Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Christmas Love Story

If my dad had not sent the above Christmas telegram to my mom in Pittsburg, Kansas, and had my mother not responded positively, I would not be here and you would not be reading “my” blog.

My parents had been high school sweethearts in Pittsburg. My dad was editor of the school paper and my mom was its financial manager. Circumstances separated them three times. During the Depression my dad sought temporary work at a meat packing facility in Iowa to help support his parents on their 80-acre Missouri farm, and during World War II he served in the army as part of the U.S. occupying forces in Japan, while my mother “held down the fort” (as my father would say) in their Los Angeles home with a child and a baby, my sister and brother.

In between, my mom’s parents intervened to prompt Mom to break up with Dad because, they explained, she had never dated anyone else. So he went off to northern California and took a job driving a delivery truck for a baking company in the Sierra Nevada mountain range while she remained in Pittsburg attending college, working at Penney’s, and, as the oldest child, tending to her invalid mother and her father and siblings.

I have hundreds of letters they exchanged during their times of separation. Reading them, more than once I regretted my father never became the writer or the doctor he had hoped to be and that my mother missed out on traveling adventures she had hoped to have. I’ve published and travelled, their vicarious writer and adventurer, but I never had what they enjoyed: a lifelong relationship of love and romance.

People often look for scapegoats to blame for the “breakdown” of “the” family (as if there were only one kind of family), but in truth, it’s the economy and war that are a family’s most serious threats. My parents’ words are testimony to each.

My father deeply grieved having to leave his girlfriend behind in 1934, the year following their high school graduation, as he travelled to Sioux City in hopes of finding work in the meat packing industry which employed his brother-in-law. Going to Cudahy’s very early one morning shortly after his arrival, my 18-year-old future Dad found 175 men already there hoping for a day’s work. He reflected on the experience in a letter dated August 14, 1934:
I wondered at the time if there were just as many seeking work at each of the other two plants, Swift’s and Armour’s. Now I was actually seeing the great masses of the unemployed of a big city, not just reading the stories in the newspaper. I believe if people who are knocking the work-creating acts of the government could actually see and walk among a crowd of men looking for work, [they] would realize that it is [for] our gov’t’s safety to give employment to all possible. What a menace that crowd could be if organized and armed to the teeth. But, I admire those fellows. Their countenances, though not hilarious with joy, were not clouded with undue desperation. So as yet they haven’t given up hope and neither have I.
My parents missed having Christmas together that year because of the daily uncertain possibility of work at one plant or another and the geographical distance between them, even if either had money for the train.

The 1937 Christmas telegram renewed their correspondence, and, by November of 1939, they were married in a small ceremony at the First Baptist Church of Pittsburg, Kansas, visiting her family at their home in town and his family on the Missouri farm before driving to their new home in Quincy, California. Born and raised on the flat plains of Kansas, Mom not only saw her first mountains, but now lived among them! That Christmas, after sending wedding pictures as Christmas gifts, they had no money for gifts for each other, and Mom saved the few coins they had left, keeping them in her hope chest the rest of their life together, a reminder of their first Christmas as husband and wife.

Then came the war. My father was saved from being among the invading troops in Japan by the atomic bomb, and he disembarked from his troop ship in Nagasaki on my sister’s birthday the day after Thanksgiving, 1945. He saw firsthand the devastation of “Fat Boy,” a plutonium implosion device dropped on the city months earlier.

In her Christmas letter to Dad a month later, Mom wrote a story of how the family was doing in his absence and included it in a letter: 
It’s Christmas Eve. In a little house on the corner of 62nd and Third Avenue in the city of Los Angeles lives a service man’s family. See, there’s the star in the window. Outside it is raining. Inside tho there is a fire burning brightly in the fireplace, & a small tree gaily decorated with tinsel & baubles & memories of years past is perched on the chest.

In the bedroom the woman has just tucked the little girl into bed. “Mommy, I don’t feel like Christmas,” the little girl is saying. “I want my daddy.”

“Honey, we all want Daddy home. Even little Stevie. Maybe Daddy will be home with us next year. Now say your prayers and go to sleep.”

“_____ and please Jesus take care of Daddy” concludes the little girl.
My mom continues the story with her many chores after my sister and brother are in bed: washing dishes, boiling the baby’s bottles, putting the gifts out, assembling my brother’s rocking horse with some difficulty, completing a mattress and pillow for my sister’s doll bed. Christmas music on the radio makes her feel closer to Dad, but then she worries about his Christmas day, whether he’s safe, whether he’s received his Christmas box. It’s nearly 3 a.m. when she sits down to write “her summary of Christmas Eve,” “her nightly chat with that dear husband,” concluding with, 
A far away look comes into her eyes as she hears “Winter Wonderland.” A snowy nite—cold; a little blue or black Chevy (I think it was a Chevy) but it doesn’t matter, for right there beside her is the most wonderful guy in the world. The shameless excuses she made to be alone with him. To know she had all of his attention for a little while—it was so nice to sit close to him and hold his hand while he drove along snowy streets. They could talk for hours and never tire of each other. She often suspected he listened to her not for any intelligent remarks she made, but because maybe he was in love with her. 
So how was Dad’s Christmas in Japan? Stay tuned next week.

