Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Since I have been doing computers in there many forms for over 50 years and since I have had a personal computer even before the PC I have always taken great interest in the next step forward. As a child I read many science fiction novels where the people in the novel regularly talked with their computer. So, I expected this to happen quickly when I purchased my first computer. And yet this has not come about as easily as everyone thought. There has certainly been a lot of work on voice recognition for almost 40 years and it finally seems to be slowly coming to pass. However, it was not something that happened quickly. After all, to this day the quickest way to communicate with your computer is via keyboard. Although I might add that the present Microsoft systems do have fairly accurate dictation systems as part of their everyday software. However, if you try to use them, they are still slow and somewhat haphazard. The truth is that recognizing someone else’s voice is something that is much more complicated then we first thought.
Jesus’ comments about the sheep recognizing his voice is something we easily understand after all our dogs and other animals seem to all recognize our voices. Jesus said that since you are not my sheep you do not know me.
Now for modern day listeners we do not get it. We have never seen a sheep react to a shepherd. Now I am one of the few pastors who earned money working on a farm in Scotland and I have worked with sheep. Now the sheep seemed to recognize their shepherd’s voice. What is even more startingly is how well a Border collie recognizes the commands of his master. We have seen many dogs react to the voices of their owners. There are many viral pictures of dogs who have been lost reacting and jumping with joy at hearing their master’s voice. We understand the whole idea of the importance of voice recognition which is at the very center of the illustration Jesus used.
Milne outlines three privileges enjoyed by believers in Christ. First, disciples of Jesus are a summoned group. On the one hand, Christ calls them (they hear his voice) into a new relationship with himself (I know them). On the other hand, his disciples undertake a new lifestyle (they follow me). Second, believers are a gifted group. Christ gives them eternal life. Although they are still participants in a passing world, they are also now part of a permanent order. Third, our Lord's followers are a secured group. Because they are his special possession (no one can snatch them out of my hand), and even though they will die, Jesus guarantees them immortality (they shall never perish). Lest we become complacent because of these privileges, Milne reminds us that Christ's call and election commission us to service and sacrifice. (Bruce Milne, The Message of John [Leicester, England, 1993] pp. 152-154)
It all comes down to the fact that Jesus calls and we recognize Jesus call and then we find others who hear the same voice. Following Jesus’ voice is at the very center of our journey as Christians.
There is a very interesting tie into Mother’s Day when you look at the wonderful effects of hearing your mother’s voice. Baby’s seem to suddenly all light up when they hear their mothers voice. We as Christians understand that sudden thrill when we hear the words of Jesus.
William Barclay outlines his commentary on today's Johannine text under the heading of Proclamation and Promise. The Jews demand that Jesus tell them plainly if he is the Messiah. Jesus replies, "I did tell you, but you did not believe. The works I do in my Father's name give witness to my favor, but you refuse to believe." Although Jesus had not yet made a verbal proclamation in public about his messianic mission, he did reveal himself as the Messiah in private to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:26) and to the man born blind (John 9:37) How then can he say, "I did tell you"? First, his very deeds make a bold statement about his identity. Barclay quotes Isaiah's prophecy of messianic times when the eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame healed, and the tongue of the dumb unloosed. (Isaiah 35:5-6) "That is exactly what Jesus was doing," Barclay writes. "Every one of his miracles was a claim which shouted out that the age of God had dawned, that the Messiah had come."
Second, there were words in a wider sense that proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. In Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses promised the Chosen People that God would raise up from among their own kinsmen a prophet to whom they should listen. The very style of authority with which Jesus spoke and the manner by which he replaced some of the old law with his own teachings, were a declaration that God was speaking in him. Jesus truly was the "Word of God become flesh dwelling among us." (cf. John 1:1.14) Barclay concludes, "Anyone who listened to Jesus speak, and who watched Jesus act, had no need of any verbal claim (that he was the Messiah"
Besides the proclamation made in John 10, there are three promises Jesus makes to those who accept his claims and become his disciples. These are the same three promises Milne notes above, but with different nuances. First, the promise of a foretaste of eternal life-a share even now in divine life. In the midst of the limitations of temporal life on earth, Jesus' flock would experience to some degree the limitless possibilities of everlasting life with God in heaven. Second, the promise that they would never perish. Human death would not be an end to their earthly existence, but a beginning and rebirth into an even more magnificent existence. Human death would not destroy them, but rather introduce them into an indestructible life in glory. Third, the promise that their life was secure-"nothing could snatch them from his hand." It was not a promise that they would be spared from sorrow, exempt from suffering, and saved from death. Nonetheless, it was a pledge that even in their darkest and direst moments, they would still possess God's powerful presence and feel secure in his hands. (William Barclay, The Gospel of John: Volume 2 [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956] pp. 83-5)
In the middle of fear or joy, in the middle of life even though we know we will die we have something to hold on to. Something that makes us suddenly realize that we have something more. Christ's promises are so far reaching and go so far beyond the little we know that it easily makes us dizzy to look at them closely. But let us look at them closely; let us find in these three promises the real depth of our faith, which can connect our limited life to something not only beyond life but beyond our simple logic and life.
