Who Told You That?

How many of us boys early on got the message that big boys don’t cry?  And just who told us that?

 In our house feelings were not allowed, certainly not tears.  I still vividly remember the time Grandpa died.  He had gone into the hospital for a hernia operation.  I was too young to understand what that meant, but had the feeling that this was a “normal” thing for older people to have, and wasn’t all that serious.  Not like cancer or a heart attack.

Within a couple of days, it was a complete shock to the family when the news came that he had gotten a blood clot somewhere and had died.

There were whispered conversations around the dinner table about how to take care of Grandma, about a funeral, where he would be buried.  I don’t remember much from that somber day when a black limousine arrived from the mortuary and picked our family up at our house.  We were escorted to the front row of the church.  It was very quiet with the organ playing something softly.

Grandpa was one of my childhood heroes.  He had been the postmaster of Lodi, California, until FDR was elected.  Grandpa was a Hurbert Hoover appointee, and after the election was fired by “That Man.”  The name was not to be spoken in our household.

Grandpa would take me and his little Scottie dog Mini down to the corner drug store most afternoons when we were up in Lodi and buy me a soda.  He would tell me about his life in the post office work, and later as an ambulance attendant and then working for Wells Funeral home printing out all their announcements.

But more than all that, Grandpa taught me about the world.  He was an avid stamp collector and got me started in the hobby.  As he would show me the stamps from far away foreign lands, he would tell me about them.  We could spend hours leafing through the pages of his stamp album.  It’s how I learned about the countries Germany overran in WW II.  I learned about the various European colonies in Africa and Asia.  I learned about the new “republics” incorporated into the Soviet Union and about the 1917 Revolution. 

So, this was how the reality of his death hit me with great distress.  Since we couldn’t talk openly about this in our family, after the service, in shame at the tears welling up in my eyes, I shut myself in my closet and cried my heart out for several hours.

When my mom finally noticed me later on, wondering if I was okay, I lied, “I’m okay.”  Of course, I wasn’t okay.  Far from it.  But I had learned to stuff my feelings.  After all, big boys don’t cry.

What’s wrong? my wife asked somewhere in the first weeks of our marriage.  I was obviously upset about something.  “Nothing,” would come my abrupt response.  “I don’t want to talk about it.”  It’s a wonder I didn’t drive her crazy that first year.  Fortunately, with lots of counseling, over the years I have become better with feelings.

But what had been deeply instilled in me was deadly.  That false idol I served, without even realizing it, might have worked momentarily but over the long haul it was loneliness and death.

Such sacrifice to this notion “manliness,” this masculine ideal, is the altar on which we still offer up our boys.  This idol of self-sufficiency, through isolation kills.  It is a god of death, an unforgiving master, robbing our young men of their souls.  Notions of being in control rob us of connection.  No one likes to be around a “control freak” for any length of time.

The god of male infallibility is a jealous god that destroys all it touches.  Such notions are an idol, a false god.  This deity does NOT redeem.  Hear the words of Isaiah of true redemption and of the One who restores.  Hear the word of Isaiah concerning this idol.

“Thus says the Lord, the king of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts.  I am the first and I am the last, besides me there is no god.”

Sometime ago there was a movie of a family going through divorce, “The Children are Okay.”  This was an overriding concern of the mother in the chaos of that time – that the children, in the end, might somehow be okay.

Well, the children – at least our boys, are NOT okay.  The author of a new study, reported in Science News, contends that in our concern about girls, we have missed the struggling of boys.[1]

Depression — the destruction brought by the god of self-sufficiency young males are taught to honor – manifests itself in boys very differently than in girls.  Girls exhibit signs of sadness, and mental distress.

Depression in young males manifests itself as emotional suppression, anger, aggression, alcohol and drug abuse, sleep disorder, destructive, promiscuous sexual behavior, risk taking and suicide.[2]

It should be no surprise that virtually all our mass shootings are perpetrated by men – men, who as boys growing up tended to be loners, and as grown men were reported to have few if any close friends.  Many had throughout their lives exhibited the dysfunctional behavior manifested by male depression:  scrapes with the law, poor academic achievement, job instability.  Many had, Neo-Nazis and other radical fringe political hate groups attract an overabundance of these males.

