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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Fog of War

2013-11-10 The Fog of War

1 Samuel 17:1-11, 38-50

"...the Lord does not save by sword and spear."

So, I worked long and hard on a sermon for today. It's a real hum-dinger. But then I started reading and thinking a lot about Veteran's Day. So I put the other sermon in Time Out.

I think of you in our congregation who are veterans and I think of all the living veterans of wartime and of peacetime. You deserve so much. You deserve so much more than one day of parades and school assemblies. Those are good; but you deserve more. You deserve more than sentimental attempts at thank-yous from those of us who've barely left the safety of our neighborhoods. You deserve more than what people can give because we've spent three hours watching, "Saving Private Ryan," or all however many versions there are of "Rambo." Or playing "Call of Duty" for days on end. You deserve more.

The Bible is, in many of its pages, a horrible, savage book. It's brutal when speaking of war. It tells what war does to men and to women. It tells of how even children are conscripted into service, sometimes willingly, and sometimes as innocents. Because the Bible is a book written from the perspective of a particular people, it glorifies the victories; it makes war the servant of God and of God's people. That's the luxury of hindsight.

So, thinking of war got me thinking of my favorite war story in the Bible: David and Goliath. That's such a great story. Little shepherd boy David slays giant Goliath with one stone. Yea, David! Yea Israel! Yea, God! That's nice. Church is nice. God is nice. We don't usually read the un-nice parts. We politely censor the ugly bits about sweet shepherd David decapitating Goliath with Goliath's own sword, and then taking the fly-swollen head back for display in Jerusalem. We skip over the slaughter of the retreating Philistines. We don't touch the insanity David's victory brought upon King Saul which eventually led to a military coup. That would take too long. That's not nice.

So we turn the horror, the horror, into a children's story. Like a short a movie with a happy ending. Not that there's anything wrong with children's stories or movies with happy endings. It's just that in these cases they paint less than half the picture. We who want so badly to believe we live in a world of clean lines and Kum By Yah deserve better. Our veterans who understand war's glory and its evil - you all, and we all - deserve better. We deserve truth.


A couple of months ago I watched a movie called, "The Fog of War," on Netflix. That hardly qualifies me as an expert on anything except how to operate Netflix. But it did open my eyes to something other stories and movies had skipped over. "The Fog of War" is a documentary, told mainly through the unscripted words of Robert MacNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam. MacNamara just sits in a room and talks. (I know; But I've seen "The Avengers" about 10 times and I was looking for something different.)

I have to say "The Fog of War" was one of the most fascinating and terrifying things I've ever seen, and I've watched "Breaking Bad." MacNamara is usually portrayed by historians as either a genius or a megalomaniac, depending on your point of view. But the film, I think, allowing his own uncensored arrogance as well as introspection, portrays him as a human being, a brilliant, complex, deeply flawed and deeply dedicated participant in the "fog" of war.

The "fog". It's the thick, chaotic haze where simple right and straightforward wrong blur together into something most of us who've never fought in real combat simply can't get. By the end of the movie, you realize that the enemy isn't so much the human being on the other side of the rifle sights, or the block of color on the drone control screen, but that the true enemy is the fog. The fog that irrevocably changes everyone it touches.


"Voices in Wartime" is an anthology of articles and poetry about war, written by veterans themselves. One of the articles in the book is written by Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent with 15 years of experience in places such as El Salvador, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf.

In his article, titled, "The Collective Madness," Hedges writes, "The reality of combat is nothing like the image I think many of us carry into combat. First of all, there's the factor of fear, which is overpowering in situations where violent death is all around you. Fear is something which you have a constant second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour battle to control. You always have moments in which fear takes control and in which you fail, in which your instincts towards self-preservation make you crumble. And anybody, including soldiers who tell you otherwise and come out of combat, are not telling you the truth.

It's a constant battle against fear. There are always times when fear wins. Courage is not a state. Courage is an act. And I think one of the reasons that those who carry out what we would define as courageous acts are often very reticent to speak about it afterward is because they're not completely sure they could do it again."

