Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Meanings of Christmas

Btw, I'll be preaching during the 11 a.m. worship of Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church this coming Sunday, Dec. 29, here in Atlanta.


“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

Queen Latifah’s Last Holiday has joined my short list of “must see” holiday movies each year, joining the ranks of It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife, and at least one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol. It’s the story of a working class dreamer told she has three weeks to live. She splurges on a trip to an exclusive European hotel whose restaurant features a world-class chef. A chef wannabe, she endears herself to him by wanting to taste as many of his gourmet offerings as possible. At one point he tells her that shiitake mushrooms get all the press, but a radish can be prepared as a mouth-watering dish, explaining,

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but without his subsequent life, we would never have known him.

I have fond memories of Yale Divinity School’s celebration of Christmas each year in the mid 1970's. The silver and china came out in the dining hall, prime rib was the main course, we dressed up, the choir gave a concert in our white New England chapel, and in front of the decorated fireplace in the wainscoted Common Room, the charming old Luther scholar Roland Bainton would make a delightful presentation of how Martin Luther would’ve told the story of Jesus’ nativity. We concluded the evening by everyone singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

One Advent in morning chapel, an African American student dropped a verbal bomb into this cozy observance of Christmas by beginning his homily, rather harshly, “There would be no Christmas without the crucifixion,” a refrain he repeated several times during his sermon. It felt like an unnecessary attack on a warm and fuzzy season.

But he was right.

Though I can’t believe the early Christian concept that Jesus was crucified to obtain God’s forgiveness, my unbelief does not diminish but rather enhances Jesus’ sacrifice, in my view. Jesus was willing to live and die what he believed and what he taught regardless of consequences. That to me is a greater sacrifice than his death being a means to an end, even if that end is the salvation of the world.

What we have in that early Christian belief, though, is a spiritual understanding of God’s child as vulnerable, born poor, reared in a subjugated country’s backwaters, risking even death to remind us of God’s gracious love and to urge us to love just as graciously.  As God’s children too, we might prove as willing. After all, the story’s ending is not the crucifixion, but all who follow Jesus for generations to come.

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”


Related posts:
Honoring Christmas in 2012 [re Dickens’ A Christmas Carol]
Wise as Serpents [re Mary’s Magnificat]
The Soul Feels Its Worth [re O Holy Night]

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC supported solely by readers. Please click here to make a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Kidnapping Jesus

On several occasions I have persuaded George Lynch to tell his story about fellow students at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia kidnapping the baby Jesus from the manger of the Christmas crèche, holding him hostage until the food in the dining hall was improved.

As funny as this may be, it has occurred to me during this Advent season that many if not most of us have kidnapped Jesus for our own purposes, one who is particularly vulnerable at this time of year—an infant, a tabula rasa, in a season sentimentalized by memories, stories, films, fund raisers, and marketers.

This thought came to me as I switched back and forth between the enchanting boys’ choir Libera singing Christmas songs in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Northern Ireland and the pop singers belting out Christmas hits in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza in preparation for lighting its Christmas tree. When PBS gave its long pleas for pledges I switched to NBC; when NBC went to commercial or had a particularly raucous performer I switched back to PBS.

My temptation was to judge NBC’s loud celebration of Christmas, given my greater pleasure of the quieter and gentler voices of the boys’ choir, using the metaphor of kidnapping Jesus—but then I realized I would be equally guilty of abducting Jesus for my own agenda. After all, NBC’s style of Christmas observance would suit me and perhaps any of us in a different mood or context, and it was only a little more commercial than PBS’s use of its concert as a fundraising tool and Libera’s promotion of CDs and DVDs.

And here I’m using all of this as content for this post—though my blog is hardly “commercial,” given my rejection of ads on the site, and that donations for this year have totaled just $625 as we approach a total of 100,000 visits since this blog’s inception!

Whoops—did I just try to “kidnap” Jesus myself?!

Earlier that day, folding laundry, I listened to NPR. As I rolled my t-shirts, another segment in their series about where t-shirts come from made me think about where Jesus came from. The series has highlighted the market forces that have clothing manufacturers moving from region to region, from country to country, in search of the cheapest and most exploitable labor to make the very t-shirts I was folding.  “The clothing industry follows poverty,” one expert explained.

It stunned me.

Regardless of the various agendas for which we have kidnapped Jesus, it’s pretty universally believed that he came from poverty, illiteracy, and obscurity. He would have been the perfect employee to satisfy our taste for cheap goods.

Thank God he was given a different vocation.



