Taking Care of Business

It was a late Friday afternoon; this was to be Joe’s last day at First Federal Bank in the town of Outback.  Joe was beside himself.  He’d just been given notice “his services were no longer needed.”  Fired – in short.

Okay, he wasn’t the sharpest teller on the line.  His drawer rarely balanced out at the end of the day.  He held the record for just rushing through the doors at the last moment each morning, right before the first customers had arrived.  He’d been admonished for his tardiness several times a week.  His attire barely passed the dress code, rumpled shirt, stained tie and all.  Not the image of sartorial splendor.  The Steve Bannon attire with a haircut by whoever did Boris Johnson’s.  You get the picture.

He’d been warned time and again.  Finally, the branch manager had just had it.

This distraught teller panics, pulls out a gun and demands that each of the other tellers fill an empty sack with as many bills as they have in their trays.

As the dishonest teller flees the bank, waving his gun about, he meets several of his cronies out on the sidewalk.  In haste he begins distributing the contents of his sack to them.  All in the hopes that if he is caught, some of these friends might feel ingratiated to him and put him up when he’s out of prison.

As he’s just finishing passing out the ill-gotten loot, the bank manager erupts from the door.  Seeing what is taking place, the manager now praises this teller for his ingenuity and shrewdness.  For “the art of the deal,” if you will.  For taking care of business.

Do we buy this story?  Can’t make this stuff up?

Well, listen to the story Jesus tells.  In what way is it any different?  A crooked manager has been caught out by the owner of the estate.  He scurries about, asking each debtor to jigger his note, reducing what was originally owed the master.  On discovering this deceit, the owner smiles and praises this dishonest manager who has now cheated him twice: “And the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly…”

Most scholars believe that this is the point at which Jesus’ parable originally ended.  The add-on maxims and such on wealth and the “children of this age” are Luke’s attempts to make this story palatable to moral sensibilities.  He didn’t quite know what to make of it any more than us moderns.

Indeed, this is a most difficult saying.  Are we to believe that Jesus actually encourages, praises such dishonesty?

We’d be crying, “throw the book to be thrown at him”.  Where is Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice when we need them?  Should this grift go unpunished?  Is there no indictment?  “Lock him up.  Lock him up.  Lock him up,” would be the chant.

The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that they admit a number of interpretations.  They are polyvalent — capable of a multitude of images, interpretations and meanings – and have always been, down through the ages.

One of the reasons for the shrewdness of the “Children of Darkness” is that they are totally unapologetic in their cynicism, in their grift.  It’s all about them, nobody else counts.  Might makes right.

Maybe Jesus praises their authenticity as scoundrels.  They are grifters and make no bones about it.  They know how to take care of business.  They are the practitioners of “Realpolitik.”

It’s Stalin’s boast when Winston Churchill brought up the possibility of the Pope’s involvement in the Teheran Conference, “How many divisions does the Pope have.”  That realism will always trump naïve religious idealism in the councils of this world.

As Martin Luther King and the leaders of the 50s and 60s Civil Rights movement learned, if one is to depend on “soul force,” you’d best get it mobilized and know the right moment to deploy it.  Rosa Parks did not decide to refuse to vacate her bus seat for a white just on a spur of the moment whim.  Her protest was well planned in advance.  Malice of forethought.  And the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched off that effort.

Reinhold Niebuhr drew on this story when he penned his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.  Why is it that the Children of Light so often end up with the short end of the stick?  They are too often oblivious to their own mixed motives, thus too hesitant.  “We’re too nice,” as my friend Vern would often say.

So, what to make of this disturbing parable?  Here’s my take.  In the cause of human solidarity, act boldly.  Or as Luther said, “Sin boldly – but believe in the grace of God all the more.”  And keep your wits about you. 

Here’s a story on how this all worked out for our prison chaplain Chris Hoke — a lay visitor to the incarcerated and agricultural workers in the Pacific Northwest.  A very improbable journey of daring, suspense, danger and, well… you judge for yourself.

Part of his ministry has been in the migrant labor camps, providing whatever support he could with his limited Spanish and resources.  Chris had been working for sometime with Tierra Nueva, his job being to visit and accompany migrant families to appointments and such.

In part, this is the mission statement of Tierra Nueva, Chris’s employer:

“People marginalized due to race, social class, language, lifestyle, or legal status often reach the conclusion that God is against them and that they are not welcome in the Church. And mainstream church members find few opportunities to encounter people at the margins. Bridging that chasm not only elevates those on the outside, but it can also transform those inside the Church”.[1]

Chris introduces us to two laborers from one field cabin, Arnulfo and his friend Magdeleno.  Both men had met a couple of years ago in the asparagus fields near Stockton and decided to stick together.

Arnulfo left his family in Michoacan, Magdaleno had left Puebla as a single man.  He spoke Zapoteco and a smidgen of Spanish.  “They belonged to no one.  All season they had only each other.”[2]

It’s the end of the season with cold rain settling in, it was time to be on the move.  Arnulfo and Magdaleno had no car.  They wanted to fly – not down to the San Joaquin Valley in California, but to New Jersey where some friends had carpentry work for them.  They had to fly, as traveling by bus was considered too risky due to all the ICE agents who stalked the Greyhound stations.

AND… the two of them would look less suspicious if traveling with a tall, white U.S. citizen.  At this point Arnulfo pulled back the corner of his mattress to extract a wad of cash, which he folded and put it into Chris’s hand.

