Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"Somebody's Gotta Be Mary!"

India, January 1983. 

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Once upon a time, respectable members of a respectable church decided to perform a Christmas pageant, and congregants were vying for parts. The big competition was around the roles of the Magi, the Eastern religious scholars bearing gold and frankincense and myrrh. Many were taken with their absolutely fa-bu-lous costumes, reeking of wealth and privilege and prestige.

But there were also many who wanted to demonstrate their own humility by playing the poor shepherds watching their flocks by night, knowing that they’d get to see a sky full of angels singing of peace on earth, goodwill toward all, as well as visit the baby Jesus lying in a manger with a halo for a hanging playtoy.

Others wanted to be those high and mighty angels, who, in our contemporary, secular times seem to represent only themselves, cutely and cherubically and all-too-benignly making guest appearances on wrapping paper, greeting cards, and Christmas films, instead of being the fierce and frightful presence of God they are in the Bible—so terrible, they often had to say “fear not!”—awesomely calling individuals to radical action rather than offering sentimental appeasement.

For the manger scene itself, as you may have guessed, it was easy among the staid and high-end church members to cast the roles of the ox and of the ass and of the many docile sheep. Easy also to cast the unwelcoming innkeeper and King Herod frightened of losing power and the indifferent Caesar Augustus only interested in the bottom line, the church budget.

A few were at least willing to play one of the pageant’s two leading characters, Joseph, who at first wanted to put his pregnant betrothed away in a closet somewhere to avoid public disgrace. You will recall that Joseph had a change of heart after having his own vision of an angel, then choosing to serve as a kind of behind-the-scenes partner to the inevitably unfolding will of God, a ferocious will contrary to decency and order, a decency and order Joseph wanted to at least appear to uphold by his outward compliance.

But nobody wanted to play the role of Mary in the Christmas pageant. “Somebody’s gotta play Mary!” the stage manager Gabriel shouted out, sounding very much like the gravelly voice of Harvey Fierstein. “No Mary, no Jesus!” he cried bluntly.

You see, nobody respectable wanted to play Mary because of the shame of her unwed pregnancy. And absolutely no one wanted to go through the bloody and painful job of giving birth to a new thing.

Mary’s fidelity to God, her willingness to say, “Here I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”—all of this counted for naught in the eyes of these good people. The Holy Spirit was knitting together in her womb the new thing for which the prophets hoped, yet, like all nativities of the Spirit, “the powers that be” trembled, including these dignified religious types. Mary’s birthing this child would be an unsettling and unclean act, embarrassing rather than admirable.

“Mary is not a good role model for our children,” someone said.

Stage manager Gabriel again implored the crowd, “C’mon! As Mary, you get to magnify and rejoice in the Lord and be called blessed by generations to come, though admittedly not this generation. You get to serve as God’s instrument to scatter the proud in their presumptuous imaginations, lifting the downtrodden even as the powerful are taken off their high horse. Your mission is to fill the hungry with good things, and to remind the privileged of their own poverty. This is a good thing. Really.”

Visiting the church for the first time, a timid and small young girl came forward, a recent immigrant with olive skin and dark brown eyes and thick black hair, and simply said, “Here am I.” Gabriel, exasperated by everyone else’s resistance, asked, “So—ya wanna be Mary?” And because his language was new to her, she simply quoted Mary’s line, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

And so the respectable church filled with respectable members was able to put on its pageant, reliving the Christmas story, but they did not live happily ever after. For the nature of all nativities of the Spirit humbles those with privilege and uplifts the underprivileged, shaming the proud and bringing mercy and justice to the oppressed.

But that can’t happen unless someone is willing to be Mary.

You may support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Let It Go (A New Nativity)

Wish I could always be this peaceful!

Have you ever been in the grip of something? Something that wouldn’t let go of you or that you couldn’t let go of?

Have you ever felt possessed or been obsessed by something? Or, after doing something, asked, “Whatever possessed me to do this or that or the other thing?”

What about being gripped by fear? Or overtaken by anger? Or grief? Or anxiety? Or stress? Or lust—that is, an overwhelming desire to have something or someone?

Have you had the experience of being in the grasp of infatuation—that is, something that felt like love but was more like fear of being deprived of the object of your attraction?

Have you ever been possessed by an addiction—that is, something that once gave pleasure but became more about fear of being deprived of it? We tend to think of drugs or alcohol in this regard, but it may be something as ennobling as our work, our convictions, our causes, even our compassion. (Yes, compassion! We know compassion has “possessed” us when we experience burnout in its wake.)

Once I was looking for the remote control and I became absolutely obsessed with finding it right then and there. “What was that all about?” I wondered later. Surely the margaritas earlier in the evening did not help. But there was something more. As I get older, I misplace more things, I have greater difficulty finding things, and I don’t like it one bit. I was gripped temporarily by anger at myself, gripped for the moment by fear of losing my faculties, gripped by anxiety over loss of control that the remote symbolizes in our age. After all, it is called the remote control!