Be sure to catch next week’s post on Christmas day:

Related post:

Post related to the recent Sound of Music live television production:

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC supported solely by readers. Please click here to make a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Knowing Your Place

“Knowing your place” reeks of paternalism, of social control, of political, economic, or religious domination. Yet it may also speak of recognizing your rightful place, your context, your own calling in the scheme of things—not above another, not below another, but next to one another in the march, the dance, the race toward freedom, justice, and peace.

I write these words while watching the memorial service for Nelson Mandela—one who had the audacity and right to call the Queen of England by her Christian name, Elizabeth; one who knew how to disarm an opponent by serving tea, by refusing to humiliate those with whom he struggled, by realizing that the end of apartheid would not bring dignity to black South Africans (whose dignity was inherent) but to the shamed ruling white South Africans. Repeatedly Mandela is recognized as one of an elite circle of African liberators, but one who knew when to step down, when to let others lead, and when, as President Obama has been characterized, to be seen as “leading from behind.”

According to The New York Times: 
In his autobiography, Mr. Mandela recalled eavesdropping on the endless consensus-seeking deliberations of the tribal council and noticing that the chief worked “like a shepherd.”

“He stays behind the flock,” he continued, “letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

That would often be his own style as leader and president.
Noting a memorial service speaker visibly angry at the crowd singing as she tried to speak, a news commentator got it right when observing that Mandela’s approach would’ve been to start swaying and dancing to their music before attempting to address the gathering.

In an interview this week as a Kennedy Center honoree, the performer Santana declared that truly great musicians “remind you of a song you already know.” I think that’s also true of truly great leaders, political or spiritual.

Those of us watching surely feel humility in this celebration of Mandela’s greatness. Our own roles on life’s stage may feel like bit parts, walk-ons, stagehands, or audience. “Knowing our place” means appropriate humility. But, as Mandela’s royal tribal lineage might have helped his confidence addressing “the powers that be,” our own lineage, made in the image of God and fellow citizens with the saints in God’s commonwealth, may give us similar confidence.

The words of the old Hasidic Rabbi Zusya both comfort and challenge: “In the life to come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

And in his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen reminds, “The great saints of the past don’t ask for imitation. Their way was unique and cannot be repeated. But they invite us into their lives and offer a hospitable space for our own search.”

Some of you know my fondness for the metaphor of God as shepherd, one who persuades rather than coerces, one who “leads from behind,” one who “reminds us of a song we already know,” one who invites us into the divine life, offering “a hospitable space for our own search” in making our unique contributions to the world.

Mandela once said he was not a saint, “unless a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.” His life invites us to keep trying.



Related post:
God Is Not a Control Freak


Post related to the first anniversary of the Newtown massacre:

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Please click here to provide financial support. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nativity Stories

The book links are offered for your convenience; I receive no compensation from providers.

We each have our own “nativity story.”

Mine is that it was a difficult birth, a prolonged labor, my mother turned blue, my father told the doctor she needed oxygen, I was born feet first, my legs were crooked and doctors wanted to put braces on them, but my mother resisted, choosing another therapy: massaging my legs. My Aunt Blanche loved to tell the story of carrying me wrapped in a blanket from the car, having just come from the hospital, and uncovering my head, expecting to find me sound asleep, but instead, found my eyes wide open in wonder, and my head bobbing every which way to see as much as I could see. Dad enjoyed recounting rocking me a very long time while I stubbornly refused to go to sleep. Decades later, after I had chosen to enter the ministry, my mother explained that she had dedicated me to God’s service in the womb, thus my name, “Christopher,” which means “Christ-bearer.” 

In truth, we each have multiple nativity stories: family-oriented, as above, but also spiritual, sexual, social, vocational, and so on. I believe it’s important that we first, remember them, and second, tell them. Much of my work has been about coaxing and coaching people in telling their stories, usually as a volunteer.  I told my own complex “nativity” or coming out story in my first book, Uncommon Calling.


At our mutual friend Janie Spahr’s suggestion, Mary Ann Woodruff approached me earlier this year to read and possibly write the foreword to her memoir, The Last of the Good Girls: Shedding Convention, Coming Out Whole. I was so much in awe of her book’s literary qualities, I couldn’t imagine writing a foreword that could do it justice, so I kept it short, beginning: 

“This engaging, heartfelt memoir quotes Judith Barrington from a 1993 poetry workshop: ‘The poet’s job is to write the truth. And then write the truth below the truth.’ That is precisely what Mary Ann Woodruff has done in often lyrical prose and occasional poetry. She did it first with her life, discovering truth under truth, and now with this remarkable book. A life well-lived deserves a story well-told such as this.”