It has been shown that we males, by the time we’re in our teens have already developed a loyalty to a beer, a brand of automobile, and a sports team.  I sure had – with the fervor of worship.  In a healthy way, that is the time that many, if ever, make a commitment to Christ or a life of faith.  That’s the reason this is the age for confirmation in many churches, bat mitzva and bar mitzva services in Judaism.

St. Augustine says what we are all born with a God-shaped hole.  Unfortunately, we too often try to fill it with that which is less than eternal.  When this need for self-worth and affirmation goes off the rails, the death-dealing god of our cultural promises and expectations can be deadly.  Your cool car, your over-inflated opinions, or your trophy girlfriend will not save you in the end.  Or guarantee you any long-term happiness.

It is John Calvin who warns us that the most powerful idols we serve are not of wood or metal.  He says, “the [human] heart is an idol factory.”  The mind, as well.  

“[The human] mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.”[3]

The ideals and conceptions we hold and serve can exact a terrible toll – fake gods all.  Especially, our distorted images of masculinity.  There is no “Prince Charming” – and you’re not it!

I can still vividly remember our diocesan convention held one year at Juneau.  I hadn’t been paying much attention to the proceedings when I noticed somewhat of a commotion up at the presider’s table.

Someone had come running up to where our bishop, who was chairing the meeting, and Holly, the secretary of the convention, were seated.  Everything stopped.  There was a very audible gasp and scream from Holly.  She and others quickly fled the room.  After a few moments Bishop Charleston asked that we pause the proceedings for prayer.  He announced that Holly’s son, Chad, had been shot and had died.  No one knew the particulars.

I knew this young boy.  He had been at the camp I ran in Southeast Alaska on numerous occasions.  I knew his parents as well.  They were a solid family.  How had this happened?

Later I got the story from his father.  The father had been working in his home office at the time when he heard the gun shot.  He rushed into Chad’s room to find him dead in his bed, a gun at his side and a hole in his head with blood everywhere.

Neither mother or father had any idea what demon their son had been wrestling with.  He had exhibited no mental illness, though looking back at it, he had seemed withdrawn and somewhat morose.  But he had said nothing about what was the matter.  If asked, the answer was typical teenage: “Oh, Nothing.”

Our researchers in the Science Magazine article report that we are now getting a better handle on male vulnerability.  Doctors and therapists are adding new questions to their repertoire to ferret out the signs of male depression – questions about anger and irritability in addition to those concerning hopelessness and substance abuse.

High schools, even junior highs in some cities, now host Alateen meetings for students knowing they have a problem with alcohol or drugs and want to find and maintain sobriety.

“Alateen is a place where members come together to: share experiences, strength, and hope with each other to find effective ways to cope with problems. discuss difficulties and encourage one another; help each other understand the principles of the Al-Anon program through the use of the Twelve Steps and Alateen’s Twelve Traditions”[4]

In fact, there are “recovery high schools” with faculty trained to meet the needs of this group of students.  In our high school, peer counselors were given training to approach fellow students who seemed withdrawn or having a bad day.  And it works!

All such efforts are the outflow of a Gospel of Life, that our most vulnerable thrive.  Would any such efforts have saved Holly’s and Bob’s young boy?  No one can say.  But, when I was on the school board, we had the testimony of many students at our high school who had been helped.  The magic sauce was peer support. 

I heard a quote from a famous sports writer the other night on The News Hour of PBS which rings true – certainly in working with young men, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much they care.”  And that, my friends, is testimony to the love of our God who created the heavens and earth, who brought us up from bondage in Egypt — and in Mississippi.  This is the God of Loving Connection.

In the end it comes down to that Grace-filled Call from beyond ourselves — in the words of the hymn, “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew//He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;//It was not I that found, O Savior true;//no, I was found of Thee.[5]”  May we daily live into that reality.  Amen.