Other posts about my folks:

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

You Made My Life!

The tree outside my window.

If the autumn breeze outside my window continues, most of the golden and yellow leaves will fall from our tree in the backyard by the end of the morning I write this. I kind of know how it feels, as my red hair thins and greys.

I had quite another post planned and halfway written for today, but I received such an overwhelming response to my Facebook post about “officially” retiring last Thursday that I feel compelled to write of it. I wrote: 
I officially retired today as an MCC clergyperson, though I will continue writing my blog, “Progressive Christian Reflections.” I would be open to leaving retirement if I had another opportunity to serve in ministry. Thanks be to God for Metropolitan Community Churches’ belief in my ministry when my home denomination of the Presbyterian Church USA lacked faith. Still love Presbyterians, but I am grateful for MCC’s welcome. God is good. 
To be honest, nothing much will change. I’m just letting go of the “formal” side of ministry, the forms to be completed each year and the continuing education requirement and the annual clergy renewal fee. I am told I can still write my blog under MCC auspices, preach and celebrate sacraments, lead weddings and funerals, visit hospitals and prisons, and keep the “Rev” which is important to me, having spent most of my life without it. (My brother once commented that I seemed as busy in retirement as when I was gainfully employed!)

Having seen my name in print multiple times, the late writer and editor James Solheim once kidded me, “Has ‘M.Div.’ become part of your name now?” I explained I used it as my only credential, since I was not a “Rev.” And now I still use it because so many clergy use “Rev” who have no seminary degree. I also often identify myself as a graduate of Yale Divinity School simply to let people know I am a progressive Christian!

I joked with Wade last Thursday about our evening meal being my “retirement dinner,” and though there will be no such formality, I am grateful for my “legacy tour,” given opportunities to reflect on the meaning of my life and the LGBT Christian movement, including That All May Freely Serve’s “Rock Stars and Prophets” at Stony Point, New York; Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center’s “Celebration of LGBTQ Lives” in Pennsylvania; and the ecumenical “Rolling the Stone Away” gathering in St. Louis. These were reunions of saints I am grateful to know and to join in celebrating the progress we’ve made in our churches and our culture.

Yet I confess ambivalence about my diminishing role. I write this not to gain your sympathy, but rather to say I understand you who have experienced, are experiencing, and will experience something similar. I have taken comfort in the anonymous “Prayer of an Aging Jesuit” in a book edited by Michael Harter, SJ: Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits. It reads in part: 
Help me to see that my community does me no wrong
when gradually it takes from me my duties;
when it no longer seems to seek my views.

Rid me of my pride in all the “wisdom” I have learned.
Rid me of the illusion that I am indispensable.  …

And please, Lord, let me still be useful,
contributing to the world my optimism,
adding my prayers to the joyful fervor and courage
of those who now take their turn at the helm. …

Let my leaving the field of action be simple and natural—
Like a glowing, cheerful sunset.

Lord, forgive me if only now in my tranquility
I begin to know how much you love me,
how much you’ve helped me.  …   
Many of you who have written or said kind words to me, either about my books or my blog or my ministry, have received the response, “You made my day!” I’ve written elsewhere that it’s a shame we often save our “eulogies” or “good words” to honor those who have passed. Wouldn’t it be better if we shared them now? I have been the beneficiary, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, of, in a sense, attending my own memorial when I receive such words.

In the final conversation of “Rolling the Stone Away,” titled “Into the Third Millennium,” More Light Presbyterian executive director Alex McNeill told of shelving books in his home church library when he “stumbled upon Chris Glaser’s book. So I stole it and never returned it—sorry, future generations!  I read Uncommon Calling all the way through, took notes and wrote in my diary about it. It gave me a sense of possibilities, of not being alone.”

I was stunned, my eyes welling with tears. Alex then met lesbian evangelist Rev. Janie Spahr on one of her (what I call) “missionary journeys.” The effect of these encounters was transforming for Alex.

The effect of Alex’s words was transforming for me too. He not only “made my day,” he, in a sense, “made my life.”

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Personal Face of God

Nicaragua, November 1984. 

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so: little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.”

We began singing this song during a Pride parade. Someone unsuccessfully tried to get us to sing a “corrected” version, one that edited out our “littleness” and “weakness” and, I suppose, our dependence on Jesus, giving us a more positive self-image.

