Sunday, May 29, 2022

What is worth dying for?

What is worth dying for? Since World War II, the United States has fought thirteen wars of varying intensity and lethality. They ranged from the Korean War and Vietnam to the rescue operation of the vessel Mayaguez during the Ford administration. During my own years of Army service, we invaded Grenada, Panama, Somalia, and sent Marines to Beirut, where hundreds of them died. We also fought our first war with Iraq. I need not remind anyone of the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The movie Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts infantry. The 54th was the first all-black regiment of the Civil War. In July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts was cited for bravery after a pitched battle on James Island, South Carolina. At dusk the next day the regiment carried out an attack against Fort Wagner, which guarded Charleston harbor. Almost half the regiment’s 600 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry of the Civil War

The 54th was reconstituted and later distinguished itself in other battles in Georgia and South Carolina. They knew the stakes for them were higher than for white soldiers: if captured, they would be either summarily executed or enslaved by the South, including black soldiers born freemen in the North. Even so, by the end of the Civil War more than 175,000 Americans of African descent had volunteered to serve the Union, finally accounting for ten percent of Union forces.

During the United States' incursion into Panama in 1989, I served on the Battle Management Cell of XVIII Airborne Corps. We sent an infantry platoon by helicopter to a bank of the Panama Canal to attack a Panamanian army position blocking access across the canal. The choppers hovered a couple of feet above a dry, level flat in the canal, exposed by low tide. The troops jumped off, only to discover it was not dry, it was mud. Weighed down by sixty or more pounds of equipment, the soldiers sank above their ankles. They were stuck. Panamanian gunners began peppering them with fire, driving the helicopters away. 

Thirty American soldiers might have died like ducks on a pond had not a miracle occurred. Panamanian men and women who lived along the canal saw what was happening. Dozens of them ran out onto the mud flat and formed a chain to the American troops. They took the soldiers’ heavy gear and passed it hand-to-hand to the shore, enabling the troops to clamber to the bank. Some of these brave Panamanian men and women were hit by the gunfire of their own army.

The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts and the civilian men and women of Panama knew that freedom is worth dying for.

William Manchester won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of President Kennedy. Manchester was a Marine in World War 2 who fought in the battle for Okinawa. In his memoir, Goodbye, Darkness, Manchester wrote, “Among men who fight together there is an intense love.” Wounded, though not badly, Manchester was evacuated to a field hospital, where he later found out his unit was ordered to make another amphibious assault farther up the island. The thought of his friends facing danger without him to help, he said, “was just intolerable... . Those men on the line were my family, my home. They were closer to me than I can say. I had to be with them, rather than let them die and me live with the knowledge that I might have saved them.” He went AWOL from the honorable safety of the field hospital and rejoined his unit. He was horribly wounded by artillery in the ensuing battle. 

Love is worth dying for. 

More than one million, one hundred thousand American men and women have died in battle. I think they would agree with General William T. Sherman that the just aim of war can be only a more just peace. Probably every veteran has experienced a moment when the imponderable awfulness of what soldiers do makes them stop and give cry to a deep-rooted hope for a better world, populated with better people. Soldiers pray for God to come near when the fog of battle closes in. They see only dimly that out of blood and death there might come a brotherly world.


This hope is not forlorn. In October 1999, some American and Japanese veterans of the battle of Pearl Harbor went to Kyushu, where is the port from which the Japanese fleet had sailed to make the attack. The site is now a peace park. These men, once mortal enemies, gathered to plant cherry trees in honor of their reconciliation. Richard Fiske, who survived the sinking of USS West Virginia, said that as the trees grow, they hoped children would understand what the trees and the park represented, “because,” he said, “if we don’t tell our little ones, our future is none. We give ourselves to them. They carry the future.”

That is why we recognize Memorial Day, not to glorify war, but to pray for peace. Peace is worth dying for yet achieving peace has been the most elusive goal in human history.

Freedom, love, and peace form a trinity of remembrance on Memorial Day. Our honored dead lie slain because they loved their country. They sought to preserve our freedom. And they died in the hope of securing a more just peace. Throughout history, human beings have realized that the ultimate goods attainable have tended to require the ultimate sacrifices possible. 