[1] Sujata Gupta, “The boys are NOT okay,” Science News, July 1, 2023

[2] Op. cit., 19.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Ed. John T. McNeill.  Trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960). p. 108.

[4] Teen Corner (Alateen) – Al-Anon Family Groups, http://www.al-anon.org/newcomers/teen-corner.

[5] Words by Jean Ingelow, 1863.

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

July 23, 2023 – 8 Pentecost, Proper 11

  “Who Told You That?”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17

Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Go Out in Joy

There’s a story told of several monks at evening vespers that gives insight into the spirituality of each order they represent.  One is a Franciscan, another Dominican and finally, a Jesuit.

As they begin, the lights go out.  In darkness the Franciscan begins a litany to Brother Darkness.  The Dominican commences to philosophize about the nature of Light.  The Jesuit goes outside and changes the fuse.

In this batch, I’m the Jesuit.  Let’s make “stuff” happen is my spirituality.  I want joyful doers of the Word, not just hearers.  My preference is to joyfully change the fuse.

So, let’s launch into the fray with joyful abandon.

The theologian Pierre de Chardin somewhere proclaimed, “Joy the infallible sign of the presence of God.” 

That’s what I admired most about Hubert Humphrey.  He was the quintessential “Happy Warrior.”  He went out in joy to engage his opponents in the arena of ideas.  Without personal venom, he entered the political contest, making his case for what he thought to be right, what he thought would benefit the most vulnerable.  And that’s why he had strong friendships on both sides of the aisle.  And got stuff done.  A sourpuss tends to accomplish little to nothing. 

This is the spirituality of later Isaiah – a joyful return to the Israel for the Babylonian captives.  We go out with joy trusting that God’s Word in us does not return empty, but accomplishes its purpose.  That was true in the sixth century before Christ, it is true now – Go Out in Joy!

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth…it shall not return to me empty.  For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field clap their hands.”[1]

God, through the working of the Spirit, prepares the soil of hungry hearts in our hyper-individualistic American culture. Go out in JOY, ever “leaning on the promises.”

One of my listeners suggested that it was a shame that I had not been born ten years earlier – I might have more “good things” to remember about America.  Actually, I consider myself a “glass-half-full” person.  But, a Reinhold Niebuhr realist.  Definitely, not a Pollyanna.  Hopeful but “Keepin’ it real.”  So, it’s tough out there, but let’s go out in Joy, each and every day.

JOY is a hard sell these days. 

The American public is in a dyspeptic, sour mood.  A recent Associated Press survey shows that only ten percent of us believe and have faith that our democratic form of government is working.[2]  Ten percent!

Most folks believe that the common needs and desires of the average voter are ignored by the rich, and powerful well-connected. 

Insider scandals add to the alienation.  This past week another giant financial institution was hit with a huge fine for bilking their customers out of hundreds of millions – Bank of America. 

Charging exorbitant bogus fees and then double dipping on this robbery – profiting further on what they had extracted from their depositors’ accounts.  Fined $250 million, they were by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

“CFPB said Bank of America implemented a ‘double-dipping scheme’ to ‘harvest junk fees’ from customers and those actions are “illegal and undermine customer trust.”[3]

Is it no wonder the plutocrats and their political hacks tried to kill off this agency?  Still trying!

This, after the Wells Fargo indictment for saddling their customers with fake accounts and, in 2012, the largest scandal ever ensnaring many of our revered financial institutions — Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, among others — jiggering the over-night transfer system, known as libor,[4] among banks. Through illicitly manipulating this world-wide, over-night reconciliation mechanism, these folks raked in hundreds of millions.  Most folks have never heard of Libor, yet this financial mechanism underpins some $350 TRILLION dollars of financial transactions. 

Like Willie Sutton, these crooks robbed the banks because that is where the money is.  But this heist was an inside job.  Laughing all the way IN the bank!  Not TO the bank.

Is it any wonder that most of us feel the system is rigged, that it serves only the rich and well-connected?  That we feel that ninety percent of recent tax cuts all went to the top ten percent?  Because it did!  As my mom was wont to say, “One damn thing after another.”

Yet we go forth in Joy to drain this swamp. 