Woodruff’s prose and poetry rises to the occasion of her remarkable life of self-discovery and growing confidence in herself as daughter, wife, mother, Christian, consultant, writer, feminist, and lover. I am looking forward to meeting her face-to-face when, by coincidence, I speak at her church in Seattle this January.

The day I am writing this I am looking forward to meeting another astounding author at a coffee shop in adjacent Decatur. Yesterday I finished reading Connie Tuttle’s as yet unpublished memoir, A Gracious Heresy, and I was taken by the sometimes non-traditional trajectory of her spirituality and calling as a Christian minister, one that her denomination, seminary, and presbytery found challenging. Her writing too is of a captivating literary quality. She intentionally made me laugh, angry at other times as I realized our shared experience of a church that is still largely unwelcoming of LGBT clergy, and yet ultimately hopeful about our shared intent to make the church a better place for all.

She is the founding pastor of Circle of Grace Community Church (soon to celebrate its 20th anniversary) that my friend Erin Swenson used to attend on Sunday evenings. Erin too has written a remarkable memoir of her transition as a transgender Presbyterian minister, If Anybody Asks You Who I Am… I served as Erin’s writing coach, meeting regularly as she finished chapter after chapter to consult, but mostly to encourage. Her book is another literary masterpiece that has not yet found a publisher.

From an Assembly of God perspective, Randy Eddy-McCain sent me a manuscript of his own  memoir growing up in Arkansas, And God Save Judy Garland: A Gay Christian’s Journey. Well written, edited by Peggy Campolo and now recommended by Jay Bakker, it tells his own “nativity” story discovering his sexuality in the evangelical world.  At the behest of those who’ve read it, he has successfully raised funding on Kickstarter to publish and publicize this needed addition to LGBT Christian storytelling.

My friend Joe Cobb and his former wife, Leigh Ann Taylor, remind people that “coming out” is not just for individuals in Our Family Outing: A Memoir of Coming Out and Coming Through. Taking turns writing their story as a family, the reader better understands what a loving marriage is all about and how spouses and children have their own nativity stories.

R. Z. Halleson reminds us that the nativity story of another can be told by a writer like her who is attentive, compassionate, and detail-oriented in her novel Ambiguous, based on a true story of three airmen in the 50s and 60s coming to terms with sexuality. Years ago, Ruth asked me to advise her on the manuscript, and the book was finally published this year.

My former partner, Mark King, has written his own nativity story about coming out of addiction and coping with HIV in A Place Like This: A Memoir.  I encouraged him to write it and served as his first reader, but was surprised nonetheless to have him dedicate the book to me, long after our relationship ended. It’s a very good read, disturbingly honest, touchingly poignant, and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Finally, I am grateful to be included in professor Patrick Cheng’s Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, an accessible round-up of  LGBT theologians, and R. W. Holmen’s carefully researched and well-written story of the LGBT Christian nativity and movement within five mainstream Protestant denominations, soon to be released, Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.

These weeks of Advent need not be just about the nativity of Jesus, but all the nativities of the Spirit his story has inspired, including your own.


Related posts: 

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Click here to discover how you may support this ministry. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

To Be or Not to Be

For Hamlet, as for many young people, “that is the question.” In my sixties, I experience it more as a simple declaratory sentence.

I am more passionate than ever. But the often conflicting and tumultuous passions of my youth had an either-or, sometimes judgmental edge to them, rather than a both-and, welcoming quality. Choices had to be made. Nothing was worse than fence-sitting or being middle of the road, or, in the case of the church of Laodicea in Revelation, being lukewarm.

Older, presenting to church audiences a progressive understanding of sexuality, gender, and also spirituality as broad spectrums of identity and experience, I sometimes pointed to my slacks, saying, “I wish we had the same tolerance for ambiguity that my dry cleaner has. Every time I get these pants back, the crease line is in a different place.”

The lines are always changing. Boundaries too. And our places along those spectrums, lines, and boundaries. As an old hymn about God’s commonwealth declares: 
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.
Many of us had our Christianity questioned by those who wouldn’t let go of their certainties: There is “One Way”: to read the Bible, to follow Jesus, to be saved. There is one Christian lifestyle. You can’t be Christian and (fill in the blank: gay, agnostic, divorced, use contraceptives, etc.). 

Orthodoxy literally means “straight or right opinion,” and I like to joke that I can’t even think straight. My “fundamentals” of faith would be very different from those who claim a fundamentalist identity. So too my understanding of “evangelical.” I think Jesus would differ from them as well.