Maybe you can see where I am going with this. The greatest good attainable for creation is its full reconciliation with God. And that is being brought about by the greatest sacrifice possible, that of God’s own self in the person of Jesus Christ. 

I do not wish to sentimentalize American military dead into Christ figures. Yet we are living off the inheritance of those who gave their lives for us, beginning with the 4,435 patriots who died in battle in the Revolutionary War. What can we do with this inheritance now? We will either squander it or work for its perfection. 

It is the same with our inheritance from the sacrifice of Christ. Our inheritance from Christ is citizenship in the Kingdom of God and the promise of eternal life. Each day we fail to be faithful to Christ, we squander our inheritance. Only by doing the continuing work of Christ to bring all God’s people into God’s family, as brothers and sisters in the family of Christ, do we move on to perfection.

That is something worth more than dying for. It is something worth living for: the peace of Christ, the love of God and the freedom of the Gospel of salvation.

In April 1942, Lt. Col. James Doolittle led sixteen small bombers on the first bombing mission against Japan. Jacob DeShazer was a bombardier on the sixteenth plane. They bombed Nagoya and flew on to China, where they were captured by the Japanese. They were tortured mercilessly. They contracted dysentery and beri-beri because of the deplorable conditions under which they were confined. Three of the crew were executed in October.

The other five men suffered a starvation diet, their health rapidly deteriorating. One died. A year later the four survivors began to receive a slight improvement in their treatment. The Japanese gave them a single copy of the Bible, which DeShazer had never read. DeShazer waited six months to have his turn to read it. He read it cover to cover more than a dozen times. DeShazer credited his survival to accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ from that lone Bible.

In 1948, DeShazer was sent back to Japan to testify in war crimes trials of his captors. He stayed for thirty years, preaching the Gospel around Japan. He established a church in Nagoya, the city he had bombed. 

One man who learned of DeShazer’s witnessing was named Mitsuo Fuchida. Fuchida converted to Christianity in 1949 and met DeShazer the next year. Fuchida became an evangelist, preaching in Japan and all over the world. He lived a few years in the United States before retiring in Japan.

Do you recognize the name, Mitsuo Fuchida? On December 7, 1941, he had commanded the air armada that attacked Pearl Harbor. In 1952, after becoming an evangelist, he said in an interview, “Christianity has opened my eyes, and I hope through Christ to help young people of Japan” to learn to love their former enemy, America. Speaking in 1959 at Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, he said that after the war he had observed American missionaries in Tokyo feeding the starving and teaching the “ways of Christ.” Such forgiveness, he said, made him want to know more of the Christ “they professed to love.” One of his talks was called “From Pearl Harbor to Calvary – My Testimony.” 

Mitsuo Fuchida and Jacob DeShazer

Mitsuo Fuchida, who had bombed Pearl Harbor, died in 1976. The man who had bombed Nagoya, tortured POW Jacob DeShazer, conducted his funeral in Japan.

Let us pray:

Gracious God, we come before you as part of your global family, thankful for your generous love and abundant blessings. May we honor your holy name by living up to the inheritance of your salvation, as we bear the name of your son, Jesus Christ our savior, with passion for his work of reconciliation of all the world. 

May your vision of peace and justice be realized and enacted among nations finally at rest from war, among families at peace with each other, and hearts that find their rest in you. Lead us to that day when every tear is dried, every life is fulfilled and the law of love is written on our hearts.

We thank you, Lord, for the lives of all those whose sacrifices have made our freedom possible. We beg your grace for our country and your wisdom to guide each of our citizens. Let us not squander the freedom we have been given by those who died to preserve it. 

Remove from human beings the arrogance of power, our trust in anger, our reliance on weapons, and our love of violence. Chasten us with humility and strengthen our trust in you. Make us agents of your peace in all places. Amen.


Sunday, May 15, 2022

What happened to Jesus' body?


The entire Christian religion stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. With no resurrection, we could follow Christ’s teachings and ethics and live fairly good, decent lives. But in the end, Paul says, it wouldn't matter. In the end there would loom before us the cold desolation of the grave and our loss to eternity. If Christ is not raised, we have put our faith in a falsehood. We have begged for God’s grace on the basis of something untrue. We are still trapped by our sins and have no way out. Truly, if Christ is not raised, we would be pitiful. 
 
