Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Christmas Memory

"Tree of the Gods"

Christmas morning I awoke from an extremely pleasant dream. I was back in the home I grew up in, in Southern California, with my mom and dad, sister and brother. I looked out of our living room windows, and discovered it had begun to snow, a rarity in L.A. The window frames had a white dusting, as did our deodara outside, a tree that had been our Christmas tree one year. Only checking on its spelling for this post did I discover the term deodara’s  mystical origin, meaning “tree of the gods” in Sanskrit, a sacred forest for Hindu sages.  And “dara” is related to the words Druid and truth!

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I had read once more Truman Capote’s story, “A Christmas Memory.” Some months ago I rescued it from storage in my crawl space, a bit damp from its place of safekeeping. I allowed the boxed edition to dry, and now it has character: a bit warped, like its author and the true life characters he writes about.

I know the story well. For years I read it at Christmastime to a Wednesday night Bible study. I’ve also viewed two film versions, the most memorable having Geraldine Page as the doting and doughty elderly cousin who befriended the author as a boy, otherwise  abandoned until the age of ten.  

One day, late in the fall, she would announce, “Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather,” and together they assembled the ingredients and prepared the Christmas fruitcakes that they sent to everyone from President & Mrs. Roosevelt to that nice California couple who spent an afternoon on their porch when their car broke down.

As I read the story once more, I was delighted by Capote’s turns of phrase, painting a portrait of a time long past—yes, harsh in its poverty and sad in its way, but with a kind and gentle lilt to its voice that uplifted my spirit.

What surprised me on this reading, however, was the glimpse of grace toward the end of the book, reminding me of another Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, at the end of her story, “Revelation,” of which I wrote in a post entitled “Tricked by Grace.”

The boy and his cousin fashion kites as their Christmas gifts to one another, as they had done the year before, and the year before that.  They go out to fly them with their terrier Queenie in a neighbor’s meadow, when the old woman has a startling revelation, “like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven”: 
“My, how foolish I am! You know what I’ve always thought? I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes that the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are”—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—“just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” 
“As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

I thought back on their sacramental preparation of a communion of fruitcakes, and of the many, often women, who consecrated our kitchens with the incense of baking, the breaking of bread, the squeezing of juice. I thought of my mother baking Christmas cookies, red and green, and giving me the “failures,” the ones that didn’t look as good as they tasted, as she sorted them in tins for relatives and friends.

In her poem “Answers,” Mary Oliver envies her unlearned grandmother picking and canning fruits in the kitchen even as Mary “wakened / To books and music and circling philosophies” at the kitchen table, concluding:

My grandmother stood among her kettles and ladles.
Smiling, in faulty grammar,
She praised my fortune and urged my lofty career.
So to please her I studied—but I will remember always
How she poured confusion out, how she cooled and labeled
All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

This poem brings back the aroma of my maternal grandmother’s Swedish pancakes, the colors of my fraternal grandmother’s jars of fruits and vegetables at the farm, the salty crunch of the batter on my mother’s fried chicken—and it honors them all as gods bringing order from chaos, as priests and poets and psalmists reminding us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” even as we are, in Mary Oliver’s words, “sorting through volumes of answers / That could not solve the mystery of the trees.”

We didn’t have a Christmas tree this year, because we are downsizing, packing, and moving. But I had the mystery of home and our deodara in my dream. And, as I fixed breakfast for us, I heard Eugene Peterson (The Message) on the radio program “On Being” say, “Prayer matures into the practice of memory.”

I thought of a spiritual formation program paper I’d read earlier in the week by a minister who works with the elderly, and how those with dementia and Alzheimer’s seem to remember the ritual of Communion, even as they forget so much else.

The Lord has already shown herself.


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

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Word We Need This Christmas

Christmas lights, Pine Mountain, Georgia, 2006.
Photo by Wade Jones.

