Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Christmas Memory

"Tree of the Gods"


In thanksgiving for the life and pastoral and prophetic and priestly ministry of the Rev. Peter Denlea.

Christmas morning [2016] 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.


Though the memorial line is new, I posted this on December 28, 2016 and thought new blog followers might like to read it. Have a meaningful and hopeful  Christmas!


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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Mohammad's Child

Photo by Andrea Bruce for the New York Times

On the cover of the February 9, 2012 New York Times I saw a familiar tableau, three robed figures with covered heads gazing at an infant in a manger beneath rough-hewn wooden beams. The darkness out of which the lighted figures emerged made me think, “Oh, a Nativity by Rembrandt. I wonder how many millions Sotheby’s auctioned this for? Will it go to a museum or a billionaire?”

But, as I looked closely and read the caption, I realized this moving portrait was a photograph by Andrea Bruce of a three-month old child who died of the cold at a refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan. The story by Rod Noland inside the paper gave context to this tragedy, deepening its pathos. “He was crying all night of the cold,” Sayid Mohammad explained of the eighth of his nine children to die, six of disease back home and now, two from the cold at the Nasaji Bagrami Camp, where a total of sixteen children 5 years of age or younger had died of the cold so far.

In a headline just below this “nativity,” “a wealthy backer” is betting on a presidential hopeful, pictured with pastors praying for the candidate, heads bowed with a laying on of hands.

But my eyes are drawn to the trinity of women above, contemplating the dead child whose unseeing face looks upward at them, one grandmotherly figure with a slight fond smile (or grimace?), the central somber mother, Lailuma Mohammad, and a younger woman, kneeling with her face slightly turned away, forehead cradled in hand in grief, perhaps his 10-year-old sister who, earlier that day, had foraged some paper and plastic to burn to keep him warm. 

It was not a nativity by Rembrandt, after all. Not the Christ child, but Mohammad’s child. And no less sacred.



I posted this on February 22, 2012 and thought new blog followers might like to read it. Have a meaningful Advent and Christmas!

Please make an end-of-the-year tax-deductible contribution to this blog ministry by clicking on or copying and pasting in your web browser:


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

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!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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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!

Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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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.”


Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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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, www.chrisglaser.blogspot.com.]

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.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A New Frontier


Yesterday (literally!) I thought I had nothing new to give you, but then I realized I did have something old to offer, the wisdom of the poet Kahlil Gibran. My mother loved reading his books in the sixties and I’ve been reading her copy of Mirrors of the Soul, translated with biographical notes by Joseph Sheban and published by the Philosophical Library of New York in 1965. It’s amazing to me how relevant it is today.

In seminary I had a friend from Lebanon who could not understand why Gibran was so popular in the United States. “There are better poets in Lebanon,” he said frankly. But reading this particular book explains it to me. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was a teenager, though he returned to Lebanon for his higher education. No doubt being “bicontinental” as well as located in New York City gave him the exposure needed in the publishing world.

This book begins with a quote of Gibran that speaks to our need to listen to our own hearts and the heart of the universe:

My soul is my counsel and has taught me to give ear to the voices which are created neither by tongues nor uttered by throats.

Before my soul became my counsel, I was dull, and weak of hearing, reflecting only upon the tumult and the cry. But, now, I can listen to silence with serenity and can hear in the silence the hymns of ages chanting exaltation to the sky and revealing the secrets of eternity.

How often we only attend to “the tumult and the cry” rather than “the hymns of [the] ages”!

Sheban contends that Gibran was “a rebel, but only against ceremonial practices,” while familiarizing himself with a wide range of spiritual teachers, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, non-religious philosophers, and more. In one of his stories in Arabic, “Kahlil the Heretic,” a novice urges his monastic community to go out and serve the people, saying,

“The hardships we shall encounter among the people shall be more sanctifying and more exalting than the ease and serenity we accept in this place. The sympathy that touches a neighbor’s heart is greater than virtue practiced unseen in this convent. A word of compassion for the weak, the criminal and the sinner is more magnificent than long, empty prayers droned in the temple.”

