Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Why Did We Evolve?

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

Please consider last week’s post as prologue to today’s blog entry. As I rode through a South African wild game reserve a few weeks ago, “visiting” lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, and other species without barriers between them and me, learning how they interact with each other and their environment, the question came to me, “Why did we (humans) evolve?”

Other creations—geographical, geological, climate, plant, and fellow animals have their role to play in the ecology of Earth, but why were we “needed”? All of these creatures do quite well without us and, it could be argued, would do better without us.

Wade takes a photo of our shadows on the shore.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember how often I have tried to answer this question, stated in diverse ways from different perspectives for a variety of reasons. Over the ages, religion, culture, and science have become our tools to at least address or explore if not answer why we are here.

I know this question is “above my pay grade” and well beyond my education, as is probably true for everyone, yet I imagine almost every one of us has wondered about it from time to time, especially in youth and old age when life’s necessities do not take up so much of our time and energy. Maybe that’s our point: to be matter reflecting on itself.

But on the savannahs of Nambiti I came up with a reason that was only original when it was first told in the Genesis creation stories: that we have evolved to serve as stewards of this Garden, mindful (and I don’t use the term lightly) caretakers of terrestrial concerns. Neither original is the thought that our mindlessness when it comes to such concerns is our original and besetting sin.

The properties of a particle can be understood only in terms of its activity—of its interaction with the surrounding environment—and…the particle, therefore, cannot be seen as an isolated entity, but has to be understood as an integrated part of the whole.

As long as we are under the spell of maya and think that we are separated from our environment and can act independently, we are bound by karma. … To be free from the spell of maya, to break the bonds of karma, means to realize that all the phenomena we perceive with our senses are part of the same reality.  … This experience is called moksha, or ‘liberation’ in Hindu philosophy and it is the very essence of Hinduism.

These quotes appear a few pages from each other in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (pages 69 and 79), which I have finally gotten around to reading. The first is a conclusion of science, the second is a conclusion of faith. Both could be said to endorse John Donne’s famous line that “no man is an island.”

Last week, a regular reader of this blog informed me that one of my favorite “thinking” movies, Mindwalk, is based on The Tao of Physics. I did not know that. A physicist, a poet, and a former presidential candidate stroll around Mont-Saint-Michel discussing the nature of reality. Mont-Saint-Michel is an island when the tide comes in and a part of the French mainland when the tide goes out.

Wade on the rocks!

It is the physicist who, for me, gives the most spiritual observation on the nature of reality, explaining that though we perceive ourselves as separate beings, we are constantly exchanging photons.

The science of The Tao of Physics and Mindwalk might very well be outdated by now, but work with me here! The author of The Tao of Physics is suggesting that an intuitive insight of Eastern thought has scientific merit.

After all this philosophical and possibly pseudo-scientific heavy lifting among the animals of Nambiti game reserve, I must say it was a relief to escape to the beach. Wade and I walked, waded, and ran along the sandy shores and clambered up rocky outcrops overlooking the Indian Ocean along Plettenberg Bay.

Having grown up in Southern California, the shore has always been the sanctuary where I find my natural self, the rhythm of my walking and running reflecting the rhythm of the waves and tides. Something breaks through my “karma” and dissolves my “maya” and I am part of the whole for at least an instant.

My natural self along the Indian Ocean. 

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Lion God

Nothing says a vacation is over like a spider bite immediately upon arriving home, a new nest of stinging bees to address, a tire blowout, a lingering case of jet lag after a 15-hour nonstop, and fresh reports of a White House in disarray.

One after-effect of our three-week trip though South Africa is that Wade forgot his work password and had to go into the office to reset it. He noted that’s the sign of a good vacation! Then he had to deal with 600 emails, despite his “away” response message.

Our South African friends, Elize and Andre, helped Wade arrange the many details of our trip and traveled with us the first two weeks. They are Afrikaners and twins. Elize lives in Pretoria and Andre lives in Atlanta, a bi-national whose encounter with a nativist rant at one of our local grocery stores was recorded in an earlier post.

Wade, Andre, Elize, and me. 
Photo taken by our guide, Biggie.

I brought along the recently released Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela and an unlikely companion book, The Tao of Physics. But I found myself wanting to take a vacation from words, so I only occasionally read them, and I wrote nothing.

