Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Well Do Progressive Christians Fish?

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

When Jesus called some of his disciples, who were fishermen, he told them he would make them fishers of people. He used a metaphor for their calling that they could readily grasp. A net is flexible, stretching to include as many fish as possible.

In a resurrection story from John, Jesus tells his disciples on which side of the boat to cast their net. From his vantage point on shore, he could possibly see a school of fish—a dark patch in the water or the froth of swimming fish. He had the perspective and vision they lacked.

When they drew in the fish, we are provided an exact count: 153 in total. Jerome, an early interpreter of this story, perhaps mistakenly suggested that the number of species of fish known in the time of Jesus was—you guessed it—one hundred and fifty-three. Despite the possible error, I like the implication that this is an inclusive net and this is a most diverse school of fish.  And the net—the church?—didn’t break.

As progressive Christians sometimes embarrassed by our aggressively evangelical siblings, we might ask ourselves, “How good are we at fishing for people?” How flexible is our net? We pride ourselves at the diversity of people we “officially” welcome. But how many people are we actually “catching”?  Are we throwing our net on the correct side of the boat? Is our net strong enough to bring 153 varieties of people to the shore to encounter Jesus on their own? Can our net—of worship, of community, of service—stretch itself enough to include others? Can we summon the same audacity to “fish for people” that we do when collecting signatures on a petition, proclaiming justice from the pulpit, and protesting prejudice and violence?

I served with the late Louisville seminary professor George Edwards on a national church task force toward the end of the 70’s. He was adamant on calling himself “a liberal evangelical,” declaring passionately that he would not surrender the term “evangelical” to conservative Christians.

We too are “evangelicals,” bringing the good news of progressive Christianity to those who think they’re not following Jesus because they don’t profess the certainties of earlier generations or of present-day fundamentalists. Regardless of doubts, or rather, because of our doubts, our gospel may be more accessible.

As Tennyson wrote in his elegiac poem to his late friend, Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam A. H. H.:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Coming up:
Wilmington, Delaware, Oct. 9: Chris will preach on the parable of “The Wedding Banquet” during the 10 am worship at Hanover Street Presbyterian Church, 1801 North Jefferson Street 19802 and offer “A Brief History of Marriage” for the noon adult class that follows. The day’s theme is same-gender marriage.

Rockville, Maryland, Oct. 23: Chris will speak at the Rockville United Church, 355 Linthicum St. 20851 at the 9:30 am morning class on “Claim the God in You as a Progressive Christian” and his sermon title during the 10:45 worship will be “Jesus Was Not a Literalist.” Lunch follows with a question-and-answer period with Chris.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Keep East Atlanta Weird"

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

When I was young I theorized that old people slowed down because every experience was fraught with layers of memory to be savored. For those of you familiar with Nietzsche, it was reminiscent of the weightiness of life imbued by his “myth of eternal return” versus novelist Milan Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being.”

I had the wisdom not to share my theory, except with friends, and never in writing! But now that I am old (61 next month!), I see some truth to it. The occasion was Saturday’s East Atlanta Village Strut festival.

When I moved to the adjacent Ormewood Park neighborhood of Atlanta in 1994, East Atlanta Village looked like a ghost town: as I recall, having a barber shop, maybe a salon, an “iffy” grocery, and many boarded-up storefronts. Then the Heaping Bowl & Brew opened, the first restaurant, signaling to other urban settlers that this might be a place to come. A trendy martini bar named The Fountainhead soon followed, replete with an Ayn Rand quote at the entrance. Boutique shops came along, as well as other restaurants and bars (including a gay one), a couple of which featured alternative rock bands, reflecting the counter-culture that has long been a part of this neighborhood—thus the bumper sticker, “Keep East Atlanta Weird.”

It was while listening to one of these bands in the food tent that I had my Thomas Merton “aha” moment—you know, you’ve heard it a dozen times, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, his vision coming off the high of a contemplative retreat and recognizing citizens of Louisville at an intersection (now commemorated by a plaque) “walking around shining like the sun.”

Wade had made the “healthier” choice for lunch, fish and chips, while I went with a half chicken smothered in barbecue sauce out of one of those huge oil-drum barbecues tended by a cook that could have played that role in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. In the interests of full disclosure, my vision was helped by the street communion of draft Sapporo beer from the sushi bar across the street.

All my life, I have experienced pleasure simply watching people in public spaces. As a child of the 60s, I relished the diversity gathered at the Strut, from baby strollers to wheelchairs to walkers, longhairs to short hair to shaved heads, tattooed and pierced and neither, of different colors and ethnicities, sexualities and genders. As a man in his 60s, I “recognized” younger and older versions of people I once knew, now gone our separate ways, or lost to disasters like Vietnam, AIDS, cancer, addiction.

