Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A New Frontier

Yesterday (literally!) I thought I had nothing new to give you, but then I realized I did have something old to offer, the wisdom of the poet Kahlil Gibran. My mother loved reading his books in the sixties and I’ve been reading her copy of Mirrors of the Soul, translated with biographical notes by Joseph Sheban and published by the Philosophical Library of New York in 1965. It’s amazing to me how relevant it is today.

In seminary I had a friend from Lebanon who could not understand why Gibran was so popular in the United States. “There are better poets in Lebanon,” he said frankly. But reading this particular book explains it to me. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was a teenager, though he returned to Lebanon for his higher education. No doubt being “bicontinental” as well as located in New York City gave him the exposure needed in the publishing world.

This book begins with a quote of Gibran that speaks to our need to listen to our own hearts and the heart of the universe:

My soul is my counsel and has taught me to give ear to the voices which are created neither by tongues nor uttered by throats.

Before my soul became my counsel, I was dull, and weak of hearing, reflecting only upon the tumult and the cry. But, now, I can listen to silence with serenity and can hear in the silence the hymns of ages chanting exaltation to the sky and revealing the secrets of eternity.

How often we only attend to “the tumult and the cry” rather than “the hymns of [the] ages”!

Sheban contends that Gibran was “a rebel, but only against ceremonial practices,” while familiarizing himself with a wide range of spiritual teachers, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, non-religious philosophers, and more. In one of his stories in Arabic, “Kahlil the Heretic,” a novice urges his monastic community to go out and serve the people, saying,

“The hardships we shall encounter among the people shall be more sanctifying and more exalting than the ease and serenity we accept in this place. The sympathy that touches a neighbor’s heart is greater than virtue practiced unseen in this convent. A word of compassion for the weak, the criminal and the sinner is more magnificent than long, empty prayers droned in the temple.”

Of course, the novice in the story is driven from the monastery!

Another character from another story, “John the Madman,” prays, “Come again, O Jesus, to drive the vendors of thy faith from thy sacred temple.”

Finally, these excerpts from Kahlil Gibran’s essay entitled “The New Frontier” written a hundred years ago may have a familiar ring and relevant reverberations for our time:

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.

Are you a merchant utilizing the need of society for the necessities of life for monopoly and exorbitant profit? Or a sincere, hard-working and diligent person facilitating the exchange between the weaver and the farmer, charging a reasonable profit as a middleman between supply and demand? If you are the first, then you are a criminal whether you live in a palace or a prison. If you are the second, then you are a charitable person whether you are thanked or denounced by the people.

Are you a religious leader, weaving for your body a gown out of the ignorance of the people, fashioning a crown out of the simplicity of their hearts and pretending to hate the devil merely to live upon his income? Or are you a devout and a pious person who sees in the piety of the individual the foundation for a progressive nation, and who can see through a profound search in the depth of one’s own soul a ladder to the eternal soul that directs the world?

If you are the first, then you are a heretic, a disbeliever in God even if you fast at day and pray by night. If you are the second, then you are a violet in the garden of truth even though its fragrance is lost upon the nostrils of humanity or whether its aroma rises into that rare air where the fragrance of flowers is preserved. …

Are you a governor who denigrates himself before those who appoint him and denigrates those whom he is to govern, who never raises a hand unless it is to reach into pockets and who does not take a step unless it is for greed? Or are you the faithful servant who serves only the welfare of the people?

If you are the first, then, then you are as a tare in the threshing floor of the nation; and if the second, then you are a blessing upon its granaries.

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Photo from California desert by Chris. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Wedding and a Funeral in Trump Territory

Wade dancing with the bride.

I call it “Trump territory” rather than “Trump country” because I doubt any state wants to be characterized by how it voted in the last presidential election. Nor do its citizens. And “territory” sounds less permanent than “country,” suggesting things may change. And I am writing this post not to diminish Trump voters in Indiana and Louisiana or even my own state of Georgia, but to recognize we may share more values than pundits might admit.

I am writing this because when Wade and I visited Indiana for his mom’s memorial in September and Louisiana for our friend’s wedding in October, both held in picturesque rural chapels, we seemed to find the same welcoming people we enjoy in our own neighborhood and our own spiritual community here in Atlanta.

