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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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

God, Mother of Us All

Ormewood Church on Easter

This is excerpted from my talk for Ormewood Church this past Mother’s Day. The complete scripture was Wisdom of Solomon 7:22b-30 (NRSV), a portion of which I’ve included here. The “her” is Wisdom, Sophia. Thanks to organizing pastor Jenelle Holmes for inviting me! 
There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy…loving the good…humane…steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. …For she is a breath of the power of God…in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with Wisdom. 
If you saw all these qualities in a personal ad or on a resume, you just might want to meet this person! I say “might” because this is a list so awesome many of us would feel intimidated.

This is a description of Sophia, Greek for Wisdom, and in Jewish wisdom literature, you could say she was the feminine side of God, the counterpart to God the Father. This scripture was written by a Jewish mystic deeply influenced by Greek philosophy who lived around the time of Jesus. As I grow older and the world seems more and more stupid and ignorant, wisdom becomes a quality I pray for in all our leaders and all of us!

In another text it is said that Sophia was with God from the beginning—without Wisdom nothing was created that was created. If this sounds familiar, the mystical Gospel of John takes as its prologue a similar assertion, that the Word, or Jesus, was with God from the beginning, and without Jesus, nothing was made that was made.

On this Mother’s Day, I invite us to think of motherhood as sometimes biological and sometimes spiritual. Note the present tense in the following examples. We need to hear these words even today:

“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” God declares through the prophet Isaiah (Is 66:13).  

Jesus laments over Jerusalem, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt 23:37). 

And the Psalmist gives us that comforting goal of resting in God:
I hold myself in quiet and silence,
            like a little child in its mother’s arms,
            like a little child, so I keep myself.  (Ps 131:2, NJB)

One of our spiritual mothers, the 12th century Julian of Norwich, even prays to the founder of our faith as “Mother Jesus.” 

And, when told his mother and siblings have come to see him, Jesus himself famously says, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Those who do the will of God in heaven.”

I say the Lord’s Prayer every morning. Early on, I changed the “Our Father” to “God, Mother and Father of us all.” I pray this way because my biological mother and father loved me in different ways and I returned that love in different ways, and so it is in our relationship with God, I believe. For many without a mother or a father, or who have an imperfect mother or father, God may serve as a spiritual foster mother or father.

The Christian faith grew from a handful of persecuted followers scattered throughout the Roman Empire in the first century after Christ to the equivalent of almost a state church by the fourth century, becoming culturally fashionable and politically advantageous. Even the Emperor claimed to be a Christian.

This mixing of church and state made some followers of Jesus nervous, anxious that his countercultural teachings, such as concern for the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the old, orphans, children, and those with disabilities would be lost in the collusion and confusion of church and state. They were also worried about the transformation of what had been a Christian movement into a religion and religious institution, the Church.

So, so-called spiritual mothers and fathers went out into the wildernesses of the Middle East to pray. They became known as the Desert Mothers and the Desert Fathers. They did not believe Jesus came to save only Christians—rather, they believed that Jesus could save the whole world from its excesses, its materialism, prejudices, hatred, self-absorption, violence, and cruelty.

They were concerned for the interior life that we in the 21st century would understand as the spiritual life.

But the spiritual life for them was as real as the exterior life in which they labored to be self-sustaining communities that could welcome and feed the stranger, the refugee, the pilgrim, and those escaping mistreatment and injustice, including women.

Paying attention to our “interior dwellings,” our souls, proves to be the beginning of an intentional spiritual life that will benefit our guests, whether young children or elderly parents, neighbors or strangers.

My mom and dad were role models of this spiritual life in different ways. My dad enjoyed studying scripture and teaching Sunday school. My mom was more of an adventurer in the spiritual life, reading the writings of mystics and contemplatives of various traditions. In this sermon, you can hear my father the teacher in my words, and my mother the contemplative-wannabe in my regard for the spiritual life.

