I miss a custom I created for myself when living in Southern California. New Year’s Eve parties left me wanting some more meaningful way of observing the passing of an old year and the welcome of a new year. I did not want to “pray in” the new year as we did in my Baptist church with us kids keeping one eye open to see the sanctuary clock silently clap its hands together on the number 12.
But the ticking of a clock or the descent of a ball in Times Square felt artificial, so I began watching the sun set as I walked along the beach in Santa Monica every New Year’s Eve. I would spend the time revisiting the events of the past year and imagining what the new year might bring, thanking God for the good and the bad as well as the possibilities. It was something I could do alone, well before the parties. And it felt more natural.
This bit of shoreline is the sanctuary where, in college, I ruminated on my sexuality, spirituality, and call to ministry. This is where I thought I’d like to be reincarnated as a seagull so I could stay near the shore and see my friends on the beach occasionally! This is where I stumbled onto a gay meeting place long before I knew about gay bars. This is where, on a day off from my church work, I would do a long run and work out on the outdoor gymnastic bars.
This is a walk I’ve shared with many friends, including some of you, and others you might know, such as John Boswell, Isabel Rogers, and Malcolm Boyd. This is the walk that Henri Nouwen declined, insisting instead that we sit down on my sofa and “have a really good talk”!
This is where I walked weekly on Thursday evenings with a partner to share whatever was on our minds and hearts. This is where we walked one Easter after worship, ending up at Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy’s hangout, the S. S. Friendship, bumping into an old friend there whose partner we learned had died the previous week, who gave me the Easter message I needed to hear, “He died in my arms. I felt him leave his body. That’s why I’m sure I’ll see him again.”
This is where I took my mom and her dog for her last walk along the shore a few weeks before she died, where she mischievously chose an ice cream cone over lunch. And this is where at least some of my ashes will be scattered.
Though I live far from that shore now, I go there often.
There is no lighthouse there, but in college I composed this poem using the metaphor, which feels all the more apt in later life:
To Be the SeaThe sea beside, I stand alone,By seasons, wait and searchTo be discovered and to discoverIn boundless quest.The sea has all at any time—No search nor wait.At most a lighthouseCan beam an instantBefore bowing to the sea.
The photo is an accidental double exposure taken by Beth Extrom, a friend from seminary who gave me the negative because I loved the picture so much!
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