Just a few pennies here, a few pennies there, and, as Tip O’Neil would say, “Pretty soon it adds up to real money” – oodles of billions.  The corrosive effects on the body politic of such corruption are also additive.

Scripture reminds us that our life in Christ is not to be all roses: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”[5]  Go forth in Joy, nonetheless.

My political heroes are those who entered the political arena with such Joy –  Happy Warriors all: “Fighting Bob” Lafollette, Hubert Humphry, George McGovern, Jim Hightower.  And countless activists, scholars, teachers, reporters and muckrakers across this land who have refused to settle for business as usual – who refuse to cover up and excuse away money-grubbing greed and political entitlement that the real swamp be drained.

Some of our teachers are now being sanctioned by political hacks for allowing their students to learn of our failings – accused of being “woke.”  This is what happens in Russia, NOT in America!  Well, maybe in Florida and in Texas.  But in the end, the Spirit will reveal all Truth.  The Great Wikileaks!

That we can still publish and teach such inconvenient facts without sanction in most places, that is one of the things absolutely right about America.

Recently, I’ve come across a wonderful scholar, Kidada Williams, who has written a new book on the history of Reconstruction.  Most of what I was taught on this subject was that it failed because newly freed Blacks were incapable of handling their lives and affairs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Professor Williams demonstrates that it failed through unmitigated white terror against successful Blacks.  The same white resentment of Black success that gave us the Wilmington Coup in 1898 and the Tulsa Massacre in 1914 as a follow-up.

She tells the story not from the top down, but from the bottom up – in the testimony of those who risked life and their livelihood to testify at the congressional Ku Klux Klan hearings of 1871 and other original sources.  Her work allows the victims of this oppression to speak for themselves.  No “whitewash” here.

She tells the story of one newly freed slave in Mississippi who had the temerity to believe that America’s promises now applied to him and his family.  He went into town to vote.  He knew that his rights and the rights of his people would mean nothing without the political power to guarantee them. 

“On a November night in 1871, some ten miles east of Aberdeen, Mississippi, Edward Crosby stepped outside to get some water for his thirsty child, when suddenly, he heard and felt the thunder of a team of horses.  He gazed out, and by either moonlight or the glow of his torch, he saw about thirty disguised men descending on his home, their mounts draped by full-body coverings.”[6]

So begins her book, as professor Williams recounts the testimony of Mr. Crosby.  White writers would euphemistically refer to these raids as “visits” to mask the “brutality behind the veneer of a friendly social call.”

Edward knew that “death was coming for him but hoping it would spare his wife and children, Edward slipped into his family’s smokehouse.” [7]

“When the posse arrived in the Crosby’s yard, several men got down from their horses and called out for Edward to present himself.  Although terrified, Edward retained his composure and stayed in his hiding place.  Mrs. Crosby calmly told the men that she did not know where her husband was, but she thought he had gone to call on his sister.  The men hung around for a bit, dithering about what to do, before accepting they would not catch their target and leaving.”[8]

The Crosbys survived that raid but the scars and fear would haunt them the rest of their lives.  What we would now know as PTSD.  Many of their neighbors were far less fortunate.

When those “night-riders” arrived at Edward’s door after his attempt to vote, they “brought with them white southern hate for who the Crosbys were and what their new lives and status as freed people represented…this menacing violence infused the Crosby’s home and took up residence in the souls of each of its occupants.  That “visit” “exposed the freed family’s disposability…”[9]

We are told by some fear-mongers that teaching such history, telling such truth about our nation, might make some students feel “uncomfortable” and shouldn’t be mentioned.  Well, for the snowflakes who can’t handle the telling of this truth, my friend Debi’s response is, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”

Every day, teachers stand before their classes in Joy attempting to dispel clouds of willful forgetting and ignorance.  I’ve had such teachers.  So have you.  After all the years, those are the teachers you remember.

There’s an old gospel song that asserts, “If you can’t bear the cross, then you can’t wear the crown.”  Bearing the cross in our dysfunctional society means allowing the pain of others to enter your being.  It means being vulnerable to the hurt and pain, the hopes of others.  That’s called empathy.  This is NOT being WOKE, Governor DeSantis!  It’s living truthfully, living faithfully, living compassionately. 

