Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Hevel Happens

My spiritual book “Sherpa” Sue, manager of the Columbia Seminary bookstore, steered me to a wonder-full new book by professor William P. Brown, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World. For those who haven’t read a book on the Bible in a while, I recommend this refreshing revisiting of the scriptures.

An Episcopal priest once reviewed my book, Coming Out as Sacrament, “despairing” that yet another hermeneutic (method of biblical interpretation) had been applied to scripture: coming out, as I had described the Bible as God’s “coming out” story and applied the principal to the major microstories within its covers.

I was surprised by the biting critique because of my belief that the more hermeneutical tools we have to ferret out spiritual truths in the Bible, the better. And now Dr. Brown has given us yet another hermeneutical tool, seeing the Bible as if for the first time through the lens of wonder.

I had first tasted Bill Brown’s magic during his presentation to a spiritual immersion course I was facilitating in which he reviewed the Creation myth in Genesis, written around the time of the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian Exile. Brown explained how the story’s wonders paralleled the organization of a typical temple of its time and place, including the temple at Jerusalem. And that’s only the first chapter of this new book.

As I read on, I was so tempted to continually write “wow!” in the margins, I refrained from doing so at all. But there are plenty of underlines and exclamation points.

Yesterday I read the chapter on one of the most challenging texts in terms of wonder, Ecclesiastes, entitled “Mundane Wonder.” Though exquisitely written, Ecclesiastes’ ho-hum “there-is-nothing-new-under-the-sun” philosophical take on the repetitious nature of our lives and of the cosmos could lead the reader to shrug and say “what-me-worry?”, especially after the writer’s conclusion, that “All is vanity.”

But this is where it gets interesting: 
“Vanity” (hevel) is the book’s single-word thesis. … Frequently paired with the expression “chasing wind,” the word itself conjures the image of “vapor,” something ephemeral and insubstantial, perhaps even noxious. Nevertheless, hevel bears a host of nuances in Qoheleth’s [the “assembler”] discourse. The term can be translated in a number of related ways: futility, absurdity, nothingness, worthlessness, transience, ephemerality, delusion, insignificance, and shit all have been proposed… 
And with an example of Brown’s occasional dry wit, he continues: 
But regardless of its specific nuance…“hevel happens” (a good bumper sticker!), and death is the stellar instance of hevel happening. Put cosmically, hevel robs the world of meaningful coherence. Put personally, hevel drives a wedge between one’s action and expected outcome. In either case, hevel is the harbinger of systemic failure. 
But not to despair. In the face of hevel happening, we are advised to ENJOY life, (in Brown’s paraphrase:) “eating, drinking, and finding pleasure in one’s work,” which is “a divine gift and a human duty.” Divine judgment comes, according to Ecclesiastes, when we fail to do so, fail “to find suitable objects of desire”: 
To welcome mundane wonder also counters a world that is hell-bent on striving for gain ad infinitum, a world obsessed with the sensational and self-enriching. To an obsessive world the sage offers subversive advice. (Citing Ralph C. Griffin.) 
It was not lost on me that I happened to read this chapter on the morning that I noticed a spider had woven its intricate and shining web on our deck—surely, after the blustery storm later in the day, a lesson in both futility and mundane wonder. But a temple nonetheless, rebuilt the following morning, the day I write this.



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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Black Lives Matter

In thanksgiving for the life and work of Julian Bond, who tired of hearing “If only they were all like you.” It reminds me of often hearing from those opposed to LGBT ordination, “But we would ordain you!”

“Black lives matter” is not just wisdom for protesting “issues” of law enforcement. It should be a mantra for all of life.

Black lives matter when there is equal access to prenatal and postnatal care, preschool, decent housing and nutrition, education, healthcare, employment, promotions, advancement, economic opportunities, voting rights, justice in the courts, representation on school boards, law enforcement agencies, city councils, state legislatures, congress, corporate boards, and executive positions in business and government—to name some of the things routinely denied.

Black lives matter when the disproportionate detention and incarceration rate of African-Americans on mere suspicion, manufactured evidence, mandatory minimum sentencing, or low-level drug offenses is reduced dramatically or eliminated altogether.

A pet peeve of mine has been to see black people cast in incidental roles in movies and TV programs (how many black judges can there be?) rather than seeing their characters integrally woven into an ensemble cast, though this has been changing in recent years.