But it is a children’s song, who need someone bigger and stronger and wiser to see them through the vicissitudes of childhood. And now, as I anticipate growing much older and a bit weaker, I may need someone younger and stronger like Jesus to steady my gait, lift my perspective, and remind me who I am.

When she was 79 years of age, my mother phoned me while I was working on my daily devotional The Word Is Out to ask me to include this scripture in my meditations: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (KJV). I realized Christ served as her beacon throughout the troubles and griefs and challenges of her life.

I remember her praying with me as a child. She prayed to Jesus, not God, and I wish now I had asked her in later life if that’s how she always prayed. Maybe she was just praying that way because I was a child, or because she taught first grade in a Christian school all of her life. Maybe not.

As Advent begins, we are reminded of the story of Jesus’ birth narrative, grand and glorious and dramatic as it most certainly was not. The Gospels which report it tell it the way it should have been in a world awaiting a personal representative from God to deliver it from Roman colonization and from a vain and abusive Caesar as well as those like the Herodians willing to surrender their principles to remain a friend of Caesar and Rome.  

The Gospels tell of Immanuel, God-with-us, coming to poor shepherds in a field and fishermen on the shore and hungry multitudes on a hillside and a thirsty individual at a well, reminding the poor that they too are blessed, that the humble should inherit the earth, that peacemakers belong in the commonwealth of God.

You who follow this blog know of my reservations about ever “knowing” God with certainty. The Bible uses many metaphors to help us wrap our minds and hearts around something we cannot know. Jesus, of course, is more than mere metaphor, but one who wanted, like any good messenger, to point us toward the God beyond our grasp yet within our reach.

Saints (both official and unofficial) and icons (in art and music as well as in nature) and charismatic preachers and prophets have helped us, in a sense, touch the face of God through their witness and beauty and spirit and teachings.

But strangers and the suffering, the vulnerable and the excluded, have also awakened us to the spirit of God, both in them and in us. That spirit is compassion, making us one, for “God is love.” “Love in fact is the spiritual life,” is my favorite Thomas Merton quote, as you probably have guessed by now.

God is not a “thing” to be grasped or known or understood absolutely; yet the entire witness of scripture and saints and Jesus is that God is within our reach.

For those who missed last week’s post because of the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., click here: Thank God You Were Born!

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thank God You Were Born!

"In your beginning..."

Or thank the cosmos!  Or evolution! Or your parents! Or “to whom it may concern”!

“Thank God you were born” is the message I often write on birthday cards or Facebook birthday messages. I intend it as my own thanksgiving for the birth of the person I’m greeting, but I realize it could be understood as a spiritual directive to the recipient as well.

As you might guess, this post is partly prompted by the American observance of Thanksgiving tomorrow, but it is mostly inspired by the words of an astronaut I heard last night watching PBS’s Beyond A Year in Space. Knowing the desert quality of much of the rest of the universe, seeing the “oasis” of planet Earth from afar, the astronaut said of life on earth, “When you’re born, you’re in heaven.”

Many of you know how much that sentiment resonates with me. In The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me about Life, I wrote that if this is all there is, then, thanks be to God! But also, understanding that heaven is to be found in this life reminds me to see it, seek it, make it, create it, share it, and appreciate it.

I know that my suffering, though real and mine to claim, is minimal compared to the many who experience this life as hell through no fault of their own. But built in me is the ability for personal suffering to be turned into empathy and compassion for others. And I see this gift in those who have been through hell and back.

It was my own loneliness as a child and teenager that made me welcoming of others, to whatever extent I am. It was the denial of vocational goals and aspirations that made me wish better for future generations. It was the inequality and injustice I experienced personally that made equality and justice a wish for all, and prompted me to do what I could to help achieve it.

But this earth gave me a chance to breathe and to grow and feel pleasure and see beauty and hear harmony and dissonance, to know love, and to taste and see that life can be good. If and whenever these abilities are limited, there’s still a glimpse and a memory and a hope to sustain me, even inspire me.

It humbles me to know that dinosaurs reigned on this earth for 160 million years and were extinct for 66 million years before the evolution of mammals led to my distant ancestors. Humans almost seem like an afterthought or a blip in evolutionary time.

And it humbles me when I recognize our individual frailty and limits as I did last Wednesday sitting in a surgery waiting room as spouses and families and friends awaited word of their loved ones from their surgeons. Our time is brief, but oh-so-valuable, or all the more valuable.

A friend in mourning simply and respectfully described another’s death, “We all have a fragile grip on life, and she lost hers.” So, all the more reason to celebrate our birth days.

When I visited Nepal I learned that the local priest came to one’s house to offer a blessing the morning of one’s birthday. I can’t remember if the local priest was Hindu or Buddhist, but what a wonderful thing to emulate!

Birth days are a blessing, in and of themselves.

Thank God you were born!

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.