Yes, the “Truth will set you free, but first it will hurt like hell.”  That was always the admonition of my friend Ed Bacon.  Yet, go forth with Joy.

As a nation, too many of us seemed to have lost that quality.  It’s all about me!  “I, I, I” — That’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To go out with “Joy in the Morning” is to set one’s face to the opposition and refuse to become as they — joyfully believing we can make a difference, that we ARE the difference.  In this, God’s Word does not return empty, but like the hidden working of yeast in a lump of dough, accomplishes its purpose. 

Like the seeds in Jesus’ parable, sown in Joy, enough do fall in fertile soil, bearing a harvest ten-fold, one-hundred-fold – What yield?  God alone knows.

I have on my wall an icon of St. George and the Dragon.  It is to remind me of the struggle each day, and that sometimes the dragon wins.  Yet, I sally forth with Joy, believing that I can make a difference.   That God’s word, however miniscule in me, will not return empty to God.

I close with a Franciscan Blessing – To send us out with Joy this blessed morning!

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, homophobia, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold onto what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Isaiah 55:10 ff., New Revised Standard Version

[2] Nicholas Riccardi, Linley Sanders, “Americans are widely pessimistic about democracy in the United States, an AP-NORC poll finds,” AP, July 14, 2023.

[3] Ashley Curtin, “Bank of America pays $250 million to customers and in penalty fees for illegal practices,” Nation of Change, July 14, 2023.

[4] LIBOR, the acronym for London Interbank Offer Rate, is the global reference rate for unsecured short-term borrowing in the interbank market in the over-night electronic settlement of global accounts.

[5] James 1:2, Revised Standard Version (alt.).

[6] Kidada E. Williams, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War against Reconstruction (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023), xi.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Op cit., xii.

[9] Ob cit., xiv.

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

July 16, 2023 – 7 Pentecost, Proper 10

“Go Out in Joy”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:1-14

Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters

If your high school American history class was anything like mine, it was not the most exciting.  Actually, mind-numbing boring.

Unfortunately, our teacher, Mr. Roberts, struggled with a rather severe handicap.  He was wheelchair bound.  He also struggled with a less than dynamic personality. 

He would sit at his desk and read from the textbook.  Within minutes, he had lost his audience.  Whispers and muffled giggles broke out as he droned on.  I found it the perfect time to finish the algebra problems assigned the previous day. 

He would read on until the ambient noise became so loud and behavior so disruptive, he would take this huge book and slam it down on his desk.  Heads would pop up.  Silence reigned – for a while.  He would commence reading again until this cycle of disruption was repeated. 

The betting was, how many times would he slam his book down in the course of our one fifty-minute period?

We didn’t get much flavor of the rich tapestry of our nation’s story from this class.  Mr. Roberts desiccated version captivated no minds. 

It was in my government class that I learned of the Muckrakers – why the peas in the can looked so nice and green – formaldehyde, and about the sweepings off the slaughterhouse floor that ended up in the wieners.

In Mr. Marchek’s class the following year we learned the story of unionization, about scabs, boycotts and lockouts.  About the Pinkerton thugs who beat and shot picketers.  This version of America’s story was soaked in struggle and blood.  Mr. Marchek had my full attention, and that of the rest of the class.

As we’ve celebrated another birthday, our history remains most problematic for many.  As Frederick Douglas, freed slave who became America’s most powerful orator in the mid eighteen hundreds, questioned, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”[1]

I had never even heard of Frederick Douglas!  My teachers had taught us that the slaves on the plantations were happy and well cared for.  Of course, these teachers were all white.

Our scriptural heritage informs us of a generous God – a Spirit that invites all to thrive.  That is Torah ethic, transmitted through the prophets, the writings and down to Jesus.  It has been called “a generous orthodoxy,” one including all. 