I once worked with a progressive but all-white group who would have agreed that all of the above are examples of institutional racism, and whose members said they wanted to do something about it. But a colleague who had worked with the group far longer than I told me privately, “They all want to address the issue of racism politically, but few, if any, actually have black friends.”

The person observed that institutional racism will only be dismantled as we take racism personally, when black lives matter in our own friendships, families, congregations, work places, working relationships, and social networks.

A white police officer testifying in the O.J. Simpson trial was asked if he was a racist, and he said “no.” I was astounded. I don’t know how any white person in the United States can say they have avoided being taught prejudice to some degree. And we all benefit from white privilege, just as our white ancestors (and not just slaveholders) benefited from black slavery.

I believe our society survives partly because it is graced with the fortitude and forgiveness and sometimes generational forgetfulness of the minorities it has wronged. And most amazing to me are the descendants of slaves who were “owned,” brutalized, raped, and lynched. How can they stand our uppity white domination? How can they stand the undue influence of angry and mean folk trying to undo what progress has been made in redressing past sins?

Those who forgave the deadly, racist shooter in the Charleston church were as Christ to me. Their grace exposed the racism of those who held onto the confederate flag as a way of life. Their grace transformed parts of the country that seemed irredeemable.

Black lives matter.



Related posts:

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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Lord's Prayer--What It Means to Me

The prayer that Jesus taught has different meanings for each of us. These are some of mine:

“God, Mother and Father of us all…”

Theology rather than ideology prompts me to begin “the Lord’s Prayer” in this way. My own mother and father loved me in different ways, and I loved them in different ways, and so addressing this prayer to both Mother and Father God feels more complete.

I don’t view mother/father and male/female as binary, but rather as ends of a spectrum, so it’s not an either/or, but rather, a both/and. Saying “mother” and “father” is more personal for me than “parent” or a general term for God. And adding “of us all” replaces “our” in the “our Father.” This prayer reminds me that prayer is a collective, communal practice, and that we are ALL children of God.

“Who art in heaven…”

Heaven is both a destination and a present reality. Heaven is where human will and God’s will coincide. To “go to” heaven is to follow your bliss, in the words of Joseph Campbell, a place where your greatest joy meets the world’s deep need, in the words of Frederick Buechner. And yet it also appears to us in those “thin places” of Celtic Christian spirituality in which heaven can be glimpsed on earth: in beauty, in kindness, in love, and so on. This is where and when and how we experience the awesome essence of God.

“Thy kingdom come…”

“Thy” and “thee” and “thou” were all familiar forms of address in English from 1450 to 1650, and the KJV was translated in 1611, though the translators may not have followed common usage. If they did, though it sounds formal to us, these familiar terms are in line with Jesus beginning the prayer with the Aramaic “Abba,” addressing God as family: “our Father.” It reminds us of our intimacy with God.

“Kingdom” welcomes God’s reign, and rather than associate it with patriarchy, I think of “magic kingdoms” of fairy tales, myths, and legends, that may be ruled by either a king or a queen. In other contexts, I substitute “commonwealth,” because ultimately God’s kingdom is a common wealth which we all share, spiritually and materially. And when I say “all” I don’t mean only Christians or human beings. I pray for the kingdom to “come” because I believe it is divinity that gives it birth, within or among us.

“Thy will be done…”

I believe our greatest bliss is to be found in our assent to this phrase. By “our bliss” I mean not just our personal joy but our collective joy as human beings, as creatures, as creation. My central purpose in saying this prayer daily is to align myself with God’s Spirit and her purposes in the universe: abundant life, creativity, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, reflection, service, to name a few. By such measures, doing God’s will is not tedious duty but awakening pleasure.

“In/on earth as it is in heaven…”

When I pray “your will be done in earth,” I am praying that God’s will may be manifest in my own body—to paraphrase Teresa of Avila, on earth God’s body is our own, my hands, your hands, my feet, your feet are God’s hands and feet.

When I pray “your will be done on earth,” I am praying that God’s will for peace and justice and compassion be manifest in our international relations and governmental actions, in our political discourse and interfaith dialogue, in our houses of worship and in our neighborhoods. Remember, I believe that heaven is where human will coincides with God’s will.

“Give us this day our daily bread…”

This seems a bold request, a kind of “socialist” demand, but where else does our daily bread come from if not from what God has given us? In praying this, I acknowledge that the many ways I am fed—through food, through companions, through wisdom, and more—all come from a divine source.

