Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A New Frontier

Yesterday (literally!) I thought I had nothing new to give you, but then I realized I did have something old to offer, the wisdom of the poet Kahlil Gibran. My mother loved reading his books in the sixties and I’ve been reading her copy of Mirrors of the Soul, translated with biographical notes by Joseph Sheban and published by the Philosophical Library of New York in 1965. It’s amazing to me how relevant it is today.

In seminary I had a friend from Lebanon who could not understand why Gibran was so popular in the United States. “There are better poets in Lebanon,” he said frankly. But reading this particular book explains it to me. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was a teenager, though he returned to Lebanon for his higher education. No doubt being “bicontinental” as well as located in New York City gave him the exposure needed in the publishing world.

This book begins with a quote of Gibran that speaks to our need to listen to our own hearts and the heart of the universe:

My soul is my counsel and has taught me to give ear to the voices which are created neither by tongues nor uttered by throats.

Before my soul became my counsel, I was dull, and weak of hearing, reflecting only upon the tumult and the cry. But, now, I can listen to silence with serenity and can hear in the silence the hymns of ages chanting exaltation to the sky and revealing the secrets of eternity.

How often we only attend to “the tumult and the cry” rather than “the hymns of [the] ages”!

Sheban contends that Gibran was “a rebel, but only against ceremonial practices,” while familiarizing himself with a wide range of spiritual teachers, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, non-religious philosophers, and more. In one of his stories in Arabic, “Kahlil the Heretic,” a novice urges his monastic community to go out and serve the people, saying,

“The hardships we shall encounter among the people shall be more sanctifying and more exalting than the ease and serenity we accept in this place. The sympathy that touches a neighbor’s heart is greater than virtue practiced unseen in this convent. A word of compassion for the weak, the criminal and the sinner is more magnificent than long, empty prayers droned in the temple.”

Of course, the novice in the story is driven from the monastery!

Another character from another story, “John the Madman,” prays, “Come again, O Jesus, to drive the vendors of thy faith from thy sacred temple.”

Finally, these excerpts from Kahlil Gibran’s essay entitled “The New Frontier” written a hundred years ago may have a familiar ring and relevant reverberations for our time:

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.

Are you a merchant utilizing the need of society for the necessities of life for monopoly and exorbitant profit? Or a sincere, hard-working and diligent person facilitating the exchange between the weaver and the farmer, charging a reasonable profit as a middleman between supply and demand? If you are the first, then you are a criminal whether you live in a palace or a prison. If you are the second, then you are a charitable person whether you are thanked or denounced by the people.

Are you a religious leader, weaving for your body a gown out of the ignorance of the people, fashioning a crown out of the simplicity of their hearts and pretending to hate the devil merely to live upon his income? Or are you a devout and a pious person who sees in the piety of the individual the foundation for a progressive nation, and who can see through a profound search in the depth of one’s own soul a ladder to the eternal soul that directs the world?

If you are the first, then you are a heretic, a disbeliever in God even if you fast at day and pray by night. If you are the second, then you are a violet in the garden of truth even though its fragrance is lost upon the nostrils of humanity or whether its aroma rises into that rare air where the fragrance of flowers is preserved. …

Are you a governor who denigrates himself before those who appoint him and denigrates those whom he is to govern, who never raises a hand unless it is to reach into pockets and who does not take a step unless it is for greed? Or are you the faithful servant who serves only the welfare of the people?

If you are the first, then, then you are as a tare in the threshing floor of the nation; and if the second, then you are a blessing upon its granaries.

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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 from California desert by Chris. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Wedding and a Funeral in Trump Territory

Wade dancing with the bride.

I call it “Trump territory” rather than “Trump country” because I doubt any state wants to be characterized by how it voted in the last presidential election. Nor do its citizens. And “territory” sounds less permanent than “country,” suggesting things may change. And I am writing this post not to diminish Trump voters in Indiana and Louisiana or even my own state of Georgia, but to recognize we may share more values than pundits might admit.

I am writing this because when Wade and I visited Indiana for his mom’s memorial in September and Louisiana for our friend’s wedding in October, both held in picturesque rural chapels, we seemed to find the same welcoming people we enjoy in our own neighborhood and our own spiritual community here in Atlanta.

Now, we weren’t talking politics in either venue, but how people respond to a married gay male couple could be considered a sort of litmus test of values. And we seemed warmly received in our grief in Indiana and our celebration in Louisiana. What that says to me is that death and marriage are universally held as profound and important enough to, as they say in theater, “suspend our disbelief” in one another’s voting records and ideologies and, as they say in the church, “bear one another’s burdens and share each other’s joys.”

In a May visit to family and friends in California, one of my hosts was one of “those” puzzling Obama-Trump voters, but we had enough to talk about without pushing one another’s buttons over politics. As many of us anticipate family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas, it helps to consider what we share than how we differ. Fox News does not need to share a turkey with MSNBC. If ceasefires can sometimes work in the Middle East, then they might work—if briefly—at our dinner tables.

My reading for both trips to Trump territory was Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. As I read the section on the movement from hostility to hospitality, tears came to my eyes. I was about to offer my morning prayers, but I realized my tears were my prayers.

My tears came from my youthful ideals that seem so unrealistic in our present political divisiveness. My first sermon in my home Presbyterian church as a college student was entitled “Conflict and Unity within the Church.” That congregation was so divided politically that the liberals sat on the left side of the sanctuary and the conservatives on the right! My sermon declared that maybe the church could be one place political sides could come together and have meaningful conversation.

Someone in the church sent a copy of my sermon to a newspaper columnist who wrote about it, doubting the possibility of what he called “an umbrella church.”

Off I went to seminary and bumped into Henri Nouwen, whose spirituality course in which I enrolled my first semester became the book Reaching Out. He said and wrote, “If we expect any salvation, redemption, healing and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us. … To convert hostility into hospitality requires the creation of the friendly empty space where we can reach out to our fellow human beings and invite them to a new relationship.” (p 54)

“An open receptive place” to me is the very definition of sanctuary.

Regular readers know what store I place on the history of how I came by a book. A Roman Catholic priest who has remained a lifelong friend gave me his copy of Reaching Out in the mid-70s. The copy I’ve currently been reading is the one I gave my mother, writing inside the cover, “To Mom, What Henri shared with me I now share with you—with much love, Chris.”

Because it speaks to our current divisiveness, I’ve decided to use Reaching Out as the text for “An Open Receptive Place,” a new course on Henri I’ve been invited to lead for Columbia Seminary’s spiritual formation program September 17-20, 2020.

Life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.

If any criticism can be made of the sixties, it is not that protest was meaningless but that it was not deep enough, in the sense that it was not rooted in the solitude of the heart. When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. … It would be paralyzing to proclaim that we, as individuals, are responsible for all human suffering, but it is a liberating message to say that we are called to respond to it. (p 40-41)

Henri then talks about compassion, quoting Thomas Merton alluding to the solitude of the desert of the first Christian contemplatives: “What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.” (Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p 323.)

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.