In these tumultuous times, it is my pleasure to share with our readers a wonderful sermon recently preached by a colleague of mine, Dr. Donald D. Denton, of the Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care.
This past Friday the staff at Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care had its annual retreat: meeting again at Shalom House in Hanover County and utilizing all the required social distancing and masks, we focused on the theme Resilience and Hope. I asked the staff to identify five events in the first twenty years of this century that dashed their hopes and reduced their resilience and five events in the same period of time that raised their hopes and increased their resilience. The morning’s activity was a presentation by Nelson Lankford from University of Richmond on how that city recovered events of Evacuation Sunday, April 4, 1865 (Byrnes, 2014) and also the Spanish Flu of 1918 (Jordan, 2019). He reminded us of the way our forbearers of even recent history have coped with and overcame severe levels suffering and tragedy with both faith and courage.
One of the hopeful events selected: thirty-three men are rescued from a mine in Copiapao, Chile after being trapped for 69 days. I selected that event from 2013 because at that time it was a truly miraculous event and so it strengthened my hope. As the men recovered, “those involved have recounted seemingly inexplicable miracles during their time underground and credited God with protecting them. God, many of them say, was the 34th miner” (Butler, 2015). I caught a whiff of this news rather quickly primarily because I have heard of similar events in the past. Most not as noteworthy as this event, but all just as tangible and sustaining of hope as the presence of that 34th Miner was to those men over a period of 69 days.
No harm shall come among us? Psalm 91 is my favorite psalm because it makes operational that well-known phrase in Psalm 23 – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” I am speaking specifically today of extraordinary circumstances in our human experience; not those more routine events we often find ourselves facing that are risky-to-dangerous but clearly survivable due to modern medicine, a good lawyer and what theologians call Providence and Common Grace (Ligioner Ministries, n.d.). Those men tell us of amazing events which confirm the reality of this Psalm and therefore lead us to have hope amid events which seem insurmountable and faith when the we are wont to say, “O God, Thy sea is so great and my boa boat is so small”
Who encountered the Chilean miners?
A Comforting Presence and food that lasted: Jose Hernandez found himself the automatic spiritual center of the 33 men as they at first descended into the apparent prospect of certain and slow death, and then clung to the hope of rescue during those long days in the dark. “He talked about all the miracles and things that can’t be explained about what happened with them. It was very clear,” said one of the other minders. All the men came to firmly believe, even the ones not religious beforehand, that God was at work and that there were many miracles that took place, even before their eventual rescue,” the minder added (Butler, 2015).
Purified water and comforting breeze: One of the miners recounted how one of the lowest points was when they realized their limited water supply was polluted. They could do nothing but pray about it, and they found the water was drinkable again. Jose Henriquez related another instance involved a strange cool breeze which began whenever one of the miners began to suffer from breathing difficulties. The miners travelled further down into the mine to trace the source of the cool, clean air – hoping it would be a way out – only to find no source and just the end of the bottom tunnel (Cork, 2017)
No harm shall come among us: “They knew they were involved in something miraculous right from the very start, in the minutes after the mine collapsed. They all came together from lots of different parts of the mine and realized no one had been hurt (Cork, 2017). This attitude of humble gratitude about their initial survival over 2,300 feet below the surface of the earth positioned them to be receptive to the presence of Christ as he walked among them. In fact there were two miracles in Chile: one was the survival of thirty-three miners for sixty nine days. The other one was the enduring discipline and faith of their comrades 2,300 feet above on the surface to keep drilling through solid granite to reach them. God was insuring there would be “no harm” in both places (Clarke, 2010)
A Psalm of Moses
Dwelling in the secret place: this opening line is how scholars credit Moses with the authorship of this particular Psalm. It echoes the promise of YHWH to him in Exodus, “I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” The person I think of most often when I consider this phrase is Fanny Crosby. Ms. Crosby “wrote more than 9,000 hymns, some of which are among the most popular in every Christian denomination…who became blind within the first six weeks of her life as the result of a quack physician’s ‘treatment.’ She refused to feel sorry for herself. Among her most popular hymns are Blessed Assurance, All the Way My Savior Leads Me, To God Be the Glory, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, Safe in the Arms of Jesus, Rescue the Perishing, and Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” (Christianity Today). She is but one example of how many of us have found such a place in our own trials and often found in the words of her hymns, or the poetry and music of others, such a place of safety as the storm roiled around us.
