Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Cuddling with Jesus

Wade and Hobbes cuddling.

I can imagine red flags going up for my more progressive readers, fearing I’ve gone evangelical on them with a title like “Cuddling with Jesus.” And my more mainstream readers may fear I’m getting too familiar, even sexual, with our spiritual leader.

But the deity with whom Jacob wrestles in Genesis becomes the deity with whom the Beloved Disciple cuddles during the Last Supper in John. It’s okay for males to wrestle (God was imagined as male, remember) but not to cuddle (Jesus was imagined as God, remember).

In As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage, I pointed out how recent translations have distanced the Beloved Disciple, believed to be John, from Jesus. In the King James Version “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” The Revised Standard Version describes him as “lying close to the breast of Jesus.” But the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible have the Beloved Disciple simply “reclining next” to Jesus. As the Beloved disciple moves farther away from Jesus with newer versions, I imagine in the next translation he will be in another room!

In his book, The Man Jesus Loved, Theodore Jennings translates the passage this way:

One of his disciples was lying in Jesus’ lap, the one Jesus loved; so Simon Peter nods to this one and says: “Tell, whom is he talking about?” That one, falling back on Jesus’ chest says to him: “Lord, who is it?”

Imagine watching TV with a group of close friends, some of whom are seated on the floor. Arms may rest on knees, heads lean on shoulders, hands draped affectionately on legs. This would be like the scene of the Last Supper, where the custom would be for everyone to be on the floor with cushions or mats, not seated upright at a table.

This is the casual intimacy between John and Jesus, but it affords John the opportunity, in the understanding of Celtic Christianity, to “listen for the heartbeat of God” with his head on Jesus’ breast. It is a symbol of mysticism, not sexuality, though mysticism is also erotic, understanding “eros” as the force that compels us toward God or another human being.

What prompts this reflection is a recent opinion piece by Stanford anthropology professor T. M. Luhrmann, who suggests the success of evangelical churches is that they promise such a personal relationship with God, but then overstates the case by claiming—mistakenly, I believe—that mainstream Christians do not imagine a God so intimate. (Since writing this I discovered agreement from a Letter to the Editor by Sister Mary Ann Walsh.)

I do believe mainstream Christians have a problem with intimacy. I once heard seminary professor and author Carter Heyward describe their God as a “Gentleman God,” embarrassed by sexual passion, yet too polite and dispassionate to be rabidly anti-gay. And the changing position of the Beloved Disciple may have to do with a fear of homoerotic implications.

But I believe the broader fear is intimacy with God. I’ve noticed that the same translation that has John “reclining next” to Jesus in John 13:23 also translates John 1:18 about Jesus’ intimacy with God as “who is close to the Father’s heart” when the actual text reads “who is close to the Father’s bosom.”

Yet I believe many mainstream Christians’ embrace of contemplation also chooses an intimate relationship with God. And though it may seem new, it has always been with us, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, monastic communities, and Celtic spirituality to our present day interest in all things spiritual.

My purpose in writing this blog is to encourage progressive Christians, too, to come out of the closet about their intimacy with God, with Jesus, and with the Spirit. Ours may be a different experience, but no less worthy to strengthen our resolve, challenge others’ certainties, and enjoy communion with all we hold sacred and dear.

I posted this on April 24, 2013 and thought current readers of this blog might enjoy it.

Please join me for a five-day contemplative retreat April 27-May 1, 2020 in Cullman, Alabama, through the Spiritual Formation Program of Columbia Theological Seminary. It is open to the public.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite. Use the search engine in the upper left corner of the blog to find particular topics.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Spiritual Stretching

Our neighbor, Luna, stretching against the edge of our driveway.

Put your hands over your head and stretch. Take a deep breath.

Doesn’t that feel good?

And don’t you vicariously feel good when you see your dog or cat or another person stretch and perhaps yawn?

Many years ago I learned that, to prevent my back from seizing up on me, I needed to do a simple stretching exercise before getting out of bed in the morning.  I also do a coordination exercise a holistic chiropractor once taught me that’s supposed to help me think more clearly. And then I’m ready to, as the camp song goes, “Rise and shine and give God my glory…”

A few summers ago, Wade and I attended a yoga class that was all about stretching and breathing, led by our friend and neighbor José Blanco. It was surprising how challenging and tiring stretching and breathing can be, as well as how wonderful it can feel. Yoga, of course, is a spiritual discipline developed in Hinduism to focus body, mind, and spirit.