We often feel pressure to make choices that conform to those of peers, parents, partners, or preachers. We may question our very lives: “To be or not to be?”

We have “not been” most of eternity. Best to make the best of being now.  In the words of poet Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”



Related posts:

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Click here to discover how you may support this ministry. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Letter to President Kennedy, Thanksgiving 1963

Thanksgiving, 1963

Dear President Kennedy,

Thank you for being our President. I am so sorry you were shot. It’s hard to believe. We prayed for you at our Christian school, even though you are Catholic.

I was so very sad all that weekend, watching all the news about your death. We went to a Mexican restaurant that Saturday night to get away from the TV and I was surprised to find it was filled with people having a good time, laughing as if nothing had happened. I just turned 13 last month, but it felt wrong. I felt so sad for your family and for our country. You were so smart and funny, good-looking and cool, and you did a lot of good. I especially liked your Peace Corps idea.

Sunday morning I saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot live on TV. I did not feel good about that, but was glad he would no longer get so much attention.

I know my Aunt Helen is particularly sad. She took my older brother to the Democratic Convention here in Los Angeles when you were nominated for President, and as a high school math teacher in Kansas, she is active in the NEA.

My parents loved Roosevelt and Truman, and voted for Adlai Stevenson twice. Please don’t hold it against us that they voted for Nixon partly out of fear that you would be under the Pope’s control. (By the way, I was very sorry that Pope John XXIII died this past summer. I knew the world had lost a great man.) And please forgive me that I have been supporting Goldwater lately.

Even though many of our friends are Republicans, some of our best friends are Democrats, and we are glad that Republicans and Democrats can get along despite their differences.

I am so glad you were President when the Russians tried to put missiles in Cuba. We were having a schoolwide assembly for my junior high when Mrs. Gerrald, our principal, announced the Russian ships had turned around. We were very happy, because we were afraid we were going to have the atomic war we have been afraid of all of our lives. Mrs. Gerrald was also the one who went from class to class, including my English class, to announce you had been shot in Texas. My algebra teacher Mr. Parrish said it was likely the singlemost historic event that we would ever witness. I wonder if that’s true.

My mother cried when they took your rocking chairs out of the White House.

I greatly admire you, and I want to be like you when I grow up.

We will never forget you.

Love,
Chris


While the content is true, this letter is a work of imagination, and I invite readers old enough to remember President Kennedy’s assassination to consider writing their own letters from the perspective of their age and experience at the time. It may help us understand why his life and death and that era meant so much to so many over the past 50 years.

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Your donations by mail or credit card are its only means of support. Please click here to contribute. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Veterans


I’m always a little surprised by how many veterans there are within predominantly LGBT congregations. This past Sunday was no different at Dallas’s Cathedral of Hope, when veterans were invited to stand and be recognized for their service, and I would guess around 30 or more rose at each worship. A nice touch was that the prayers remembered not only veterans, but conscientious objectors like Bayard Rustin.

It surprises me because, during the draft, they could have avoided service by revealing their homosexuality, and since then, in the volunteer military service era, LGBT people were not welcome, risking their livelihoods and sometimes their lives not only in the service, but in future employment if they received a dishonorable discharge. Part of my surprise is that LGBT citizens and other marginalized citizens have been willing to give their all, even when the countries they served did not give them all that other citizens expected. I think back on a member of MCC San Francisco who was the most decorated Vietnam veteran and was a gay African American.

At a Philadelphia television station in 1975, I participated in a live broadcast forum on gay rights that featured Leonard Matlovich, who had just that week made it to the cover of Time magazine for his courageous coming out as gay in the U. S. Air Force, giving us the famous ironic quote about his being given “a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”  Much to my surprise, one of my roommates invited him to stay in our house that night, and my claim to fame is that he borrowed my razor the next morning!

All this made me think of the “veterans” of church service who are LGBT, not just those of us who were activists but all those who gave the church their all when the church refused to welcome their love and their beloved. The Shower of Stoles re-presents many of those veterans, remembering their contributions to the Body of Christ. And among those memorialized by the AIDS Quilt are many who served the church in a variety of ways. Now a carefully researched book by R. W. Holmen released by Pilgrim Press this month tells the story of the unsung heroes of the LGBT Christian movement in five mainstream denominations, Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.

At the Cathedral of Hope I met so many clergy and church workers who have served or are serving a wide variety of denominations and traditions that I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the national gatherings of each denomination would take a moment to invite LGBT veterans of church service to stand and be recognized? They would be astonished to see how many there are of us, and it would be gratifying to hear from them, “Thank you for your service.”

