This week magazines like Time, have been featuring our country 50 years ago with the death of President Kennedy and how our country has changed. And last year, we had marked the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s first orbit around the earth in space. They bring to mind an era where we had these All American role models.
John Glenn was certainly one of those people.[i] He was a three-sport varsity letter winner in his high school in a small town in Ohio. He was a pilot, flew 59 missions for the Marines in World War 2 and later missions in the Korean War. He was strong, handsome, very well liked by people from the time he was young all the way through his years in the Senate.
It turns out that he was a man of substantive character in his personal life as well. He married his wife in 1943, so they celebrated their 70th anniversary this year. Their parents had actually known each other since they were toddlers, so there is a photograph of the two of them playing in a crib.
His wife, Annie “was bright, caring, was talented, was generous of spirit. But she could only talk with the most excruciating of difficulty. It haunted her.
“Her stuttering was so severe that it was categorized as an 85% disability- 85% of the time, she could not manage to make words come out.
“When she tried to recite a poem in elementary school, she was laughed at. She was not able to speak on the telephone. She could not have a regular conversation with a friend.”
“As a military wife, she found that life as she and John moved around the country could be quite hurtful. She has written, “I can remember some very painful experiences- especially the ridicule.”
“In department stores, she would wander unfamiliar aisles trying to find the right section, embarrassed to ask the salesclerks for help. In taxis, she would have to write her requests to the driver, because she couldn’t speak the destination out loud. In restaurants she would point to menus.
“A fine musician… Annie would play the organ in church as a way to make new friends. She and John had two children; she has written: ‘Can you imagine living in the modern world and being afraid to use the telephone? ‘Hello’ used to be so hard for me to say. I worried that my children would be injured and need a doctor. Could I somehow find the words to get the information across on the phone?’ ”
Actually, no I can’t. They had an endearing relationship during that very dangerous period of their life. Every time John deployed to those warfare combat missions, he would hold her close and say, “I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum”. “And with just the two of them there, she was able to reply, “Don’t be long”.
And on that day, when he was launched into space on a rocket, just before he left for the launch pad, he gave her a pack of gum to hold onto.
So in his real life, not the persona that he became after celebrity found him, not the iconic American hero that our country wanted him to be, needed him to be, then… and now… He lived with a reality that many of us know all too well.
He had someone in his life, someone that he loved, and he knew how wonderful and extraordinary that she was, but because of this handicap that she had, other people didn’t get to see that side of her.
How many of us have a child, a sibling, a friend from college, maybe a spouse and we’ve watched them suffer with some malady, unable to express themselves fully. They learn to live with the limitations and we learn to live with the limitation too. And it is okay. But there are these times, these special moments, when you get to see what they could be, times when their inner beauty kind of radiates through their limitations, and you have this connection. It is a very personal blessing to see because it is rare and usually it could only happen with the two of you are alone and they can really be themselves. And you see their inner beauty and because you love them, you just wish that other people could see what you see. You wish that for them, that other people could see what you get to see.
Because the celebrity, the fame, the star-maker machinery, all of that is what it is, you have to deal with it if you step on the stage of history. But that connection that you make with another person, that is really spiritually real. That is living meaningful love.
In 1973, Annie Glenn found a program down at little Hollins College in Virginia that a doctor thought might help her. Long story short, with a year-long program and intensive therapy, she was finally able to speak.
Apparently, there came a day when he heard her speak fluently for the first time. She was 53 years old and this impediment was lifted. And after the hugs and the ‘high-fives’ all around, John Glenn did what we all do in those moments, he fell to his knees and offered a prayer of gratitude. Sometimes, we are just so overcome by the blessing of the life-force that it is just a spontaneous response. We just bow and give thanks, the life-force of God courses through us so intense with meaning that we simply have to acknowledge it in gratitude. Our lives aren’t perfect, but they are still blessed. What a great thing when those we really love just bloom before our eyes.
I’ve come to see that gratitude is the fundamental disposition of spirituality. We begin and end in gratitude. “O come let us sing to the Lord”, says the Psalm, “let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise with songs of praise” Our lives are good and we are filled with blessing, not just when things are blooming, although that is wonderful, not just when things are being healed, although that is wonderful too.
