Monday, November 01, 2010

Is Victory More Important Than Justice?

Bobby Shawn Janoe, a member of Blessed Sacrament Church, was arrested on January 2, 1992 for the murder of his wife of six weeks. His wife Joy left home the evening of December 31, 1991 and did not return. Her body was found the following morning in an alley in Westminster, California. Bob has steadfastly maintained that he is innocent.

Bob was prosecuted twice by a deputy prosecutor of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. His first trial resulted in a hung jury, so he was tried a second time, where he was convicted. The Orange County Register reported on January 15, 1994 that the trial “turned on scientific and circumstantial evidence” and that “the guilty verdict was reached without a clear-cut motive established.” Bob was able to show later that some, at least, of the “scientific evidence” was the first work of an inexperienced lab worker whose conclusions were refuted by later tests.

During the trial, Bob’s defense attorney presented character witnesses in an attempt to convince the jury that Bob was non-violent. The Register account reported that, “on the final day [of the trial], Janoe’s first wife testified that he had beaten her many times….” On the strength of that testimony, the prosecutor said, “We proved he was a violent man whose temper reached the extreme.”

Not true. During Bob’s first trial, I met a young woman who had come down from Idaho at her own expense to testify on Bob’s behalf. She told him that of all the men she had dated, she felt safest with Bob. A few years after his conviction, acting on his own defense and working from prison, Bob was able to prove that his first wife had lied on the stand. In a declaration to the court dated March 24, 2002, this woman recanted her previous testimony and declared, “In my testimony I lied… Bobby did not threaten to kill me at any time I knew him … I was never physically assaulted by Bobby.” Bob was also able to prove that the prosecutor knew at the time of the trial that the testimony the woman was giving was untrue.


If the prosecutor was so certain of Bob Janoe’s guilt, why did he need perjury to clinch the case against him?

The Los Angeles Daily Journal is a newspaper for lawyers. In an article on this particular prosecutor dated June 16, 1998, the Journal quoted another (unnamed) prosecutor who described him as one whose “goal is to destroy the defendant on the witness stand and take along any other witnesses he can as casualties of war”—tactics which have prompted some attorneys to criticize him as “unethical” and “mean-spirited”. Another lawyer, who did not want to be named, said, “My biggest problem with [this prosecutor] in every case I’ve seen him try … is that he tries to smear the defense lawyer, the defense investigator, and anyone associated with the defense team as liars and cheats, irrespective of their honesty and integrity.” Still another defense lawyer said, “He has a win-at-all-costs type of attitude…and that is not always a healthy thing.” In another Register article, dated April 28, 1998, this particular prosecutor was quoted as saying, “Yeah, I’m competitive. I don’t like to lose.” The last time I checked (which was years ago), this prosecutor had a perfect record of convictions, having successfully prosecuted 57 defendants and never losing a case. The fact that Bob’s first trial resulted in a hung jury is significant.

One of this prosecutor’s peers—one of apparently many who don’t want their names used—told me personally that this prosecutor is known for using perjured evidence to gain a victory. A contact in the Public Defender’s Office told me that attorneys and police officers are immune from prosecution when they lie on the stand or when they cause others to do so. (This has been confirmed to me more than once, but I still find it unbelievable.) Once Bob had proven that his first wife had lied on the stand and that the prosecutor was aware of it at the time, he sued his prosecutor. The prosecutor’s defense was that he had only done so in the course of his job and Bob’s suit was dismissed.


Is victory more important than justice?

Bob turns 52 today, November 1, 2010. He has spent almost the last nineteen years of his life in custody. During this time he self-studied law in order to act as his own attorney. In that capacity he has proven in court that his first wife committed perjury in his trial. In another victory, nearly ten years ago Bob was able to prove in court that the judge who presided at the trial in which he was convicted was guilty of bias. Bob began work to have all decisions made by this biased judge set aside in order either to gain a new trial or his release. Nearly ten years later, no action has been taken on this matter.

Thanks to a grant from Bishop Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, Blessed Sacrament was able to hire a private investigator to work on Bob’s case. This individual spent several months researching the records, investigating the crime scene, and interviewing various individuals. He discovered that exculpatory evidence had been suppressed, and that some of the evidence that had been introduced during the trials had been destroyed. He also learned that Bob’s wife’s body had been found about fifty feet from where a certain individual she had known before was living in his car. This individual had a motive for silencing Joy, and had even previously been found guilty of violently attacking another person by the same method that caused Joy’s death. This information was not introduced during Bob’s trials.

In his most recent letter to me, Bob wrote, “I am trying to understand, psychologically, what mechanisms are involved when the deputy prosecutor in my trial knowingly introduced the perjured testimony. Was it just a matter of winning? … Moreover, what mechanisms were involved as that same deputy prosecutor suppressed exculpatory evidence that he had an ethical duty to turn over to the defense? … As an example, in the beginning of a case, as the police detectives present their theory to the assigned deputy prosecutor, that deputy prosecutor will formulate his own theory as to how he feels the alleged incident occurred; consequently, from that point forward the deputy prosecutor will seek out evidence to confirm the theory he believes occurred. At the same time, that deputy prosecutor will disregard any exculpatory evidence as inconsequential. This phenomenon is known as ‘confirmation bias’. It is a complex process, but from the research I have reviewed, it appears once a person is arrested, a commitment has been made, and there is no turning back…

