Recently, I’ve received a number of emails for burial insurance. Like the plague victim in “Spamalot” about to be carted off to the cemetery, I loudly protest, “I’m not dead yet. I’m not dead.”
The next day a postcard arrived from Forest Lawn. I thought about scrawling across the front of it, “I’m not dead yet,” and sticking it in return mail. Return to sender.
But, as Luke’s passage on the rich man in purple cloth who dines sumptuously while a poor man, Lazarus, at his gate, surviving on scant crumbs from the rich man’s table, clues us in – we get that we all have an expiration date. No one lives forever. Though my dad thought that was a real possibility. In his case, anyway.
Eventually, there comes a summing up. As Dionne Warwick crooned, “What’s It All About, Alfie?”
What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?
For those at ease in Zion, life slips away, comes to much of nothing if it’s only mindless entertainment and consumption. Amos promises exile. Maybe not in a foreign land, but exile from our interior selves. Exile from any sense of national purpose. A deadly, soul-killing existence – a different sort of exile.
The pandemic gave us all space to figure this out. But at ease? No, few of us are at ease. For too many, especially our youth, this pandemic has been a soul-killing disaster.
In our forced isolation we have become a nation in despair.
Teen suicide has reached epidemic proportions. Medical authorities now call the needless loss of life “deaths of despair.” We’re talking suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease. They’re rampant.
These deaths are at the highest level in the history of our nation according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the CDC.
This is mainly a scourge of those on the bottom of the economic totem pole – those whose wages and life circumstances have not kept up with ever rising costs. They are not lazy or shiftless: many are doing two or three jobs and trying to raise a family.
Anne Case, in an interview with Newsweek Magazine, lists some of the factors leading to these “deaths of despair.” “The pillars that once helped give life meaning—a good job, a stable home life, a voice in the community—have all eroded.”
Just drive down through the main streets of many business districts. All you see is boarded up storefronts and littered sidewalks. Livelihoods are emptied out. The few rehabilitation efforts promised are mired in bureaucratic incompetency and endless lawsuits.
In many households family-time has disappeared. Just the amount of homework many teens are burdened with is unbelievable.
I read an article in The Atlantic of a father who writes for that publication. He had become concerned about his sleep-deprived thirteen-year-old daughter who was being transformed into a zombie. He decided upon an experiment.
He would try her homework schedule for a week. He figured her time in class was about the same hours he put in at work. As she started on her homework upon arriving at their house, so would he also do the same homework.
Monday, he opened her algebra book and for some time stared at the problems until he finally remembered what a polynomial was. He finished the problems in around 45 minutes, then turned to her reading assignment in Angela’s Ashes. He figured that there was around an hour and a half, maybe two hours of reading here. But then he had to find several quotable passages and write an essay on one of them. Another hour or so. And he hadn’t even gotten to her earth science assignment.
Opening that book, he came upon the most brain-numbing writing imaginable. At one point a “chart 3” was referenced. He flipped through page after page until he found that. Finishing the reading, he fell asleep around one or two AM. And this was only Monday.
How is it kids in Finland hardly bring any homework home yet score highest on international tests of math, science and language? What do these people know that our educational system hasn’t figured out?
His daughter was a fairly bright young thing. Think about the average student completely overwhelmed by it all. Dropout time for them!
Indeed, what’s it all about, Alfie? No wonder we’re raising a stressed-out generation that is escaping through pills and suicide or violent video games.
Recently, we lost a modern prophet if ever there was a one – Barbara Ehrenreich. As a social scientist she wondered how it was, given the continued relative decline in wages that the working poor survived.
So, she left the hallowed halls of ivy, abandoned academic security, and for a year she took those menial, low-wage jobs that 60 to 70 percent of our citizens toil in, nine to five – and ofttimes many more hours a day. This is NOT the Dolly Parton glossy movie fantasy.
Ehrenreich cleaned houses, worked as a Walmart sales clerk, waitressing, hotel maid, nursing home aide, scrubbing floors on her hands and knees.
At first, she thought she’d stick out as “other.” Nothing in common with her workmates, but soon bonded with several as they opened their lives to her. One of the most pressing problems for those whom she encountered was housing.
Ehrenreich quickly discovered that if one wanted to live inside, two jobs were essential. A good number of her workmates were reduced to living in their cars. Some lived in crowded quarters with three or four other women. Several lived with boyfriends and one had moved back with his mother.
There was hardly any “free,” personal time. Barely any for lunch. She was always hungry towards the end of a shift. No wonder it’s called “grinding poverty.”
One night the boss caught her grabbing a bowl of clam chowder. She’d often seen the other women do this. “No eating,” Stu snaps. Though there’s not a customer around to see food making contact with a server’s lips. “No eating!”
Barbara tells her coworker that she’s going to quit, at which point Gail replies that she thinks she’ll follow her to Jerry’s, Ehrenreich’s second job.
Yes, as Dolly Parton belts it out: “Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’/Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin.’” Drop into bed dead tired and do it all over again in the morning. What a way to make a livin.’