Even my prayers sometimes needed to be abbreviated because of our early morning jaunts, and I found praying for “all those we hold dear in our hearts” sufficient and the Lord’s Prayer well-summarized in “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Now I’m finding it a challenge to get back up on the writing horse, partly because I am still absorbing what I saw and experienced, both in South Africa’s natural surroundings and its cultural/historical story. I hope to unravel my complex impressions in the next few posts.

Wade's photos on Instagram are far better than mine!

We spent three days in a game reserve at the Nambiti Hills Lodge that featured a schedule not unlike a monastery’s. We were awakened at 5 a.m. for “morning prayers”: coffee and snack before boarding an open-air Land Cruiser at 5:30 for a wild ride pilgrimage up and down hills and across plains as the sun rose, going to various points in the reserve where we were most likely to encounter animals, returning for breakfast at 9 a.m. “Vespers” began with tea and snacks at 3 p.m. followed by another safari that lasted till dinner at 8 p.m., featuring spectacular sunsets and a break for gin and tonics or wine.

Our “priest” for these services was “Biggie,” an experienced and informative and gregarious guide whose fearless approach to the animals matched his fearless driving over bumpy, winding, steeply descending and ascending dirt roads as we held on for dear life. We became kids again, enjoying the ride, while keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife. To Biggie’s credit, we never felt unsafe or in danger.

But there were moments when I felt nervous excitement—for instance, when an elephant came toward us, turning a one-lane road one-way, requiring us to back up as he lumbered toward us, not in attack mode but going about his daily business.

I have never been so close to giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippos, impalas, wildebeests, springbok, wart hogs, ostriches, huge and little birds and more in their natural habitats. One morning we woke a sleeping herd of Cape (or African) buffalo on the road, prompting them to reluctantly rise and saunter out of our way as we inched forward.

Photo by Wade Jones

One outing, a tingle of dangerous pleasure came up my spine as a male lion and three female lions padded toward us and then right beside our stopped vehicle, as did three cheetahs a day or so later. There were no doors or windows or any barrier between us, and you will roll your eyes, but I thought at the time it was like a defenseless encounter with God, powerful enough to devour you yet docilely and peaceably passing by.

You can see why this became a vacation from words, and why they fail even now to capture the wonder we experienced.

A Cape Town art museum featuring African artists displayed this quote from Middlemarch by George Eliot:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Grazing rhino.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Vacation & Vocation

A neighbor's peaceful pathway.

Very early one morning I saw a woman doing a walking meditation, such as Buddhists do, pausing after each step taken, perhaps pondering a koan. As I drew closer, I realized the “koan” she concentrated on so intently was, in truth, an iPad. 

Running through the park, I approached a young man sitting in the lotus position, his face downturned in meditation. As I passed by, however, I saw his thumbs busily texting.

On each occasion, the only hope of my original fantasy was that they were tweeting or texting their spiritual directors or gurus!

We all know of such impulses to check tweets, messages, e-mails, and news media! C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters comes to mind, in which Screwtape advises Wormwood, his tempter in training, to put into his ward’s head the impulse to take a break just as he’s about to discover something important to his spiritual progress, thus distracting him.

One dictionary defines vocation as “an impulse to perform a certain function.” Vacation is defined as freedom from such an impulse, a letting go of our compulsions to do things we have always done, a release from doing things the way we have always done them. Thus vacation invites play.

I’ve known too many people, including clergy, who brag about never or rarely taking a vacation. In my view, vacation is a vital balance to vocation, as necessary to one’s work as sleep and nutrition and compensation.

Some of us get away from our work by going away, but others of us get away from our work by going within: inside ourselves, listening to that inner voice that is the root of the word “vocation.”

I’ve been reading a lot about the spiritualities of the desert: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. The desert is an excellent place to listen for God’s voice, our own voice, the voice of a lover or friend or calling. Distractions are diminished, silence surrounds, we may breathe easier, we may breathe.

In deserts, Moses heard God’s voice, Miriam danced, Elijah listened for “a voice of a gentle stillness,” Naomi accepted Ruth’s vow, Jesus pondered his vocation and found lonely places to pray, Amma Theodora identified acedia (spiritual lethargy), Muhammad received his divine mission. 