But it was not until my mom was in her 80’s that she had what could be called an amazing epiphany. And, a surprise to me, it came at the hands of a Baptist preacher from Atlanta, the Rev. Charles Stanley, whose television broadcast she watched whenever she was unable to attend her Baptist church in Los Angeles. On one of her visits here I took her to First Baptist of Atlanta, by then moved to the suburbs, and she was thrilled to meet Rev. Stanley, though I had explained he was not affirming as she was of gay people like me.

Her “ah-hah” in the final year of her life, she explained with some glee, was that she had always known that God loved us generally, but for the first time in her life she had come to believe that God loved her personally, thanks to Rev. Stanley.

Surprised, I kidded her, “Mom, haven’t you been reading all my books?!”

The 19th century English poet and mystic William Blake summed it up well when he said, “We are put on earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

The spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen added that our time on earth is a brief span to say to God, “I love you too.”

A related post: “Peace! Be Still!”

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

"A Flower Does Not Talk"

One of our orchids.
The whole world today, both East and West, seems to be going through a period of convulsion, a time of travail, as it seeks to give birth to a new culture. There cannot be one simple cause for the tensions in so many parts of the world, but one of the major factors may be that while remarkable progress has been made in the use of new scientific knowledge, we human beings have not developed sufficiently spiritually and ethically to meet the new conditions.
It is most urgently required, therefore, that we must work to create a new human culture by striving for a truer understanding of humanity and a higher level of spirituality. 
This seems to echo the observations of Teilhard de Chardin, writing just after World War II, and speaks to our own time nearly two decades into the 21st century. But it comes from a book written in 1970 by Zenkei Shibayama, a Zen master and then abbot of Nazenji Monastery in Kyoto, Japan. The book is titled, A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays, and was translated into English by one of the author’s disciples, Miss Sumoko Kudo.

I took this from my bookshelves very early morning of the Saturday I write this, a little more than a week before leading a contemplative retreat, which I should continue preparing for, but I prefer to write this post, to be published a week after the retreat. The title possibly appealed to me because I am a little anxious about my impending leadership. In her helpful book, Be Still: Designing and Leading Contemplative Retreats, Jane E. Vennard writes that the best way to lead contemplation is to be a contemplative. A flower that does not talk seems a good role model.

As I read Shibayama’s preface and Daisetz T. Suzuki’s introduction, I wondered how I had never read this book that has sat alongside my books of Eastern wisdom for at least three decades. I was moved to find that the introduction was the famous D. T. Suzuki’s last writing, having completed it the day before he took sick, dying the day after that at the age of 95.

Only when I sat down to write this post did I see “Culbertson” handwritten on the title page and realize that this was either a loan or a gift from my friend, Linda Culbertson, executive of the Presbytery of the Pacific.

Suzuki evokes a smile with his very first sentence, “Zen claims to be ‘a specific transmission outside the scripture and to be altogether independent of verbalism,’ but it is Zen Masters who are most talkative and most addicted to writings of all sorts.” As a would-be contemplative who obviously loves words, I find this comforting.

He then writes how Zen Masters enjoy bringing their readers “to bewilderment with their apparently irrational and often irrelevant utterances.” I underlined “bewilderment” because yesterday I used a fanciful version of the word preparing a guided meditation for the retreat, writing, “We will flee from the familiar to the wild-ness and bewilder-ness of the wilderness.” Suzuki asserts that their purpose is to lift students to “the higher way of observing things.”

“Zen tells us to change or reverse our usual way of understanding,” he writes. “Zen always aspires to make us directly see into Reality itself, that is, be Reality itself, so that we can say along with Meister Eckhart that ‘Christ is born every minute in my soul,’ or that ‘God’s Isness is my Isness.’”

Yet the author, Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, cautions in his preface, “We should not too easily conclude that there is just one Truth, and that East and West are after all the same.”


The book’s title is that of the author’s poem:

A Flower Does Not Talk

Silently a flower blooms,
In silence it falls away;
Yet here now, at this moment, at this place,
            the whole of the flower, the whole of the world is blooming.
This is the talk of the flower, the truth of the blossom;
The glory of eternal life is fully shining here.

