AWAKENING OUR SPIRIT by
Rev. Chris Glaser
I don’t know about you, but the older I get, it’s harder and harder to awaken my spirit. I don’t sleep as well as I used to, waking up to pee or worse, waking up to think about a myriad of things that should wait till morning. I still get up between 6 and 6:30 every day, but there’s a part of me that would like to linger in a horizontal position. And I really need to be horizontal at least briefly after lunch, a power nap to get me through the afternoon. Though I still run, I’m cautious about dancing for fear of twisting a knee. And I think before going down or up our stairs at home, to make sure I have what I need so I don’t have to make that trip again!
During an annual physical, the nurse measured my height and told me that I was 5’ 9.” I said that can’t be right, I should be 5’ 11”—or at least 5’ 10 & ¾’s. She measured again, and indeed I was 5’ 9”. Less than a week later I read in the science section of The New York Times that men lose two inches of their height by the age of 60—and I’m 60. Apparently gravity and aging compress the spine, so I can’t reach as high as I used to, and unless I pull my jeans up high or make cuffs, their hem drags underfoot.
You can probably guess where that two inches in height has gone—to my waist! My jeans are now two inches larger to accommodate my thickening torso. Even so, I still unbutton the top button to feel comfortable when I sit.
During my physicals, I’ve learned not to talk too much about aches and pains in my body, let alone fatigue. The doctor, who is about my age, always gives me a patronizing smile and tells me aches and pains and fatigue come with the territory as we get older. I think I feel pretty good most of the time, but two weeks ago, when my neighbor studying yoga wanted to use me as a guinea pig in practicing his yoga therapy, I managed to fill up his intake interview sheet with a multitude of physical concerns.
Now I am not cataloguing these complaints to elicit your sympathy, but to say many of us here are in the same boat. We have aches and pains and fatigue that remind us we are not as young as we used to be, we don’t move or even think as fast, and that mutability and mortality are things that happen to us, not just other people.
But spiritually, this can be a very good thing. It forces us to think about life—what it is, what is still possible, how we may yet “carpe diem,” seize the day, before it “carpes” us! Saint Benedict told contemplatives, “Remind yourself each day that you are going to die.” Monks of Eastern religions traditionally watched a corpse decompose to contemplate in their gut their own mutability. In 1994, Sherwin B. Nuland, a Yale doctor, wrote a bestselling book entitled “How We Die” depicting death’s process. In 2008, engineering professor Randy Pausch delivered and wrote “The Last Lecture” saying what wisdom he would want to impart as he coped with pancreatic cancer. My own mother, in the months before she died in 1999, wrote the family a letter, urging us to embrace faith. And of course many of us have seen the movie “The Bucket List” in which characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman devise a list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.”
My new book deals with this subject matter. “The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life” details what deaths I have experienced taught me, and how even those who have died continue to teach me about life. I’ll see a reporter on the news get all excited reporting on something as if it were brand new, and remember my mom rolling her eyes as if to say “I’ve heard it all before,” like Ecclesiastes declaring “there’s nothing new under the sun”—and say to myself, “Oh, that’s what Mom meant.” Or a young person will ignore my life experience and I’ll realize, “Oh, that’s what Dad felt.”
Nothing awakens the spirit like a near death experience, and it doesn’t have to be a brush with your own death. A friend of mine, after attending his first funeral, came out of the church into the sunshine with a refreshed sense of life’s possibilities.
Last spring we had a near-death experience with Wade’s youngest brother. A healthy young man, he nonetheless developed a strep infection that went into his organs, first attacking his liver (causing consideration of a liver transplant), then his kidneys (requiring temporary dialysis), and then his heart. For ten days he was in an induced coma in ICU while the infection was identified and treated. His family and friends, coworkers and church, kept vigil—and his recovery struck us as no less than a resurrection! This awakened our spirits to our own vulnerabilities!
By contrast, nothing awakens the spirit to our own possibilities like a retreat, vacation, or just plain time off. Vacation is a great balance for vocation. One definition of vocation is quote “an impulse to perform a certain function.” Vacation is defined as freedom from such an impulse, a letting go of our compulsions to do things we have always done, to do things the way we have always done them—thus awakening our spirits to new possibilities.
My partner Wade and I spent our vacation this October on a two-week trip to Chile to celebrate my 60th birthday, his 50th birthday, and our 10th anniversary, which all came within that two-week period. Last Sunday’s New York Times listed 41 places one should visit and Santiago, the capital city, which we used as a base, was listed as number one—we felt so ahead of a trend! Wade wanted to observe his milestone birthday out of the country, and in a country that was not overrun with American tourists.
We visited several wineries, trekked under the awesome peaks of the Andes, biked through urban parks, explored two homes of the Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, and spent several days at the shore. We stayed part of the time at a bed & breakfast in Santiago run by a gay couple who welcomed us into their extended family, celebrating our birthdays with birthday cakes, pisco sours, and traditional Chilean dinners that they beautifully prepared.
