Into the Valley of Despair

Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, in his new book, Love is the Way[1], tells the story in the opening pages of a woman with a mission who became an integral part of their family.

Michael’s mother died when he was eight years old.  Into the midst of the sadness of this event stepped a woman who fleetingly knew the family. 

Josie Robbins would stop by his father’s church on Sundays to drop off a neighbor kid for Sunday school, and then proceed to her own church, a Baptist Church up the street.  When Josie heard of the death, she asked that Sunday, “How can I help?”  She did not shy back from the despair of this family tragedy.  She entered it.

At first Michael’s father was somewhat hesitant.  Letting in a stranger in the midst of such emotional transition?  He wasn’t sure.  But he obviously needed help.  A church to pastor and two children to care for – it was overwhelming.

That day Josie entered the house, Michael’s father brought her into the spare bedroom to a pile of clothes heaped up on one of the twin beds.  He had managed to wash them, but that was it.  They lay there in a rumpled heap.  Josie set to work with an iron and ironing board, lovingly preparing those clothes, mostly for two children she had not yet met.

From that day on, Josie would take on more household responsibilities:  making lunches, shopping trips, dinner. 

“Moved by love, Josie jumped in with both arms and never let go.  She would take me and my sister to the W.T. Grant store in downtown Buffalo so that we could head straight for the parakeets and hamsters, like we had done with Mommy.  She made the hurt go away.”[2]

Over the ensuing years, Josie was an essential part of family celebrations, from high school and seminary graduations to weddings and baptisms. 

Michael concludes by asserting that Josie is what love looks like.  A woman with a purpose, grounded thoroughly in a gospel notion of sacrificial love.  She was not hesitant about stepping into tragedy and loss.  She was willing to enter the valley of loss and desperation.

At the time Bishop Curry wrote his book, Josie was still in his life at 85 years old.  Still a part of the family.  That’s what love looks like.

When our boys were both young, and we were living in Southeast Alaska, we had the visit of our bishop George.  George was an affable man with many years’ experience in parish ministry.  That Sunday, he not only preached and celebrated at the Eucharist, but also did the children’s sermon.  Later at lunch one of the boys announced that he wanted to be a bishop.  I was somewhat surprised and asked why.  “Dad, did you see how big his ring was?”  This was the bright shiny object that caught Jonathan’s attention.  And true, Bishop George had a large purple amethyst stone in a rather prominent ring, given to him by the Diocese of Alaska.

Of course, we know that a bishop is much more than a handsome ring.  He or she deals with many knotty problems:  parishes in financial trouble, those in decline who have lost their sense of purpose, depressed or struggling clergy.  A godly bishop does not shy away from difficulty and pain.  She enters it.  He enters it.

And beyond the hurt and difficulty of the moment, bishops are expected to pursue a hopeful vision for the mission of the church.  Much of their ministry is down in the depths of some pretty lonely valleys.  It’s not just the mountain top experience of consecration and a splendid ring. 

The same with the rest of us, whether ordained or lay. 

That, I take as the point of the gospel story of the Transfiguration in Mark’s gospel for this morning.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus takes his followers James and John up on the high mountain of God’s revelation.

His appearance is suddenly dazzling.  He shimmers and shines like that first star which led the Wise Men.  It is indeed “Christ of the shining mountains, True and transfigured king.”  The voice speaks almost the same words which began his ministry at baptism.  “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”

And in the midst of it all are Elijah and Moses, talking to Jesus.  Elijah and Moses, harbingers of the inbreaking Messianic Age.­­

And poor Peter has no idea what to make of it all.  He is consumed by the experience.  He might as well be in paradise.  He doesn’t know what to say.  He’s like a little boy hauled in before principal, afraid and stammering.”    So finally, he blurts out, “Wow, this is great.  Let’s make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  But, of course, he has absolutely no idea what he is saying.

Peter is so painfully all of us.  He just doesn’t get it.  Clueless.

These are strictly Old Testament rumblings:  the mountain, the cloud, the voice, the luminescence, and Moses and Elijah.  The glory of God is fully manifest in Jesus as the culmination of revelation.

By locating this passage where it is, Mark lets the reader know that this Transfiguration narrative is not to be taken as the substance of Jesus ministry.  It is only a pre-Easter glimpse of its consummation, a “foretaste of glory divine” as the old hymn puts it.  It is also an essential step onto the road of Calvary.

But of course, they will not stay basking in the glory of Transfiguration.  Jesus will not hear of it.  Splendor is not his purpose.  His mission is firmly grounded in lived reality of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  He’s a man with a mission and that mission is to drag all of creation through the knothole of human suffering and depravity into a New Creation.  Jesus is not into purple amethyst for its own sake.