A lot of Christians don’t like to stretch. Orthodox literally means “straight thinking,” and many Christians like to keep to the straight and narrow, within the confines of what they consider proper belief and behavior.

Progressive Christians like to stretch our minds. That means we can stay in our heads way too much. That’s preferable to not going there at all. As they say, many people are lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory.

Thankfully, stretching our mind may stretch our hearts as well, especially if we can catch our breaths.

Stretching is an antidote to confinement, an answer to tension, a solution for paralysis that is not permanent. It helps tissue lubricants flow, as well as the life-giving, oxygenating, vitality-inducing blood that we need to be nurtured and grow. 

Our spirits and our spirituality need stretching too.

Jesus did not teach yoga positions, but he was still a kind of yoga instructor, because he taught spiritual stretching. His spirituality stretched the religion of those around him to move out of ossification—which means to be make rigid, callous, or unprogressive—to move beyond laws written in stone and temples made of stone.

Anyone who has endured an obnoxious neighbor will know that “loving your neighbor” is a stretch. Anyone who has struggled with an image of an angry or distant God knows that “loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind” is a stretch. Those raised on negative self-images know that “loving your self” is a stretch. Those taught to fear or hate a stranger realize that Jesus’ urging to greet even those we don’t know is a stretch.  And “loving your enemies” is obviously a stretch!

By stretching, a spiritual community becomes expansive and inclusive and nimble. A breath is a stretch, and Jesus was said to have breathed on his disciples his Spirit. That Spirit stretched their ability to share his story in the languages of strangers. That same Spirit has, throughout history, stretched at least parts of the church to welcome those it formerly resisted, excluded, marginalized, or persecuted.

And God’s mystery stretches our spiritual imaginations. In the apostle Paul’s words to the Athenians, God “does not live in shrines made by human hands” but causes us “to search for God and perhaps grope for God.”

Breathe. Stretch.

Doesn’t that feel good?

This was my post on March 12, 2014, and I thought current blog readers might like to read it.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Spiritual Skinny-dipping

Rarely am I given an opportunity to skinny-dip these days, but I used to love it. The sensuality of slipping into the waves on the shore or into a pond or pool awakened my body not only to my physical senses, but to my full-bodied communion with earth.

The photo above, taken in Hawai’i in 1985 by my friend George Lynch, was modestly posed and, for this purpose, even more modestly edited!  But I use it to illustrate a story of mysterium tremendum, what happened just before I swam back to stand on the rocks surrounding this natural pool at the base of the towering waterfall in the background.

For me, stripping and stepping into an unknown body of water such as this was an act of both courage and vulnerability. I didn’t know what else might be in the water and to what I might be exposing my most personal parts; yet it was thrilling and enlivening to do so. The depth of the pool and whatever currents hid beneath the gently rippling surface were also unknown to this less-than-expert swimmer.

Three times I swam toward the base of the waterfall that spewed from rocks some fifty feet above, each time a little closer, and three times I returned to the shore without daring to swim beneath the roaring, hard-falling water. This was reasonable, given that the water might have knocked me out.

But approaching the danger, I was filled with an exquisite, fearful awe; my mysterium tremendum. It had parallels to leaving behind religious fundamentalism and biblical literalism, or taking on public speaking and activism as an introvert, or coming out of the closet, or making love for the first time. There was something sacred and awesome beyond each seeming terror.

For those of us who are stripping ourselves of unnecessary religious constraints, baptizing ourselves in progressive Christianity, we approach in awe and terror a different God. Does God really love us unconditionally? Does God really live “in our neighborhood,” in our house? Can God forgive without demanding such a price as the sacrifice of Jesus or the damnation of unbelievers? What currents or creatures lurk beneath the surface that may threaten our most personal selves?

“Wonder calls us to disorientation, unsettling pathos that it is, and to new orientation,” William Brown writes in the concluding paragraph of Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, borrowing Walter Brueggemann’s categories.

C’mon in! The water’s fine!

This was my post on September 16, 2015, and I thought current blog readers might like to read it.

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Photo copyright © 1985 by George F. Lynch. Used by permission. Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Love that Does Not Die

Early Sunday morning before Christmas I learned that my first long term partner had died. It took me by surprise and grabbed me in the gut. I wanted to talk to somebody about it, but I didn’t think anyone could understand. So I’m talking about it with you, the reader of this blog. Some of you have followed my life not only during part or all of  the nine years I’ve been writing this blog, but in the decades since my first book was published in 1988 and before, in the multiple columns I wrote for several periodicals and newsletters.

