Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Help Me Understand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Contributors are vital to continue this blog! The need for it is apparent with over 11,000 reads this month, yet only a few donors. Please give now. Thank you!
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Healing Touch

With Mom on her 84th birthday in 1999.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, simple touch becomes all the more important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Post: Held by God

Notice: Contributors are vital to continue this blog! The need for it is apparent with over 11,000 reads this month, yet only four donors. Please give now. Thank you!
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Jesus' "Bad" Table Manners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Please click on the following link to find out how you can support this blog with a tax-deductible donation—thank you! http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description.

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