Hedges goes on: "I read a psychological study that said that being in sustained combat is the psychological equivalent of being in a car crash in which your best friend is killed. These are very, very heavy things to bear. When we see the distress that is unleashed in those who return, we turn away because the myth is so much more enjoyable than the reality. The myth was peddled to us during the war in Iraq by the cable news networks where the coverage of the war existed in essence as a celebration of our incredibly powerful weapons systems and, by extension, our own power.

"War is not clean," he writes. "War is very messy. War is never as tidy as the images of war make it out to be. In fact, war is just pure chaos. The noise itself is deafening, almost unbearable, overloading your senses, along with everything else. You are assaulted in a way that you are completely knocked off balance emotionally, psychologically, and often physically.

Says Hedges: "We don't want to see and we don't want to hear. We turn our backs on those who come back from war and bear witness to war, and I think this has been true for generations and generations. The reason is because it's so difficult to see, so difficult to look at, so difficult to ingest, and it's so much more enjoyable to ingest the bands playing, the flags waving, and the hero charging up over the hill, which is a lie. It's just not true."


You veterans, please know we are grateful. We can't begin to thank you enough, because we can't understand how war has changed your hearts, your minds, and your souls. On this and every Veteran's Day weekend, we're so, so grateful. But if we're honest, the gratitude that most of us, including myself, feel so strongly, is selfish. In part, it's selfish gratitude. We give you parades and speeches; we say, "Thank you," in large, grandstanding ways, because the bands and grandstands are attempts to compensate for our own guilt over being secretly glad we've never had to see, and feel, and experience battle, and bear the nightmares, and PTSD, and traumatic injuries. You veterans have breathed in the fog; it's in your blood. We've read about it in the safety of our bedrooms, and watched Netflix movies about it.

Which reminds me of a song by Lyle Lovett, which came out during the Iraq War, called, "Natural Forces." Lyle sings,

Now as I sit here safe at home

With a cold Coors Lite an' the TV on

All the sacrifice and the death and war

Lord I pray that I'm worth fighting for

...and then the soldier replies,

An' so thank you ma'am, I must decline

For it's on my RPG I ride.

Till Earth an' hell are satisfied

I'm subject to the natural forces.

Sometimes at night I hear their voices.


The shepherd boy David's shouts to Goliath, that he will win the battle because, "...the Lord does not save by sword and spear." Well, for a moment, that's true. A well-aimed rock to the forehead works just as well, if not better. And while he doesn't save with a sword, David sure picks up one as insurance, as does the whole army of Israel, as they terminate their Philistine foes with extreme prejudice. It's kind of like the saying, "Trust in the Lord, and keep your ammo dry." "The Lord does not save by sword and spear." Maybe not. But David keeps them nearby, just in case. Or maybe David's not talking about himself.

Long years later, a descendant of the house and lineage of David will again arise. This descendant will at last be the one who fulfills the prophecy of David. This new man will truly save his people without lifting sword or spear. Yet Jesus will be pierced by a spear and nailed to a cross in what looks to be epic failure.

The great writer, Frederic Buechner, in his book, The Magnificent Defeat, says,

"...we are free to resist [Christ's love], deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again. This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, in this, the greatest of all powers, God's power, is itself powerless."

Jesus doesn't defeat the armies of war. Jesus defeats the fog. Jesus defeats the fog that confuses the senses of anyone who soldiers for justice and truth and peace. Jesus clarifies. Jesus purifies. Without sword. Without spear.

Jesus saves with relentless, never-surrendering love. This is how God conquers our enemies. This is how God conquers us. This is how God conquers the fog that turns humanity against itself. This is the something better that all soldiers of the war against the fog don't deserve, but receive as a gift of new and everlasting life.


On Veterans Day, we thank you who have tasted the bitterness of war on our behalf. But as well we pray for the day when we will have no more veterans, and no need to thank them, when the words of Scripture will be fulfilled, saying, "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more…." (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

A little boy named Cameron Penny was in the fourth grade in a Michigan school when he wrote this poem. It was originally published in the November/December 2001 issue of North American Review.

If You Are Lucky In This Life

by Cameron Penny

If you are lucky in this life

A window will appear on a battlefield between two armies.

And when the soldiers look into the window

They don't see their enemies

They see themselves as children.

And they stop fighting

And go home and go to sleep.

