The Past is a Foreign County

We all remember the “good old days” differently.  I can still see in my mind’s eye my mother pulling into the Richfield gas station in her ’48 Buick Roadmaster convertible.  We’d hardly have arrived under the awning only to be swarmed by attendants in snappy uniforms.  Windows washed – check.  All of them!  Tank filled up – check.  Tire pressures – check.  Oil – check.  And the gas only cost around 25 cents per gallon.  A different world.  Oh, did I mention that they had a couple of competent mechanics on duty.

George Packer in his article on the changes in our nation, “Is America Over?”[1] in Foreign Affairs takes a critical look at this transformation.  He notes that “back then” the country functioned pretty well – if you were male, white and middle class or more affluent. 

Our institutions worked.  Through political compromise we came to workable solutions.  Again, for the vast middle.  There was a sense of shared future.  He writes, “In 1968, it might have been economically feasible and perfectly legal for an executive to award himself a multimillion dollar bonus while shedding 40 percent of his work force and requiring the survivors to take annual furloughs without pay.  BUT no executive would have wanted the shame and outrage that would have followed…”[2]

“These days,” he continues, “it’s hard to open a newspaper without reading stories about grotesque overcompensation.”  Yes, these days, in the words of the fictional Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good.”[3]

But “the times they are a-changin.” As the author LP Hartley put it in his book, The Go Between, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

When we open the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, what we read of the first Christian community now seems quaint and completely unrealistic, given our individualistic American culture.”

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”[4]

This, to the modern, mostly secular ear, sounds more like a Jim Jones cult.  Something out of David Koresh’s Waco compound.  Sure doesn’t look like your contemporary Episcopal, Presbyterian or United Methodist congregation.

I remember my dad’s outrage when he heard from his neighbor down the street, who was Catholic, that their priest had come by with a slip of paper telling the family how much they would be expected to give for their new sanctuary that was on the drawing board.  “How dare they!” he exclaimed one night at the dinner table.  No, siree, my money’s my money; I’ll give what I want.  Or nothing at all.

Many today who claim the name Christian have not given their church treasurer any indication of this affiliation.

When I look at the religious landscape today for our shrinking mainline churches, the times definitely have changed.  That past of which the writer of Acts speaks is definitely a foreign country.

Even the past here in America is almost unrecognizable.  There were no iPhones, no internet, no huge flat screen TVs, no microwave ovens.  We may not have had any of the conveniences we now take for granted.  What did kids do before TikTok?   But then we had a mostly functional society – t least on the surface – if you were white and male.

Our churches were full.  But as our presiding bishop has noted, they were full in the South and that didn’t change a thing to address the horror of lynchings and Jim Crow.

Today, it would be easy to retreat into our own private worlds of the Shopping Network, Bingo events, 24-hour news-all-the-time, or mindless sitcoms.  That’s what my mom did in her latter years.  After she died, I couldn’t believe all the clothes in her closet she had bought but never worn.  She seemed to have given up on a life that might be of some use to others.

But in nooks and crannies I come across faith communities yet making a visible witness to their beliefs.  I see Christians who walk the talk in ways big and small.

I think of a dear older woman in my parish in Claremont, Phyllis.  It’s people like her that are the living flesh and blood of Christ let loose in the world.  I had talked her into being on our endowment committee.  As she became unable to drive, I would pick her up for our committee meetings. 

One night when I came to get her, she told me an amazing Gospel story.  She related that she had not seen her Iranian neighbor a couple doors down for quite a while after 9/11.  She would usually greet her when she saw her out in her yard watering the flowers.  They would exchange brief greetings.  But now, for several weeks, she was missing.

Finally, Phyllis became concerned enough that she did something she had never done before.  She walked down to her neighbor’s house and knocked on the door.  Nothing, so Phyllis rang the bell.

Phyllis waited and waited.  When she was about to turn around and leave, the door opened just a crack.  Phyllis could see only a bit of a face and one eye.  Phyllis told the women that she had become worried about her.  She hadn’t seen her out in her yard for several weeks.

Finally, the neighbor said that she was so ashamed of what “they” had done, crashing that plane, and how they killed all those people in New York – she thought that the Americans would blame her.  She was afraid to come out of her house.

Without missing a beat, Phyllis, responded, “Oh, honey, why don’t you come over right now to my house and we’ll have something to eat.”  And they did.

Phyllis, in her tender moment of compassion will not change the world.  Nor will most of us in the mercies we extend.  But she allowed a neighbor of another faith to experience a greater Love they both had in common.  And her story lifted up all who shared in it. 

Our institutional churches may be on the rocks, but as long as there are Christians like Phyllis, the gospel message is in good hands.  Phyllis was our version of the Good Shepherd.  And I so loved her charming English accent.

In ways big and small, Phyllis invested herself in her church family.  There’s an old saying “Look at someone’s checkbook, and you can tell what matters to them.”  — or look at their Master Card statement.  Phyllis gave the “widow’s mite” in so many ways.  She was family!

With such bold witness, “day by day” the Lord will add to the number of those finding new life in the Jesus Movement.  They, in their living gave testimony to what they saw and spoke of what they knew.  The church has been defined as “one beggar simply telling another where bread is to be found.”  Even in our secular age, that will continue to be a necessary obligation if our society is to continue.