I think I’ve found my personal reading for the retreat.

I will be speaking during the 11 a.m. worship this coming Sunday, May 13, 2018 at Ormewood Church in Atlanta.

Related Post: A Flower’s Tears

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Souls "Flung Up to Heaven": Maya Angelou and Hildegard of Bingen

This week I am co-leading a contemplative retreat at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. Four years ago on this site, Dewey Weiss Kramer gave an uplifting course on Hildegard of Bingen for Columbia Seminary’s Spiritual Formation Program. I decided to adapt today’s post from my reflections on that experience.

I am writing this in the wake of the news of the death of Maya Angelou, and this propinquity prompts me to note Hildegard and Angelou’s shared recognition of our musical and lyrical needs spiritually, as well as the role that deprivation plays in appreciating those needs. Both Hildegard and Angelou played many roles in life, and both were strong and savvy women, unflinching in challenging injustice as well as carving places for themselves in patriarchal systems and cultures.

Angelou took the wistful title and theme of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, from a poem by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  As a poor African American girl turned woman from the backwaters of the South, Angelou knew deprivation on multiple levels.

Hildegard, from a wealthy family in Germany, used her privilege to create and defend a group of women religious, but wrote some of her most profound words and theology when her community was deprived of singing in worship by church hierarchy.

I fantasize about the harmony that these giants, Hildegard and Angelou, might make now that both have been “flung up to heaven,” in the words of the title of the latter’s last book, A Song Flung Up to Heaven.

At nine years of age, Maya Angelou chose to go mute for five years after naming her rapist and believing it was her words that killed him. It could be argued that her six memoirs that followed, perhaps all of her writings, were born out of that silence, a kind of self-imposed spiritual discipline that emulates the contemplative silences of the monastic life.

Silence may have allowed her to listen closely to those around her, better able to capture their choice of words and phrasings; to see life for what it was, better able to be a truth teller in a world of denial and deception; to deeply smell and taste and touch the world, better able to depict scents and flavors and textures; and then to conjure her worldly, earthy, and cultural experience in lyrical but accessible language.

Similarly, Hildegard’s contemplative life empowered her to describe her visions, coaching artists in their design, then to interpret “their truth,” their meaning spiritually and theologically, in her rudimentary Latin, the mystical language of the time.

And, of great interest to this writer, Hildegard listened to the music of the soul, creating her own forms of spiritual music that did not follow the conventions of the day, thus creating an ethereal, unearthly music, music that serves as a haunting reminder of the harmonies inherent in Eden (not far from that of angels) and in the unfallen first human creature, of whom she said, “If he had remained in his original state, the weakness of mortal man would not have been able to endure the power and the resonance of his voice.”  I have some sense of this, having heard Maya Angelou speak and read her work with a musical, resonant, majestic intonation.

We are blessed that Hildegard and Maya both found their voice.

I am one of those persons of whom Hildegard writes “sighs and moans upon hearing some melody, recalling the nature of celestial harmony.” Maybe these are echoes of the sound of Eden, as Hildegard suggests, or premonitions of heavenly bliss, or “the music of the spheres.”

I hear that music in lyrical writing, whether poetry or prose. That’s why I was so taken with Hildegard’s prayer, “O ignis Spiritus Paracliti,” which, even without music, sings to me, especially that phrase, “O sweet savor in the breast.” Like the Lord’s Prayer, it would be a worthy part of every liturgy.

Harmony comes from the integrity of body and spirit that I experience with Hildegard in the sacrament of music. Augustine’s reservations about the sensuality of music is the very thing that draws me to it as an instance of the Incarnation of God. Music is the Word made flesh—again.

“The body is the vestment of the spirit, which has a living voice, and so it is proper for the body, in harmony with the soul, to use its voice to sing praises to God,” Hildegard affirms.  Just as for Hildegard encountering one of the Trinity is to encounter all of the Trinity, in my view, to encounter an instance of Incarnation is to encounter all Incarnation.

