Wakee, Wakee

When the boys were little tykes, my morning job was to get them out of bed and make sure they were dressed for school.  I’d come into their room chanting sing-song, “Wakee, wakee,” all the while flipping the light switch on and off.  At first, I’d hear a few grunts and groans, then “Go away.”  As this was an Alaska morning, it would still be pitch dark outside.  I’m positive, the boys probably would have considered it a much more obtrusive, more obnoxious wake-up call had I sung to them.

Once I had the fire going in the wood stove and Jai had breakfast served, attitudes somewhat improved.

We’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving, our national holiday I’ve always considered the lead-in to Advent.  Much of everything comes to a standstill as families and friends plan gatherings all across the nation – good preparation for the hush of Advent.

Jai and I finished making the turkey dressing the other night.  It’s an old family recipe, dating back at least to the time her mother stopped being responsible for this meal and we had to scrounge through several cookbooks and figure out what stuffing we might like.  No oysters.  No giblets.

As we settled into the couch to watch Judy Woodruff anchor the PBS Newshour, the stuffing ready for tomorrow’s feast, I noticed Jai making frequent trips out to the kitchen, snitching bits and pieces of the stuffing we had just labored over.  I told her that I thought I was wondering if I should call her brother in Anaheim and tell him that he’d better come over right now and get a bite there while there was still some left. 

The smell of our sausage-apple stuffing still wafting through the house is my Advent preparation.

Prepare — the call of Advent – Wakee, Wakee.  I’ll light up my purple Advent lights that adorn the eves of our house this Sunday.  I’ll get the UNICEF Christmas cards ordered and get to work on our Christmas letter.

Today the summons from our scripture readings is, “Wake up, for Christ’s sake!”  Yes, for Christ is nigh upon us.

“About that day and hour no one knows…For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”[1]

The first Followers of the Way believed that the END was indeed upon them.  Within the lifetime of many still living, Christ would come with all his angels and wrap up history.  The First Sunday of Advent concerns Christ’s return, to be born anew in our hearts.  It is also about our final destination, the summation of all creation – the Final Day.

One of my favorite hymns we sang in Sunday school as a youngster was straight out of this end-time theology, “When the Roll is Called Upon Yonder.”  Even us boys sang it with gusto and true belief that our name would be announced on that Last Day.

That understanding is the theology of Matthew’s gospel.  Stay awake!  You never know! 

By the time Luke writes his gospel, the community of the Jesus Movement has settled in for the long haul.  That is why Luke concludes his gospel with the Book of Acts, the story of the spread of the Jesus Movement.  In little communities of believers then scattered across the Roman Empire.  Luke’s theology is a theology of “the meantime.”  While we’re waiting – to be about Christ’s work.  To be about what makes for community and life abundant. Those are our baptismal orders.

But the idea of an imminent end time is still with our secular folks.  It comes to us in that favorite Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”  Yeah, just like the end-time rollcall, “Santa’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”  And, you’d better watch out! 

Although, I discovered that “naughty” was usually more fun – until it wasn’t.  Some of our churches still terrify little kids with the most horrendous stories of that Final Day.

My mother would tell me how as a little girl she woke up one night with a start.  Right outside her window was a huge harvest moon.  About that same instant, a freight train had come barreling through town, sounding its mournful whistle.

This was it.  The angel Gabriel is come.  Christ has returned.

She, her heart pounding, her breath rapid, coming in gasps, the hairs on the back of her neck standing straight up – she flung herself out of bed and ran shrieking through the dark, “Gabriel’s here.  Wake up.  Wake up.  It’s the END. 

And of course, the whole family indeed did wake up.  And it took some while for them to settle her back down.  That was one of Grandma’s oft told stories.  Being a Christian Scientist, however, she had no truck with such doctrine.

So, how does the end come?  What are its signs, its harbingers?

My evangelical friends were convinced that the forerunner of the End Time was the Antichrist.  The candidate might be Hitler, Pol Pot, or some other heinous malefactor.  I was told by one acquaintance it was the Democrats.  Others – the Republicans.

My mother’s side of the family believed it might be FDR – “He fired your grandfather.”  At that time Grandpa had been the postmaster of their home town, Lodi, California.  Grandpa had been appointed by President Hoover.  Democratic ascendency was the clear sign that the End was near.

We read in our papers of all sorts of imminent catastrophes.  Portents of the End?