But in fact, Christ was raised from the dead. Indeed, Jesus’ resurrection is the central event in all human history. The resurrection is God’s ultimate saving act in the world. All gifts of grace from God are intended to bring us to believe in our hearts that Jesus was raised and to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Having made that confession, God’s grace leads us to live as Easter people.
 
We are redeemed by God's grace through our faith in Christ because God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self. Saving faith is in the living person of Christ. 
  • Jesus’ teachings are not the object of our faith. All of Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings are found in the Jewish scriptures. 
  • Jesus’ miracles are not the object of our faith. 
  • The accounts and testimony about Jesus in Scripture are divinely inspired, but the Bible is not the object of our faith. 
  • The Christian faith is faith in Jesus Christ himself as the risen one.
This faith is not merely acknowledging that the resurrection happened. The apostle James observed that even hell-bound opponents of God acknowledge the truth about God. Merely assenting to the truth of the claims of Christianity isn’t the point. Saving faith is to stake one’s life on the Christian claims. It is to place the person of Jesus Christ at the center of one’s own identity, the center of one’s relationship with God and others.

One of the historical facts of the first Easter is that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. On that day, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus. He had been transformed from a broken, bloody, ravaged, and shattered corpse into the glorified Risen Lord. At first, Mary did not recognize him, mistaking him for a cemetery caretaker. Jesus was raised bodily from death, but it seems that the same fleshly body that went into the tomb was not the very same body of the risen Lord. 
 
When Mary talked with the risen Lord, she knew he was still Jesus. His identity continued from his life into his resurrection. But the embodiment of his resurrection, the Christ, was not the same as his embodiment as Jesus.
 
In fact, it is not obvious why the tomb was opened. Was it to let Jesus out? The risen Jesus didn’t have any problem entering locked and shuttered rooms where the disciples had gathered. Probably the tomb was opened to let the women and Peter and John in so they could confirm that death had no hold on their Lord.
 
So: what Was Jesus’ resurrection? It was not simply the reanimation or resuscitation of a lifeless body. Compare the resurrection of Jesus with the resuscitation of Lazarus in John 11. There, Jesus stood at the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb, wherein Lazarus has lain for four days. Jesus commanded, “Lazarus, come forth!” 
The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go” (vv. 43-44).
That is what a resuscitated corpse was like. But Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb on Friday but on Sunday the tomb was empty. The grave wrappings they had put on Jesus’ body were still in the tomb.
It would seem that identity, not materiality, carries over from this life to the resurrected life, but that is not easily grasped, as even Paul saw.
 
So what happened to the body of Christ? The Bible does tell us: 

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it1 Cor. 12.27
 
No one of us dares claim that he or she is the body of the risen Christ, but we do declare it together as a church. Jesus of Nazareth was God embodied on earth. The Christian church is Christ embodied on earth. If this claim is true, then within our church we should be able to see, hear, feel and do what Jesus did. So let’s look at what Jesus did, and see whether we embody them now.
 
Jesus pointed to God. If there is anything that always bursts forth in the life of Christ, it is Jesus’ extraordinary God consciousness. Jesus did not know God as some cosmic clockmaker who wound the universe up and then went on vacation while creation runs on its own. For Jesus, God was Abba, Father. Actually, it really means “Daddy.” Jesus knew and declared a God of incredibly close relationship to human beings.
 
Jesus proclaimed the Word of God. In his preaching and teaching, Jesus’ overriding message was to return to God. God is to be worshiped and praised, but just as importantly, God is to be honored. To honor God calls for more than worship and praise. It requires a reorientation of life and society. It is a call to justice and reconciliation.
 
Jesus suffered and died. He did not turn away from doing God’s will even at the cost of his life. Jesus’ suffering was not the point of his ministry, but it was unavoidable to carry out his ministry, because the entrenched powers of the world opposed the godly life Jesus proclaimed.
 