That’s why Hildegard’s understanding that Incarnation was not the result of The Fall but intended from the beginning makes sense to me, especially as she views Creation itself as an incarnation of God, its fecundity, its greening (viriditas)—in my words, a divine impulse, a holy “oozing,” and the soul’s melody.

And the soul’s melody is not just human, it is in every creature, every atom, in the whole of the cosmos—nothing is truly inert in Hildegard’s view, everything is a “sounding icon” and “vibrations” of God’s self in everything.

As I wrote in Communion of Life:

Our original sin
Is not the seizing of forbidden fruit,
But failing to see
The infinite in the finite,
The luminous, sacred essence
Of the garden;

Failing to revere
The life that gives us life;
Trampling on the taboo,
Sequestering, quantifying,
And qualifying the holy—
The heart of our garden.

Forgive us, earth,
Be merciful in our willful ignorance
As you are gracious in your altruistic nature.
Hold us accountable, and then,
Hold us.

Reading this you will understand why I was so taken with Hildegard’s fresh understanding of human alienation, that the first human transgression was refusing the white flower, the fruit of humility offered by a benevolent God: “Its scent comes to the human’s nostrils, but he does not taste it with his mouth…for he tried to know the wisdom of the Law with his intelligence…but did not perfectly digest it…or fulfill it in full blessedness by the work of his hands. … He did not seek God either by faith or by works.”

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Are You Getting Enough "Likes"?

A couple of weeks ago I threw myself a pity party on Facebook. I posted that I was thinking of discontinuing this blog because the number of visitors has hit a bumpy patch in recent weeks. Until then posts enjoyed one to three thousand visitors each week, not counting 500+ subscribers. Visits plummeted to several hundred one week for a post I considered among my best. The next week’s visitors increased but were still well below a thousand. Another week the numbers were down to several hundred again.

I wondered if it was caused by spring breaks or the recent reservations people have expressed about Facebook, my primary way of spreading word about a given post (which I do on organizational and group pages, not on personal pages). A pop-up box that I also get seems to require a log-in and password, but the box is easily dismissed by clicking twice on cancel. (You won’t have this problem on Chrome browser, btw.) But that glitch has been around for several months, and I assumed it was an AOL problem, or having to do with my new laptop.

Finally, it appears, the numbers may have to do with the new Facebook algorithms that only promote a post among those with whom I am more often in direct contact. I confess that, to keep up with all my Facebook friends, I would have to be on Facebook much more often than my introverted self and time limitations permit.

Not long ago, a friend and I were discussing social network addictions, and he suggested I may be addicted to “likes.” Though Facebook friends infrequently “like” the links to my blog (which makes them less visible), what I am keener on are how many people actually “see” a given post by following the link. Obviously, there is pride involved in this wish, but it’s my compensation for all the effort that goes into every post.

I didn’t think to say to my friend that I was no more “addicted” to visits than anyone would be “addicted” to adequate compensation for their work. Given my blog is not really a money-maker, not being “monetized” by ads or links, not charging for subscriptions, and, for example, receiving about $200 in donations in the first quarter of this year, my reward is rather in seeing how many visitors the blog attracts.

I almost scuttled this post because it sounds like a personal jeremiad not worthy of your time. But it occurred to me that many if not most of you have the same experience in your own work. How many of you are praised when you are, in the words of The One Minute Manager, “caught doing something right”? How often do you even know the people your volunteer or non-profit or service-oriented work helps? Do any of us take enough time to let clergy, educators, servers, care professionals, even friends and family know how much their efforts mean to us?

In the midst of populist uprisings in this country and the world, those of us who think “we know best” are being urgently told there are peoples who feel underappreciated, undervalued, and overlooked. Our own occasional feelings of being neglected should help us understand them and their anger and their desire to “even the score.” Many of us who are privileged in one way or another resist those protestors blind to their own privileges, but that is only “catching people doing something wrong.” Better to stop and listen and attend to the woundedness, just as Jesus did when he heard someone cry, “Have mercy on me!” whether a poor blind beggar or a rich young ruler.