PFAS chemicals.  Had you heard of them?  They’re the chemicals produced in making such things as Teflon, and firefighting foam.  They’re in cosmetics, the film that makes rain bounce off your jacket – “better living through chemistry” – until it isn’t.[2]

They re the cause of cancer, pregnancy complications, unhealthy blood lipids.  Definitely, NOT better living.  Even in the most minute doses, this stuff is damaging.  Does the end come when we all poison ourselves to death through these amazing concoctions?

Wakee, wakee. 

We are told that male sperm counts have been decreasing since the 1970s at about 1.6 percent per year.  Since the year 2000 the decline has accelerated to 2.6 per cent per year.[3]  This as a world-wide phenomenon.

The end for the human race?  Is this toxic brew of chemicals the ultimate birth control?  And, folks, it’s not just us.  What about the deer and the antelope out there playing – playing until they’re also extinct?

Wakee, wakee!

Or, maybe we just all shoot ourselves to death in a final OK Corral blaze of gunfire?  In the US we are running more than one mass shooting per week.  This week — Walmart in Virginia, Club Q in Colorado Springs.  Four people were killed at a marijuana farm in Oklahoma on Sunday; a mother and her three children were shot dead in Richmond, Virginia…

Thanksgiving week has seen 22 people killed and 44 injured, all through the barrel of a gun”

Donya Prioleau, a worker at the store, captured the horror and tragedy of the Walmart shooting.

“Somebody’s baby, mom, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparents…whoever did not make it home tonight!  Thanksgiving is a holiday we celebrate with friends and family…there are those who cannot.  I can not unsee what happened in that break room.”[4]

Folks, what else should we expect in a nation awash in a sea of weapons of war, where we’re all armed to the teeth?  What else should we expect with the airwaves flooded with hateful invective and politicians and many churches preaching the same intolerance and hate?

Wakee, wakee!

These are senseless deaths.  Senseless, because we as a society have lost our senses.  Stalin was quoted as remarking, “A million deaths is a statistic, one death is a tragedy.”  Well, the whole thing is a bloody tragedy.  And this is how it ends for too many of us here in America.

These folks at Club Q were just out for a good time in what they thought to be a safe place.  Then the ominous sound of “pop, pop pop,” as bodies began fall to the floor.  Five killed and some twenty-five injured.

The co-owners of this gay nightclub, choking back tears, told reporters that “the people here are family.”  This was their safe space.  Now, no longer.  This was how it ended for those five.  Is this how it ends for any notion of a civil society?

Wakee, wakee.  Don’t ask for whom the hearse comes.  It comes for America – as the mourning bell tolls.

In the meantime…in the meantime.  “Christ has come, Christ is come, Christ will come again.”  This we proclaim at every celebration of the Eucharist.

We cannot stop the tragedy of our days.  That doesn’t mean we sit back and eat bon-bons.

Christ in a paramedic’s jacket is among us.  Christ of the soup-line is present.  Christ in classroom and break room.  Christ in friend, gay or straight, near to comfort.

“Put on the armor of light,” St. Paul urges.  Just as two patrons of Club Q took down and subdued the 22-year-old shooter, your call to be Christ to your neighbor may come at any time.  You know neither the hour nor the day.  In your action, whatever it may be, is your liberation — is your step into the “Eternal Now.”

In the daily scrum of news, Christ is present in a thousand disguises.  Motioning each to join as well, to join in the splendor of these days, our days.  Christ in us and we in Christ.  God’s purpose working itself out to the end of days, the Last Day.

In the meantime?  James Baldwin said it so well in his essay, “Nothing Personal:”

“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.”[5]

Yes, we have great responsibility to keep hold of each other, to keep hold of this splendorous blue-green planet of ours – for we can also do great damage.

Yet, Christ is our Light.  That Light does not go out – the ultimate Advent LED – still shining brightly as ever it did when that star guided those Three Seekers to a manger bed in Bethlehem.  As brightly as Jacob’s Star rising. Piercing darkness, our darkness, to the end of our days.

Wakee, wakee.  Christ is coming, again and again, playing in a thousand venues.  You know neither the day or the hour.  Yet the time is always now.  Near, and very near.  Wakee, wakee.  Amen.


[1] Matthew 24:36-39, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Melba Newsome, Forever Chemicals: Hidden Threats, Science News, November 19, 2022.

[3] “The Decline in Sperm Count,” Focus on Reproduction, the online magazine of ESHRE, the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, November 22, 2022.