Jesus shared his table with his friends. There are one hundred references in the gospels to Jesus eating. In Jesus’ community, table fellowship was one of the chief signs of the Kingdom of God. Jesus knew that it is not possible to cross swords with someone who shares your bread. It is at table that families are formed, which is why our fellowship meals are literally godly gatherings.
 
Jesus befriended the poor and the marginalized. Some people in his day had been discarded by society’s mainstream. Widows, the poor, prostitutes, sinners of every stripe and women generally found that all doors were shut to them. Jesus took them in and made them citizens of his kingdom. He brought in the powerful and privileged, too. He left out no one, even a thief hanging on the next cross over.

Jesus healed the sick. People came to Jesus when they had no other hope. They sought Jesus and Jesus sought them. In God’s grace and God’s power, Jesus healed them.
 
Jesus prayed. Jesus was a person of continual inquiry and confession with God. Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. Prayer is the most intimate speech a human being can have. It is to pull open one’s soul before the ultimate keeper of the soul. Jesus prayed in gladness, in action, in love, in despair, in agony and in the last breath of life. There was no circumstance or occasion that Jesus did not pervade and surround with prayer.
 
There are many more things Jesus did, of course. I’m not trying to make an exhaustive list. When the Christians in Corinth read Paul’s letter reminding them that they knew Christ had been raised, I think some recollections of Jesus’ life like this must have been remembered. And in remembering, they saw in themselves the risen savior, because they did, however imperfectly, what Jesus did.
 
The church points to God. The church calls the world to God and reveals God as one who can be known and admitted into close relationship with every human being. The church proclaims the word of God and worships God. The church honors God in its work for justice and reconciliation. The Word and work of the church calls society to live as God intended.
 
The church suffers and sometimes dies. It is almost incomprehensible that the Christian faith and its works flourish where its persecution is greatest. While we in America don’t suffer for our faith, our brothers and sisters in Christ in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China, North Korea, and many other places are being imprisoned or killed today because they proclaim Christ.
 
We share our table with one another. More than that, we share our food with the hungry. The works of Christian relief agencies have staved off starvation in Bangladesh, Africa and South America. In any American city today, Catholic and Protestant missions are all that stand between many poor people and terrible hunger.

The church brings in the poor and offers comfort to the sinners of the world. We are all sinners, yes, but there are many people who have become so entrapped in sin and fallenness that the secular world would just drop them from sight. But inside prisons and drug-rehab centers, in the lives of the chronically homeless, we find the church.

The church heals the sick. It was not an atheist association that built Baptist Hospital or St. Thomas hospital. Around the world, medical relief missions work to inoculate children, conquer disease and improve preventive medicine practices in third world countries. Mother Theresa’s order of Sisters of Mercy was the last hope for countless thousands of the lowest caste of Indians suffering in the gravest crises. It is no coincidence that Mother Theresa was a disciple of Jesus Christ and not of some pagan deity or secular humanism.
 
The church prays. We remain in continual confession and inquiry before God. In the sum of our prayers we bare the world’s soul. We overcome life’s tragedy because we know that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that no thing that exists or can be imagined can block us from approaching God with confidence in his mercy.

There is one thing left. Jesus loved. Jesus was the supreme lover of all time. It is in this love we find Christ’s greatest presence. Without this love we are lost and empty; with it we are a holy people, fit for God’s works. Our love does not evoke the sappy sentimentality of simple romanticism or the giggly goofiness of erotic titillation.

Our love is patient and kind. It is not envious or boastful or proud, it is not rude or self-serving or easily angered. Our love keeps no record of wrongs. Our love protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Our love never fails. In our faith we have hope, but our love is greater than faith or hope. Our love reaches out instead of turning in. It builds up rather than knocks down. It values and cherishes rather than degrades or derides.

The Corinthians knew, and we know too, that this love does not—could not— come from ourselves. It is far greater and deeper than anything we could bring forth. We know we did not have this love or live this life until we encountered the Gospel and took the chance that maybe the most fantastic of all tales could really be true: that the tomb really was empty and that Jesus really does live. 
 
The Corinthian Christians are long dead, the apostles have turned to dust. But generation after generation of Christian people have suffered, healed, prayed and proclaimed, all on a single declaration, that Christ is raised.

