Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Common Touch

Listen to a podcast of Chris interviewed about “Progressive Christianity” in the Dean’s Forum, Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland OH, March 10, 2013.

During the recent conclave at the Vatican, I prayed that the cardinals would choose another Pope John XXIII. He had a common touch that appealed to me as a Protestant just about to enter my teens. And he led the Roman Catholic Church into Vatican II, a hopeful sign of what the church could become.

So I was pleased by the new pope’s choice of name, Francis, after another soul of God with a common touch, Francis of Assisi. And since his selection, there have been so many reports that Pope Francis I has a common touch, endearing himself to many, beginning with requesting the crowd’s blessing in St. Peter’s Square before blessing them. My prayer now is that his “common touch” will come to include women’s ordination, married clergy, LGBT people, and those who stand up to dictators—even those within the church, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox.

In response to a favorable review of Garry Wills’ new book, Why Priests?, a letter to the New York Times Book Review suggested that the church needed to adopt its hierarchical, corporate structure to demonstrate its worth to a culture whose institutions were based on such models. It reminds me of the children of Israel desiring a king like other nations in Hebrew scriptures, and God reluctantly agrees.

I’ve served churches that had members and leaders who wanted their congregations to follow a business model, and now many church growth models emphasize characteristics of growing a successful business, often featuring the notion that bigger is better, whether it comes to buildings, budgets, or membership.

During one such seminar I attended, the leader proudly described his staff constantly writing notes to church members and visitors during their staff and committee meetings, and I wondered how mindful they could be of the Spirit’s presence and leading in those meetings. He described a member coming to him one Sunday and telling him that he was the only person who remembered his birthday. The seminar leader smiled proudly and told us, “I didn’t know who the f--- he was, but he was grateful I had remembered his birthday.” Ah, that a churchgoer could meet Saint Francis and know, as G. K. Chesterton wrote, “that he himself was being valued and taken seriously and not merely added to the spoil of some social policy or the names of some clerical document.”

Jesus was attractive, I believe, because he had a common touch and took everyone and their troubles seriously. He associated with the poor and sick and judged and oppressed, and challenged those whose privilege distanced them from the people at large. He attracted multitudes, but failed to build membership, budgets, or buildings. And the first Christians were appealing, as Elaine Pagels and other scholars have written, because they were as compassionate as he, not because they were successful.

Though I believe that Jesus was a child of God and reminded us that we are all created and called to be children of God, I believe also that we Christians made a mistake making him “king,” or a part of the godhead, or the first CEO of the Christian corporation. In those capacities, he loses his common touch, and we can use his titles to excuse ourselves from following his spiritual path—after all, we’re not God like he was. Less is required of us. “His” work is “above our pay grade.”

But as the beloved child of God, you and I are blessed not only with God’s gracious love, but blessed, too, with Jesus’ calling to be compassionate toward all.  

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. Past posts are available in the archive in the right rail on the blogsite. Tax-deductible donations welcome! Please click here. Thank you!

For those in north Georgia, Chris will be speaking during the 11 a.m. service of Georgia Mountains Unitarian Universalist Church in Dahlonega this Sunday, March 24, 2013, and after a light lunch, leading a workshop on “Claiming Blessings Anyway,” about finding blessings in unexpected, even unpleasant events.

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  1. Hi Chris! Thanks for this reflection. I've been very curious about Wills' book: lots of people understandably hate it, but I hope at least it will remind a great many Christians about "the priesthood of all believers." I've also been praying as you have for Francis, and though the Roman Catholic institution is a huge thing, I remain hopeful that we will see life-giving change.

    I wonder if it would be more helpful to most Christians to look at Jesus as King or part of the Godhead a different way: After all, if God's people (defined however God wishes) are kings, priests, and prophets, perhaps King Jesus, by taking the title (as in NT Wrights translation) actually subverts the normal concept. Could it be that calling Jesus the revelation of Godself or even "King" isn't the problem, but rather the institutional Church's abysmal memory about the subversive creativity of Jesus?

    As a progressive evangelical Christian pursuing ordination, I remain committed to affirming the Godhead and "Kingship" of Jesus, because it is precisely those things--coupled with the profound solidarity that you express so well--that give me (and the Church generally) the hope that God will put the world right in God's time. Our job is to make furrows where the seed of the word can grow into the harvest blessing of God's realm.

    Do you have further thoughts? Thanks again for the beautifully crafted reflections.

    1. I think your interpretation is very helpful and another way of resolving some of the problems around how we think of Jesus. I also believe with Teresa of Avila that "on earth, God's body is our own." Too often we avoid personal responsibility for the spiritual and pastoral work needed for "the harvest" you describe. Jesus is "king" in my book as my best guide to that work.