[4] Ed Pilkington, “It’s the Guns: Violent Week in a Deadly Year…,” The Guardian, November 23, 2022.

[5] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, “Nothing Personal” (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 393.

November 27, 2022, Advent 1

“Wakee, Wakee”

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

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Remember

Remember.  Our faculty of recall is the one characteristic essential to a full humanity.

That is why Alzheimer’s Disease is so devastating.  It robs its victims of what makes life precious and worthwhile.  Literally it takes the joy out of living, erasing precious memories.  Not only is it a tragedy for the afflicted, but for surviving family and friends as well.

But humans are not the only living beings possessing memory.  It seems to be present up and down the tree of life.  All species have some capacity for remembrance.  Even the simplest organisms can learn to navigate primitive avoidance challenges.  They remember.

Anyone possessing a pet knows that higher order animals are smart.  Look how our cats learn to train us human beings.  Get out the leash and our dog knew what was up, as Big B would jump up and down with excitement, tail wagging.

“Ned and Sunny stretch out together on the warm sand. He rests his head on her back, and every so often he might give her an affectionate nudge with his nose. The pair is quiet and, like many long-term couples, they seem perfectly content just to be in each other’s presence.”[1]

What sets them apart from what you might have been assuming is, they’re lizards and they’ve been together for a good number of years, longer than some human couples last.

Shingleback lizards meet to mate with the same partner over many years, one studied couple still making magic over twenty-seven years and going strong.  They remember who loves ‘em.

Remember.

One of the most poignant scenes of Holy Week is a request for remembrance.  When one thief asks another condemned if he might be remembered in paradise.  “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And in that moment, he is enfolded into the blessed memory of the Eternal.

Here we have the Exalted One casting aside all privilege as he is dying in agony, and promising to hold another condemned in memory.  A very strange “King of the Jews” who for us of low account, he sets aside his crown, as the hymn puts it.  Truly, a bitter sweet moment on Calvary’s hill.

Memory and longing are sometimes the only forms of sacramental presence of the love of a lost one left to us.  Through memory all living flesh is bound together in one seamless garment of life – past and present. Through memory hope is renewed.

As we gather around Thanksgiving tables in a few days, moments of joy will come to life as family stories are brought to memory and retold.  Retold to laughter and to tears.

In our family, the remembered story that always brought laughter was an incident in our living room when I was in the second grade.  I had persuaded my mom to help me with this cut-out western village on the back of a Cheerios box.  Each box featured a different structure for the village.  This one was a cabin of some sort.

Mom wouldn’t do it for me, she made me cut it off the back of the box, and she would fold the buildings and put the correct tabs into the appropriate slots.  She began folding and I noticed she wasn’t reading the directions.  “Mother! I scolded.  “You’re not following the directions,” to which she answered, “Only an idiot would need these directions.” 

As she continued to fuss with the building, she finally asked, “Where are those directions?”  To which I haughtily replied, “Mother, you said ‘only an idiot would need these directions.’”

And at virtually every family gathering thereafter we would regale all with a retelling, and mother would laugh as hard as any.

In my mind’s eye I still picture her fussing in frustration with the parts of that paper Cheerios building.  ¡Presente!

We call this Sunday, “Christ the King Sunday”.  In our progressive day, the title seems somehow politically incorrect.   This strange king came with no armament, no hoard of soldiers, not to conquer by force. 

All prerogatives he set aside.  Along the highways he traveled over those days with us – as one of us — he stooped to the lowliest, embraced the sickest, and I suspect, he remembered each from the cross. 

He remembered that lad who shared his picnic lunch that fed hundreds.  He remembered a shamed woman at a Sumerian well.  He remembered the one leprous man healed.  And he remembered the other nine who, in their frail humanity failed to show gratitude.  And held all ten in compassionate memory.  He remembered a desperate old woman who grasped at his garment that she might be healed, and a woman of great faith who returned home to find her daughter healed.

He remembered those of that faithful band of followers who had been with him over that brief span of years.  Those dense guys who never quite got the mission, and that precious woman who would anoint his feet, a foretaste of an anointing for burial.  And that faithful clutch of women who gathered at the foot of his cross in his dying moments.  Probably the last vision of his dimmed eyes before they closed in death.

Remember.

Memory can be painful, damaging.  I definitely remembered after touching the hot stove not to do that again.

