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.


Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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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 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?

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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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 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: https://app.certain.com/profile/form/index.cfm?PKformID=0x3039640abcd

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

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: https://app.certain.com/profile/form/index.cfm?PKformID=0x3039640abcd

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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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.