Now, we weren’t talking politics in either venue, but how people respond to a married gay male couple could be considered a sort of litmus test of values. And we seemed warmly received in our grief in Indiana and our celebration in Louisiana. What that says to me is that death and marriage are universally held as profound and important enough to, as they say in theater, “suspend our disbelief” in one another’s voting records and ideologies and, as they say in the church, “bear one another’s burdens and share each other’s joys.”

In a May visit to family and friends in California, one of my hosts was one of “those” puzzling Obama-Trump voters, but we had enough to talk about without pushing one another’s buttons over politics. As many of us anticipate family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas, it helps to consider what we share than how we differ. Fox News does not need to share a turkey with MSNBC. If ceasefires can sometimes work in the Middle East, then they might work—if briefly—at our dinner tables.

My reading for both trips to Trump territory was Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. As I read the section on the movement from hostility to hospitality, tears came to my eyes. I was about to offer my morning prayers, but I realized my tears were my prayers.

My tears came from my youthful ideals that seem so unrealistic in our present political divisiveness. My first sermon in my home Presbyterian church as a college student was entitled “Conflict and Unity within the Church.” That congregation was so divided politically that the liberals sat on the left side of the sanctuary and the conservatives on the right! My sermon declared that maybe the church could be one place political sides could come together and have meaningful conversation.

Someone in the church sent a copy of my sermon to a newspaper columnist who wrote about it, doubting the possibility of what he called “an umbrella church.”

Off I went to seminary and bumped into Henri Nouwen, whose spirituality course in which I enrolled my first semester became the book Reaching Out. He said and wrote, “If we expect any salvation, redemption, healing and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us. … To convert hostility into hospitality requires the creation of the friendly empty space where we can reach out to our fellow human beings and invite them to a new relationship.” (p 54)

“An open receptive place” to me is the very definition of sanctuary.

Regular readers know what store I place on the history of how I came by a book. A Roman Catholic priest who has remained a lifelong friend gave me his copy of Reaching Out in the mid-70s. The copy I’ve currently been reading is the one I gave my mother, writing inside the cover, “To Mom, What Henri shared with me I now share with you—with much love, Chris.”

Because it speaks to our current divisiveness, I’ve decided to use Reaching Out as the text for “An Open Receptive Place,” a new course on Henri I’ve been invited to lead for Columbia Seminary’s spiritual formation program September 17-20, 2020.

Life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.

If any criticism can be made of the sixties, it is not that protest was meaningless but that it was not deep enough, in the sense that it was not rooted in the solitude of the heart. When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. … It would be paralyzing to proclaim that we, as individuals, are responsible for all human suffering, but it is a liberating message to say that we are called to respond to it. (p 40-41)

Henri then talks about compassion, quoting Thomas Merton alluding to the solitude of the desert of the first Christian contemplatives: “What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.” (Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p 323.)

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Jesus Breathed on Them

Wildflowers along our morning walk.

Very early Sunday morning, I felt Wade’s breath on my bare shoulder. That simple touch begat my morning meditation. The sensation reminded me that he was there, but also, that I was there.

And I began to think of the Gospel of John’s version of Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit. “Peace be with you,” Jesus said, after appearing to his disciples despite their doors locked against the authorities, religious and political. After showing his wounds to make clear he was not a ghost, Jesus simply breathed on the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” With this breath they (and we) are sent into the world.

Less dramatic and sparser sermonic fodder than the Acts’ story of Pentecost, but this is probably how most of us encounter the Holy Spirit, that Spirit of God embodied in Jesus and passed on to those who attempt to live God’s will for justice, mercy, and compassion. A breath that reminds us God is with us, even within us, and reassures us that we are here.

It’s the breath of creation and evolution, of meditation and inspiration, of sensuality and spirituality. In troubled and busy times, it’s the breath we catch to find peace.

John’s Gospel is thought to be the most mystical of the four in our Bible, but it is arguably also the most physical and sensual, after all, it begins with God’s Word becoming flesh. In it, Jesus is referred to as the bread from heaven, living water to quench all thirst, the vine that sustains us branches, the source of our second birth, a good shepherd who calls us by name. He elevates physical well-being above religious rules by healing on the sabbath, disassociates disability from sin in healing one born blind, and offers us abundant life. He appreciates familial intimacy with Martha and Mary and Lazarus, and is crushed by the latter’s death, prompting him to call him back to life. He cradles an especially beloved disciple at the last supper and washes his disciples’ feet, and appears first to a grief-stricken (lovesick?) Mary when resurrected.

