Life is an incredible road trip. Look through the milestones of your life. Who would have imagined some of them. In retrospect, it’s been quite a journey filled to the brim with chance, sadness, friends, surprises and glory. As the protagonist reminisces in the final act of Eugene O’Neil’s play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, “It’s a late day for regrets...” In the meantime: It’s on the Road Again.” – loved that song!
I think my awakening, real awakening to the larger world around me came in junior high. From the seminal events of that time I can say I became aware of the larger journey on which I, my family, and our society had embarked.
The Yankees were at the top of the American League and almost always a shoo-in to make the World Series. Back in the 50s I knew most of the lineup. Those of us who were fans couldn’t wait for the power to come to bat – Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris. We devoted fans knew that Casey Stengel had put together one of the best lineups in baseball history. Add into that, with Whitey Ford on the mound and our team was invincible.
The Broadway musical later made as a film, “Damn Yankees,” added a bit of titillation to fandom for prepubescent boys as Gwen Verdon shimmied across the stage belting out the torch song, “Whatever Lola Wants Lola Gets.” We knew that Tad Hunter was a goner. I sure was.
With President Eisenhower in the White House and prosperity right around the corner, everybody I knew at my school liked Ike. I still have my “I Like Ike” buttons. My dad, being a successful dentist, you bet we liked Ike a whole bunch. Our family would watch both national conventions from gavel to gavel. And with the Interstate Highway under construction, one could soon drive from one end of the country to the other. However, I did think it a great loss when the town of Hell, California, out in the Mojave Desert, was wiped out by the freeway bulldozers.
But there were hidden fault lines that we as children knew little of. Oh, there were a few boys we were not to play with. They were the wrong color, lived in the “projects,” or were “dirty.” Our family had moved from Compton because there were beginning to be too many of this sort of people coming in. Blockbusters, my dad called them.
But for an upwardly mobile middle-class family, we were doing okay. My mom got a new Chrysler 300 D. A turquoise convertible that could really haul when Dad punched it. Our nation had a sense of purpose – to keep those Commie (you-know-what) from taking over the world. And pumping fluoride into our drinking water to poison America. Yeah, there was a big billboard about that plot on the vacant field at Atlantic and Willow. My dad said it was put up by a bunch of Kooks. Being a dentist, he heartily approved of fluoride.
Fault lines began to appear. I knew nothing of the rural poverty in West Virginia that my father had escaped during the Great Depression. I knew nothing of the poverty-stricken ghetto in Willowbrook just to the south. I had never even seen a black person. I did know something of the poor white kids from the projects in North Long Beach. And the kids from the blue-collar families on the other side of Orange Avenue whose fathers worked at Douglas Aircraft. Hidden fault lines.
Those fault lines have now grown to a great chasm of unrelenting hostility and suspicion. Yes, most everybody in our neighborhood went to church. The Methodist Church or Catholic Church by our school. Or the Presbyterian Church over by the new shopping area. And virtually everybody in my church was just like me and my family. White. Prosperous. And Republican.
Then came the Fair Housing initiative. People began choosing up sides. A black dentist and his family were flooded out of their home by our white neighbors while off on vacation. I was aghast that some of my neighbors would do something like this.
Soon thereafter,r in the 60s, came the Vietnam War. In college I was beginning to learn more of the world. There were the Beatniks. My dad was terrified that I would be politically seduced by these no-account Commie bums. Little did he know! Gospel verities were beginning to seep into my spirit. My journey began to take a spiritual flavor. “What’s It All About, Alfie,” became my theme song. In all the social ferment my road brightened.
I had discovered the Social Gospel – our aim being not so much to get to heaven, but to bring a piece of heaven down to earth. “On earth as in heaven,” the prayer went. Social justice. Racial harmony. Labor’s right to organize. Yes, and Fair Housing. The road I was on with my family was becoming very bumpy. Full of potholes.
In the meantime, I was discovering this Jesus and his friends who were constantly on the road. Their journey was an overflowing blessing, a bit of eternity. My faith journey began to take shape and substance. It was about unmerited grace, life brimful and overflowing. It was about peace and justice for the “least of these.” It was about the gift of community.
