One of my favorite quotes from Abraham Lincoln is, “People are about as happy as they decide to be.” Unless there is some mental illness or great tragedy, most people, left to their own devices, will volunteer for “happy.”
But there’s a subset of folks with whom life and others have dealt badly. They wake up miserable and go to bed miserable.
Like our neighbor when I was a small boy growing up in Compton. Back when I was in the first and second grades, when we boys would be roller-skating out on the sidewalk on our block, she’d come out and turn on the sprinklers and yell at us. A wonderful and uplifting next door neighbor, indeed. Enough to ruin your entire day.
She seemed to hate everyone. Her husband had left, she made her teenage son sleep out in the garage. I won’t add any sexist, piggy male commentary as to why he may have left. My lips are sealed, sort of.
One of my favorite cities is San Francisco. Did I ever mention that if you pay your church pledge, say your prayers and don’t fool around on your significant other, when you die, that’s where you go?
Anyway, a news blurb from that city of the Golden Gate caught my attention this week. A shopkeeper of an art gallery was arrested for hosing down a homeless woman sleeping on the sidewalk outside his business. The same look of disinterested distain on his face as officer Derek Chauvin had as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck. Assault and battery. Just out of sheer cussedness, and exasperation, I suppose.
Didn’t his mother, didn’t his father, teach him any better than this? I suppose not.
Yes, I know that they are, like most urban centers, overwhelmed by destitute folks, the mentally ill and drug-addicted. I confess to being dismayed having to walk around people camped out on the street as I make my way to a favorite bookstore or restaurant.
But as my mom always said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Such disorder does unsettle the spirit. But is cussedness the answer?
Left to our own devices and anger, that’s too often where we can end up. Out there on the sidewalk of life along with Mrs. Blocker turning on the sprinklers and yelling at passersby, hosing down the homeless.
There is a better way. It’s engaged compassion. It begins with the simple words, “Blessed are…”
As the Deuteronomist proclaimed, “I set before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life…” As Lincoln said…our choice. Same as the sign to our church preschool: “Misery is optional.”
Genuine communities of faith are about thriving, about a more excellent way, a way that scripture calls, “Eternal Life.” It’s there for the taking, set before us day after day. Grace upon grace.
Eternal Life is not something one might enter into at death. Such understanding is completely unscriptural. Eternal Life is a quality of life that Christ offers now. It is sheer blessedness. Brim full and overflowing. The first followers of Jesus experienced this infectious quality as highly contagious. They got it from Jesus. More contagious than measles. They transmitted it to one another. First the twelve and then others.
Even those “persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” theirs is everything that matters. Ask John Lewis. Ask Rosa Parks. Ask Dr. King. These are they who entered into Eternal Life long before they were dead. These are the sort that bring life to all they do.
“Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called children of God.” Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
The Beatitudes are not some sort of checklist for the religiously compulsive. They reflect a quality of life that emanates from those who have accepted Jesus’ offer of blessing, who daily strive to walk that talk. It just oozes out of the pores of their being.
These ARE the merciful. These ARE the ones who open their hearts to the poor, the hungry, the addicted and those in prison. They are living Beatitudes. They reek of compassion, of a yearning for justice.
The narcissist will never understand these people.
When the Former Guy visited the cemeteries of the WW II fallen in France, and at Arlington, he wondered why they would have made that ultimate sacrifice, ‘What’s in it for them?” he mused to the aide accompanying him. In his book they were “suckers.”
Probably, also those German farmers who got caught hiding Jews during Hitler’s bloody reign. “What’s in it for them?” They were shot, or worse. Our neighbor, Mrs. Blocker, would have found such unabashed generosity abhorrent. Also, the Former Guy.
I find that I become close to this quality of life – Life Abundant – when I am willing to be vulnerable to the “Least of These.” When I allow them into my heart. Indeed, we ignore and dismiss the marginalized to the peril of our souls. Something essential in us dies…way before death claims us in the end.