But the emotional highlight of the trip for me—the one which brought tears of joy to my eyes—was the rescuing of the miners trapped two months beneath the surface of the earth. Like many of you, I had watched their plight from afar when they were first trapped, and I had hoped against hope that we would be in Chile for their moment of freedom. Their families, wives and lovers had set up camp near the opening of the mine in solidarity, creating a community to welcome them home. Chile mobilized its resources to save the thirty-three, bringing in experts in drilling, in psychology, in health, and in encouragement to see them through their ordeal. Chilean flags flew everywhere in support, reminiscent of the American flags that proliferated after 9/11.
I happened to turn on BBC television just minutes after the initial breakthrough of the shaft for the capsule around 8 a.m. one morning, and waited the couple of days with the world until the miners were brought one by one out of the mine. Mario the jokester brought up rocks for officials at the surface, including the Chilean president and his wife.
Here are two newspapers from that day, as the miners were coming up one by one. You can see Mario pictured in one, called “Super Mario,” and a huge headline on the other, “The 33 could be free tonight.”
Our bed & breakfast was right next to an elementary school, and each time a miner was brought up we could hear the children shout for joy and sing the national anthem. When the last miner was brought out that night, our hosts took us upstairs to their apartment and flung wide their windows overlooking the Santiago rooftops so we could hear the church bells ringing across the city in celebration. As one National Public Radio commentator said the following week, the elation the world shared was akin to the Americans landing on the moon, adding, in that week, we were all Chileans.
Over and over again, in my heart, I heard the Psalmist proclaim,
Before I left Chile, I knew I wanted this to be one of the texts for this weekend about “Awakening the Spirit.” I wanted somehow to convey to you the elation of all of us witnessing the miners lives’ being redeemed from “the Pit,” crowned with steadfast love and mercy—the steadfast love of their lovers, wives, families, friends, and all of Chile that lifted them up out of that mine.
Though I could remember many of the words of the psalm, it took me a while to hunt down which psalm it was, using an internet concordance. In doing so, I realized how many times the Psalmist talks about the Pit, sometimes asking God to throw enemies into it, sometimes declaring God will cast the wicked there. But often the Psalmist is redeemed from the Pit, that hopeless despair, that “miry bog” in one psalm, that can keep one from rising to the imago dei—the image of God that is reflected in each us, and for Christians, the Christ that may be revealed by each of us.
In a way, the miners served for me also as a metaphor for Chile itself, emerging from the Pit of a dictatorship that severely restricted the free movement of the people. When I was in seminary in the 70’s, I remember reading a New York Times article speculating if the CIA were involved with the overthrow of the Socialist President Allende in a coup led by the right-wing General Pinochet, whose rule forbad gatherings, who was suspicious of artists and academics, and during whose reign thousands of dissidents were detained, tortured, or simply “disappeared.”
On our bike ride around the city of Santiago on a beautiful, sunny day, with a clear view of the snow-capped Andes, we were blessed with a guide who is an architect, one who could point out how the buildings changed with the end of Pinochet’s absolute rule—there was more experimentation and openness with architectural design, and more public art in the city and its parks. There was attention to energy conservation as well—one ten-story building was built with huge vines that grew up the side facing the sun, whose leaves and flowers provide cooling shade in the hot summer and which lays dormant in the cold winter, allowing the sun to naturally warm the building. After the cold winter of dictatorship, I could hear the psalmist warmly affirming, “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.”
I was also aware that our trip coincided with International Coming Out Day, October 11, in which lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people are encouraged to self-identify. We can all testify that a closet in which you must hide your sexual or gender identity, a closet in which you must hide your love and your beloved, is also a Pit—airless, confining, dark, hopeless. And the only thing that can redeem our lives from that pit is God’s steadfast love incarnated in our families and friends, communities and churches, policies and laws.
I could not help but imagine how wonderful it would be if, for every person who came out of the Pit of the closet, families would eagerly embrace them, school children would shout with joy, churches would ring their bells, rainbow flags would fly everywhere, the media would positively report it, and the world would rejoice! Just as the miners reported that the sky had never seemed so blue, imagine the refreshed vision of LGBT people, as well as our families and friends and allies, as we leave the closet behind, uplifted by God’s steadfast love. What an awakening of our spirits! What an awakening of God’s Spirit!