What happened to Christ’s body? Well, look around you, look around. Here it is, all of us together.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

A Methodist Conference May Not Separate - Unless It Does

US Conferences Can’t Leave the United Methodist Church, Rules UMC's Judicial Council (Link)

While the denomination’s Book of Discipline has provisions for individual churches wishing to leave the United Methodist Church with their properties, there’s nothing within church law that would allow an annual conference — one of the United Methodist Church’s 53 regional networks of churches and ministries within the United States — to do the same, according to the denomination’s Judicial Council.

The Judicial Council ruled Tuesday (May 10) that only the General Conference, the denomination’s global decision-making body, can determine the process and conditions for annual conferences to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church.

And the General Conference hasn’t done that.

“There is no basis in Church law for any annual conference to adopt stopgap policies, pass resolutions, take a vote, or act unilaterally for the purpose of removing itself from The United Methodist Church,” Decision 1444 reads.

I am an ordained, retired UMC minister. In the UMC a conference is basically the same as a Catholic diocese - a defined geographical area with the churches therein under the leadership of a bishop. An "annual conference" is simply a convention of clergy and elected lay delegates of the conference, meeting once per year. The Judicial Council is exactly right that there is no provision in the UMC's canon law, The Book of Discipline, that permits a conference to depart the denomination. However, individual congregations have been permitted to depart the denomination, with conditions, since 2019. 

Consider, though the U.S. Supreme Court's 1869 case, Texas v. White. Chief Justice Salmon Chase wrote in the majority opinion that no provision in the Constitution permits a state to secede. Yet Chase wrote that states may nonetheless secede in two ways. One was by consent of the other states (Chase did not say how) and the other was simply that it declares secession and makes it stick.

In other words, a state may not secede from the Union - unless it does! And that is exactly where we are in the UMC with US domestic conferences and their potential departures. A conference may not depart the denomination - unless it does. (Overseas conferences already have existing ways to leave the UMC.)

For the record, I do not support any conference attempting to withdraw, and I cannot imagine how such a motion in my own conference would even come before the delegates for a vote. However, I have read that two or three US conferences have taken some steps toward separation. 

If a conference decides to withdraw from the denomination and is not compelled to remain, then its withdrawal becomes fait accompli. And since compulsion will not, of course, be by physical force, that leaves only persuasion or court order. Persuasion will not work, it is too far gone for that. And courts' histories on accepting cases about a church's or denomination's internal affairs is that they don't. The courts deal with US law, not UMC canon law.

There are legally enforceable real-property trust clauses that would have to dealt with for a departure. Briefly, conferences hold their real property in legal trust for use by the denomination. But if a conference does not contest them, there is nothing else to stop it. 

On May 1 of this year, the Global Methodist Church formally began as a new denomination. Its main founders are former United Methodist laity and clergy who would have remained in the denomination at least until the announced UMC General Conferences had taken place. A General Conference is the only body that has authority to set denominational policy, rules, and procedures. 

One was scheduled for May 2020, at which the first item of business was to have been a vote on a "Protocol" shepherded by the UMC's bishops to permit and fund "breakaway" churches and conferences, disabling the trust clauses so that those churches could keep their real property. (There were other matters, but I want to keep it simple here.) 

However, the meeting venue canceled the 2020 GC because of Covid. Some time later, the GC was rescheduled for late August of this year. Then in March of this year, "the Commission on General Conference announced it was postponing the meeting again — this time to 2024. Though COVID-19 numbers have dropped in the United States, the commission said, delegates living outside the country are having trouble getting visas to travel to the in-person gathering."

And so the GMC's organizers and backers went forward. That said, despite the Judicial Council's recent ruling, conferences are already leaving the UMC. But they are doing it one church at a time, over time. As I said, The Discipline does specify how local churches can sever from the UMC, and they are doing it at an increasing pace. In Florida, for example (not where I live) more than 100 individual churches have left the UMC, which is 20 percent of all the churches in the conference. We will probably see this at an increasing pace. 

So, by the time of the 2024 GC, votes relating to departing the denomination may be more pro forma than substantive, although funding will still be addressed (probably vigorously).