For the first time, I am re-publishing an earlier post, “The Right Word.” It was my third post on this weekly blog, March 2, 2011. It has had only 144 visitors, in addition to the few subscribers I had then. Originally it was a meditation on Christmas Eve for MCC San Francisco, December 24, 2007. It feels appropriate for this time.

We’ve all been there. Trying to find the right word to say. The right word to say to a friend who has lost her mother. The right word to say in a letter seeking acceptance. The right word to let someone know how much you love him or her.

It’s true that words are not the answer to everything. Sometimes silence is healing. Sometimes silence lets you think. Sometimes just listening, either to a friend or to God or to your own heart is all that’s needed. But when the silence is deafening, when the silence is lonely, we need to hear a word. A word of hope.  A word of encouragement. A word of love.

The Bible is the story of a God who tries a multitude of ways to speak to us. A voice in the wilderness. Commandments written in stone. Oracles of prophets seeking justice and mercy.

But then God changes strategy. Instead of speaking from the top down, from the outside in, God decides to speak from the inside out. Christian scriptures assert that God became Emmanuel, God-with-us, so as to be able to speak as an insider about the human experience. And began with the humblest human form, that of a baby. Then was manifest as a teacher and healer and martyr.

Instead of a commanding presence, God decided to manifest a compassionate presence. Instead of taking charge, instead of being in control, as in creation, God decided to persuade us rather than coerce us, to be our shepherd rather than our ruler. (Maybe even creation was less about manipulation than inspiration. Maybe that’s why evolution took so long!)

God wanted to touch us, to teach us, from the inside out. And so touched our hearts with just the right word, the Word made flesh—a baby, a builder, a rabbi, a lover.

The mystic John had a vision that this was always God’s intention—that the Word made flesh was one and the same with the Word that was the inspiration of creation, the cause not only of our being reborn from above, but the origin of our being born at all. The Gospel writer John is cast as one of the first Christian theologians because of this. We may find that a little off-putting because we often associate theology with doctrine—things you have to believe even if you don’t. Many of us prefer “spirituality” to “theology” for that reason.

But for the Christians of old, the term “theologia” was used to describe their highest form of prayer: a mystical communion with God in which words were unnecessary. For them, theologia was an experience, not words. Theologia was what we call spirituality.

The Genesis passage of creation which John echoes depicts a God who simply speaks things into existence: light and dark, earth and sea, fish and mammal.  John gives us a vision of a primordial Word before words. I think of this as a mystical version of the Big Bang theory of the universe, in which something the size of a marble exploded into infinite galaxies. The Word exploded into many words that came to light.

You probably think the emphasis on this primordial Word and on the Word made flesh would please me as a writer. But it frustrates me more than it pleases me. Because I know that no matter what I do as a writer—find the right words, construct them in the best possible way, put as many together as possible—will never be complete, will never draw a breath, will never approximate either the primordial Word of awe and majesty or that Word made flesh full of grace and truth.

The only satisfaction I can derive from this metaphor is the knowledge that, as a writer, I am following a sacred strategy to transform things from the inside out. No matter how much I get a sense of being in control by putting words on paper, how it touches your heart is entirely up to you.

And, this may sound heretical, but no matter how awesome God’s power to speak universes into existence, no matter how awesome Emmanuel’s power to love us into abundant life, how either touches our hearts is also entirely up to us.

Because that’s what Love allows. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, RSV).

Love becomes flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. In our loneliness and in our solitude, in our relationships and in our congregations, in our communities and in our world, Love is the right word. And it never ends.


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Copyright © 2011 & 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Mary Doesn't Do It Alone--Neither Do We!

Light shines in darkness...

In these uncertain times, we may feel overwhelmed by the needs of the world and the deficits of our leaders. The biblical story of Mary metaphorically tells us what to look for from God, “however we understand” our Higher Power.

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How did God help Mary—the Mary we seek to emulate in her willingness to bring something new into the world?