One might wonder if today's selection from John's gospel with its good shepherd imagery was somehow misplaced. Chapter 10 begins with the allegory of the good shepherd, and then shifts the scene to the feast of the Dedication where Jesus uses again his good shepherd metaphor. Reginald H. Fuller explains the anomaly by viewing the latter as an echo or new application of our Lord's previous discourse. "It is characteristic of John," Fuller writes, "to return to an earlier theme and to develop it further. The earlier explanation of the good shepherd parable had dealt with the gate and the shepherd, while this one deals with the sheep, their relation to the shepherd..." Fuller underscores in this relation between the two the particular focus of our title and theme, namely, the "thrice repeated assurance" that the sheep (followers or disciples) shall never perish or be snatched out of the shepherd's hand. (Reginald H. Fuller, Preaching the New Lectionary [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1975] pp. 28-29)
Bruce Milne notes further that the good shepherd imagery fits in with the context of the events that took place at the feast of the Dedication. The Jews challenge Jesus to tell them in plain words whether or not he is the promised Messiah. Christ's reference to his sheep emphasizes the point he is trying to make to them: "Their antipathy to him lies in their being closed to the call of the Father through him.... The shepherd imagery also makes sense in response to their question, for one of the supreme OT images of the Messiah was David, the shepherd king of Israel."
That intimate moment when you recognize someone by the sound of their voice is often startingly. More often than not we will hear an actor and not recognize their appearance but find that we know them by the sound of their voice. Voice recognition is an everyday event.
However, when you delve into this everyday event you find that for even our most sophisticated computers this is not possible. They still get it wrong. Recognizing another’s voice is very much a human talent. Jesus certainly understood how important this can be not only between human beings but also between the animals that surround us and ourselves.
This Mother’s Day the wonderful addition is that a mother’s voice for almost all children has a very special and central place in their lives. As one commentator put it a mother’s voice lights up a child’s brain like a Christmas tree. The voice of someone’s mother growing up as they speak and often sing to us gives us a real anchor in a frightening and confusing world.
Jesus knew the importance of voice recognition and we all need to listen closely for his voice just as we listen closely for our mother’s voice.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
“Alexa, who am I?” Amazon Echo’s voice-controlled virtual assistant, Alexa, doesn’t have an answer to that – yet. However, for other applications of speech technology, computer algorithms are increasingly able to discriminate, recognize and identify individuals from voice recordings.
Of course, these algorithms are far from perfect, as was recently shown when a BBC journalist broke into his own voice-controlled bank account using his twin brother’s voice. Is this a case of computers just failing at something humans can do perfectly? We decided to find out.
Each human being has a voice that is distinct and different from everyone else’s. So it seems intuitive that we’d be able to identify someone from their voice fairly easily. But how well can you actually do this? When it comes to recognizing your closest family and friends, you’re probably quite good. But would you be able to recognize the voice of your first primary school teacher if you heard them again today? How about the guy on the train this morning who was shouting into his phone? What if you had to pick him out, not from his talking voice, but from samples of his laughter, or singing?
To date, research has only explored voice identity perception using a limited set of vocalizations, for example sentences that have been read aloud or snippets of conversational speech. These studies have found that we can actually recognize voices of familiar people’s speech quite well. But they have also shown that there are problems: ear-witness testimonies are notoriously unreliable and inaccurate.
It’s important to keep in mind that these studies have not captured much of the flexibility of the sounds we can make with our voices. This is bound to have an effect on how we process the identity of the person behind the voice we are listening to. Therefore, we are currently missing a very large and important piece of the puzzle.
Recognizing voices requires two broad processes to operate together: we need to distinguish between the voices of different people (telling people apart) and we need to be able to attribute a single identity to all the different sounds (talking, laughing, shouting) that can come from the same person (“telling people together”). We set out to investigate the limits of these abilities in humans.