Well, part of his duties at Tierra Nuevo was to accompany workers to appointments and such… but to New Jersey?

They would use the money to also buy Chris a round trip ticket as well so they could more easily move through the airport with some degree of confidence.  It took Chris some fifteen minutes to understand the plan due to Arnulfo’s rapid-fire Spanish.  He had to repeat himself several times.  Finally, Chris got it.  He was to turn this wad of cash into three tickets to New York. 

“If I’d know how to say “Hell yes!” in Spanish, I would have.”  This would definitely be a stretch to the duty of “accompany.”

A week before the flight Chris sat in that small cabin on one of the mattresses and pulled out the boarding passes from his coat pocket.  And a receipt with the exact change left over.  He wanted to make it clear he was a pastor, not a coyote, a paid smuggler.

It began to dawn on Chris that he could get in real trouble here.  It was one thing visiting jails and labor camps, quite another “aiding and abetting the movement of undocumented immigrants across the U.S. interior.”  And it wasn’t just him.  He’d persuaded his fiancée Rachel to come along.  Being half Panamanian, she would make the group of them look less suspicious.  Besides, she’d always wanted to see New York. 

On further reflection, he wondered what on earth was he thinking, putting her at risk as well.

Inside the airport, security lines moved slowly as our small group of travelers approached the podium.  The TSA agent leaned forward, passing a blue light over Chris’s and Rachel’s boarding documents.  On the other side of the scanner, they waited for their two companions.

The agent scrutinized the identification papers of Arnulfo and Magdaleno, paused a moment and motioned over two other TSA agents.  After a few comments to Arnulfo, he said to the two men, “These IDs have no expiration date,” which he then repeated to Chris.

Chris had called the airport ahead of time and was told that these Mexican national identity cards would be no problem.  “Every ID,” the agent snapped, “must have an expiration date.”  Mexican identity, apparently, does not expire.

“I’m going to have to ask you four to step into this line over here,” motioned the agent.  We were trapped.  Caught.

“Yes, I thought to myself. Yes, I’m a failure.  A bad coyote.  A bad pastor.  Mission failed.”[3]

Chris’s thoughts racing through his mind, contemplated the future.  Arnulfo and Magdaleno would not be going to friends tonight.  They would spend the day answering questions and filling out papers.  And headed for a deportation hearing.  No friendly skies.   No complementary Cokes or pretzels.

After being directed to pass through the scanners, the four were escorted to an enclosed area and told to wait.  And they waited and waited, but no one came. 

As they stared at each other, Chris said, “Vamos” — let’s go.  They sidled out into the main concourse.  They heard no shouts behind them.  And their gate was soon right in front of them.

Flashing red letters proclaimed, “FLIGHT DELAYED.  Estimated time one hour.”

What to do?  Chris could think only of disaster.  As they waited, huddled together on a small padded bench, Rachel had a better idea.  She broke out a sandwich and divided it into four pieces.  Arnulfo suggested a reading from the scriptures.  Chris flipped through the pages of the Santa Biblia while expecting at any moment someone in a uniform to appear around the corner.

He found in Acts the story of Peter’s imprisonment.  Chris asked Magdeleno to read.  He read of Peter’s captivity in chains and guards watching him in the night … of how angels wake Peter and he slips through four layers of security as the guards slept close by.  “Get up quick!  “Put on your coat and follow me,” the angel urges.

By the end of the story, the announcement came over the speakers, it was time to board.  As they stood in line for their boarding documents to be scanned, Chris noticed one important thing missing from Arnulfo’s and Magdaleno’s passes:  the initials of the agent who would have checked them through.

He quickly took both passes and a pen and scratched on them their authority for departure – JC.

“Enjoy your flight,” the attendant chirped as she scanned the four through.

Now, for the last six years, when December winter cold comes to the Northwest, Chris and his now wife Rachel, can expect a call from Arnulfo, who is now back with his family in the home he saved for and built in Michoacan, Mexico.  He also sends Magdeleno’s greetings.

He congratulates Chris and Rachel on their recent marriage.  As soft snow settles over the landscape, Christmas is coming.

That’s how, through a bit of grace, hutzpah, and savvy – that’s sometimes how we children of The Way make a “way out of no way.”  And through the guidance of the Spirit, it shall be sufficient.  Heart pounding, but sufficient.  Taking care of business.  Amen.

[1] https://www.tierra-nueva.org/peoples-seminary

[2] Chris Hoke, Wanted (New York: Harper One, 2015), 56-73.

[3] Ibid, 65.

September 18, 2022, 15 Pentecost, Proper 20

“Taking Care of Business”

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

Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

From the Top of the World

On this Labor Day weekend my mind goes to backyard barbecues, fairs and the end of summer’s lazy days.  At one time, when summer was not the scorching ordeal it now is, the day of peak attendance at the L.A. County Fair was now.  Presently, thanks to global warming, the fair has to be held in spring.

I fondly remember the huge Ferris wheel, all lit up at night, riding up and up with my girlfriend.  At the top, we might as well have been at the top of the world.  Part of that was the romance of the moment, holding hands as we seemed so precariously seated in that slowly swaying seat.  So high up looking down at all the other amusement rides below.

And then the reality of school beginning the next day.  Ugh. 