That his breath outpours the Holy Spirit fits the sensuality of this Gospel and, of course, parallels the breath Yahweh breathed into the chest of the first human creature. Biblically, breath and spirit are used interchangeably, as the same word may be used for either.

All of this did not come in my Sunday morning meditation, of course, but something I did ponder is the role of Jesus in my life. I’ve been re-reading Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out about prayer and the spiritual life and noticed his reference to the ancient and traditional “Jesus prayer,” which he renders, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me,” leaving out the end, “a sinner.” I guess that’s how I came also to leave out that self-disparaging ending, because this particular book came from his notes for my first course with Henri at Yale Divinity School. I always associated the prayer with those in the Bible in need of healing who cry for mercy, a broader application of the principle.

In this way, I’ve been occasionally praying this prayer, in that, as I age, I am feeling more vulnerable, more fragile. And though it’s comforting to address it to Jesus, my theology prompts me more often to pray, “Lord God, have mercy on me.” During my morning meditation this past Sunday I concluded that it doesn’t really matter to whom I address the prayer, as Jesus best represents God to me and I doubt that neither really care!

As I enjoyed Wade’s breath on my shoulder, I thought how comforting to think of Jesus’ or God’s breath on me.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Einstein's "Holy Curiosity"

This 1947 photo by Philippe Halsman was a favorite of Einstein's.

An article in Sunday’s paper about the possible evolutionary advantages of curiosity introduced me to a “famed quote” from Albert Einstein that was nonetheless new to me. He told a college student “never lose a holy curiosity.”

Of course, my “holy curiosity” got the better of me and I clicked on the link to that quote and found an intriguing conversation Einstein had with an interviewer, William Miller of Life magazine, and his “nihilistic” college-age son about religious beliefs.

Granting that we are free to name any power we believe in “God,” Einstein explains, “I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. … The presence of a superior reasoning power…revealed in the incomprehensible universe forms my idea of God.”

“I cannot accept any concept of God based on the fear of life or the fear of death, or blind faith. I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar. … I am an honest man.”

“Certainly there are things worth believing. I believe in the brotherhood of man and the uniqueness of the individual. But if you ask me to prove what I believe, I can’t. You know them to be true but you could spend a whole lifetime without being able to prove them. The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a leap—call it intuition or what you will—and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap.”

When asked if he believes in a soul, Einstein responds, “Yes, if by this you mean the living spirit that makes us long to do worthy things for humanity.”

He suggests to the student that he (and by inference, we) find something “to occupy your curiosity for a lifetime.”

“Then do not stop to think about the reasons for what you are doing, about why you are questioning. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. He is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than he puts in. But a man of value will give more than he receives.”

As the interviewer and son are leaving, the son points to a tree “and asked whether one could truthfully say it was a tree.” “This could all be a dream,” Einstein replies. “You may not be seeing it all.”

“If I assume that I can see it, how do I know exactly that the tree exists and where it is?” the student asks.

“You have to assume something. Be glad that you have some little knowledge of something that you cannot penetrate. Don’t stop to marvel.”

Reading this exchange, I couldn’t help but think of my and your “little knowledge” of God and the spiritual life. Einstein’s counsel never to stop marveling rings in my ears and rings true in my heart.

“It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. Try not to become a person of success but rather try to become a person of value. One is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than one puts in. But a person of value will give more than he/she/they receives.”

Related post: What Is Truth?

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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

I Live in a Forest Called Atlanta

My shadow on my morning walk.
(Remember, shadows add a hundred pounds!)

You might not guess that I get tired of reading and writing and saying words. Several weeks ago, I dispensed with words for my morning meditation and simply paid attention, reverently, to the trees that I passed on my morning walk. That’s easy to do in Atlanta, where we live, so full of trees.

Shortly after moving here, I tried to glimpse our house from a plane and realized I couldn’t see the houses for the trees. Arriving in my hometown of Los Angeles on that trip, I realized I couldn’t see the trees for the buildings, concrete and asphalt—an exaggeration, of course, but not much.

I distressed my mother by telling a friend that, by contrast, southern California looked bleak and bare. Mom had come from Kansas, and to her California was a verdant paradise.

Atlanta’s streets curve and wind and go up and down because they follow the old paths through the forest created by native peoples, at least according to a book on the history of Greater Atlanta Presbytery. This is the only thing I remember from reading that book, which may be revealing! Those paths have endured a very long time, in reality and in memory.

