Eternal Life or Sheer Cussedness: You Choose

One of my favorite quotes from Abraham Lincoln is, “People are about as happy as they decide to be.”  Unless there is some mental illness or great tragedy, most people, left to their own devices, will volunteer for “happy.”

But there’s a subset of folks with whom life and others have dealt badly.  They wake up miserable and go to bed miserable.

Like our neighbor when I was a small boy growing up in Compton.  Back when I was in the first and second grades, when we boys would be roller-skating out on the sidewalk on our block, she’d come out and turn on the sprinklers and yell at us.  A wonderful and uplifting next door neighbor, indeed.  Enough to ruin your entire day.

She seemed to hate everyone.  Her husband had left, she made her teenage son sleep out in the garage.  I won’t add any sexist, piggy male commentary as to why he may have left.  My lips are sealed, sort of.

One of my favorite cities is San Francisco.  Did I ever mention that if you pay your church pledge, say your prayers and don’t fool around on your significant other, when you die, that’s where you go?

Anyway, a news blurb from that city of the Golden Gate caught my attention this week.  A shopkeeper of an art gallery was arrested for hosing down a homeless woman sleeping on the sidewalk outside his business.  The same look of disinterested distain on his face as officer Derek Chauvin had as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck.  Assault and battery.  Just out of sheer cussedness, and exasperation, I suppose.

Didn’t his mother, didn’t his father, teach him any better than this?  I suppose not.

Yes, I know that they are, like most urban centers, overwhelmed by destitute folks, the mentally ill and drug-addicted.  I confess to being dismayed having to walk around people camped out on the street as I make my way to a favorite bookstore or restaurant.

But as my mom always said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”  Such disorder does unsettle the spirit.  But is cussedness the answer? 

Left to our own devices and anger, that’s too often where we can end up.  Out there on the sidewalk of life along with Mrs. Blocker turning on the sprinklers and yelling at passersby, hosing down the homeless.

There is a better way.   It’s engaged compassion.  It begins with the simple words, “Blessed are…”

As the Deuteronomist proclaimed, “I set before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse.  Choose life…”[1]  As Lincoln said…our choice.  Same as the sign to our church preschool: “Misery is optional.”

Genuine communities of faith are about thriving, about a more excellent way, a way that scripture calls, “Eternal Life.”   It’s there for the taking, set before us day after day.  Grace upon grace.

Eternal Life is not something one might enter into at death.  Such understanding is completely unscriptural.  Eternal Life is a quality of life that Christ offers now.  It is sheer blessedness.  Brim full and overflowing.  The first followers of Jesus experienced this infectious quality as highly contagious.  They got it from Jesus.  More contagious than measles.  They transmitted it to one another.  First the twelve and then others. 

Even those “persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” theirs is everything that matters.   Ask John Lewis.  Ask Rosa Parks.  Ask Dr. King.  These are they who entered into Eternal Life long before they were dead.  These are the sort that bring life to all they do. 

“Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called children of God.”  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” 

The Beatitudes are not some sort of checklist for the religiously compulsive.  They reflect a quality of life that emanates from those who have accepted Jesus’ offer of blessing, who daily strive to walk that talk.  It just oozes out of the pores of their being.

These ARE the merciful.  These ARE the ones who open their hearts to the poor, the hungry, the addicted and those in prison.  They are living Beatitudes.  They reek of compassion, of a yearning for justice.

The narcissist will never understand these people.

When the Former Guy visited the cemeteries of the WW II fallen in France, and at Arlington, he wondered why they would have made that ultimate sacrifice, ‘What’s in it for them?” he mused to the aide accompanying him.  In his book they were “suckers.” 

Probably, also those German farmers who got caught hiding Jews during Hitler’s bloody reign.  “What’s in it for them?”  They were shot, or worse.  Our neighbor, Mrs. Blocker, would have found such unabashed generosity abhorrent.  Also, the Former Guy.

I find that I become close to this quality of life – Life Abundant – when I am willing to be vulnerable to the “Least of These.”  When I allow them into my heart.  Indeed, we ignore and dismiss the marginalized to the peril of our souls.  Something essential in us dies…way before death claims us in the end.

Out of such vulnerability comes a life of Shalom – a wish for wholeness and wellbeing for all around, no exceptions, for the entire creation…Life Eternal. 