Due to all our family turmoil, I was never very good at my classes.  My mind was always elsewhere.  Looking out the window at the other kids on the playground – waiting for the bell to ring for our turn at recess.

This year, as our nation has headed into this weekend of beach trips, hot dogs and a can of Budweiser, there’s an unease in the land. 

We just made it through primary elections with a number of political earthquakes.  On one side of the aisle, many election conspiracy nuts were elected to run in the general election with the goal of denying all votes and throwing their state’s choice of presidential electors to ultra-partisan state legislatures. 

But of course – it’s all rigged.  The voting machines are being hacked by Jewish space lasers or some such nonsense.  Millions of illegals are stuffing the dropboxes with fraudulent ballots.  Rigged, they tell you!

Yes, we’ve gone off the deep end of crazy in this political year.  Same as the last, only more vicious this time.  Poll workers, fearful of threats from MAGA gun nuts, are quitting in droves.  Who can blame them?

Some sixty percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.  As inflated rents throw more and more onto the streets and the job market tightens as the Fed puts the squeeze on the economy, there is little joy in Mudville.   More people living on the streets.

The noted historian, Richard Hofstadter wrote of our tendency as Americans for political distrust in his seminal work, The Paranoid Style of American Politics.  He demonstrated how this strand of thought has been woven through our common life together over the many years.  Perhaps, present from the inception on the nation.  It is a mode of thought born of fear and resentment — I’m not making it — And someone’s to blame.

Our friend, Lynn, may think, “We’re all in this together.”  But the rest of us?  Not so much.

The scourge of fentanyl and other street drugs continues to ruin lives.  This past week our House of Hope team was to meet Sheriff Beaty with his two colleagues, the sheriff of Handcock County to the north of Brooke and the sheriff of Ohio county to the south.  We had our QRT program – that’s Quick Response Team — ready to present.

That afternoon we received a call from Sheriff Beaty’s assistant.  He would not be able to make it.  While he had been engaged in traffic control at Brooke High, sitting in his sheriff’s black pickup truck, a woman ran into him.  She hit him so hard that her car ended up in the bed of the pickup, her front bumper going through the cab window.

Our friend ended up with a fractured vertebra, a concussion, and was banged up a bit.  I had supposed the woman ended up either in the hospital or in the morgue.  No.  She was so loaded up with drugs, she was feeling no pain.  “She ended up in jail,” the sheriff later told us.  To only be in jail…she was one of the lucky ones.

Our reading from Deuteronomy today gives us a long-range view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  A thirty-thousand-foot moral overview.

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous.”[1]

This stark alternative is before us each day.  What, this day, will we choose to give our life and energies to?  What will receive our loyalty and the treasure of our date book and wallet?

The Psalmist, presents the same opposing choices, makes the same case.  Those who choose wisely “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.”

“It is not so with the wicked: they are like chaff which the wind blows away.”[2]

Another view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  Unfortunately, faced with the complexities of real, lived life, it’s not so simple.

Not so simple indeed.  We humans are a mixed bag, a seething mass of inconsistencies and proclivities.  The evil we hate, we so often end up doing, as St. Paul says of his own spiritual struggle.  Or as one of my friends said of their tumultuous marriage relationship, “It’s complicated.”

This last week we received from the coroner the autopsy results of the famed country music star, who, when she sang with her daughter Wynonna, they were an incredible duo, recording a number of hits.

Naomi Judd, for years had struggled with bipolar depression and PTSD…post-traumatic stress disorder.  At 76 the country music legend ended her life with a gun.  The autopsy, just released revealed numerous drugs in her system used to treat her various afflictions.

She, with Wynonna, had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame the day after her death.  Her mental illness had finally won the long struggle which had consumed most of her life.

Choices set before each of us – but it’s so tragically complicated.

We Americans again have a critical choice set before us.  Will we go with the crazy, or will we choose a generous democracy that includes all.

It is no exaggeration to say that a whole lot is on the line in the next two elections coming up.  From the top of the political and civic Ferris wheel: DEMOCRACY itself is on the line.  The whole enchilada!

Will America become a theocracy where a small minority subjects the rest to the pinched dogma of Christian nationalism?

Will unlimited money have the final say in our political life?

Will gerrymandered districts so subvert the choices of the majority that any notion of Democracy will have become meaningless?

Will women lose the rights to their own bodies and souls to a group of misogynistic men arguing about “legitimate rape” and whether a ten-year-old must be forced to bear a rapist’s child?  A ten-year-old girl for God’s sake!

America, we must be in this for the long haul.  The thirty-thousand-foot view.  As with those of the Jesus Movement.

The “Cost of Discipleship” is a whole lot more than proper etiquette before the altar.  It is much more than fussing over which candles to light first or extinguish in what order.  More than even showing up once a week to hear a brilliant sermon, or even a mediocre one.

It’s about engaging the issues of the day, in our corporate or private lives with the values of the gospel.  It’s how this all plays out under the mandate to love God and neighbor – one and the same duty.  It’s about daily seizing the joy that is to be offered each day.  And passing it around.

Jai sometimes – okay, often – thinks my rhetoric is over the top.  But, for hyperbole and exaggeration, I can’t hold a candle to Jesus.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and other, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Hard words, indeed!

If I dare to paraphrase our Lord, what he is saying is that this discipleship thing is a life stance that places all relationships and priorities under a long-haul mandate.  “Love God and neighbor as self.”  Every relationship, yea, life itself is to be seen through that lens.

