Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Creating Space

Fashion for social distancing?

When I first heard of social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, I thought we could bring back hoop skirts to keep others at a six-foot distance!  😉

“Creating space” was a common phrase among therapists and pastors alike when I was in seminary in the mid-70’s. Creating a welcoming environment for another was the intent of the metaphor. A form of this is what is now called “safe space,” and in olden days called “sanctuary.”

Our counseling professor illustrated this with a juvenile court assignment of a child who resisted any verbal interaction with him. The boy would simply wander around the office looking at things, playing with various items. Finally, Dr. Brown told him that he would be assigning him to another therapist. Upset, the boy insisted, “But I like coming here.” Asked why, the boy explained, “Because you’re the only grownup that leaves me alone!”

In the present pandemic of easy contamination, when we can’t “kiss it and make it better” nor offer “warm hugs” of comfort, creating space becomes all the more vital, as in “life-giving” or “life-preserving.”

A couple of years ago I wrote a blogpost about the hugs exchanged within our former congregation in greeting and departing and passing the peace.  What I’ve since discovered in our new church start is that younger people are less so inclined. There are still huggers, of course, but I’ve learned the discomfort of some who prefer another form of greeting, and rather than appear a sort of old vampire grasping for youth, I restrain my touchy impulses. Since then we have also learned a lot about avoiding touch from the “Me Too” movement.

Now the coronavirus has taught us, as the song by The Police goes, “don’t stand so close to me.”

Continuing my re-read of Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life in preparation for what may become an online spiritual formation course, I read this sentence of Henri’s on Monday as an example of such hospitality: “It is like the task of a patrolman trying to create some space in the middle of a mob of panic-driven people for an ambulance to reach the center of the accident.” “First responder” could easily be substituted for “patrolman.”

I thought of Henri’s own creation of space in his campus office when he removed shelves of books lest a visiting student feel overwhelmed in the belief the student had nothing to offer this well-read professor.

I also thought of my first Presbyterian pastor’s explanation of what constitutes social action. Christian compassion, Dr. Morse said, is expressed when you tend to a person’s wounds as you wait for an ambulance. Social justice is expressed when you subsequently investigate why it took so long for the ambulance to arrive.

Nowadays this would include finding and filling the gaps in our systems of medicine—exactly what’s needed in our present crisis. Obviously this would include examining political and economic solutions.

Henri harmonizes the German word for hospitality, Gastfreundschaft, meaning “friendship for the guest” with his own native Dutch word “gastvrijheid” which means “freedom of the guest”: “Hospitality wants to offer friendship without binding the guest and freedom without leaving him or her alone.”

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. … It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. Reaching Out, 51.

I stumble over political “dividing lines.” I have a friend who seems to support President Trump no matter what. Yet my friend also once supported President Obama. As the present administration dismantled protections and services that might have helped the U.S. in this pandemic and now stumbles incompetently while blaming everyone else, “dividing lines,” like Trump’s infamous wall, makes me stumble. 

Creating space for the other is far from an easy task. It requires hard concentration and articulate work. It is like the task of a patrolman trying to create some space in the middle of a mob of panic-driven people for an ambulance to reach the center of the accident. Reaching Out, 51.

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

"Where Is Everybody?"

A church friend made us face masks.

Sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic has, for me, alternately prompted feelings of loneliness, boredom and its more pronounced version, ennui, as in, “What’s my motivation?”

To distract myself one afternoon this past week I clicked on the original Twilight Zone series and happened on to its very first episode, titled “Where Is Everybody?” It’s about a man wandering around an unfamiliar town looking for its inhabitants. He has no memory of who he is himself, yet has a sense that someone is watching him.

To happen onto this guy’s predicament as I am missing friends and family and various activities, I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone as he asks, “Where is everybody?”

Last week I had another Twilight Zone moment watching an episode of Amazing Stories. A woman wakes up from a six-year coma and mysteriously has the urge to call a phone number, which happens to be mine, area code and all, but with the “555” exchange used in fake theatrical phone numbers. (Cue Twilight Zone theme now!)

I am rereading Henri Nouwen’s early work, Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life in preparation for leading a spiritual formation course on Nouwen in the fall. A contemplative retreat I was to co-lead next week has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, so I’m not sure whether the Nouwen weekend will be held, cancelled, rescheduled, or moved online.

The first movement Henri describes, “From Loneliness to Solitude,” certainly seems to fit the moment.

More so then than now, I was lonely when I first heard the lecture that became “From Loneliness to Solitude.” A fellow student at Yale Divinity School played me his recording of the first presentation in the class that he was taking from Henri. Having left behind family and friends and a boyfriend as well as my home state of California, I was extremely lonely.

