Bicycle Riders?” Just before WW II, A British gentleman and a German Nazi were forced to share a room. The German went on and on about all the troubles the Jews were causing. As he listed each false “truth,” the British gentlemen egged him on as if he were agreeing with him. Finally, at the end of the German’s diatribe, the Britisher adamantly agreed, “Yes, all the troubles of the world are caused by Jews and bicycle riders!”

The German looked surprised and confused, and asked, “Why bicycle riders?” To which the British man simply said, “Why Jews?”

Yesterday I eulogized my friend, Thom Hayes, as “good, civil and kind.” I said that if all people were like him, the midterm elections wouldn’t be such a worry for us. I said that if our national leaders were like him, they would talk out their differences over coffee or drinks. I said that if world leaders were like him, they would go to lunch rather than to war.

Thom was unassuming, I said, but he did assume everyone just needs somebody to see them as a person with their own story and a desire for human connection. A mutual friend had told the story of him and Thom getting stuck somewhere, and decided to enter a biker bar, in which the gaily dapper Thom proceeded to meet everyone in the place before they left.

Everything is interrelated, and dynamic, in ceaseless change, and anything that seems unchanging is illusory. Those of us who are “good, civil and kind” must lean in to change history’s trajectory. God’s kingdom come!

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Mythologies of Science and Religion

Photo of ruins in Jordan by Chris Glaser.

I’ve written before that I am at “that age” when you look for connections, a time late in life indicated by recent studies. Regular readers will know that, during my morning prayers these days, I’ve been slowly absorbing Fritjof Capra’s 1975 book, The Tao of Physics. I find physicist Capra’s writing more accessible than that of Stephen Hawking, though I wonder how dated his science may be today, even as he demonstrates a pretty thorough understanding of Eastern spirituality.

His recurrent theme is that Western science has come to similar conclusions as ancient, mystical Eastern philosophy. Among them, that reality is indivisible, that the observed cannot be separated from the observer, that a particular scientific analysis is not intrinsic in nature but a creation of the human mind.

Now along comes a New York Times magazine article entitled, “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science,” about deconstructionist Latour’s similar conclusions about the nature of science after studying scientists in their “natural habitats,” much like a scientist might study other primates. In our time of pseudo-science and anti-science religionists dissing real science about climate change and evolution, philosopher Latour has recognized the danger of his work being misunderstood or worse, misused.

All this brought to mind a rather prescient conversation I created in one of my unpublished novels, the tongue-in-cheek Angus Dei – A John Boswell Mystery, written in 2002. Spiritual profiler Boswell, the Catholic narrator, is trying to find the one responsible for the death of Angus MacDonald, pastor of Primitive Presbyterian in Crowbar, Mississippi. He interviews various citizens, including science teacher Annie Hepburn, who describes Angus:

“His passion for God made him stupid, just like romantic love makes you blind to reality and prompts you to idealize the beloved. It makes us closer to the animals who breed by instinct rather than by reason. But humans bring reason into any relationship. We are not bound by blind passion, whether for a person, a country, or for God. Our passion is informed. Angus’s passion for God resisted information. His idealization of God required God to create the world as if by magic, in an instant, at most in seven days, rather than through arduous experimentation and a process known as evolution. Angus claimed it was as if I were suggesting God made the world by following a recipe, or worse, some haphazard, trial-and-error plan. If God made the world though a discernible process, then he was diminished, in Angus’s view.

“I, on the other hand, find the process so awesome that it made me more of a believer than any text of scripture ever could. The world itself is the best witness for this inspiration and yearning for life that we call God. By contrast, look how petty religion can be! They argue and divide over how to do Communion, like a bunch of obsessives with varying compulsions. Lately they’ve wasted a lot of time quibbling over whether homosexuality is right or wrong, as if love is only possible between a man and a woman. And they’ve always debated the merits of personal piety versus social responsibility, as if the two could be separated!”

I felt compelled to argue the other side, if only to hear her answer. I said, “But scientists argue over experimental procedure—their rituals. They disagree over what makes for healthy human relationships, including sexuality. And there’s always conflict between ‘pure science’ versus ethical responsibility.”

Annie paused, and smiled, and I could see that she was thinking. “That’s true,” she said at last. “Science is also a mythological framework in some ways, purporting to give meaning and order to what others see as random and chance. But what is revealed in the religion that we call ‘science’ I find ultimately more hopeful and helpful. Religion is too often caught up in the past, and both religion and science are held back if either is paralyzed by the old ways of doing things, the old ways of understanding things. The very nature of science calls for breaking boundaries, breaking the supposed rules.”

I thought of my own Catholic tradition, its very nature caught up in the past, but a past begun in the divine nature of a human being whom we believe modeled how to be a child of God, a past populated by venerable but vulnerable saints who followed the model, as well as powerful demons that didn’t, demons of conformity and cruelty, violence and division—the weeds within the harvest. And then I looked at Annie, and a thought came to mind that I dared not say, that would be highly inappropriate because it would unveil her own precious vulnerability. Just as Catholicism set up an altar to honor its lover, so she had set up an altar to honor hers, her dead husband—a side table adorned with fresh flowers and two candlesticks beneath his photograph, hanging on the wall. She too had an experience in the past of love so powerful that she also remained faithful, I thought to myself. But a true Southern gentleman or lady may only think such things, one doesn’t say them, trudging on people’s personal vulnerabilities for the sake of winning an argument. This is a Southern virtue that other Americans should emulate. Of course, then there would be less for the media, politicians, lawyers, and talk show hosts to exploit.