I also note the allusion to the manna the Hebrews were fed in the wilderness, and how they were only to collect a day’s ration, except on the day before the Sabbath, when they were to collect enough for the next day as well. If they took more than their day’s quota, whether out of anxiety or greed, it would grow wormy. This challenges us to limit our own consumption to what we really need.

“Forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass/sin against us…”

Given the day and what feels most appropriate, I pray one of these pairings.

“Debts/debtors” reminds me that I owe everything to God, and so I should let go of what I think people “owe” me. “Trespasses/those who trespass” makes me think of the ways I trespass not only on God’s territory but on others’ space. “Sins/sin against us” suggests to me my/our most grievous errors.

God’s forgiveness anticipates my own choice to forgive. I believe if I truly know God’s grace, I will become more gracious, and that as I become more gracious, I will truly know God’s grace.

“For thine is the kingdom…”

Church tradition rather than Jesus has added these remaining phrases of the Lord’s Prayer (an echo of 1 Chronicles 29:10-13), but I like this final threefold, uplifting “letting go.” The commonwealth is God’s, not ours. We may manifest it, be its citizens, and serve as its instruments of peace, justice, and compassion—but we and it belongs to God.

“…and the power…”

I believe we incorrectly equate power with control. God’s power is love, that which persuades, leads, instructs, invites, and inspires us also to love.

“…and the glory…”

For the Hebrews, this is the glory reflected so brightly on Moses’s face on Mt. Sinai that the people asked him to veil himself. Christians are called rather to unveil that glory, to witness that glory to one another and to all, so that we may “grow from one glory to another.” We may see this glory on a mountaintop, on a cross, in an empty tomb. We may see this glory in a loved one, in a baby, in galaxies billions of light years away. It lifts us up, raises our hopes, magnifies our possibilities.

“…forever. Amen.”

God’s commonwealth, love, and glory give us a taste of the eternal. Our time may be short, but it is a part of God’s time from now on. So be it.


See a related post, “A Pragmatic Guide to Prayer.”


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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gerasene Demoniac Announces Presidential Bid

With gratitude to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Unrestrained by the moderates of either ruling party of Gerasa, Mr. Legion has announced (howled, really) that he will run for president of the country, declaring that its dysfunctional government must be replaced by his Lunatic Fringe if it is to accomplish what the people really want.

Campaigning in a nearby cemetery—the only place, he explains, where he will not be interrupted—he says he has no need of the media to bash him, because he can do so himself using the many stones available there. His nudity, he asserts, symbolizes his campaign’s transparency, contrasting with his opponents’ many obfuscations and secret funding.

He explains that his 5000 demons, from whence he takes his name, best represent the many prejudices, fears, anxieties, and evils secretly harbored by the Gerasenes, and which the ruling parties manipulate to win elections.

“There would be no need of a candidate like me,” he wails persuasively, “If the members of the political parties could negotiate their differences without trying to score points in the media, take advantage of the other’s flexibility, or insert narrow ideologies and religious views in legislation.” He adds, gesturing, “Why, that great herd of swine over there get along better than they do!”

As Jesus passes by, Mr. Legion demands gruffly, “And what do you want with me?!”

“Come out of this man, you unclean spirits!” Jesus commands.  And out of Mr. Legion come the people’s prejudices, fears, anxieties, and evils—but they have nowhere to go, save to return to the people who imagine they are above this candidate’s lunacy.

Though Jesus doesn’t want to scapegoat the nearby herd of swine by visiting them with the presidential hopeful’s demons, this seems the lesser evil, and off they stampede over a cliff to drown in the sea (“News at 11!”).

The people of Gerasa, as well as the leaders of their ruling parties, come to find Mr. Legion clothed and in his right mind, and they are afraid. Lest Jesus exorcise their demons, they urge him to move on.

Mr. Legion wants to follow, but Jesus challenges him to go to his fellow citizens and tell them what God has done—how God’s mercy can transform even the most vile and merciless candidates for elected office, as well as their electors.

Likely, many of his fellow countrymen and countrywomen will prefer to join the pigs in the sea.


Today’s post alludes to an analysis of this story by RenĂ© Girard referenced in an earlier post, “Exorcising Demons.”

This “midrash” on Mark 5:1-20 also appeared in the Huffington Post a few weeks ago, but didn’t get much traction! Versions of this story also appear in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.


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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.