God first sent an angel, a messenger from God who told her not to be afraid, explaining what was happening, how God was working out a purpose in her life, giving her vision of her sacred worth, as well as calling her out as an instrument of God’s in-breaking kingdom, or commonwealth.

God sent her a kinswoman, Elizabeth, visited by the same angel and experiencing the same miracle of giving birth to a new order, pregnant with the forerunner John the Baptist. She affirmed Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

God gave Mary a religious tradition in which nativities of the Spirit were recognized and valued: Sarah with Isaac, Hannah with Samuel. Mary knows her tradition well because she is able to sing a song of praise to God that parallels Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel.

God gave Mary a theology that included the feminine: Sophia, Wisdom, without whom creation wasn’t possible.

God provided Mary Joseph. In a culture that did not permit women to earn income, his resources would be needed to sustain and protect the young family. Joseph could also serve as cover for an unwed pregnant girl for whom tradition might have required stoning.

God gave Mary shepherds, common folk, as well as Magi, foreign religious leaders, to assure her that what was being born was of great significance to people at every level of society, in every part of the world, in every faith tradition.

God gave Mary an indifferent leader, Caesar Augustus, as well as a threatened, insecure leader, Herod, to soberly realize that what she was doing might not be recognized or welcomed as God’s inevitable work. Such opposition would give her an inkling of the revolutionary nature of God’s working.

God gave Mary the prophet Simeon and the prophet Anna who, in the temple, bore witness to her child’s sacred worth and divine calling.

And God gave Mary the Holy Spirit, empowering her to conceive, carry, birth, and rear a child of God who would remind us that we are all children of God.

“Somebody’s gotta be Mary!” last week’s post proclaimed. But no one has to be Mary alone, because that first Mary was not alone.

As we give birth to a new order, a fresh understanding of the Gospel and of scripture, a reformed understanding of the church, a revolutionary critique of all “powers that be,” we are not alone. God has given us what God gave Mary:

Angels who tell us to “fear not” and help us understand our individual callings.

Kinswomen and kinsmen of like spirit who bless us, affirming the fruit of our movement. 

A spiritual tradition whose expansive nature has overcome walls that unnecessarily divide us, reconciling us as one people in the midst of great diversity, standing on the side of the oppressed and underprivileged, yet understanding that such a stand also redeems the oppressor and privileged, proclaiming an in-breaking commonwealth of redeeming mercy and grace, saving justice and righteousness.

A theology whose wisdom understands a greater and larger and more compassionate God than ever before.

We have Josephs, without whose defenses and resources we would have no buffer between us and the Caesars and Herods of our time.

We have every day folk as well as leaders and scholars who have assured us that we are doing the right thing; those who have seen angels singing of peace and goodwill among all or witnessed and followed the star of God’s hope for the world.

We have indifferent leaders and we have hostile leaders to remind us that anything worth devoting our lives to requires more than our lifetimes to achieve, to amplify a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr. They remind us that movements transcend not only geographical, cultural, and religious boundaries, but generational boundaries as well.

And we have prophets—a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead—who, like Anna and Simeon, sing of God’s salvation in every nativity of the Spirit.

And God has given us the Holy Spirit, who has conceived in us a more inclusive spiritual community that would remind the whole earth we are all children and creatures of God.

We are not alone. God is with us in so many ways. The story of Jesus’ nativity reminds us of that.

An astute follower of my writings noticed something familiar in last week’s post. Indeed, last week’s and this week’s posts are adapted from a sermon I delivered to Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 15, 2002.

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, December 7, 2016

"Somebody's Gotta Be Mary!"

India, January 1983. 

Happy to report that, as of last week, this blog has had 200,000 visits (not including 600 free weekly subscribers) and contains more than 300 reflections. Donations for this year totaled $1,912. After credit card deductions and 10% to MCC in gratitude for handling donations, my portion was $1,658. Thank you for your support!