Progressive Christians have our wilderness too. We are letting go of religious compulsions to rediscover the God of the desert (metaphorically).

Writing of desert spirituality in Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton concluded that “without the disquieting capacity to see and to repudiate the idolatry of devout ideas and imaginings…the Christian cannot be delivered from the smug self-assurance of the devout ones who know all the answers in advance, who possess all the clich├ęs of the inner life and can defend themselves with infallible ritual forms against every risk and every demand of dialogue with human need and human desperation [108-9].”

Perhaps vacation from religious compulsion is also our vocation.

This post appeared on this blog on July 11, 2012.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Dolphins & Sharks

Hobbes & Wade find a flower on the beach in 2008.

“Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!”

Somebody shouted this to me as I began a several-mile run along a beach during a vacation. This stranger was absolutely right. Three dolphins playfully leapt up out of the water and, in tandem, we raced down the South Carolina shoreline for almost an hour. And most of that hour I reflected on that moment when the gracious abandon of a stranger, who might not otherwise have greeted me, alerted me to one of God’s wonders.

Running for me is a time to meditate. Like a Buddhist walking meditation, its rhythm gives me peace and a place for thought. And what I thought was that this stranger had played the preacher—that this is the purpose of any exhortation—to awaken us to such wonders.  Because I believe each one of us may serve as a minister, it occurred to me that this is our role, to shout,

“Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!”

There’s something about the shore that gives us permission to talk to strangers. I think it’s the elation, even the ecstasy, that we experience in nature—whether manifest in shores or dolphins. It awakens the child in us that freely enters the commonwealth of God.

Hobbes and me wading in the water. 
We went in October so Hobbes could be off leash.

The stranger speaking to me about the dolphin was purely gratuitous, an occasion of grace. He had nothing to gain by it other than the thrill of sharing the experience. But I proclaimed his gospel to all I passed in my run along the beach,

“Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!”

The next day, our last full day along the shore, it rained. And instead of wading into the Atlantic, I waded into all those e-mails I had avoided all week. It was sobering, to get back to business. There’s nothing natural about sitting in front of a laptop, reading a screen and plucking keys on a keyboard.

And I had another thought. Earlier in the week on the beach we had met a couple who alerted us to a shark in the water. It occurred to me that our job as “ministers” (remember, all of us) is not only to point out the dolphins, but warn others about the sharks.

Many of us got too many sharks growing up in our churches and too few dolphins. Like the preacher in the novel and movie Pollyanna, egged on by Pollyanna’s stern and bitter aunt, we heard preachers who focused on the curses found in scriptures rather than its blessings. Pollyanna, the orphan of missionary parents, who herself had every right to be bitter, pointed out to this preacher that there are many more blessings than curses in the Bible, many more dolphins than sharks.

Progressive Christians recognize the sharks infesting the waters of our faith tradition: biblical literalism, fundamentalism, prejudice, exclusion, patriarchy, condemnation, and so on. It’s important that we warn others to stay out of these waters. But it’s equally vital—or all the more vital—that we point out the dolphins of our faith tradition: grace, mercy, justice, compassion, inclusion, blessing, wonder, storytelling, and spiritual truth.

“Look, there are dolphins in the baptismal water!”

This was my first post on this blog, February 16, 2011. Its vacation theme seems appropriate for this summer season. It also laid the groundwork for all the posts that have followed. The photos from a week’s vacation on the shore in 2008 that was described in this post were not included.

Hobbes checks on me!

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Bible Is Dangerous Territory

So, most readers know my social location by now. Today you need to know my medical location. I was stung the day before I'm writing this, my left hand (the one I write with) is swollen, and both the venom and the medication I’m on to reduce the swelling may cause irritability. Like Marley’s ghost being perhaps nothing more than a bit of undigested gruel in Scrooge’s stomach, this crotchety post may simply be a product of the imbalance of my body’s chemistry.

I’ve been reading through Matthew once more and today I resisted (though I did read another chapter) simply because reading the Bible includes parts that are unintelligible or off-putting. I thought of the fun riff I did for the More Light Update (the newsletter of More Light Presbyterians) ages ago parodying the title of the Beach Boys song, “She Had Fun, Fun, Fun Till Her Daddy Took Her T-Bird Away.” It was titled, “She Had Sin, Sin, Sin Till Her Daddy Took Her Bible Away.” It was about one who, reading the Bible literally, did and said things that were just plain wrong because the Bible seemed to endorse them.