When they wake up, the land is well again.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

2013-11-03 Hallowmas Part 2: All Saints and All Souls Together

2013-11-03 Hallowmas Part 2: All Saints and All Souls Together
Psalm 139
John 11:20-22, 25-26, 32-36

Last Sunday's Fall Festival was so much fun.
A big "Amen" to Shari and the 
Church Events committee, 
and the cake-bakers, 
the chili-cookers, 
and musical guests, DJ Biggs featuring Cakewalk Hood.
All the kids were adorable.
We had a good time.
But now it's over.
Time to take off the masks.
Time to put away the costumes.
Time to get ready for the next big holiday: Christmas.
I know Thanksgiving's in there, but that's getting to be kinda like driving through KFC on the way to Black Friday.
Either way, time to move on.
Halloween's over.
Well, maybe not quite.
A long time ago, Halloween was All-Hallows' Eve.
It was the start of a three-day holiday (holy days).
Halloween led to All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.
The three together made up Hallowmas.
Halloween was the eve of something that took longer.
Something that stuck with people after the masks came off.
When does your mask come off? Really?
You know you have one.
Everybody does.
It's that, "I'm fine, how are you?" that you put on when you leave the house so you can make it through the day without divulging what's really going on inside your head.
For some, it's the mask of professionalism that hides the fear that you might not really know what you're doing after all.
It might be the mask of cool.

The mask of popularity.

The mask of Goth makeup so so-called normal people leave you alone (although there just aren't a lot of Presbyterians who roll like that).

The mask of smart.

The mask of darn-right-

The mask of I'm-too-nice-to-get-mad-at.

The mask of I-don't-cry, I-don't-get-mad---I-get-even.

Or, I-don't-rock-the-boat-even-
When does that mask come off? 
God forbid it's when people are looking.
It's scary to think we could go from adorable to horrible.
Not that we are horrible.
But it's easy to convince yourself that's how people will see you if you drop the disguise.
Dropping the mask makes us vulnerable.
Vulnerable scares us to death.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

Is that knowledge too wonderful for you? 
Or is it scary?
It's intimate.
The eyesight of God leaves us completely vulnerable.
In the Gospel, Mary and Martha were living through the raw grief of the death of their brother, Lazarus.
They both cried out to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!"
These women were mad at Jesus for not showing up when they called for him.
How do you feel when your calls for Jesus are unanswered?
Jesus, who knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, when he saw his friend's grave, wept.
Does the idea that Jesus would weep over death confuse you? 
Does his deep and public emotion for his friend surprise you?
The Psalmist who knew that God searched and knew him, also confessed that he hated his enemies with perfect hatred, and wished God would strike them dead.
We're afraid of savage honesty.
Even before God.
Maybe especially toward God.
The God who searches us and knows us sees through the masks.
God is not deceived.
God is not frightened.
When we set aside the adorable and confess what seems horrible, we touch the cross of Jesus.
We begin to move past Halloween to something better.
Pastor and writer, Wayne Muller, says:
"Within the sorrow, there is grace.
When we come close to the things which break us down, we also touch the things which break us open, and in that breaking open we uncover our true nature."
Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life."
But to get to resurrection, you have to take up your cross and do some walking through the valleys of the shadow of death.
Maybe not physical death.
Maybe the fire that burns away the masks.
The cross was the start of three very scary "un-holy days."
After Halloween, the church remembers its saints and its soul.
The Bible says the church is the living Body of Christ.
The saints who gather around us and the saints who have gone before us give life to this body.
They remind us that the darkness of All Hallows' Eve is just a beginning.
There is more to come.
Hallowmas doesn't end until the saints and souls see the resurrection and the life that is Jesus the Christ.
When the tears are wiped away and the mourning turns to dancing all the saints and souls will look back on the Eve of All Hallows' and laugh - at what seemed so terrifying beneath the masks.
Those parts of ourselves that scare us so badly, will dissolve away when exposed to the light of Christ.
Go forth to live.
Go forth to live as those who are about to live.
So that we and all saints of this moment may look forward to that day when all souls are gathered at Christ's heavenly table.
When that which scares us is no more.
And that which brings life brings life eternal.
 To God be the glory now and forever more.
Amen and amen.