Watch Chris's sermon "Don't Give Up!" at the Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas this past Sunday, Nov. 10, or watch the entire worship.

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Your donations by mail or credit card are its only means of support. Thank you!


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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Naked in Church

I recently e-mailed the Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas about “proper attire” for preaching there this coming Sunday (on Saturday I’ll also be leading a morning retreat on “Seeing as if for the First Time” and an afternoon retreat, “The Wounded Healer vs. Getting Hooked in Our Wounds”). And so I thought of naming this post “Proper Attire.” But “Naked in Church” is more likely to draw you in!

I have many “naked” dreams, easily explained because I sleep in the buff. That may be T.M.I., but it lessens attempts to over-psychologize these dreams, though much could be made of an introvert having such dreams! Of course, I have dreams about being naked in church as well. And it always seems normal and I am unashamed, but sometimes think perhaps I should be, because I am the only one in the nude.

A couple of weeks ago I had a dream in which I was visiting a traditional Lutheran church, sitting naked on the last pew. But it was okay—it was a “Reconciling in Christ” or welcoming congregation, and no one seemed to mind!

Last week, in the early morning hours of All Saints Day, I had two such dreams. In the first, an African American woman pastor had invited me to participate in worship at a praise-style service for her multi-racial congregation. In the second, I was to be the speaker during an interfaith Pride service—at which I was only shirtless, but debating whether to wear a gay rainbow flag stole.  (At least my naked church dreams are ecumenical, interfaith, and multiracial!)

And though any of us may feel either shame or pride in our bodies, given our own expectations and unfortunately that of others, I was feeling proud because I had lost 25 pounds over the summer through vigorous running, swimming, workouts, and careful eating. (This is true, not a dream!)

All this is to say that I think our God-given birthday suits should be considered “proper attire” in church, because this is one of the places we encounter a God who can see right through our facades and modesties to our vulnerabilities and strengths.  After all, confession began as a spiritual discipline that could be described as being naked in God’s presence, honestly confessing virtues as well as sins.

The Rev. Roy Birchard, a friend who served an MCC in Manhattan, once gave a remarkable sermon on Joseph’s coat of many colors, which was really a robe with sleeves, meaning he could do no manual labor, suggesting privilege.

Attired in his preacher’s academic robe and stole, Roy explained how this “uniform” gave him “authority” to preach and do sacraments, as well as to teach. Taking it off in the pulpit, he revealed a suit and tie beneath that he wore in his day-to-day work in the national offices of the Presbyterian church, then in New York City. Stripping further, he removed his tie, coat, and shirt, revealing a simple white t-shirt beneath, over which he pulled a black leather jacket. “And this is how I dress when I go out to the bars,” he said, implying that each layer represented a different kind of drag that gave him access and authority in different venues.

Adam and Eve once strolled naked with their Creator in Eden and were unashamed. King David danced virtually naked parading the Ark of the Covenant, God’s presence, into his new capital, Jerusalem.  Jesus was baptized naked at the hands of John the Baptizer, and Jesus heard God call him Beloved.

So being naked with God is quite traditional!

But I’ll have clothes on this Sunday.


Related post:

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Your donations by mail or credit card are its only means of support. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Inventing Jesus

I once wrote on this blog that if Jesus had not existed, we would have had to invent him. And according to Reza Aslan’s bestselling Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, we did. That is, the Jesus we all know and love.

You might recall I bought the book on my birthday earlier this month when I was stuck for ten hours in the Cincinnati  airport, diverted there for repairs to my plane. I heard about it via an offensive Fox news interview gone viral on the internet in which Aslan was asked repeatedly why a Muslim would write about Jesus.

The controversial thesis of the book is that the historical Jesus was in reality a revolutionary unopposed to violence, one whom early Christians transformed into a more agreeable and thus more acceptable (to Rome) figure of peace and love. Many of you know that Aslan is not the first to assert this, something Aslan confirms, as he considers his well-written and informative narrative the sum of biblical scholarship to date (others disagree).

A Christian Century review by professor Greg Carey serves as a corrective to this view of Jesus, explaining that “Jewish resistance did not always imply violence.” I would add that I think Jesus would have been far less memorable if he were a conventional revolutionary.

And Carey points out what I noted reading the book that “Aslan sometimes regards the Gospels critically, and he sometimes takes them at face value, but I cannot discern the criteria by which he makes such decisions.” Finally, Carey takes Aslan to task for “the played-out model that Paul ‘invented’ Christianity,” and for “posit[ing] a Jewish Jesus tradition that did without the idea of Jesus’ divinity.”