Here the words of the Deuteronomist:

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[2]

Our Gospel lesson appointed for today from Matthew sums up this ethic.  It is a Midrash on forbearance:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your Father is perfect.”[3]

Such hyperbole is in service of urging a kinder, gentler approach – an approach that nudges open the door to Eternal Life.

“Be perfect,” is not an injunction to moral superiority, but an invitation and summons to live into who you were created to be.  Thus, a mandate to our nation to actually live out its creeds and the bit about “justice for all” and “E Pluribus Unum.”

We who claim to follow and be grounded in Christ would do well to remember this instruction and admonition on our nation’s birthday.  These lessons are provided for sound guidance, that our nation might choose life and not death, generosity and not calumny.

I write this part of today’s sermon from Ketchikan, Alaska.  Our youngest son Christopher and his fiancée, Alexis, gave us this wonderful trip to celebrate my 80th birthday — and what a delightful present it has been.  Jai and I have thoroughly enjoyed the cruise with these two and have fully enjoyed ourselves and this great land.  It was sunshine virtually every day.

On board we celebrated Canada Day and a little bit later the 4th of July – that in Juneau with a marvelous small-town parade.  Along with the exploits of the early Sourdoughs, the heritage of some of the indigenous, First-nations culture was on splendid display.

I offered to enter Jai in the ax throwing contest in Ketchikan at the Great Lumberjack Show but she declined.  I’m sure she would’ve been a winner.

I remember my first introduction as a new priest in Petersburg to some of the cultural friction of Alaska when at the local video rentals store, the proprietor, an Alaskan Native, asked me, “Why did you guys sell the Indians’ church?” 

I learned the story of the decision of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska to close one of the two Episcopal congregations in Ketchikan — and they chose St. Elizabeth’s to sell.  The Native American’s church.  Those parishioners were to be absorbed into St. John’s.  But no matter how much some of the St. John’s folks tried to be accommodating, because the original Tlingit people felt they had had no say in the matter, there were bound to be bad feelings.  Thus, the hostile question from the video store owner.

This 4th, as I reflected on our two national birthday celebrations, USA and Canada, a bit of humility would have seemed to be in order.  Our relations with other peoples need a lot of “perfecting,” to say the least.  We have much to learn from others.  Just days prior to the 4th, a mass shooting in Baltimore in a single day killed and wounded more people than have been harmed in all such incidents over good number of years running in Canada.  We have much to learn from this continent’s Original Peoples of the proper care and use of the land.

One of the questions I got before embarking on this journey was, how many books was I packing to read during the trip?  “A couple of hundred,” was my answer – all on my Kindle

One of those books was Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk.[4]  In it she recounts at one point the earliest, disastrous explorations into the frozen North and South.  Since the early eighteen hundreds the race was on to arrive at both the North Pole and South Pole.

One party, that of Sir John Franklin with 138 officers and crew set off to discover a northwest passage above Canada, through the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific.  Instead of using precious space for the needed coal for this two-to-three-year voyage, they took books – a 1,200 volume library.  In addition, they took a hand-organ “playing fifty tunes.”[5]  No extravagance was spared: “china place settings, cut-glass wine goblets and sterling silver flatware.”[6]  The officers were clothed solely in their standard, navy-issued dress uniforms.

This group of intrepid though poorly outfitted explorers was never to be heard from again – alive, that is.

Years later, the world learned of their unfortunate demise from groups of Inuit who came across the scattered remains. “Some had glimpsed, for instance, men pushing and pulling a wooden boat across the ice.” 

“Some had found, at a place called Starvation Cove, this boat, or a similar one, and the remains of the thirty-five men who had been dragging it.”

“At Terror Bay the Inuit found a tent on the ice, and in it thirty bodies.”[7]

It was not until such explorers as Roald Amundsen, traveling Inuit style, and Robert Perry, also employing Inuit dog mushers, were able to survive the harsh, unforgiving polar extremes.

There’s a lesson here, though our brief Alaskan excursion did not get us anywhere near the Arctic Circle…

If we Americans are to last into our next century, like those later intrepid adventurers, we will need to adapt, to learn from others who have been here far, far longer than our puny two hundred-some-year history.