Queer Catholic theologian James Alison has suggested that we crave being liked even more than being loved, and this many years before Facebook! We want others to like us, to want to hang with us, to look us in the eye, whether they’re bagging our groceries or offering a medical diagnosis or making love or praying for us.

Linus of Peanuts fame famously said, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!” “Loving” humanity is often easier than “liking” human beings.

God loves us, but Jesus likes us, calling us friends, friends worthy of dying for, friends whose feet he is glad to wash, whose hunger he is glad to satisfy, whose thirst he is glad to quench, all while looking us in the eye and asking that we “like” him too, in “the least of these.”

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Can We Really Listen to Donald Trump?

A neighbor's timely sign.
"In Jesus every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.'"
2 Corinthians 1:20

Rereading the chapter “Learning to Listen” in Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday People, the question came to me, can I really listen to President Trump?

Just as I wrote that sentence, my mind jumped back to Anne Lamott’s clever observation that, in learning to forgive, we might not want to start with Adolph Hitler. Of course I don’t equate Trump with Hitler, but in terms of extremes, Trump is harder to listen to, say, than a neighbor who is a Trump supporter.

And a personal friend or family member who is a Trump supporter is harder to listen to than a neighbor because I have more invested emotionally, expecting them to be “better.”

That’s also why it is hard for me to listen to fellow Christians who resist the rights of women and gay and transgender people, fail to welcome refugees and immigrants, endorse harsh foreign and domestic policies, hinder proper stewardship of creation, and give uncritical support for military exploits. I expect more from Christians, more compassion, more understanding—including those who call themselves “evangelical,” who claim to bring “good news.”

Let me clarify that for the purposes of this post, Donald Trump is an example of our most troubling political leaders and commentators. He is not a scapegoat, however; he is simply the most prominent among many disturbing figures in this country and the world. He’s a bipartisan choice because he has riled conservatives, liberals, and moderates alike, Republicans and Democrats, Libertarians and independents.

Reading the paper I often skip Trump news stories, as well as commentaries railing against him. As a result, reading other articles, I’ve learned more about science, culture, religion, and even government and citizenship. My attitude has been, “This too shall pass.”

Nonetheless, I have daily prayed for President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence—by name—more than any previous president and vice president in my lifetime. I have prayed for them compassion, wisdom, and knowledge, and I extend that prayer to our electorate, as well as other leaders of our country and the world. Also, religious leaders.

I do read analyses of why we are so divided by political opinions, often posting them for Facebook friends. I am particularly taken with the notion that our vehement opposition is not simply because we disagree, but because we either don’t trust the other side’s motives or don’t share the other side’s values. I also appreciate articles that suggest ways to reach across our differences.

I return to the question, can I really listen to Donald Trump?

The antagonistic and bullying tone of his tweets and off-the-cuff remarks conveys insecurity and insult and incitement rather than thoughtful and wise and helpful analysis. Some commentators have suggested he may be “crazy like a fox,” manipulating the news cycle to some kind of advantage (crazy like Fox News?). I just find him erratic, fragmented, contradictory, and phony.

President Trump makes many of us knee-jerk reactionaries. His supporters automatically cheer, his detractors automatically boo. When we cheer or boo, can we really listen?

Again, never intending to equate the two, for me, trying to listen to Donald Trump is like trying to forgive Adolph Hitler. It is “above my pay grade,” beyond my spiritual capacity.

After all, the Torah teaches us to love our neighbor and confront Pharaoh. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor and give the emperor only what’s required. Early Christians were considered subversive because they refused to recognize Caesar as a god.

So, listening to my neighbors, friends, and family members may be the best I can do in this moment.

I believe if we really listen to one another, we can find in our hearts what we truly value and believe, as well as common ground, then act and vote accordingly. And we can demonstrate love for neighbors by real engagement, not merely getting along.