The teenage protagonist in one of my unpublished novels felt compelled to sneak out of a Bible store a copy of the first Oxford Annotated Bible because the mores of his community did not allow it to be sold to minors. He did not steal it, however—he snuck it out while placing the exact cost plus tax on the counter for the owner to find. Reading it with all its footnotes, his eyes were opened for the first time to biblical scholarship. His fundamentalist, biblical literalist upbringing was challenged by his new understanding that even the biblical writers were not writing literally, but with symbolic intent.

Nikos Kazantzakis wrote of Jesus reading a disciple’s gospel account of his birth, admonishing something like, “That’s not the way it happened.” The disciple said, “But an angel of the Lord told me this is how it was.” “Then it must be true,” Jesus said. For Kazantzakis, spiritual truth was deeper than a literal story.

All this is to say, reading the Bible requires help.

When I was a child, our Baptist preacher liked to tell a joke about someone who would open the Bible and blindly point to a verse for spiritual uplift. One day his finger pointed to, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Unsatisfied with this thought, he opened the Bible to a different passage, his finger pointing to, “Go thou and do likewise.”

Context is needed to understand any biblical text, but not just its location in the Bible. The writer’s social location must be taken into account, certainly, but interpreting the Bible requires more. It is best understood within a tradition, not just the tradition that preceded it, not just the tradition of its time, but the tradition of how it was interpreted since and even how it might be interpreted in the future.

What struck me when I acquired my first Greek New Testament was the discovery that, though it is the product of ancient manuscripts, it could become outdated as earlier manuscripts are discovered. This could serve as a metaphor for discovering the truth of scripture. Future generations hold the key to understanding all that a sacred text has to offer.

In the original manuscript of my book, Come Home! Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians, I wrote that “not all scripture is created equal.” What I meant was that some stand the test of time, and other scriptures do not. A gay reader of my original text suggested saying so might play into the hands of anti-gay readers who believed LGBT Christians were dissing scripture. My friend advised modifying the statement.

The funny part for me is that those who opposed the full welcome of LGBT people had what is called “a canon within a canon”—in other words, they only literally read, followed, and employed the texts that they wanted to and chose to read other texts symbolically or ignore them altogether.

Thomas Jefferson famously cut out the texts of his Bible that he felt should not be there. I would like to think of him among the first of the Enlightenment’s progressive Christians, but he did “own” slaves, so I wonder how he handled the texts related to slaves as fellow members of Christ’s body.

In The Gospel of Solentiname, Ernesto Cardinal documented the conversations of campesinos and campesinas (“peasants”) about scripture. Reflecting together on sacred texts is an ancient spiritual practice utilized by Liberation theologians to empower the disenfranchised of Latin American countries. As I have found in other settings with everyday people encountering scripture, their simplicity led to profound questions and insights. I experienced that too in the years I led a weekly Bible study for LGBT people and our allies for the Lazarus Project of West Hollywood Presbyterian Church.

Reading the Bible can be a bumpy ride. With the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah whom Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” we may also reply, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Means of Grace

I took this photo of Howard Rice leading a retreat 
for the Lazarus Project and West Hollywood Presbyterian Church 
at Mt. Calvary Retreat House in Santa Barbara in the 1980's.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I cannot resist quoting an entire passage from Howard Rice’s book, Reformed Spirituality: An Introduction for Believers. It summarizes everything to be said for the spiritual life in Christian terms, and I am quick to add that Howard practiced what he preached:

God is love, and the experience of God’s love is one that meets our basic need for love so that we can be free to love others. Without receiving love, we cannot love others, no matter how hard we try. That is why spiritual experience is so linked with self-giving love for others. The heart of the experience of God is an inner knowing that “I am loved, loved beyond comprehension, beyond my earning or deserving.”

This deep knowing of the soul is the shattering of the otherwise inexhaustible need for love, which drives us to keep ourselves in the very center of the universe and to evaluate everything on the basis of how much it meets our needs. The person who knows love is able to love; the person who has been in the presence of the Divine Lover is filled to the brim with a sense of satisfaction of that need and can let go and share love. That is why truly great mystics are always such powerful figures and are often revolutionary.

