So, God Can Use Me

I remember walking behind our junior high math teacher who had absolutely no hair.  I didn’t think we were that close.  Neither did my friend Dan who said something about “Chrome Dome.”  Apparently, Mr. Brodeur heard him and the next thing I knew, we were both in big trouble.  Him for saying it and me for laughing.  Dan’s inappropriate comment got us both a week in after-school detention in his math class.  And a stern dressing down.  That was back in the good old days when there was actually discipline in school.  We knew we had really screwed up.  There was no magic “get-out-of-jail-free” card.

Well, as adults we know that there are mistakes that a lot more consequential.  There are dire challenges to be faced and there’s no wishing them away.  We have a pandemic about to wash up on our shores and we’ve fired or cut back spending for most of the scientists and medical staff at the federal level who could actually help us fight the corona virus.  And the other night at a rally, attendees were told that any critique of the effort to fight the corona virus was a hoax.  Just a hoax — what the Democrats were making of it.  There are only fifteen victims and they are all getting better – except one older woman.  Soon there’ll be only two or three.  Then none.   Nothing to see here, folks.  Just move along.

And who’s now in charge of our coordinated national response?  A doctor?  An epidemiologist?  A scientist?  No!  Who’s now in charge?  A politician named Pence who once had substituted his ill-informed judgement for science during the AIDS epidemic in Indiana.  That call consigned many young men to death in his state.   Rather than consult Indiana’s finest medical staff and epidemiologists, he substituted his own religious prejudices for sound public policy – and people died.  This is who’s in charge — the Virus Czar. 

This is the Virus Czar under whose watch, crewmembers and passengers coming off the quarantined cruise ship were allowed to fly home with other passengers – all mixed up together.   Then, they were all released back into the U.S with no special precautions taken.  And now corona virus is popping up all over.  Isn’t Pence the guy who said that smoking was not harmful.  After all, he reasoned, not everyone who smokes dies. To put him in charge of the Corona Virus Brigade is definitely magical thinking.  A stroke of pure genius.

Magical thinking — Jesus rejected it.  And so, should we.  Gravity always wins.  Fame’s not what it’s cracked up to be.

Rush Limbaugh, this week, said that the corona virus is just like a common cold.  That’s right — nothing more than a “common cold” blown out of proportion by the media to take down the president.     “Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus. … Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”[1]  Listen to that magical thinking and more of us will be just plain dead.

What medical school did he graduate from?   With what grades?  Contradicting himself seconds later, Rush also asserted the virus was a “bioweapon” created by China in a laboratory.  Seigh…

Theology is not magic!  That is what the passage from Matthew of the desert temptations would teach.  Sure, we would all like bread without labor.  Jesus rejects this.  “We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  There is no magic. 

Faithfulness to the Word of God is life.  Not cheap tricks and hokum.

When our two boys were in grade school, we had a wood burning furnace in Alaska that would heat the water for the baseboard heaters upstairs.  I would go out to a fellow in the church who operated a portable sawmill.  At Norm’s I would get the rounds from the stump end of the tree he could not use, and split them up to burn.  The boys would carry them into the furnace room to dry – or at least one boy was up for this. 

The other boy?  ‘I ain’t carrying no wood,” said our oldest.  “That’s okay,” I told him.  “Don’t worry about it a bit when the ice sickles are on the inside of the window instead of the outside.  We’ll just turn the heat off in your room.  No need to carry any wood.  Don’t worry about it at all.”  After the realization sank in that it could get pretty cold, and no one was going to do his share for him – the next time I saw him, there he was with an armload of wood headed for the furnace room.  No magic was going to heat his room.

Ignorance and wish fulfillment are not how God set up the deal.  Conspiracy theories and the blame games do not produce bread.  They won’t mend our bones should we decide to jump off high buildings.  All the kingdoms in the world are not worth the Beloved Community.  No magic.  No shortcuts.  What you sow, you get.  Gravity always wins.  Sorry, Harry and Hermione.

