Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Earth, Air, Water, and Fire

Sunset on the Nile, January 1981 - crg

I offer four meditations from my book Communion of Life that celebrates the gifts of earth, air, water and fire. You will better understand how Celtic spirituality and Celtic Christianity deeply touch me.

Cycle One: Day 1 Earth

Sacred earth :
Holding us fast,
Whirling to keep us steady,
Shifting axis to temper climate,
Yielding nutrients of life.

Holy ground :
A grassy belly cradling us in rest,
A rounded, rocky bosom inspiring dreamers,
A birth canal whose current is destiny.

Grateful, grateful am I,
To stand, to sit, to lie on you,
To ride, to sail, to drive on you,
To look down, to look up, to look out
And see you there.

Sacred ground,
I remove my shoes in reverence.

Cycle Three: Day 10 Air

The sun’s glory
Wraps around us,
Dives into valleys,
Peaks behind ridges,
Slinks through city streets,
Explodes on beaches
As if through thin air.

The sun’s grandeur
Glows green through branches,
Bounces lavender off irises,
Mushrooms grey above factories,
Canopies blue on clear days,
Gilds with age,
As if through thin air.

The sun’s gospel
Proclaimed to earth’s ends
Effortlessly, gracefully,
Baptizing us all,
Just and unjust,
Believer and nonbeliever,
Grateful and ungrateful,
Enlightened and unenlightened—
Immersing us all
In our star’s splashing splendor
As if through thin air.

Cycle Two: Day 7 Water

You live within me—
In my eyes, in my flesh,
In my thoughts, in my movements :
My liquidity.

You cleanse me inside and out,
Rinsing each cell,
Flushing out toxins,
Boiling out sweat,
Crying out grief.

Most of me is you.
Before air, I knew you,
Bundled by embryonic fluids :
Echo of primordial waters
Where first were fused
Earth, air, water, fire,
The things that make for life.

As you held me,
Now I hold you,
Precious, unasked gift from eternity—
Living water.

Cycle Eleven: Day 44 Fire

You have been the center of our dance.
From bonfires ablaze to candles flickering,
Wildly we have swung around you,
Howling, shouting, singing, chanting,
Igniting our passion for uniting
For war, for the hunt, for community, for the gods.

Flame mesmerized by flame :
Our burning, restless insides
Stretch outside unfired clay
For flames of unity, at-one-ment in immolation :
The burning flash of bullets and bombs,
The stinging, fatal wound by carnivores,
The searing of the heretic at the stake,
The burnt offering of sacrifice.

Attacking the enemy,
Devouring our prey,
Excommunicating the stranger,
Slaughtering a scapegoat
Do not make us one.
We are one—
With one another and the gods,
With the enemy, the prey, the stranger, the scapegoat—
Clay lamps burning with the same divine starstuff
That prompts bowing in reverence and awe
Before one another.

To know more about how the book came to be, see my earlier post “Communion of Life.”

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. To support this blog:
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Copyright © 2018 and Communion of Life copyright © 1999 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Glimpses of Glory

This week in our neighborhood, a ceremony on Martin Luther King Day officially celebrated the renaming of Confederate Avenue as United Avenue. 
My photo of that ceremony follows this post.

This is an excerpt of the talk I gave this past Sunday to the First Existentialist Congregation (UU) of Atlanta.

In August of 1973 I drove my ’63 Volkswagen through Washington, D.C. on my way to seminary in New Haven, Connecticut. I walked the capitol mall, and as I summitted a rise near the Washington monument, I caught a glimpse of the Lincoln memorial at the other end of the mall just as the sun was setting, and my imagination glimpsed the glory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on its steps intoning “I have a dream…”

Later I would learn that he had begun a very different speech, but the poet Maya Angelou shouted to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and he wisely switched gears and gave a speech he had used to inspire and uplift others on an earlier occasion.

That summer day in 1973, I realized it was the tenth anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, and I literally had goosebumps at the thought, tears coming to my eyes.

I was a twelve-year-old boy in Southern California when that march was held. I knew little of the struggle for Civil Rights that culminated in that march. On that day, I was at a very different kind of mall, Topanga Plaza, one of the first grand shopping malls built in a trend that would sweep the United States. A large store window had multi-level shelves stacked with TV’s facing toward the mall’s interior, and every one of them was tuned to the news coverage of the March on Washington. I knew something very important was happening.

