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 paternal 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.

Please make a Christmas donation to this blog 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 © 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.