Truth and Power

When confronted with facts and truth, Rudy Giuliani famously quipped, “Truth is NOT Truth.”  Similarly, Pilate sarcastically responded to Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?”

For some folks, it all depends on how the issue is framed and what’s at stake.  When stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, I quickly discovered that the North DID NOT win the Civil War.  In fact, it wasn’t even called that.  It was the war of “Northern Aggression.”

“What is Truth?”

When confronted at a press conference with inconvenient facts one of the former administration’s spokespersons, Kellyanne Conway, rebutted, “We have alternative facts.”

Indeed, what is Truth?

In our selection from John’s Gospel, we get a story of the healing of a man born blind that devolves into a bizarre tale of many interpretations.  There is no agreement among the characters as to what has happened, let alone what it all means.  What is the truth of the matter?

First the healing.  Jesus encounters a “man blind from birth.”  Now comes the first discussion, initiated by the disciples.  Who sinned, the man or his parents?”  Obviously, he’s an outcast — blind and a beggar.  Definitely not favored by God according to popular theology.  Sin, indeed!  They completely miss the entire point of the episode – the truth of the matter.

Jesus rejects this interpretation of the man’s condition. 

Remember his understanding of the accident where the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed a bunch of people.  “Stuff happens.”  God didn’t cause this.  Deal with it — and so he does. 

Whatever caused it, the fact of the matter is that this accident of birth will enable us to demonstrate God’s healing power.  It is an opportunity for Grace.

The ball’s in our court.  Let’s not blame the victim.  Let’s be of some godly use. That is what is needed now, not a bogus theology lesson.

Jesus proceeds to heal the man.  A free act of grace.  No work requirement on the man’s part needed.  The cure effected through a folk remedy of the time.  The man followed Jesus’ instructions and washed his eyes in the pool of Siloam.  He returned able to see.

Now comes the convoluted discussion among the several parties as to what has actually happened.  What is the truth of this miraculous healing?  The parents aver that this is indeed their son.  Yes, he was born blind, but we have absolutely no idea as to how he can now see.

The neighbors consider that maybe the seeing man only looked like the guy who couldn’t see.  It’s a case of mistaken identity.  People born blind certainly DO NOT see anything.

The religious authorities who believe that the real sinner is Jesus because he has no theological pedigree and they don’t know where he’s from.  This is woke socialism.

And of course, we the readers, know exactly where Jesus is from.  Indeed, he’s from God.  Geographical origin has nothing to do with origins.  The truth of this assertion is his power to bring life, bring wholeness out of brokenness.  To bring life out of death, to bring hope out of despair and ruination.  That’s the tipoff as to where he’s from.

Meanwhile, Jesus is off stage — just as he is for us of the Jesus Movement.  Not to be seen.  When asked, the formerly blind man knows not where he is.  And he knows not how it is that he has come to see.  All he knows “I once was blind but now I see.” 

At the same time those who claim to “know,” in fact know nothing.  Those who have sight do not see.  They refuse to recognize what is right before their eyes – a formerly blind man seeing, who now sees more than they will ever perceive.  Life kindled where before was darkness.  A supreme irony.  The seeing do not see!

Too often, we contemporary religious “authorities” do not see.  We look upon those who are hungry on the streets, who smell bad, whose clothes are dirty and our response is often most unhelpful.  They should get a job.  They should have paid attention in school.  They were brought up by “trailer trash.”  They are addicted.  They have a rap sheet.  They’re babbling incoherently.  They’re “off their meds.”  They needed to, “Just say no.”    Such blame-the-victim judgementalism is proof positive that we also are those who DO NOT SEE.  And that is the Truth of the situation.

Sweep these people under the rug — all convenient excuses for doing nothing.  But, there’s another Truth.  We can use the divine power given us to intervene with healing.  In the midst of death, we can bring forth possibility, life.  The very same power promised in Christ’s name.  We CAN be of some earthly and godly use. That Power IS Truth — God’s Truth.

Let me tell you how some Christians made this grace-filled transition from blaming, shaming and shunning the victims cast off on the side of the road of life.  Let me tell you of God’s Truth and Power one group of Jesus’ followers claimed for the healing of the world.[1]

Clarksburg is a small hamlet tucked away in the hills of West Virginia of some sixteen thousand souls.  Built before the Civil War, some of the prominent congregations that provided spiritual nurture were founded in nineteenth century — Clarksburg Baptist and Christ Episcopal Church.  They promoted a sense of community responsibility.  During the Great Depression Christ Church had taken in many of the children orphaned by disease and hunger.

Now much of that downtown has emptied out only to be filled with hordes of addicts looking to get by anyway they could.  The downtown’s storied past was long over.  The glass industry, built by some of the highest quality river sand, made the plate glass windows for many of the skyscrapers in the nation.  Pittsburgh Plate Glass, among other glass manufacturers, employed hundreds at good-paying, middle-class jobs.

All this wealth built those stately downtown churches.  Churches, that now, were struggling to keep their old buildings heated and in repair.  These congregations had dwindled to just a handful on Sunday mornings.  Mostly, considering the drug plague consuming Clarksburg, they were irrelevant.  Of no consequence, as they shrank into survival mode.  No vibrant outposts of Christ’s life-affirming, resurrection presence here.

The addicts on the adjacent streets, in their doorsteps, were a nuisance at best.  A scourge at worst.  In any case, to be avoided. 

Clarksburg had one famous resident, affectionately known by his patients as “Doc. O.”  This was Dr. Lou Ortenzio who had opened a practice in 1978, one of a couple of new young physicians in the town — was the first to arrive in many years.  Dr. O was soon overwhelmed by the patient load, seeing some forty a day.

