I remember counseling with a couple years ago who were planning to get married. At one point in our discussion, we were talking about the family patterns in which these two people had grown up, and the groom reflected back on his childhood as one of seven children.
He said, “We lived in a loud house; we were like the ‘Loud’ family from Saturday Night Live a decade or two ago. There was always something going on and someone trying to make a point.” He said that when he got out of the house as a college student, the first thing he noticed was that there are quiet places in the world, “places where you can just listen and hear the wind moving.”
We live in a loud world right now, I think. There is so much noise; literally, with traffic and sirens, dogs barking and music playing from passing cars so loud that it makes your feet quiver even when you are just walking by on the sidewalk. Movies are loud...and the T.V. is loud and the people talking on their cell phones while they sit in their corner of the coffee shop are loud. As a response I think we develop our own internal filtering systems that blot out the unwanted noise. The sad thing is that in filtering out the junk, just like the junk mail filter on an email service, we sometimes – more often than we may know, filter out the healthy stuff, the good stuff as well.
God is never silent in our lives, yet often you will hear people remark that they have trouble seeing the relevance of “God-talk” to the challenges and problems and issues and dreams that occupy their lives. It is Clint Eastwood, the actor who famously said, “When you have been around as long as I have, you don’t ruin your life by thinking too much.” I would agree that it is often possible to over-think an issue – especially when there is the noise of so many competing voices and concerns with which we are always contending, but we could all benefit from resetting our filters with an openness to understand what God is about in our lives. For even through the tears of tragedy, even through the waste of gallons of oil spilling in the Gulf of Mexico, or the ruin of a bombed out building testimony to still one more suicide bomb in downtown Bagdad, or the still-empty construction site which was the world trade center in New York – in all these things, God is speaking too.
“We rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God is poured into our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
That verse out of the Letter to the Romans, thought by many to be the most important of Paul’s letters, is not saying that tragedy or pain makes us happy, even though the word rejoice is the word he chooses, rather he is saying that God, the author of hope is about the business of helping us to transform our sadness, our losses, our anger into something positive through the power of love. “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming,” said Helen Keller, blind and deaf from birth. She often talked about her lot in life as a blessing, which allowed her, not to see the manmade world, but to experience the world that is made by God.
It is the same world, if we open our hearts to hear and see it and drop the filters that often obscure the ways in which God continues to pour love into our world in extraordinary ways. As Paul says later on in Romans, “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes.” What this means is that by faith we discover that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ in us can transform even the worst human situation into something that is redemptive.
The musical Man of La Mancha is the story of the crazy old knight, Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is always “tilting at windmills” which has become an idiom in current English to mean a fruitless battle against a trumped-up enemy…or some such thing. The Don’s squire sings a song in the musical that asks the question, “Why does he do the things he does?” Why does he risk his life and limb to prove some point of gallantry? Why does he barge instead of just leaving things lie?
The answer, I think, for Don Quixote is not unlike an answer Paul might have given – one finds strength in the endeavor to be faithful to God in the power of hope to overcome what is evil – to redeem that which is negative God empowers us with character, equipping us to engage on the cause of justice. Character, said General Colin Powell, “is the way we live our lives when nobody else is watching.”
One summer morning as Ray Blankenship was preparing his breakfast, he gazed out the window, and saw a small girl being swept along in the rain-flooded drainage ditch beside his Andover, Ohio, home. Blankenship knew that farther downstream, the ditch disappeared with a roar underneath a road and then emptied into the main culvert. Ray dashed out the door and raced along the ditch, trying to get ahead of the floundering child.
Then he hurled himself into the deep, churning water. Blankenship surfaced and was able to grab the child’s arm. They tumbled end over end. Within about three feet of the yawning culvert, Ray’s free hand felt something—possibly a rock—protruding from one bank. He clung desperately, but the tremendous force of the water tried to tear him and the child away. “If I can just hang on until help comes,” he thought.
He did better than that. By the time fire-department rescuers arrived, Blankenship had pulled the girl to safety. Both were treated for shock. On April 12, 1989, Ray Blankenship was awarded the Coast Guard’s Silver Lifesaving Medal. The award is fitting, for this selfless person was at even greater risk to himself than most people knew. Ray Blankenship can’t swim.
