What a Week!

We, that is one of our House of Hope staff and I, just returned from our sojourn in the hills of West Virginia where we were working on our opioid addiction center. 

I am amazed at how green the hills of that part of the country are.  Especially compared to the dried, arid California landscape.  West Virginia is definitely NOT burning up.

One of the major delights of our August trip is the Wounded Warrior event we hold on our farm – this year’s being the fifth annual.  When I asked if there were any of my generation, the Vietnam Era, the response?  “Nobody’s that old.” 

To see some of the old regulars attend and many of our local folks who put on the event — it’s an occasion for civic pride.  To thank those who have served is a civic duty.  To top it off, Dagmar’s hot German potato salad was as delicious as ever!

Not to mention the guys from Merco Marine who brought out their huge barbecue cooker and furnished smoked pork, chicken and hot dogs.  Wonderful!  Tom Ferbee and his band was also a real crowd pleaser, especially when they broke into “Who Stopped the Rain.” 

With 180 acres of backwoods abandoned logging trails, we take these vets and their families on the ride of their lives.  All in all, a great weekend for everybody involved.  And a big thanks to Scott, Rob and Michelle who provide the organizational muscle.  But I was the only Vietnam vet.  We’re a dying breed.

My veteran’s organization, Vietnam Vets Against the War’s motto is: “Honor the warrior, not the war.”  We were of the generation who tossed our medals over the fence of the White House to protest that misguided, obscene foreign policy disaster.  “They lied, people died,” was the truth of the matter.  But enough of that sermon.

In addition, we met with Senator Manchin’s staff, the West Virginia director of drug policy – a whole bunch of folks who could help us with bringing House of Hope into reality.

Yes, we had quite a week.  And so did our nation.  Back down the memory rabbit hole — do you remember the American version of a British political satire show, “That is the Week That Was?”  Probably not.  It was also out of the 60s.  But you remember some of the stars:  Alan Alda, Elaine May, Gloria Steinem, Gene Hackman, Henry Morgan, Calvin Trillin and Tom Lehrer.  Nancy Ames sang the opening song.

If, perchance, you missed it, you can get an approximate version.  Watch “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver or “Full Frontal” with Samantha Bee.  Same pedigree and same great laughs.

As FBI agents executed a proper search warrant at the Former Guy’s retreat at Mar-A-Lago, much of our nation became unhinged.  No laughs here.

These law enforcement officers were accused by the likes of Ted Cruz and others as being “storm troopers, brown-shirt thugs, kicking in people’s doors.”  That’s right, if they can do it to this upstanding Former Guy, they can do it to you.

For the record, my cousin Floyd was an FBI agent.  The family never knew this until his retirement because he was deep undercover on issues of national security.  He was NOT a jack-booted Gestapo thug kicking in doors and summarily executing folks.  He was a kind, decent-hearted man.  He’d take me down into his radio room in the basement and we’d listen to places like Australia and Canada “on the skip.” 

Floyd faithfully took care of his sister with Down Syndrome after their mother died.  No, Ted.  You’re way off base.

I still wonder what Floyd’s cover was.  We only saw him once a year and I was pretty young.  The other thing I fondly remember was their great big cat that would jump up in my lap.  That, and his delightful book of WWII stories.

That episode with the Former Guy would have in itself been sufficient news, but…THEN…with the passage of the “Inflation Reduction Act” which added in funds to replenish the IRS, then came cries of agents of our government, tarred as a mob of some seventy-four thousand, armed with AR-15s, kicking in the doors of small businesses.  Locked and loaded.  Fixed News was definitely in overdrive all this week.

Actually, the tax cheats they’ll be hunting are way, way, above your and my pay grades.  The “usual suspects” are those who hide their assets in off-shore bank accounts and shell corporations.  We’re talking billions here, not that chicken-feed business lunch you mis-designated on your 1099-Miscellaneous Income form.  Or left out.

Oh, and did I fail to mention that Senator Lindsey Graham lost his appeal concerning a subpoena to testify in Georgia concerning his role in election fraud?  But not to worry, more than one felon has successfully run for office behind bars.  What a week, indeed!  A lot of shaking of the pillars.

Which gets us to the lectionary selection from Hebrews.  This passage is a portion of a sermon on Moses on the Mount of Revelation.

“See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”

“At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.”

