Wednesday, November 14, 2018

My Grandmother, Another Kind of Veteran

[This image can be enlarged on some devices for easier reading.]

My maternal grandmother in Kansas wrote this letter to my mom and dad in California as U.S. involvement in WW II was unfolding. She references her youngest son, Roy, and eldest son, Lee, and a son-in-law’s mother (Mrs. Huston), as well as my sister Sharon, who was my parents’ only child at the time.

Veterans Day (Remembrance Day in Canada) this past weekend, marking 100 years since the end of WW I, “the war to end all wars,” reminded me of this letter, proudly given me by my mother many years ago, and I’d like to share it with you. For the sake of privacy, I am not including my grandmother’s name.

This letter reminds us that “veterans” of war are not only those who serve in the military, but their parents, spouses, and families as well. To recognize them, I believe, should not diminish but rather enhance the sacrifices made by those who serve in the armed forces and diplomatic corps, the Peace Corps, the CDC, and service-oriented NGOs.

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Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Tree of Life

Sunday morning, I read of Western science and Eastern spirituality agreeing that everything, every thing is interrelated, and dynamic, in ceaseless change, and that anything that seems unchanging is illusory.

Sitting on our deck, I look up from my book and experience this truth firsthand: leaves drop one by one from the tree in our backyard against the backdrop of a vibrant blue sky and an intensely green lawn on this crisply cool fall day that has followed the weekend rain. The azaleas are in lively red bloom as the dead brown leaves collect.

Last week I witnessed an old friend dying in a hospital bed. The next day around 3 a.m., I awoke in my own bed thinking of him, unconscious, mouth agape, yet breathing on his own, and I felt for him. And I also thought, this could be me or Wade or my sister or brother. Later I would learn he died within the hour I unknowingly sat vigil.

That had been a hard week, nation-wise. Probably world-wise too, if we Americans could look beyond our own troubles to see others’ suffering as well. It was a week that started with the federal government planning an attack on the rights of transgender and intersex people, continued with pipe bombs mailed to progressive leaders from a right wing fanatic, included another hate crime against blacks, the disenfranchisement of voters in advance of the midterm elections, troops being sent to intercept those on a pilgrimage for asylum, and a week that ended with a massacre of Jews worshiping in their Pittsburgh synagogue, Tree of Life.

As I read the news story of the Tree of Life, I could not stop crying. It may have been grief accumulated over that week, but I think also it is the grief that accumulates over generations of virulent anti-Semitism, unintelligible to me. Several of those who died there were survivors of the Holocaust.

My LGBT community and its allies have often gladly utilized the work of the late Yale medieval historian John Boswell, documenting the treatment of Queer people in Europe and the church through the Middle Ages. But many miss the overall theme of his short life’s work, which was the treatment of minorities at the hands of majority cultures. Maybe his work was inspired by horrific scenes he witnessed as a youth as an “army brat,” like the heads of a hated group stuck on spikes along a road in the Middle East. Undoubtedly it was also inspired by his own experience as a gay man.

On one of his several trips to give the Lazarus lectures in Los Angeles that I organized, we arranged a lecture at UCLA that I took him to. He began the talk by announcing he would be describing the treatment of a minority in medieval Europe. He wanted the audience to discern if he was talking about the mistreatment and prejudices of Jews or of gay people. His ironic conclusion was that his description covered both groups!

When asked about gay rights in another context, he said it would be better if the LGBT community fought for rights across the board rather than for just ourselves, because it was too easy for a dominant culture to pick off one group at a time, as is happening now in the U.S. with transgender and intersex people, as well as current immigrants.

Boswell’s most memorable story came during that same series in a lecture entitled, “Why Bicycle Riders?” Just before WW II, A British gentleman and a German Nazi were forced to share a room. The German went on and on about all the troubles the Jews were causing. As he listed each false “truth,” the British gentlemen egged him on as if he were agreeing with him. Finally, at the end of the German’s diatribe, the Britisher adamantly agreed, “Yes, all the troubles of the world are caused by Jews and bicycle riders!”

The German looked surprised and confused, and asked, “Why bicycle riders?” To which the British man simply said, “Why Jews?”

Yesterday I eulogized my friend, Thom Hayes, as “good, civil and kind.” I said that if all people were like him, the midterm elections wouldn’t be such a worry for us. I said that if our national leaders were like him, they would talk out their differences over coffee or drinks. I said that if world leaders were like him, they would go to lunch rather than to war.

Thom was unassuming, I said, but he did assume everyone just needs somebody to see them as a person with their own story and a desire for human connection. A mutual friend had told the story of him and Thom getting stuck somewhere, and decided to enter a biker bar, in which the gaily dapper Thom proceeded to meet everyone in the place before they left.

Everything is interrelated, and dynamic, in ceaseless change, and anything that seems unchanging is illusory. Those of us who are “good, civil and kind” must lean in to change history’s trajectory. God’s kingdom come!

