Wednesday, February 27, 2019

When Evangelicals Were Kinder

Qumran, West Bank, 
Palestinian desert, 1981 (CRG)

Christian got tired of hanging out with God in the wilderness and began having temptations to be something more than a mere follower of Jesus.

Turn these stones to “bread,” as in “money,” and with that money enjoy the prosperity you were intended to have! It’s long been believed that those with big houses and expensive cars and material wealth are especially blessed by God. You can’t live by God’s words alone!

See the high steeple of this megachurch: this will be yours—large and influential, popular and spectacular, maybe even global!—as proof of your faith and goodness and success to the world and to other churches. God will surely be tempted to reward you bigtime!

You will have political power if you bow to leaders who join you in abusing and controlling the bodies of others: workers, women, trans people, lesbians and gays, immigrants, people of color, the needy, and anyone who stands in your way. You can have all the power you need to make the world in your image! It will be sweet.

No, Jesus can’t come along. He would never understand. He had a good idea but just doesn’t know how to capitalize on it. You do. You’re better than he is. Remember even he said you’d do greater things than he did.  And such a loser! Got himself crucified!

This parable came to me in the middle of the night, as I thought about how much kinder my evangelical, fundamentalist parents were than the evangelical Christians of today. I realize, in their hunger for power, influence, and control, evangelicals have lost their way.

What got me to thinking of this was an opinion piece written by Liesl Schwabe, “Everything I Know about Feminism I Learned from Nuns.” It reminded me that many of the values I now hold and promote as a progressive Christian I learned from evangelical, fundamentalist Christians. Now, I know that many of you may have had quite a different experience, either of nuns and Catholic school, or of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but some of us at least have takeaways from those experiences that may never have been imagined or anticipated or desired by those spiritual communities.

“Jesus loves the little children,” we were taught to sing, “all the children of the world: red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” In no way does this support white privilege, let alone white supremacy. There are no boundaries or borders to God’s love; we are all God’s children.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.” The vulnerable, deprived, underprivileged, marginalized, and abused alike belong to those whom Jesus loves. And, as process theologian Daniel Day Williams pointed out, it is more vital (as in life-giving) and needful to belong than to believe.

How many times we were taught that Jesus welcomed lepers, children, women, people with disabilities, those with mental health issues, the poor, the oppressed, while, in the words of his mother Mary, “sending the rich away empty” and in his own words calling upon the wealthy to sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor! Jesus was an early advocate of health care for all and a challenger of income inequality.

We learned that Jesus praised the faith of a child, the faith of those outside his religious community, the faith of foreigners, the faith of outcasts.

And, as he was himself dying on a cross, he welcomed a convicted criminal into Paradise, surely a subversion of the death penalty.

Jesus witnessed a God of mercy that too many fundamentalist evangelical Christians have abandoned, ignored, or forgotten.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Front Porches

Luna takes her "sabbaticals" on our porch
when her porch gets too busy.

Wade and I spend a lot of time on our front porch. We each have fond memories of front porches. As a child in Indiana, Wade used to sit with his paternal grandmother on her front porch, munching saltines topped with butter while watching cars and people pass by. My Kansas relatives would apologize that there was nothing to do in their small town, but, as a youth, I loved just sitting on their front porch reading. “Nothing to do” was an invitation to enjoy the quiet, to relax.

My family porch in California was not large enough for chairs or a swing, but Mom used to enjoy sitting on its concrete steps, and that’s how I often remember her as I left for my own homes, whether in New Haven, Philadelphia, West Hollywood, or Atlanta. And it was there that a non-English speaking Asian neighbor left a vase of flowers on the day of her funeral, twenty years ago this week, in memory of their friendship around their gardens.

Wade and I recently had stonework put on our front porch columns followed by new handrails. Wade said it made it look like a new house. The skillful Mexican stone mason’s name is Javier, a variation of Xavier, which, I found in my friend Cleve Evans’ Unusual & Most Popular Baby Names, comes from a Basque word that means “new house”!

Historically, I’ve been told, front porches served to keep neighbors in touch. We too enjoy seeing the kids going to and from school, greeting neighbors walking their dogs (or, in the case of our pastor’s family two houses down from us, their dog and their cat, Luna, who follows along), watching runners and walkers, bicyclists and those riding the trendy scooters filling Atlanta neighborhoods.