These are the folks languishing at our gate, the gate of the richest nation on earth – ever. These are the poor who live in squalor so we might have clean, tidy homes. These are the people who ruin their health on fast food on the run while we enjoy fine dining, or grab a bite at McDonalds. These are the women who neglect their families so our children are well cared for. These are Lazarus’s companions left to rot at the splendid gate of America.
We’re only passing through momentarily. How do we want to be remembered? What’s it all about?
How to be remembered? We could take a cue from Merrick Garland.
The arc of Garland’s life of service is instructive. Give your life, or at least some part of your spare time, to a greater cause. It’s not all about us. As the kids say, “Get over yourself.” That’s when we begin actually living, not just existing. That’s when life smiles back.
But I digress. Back to Merrick Garland. There’s the sign we see as we enter the forest, heading to Lake Arrowhead. “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Yes, it’s Smokey Bear.
Garland in his recent speech welcoming newly naturalized citizens at Ellis Island, would urge us, I imagine, “Only you can prevent Democracy fires.” There is nothing permanent about our democracy, no long-haul guarantee.
It’s all based on “rule of law.” Without that, the whole enterprise goes up in flames – one big national Dumpster fire.
Listen to Garland’s wise counsel. This is what he told those new Americans:
“The Rule of Law means that the law treats each of us alike: there is not one rule for friends, another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; a rule for the rich, another for the poor; or different rules depending on one’s race or ethnicity or country of origin.”
“The Rule of Law is not assured. It is fragile. It demands constant effort and vigilance.”
Here’s something worth devoting one’s life to. Or maybe just a few moments in a supermarket checkout line. Or a letter to the editor.
America, get over yourselves. Let’s try a little self-transcendence. Re-read the book of Amos. More wise counsel. In his advanced years, Merrick Garland is definitely NOT taking his ease in Zion.
Madison, warned us that no Constitution could save us from ourselves if we surrendered to ignorance, imbecility, and faction. In his address to his home state of Virginia, as he advocated for ratification of the proposed Constitution, this is what he told those delegates:
“But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men [and women] of virtue and wisdom.”
“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”
Virtue? There are presently more people in the cult of QAnon than there are Episcopalians or Presbyterians in America!
Virtue? Look at the craziness of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene! Consider the duplicity of Governor DeSantis and his theater of the absurd at Martha’s Vineyard, using duped immigrants as political pawns. Is this what those poor folks fled the corruption and gangs of Venezuela for? Governor, these are people for God’s sake!
Our Democracy needs an awful lot more perfecting to safeguard the poor huddled at the gates of an extravagantly wealthy America. Masses of our own citizens yearning to be free of an economic system that grinds them to dust.
A lot of perfecting to do, indeed we need. Definitely time to re-read the book of Amos. “Read, mark and inwardly digest.”
As Judge Garland urged us, it’s up to each one as we are given wisdom and opportunity to create a land where all can enjoy its riches and splendor.
It’s up to each of us to spread the opportunity and joy around.
The other day Jai read to me from the sports section that Maury Wills had died. With his talent, he surely spread the delight we have in America’s national pastime, baseball.
Wills held the all-time record for base stealing. As a child I remember watching him in total fascination as he inched away from first base. Six, then ten, then twelve feet – shifting back and forth from foot to foot, just taunting the pitcher to turn and throw to first.
The minute that pitcher twitched, Wills would be off like a bolt of lightning headed for second. The crowd held its collective breath for a second, then went wild. Moments before the ball arrived for the tag, Wills had slid in on his belly. SAFE!
With the same delight I watched a video clip of Jim and Verity’s daughter Haden hitting a triple at a recent tournament.
At first the video didn’t show what happened to her after she hit the ball. Then I saw her far off streaking to second, rounding it then heading toward third. Yeah, the crowd went wild.
Hayden gives this sport her all. She puts in the work. Watching her is a delight!
Might we also give our all to something greater, something outside ourselves. Something that will free up those huddled at our gates? Something that will bring joy? Yes, we need Bread AND Roses, too.
Herein is the beginning of eternity. A life of blessedness!
What’s it all about, Alfie? Are we meant to take more than we give?
I think not. As Alfie’s song questions each, “Do you believe in Love?” Back to Dionne Warwick:
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed, you’re nothing, Alfie
When you walk, let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie
So, let’s get to work. We’re not dead yet. Amen.
 Burt Bacharach /Hal David, Alfie lyrics.
 Bert Bacharach, Hal David, “Alfie,” 1966.
 Blake Dodge, “What are the So-Called Deaths of Despair? Experts say They’re on the Rise,” Newsweek, Jan. 14, 2020. See also, Anne Case, Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).
 Tom Taro Greenfield, “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me,” The Atlantic, October 2013.
 Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001), 32.
 Merrick Garland, https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-merrick-b-garland-administers-oath-allegiance-and-delivers, delivered on September 17, 2022.
 Madison: Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999), 398.
 Op cit.
September 25, 2022, 16 Pentecost, Proper 21
“Just Get Over Yourself”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission
Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31