I happened to see a piece of video this week of one of the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and they were holding onto a few shards, the only remnants left of their former life. It reminded me of one of my great Aunts. Her parents were homesteaders in Missouri, a decent part of their little town all extended relatives. A tornado passed through, destroyed most of the town and all of their house and property. They were lucky to escape with their lives.
They rebuilt and went on. A couple years go by and one day someone arrives at her mother’s house. She was just a child. And they had a family portrait in their hands. It had hung above the fireplace in their old home, one of the very early photographs of her relatives. Somehow it had been sucked up and flew miles and miles from their home, someone found it, and after a determined search, figured out that it was there’s and returned it home. It was the only thing they had from their former life and they held onto it with a special reverence and were incredibly grateful that the people that found it had taken the time and cared enough to find them and return it to them.
Gratitude is like that. Because I’ve sat and many of you have sat, with people whose spouse is not going to get better. I’ve sat and many of you have sat with parents, whose children are not going to be healed. It is such a difficult place to be and so full of complex and contradictory emotions. But in the midst of the anxiety and the frustration, when the situation is tenuous and you just know in your gut that this might not actually work out the way you want it to, there is still this vein that we tap into. We tap into the spiritual vein of gratitude.
I’ve stood and many of you have stood at the side of a hospital bed in those moments when we are at the end of what medicine can actually do, holding hands, brimming with love and meaning, gratitude for what we have known together up to this moment, grateful for the connection and the life that we have shared, not knowing what the future will hold, but just thankful, sad to be sure, full of pain… but that pain we know is the price we pay for the privilege of love. And it has been a privilege to know that.
Sometimes, when I walk into our sanctuary to pray, when I’m all alone in the middle of the week… Sometimes I’ll open my eyes and see all these stained glass window, all dedicated to someone else because we’ve been grateful for the privilege of love, and I’ll look out on each of the stones that make up the building and think that each of these have been given and laid in place, in gratitude for the privilege of love, and I just realize that we are a living repository of 100 years of people before us that have been overflowing with gratitude, sustained by being part of a community that has given them the privilege of love.
This is what brings us together and this is what is meaningful to us in our lives. As the bible says, it is divine.
I hope you will remember this as we turn towards the Holiday season. The world around us starts to speed up with a longer ‘to do’ list and people around us that are grumpy and frustrated that they have too much to do with too little time and not enough money to do it. And the world starts to get more claustrophobic particularly if this is a year when you have to spend time with your brother-in-law who reminds you in 12 minutes just why you no longer live near some of your people because they are really annoying and not working for what you need right now, not that they have been working in the past ten years either. And the world starts to become oddly more perfectionistic, despite it being the season of grace and Christmas, and you don’t want to feel pressured to have perfect decorations and perfect little cheese balls but your neighbor who has perfect everything- and just showed it to you- makes you feel like you need to wretch all over their display instead of all warm and Christmassy. There is just a lot of stuff out there that can get you in some negative space.
And then there are those of us who are just struggling this time of year. We are remembering the great celebrations of yesteryear when our sister-in-law was alive. Or our marriage is fraying and we haven’t articulated that to our spouse or ourselves yet, so all of our interactions with our kids that are supposed to be so family-feel, seem ironic instead. Or we are just anxious because our career and our personal economic situation is more precarious than we want. These are genuinely negative clouds that hover around us that we can’t avoid.
I hope that you can pace yourself during this season. I hope you can create space where you can reflect for a moment each day and remember what is important. I hope you can build into your life one thing that reminds you of the harmony of our life and that you can stay in touch with the things that make your life cohere. I hope you can build traditions with your family that remember the mystery of love and meaningful living around us that is why we do what we do.
I hope that from in here, you can let your gratitude overflow for a moment and you can recover what is important and re-right the boat. And may you figure out how to live your life as a blessing. May you nurture those around you in a way that you will never regret. May the spirit of the Holidays rest upon you, quite in spite of it. As Saint Paul says, “live your lives in God… stand in a deep rooted faith… and may you overflow with gratitude.” Amen.
[i] My thanks to a parishioner who sent me Bob Greene’s article about John Glenn published at the time. The story that follows is an embellishment of what you can find at http://www.cnn.com/2002/02/19/opinion/greene-john-annie-glenn/index.html