The memory of failure and past mistakes, while needing healing, can be instructive.  “Though your sin be as scarlet, I will wash it away.”  It’s about confession and redemption – sometimes a life-long process, making amends and providing reparations.  Without the visible acts of contrition, healing remains elusive.  Remember and forsake thy foolish, destructive ways.  Choose Life!

History is our collective memory.  It’s not about dates and battles, or even the towering figures of the moment.

David W. Blight’s book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, narrates the failure of Reconstruction after that conflict.  As the years progressed, those memories became politicized, North, South, white and Black.[2]

Those wounds remain raw and open, memory selective.  When I was young private, stationed in San Antonio, Texas, I encountered an entirely different memory of our national schism.  Not the Civil War but the War of Northern Aggression.  It was said to be all about states’ rights, not so much about slavery.

Those freedmen and freedwomen of the South had their own counter narrative to the mythology of a “Lost Cause.”  And a precious, healing memory it is.  Hear the story of redemption of starvation and death, the story of liberation at a racetrack in Charleston, South Carolina.

After the fall of Charleston, memory bore an incredible burden.  At a race track, Planters Race Course, hundreds of Union prisoners of war had been held in the most inhumane conditions.  Many died of exposure and disease, having been kept outside in freezing conditions without tents or other shelter.  Over 257 had died.[3]

The dead were just unceremoniously dumped in unmarked graves behind the judges’ stand.

Black Charlestonians who witnessed this brutal treatment, the death and disease, remembered.   After the capture of the city, they organized to honor those who had sacrificed so much for their freedom — those honored dead, who with their blood had procured their rebirth – slaves no longer but now, free American citizens.

On May Day, 1865, they planned the first Decoration Day at the graveyard of those 257 Union dead, labeled the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

This is the retelling of that of that bittersweet day of remembrance as narrated by a New York Tribune reporter:

“’The ‘First Decoration Day,’ as this event came to be recognized in some cities in the North, involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves.  During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course.”

“At nine o’clock in the morning on May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren (newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marched around the Race Course, each with an armload of roses and singing ‘John Brown’s Body.’”

“The children were followed by three hundred black women representing the Patriotic Association, a group organized to distribute clothing and other goods among the freedpeople.  The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground.  The Mutual Aid Society, a benevolent association of black men, next marched in cadence around the track and into the cemetery, followed by crowds of black and white citizens…

“When all had left, the holy mounds, the tops the sides, and spaces between them – were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen…and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond…there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.’

“While the adults marched around the graves, the children were gathered in a nearby grove where they sang ‘America,’ ‘We’ll Rally around the Flag,’ and ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”

After the dedication, some thirty orations were given by Union officers and local black ministers.  As picnics were broken out on the grass, “a full brigade of Union infantry, including the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and the Thirty-fifth and 104th U.S. Colored troops, marched in double column around the martyrs’ graves.”[4]

Remember.  Days of sacrifice; days of sweet freedom, days of gratitude – all held together in precious memory.

As Jesus from the cross enfolded the condemned, the desperate, the abandoned in loving memory, we celebrate One who casts aside the prerogatives of divinity to stoop in “Servant Leadership” to enfold us in the same gracious remembrance.  Emmanuel, God with us.  God in us and we in God.  A very strange king, indeed, who hangs from the cross.

In precious memory all flesh is bound together in one “seamless garment of destiny.” — an ever-flowing stream of life.  Memory is the sacramental presence of God’s enfolding of all creation unto Godself.  Memory, the stuff of pure unadulterated Grace.  The sacramental presence of all life wrapped up into the heart of God.  You, too, Ned and Sunny.  Blessed be!  

Might it also be that even the most horrific things we do to one another and to creation find redemption in the memory of God?  All restored?  I pray so. You know the hymn: “And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, and through eternity I’ll sing on.” – all being folded into the great stream of the Mind of God.  Amen.


[1] Hannah Tomasy, “Who Knew Reptiles Could be Such Romantics?” New York Times, Science Section, October 28, 2022.

[2] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).

[3] Ibid, 69-70.

[4] Ibid, 70.

November 20, 2022, Christ the King Sunday

“Remember”

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

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Do Not Lose Hope

Early on in our marriage I learned one thing about my wife.  She could be persistent.  Once she got an idea in her mind, especially an idea concerning one of my chores, I might as well give in.  I knew I would, sooner or later, anyway.  This woman is most persistent.  Okay, somedays I think, “obsessive.”  I know where she got this from — her mother.  Mom lived with us the last nine or ten years of her life.  I got to know her pretty well.  The apple did not fall too far from that tree.

