Wednesday, December 11, 2019

"Somebody's Gotta Be Mary!"

India, January 1983

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.

I posted this on December 7, 2016 and thought new blog followers might like to read it. Have a meaningful Advent and Christmas!

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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 4, 2019

Put Yourself in the Nativity Story

Hobbes, Calvin and Chris join the
Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church nativity scene, early 2000's.
Photo by Wade Jones.

In his autobiography, Confessions of a Parish Priest, novelist and sociologist Andrew Greeley writes that most Roman Catholics in the U.S. are not “propositional” Catholics who assent to a number of “propositions” or doctrines. For example, a majority of American Catholics do not agree with the Vatican’s teaching on sexual ethics, dismissing its teaching on contraception altogether and questioning its positions on other reproductive choices, premarital sex, and homosexuality.

Greeley concludes from his research that they are not drawn to their church by dogma, but by the story—the biblical narrative, particularly the narrative about Jesus. I think that’s true of Protestants as well. We wonder why many Christians only come to church around this time of Advent and Christmas, but I believe it’s because we love the story of the baby Jesus born to Mary and Joseph, cradled in a manger, endangered by Herod, visited by shepherds and kings.

In the words of Kathleen Norris, “Human beings, it seems to me, require myth as one of the basic necessities of life. Once we have our air and water and a bit of food, we turn to metaphor and myth-making.” To me, myth is not a story that is untrue, but a story that carries a deeper truth that draws us in. As a 5-year-old once said, a myth is a story that is true on the inside. (Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells this in Here All Dwell Free.) Within the words is a Word.

In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore suggests that imagination is one of the most underutilized and undervalued spiritual gifts. So I invite you to put yourself in the story of Jesus’ nativity. Jesus is not simply born to Mary. He is born to us, if only we use our imagination!

Are you King Herod, fearful of losing power or privilege as God is doing a “new thing”? Or an Eastern sage enduring academic malaise, seeking a star of inspiration? A shepherd routinely going about your business when the skies seem to open up? A prophet crying in the wilderness?

Are you a religious leader holding on to tradition at all costs? An empire’s bureaucrat missing the unfolding human drama? Or one whose life is too full to welcome a homeless, unwed mother-to-be? Joseph, serving quietly on the periphery of sacred drama? Mary, with an unsought calling to do the dirty and painful and lonely work of birthing a new movement? Or a vulnerable child born into a vicious and violent world?

Truth is, over a lifetime, we may play all of these roles in this story. Good to remember, at this time of year, that we hinder or help, blink or behold this nativity of God’s Word to us.

I posted this on December 11, 2011, and thought new blog followers might like to read it. Have a meaningful Advent and Christmas!

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Wildest Places

I promised last week an excerpt from my talk this past Sunday for Atlanta’s First Existentialist Congregation, but the Spirit or a spirit has led me to do otherwise. I had completed writing my talk when I noticed I had overlooked a comma, which changed the meaning of my “scripture,” requiring changes to the talk itself.

Let us risk the wildest places,
Lest we go down in comfort, and despair.

This is from Mary Oliver’s poem “Magellan” about his ambitious sail around the world. Initially I left out the comma between comfort and despair, which suggests “comfort” and “despair” are co-equal results of failing to “risk the wildest places.” Instead, I realized she intended despair as a result of comfort. She is warning that succumbing to mere comfort may lead to despair.

As I made the necessary changes in my talk to interpret my new understanding of the line, I laughed to myself that this would make a good lesson in a high school English class about the importance of proper punctuation!

But the morning after my talk the spiritual nature of my error came to me like a slap on the head from a Zen master. Now reading the mystical poet Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet in my morning prayers, I read the Prophet’s response to a mason’s petition to “Speak to us of Houses”:

Would that I could gather your houses into my hand, and like a sower scatter them in forest and meadow...  In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together.

The Prophet ponders what seduces us in our houses, ending with:

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?

Then adds:

Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.

As I age, comfort and security become more attractive than ever. At an ingathering of LGBTQ prophets a couple of years ago, I inquired why a particularly courageous prophet was not there. “She and her partner are in a retirement home,” it was explained, “And she said they really liked it because they ‘didn’t have to go outside.’”

This past weekend a friend with mental health and addiction issues was released after eight months in jail. Though I’m familiar with so-called “institutional personalities,” those who repeat offenses to stay in the comfort and stability of incarceration, I had thought he would be overjoyed with his newfound freedom. But it has apparently deepened his anxiety. I witnessed something similar when he escaped a rigid, religious belief environment.

For me, the most memorable line (paraphrased here) from the old British film Thank You All Very Much featuring Sandy Dennis came when her character finally completed her doctoral dissertation: “So much freedom is so damn inhibiting!” Some of us in retirement experience the same sort of confusion, I guess one of the reasons I keep blogging.

In my talk Sunday, I drew a connection between Oliver’s “wildest places” and the “wilderness” as a frequent setting for spiritual enlightenment and pilgrimage in almost all religions.

Warning “your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing,” the Prophet addresses us as “children of space” and seems to anticipate Oliver’s sailing metaphor:

But you, children of space, you restless in rest, you shall not be trapped nor tamed.
Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast. …
For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.

“Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.”

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Thanks Be to God for All Who Made You!

Mystery of Faith, Ruby Swinney, South Africa.

Earlier this month my sister and brother and I remembered the 80th anniversary of our parents’ wedding! It reminded me of my 2012 post, “The Making of You”  and its gratitude for ways my parents shaped my character, attitudes, compassion, and interests.

As we approach the American observance of Thanksgiving this year, it occurred to me to present again a part of that reflection to encourage you to consider all who shaped you. At the end I encourage your participation, inviting you to share on this blog the kinds of people who made you into who you are today.

Here’s the excerpt and invitation from the earlier post:

During my morning prayers I thanked my parents and I thanked God for their having me, caring for me, nurturing me, and encouraging my independence. In my book, The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life, I pointed out that, despite their deaths decades ago, they continue to teach me. Some new experience or wisdom will come my way, and the proverbial light bulb will go on over my head, “Oh, that’s what Mom meant! Or that’s what Dad felt!” Many readers recognized that experience in their own lives.

I used to send Mom flowers on my birthday, following the practice I learned from a friend. After all, she was the one who did the labor that made it possible!

On my own birthday last fall, I began thanking God for my parents, siblings, cousins, nephews, grandparents, aunts and uncles, Jesus, God, faith, and so on, and then I continued, thinking of all the people who had shaped me—lovers, friends, neighbors, church members, clergy, political leaders, communities, movements, environments, etc. A morning meditation became a day-long and then week-long reverie remembering all who touched my life in meaningful ways. The list became REALLY long when I began naming teachers! And then, authors!

I can never claim to be a self-made man, thanks be to God!

Who all made you?

[To respond, click on “comments” on the blogsite and you’ll be given options of methods for doing so. For those of you wary of safely registering with Google you may simply respond as “anonymous.” For subscribers who receive this post in your e-mailbox, you would need to go first to the November 20, 2019 post on the blogsite,]

This Sunday, November 24, 2019 I’ve been invited to speak to Atlanta’s First Existentialist Congregation (UU) in the nearby neighborhood of Candler Park on something preparatory of Thanksgiving, November 28. I chose as my topic “Considering Gratitude for Things that Don’t Make us ‘Feel’ Grateful,” suggesting the value of setbacks, failures, losses, and opposition in our lives. I will offer an excerpt of that talk as next week’s post the day before Thanksgiving, encouraging similar feedback.

The Amazon link for The Final Deadline:

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Copyright © 2012 and 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.