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

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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