Actually, it’s such women who redeem the planet.  They are the embodiment of Jessie Jackson’s chant, “Keep Hope Alive.  Keep Hope Alive.”

Luke tells of one such woman.  This is a woman who has been wronged by an unjust judge, in fact a bully, and is seeking justice.  At all hours of the day and night she is at his door demanding her due.  After enough sleepless days, he realizes he’d better attend to her complaint if he is to have any peace.  Yeah, I know this man.  I commiserate with him.

In such manner we are enjoined by Jesus to be persistent in prayer.  “Do not lose hope.”

When I was a young, unformed lad, my heart was set on a pocket knife.  Did I mention this to God?   You bet I did.  Days and weeks went by and nothing happened.  When I brought up this need to my parents, I was told that this wasn’t happening. “We’re not sending you armed to school.”

What the persistent women yearned for was not some minor trinket with which to impress her friends.  It was JUSTICE.  When we pray and work for justice, God will meet us on the picket line and in the polling both.  God will work with us to keep hope alive.

Prayer is not some magic manipulation of God or reality.  It is not a panacea for our neglect, indifference or stupidity.  At best, it is a pouring out of the heart of what is upon our heart at the moment.  It’s about what is roiling our soul.  It’s about what keeps one awake at night.  It’s a wrestling match with God.  It is a summons to the Spirit within each of us.  A summons to that Spirit within the collective community.  As my friend Rabbi Beerman was wont to say, “My prayers are my marching feet.”  All our feet.

Call it prayer.  Call it meditation.  Call it reflection.  It is all about the essential inward journey we take to remain human.  It’s about the journey we take to stay connected to others – our common life together — and to creation.  It’s about the source of all life and what makes the day worth getting out of bed.  It’s about putting on our pants one leg at a time and engaging in the existential struggle with God, with Truth.

The small vignette from Genesis of Jacob fleeing for his life, encountering an unknown stranger in the dread of night is a window to our faith vocation.  It is to struggle for preservation, to struggle for a way forward.  To struggle with the God of all hopefulness.

For Jacob it is a struggle which consumes the evening of despair.  In the end is blessing. 

“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket…he said [to Jacob] ‘Let me go for the day is breaking,’ but Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’  “What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’  Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed’…So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”

This, like unto another story of holy perseverance in our faith tradition.  A poor, destitute woman, really – a nobody in the eyes of the male deciders – demands her due, struggles with an obtuse, entitled man of power.  In her struggle, she wears him down.  That is the holy struggle of Jacob.  She prevails and obtains blessing.

To God?  Into the wider world?  Once prayer has been launched and set loose, who’s to know the end of it?  Definitely beyond my pay grade.  But I do know my own heart, if I listen closely.  If I attend to my needs and the needs of others, the needs and pain of the world – I find a divine reply.  Sometimes as clear and distinct as my wife’s summons.  If I allow that prayer, that inspiration, that idea to germinate and take root in my heart, it stirs up my gumption.  It grabs hold of my date book and my wallet – my hands, heart and mind.  That I know is the power of prayer.  The courage to change the things I can change and the wisdom of when to stand back.

Without that interior life of prayer and reflection, these days it’s nigh on impossible to keep hope alive.  It takes a village to keep hope alive, or at least a community of care.  All of us is most often smarter and wiser than any one of us.  Jacob did not cross the ford at Jabbok by himself.  He took everybody with him.  All.

The Children of Light are today up against racial hate and misogyny in many forms, whether on the Los Angeles City Council or those here at Claremont attempting to keep Claremont free of “those people.” 

Right now, toxic masculinity is killing the planet.  Thomas Friedman correctly notes that Putin’s war is not only a war against Ukraine and the West, it is a war against the planet.

We only have a decade left to mitigate the worst effects of global warming, and Putin’s war is diverting international attention and resources from this priority.  This is what Friedman writes:

“There was no good time for Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked, idiotic invasion of Ukraine. But this is a uniquely bad time. Because it’s diverting worldwide attention and resources needed to mitigate climate change — during what may be the last decade when we still have a chance to manage the climate extremes that are now unavoidable and avoid those that could become unmanageable.”[1]

Does Putin care?  Not a bit.

But one does not need to go halfway around the world to discover such men.  Right here at home we have Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville on Black people: “They’re pro-crime,” Tuberville said. “They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”[2]

This is not just a dog whistle.  It’s a bullhorn.  And nary a Republican colleague has called him out on this racism.  “I might have chosen other words,” one halting milquetoast mumbles. 