They have a vision of how things might be that is not blurred by fear of what might happen to them. They are powerful because their vision has broken down their need for being loved. They have been liberated from their own inner needs, and they are empowered to go out and challenge the powers of evil in the world. They know, from their own experience, that the power of evil within them has been broken by the power of God’s love [p 166].

Rice goes on to explain the two-fold range of such love. One is to care for those closest to us, neighbor and family. The other is to care more “long-range,” to be involved in transforming structures so that those structures may care for others, what John Calvin would call “the most remote person” and what Jesus called “the least of these.” The first is personal. The second is political.

You can see how this echoes the early monastic movement, the Desert Mothers and Fathers who went out into the wilderness of the Middle East in the third and fourth centuries to pray. They pursued their spiritual disciplines not simply to save themselves from being corrupted by collaboration with the empire, but to be able to reach out to save others from the “shipwreck” they saw as civilization.

What Christians from the Reformed tradition often overlook is that the history of Christian spiritual practices from the centuries since Jesus is our history too, as the split between Catholic and Protestant only just occurred in the 16th century, long after the spiritual contributions of such figures as Arsenius, Benedict, Catherine of Siena, Claire, Francis, Hildegard, Ignatius, Julian of Norwich, and Syncletica, to name a few in alphabetical rather than chronological order. And the split between Eastern and Western Christianity occurred in the 11th century. So we share with Catholic and Orthodox traditions more combined history than separate histories.

Howard Rice’s book reminded me of this when he surprised me with the notion that John Calvin actually used the Benedictine spiritual practice of lectio divina, contemplating a sacred text meditatively.

In an appendix to Monk Habits for Everyday People, Dennis Okholm explains Protestant resistance to monasticism:
+ It implied a two-tiered or class system of Christian community that was believed schismatic.
+ Monastic vows seemed to contradict justification by faith alone.
+ “Idleness,” a mistaken belief that monks were not doing their part as Christian ministers.

Howard Rice notes a central distinction of Reformed spirituality: a desire for union with Christ as the way to union with God. He notes that what we call spirituality Reformers called piety, a word that today carries self-righteous connotations.

Rice writes of Reformed congregations, “The familiar vow once used when people united with the church was the promise to make diligent use of the means of grace,” the use of spiritual practices to be receptive to, not to earn, God’s grace.

And the endgame was still the same. In the words of Richard Baxter, “to prevent a shyness between God and thy soul…”

I am pleased to announce that my friend Connie Tuttle has had her delightful book published, A Gracious Heresy: The Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet. I wrote about it in a post five years ago, Nativity Stories. My blurb describes it as “containing extraordinary stories extraordinarily well told.”

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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Gnashing of Teeth

“Gnashing of teeth” has frightened me since I was a child. To be cast out “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as Jesus is quoted in Matthew 8:12, is terrifying. “Gnashing of teeth” occurs six times in Matthew and once in Luke, according to the footnotes in my Oxford Annotated NRSV.

I am re-reading Jesus’ words during my morning prayers, admittedly looking for comfort and inspiration as well as challenge. But these words were a sobering slap in the face the morning I write this. It reminded me of the monster god I’ve written of before, the one perhaps the global majority of Christians fear.

The contexts of the phrase sometimes include a “furnace of fire” or a “cutting in pieces” of an individual, and they are always about those who assumed they belonged as heirs of God’s kingdom or of God’s household. One seems anti-Semitic and others directed toward the self-righteous of any faith, the spiritually privileged. One is directed at a clearly abusive person, another at a mere under-achiever, and one has simply failed to wear the right garment. The fashion police would love that one!

I understand that prophets like Jesus used hyperbole, so you must cut off any body part that causes you to sin, and (I’ve been told) his Aramaic tongue did not include comparatives like “more,” so you must hate mother and father to love Jesus. That’s how I’ve dealt with Jesus’ harsher sayings in the past.

So why stumble on “gnashing of teeth” this morning?

Again, my footnote explained: “Gnashing of teeth, an indication of sharp pain or vexation.”

As someone who has ground his teeth in his sleep when anxious or clenched my teeth in anger or grit my teeth in frustration or metaphorically bit my tongue rather than weaponize it, the phrase absolutely incarnates sharp pain or vexation.