This is not a eat-your-spinach (or Brussel sprouts, or rutabaga) command.  It is the joyful summons into eternity.  Into a life of overflowing blessings and delight.  And struggle.

I don’t know if there is the possibility of political absolution, but I must confess that I was once in the tank for one Richard Nixon.  I, a Nixon campaign worker when he ran for governor!  Coming out of a very Republican household, that was the brand of politics served up each evening at dinner.

With the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, I began to question that allegiance.  In for the long haul, I realized that my politics must comport with the Gospel values taking deeper root in my life.

For the long haul, I in fact abandoned the other party when it sold its soul for a fruitless and inhumane war in Southeast Asia.  The lies, the subterfuge – it was all to the destruction of what I had come to affirm.  Leaving was the cost of discipleship at that moment.  I ended up being a delegate to the California convention of the Peace and Freedom party.

Cause for great disappointment!  It took three or four hours for the gathering just to come to agreement on who might chair this assembly for the next three days.  Every cause imaginable was vying for attention.  Shouting over each other.  From the “Free Huey Newton” people to the animal rights folks – no one was listening.  All shouting over each other.

I remember our distraught pastor’s wife through flowing tears, commenting as several from our local Peace and Freedom club crossed the parking lot after the first day, “If this is our only hope, God help us.  God help us all.”  I was pretty bummed out as well.

No, I needed a politics for the view from the top of the Ferris wheel.  A political perspective for the long haul, not the ephemeral cause of the day.

What Jesus seems to be counseling here is revolutionary patience in the cause for Gospel Solidarity.  Count the costs, this journey will take everything you are – it’s not an add-on — but the results will be beyond your imagining.  Guaranteed!

As we try to walk our faithful discipleship journey at St. Francis, it is Gospel Joy to my heart that Joseph is nudging us towards a program of tutoring for neighborhood kids.  Truly, whatever is done for children, from the thirty-thousand-foot view, is never wasted.

Taking up our cross, in this place, for this effort, means setting aide our inertia and calling friends to recruit tutors.  Pestering, if necessary.  It means finding some to run the recreation program so contained young people don’t riot or fall asleep.  It means help for preparing healthy snacks.  This may be your summons to a deeper engagement with the Jesus Movement in our place and time.  Listen to the whispers of the Spirit.  She can be trusted.

To close, this from my favorite author, Wendell Berry: “Love is what carries you, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”  Amen

[1] Deuteronomy 30:15 ff., New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Psalm 1, NRSV.

September 4, 2022, 13 Pentecost, Proper 18
Labor Day Weekend

“From the Top of the World”

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

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-20; Luke 14:25-33

What a Week!

We, that is one of our House of Hope staff and I, just returned from our sojourn in the hills of West Virginia where we were working on our opioid addiction center. 

I am amazed at how green the hills of that part of the country are.  Especially compared to the dried, arid California landscape.  West Virginia is definitely NOT burning up.

One of the major delights of our August trip is the Wounded Warrior event we hold on our farm – this year’s being the fifth annual.  When I asked if there were any of my generation, the Vietnam Era, the response?  “Nobody’s that old.” 

To see some of the old regulars attend and many of our local folks who put on the event — it’s an occasion for civic pride.  To thank those who have served is a civic duty.  To top it off, Dagmar’s hot German potato salad was as delicious as ever!

Not to mention the guys from Merco Marine who brought out their huge barbecue cooker and furnished smoked pork, chicken and hot dogs.  Wonderful!  Tom Ferbee and his band was also a real crowd pleaser, especially when they broke into “Who Stopped the Rain.” 

With 180 acres of backwoods abandoned logging trails, we take these vets and their families on the ride of their lives.  All in all, a great weekend for everybody involved.  And a big thanks to Scott, Rob and Michelle who provide the organizational muscle.  But I was the only Vietnam vet.  We’re a dying breed.

My veteran’s organization, Vietnam Vets Against the War’s motto is: “Honor the warrior, not the war.”  We were of the generation who tossed our medals over the fence of the White House to protest that misguided, obscene foreign policy disaster.  “They lied, people died,” was the truth of the matter.  But enough of that sermon.

In addition, we met with Senator Manchin’s staff, the West Virginia director of drug policy – a whole bunch of folks who could help us with bringing House of Hope into reality.

Yes, we had quite a week.  And so did our nation.  Back down the memory rabbit hole — do you remember the American version of a British political satire show, “That is the Week That Was?”  Probably not.  It was also out of the 60s.  But you remember some of the stars:  Alan Alda, Elaine May, Gloria Steinem, Gene Hackman, Henry Morgan, Calvin Trillin and Tom Lehrer.  Nancy Ames sang the opening song.

If, perchance, you missed it, you can get an approximate version.  Watch “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver or “Full Frontal” with Samantha Bee.  Same pedigree and same great laughs.

As FBI agents executed a proper search warrant at the Former Guy’s retreat at Mar-A-Lago, much of our nation became unhinged.  No laughs here.

These law enforcement officers were accused by the likes of Ted Cruz and others as being “storm troopers, brown-shirt thugs, kicking in people’s doors.”  That’s right, if they can do it to this upstanding Former Guy, they can do it to you.