Magical thinking won’t protect us from folly or ignorance.  Conspiracy theories – another form of magical thinking – won’t let us skate through life unharmed. 

Real life takes actual work.  Jesus taught and healed and prayed.  No shortcuts.  Real ministry takes work and sacrifice.  We had that church, St. John’s, in Anchorage only because those parishioners worked very hard to make it a reality.  The first building was an old, unused school house that the guys had bought and moved down the hill from Upper O’Malley Road.  I remember Bob and Henrietta, a middle-aged couple who were the back bone of that small congregation.  Though they owned a mom-and-pop laundry downtown, and didn’t make a lot – proportionally, they gave much more in time, effort and dollars than many of our well-healed top management oil execs.  No magical thinking for Bob and Henrietta.  Just a good, sound, wholesome family that loved their Lord and lived their values.  Bob was the one who pushed me to get a Korean congregation going.  And pushed.  And pushed.   And we did!

To insist that it is all depends on God is theological fantasy.  As the saying goes, “without God, we can’t.  Without us, God won’t.”  God didn’t skimp in putting together creation, and there are no shortcuts for us either.

Bob and Henrietta were definitely God’s hands at St. John United Methodist in Anchorage, Alaska.  Not so much another couple who each earned six figures, yet faithfully put their miserly five dollars in the plate every Sunday.  Everyone knew what these two made:  he was head of all Health and Human Services for the State of Alaska and she was head of State Personnel.  Their salaries were published each year in the paper.  And this guy had actually been a pastor!  Again, how badly do we really want a church?  Or is this only a hobby?

Being a Christian takes a bit of doing.  Often, a lot of doing.  No cheap grace.  The pattern was set at Calvary, at the foot of the Cross.

Forgiveness requires a bit of a death, as well.  It’s hard to let go of resentment or justifiable anger.  Sacrifice is part of the Lenten journey, if we are honest with ourselves – and with God.

Let me share the story Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tell in their book, Tightrope.[2]  They tell the story of Debbie Baigrie, the twenty-eight-year-old daughter of an Orthodox Jewish cantor, who was out celebrating with friends one evening in New York.  An acquaintance, who also happened to be at the restaurant, offered to walk her to her car, as this was a somewhat dangerous neighborhood.

As they neared her car, they were approached by a small group of boys, one of which pointed a gun at her face.  He demanded that she give up her purse, and before she could react, he pulled the trigger.

The bullet tore through her jaw and passed out her cheek.  Bleeding profusely, she managed to stumble down the street, bullets whizzing past, and back into the restaurant.

“Help me!’ she shouted.  I’ve been shot!  Is my face gone?”[3]

Debbie has since gone through years of painful reconstructive oral surgery.  She still can’t eat an apple and her face is permanently scarred. 

A few days after the incident, while police were still hunting for the unknown shooter, they happened to arrest a group of boys in a stolen car.  As one young boy waited for his mom to pick him up at the station, he matter-of-factly mentioned to an officer, “’You know that woman who was shot in the face the other day?’ he asked. ‘I did that.’”  Ian Manuel was the thirteen-year-old gunman.

As you can imagine, the city went ballistic.  On one hand, here was a most sympathetic victim, and on the other, Ian, a young thug whose life was going nowhere, a vicious criminal, who had not for a second given a thought about the value of another human life.  The papers and other media, branded him as the poster child for all the city’s sociopaths — for all the crime and mayhem which had been terrorizing its citizens.  It was Ian’s face!

Though only thirteen, the judge determined to make an object lesson of him and sentenced Ian as an adult.  As she pronounced a life sentence without the possibility of parole, the court’s judgement began to register in his mind.  “I’m going to die in prison,” he thought.

In prison, Ian was bullied by both prisoners and guards alike.  Because he fought back, he spent many weeks in solitary.  When uncooperative, he was teargassed and injected with psychotropic drugs.