This is what’s destroying America, dragging us down into a cesspool of shame.  No, you don’t have to travel far to encounter such.  We have plenty of our own homegrown piggy guys.

We idolize them.  Is there any other reason such antisemitic idiotic narcissists as Kayne West get such good press and such huge followings? – with his rant about going “Death Con 3 On Jewish People?”  This is America???  Sounds more like a Nazi thug out of the 30s.  Or, maybe it is America — Charlottesville, USA, August 2017?  Appalling and disgusting.[3]

That poor, indigent woman going up against a judge who couldn’t be bothered would have instantly recognized these guys.   All cut from the same cloth of self-centered entitlement.

Folks, that’s why we have unions — so women are not subjected to such atrocious behavior in the workplace.  So, there is redress, justice.

It should be noted that among the staunches opponents to Putin’s ware are several prime ministers of the Nordic countries – all women.  They know what it is to have had to take a bunch of crap from ignorant, sexist men.  And they aren’t going to take it from Putin.

The prime minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas’s speaking for her nation: “When it comes to Putin then, of course he is a war criminal and must be prosecuted for the crimes of aggression he has committed.”[4]

“And you shouldn’t be negotiating with terrorists because it pays off for them.  We will pay a higher price in the long term,” she added.”

When asked about an “offramp” for Putin in Ukraine, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said there’s only one off-ramp for Putin.[5]

“The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine,” Marin told a reporter on Friday. “That’s the way out of the conflict.”  She bluntly added, “He can leave.”  Whereupon she turned heel and walked off.

She would have understood what that woman supplicant before this judge would have had to contend with.  That is the struggle that engages God.  And will throughout this dark night of war.  Is there blessing to be had?  We’ll see.  Ukrainians are learning what all peoples have learned when emerging from subjugation:  Freedom’s not free.  These brave people continue to keep hope alive through the missiles and the atrocities inflicted upon them.  In the subways singing hymns and other songs, they do indeed keep hope alive.  And also, for the rest of us who join them through the miracle of electronic media.

I close with two women, courageous women who have fortified my hope this week.  One is Cori Bush.  She came to my attention when I saw her on TV camped out on the steps of Congress all night, urging her fellow representatives to address homelessness, addiction and marginalization.  She herself had been homeless at various times in her life.  Probably one of the very few congressional members to know such extreme circumstances.  Her new book, Forerunner, is her life story.  I know now the source of her strength – she is very clear about from where her help comes.  It from the Lord who has taken up residence in her heart.[6]

Get that book.  It’s not an easy read given the trauma Cori has endured over her life.  But as a nurse, a pastor, an activist, and now a congresswoman from Missouri, she has endured.  She inspires all of us to keep hope alive.

The second woman getting the Last Word is Loretta Lynn, award-winning Country Music gem from Appalachia.

Loretta’s songs were stories of heartbreak, betrayal, addiction and poverty.

Long ago as a little guy I’d turn on the old tube radio and listen to these songs.  One night my father came in and when he heard what I was listening to, yelled: “Turn that off.  You don’t want to be a G-D hillbilly, do you!”  This was the West Virginia culture he had rejected.

Much later in life, I developed an appreciation for the stories these songs told – the pathos, the deep longing, the blessing of a culture that tied people together at the deepest levels.

Loretta Lynn endured it all, growing up in a backwoods holler in Tennessee.  Married at the age of fifteen to a sometimes-faithful husband who struggled with alcoholism.  Mother of three of her six children before she was twenty.  Yet she prevailed.  Her people have prevailed.

Her signature song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was an earnest prayer which brought hope to millions all across the nation’s airwaves.  Loretta gets The Last Word.

Well, I was born a coal miner’s daughter
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor but we had love,
That’s the one thing that daddy made sure of
He’d shovel coal to make a poor man’s dollar

“My daddy worked all night in the Van Lear coal mines
All day long in the field a hoin’ corn
Mommy rocked the babies at night
And read the Bible by the coal oil light
And ever’ thing would start all over come break of morn[7]

All we can say for her and for all these persistent, in-your-face women is, “Thanks be to God and Blessed be!”  You have “struggled with God and with humans.”  By the grace of God, You will prevail.  Amen and amen!


[1] Thomas Friedman, “Putin’s War is a Crime Against the Planet,” New York Times, September 27, 2022.