Saint Thomas More’s fictional Utopians held “that the careful observation of nature and the reflection on it and the reverence that arises from this is a kind of worship very pleasing to God.” This is one of the reasons why I appreciate Celtic spirituality, its “thin places” where and when we may glimpse heaven in earth.

Enya’s “Memory of Trees,” comes to mind, Joni Mitchell’s famous lyrics “You paved Paradise to put up a parking lot,” and of course, Mary Oliver:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In college, a tree on campus became my “axis mundi,” center of the world, as I sat beneath it reading texts for my religious studies courses.

As I write this, Wade is at a paper mill in Oregon in his role as an IT product manager for the paper products division of Georgia Pacific. He long ago reminded me that trees are a “renewable resource.” Companies like his go to great lengths to plant new trees where others have given up their lives for human products, otherwise they couldn’t remain in business.

This is true spiritually as well. We can’t spiritually “remain in business” if we forget the gifts of the rain forest as well as the tree outside my window.

As school children we learned the devout Catholic poet Joyce Kilmer’s famed lines, “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”

Blogs are written by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.

Today, go find a tree to hug.

I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat April 27-May 1, 2020 to which you are welcome:

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Coming Out as Resurrection

I realized how appropriate this earlier post is for National and International Coming Out Day October 11. Wade and I celebrate our birthdays and our anniversaries this week, both of first meeting in 2000 and of our wedding in 2015 after the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-gender marriage. Atlanta, where we live, observes Pride this weekend, inviting us all to take pride in who we are, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, national origin, abilities, religion, and more!

Approaching Easter, I found myself in a kind of Holy Saturday malaise—you know, that dreary interim when Jesus is in the tomb, and all is lost. I read again the narratives around the empty tomb, the resurrection stories, one Gospel each day. I wanted to encounter the risen Christ. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!

Then it occurred to me that I was looking for a literal resurrection, like Thomas demanding to see the prints of the nails in Jesus’ hands and feel the wound in his side. In truth, the stories that most appeal to me are the mystical ones, like the Emmaus disciples experiencing Jesus in the kerygma of “opening scriptures” and the sacrament of breaking bread.

The literal miracle I was overlooking was what came out of that empty tomb: a new faith and spiritual community that would attract much of humanity and change the world; a fresh understanding of God and, to take it personally, a fresh understanding of myself. “God brought us to life with Christ,” in the words of Ephesians 2:5 (NJB). I recognized the resurrection of Jesus in countless others, thanks to his passion and compassion.

Coming out of the closet helped me better grasp resurrection. I know how differently life and God and the world are experienced when free of confinement, restriction, and hiddenness. Everything is new and seen/felt/heard/smelled/tasted as if for the first time. It’s wonderful and terrifying, uplifting and burdensome. It calls for an entirely different way of being, acting, speaking, and loving.

It entails both freedom and responsibility. Its heights and depths make one soar and sink at the same time. It helps one focus and broaden all at once. Suddenly, when first coming out, I was in the “rapids” of my life excursion, exhilarating and frightening, both limiting and opening possibilities, tearing me away from safer shores and hurling me toward the unknown. “Thar be dragons there,” I feared.

In my 1998 book Coming Out as Sacrament, I used “coming out” as a hermeneutic for biblical interpretation. One reviewer groused about my introducing yet another hermeneutic, or lens, through which to view scripture, but I believe “the more the merrier,” the greater the opportunity for diverse populations to understand and apply the spiritual wisdom of the Bible to their own lives and the lives of their communities.

I boldly asserted that the Bible was God’s coming out story.  After all, in Christian tradition, self-revelation is how we know God. From the burning bush to Jesus of Nazareth to the Holy Spirit, all awareness and knowledge of God comes at divine initiative. I suggested God came out of the closet of heaven to dwell with us and even dwell within us.

The empty tomb may be understood as a kind of empty closet. “Do not hold on to me!” Jesus told the weeping Mary in another one of those mystical resurrection stories. “Do not hold onto me!” each of us says to peers and colleagues as Jesus calls us from confining beliefs, practices, prejudices, perspectives, and expectations.

Jesus goes before us into Galilee, or any region or culture or community or vocation or workplace or movement in which we live and move and have our being, if only we have eyes to see and hearts to feel. With his dearly beloved Lazarus, he challenges us, “Come out!”