He had discovered that the new opioid medicines would quickly solve the many pain issues his patients had.  Opioid prescriptions that the drug sale reps said were completely safe and non-addictive.  Under the press of all the stress, to ease his own pain, Dr. O began using them.  Soon, 20 to 30 pills a day of Vicodin.

Within months, Dr. O was handing out hundreds of scrips for Oxycodone and other opioids.  At the same time Pittsburgh Plate closed, along with another of other businesses.  The town had begun to empty out.  Businesses closed, stores stood boarded up and houses were returned to the banks, mortgages unpaid.

At some point, Dr. O had gotten a good portion of his city of Clarksburg and the surrounding countyside addicted.

Soon estranged from her husband, Dr. O’s wife divorced and moved the children to Pittsburgh.  The feds now on to Dr. O, raided his office and confiscated hundreds of patient records.  In 2005 he was charged with health-care fraud and fraudulent prescribing. He was subsequently sentenced to five years supervised release and 1000 hours of community service and ordered to pay $200,000 in restitution.  His medical license was now gone.

Dr. O found Christ on an examination linoleum floor as a Baptist patient knelt and prayed for him to find release from his habit. He was baptized in Elk Creek.   Dr. O, newly unemployed, began a job gardening, and then as a pizza delivery guy in the evenings.  He later found a job working for the Mission homeless shelter.  As more and more homeless overwhelmed Clarksburg, Lou Ortenzio called some of those old downtown churches to provide help. 

They needed a big push – a very big push.  Many of the new meth addicts had been kicked out of other places for outrageous behavior.  They still smelled and were still dirty.  Undesirable by any name.   These congregations were focused inward and were slowly dying.  Of little godly use to those outside their confined embrace.

As a freezing polar vortex bore down on the unhoused, Christ Episcopal church agreed to open as a temporary shelter.  One of the local community activists, Katie Wolfe-Elton brought thirty air mattresses and organized a group of volunteers to put the shelter together.  On opening night twenty-seven stragglers showed up at the church.  “I’ve never been up close and personal with meth addicts,” Katie mused.  As other workers left that evening, Katie was alone to run the shelter by herself.

A fellow with a purple Mohawk hairdo and tattoos across his face volunteered  to help keep the bathrooms cleaned and was the only one who remained to stay and swab the floors.

He tells that sometime, “sleep deprived and wired…[he] had begun hallucinating.”  Then he passed out in the snow.  As consciousness faded, he noted that it was 9:30 p.m.  When he awoke his battery was almost depleted and it was 4:30 a.m.  He barely managed to dial 911 before passing out again.  Paramedics found him by his phone signal from the tower.  As he passed out he was thinking, “This is where I’m going to die.”

At this lowest of points, here begins his new life.  “The light of God was shone me” and the church family took him in.  Scary as he was.  He says he had put the tattoos on his face to keep people away.

“Now, I opened myself up to everybody…I started practicing humble.  I accepted who everybody was, good or bad.  Forgave them even before they trespassed against me.”

As temperatures continued to plunge, more and more of those stand-offish congregations began to provide shelter.  At Central Christian, the pastor Jeff Hanlon went to the church board and to his surprise they also opened the doors as a shelter.

Instead of throwing people out as temperatures remained below freezing even in the daylight, “a full week passed with volunteers and backpackers cooped together.  They played bingo.  Some refugees babbled and saw visions.  Two volunteers organized karaoke sessions, singing “Amazing Grace,” “Lean on Me” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”

A film program was started later on.  One of the homeless was a pianist and   played classical pieces for an hour.

Soon those abandoned downtown churches were alive with Gospel-Life-Saving Grace. 

At some point the fellow wandered into Central Christian church and wanted to speak to the pastor.  Pastor Jeff Hanlin saw this addict with the purple hair, Norman Lowe, he wasn’t sure what he had gotten himself into. 

“They talked and it took awhile, but staring into Norman’s face, Hanlin got past his stench and disturbing facial tattoos and found, behind them a soft-spoken man of surprising tenderness.”

A few few days later Norman went into detox and Pastor Hanlin visited him.  As they sat at the clinic, Norman began to share all he’d lost — “jobs, his children.  He remembered what it was like to play ball with the boy.”(Page 353).

As Norman continued to make progress, Jeff reported to the congregation on his progress.  Many there wrote notes and cards of encouragement.

When it was time for Norman to head back home to Montana, those parishioners sent him off with bags packed with clean clothes and food for the bus trip.

What happened there in Clarksburg?  Like the man born blind, those old, dying churches could only say, we “ once were blind but now we see.” Jesus may have receded into the background, yet is still present in the faith of those older retired members of those, now vibrant downtown churches.

What is the Truth of this miracle at Clarksburg, West Virginia.  There are a hundred answers, all pointing to the power of God.  We speak of what we know.  We testify to the power we have seen.

The Risen Christ is now alive in folks there like Lou Ortenzio and Katie and all the volunteers that now fill those old stately buildings that bear Christ’s name.  This Light continues to shine in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome.  May it shine with some small smidgen of Glory in us who claim Jesus’ name.  Amen.

[1] Sam Quinones, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), 57 ff.  The stories of Clarksburg, WV, in three separate chapters that follow, are from the reporting of the author, who visited the city on numerous occasions over several years.

March 19, 2023, Lent 4

“Truth and Power”

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

1st Reading:  1 Samuel 16:1-3; Psalm 23;
2nd Reading:  Ephesians 5:8-14; Gospel: John 9:1-41

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