[2] Eugene Scott, “Democrats Call Sen. Tuberville’s Comments About Crime and Reparations Racist,” Washington Post, October 11, 2022.

[3] Cole Delbyck, “Kanye West Tweet About Going ‘Death Con 3 On Jewish People’ Removed By Twitter,” HuffPost, October 9, 2022.
4 Astha Saxena, “Europe’s new ‘Iron Lady’ Kaja Kallas calls on West to not negotiate with ‘terrorist’ Putin,” Express, October 9, 2022.
5 Nick Mordowanec, “Video of Finnish PM Explaining Putin’s ‘Way Out’ of Ukraine Viewed 4M Times,” Newsweek, October 7, 2022.

 

 

[6] Cori Bush, The Forerunner (New York: Knopf, 2022).

[7] Loretta Lynn, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” written and sung by her and various artists, released in 1970.  The song became a number one hit on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart later that year.

October 16, 2022, 19 Pentecost, Proper 24

“Do Not Lose Hope”

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

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-6

A Champion of Nobodies

Sunday, when I opened the LA Times, right on the lefthand column was my sermon title for today.  It was an article on the Afro-Columbians, living in a remote jungle of that nation.  These people live by subsisting on marginal gold panning.  They are people living in La Toma, a string of small villages in a most remote area of Columbia, populated by former slaves of African descent.

The article featured an activist, Francia Elena Marquez whose aim is to change “the economic model of death to an economic model of life.”  She is the champion of “the nobodies.”[1]

Francia is a single mother, a former live-in maid who escaped the poverty of that situation to become a community activist.  She was awarded a Nobel Prize for her battle against illegal gold mining.

Today she is improbably Columbia’s vice president, elected along with Gustavo Petro, an ex-urban guerilla fighter, the first leftist president of Columbia and its 50 million people.

It was her popularity with the young and with women who put that ticket over the top.  She’s the first person of African heritage to attain such prominence.  Never even held any office before this.  Walls throughout the land were emblazoned with her slogan, “Vivir sabroso” – live life to the fullest.

She and the new president take office in a period when Columbia is recovering from narco-violence, massive inequality and lawlessness.  In a land dominated by the white-mestizo male elite, she has battled sexism, classism, inequality and gender prejudice.

She has weathered death threats, political slander and racist taunts.  Yet she persisted.  She is now an international rock star.  No, she’s not a Communist revolutionary.  But a revolutionary, yes!

Only because of an aunt, did she find the funds for a school uniform, books and tuition to go beyond an elementary education.  Her mother had eleven children and absolutely no money.  Unlike many American children, she knew the sacrifice of another for her education. 

Her primary teacher recalls that Francia Elena was a very serious student, and very much an extravert.  “But I never thought that the Francia Elena who was my student would so quickly become vice president of the Republic of Columbia.”

As a teenager she joined neighbors protesting a plan to divert the Ovejas River to produce even more electricity by a dam that had flooded much of her community’s ancestral lands, a project that devastated traditional fishing grounds the people depended on.

Columbian authorities further awarded mining contracts to multinational corporations without any input from those living in the villages of the area, contrary to Columbian law.  She and her movement initiated lawsuits.  Lo and behold!  They won.  A major victory for the “nobodies.”

The situation got much worse when those same companies employed right-wing paramilitary goons and began killing locals panning for gold on what they considered their lands.  Soon bulldozers and backhoes moved in and began tearing up their beautiful river.

The river was now filling with mercury and cyanide and other toxic chemicals.  The operation led to massive deforestation.  Anyone interfering with this desecration was threatened with death.

It was at that point that Francia Elena recruited eighty black women, attired in their signature head turbans, the March of the Turbans, from over 300 miles away to march against the illegal activities of these companies. 

These women camped on the doorstep of the Interior Ministry until, three weeks later, authorities agreed to evict the illegal miners.  Again, score one for Francia Elena’s “nobodies.”

By then she was a single mother of two and receiving death threats.  For her safety she left for the big city, joining millions of the dispossessed from the land by violence and narco-terrorism, illegal mining and the gangs they employed.  She studied law.

Francia Elena has raised expectations of the “nobodies” all across Colombia, especially little girls.  One young girl in nursing school panning for gold one morning with her husband and three-year-old said, “We have learned a lot from Francia and from our ancestors.” 

If ever there was a contemporary to St. Francis, it is Francia Elena.  St. Francis is the saint of the “nobodies.” 

