Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Empty Closet

Jerusalem passageway, 1981 -crg

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Escape to Holy Week

This year I couldn’t wait till Holy Week to escape for my annual visit to The Temple of God’s Wounds. This pilgrimage of the imagination was given me in 1988 by a retired fraternal worker in the Church of North India who spent his last days in Southern California, where I lived. He went to the mission field because, being gay, he could not serve the Presbyterian Church in this country.

Several weeks ago I couldn’t wait any longer for the respite, the sanctuary, the clarity and the renewal of purpose depicted by the pseudonymous “Bishop of Bombay.” Personal challenges and political “disturbances in The Force” demanded less a solution than a resolution to keep on keeping on. As a gift pillow I purchased for my sister earlier that week during Ormewood Park’s Makers Festival declares, “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”

The day after I began my visit to the temple “somewhere in the West” I learned during a routine doctor visit that my blood pressure was high, despite a mostly healthy diet and daily vigorous exercise. He said that, given the troubles of the last two years, most of his patients were experiencing ailments that could be the result of stress and anxiety. He said only a handful of his clients described things as “good.” He advised I pay more attention to the spiritual and the relaxing aspects of life, advice I am only too happy to follow. A subsequent test monitoring my blood pressure for 24 hours showed excellent results, thanks be to God! 

The narrator of the temple story meditates on seven portraits related to the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This may seem a demanding “escape”—after all, it’s not like going to the beach—but it is an opportunity for finding meaning and purpose in a world that appears less in touch with meaning and high purpose. “Lord, have mercy…” became a prayer one morning for all I pray for, including myself. I view the phrase less as a confession than as a spiritual Amber Alert.

The painting on a particular day of my reading depicts a worker astride Jesus stretched on the cross on the ground “driving home the nail which pierced the two feet.”

The poise of the hammering figure suggested the rhythm of long practice, and the impersonality of habitual craftsmanship. … How unconcerned it looked; how callously intent upon its task. As the hammer was a tool in his hands, so was this man a tool to those whose minds had conceived, and whose lips had ordered, this outrage.

Once distance or time could soften for me the impact of the hammer on that nail. … Now my mind could not refuse the knowledge that the same plots and betrayals and denials and shifts and stratagems and mockeries and brutalities are as common now as then. …

Such acts did not belong only to other times and places, and other races. By unmistakable instances it had been brought home to me that my own folk were equally guilty. I was left without hope of righteousness or justice, of gentleness or generosity in the world. … Every crime against the helpless and innocent was an added blow upon that nail. My own folk were striking many such blows…

Eventually the narrator realizes, “I knew with complete conviction that as my own folk had proved to be so was I myself.” What drags me/us down is the awareness that we are caught in a system and are a part of the system that is “callously intent upon its task.”

What especially struck me in this scene was not the banality of evil, but how mechanical evil had become. Not only was the figure wielding the hammer, but he too was a tool wielded by political and religious “powers that be.”

In a strange juxtaposition, during the same week that I revisited The Temple of God’s Wounds, I was reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’ve seen multiple productions of this story but can’t remember ever reading the book. It’s about a beautiful young man who is willing to give up his soul if a painting of him could take on his sins as well as the effects of aging so he might remain young and handsome.

Perhaps we’ve done something similar to Jesus. We’ve placed on him “every crime against the helpless and innocent” so that we can be saved, delivered from responsibility for our own agency in that enterprise.

I had been reading Jesus’ words as part of my Lenten spiritual practice, what my sister laughingly referred to as my “red letter” Jesus when I told her, referring to those Bibles which highlighted Jesus’ words in red font. Though his words comfort and console at first, I found I stumbled when it came to his woeful words about pious religious people and then, the apocalyptic judgment on us all in the end times. That was when I escaped to my Holy Week practice revisiting the temple of God’s wounds.

My Lenten “aha” was that Jesus’ gospel/good news was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” not John 3:16, which Martin Luther called the gospel in miniature. In his time and our own, Jesus’ gospel is far more necessary.

I grieve with all who mourn the devastating fire that burned Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris this Holy Week. It sent me back to Joseph Campbell's understanding of the vital spiritual power of such sanctuaries, and I will probably reflect on that in two weeks.

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.  The Temple of God’s Wounds first published by The Morehouse-Gorham Co. (NY) in 1951, British edition published in 1953 by S.P.C.K. (London), all rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Hope for Us All

Our orchids are just beginning to bloom,
thanks to Wade's year-round care.

At a time when many of us are discouraged in making the world a better place, a recent email I received may revive our hopes:

Long ago, you came to speak at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC. It was 1996, I believe. I was a sophomore back then. I was a conservative activist with the College Republicans. I made fun of you and your message during your visit with all the courage of a modern internet troll. I remember we (College Republicans) had a meeting to discuss how to pressure the school to disinvite you.