My grandmother, a Great Depression widow when W.W. II began with two sons, both in the service, used to listen to Paul Harvey religiously. Paul was the author of that story of Ray Blankenship – I used to wonder why in the world she was so dedicated to that odd voice on the radio. Now I realize that it was because of stories like Ray’s. She needed to hear stories of hope – stories of how God is at work. For how does God’s word come to us? It comes through the stories of those who have “tilted at windmills” and overcome. That is how ordinary people like you and I are claimed by hope. We need to tune in these stories and hear them with honesty and with the purpose of listening for how God has and is acting through people just like us. In a noisy world, where we need to turn to hear God’s word more clearly is to the stories of those who have embodied the character of hope that Paul was describing.
This morning’s New York Times has a cover story about the FETS -Female Engagement Teams - that are now deploying in Afghanistan. These are women Marines who travel the hard trails with the patrols penetrating into Taliban country in the southeastern part of the country. The women are able to enter homes without terrorizing the residents – though it is risky with just elementary Pashtu language skills – they engage the women of the villages, intercede between them and medical officers to provide health care for women and young children and in the process win more than just the territory that their brothers in arms are fighting for – they help win hearts. As exposed as the male marines to the enemy, they also represent at one time a very foreign culture to the Afghanis whose women never join the army; they never even leave the house or back yard in most cases. Yet, by their presence and their courage they are able to break through barriers that others are not. This is character – this is another example of the ways in which human beings can become agents of transformation.
John Basilone was a golf caddy when he joined the army. He left the service in the 30’s and drove a truck for a while before he re-enlisted as a marine. This Italian-American from Raritan, New Jersey, was a good boy but nothing special until on Guadalcanal, the three machine guns he commanded as a gunnery sergeant held off an attack of more than 3,000 Japanese forces. For 48 hours he never stopped defending his line and he ended up winning the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary efforts.
He was one of the characters featured in the recent HBO 10 part series on World War II in the Pacific. I feel a kindred connection with him – not because I ever knew him, but because of the power of his story. He became a hero – but did not particularly like the attention he was given. Though his tour was over, he re-enlisted in the Marines and died on Iwo Jima. His is an extraordinary story, but what is more extraordinary is the thousands and thousands of citizen soldiers like him who responded to the call to serve in World Ward II, then Korea, then Viet Nam and now in the two wars that are on their way to being the longest engagements in U.S. History. Memorial Day provides us an occasion each year to remember these citizen heroes – these men and women of valor who for the most part would tell you they were just ordinary folks. Many of them are sitting here among us this morning. Many others never came back.
My father and my uncle never talked about the war – ever. In very different assignments they did what they were asked to do. War is the ultimate test, and as a recent Newsweek article says, some of the men now in Afghanistan on the front lines “worry that they’ll never again be satisfied with a ‘normal life.’ – whatever that is – after the amount of combat they’ve been in. They worry that they may have been ruined for anything else.” Much of what they experience they will only be able to share with others who were there and that means we will go on fanaticizing about the glory of the battle without hearing of the internal conflicts that will plague these veterans as they have plagued all veterans throughout their lives. We who were not there need to listen – and not filter out the sounds of these conflicting feelings that come through the stories of our heroes. We need to listen to hear the honest truth about simple men and women being enabled to do extraordinary things. “War should not be mythologized,” writes author Evan Thomas, but it should be remembered. “It is well that war is so terrible,” General Robert E. Lee once observed, “lest we grow too fond of it.” We need to listen and cut through the patriotic noise and acknowledge what has been done for us with the hope each year that by next Memorial Day, we will not be calling up new recruits to follow in the same path.
When Paul talks about hope, he is not talking about fantasy. “I hope to win the lottery!” – that, considering the odds, is fantasy. “I want to serve my neighbor and my God in whatever task I am called to serve.” - that is hope. Those who serve our country, those who serve our community, those who serve their neighbor through churches just like ours, are just ordinary people through whom the power of hope has poured. It behooves us to be familiar with their stories.
That hope is what has enabled our heroes – heroes of war and heroes of peace. That is the hope that allows us to do the things we need to do – that is the hope through which God is still working in Christ Jesus to transform the world. Amen.