For the record, my cousin Floyd was an FBI agent.  The family never knew this until his retirement because he was deep undercover on issues of national security.  He was NOT a jack-booted Gestapo thug kicking in doors and summarily executing folks.  He was a kind, decent-hearted man.  He’d take me down into his radio room in the basement and we’d listen to places like Australia and Canada “on the skip.” 

Floyd faithfully took care of his sister with Down Syndrome after their mother died.  No, Ted.  You’re way off base.

I still wonder what Floyd’s cover was.  We only saw him once a year and I was pretty young.  The other thing I fondly remember was their great big cat that would jump up in my lap.  That, and his delightful book of WWII stories.

That episode with the Former Guy would have in itself been sufficient news, but…THEN…with the passage of the “Inflation Reduction Act” which added in funds to replenish the IRS, then came cries of agents of our government, tarred as a mob of some seventy-four thousand, armed with AR-15s, kicking in the doors of small businesses.  Locked and loaded.  Fixed News was definitely in overdrive all this week.

Actually, the tax cheats they’ll be hunting are way, way, above your and my pay grades.  The “usual suspects” are those who hide their assets in off-shore bank accounts and shell corporations.  We’re talking billions here, not that chicken-feed business lunch you mis-designated on your 1099-Miscellaneous Income form.  Or left out.

Oh, and did I fail to mention that Senator Lindsey Graham lost his appeal concerning a subpoena to testify in Georgia concerning his role in election fraud?  But not to worry, more than one felon has successfully run for office behind bars.  What a week, indeed!  A lot of shaking of the pillars.

Which gets us to the lectionary selection from Hebrews.  This passage is a portion of a sermon on Moses on the Mount of Revelation.

“See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”

“At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.”

“This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of what is shaken–that is, created things–so that what cannot be shaken may remain.”

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

I’d never get a pass on a sermon like that.

All this convoluted passage is to say that when God gets through doing the shaking, what will remain is what has value…”How Firm a Foundation.”  Just as the nations are shaken, those that endure are ones built on everlasting foundations.  There is lasting value.  Self-evident Truth.

Those values embraced by the American people, rooted in Divine Revelation, are the residue that will not be loosened.  They are the core of basic decency, the basis for our common bond as a people – whether we be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or None-of-the-Above.  They are deeply implanted in the soul of the nation.

It is these attributes that will remain, that will not be shaken.  We hang on to those spiritual verities and we will arise from the chaos of the moment as one people.

David Brooks, in an opinion piece this week, lifted up a great Christian writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner.  He came from a distressing family background.  A family of isolated personalities, unable to share pain, joy or their aspirations for living.  They are a microcosm of our national polarization – everyone in their own bubble.  Dante’s lowest level of Hell is reserved for such frozen, isolated, most toxic human beings.  Completely cut off.  From everything.

“One morning in the fall of 1936, 10-year-old Frederick Buechner and his younger brother were playing in their room. Their father opened the door, checked on them, and then went down into the family garage, turned on the engine of the car and waited for the exhaust to kill him.”

“Buechner and his brother heard a commotion, looked out the window and saw their father on his back in the driveway. Their mother and grandmother, in their nightgowns, had dragged him out of the garage and were pumping his legs up and down in a doomed attempt to revive him.”

“There would be no funeral, or discussion of what happened. Their mother just moved the boys to Bermuda to escape. The rules in that family were, ‘Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.’ They became masters at covering themselves over.”[1]

Looking back over the life of Frederick Buechner, what remained after a traumatic and vigorous shaking, was a most decent human being, overflowing with the spiritual insight on what makes for a godly life.  A life brim full to overflowing with compassion and spiritual insight.

In a way, this is what remains of President Zelenskyy.   He was a TV comic who only played at being a president.  Now he often sounds like Churchill.

When confronted by naysayers that he didn’t have the experience to be a real president of Ukraine, that he didn’t have standing, his answer was simple and basic.  The most important requirement for the job was just to be “a decent human being.”  And he has exceeded all expectations.  Silencing his most vociferous critics.

That is what we need as citizens for our day and circumstances – just being decent human beings.

Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, makes that most clear.  When confronted by a woman in great medical distress on the Sabbath, he sets aside rules, customs and religious dogma.  He, as a decent human being, does what is required.  He heals her.  And LIFE overflows to all around.  Even the stuck-in-the-mud religious authorities with their fossilized attitudes.

And that is the promise to us in our fractured land.  My politics are at odds with many of our folks in West Virginia.  My cousin Lindsey is an ardent Trumper as are many others.  We set all that aside.  Our team absorbs the pain, the loss of those families devastated by opioid addiction.  In our desire to bring healing we go about the small, boring, tedious work to get House of Hope off the ground.  Setting our political divisions aside.

Frederick Buechner says of our vocation – at the deepest, always a spiritual matter — “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and the pain of it, no less than in the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”[2]

America, we need to “stop, look, listen.”  Yes, part of our story is tawdry and vicious, but there are moments of great glory and grace.  Much remains after the brutal shaking of slavery, lynching and Jim Crow.

Through that darkest of nights shines the “Black and White Together” spirit of the civil rights struggles of the 60s.  Let us not forget Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, Thurgood Marshall.  Oh, yes, The Rev. Dr. M.L. King.  An everlasting heritage.

Let us claim that sacred heritage of the “Conductors” on the Underground Railroad: Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Levi Coffin.  All shepherding folks North, following the “Drinking Gourd.”[3]  A firm foundation of a new birth of liberty.