Which brings me back to inventing Jesus. What we have, I believe, are stories and teachings of one who had and has a transforming effect on people for the better, a transformation variously called healing, saving, liberating, redeeming, reconciling, forgiving, and atoning. Doesn’t mean that these people didn’t mess up—we have church history and our own lives to prove that. But we needed and need someone like Jesus to remind us that we are all children of God, with all the privileges and responsibilities. And that’s divine in my book.

What Henri Nouwen wrote about the Eucharist in Creative Ministry seems pertinent here: 
We will never fully understand the meaning of the sacramental signs of bread and wine when they do not make us realize that the whole of nature is a sacrament pointing to a reality far beyond itself. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist becomes a “special problem” only when we have lost our sense of His presence in all that is, grows, lives, and dies. … Bread is more than bread; wine is more than wine: it is God with us—not as an isolated event once a week but as the concentration of a mystery about which all of nature speaks day and night (p 102-103).
The Jesus of faith reminds us that God is always with us. To paraphrase Henri, the presence of God in Jesus becomes a “special problem” only when we have lost our sense of God’s presence in all that is, grows, lives, and dies.


For a rabbi’s more extensive review of Zealot, click here.

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Your donations by mail or credit card are its only means of support. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wrestling with God

In thanksgiving for the life, ministry, and friendship of the Rev. Peg Beissert (1914-2013), a widow who wrestled with “the powers that be” to bring justice to us all.

This past Sunday I spoke to MCC Winston-Salem about the lectionary readings for the day: the Genesis passage of Jacob wrestling with God and Jesus’ parable of the widow wrestling with the unjust judge, wrestling with “the powers that be.” I’ve decided to share a few of those thoughts with you…

As a young boy, I have a fond memory wrestling with my dad. It was a friendly competition. I felt his strength but it inflicted no pain, and we were usually smiling through the whole wrestling match. It seemed a part of my brother’s and my rite of passage into manhood, but it also brought us close to him, and the physical intimacy felt good.

Slightly older, I wrestled with my boyhood friend from church, again in a friendly way—my idea. But I had to move into another room quickly because I was aroused and didn’t want him to see. In high school, though I wanted to take a weightlifting class, I didn’t, because it required wrestling, and I was afraid my secret would come out in such close proximity to another teenage boy.

James B. Nelson is one of the pioneer writers in body theology, a theology that recognizes the body as a place where we may meet the holy, where we may encounter God. There are dozens and dozens of body theologians now, many of them women, from racial minorities, or LGBT. But Professor Nelson is a straight, white male.

Nelson writes that during one service of Holy Communion, he rose to go forward to receive the consecrated bread and wine and realized to his consternation that he was aroused. He uses this involuntary response to illustrate the continuity of body and spirit, sexuality and spirituality. After all, eros, what I have nicknamed “the urge to merge,” is the fuel that feeds both our sexual and spiritual encounters, both lovemaking and prayermaking—we want to be one with another, whether with a partner or with God. We want to hold on until they bless us.

In one of the workshops I led as part of an LGBTQ spirituality event during Winston-Salem’s Pride weekend, I told the story (which has appeared in several of my books) of a woman who once attended a “church and homosexuality” workshop I led years ago. She had no religious background, she explained, but in her lovemaking with her partner she had discovered a spiritual realm she had never before experienced. “Since spirituality has to do with God,” she said, “I came here to find out about God.”

Just as I feared wrestling with my boyhood friend and teenage gym mates for fear of getting aroused and my secret homosexuality known, many of us fear wrestling with God as well as “the powers that be” because of the passions it arouses in us and the intimacy involved. But God who wrestled mud into human flesh in our creation and wrestled into human flesh in Jesus the Word made flesh badly, passionately, wants to wrestle with us, much like my father did, not to hurt or intimidate or frighten us, but to provide a safe intimacy and rite of passage for our struggle into spiritual maturity, becoming compassionate as our God in heaven is compassionate.

In the children’s sermon I tried to convey that The Bible is full of stories of people who wrestled with God, that church is full of people who wrestle with one another to form spiritual community, and that prayer may serve as a kind of wrestling venue.

Instead of beginning “Let us pray…” perhaps we could say, in the famous words of one wrestling announcer, “Let’s get ready to rummm-bllllle…!”



Related posts:

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Your donations by mail or credit card are its only means of support. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Steadfast Love

I look  forward to seeing you in Winston-Salem, NC, at Wake Forest Divinity School at 5 p.m. Thurs. Oct. 17, at Green St. UMC for “Coming Out of the Wilderness: A Celebration of LGBT Spirituality” (for straight people too!) Oct. 18-19, and preaching on “Wrestling with God” at MCC Winston-Salem Oct. 20.