Of course, the novice in the story is driven from the monastery!

Another character from another story, “John the Madman,” prays, “Come again, O Jesus, to drive the vendors of thy faith from thy sacred temple.”

Finally, these excerpts from Kahlil Gibran’s essay entitled “The New Frontier” written a hundred years ago may have a familiar ring and relevant reverberations for our time:

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.

Are you a merchant utilizing the need of society for the necessities of life for monopoly and exorbitant profit? Or a sincere, hard-working and diligent person facilitating the exchange between the weaver and the farmer, charging a reasonable profit as a middleman between supply and demand? If you are the first, then you are a criminal whether you live in a palace or a prison. If you are the second, then you are a charitable person whether you are thanked or denounced by the people.

Are you a religious leader, weaving for your body a gown out of the ignorance of the people, fashioning a crown out of the simplicity of their hearts and pretending to hate the devil merely to live upon his income? Or are you a devout and a pious person who sees in the piety of the individual the foundation for a progressive nation, and who can see through a profound search in the depth of one’s own soul a ladder to the eternal soul that directs the world?

If you are the first, then you are a heretic, a disbeliever in God even if you fast at day and pray by night. If you are the second, then you are a violet in the garden of truth even though its fragrance is lost upon the nostrils of humanity or whether its aroma rises into that rare air where the fragrance of flowers is preserved. …

Are you a governor who denigrates himself before those who appoint him and denigrates those whom he is to govern, who never raises a hand unless it is to reach into pockets and who does not take a step unless it is for greed? Or are you the faithful servant who serves only the welfare of the people?

If you are the first, then, then you are as a tare in the threshing floor of the nation; and if the second, then you are a blessing upon its granaries.



Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Photo from California desert by Chris. 


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Wedding and a Funeral in Trump Territory

Wade dancing with the bride.

I call it “Trump territory” rather than “Trump country” because I doubt any state wants to be characterized by how it voted in the last presidential election. Nor do its citizens. And “territory” sounds less permanent than “country,” suggesting things may change. And I am writing this post not to diminish Trump voters in Indiana and Louisiana or even my own state of Georgia, but to recognize we may share more values than pundits might admit.

I am writing this because when Wade and I visited Indiana for his mom’s memorial in September and Louisiana for our friend’s wedding in October, both held in picturesque rural chapels, we seemed to find the same welcoming people we enjoy in our own neighborhood and our own spiritual community here in Atlanta.

Now, we weren’t talking politics in either venue, but how people respond to a married gay male couple could be considered a sort of litmus test of values. And we seemed warmly received in our grief in Indiana and our celebration in Louisiana. What that says to me is that death and marriage are universally held as profound and important enough to, as they say in theater, “suspend our disbelief” in one another’s voting records and ideologies and, as they say in the church, “bear one another’s burdens and share each other’s joys.”

In a May visit to family and friends in California, one of my hosts was one of “those” puzzling Obama-Trump voters, but we had enough to talk about without pushing one another’s buttons over politics. As many of us anticipate family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas, it helps to consider what we share than how we differ. Fox News does not need to share a turkey with MSNBC. If ceasefires can sometimes work in the Middle East, then they might work—if briefly—at our dinner tables.

My reading for both trips to Trump territory was Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. As I read the section on the movement from hostility to hospitality, tears came to my eyes. I was about to offer my morning prayers, but I realized my tears were my prayers.

My tears came from my youthful ideals that seem so unrealistic in our present political divisiveness. My first sermon in my home Presbyterian church as a college student was entitled “Conflict and Unity within the Church.” That congregation was so divided politically that the liberals sat on the left side of the sanctuary and the conservatives on the right! My sermon declared that maybe the church could be one place political sides could come together and have meaningful conversation.

Someone in the church sent a copy of my sermon to a newspaper columnist who wrote about it, doubting the possibility of what he called “an umbrella church.”

