Had they lived, my mother and father would have celebrated their 100th and 99th birthdays this past weekend.
Gratefully I share some of the things they taught me by example that have shaped my spirituality.
They considered themselves fundamentalists, but this in the day when fundamentalism did not have quite the edge it does today. They were kinder, gentler fundamentalists, unafraid to laugh at themselves and to express doubt and uncertainty, able to cope with a daughter’s divorce and my homosexuality and even my progressive Christianity! My Mom openly questioned whether spirituality could adequately be covered by the “Four Spiritual Laws” popular with fundamentalist campus groups at the time.
Readers will know I am not a fundamentalist Christian by any stretch of the imagination, but my parents did provide me with the fundamentals of my spirituality, some of which follow:
Read and study, reflect and pray.
First and foremost, the scriptures. Mom taught first grade at a Christian school and both Mom and Dad taught Sunday school at various times in our Baptist church, and the Bible was their central source of inspiration, as it is mine. Dad also read biblical commentaries and Mom also read mystics, as do I. When I travelled Europe after college, Mom asked me to take with me her marked and worn copy of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. They ended every day by kneeling together for prayer beside their bed. And of course we never failed to say grace before meals, even in restaurants (while my brother, out of embarrassment, was under the table “looking for his napkin”).
One Saturday morning, Mom invited a homeless man into our dining room and prepared him bacon, eggs, toast and coffee much like her mother had fed the unemployed men traveling the rails near their house during the Depression. Dad fetched an intoxicated church member for coffee to sober up before taking him home to his wife. They both invited a sad server at an Arizona café to join us at the table and recount her troubles. Dad led a weekly jail ministry for many years, preaching and toting a heavy portable organ to accompany the inmates’ hymn singing. These are just examples of how kind they were.
Mom’s Christian school (which I had attended) wanted to publish an article and photo about my receiving an award, but rejected the picture because I had a beard. My mom, who was never keen on the beard, informed them that I had won the award having that beard, and if they didn’t want the photo she would not give them the article! During the Vietnam War, Dad suggested we send Congress to fight it, and that would be the end of it. He once gave chase to a young man who had snatched a woman’s purse and returned it to her.
And, before I came out to them as gay, Dad said to my mother of homosexuals, “If they feel for each other what I feel for you, I can understand why they want their relationships.” When my ministry within the LGBT community first appeared in The Los Angeles Times in 1978, Mom supported me and, though popular with students and their parents, was “let go” after three decades of teaching first grade at sacrificial wages. Shortly before Dad’s death, after another devastating defeat for LGBT people at a Presbyterian General Assembly, he encouraged me, “I hope the next time you go tilting at windmills, they fall down!”
We were in church virtually all and certainly every Sunday: Sunday school and worship in the morning, Baptist Youth Fellowship and worship in the evening. Wednesday evening was Prayer Meeting and testimony time. Dad was a deacon and Mom was a deaconess, and there were plenty of church meetings and work days.
Support the church.
Years after Dad’s death, I volunteered to Mom that I would clean out their garage. I discovered their old financial records and learned that Dad basically gave the church his first week’s salary every month before taxes. Their income was minimal, though we had what we needed, so this was sacrificial giving. After Dad died, Mom continued tithing (10 %) of her small Social Security income. Additionally, they gave generously to the church’s building fund (even though they did not like the design of the new sanctuary!) and multiple charities, including the parochial school where Mom taught.
My parents and our family had our ups and downs, but when first married, they covenanted never to go to bed angry, following the biblical admonition not to let the sun go down on your anger. Mom and Dad were high school sweethearts and absolutely loyal. Cleaning their garage I found well over 100 multipage letters exchanged during three circumstantial periods of separation, including World War II, each expressing their passionate love for one another.
Dad worked hard, delivering bread to grocery stores and maintaining our yards and house, and Mom, in addition to teaching, cleaned house and fixed all the meals—both with some help from us kids. Thinking back on it now, I see that they were practical ministers of both word (teaching and preaching) and sacrament (delivering bread and meals). They offered loving hospitality to their children and those important to us, as well as their grandchildren, great grandchildren, other relatives, neighbors, friends, and strangers.
This was central to all my parents did, in word and deed, in spirit and body, and I am still trying to catch up!
Photo via flickr user mafleen