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Mythologies of Science and Religion

Photo of ruins in Jordan by Chris Glaser.

I’ve written before that I am at “that age” when you look for connections, a time late in life indicated by recent studies. Regular readers will know that, during my morning prayers these days, I’ve been slowly absorbing Fritjof Capra’s 1975 book, The Tao of Physics. I find physicist Capra’s writing more accessible than that of Stephen Hawking, though I wonder how dated his science may be today, even as he demonstrates a pretty thorough understanding of Eastern spirituality.

His recurrent theme is that Western science has come to similar conclusions as ancient, mystical Eastern philosophy. Among them, that reality is indivisible, that the observed cannot be separated from the observer, that a particular scientific analysis is not intrinsic in nature but a creation of the human mind.

Now along comes a New York Times magazine article entitled, “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science,” about deconstructionist Latour’s similar conclusions about the nature of science after studying scientists in their “natural habitats,” much like a scientist might study other primates. In our time of pseudo-science and anti-science religionists dissing real science about climate change and evolution, philosopher Latour has recognized the danger of his work being misunderstood or worse, misused.

All this brought to mind a rather prescient conversation I created in one of my unpublished novels, the tongue-in-cheek Angus Dei – A John Boswell Mystery, written in 2002. Spiritual profiler Boswell, the Catholic narrator, is trying to find the one responsible for the death of Angus MacDonald, pastor of Primitive Presbyterian in Crowbar, Mississippi. He interviews various citizens, including science teacher Annie Hepburn, who describes Angus:

“His passion for God made him stupid, just like romantic love makes you blind to reality and prompts you to idealize the beloved. It makes us closer to the animals who breed by instinct rather than by reason. But humans bring reason into any relationship. We are not bound by blind passion, whether for a person, a country, or for God. Our passion is informed. Angus’s passion for God resisted information. His idealization of God required God to create the world as if by magic, in an instant, at most in seven days, rather than through arduous experimentation and a process known as evolution. Angus claimed it was as if I were suggesting God made the world by following a recipe, or worse, some haphazard, trial-and-error plan. If God made the world though a discernible process, then he was diminished, in Angus’s view.

“I, on the other hand, find the process so awesome that it made me more of a believer than any text of scripture ever could. The world itself is the best witness for this inspiration and yearning for life that we call God. By contrast, look how petty religion can be! They argue and divide over how to do Communion, like a bunch of obsessives with varying compulsions. Lately they’ve wasted a lot of time quibbling over whether homosexuality is right or wrong, as if love is only possible between a man and a woman. And they’ve always debated the merits of personal piety versus social responsibility, as if the two could be separated!”

I felt compelled to argue the other side, if only to hear her answer. I said, “But scientists argue over experimental procedure—their rituals. They disagree over what makes for healthy human relationships, including sexuality. And there’s always conflict between ‘pure science’ versus ethical responsibility.”

Annie paused, and smiled, and I could see that she was thinking. “That’s true,” she said at last. “Science is also a mythological framework in some ways, purporting to give meaning and order to what others see as random and chance. But what is revealed in the religion that we call ‘science’ I find ultimately more hopeful and helpful. Religion is too often caught up in the past, and both religion and science are held back if either is paralyzed by the old ways of doing things, the old ways of understanding things. The very nature of science calls for breaking boundaries, breaking the supposed rules.”

I thought of my own Catholic tradition, its very nature caught up in the past, but a past begun in the divine nature of a human being whom we believe modeled how to be a child of God, a past populated by venerable but vulnerable saints who followed the model, as well as powerful demons that didn’t, demons of conformity and cruelty, violence and division—the weeds within the harvest. And then I looked at Annie, and a thought came to mind that I dared not say, that would be highly inappropriate because it would unveil her own precious vulnerability. Just as Catholicism set up an altar to honor its lover, so she had set up an altar to honor hers, her dead husband—a side table adorned with fresh flowers and two candlesticks beneath his photograph, hanging on the wall. She too had an experience in the past of love so powerful that she also remained faithful, I thought to myself. But a true Southern gentleman or lady may only think such things, one doesn’t say them, trudging on people’s personal vulnerabilities for the sake of winning an argument. This is a Southern virtue that other Americans should emulate. Of course, then there would be less for the media, politicians, lawyers, and talk show hosts to exploit.

Annie continued, “Angus also hated breaking the rules. Beyond defending the only one that he thought could possibly satisfy his longing—God—he also was defending himself, his own fortress of beliefs that held him together in the chaos that’s in every person. He was afraid of letting go. And for him, removing one stone from his fortress would cause the whole thing to collapse.”

In the wake of the recent violence, my heart goes out to the Tree of Life synagogue and the beautiful Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, which I visited years ago. I also stand in solidarity with Jewish communities everywhere in their grief and their anxiety over increasing anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks.

A reading for Halloween which seems particularly relevant these days: 

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Aunt Helen, Nelson Mandela, and Donald Trump

Aunt Helen's nameplate sits atop my office doorway.

