Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Caring for You

South African sunset last August. Photo by Wade Jones.

This past Sunday afternoon I was invited by St. Julian's Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia, to lead a session on “Care for the Caregiver” as part of a long series supporting lay people in ministry. I was a little overwhelmed by the detailed content I was given to present in an hour’s time. The night of the day I began preparing I of course had a dream of leading the event, and I feared running out of time, though in the dream I had a whole day to work with, not just one hour! But my sleeping brain (or should I credit Holy Spirit?) gave me an idea how to approach the challenge.

Part of the challenge was that the small group attending had either been part of a centering prayer group for years or were enrolled in an Episcopal Church multiple year program about faith and ministry fundamentals, or both! In my dream I said to them, “I am stepping into a river that has flowed a thousand years,” meaning their combined experience, and added, “I have more to learn from you than you from me.”

Yet we are all part of a two-thousand-year-old movement initiated by followers of Jesus who were so good—so kind, compassionate, and hospitable—that others wanted to be like them. And here I refer to Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief, in which she affirms that this evangelism by attraction is how the first “Christians” inspired converts.

I realized “care for the caregiver” is what this blog has always been about. I wanted to equip progressive Christians, who are not only care-givers but justice-seekers, with what I had been given to sustain my activism: a prayer life, contemplative ways of undergirding, strengthening, inspiring, and (perhaps most vitally) sustaining a ministry of compassion and care.

The course was trying to impart the wisdom of Saint Benedict, who saw spiritual community as the stabilizing foundation of a ladder to rise to great heights, to touch the face of God as well as that of other creatures through work, study, and prayer, with order, balance, and moderation.

So, still in my dream and then after as I woke in the dark to reflect on it, I began coming up with questions to solicit the wisdom and experience of the group. The members of their Community of Hope are the ones who will be there for years after my “splash in the pan” appearance—best to help them remember that and for me to recognize I am their beneficiary not their benefactor.

I’ve decided to share with you some of what I shared with them.

How do you care for yourselves? I asked. I explained not to judge any self-care methods, just be honest. As an example, I listed my own self-care practices: morning prayer and reading, of course, running and weightlifting, healthy diet and a good night’s sleep—all admirable, but also, watching old Frasier and Murder, She Wrote episodes and comfort food and chips and wine.

Do you have difficulty saying “no”? A denominational church leader came to me for regular spiritual guidance for a season and I advised her to tape “I can say ‘no’” to her office phone. A book entitled Ministry Burnout points out that often it seems to take as much emotional and spiritual energy to tell someone “No, I cannot do that” than it takes to just do it! But, as Jesus sensed healing energy going out from him when the woman with a hemorrhage touched him, anything we do may deplete our energy and effectiveness, so focus and boundaries are needed.

Do you trust your spiritual community? What I meant by that is do you believe in the variety of gifts you’ve identified in one another as you’ve come to know each other? I invited them to speak about those gifts, and I was moved by their readily offered affirmations.

I explained the “joke” in the first church I served after seminary was that, if you identify a need the church should address, you take the lead in that ministry! After all, you are the church! That’s how we started our jail ministry for gay inmates, our outreaches to homeless gay youths, our sack lunch program for the homeless.

Identifying our own gifts, strengths, and weaknesses and inviting others in our spiritual community to identify theirs, we better know when to refer to meet an expressed need or how to best assign and offer assistance. None of us have to be everything to everyone.

What is your motivation? The curriculum provided an exercise to help us sort “sympathy” from “empathy,” listing distinctions that, to me at least, were too clever and convenient, suggesting the first was controlling and the second detached. Somewhere in between is the word I would use: compassion, which means “suffering with,” and compassionate has been applied to both the Buddha and Jesus who respectively represent detached mindfulness and sacrificial love.

Compassion requires attentiveness and listening. Henri Nouwen gave the example of an incident from his early years in ministry when he gave beds to a family that had been sleeping several to a bed. Upon his next visit he discovered they had sold the extra beds and gave a party for all their friends. What they needed was a celebration, not more “things.”