Out of such vulnerability comes a life of Shalom – a wish for wholeness and wellbeing for all around, no exceptions, for the entire creation…Life Eternal.
Recently, as my friend’s wife has passed from life to death, I’ve become acutely aware of the gift of comfort our hospice nurses and health staff bring to the terminally ill. I remember what a godsend they were to my family when my mother-in-law, who lived with us the last eight or so years of her life, was in her final days
I’m thinking of the health staff who care for the addicted. Sam Quinones, in his latest book on the opioid crisis, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth, relates the story of one young addicted mother.
Starla had overdosed on fentanyl while walking the streets. When her boyfriend/pimp finally noticed that she very sick, he, out of fear, had waited several hours to call 911.
Now she was in the hospital, seriously brain damaged, and several months pregnant. The nurses at Sacred Heart, who cared for her, brought flowers to her room, curtains, a radio so she could listen to music. When an attendant would come in to bathe her, often, all she could do was to follow that person with her eyes.
No family or friends visited. The last few days of that winter, Starla had walked the streets barefooted in the snow and ice. When her mother Maude did finally show up, she was aghast at the appearance of her daughter, “Her feet looked like she had walked them off of her.”
As Starla’s tummy grew with the developing baby inside, nurses took turns sitting by her bedside. Day after day. As one nurse exclaimed to the author, “I’ve been a nurse for forty-two years in maternity, and I had never taken care of a patient like this.”
On January 18, 2013 Starla gave birth by C-section, several weeks prematurely, to a daughter who “came into the world with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and affected by the drugs the staff gave her mother to prevent clotting.”
The nursing staff and hospital chaplain “cried in awe of the child and mother who tossed and turned but could not speak. ‘It was like our family survived and had a baby,’ Ellen Stanly, the morning supervisor, cried.”
The work didn’t stop there. By then the ward was now filled with other addicted mothers and newborns.
I’ve known some of these nurses, the work schedules are inhuman. Their gift of caring is drawn from a deep spiritual well. These people are living Beatitudes.
Philips Brooks, that great Episcopal preacher of the eighteen hundreds somewhere said of such spirituality, “We never become truly spiritual by sitting down and wishing to become so. You must undertake something so great that you cannot accomplish it unaided.” That is the story of this nursing staff.
Through prayer, deep desire and the touch of God, we gently, slowly, live into this Spirit.
When I made known my last wishes to friends and family, people asked, “Have you written this stuff down?” “Does Jai know?”
Our future daughter-in-law sent back the most loving response. While she wished that she and Christopher wouldn’t have to refer to this request anytime soon, she did tell me that I had three things to do first — tasks I could not possibly accomplish alone — before I departed:
- Marry her and Christopher.
- Attend Christopher’s PhD graduation at Yale.
- Be available for some grandkids to be crawling around on my lap.
Love that woman. Alexis is certainly a living Beatitude. Christopher did most fine in discovering her. Wedding date: October 7 of this year.
I also have two addiction treatment facilities to begin – definitely operations which no one person could conceivably accomplish solely. I pray Phillips Brooks is right – that my being will grow into and through the Spirit of this work.
This is the spirituality of the Beatitudes. It’s not a check list for the religiously compulsive. Not a way of earning one’s way into heaven – or San Francisco, for that matter.
This is the spirituality that grounds those nurses at Sacred Heart – sustains those hospice nurses who attended my mother-in-law and the staff of our health center at Pilgrim Place.
Let us pray that this very same Spirit touches us daily. A free gift, available to all – even Mrs. Blocker and the Former Guy. “Blessed are those who…”
 Deuteronomy 30, RSV.
2 Sam Quinones, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).
3 op cit., 75.
 Ibid, 76.
January 29, 2023, 4 Epiphany
“Eternal Life or Sheer Cussedness: You Choose”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-3; Matthew 5:1-12