Weeks later, in our doctor’s office, I saw Life Magazine’s coverage of the march with its supersized photos and captions. Soon the film and book To Kill a Mockingbird would tell the story of racial segregation and injustice in the South from a child’s view in a way that could help a young boy like me understand and empathize. In public high school, teachers taught me more—not just about racial injustice in the South, but the de facto segregation in my own hometown of Los Angeles, and apartheid in South Africa.

Exchanges with inner city schools and the Watts riots furthered my education. Our high school principal, an African American, spoke so eloquently, it prompted my desire to write and speak as well as he did. Yet the real estate market practices of the time prevented him and his family from buying a house in our neighborhood—and this in supposedly “liberal” California!

One of the reasons I left the fundamentalist Christian tradition in which I was reared was because, when three black women visited our Baptist Church, I overheard one of our members say to another white woman, “I bet they were here to try that integratin’ stuff, but we showed them they were welcome even if they are Negroes.”

I remember exactly where I was when I learned Martin Luther King had been shot. I was 17, and not yet fully aware of all that he had done and all that had been done to advance racial equality, but, like seeing the multiple television screens broadcasting the 1963 Civil Rights March, I knew something important had happened. My brother had just heard it on the radio and came in the kitchen to tell my mom and me. My first thought was to pray for him, which I did. Then the news came that he had died.

I had been attending a more progressive church, and the following Sunday night, the youth pastor took his turn in the pulpit and read one of Dr. King’s sermons, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” The first dimension King described was length of days that allowed a full flowering of a human’s potential. The second dimension was breadth, in King’s words, “breadth by which individuals concern themselves in the welfare of others.” The third dimension, King preached, was often ignored: that of height—in King’s words, “that upward reach toward something distinctly greater than humanity.” We often fail to reach for the spiritual dimension of life. He said of those who fail to reach for that spiritual dimension, “They seek to live without a sky.”

Like all good preachers of the time, King brought his observations together in a homely story:

A wise old preacher went to a college to deliver a baccalaureate sermon. After finishing his message, he lingered on the campus to talk with members of the graduating class. He spoke with a brilliant young graduate named Robert. His first question to Robert was: “What are your plans for the future?” “I plan to go immediately to law school,” said Robert. “What then, Robert?” continued the preacher. Robert retorted, “I must frankly say that I plan to make lots of money from my law practice and thereby I hope to retire rather early and spend a great deal of time traveling to various parts of the world—something that I have always wanted to do.”

“What then, Robert?” added the preacher with an almost annoying inquisitiveness. “Well,” said Robert, “these are all of my plans.” Looking at Robert with a countenance expressing pity and fatherly concern, the preacher said, “Young man, your plans are far too small. They can expend only seventy-five or a hundred years at the most. You must make your plans big enough to include God and large enough to include eternity.”

In my own words, I would echo King’s sentiment in this way: this is our moment to live and shape eternity, to live and shape the divine life of this universe.

That is what I wanted to do when I grew up, in my own small way, as a gay activist in the church and beyond.

Providentially, high school friends invited me to visit a Presbyterian Church whose liberal views they thought I’d like. The first sermon I heard there, the first Sunday of the year 1970, was a recounting of the previous ten years of the Civil Rights movement. Come to find out, the largely white congregation was participating in a program to overcome racism called Project Understanding. Through weekly forums and community outreach, the church hoped to be awakened to social justice concerns, including race, the Vietnam war, Native American issues, the needs of the adjacent Latino barrio, and eventually, even gay and lesbian concerns. It was a “woke” church before its time. The denomination to which it belonged had written a new Confession of Faith in 1967 that called for the reconciliation of races, religions, and nationalities.

It was part of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the northern stream of Presbyterianism in America, broken from its southern stream since the abolition of slavery and the Civil War, finally to be united as the Presbyterian Church (USA) here in this very city of Atlanta in 1983. The two denominations literally marched to the Atlanta City Hall as a physical representation of our new-found unity, and there Mayor Andrew Young, himself a United Church of Christ minister, welcomed us.

That’s probably more than you care to know about Presbyterian history, but I tell it to explain how I came to be at the 1983 March on Washington commemorating that first March in 1963. I was there as part of the Presbyterian contingent.