I wanted to say that I am deeply sorry for the stupidity of my youthful immaturity. I am grateful for your perseverance all these years, despite the harshness inflicted by people like me. I want you to know that I am a completely different man today. I know the worldly news is otherwise discouraging here in 2019. But there are people positively changed, even if it’s cool to be an ass again. Be encouraged.

You may imagine how moved I was to read these words. When I read it aloud to Wade, my voice broke and tears came. When I decided to write this post, I intended to paraphrase the email and obscure the venue. But the power of this person’s words should not be muffled or muzzled. I’ve been given permission by the writer to use the email in this post.

I wrote back,

Thank you, ----, for a most amazing and encouraging email such as this! I am grateful for your change of heart, and for your taking the time to write to me. When I was young, I too had views that I can’t imagine having today, so I understand. You have made my day! I cannot adequately say how much your email means to me!

After his grateful response, I wrote that “I may use this occasion of our recent exchange (anonymously) as a sign of hope for us all.”

God is good, all the time—even when we are not.

And then there were three...

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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, April 3, 2019

Three Prayers for Lent

O God,
I lack a certain courage :
to risk abandoning all my closets
to fulfill life’s dreams,
giving up securities, pretensions,
presumptions, indulgences,
fears—especially fears—
to be all you claim I am,
to be all you call me to be,
to be all you hope for me.

I dawdle at the starting line,
telling myself I’ll begin tomorrow.
Or, part way through the race,
I decide, I deserve a break today,
and find it difficult to limit that break
to time enough to rest and restore myself
to run again.

Dear God,
Jesus fought the good fight,
finished his race,
and kept faith with his dreams
of your commonwealth.

Why do you give me this model, God?
It’s like comparing my body to Olympic athletes,
or my ministry to Mother Teresa’s,
or my sacrifice to martyred saints in Central America!

I can’t give it all, can I, Lord?
I can’t sacrifice all for the commonwealth of God, can I?

“Seek first God’s kingdom…,
and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus, is this true?
Did you have all you needed
as you gave everything to finish the race?

It’s so easy to say prayers, God,
so difficult to translate ours words to actions.
Your Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
We nailed him,
we suffocated him,
we buried him,
in part because we were so damned jealous
that he did something we couldn’t :
he lived out his prayer life.
When he prayed “Thy kingdom come”
he meant it,
he preached it,
he lived as its citizen
and became its King.
We mocked him
by making his throne a cross
because we thought he mocked us,
making it seem so easy to be your children, God.
Though tempted as we are,
he, in prayer and fasting,
waited on your word,
refused to tempt your love,
and worshiped only you.

O God,
forgive me for not waiting,
forgive me for tempting you,
forgive my worship of idols.
Teach me to listen for your word,
trust in your love,
and worship in spirit and in truth.
Remind me that Jesus is not an only child,
nor your kingdom’s only citizen.
May I live up to my inheritance as your child
and as a citizen of your commonwealth,
through Jesus Christ, who leads my way.

Dear Jesus,
sometimes we expect too much sanctuary
within the church.
We want a womb,
a warm, retreat experience,
not harsh reality
of needy people
and petty politics,
ecclesiastical or societal,
which may lead to a tomb
as it did for you.

But the kingdom of heaven lay beyond
your forty-day prayer retreat in the wilderness, Jesus.
The commonwealth of God lay within
your interactions with the world that followed.

The commonwealth you preached, Jesus,
is in our midst
as healing occurs among us.
And healing comes
as you, the Christ, are in the world,
not in retreat,
nor entombed
either by calcified doctrines
or grave doubt.

You taught that for us to pray,
for us to find healing for ourselves,
is not enough.
“Faith without works is dead.”
Faith without work is death.
Dear Jesus,
Keep me from resting in peace,
a self-satisfied smile on my face,
while others hunger for my touch
as a member of your Body,
the Body of Christ,
healer of this world.

These are prayers Day 20, Day 41, and Day 46 from my book Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families and Friends, published by Westminster/John Knox Press in 1991. Each prayer was broken into phrases not out of poetic pretensions but to slow the reader. I often refer to God’s “kingdom” as a “commonwealth” in which everything is shared, including our common spiritual wealth. The only change I’ve made is substituting “Olympic athletes” in the first prayer for the name of a well-known body builder of the time, and this, contrasted with the reference to Mother Teresa, demonstrates the longevity of compassion over other accomplishments. The second prayer’s mention of suffocation refers to how victims of crucifixion die: their bodies eventually sag from exhaustion and cut off the flow of air to the lungs. The final lines of the second prayer’s first section refer to Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). The photo is a shadow on our deck I noticed days ago during my morning prayers.

As with all of my writings, you are welcome to use these for non-profit purposes with attribution of author and context.

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