These Americans knew their vocations as citizens and lived them.  They were not shaken in resolve or in goal.  May we find ours out as they did.

Your vocation?  Again, let us attend to Brother Frederick:  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  — a foundation which will remain your whole life long.


[1] David Brooks, “The Man Who Found His Inner Depths,” New York Times, August 18.  Any of his books are superb, novels, theology, or his autobiographical works.  An uninitiated reader might start with Now and Then, a very self-revealing memoir.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).

[3] “Drinking Gourd,” the Big Dipper constellation containing the North Star.

August 21, 2022, 11 Pentecost, Proper 16

“What a Week!”

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

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

At All Costs

My wife has a saying she came up with shortly after our first child was born, “When the going gets tough – lower your standards.”

She had kept our house immaculate.  Everything in its place and a place for everything.  EXCEPT IN MY OFFICE.  She just closed the door and didn’t let visitors in there.

It was the sanity decision.

When the second child came along, it was the only decision.

Similarly, COVID-19 has forced most of us to hunker down, reassess priorities.  That and inflation.  I noticed that balancing my checkbook is a lot easier these days because I’m not going anywhere.  I’m not buying stuff.

When Jai and I arrived back home from our trip East to meet prospective in-laws, (yes!  Christopher and Alexis have set the date)….we both came back with COVID.  The one good aspect of this experience is that nobody expects you to do much of anything.  And I didn’t feel like doing much of anything.  Life gets stripped to the essentials.  Lower your standards.  Plowing through at all costs is insanity.

But how often out of anxiety, out of fear, out of just plain greed do we strive after the wind?  And as the title of Margaret Mitchell’s novel puts it, it’s all GONE WITH THE WIND.

The passages assigned this week all raise the question, What Makes for a Godly Life?  What really counts?  What is the taste of the eternal to be had in this life?

In the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read of striving after things of no account. 

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

“I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.

“I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.  I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me.”

Remember the lesson of last week:  The Good Life – Eternity if you will, is wrapped up in love of God and Neighbor.  One and the same.

It’s not the bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”  That’s a lie.  Vanity, all that bunkum is vanity and a chasing after the wind.  Material gain, political ambition, fame – pursued “At All Costs” is nothing but futility.

Martin E. Marty captured the excessive ethos of this age in a proposed alternative bumper sticker: “In case of rapture, I have dibs on your Bugatti.”[1]

The political thing pursued at all costs might actually get the Former Guy 20 years of government housing.  The fame thing at all costs can get you on the Hollywood divorce roster or into drug rehab.  And ask Bugsy Siegel or Michael Milken where the money thing pursued at all costs leads.  And, we won’t go into the book thing.

It’s not hoarding up more and more and more stuff.  This lesson hits close to home as the Forney’s have an over-active packrat gene.

Maybe I’ve mentioned my wife’s dream of defrosting the freezer.  In her dream she opens the door only to find that it’s full of books.

That morning when she shared her Good Housekeeping nightmare, I told her that she was lucky to be married to a biblical scholar who could interpret the dream.

The interpretation?  She needed to buy a new freezer — for the food.

Now, I admit, my library is a little over the top.  I assuage my guilt by comparing it to Carnage’s library we visited in New York City.  The ceilings were at least sixty feet high.  There were three levels of books along the walls.  It was huge!

This grand collection was housed in over-the-top opulence.  Mine, not so much.

When I mentioned to Jai that, at least, my library wasn’t THAT out of control, she quipped something to the effect, “That’s only because you don’t have the billions Carnage had.”  Touché! 

Yes, we do have the Forney packrat gene.  I can’t tell you how many cans of dried paint I cleaned out of my dad’s storage room.  There must have been fifty or sixty cans.  A lifetime accumulation.  I’m sure some dated back sixty years to when we had lived in Compton and I was in the second grade.  All as dry as a Cambrian fossil.

I remember a film we used to show at church camp on the stewardship of creation.  The title was, “More.”  In the opening minutes is a baby screaming, “More, more, more” as it grasps for everything around it.  The film ends with the earth buried under mounds of stuff and more stuff. 

That’s where we’re headed with our insatiable appetites.  More, more, more.  And the planet is getting buried under a toxic cloud of carbon dioxide, the “greenhouse gas.”  To my friends in the Midwest – is it hot enough for you yet?  Yeah, as the movie says, “Some Like it Hot,” but that was about Marilyn Monroe, not the planet!

So, where then might we better expend our effort?  If it’s not building bigger and more barns to store our stuff.  St. Paul frequently offers good counsel on what makes for a good, well-lived life.  Godly counsel, if you will.

To paraphrase St. Paul, “Excel in doing good.  meekness, self-control; against such there is no law. … Humility, endurance; the law is not set against these things.

The planet can handle such good works without burning up.  Store up such charity in abundance.  You won’t need a new barn or larger library.  Toss those cans of desiccated paint.

Consider this path if you are driven at “All Costs” to excel at something.  There is no law against such generosity of spirit.  John Wesley said do all the good you can to as many as you can as long as you can.  Jesus would second that.  That’s what the Spirit inspires.

I think of my friend Nancy Mintie who founded Uncommon Good right here in the Pomona Valley after working in poverty law in downtown Los Angeles.  Nancy Mintie is the best of Catholic social teaching in practice. She and Uncommon Good do a lot of good for kids.  Against such generosity of Spirit there is no law.