I remember my college days working in Central Juvenal Hall in Los Angeles.  I had the night shift, which was mostly quiet as all our little charges were asleep.  We had kids as young as fourth and fifth grade in my wing up through junior high.  I had a dim desk light by which to work on my homework, and usually nothing memorable happened.  One night, however, firmly took root in my memory.  One of the young boys woke up and alerted me that he needed to go to the bathroom.  I walked down the hall with him as he shuffled along in his PJs to the boy’s room.  After he had finished his business, we headed back to the dorm.  As he climbed back onto his mattress on the floor, he said to me, “I wish I had been like you and stayed in school.  Then I wouldn’t be here now.”  It about broke my heart.

 So many boys here, many certainly not for the first time – in fact they’d made a career of juvey hall even at their tender young ages, are lost not only to themselves but to society as well.  These were throw-away kids with no hope for much of any future than crime. I remember asking what one boy might want to do when he got out.  “I don’t think much about it.  I’ll probably get shot.”

In our school-to-prison pipeline, those who plan prison construction can get a very accurate count on how many cells will be needed by just asking third grade teachers how many of their students can’t read.  That’s one of the best predictors of how many of our kids will become lifers.

My good friend Hal served some twenty years as a prison chaplain.  He could have had a great ministry in a large suburban church but he instead chose a great ministry behind bars bringing whatever gospel hope and aid he could to the incarcerated men and their families he ministered to.  Hal came down off the glorious mountain of seminary studies and chose the Valley of Broken Dreams and Dashed Hope.  And it has made all the difference in the world according to Hal.  I say God bless him.  He has had a life richer and fuller than most clergy in quiet suburban churches with great pay and green lawns.   And a nice pension to boot.  Down off the mountain is where life is actually to be had.

We recently celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King’s holiday.  Listen to his summons to a congregation of organizers and activists on that evening before he was shot.  He didn’t have to get caught up in a labor dispute involving sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.  Some of his followers argued against it.  Garbage workers, for Christ’s sake.  Yes!  Indeed.  For Christ’s sake.  But on hearing the story of two black sanitation workers taking shelter during a heavy rainstorm being crushed to death on February 1, 1968, when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered, Dr. King knew he would very soon be in that city.

There he saw clearly his vocation, and it was there with a bunch of garbage workers – nobodies in the eyes of society, that he gave one of his greatest speeches on the eve of his assassination.  It is indeed a speech clearly directed to us at St. Francis, and Christians sitting in pews all across America this morning.   King’s theology was not escapist, prosperity gospel nonsense. This is what he told the assembled folks that sweltering night:

It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism.  But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here.  It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.  It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York and the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.[3]

Looking back on my life as an older adult – much older now, I have now come to realize that my unique journey had to run through my particular dysfunctional family with all its rage and heartache.  It had to run through academic failure and two years in the Army.   It had to run through my trucking and construction companies.  But only by traveling through the valley of my teenage insecurities, screwups and failure, would I come into the personhood that Christ intended for me.

 But it’s tough.  Yes, the mountain top is easier but it is not the journey.  No, I’d much rather be on the front lines in the struggle against global warming and white supremacy.  I’d much rather be with this wonderful church family here in San Bernardino.  This is where Christ seeks to make all things new in our particular part of creation.  It’s because I see that we have not given up.  And I pledge not to give up. We understand that there are more steps to be taken on our journey together, and our journey with those with whom we will come to minister.  More steps to a House of Hope.  Ours is a journey of hope that sees beyond the grubbiness of addiction.  Ours is a journey of hope that sees beyond the poverty of many of our neighborhoods.  Ours is a journey of hope that sees beyond the school to prison pipeline.  Ours is a journey that sees beyond fine rings and the vestments of splendor.  Our journey is what love looks like.

The mountain top is long past.  Yet, with Moses and King, and all who have gone on before, we’ve seen the promised land.  We’ve caught a glimpse of divine purpose working itself out.  Now we set our eyes firmly on the dusty Lenten highway. Our hearts are not heavy.  It is with joy that we come down off the mountain to be among those whom Christ loved, and for whom he prayed and toiled and died.  We will find in faith that there is bread sufficient for this journey. 

As St. Paul writes of the Christian calling: “Ever dying, here we are alive. Called nobodies, yet we are ever in the public eye.  Though we have nothing with which to bless ourselves, yet we bless many others with true riches.  Called poor, yet we possess everything worth having.”[4]

I am one in spirit, with George Bernard Shaw when he said, “I want to be thoroughly used upwhen I die, for the harder I work the more I live.”  That’s the down-the-mountain ethic.

O Lord, we pray, give us strength for our journey down from the mountain to begin our Lenten journey here at Saint Francis Episcopal Mission.  Give us strength and courage that we run the good race set before us and claim the blessing and the joy of Christ’s Beloved Community where all have a seat at the table.  Amen

[1] Michael Curry, Love is the Way (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020), pp. 12-15.

[2] Op cit., p. 13.

[3] “I’ve Been to the Mountain,” 1968.  Delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee.

[4] The New Testament in Modern English, J.B Phillips 1960, 1972 J. B. Phillips. Administered by The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. II Cor. 6:9-10.

“Into the Valley of Despair”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

February 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6;
Mark 9:2-9

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