“I’m going to love you till I don’t love you no more…” So sang a song from the speakers in The Sports Connection, my gym when I lived in West Hollywood. I found the words funny, but when I laughed about them with a fellow weightlifter, he thought he was joining in the joke when he said matter-of-factly, “Yes, isn’t it ludicrous that people think they can promise love into the future?” And this came from someone schooled in the human psyche as a psychiatrist. The humor for me came rather from what I considered an immature, selfish expression, but I withheld my opinion in the face of his comment.

In ministry and in friendships, I have witnessed many people (including myself) who have been confused by the romantic notion that there is only one person in the world for them. When they meet someone and “fall in love,” they think, “Oh, this is the person I’m meant to be with.” But the truth is, there are many, many people with whom each of us may “fall in love.” That suggests using additional criteria for discerning a partner. And it also means, if already partnered, that a new occasion of falling in love may mistakenly prompt one to think that he or she has chosen “the wrong one” originally.

In a chapter entitled “Making Love” in my book, Come Home! Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians, I describe attributes of love lauded in the Bible. This chapter began as a sermon for West Hollywood Presbyterian Church that was a response to the many single gay people and newly-coupled gay or lesbian partners in the late 1970s who kept asking for guidance in establishing and maintaining relationships, now just as relevant as our marriages are being recognized by church and state.

Central to these attributes, in my view, was the repeated theme of God’s steadfast love for us, a love that entails a commitment to expectations, forgiveness, union, and communion. More recently in my book, As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage, I came to the conclusion that marriage is a spiritual discipline or exercise. In the words of Christian ethicist Margaret Farley, “Commitment is our way of trying to give a future to a present love. … Commitment, therefore, is love’s way of being whole when it is not yet whole, love’s way of offering its incapacities as well as its power.” (Personal Commitments, p 40 and 134; see also her latest book, Just Love.) I went on to write, “The marriage commitment is not determined by Genesis, gender, or genitals. The Lord looks on the heart…Christians might lift their gaze and do the same” (As My Own Soul, p 118-119).


Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Your donations by mail or credit card are its only means of support. Thank you!


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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Birthday I'll Never Forget

This weekend, I hope to see those of you in Southern California either at the Henri Nouwen Saturday retreat at All Saints Pasadena, Oct 12, or the 11 a.m. Sunday worship Oct. 13 at West Hollywood UCC, formerly West Hollywood Presbyterian.

Last Thursday was my birthday. And I spent it diverted to the Cincinnati airport en route from Atlanta to Allentown, our intended nonstop flight forced to land there for repairs.

Most people would prefer not to work on their birthdays, but I was looking forward to the annual men’s retreat I co-lead at Kirkridge, and it did not feel like a sacrifice. Yet even more people would prefer not to spend their birthdays stuck in an airport, waiting for mechanics and parts to be flown in from Atlanta for an expected two-hour repair job—well, include me in that number, especially when it meant having a birthday lunch and dinner by myself. What began with my 7:30 a.m. arrival at our airport ended with my 11 p.m. arrival at Kirkridge.

What made it more than bearable, even pleasant, was the camaraderie that developed among us stranded but patient passengers, and even with the airline personnel who, instead of being defensive and distant (as is sometimes the case) were concerned and compassionate and communicative with what little information they were given.

One in particular handled people very well, and I told her so, asking if she had been brought in by the airline for this purpose. She was complimented, but explained those behind the desk were working their regular shifts. But, she explained, she too had been a stranded passenger.

I think it was a bid for understanding rather than attention that prompted me to blurt out, “It’s my birthday!” To which she promptly replied with a smile, “It’s my birthday too.” “What year?” I asked, only to discover we shared the same birth year. Then she volunteered her husband’s October birthday and I told her my partner’s October birthday.

Then, looking at her nametag, I observed, “And we’re both named ‘Chris!’” Though she had looked at my boarding pass when she processed my $6 meal voucher for lunch, she hadn’t made that connection. Separated at birth?! She remarked on this with surprise to her colleagues, and then came around the desk and we shared a birthday hug.

I had just reclined on the floor of the airport in an unobtrusive place to make up the sleep I missed the night before when I heard my name called from the airline desk. They were just beginning to issue vouchers to everyone, and Chris wanted to make sure I got mine—a $50 coupon for a future flight, a $6 voucher for dinner, along with an extra $10 voucher as a birthday present!

I had nothing to give her, but I presented her with my card and explained I wrote this blog. She was interested, she said, because she was a cancer survivor, and I gathered spirituality had been part of her recovery.