“When it comes to [my first wife], I am trying to be patient. She is probably feeling a lot of anxiety and guilt about lying in her testimony, but she was sought out by the deputy prosecutor, who in turn manipulated her to present those lies to the jury and court. In an effort to empathize with her, I have walked in her shoes, metaphorically. … When you think about it, we have no control over what other individuals do or say. We can only control what we say or do. I can’t change what happened in the past, the future hasn’t happened yet. All I can do is deal with the present, my actions. I choose to show [her] the love others have shown me… Thank you for showing me love… You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”

During my years of ministry with and for Bob, I have conferred with attorneys and prison chaplains. One attorney, who had himself been in jail before reforming and, after his release, earning a law degree to help indigent prisoners, estimated that about 5% of people who are convicted are actually innocent. The media frequently report stories of convicted felons who are later proven innocent by DNA or other evidence, often several years or even decades after their conviction. A chaplain with twenty years of experience told me, “Let me tell you frankly. The system never wants to admit it was wrong. It will do so only when adverse publicity is so bad that it is better to release a wrongfully convicted person than to continue to ignore his case. And you only get sufficient adverse publicity by making the case a high media item or get a celebrity on your side.”

I don’t know what more I can do for Bob beyond what I have already done. I continue to write to him and pray for him, encourage and enable others to minister to him with their own gifts, and keep his name before the public—such as with this blogpost. I’ve reminded him more than once that Jesus was also falsely convicted, so he’s in good company. I’ve seen Bob grow and mature in his spiritual life over these nineteen years. I still hope that one day he will be set free and be able to return to the church that has never forgotten him. Blessed Sacrament prays for Bob publicly at the 8:00 a.m. Sunday Mass every week—the service he attended regularly for a number of years. I urge readers of this blog also to pray for him. Maybe this blogpost will even begin something that will lead to justice for Bob. It would be an answer to prayer and an act of justice long denied.

Bob welcomes letters. You can write to him at

Mr. Bob S. Janoe


Calipatria State Prison, B-5-112

P. O. Box 5005

Calipatria, CA 92233

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Jesus Prayed All Night, And…

Before Jesus selected the twelve, he “went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). Then in the morning he gathered all his disciples together and from them chose twelve to be those closest to him, destined to become the apostles, the foundation stones of the Church. Among those twelve was “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (Luke 6:16b).

So what does it mean that Jesus prayed all night and still selected one who became a traitor? Was his prayer not as discerning as one would expect, because he prayed and still made a bad choice? Does this cast doubts on Jesus’ prayerful wisdom or ability to hear God’s answer?

Of course not. Judas was necessary for the fulfillment of the many Scripture passages that all had to do with Jesus’ passion, sacrificial death, and resurrection.

Was Judas, then, “set up”? No, for God doesn’t work that way. Judas did what he did by his own choice—though his motivation and measure of repentance are not clear from Scripture.

What would have happened if Judas had been faithful? Of course we don’t know, but certainly Jesus would have been arrested by some other means. The twelve, in one of their best moments, believed that any one of them could betray him. (“Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” [Mark 14:18b-19]. We are not told that they leaned together and said, “It’s got to be Judas. Can’t be anyone else, could it?”)

We are not told what Jesus prayed about “all night”; “Give me wisdom to choose the right men”? Makes sense, but probably much more than that. We can’t know. “Right men” would include the one who, in God’s economy and foreknowledge (but not force), would become a traitor.

A few things we can learn from this incident. One: critical decisions should be preceded by serious prayer, which in the end means leaving it in God’s hand and not telling him what we want done. Two: what we may think we are praying for might have a meaning and fulfillment much deeper than we can ever guess, especially if we’re not Jesus. Three: in answers to prayer, everyone’s free will is preserved no matter what we pray for or how the prayer is answered. Four: we may think that we didn’t get what we pray for if things appear to go really wrong, but that would be just because we prayed with conditions. Five: God’s will is always done in spite of what human free will may choose—even if the human choice is a really bad one.

And maybe one more thing. It’s easy to focus on the traitor, but the other eleven were pretty unlikely choices and as far as we can tell they all turned out great—some of them spectacularly far beyond any reasonable expectation. They were all prayed over before they were chosen too.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lord, Show Us the Father

This is what Philip said to Jesus at the Last Supper: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (John 14:8b). That sounds to me like a great insight. It is, I think, perhaps the heart of the redeemed human experience, on a par with Peter’s confession in Mark 8:29: “[Jesus] asked [his disciples], “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

So it’s always been a bit of a forehead-wrinkler to me that Jesus’ response to Philip was a criticism: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). I guess that, good as Philip’s words were, after the length of his discipleship Jesus expected him to know something about the Incarnation.

But to come back to Philip’s original insight, “seeing the Father” is indeed the fullness of redemption. The joy of heaven is sometimes called the “Beatific Vision”.

Today I had an experience that drove that intense reality home more deeply than anything I had known before. I was walking by the church play yard about half an hour before the second Mass was scheduled to begin. A four-year-old girl was sitting on the grass alone, crying. I opened the gate and stepped up to her, knelt down, and asked her why she was crying. She looked up and said, “I want to see my Daddy.” (Turns out another child had made fun of her, which was why she was crying. Apparently she thought that seeing her Daddy was what she needed to feel better.)

