Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

Sister Seagull

"Just remember the world is not a playground but a schoolroom. Life is not a holiday but an education. One eternal lesson for us all: to teach us how better we should love"--Barbara Jordan

I got many tasks done on Monday and Tuesday, although I count my days in terms of tasks yet to do. I find that in such times, I sometimes not only work more, but also read more, spend more time on the telephone, and e mail more. But it's hit and miss. I want to do more. I want to be more. I want to solve all my personal dilemmae. I want to learn to show real care, and not fail in the forms so often.

I'm going to tell a story tonight that is not particularly obscure, nor particularly illuminating. But it's a generous snippet of a life, and sometimes I find these snippets quite interesting.

On my way from the Crescenta Valley to work in downtown Los Angeles, for many years, I would drive down the Glendale Freeway to Glendale Boulevard and then on into downtown L.A. On my path, I'd pass the Angelus Temple.

The Angelus Temple is by Echo Park, a little park lake where people walk around the lake and sometimes fish for catfish. It's a nice park, which the neighbors recently more or less took back from drug dealers, unless the years have reversed the balance of power yet again.

In the Angelus Temple a religious evangelist preached. Her name was Aimee Semple McPherson.

As many as 5,000 people would show up for her Sunday services, which often featured theatrics more worthy of a show by the band Genesis than a religious performance.

In the 1920s, Ms. McPherson started her own denomination, the Foursquare Gospel church. Her charisma was legendary. Her followers were legion. Some claimed she healed by faith alone. She was friends with Charlie Chaplin; she worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor.

She had a curious life, born in Ontario to a man and wife who were 36 years apart in age. In her early teen years, she spent her time writing letters to the editor defending the then-unpopular theory of evolution, and debating local ministers as to their belief in God.

She met a Pentecostal minister, Semple, and soon converted to Christianity. They went to do missionary work in China, but were both felled by malaria. He died. She lived. She had his daughter. She remarried, to McPherson, and had a son.

After the birth of her son, she suffered from terrible post-partum depression.
Within three years, though, she hit the road as a touring evangelist. Her husband, less inclined for the road, filed for separation and ultimately divorce.

After spending the years from 1918 to 1922 on the road, she settled in Los Angeles, and founded the Foursquare church. She rarely preached about hellfire; she preferred to preach about the miraculous power of faith.

In 1923, she supervised construction of the Angelus Temple, and raised the over one million dollars it took to build it. In 1924, she became the first woman radio-evangelist.

In an era in which evangelists sometimes played to the prejudices of parishioners, she denounced the KKK from her pulpit. She was willing to criticize government officials and "underworld" figures on air, which did not endear her to the powers that be of her world.

In an age when women frequently were forced into subservient roles by men, she
led a congregation of thousands. She wore jewelry and make-up in a time when her denomination frowned upon such frivolities. In some ways, prior to 1926, she was on top of her world.

In 1926, things changed. She "disappeared" for 32 days, causing a media sensation.
She finally stumbled back into civilization in Mexico, just south of the Arizona border.

Her story was one of kidnapping and torture. The story did not hold up under scrutiny. Some suggested she used the "kidnapping" to spend time with a lover.
A grand jury investigation was inconclusive as to whether she obstructed justice, but did not reflect well on Ms. McPherson. It was not clear that she strayed in the way her accusers suggested, but it was also not clear that her own version of the facts met the evidence.

She got into litigation and other struggles with her family members. She had a nervous breakdown in 1930. She married a cabaret singer, although her own church tenets forbade such a marriage while her ex-husband was living. He made a fool of her, actually billing himself in his cabaret act as "Aimee's man".

Given all her challenges, and her fall from favor, one might imagine that she would just give up. She actually spent the Great Depression working in soup kitchens and other charitable acts for many thousands of people. She accidentally died of barbituate overdose in 1944. Her church still exists and has two million members worldwide.

I'm quite taken by Ms. McPherson's life because there was just so much living in it.
She had a whirlwind of callings and missions and controversies and sheer exuberance, of depression and despair and triumph and absurdity.

I like this thing she said, in a sermon on 1939:

"In the world, you know, they use slang once and a while, and they say, "The world is my oyster." Well, I wouldn't put it that way. But the world is my little problem. "It just seems so big!" Some people say, "The world's a big place!" I never think of it that way - it sits in my hand, there - you could hold a ball. And my task, as I see it, is to interest you folks to help me, to help them, to join the line right around the whole world".

It's so easy nowadays to see the world as so vast, and to see oneself as unable to make an impact. But perhaps it is a ball, in this way, and the task is to grasp it.

I rather like another minister from her era, who preached an entirely different gospel. He lived in her city, Los Angeles, though he preached a different message.
He preached some things with which I disagree, such as the notion that disease was all a matter of mental attitude. I am instead a believer in microbes and viruses.

But he said a lot of things I like, in his many appearances in lecture halls, and then, later, reluctantly, in those curious churches called Religious Science churches. Here is something Mr. Holmes said I'd like to juxtapose with Aimee's story:

"I would that we should not build, out of the body of our simplicity and grandeur and beauty, other creeds loaded with superstition, a fear of the unknown, and a dread of the unseen. We have discovered a pearl of great price, we have discovered the rarest gem that has ever found setting in the intellect of the human race—complete simplicity, complete directness, a freedom from fear and superstition about the unknown and about God".

I wonder, sometimes, if Ms. McPherson might not have been better suited to
a world of simply doing good, and not a world in which she was embroiled in controversy from without and within.

But people are stories--they're novels lasting 40 to 90 years. Some people are more like recipe books from the garden club--fairly nurturing, if a bit solid and predictable. But other people are great airport fiction--or the stuff of dreams.

My life is not great fiction. It's just a series of challenges and mishaps and hopeful moments and things done and undone. I spent time today working on the wording of a transactional document, as if I were discovering some theological mystery. I marvelled at a speech by a man who had done more in roughly my span of years than I will do if granted twice the span.

But I learn from people with energy--not just the saints or the sinners, but the great mass of people in between, who play their hands with enthusiasm. I learn that
sometimes you have to just push that little extra, even when it seems so hard.
I learn that sometimes you achieve things you never dreamt you'd do. Even though sometimes crashing failure results, you live. There's something in this living business.

Ernest Holmes went further than I am willing to go. He said "Find me one person who can get his own littleness out of the way and he shall reveal to me the immeasurable magnitude of the universe in which I live".

I do, though, live a week like this filled with challenges and moments and notions,
and relish, just for a moment, the idea that I can be and do more. I'd love to leave my littleness behind, if only in a small way.

I read an obituary of a good man Sunday, the father of a friend. I thought to myself that this life was a story, and a story worth telling. Perhaps there is worse than to wish to live one's life like a story, worth telling.

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