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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Faith, Reason, and Virtue: The Religion of Utopia

Last week’s post on Thomas More’s Utopia promised this week I’d focus on the religion of the Utopians. Some of you might have been puzzled by Mildred Campbell’s understanding of More’s Christian humanism as a “fusion of faith with the pagan belief in reason and virtue…a kind of humanitarian deism which abhorred religious intolerance.”

“Isn’t that what we progressive Christians believe?” you might have asked yourself, “What’s pagan about reason and virtue?”

Though I’ll get to that, I first want to point out what I’ve been saying all along on this blog. Progressive Christianity is not new, it is traditional. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who say that our ideas are some kind of contemporary accommodation to modern day values and beliefs are mistaken. Actually, they are the new kids on the Christian block.

Let me clarify that when I use the term “evangelical” I mean the political movement bent on enforcing their limitations on belief and behavior. I happen to consider progressive Christians as evangelical in the traditional—since Jesus—sense of the term, as bearers of good news (gospel).

American founding fathers and mothers are best described as humanitarian deists, in my view, not as fundamentalist or evangelical Christians. Their faith was as much informed and inspired by the Enlightenment (Reason) as the classical concepts of virtue and truth. They may have read some Bible stories literally, but they recognized truth and virtue beyond its pages and valued human reason.

So now I get back to explaining Campbell’s reference to More’s faith, mirrored in that of his Utopians, as being combined with “pagan belief in reason and virtue.” More was influenced by Plato, a “pagan” only because anyone who was not Christian was so-called, and frankly, in Plato’s defense, he preceded Christ by four centuries. But Plato has something in common with the monasteries of More’s age as well as the first church: his support of communal property. More believed deeply in the ideals of monastic orders, which included shared property.

Not surprising then, that More’s “mouthpiece” explaining Utopia, the mariner Raphael Hythloday, would explain that in Utopia there was no private property. (See last week’s post.) There were other monastic influences on the religion of Utopia, including the belief that meditation and worship focused better in the shadows of worship centers, lit by candlelight and stained-glass windows. But in Utopia, women could be priests, though reserved for the widowed and very old.

What is surprising is how Utopia itself came to be. It makes me think of our own religious and political divisions in this country and beyond. Its predecessor nation was so divided by religion and religious quarrels, King Utopus could use their divisiveness against them to conquer the country. (Think, win the election!) Their religious divisions resulted in political divisions that prevented their unifying to fight him off! Thus, when he assumed control, he decreed freedom of religion, believing that “God likes and inspires a variety and multiplicity of worship” and further, that such freedom would increase rather than diminish religion.

Utopians did resist those who refused to believe in the human soul, or who believed “that the universe is carried along by chance without an over-ruling providence,” disallowing them from public service, but no more, “for [Utopians] are persuaded that no one can make himself believe anything at will.”

When the mariner’s colleagues introduced Christianity they gained some converts (especially Utopians appreciated that early Christians held all things in common). But one whose zeal and testimony “began to wax so hot on his subject that he not only praised our religion above all others, but also utterly despised and condemned all others, calling them profane, and the followers of them wicked and devilish and children of everlasting damnation,” was punished not for his different beliefs but as “an inciter of dissension among the people.”

The most and wisest number [of Utopians]…believe that there is a certain divine power, unknown, everlasting, incomprehensible, inexplicable, far above the capacity and reach of [human] wisdom, dispersed throughout the world, not in size, but in virtue and power. … To [this God] alone they attribute the beginnings, the increasings, the proceedings, the changes and the ends of all things.

One person commented on last week’s blogpost about Utopia that she had read the book as “dystopian” rather than “utopian,” because of its seeming inability to incorporate all human conditions. But, like what I said about saints not being perfect: utopian treatises point the way without necessarily arriving.

The preamble to the U. S. Constitution includes the high-minded goal, “in order to form a more perfect union,” and we’ve been trying to get there ever since!

I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat April 27-May 1, 2020 to which you are welcome:

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog:
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Thomas More's Utopia

The current tenor of politics has given rise to dystopian analogies. As in Handmaid’s Tale, fundamentalist Christians and the state are coercing women to carry unwanted pregnancies in a growing number of states. With similar reasons for the burning of books in Fahrenheit 451, print media is ridiculed as fake news. Like the animals in Animal Farm, all citizens are equal, but some citizens are more equal than others, especially corporations and the very rich. As in 1984, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

So how refreshing by contrast for me to happen onto Sir/St. Thomas More’s utopian fantasy at a yard sale last week, appropriately entitled Utopia. I had read excerpts in my Norton Anthology in college but had never held a full copy in my hands. I treated this 1947 version as if it were the original sacred Latin text from 1516. I resisted my usual underlining and markings in pen and used a less permanent and less damaging pencil instead.