Recently, as my friend’s wife has passed from life to death, I’ve become acutely aware of the gift of comfort our hospice nurses and health staff bring to the terminally ill.  I remember what a godsend they were to my family when my mother-in-law, who lived with us the last eight or so years of her life, was in her final days

I’m thinking of the health staff who care for the addicted.  Sam Quinones, in his latest book on the opioid crisis, The Least of Us:  True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth, relates the story of one young addicted mother.[2] 

Starla had overdosed on fentanyl while walking the streets.  When her boyfriend/pimp finally noticed that she very sick, he, out of fear, had waited several hours to call 911.[3]

Now she was in the hospital, seriously brain damaged, and several months pregnant.  The nurses at Sacred Heart, who cared for her, brought flowers to her room, curtains, a radio so she could listen to music.  When an attendant would come in to bathe her, often, all she could do was to follow that person with her eyes.[4]

No family or friends visited.  The last few days of that winter, Starla had walked the streets barefooted in the snow and ice.  When her mother Maude did finally show up, she was aghast at the appearance of her daughter, “Her feet looked like she had walked them off of her.”[5]

As Starla’s tummy grew with the developing baby inside, nurses took turns sitting by her bedside.   Day after day.  As one nurse exclaimed to the author, “I’ve been a nurse for forty-two years in maternity, and I had never taken care of a patient like this.”[6]

On January 18, 2013 Starla gave birth by C-section, several weeks prematurely, to a daughter who “came into the world with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and affected by the drugs the staff gave her mother to prevent clotting.”

The nursing staff and hospital chaplain “cried in awe of the child and mother who tossed and turned but could not speak.  ‘It was like our family survived and had a baby,’ Ellen Stanly, the morning supervisor, cried.”

The work didn’t stop there.  By then the ward was now filled with other addicted mothers and newborns.

I’ve known some of these nurses, the work schedules are inhuman.  Their gift of caring is drawn from a deep spiritual well.  These people are living Beatitudes.

Philips Brooks, that great Episcopal preacher of the eighteen hundreds somewhere said of such spirituality, “We never become truly spiritual by sitting down and wishing to become so.  You must undertake something so great that you cannot accomplish it unaided.”  That is the story of this nursing staff.

Through prayer, deep desire and the touch of God, we gently, slowly, live into this Spirit.

When I made known my last wishes to friends and family, people asked, “Have you written this stuff down?”  “Does Jai know?”

Our future daughter-in-law sent back the most loving response.  While she wished that she and Christopher wouldn’t have to refer to this request anytime soon, she did tell me that I had three things to do first — tasks I could not possibly accomplish alone — before I departed:

  1. Marry her and Christopher.
  2. Attend Christopher’s PhD graduation at Yale.
  3. Be available for some grandkids to be crawling around on my lap.

Love that woman.  Alexis is certainly a living Beatitude.  Christopher did most fine in discovering her.  Wedding date: October 7 of this year.

I also have two addiction treatment facilities to begin – definitely operations which no one person could conceivably accomplish solely.  I pray Phillips Brooks is right – that my being will grow into and through the Spirit of this work.

This is the spirituality of the Beatitudes.  It’s not a check list for the religiously compulsive.  Not a way of earning one’s way into heaven – or San Francisco, for that matter.

This is the spirituality that grounds those nurses at Sacred Heart – sustains those hospice nurses who attended my mother-in-law and the staff of our health center at Pilgrim Place. 

Let us pray that this very same Spirit touches us daily.  A free gift, available to all – even Mrs. Blocker and the Former Guy.  “Blessed are those who…”

Amen


[1] Deuteronomy 30, RSV.

2  Sam Quinones, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021).

3 op cit., 75.

 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 76.

January 29, 2023, 4 Epiphany

Eternal Life or Sheer Cussedness: You Choose

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

Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Jesus Called the 12 and then Called Others

As we finished watching Washington Week on a Friday night, we flipped the channel to catch another recorded program and found ourselves in the middle of the fourteenth failing ballot of Kevin McCarthy’s quixotic journey to the speakership of the House of Representatives.

Glued to the screen we sat through a failed motion to adjourn and I remember commenting that these folks couldn’t even organize a bathroom break, and they’re going to run the country!?

The next thing, the camera zooms to McCarthy rushing to the podium waving a red card.  Now someone’s going to change their vote.  Within short order, having failed to adjourn, the House proceeded to a fifteenth vote.  The holdouts, the Never Kevin folks, having had their demands met, had agreed to vote present, allowing the speaker to finally be elected with 215 votes.  He was sworn in and in turn swore in en masse the rest of the body.

We had a government – of sorts.

I wondered what sort of reign this speaker might exercise given the extreme demands the Never Keven cabal had exacted from him to bring their support, or at least their acquiescence.  Would anything get done in this 218th Congress?

What sort of acolytes would Speaker McCarthy be choosing to head committees?  How many months would this tribe exhaust in investigating Hunter Biden’s laptop?  Impeaching Dr. Fauci?  Yeah, I know he’s retired…they know.  Doesn’t matter.  The COVID-19 vaccine was all a nefarious plot of some sort.  That’s why we have to investigate, investigate, and impeach!  And while we’re at it, let’s get those awful FBI thugs on the hotseat, too.  And the 87,000 IRS agents who will be beating down your doors at three in the morning.  Will we descend into the madness of Marjorie Taylor Green and the QAnon Crazies?