Henri’s words spoke directly to my experience: “We look for someone or something to take our loneliness away. But then we realize that no one and no thing can ever take our loneliness away—we must allow it to be transformed into a creative solitude.” For Henri, that transformation was possible in the presence of God.

That was easier to hear and believe in my hopeful early twenties than it is as I approach 70 years of age and share a demographic particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, an age and demographic that already translates into many lost family members, colleagues, and friends over the years. But I have found it to be true, over and over again—and look, this post is a concrete example of creative solitude! Thank God I have all of you to write for, many who may be experiencing something like this.

For me, a creative solitude means a more gracious reaching out, not one that grasps but one that welcomes with open hands.

In Nouwen’s words, “The movement from loneliness to solitude…is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.” (Reaching Out, p 23)

Henri quotes a student, “…then time loses its desperate clutch on me. Then I no longer have to live in a frenzy of activity, overwhelmed and afraid for the missed opportunity.”

Then sheltering in place may become sheltering in peace.

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

This Is Not My First Pandemic

An auspicious day to write this post: Good Friday, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Good Friday is when Christians remember that God suffers with us, as we recount the story of the betrayal, denial, and abandonment of Jesus, the injustice and indifference of the powers that be, the agony of suffering and death.

As you know, this is not my first pandemic. For most if not all of you, it is not your first pandemic either. AIDS is still with us, and has been for decades, though the more privileged among us have access to prevention and treatment.

Unlike the coronavirus of COVID-19, HIV is not casually or easily transmitted, but before that was known—even after that was known—those living with HIV were avoided and excluded and judged, given disposable paper plates and plastic cups at dinner parties if invited at all, refused touch and medical and pastoral care and governmental attention.

I hear many echoes of the AIDS pandemic in the present one. Calling it “the Chinese virus” reminds me of the first name for AIDS: Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, G.R.I.D., extending AIDS fear and prejudice and hate crimes to the whole queer community.  At one point it was related to Haitians because of an outbreak there. Or understood as a “foreign” disease because it may have evolved from monkeys and chimpanzees in Africa.

Even by the LGBTQ community, it was often considered the disease of those who lived in “the fast lane” of the gay world, and of those—regardless of sexual orientation—who were promiscuous or drug abusers.

Only when the infection appeared among those with hemophilia or who had blood transfusions did the public consider there might be “innocent victims.” The first major HIV/AIDS bill passed by the U.S. was named for an Indiana teenager with hemophilia, clearly such an innocent, but one who also had done his share of activism.

The public discussion about quarantines reminds me of the desire to quarantine those living with HIV/AIDS, even when it was known that HIV was not transmitted casually. Decades after the causes of transmission were known, a fundamentalist Christian friend of mine told me insistently, as if on some kind of moral high ground above the science, “I don’t believe it can’t be transmitted casually.”

The current admonition “be safe” reminds me of the AIDS admonition to “play safe.” Condoms and dental dams and sexual distancing were our version of face masks and social distancing. Both viruses can be carried and transmitted before symptoms occur, and it’s disconcerting in either crisis to see those who are not sick behaving as if they cannot pass it on to others, particularly the more vulnerable health-wise. 

Of course, the other difference between the retrovirus that causes AIDS and the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is that the first was almost always fatal. And because in the public view it was affecting and infecting already undesirable/immoral/inferior citizens, there was little sense of urgency within the general population for finding treatments or cures. The then U.S. president resisted even using the name of the pandemic. 

But those of us in the thick of it were frequently attending funerals, memorials, and “celebrations of life” of lovers and friends, neighbors and colleagues whose lives were cut short—often very short—by the inattention and indifference of the larger “society.” 

Thanks be to God for the political activism of groups like ACT-UP and the community centers created largely by LGBTQ people to serve PWA’s that eventually influenced a more compassionate response, thanks in part to the media willing to report their stories. Also helpful was when the Christian community began to recognize that “The Church has AIDS.” 

An extremely familiar parallel is how minority and poorer communities have been disproportionately affected by each health crisis. The latest pandemic is revealing the medical vulnerability of people of color, especially those who live on limited incomes.

An unpublished futuristic novel I wrote in 1992 entitled The Cure: A Post-AIDS Love Story explained that my imagined medically-developed multipart curative treatment for AIDS—which included an ingredient newly discovered in the part of the world most endangered by climate change—worked better on white males than people of color and women.

I quoted The Plague by Albert Camus about his protagonist doctor’s conclusion at the end of the book. I offer this now in thanksgiving for the first responders, health care workers and caregivers risking infection in the present pandemic:

Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2020


In the midst of the pandemic, I have been grateful to see these signs of life in our neighborhood:

Baby frog on our deck

Our neighbors across the street thank first responders.

The Atlanta BeltLine advises social distancing.