The one blessing to be found in our day of declining churches is the commitment of those who remain, especially our women.  Like the women of all ages, you are the ones who keep it all together.  We have a small, but hardy (and hearty) band at St. Francis, and the love there is palpable.  As Lynn is wont to say, “We’re all in this together.”

In our liberated age, we also have men at St. Francis who pitch right in with kitchen duties – at home in the kitchen as ever their mothers were.  Equal opportunity.  I feel it every Sunday.  Those left are those of us right here, and we are the ones Christ is counting on.  Here, we testify to what we see, week in and week out.

The notion of stereotyped roles is over and the world is better for it.  Our dear church is better for it.  I knew one of those “irregularly ordained” priests, Diane Tickle in Alaska.  She was in the second contingent of woman ordinands.  She was a force of nature, bringing liberation to our often too stodgy church.  She would counter sexist male clergy and others with the argument: “If a woman was fit to bear Our Lord’s body at birth, if she was fit to receive his body at the foot of the cross — THEN, she’s fit to bear his body at the altar.

The past of white supremacy and male privilege seems more and more like a foreign country.  The community of faith, as in that first community of Acts, is discovering new ways of sharing our riches in common.  And that means leadership and opportunity to serve.  And the church is more glorious for it.

As I grew up in Long Beach, I remember going downtown and seeing men lying around on one of the back streets.  When I asked my parents about what I was seeing, the scene was dismissed with the comment, “Oh, that’s skid row.  They’re just a bunch of bums.”  And when I didn’t get my homework done, it was, “Do you want to end up being a bum (or hobo) on skid row?”  They were just a bunch of drunks.

We had no understanding then of how they had come to this miserable state.  Certainly, no compassion.  They were “weak” specimens of humanity.  No hope for them.

Those pictures in my mind have been a part of my motivation in working with the addicted.  And that past, the past of accusation and blame now seems, thankfully, a very strange country.

This week, our dear Faith passed along an email of just one more success story on the road to recovery.  She’s one of our wholehearted supporters of House of Hope – San Bernardino.

This piece was from a group called “Strides in Recovery.”  They advocate the activity of running as an essential component of any recovery program.  One thing the addicted desperately need is to get those healthy endorphins let loose in their brains.  They are the source of that natural runner’s high which is the best and only sane replacement for the artificial high from a bottle or a “hit” off some drug.  Great for the heart, also.

When nine-year-old José was brought to the United States, like many kids he found it hard to fit in.  With both parents struggling just to put a roof over his head and food on the table, he was often alone.

Like many lonely kids in our cities, he was recruited into a gang, and there found a “family” of sorts – a place to fit in.  At fourteen, he was drinking and getting high.  That was his new life.

He was soon estranged from his father.  He refused to respect house rules and left home at the age of sixteen.  Of course, he quickly came to the attention of another parental authority, law enforcement. 

His life became a series of stays in juvenile hall and youth camps.  Such a record was a badge of honor on the outside, especially for new returnees from prison.  The others looked up to them.  José looked up to them.

Homeless, cold, alone and addicted, José remembers thinking, “I don’t care.  If I die, it’s okay.  If I go to prison, even better.”  By 2021, José had burned all his bridges.  His father refused to even see him.  Sleeping on the streets, he was eventually arrested and given a choice.

It was a program or prison.  On his first go-around, Jose flunked recovery.  He thought he could do the program and keep selling dope.  Didn’t work.  Busted again. 

This time his public defender got him into a program, Asian American Drug Abuse Program (AADAP) that strongly emphasized running as an integral part of recovery.  After a false start, José finally got with the program.  He realized he had, in this new gathering, a healthy family of recovery.  

Working the steps and working out, and running – those healthy endorphins began to kick in.  That, and the encouragement of others in recovery, he felt the need to take his running more seriously.  Each week he added more miles to his run.  Now, mid-week he was out there beating feet.  A natural high.

José realized the truth of all runners: “Running showed me I can accomplish anything.  Running is my foundation.”

When running through hillside Anchorage, after the first five or six miles, I know exactly what José felt as I would experience that runner’s high.  I was flying.  Even when I arrived back home exhausted and would stumble in with icicles hanging from my balaclava, it was a good exhaustion.

José found what many of our new, smaller communities of faith are discovering – fellowship through shared gifts.  This is the Easter reality we delight in at St. Francis, that so many of our slimmed down congregations are finding.  It’s through the group of us gathered at the altar to share the bread and wine made holy.  It’s through potlucks.  It’s through programs like “Night Watch” and the AA groups that meet in our buildings – Easter Resurrection happens.

Definitely not your grandmother’s, your grandfather’s church.  That past is a very strange country.  And we are the better for its passing.  As my UCC friends are wont to say, “God is still speaking…”  And we have so much in common to share.   Lead on, O Spirit.  Lead on.  Amen.


[1] George Packer, “Is America Over?” Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2011.

[2] Op cit., 30.

[3]In the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko.

[4] Acts 2:42-45.  NRSV.

April 30, 2023, Easter 4

“The Past is a Foreign County”

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

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23;
1 Peter 2:19-25; Gospel: John 10:1-10

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%%footer%%