OR…OR…

I was not much of a Reagan fan, but at least his conservativism had a smile.  His was not the politics of resentment and vengeance.  He found places of compromise to get things done.

The stark contrast to the melee on the floor of Congress was the gathering of Mitch McConnell and President Biden, along with the governors of Ohio and Kentucky and some other leaders of those states – all to celebrate an accomplishment for the American people.

The bridge over the Ohio River that spans the two states has needed replacement for many years.  Obama tried to get the funding and failed.  Now, after many years, this deteriorated span was going to be addressed.  There were smiles, complements and handshakes to go all around.  This photo op was the classic win-win situation.   Out of the cesspool of our hyper-partisan politics, everyone came up smelling like a rose.

Over the politics of darkness, the light of cooperation and mutual interest broke through the dark clouds of bitter partisanship. 

There were many points where I took strenuous issue with Reaganism.  His abandonment of the mentally ill in California was despicable.  When it came to the “least of these,” one pundit asserted, “The spirit of Marie Antoinette infuses the administration of Ronald Reagan.”[1]

In spite of this, Reagan was progressive on immigration.  He believed that immigrants made the nation stronger.  He chose them to become Americans.  He bristled at the idea of a border wall.  “You don’t build a nine-foot fence along the border between two friendly nations.”  An earlier draft contained his thought, “We cannot erect a Berlin Wall across our southern border…We are talking here not just about statistics but human beings, families, and hopes and dreams for a better life.”[2]

This was the spirit that infused that meeting between President Biden and Mitch McConnell at the Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River.

Jesus was the messenger of Possibility and Flourishing – ever God’s will for humankind.  This is a “we” operation.  He needed a team, those who would commit to following him on the Way to a New Creation.

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’  Immediately they left their net and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John…”

He called the twelve and then called others – saints alive — and now he’s calling you and me.

Yes, it was Reagan’s disastrous foreign policy in the Central American countries which have brought about the massive flood of refugees, yet as blindly naive as Reagan was to the results of his policies, there was a spark of decency that allowed him to see these refugees as simple human beings, their hopes and dreams.

That is our mission as Jesus’ disciples.  And none of us are in his class — we all bring our blind spots and sins of omission.  I bring these up because, we are cut of no different cloth than those politicians we disparage.  The main difference, they are often in positions where they can do far more damage than we mortals. We do share the same humanity.  The same instincts for good and the same blind failings.  Yet in God, all shall be blessed.  Even my old nemesis, Tricky Dick.

Jesus calls them, calls us, to a vision as old as the prophets of yore, to the promise of Isaiah.  All “living in a land of deep darkness, arise.  Your light has come.  You have seen a great light; on you it has shined.”

We are only here for a brief period.  The gift of grace is the Light of Christ we shine unto those around, including oneself.  The Light they offer to us.

Last Sunday evening we gave thanks for a great bearer of this same Light, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He walked the talk.  This is the sort of disciple Christ raises up.

And you and me, to boot.  Cut from the same cloth of frail humanity.

Death, more than anything focuses both mind and spirit.  Brings to the forefront my need, our need, for this Light

Lately, I’ve been spending time with a good friend whose wife is in hospice.  That, and finishing a novel about an incredible priest facing death among the people she has served, I find myself a bit weepy.  But it’s a good weepy.  It’s real.

We will gather in a little bit this morning to acknowledge the gift of life and joy a cherished wife, Blanca, brought to her family.  In her way, she walked the talk.

This circle is given to the precious moment of sharing cherished memories of her time among us.  A time to give thanks to the Author of all life who has brought us to this time and place.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  Beats the hell out of watching old sit-coms or moping around in the darkness by oneself.

The blessing of discipleship is the blessing of community.  Whatever life dishes out, we don’t have to endure alone and in silence.  We have a community in Christ to share it all.  And be sustained.  This is the bread of life that is offered every Sunday at Christ’s altar.  This is the cup of blessing – it is to be in a community of blessing.

As imperfect as our politicians are, as we are, there are divine moments of flourishing.  Joe and Mitch were at that bridge the other day because of something they received along their faith journey.  That same spark enabled Reagan to see the humanity of those destitute at our southern border.

It enables us to look across a prayer circle and see the precious humanity in each one at this altar.

“Sent them out to witness, two by two,” and now sends us out to testify to the goodness we have known in his company.  Two by two.  It’s real.  Believe me.  Amen.


[1] Nicole Hemmer, Partisans: The Conservaive Revolutinaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s (New York: Basic Books, 2022), 39.