Remembering them, I fought back tears, caused also by realizing with Merton that there’s no adequate way to convey to those I watched the full value and fragility of their lives.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"I Love to Tell the Story"

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

In the discussion that followed my sermon in July at the Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega, Georgia, I was asked why I had never become a member of their denomination. “Because I love the stories,” I said, referring to the biblical stories. For four years I had given non-sectarian talks for Midtown Spiritual Community, an Atlanta congregation that had left Unity because it was “too Christian,” and, while finding the challenge stimulating and the congregation loving, I missed being able to use more of the stories of my Christian tradition. But I do understand how the certainties portrayed in these stories, while attractive to some, can be off-putting to others.

For example, during different phases of my life I have liked and disliked the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  I love that John is a mystic and sees the deepest meaning in the life of Jesus. But at other times I have found the certainty of Jesus portrayed by John unsettling and unfriendly, formal and rigid. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” These self-affirmations seem audacious and self-centered even in this day and age when self-affirmations are all the rage!

I find myself wanting to see more of the struggling and human Jesus in this Gospel, rather than the so-sure-of-himself divinity. But then, the Gospel of John was written about 100 A.D., and rather than representing the certainty of Jesus, reflects instead the assertions his disciples came to claim on his behalf. In fact, all the Gospels reflect their certainties of who he was, whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

But I do love the way these certainties about Jesus are wrapped in really great stories.  Most of us understand the futility of the quest for the historical Jesus. Jesus is one of those people that, if he didn’t exist, we would have to invent him. Jesus becomes our spiritual leader, our “anointed one,” as he engages us in a way no one else can. If there is no other hint of divinity, it is this ability to inspire visions and dreams and stories.

In Susan Cheever’s book Home before Dark, a memoir about her writer-father John Cheever, she describes how he embellished stories. One was about a publisher making a special trip to Martha’s Vineyard to get him to sign a book contract. In each version of the story, the publisher’s arrival became grander, and, as I remember the story, the means of transportation changed from ferry boat to private yacht to a small fleet of ships—all to entice Cheever to give him one of his bestselling novels. A writer should be so blessed!

This is how stories about Jesus evolved. His followers wanted to say something about the importance of his life. At the same time, they wanted to say how simply and subtly Jesus entered and departed life’s stage, reflecting not only his humility but also why the whole world didn’t get his significance immediately.

“I love to tell the story, of Jesus and his love.” I grew up singing these words from Katherine Hankey’s hymn. That’s the purpose of all of the stories, I believe, “to tell the story of Jesus and his love.” That’s the certainty to cling to.

On Sunday, October 9, Chris will be in Wilmington, Delaware, preaching on the parable of "The Wedding Banquet" during worship at the Hanover Street Presbyterian Church, 1801 North Jefferson Street 19802 and speaking in the adult class that follows on "A Brief History of Marriage." His books will be available and the public is welcome!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

9/11 : When We Were One

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

In the days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, as people speculated as to the U.S. response, an unorthodox thought crossed my mind. “What if we did nothing?” I wondered. “What if we just took the brunt of their hatred and did not respond in kind?” We had gained the world’s empathy; why squander it on violent action?

It was an idealistic thought. Certainly easy to say for someone who only experienced the terrorism on live television; who had lost no one directly. And not pragmatic, as I pride myself at being. Probably would be interpreted as weakness, inviting more attacks. My experience with church bullies has taught me that not responding to attacks is an ineffective way to stop bullying. And I must admit I was glad to see the Taliban driven from power in Afghanistan—those who had blown up the giant stone Buddhas, those who wouldn’t let girls go to school, those who banned children from flying kites.

In a presentation in Chicago a week after 9/11 and in Dayton three weeks after, I pointed out that our immediate response to the attacks was heartening:

Categories seemed to disappear; divisive walls came down. We were no longer Democrats or Republicans, no longer black or white, no longer gay or straight. We were humbled, but not by the terrorists. We were humbled by recognizing our need for one another; that we do not, that we can not stand alone. Look how quickly Jerry Falwell was slapped down for his divisive comments that blamed gays, feminists, pro-choice advocates, and God! Remember how rapidly we sought to defend Arab-Americans and Muslims that some would separate out for retribution. And notice how we resisted those few who would divide us by blaming the victim, the U.S., in a way they would never blame the victims of any other form of violence, such as rape or spousal or child abuse. We are rallying around each other, symbolized politically by the flag, symbolized spiritually by our prayers. 

And then I cautioned:

Eventually, Americans and the world will move beyond the tragedies in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania countryside. Walls and differences and partisanship will be reconstructed.

I paralleled our experience as a nation in that moment of kairos—that moment of spiritual crisis and opportunity—to a conversion experience, an encounter with an awesome God that is humbling, prompting us to come together “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female,” remembering that we are ALL beloved children of God:

An encounter with God transforms us, and we are ready to love everybody. But then we return to building our walls, divisions, categories—reminding us that we have not yet recognized the kingdom of God in our midst, the commonwealth of God in which we share a common spiritual wealth.