Off I went to seminary and bumped into Henri Nouwen, whose spirituality course in which I enrolled my first semester became the book Reaching Out. He said and wrote, “If we expect any salvation, redemption, healing and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us. … To convert hostility into hospitality requires the creation of the friendly empty space where we can reach out to our fellow human beings and invite them to a new relationship.” (p 54)

“An open receptive place” to me is the very definition of sanctuary.

Regular readers know what store I place on the history of how I came by a book. A Roman Catholic priest who has remained a lifelong friend gave me his copy of Reaching Out in the mid-70s. The copy I’ve currently been reading is the one I gave my mother, writing inside the cover, “To Mom, What Henri shared with me I now share with you—with much love, Chris.”

Because it speaks to our current divisiveness, I’ve decided to use Reaching Out as the text for “An Open Receptive Place,” a new course on Henri I’ve been invited to lead for Columbia Seminary’s spiritual formation program September 17-20, 2020.

Life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.

If any criticism can be made of the sixties, it is not that protest was meaningless but that it was not deep enough, in the sense that it was not rooted in the solitude of the heart. When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. … It would be paralyzing to proclaim that we, as individuals, are responsible for all human suffering, but it is a liberating message to say that we are called to respond to it. (p 40-41)

Henri then talks about compassion, quoting Thomas Merton alluding to the solitude of the desert of the first Christian contemplatives: “What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.” (Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p 323.)



Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Jesus Breathed on Them

Wildflowers along our morning walk.

Very early Sunday morning, I felt Wade’s breath on my bare shoulder. That simple touch begat my morning meditation. The sensation reminded me that he was there, but also, that I was there.

And I began to think of the Gospel of John’s version of Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit. “Peace be with you,” Jesus said, after appearing to his disciples despite their doors locked against the authorities, religious and political. After showing his wounds to make clear he was not a ghost, Jesus simply breathed on the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” With this breath they (and we) are sent into the world.

Less dramatic and sparser sermonic fodder than the Acts’ story of Pentecost, but this is probably how most of us encounter the Holy Spirit, that Spirit of God embodied in Jesus and passed on to those who attempt to live God’s will for justice, mercy, and compassion. A breath that reminds us God is with us, even within us, and reassures us that we are here.

It’s the breath of creation and evolution, of meditation and inspiration, of sensuality and spirituality. In troubled and busy times, it’s the breath we catch to find peace.

John’s Gospel is thought to be the most mystical of the four in our Bible, but it is arguably also the most physical and sensual, after all, it begins with God’s Word becoming flesh. In it, Jesus is referred to as the bread from heaven, living water to quench all thirst, the vine that sustains us branches, the source of our second birth, a good shepherd who calls us by name. He elevates physical well-being above religious rules by healing on the sabbath, disassociates disability from sin in healing one born blind, and offers us abundant life. He appreciates familial intimacy with Martha and Mary and Lazarus, and is crushed by the latter’s death, prompting him to call him back to life. He cradles an especially beloved disciple at the last supper and washes his disciples’ feet, and appears first to a grief-stricken (lovesick?) Mary when resurrected.

That his breath outpours the Holy Spirit fits the sensuality of this Gospel and, of course, parallels the breath Yahweh breathed into the chest of the first human creature. Biblically, breath and spirit are used interchangeably, as the same word may be used for either.

All of this did not come in my Sunday morning meditation, of course, but something I did ponder is the role of Jesus in my life. I’ve been re-reading Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out about prayer and the spiritual life and noticed his reference to the ancient and traditional “Jesus prayer,” which he renders, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me,” leaving out the end, “a sinner.” I guess that’s how I came also to leave out that self-disparaging ending, because this particular book came from his notes for my first course with Henri at Yale Divinity School. I always associated the prayer with those in the Bible in need of healing who cry for mercy, a broader application of the principle.

In this way, I’ve been occasionally praying this prayer, in that, as I age, I am feeling more vulnerable, more fragile. And though it’s comforting to address it to Jesus, my theology prompts me more often to pray, “Lord God, have mercy on me.” During my morning meditation this past Sunday I concluded that it doesn’t really matter to whom I address the prayer, as Jesus best represents God to me and I doubt that neither really care!