[2] Op cit., 37.

January 22, 2023, The Epiphany

“Jesus Called the 12 and then Called Others”

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

Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

A Love Story

Quite some years ago I attended Mills College, studying in their department of education to get teaching credentials for both elementary and secondary education in Alaska and California.

On the first week of classes the school held a matriculation ceremony welcoming in the new freshman class.  At that time Mills was still a woman’s college for their undergraduate offerings.  What struck me was the close ties of many graduates who returned for this ceremony.  Women had assembled from classes going back to the 1930s – but not many.

I still get their alum magazine, which this month featured stories of students who had met their spouses while at Mills.

The first story of Michael and Katja warmed my heart.  Michael was working on a masters of fine arts and Katya spied him across the tables at the Olin Library.  This was in 2001.

Michael describes what he calls “a shock of recognition.”

“It was like a flash of lightning that blinds you.  I had this real feeling that we had met before.  I was a little shy, so it took a while to kind of warm up.  But I think the time that I decided to talk to Katya was when I started to notice that she was sort of waiting at the fountain for me!”

Katya corrects her husband, “Lingering,” with a smile.

“I remember feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, something is happening…In that moment, the stakes just felt a lot higher because I just felt this sense of potential.  I just felt like Michael was really different than anyone else I had met.”

That began a romance of nineteen years…still going strong.

Most of us have known those feelings, that bond.  Many of us are still living that delight, though some of the fire may have subsided and we’re comfortable old married folks.  For some unrequited love may be now felt as a residual tragedy or irretrievable loss.

The fact still remains – we’re made for one another. 

At Epiphany we celebrate a love letter from God.  That’s what the Star of Revelation is all about.  Just as Katya realized, “Something is happening.”

Our younger son met Alexis online.  We are so overjoyed that they both realized after several dates, “Something is happening.”  And now a wedding is scheduled for October 7th of this year…and we delight in the joy they find in one another.  Something is happening indeed!

It all started with a Big Bang when, in the twinkling of the Divine Eye, everything came into being: “The stars and planets in their courses.”  Dandelions and lady bugs, lizards and dinosaurs.  Not all at once, but like any true romance, gradually unfolding — A huge bit something happening.

And finally, you and me.

That is what the Feast of Epiphany is all about – SOMETHING IS HAPPENING in that simple manger far away.  And happening still today.

That is the love story of the Divine Lover and the Creation.  The will is to flourish in the same way Michael and Katja have flourished, the way couples and communities have flourished down through the ages.

That is the never-ending Love Story, unfolding on the first pages of Genesis.  To each of us comes the call, “Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Yes, it’s not all roses.  This world yet knows much darkness.  But as John Ford Coley, croons, “Love is the Answer.”

Not a sentimental love, though the fireworks are a help.  I’m talking of love that goes out of its way to boost flourishing – even when you DON’T feel like it.

It’s the love that takes you outside of your comfort zone.  It’s what leads you to do that minor errand, simply because you know it will make the other person happy.

It’s the love for your country that leads you to walk precinct for a candidate you believe will do a good job.  To walk for several hours even though you could be curled up on the couch with a good novel.  Even when the joints ache and the back is sore and the street lights have already turned on.

It was that lightning attraction of a miraculous star that led those three travelers to their heart’s delight.

And what gifts might we bring?

I’m reminded of all those who down through the years have been keepers of the flame of faith.  The unheralded matriarchs of our communities of faith who kept the doors open when hope was scarce and funds were even scarcer.

I think of Mrs. Nellie Hughes, wife of our pastor, who when I was a child led children’s church every Sunday …who tried to instill in us obstreperous boys some sense of decency and decorum…who tried to present a living faith through story and song that would last our whole life long. 

The fact that I still fondly remember her and her gentle admonitions, her stories and smile, says she had succeeded far beyond what she might have imagined.  She was God’s love letter, and in her presence, something was happening.

That’s what the Star of Revelation is all about – Love is the Answer, and Something’s Happening.

When I was at All Saints Church in Pasadena, one of our clergy was a priest from South Africa.  As a white woman, Wilma might have easily said goodbye forever to that tormented land.

Since its first President Nelson Mandela left office, South Africa has been racked by unemployment, crime, and corruption.  Wilma chose to return.  As a white Afrikaner, she is aware she had little leverage to do much to be of help.  But what she could do, she would.  That’s the Wilma of generous heart that we all loved at All Saints.  I still miss the lilt of her English accent when remember her.

In the sermon she preached on her farewell Sunday, Wilma mentioned a website dedicated to those white Afrikaners who have committed to remain and do whatever they can to heal the dysfunction of their great nation.  The site’s hashtag is: #ImStaying  You can find it also on Facebook.