Now, in the midst of this greatest challenge, we seem to have lost any sense of national purpose. No Walter Cronkite to tell it like it is. We have a hundred channels, each with their own version of reality. Their “alternative facts.” We aren’t going to the moon. Until a few weeks ago, we weren’t going much of anywhere on L.A. freeways, mostly turned parking lots. Now they’re empty and we still aren’t going anywhere.
We’re sealed off, one from another behind different versions of reality. There’s no wider prosperity to be had. Even the last federal stimulus for small businesses went to only a small percentage of the larger firms at the top. Shop keepers and the owners of the Mexican and El Salvadorian restaurants of my old Pico-Union neighborhood, those up and down Broadway in East Los Angeles – they’re still waiting. The small boutique shops in Claremont? For most – Nada.
In the midst of all of it is that luminous journey yet beckoning seekers. Its riches and mystery can be found in many of our communities of faith. This journey, the same that Jesus daily traveled with his friends, is still the true North Star.
On the road again, after that first Easter, a couple of dejected followers glumly made their journey to a little village called Emmaus. As they walked, another joined them.
“Why the long faces, fellows,” he asked. They couldn’t believe this. Didn’t this guy know what had happened these last few days? How could anyone be so dense? “Don’t you know — the things that have taken place?” “What things?” he asked. They proceeded to explain to him the recent events concerning Jesus – how he was a great prophet of God, how he healed and was mighty in deed and word. How he was condemned by the authorities and was crucified. “You don’t know these things? You haven’t heard?” incredulously they asked. “Where have you been? You must be the only one who doesn’t know!”
At that point, the stranger interrupted them. “Oh, you foolish men, slow of heart to believe the testimony of the prophets.” He explained the scriptures concerning himself but they did not recognize him.
As they neared the town, the stranger made as to leave and go his way, but the travelers pressed him to join them for supper, for shadows were lengthening and night was neigh. That evening, as he broke bread and blessed the cup their eyes were opened. And he had vanished from their sight. As they discussed what had just taken place, one spoke truth. “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he revealed the meaning of the scriptures?”
On the road again. That is where we shall ever meet him. As bread is broken in his name and we join in prayerful study of his Word – he is yet among us. The mountains may tumble and the sea may dry up. But, as the old hymn says, “What a Friend We Have….” A companion on the way.
Into this ragged journey, God continues to send those touched by angelic messengers, whose who announce, “Peace to all of goodwill.” Fearful neo-Nazis may parade the streets with their torches, and message of hate, but the Jesus message is deeper and shall endure. We of good will shall endure.
Men and women of Good Will continue to grace our journey through these days of COVID-19. There is Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the School of Tropical Medicine of Baylor College of Medicine. His daily journey begins sometime around four in the morning. He’s back again at his lab beginning another twelve-hour day working on a vaccine. Hoping to beat that eighteen-month window. Christ is surely on that journey with the good doctor.
We think of those teachers who saddle up their vans and autos to caravan through the neighborhoods of their students. Honking and waving. Cheering them on in their studies. Christ indeed travels the streets with those teachers.
What godly companions now join our journey through this disease ravaged land indeed! We and they certainly are on the road again – the Glory Road. And that’s the road I want to travel.
These days, the cup we bless is full to the brim with tears, those of Dustin’s family and friends in West Virginia while they keep vigil as he struggles for each breath on a ventilator. Yes, even on that perilous journey – as friends and family join together in prayer – join all across the internet – the Risen Christ is as present to them as he was to two unknown travelers on their way to Emmaus –present as a faithful companion to sanctify and to bless.
We can only do so much in this life, but the Lord in solidarity blesses our hands and minds for the task at hand. And when it’s done. It’s done. No regrets.
The evening prayer from the New Zealand Book of Prayer says all that needs to be said for me each evening.
it is night.
The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys, new possibilities.
In your name we pray.
 This prayer in “Night Prayer” of the New Zealand Prayer Book, p. 184.
April 26, 2020
The Rev. John C. Forney
“On the Road Again”