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.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Road Not Taken

As a result of an e-mail conversation about something on my blog, poet and preacher J. Barrie Shepherd sent me his delightful book, Whatever Happened to Delight? Preaching the Gospel in Poetry and Parables. It inspired me to reclaim excerpts from a reflection I wrote for a Christian poetry spiritual formation course, which here I blend with thoughts from Barrie's book, properly credited in text.

The road not taken. The poet Robert Frost’s famous line has been used so often, many think of it as a cliché. But it yet carries poetic power, because many, if not most, if not all of us have roads not taken in our lives, roads whose destinations are hidden from us, just as the lion Aslan explains to the children in The Narnia Chronicles that we are not told what might have been.

In college I was a double major: English Literature and Religious Studies. I loved literature but I loved God more, and though literature might have been the safer path for someone who was gay, introverted, and a writer, the devotion, service, and activism of ministry was the higher calling and I went on to seminary and ministry. 
Let us risk the wildest places,
Lest we go down in comfort, and despair. 
Mary Oliver writes this about the explorer Magellan.

I confess literature and religion have never been that far apart for me, nor in reality. Both are at their best when they tell a story. Both are at their best when, even deconstructed or dymythologized, they reveal a better, deeper, and more meaningful story.

Analysis reveals the parts—the bones, the sinews, the surfaces—without breathing life into the whole, without giving it a heart that pumps life through the body, without creating soul. Just as a human skeleton hanging in a medical classroom is far from life as we know it, theology worked out on paper or chalkboard or worse, by church votes, loses its liveliness when it is far from the story, the myth, the Word made flesh.

“If God had wanted to appeal directly to our minds, Mary would have written a book instead of bearing a child,” Barrie quotes The Ironic Christian’s Companion by Patrick Henry.

My youthful poetry expressed my passionate, earnest self. My early prose wanted to tell a story—often my story, disguised. Novelist Saul Bellow has said that “Fiction is the higher autobiography.” The most puzzling comment I received from a reader of my first (unpublished) novel was, “What are you trying to say?” I wasn’t trying to “say” anything so much as tell a story.

Barrie mentions Ruben Alves’ observation “that the verbs ‘to explain’ or ‘to explicate’ come from Latin roots that mean to flatten, to spread out, to make level,” and then quotes Peter Gomes to the effect that at first, in preaching, he felt called to explain, and later to apologize, but only toward the end of his preaching career to celebrate “the holy mysteries of the faith.” Gomes concludes, “We are saved by our metaphors, not our metaphysics.”

My poetry became liturgies and my prose became sermons and subsequently, a dozen published non-fiction books focused on the biblical stories, stories of others, and my own stories. Along the way I’ve written four unpublished novels as well, the last of which is my life revisited, as if I had pursued “the road not taken,” resisting ministry and writing fiction.

Writing is my central spiritual discipline. Kathleen Norris considers writing her form of lectio divina. This is where and when and how I figure out the why and the who. Spiritual pilgrims once meandered here and there on their way to holy sites, and that’s what I do, in words, hoping that I might happen onto a sacred place or two in the process, perhaps encounter God, or the Word made flesh, or the Spirit’s pentecostal gift.

I do not outline beforehand, I do not “plan” the outcome, but “wait for the Lord” and the serendipitous gifts of water from rock, manna from sky, quails overhead, a still, small voice or “the sound of sheer silence,” the providential beauty of lilies, the thrill of promised land, the in-breaking commonwealth of God, the birthpangs of all creation. Like Emily Dickinson, I don’t need to go somewhere to witness these wonders—I experience them in my room, in my case, a tiny office off the garage with windows to see outside.

And, according to Barrie, “Emily Dickinson once wrote in a letter to a friend that ‘consider the lilies of the field’ was the one commandment she had never disobeyed.”

 “We are put on earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love,” the mystical poet William Blake wrote.  Oliver includes an homage to Blake in her poem The Swan, declaring, 
The path to heaven
doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,
and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Thank God for poets and visionaries, artists and children, cooks and gardeners, mystics and musicians, scientists and writers, professors and preachers, mentors and colleagues, contemplatives and activists, who have helped us, who have helped me, see the big picture, the grand scheme, the expanding universe, the enlarging heart—and where I belong.