Here is the story of one of the faithful, generous souls who have screwed up their fortitude and have pledged their lot with their fellow countrymen and women.  It is the story of one white South Afrikaner woman who’s staying put.  These beautiful citizens of that fabled country brightly reflect glimmers of the Christ Star.  And what they reveal is hope for the planet – the hope of some simple, decent humanity.

This woman’s journey is the sacramental presence of God’s love – that divine “Something’s Happening” story.

Here is one post on #ImStaying that is right out of God’s never-ending Love Story.

The narrator says that on her drive home one day, she saw a man on crutches lugging a suitcase on wheels.  Crossing a bridge, he was struggling mightily as he finally got to the other side.  He was tired and obviously ill.  She told her kids that she was going to stop and help him. 

She rolled down the window and asked the man if she could give him a lift somewhere.  His distorted face indicated to her that he was in some real difficulty.  He seemed somewhat confused.  He handed her a piece of paper saying he was deaf and dumb.  She began to speak very slowly and offered him a lift to where he needed to go.  He wrote on his paper, on a board he pulled from his backpack, his destination.  She had her son get out of the car and help with his bags.  Then she had the man sit next to her with his crutches.

As she drove along, the man kept writing messages to say thank you on his board, and she used the little sign language she knew to say that it was her pleasure.  She stopped along the way and got him something to drink and withdrew some money at her bank. 

When they got to the taxi station that was his destination, her son carried his suitcase to the cab.  As he left, she had tears streaming down her face.  She handed him a 400 Rand note in South African money, and hoped he would make it home safely.

She later told her kids that there was no way that many people would help a man like this, walking with crutches, with a distorted grimace on his face.  Speaking to her children as much to us, she continues:

People need help!  We can only do what we can with what we’ve got.  I’m just happy that being kind costs nothing and we have the potential to do so much good. 

I know that [they] will remember that day in particular for the rest of their lives and I hope it will encourage them to be good to other people.  We need to role model this behavior for our kids.[1]

The mother concluded that she again had tears in her eyes as she typed up her story.  She thanked #ImStaying for all the positive posts on the site, concluding with the prayer, “May God bless Africa.”

As my friend Jim Strathdee has so marvelously turned a Howard Thurman poem to song!

When the song of the angels is stilled.
When the star in the sky is gone.
When the kings and the shepherds have found their way home.
The work of Christmas is begun!

O Star of Brilliant Revelation, revealing our work.  The work of all the little people, the nobodies, the “least of these” – in whom Christ continues to daily preform the most astounding miracles.   We’re Staying.  Something’s Happening – a Love Story.  Let it ever be so, even here at little St. Francis.  Amen.


[1] Anonymous, #imstaying.

January 8, 2023, The Epiphany

“A Love Story”

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

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Let us Go See This Thing

This last week, most improbably there stood before Congress Volodymyr Zelenskyy, president of Ukraine.  He spoke of his gratitude for the aid and moral support the American people had given his nation.  He spoke of the suffering they were currently enduring in freezing temperatures and darkness.

Here, in part is what President Zelenskyy told us:

“We’ll celebrate Christmas. Celebrate Christmas and, even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out. If Russian — if Russian missiles attack us, we’ll do our best to protect ourselves. If they attack us with Iranian drones and our people will have to go to bomb shelters on Christmas Eve, Ukrainians will still sit down at the holiday table and cheer up each other. And we don’t, don’t have to know everyone’s wish, as we know that all of us, millions of Ukrainians, wish the same: Victory. Only victory.”[1]

It was an electrifying moment.

Only a short few months ago, we all looked on Ukraine as a hopeless cause.  Another instance of a brave people losing a struggle against overwhelming odds against a ruthless foe.  Sad, but inevitable.  The way of the world.

It is into this world that a small child lay in a cradle, huddled against bitter cold.  Shepherds keeping watch, alerted to the impending mystery, gather themselves together.  And set out to see what new ray of hope shines in the darkness of another autocrat’s darkness. 

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And isn’t that the yearning of each of us, to see some ray of hope, to see a sliver of light in our darkened world?

That is what all the decorations are about.  That is what the gathering of friends and family is about.  “Let us go see this thing which the Lord has made known to us.”

As the old year closes, our nation closes a chapter on one of the most sordid episodes of our history.  It’s not the first time we have had a brush with autocracy.  The first came in the 1930’s when a radical Catholic priest incited millions across the airwaves to accept the fascist alternative.  Fr. Coughlin and others were deep into a plot, fomented and financed by agents of Hitler, to overthrow our democracy.  Check out Rachel Maddow’s podcast, Ultra.  A book and film are in the works.

With the report of the January 6th Committee in our hands, we have the documentation of just how close we came this time to suffering a coup to overthrow our democracy.  This modern-day Herod was willing to do just about anything to retain the power of the presidency.  Even to the murder of police officers.

“Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me,” was the Former Guy’s ask of former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.[2]  When it became clear that Rosen would not go along with this cockamamie idea, the Former Guy planned to fire him and install a toady, Jeffrey Clark, who would do his bidding. 

But democracy’s light, brilliant as that Star of Epiphany, cut through the darkness of this nefarious plot.  Virtually all top employees threatened to resign en masse should that happen. 

“Let us go see this thing” that has preserved our democracy and rule of law.  If not all, at least some of the time almost nine hundred pages — or at least take time to read the summary, or catch pieces of it on your nightly news.  Read it.  Scan it.   It’s bipartisan.  It’s shocking.  It’s on the mark.  This witness to the truth, to the values of self-rule is surely the Lord’s doing. 

“Let us go to [our local newsstand] and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  For all those who have given witness to these events, we will return to our homes and factories “glorifying and praising God for all [we] have seen…”

Yes, the events leading up to that moment were dastardly.  Pardons were sought for the many malefactors in Congress who had aided and abetted the plot.  Yet, the vision of free and fair elections prevailed.  The line held.

Christmas light does shine in the darkness yet in 2022, reaching far into 2023 and beyond.

This light shines upon Adnan Syed, recently released from prison after serving 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  The DNA evidence proved his innocence.  The prosecutor, upon uncovering new evidence, proclaimed his innocence.  And numerous others have worked long and hard since 2014 to assert his innocence.

He walked out of the courtroom on September 14th a free man, restored to his family.  This December he was hired by Georgetown University as a program associate for the university’s Prisons and Justice Initiative.  Now, 41, Adnan begins a life of hope.   December’s Christmas goodness indeed!

“To go from prison to being a Georgetown student and then to actually be on campus on a pathway to work for Georgetown at the Prisons and Justice Initiative, it’s a full circle moment,” Syed said in the university’s announcement. “PJI [Prisons and Justice Initiative] changed my life. It changed my family’s life. Hopefully I can have the same kind of impact on others.”[3]

It’s only one man you may say.  That’s true.  But as George Regas would always remind us, “Keep your eyes on the prize but celebrate the incremental victories along the way.”

See this thing that the Lord has done.  The light of that man will only grow in luminosity. 

Let us see the work this freed man can now do, turning the lessons of his tragic past into inspiration and perseverance to free others.  Let us see this thing the Lord has done and rejoice.

It is this Christmas goodness, this Christmas hope which drew those shepherds to that rude manger in Bethlehem.  Christmas serendipity for all who attend to the angels’ annunciation.

By the way, Bethlehem translates as “House of Bread.”  That is the announcement of the angels on high, that is the promise of Christmas goodness.  The real and true Wonder Bread offered to all.

In a recent op ed piece, Peter Wehner reminds us of the truth of our faith, something we have always known deep down – the bedrock of Christianity is not moral purity, true doctrine or right ritual – it is about relation.  Jesus commanded, “Love one another as I have loved you.”[4]  That is the lodestone.

When Christianity is stripped of love, it “becomes a religion characterized by hard edges and judgmentalism, by brittleness and moral arrogance, by mercilessness and gracelessness.  Those who claim to be followers of Jesus but behave in this way become not his friends but his enemies.”[5]

At the manger we are invited into a relationship.  That’s what babies are all about.  That is why Christianity is not so much taught as caught.  We’ve all know people whose faith bubbles up in joy and service.  They have upheld us in times of grief and doubt, in times of despair and when forlorn.  They are the bread of life, baked freshly from the House of Bread.

As those Wise Visitors following that Star of Brilliance left their gifts, we too offer the best we have at the manger.

Today as in yesteryear, that original nativity brilliance yet breaks through in the lives of all who have fallen in love with the small Christ Child.  As that child has come to maturity in the lives of grown believers, their works of mercy and justice give testimony to its goodness in our day.

We too would exclaim, “Gloria in Excelsis – Peace on Earth to All of Good Will.”  Amen.  And, P.S., Happy New Year!


[1] Full Transcript of Zelensky’s Speech Before Congress, New York Times, December 22, 2022.

[2] Kevin Breuninger, “Jan. 6th Hearing: “Trump told DOJ officials, “Just Say it was Corrupt and Leave the Rest to me,” CNBC live blog tracking Thursday’s hearing of the House Jan. 6 select committee, June 23, 2022.

[3] Brian Witte, “Adnan Syed hired by Georgetown’s prison reform initiative,” AP, December 23, 2022.

[4] John 15.

[5] Peter Wehner, “Jesus Loved Friendship,” New York Times, December 24, 2022.