The first congregation I served after seminary closed its worship service joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” This dated back to its days supporting the Civil Rights movement. When I tried to edit this song out of the service, thinking of it as a dated relic, the congregation rebelled because it had become about more than black and white, it was about gay and straight, women and men and transgender, it was about every religious perspective, about every category of humanity by which we try to separate ourselves from one another.

In response to my talk, First Existentialist stood in a circle, joined hands, and sang the many verses of “We Shall Overcome.” In the talk, I also included the words of Bayard Rustin, the gay African American who organized the 1963 March on Washington, that I published in an earlier post, “Bayard Rustin Speaks.”

In thanksgiving for the life of poet Mary Oliver, who died last week, I invite you to read my many posts that referenced her.

Without controversy, residents removed "Confederate" from our street signs.

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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, January 16, 2019

What Is the Chief End of Humanity?

Something that surprised and delighted me when I became a Presbyterian in 1970 while in college was the first question and answer of the Shorter Westminster Catechism, adopted as part of the Westminster Standards by the Scottish General Assembly for use in the kirk (church) in 1647 and by the first Presbyterian synod of the American colonies in 1729.

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.

I had earlier been enthralled with the denomination’s then most recent confession of faith, The Confession of 1967, that confirmed my own beliefs in its call for reconciliation of all regardless of race, religion, or nationality.

But that such an early church document from the seemingly somber and sober Presbyterians and their Scottish heritage could use such words as “glorify” and “enjoy” in relation to God and the practice of their faith pleased me no end!

My Yale Divinity professor and subsequent friend, Henri Nouwen, would write of his stay in a Trappist monastery in The Genesee Diary that his spiritual director, John Eudes Bamberger, challenged him to take as his koan, “I am the glory of God.” He clarified, “In your meditation you can ask yourself, “Where is the glory of God? If the glory of God is not there where I am, where else can it be?” Interpreting the second creation story of Genesis in which God breathed life into the first human being, he told Henri, “We live because we share God’s breath, God’s life, God’s glory.”

The early church teacher, Irenaeus, declared, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

Two of my prayers in Coming Out to God, ably edited and encouraged by Alexa Smith, took as their starting point this question about the chief end of humanity. The first may be used collectively with the italicized unison response; the second as a personal prayer.

Day 33

O Creator,
we glorify your name
and enjoy you forever.
You have immersed us in your world
and baptized us with your Spirit.

We see your beauty reflected
in our community and in your creation:
We enjoy you forever.

We feel your love in the warmth of sun,
the smiles of strangers,
the hugs of friends,
the bodies of lovers:
We enjoy you forever.

We taste your refreshment
of sleep, of breath,
of food and drink:
We enjoy you forever.

We smell your fragrance
of flower and field,
of flesh and flavor:
We enjoy you forever.

We hear your voice
from the winds of nature
to the winds of spirit:
We enjoy you forever.

O Creator, open our eyes
so we may see your goodness.
Sensitize our numbed senses
so we may feel your goodness.
Overcome our blandness
so we may taste your goodness.
Break into our vacuum
so we may smell your goodness.
Unstop our ears
so we may hear your goodness.

O Creator, our Creator,
we glorify your name
and enjoy you forever.

Day 43

“What is the chief end of [humanity]?
To glorify God, and to enjoy [God] forever.”
And what is your chief end, O God?
To glorify us, and enjoy us forever?

Isn’t this heretical? At least presumptuous?
Forgive me, God, if I’ve wrongly described your agenda.
But, from the day you made us cocreators in Adam and Eve
to the day you made us heirs with Christ,
it seems you’ve been sharing your glory
and enjoying our participation in it.

Our courtship was rocky:
we kept running from you,
dating others less worthy,
pursuing our selfish desires
and our greedy lusts.*
Finally, you moved in with us in Jesus,
became our lover,
saved us from destruction
and gave up your life for us.
Now we’re haunted by your Ghost,
who brings us together,
different as we are,
reconciling us one with another
and with you.

“The world is charged with the glory of God”
(to slightly modify Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line).
So are we, because you have visited us,
and our faces shine with the Shekinah, your glory,
that lit up Moses’ face and made him veil himself.
Why are we afraid to lift the veil
and show ourselves and the world
the glorious riches of our spiritual inheritance?

God, help us lift the veil,
removing all that obscures your glory graciously given
in our creation, redemption, and inspiration.
By so doing, may we glorify you,
our glorifier in heaven,
and enjoy you forever.