It was to that first book that I returned to remember “John,” one who saw me through some of my roughest times as a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church. I first wrote of him recounting my first Presbyterian General Assembly in Baltimore in 1976 as a gay activist:

My loneliness grew from having completed the fulfilling ministry internship at the Christian Association [of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia] the week before. I had not only said goodbye to a number of friends at term’s end, but I had also broken off a relationship with a man whom I will call John, a name that means “The Lord is gracious.” … *

John, a graduate student, had sought me out for a relationship. His presence in the months that followed comforted me… While he respected and admired my commitment to the church, he was not similarly inclined, and this limited the depth of the relationship for me. On the other hand, though severely closeted, John at least was not inhibited by the church.

At the close of the spring semester he completed his studies and returned to his home in California, where he intended to become a millionaire in his chosen career, a priority I did not share. Unblinded by passion, we made a mutual and rational decision to bring our relationship to a close, since I would only briefly be in California before returning to New Haven for my final year of seminary.

But something happened as I drove him to the airport: he cried. I had never witnessed his poker face display emotion. I was moved, and fell in love with him for the first time. He was vulnerable, capable of an intimacy never before revealed. Then he was gone. Lost love frequently prompts me to write, so I wrote him a poem. I did not know it would rekindle our love, but I hoped that it would.  Uncommon Calling, p 143.

I did not hear from him at the time, but later learned he carried that poem in his briefcase for a month before responding, favorably. I returned for a visit with my family in California before my final year at Yale Divinity School, and we renewed our relationship, despite the distance to come.

After graduation in May of 1977, I returned to California to accept a position as Director of the Lazarus Project, a first-of-its-kind ministry of a mainline denomination intended to reconcile the church and the LGBT community. Because I was “under care” as a candidate for ordination in a neighboring presbytery, I was required to seek its permission to “labor outside its bounds” to accept the call, permission denied me during an unusually well-attended summer meeting.

A church leader remarked to me afterward that the presbytery was so hostile to me, “They wouldn’t let you clerk in a grocery store!” I was devastated. … I phoned John from the meeting, barely able to speak, embarrassed by my church family’s treatment, crying that these who did not know me personally could be so angry with me. Stunned and hurting with me, John comforted me as best he could.  Uncommon Calling, p 166.

So that I could accept the position in the neighboring presbytery, a special meeting was called to consider my transfer as a candidate for ordination to that presbytery.

This time my lover, John, was present for moral support. Fears had been expressed that the presbytery might defeat my transfer out of sheer vindictiveness. After an hour’s debate in which hostile questions surfaced, such as whether I were repentant enough to be transferred, the vote was taken.

Because of voting irregularities at the earlier meeting, a written ballot was requested. The stated clerk, appointing neutral people to count ballots, pointed at John (not knowing his relationship to me) as a potential volunteer. “And you—who are you?” the clerk asked. John, caught off guard, stuttered, “I’m not a member of this church!”

“Then you ought to be fair,” came the clerk’s mischievous rejoinder, breaking the gathering’s tension with laughter. Later, John told me, in tabulating the ballots, he seemed to open all the negative ones!  Uncommon Calling, p 167.

I “won” that vote, given permission to transfer, but, though it had approved the mission and ministry of the Lazarus Project, the receiving presbytery delayed a vote on receiving me until after the denomination had decided on the question of ordaining openly gay and lesbian clergy the following year, in May of 1978. The denomination rejected such ordination and in June, the presbytery considered my transfer and rejected it. Unintentionally ironic, the presbytery then asked me to pray!

After the prayer I walked down the center aisle of the church to the narthex, followed by a few supporters, mostly women, who offered me tearful hugs outside the sanctuary. There my grateful eyes saw John. He had hurried from work to the evening meeting, hurried so fast he had been stopped for a speeding ticket, at which time, flustered by the delay, he had locked his keys in the car!

But he’d arrived in time for much of the debate, and he was there for me. He gave me a hug, and we drove home. Entering my apartment, the phone rang, an elder from a Baltimore church calling to hear how things had gone. I could hardly bear his sobs on the phone as I told him. Then came the task of informing my parents. I phoned them the news, and they too cried, hurt and angry that the church could reject me. 

And then John offered me the love the church denied.

Uncommon Calling, p 205-206.

I cry even now as I copy this from my first book, hurt by the rejection, moved by John’s love, grieved at John’s death. We remained friends for nearly two decades, but lost touch for a variety of reasons after my move to Atlanta, though I continued to pray for him and his partner. His love then, our love then, remain forever.