Saint Benedict’s Rule for monks recommends restraint in speech, not silence. And it’s helpful to remember that, as one interpreter suggests, our speech often “sides with the part of us that resists grace.”

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Body Still Loves to Dance

Dancing Jesus

One of my spiritual practices during Lent turned out to be sorting through boxes of my papers for my archive, a process that continues. I warned readers that this might lead to nostalgic posts! The excerpts here come from a commentary I wrote for Frontiers Newsmagazine, published July 17, 1992.

Exodus International President Joe Dallas gave the opening address at a conference of “ex-gay” ministry leaders and members held at Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego June 21-27.

This was an assignment I did not want. I approached the gathering of 500 registrants, to use a biblical phrase, “in fear and trembling.” Maybe it was the uncomfortable memory of my straight and narrow fundamentalist past. Maybe it was the expected conformity of participants, from a dress code (“no tank tops, tight-fitting clothes, immodest bathing suits or skimpy shorts”) to thought code (“Exodus International reserves the right to deny conference participation to anyone whose views are not in agreement with our doctrinal and policy statements”). Maybe it was the workshops on avoiding “impure thoughts” or masturbation as “the ‘M’ word.” Or maybe I just thought they’d all be loony.

But they weren’t, and I discovered that though gay sex may be verboten, some things never change. Camp humor abounded. People were caring and sensitive and carefully huggy. Haircuts and clothing, though not overly provocative, were still stylish and colorful; in a workshop on masculinity, I heard rumblings of discontent at a suggestion that they rid themselves of their wardrobes and patronize barbers rather than hair stylists. En route to a session, two ex-lesbians were kvetching about one’s lack of punctuality and the other’s lack of patience. And two ex-gay boys next to me in the opening worship were thrilled to find someone with a car: “We need to go to a mall really bad!” one emoted while in the next breath telling his friend, “I really want to be here; I’m longing to be closer to God.”

Ultimately, I’m not sure what I expected, but I did not anticipate everybody would be so “nice” and “normal.” But then, they thought that I thought like they did—that homosexual behavior is sin, an affront to God. Yet in none of the presentations or workshops that I attended—even those designed for the newcomer—did I hear why they thought so: no scripture, no theology. It just was.

Fundamentalists of whatever faith need God to be in control, and on God’s behalf, they are controlling: stressing uniformity over unity, obedience over independence, authority over reason. As do many other Christians, they also believe in spirituality controlling the body’s feelings and needs. These were recurring themes throughout the day, not only in word, but in deed: the design of the presentations and the “workshops” made no provision for questions or interaction among the participants—though individual counseling and laying on of hands were available, and special interest groups, such as one on AIDS, were encouraged.

Faces brightened over those who “left the lifestyle,” and hushed tones described others who “had fallen.” Cheers greeted the introduction or mention of a wife or husband, and nods of agreement met veiled references to Satan. Disparaging references were made to “pro-gay” churches, “sympathetic” media, and a psychoanalytic profession which had caved into “political pressure” from gays. One man drew vigorous applause when, noting that gays were better than their group at “building solidarity,” he suggested that they hold their own “Ex-Gay Pride March.”

The day ended as it began: with a worship of emotionally stirring group singing, led by a church musician who declared that Jesus “took my homosexuality on himself in the cross, and took it to the grave.” In the morning I had felt sad, witnessing these young people giving themselves over to a God whom they thought didn’t like gay sex. I knew that this would be, for most of them, a way station on their way out of the closet and possibly out of the church.

Now I felt sad leaving them, as a camper feels sad leaving a spiritual retreat. We belonged to each other sexually and spiritually, but they did not nor could not know that. Years from now I might meet one in a bar, and he will tell me he was forced to choose his sexuality over his spirituality. The fortunate ones will be those who find their way to a congregation which welcomes them as self-affirming gays and lesbians.