*In Christian tradition, “lusts” applies to every manner of greediness: money, power, possessions, etc.

On this upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I’ll be reflecting on how King and the Civil Rights Movement helped inspire and shape my own ministry during Sunday’s 11:00 a.m. “Celebration of Life” for the First Existentialist Congregation (UU), 470 Candler Park Drive, Atlanta, GA 30307. You are welcome to attend!

A few of my posts related to Martin Luther King Jr. and Racial Justice:

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 and Coming Out to God copyright © 1991 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Communion of Life

Grant Park, where I often walk or run.

As a follow-up to last week’s post, “Thank You for the Body that Loves Me,” I present another meditation on our earthiness, another in a series of reflections from my earlier books that I hope may lift our spirits in this new year. The series opened with “Peace of Mind” and will continue throughout the season of Epiphany and, who knows, maybe beyond.

The late gifted editor Stephanie Egnotovich at Westminster John Knox Press helped me “birth” a number of books, for which I am grateful. In 1998, she came to me with an idea. Sitting next to someone on an airplane reading a kind of generic book on spirituality, she asked him about his selection. As I wrote in my acknowledgments of what became Communion of Life, “He explained [to her] that he had no religious background and was attempting to discover spirituality.”

“Why don’t you write something like that for spiritual seekers?” she asked me.

Not knowing this was a common plan for New Age books, I chose a mythology that no one would take literally, that everything consists of earth, air, water, fire. And I wrote 12 cycles of meditations on earth, air, water, and fire.

I was so self-conscious of this adventure that I showed them to no one until complete, and then only to Stephanie. She loved them, and took them to marketing at the Press. The marketing department loved them even more, she said, and though later admitting their limitations with this very different market, we proceeded with this experiment.

Stephanie herself paired my meditations with the outstanding art of National Geographic photographers, so I can honestly say without self-pride that Communion of Life: Meditations for the New Millennium became the most visually beautiful book I’ve ever helped create.

Cycle Three: Day 9 Earth

Tangible earth,
You touch yourself through us.
We grasp your hand,
Stroke your fur,
Prune your branches,
Cast your stones,
Bury your seed,
Birth your children.

But it’s not just us,
It’s you in us.
You have developed your sense of touch
Within our bodies—
Communing through us
With air, water, fire,
In pleasure, buoyancy, and passion;
And communing through us with yourself
Delightedly, painfully, compassionately:
A communion of life
Giving rise to soul:
More than the sum of your parts.

Earth—in us, in me,
You have become sensual and sensitive.
Blessed earth!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog:
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Copyright © 2019 and Communion of Life copyright © 1999 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Thank You for the Body that Loves Me

Folsom Street Fair Communion, 2006
when I served MCC San Francisco as interim pastor.

Both my sexuality and my spirituality conspired to persuade me that embodiment is good, a sacred trust, a holy way of being.

My sexuality impelled me to love another intimately, physically, even worshipfully at its better moments. My spirituality, being incarnational, inspired me to love others personally and politically, wishing them shalom: health, well-being, justice, equality, peace.

Out of this context came this prayer in my book Coming Out to God, Day 4, which may be used individually or collectively, using its refrain as a unison assent.  Saint Ignatius counseled imagination in the spiritual life, and so I invite you to imagine, while using this prayer, your body as a temple; who your “lover” may be, whether a past or present or hoped-for simple healing touch or full-bodied lovemaking; who truly serves as your spiritual community; and finally, contemplating the cosmos as our ultimate sanctuary.

Day 4

Thank you for the body that loves me.

My own body:
It tingles me with pleasure
and sends pain as a warning;
it takes in food and air
and transforms them to life;
it reaches orgasmic bliss
and reveals depths of peace.

Thank you for the body that loves me.

My lover’s body:
it surrounds me with safe arms,
and senses my needs and joys;
it allows me vulnerability,
and enables my ecstasy;
it teaches me how to love
and touches me with love.

Thank you for the body that loves me.

My spiritual community’s body:
it embodies your presence
by embracing mine;
it incarnates your hope
by empowering prophets;
it inspires me with stories
and enchants me with mystery.

Thank you for the body that loves me.

The cosmic and mystical body:
it calls me to communion
with creatures and creation;
it manifests your glory
and mine as its child;
it upholds my feet
and heals my body.

Thank you for the body that loves me.

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

Copyright © 2019 and Coming Out to God copyright © 1991 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.