Yes, my country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, but other lands have skies just as blue as mine.  And we all have one Creator, known by different names and revealed through different stories.   That is the working of the Great Spirit, residing in all.  I trust that you all had a Happy Fourth.


[1] On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall.

[2] Deuteronomy 10:17-19, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Matthew 5:43-45, 48, New Revised Standard Version

[4] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 30 ff.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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

July 9, 2023 – Independence Day Propers

“From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145:1-9;

Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

Shut up in my Bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth will out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 25, 2023 – Pentecost 4, Proper 7

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

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

A Severe Mercy

A favorite scene from “The Simpsons” is when Homer cautions Bart against attempting to cover up something from his mother.  “You couldn’t fool your mother on the foolingest day of your life if you had a electrified fooling machine.”[1]

That spark of divinity — dare we call it God? — within each one of us is not fooled any easier than Bart’s mother, Marge.  Reality can’t be fooled, for God is in and through reality.  Fentanyl is the proof of this severe truth.

Gregory Brown, an African-American man who looks to be in his sixties, has lived on the streets of North Hollywood for over a year.  He became unhoused when he caught his girlfriend cheating on him.[2]

“It was several months ago, as he was lying in his tent that he heard a man screaming, ‘She’s dying!  She’s dying.’”[3]

Brown recalled rushing out of his tent, shirtless. A woman’s eyes were rolled back, and her lips were blue. He shouted for someone to call the paramedics.

“’I kneeled down and said, ‘God, please, please, save another one.’”

He pumped her chest with his hands, then blew air into her mouth, he said. His tears fell on her face as he continued to perform CPR.

Eventually, the woman came back to life. She looked tired, he said, as if she had been awakened from a deep sleep.

Inside his tent afterward, he was still crying. He thought of his mother, who died nearly two decades ago, and how proud of him she would have been.

Reflecting on his role in saving the woman, he said: “I’m proud to say I did that, and I’d do it again.”

A not unusual day on the streets of the Los Angeles Metropolitan area, the Inland Empire, the San Joaquin Valley.  Opioids are the killing scourge of those living on our streets – those whom Sam Quinones calls “the least of us.”

This morning our text from Matthew is all about these folks, the least of these:  Jesus calls one of the least, a despised tax collector, traitor to his people, Matthew to be a follower.  Sits down at table with him.  When berated by religious know-it-alls, he responds that those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means.  And while you’re at it, mercy is what is called for.  Not sacrifice. 

He then heals two women, both considered to be unclean.  One assumed to be dead and another with a disgusting flow of blood, suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  Unclean for sure.

At the moment of urgency, it was Gregory Brown who was Christ of the Streets, agent of mercy. 

That’s where House of Hope engages the crisis of “Lives of Despair.”  It begins with those of the QRT, at work early in the morning.  QRT – Quick Response Team, a group of four: a medical person, a social worker, a clergy person and a police officer or sheriff in plainclothes.

This team, as soon as the new activity of the day begins, is at work checking hospital admitting rooms, jails, courts, the streets – all in the hope of reaching those who had overdosed the previous night.

And what they offer is a severe mercy.

The conversation goes something like this – let’s assume for the sake of our story that “Bob” is the name of the guy found by his housemate on the front lawn at 2 o’clock that morning.  Not breathing, blue lips and no discernable pulse.

“Bob,” the leader of the QRT group says.  “How are you doing this morning?  Do you know what happened to you last night, where you were found?  Your friends thought they’d about lost you.  This time you came really close to permanently checking out.”

“Do you want to live?”  (silence).  If you want to live, we’re here to offer you that chance – the chance to get into a treatment program that is serious about recovery – not like the Suboxone clinics you’ve been through.  This is a serious, two-year program that will lead you into a whole new life.”

“If you want to live, we’re here to make that possible for you.”  Don’t worry about the cost, that’s already been taken care of.”  Our only question to you is, ‘do you want to get well?’  Yes, it will be hard.  Maybe the hardest thing you have ever done.  But you won’t be alone.  You will discover a whole new group of friends.  True friends who will call you to honesty and accountability.  True friends who put their trust in you to be responsible for your own recovery.  It’s hard, very hard, but we’re here because we believe you’re worth it.”