Annie continued, “Angus also hated breaking the rules. Beyond defending the only one that he thought could possibly satisfy his longing—God—he also was defending himself, his own fortress of beliefs that held him together in the chaos that’s in every person. He was afraid of letting go. And for him, removing one stone from his fortress would cause the whole thing to collapse.”

In the wake of the recent violence, my heart goes out to the Tree of Life synagogue and the beautiful Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, which I visited years ago. I also stand in solidarity with Jewish communities everywhere in their grief and their anxiety over increasing anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks.

A reading for Halloween which seems particularly relevant these days: 

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Aunt Helen, Nelson Mandela, and Donald Trump

Aunt Helen's nameplate sits atop my office doorway.

My most popular talk for Midtown Spiritual Community was about my audacious Aunt Helen. I have many stories to tell of her, only a few of which will be in this post. You probably will want to know especially what she shares in common with Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump, given the title. Let me add that it has taken me decades since her death my third year of seminary to better appreciate her.

No, she was no Auntie Mame, but to our fundamentalist Christian way of thinking, she nudged the confines of our worldly experience a little wider. For instance, she persuaded my mother to take us kids with her to see films like Bye, Bye, Birdie and Frank Sinatra’s Come Blow Your Horn, exposing us to a world that had little to do with Jesus.

She was the first in the extended family to fly, as far as I knew, though I would later learn her little brother (my father) had flown a friend’s biplane over my mother’s house in Pittsburg, Kansas during their courtship.

A high school mathematics teacher at Field Kinley High School in Coffeyville, Kansas, Helen Glaser was active in the National Education Association (NEA) and founded a girls’ pep and service club called The Tornado Tillies, whose emblem of a tornado found its way onto her gravestone at my urging. Among her effects we found dozens and dozens of grateful letters from “her girls” who had found their way into vocations and families around the world.

It has only recently occurred to me that women of her time were not necessarily encouraged to enter STEM professions—science, technology, engineering, and math. She was “just” another teacher in a family that had many teachers.

An avid Democrat, Aunt Helen took both my sister and brother to the Democratic Party convention in 1960 in Los Angeles. My sister recalls being there the night that John F. Kennedy was nominated for the presidency, and my brother remembers seeing Adlai Stevenson in one of the convention hotels. (Btw, in those days being a fundamentalist Christian and a Democrat were not mutually exclusive!)

A souvenir from the convention.

When she retired and moved to L.A., Aunt Helen befriended a gay couple in her apartment building and quite earnestly explained to my brother that they didn’t like the term “homosexual” but used the word “gay” to describe themselves. I had not told her that I was gay.

I gave the eulogy at her funeral, describing her as both a Martha and a Mary, busy with many activities but always attentive to what was most important. I would now describe her as a progressive follower of Jesus for her time.

While I was in high school and college, she would pass along little pamphlets containing sermons of the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale from Marble Collegiate Church, which she may have visited when she went to New York City for an NEA convention. She seemed to appreciate his Power of Positive Thinking approach to Christian living. She would have been proud that, decades later, several of the Collegiate congregations would invite me at various times to speak, preach, and lead a retreat.

Invited to preach for Pride month in 2015.

Perhaps Dr. Peale’s writings helped her inspire her students, especially as faculty advisor to the Tornado Tillies.

Peale is said to have inspired Donald Trump and his father, though in a different way. Trump’s use of superlatives for himself and his work has been traced to Peale’s positive thinking approach to life and to business, something that attracted the powerful and the conservative in New York City. It must’ve attracted the progressive and the compassionate as well, because that’s who I encountered in my dealings with the several congregations whose association his ministry spawned.

What struck me as I read the recently released Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela was that Mandela too was inspired by Dr. Peale’s 1952 bestseller, again in a different way. Writing to his ill wife, Winnie, as a political prisoner on Robben Island in 1969, he says:

“The Power of Positive Thinking” & “The Results of Positive Thinking”, both written by the American psychologist Dr Norman Vincent Peale, may be rewarding to read. The municipal library should stock them. I attach no importance to the metaphysical aspects of his arguments, but I consider his views on physical & psychological issues valuable.

He makes the basic point that it is not so much the disability one suffers from that matters but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness & live a happy life, is already halfway through to victory. [p 79]

In her foreword to the letters, his granddaughter Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela concludes, “This inspirational outlook sustained my grandfather’s unwavering pursuit of justice and an equal society for all South Africans, and is one that I think can be applied to many of life’s challenges.” [p viii]

For Nelson Mandela, this outlook did not lead him to self-aggrandizement or self-congratulations but to magnanimity in the face of enormous odds, enabling him to write:

The principal task before us is the overthrow of white supremacy in all its ramifications, and the establishment of a democratic government in which all South Africans, irrespective of their station in life, of their colour or political beliefs will live side by side in perfect harmony. [p 46, from a letter stamped October 23, 1967]

Fortunately for me, however, my friends here, who are endowed with virtues far in excess of anything I can hope to command, are remarkable for their ability to think and feel for others. [ p 60, from a letter stamped October 14, 1968, of his fellow prisoners on the occasion of being denied attendance at his mother’s funeral]

How differently Aunt Helen, Nelson Mandela, and Donald Trump have applied the powers of positive thinking! Maybe we need a corrective text entitled, The Power of Magnanimous Thinking.

The OED defines magnanimity this way:

Well-founded high regard for oneself manifesting as generosity of spirit and equanimity in the face of trouble etc.; loftiness of thought or purpose; … superiority to petty resentment or jealousy, generous disregard of slights. Now rare.

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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.