My most popular talk for Midtown Spiritual Community was about my audacious Aunt Helen. I have many stories to tell of her, only a few of which will be in this post. You probably will want to know especially what she shares in common with Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump, given the title. Let me add that it has taken me decades since her death my third year of seminary to better appreciate her.

No, she was no Auntie Mame, but to our fundamentalist Christian way of thinking, she nudged the confines of our worldly experience a little wider. For instance, she persuaded my mother to take us kids with her to see films like Bye, Bye, Birdie and Frank Sinatra’s Come Blow Your Horn, exposing us to a world that had little to do with Jesus.

She was the first in the extended family to fly, as far as I knew, though I would later learn her little brother (my father) had flown a friend’s biplane over my mother’s house in Pittsburg, Kansas during their courtship.

A high school mathematics teacher at Field Kinley High School in Coffeyville, Kansas, Helen Glaser was active in the National Education Association (NEA) and founded a girls’ pep and service club called The Tornado Tillies, whose emblem of a tornado found its way onto her gravestone at my urging. Among her effects we found dozens and dozens of grateful letters from “her girls” who had found their way into vocations and families around the world.

It has only recently occurred to me that women of her time were not necessarily encouraged to enter STEM professions—science, technology, engineering, and math. She was “just” another teacher in a family that had many teachers.

An avid Democrat, Aunt Helen took both my sister and brother to the Democratic Party convention in 1960 in Los Angeles. My sister recalls being there the night that John F. Kennedy was nominated for the presidency, and my brother remembers seeing Adlai Stevenson in one of the convention hotels. (Btw, in those days being a fundamentalist Christian and a Democrat were not mutually exclusive!)

A souvenir from the convention.

When she retired and moved to L.A., Aunt Helen befriended a gay couple in her apartment building and quite earnestly explained to my brother that they didn’t like the term “homosexual” but used the word “gay” to describe themselves. I had not told her that I was gay.

I gave the eulogy at her funeral, describing her as both a Martha and a Mary, busy with many activities but always attentive to what was most important. I would now describe her as a progressive follower of Jesus for her time.

While I was in high school and college, she would pass along little pamphlets containing sermons of the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale from Marble Collegiate Church, which she may have visited when she went to New York City for an NEA convention. She seemed to appreciate his Power of Positive Thinking approach to Christian living. She would have been proud that, decades later, several of the Collegiate congregations would invite me at various times to speak, preach, and lead a retreat.

Invited to preach for Pride month in 2015.

Perhaps Dr. Peale’s writings helped her inspire her students, especially as faculty advisor to the Tornado Tillies.

Peale is said to have inspired Donald Trump and his father, though in a different way. Trump’s use of superlatives for himself and his work has been traced to Peale’s positive thinking approach to life and to business, something that attracted the powerful and the conservative in New York City. It must’ve attracted the progressive and the compassionate as well, because that’s who I encountered in my dealings with the several congregations whose association his ministry spawned.

What struck me as I read the recently released Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela was that Mandela too was inspired by Dr. Peale’s 1952 bestseller, again in a different way. Writing to his ill wife, Winnie, as a political prisoner on Robben Island in 1969, he says:

“The Power of Positive Thinking” & “The Results of Positive Thinking”, both written by the American psychologist Dr Norman Vincent Peale, may be rewarding to read. The municipal library should stock them. I attach no importance to the metaphysical aspects of his arguments, but I consider his views on physical & psychological issues valuable.

He makes the basic point that it is not so much the disability one suffers from that matters but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness & live a happy life, is already halfway through to victory. [p 79]

In her foreword to the letters, his granddaughter Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela concludes, “This inspirational outlook sustained my grandfather’s unwavering pursuit of justice and an equal society for all South Africans, and is one that I think can be applied to many of life’s challenges.” [p viii]

For Nelson Mandela, this outlook did not lead him to self-aggrandizement or self-congratulations but to magnanimity in the face of enormous odds, enabling him to write:

The principal task before us is the overthrow of white supremacy in all its ramifications, and the establishment of a democratic government in which all South Africans, irrespective of their station in life, of their colour or political beliefs will live side by side in perfect harmony. [p 46, from a letter stamped October 23, 1967]

Fortunately for me, however, my friends here, who are endowed with virtues far in excess of anything I can hope to command, are remarkable for their ability to think and feel for others. [ p 60, from a letter stamped October 14, 1968, of his fellow prisoners on the occasion of being denied attendance at his mother’s funeral]

How differently Aunt Helen, Nelson Mandela, and Donald Trump have applied the powers of positive thinking! Maybe we need a corrective text entitled, The Power of Magnanimous Thinking.

The OED defines magnanimity this way:

Well-founded high regard for oneself manifesting as generosity of spirit and equanimity in the face of trouble etc.; loftiness of thought or purpose; … superiority to petty resentment or jealousy, generous disregard of slights. Now rare.

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