“If your answer is yes, as soon as the doctor releases you, we will pick you up – you can come with us and your journey to recovery can begin.”

A severe mercy.  Severe, because nothing is sugar-coated.  Life hangs in the balance, suspended on the scaffold of addiction.  Mercy, because that is the nature of redemption, the nature of second and third chances.  Such is the heart of God.

Like Matthew, whether we knew it or not, this is what we signed up for when we enlisted in the Jesus Movement.

And what moves our hearts to engage in this work?  It is the memory of the same love we have received.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all recipients of second chances.  Or third or fourth.  Or is it seventy times seven?

It is a way of life that is Life itself.  And Life even more abundant returns to fill our souls to overflowing.

In response to my recent letter to the Claremont Courier chiding those who would rather we shoo the homeless off to some neighboring city, came a couple of letters suggesting that we “do-gooders” were naïve concerning this population.[4]

They refuse treatment.  They commit crimes.  They are mentally ill.  It will cost a lot to address their needs.  They’re druggies with no incentive to get sober.  They present needs that go 24/7, 365 days a year.

Yes, I would admit.  All true.  But does the shepherd abandon the sheep because of the difficulty of the sheep?  The whole point of Jesus calling Matthew is to say, “NO.”  His gospel is a preferential outreach to those in need — the sick who require a physician.  This is a greater righteousness that goes beyond the letter of the law.

That is our mission to the addicted – to offer a way of Life that itself is a door to Life Eternal.  Easy, no.  Essential, yes.  For our sake and theirs.

Ron Ruthruff – a professor at Seattle School of Theology and an associate with the Center for Transforming Mission for 27 years — tells a grace-filled story arising out of his work there. 

This organization in Seattle that works with homeless and runaway adolescents.

“The work was made up of meeting kids on the street and then, through relationships, inviting them in to receive services that could help them exit the streets. A drop-in center included a clothing room, Ping-Pong and pool tables, showers, and laundry — all impor­tant emergency services. And a nightly dinner provided a key opportunity to build trusting friendships with kids skeptical of service providers.”[5]

“One evening I noticed a young man sitting alone at a table in the drop-in center. I went over and began a conversation with him. He told me his parents were first-generation Americans from Ethiopia and that they didn’t understand him anymore. He quickly grew silent, feeling he had shared too much, too soon. Trying to reengage, I turned the conversation to food and asked him if there was a good Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle.”

“He told me of a little place near where I live. When I assured him I would try it, he cautioned me: “It’s very traditional; we all eat from the same bowl.” I said I was familiar with the custom, but he shook his head as if to say that I really didn’t understand what I was saying yes to. He held out his hands, dirty from the streets, and asked, “Would you share a bowl with these hands?” Suddenly, this story from Matthew rushed to the front of my mind. This was Jesus in the house of Matthew.”

In entering Matthew’s house, Jesus demonstrates the same radical hospitality that God has shown to each of us.  Station, education, race – it all makes no difference.  All are invited to table.  ALL is what sets apart those of the Jesus Movement — it’s ALL, including us imperfect followers who straggle along.  God sets a bigger table than our often too small imaginations allow for.  A severe mercy. Ron concludes, “Sitting in Matthew’s home and with a boy from Ethiopia, I see a radical dinner invitation. Jesus, sent from the Transcendent One, shows up to be with Matthew and his friends. No house uninhabitable, no hands too dirty. This is the Good News for us all.”   Amen.

[1][1] “The Simpsons,” Season 4/Episode 18.

[2] Reuben Vives, “Homeless people fight to save lives, and stay alive, as L.A.’s fentanyl crisis worsens,” Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2023.
3 Ibid.


[4] Claremont Courier, Letters to the Editor, June 9, 2023.

[5] Ron Ruthruff, “Sitting and talking with a boy from Ethiopia, I received a radical dinner invitation,” Christian Century,” June 5, 2023.

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

June 11, 2023 – Pentecost 2
Proper 5

“A Severe Mercy”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15;

Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26