Shut up in my Bones

Like many of our nation, on January 20 our family tuned in to the ceremonies on that festive day, freezing cold.  The breath of frozen vapor of the guests leaving the open door of the Capitol to take their seats was clearly visible.  Cold, indeed!

And what made that date so special, in addition to the hope we finally had a president who would be more focused on us, the citizens and the business of this nation than the grift, was a slight African American poet, Amanda Gorman.

She spoke the needed, the eloquent word at the moment.  Her charm and poise, her intellect – it all sparkled like diamonds on that crisp, brilliant sunlit day of winter frost.  The hope of which she spoke restored my faith, restored the faith of many, in who we were, in the American prospect for days ahead.  These words met the moment:

“For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”[1]

Like Jeremiah, this woman has a gift within her bones that cannot be shut in.  These words and the sentiment they expressed are inherent in her character.  With exuberance they burst out – at that presidential inaugural, at climate change summits, in books and even at the Superbowl.  Yes, her poetry at Superbowl LX.  On that occasion Amanda celebrated the three honorary captains of that game whose work has honored their communities: a veteran, an athlete, a nurse.  Shut up in her young bones this ode was.

Jeremiah, like many to come after, is the bearer of a message he cannot but speak.  A prophetic word of doom and disaster, should Israel follow its present course, yield to its worst instincts. 

“I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’  For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision…there is something burning like a fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

The Truth will out.

Poets, activists, musicians, teachers, and dare I say it – even a few of our elected leaders daily meet the moment, profess the truth they know, live the truth deep within.  Character matters!

Phil comes to mind, a sometime delegate in the West Virginia House of Delegates.  Phil comes from solid union roots.  I believe I first met Phil on our farm when he showed up for our annual August Wounded Warriors event.  We have one hundred acres of backwoods abandoned logging trails.  People bring their offroad vehicles out for the afternoon and we give these veterans and their families the ride of their lives.  Definitely an “E” coupon ride – for those who remember the old Disneyland tickets.  Two or three bands would hold forth.  And the community of the old German Beer Gardens would put on a sumptuous feast.  And there was Phil.  Every year, even after he was voted out of office, he’s out there supporting our event – no fair-weather friend he.  That’s what union solidarity looks like.

Phil came up through the trade union movement and after he went to Charleston, he never forgot his roots.  Decency is shut up in his bones, and just lights up any event where Phil shows up.

He is one of the few, the very few political folks that House of Hope has been able to absolutely count on.  This coming July House of Hope looks forward to a House of Hope fundraiser dinner sponsored by Phil.  Decency and magnanimity are part of who this guy is.  That, one can take to the bank!  Can I get another chorus of “Solidarity Forever?”

And when the cost is high and the struggle long, these folks are golden.  I think of the many Republicans who have spoken out against the “crazy” and paid a price.

While I would fundamentally disagree with Liz Cheney, I applaud her courage in standing up to the election lies of many in her party, in denouncing the Big Lie that the election was stolen. 

Such truth will set family members against one another, father against son, mother against daughter-in-law.  I think my father and I did not talk for five or six years during the Vietnam war.  He bought and erected a huge flagpole at our house to show his support for the war.  I was most weekends marching down Market Street in San Francisco against it.

On the night Gorman finished her poem, the day insurrectionists stormed our nation’s capital, she had worked late into the night.[2]  Up until then she had managed to have only a few lines committed to paper.

Gorman said she wasn’t given any direction in what to write, but that she would be contributing to the event’s theme of “America United.” She was about halfway finished with the piece when, on Jan. 6, the MAGA crowd stormed the halls of The People’s House.

“Gorman ended up staying up late following the unprecedented attack and finished her piece, ‘The Hill We Climb,’ that night. The poet, whose work examines themes of race and racial justice in America, felt she couldn’t “gloss over” the events of the attack, nor of the previous few years, in her work.”

“’We have to confront these realities if we’re going to move forward, so that’s also an important touchstone of the poem,’ she told the reporter of the Times piece, ‘There is space for grief and horror and hope and unity, and I also hope that there is a breath for joy in the poem, because I do think we have a lot to celebrate at this inauguration.’”

Amanda, during her reading, wore a ring, a gift from Oprah, with a caged bird – homage to Maya Angelou, a previous inaugural poet.

Such well-spoken wisdom, such eloquence shut up in those bones of hers!

Such testimony hints at the same insight and daring shut up in the bones of all of the Jesus Movement.  We speak of that which we know and what we have seen.  We might not accomplish a big righteousness, but daily are impelled to do the little things of which we are disposed to accomplish.  And, most often, given the discernment and wisdom to figure out the possible.

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3]

My friend, Pastor Charlie Clark, used to fulminate against those in his church who had no vision.  “Do not quench the Spirit,” he would demand, voice raised.  That church had had five pastors in six years before he had arrived.  There was a reason he was well into his seventh year when I knew him.  He had no tolerance for cynical nay-sayers, cretins of no vision.  “Do not quench the Spirit.”  I’m still not sure how he kept from being fired, but under his leadership that congregation was a part of our fair housing effort, Project Understanding – though many there refused to understand equity and that “Good Neighbors Come in All Colors.”  Justice was shut up in his bones, and he would not be quiet.

I still remember his secretary telling me of one Sunday, when Pastor Clark was putting out our Project Understanding newsletter in the literature rack.  One of the nay-sayers of stunted charity passed through the narthex and noticed this: “Pastor, how long do we have to have this crap in our church?” he whined.

Charlie wheeled about on him, bellowing, “Don’t ever let me hear you call the Gospel of Jesus Christ CRAP!”  And his contract was renewed for another year.  Truly, like Jeremiah, he had committed his cause to the Lord.

Such indomitable strength of character lies as a possibility within each.  This Torah decency and sense of justice is shut up in all of us, but that we only excavate our souls to discover it.  We each hold the possibility of having the decency and courage to follow its lead.

James Baldwin captured our duty before us in The Price of the Ticket.

“For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock.  Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.  The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us.  The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”[4]

On that spectacular 20th of January morning, that young woman got it right:

“For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”[5]


[1] Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb,” delivered on the occasion of the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Joseph R. Biden, January 20, 2021.

[2] Alexandra Alter, “Amanda Gorman Captures the Moment, In Verse,” New York Times, January 19

[3] Matthew 10:39, New Revised Standard Version.

[4] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 393.

[5] Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb,” delivered on the occasion of the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Joseph R. Biden, January 20, 2021.

[6] Lydia Makepeace, “Affirm Black Women Portrait Series: Amanda Gorman,” February 10, 2021.

St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach
2855 Sterling Avenue, San Bernardino, CA 92404

June 25, 2023 – Pentecost 4, Proper 7

“Shut up in My Bones”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69:8-11, 18-20; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-

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