“Your Daddy’s in choir practice,” I said.

“I know,” she said, “but I still want to see him.”

“Can you wait until choir practice is over?”

“No, I want to see him now.” (Patience is not numbered among this child’s many virtues.)

“How about if I take you over to the door, open it a few inches, and let you see him for a few seconds.”


So that’s what I did. I walked her over to the closed door, through which the sounds of the choir anthem were sounding. I slipped the door open about six inches, located the child’s father, and then lifted her up a little so she could see him. “There he is,” I said. No one in the choir room even noticed that we were there. “Is that enough?” I asked after about five seconds.

”Yes,” she said. I put her down and eased the door shut, then took her back to the play yard. She went through the gate ready to play again. The crisis was over.

When I told her father about the incident a little later, I said, somewhat jokingly, “It was like a little Beatific Vision.” Then we both realized that that was just what it was. It was suddenly impressed upon us what immense responsibility parents have for their children. God gives us a little bit of himself when we become parents. What immeasurable influence we have over them. How humbling it is to know that it is through us fallible human beings that children learn things about God that they can’t get in any other way.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Detour To Delight

About three times a year I take a couple of days to visit my father and stepmother in Indio, a little more than a hundred miles from my home. The midway point of the drive is through a narrow canyon at the east end of a twenty-mile course of the 60 freeway that unrolls just east of Moreno Valley between Riverside and Beaumont, where the 60 joins Interstate 10. This part of the journey, like most of the trip, is freeway driving.

Usually I can zip along on a Sunday afternoon, but on this occasion as I entered Moreno Valley an electric sign read, “congestion until beaumont”. A couple of miles later there was a second such notice, and I grimaced and resigned myself to getting caught in a jam on a bright Sunday afternoon; the part of the freeway that was just ahead of me winds for about ten miles through hills on both sides with no exits, and I figured that there was no way to avoid the congestion.

Now, I don’t need the GPS to get to my father’s house, but on this particular day I entered the address just to see how the “estimated time of arrival” would be revised as I drove. After I’d resigned myself to getting stuck in congestion, I remembered an icon on my GPS that I’d never used before and could only guess what it meant. Still, guessing its meaning wasn’t difficult since the icon read “detour”. I wasn’t in a huge hurry, so I shrugged and tapped the icon. Immediately the GSP directed me to get off at the next exit: Moreno Beach Drive. An adventure had begun.

Even though there was no congestion in sight yet, I swung off the eight-lane concrete expanse and dropped down onto a road I’d never heard of. “Turn left,” the GPS electronic voice said, so I turned left. From this point on I was entirely under the direction of an electronic guide that depended on satellites I couldn’t see. I was on a well-paved but narrow road, and slowed accordingly.

Within a couple of minutes I was in rural country. After half a mile or so I was directed to turn right onto Ironwood Avenue, then left onto Redlands Boulevard. Five minutes from the freeway I was in a place where it looked as if things hadn’t changed for decades. It may as well have been the 1940s. Even the streetlamps had old-fashioned, bell-shaped hoods. Expansive meadows of gold, summer-dry straw spread out on both sides of the road. I met another car no more than half a dozen times on the detour. I saw no buildings of any kind.

Finally I turned right onto Oak Valley Parkway. On either side of the two-lane road there were low ridges of contoured land that rolled up into comfortable, partly barren hills. Patches of cottonwoods showed where there was probably a spring or a barely-moist streamlet. It was a hot, sleepy afternoon and almost nothing moved.

Simple signs, sometimes plain, hand-painted black letters on whitewashed boards, advertised entrances to ranchos whose buildings were out of sight beyond stands of trees. White fences enclosed some large fields where I expected to see horses grazing. They were probably not far away but I didn’t see any.

To think that this terrain was so close to my usual course to Indio, and had probably been little changed since before I was born, was an eye-opener. I drove with a sense of expanding wonder and pleasure, my eyes endlessly and appreciatively wandering over the land as a drove at a leisurely pace.

After half an hour or so, I came to the western outskirts of a newly-built tract of homes surrounded by a high cinder-block fence. The end of my rural drive was at hand, but even the cinder-block fence reminded me a little of the neighborhood where I grew up in the 1960s. After the tract my tires hummed along a wide, asphalted road that must have been a narrow country lane not long ago, and then I passed by tall shade trees just before I came to an onramp for Interstate 10 on the south side of Beaumont, about a mile northwest of where I would have joined the 10 had I stayed on the 60. If there had been congestion, I had bypassed it completely. The GPS worked beautifully, guiding me into a slow-paced, beautiful area that I would never would have sought out, never even would have known existed if I hadn’t been warned of that bane of modern living, a freeway jam-up. The country I traversed was close at hand and always had been.

I wonder… how much of life is like that? What do I miss time after time because I am too stuck in my ways, too much a creature of habit, too “hobbitish” to recognize or risk an adventure that is always at hand? I thought I enjoyed adventure, but now I wonder… I had to be forced into this one. I wonder some more. Will I now seek out alternate routes from time to time, or mostly stick to what I know? The physicists are right: there are indeed alternate universes less than a hair’s breadth away. God is in them all, and fills all of them, as always, with joy.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Today I Turn 62

I remember

…when television first became popular and when shows were first broadcast in color (about ten years later).