But in the meantime, the music tapped into the erotic energy of the crowd, which stood to sing. Jesus, put your arms around me and hold me; it’s true I love you. Hands began lifting in a charismatic gesture, as if to touch God, as if opening to God’s embrace. I will come, while you sing over me: How I love you, child, I love you.

The beat led to clapping hands and discreet movements of the bodies surrounding me. I noticed that hips loosened in gay dance bars by the pulsing music of Donna Summer or Madonna now swung easily in praise of their Lord.

The Shakers, a Christian cult, got their name from their ritual dances. They, too, did not believe in practicing their sexuality, and perhaps their shaking dances emanated from some deep erotic wish. For no matter how our spirituality might deny it, the body still loves to dance.

Your donations are this ministry’s only means of support:
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, payable to UFMCC and designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

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

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"I Am with You"

Our backyard tree coming to life.

“I am with you.” God-with-us. Where two or three are gathered. Always.

This is my “aha” of Holy Week. Not original, but deeply felt. I lost myself in these thoughts and feelings that came to me this morning of Good Friday, on the eve of Passover. The stories of both these observances are meant to assure us that God is with us.

God has heard the people cry. Whatever your cry, God has heard it. God is with you. Always.

That’s really all I have to say. But you know me, I want to tell you how I got there.

I almost did not follow my usual Holy Week practice of reading Will Quinlan’s The Temple of God’s Wounds, a chapter per day. I’ve written before of its mystical power for me, though I am not in sync with all its tenets.

This year I coupled these daily readings with the passages of crucifixion and resurrection in the four Gospels. Each day I read a crucifixion text in chronological order of its writing: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. On the days that followed I read the resurrection texts in the opposite order: John, Luke, Matthew, and Mark.

What I didn’t realize is that I unconsciously followed the pattern of The Temple of God’s Wounds. The narrator is instructed to view six paintings, one per day. The first three have to do with the crucifixion, the last three have to do with the resurrection.

On this reading, I once again profoundly embraced the narrator’s need for confession. As regular readers of this blog know, I am not too keen on sin, as it has, in my view, been over-emphasized in Christian tradition, plus many of the things labelled sin do not match my experience of what sin really is. That does not mean I am not aware of how I have failed in my human relationships, my relationship with earth and its creatures, and my relationship with God.

On this reading, I also recognized the narrator’s longing not only for transformation, but for an experience of transcendence that left him, in Charles Wesley’s words, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” That came for me with the remembrance that the whole of the biblical witness testifies to God’s steadfast presence. God has not left us alone.

The incarnation is less important to me as a doctrine than as an experience that God has somehow joined us in Jesus’ passion and compassion, offering a life refreshed rather than defeated by wilderness and suffering and death.

The differences in how Jesus’ story is told among the Gospels allow our own differences. We don’t have to subscribe to every “jot and tittle” of those stories to “get” the meaning, the inspiration, of the story that God is with us.

And, as I review the first draft of this post, I realize I overlooked two other “texts” or better, “contexts” that enhanced and influenced my “aha” about God’s presence: my body mending after a severe cold and our yard and the ravine beyond coming to life after winter. These “gospels” speak even to those who do not know Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

“I am with you.” God has heard our cry. God-with-us. Where two or three are gathered. Always.

On this 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr: “Keep the Dream Alive!”

Your donations are this ministry’s only means of support:
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, payable to UFMCC and designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

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

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Prayer for Holy Week

Michael Christman illustration for Coming Out to God.

You washed our feet, Jesus.
At first we objected,
but you made it clear that to be part of you
we need first to receive your gifts
and serve others the same way.

You gave us bread and wine, Jesus.
We took it for granted,
not realizing what it meant to you,
how it meant flesh and blood,
unity with you and with one another
and salvation for the world.

You said we would betray and deny you, Jesus.
“Not me!” we each cried,
but we all did
in our own way,
leaving you to face your destiny alone.

You asked us to pray with you, Jesus.
We fell asleep
and missed sharing your anguish,
not being compassionate to the Compassionate;
then they took you from us.