OMG, a few holier-than-thou folk might say, you’re reading another “dead white man,” adding, didn’t you hear about that recent hullabaloo about how harsh More was in the trials of heretics?! Well, as I’ve written before, saints are not perfect people who always got everything right, even as he has been revered as A Man for All Seasons. He got many things right, such as educating his daughters, a counter-cultural move, and, refusing to recognize the king as head of the church (an example we sorely need today), for which he was martyred in 1535 and sainted 400 years later.

In her Introduction to my newly-acquired-for-one-dollar version, Mildred Campbell makes some observations about the times of More’s writing of Utopia that sound familiar:

An expanding economy had many benefits to bestow, but, as More was aware, not all of its effects were beneficial; nor did everyone share in its bounty. … The malpractice in currency manipulation that kings and their ministers indulged in and an increased demand for goods of all kinds were producing an upswing in prices that eventually brought ruinous dislocations to the social and economic systems of nearly every country in Europe. …

It was a period of growing competition… It put a premium on individual initiative and aggressiveness; riches increasingly became the measure of achievement. It was this spirit of competition and materialism that More deplored as much as he grieved over the suffering of those who fell victim to it.

Thomas More carefully put descriptions of Utopia (which means “nowhere”) in the mouth of a fictional mariner, Raphael Hythloday (whose first name comes from the Hebrew for “God has healed” and whose last name comes from Greek words meaning “a skilled conveyer of trifles or nonsense”). In their conversation, More defends private property, as would be expected of an English nobleman, but it is also clear that Hythloday serves as his alter-ego, a representation of his serious bent as a Christian humanist, which Campbell describes as a “fusion of Christian faith with the pagan belief in reason and virtue.” She adds, “It formed a basis for the religion that More gave to the Utopians, a kind of humanitarian deism which abhorred religious intolerance.”

Next week’s post will describe the religion of the Utopians, but this week I lift quotes about their economy with contemporary relevancy from a 1949 translation from the Latin by H. S. V. Ogden, the version used in the Norton Anthology:

But in Utopia where there is no private property and where they zealously pursue the public business, there the name commonwealth is doubly deserved. … In Utopia where everything belongs to everybody, they know that if the public warehouses and granaries are full, no one will lack anything for his personal use. Among them there is no maldistribution of goods. …

Comparing Utopia to other nations, More’s fictional character asks,

What justice is there in this, that a nobleman, a banker, a money lender, or some other man who does nothing at all for a living or does something that is of no use to the public, lives a sumptuous and elegant life? In the meantime a servant, a driver, a blacksmith, or a farmer works as hard as a beast at labor so necessary that the commonwealth could not last a year without it. …

Is not a government unjust and ungrateful that squanders rich rewards on noblemen (as they are called), bankers, and others that do not work but live only by flattery or by catering to useless pleasures? And is it just for a government to ignore the welfare of farmers, charcoal burners, servants, drivers, and blacksmiths, without whom the commonwealth could not exist at all? …

Furthermore the rich constantly try to whittle away something from the pitiful wages of the poor by private fraud and even by public laws. To pay so little to men who deserve the best from the state is in itself unjust, yet it is made “just” legally by passing a law.

So when I weigh in my mind all the other states which flourish today, so help me God, I can discover nothing but a conspiracy of the rich, who pursue their own aggrandizement under the name and title of the Commonwealth. They devise ways and means to keep safely what they have unjustly acquired, and to buy up the toil and labor of the poor as cheaply as possible and oppress them. …

And yet they are far short of the happiness of the Utopians, who have abolished the use of money, and with it greed. What evils they avoid! What a multitude of crimes they prevent! … Fear, anxiety, worry, care, toil, and sleepless nights would disappear at the same time as money! …

Certainly rich men know this. They also know that it would be more practicable to provide the necessities of life for everyone than to supply superfluities for a few, and much better to eradicate our innumerable evils than to be burdened with great concentrations of wealth.

If that one monster, pride, the first and foremost of all evils, did not forbid it, the whole world would doubtless have adopted the laws of the Utopians long before this, drawn on by a rational perception of what each man’s true interest is, or else by the authority of Christ our Saviour, who in His great wisdom knows what is best and in His loving-kindness bids us do it. Pride measures [its] prosperity not by [its] own goods but by others’ wants.