…watching shows from the 1920s and 1930s, like “Spanky and Our Gang” and “Laurel and Hardy” when they were broadcast on television.

...when television shows featured intact families, and fathers were present, respected, wise, and loving.

…when Eisenhower was President and politicians were (mostly) respected.

…when milk was delivered to our door in bottles, and the dry cleaner picked up and delivered our clothes.

…when it cost fifty cents to go to the movies.

…when candy bars cost five cents.

…when telephones were black and had words for prefixes; my telephone number was DIckens 2-9449.

…when a gallon of gas cost about thirty cents, and the gas station attendant rushed out to fill your tank, clean your windows front and back, and asked if he could check the air in your tires and your oil (that was when they were called “service” stations).

…when Disneyland opened.

…when The Mickey Mouse Club was on television.

…when my neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley included lots of fields and orchards, and I could pick large pomegranates off the tree, crack them on the trunk, and eat them on the spot.

…crying on my first day of kindergarten, and another child comforting me.

…when Sputnik was launched, becoming the world’s first artificial satellite.

…when my neighbors got a divorce and everyone was shocked because it was almost unheard of.

…when the polio vaccine was announced, and everyone went to get polio shots; and later when you could get follow-up treatment by eating a sugar cube with a vaccine in it instead of getting a shot; somebody named Sabin developed that method and across the nation everyone was urged to get immunized through a nation-wide “Sabin on Sunday” program; on that day my whole family went to a local school after church and stood in a long line to get our sugar cubes.

...and many year later meeting "Gilbert" (a member of my church), one of the last people who had ever suffered from polio.

…when almost no stores were open on Sunday, and almost everyone went to church.

…when kids on the elementary school playground frequently asked “what church do you go to?”

…when the design on the back of the Lincoln penny changed from the bunches of wheat to the Lincoln Memorial, and it became a fad at my school to collect pennies.

…that my mother got a job after 22 years of not having one because my brothers and I were growing up; she waited until the last of us three had completed high school.

…being able to ride my bike anywhere I wanted without regard for safety except for crossing busy streets.

…buying my first comic book.

…buying the first Amazing Spiderman comic book in the store for a dime (sells now for tens of thousands of dollars) and those that followed up to number 25; I sold them all for a dollar each.

…that I was fascinated by Superman, and that my grandmother made me a Superman suit for Christmas 1953.

…reading The Screwtape Letters from my parents’ collection when I was about eight or nine years old, and thinking that C. S. Lewis was eye-opening cool.

…polishing my shoes every Sunday morning before going to church, for which I had to wear a suit, even though I was only six years old.

…when the Episcopal Church was respected throughout the nation.

…being in a confirmation class in 1960-1961 that was packed with kids, a few of whom I also went to school with.

…the Kennedy-Nixon campaign for President in 1960, and that I went to school with Nixon’s nephew, who got his photograph on the front page of The Los Angeles Times rooting for his uncle.

...when I enjoyed reading The Los Angeles Times.

when transistor radios came out and we could carry a radio only a little larger than a deck of cards and hide them at school.

…going to typing class in junior high school.

...when almost all girls wore dresses.

…the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962 when the world came the closest to nuclear war. English teacher (Miss Haley) who pounded proper grammar into us and said something like, "Someday you'll thank me!"

…two thousand high school students standing as still as statues during the lunch hour at my high school as the public address system played the radio, giving us live information on the assassination of President Kennedy.

…wearing hippie beads.

…the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

…the assassination of Martin Luther King.

...watching the Ed Sullivan show on television in January 1964 when the Beatles first came to America, and then talking about it at school the next day; everyone thought that their long hair was weird.

…being loudly and publicly berated in the waiting room of a car dealership by a man whom I didn’t know for having long hair; I had driven my father’s car there to get it serviced and was waiting while the work was being done.

…going to the Griffith Observatory with a dozen friends on my seventh birthday (gee, that was 55 years ago today!) because I loved astronomy so much.

…the IGY (International Geophysical Year) in 1957.

…learning gymnastics and being able to do a standing back flip without even thinking about it (and frequently did), and eventually being able to do a double back flip on the ground.

…buying hardback Hardy Boys books in dust jackets when they were new and only cost a dollar.

…going on our “last” family vacation in 1967 (the summer I turned 19) when we drove around the U.S. for a month on a budget of $50/day for gas, food for a family of five, lodging, admissions to national parks, and incidentals—and meeting the budget.

…watching the Moon landing on live television.

…and, well, lots of other things but this list is an even 1,000 words now.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Words for All Times, Including Now

The words were written by Donovan (Leitch), a singer/composer and icon of the 1960s. I learned to play many of his songs on the guitar. Many of them, I think, were deep and lyrical, and they still affect me today.

This one, however, was one of several he wrote for Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 movie, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”. It’s called “Father of All Things”, and the words are especially fitting for me at this time. Although the movie is available on DVD, sadly, no sound track with Donovan’s songs was ever made available for purchase, but here’s a youtube link in which someone else plays and sings the song. English is not his native language and he messes up a couple of words, but overall he does a fine job. He's a superb guitarist, too!

There’s a shape in the sky beckoning me.

There’s a sound in the wild wind calling.

There’s a song to be sung for glory,

And I feel that it’s coming our way.