You continue to love us, Jesus.
We object, we take it for granted,
we betray and deny you,
and sleep
instead of pray.

Forgive us, Jesus,
for we know not what we do.

From Coming Out to God (Day 52) by Chris Glaser, 1991, Westminster John Knox Press.

Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families and Friends was dedicated to those I knew who were living with or had lived with HIV/AIDS and became especially popular in the HIV/AIDS community. A friend who was an artist, who subsequently succumbed to AIDS, provided the cover design and the interior illustrations for the book. I love that his name was “Christ-man”: Michael Christman.

A related reading for Easter: Resurrection Today, Part Two

Your donations are my ministry’s only means of support:
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, payable to UFMCC and designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Are You a Good Narcissist or a Bad Narcissist?

The question that titles this post reminds me of a question put to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: Are you a good witch or a bad witch? Many years ago I played with the metaphor in a sermon for More Light Presbyterians during the Wichita General Assembly, in the wake of the controversy over the Re-Imagining conference where Christian women “dared” to re-imagine God. My sermon title was, “Which Witch is Which in Wichita?”

Narcissism is much discussed these days, from national leaders to everyday postings on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Long before that, I have wondered about my own narcissism in writing a blog. At its inception I intended that it not be about me, but about enhancing the spirituality of progressive Christians—a kind of grounding for who we are, what we believe, and what we do. But I soon found I couldn’t leave myself out of the equation. I need to write about who I am, what I believe, and what I at least try to do.

For years I carried in my wallet the best counsel I’ve received in a fortune cookie: “Your romantic life is interesting only to you.” The thought makes me smile, and keeps me in check when I begin to assume too much about my own experience, not just romantic.

I believe it was the author John Updike* who said writers believe our lives are interesting. That is certainly true for me, but I would qualify Updike’s assertion by saying writers just plain believe that LIFE is interesting. We try, with mere words, to capture or reflect or reveal the wonder, passion, beauty, complexity, humor, and drama of it all. But, to invert Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase, if there is to be a “there there,” we have to put ourselves in the midst and mix of words. I believe this is true even in, and perhaps especially in, writing fiction.

This is not unlike any artist or preacher or performer who needs to be center stage to accomplish their art, proclaim the gospel, or entertain. When any of these persons do not seem to be “present,” they are accused of “phoning in” their performance. So a touch of narcissism—awareness of how we are perceived, how we wish to be perceived, or how we perceive ourselves—is needed to put ourselves “out there” and put ourselves “on the line.”

The current conversation about narcissism wisely distinguishes “good” narcissism from “bad” narcissism. Bad narcissists are those who are so full of themselves and so focused on their own needs, desires, and plans that others are either ignored, derided, destroyed, or exploited. In contrast, good narcissists humbly offer themselves and their stories in hopes of improving others’ lives. (An excellent example of this is Henri Nouwen’s many books on his life events and experiences.)

I believe it was in the hope of improving others’ lives that Jesus reportedly said, “I, when lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The gospel writer John, the mystic, and patron saint of Celtic Christianity, gives us a Jesus who knows his place in the cosmic drama of “one-ing” us with God. 

Whether or not we believe John’s word of Jesus’ certainty, almost all of the stories we have of Jesus in the Gospels suggest he had a strong sense of what God was asking of him, of us. As we who follow Jesus have our own sense of call deepened, bad narcissism will be recognized as “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1) and good narcissism will be revealed in faith, hope, and especially, love.

*The closest Updike quote to this I could find is from an interview in a Zagreb literary magazine in 1979, later translated in English in The New Yorker in 2009: “Every man’s life is infinitely precious, at least to him, and somehow infinitely interesting. … Maybe the wish to write is somehow connected with…I wish to say that life is sacred.”

On each day of Holy Week this year (March 26-April 1), you might want to reflect upon these earlier posts on Jesus’ Seven Last Words from the cross:

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Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.
Thank you!

Or mail to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, payable to UFMCC designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order.

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