And I realize I’ve been “there” many times, that is, someplace outside of the kingdom of Jesus’ influence, outside of God’s commonwealth.

Though all these things are natural and necessary in the everyday world, the commonwealth of God is a place beyond anxiety, anger, frustration, and vitriol—and few there be that find it, to use another Jesus phrase.

So my fear of “gnashing of teeth” is a fear of what happens everyday for me as I face the news or traffic or people or schedules or the internet or health issues or—well, you get my drift. Gnashing of teeth is our contemporary lifestyle.

As much as I can let go of this in prayer, contemplation, kindliness, cooperation, activism and service, the closer I am to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus followed his “gnashing of teeth” imagery by telling his petitioner, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the loved one the soldier was asking for “was healed in that hour,” according to Matthew 6:13.

But I somehow also believe that God is to be found in our gnashing of teeth.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

It's a Wonderful Life

This morning I’m up early as last week’s post, Wade’s Mezuzah, is being published, distributed, and hopefully read by subscribers. Shortly I will begin my weekly promotion of its link on organizational pages on Facebook as well as my own.

But I awoke to the thought of writing this post, and the memories here told brought tears to my eyes as I am reminded again what a wonderful life I have had. I know I will “crash” later, having been up later than usual last night attending a musical outside Atlanta with friends. Wade is out of town for work, so my schedule is mine this morning.

I mentioned the religious artifacts in our home, and I’ve decided to briefly tell the stories of those I mentioned. Their stories are what make them sacramentals, material objects conveying spiritual meaning.

The Latin American altar cloth upon which my laptop rests I purchased when I began leading retreats on Henri Nouwen as a way to deal with my grief at his death. It represents his love and service to Latin America, and its multicolored stripes are reminiscent of the rainbow flag that Henri never got to wave for himself.

The Sacred Heart sacramental was a gift from Ed McGee, who accompanied the worship and directed the Sunday choir during the annual gay and bisexual Christian men’s retreat we led at Kirkridge. With a mischievous wink, he gave it to me because I inquired of him, a Roman Catholic who loved to play for Presbyterian congregations, about the tradition of the Sacred Heart.

Ganesha was sent to me one Christmas by my Mormon nephew, my sister’s second son, knowing my penchant for things religious and my challenge for things computer.

The embracing clay Muslim men in kaftans was brought to me from Egypt by my friend, Bob Lodwick, the U.S. Presbyterian representative to European churches, when he filled in for Ben Weir in the Middle East after Ben was abducted and held captive. Bob also brought me one of the plates inscribed with a verse from the Quran hanging in another room. He provided the Lazarus Project with a supply of St. Lazarus icons from Cyprus to adorn our Lazarus awards. He and Hedy hosted George Lynch and me when we visited the offices of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

The ceramic tile from Israel with Shalom in Hebrew was brought from Jerusalem by Vicki Goldish and Vicki Dakil, a lesbian couple. Vicki-1 (as we sometimes designated them!) was Jewish and Vicki-2 was a Christian of Lebanese descent. They had a tree planted in Israel in tribute to my father when he died. Both succumbed to cancer at early ages.

The Christ Pantocrator was given me by a congregant when I was ordained by MCC in 2005. The origin of the African goddess is a mystery to me. Perhaps that’s as it should be! 

The Balinese mask was a gift from my first longtime boyfriend, pseudonymously referred to as “John” in my first book, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church. He was my loving “redeemer” after I was dropped as a candidate for ordination by the Presbytery of the Pacific in May of 1978 after the Presbyterian ban on ordination of LGBT people was put in place. We are no longer in touch, but I fondly remember his touch.

The papyrus scene of Pharaoh being judged—his heart weighed on a scale opposite a feather—was something I acquired on a Fordham religious studies tour of the Middle East. Judgment came if his heart weighed heavier than that feather.

The Tree of Life across the room I acquired in Katmandu on another religious studies tour, and it was woven in Cashmere, the disputed territory between Pakistan and India. I used it as a symbolic banner during a Christian season when I served as interim pastor of Christ Covenant MCC in Decatur, Georgia.