See also:

Bishop Schnase offers prophetic assessment of UMC

Death throes of the Blue Model church

Friday, May 13, 2022

Evil never draws boundaries - here is proof


From former senior NYT reporter Bari Weiss:

The House Pro-Choice Caucus has just released official new language guidance: “Choice” is categorized as “harmful language” when talking about abortion. Yes, as the battle of a lifetime heats up, the House of Representatives’ Pro-Choice Caucus announced that their own name is problematic. Instead of “choice,” the better word is “decision.” They’re getting this from a Planned Parenthood document that argues that the word “choice” implies freedom that many black women don’t have.

From that same document: Instead of saying “pro-choice,” the new preferred phrase is: “Pro-abortion.” Yes: pro-abortion. Is this a joke? It is not.

Dems also have formally dropped the quite effective phrase “safe, legal, and rare,” since rare implies there’s anything wrong with copious abortions. Again, that’s real. Where activists once made huge inroads talking about abortion as a private, difficult choice a woman sometimes needs to make, they now argue it’s not a choice, that it’s not about women, and anyway the act should be celebrated.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Evil knows no limit

As someone commented at the tweet, "As an atheist I don't believe in gods and devils, but I'm having to think deeply on the nature of evil these days."

This is what abortion supporters want to protect: 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Trusting the shepherd

John 10:22-30

   22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
   25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
   28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

Psalm 23:1 6 King James Version

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The National Geographic once ran a story about the Rabari people of India. The Rabari are pastoral nomads, a sheepherding people. When the shepherds take their flocks out into the fields, they all come together for the night. As many as five thousand sheep of several different flocks will be crowded together. The shepherds will take turns keeping watch. Some sleep while others patrol the perimeter of the great flock. The patrolling shepherds bang their staffs and rattle things in the dark so that predators or thieves will be scared away and so the sheep will know they are being protected. 

A Rabari shepherd

But at daybreak, things change. Each shepherd calls his own sheep. Each shepherd has different calls, handed down through generations. They give a certain morning call to move out and there are other calls throughout the day, for water, for instance. Each shepherd knows his own sheep and each sheep knows the calls of its own shepherd. The sheep disentangle themselves from the huge flock and follow their shepherd.

Just think of the all the different voices we hear each day. By voices, I do not mean only spoken words, but things that demand our attention. Just this week, Reuters news service reported that two-thirds of American adults play computer games, and most of them play on their smart phones as well as consoles of personal computers.  The number of players is higher at younger ages.

But of course, our phones do call us by ringing, by signaling we have messages or emails or alarms or alerts. We hear them as so demanding that someone apologized to me not long ago for answering an email after a few hours rather than immediately. 

Studies say that each one of us is bombarded by about three thousand advertising messages every day. New and improved! Special today only! But wait, there’s more! Add to them the constant noises of other voices, some we like to hear, some we don’t: our children’s laughter, our spouse’s whispers, our boss’s grouches, the eye-in-the-sky traffic reporter with more bad news about the commute. Don’t forget the callers on the phone, the curses of office workers at their computers viewing the infamous Windows blue screen of death, the background wails of country or rock or rap. . . it’s a wonder we don’t just go insane from all the racket!

 In 1989 Manuel Noriega holed up inside the Papal Nuncio in Panama City, hotly pursued by the US Army. The Papal Nuncio was a diplomatic mission of the Vatican. American forces could not enter, so they surrounded the place. The day after Christmas, Army psychological warfare troops decided to blast Noriega out – with noise. They brought in amplifiers huge and loudspeakers, pointing them toward the mission. They played rock music at unbelievably high volume hoping to drive Noriega out. Their repertoire was heavy and intended to reinforce Noriega’s futile position. They played songs like, “I Fought the Law and the Law Won,” “Born to Run,” “Judgement Day,” “Nowhere Man,” and “Just Like Jesse James.” On January 3 Noriega surrendered, perhaps thinking of the title of the Tremeloes’ 1967 hit, “Silence is Golden.” 

But prolonged silence is not golden, as it turns out. In the late 1950s, the Air Force conducted isolation experiments as part of space flight research. They immersed volunteer pilots in airtight, soundproof breathing gear underwater in total darkness. They discovered that total isolation and silence causes hallucinations and was deeply disturbing to the pilots. 