Let me share one story from Uncommon Good’s latest newsletter.  It’s about a young man already making a difference in his community.

Luis Limon Sr. came from Mexico and began supporting himself in the U.S. at the age of fifteen.  A young woman from Mexico’s breadbasket Sinaloa came for a visit and stole his heart.  In due course Luis Limon Jr. was born.

His parents brought young Luis to Uncommon Good, hoping that they could show him the way to get an education and make a life for himself in their adopted country.

Luis has taken advantage of all that Uncommon Good has had to offer.  He was paired with a mentor from one of our Claremont Colleges.  He joined the sister organization of Uncommon Good, Gente Organizada.  After attending writing programs, and math camp he broadened his horizons. 

He became a student leader, inspired by his parent’s journeys, he lobbied the Pomona City Council to establish a Youth Commission.  In the face of withering, racist criticism by one of the council members – a Latino at that — Luis persisted.  With the support of his friends at Uncommon Good, Luis then took on the issues of mental health in his community, creating a yearly conference, Healthy Young People – holding their conferences by Zoom after Covid hit.

Uncommon Good helped Luis apply for, and be accepted by a mentoring program at Pomona College, PAYS, the exclusive college preparation program at one of our top liberal arts colleges on the West Coast.

As a high school senior, Luis has been accepted at one of our more prestigious and selective colleges, Kalamazoo College in Michigan.  Scholarship to boot!  They have a 4.4% acceptance rate.  Compare that with Harvard’s rate of 5%.  Now that’s selective. 

That’s the kind of GOOD that Nancy Mintie has excelled in.  She certainly walks the talk of her church.  Nothing wasted here.

So, to St. Paul in Colossians.  Uncommon Good, its staff and volunteers embody the spirit of this teaching:

“So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 

“When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”[2]

Here’s Paul’s point — This same Spirit indwelling in Jesus has now been let loose in you, and inhabits all in the Jesus Movement.  It is the same life-giving force that brings us “Frozen Chosen” to daring acts of justice and reconciliation.  Through it, we are transfigured to joy incarnate, the Glory of the living God.

Yield to that summons – that’s LIFE ABUNDANT.  Free for the asking.  No barn’s required.  No extra bookshelves needed.

Here we discover the true riches of life, where treasure is to be had. 

Micheala Bruzzese sums it up: In and through such living we find that our “profound hunger to love and to be loved is satisfied.”  We are enfolded into the “unconditional and all-consuming love of God. …this treasure does not trap us, but liberates us, giving us the strength and courage to be liberators in the world.”[3]  Amen.

[1]Martin E. Marty, “Wheels of Fortune: ‘In Case of Rapture, I Have Dibs on Your Bugatti,’” M.E.M.O, Christian Century, July 25, 2006.

[2] Colossians 3:1-11, New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Micheala Bruzzese, “Possessed by Love Alone,” Sojourners Magazine, May 1, 2004.

July 31, 2022, 8 Pentecost, Proper 13

“At All Costs”

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

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

When you pray, say…

Friday night bright lights.  The football team, their coaches and handlers trotted out onto the field of the stadium to the uproarious cheers of the hometown crowd.  There they all paused on the fifty-yard line, assembled in a clump, with bowed heads as their coach led them in prayer.

Anne Lamott, hearing of this pious spectacle was horrified.  She, a believer, considers such sanctimonious demonstrations of religiosity nothing short of blasphemy.  They diminish and demean the faith when it is so trivialized.  Not what Jesus had in mind.

She objects — when we consider the real problems of the world – the hellish difficulties women now face concerning their health care – the incineration of our natural world under the embers of global warming – the intolerable pain of places like Uvalde, Highland Park, the list goes on beyond remembering – when we read daily of the horrors in Ukraine, starvation and disease in Third World countries – when one takes all this into her soul, what the hell is a football game that God should be concerned?!  That God, that we, believers and non-believers should be concerned?  Such pious blather borders on blasphemy.

Here’s Anne’s rant:

“It offends me to see sanctimonious public prayer in any circumstance – but a coach holding his players hostage while an audience watches his piety makes my skin crawl.”[1]

And on such self-serving expressions of righteousness, remember Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the Publican.  “I thank God I am not like…”

I remember long ago; our congregation was involved in a church volleyball league.  Before the opening game of the season, one of the pastors proceeded to lead us all in prayer.  He muttered something to the effect of…”Lord, we know it’s only a little piece of metal at stake…Not much of any consequence…”

Now, all the while, in my mind, I’m subverting the pious thoughts of this sanctimonious prayer… “Yeah, pastor — just a little piece, just a scrap of metal this league trophy…Right!   We’re going to go out there and KILL FOR IT.  Egos, elbows…they’ll be out in full force in service of coming out “King of the Hill for this little, bitty inconsequential scrap.”  And that’s pretty much how it went that evening.  Not quite Marquis of Queensbury sportsmanship on display.

As Jesus was concluding his prayers, he was approached by one of his disciples.  “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  He said to them.  “When you pray, say:  Abba, Father – Daddy, really – (and here we recite this familiar prayer in the words and thought forms of the spirituality of New Zealand Anglicans, as heavily influenced by Māori and Polynesian culture):

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

May the hallowing of your name echo through the
universe; the way of your justice be followed by the
peoples of the world; your heavenly will be done by all
created beings; and your commonwealth of peace and
freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread that we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever.  Amen.