As I enjoyed Wade’s breath on my shoulder, I thought how comforting to think of Jesus’ or God’s breath on me.


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

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Einstein's "Holy Curiosity"

This 1947 photo by Philippe Halsman was a favorite of Einstein's.

An article in Sunday’s paper about the possible evolutionary advantages of curiosity introduced me to a “famed quote” from Albert Einstein that was nonetheless new to me. He told a college student “never lose a holy curiosity.”

Of course, my “holy curiosity” got the better of me and I clicked on the link to that quote and found an intriguing conversation Einstein had with an interviewer, William Miller of Life magazine, and his “nihilistic” college-age son about religious beliefs.

Granting that we are free to name any power we believe in “God,” Einstein explains, “I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. … The presence of a superior reasoning power…revealed in the incomprehensible universe forms my idea of God.”

“I cannot accept any concept of God based on the fear of life or the fear of death, or blind faith. I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar. … I am an honest man.”

“Certainly there are things worth believing. I believe in the brotherhood of man and the uniqueness of the individual. But if you ask me to prove what I believe, I can’t. You know them to be true but you could spend a whole lifetime without being able to prove them. The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a leap—call it intuition or what you will—and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap.”

When asked if he believes in a soul, Einstein responds, “Yes, if by this you mean the living spirit that makes us long to do worthy things for humanity.”

He suggests to the student that he (and by inference, we) find something “to occupy your curiosity for a lifetime.”

“Then do not stop to think about the reasons for what you are doing, about why you are questioning. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. He is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than he puts in. But a man of value will give more than he receives.”

As the interviewer and son are leaving, the son points to a tree “and asked whether one could truthfully say it was a tree.” “This could all be a dream,” Einstein replies. “You may not be seeing it all.”

“If I assume that I can see it, how do I know exactly that the tree exists and where it is?” the student asks.

“You have to assume something. Be glad that you have some little knowledge of something that you cannot penetrate. Don’t stop to marvel.”

Reading this exchange, I couldn’t help but think of my and your “little knowledge” of God and the spiritual life. Einstein’s counsel never to stop marveling rings in my ears and rings true in my heart.

“It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. Try not to become a person of success but rather try to become a person of value. One is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than one puts in. But a person of value will give more than he/she/they receives.”


Related post: What Is Truth?

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

I Live in a Forest Called Atlanta

My shadow on my morning walk.
(Remember, shadows add a hundred pounds!)

You might not guess that I get tired of reading and writing and saying words. Several weeks ago, I dispensed with words for my morning meditation and simply paid attention, reverently, to the trees that I passed on my morning walk. That’s easy to do in Atlanta, where we live, so full of trees.

Shortly after moving here, I tried to glimpse our house from a plane and realized I couldn’t see the houses for the trees. Arriving in my hometown of Los Angeles on that trip, I realized I couldn’t see the trees for the buildings, concrete and asphalt—an exaggeration, of course, but not much.

I distressed my mother by telling a friend that, by contrast, southern California looked bleak and bare. Mom had come from Kansas, and to her California was a verdant paradise.

Atlanta’s streets curve and wind and go up and down because they follow the old paths through the forest created by native peoples, at least according to a book on the history of Greater Atlanta Presbytery. This is the only thing I remember from reading that book, which may be revealing! Those paths have endured a very long time, in reality and in memory.

Saint Thomas More’s fictional Utopians held “that the careful observation of nature and the reflection on it and the reverence that arises from this is a kind of worship very pleasing to God.” This is one of the reasons why I appreciate Celtic spirituality, its “thin places” where and when we may glimpse heaven in earth.

Enya’s “Memory of Trees,” comes to mind, Joni Mitchell’s famous lyrics “You paved Paradise to put up a parking lot,” and of course, Mary Oliver:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In college, a tree on campus became my “axis mundi,” center of the world, as I sat beneath it reading texts for my religious studies courses.