Inmates in prison find that true solitary confinement, separated from all the others, is unbearable. When I visited death row at River Bend prison, I discovered that none of the condemned share cells. At the most they each get one hour per day out of the cell, and not at the same time. They call to each other almost constantly through the narrow slits in the cell doors. Any voice coming back is treasured. 

Neither constant noise nor unbroken silence can be long endured. Yet the image of the Rabari shepherds calling their flocks in the morning offers a paradigm for us ultra-technical folks in the USA. We all experience that time between night’s silence and day’s brassy noisiness. There is a seam of quietude for most of us that is neither day nor night, neither silence nor noise. So many persons take their daily prayers and devotions then, perhaps because the still, small voice of God can be best heard in such times. But to hear, we have to listen.

 The King James version of Luke relates that when Pontius Pilate brought Jesus to face the crowd, Pilate told the crowd that he would have Jesus flogged and then released. But the crowd shouted for Jesus to be crucified. “And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed” (Luke 23:23b). 

Daily we must choose whose voice will prevail. Amid the clamor and noise, or in times of quiet and still, let us hear our Lord’s voice most persistently, and let it prevail. 

---------------------

I want to say a word about the 23d Psalm. Certainly it must be the best-known Psalm and may be the best-known passage in the whole Bible. It may even have become a cliche. One of my correspondents reported seeing a tee-shirt for sale at the Mall of America that said:

Though I walk through
The Mall of America
I shall Fear No Evil
For with Time and Plastic in
my Pocket
There’s Nothing to Fear Anyway.

Something in the Psalm speaks a special assurance of Christ’s abiding care and presence, and Christ’s sure love. Here are a couple of snapshots.

Texas media mogul Bob Buford, in his book The Second Half tells of losing his son in the Rio Grande River. Forty-one trackers searched for him, and Buford himself hired airplanes, helicopters, boats, trackers with dogs (“everything that money could buy”), and then Buford walked along a limestone bluff 200 feet above the river, “as frightened as I’ve ever felt,” he wrote.

 “Here’s something you can’t dream your way out of,” I told myself. “Here’s something you can’t think your way out of. Here’s something you can’t buy your way out of. Here’s something you can’t work your way out of . . . .”

“This is,” Buford thought to himself while walking that river bluff, “something you can only trust your way out of.”

Ellen Bergh wrote an Upper Room devotional that reflected upon the 23rd Psalm. She related being on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train as it rolled through some of Oregon’s most scenic countryside. Everyone craned their necks and talked excitedly with one another as the train rolled through green forests. A shining lake gleamed through the trees, and cheerful conversation filled the air.

Suddenly the train entered a tunnel. Instantly, the light, airy feeling was gone, like a candle blown out. Expecting the sun to reappear quickly, Ellen was uncomfortable as it became even darker. It was a long tunnel.

The passengers’ happy sounds stopped. Everyone sat silent in the inky darkness. The longer they traveled in the tunnel, the harder it was to remain calm without any visual cues to reassure them. Even the movement of the train seemed to fall away into pitch darkness. When they came out of the tunnel, laughter and relief filled the compartment.

“My life in Christ is like that train ride,” Ellen reflected. “Events may plunge me into darkness where I have no clues to sense the Lord’s presence. Yet I can trust God is with me even when I can’t see what lies ahead.”  

There is probably no passage more requested for funerals than the 23d Psalm, perhaps because it makes clear that Christ’s grace and care extend through death or the threat of death. A man named Bob Timberlake was a member of the first church I served. He had had returned from sixteen missions as pilot of a B-17 bomber over Germany in World War Two. His plane was shot down on number seventeen and he spent ten months as a POW. He told me how he would read this Psalm before every mission and in the POW camp. It was a prayer, a plea, and an affirmation. I am convinced he read this Psalm not because he was fearful but because he was brave. 

Yet we need to recognize that this is a Psalm of movement. It is a lesson to follow even when – or especially when – we don’t know where we are going. It is a Psalm teaching us to trust, not promising we will know. For it is in the gap between knowledge and trust wherein resides our faith. 

Jesus leads. We follow. He knows us as his own. We know his voice and listen. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. 

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...