January 1, 2023, Christmas 2

“Let us Go See This Thing”

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

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

A Stand-up Guy

Long, long ago – in the dark ages of junior high – one lesson was firmly implanted in my mind by our P.E. coach, Mr. Jorgensen.  This was the time when the seventh-grade boys would be taken aside for sex education.

We were fortunate to live in a reasonably progressive town, Long Beach, California, where such things could be dealt with on a rational basis.

So, one morning to titters and some surreptitious giggles, a few elbow jabs to the ribs of a nearby friend, we boys were assembled in the weight room of the gym.  Of course, all us guys were already experts on the subject – we thought.  All sorts of salacious tidbits had been passed around the playground and on the playing fields.  But interest was piqued to the max.  Now we were going to get the real low-down

Mr. Jorgenson was a no-nonsense coach.  He literally once threw a screw-up boy out of our history class – without first opening the door.  We could tell by the look on his face and stern demeanor, that this was more serious an occasion than we expected.  More serious than his usual about sportsmanship.

After introducing the subject and what we would be covering, Mr. Jorgenson asked one boy, a kid named Joe, a very pointed question: “Joe, how many sperm does it take to make a baby? – Joe, how many?”

There had been rumor that Joe might have gotten a girl in trouble, and this was the confirmation.  What Joe did not comprehend was that he, also, was in deep trouble. They both were.

As Jesse Jackson would admonish kids from the hood, “Babies have no business making babies.”  What girl, what boy, is mature enough to bring a baby into adulthood.  Not a one! 

Definitely not our classmate Joe.  To him, this baby was just an unfortunate occurrence that really didn’t concern him all that much.  A throw-away kid.  Joe was not prepared In the slightest to care for a pet dog, let alone a child.  Joe was a complete screw-up.  Totally incapable of taking responsibility.

This was, indeed, a most memorable sex education class as we boys sat there in stunned silence — Serious stuff!  Way beyond smirks, playground wisdom and tales.  I’m sure none of us ever forgot that afternoon session on the gym floor.

I sometimes wonder that ever happened to that little tyke.  My fondest prayer is that he or she was put up for adoption and taken in by some responsible family.  By adults!

Today we read in Matthew’s gospel of another Joe, Joseph if you will.  Like our junior high Joe, he is to discover the shocking news – he’s going to be a father. 

Even if you’re married and forty, I can tell you that this is most disconcerting news.  Yes, we were hoping for a baby.  But when the reality of a flesh-and-blood child dawned on me, I was overcome with doubts.  “Am I ready to be a father?  Will I be a good enough parent?  A supportive enough husband?”  This is scary business.  I’m not ready.  Even having had courses in early childhood education, I instantly forgot everything.  I wasn’t ready.

Imagine Joseph in a small village with loose tongues and fingers wagging.  He must have been beside himself.  Did he have the courage to still be seeing Mary?  Was he up to being emotional support for her?  No, he was shaking in his sandals.  He’d gone all soggy like a wet meringue. 

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

I’m sure he was about to get out of Dodge quietly before the scandal became the talk of the entire village.  This brief announcement of Matthew gives us absolutely no hint of the mental anguish of both parties to this announcement.  We can only guess.

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Now we don’t know with any certainty the nature of this holy message.  Was it conscience, character, upbringing, a listening to the inner Spirit? …but in any case, Joseph does not bug out on Mary.  He stays and raises Jesus to adulthood.  Perhaps even taught him the carpentry trade.

Joseph is the sacrament of God’s steadfastness.  He was faithful to the task at hand.  He and Mary were in this together.  Faithful as God is faithful.

Quite a departure from our first Joe, who as far as any of us knew, never saw the girl again.  That episode only turned out the be the first of Joe’s many troubles – another story to be told.

Mary’s Joseph turned out to be a righteous man, a stand-up guy.  Faithful for the long haul, though he soon drops out of the pages of scripture.  He remains the paradigm of God’s faithfulness.  For that reason, the Roman church celebrates a feast day for the Holy Family.

Last Sunday we focused on a stand-up woman – Mary.  Today we’ll focus on a stand-up guy – and all the stand-up guys God sends each and every day. 

This week, December 14, ten years ago, the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school mass shooting, was featured on news programs all across the county. 

Senator Chris Murphy of Massachusetts, another stand-up guy, spoke on where we are as a nation.  He, like St. Joseph, has not forsaken his call of leadership on the issues of military weapons of mass destruction in our communities.

Senator Murphy through an insightful op ed piece speaks to the mental health issues that are producing such tragedy in our communities.  In spite of all the electronic connections, we are producing a generation sucked into the dark hole of loneliness and despair.  We now have an epidemic of suicides.

Chris writes, ”Growing up, my identity was strongly connected to the town I lived in, Wethersfield, Connecticut, and the “localness” of my daily experience reinforced that identity. For instance, I fondly remember my local grocer, who slipped me a free slice of American cheese every time I visited the deli counter with my grandparents.”  That local grocer is now gone, replaced by a Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Amazon.  Not much human contact needed at all.

