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!


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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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:


Be sure to scroll down to the donate link below its description. Or mail 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 © 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/
Scroll down to the donate link below its description. 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 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/
Scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

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