When I worked with first-time AIDS volunteers and workers in the early years of the pandemic, I invited them to consider the values motivating them and identify their “spiritual community,” encouraging them to be creative in discerning the latter. One woman had the “aha” that her women’s tennis group was her spiritual community. Over the years they had been there for one another through births, divorces, deaths, jobs, unemployment, illness, and emotional ups and downs. I suggested that their values and their spiritual communities would help sustain them in this new work.

What are your boundaries and limits? Recently, working with someone with mental health and addiction issues, I am cognizant of how narrow the line between compassion and enabling can be. This is where a spiritual community and/or a spiritual director can come to the rescue. The curriculum on care advised ministering in pairs, consulting each other, and gaining input and support from the larger group.

Do you trust healing is possible? Healing and growth and fruitfulness seem to me built into the very nature of things. As Henri Nouwen once wrote, if you keep digging up a seed to see if it’s germinating, it never will grow. A physical therapist told me that wounds heal from the inside out. A massage therapist friend begins each session invisibly making the sign of the cross over the client’s body before applying his healing touch.

During the commissioning service of a trainer of hospice workers, she was to be given a charge by two clergy. The first minister went on and on and I have no recollection of what he said. The second minister cut to the chase. She said, the people whom hospice workers serve want to know two things: Am I alone? And am I loved? I believe that’s true of all who need care.

I recommended the best book on care I’ve read, How Can I Help? by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman. The authors’ presentation of first person narratives from care-givers and care-receivers from around the world suggest that the least patronizing and most satisfying care is experienced as mutually beneficial.

As an example of that, something I didn’t mention in my recent reflection on my mother-in-law’s passing was that, like other times we enjoyed talking, we continued to “talk” with each other in her final days when she rarely spoke at all. I brought reading material when visiting, but didn’t even look at it, I was so taken with simply watching her.  

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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, August 21, 2019

Armchair Contemplatives

Mount Shasta photo by Bill Buchanan.
Bill and Ruth are regular readers of this blog.

At the end of Book One of The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, I wrote, “I don’t like his God.” What I felt is that his God is incredibly demanding, and I found myself yearning for the homeliness of Evelyn Underhill’s God in her two-level House of the Soul.

But then it occurred to me that Juan de la Cruz’s book could be compared to a manual on how to climb Mt. Everest. To do that requires demanding training, sacrifice and investment. It’s not God who’s “demanding,” any more than it is Mt. Everest that’s demanding. What’s demanding are efforts to scale seeming insurmountable heights.

I’d rather see Mt. Everest from a distance than from the top. I guess the same goes for my preferences of seeing God. Ninety-nine+ percent of the Hebrews saw Mt. Sinai from the plain. Only Moses ascended to commune with Yahweh, sovereign of the universe.* And we have his testimony of what God calls us to be and do, along with the testimonies of all the prophetic mystics of every age, of every faith and culture.

With many of you, I am content to remain an armchair contemplative. I am grateful for the stories and writings of saints, contemplatives, mystics, and spiritual authors. The spiritual horizons they offer inform and inspire our own spiritual quests. “Success” is not my spiritual objective; in fact, I don’t consider success a spiritual objective, period.

I’ve written elsewhere that a sense of “having arrived” is when we may be in the most spiritual danger. John of the Cross understood this; he warns that such folk judge others as the boastful Pharisee contrasting himself with the Publican sinner. John writes that it may be best that God not free such people from their imperfections, despite their petitions, lest they “wax haughtier in their pride.”

So I guess I should thank God for my imperfections!

John of the Cross is the first to admit that the purgation of dark nights, first of the senses and second of the intellect, does not “earn” God’s companionship. Rather it allows God’s ever-present, unyielding love to touch us, to infuse our souls.

As I move into Book Two of Dark Night, however, I resist John’s supposition that he is sufficiently purged as well as his original premise of purging the sensual and the intellectual.