Protection from the sword and pestilence: in the Marvel Comic universe of super heroes and heroines, it is tempting to think of this promise as the Almighty bequeathing to us a kind of invulnerability. I believe this is more a general benefit that comes from religious faith and not a specific invulnerability reserved for the heroes of faith. “Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide. Several studies have shown that addressing the spiritual needs of the patient may enhance recovery from illness” (Fisher, 2019), (American Psychological Association, 2013)
No harm shall come among us: we expect that heroes and heroines of the faith would find that “secret place” and be protected from grave danger as they execute some world-changing mission for Almighty God. In fact, just the opposite appears to be the case when we look at the truly world-changing mission of our greatest heroines and heroes. Beginning with the Christ-As-Suffering Servant, any brief reading of Foxes Book of Martyrs, the lives of our nation’s Founding Fathers and Mothers, or contemporary leaders in faith such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Corrie Ten Boom, Sojourner Truth, Ravi Zacharias and countless others.
Personal: neither Jose Henriquez nor Oscar Schindler were heroes who saved the lives of others prior to the Hand of History placed them in a darkness beyond words. Twenty-three hundred feet below the earth’s service, there is total darkness except whatever meager light those miners carried and preserved. Yet the faith-filled words of Mr. Hernandez created the opening for the Christ to walk with those thirty-three men. Finding both the moral courage and the practical cunning to stand against Hitler’s Final Solution allowed Oscar Schindler to rescue 1,200 Jews. Both are testimonies to what one faithful person can accomplish. Both illustrate the Talmudic saying, “He (or she) who saves one life, saves the entire world.”
Congregation: in the afternoon VIPCare’s staff returned to sharing our own experiences of being tested in the fire of suffering as well as what and who have been sources of strength that enabled us to endure through such events with a measure of faith and hope. The what-and-who confirmed the very truth we see in our congregation – in such times when sword, pestilence, profound darkness and meager resources seem to triumph, it is the presence of Christ-in-the-life of others who share with us their faith, their bread, their comfort and their reminders “this too shall pass.” As we face the continuing uncertainties of our nation, of a virus that stalks the most vulnerable among us, and those other “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” of which The Bard spoke, let us also remember the witness of our own history as well as the words of Christ as he spoke in this chapter about the End of the Age: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Amen!
Donald D. Denton, D. Min., LPC, LMFT
Rennie Memorial Presbyterian Church
American Psychological Association. (2013). What Role Do Religion and Spirituality Play In Mental Health? Retrieved October 31, 2020, from American Psychological Association: Press Releases: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/03/religion-spirituality
Butler, S. (2015, August 4). The Chilean miners’ miracles: How faith helped them survive. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from CNN:: https://www.cnn.com/2015/08/02/world/chilean-miners-miracles/index.html
Byrnes, M. (2014, April 4). What Richmond Looked Like After Confederate Troops Set it on Fire. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from Bloomberg News: City Lab: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-04-04/what-richmond-looked-like-after-confederate-troops-set-it-on-fire
Christianity Today. (n.d.). Fanny Crosby. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from Christianity Today: Christian History: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/poets/fanny-crosby.html
Clarke, S. (2010, October 19). Is the Rescue of the Chilean Miners a Miracle? Retrieved from Practical Ethics: Ethics in the News: http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2010/10/is-the-rescue-of-the-chilean-miners-a-miracle/
Cork, T. (2017, November 23). The Bristol teacher and the mysterious miracles of the Chile Mine Rescue. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from Bristol Live: https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/bristol-teacher-mysterious-miracles-chile-818416
Fisher, N. (2019, March 29). Science Says: Religion Is Good For Your Health. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2019/03/29/science-says-religion-is-good-for-your-health/#58d05e753a12
Jordan, D. (2019, December 17). 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus). Retrieved October 27, 2020, from Center for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html
Ligioner Ministries. (n.d.). Providence And Common Grace. Retrieved October 27, 2020, from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/providence-and-common-grace/
Spurgeon, C. (2020). Charles H. Spurgeon’s Treasury of David. Retrieved from Psalm 91 Bible Commentary: https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=spur&b=19&c=91
 Psalm 23:4
 Plaque given to new submarine captains by Admiral Hyman Rickover (n.d.) (https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/breton-fishermans-prayer-plaque)
 Exodus 32:22f.