Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 56:1-8) transports me to the A Shau Valley of south Vietnam in 1969, where a group of five rangers from the 101st Airborne Division were surrounded by the North Vietnamese army. The ranger team circled together as they engaged in the firefight. At one point a grenade, which has a kill radius of 15 yards, landed in the middle of their circle, which was 5 yards wide. It exploded, and yet none of the rangers were injured. They eventually escaped the danger and lived to tell about it. Some time later, one of the rangers, my brother Jerry, received a letter from home. It described a special altar of prayer that Preacher Crayton had led on a Sunday night at Gashes Creek Church, to pray especially for the safety of Jerry and his fellow soldiers. Jerry did some figuring of the time difference, and realized that the church was circling the altar and kneeling and praying for him at the very same time the grenade landed in the middle of his circle.
Jerry joined the Airborne Rangers because he was inspired by the service of our uncle, Crawford, who had been a war hero in WWII. One of the stories told about Crawford was a time he drove a tank over a nest of German artillerymen, who unleashed all they had and exploded the tank, killing themselves and everyone in the tank, except for Crawford. He walked away, making the statement to a fellow soldier that one mother’s prayer got answered that day. There’s an old saying that you don’t find atheists in foxholes, and it’s also true that you can count on lots of folks praying for their loved ones who are in those foxholes. Of course, Crawford’s line emphasizing one mother’s prayer being answered gives rise to the endless questioning about prayer and God’s seemingly random intervention in the affairs of humanity, as it reminds us of all the other thousands of mothers’ prayers that didn’t get the same kind of protective answer. But that doesn’t stop us from praying. Across all the great divides of our world, people are praying, for protection, for intervention, for peace, for security, for comfort, for a portion of life and health as they say. Prayer has made its way from the houses of worship into the fabric our our culture. While Jerry and his ranger team were in Vietnam, the airwaves there and here were playing the hits of the late 60s, with Dionne Warwick singing I say a little prayer for you, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel singing Heaven holds a place for those who pray, and Blood Sweat and Tears singing I can swear there ain’t no heaven and I pray there ain’t no hell. Uncle Crawford had no doubt listened to the Song Spinners harmonize about Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer during WWII. Later eras of soldiers could hear about Steely Dan’s Josie praying like a Roman with her eyes on fire or Bon Jovi’s livin’ on a prayer.
Isaiah’s time was no different. Israel’s culture was built on prayer, and the country existed then as it does now in a deeply divided world, with internal divisions of who was blessed and who was cursed as well as those wartime divisions between God’s people and the hated foreigners who plagued them so. And here’s where the prophetic voice comes in and speaks a new word, an expansive word about prayer amid the divisions of life. Isaiah envisioned a day when the foreigner wouldn’t be a hated enemy, but would join the circle of prayer. He envisioned a time when the eunuchs and other outcasts wouldn’t be segregated away from the mainstream, but would be included in the circle of blessing, and would even have monuments built in their honor. Because the house of prayer, the prophet boldly claims, is for all people. Enemy and eunuch and altar boy alike. Sometimes history helps us learn that lesson. Over 40 years after Jerry and his fellow soldiers were in Vietnam, trying to stem the tide of communism, which our government leaders thought we couldn’t coexist with, we live in a world where mothers in Vietnam and in the U.S. have seen their prayers for peaceful coexistence answered. Vietnam, though still a communist country, is one of the United States’ fastest growing trading partners. And communist China now lectures our government on economics and the need for financial austerity. When I visited that communist country a few years ago, I got to play guitar and sing in a local bar in Jilin. They wanted to hear some Johnny Cash. I gave them Ring of Fire and one of the only other songs I could remember the words to, a song he dedicated back in 1970 to all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam: there will be peace in the valley, dear Lord I pray. The Chinese crowd cheered. I think Isaiah would have smiled.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.