Neighbors Jonathan and Gabriela created a labyrinth on the BeltLine.

Church via Zoom

Luna our neighbor with Jenelle our pastor.
Lizard on our front porch pillows.

BeltLine art.
To Life, a toast for Passover!  To Resurrection, a toast for Easter! 
Be safe, be well, look for the signs of life in your neighborhood!
with gratitude for each of you, Chris and Wade

I was invited to contribute a meditation for Maundy Thursday to Ashes to Rainbows: A Queer Lenten Devotional that includes meditations for Ash Wednesday, the Sundays of Lent, and the days of Holy Week. Go to:

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Rage to Ecstasy: Praying the Psalms

Church of the Holy Comforter along our walk.

Facing the COVID-19 pandemic and the requirement to “shelter in place,” I believe this post from three years ago might be helpful. Thanks to those of you who planned to attend “Beside Still Waters: A Contemplative Retreat,” April 27-May 1, 2020. It has been cancelled to prevent further spread of the virus. 

On our morning walk a couple of weeks ago, Wade and I learned of the death of Joe, who lived a few houses down from us. A former Roman Catholic priest in his 90's, he was a friendly neighbor, and gave me permission to take some of the fronds from his palm trees years ago for Christ Covenant MCC’s Palm Sunday service. I offer this post in thanksgiving for his life.

If I were to send into space one item that would explain the human experience to other civilizations, it would be the Psalms. They would serve as warning and explanation and exaltation of our capabilities.

Cross us, and we will dash your little ones against the rocks. Exile us, and we will nonetheless try to sing God’s song in foreign territory. Wow us, and our spirits and words will soar in thanksgiving and praise.

An agnostic boyfriend wanted to better understand my religious devotion, so I suggested that we read a psalm each day on our own, conferring occasionally. Soon into the exercise, he good-naturedly but definitively expressed dismay at the texts. He said something like, “I expected a more uplifting experience, but there’s a lot of vengeance and wrath.”

A retired church member whose lifelong partner died was about to go on his first trip without him. I suggested we pray the psalms together, one each day, as he traveled. Afterward, he said he felt less alone, knowing I was praying the psalms with him.

That’s a gift of the Psalms, that praying them, we feel less alone. Those who wrote the psalms were imperfect, much like us. They didn’t know everything, but they had feelings about everything. And, like us, they had multiple situations and events to have feelings about, some good, even great, some bad, even evil. They reflect the human range of experiences and emotions.

They are like us, but perhaps unlike us, they are willing to express even their uglier aspects. They are not pretending to “have it all together.” They are willing to offer their broken spirits to God, to one another, to us. They are the original 12 Step meeting, the first confessors, the first monastics using prayer as a place of transformation.

As much as they, like us, might pray that God will “fix” things, they understand repeatedly their need to hope in God, to trust in God, to witness the beauty and wonder of creation, from the heavens to the earth. And they give us wonderful images and metaphors for God: a good shepherd, a mother’s lap, the rising sun of justice.

For centuries, monastic communities have prayed the psalms during their daily multiple prayer services. My first real taste of that was visiting the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross at their Mt. Calvary Retreat House in the foothills above Santa Barbara, California. Over the years of my occasional retreats there, I found peace joining them in the reciting or chanting of the psalms. The brief silence between each line gave the words a chance to sink in, as one might pause after any line of poetry. And saying or chanting the words myself and with others gave the psalms an altogether different resonance than reading them silently on my own.

In praying the psalms, if we can’t identify with a particular mood or condition in the words, we might consider those in the world who are experiencing that mood or condition, praying with them or on their behalf. That makes the psalms at least one more way in which we realize we are not alone.

At the risk of offering a mere tautology: that the psalms are directed at the self and others and God makes them a resource of reflection and contemplation: an opportunity for dialogue with ourselves, with others, and with God.

The psalm that got me through my toughest times is the psalm divided between Psalm 42 and 43 that begins, “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.” The psalmist was prevented from going to God’s house, perhaps by illness, but the longing presented reminded many of us in the LGBT community of the church’s exclusion.

More than once I have prayed with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me” and “Restore to me the joy of thy salvation.”

And, during an extreme and extended period of multiple griefs, Psalm 73 spoke of my experience:

My heart grew embittered,
my affections dried up,
I was stupid and uncomprehending,
a clumsy animal in your presence.
Even so, I stayed in your presence,
you grasped me by the right hand;
you will guide me with advice,
and will draw me in the wake of your glory. 
Psalm 73:21-24 (NJB)

“Even so, I stayed in your presence” became my mantra and my discipline that year, else I would have been lost.

My favorite psalm for contemplation when leading a retreat is 131, whose key mantra is, “I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms” (NJB).

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.