Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Poetry Makes Life Last Longer

"The breakers steady crash..."

The end of a year seems a good time to reflect on time: what shortens it, what stretches it. The beginning of this year I eagerly read most of Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (2017). Though I recommend it, I found the text sometimes contradicted the title as I trudged through scientific studies and jargon.

A similar fate awaited me as I read a book about spirituality toward the end of this year. I felt as if I needed to come up for air, and found my eyes pausing over the text and searching the ravine behind our house from the vantage point of our deck for something more, something inspiring, maybe even God.

Then I remembered J. Barrie Shepherd had sent me a copy of his latest book of poetry, entitled Bench on the Bluff, and I set aside my dutiful reading of the somewhat dry tome on the spirit and sought the poetic wisdom of a writer who had been my spiritual director as a young man, unbeknownst to him, one whose books of daily reflections helped me establish my morning prayer routine and inspired my own desire to provide such reflections for others in my books and now this blog.

The image of a “bench on the bluff,” taken from his Maine retirement village’s cliff overlooking the Atlantic, reminded me of a tranquil spot on the palisades of Santa Monica overlooking the Pacific, where, according to an inscription on a circular stone bench (as I remember it) “in the sunset of his life, John P. Jones used to come here every evening to watch the sun set over the ocean.”

At 81 years of age, that is similar to what Barrie Shepherd is doing in what he calls a “chapbook”: “a small collection of poetry…that often centers on a specific theme.” It is dedicated to his and Mhairi’s Yorkshire Terrier, Iona, and “all her canine neighbors.”

In college I had a double major: English Literature and Religious Studies. So I’ve loved poetry from the start, and used to write poetry regularly, like many a youth. But I had to read so much of it, so quickly for courses, and think too much about what made poetry work that my first love became a source of anxiety and even competition. One of my texts, Understanding Poetry (a good book despite a presumptuous title), made me sympathize with Robin Williams’ character in The Dead Poets’ Society who advised his prep school students to rip out the first chapter of a similar text.

Poetry, like art and scripture and pornography, is something you know when you see it. And poetry, when unhurried and absorbing, stretches time for me.

And so it is with Barrie’s poems, and it was all I could do to restrain my impulse to read them all in a few sittings. I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog that I can’t read anything meaningful without a pen, underlining or marking texts to return to. The problem I’ve faced reading Barrie’s book is that I’ve wanted to underline and mark everything. Writing about it as I’m doing now made me want to quote so much of it that I would be infringing on his copyright!

I will never look the same way at the slender month of February or the shimmering surface of a lap pool. I will find haikus in every aspect of my community. I will look to nature and the seasons to welcome my own life cycle. His encounter with the Perseid meteor shower took me back to my own encounter in the night skies above Santa Barbara’s Mount Calvary Retreat House. I will counter the pains of aging with laughter in the wisdom of an “even-older-than-I-am-now lady” advising “When you wake up in the morning and nothing new hurts…you know you’re dead.”

And did I just call him “Barrie”? A person I’ve encountered less than a dozen times, but whose words befriended me in his books and now, continue to “friend” me in email exchanges about my blog. Yes, I feel like we are chums, and I am sitting with him on that bench missing the latest news “in an age of the absence of angels,” but watching: 
The breakers steady crash
and crumple as they rolled ashore
reporting on the deepest state of things,
reminding me that they will still be singing here
when all my news has fled like so much sea spray
on these stark, primeval rocks.

Copies of Bench on the Bluff are available @ $10 plus $5 shipping from:

The Rev. Dr. J. Barrie Shepherd
Piper Shores Retirement Community
15 Piper Road, Apt. K325
Scarborough, ME 04074

Proceeds are donated to charity.

For my other posts that mention J. Barrie Shepherd, go to:

Here’s hoping we all have happy and new years!
Thank you for donations to this blog ministry
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 © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  Photo from visit to Hawai'i, October, 1985.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas in 1945 Japan

Mom included this twig with tinsel 
from the family Christmas tree 
in one of her letters to Dad in Japan.

This post continues and concludes “A Christmas Love Story” begun in my last post, using letters my mom and dad exchanged while he served as part of the U.S. occupation forces in Japan following the end of World War II, as she and their toddler daughter and infant son remained in their home in Los Angeles. (Mom was 30 and Dad was 29, and they shared the same birthday a year apart.) Current service members stationed abroad and their families know firsthand the challenges and heartache involved.

On December 25, 1945, Mom wrote of Christmas, “This has been the loneliest I have ever had. I haven’t cried—I’ve felt too numb. I don’t dare dwell on the fact you are so far away.” Then she describes that morning: 
I wish you would have seen Stevie this morning. He was as excited as Sharon. He yelled & almost threw himself out of my arms. And I couldn’t turn him away from the tree & toys. I gave him his roly poly and oh did he love it. Pretty soon I put him back to bed & did he cry. He wanted to stay. He likes his rocking horse. He should—my hand is sore from using the screwdriver on it & I still don’t have the screws tight enough.