This essential prayer of the Christian faith is widely prayed throughout the world by almost all faithful followers of Jesus.  And also, by many outside the faith. I associate it with the summons to attention by one of my first teachers:


This prayer directs us to what we need to sustain life, and invites us into the process – to what opens a window to eternity.

We need to acknowledge that life is not just about us.  There’s an overarching summons beyond our limited cares and petty grievances.  We need forgiveness because of the hurt we cause, and likewise we need to let go of the hurt others cause.  We need daily sustenance.  We need relationship with one another and the verities that make for a life worth living.

Without this life orientation, our existence is the slow circling of a Final Drain.  Jesus is telling us in these brief few words – FOCUS ON WHAT MAKES IT ALL WORTHWHILE.  What brings joy, what brings life abundant.

Don’t squander the splendor of it all in trivia.  We only go around once.  FOCUS, John!

Martin Buber, grasping at the idea of the unknowable divine, settled on an expression of that reality in relationship.  In his work, I and Thou, he fleshes out how it is that we are drawn into relationship wherein we are valued, and value others.

When Moses asks for the Holy Name at Mt. Sinai, all that is revealed is: “I am who I am.”  Or “I am becoming who I am becoming.”

We are, further, told that this reality is bound up with neighbor.  “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your soul, and all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Neighbor and the Great Mystery – that’s about as close as any of us will get.

It is this simple prayer Jesus taught his followers that centers mind and heart on what is necessary for this love ethic – the final requirement of Torah.

Love of God, love of neighbor – one and the same.  Do this and you are very near to the Reign of the Divine.

It was for this reason that I was so overjoyed when our son Christopher shared his new vocational direction.  Being a PhD student at Yale, I always thought he’d end up a professor at some prestigious college.  But lately he began drifting from that direction towards thinking he might want to teach high school or maybe community college.  But then he surprised me with a revised vocational goal:  He wanted to teach in a prison. 

“Dad, these people really need the education, not some pampered, elite, rich kids.”  I thought, maybe all that he got from home, from church has put down some very deep roots.  Well, glory be! 

Not far from what matters!

I told him that I had a friend who actually teaches college-level classes in prisons.  Chris Hedges, a Presbyterian pastor and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning war correspondent for the New York Times, has seen some of the worst of the worst prisons in many far-off, war-torn lands.  He’s taught classes for a number of years in a New Jersey prison.

“Would you like to me to call him?  He certainly has some incredible experiences to share.”  Our Chris said that would be great.  I was surprised I still had Hedges on speed dial.  He said he would love to talk with our son.  Maybe our son should first read Chris’s recently published book, Our Class, a work about his classes behind bars which doesn’t sugar-coat prison life in the slightest.[2]

As these classes are college level, these students are bright and capable of difficult material.  To enable them to draw from their life experiences, Hedges has introduced a number of playwrights that open up prison life, notably August Wilson.  His play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in 1911 in a boarding house, refers to a song by W.C. Handy about “Joe Turner’s Blues.”[3] 

Like prayer – the real thing – deep listening – Wilson’s plays draw these men into their interior lives.  Into what most matters.  Into “finding their song.”

“What is this song?” Hedges asks.  “Like a prayer.  Like memory,” another answers.

“It connects you to where you came from.  It connects you with your ancestors.  It connects you with your own history; your own story.  It validates and lifts up your suffering, your dignity, your humanity, your resistance.  It tells you that you will not be defeated by the troubles of this world. It affirms you and your people.”

Until we find our song, we are but dried bones.  We only stand when we find our song, when we’re fully resurrected as free men and women, when we are able to shout out our song, when we can say who we are and where we came from.[4]

This brief prayer of the Jesus movement, if allowed to marinate over a lifetime, connects us with our song – the pain, the tragedy, the delight and the blessing.

“Our song is so difficult because of the pain,” one said.  “Because it’s about loss, about suffering and death, about families ripped apart, about people not being treated as if they were real human beings, because that’s the story then, and it’s still the story.”[5]

Taken to heart, Jesus’ prayer becomes deep listening, not a laundry list like a superficial prayer on the fifty-yard line or at the volleyball net.

Deep listening — inspired by a hug, an unexpected kindness, the tranquility of a forest grove or the splendor of a stary night above in the desert sky.

To see both God and neighbor as an unfolding Thou, to be cherished, to be wrapped in care, to be honored. That is prayer.  That is your song — your connection to the deepest Thou.  It is the unfolding of heart and mind and strength.  Without it, we’re just discarded bones.

“God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in them,” is how John’s community understood the connection.[6]

Lord, teach us to pray.  Simply…simply say:

“With the bread that we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

FOCUS, John.  FOCUS.  Beyond and within all outward appearance is splendor, beyond and within daily routine, we each find our own song unto eternity.  Yes, “Give us this day…”  Amen

[1] Anne Lamott, “I Don’t Want to See a Football Coach Praying on the Field,” New York Times Opinion, Monday, July 11, 2022.

[2] Chris Hedges, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021).

[3] Ibid, 78-79.

[4] Ibid, paraphrasing Wilson’s character Loomis, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

[5] Ibid, 79.

[6] I John 4:16b.

July 24, 2022, 7 Pentecost, Proper 12

“When you pray, say…”

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

Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15, [16-19];
Luke 11:1-13