Plenty of time on my hands, I browsed the airport bookstore and ended up purchasing myself a birthday present, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I’d been wanting to read it since watching an online video of the author’s patient response to an ignorant Fox news interviewer belligerently questioning whether a Muslim should write about Jesus!

I sat down to read it in Wolfgang Puck’s airport restaurant, taking my time sipping a glass of wine before eventually ordering dinner. (The book is fascinating, and eventually I’ll write about it on this blog.) When I returned to the gate, Chris had saved me a piece of the birthday cake her coworkers gave her. One of those colleagues got on the phone, and soon announced that I was welcome to go upstairs to the Sky Club for a drink. I asked, “Can Chris go with me?” He said “sure” and though she was on duty and could only have a soda, I had a glass of wine and we talked.

I asked what her religious background was. “Roman Catholic and Presbyterian.” “Me too,” I exclaimed, having spent most of my life as a Presbyterian but deeply influenced by Catholic writers. And we ended up talking about the breath of fresh air Pope Francis was bringing the church, Protestant and Catholic. It felt in sync with the ecumenical gathering I was going to.

Though Kirkridge staff and the men of the retreat were very concerned about my plight, I was having a pretty good time! A challenging situation was redeemed by a little mutual understanding and lovingkindness, truly an experience of grace.

The icing on the cake for me was finally walking through the Kirkridge dining hall to my room downstairs and meeting a first-time retreatant who had come, not only because he read my books, but because he shared them with friends.

Everyone should have such a happy birthday!


Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Your donations by mail or credit card are its only means of support. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Evangelical

As a progressive Christian, I am hesitant to admit how dearly I wanted my college buddy to know Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Clearly it was a desire for intimacy on my part, but I also wanted him to know how dearly loved he was: if he could never be told of my love, at least he would know the love of Jesus.

I recognized the experience decades later upon reading Henri Nouwen’s  Life of the Beloved, written for a young secular Jewish friend requesting generic spiritual guidance. Henri wrote:
All I want to say to you is, “You are the beloved,” and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being. (p 26)
When offered the manuscript to read, Henri explains in the epilogue, the young man responded basically “thanks, but no thanks,” as it was still so Christian. But Henri published the book anyway! I gave the book to a gay friend graduating from seminary, fearing that he might lose his sense of belovedness serving the church from the closet.

What awakens these memories is reading again Paul’s letters to his “beloved,” congregations he founded or shaped for whom he behaved as a mother caring for her children (1 Thes. 2:7), treating “every one of you as a father treats his children” (1 Thes. 2:11). I am in awe of Paul’s passion for the first Christians and their passion for one another, sharing all things in common, giving thanks in all circumstances, as well as their passion for loving and helping their neighbors, what made the faith so attractive in its beginnings (see Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief). Among progressive Christians, such passion is often focused in our pursuit of peace and justice. Obviously, that’s a good thing, but do we welcome spiritual intimacy in this process?

Our fear, of course, is becoming like some of our evangelical brothers and sisters, who, as Jesus said of the Pharisees, “cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).

Seeing even “in the center of an intimate relationship the seeds of violence,” Henri critiqued the passion that may lead from embracing to grasping in his third movement of the spiritual life, a movement significantly named “From Illusion to Prayer” in his book Reaching Out (p 84). Prayer and contemplation may lead us away from illusory power and control, away from idols and our own demons.

Religiously, we see this grasping in the misdirected passion of the self-inflicted martyr and would-be terrorist, the inquisitor and the enforcer, that can be found in every faith historically—even among progressive Christians.

The solution for Henri was hospitality, the ancient spiritual practice, which he explains “is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way” (Reaching Out, p 51).

This, to me, is the best spiritual path and practice of progressive Christians.



“Last call” for this weekend’s Kirkridge Oct 3-6 retreat: “For All the Saints!” which includes a film and segment on Henri Nouwen.

Upcoming Henri Nouwen events led by Chris Glaser:

October 12 in Pasadena, CA:
November 9 in Dallas, TX:
January 12, 2014 in Seattle, WA:
January 18, 2014 in Chicago, IL:
            What Community Meant to Henri Nouwen (Sat. aft. TBD)
May 2-4, 2014 at Kirkridge, PA:
            Henri Nouwen’s Road to L’Arche
           

Progressive Christian Reflections is an authorized Emerging Ministry of MCC. Your donations by mail or credit card are its only means of support. Thank you!

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. Consider using a post or quotes in personal reflection, worship, newsletters, and classes, referencing the blog address when possible: http://chrisglaser.blogspot.com