My obsession with finding the remote alarmed Wade and some friends who had joined us to watch a film together—and I apologized. Where was my Christian calm? Where was my Buddhist detachment? What happened to my “spiritual” demeanor? I’m a “propagandist” for the contemplative life, for God’s sake—why do I let the “things of this world” trouble me so much?

Well, you know, we’re all “works in progress,” as they say.

I invite you to make a fist with one hand, as tight as you can. Put whatever anger, stress, or fear you can into that fist. Do you feel the blood being squeezed out of your hand along with all of its oxygen that feeds the cells?

Now keep it clenched and, with the other hand, try to open it. No luck, huh? Now release your fist slowly. Feel the blood flowing again, bringing oxygen—breath—into its flesh. With your other hand, gently massage your hand, caressing its palm, running fingers along the inside of the fingers that have been clenched. Feel the pleasure of it. Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. Take another deep breath and imagine that breath coming into your heart and radiating through your blood vessels to the palm of your hand, then to the tips of your fingers.

Almost all of us at one time or another become like clenched fists. The agenda of a day may slowly constrict us. Worries at work may cramp us. Expectations of others or of ourselves may constrain us. A diagnosis may confine us. Anxieties about world events may restrain us. We need release.

Last week’s Midrash referenced one possessed by an unclean spirit. In an encounter with Jesus, the unclean spirit convulses the man, screaming, and releases the person from its grip. What may possess one person for a lifetime may possess any of us for a moment. We all need release.

Nowadays what was understood as unclean spirits are neatly catalogued by doctors and therapists in diagnostic manuals. Treatments and medicine are prescribed. This gives an illusion of control—knowing what it is, knowing what to do. But control is not release. Jesus releases. He does not simply control.

Think of the fist you just made. Your other hand may be able to control it, but to open it requires another strategy that inspires the cooperation of the clenched hand.

This may be a new way to comprehend our selves as Christ’s body. Mystically we breathe in his Spirit, even as he nourishes us and quenches our thirst. His breath, body, and blood flow through us, unclenching our minds, our hearts, our hands. Jesus is born again in us into a world desperately in need of release.

You may support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Find Your Lonely Place

A Midrash on Mark 1:21-39

Jesus has had a busy Sunday. What was supposed to be a day of rest had him teaching in church, confronting old ways of interpreting scripture, challenging dogma, and bringing fresh spiritual insights to the congregation he was visiting.

The congregation thought he had a lot of chutzpah to teach as if he knew what he was talking about, because he wasn’t trained or ordained or in any way approved by the powers that be. Who is this guy anyway? He’s too sure of himself, too cocky. How dare he speak with such authority?

And then the embarrassment of the congregation shows up—that guy with the unclean spirit, called unclean because his weirdness includes a lack of personal hygiene and social skills, a loss of a place to call home, a loss of family and friends.

This odd-man-out and Jesus speak as if they know each other, and suddenly the man is in his right mind, leaves to get a bath and shows up again in clean clothes. Now who’s the congregation going to have to make fun of or feel superior to or exclude? The congregation again is astonished, “Who is this guy that he can clean up this guy’s act with mere words?” And just as suddenly, Jesus’ fresh teaching and healing touch start trending on social media.

Jesus and his buddies go to the house of Simon’s mother-in-law to crash, but she’s sick. So Jesus takes her by the hand and she feels better and gets up and makes them all matzo kosher pizza. But she’s in for a surprise. Jesus has become such a celebrity that not even the paparazzi can get close. Surrounding her door that evening were people with all sorts of ailments, trials, and tribulations, hoping for a glimpse of Jesus, hoping for his healing touch.

After everyone goes home, Jesus opens his laptop and checks his e-mails and finds thousands of messages. He deletes the ones promising a flat stomach, an improved website, a better sex life. He deletes the ones that promise a cut of an estate and others soliciting financial support for their ministries. (Spam filters of ancient times weren’t so good.) Then he works through the remaining e-mails one by one. Some are critical of him healing the man with the unclean spirit on a Sunday. Others disputed his teaching and orthodoxy.

Still others are complaining about the traffic in the neighborhood where he’s staying. “Can’t you heal these people somewhere else?” they question. But most are just seeking some type of healing for themselves or someone they love, and he sends them his prayers and his love.

It’s past midnight when he turns in. He’s sleeping on the foldout sleeper sofa in the living room, which means he’ll be the last to go to sleep and the first to get up in the morning. He wakes in the middle of the night, thinking about all that he needs to do, all that he intended to do the previous day, and the people who think he’s making a big mistake, perhaps possessed himself.