Porches seem to be a particularly Southern thing, and so it seemed natural for our new church start, Ormewood Church, to organize “porch groups.” And, in worship, we sit in clusters as we might do on a porch, to facilitate discussion of the question for the day. Btw, I’ll be guest preaching there this Sunday.

I sometimes do my morning prayers on the porch, with coffee of course, and almost every late afternoon Wade or I find ourselves reading or watching something on our tablets, sipping wine and munching chips or crackers. We welcome the occasional neighbor or friend who might join us, most likely on weekends.

What surprises us is that more people don’t use their front porches. Nearby is a very toney neighborhood with fabulous and sometimes wrap-around porches, but when we walk that way, it feels like a ghost town. Maybe they have to work harder and longer to afford their pricey homes. I suggest this as a possible reality, not a critique.

Just as we apply what we learn in school or church or on the job to the rest of our lives, what we learn on our front porches may be helpful as we encounter people and pets elsewhere. Relax. Recreate. Remember. Reach out. Invite. Welcome. Listen. Pay attention. Appreciate our environment. Lift others in prayer. And thank God.

Our front porch, Winter 2019.

Please hold the United Methodist Church in your prayers as it meets in St. Louis this week to discern "The Way Forward" regarding the full welcome of LGBT Christians!

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Compassion for Those We Envy

Icarus flies too close to the sun.

This post marks the eighth anniversary of beginning this blog. Thanks for reading!

You may know that the story of how I come to have a book is sometimes as important to me as the book itself. Cindy is part of our extended family, and every Christmas she gives me a few books that are appropriate to my interests. Given her limited resources, she finds them in bargain book shops, gently used or seemingly unread, slightly damaged or simply unwanted.

This year she gave me Thoughts on Virtue: Thoughts and Reflections from History’s Great Thinkers, Philip Larkin Collected Poems, Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (whose cover boasts a handsome, hunky Icarus in midair), and the Dalai Lama’s An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. The latter’s only wound seems to have been water damage that made the book’s jacket stick to the first pages.

The Dalai Lama is a favorite of mine, so that’s the book I’ve been reading. As is his wont, his teachings begin almost too simply before delving deep into the murky waters of human nature, though he might argue with such a phrase suggesting essence or identity that is unchanging.

Soon I came across a description of contemplation that answers many of its critics:

We must know how to pace ourselves down to the snail’s pace of profound contemplation while also ensuring that we do not forget our neighbor’s problem or that of the fish swimming in polluted oceans many thousands of miles away. [p54]

In this simple way, he reminds us that, though focus is a gift of a meditative way of life, it is always held in context with the bigger picture of a neighbor’s need or our environment’s plight. His “snail’s pace” made me think of a snail I wrote of in the introduction to the third section of my book of prayers, Coming Out to God:

A snail stretched its full length in a strenuous assault, climbing the tall picture window. Inside, those of us on retreat discussed our vision of the future church. A sadness had slipped into some hearts, as often happens the final day of a retreat. The common purpose, camaraderie, and caring intimacy that are experienced at such gatherings inevitably lead one to wonder, Why can’t it always be like this? Our visions of hope for the church painfully reminded us of our place—or lack thereof—in the present church, intensifying our letdown. Yes, we were on the downhill side of our mountaintop experience. Yet the slowly ascending snail, apparently unintimidated by the long vertical climb, offered hope for progress.  [p119]

When reading a sacred text, many of us know that meditating on a line or phrase or thought that disturbs us may be as helpful as reflecting on one that is pleasing. And so I soon found my “disturbing” text in the Dalai Lama’s elaboration of compassion:

It is not difficult for us to develop sympathy for a child in the hospital or an acquaintance mourning the death of a spouse. We must start to consider how to keep our hearts open toward those we would normally envy, those who enjoy fine lifestyles and wealth. [p105]

For me, that’s a tough one! The Psalmist had no qualms complaining to God:

For I was envious of the arrogant;
            I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
            their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
            they are not plagued like other people. …
Therefore the people turn and praise them,
            and find no fault in them. …
Such are the wicked;
            always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain I have kept my heart clean
            and washed my hands in innocence.
 [Psalm 73:3-5, 10, 12-13  NRSV]

Anyone who knows me knows also that I can’t exactly claim that I have always “kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” But still, without impugning them as “evil,” why do professional athletes and performers, celebrities and CEOs live so well, while “do-gooders” scrape by?