There’s a pain on the land weakening me.

There’s a sigh in the city of sorrow.

There’s a shadow of darkness accumulating,

And I feel that it’s coming our way.

Father of all things, mother of light,

Soothe and ease our human plight.

Mary in mercy, Jesus in joy,

Please, will you help us win the fight?

There’s a love for all men sleeping within.

There’s a friend of a friend awakening.

There’s a jubilant joy bursting to be,

And I feel that it’s coming our way.

Father of all things, mother of light,

Soothe and ease our human plight.

Mary in mercy, Jesus in joy,

Please, will you help us win the fight?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Five Minutes to Live

I think it’s likely that the baby boomer generation had the happiest childhood in the history of the United States. The era immediately post-World War II was an age of optimism, economic boom, and technological excitement and innovation. The term “family values” had not been coined because it was just what we did. A kid growing up in the 1950s was on the spot when television entered American life. The Atomic Era was new and the Space Race had just begun, in which both the United States and the Soviet Union were dedicated to landing a man on the moon before the other country did so. Disneyland opened in 1955 and launched an interesting, exciting, forward-looking television show that probably shaped my generation more than we boomers think.

That era that is long gone still lives in the memories of baby boomers today. I have so many honey-rich memories of that time that it would be difficult to know where to begin to share them, but there are many nostalgia websites that do a better job than I could anyway. (I did post this item on my blog in late 2006.) Over time, our better memories take on an increasingly golden aura—and the bad memories fade.

It is because of that phenomenon that only recently did I recall that the 1950s were also the age of the Cold War and the fear of nuclear holocaust. A little over a year ago I was helping my wife’s parents pack up for a move, and in their discard pile found a sealed can of water. I crinkled my forehead, wondering what it was, and looked at it first with curiosity and then, once I read the label, felt a sudden chill as certain memories of my childhood came back. As children of the 1950s, we drew mushroom clouds and talked about the atomic bomb and the even bigger one, the hydrogen bomb. We talked about “the A-bomb” and “the H-bomb”.

Since the can was being thrown out, I took it as an historical item. Believing it to be significant, it didn’t take long before I shared it with the congregation during a children’s sermon. The point was that not so long ago all the people on earth were afraid that the whole world might be destroyed, but no matter what we might be afraid of, in all circumstances we can trust in God.

I produced the can of water and asked the children what it was. They quickly identified it as a can of water, and I expected that they and the adults in the congregation would expect me to point out the contrast with the ubiquitous plastic bottles of water today. And when, in what I expected to be a dramatic flourish, I pointed out the small black print on the can, IMPERVIOUS TO NUCLEAR FALLOUT, I expected that people would gasp. But instead I got a reaction I didn’t expect in a million years: the congregation, mostly young people, laughed out loud. I was stunned speechless for a moment. A kid’s fear of the end of the world was something to laugh about! Almost at once, I realized that what I was trying to share was so foreign to the young people that they had no concept of the reality.

Very often the burdens and traumas of a generation are passed down to the next even when times change. I remember as a child being told that I had to “clean my plate” (meaning, eat everything that was on it) whenever something was set before me, and I thought it was unreasonable, capricious, and often cruel. I came to dread many mealtimes. Most children of that era were given the same standard. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that those who had compelled children to “clean their plates” had lived through the Great Depression when very often there wasn’t enough food of any kind at all. They were offended if a child didn’t realize what a boon it was to have enough to eat, and show it by eating everything without question.

I remember drawing swastikas in my sixth grade class and being quietly but seriously advised not to do so by my sixth grade teacher. He had lived through the era of a recent world war with its unspeakable atrocities, but for me the swastika was only a symbol that I knew carried some sort of power.

Today, a can of water declared “impervious to nuclear fallout” is one of these symbols.

Recent “end of the world” movies include “Twelve Monkeys”, “Deep Impact”, “Asteroid”,
“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (a remake of a 1952 original), and “2012”. These were all fiction. But the nuclear apocalyptic movies and books of the 1950s were based on something that was very real: I think of the book A Canticle for Leibowitz and movies such as “Fail Safe”, “On the Beach”, and even the black comedy “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”.

It was very real. In the fall of 1962, when I was 14, the world came as close as it ever had to genuine nuclear holocaust. This wikipedia article reports that the Cuban Missile Crisis is “generally regarded as the moment in which the Cold War came closest to turning into a nuclear conflict.” Here is a part of a speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy during the most tense hours of the confrontation with the Soviet Union. In particular, listen to his words that begin at 2:02.

The fear of nuclear war was not all-consuming by any means, but it was pervasive as the plethora of books, movies, etc. of the era shows. And the fear was very real. Air raid sirens were tested on the first Fridays of each month at 10:00 a.m. I doubt whether those who have never heard them can imagine a sound so loud and so alarming. The noise was intended to cause people to stop everything that they were doing and run for a bomb shelter to save their lives, though everyone knew that it would likely be pointless. Even a kid knew that there was nowhere to hide. I remember telling my mother when I was about ten, “If I were the enemy I’d attack us on a first Friday at 10:00 a.m., because then everyone would think it was a test and no one would pay any attention.”

It was a sound that covered the entire city, loud enough to override any other sound that there could be. We knew that if the sirens went off, we had maybe five minutes to live, for the entire city would be turned into rubble in an instant under radiant heat that was hotter than the surface of the sun.