Sharon was well pleased with everything. I think the only time she had her skates off was when she ate her meals. I had told her they didn’t have any more skates like Bonnie was going to get unless you had told Santa to bring her some. And you had.
From my dad: 
Sen Zaki, Japan
Christmas morning

Merry Christmas, my Darlings! … It was a happy Christmas for many of us new replacements—our mail has at last started coming through. Most all of the guys got stacks of letters yesterday—one guy got 47. Some of us, however, including me, did not get any, but our hopes are high for the next mail call!

“Red” Hunter and Sgt. Engel have been negotiating for two weeks with the necessary people to bring about the party we had last night. Passes to leave camp and a jeep for transportation were granted by our Lieutenant. And about 6:30 last night, Hunter, Engel, Gattis, and I left the camp. The rest of the guys here were settling down to their beer-drinking, which held promise of being a record-breaking celebration, there being a case of beer available per person. Which is one of the reasons we were now headed for Sen Zaki in a jeep. We were going to spend the evening with Johnny and his wife and perhaps a few of their friends.

Briefly, Johnny is a Korean, is the chief of the Korean Association here, is a graduate of Tokyo University, and—this is the important thing—he is a Christian! His father is a minister of a Korean Presbyterian church somewhere in Korea. Johnny speaks English, though, as he says, “English conversation very, very, difficult.”

It was perhaps chiefly Johnny’s idea that some of us gather with him and his wife on Christmas Eve to sing a few carols. And as we four fellows who were there last night think a good deal of Johnny and his efforts in behalf of his miserable people,* the idea got “promoted” in typical Yankee fashion to the point of reality. And although it was very different from any way I ever spent Christmas Eve before, I believe we came nearer to the true meaning of Christmas spirit than had we remained in camp and soaked up our case of beer.

Not that we did not drink some beer. Sgt. Engel and I took our two cases along. It is much better to share two cases of beer with a group of 8 or 9 people than just the two of us. And as it developed, also to my liking and I think to yours, there was a goodly amount of American beer to be left as “presents” to Johnny, whose meager salary does not permit many luxuries of life.

Red had a can of chili that his mother had sent him some time ago. I had several packs of cigarettes that I had got on the boat. Also we had chewing gum, a few chocolate bars. All these and the beer were our contributions to the feast. Also some tangerines. In fact it was practically our party, which was the way we wanted it, because we have so much and those people so little.

We G.I.’s did not eat the chili—for two reasons, one being that we had already eaten a big chow, and the other being that we had forgotten about spoons, and had we tried to eat it with chopsticks like they did we would still be there! ha! So we ate tangerines.

As I said, there were the four of us Americans. “Red” Hunter, a youngster of 19, who looks more like Spencer Tracy than Tracy does himself. Red is a religious youth and aspires to be a missionary someday. Sgt. Engel, lean, hawk-faced, fierce blue eyes, a bit smaller than I, and hopes this summer will find him back home on his Pennsylvania farm after his 2 year army stretch. John Gattis, from Alabama, I think, a carpenter and builder before his army life—very handy with a guitar, and a very good singing voice. He has a wife and two kids at home. And the fourth G.I.—well you know him pretty well already. Or have you forgotten me?

The others were: Johnny. More properly his name is John Kim. Johnny’s-----MAIL CALL!

I had just about given up hope that I had a letter when they called my name and gave me your letter of Dec. 11th. It’s the first letter I’ve got since I left the States. Darling, I love you!
Dad interrupted his narrative to respond to things in Mom’s letter, reading it and re-reading it a number of times. Several pages later he returns to introducing the other Christmas Eve partiers: Johnny Kim’s wife, a university graduate and not a Christian, a Mr. Ree, a doctor named Miss Nagato, whom Dad describes as “very kind to Koreans,” plus the serving girl at the hotel, invited to join the group, “giggly,” whose “contribution to entertainment was two or three Japanese songs sung in a very high-pitched voice.” 
They asked us about our age, our work, and our families. I showed them my pictures of you, Sharon, and Stevie and in three different languages I was told very emphatically that you are very lovely, Sharon very beautiful and Stevie a wonderful boy—and that I was a very lucky man. And [they asked] did I miss you all tonight? Did I miss you! Lord, Honey, no one could ever measure the amount of feeling that I had to compress into three simple words for the sake of John Kim’s limited vocabulary of English when I said very slowly, “Very, very much!” 
I miss Mom and Dad very, very much. And I am grateful to be reminded of their love and faith through their words of Christmas past.

*Koreans were treated harshly during World War II.

Other posts about my folks:

Merry Christmas and many thanks for following my blog! 
Thank you also for donations to this blog ministry
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 © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

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:

Thank you for any donation to this blog ministry
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 © 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.”

Thank you for any donation to this blog ministry
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 © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.