“This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of what is shaken–that is, created things–so that what cannot be shaken may remain.”

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

I’d never get a pass on a sermon like that.

All this convoluted passage is to say that when God gets through doing the shaking, what will remain is what has value…”How Firm a Foundation.”  Just as the nations are shaken, those that endure are ones built on everlasting foundations.  There is lasting value.  Self-evident Truth.

Those values embraced by the American people, rooted in Divine Revelation, are the residue that will not be loosened.  They are the core of basic decency, the basis for our common bond as a people – whether we be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or None-of-the-Above.  They are deeply implanted in the soul of the nation.

It is these attributes that will remain, that will not be shaken.  We hang on to those spiritual verities and we will arise from the chaos of the moment as one people.

David Brooks, in an opinion piece this week, lifted up a great Christian writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner.  He came from a distressing family background.  A family of isolated personalities, unable to share pain, joy or their aspirations for living.  They are a microcosm of our national polarization – everyone in their own bubble.  Dante’s lowest level of Hell is reserved for such frozen, isolated, most toxic human beings.  Completely cut off.  From everything.

“One morning in the fall of 1936, 10-year-old Frederick Buechner and his younger brother were playing in their room. Their father opened the door, checked on them, and then went down into the family garage, turned on the engine of the car and waited for the exhaust to kill him.”

“Buechner and his brother heard a commotion, looked out the window and saw their father on his back in the driveway. Their mother and grandmother, in their nightgowns, had dragged him out of the garage and were pumping his legs up and down in a doomed attempt to revive him.”

“There would be no funeral, or discussion of what happened. Their mother just moved the boys to Bermuda to escape. The rules in that family were, ‘Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.’ They became masters at covering themselves over.”[1]

Looking back over the life of Frederick Buechner, what remained after a traumatic and vigorous shaking, was a most decent human being, overflowing with the spiritual insight on what makes for a godly life.  A life brim full to overflowing with compassion and spiritual insight.

In a way, this is what remains of President Zelenskyy.   He was a TV comic who only played at being a president.  Now he often sounds like Churchill.

When confronted by naysayers that he didn’t have the experience to be a real president of Ukraine, that he didn’t have standing, his answer was simple and basic.  The most important requirement for the job was just to be “a decent human being.”  And he has exceeded all expectations.  Silencing his most vociferous critics.

That is what we need as citizens for our day and circumstances – just being decent human beings.

Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, makes that most clear.  When confronted by a woman in great medical distress on the Sabbath, he sets aside rules, customs and religious dogma.  He, as a decent human being, does what is required.  He heals her.  And LIFE overflows to all around.  Even the stuck-in-the-mud religious authorities with their fossilized attitudes.

And that is the promise to us in our fractured land.  My politics are at odds with many of our folks in West Virginia.  My cousin Lindsey is an ardent Trumper as are many others.  We set all that aside.  Our team absorbs the pain, the loss of those families devastated by opioid addiction.  In our desire to bring healing we go about the small, boring, tedious work to get House of Hope off the ground.  Setting our political divisions aside.

Frederick Buechner says of our vocation – at the deepest, always a spiritual matter — “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and the pain of it, no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”[2]

America, we need to “stop, look, listen.”  Yes, part of our story is tawdry and vicious, but there are moments of great glory and grace.  Much remains after the brutal shaking of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow.

Through that darkest of nights shines the “Black and White Together” spirit of the civil rights struggles of the 60s.  Let us not forget Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood Marshall.  Oh, yes, The Rev. Dr. M.L. King.  An everlasting heritage.

Let us claim that sacred heritage of the “Conductors” on the Underground Railroad: Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Levi Coffin.  All shepherding folks North, following the “Drinking Gourd.”[3]  A firm foundation of a new birth of liberty.

These Americans knew their vocations as citizens and lived them.  They were not shaken in resolve or in goal.  May we find ours out as they did.

Your vocation?  Again, let us attend to Brother Frederick:  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  — a foundation which will remain your whole life long.


[1] David Brooks, “The Man Who Found His Inner Depths,” New York Times, August 18.  Any of his books are superb, novels, theology, or his autobiographical works.  An uninitiated reader might start with Now and Then, a very self-revealing memoir.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).

[3] “Drinking Gourd,” the Big Dipper constellation containing the North Star.

August 21, 2022, 11 Pentecost, Proper 16

“What a Week!”

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

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

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