He thinks about the uncertain, even dangerous political situation, and all the injustice and suffering in the world. And then he considers ways of talking with people, devising parables about the kingdom of God—about a sower with seeds, about a lamp hidden under a bushel basket, about faith as small as a mustard seed. He considers a list of beatitudes for tweeting later, kind of his “to do” list for the day.

Jesus gets up while it’s still dark and in the light of the moon walks to a lonely place, and there he prays. Giving everything up to his Higher Power gives him the rest he has needed all day and all night. His soul rests in God. He’s home being rocked in God’s arms again. He remembers where he came from and where he’s going; he remembers who he is; he remembers that his only calling is to proclaim the reign of God—not to bring it in himself. God will take care of that in God’s own good time. Jesus has finally caught his breath, a breath of Holy Spirit.

Then his cellphone rings—his ringtone is the sound of cathedral bells. (For those who don’t believe Jesus had a cellphone, remember, he calls his disciples earlier in the chapter.) It’s Simon Peter on the phone, “Where are you, Jesus? Everyone’s been looking for you.”

Jesus lets out a big sigh, his prayer time interrupted, and replies, “Yeah, okay, let’s go on to the neighboring towns and rural areas and preach the good news of God’s reign there too, because that’s why I came out.”

You may support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Jesus, the Biggest Loser

Today I have allowed a mysterious stranger (not unlike the one Mark Twain wrote about) to pen this post, one who wants to remain uncharacteristically anonymous. For balance, however, I have followed this screed with creed.

Anyone who gets crucified is a loser. Someone who can’t save himself cannot possibly save the world. He certainly shouldn’t have his name on so many buildings.

Jesus, you hung around with losers. You could’ve had the best seat in the house and hung out with winners, but you preferred people I wouldn’t even spit at.

And your speeches are all for losers. The meek inherit the earth? Ha! Love your enemies? Gimme a break! Go the extra mile? On whose dime? If someone sues you for your cloak, give your coat as well? That’s only if you can’t afford a good lawyer or a creative accountant.

Blessed are the poor? What were you smokin’? Theirs is the kingdom of heaven? Sounds like welfare and entitlements to me! Woe to you who are rich? That’s the line of those income inequality guys.

Anyone who gains the whole world is a winner in my book, not a loser!

Your best speechwriter was John, who made grand claims on your behalf, but John lived almost a century too late. Boy, I’d love to get my hands on those lost gospels—maybe they’d show you up for what you were.

Jesus, ya shoulda listened to me in the wilderness! Tell people stones are bread! Keep doing and saying spectacular things to get noticed! Worship anything that gives you power!

Now, a lot of your followers have taken my advice, and are doing quite well, much better than you. That’s the power of positive thinking, speaking in superlatives, and telling people what they want to hear. In truth, many of your followers are embarrassed by you and by your weak, socialist ways. They want a winner, that’s why they declare you king, when you and I both know you’re only the king of losers.

Telling people they need to change their ways is a downer. Challenging them on those they exclude or mistreat or judge is not the way to win friends and influence people. And telling ‘em to be compassionate, like God—haven’t you read the Bible? Wrathful and jealous, ready with the fire and brimstone and Tweets, giving ‘em hell!  I incarnate that God better than you!

Now I gotta admit the Resurrection was a good deception. Makes people believe that you were really successful, that what you taught was right, even eternal. But we both know the truth, don’t we? Your life and your words no longer live and have not changed the world for the better. Where is this kingdom of heaven you promised? Looks like I’m not the only one pretending to be a messiah.

Give it up, Jesus! You’re fired!

So this contributor doesn’t have the last word, I’d like to provide an excerpt from Paul Ramsey’s Basic Christian Ethics (1950), a text I read in college, followed by a scripture from Philippians: 
Ordinarily it is supposed that the way to obtain a more and more perfect conception of the divine nature is to add on as much power as possible, as much impeccable self-sufficiency, as much imperturbable sovereignty, as much unqualified majesty. …

However, from a Christian point of view it is possible to think of God too highly, for Christ reverses all we expect Highness to be; the God who put him forward is one whose “grace” is only his mercy and forgiveness. Of him we cannot think too lowly. …

Such radical reversal of ordinary conceptions of the divine nature follows from the basic conviction that Christ is clue to knowledge of God. Christianity does not say, “Behold the Christ, half-God, half-man, Behold glorious strength thinly disguised, Behold Superman in a business suit, Behold the majestic God you know already in a peasant’s tunic.”

Instead the New Testament proclaims, “Behold weakness, Behold divinity divine enough to abandon divinity, Behold majesty secure enough to proceed un-majestically, Behold strength strong enough to become weakness, goodness good enough to be unmindful of its own reputation, Behold love plenteous enough to give and take not again.” 
Philippians 2:4-8: 
Let each of you look not to your own interests,
But to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

You may support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.