In loving memory of Tom Halliday.

*He puzzled why I would use a pseudonym for him in my book, and I explained because he was not openly gay then. He appeared again as Tom in my book The Final Deadline, pp 38-39, 42.

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Copyright © 1988 and 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Why Must Politics Intrude on Our Faith?

Photo by Bassam Khabieh for Reuters and The New York Times.

A few days after Christmas [2014] I picked up our morning paper and, before I put on my reading glasses, I saw on the front page a child on a sled in the snow, confirmed by the caption that began, “Heavy sledding…” I wondered where in the world the photograph was taken.

As I drew the paper closer and put on my reading glasses I was stunned by my mistake. This was no child laughing as he rode a sled through snow—no, this was a child crying out in pain, being carried on a stretcher over a caption that read not “heavy sledding” but “Heavy Shelling…” as in “Heavy Shelling Reported Near Damascus.” What I imagined was snow on the boy’s clothing must have been debris from the blast.

I felt much the same way when I read the Gospel lesson for the Sunday following Christmas. After spending Christmas Eve hearing and singing about the holy infant Jesus, so tender and mild, enjoying a silent and holy night in which all is calm, all is bright, I found Matthew’s text about the slaughter of the innocents disturbing and violent (2:13-23).

Here Jesus had just been born to Mary and Joseph, and was lying in a manger, sleeping in heavenly peace, visited in Matthew by three spiritual sages from another country who brought gold and frankincense and myrrh and, in the Christmas carol, Silent Night, visited by shepherds enjoying the “radiant beams from his holy face” that meant “the dawn of redeeming grace.” The only thing that had disturbed their silent night earlier had been angels in the heavens singing “alleluia to our King; Christ the Savior is born.”

Why, oh why, must this beatific image be shattered by political realities? Escaping from King Herod, who, if he can’t find this baby that threatens his political power, chooses to slaughter all the innocents—infants the age of Jesus, causing wailing and lamenting in his birthplace of Bethlehem. And why, upon their return from Egypt, must Mary, Joseph, and Jesus go into hiding once more, this time in Galilee, to escape the even more heinous son of Herod, Archelaus, who had ascended the throne upon his father’s death?

Why can’t we just have a nice little Christmas? Why can’t we all just get along? And why must politics intrude on our faith, disturb our praise and worship, interrupt our contemplative mantra of “peace on earth, goodwill to all”? Why must we read of slaughtered innocents and wailing mothers? Why must I pick up a newspaper and see such a disturbing scene as a terrified child in pain after the president of Syria has bombed his hometown?

If we learn nothing else from the subsequent life of Jesus, it is that spirituality is never an escape—it is always an engagement with reality. Jesus’ prayer “forgive us our debts” meant a lot to his poor, impoverished fellow Israelites. “Thy kingdom come” meant the end of the Roman Empire. If a Roman soldier compels you to carry his gear one mile, carry it two miles, because “Loving your enemies” is a revolutionary act.

“Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but give to God that which is God’s.” “Don’t be like these Pharisees…,” rather, “consider the lilies of the field.” Whether waiting for the bridegroom or your master or the owner of the vineyard, be strategic in your preparations. “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” “If a town (or church) does not welcome you, shake its dust from your feet.” “Sell your possessions and give to the poor, and come follow me.”

“Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” God’s “house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, but you have made it a market place!” All of these quotes bring to mind real world applications of Jesus’ gospel.

And then there’s the cross: a political execution awaiting our “holy infant, so tender and mild.”

So I wrote this prayer for the children of the world:

In the name of Jesus who lifted children to his lap
and said “of such is the kingdom of heaven,”
we pray for the children of the world:

We pray for those who live in poverty,
            from our own neighborhood to those in hidden corners of the world.
We pray for those who live in danger
            of abuse, exploitation, violence, war, and disaster.
We pray for those who live in hunger and thirst,
            those who starve and those who are malnourished,
those enduring droughts and those whose water is polluted.
We pray for those who suffer illiteracy or disease, those who are refugees,
those who are illegal immigrants, those with disabilities,
those who are oppressed, those whose religion, culture, tribe, or nation distort their view of themselves and the world.

Your child, Jesus, suffered with all the children of the world
“because all are precious in his sight.”
In the name of Jesus who lifted children to his lap
and said “of such is the kingdom of heaven,”
we pray for the children of the world. Amen.

I posted this on January 15, 2014 and thought new blog followers might like to read it. Have a meaningful and hopeful new year!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog:
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Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address and author when possible:
Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

Copyright © 2014 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.