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 2, 2016

The Leader I'd Like to Have

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because I have been anointed
to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to those without vision,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

I would not like a leader so presumptuous as to say this when proclaiming her or his candidacy, nor giving an inaugural speech. Only Isaiah and Jesus could get away with that, in my book.

But I would like a leader who repeated this privately as a prayer at the beginning of every day in office, and before every meeting and every decision. It’s good for leaders to be reminded, not just of their prophetic and pastoral roles, but of their responsibility to do what’s right and best.

Note that Jesus left off God’s vengeance from Isaiah’s declaration, a sign not only of good editing, but of good politics. We’ve had too much vengeance and not enough favor from our politicians, as well as those who provide political commentary. True of religious leaders as well.

Of course only Jesus could dare to tell his listeners that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Or maybe these words reflect the later judgment of his followers. Only history can vindicate any leader’s judgment, so humility should be expected. Over my six and a half decades I have witnessed leaders with messianic pretensions fail even their avid fans. And here I mean leaders of every stripe: political, religious, moral, economic, you name it.

A similar humility is called for in the electorate. Our leaders reflect our own civic harmony or our own civic disarray. In reflecting on every candidate for office and every issue on the ballot, we may remind ourselves of our limited perspectives and grasp, seeking wisdom from our deepest thinkers and most experienced practitioners, not just our loudest and most commonly available opinionators. Above all, we must be guided by the compassion proclaimed in every faith and by many philosophies.

We too best begin every Election Day prayerfully meditating on the words of Isaiah read approvingly by Jesus so long ago:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because I have been anointed
to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to those without vision,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

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, October 26, 2016

Henri Nouwen and Fun

"Quick, Chris! Take a picture!"

For my European readers, an international conference on Henri Nouwen will be held in his home country of The Netherlands, November 28-30, 2016. Details may be found at: https://www.drietour.nl/georganiseerde-reizen/europa/nederland/conferentie-henri-nouwen

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Henri Nouwen often reads sad, lonely, and anguished. But that belies the fact that, in real life, he was also a lot of fun.

When I tell personal stories about him or show videotapes of his presentations, participants in my Nouwen seminars and retreats are delighted to be in touch with his playful side. Even his most heartfelt presentations were filled with humor and buoyancy, as he danced around, arms waving and hands gesturing wildly, eyes protruding and neck stretching to make a point, straining with every fiber of his being to reach an audience with spiritually profound insights.

When I first studied with him at Yale Divinity School in 1973, he arranged a Jesuit-turned-clown to serve as an artist-in-residence for two weeks. The mime interrupted our class one session, and Henri grinned, amused like a kid and puzzled, “Oh, so you’d like to take over the lecture?” The mime took Henri’s place at the lectern, and without saying a word, imitated his body language and gestures and facial expressions with such accuracy and detail that we laughed aloud and had fun at Henri’s expense.

In his book, Clowning in Rome, Henri described spiritual leaders as the bumbling, stumbling clowns of the circus, hoping to teach others by our own awkward fumbling in the spiritual life. We are not the “virtuosi” he wrote, not the masters of the trapeze or the lion tamers or the skilled riders of horses, zebras, and elephants.

“They are like us,” we say of circus clowns as we witness their very human antics.

Henri felt that ministers (by which he meant every Christian) serve best when we offer our vulnerabilities, our own woundedness, to others, as in another early work in which he depicts the minister as The Wounded Healer.

I describe Henri’s books as a series of “wounds with a view,” sometimes raw expositions of his own pain, challenges, loneliness, and yearning for the spiritual life. That’s why he touches his readers so deeply.

And that’s why he was drawn to the poor and marginalized of the world, whether those living in poverty in Latin America, people with disabilities of the L’Arche community, individuals living with HIV/AIDS, or spiritually impoverished seminarians and churchgoers. All of these had something to teach Henri—and us—about the spiritual life. Each group also had something to teach Henri about play and simple pleasures.

