Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Philippians 1) transports me to the the Thailand-Burma border, where a Burmese missionary is recruiting Vietnam veteran John Rambo to accompany him up the Salween River on a humanitarian enterprise, in hopes of rescuing some Karenni tribe Prisoners of War. Rambo, subject as he is to flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms that send him straight back into serious combat mode, may seem to be an odd recruit for a team of missionaries. But that is precisely the dramatic tension the movie creates, the juxtaposition of faith and violence. The trailer for this final installment of Rambo films knocks us over the head with the tension, as we hear someone paraphrasing the Prayer of Saint Francis in a voice-over to a scene that shows Sylvester Stallone bludgeoning and slashing the enemy in predictably bloody fashion. Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love, where there is darkness, light. For it is in giving we receive. It is in pardoning we are pardoned. It is in dying that we awake to eternal life. And then the teaser ends with Rambo’s voice: When you’re pushed, killing is as easy as breathing.
You could certainly make the claim that the apostle Paul was pushed – he was after, all, a veritable POW, held hostage by a cruel occupying Roman force. But for Paul, praying, not killing, was what came easy; he breathed the power of love. Paul was subject to a different set of flashbacks – he was prone to remember the cross and the traumatic sufferings Jesus endured and his own complicity in the Empire’s attempts at ethnic cleansing of Christians. These “first blood” memories would send him straight into peacemaking mode. He wrote his letter to the Philippian Christians from a Roman prison camp, but he didn’t call for a special ops unit to come to his rescue. He knew that the battle had already been won, and he expressed thanksgiving. He prayed for love and joy to abound among the Philippians, even as he suffered. Later on in the letter he would break into song, reminding the believers of what Jesus had done and encouraging them to imitate Christ. The lyrics of that early church hymn in Philippians 2 became the inspiration for a real life Rambo – Dottie Rambo – to write a praise song of her own: He left the splendor of heaven, knowing his destiny was the lonely hill of Golgotha, there he lay down his life for me. If that isn’t love. . .
The Singing Rambos (I love the name of Dottie’s group, especially in light of the John Rambo character), also gave the gospel music world one of my favorite songs – roll back the curtain of memory now and then, show me where you brought me from and where I might have been. The song acknowledges our human propensity to forget, and our need for constant reminders of who we are. We live in a culture that continues to create the dramatic tension between faith and physical force, as a forgetful Christianity supports the use of violence against enemies and celebrates vigilante heroes in sequel after sequel of global conflict. So remind us, remind us dear Lord. When I roll back the curtain of memory, I can see my first exposure to the prayer of Saint Francis. A friend, Darrell Adams, sang the prayer in Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, where I was a member back in the 80s. I am also reminded that in the years since I left Louisville, Crescent Hill’s membership has grown to include some Burmese war refugees from the Karenni tribe who have escaped the ethnic cleansing still going on in their country. I am reminded that Baptist missionaries like Adonirum Judson were some of the first instruments of peace to Burma, taking the way of Jesus to that land in the early 1800s. And today, peacemakers like those in the Baptist Peace Fellowship continue to bring the way of Jesus to the war-torn country. The Peace Fellowship recently sent out a litany for churches to use as we remember the people of Burma in our prayers, with the refrain: may we not be overcome by evil, but may we overcome evil with good. It is a good prayer, a needful reminder of who we are.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.