“Loneliness is driving people to dark, dangerous places, and those young, white men carrying tiki torches are only the tip of a giant iceberg of isolated, angry people whose search for meaning might lead them to a seething antisemitic or racist mob.”

Senator Murphy is willing to issue a stand-up clarion call – a warning on what we are doing to ourselves in service to the almighty dollar, not to mention the worship  of a gun culture.  The cheapest goods at those big box stores, are now costing us plenty – our loss of connection to each other.  The glue that holds society together.

More than Senator Murphy, how many other stand-up men have stood by their families and community of Sandy Hook to bear witness to the sorrow of their loss?  God’s gift of solidarity to us all.

One husband writes: “My wife, Mary Sherlach, was the school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary School…It has never surprised me that she died while confronting the shooter in the front hallway.”  It takes real courage to relive those tragic moments – to bear witness to one’s own grief, lest the rest of us forget.

Like Joseph, this man did not bug out, but has become a part of “The Sandy Hook Promise.”  Like Joseph, this man is staying put, right where God has planted him.  He is a token of God’s faithfulness, God’s solidarity with us.

Another stand-up guy is Lawrence O’Donnell with his promotion of school desks for children in Malawi.  It’s the K.I.N.D Fund, Kids in Need of Desks.  Every year during this season he has school children expressing their thanks to the American people for promoting their education.  The K.I.N.D. fund, in cooperation with UNICEF, has these last few years been promoting girls’ high school tuition.  Because high school education is not provided by the state in this impoverished nation, girls graduate at half the rate of boys. 

One of those young high school girls I featured in a sermon a couple of years ago, Joyce Chisale, recited her moving poem, “Little by Little.”  Joyce is now fulfilling her dream, attending her first year in medical school.  Lawrence O’Donnell and his team have made this possible for Joyce and many other girls like her in Malawi – with the dollars sent in by a lot of us.  In highlighting girls like Joyce, Lawrence is certainly a stand-up guy living out the Catholic social teachings of his faith.  A token of God’s faithful promise.

Adam Kinzinger is another guy, cut of the same cloth.  Like Liz Cheney, he has chosen country over party – sacrificing any hope of a future political career.  His willingness as a Republican to serve on the January 6th Committee has greatly benefited our nation.  He has spoken truth to the insurrectionists and seditionists in his own party.  He, like Rep. Cheney, must be accompanied by armed security agents at all times.

This last week he spoke the bottom-line truth of that fateful day, January 6th.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said Wednesday that former President Trump is “absolutely guilty” of a crime surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

“I think he’s guilty of a crime. I mean, look, he knew what he did. We’ve made that clear. He knew what was happening prior to January 6th. He pressured the Justice Department officials to say, ‘Hey, just say the election was stolen and leave the rest to me.’ And then the Republicans all need to put the stamp of approval on it,” Kinzinger told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.”[1]

He did not walk away from his country in its hour of need.  He did not walk away from the truth.  He did not walk away from decency.  He is to be counted among the righteous.  A token of God’s steadfastness, keeping the faith.

We should also include Dr. Anthony Fauci in this honor roll.  He has steadfastly stood by our nation as we have endured one of the greatest medical challenges in our lifetime.  And for his efforts, he has been vilified and received death threats.  He also needs an armed guard to carry on his duties.  As he retires after many long years of service, no words can express the gratitude we own him for his service.  Dr. Fauci, you are indeed a stand-up guy.  It would have been easy to just walk away under the deluge of the scurrilous attacks on your integrity — but you have stood firm, a token of God’s steadfastness and solidarity.

This year as we come ever closer to that manger of promise, let us remember and give thanks for faithful Joseph, standing with Mary in spite of her ostracism, in spite of the threats of Herod.  And for all the stand-up guys who have followed in his footsteps.  Who have changed diapers, comforted tears, held their families close – and stood with our nation in her hour of need.

Inspired by, and grateful to paraphrase Joyce Chisale’s poem, “Little by Little.”

Little by little we follow that star-lit path to a humble manger bed.
Little by little might that Holy Child takes up residence in our hearts.
Little by little, might our lives be tokens of solidarity and steadfastness
  with the destitute
  with those who thirst for an education
  with those seeking shelter and a hot meal
  with those who work for a more just world
Little by little might that Christ Child be born anew in us.  Little by little.  Amen.


[1] Julia Mueller, “Kinzinger says Trump ‘absolutely guilty’ of crimes ahead of Jan. 6,” The Hill, December 14, 2022.

December 18, 2022, Advent 4

“A Stand-up Guy”

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

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1: 18-25

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