Moses first encountered I AM in a lowly desert shrub that was burning and yet unconsumed. Jacob physically wrestled with God in the middle of the night. Ruth embraced Yahweh in her fidelity to Naomi. Elijah heard God in a “sound of gentle stillness.” Hannah’s fervent prayers to get pregnant were answered. God blessed Solomon with wisdom at his request. Jewish faith has been traditioned in teaching and chavrusa, debating the meaning of sacred texts in small groups or partnerships.

Mary experienced birth pangs to give rise to a refreshing renewal of the faith of Abraham and Sarah. Jesus prayed in lonely places and was sought out for his healing touch and compassionate wisdom. The Christian story is that God has been embodied in Jesus himself, whose Spirit inspires and empowers his followers. And Christians believe themselves to be members of the Body of Christ, which cannot say to the head or the hand, the intellect or the senses, “I have no need of you.”

John of the Cross’s spirituality appears to be, to me at least, more a product of Hellenistic dualism than of the Bible. Though his concept of letting go of all that is not God is admirable, I myself find everything good is of God.

Four decades ago, an elderly gay Roman Catholic priest visited the congregation I was serving and joined us for brunch afterward. He told us he first learned of God as a child on his grandmother’s knee, and though he grew up learning and studying a harsher and more demanding God, he now, in retirement, was welcoming a gentler understanding of a “grandmother God.”

*Moses was accompanied part way by others and further by Joshua but only Moses entered Yahweh’s cloud at the summit as described in Exodus 24.

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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 used by permission.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Mother's Work Is Never Done

The hand we held dear.

What Wade’s mom’s passing would mean ambushed me weeks before the fact as I reached around a blind corner of our kitchen cupboards and pulled out an assortment of food containers that had been passed back and forth among family members to carry home leftovers from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners which Roberta Glenn Miller Jones either hosted or contributed to as a guest.

I realized she would be absent when next we gathered for those holiday meals, and I lost it.

Roberta sold Tupperware in her day, but more recently had a retirement job as one of those Costco ladies offering tasty treats to shoppers. Yet she had another job more central to her character and from which she could never retire: mom. Even death cannot diminish that role. I know, because my mother continues to nurture, support, and teach me two decades after her passing. She lives on in me. As Wade is quick to say, though she died the year before we met, he sees my mom in me.

And I see Roberta in Wade. Even their body types are similar. I’ve laughingly told friends that Roberta is an older version of Wade in drag. And that similarity made me mindful—as we and other family members sat by her bedside in her personal care home, holding her hand, watching her get smaller and smaller as inactivity and inability to eat took its toll—that  this could be Wade in the future.

During the stressful weeks prior to her gentle passing in the early morning hours last Tuesday, I’ve been asking our Google speaker to play jazz while I fixed breakfast. I couldn’t quite handle listening to the repeatedly troubling news on NPR, my usual choice, and I like the way jazz often takes the listener to unexpected places.

When asked to construct her obituary for the paper, I learned her middle name for the first time, Glenn, which, combined with her maiden name, Miller, prompted thoughts about the Big Band era of swing jazz. I forgot to ask her older sister, who came for the memorial service Sunday, if that was intentional on their parents’ part or if that was just a family name.

Roberta’s service in the beautiful sanctuary of Mountain Park United Methodist Church in Stone Mountain, GA, was very well attended, surprisingly for an 83-year-old who outlives so many family and friends. Her large Sunday school class, people around her age, attended en masse, as did members of the women’s circles, including her own. Relatives came from all over the country, joining local friends and colleagues of her sons, as well as the owner and manager of her personal care home.

I began looking forward to the service when her delightfully spirited pastor, Rev. Ellynda Lipsey, met with the family to prepare the service and her eulogy and message. She, other members, and the congregation’s Stephen’s Ministry had visited her, sung to her, sent her cards and brought her flowers.

When I first met Roberta as Wade’s “friend,” I knew I was in safe space when I saw a reproduction of John F. Kennedy’s presidential portrait hanging in her living room. That is the one keepsake I requested upon her passing. I had had the same portrait in my bedroom as a teenager. As I write this, I’m wondering who will get her Barack Obama campaign button attached to her wall calendar.