Listen to her testimony: “I am a part of the struggle against structural racism.”

“Among those women who raise their voices to stop the destruction of rivers, forests and wetlands.  Among those who dream that, one day, all human beings are going to change the economic model of death to an economic model of life.”[2]

She’s accused of inexperience, lack of knowledge.  Baloney!  She knows something the previous government NEVER knew – the people!  Their toil, their poverty, their lack of opportunity.  The same people St. Francis knew.

All of life is tied together in one marvelous, divine, holy web of life.  Besides our Lord, how do we have knowledge of God?  From creation, the creation that Francia Elena continues to fight for. 

The one psalm I learned as a child – remember, I had a terrible memory for this sort of thing – was Psalm 121, the opening. Of course, back then in the King James Version, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills — From whence comes my help?”

Psalm 19 was another one I did remember from Sunday school Bible drills.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

The splendors of nature are a door to the heart of God.  St. Francis knew this.  Brother Sun. Sister Moon – they testify to the goodness of the created order.  Early on I was fascinated by the vast panoply of the heavens.  In our community college I volunteered as the astronomy coach for Professor Bruff, hauling out our school’s telescope every Wednesday evening if there was half a chance of seeing through the dense muck of the Norwalk, California sky.  It was always a bit of a thrill to focus in on Saturn and its rings or Jupiter with its Great Red Spot, which is larger than our planet Earth.

When we lived out in the desert, serving at my first church assignment, most any evening one could look up into the sky and see it lit up with stars beyond imagining.  The desert sky was black as velvet filled with twinkling wonders once you got away from the light pollution of our small town.

I still remember friends — a mother and her three children — driving out to visit us from Los Angeles.  As soon as her van came to a stop, the side door slid open and out popped one of the boys.  He looked up into the night sky and gasped, “Wow, you don’t have much air out here,” as he beheld the majesty of the Milky Way overhead.

St. Francis was not only a champion of the “nobodies,” but of the entire created order.  It’s all connected.  Only later would I learn to more fully appreciate this wonderful saint.

I find I am doubly blessed to serve a parish named in his honor.

You want a picture of God?  Look at those who have a care for the least of these, activists like Francia Elena Marquez.  Look at those who have a care for creation like writer and activist Bill McKibben.  Like my friend Brian Ebersol, whom I would often see along the bike trail with his sack in hand, picking up the trash others had carelessly tossed.  Most any morning I would see him walking out there.  Champions of the “nobodies.”  Champions of creation.

As we bless the animals today, I recall to mind our beloved Skippy, the dog I grew up with.  Dad had gotten him to keep Mom company when he went off to fight in World War II.  She said that she could tie him to my baby carriage parked outside the store when she went in to buy some groceries, and that dog wouldn’t let anyone approach.  That was definitely another era.  Skippy was my champion.

For our animal friends and family, we give thanks, O Lord.  For the beauty of this blue-green earth, we give thanks and for the star-spangled heavens.  To the psalmist and most of all today, St. Francis, that wastrel who renounced all to bring the Church back to life – THANKS BE TO GOD!

Listen to a song inspired by the work of Francia Elena Marquez, sung by two girls in Columbia, Jinller Leany, 12, and Andrea Torres, 15:

I was born Black and my companion is the sun/To the rhythm of the marimba and first the drum/My name is African mixed with Spanish/I am proud of my race and I give thanks to God/Proud of my race and I give thanks to God/Black I was born, and Black I am.[3]

A blessed St. Francis day to us all.  Amen.


[1] Patrick J McDonnell, “She’s a Champion of the ‘Nobodies,’” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2022.

[2] Op cit.

[3] Ibid.

October 2, 2022, 17 Pentecost, Proper for St. Francis Feast Day,
Blessing of the Animals

“A Champion of Nobodies”

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

Exodus 22:21-27; Psalm 121; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

Just Get Over Yourself

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?”[1]

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?[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6] 

“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:[7]

“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[8]
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
Alfie.

So, let’s get to work.  We’re not dead yet.  Amen.


[1] Burt Bacharach /Hal David,  Alfie lyrics.

[2] Bert Bacharach, Hal David, “Alfie,” 1966.

[3] 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).

[4] Tom Taro Greenfield, “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me,” The Atlantic, October 2013.

[5] Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001), 32.

[6] Merrick Garland, https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-merrick-b-garland-administers-oath-allegiance-and-delivers, delivered on September 17, 2022.

[7] Madison: Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999), 398.

[8] 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

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