Do you want to hear what air raid sirens sounded like? You can. Read on.

H. G. Wells' novel, The Time Machine, was published in 1895, and was intended as a social commentary on the division of the human race into “classes” which, if taken to extreme, would result in horrifying evil: the division of humanity into two divergent groups, one preying upon the other. The book was made into a movie in 2002. The 2002 version was a remake, however; the original movie was made in 1960. In both movies, in place of Wells’ hypothesis that “classism” could divide the human race into two divergent streams, some disaster hits the earth and causes some enormous change whose implications last through the ensuing centuries. In the 2002 movie, it was an environmental disaster that blew the moon to pieces—environmental issues being at the forefront of our current culture.

But in 1960 it was nuclear war. In the movie the time traveler goes from New Year's Eve 1899 into the future—with a stop in the viewers’ present at the time the movie was made, arriving in time for the onset of a nuclear war. In the movie the war takes place on August 18, 1966. You can find that scene here; begin at 8:28 and go to the end, 10:02. Then continue here from 0:00 to 3:52. Imagine being a child and seeing this movie at that time. The scenes include air raid sirens that signal the imminence of the attack. But there is a better place where the arresting, chilling sound comes through.

Farther into the movie you see the recounting of that disaster in the far future here. Watch the scene from 1:43 to 2:15. And if you want to hear what the air raid sirens sounded like more clearly and compellingly than the earlier bit, watch the scene from 3:55 to 6:20. The sirens mean something else in the movie, but the sound was identical to the air raid sirens of the time that were intended to warn the populace that the world was about to end. That the sounds were identical was, of course, no coincidence. In case there was any doubt, the scene from 6:20 through 7:45 makes that explicit. I remember the sound well and it still raises hackles on my skin.

Gradually things changed. The era of glasnost overrode the Cold War, and the Soviet Union eventually collapsed. I still remember opening the newspaper nearly twenty years ago and seeing the incredible headline. I immediately remembered Nikita Khrushchev’s promises from over forty years earlier, “We will bury you” and “Your children will be Communists”.

Here’s a recent newspaper article that looks back on this era. “Duck and cover” drills are mentioned in it, which I remember very well from my elementary school days.

Considering all that, I guess it was good that when I held up a can with a label that read, IMPERVIOUS TO NUCLEAR FALLOUT, the response was laughter, for those who laughed had never heard air raid sirens in their own city. My children’s sermon was correct: no matter what we might be afraid of, in all circumstances we can trust in God.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Martyrdom of Minh Voan

The image of Christians being thrown to the lions during the time of the persecutions in the Roman Empire has been presented so often that it is easy to take the reality of such deaths for granted. The Coliseum in Rome was built to entertain the populace of the city with exciting spectacles. While some of the attractions were innocent, others excited the audience through bloodshed and death. Many wild animals and gladiators were compelled to fight to the death to stir voyeuristic passions in the hearts of those in the stands.

One of the most strange and unaccountable sights the Coliseum could offer was to see a Christian die, with upward gaze, singing hymns of joy. The martyrdom of a Christian, who had made a good confession before the multitude and then met the wild beasts with a calm resolution and a hopeful joy, was beyond the understanding of the lookers-on. The sight was one of the choicest of entertainments, and was often reserved for the last item on the schedule of events.

Martyrs have testified to their faith in every century since the resurrection of Jesus. This is why they are called martyrs, a word that means “witness”. People are not usually willing to die for a philosophy or a doctrine. Galileo recanted his proclamation that the earth rotates around the sun when threatened with execution, though it is said that he muttered “but it does” when he left the place of his recantation. Defending his astronomical discovery, true as it was, was not worth more to him than his life. In contrast, the Christian martyrs died not for a teaching but for a divine Person, who in his infinite and invulnerable Personhood has even conquered death. He conquered death because he loves those upon whom he wishes to confer life, perfection, and the deepest possible intimacy, without end.

The witness of the martyrs was so central to the life of the early Church that by the middle of the second century, the frequently persecuted Christian community observed annual commemorations of the martyrdoms that were part of their heritage. The first such commemoration was that of the aged bishop Polycarp, who was put to death for Jesus’ sake in about A.D. 156. His community commemorated his witness on the first anniversary of his death. It is highly significant that the anniversary they celebrated was the date of the death, rather than the birth, of the martyr. Christians view birthdays as days of gratitude for one’s life in the world, but the date of death as the “birthday” into the kingdom of God, and therefore as worthy of the greater celebration.

The closest I’ve ever come to knowing someone who became a martyr was knowing someone who had known him. The martyr’s name was Minh Voan. Among the last known photographs taken of him, there is one that shows him with Dr. Stan Mooneyham, the late President of World Vision, a Christian outreach ministry based in Monrovia, California. They are arguing on the tarmac at the airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in April 1975. The fall of the city to the Khmer Rouge is imminent.

In the photograph, Dr. Mooneyham’s back is to the camera, located on an airplane filled with Cambodian orphans; the plane also holds Voan’s wife and children. Dr. Mooneyham is pleading with Voan to board the plane with his family. Voan is looking up earnestly at him wearing his combat hard helmet. In the background, others are looking toward plumes of smoke rising from the airfield as the Khmer Rouge shell the runway trying to prevent the airplane from taking off.