The spiritual mentor who once wrote of ministers as clowns rather than virtuosi came full circle toward the end of his life when he met and travelled briefly with The Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists in a European circus. In the video, Angels over the Net, Henri is clearly having fun gazing in wonder as they perform double and triple jumps high above their net. He himself skips toward the circus with a child with Down syndrome, and together they playfully bounce on the circus net.

When he tried to explain his newfound wish to be a trapeze artist, his Dutch accent and his earlier extended stays at a Trappist monastery prompted hearers to think he wanted to become a Trappist rather than a trapeze performer!

Though Henri taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, he found his final home with people with developmental disabilities, who had little idea of his accomplishments but who loved him just for being with them.  They brought out his playful side, the fun of living in the moment.

And for Henri, living in the moment was touching eternal life here and now.


Click here for all posts that reference Henri Nouwen and scroll down.

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, October 19, 2016

Becoming What We Behold


Evelyn Underhill biographer Dana Greene requested last year that I write this for the Underhill newsletter. This past summer, I had hoped to honor the 75th anniversary of Underhill’s death by posting this, but it coincided with the Orlando shootings and I felt the need to write about that.

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Daily we behold terrible and diminishing things, not just in the newspaper and on the news, but in films, television programs, books, plays, even music.  Daily we also behold our “golden calves” of consumer products in ads, commercials, and our neighbor’s latest acquisition. Daily we are bombarded and distracted by e-mails, text messages, and the multiple layers of the internet. If, as in Evelyn Underhill’s estimation, we become what we behold, we are becoming a mess of noise, violence, and greed with little room for the divine, the holy, and God.

Saints are to be found in “the mess,” as Underhill suggests, but not overwhelmed by it. The reason?  Saints, mystics, and everyday fellow travelers take time to be present and available to the eternal, to the inbreaking commonwealth of God, to God. Not for self-improvement, but for their own sakes. But being present to eternity, God’s hope for the world, and God herself is transformative, offering peace that passes understanding—not just for ourselves but for the world. Underhill might as well have quoted Mahatma Gandhi, “become the change you want to see in the world.”

The danger she observes is that too often those who want to change the world do so without changing ourselves. In youth I wanted to “change the world.” In adulthood I wanted to change my little part of the world, the church. Now I feel blessed if I am able to change myself! But the truth is, whatever I’ve been able to do for various causes has come to whatever extent I have spent time in God’s presence. God is a very good influence, and I wish I had spent more time with God. This is why I find mystics and the contemplative life so appealing.

Of all the mystics and spiritual guides I have encountered, mostly through reading and courses, Evelyn Underhill writes the closest to my own spiritual experience. I too am theocentric, as she was at first. I too have reservations about the attempts of theology, ethics, religion, and the church to “capture” God, as if that were even possible. I too value other religions and the multiple expressions of Christian faith.

But I too have needed spiritual guidance, spiritual community, belief systems, and liturgy and worship to better understand that God is love. And perhaps most intimately, I too believe in the “homeliness” of the spiritual experience. For me it is not ethereal, other-worldly or supernatural, but an incarnated, earthly, and embodied encounter with the sacred—yet no less profound because of that! God’s love was first embodied for me in my parents, and then multiple church “families.”

That’s why Jesus is important to me, more so than “Christ.” The homeliness of Jesus, his everyday compassion and yet need for prayer, his teachings and also his teachings on prayer, praying in our pantry or closet (remembering to “shut the door” in Underhill’s words), the simple prayer he taught his disciples, and his trust in a loving God—all suggest spiritual maturity. Yet “Christ” too is important for me, as it was for Underhill, that we as Christ and as part of Christ live redemptively for the world and as part of the Body of Christ, the church.



Click here for all my posts that reference Evelyn Underhill, and scroll down.

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