Funny thing is, when I started writing this post, parenthetically referring to the depiction of a beautiful and handsome Icarus in the sky on the cover of Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, I hadn’t yet thought that this could be an illustration of keeping “our hearts open toward those we would normally envy.” The myth of Icarus is that he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax on the wings that held him in flight. Many of those we envy “fly too close to the sun.”

“How the mighty have fallen,” cried David in a psalm of lament at the opening of 2 Samuel upon hearing of the killings of Saul and his son Jonathan. David had earlier resisted killing Saul when he found him sleeping, despite the humiliation, threats and attacks he had endured from him. The “ideal” king showed compassion.

Even for those who don’t suffer such a comeuppance as Icarus or Saul, the Dalai Lama believes we must hold open our compassion for all who share the human condition:

There is a certain irrationality in responding to injustice or harm with hostility. Our hatred has no physical effect on our enemies; it does not harm them. Rather, it is we who suffer the ill consequences of such overwhelming bitterness. [p111]

Remembering both the mighty and meek suffer may hold our hearts open for our sake if not for theirs.

Thanks to Toby Schmidt, cover designer of Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, which features the image of Icarus used above.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Godly Boredom

Sun through clouds, Atlanta. -crg

I’m writing this on the afternoon of Superbowl Sunday from frenzied Superbowl host Atlanta which currently looks like, in the words of a city planner neighbor, a city under occupation: roadblocks and street closings, helicopters buzzing the skies, small planes carrying banners, big planes carrying visitors, sirens screaming at all hours, a heavy and active police and security and first responder presence. 

In this context of hyperactivity, Book Review Editor Pamela Paul’s column, “Let Children Get Bored Again,” in this morning’s New York Times speaks all the more loudly and clearly: “Boredom is useful. It’s good for you.” Explaining the potential for constructiveness and resourcefulness in “empty” time, she says, “Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.”

Asserting “Life isn’t meant to be an endless parade of amusements,” she questions “the teacher’s job to entertain as well as educate.”

Christian spirituality author Henri Nouwen critiqued “entertainment” by breaking down the word entertain, which means “to keep between”—in other words, to keep us betwixt and between in constant tension about what happens next.

Ms. Paul reminisces about the days when children were “left unattended with nothing but bookshelves and tree branches, and later, bad afternoon television.” She quotes Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, “There is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom.”

“It’s when you are bored that stories set in,” she declares. “Checking out groceries at the supermarket, I invented narratives around people’s purchases.”

This reminded me of how I filled the empty spaces as a ticket taker and usher at a movie theater when I was in college. I thought one of my first books would be Views from a Ticket Taker.

It also made me think of a digression in my 2010 book, The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life:

Saturday was a mixed blessing growing up. No school, but I loved school, or at least I loved the structure it gave my day. My dad worked on Saturday, unfortunately. My mom would get up very early to fix his breakfast before work, then return to bed for a little while. …

I remember bouncing with my brother and sister and mom on her bed Saturday mornings, before or after breakfast, and we would sit and visit and enjoy a little time together with nothing to do but laugh and talk and dream. A whole empty day stretched out before us, a day of housecleaning and laundry and reading books (never magazines: early it was instilled in me by my mother that if I had time to read, I should be reading a book) and watching television.

My sister and years later, my brother, would drive Mom to the store to do the weekly grocery shopping, if my father had not done so the night before. (Strangely, my mother never learned to drive.) And I would be left alone, a time I also loved, but also a lonely time when I wished my friends from school were closer. Going to a parochial school meant fellow students were dispersed throughout my then-known universe, the 500 square miles of Los Angeles. …

Saturday was my longest day, a day whose structure I had more freedom to shape than any other day of the week, making me feel sorry for those children today whose free time is overly scheduled by ambitious or well-intentioned parents. Small wonder that my life now consists of a succession of “Saturdays,” having chosen to be a writer. It is a life blessed by more freedom than the lives of others, though it is also fraught with fear, having no imposed structure but my own, and having no assured income, especially when writing something like this book, entirely on speculation. Yet it does stretch my days, it does stretch my life. And it offers me sanctuary to “stand under” (as Camus wrote of it), if not to wholly understand. [pp 12-15]

Reflecting on all this today, I think how boredom may become a sacred time and place, a fertile sanctuary for creativity and dreams, a godly opportunity.

Perhaps it was Godly boredom that led to the Big Bang and the evolution of life and to you and to me.

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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.