As Dr. Mooneyham urges him to board, Voan tells him, “I cannot leave Cambodia, because my work is not yet finished. My father and my mother, my brothers and sisters, do not yet know Christ. I cannot leave.” His face shows no fear of any kind.

Minh Voan was a Cambodian who worked on a relief and development project with World Vision in his native land. He was a very devout Christian who came from a family whose members were still Buddhist. Voan spent countless hours not only working on World Vision projects but also in preaching the Gospel to his countrymen. When it became obvious that Cambodia would fall into the hands of the Khmer Rouge, World Vision evacuated as many of its native personnel as possible. It was almost certain that any Cambodians who had associated with the Americans for any reason would be killed.

During the evacuation, Voan was instrumental in seeing that many Cambodian orphans found refuge in the United States. Dr. Mooneyham’s son Eric, who took the photograph, wrote to me about the day when Voan was left behind.

"We flew a Convair 140 full of powdered milk out of Bangkok via Saigon and landed at Pochetong airport where Voan met us. When we landed the U.S. attache was boarding the last military flight out and advised us to leave immediately. Under shell fire from howitzers only a few miles away we off-loaded the supplies and took on 23 infant passengers (left behind at an orphanage), Voan’s wife Theri and their children (I remember two). I still have a piece of shrapnel that bounced off my flak vest. It was too hot to handle and I tossed it in my camera bag. I'd forgotten about it till I got home and found it melted into the foam rubber.

"I took the photo during an argument between my father and Minh Voan. Voan wanted to stay behind. He insisted that there was unfinished work. He said he would find his way to Thailand and escape across the border when the time was right. My father argued and pleaded with Voan to come with us but Voan stayed anyway ...

"We did not hear anything from Voan ... until we returned in 1985. At the invitation of the new government World Vision reopened the children’s hospital which we had built before Pol Pot and which had been looted and abandoned during those years. We were walking through the streets when an older man came running out of a doorway and pointed at my father and said, 'I know you!’ Because it was dangerous for him to be seen talking to westerners we went inside with him. After a few minutes of dialog we found that this man knew Minh Voan and had witnessed his death. He said Voan was caught witnessing and that he and another man were clubbed on the back of the head."

Those who knew Minh Voan are certain that he would not have thought that he was doing anything out of the ordinary by staying behind—only doing what his faith demanded. He never called attention to himself, but exhibited a self-effacing humility and a simple obedience to Christ. Voan’s determination to remain in Cambodia to serve Christ and to preach the Gospel even though threatened with death, demonstrates that this was a man whose love for Jesus Christ was stronger than the fear of death. Like all the martyrs of Jesus, his head never bowed and his heart never quailed before his enemies.

In nearly two thousand years of Christian history there have been countless martyrs whose testimonies have not been remembered by the world or even the Church. Those whose heroism for Jesus is known comprise only a small fraction of the whole company. Many sources report that there were more of them in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries combined. I hope this account of Minh Voan will make his name a little better known. No one knows the exact date of his death, but I remember him every year in mid-May so that his name will always be brought to mind in the Easter season.

Monday, February 01, 2010

And Love Most Sweet

On January 27, I made a discovery that stirred my soul. I will reveal it at the end of this blogpost.

My favorite movie is probably “Somewhere in Time”, which appeared in 1980. It starred Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer. A number of people who have seen the movie have told me that its beautiful theme song, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43, Variation 18, has brought them to tears. I think there is a reason why so many people are deeply moved by the story, so strikingly captured in the theme song.

Briefly, the story is about a poet named Richard Collier who, in 1980, discovers a photograph of a young woman at a hotel where he is staying. Captivated and finally obsessed by her image, he learns that the likeness is that of the once-famous actress Elise McKenna, and was taken in 1912. Collier refuses to accept the obvious fact that she is dead and unobtainable, and eventually discovers a way to forsake his present utterly and go back to 1912 to meet her and eventually win her love. I will write no more about the plot so as not to provide any spoilers—other than to say that it is not a typical love story.

It is a story of the pursuit of love for something “out of this world” but which has left in the world signs that beguile, entrance, and ultimately change the dedicated searcher for love. To win that love, the searcher must forsake everything he owns. With total dedication, then, even time itself yields its inviolable boundaries, boundaries that are yet permeable by human desire and longing and eventual consummation. This is how I long for Jesus.

Not long ago I learned that the movie was based on a novel named Bid Time Return, written in 1975 by Richard Matheson. I found a copy of the book and saw that the author had taken the title from Shakespeare’s Richard II, Act III. Scene 2: “O call back yesterday, bid time return.” The verse is quoted on a flyleaf of the book. I read the book last week and found myself moved deeply, even more than when I saw the movie.

Ultimately, even the best of earthly loves is never satisfied, can never be satisfied, in this world. Either everything we love we eventually lose, or the love cannot be completed or truly consummated. We cannot “have our cake and eat it too.” Cake is made to be eaten, but in the eating we lose it. If we refuse to eat it so we can admire it, it does not serve its primary purpose, and thus we fail truly and fully to enjoy it. Every living thing we love, plant, animal, or human, we lose as it ages and as we age. Genuine love, therefore, is always for something outside this world, and every earthly love points through the beloved to something greater and unobtainable by our own efforts and desires.