How we really got to know each other was sitting together in hospital waiting rooms during two of Wade’s surgeries. We had each brought reading material, but hardly looked at it as we enjoyed prolonged conversations by which I learned about her youth and Wade’s upbringing in Oaktown, Indiana, which then had a population of 600, a town I will finally visit when we bring her ashes home. She and her husband, Gary, had married in the United Methodist Church there, reared three boys, and finally retired to the Atlanta area when all three sons settled here after college. Though she was known for her reticence, we seemed to have no problem chatting away. Long before, I came to know Gary when I interviewed the family to write his eulogy, at Wade’s request.

With other family members, she happily attended our very small wedding the year the Supreme Court decision legalized same-gender marriage. She gave us two throws that we use when watching something on our flat screen. These sacramentals will continue to keep us warm in the years to come, even as her Tupperware will make the rounds of ours and other households.

Wade selected this poem to be read for his mother’s memorial service:

Donations in thanksgiving for Roberta Jones may be made to the Stephen’s Ministry of Mountain Park UMC or Homestead Hospice.

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

"Hey Kids! Look at the Too-lah! Look at the Too-lah!"

Wade looking at the Indian Ocean along 
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, last summer. (crg)

On a recent visit with my family of origin, I heard the usual stories rolled out by my older siblings, putting me in my proper place as the “baby of the family.” One sibling surprised me by a new take on an old story. Being the youngest, I sat in the front seat of our old Hudson with our parents on a cross-country drive, apparently considered a privileged position by my sister and brother. At one point, given my vantage point, I saw a body of water and turned to them in the back seat, exclaiming excitedly, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!” We long ago decided that “too-lah” must have come from the word “toilet,” then my only frame of reference for a body of water.

On this telling, however, one of my siblings added the word “condescendingly”—that I had “condescendingly” turned to them to announce this wonder. Miffed, I replied, “How can a toddler be condescending?” My other sibling had a different interpretation, that I was simply imitating the tone my parents took to convey something exciting to us kids.

This story came to me as I am currently reading The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. A bookmark not many pages in reminds me I’ve tried to read it before. In the past I’ve made the common mistake of understanding “dark night” as simply a period of suffering externally imposed, but, at the same time, it is a spiritual practice detaching ourselves from anything that is not God (including moving beyond our mental images of God “to the state of the progressives”), while welcoming God’s transforming love of our souls. At least, that’s one way of putting it.

One by one and day by day, as I read the sins or “imperfections” that may come with the spiritual life, I am realizing that I am guilty of each one of them. The first listed is pride, how the contemplative novice may be so excited by what she or he is learning that they prematurely become spiritual teachers rather than doers. That very nearly silenced me as a writer of these “progressive Christian reflections,” much as reading and writing about Zen Masters in recent years almost nudged me to enter their silence.

I realized that my readers may be enduring what my siblings did when I was a child, hearing, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!” I get so excited by what I’m learning, if not always practicing, that I want to write about it.

I overheard a monk acerbically say of spiritual author Henri Nouwen, “I wish he would stop writing about wanting to pray and just pray!” In his book, Reaching Out, Henri offered a kind of defense, which I’ve quoted before:

I found some consolation and encouragement in the words of one of the most stern ascetics, the seventh-century John of the Ladder, who lived for forty years a solitary life at Mount Sinai. In his chapter on discernment, step 26 of his spiritual ladder, he writes: “If some are still dominated by their former bad habits, and yet can teach by mere words, let them teach…For perhaps, being put to shame by their own words, they will eventually begin to practice what they teach.”

A half century ago I visited a progressive Baptist congregation whose pastor offered a good job description of his work. Along with other ministerial responsibilities, he was given time to explore theology and spirituality on behalf of the congregation and share those insights from the pulpit.

So, even if I may not have the exact word for God or the exact words or best practices for the spiritual life, I can still lean over the front seat of the Hudson and shout excitedly to all of you, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!”

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.