When Raphael Hythloday finishes his tale of Utopia, Thomas More explains to the reader that he was constrained from questioning Utopia’s values and practices because “I remembered that [Hythloday] had spoken ill of certain men who feared they would not be thought wise unless they could find something to criticize in other men’s opinions.”

Though More says he can’t agree with everything described, he concludes, “Yet I must confess that there are things in the Utopian Commonwealth that I wish rather than expect to see followed among our citizens.”

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Near Death Experiences

Morris Chapel, Oaktown, Indiana, where Wade's mom was baptized at three months of age.
Yes, that's a cornfield on the left.

I have put off writing this post for several weeks, using the excuse of describing my workshop on self-care and then explaining my guilty pleasure watching old episodes of Frasier and Murder, She Wrote and finally, using photos of signs I’ve taken in recent years.

But this picks up where I left off with “A Mother’s Work Is Never Done” about my mother-in-law’s death. I had thought to save you any more reflections on death, lest you roll your eyes or click “delete” or find something more pleasant on the internet. But, like death itself, writing about it is inescapable.

I wrote a whole book about death, The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life, describing many experiences finding myself in proximity to someone’s death, so you might think I’d be used to death by now. But, while more experienced, I still am at a loss when someone dies, especially as I come closer to my own final passing or “transitioning,” as a hospice worker referred to dying.

As I write this, I look out at our backyard lawn dying from prolonged lack of rain and unrelenting summer heat despite my best efforts at watering. At least it can look forward to being aerated and reseeded this fall when cooler temperatures prevail.

I am interrupted by Wade explaining he’s taking his mom’s Christmas ornaments to our nearby Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and my mood lightens as the question crosses my mind if that’s where I’ll end up!  ( ;  

When we talked about afterlife, a neighbor who looks every bit the part of a Hindu sage with long greying dark hair and beard and flowing attire and sandals, suggested humbly that expecting life to be eternal is “a bit greedy, don’t you think?” His comment made me smile appreciatively. Maybe this desire for everlasting life is simply a reflection of our acquisitive, self-indulgent culture.

In my book I wrote that belief in an afterlife is more important for me when it comes to other people I care about, especially those whose lives have been cut short or ended before fulfilling their life dreams.

In seminary I read an essay that explained early Christians weren’t thinking of life that extended forever, but rather, life that has eternal significance and thus, an eternal “view,” perspective, and effect. Earlier, in college, I became enamored of process theology, in which we live on eternally in God’s memory. This hardly seems satisfactory to those of generations past who spent their lives enslaved, marginalized, or closeted or of their descendants who become the victims of violence.

Nearer to home, I wondered what life would be like without Wade or he without me, the more likely scenario.

Wade and I spent a week in Indiana that included another memorial service for his mom and scattering of her ashes in their hometown of Oaktown. We spent part of our time finding and visiting and, in two cases, adorning the graves of his relatives.

Cemetery next to the chapel.

That’s also how I spent part of my May visit to California, but this time, not just visiting graves of my relatives, but finding and visiting the graves of two friends.  One died as a child when I was a child after initially surviving one of the earliest open-heart surgeries. The other became one of my best friends in high school and later in college after the untimely death of his nineteen-year-old brother. I discovered to my surprise that the latter friend, who died in 2009, is buried in the same grave as his brother, and has no marker of his own.

I thought of my maternal grandfather, who lived to be 95, wryly saying to me on a cemetery visit, “When you get to be my age, you have to come here to visit some of your friends.”

I also visited the grave of a friend’s brother. A promising songwriter, his life was cut short by gun violence at 29. On his grave marker are these words:

Always documenting my discoveries through music…
The music is a part of me that I received from God.
I acted as an instrument and God as the musician.
For many years I was lost…
looking the wrong way for the wrong things.
“The end justifies the means”—No, I don’t think so.
It is the journey, not the destination that is vital.

Life is meant as a gift to enjoy,
to experience, to give and to receive.
The simplest, smallest gestures can be of greatest essence.
So don’t hold back. Make life whole and complete.
Seek not material things but fulfillment of the soul and spirit.

A reminder that "God Loves Us."

Here is the Amazon link to my book: The Final Deadline

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Signs of the Times, Ominous and Hopeful

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Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: Scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.