Throughout my life the acknowledgment of this truth has colored my affections and my sense of self. The theme of lost or impossible loves which are nonetheless real and all-consuming has impacted and shaped me. That “shaping” has led me to understand something about love and grief and loss that, perhaps, is uncommon. Or perhaps quite common indeed, but rarely understood in the rich combination where both love and loss complement and empower each other.

Just a year or so ago I heard for the first time an old song about that very thing. The song is called “Once Upon a Time”. I first heard it sung by Perry Como. One can hear that version here. It begins after a brief introduction. There is an instrumental with a beautiful slide show here.

Some of the words to the song are:

Once upon a time, a girl with moonlight in her eyes

Put her hand in mine and said she loved me so,

But that was once upon a time,

Very long ago.

Once upon a hill, we sat beneath a willow tree,

Counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn.

But that was once upon a time.

Now the tree is gone.

Surely just about everyone of a certain age can testify to the poignancy of these lyrics. We human beings were created to live in eternity, but, because of our exile from God’s immediate presence, we live in time. Still, we somehow remember the heights from which we have fallen and long intensely for what has been lost. Therefore we shall always have some measure of futility and disappointment about our lives, for they are filled with transitory things. Fallen human beings best enjoy that scent of eternity when we learn to accept transitoriness as a quality of even the best earthly things, and give thanks to God for them as is, realizing that ultimately all things point to him. “All things come from you, O Lord” (1 Chronicles 29:14b).

C. S. Lewis, in his book Out of the Silent Planet, addresses this longing for eternity while living in time when one of his characters says, “How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back—if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory, and that these are that day?”

In an argument with Jewish leaders, Jesus said, “My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. … I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come. You are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:14b, 21, 23b). Though the debate is about the trustworthiness of Jesus’ authority to teach, these quoted words inside Jesus’ comments show that Jesus is the only One who is really the Lover both within and beyond the world, inside of and outside of time. “You will seek me,” he said, but we are of one world (which is fallen) and he is of another (which is perfect), and between the two, “a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26).

Only divine love can bridge that chasm. Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper, the event that marked the end of their earthly companionship, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:2-6).

To me, Richard Matheson’s story in both film and print sets forth this teaching in mythic form. It is a story about an inspirational love with a powerful emotional impact. It is about human beings who meet and love across an impassible barrier; and thus, even time itself must relax its inviolable, implacable one-way movement for the sake of love. This human love, mortal as it is, points to the ineffable and foundational true love whose strength broke another inviolable, implacable force in nature: death—since the Lover broke the bonds of death with his resurrection.

The setting of the love between Richard Collier and Elise McKenna is a great hotel with many decades of history. In the movie, it is The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan.

In the book it is The Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, California, shown here as it was in 1900.

Both sprawling, luxurious, and historical hotels are immersed in time but point beyond it. By their existence, they suggest that they are places where love lasts forever, and where love is all that is known. They are both grand places of “many rooms” and long history, where time lies in multitudinous layers.

“And love most sweet.” The title of this blogpost comes from the inscription on a gold pocket watch that Elise gives to Richard in the book as a sign of her love for him. She tells Richard that it is a line from a poem by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science religion. Richard recognizes that Elise has remembered the line incorrectly, but he doesn’t tell her (of course), and he resolves not to tell her how the poem ends. I looked it up, however, and here is the last stanza of the poem “Love”, by Mary Baker Eddy:

Thou to whose power our hope we give,
Free us from human strife.
Fed by Thy love divine we live,
For Love alone is Life;
And life most sweet, as heart to heart
Speaks kindly when we meet and part.

In both movie and book, the watch plays a small but significant part in the love between Richard and Elise.

Well, it is only a story, though it sets forth the power of longing and love. The astonishing discovery I made on January 27, after I had finished reading the book is that the character of Elise McKenna was based on a real person, whose life story strongly parallels the fictional account. Most important of all, there is a real photograph behind the account of Richard Collier’s obsession.

I learned that Matheson was visiting a lodge or hotel or museum (I’ve forgotten which now) and saw a photograph of Maude Adams, an actress who was at the height of her career at the turn of the twentieth century. Her photograph inspired the book, which led to the movie. I suspect that it is no coincidence that the author of the story, Richard Matheson, has the same first name as the story’s protagonist, Richard Collier. Maude Adams’ life provided the pattern for Elise McKenna’s life in the story. Moreover, even Maude Adams’ manager provided the pattern for the fictional manager of Elise McKenna. Details of both lives are preserved in the fictional account. For example, in both real and fictional life, the actress had the lead role in the play, “The Little Minister”, by John Barrie. It is in that setting that Richard Collier meets Elise.

Maude Adams was born Mormon but apparently never practiced that religion. As an adult she became enamored of the Catholic Church, although I have found no information about whether she ever formally became a Christian. She was dedicated, however, to philanthropy, and did many works of mercy through her work and financial gifts. She made frequent retreats at Catholic retreat centers, and donated one of her homes to Catholic Sisters for a retreat center and novitiate. She died at the age of 80 in 1953, and is buried on the grounds of the estate she had donated to the Sisters. Her life span crossed mine for five years.

Here is the photograph that captivated Richard Matheson. It was taken in 1892, when she was 19. Her eyes look to us across nearly 120 years. Somewhere in time. Somewhere in eternity.