Something I didn’t mention last week, but on the opposite wall hangs a water color of the cliffs of Moher in Ireland, painted in retirement by the pastor who became my first Presbyterian mentor and pastor, James King Morse. I hoped for him a long life by telling him I wanted him to preach at my ordination!

I’ve saved for last the other plate I mentioned with a Quran quote—rather, the shallow bowl pictured above—because it entails one of my favorite stories. A transgender Muslim friend from Pakistan translated the phrases on both plates for me once, but the sticky notes with their translations have since fallen off. I acquired it in the Orthodox section of Jerusalem, Mea Shearim, on the religious studies tour of the Middle East.

Our leader was Byron Shafer, who, besides being a professor and one-time head of the religious studies department of Fordham University, served as primary author of the report of the Presbyterian task force on homosexuality, on which I served. He took a few of us on the trip to his favorite tiny shop.

We entered and found nothing on its shelves. The old, wizened proprietor greeted us warmly, inviting us to sit, and offered us tea. He started boiling the water as we chatted about our trip and eventually, after serving us tea, he began pulling items from behind an apron on the lip of a shelf, one by one. This made each artifact seem special, unlike the many shops with shelves crowded with merchandise. I just had to have one, it was so memorable.

So I splurged $40—a lot of money to me then—to purchase a now 160-year-old copper bowl covered in tin from Persia, now Iran, etched with a verse from the Quran, I think meaning, “God is great.”

As I look back, that gentle old man is an image of God, pulling out of his stores one beautiful thing after another, offering it to us to admire and possibly hold on to as we sip tea together, conversing. Einstein once said the reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen all at once.

It’s a wonderful life. God is great!

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Wade's Mezuzah

As you might expect, our home is filled with religious artifacts accumulated over the years, most gifts from thoughtful friends. Like many Christian clergy, I have my share of Communion chalices and bread plates, crosses and icons, most of which live in my home office.

I work on a small desk adorned with a colorful Latin American altar cloth on which a Sacred Heart of Jesus sacramental lies beside my laptop and the Hindu god Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, sits nearby to solve computer issues.

Two clay Muslim men in kaftans embrace on top of my bookshelves, and Arabic phrases from the Quran beautifully illustrate two round metal plates hanging in another room. A ceramic tile from Israel welcomes visitors before entering our kitchen with the word Shalom in Hebrew.  

Upstairs a Christ Pantocrator placidly blesses an African goddess dancing above a Balinese mask and a Pharaoh judgment scene on papyrus. All are facing a handwoven Tree of Life across the room above our bed.

Well, you get the picture.

But never have I ever thought of having a mezuzah, despite my deep respect for the tradition.

Wade saw it at a booth during the Dogwood Festival here in Atlanta, a booth featuring the delicate art of Israeli artists from Brooklyn. Stavit Allweis and Nachshon Pelig are graduates of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem.

Wade appreciates its spiritual meaning, but more so its aesthetic appeal. It didn’t even cross his mind that, because we’re not Jewish, it might not be “kosher”! So, he purchased it, after carrying on a meaningful conversation with the handsome vendor, one of the artists.

When we came home from the festival we showed it to Jenelle Holmes, our pastor two doors down, and she asked us if we could do a “show and tell” about it as our moment of mindfulness the following day at Ormewood Church. We went online to prepare.

Mezuzah is Hebrew for “doorpost.” It contains Hebrew verses from the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, the first of which begins, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The passage ends urging that we write these words on the doorpost of our house.

A mezuzah is traditionally hung on the right side of the door and—I especially love this as good Jewish compromise—tilted because early practitioners differed as to whether to hang it vertically or horizontally.

But Wade wanted it mounted vertically on the more prominent left side of the door, and so, apologies to Yahweh for being loosey-goosey progressive Christians, that’s where it is. We followed the tradition of reciting this blessing in Hebrew as we held it against the spot it was to be placed: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with Your mitzvot (Law) and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.”

I always knew that summer-long intensive in Hebrew would come in handy.

You might think this an imperialistic appropriation of a spiritual practice of another culture and religion, but if you saw Wade’s innocent delight and wonder you may excuse us.

And I enjoy the practice of touching the mezuzah as I enter our home, remembering that the Lord our God is one, and that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and might.

This post has a follow-up: It’s a Wonderful Life

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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.”


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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Copyright © 2004 and 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.