At All Costs

My wife has a saying she came up with shortly after our first child was born, “When the going gets tough – lower your standards.”

She had kept our house immaculate.  Everything in its place and a place for everything.  EXCEPT IN MY OFFICE.  She just closed the door and didn’t let visitors in there.

It was the sanity decision.

When the second child came along, it was the only decision.

Similarly, COVID-19 has forced most of us to hunker down, reassess priorities.  That and inflation.  I noticed that balancing my checkbook is a lot easier these days because I’m not going anywhere.  I’m not buying stuff.

When Jai and I arrived back home from our trip East to meet prospective in-laws, (yes!  Christopher and Alexis have set the date)….we both came back with COVID.  The one good aspect of this experience is that nobody expects you to do much of anything.  And I didn’t feel like doing much of anything.  Life gets stripped to the essentials.  Lower your standards.  Plowing through at all costs is insanity.

But how often out of anxiety, out of fear, out of just plain greed do we strive after the wind?  And as the title of Margaret Mitchell’s novel puts it, it’s all GONE WITH THE WIND.

The passages assigned this week all raise the question, What Makes for a Godly Life?  What really counts?  What is the taste of the eternal to be had in this life?

In the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read of striving after things of no account. 

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

“I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.

“I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.  I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me.”

Remember the lesson of last week:  The Good Life – Eternity if you will, is wrapped up in love of God and Neighbor.  One and the same.

It’s not the bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”  That’s a lie.  Vanity, all that bunkum is vanity and a chasing after the wind.  Material gain, political ambition, fame – pursued “At All Costs” is nothing but futility.

Martin E. Marty captured the excessive ethos of this age in a proposed alternative bumper sticker: “In case of rapture, I have dibs on your Bugatti.”[1]

The political thing pursued at all costs might actually get the Former Guy 20 years of government housing.  The fame thing at all costs can get you on the Hollywood divorce roster or into drug rehab.  And ask Bugsy Siegel or Michael Milken where the money thing pursued at all costs leads.  And, we won’t go into the book thing.

It’s not hoarding up more and more and more stuff.  This lesson hits close to home as the Forney’s have an over-active packrat gene.

Maybe I’ve mentioned my wife’s dream of defrosting the freezer.  In her dream she opens the door only to find that it’s full of books.

That morning when she shared her Good Housekeeping nightmare, I told her that she was lucky to be married to a biblical scholar who could interpret the dream.

The interpretation?  She needed to buy a new freezer — for the food.

Now, I admit, my library is a little over the top.  I assuage my guilt by comparing it to Carnage’s library we visited in New York City.  The ceilings were at least sixty feet high.  There were three levels of books along the walls.  It was huge!

This grand collection was housed in over-the-top opulence.  Mine, not so much.

When I mentioned to Jai that, at least, my library wasn’t THAT out of control, she quipped something to the effect, “That’s only because you don’t have the billions Carnage had.”  Touché! 

Yes, we do have the Forney packrat gene.  I can’t tell you how many cans of dried paint I cleaned out of my dad’s storage room.  There must have been fifty or sixty cans.  A lifetime accumulation.  I’m sure some dated back sixty years to when we had lived in Compton and I was in the second grade.  All as dry as a Cambrian fossil.

I remember a film we used to show at church camp on the stewardship of creation.  The title was, “More.”  In the opening minutes is a baby screaming, “More, more, more” as it grasps for everything around it.  The film ends with the earth buried under mounds of stuff and more stuff. 

That’s where we’re headed with our insatiable appetites.  More, more, more.  And the planet is getting buried under a toxic cloud of carbon dioxide, the “greenhouse gas.”  To my friends in the Midwest – is it hot enough for you yet?  Yeah, as the movie says, “Some Like it Hot,” but that was about Marilyn Monroe, not the planet!