As I write this, Wade is at a paper mill in Oregon in his role as an IT product manager for the paper products division of Georgia Pacific. He long ago reminded me that trees are a “renewable resource.” Companies like his go to great lengths to plant new trees where others have given up their lives for human products, otherwise they couldn’t remain in business.

This is true spiritually as well. We can’t spiritually “remain in business” if we forget the gifts of the rain forest as well as the tree outside my window.

As school children we learned the devout Catholic poet Joyce Kilmer’s famed lines, “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”

Blogs are written by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.

Today, go find a tree to hug.


I will be co-leading a contemplative retreat April 27-May 1, 2020 to which you are welcome: https://app.certain.com/profile/form/index.cfm?PKformID=0x3039640abcd

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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Coming Out as Resurrection


I realized how appropriate this earlier post is for National and International Coming Out Day October 11. Wade and I celebrate our birthdays and our anniversaries this week, both of first meeting in 2000 and of our wedding in 2015 after the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-gender marriage. Atlanta, where we live, observes Pride this weekend, inviting us all to take pride in who we are, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, national origin, abilities, religion, and more!

Approaching Easter, I found myself in a kind of Holy Saturday malaise—you know, that dreary interim when Jesus is in the tomb, and all is lost. I read again the narratives around the empty tomb, the resurrection stories, one Gospel each day. I wanted to encounter the risen Christ. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!

Then it occurred to me that I was looking for a literal resurrection, like Thomas demanding to see the prints of the nails in Jesus’ hands and feel the wound in his side. In truth, the stories that most appeal to me are the mystical ones, like the Emmaus disciples experiencing Jesus in the kerygma of “opening scriptures” and the sacrament of breaking bread.

The literal miracle I was overlooking was what came out of that empty tomb: a new faith and spiritual community that would attract much of humanity and change the world; a fresh understanding of God and, to take it personally, a fresh understanding of myself. “God brought us to life with Christ,” in the words of Ephesians 2:5 (NJB). I recognized the resurrection of Jesus in countless others, thanks to his passion and compassion.

Coming out of the closet helped me better grasp resurrection. I know how differently life and God and the world are experienced when free of confinement, restriction, and hiddenness. Everything is new and seen/felt/heard/smelled/tasted as if for the first time. It’s wonderful and terrifying, uplifting and burdensome. It calls for an entirely different way of being, acting, speaking, and loving.

It entails both freedom and responsibility. Its heights and depths make one soar and sink at the same time. It helps one focus and broaden all at once. Suddenly, when first coming out, I was in the “rapids” of my life excursion, exhilarating and frightening, both limiting and opening possibilities, tearing me away from safer shores and hurling me toward the unknown. “Thar be dragons there,” I feared.

In my 1998 book Coming Out as Sacrament, I used “coming out” as a hermeneutic for biblical interpretation. One reviewer groused about my introducing yet another hermeneutic, or lens, through which to view scripture, but I believe “the more the merrier,” the greater the opportunity for diverse populations to understand and apply the spiritual wisdom of the Bible to their own lives and the lives of their communities.

I boldly asserted that the Bible was God’s coming out story.  After all, in Christian tradition, self-revelation is how we know God. From the burning bush to Jesus of Nazareth to the Holy Spirit, all awareness and knowledge of God comes at divine initiative. I suggested God came out of the closet of heaven to dwell with us and even dwell within us.

The empty tomb may be understood as a kind of empty closet. “Do not hold on to me!” Jesus told the weeping Mary in another one of those mystical resurrection stories. “Do not hold onto me!” each of us says to peers and colleagues as Jesus calls us from confining beliefs, practices, prejudices, perspectives, and expectations.

Jesus goes before us into Galilee, or any region or culture or community or vocation or workplace or movement in which we live and move and have our being, if only we have eyes to see and hearts to feel. With his dearly beloved Lazarus, he challenges us, “Come out!”


Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by reader donations. To support this blog: http://mccchurch.org/ministries/progressive-christian-reflections/
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.