Growing up in prison, Ian Manuel, one day found himself an ally beyond belief.  That day, Debbie answered her phone to hear an operator ask if she would accept a collect call from Ian Manuel.

         “Ian who?” she asked.

         “Ian Manuel, he told the operator.

         Out of morbid curiosity, Debbie accepted the charges.

         “I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas,” he said, a bit

          sheepishly.

         “Ian,” she asked, “why did you shoot me?”

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said heavily, and there was a long pause.  “It was a mistake.  It just happened so quickly.  I’m sorry.”

Debbie was moved by Ian’s youth and contrition.  “I felt guilty,” she recalled.  “I felt I had taken his life away.  He didn’t kill me but I killed him.”[4]

Debbie was aware that Ian was a kid who had grown up surrounded by violence, drugs, and gangs.  He probably never had much of any adult supervision and certainly no school counselor who might have provided support.  For Ian, his daily existence was a rerun of Lord of the Flies.

With that call, began a most bizarre, and for Debbie, a life-changing correspondence.  Depending on the day and how excruciating the pain, Debbie vacillated between anger and the impulse to forgive.  On another day she would think, “He’s just a kid.  When you’re thirteen, you do stupid stuff.”

Ian was in prison when he received the news that his mother had died of AIDS.  This was one of the absolute worst days in his life there.  His only connection on the outside other than Debbie had been cut off. 

Then an absolute fluke.  Ian had used his time behind bars to read and get an education.  Because the guards in the prison would punish their charges by turning the dayroom TV to PBS, Ian happened to hear a documentary, To Be Heard, a program about a poetry class in the Bronx.  He began writing poetry in his cell.  It became his outlet for expressing his bottled-up emotions.

Sometime thereafter, he also happened to receive a letter from the renowned lawyer and activist, Brian Stevenson, who had started a program, “Equal Justice.”  Brian was looking for a juvenile who was serving a life sentence without parole.  His lawsuit would argue that such punishment was unconstitutional. 

The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of Ian, who would be resentenced.

Debbie testified at that resentencing hearing, asking for leniency for Ian. 

Reading from Nick’s and Sheryl’s book:

In 2016, after twenty-six years behind bars, Ian was released for time served – and celebrated with Debbie Baigrie.  They exchanged hugs.  Nobody watching would think that Ian had once shot Debbie; he called her his “guardian angel” and “second mom.”  They moved on to an Italian restaurant for a dinner of pizza and soda not far from where he had shot her in 1990.[5]

Being a person of faith requires effort.  There’s nothing magical about the wresting with the conflicting emotions that Debbie struggled through.  It was costly.  Her divorce was partly the result of the bitter arguments she had had with her husband over her reconciliation with Ian. 

Jesus refused any conjuring tricks to produce bread.  He refused to jump from the temple roof.  He realized that all the kingdoms of this world could not compare with the vision he served.  Get thee behind me, Father of all Lies.  Your way is not the way of God.  It will not build the Beloved Community.  That will take blood and sweat.

We sang a marvelous gospel song the other night during vespers at Pilgrim Place, “I’m Gonna Live So, God Can Use Me.”  In part, it goes:

         I’m gonna live so, God can use me

         Any where, Lord, any time.

         I’m gonna live so, God can use me,

any where, Lord, any time

Let this be our Lenten hymn.  This Lent, let us lean into honest, bold, adventurous living so that God might put each of us to some earthly use.  For our sakes and for the sake of young men like Ian Manuel.   No magic thinking here.  Any life worth living is the whole reality show.  The key word being “REALITY.”  What we do, counts.  Any where, Lord.  Any time.  Amen.


[1] Allyson Chiu, Washington Post, Feb. 25, 2020

[2] Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, Tightrope (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020)

[3] Op cit., 176.

[4] Op cit., 181.

[5] Op cit., 187.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

March 1, 2020

Genesis 2:15-17; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11


First Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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