So, where then might we better expend our effort?  If it’s not building bigger and more barns to store our stuff.  St. Paul frequently offers good counsel on what makes for a good, well-lived life.  Godly counsel, if you will.

To paraphrase St. Paul, “Excel in doing good.  meekness, self-control; against such there is no law. … Humility, endurance; the law is not set against these things.

The planet can handle such good works without burning up.  Store up such charity in abundance.  You won’t need a new barn or larger library.  Toss those cans of desiccated paint.

Consider this path if you are driven at “All Costs” to excel at something.  There is no law against such generosity of spirit.  John Wesley said do all the good you can to as many as you can as long as you can.  Jesus would second that.  That’s what the Spirit inspires.

I think of my friend Nancy Mintie who founded Uncommon Good right here in the Pomona Valley after working in poverty law in downtown Los Angeles.  Nancy Mintie is the best of Catholic social teaching in practice. She and Uncommon Good do a lot of good for kids.  Against such generosity of Spirit there is no law.

Let me share one story from Uncommon Good’s latest newsletter.  It’s about a young man already making a difference in his community.

Luis Limon Sr. came from Mexico and began supporting himself in the U.S. at the age of fifteen.  A young woman from Mexico’s breadbasket Sinaloa came for a visit and stole his heart.  In due course Luis Limon Jr. was born.

His parents brought young Luis to Uncommon Good, hoping that they could show him the way to get an education and make a life for himself in their adopted country.

Luis has taken advantage of all that Uncommon Good has had to offer.  He was paired with a mentor from one of our Claremont Colleges.  He joined the sister organization of Uncommon Good, Gente Organizada.  After attending writing programs, and math camp he broadened his horizons. 

He became a student leader, inspired by his parent’s journeys, he lobbied the Pomona City Council to establish a Youth Commission.  In the face of withering, racist criticism by one of the council members – a Latino at that — Luis persisted.  With the support of his friends at Uncommon Good, Luis then took on the issues of mental health in his community, creating a yearly conference, Healthy Young People – holding their conferences by Zoom after Covid hit.

Uncommon Good helped Luis apply for, and be accepted by a mentoring program at Pomona College, PAYS, the exclusive college preparation program at one of our top liberal arts colleges on the West Coast.

As a high school senior, Luis has been accepted at one of our more prestigious and selective colleges, Kalamazoo College in Michigan.  Scholarship to boot!  They have a 4.4% acceptance rate.  Compare that with Harvard’s rate of 5%.  Now that’s selective. 

That’s the kind of GOOD that Nancy Mintie has excelled in.  She certainly walks the talk of her church.  Nothing wasted here.

So, to St. Paul in Colossians.  Uncommon Good, its staff and volunteers embody the spirit of this teaching:

“So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 

“When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”[2]

Here’s Paul’s point — This same Spirit indwelling in Jesus has now been let loose in you, and inhabits all in the Jesus Movement.  It is the same life-giving force that brings us “Frozen Chosen” to daring acts of justice and reconciliation.  Through it, we are transfigured to joy incarnate, the Glory of the living God.

Yield to that summons – that’s LIFE ABUNDANT.  Free for the asking.  No barn’s required.  No extra bookshelves needed.

Here we discover the true riches of life, where treasure is to be had. 

Micheala Bruzzese sums it up: In and through such living we find that our “profound hunger to love and to be loved is satisfied.”  We are enfolded into the “unconditional and all-consuming love of God. …this treasure does not trap us, but liberates us, giving us the strength and courage to be liberators in the world.”[3]  Amen.

[1]Martin E. Marty, “Wheels of Fortune: ‘In Case of Rapture, I Have Dibs on Your Bugatti,’” M.E.M.O, Christian Century, July 25, 2006.

[2] Colossians 3:1-11, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Micheala Bruzzese, “Possessed by Love Alone,” Sojourners Magazine, May 1, 2004.

July 31, 2022, 8 Pentecost, Proper 13

“At All Costs”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

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