My reading for the trip were several books by James Baldwin, an iconic gay African-American writer. His novel, Giovanni’s Room, depicted a narrator caught in the pit of his own denial about his sexuality as well as the homophobia of his era. And in the landmark non-fiction book, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin includes a letter written to his nephew in the 1960’s, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The letter is entitled, “My Dungeon Shook.” I was struck by his strong words about those who, through their ignorance, would keep black people in the Pit of segregation and exclusion. He writes, “…it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. … Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. … Those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality.” [REPEAT]
I take the word “innocents” to mean the “privileged,” who do not know what it means to be oppressed or marginalized. Wade and I were repeatedly reminded of what it was like not to be legally married on our trip: we had to bring with us our notarized directives for health care, so we would have access to each other and be able to make medical decisions for one another if necessary; we had to deny our relationship on the forms for entering Chile and returning to the U.S., listing ourselves as “single”; we were met with surprise by two hotels because we wanted to share a bed; and, of course, we would never be allowed the public displays of affection we repeatedly witnessed of opposite-gender couples all around Chile.
James Baldwin continues advising his nephew, “There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people [,these privileged people,] have no other hope. … If the word integration means anything,” Baldwin continues, “this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers [and sisters] to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it.”
Steadfast love lifts all of us out of the Pit, whether the Pit of the underprivileged and marginalized or the Pit of the privileged and mainstream. And, as Martin Luther King Jr. preached and practiced, whose birthday we celebrate in the U.S. this weekend, the redemptive love of the underprivileged, of the marginalized, is often the key to our mutual liberation. But it is redemptive because it serves as an intervention, helping those addicted to privilege to, in Baldwin’s words “see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” This is also the redemptive gay experience, helping people to “see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
“See how much he loved him.”
So said Lazarus’ neighbors when they witnessed how deeply troubled Jesus was to find his friend Lazarus in the Pit of a grave. Perhaps his own impending death made him feel the pain of Lazarus’s death all the more.
“See how much he loved him.”
Jesus’ steadfast love mobilized the people, first to lead him to that Pit, not caring one whit that going to a graveyard would render him impure and unfit to enter the temple. Then he mobilized the people to remove the stone from the tomb, despite objections that it would raise a stink. And after he called Lazarus to “Come out!” he commanded the people to untie the death cloths to completely free Lazarus.
Like the faith of the women waiting for the miners, Martha and Mary had faith. They had faith that if Jesus were there, their brother would not have died, and even now, whatever Jesus asked of God would be given them. They knew God’s steadfast love incarnated in Jesus could lift Lazarus up, awakening his spirit. But it required the action, the commitment of Lazarus’s family and neighbors to complete the task—to roll the stone from the tomb, to unbind the paralyzing death cloths. And from that day, the Gospel of John tells us, Jesus’ enemies plotted not only his death but also that of Lazarus.
Remember Baldwin’s words, “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. … People find it very difficult to act on what they know.”
You have come to this weekend because you know something. You know deep in your hearts that there is something wrong about the way we have been treated in the church and in the many communities of which we are part. Will we, with Jesus, have the courage to go to the graveyards—the church meetings, the board of education meetings, the city councils, the state legislatures, Congress, as well as our own our family gatherings to call our fellow Christians and citizens and relatives to remove the stones from the closets and release those bound by homophobia and heterosexism?
Will we, as Christ in the 21st century, incarnate God’s steadfast love that lifts us up out of our pits, privileged and underprivileged alike, marginalized or mainstream, awakening our spirits and healing our wounds? Or will we join the throngs of Christians and citizens who, over the past forty years, have patronizingly patted LGBT people on the back saying it’s not time yet, be patient, we must first consider the scribes and Pharisees, your time will come.
In his letter to his nephew, James Baldwin complained that the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was coming a hundred years too soon, because African-Americans were still awaiting being lifted out of the Pit.
And think of the psalmist, lifted up by the steadfast love of Yahweh. Wouldn’t we want the WHOLE church to be able to sing this song? Wouldn’t we want our WHOLE community and country—gay and straight—to praise God with the Psalmist:
Just as healing our wounds is a communal experience, so is awakening our spirits. Healing our wounds and awakening our spirits is also a generational experience. This year marks the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and we in the United States have a biracial President to show for it, but still inequities among the races. We have just passed the fortieth anniversary of Stonewall, and we have greater access to the ministry, to the military, and to marriage, but our children and our children’s children are still being bullied and taunted and marginalized, and some will not live long enough to see that “it gets better.”
The men who have come to Kirkridge over the decades to heal our wounds and awaken our spirits may pass this redemptive gay experience to younger men, to other men, only by becoming more evangelical in our outreach, as well as remaining generous in our scholarships and in our support of Kirkridge and gracious in welcoming new men to this beloved community. Next year I’d like to see us double our attendance, and to do so with a new generation, many of whom face greater challenges embracing their faith than accepting their sexuality. We may become spiritual mentors, but only if we leave this mountain with a determination to spread the gospel that Jesus meets us here each year, lifting us out of our pits and graves and closets, healing our wounds, and awakening our spirits to God’s unconditional, welcoming love embodied in this great group of men.
Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion, date and venue. Other rights reserved.
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