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