The Missing Voice

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The news cycle...

The news cycle has moved on to other stories, leaving El Paso to process its grief – particularly those who were closest to the 22 killed and 27 wounded.

Others, myself included, cannot forget nor move on. My deep ties forged with El Paso over a period of 40 years brought me within 3 miles of the massacre, and as I reflect on this tragedy, I am struck by a loud silence amid the media noise.

Granted that in the aftershock of such catastrophes, the public turns to the journalistic voice for answers. In the pressure of a 24/7 news cycle, reports immediately pour in to fill airtime and online space.

Trained investigators often solve mysteries based on what is conspicuously absent. In this case it is a voice. In times like these, the right voice can be powerful.

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From my hotel room I watched intently...

From my hotel room I watched intently as the cast of experts chosen to convey the tactical voice reassured us of an appropriate response by law enforcement.

Close on its heels – maybe closer than usual – came the shrill, vitriolic, political voice, as each party sought to leverage the unspeakable human tragedy to its advantage.

Then the celebrity voice weighed in – because in our increasingly shallow age, celebrities are granted status as moral authorities. 

The only redeeming factor (besides local television coverage) was the healing voice of first responders – some of the doctors and hospital personnel jumping in even on their day off to care for the victims. One young ER nurse, mature beyond her years, gave an impressive report of the commendable training that immediately kicks in, as these professionals are prepared in advance for the unthinkable.

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Ten days have passed. The voices are quiet. But one is still missing: the pastoral voice.

Ten days have passed. The voices are quiet. But one is still missing: the pastoral voice.

This voice has real impact because it studies the broad spectrum of human experience as well as the Bible, and recognizes the weightiness of its task.

Many dismiss this voice as unable to give any meaning, resilience, or direction in life. Not so.

Pastors meet with real people at their best and their worst and help them search for ways to cope.

They partner with them in tragedy. They grapple with them over the complexities of life.

Together they deal with real evil, struggle with personal weakness, face rejection and relational failures and bind up deep emotional wounds. It is a trained voice that “knows how to sustain the weary one with a word.”

After the 9/11 terrorist attack, President George W. Bush turned to “America’s Pastor,” Rev. Billy Graham, to address a nation in mourning from Washington’s National Cathedral on September 14, 2001.

“Today we come together in this service to confess our need of God,” Graham said. “We’ve always needed God from the very beginning of this nation. But today we need Him especially.  We’re involved in a new kind of warfare. And we need the help of the Spirit of God.”

Whether for spiritual or political reasons, or both, the pastoral voice was deemed fitting and necessary. Some would like to scrub any reference to God, religious faith, or the importance of virtue from the public square.

But as Phil Cooke wrote,

There must be some way we can reach out to the culture and convince them that, regardless of their own personal values or biases, religion still matters (really matters) to millions of people.” Otherwise, there is a missing voice. We are poorer and unprepared when it is gone. Worse, we become like Job’s “worthless physicians.”

When facing tribulations on a personal, municipal, or national level, people who have assumed the role of deities themselves have no greater entity to reach out to.

Thane Bellomo’s piece in The Federalist carried the headline “We Killed God, Family, and Community – And Now It’s Killing Us.”

“We have discarded social institutions that have helped people understand their value and place in the world for thousands of years,” Bellomo said. “And their decline is not just mirrored in the rise of mass shootings.”

Jesus said, “The words I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life”
— John 6:63

It is troubling to see the trend of dismissive derision that meets the sincere sentiment, “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” In place of it we are to be placated with a hashtag, #DoSomething – as if somehow Washington should or could enact another law to bring an answer. I cringe, knowing the timeworn admonition in Jeremiah 17:5: “Cursed is the strong one who depends on mere humans, who thinks he can make it on muscle alone and sets God aside as dead weight.”

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Regular people, in more ways that you realize, benefit from the pastoral voice. This is the voice speaks to the soul. Jesus said, “The words I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). This transcendent voice reminds us that there is a much bigger and grander plan at work in what often seems like a world of chaos. It is a voice of courage, reminding us that “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4). It is a voice that brings succor to the grieving, for “if one member suffers all the members suffer with it” (I Corinthians 12:26).

It is also the voice of hope, for we know there is an eternal home for the victims, and that injects strong hope into our sorrow. It is a voice that clearly recognizes the fallen nature of mankind and pleads for personal repentance and holiness – not only for individuals, but for a nation as well.

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This voice calls for justice in a world where “there is no justice among us.” Consequently, it ultimately points us to the eternal scales that alone can dispense true justice.

The pastor’s voice adds to inner peace surpassing human understanding. It is a gentle voice that refuses to “stir up evil” knowing that “love is patient, love is kind” (I Corinthians 13:1-4).

It is a voice of charity in the midst of hatred.

It is a voice of charity in the midst of hatred. In fact, it reminds us of the toxicity and pernicious nature of hatred when it is given a place in the human heart. 

It is the pastor’s voice that leads his sheep beside the still waters; that can restore our souls, giving us the strength and determination for our daily walk and work (Psalm 23:2-3).

The pastoral voice calls people – especially the young men who studies show feel more and more alienated – to a higher calling that can fill the present void.

I know firsthand the need for this voice. I focused our congregation on how to find trust and triumph in God after a targeted drive-by shooting penetrated the steel doors of our church, leaving a young man dead in the middle of a week-long Bible conference.

From forty-five years of experience I know that this voice does not come cheaply.

I was staying at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara on 9/11. The management there asked me to conduct a memorial service for its hotel staff and guests. Why?

They wanted the right voice, as so many do in our nation. 

From forty-five years of experience I know that this voice does not come cheaply.

I have discovered Solomon’s wisdom, “Besides being wise himself, the Teacher also taught others knowledge. He weighed, examined, and arranged many proverbs. The Teacher did his best to find the right words and write the plain truth. The words of the wise prod us to live well.  They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together. They are given by God, the one Shepherd.”

As I write this today, I wonder: will this voice be invited into the public square and be included once more in our national discourse?

I hope so. Oprah Winfrey perhaps came closest. When asked about mass shootings she said, “I think what we’re missing is a core moral center. Churches used to do that… It was a central place you could come to and there was a core center of values about a way of living and being in the world. Until we can return to that, however that is, in whatever form, we will continue to be lost.”