Our recent study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, confirms that voice identity perception can be extremely challenging. Capitalizing on how variable a single person’s voice can be, we presented 46 listeners with laughter and vowels produced by five people. Listeners were asked to make a very simple judgement about pairs of sounds: were they made by the same person, or by two different people? As long as they could compare vowels to vowels or laughter to laughter respectively, discriminating between speakers was relatively successful.
But when we asked our listeners to make this judgement based on a mixed pair of sounds, such as directly comparing vowels to laughter in a pair, they couldn’t discriminate between speakers at all – especially if they were not familiar with the speaker. However, even though a sub-group of people who knew the speakers performed better overall, they still struggled significantly with the challenge of “telling people together”.
Similar effects have been reported by studies showing, for example, that it is difficult to recognize a bilingual speaker across their two languages. What’s surprising about these findings is how bad voice perception can be once listeners are exposed to natural variation in the sounds that a voice can produce. So, it’s intriguing to consider that while we each have a unique voice, we don’t yet know how useful that uniqueness is.
But why have we evolved to have unique voices if we can’t even recognize them? That’s really an open question so far. We don’t actually know whether we have evolved to have unique voices – we also all have different and largely unique fingerprints, but there’s no evolutionary advantage to that as far as we can tell. It just so happens that based on differences in anatomy and, probably most importantly, how we use our voice, that we all sound different to each other.
Luckily computer algorithms are still able to make the most of the individuality of the human voice. They have probably already outdone humans in some cases – and they will keep on improving. The way these machine-learning algorithms recognize speakers is based on mathematical solutions to create “voice prints” – unique representations picking up the specific acoustic features of each individual voice.
In contrast to computers, humans might not know what they are listening out for, or how to separate out these acoustic features. So, the way that voice prints are created for the algorithms is not closely modelled on what human listeners appear to do – we’re still working on this. In the long term, it will be interesting to see if there is any overlap in the way human listeners and machine-learning algorithms recognize voices. While human listeners are unlikely to glean any insights from how computers solve this problem, conversely, we might be able to build machines that emulate effective aspects of human performance.
It is rumored that Amazon is currently working on teaching Alexa how to identify specific users by their voice. If this works, it will be a truly impressive feat and may put a stop to further unwanted orders of dollhouses. But, do be patient if Alexa makes mistakes – you may not be able to do it any better yourself. (http://theconversation.com/human-voices-are-unique-but-our-study-shows-were-not-that-good-at-recognising-them-79520)
Speech recognition is the interdisciplinary subfield of computational linguistics that develops methodologies and technologies that enables the recognition and translation of spoken language into text by computers. It is also known as automatic speech recognition (ASR), computer speech recognition or speech to text (STT). It incorporates knowledge and research in the linguistics, computer science, and electrical engineering fields.
Some speech recognition systems require "training" (also called "enrollment") where an individual speaker reads text or isolated vocabulary into the system. The system analyzes the person's specific voice and uses it to fine-tune the recognition of that person's speech, resulting in increased accuracy. Systems that do not use training are called "speaker independent" systems. Systems that use training are called "speaker dependent".
Speech recognition applications include voice user interfaces such as voice dialing (e.g. "call home"), call routing (e.g. "I would like to make a collect call"), domotic appliance control, search (e.g. find a podcast where particular words were spoken), simple data entry (e.g., entering a credit card number), preparation of structured documents (e.g. a radiology report), determining speaker characteristics, speech-to-text processing (e.g., word processors or emails), and aircraft (usually termed direct voice input).
The term voice recognition or speaker identification refers to identifying the speaker, rather than what they are saying. Recognizing the speaker can simplify the task of translating speech in systems that have been trained on a specific person's voice or it can be used to authenticate or verify the identity of a speaker as part of a security process.
From the technology perspective, speech recognition has a long history with several waves of major innovations. Most recently, the field has benefited from advances in deep learning and big data. The advances are evidenced not only by the surge of academic papers published in the field, but more importantly by the worldwide industry adoption of a variety of deep learning methods in designing and deploying speech recognition systems. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_recognition)
Alternatively referred to as speech recognition, voice recognition is a computer software program or hardware device with the ability to decode the human voice. Voice recognition is commonly used to operate a device, perform commands, or write without having to use a keyboard, mouse, or press any buttons. Today, this is done on a computer with ASR (automatic speech recognition) software programs. Many ASR programs require the user to "train" the ASR program to recognize their voice so that it can more accurately convert the speech to text. For example, you could say "open Internet" and the computer would open the Internet browser.
The first ASR device was used in 1952 and recognized single digits spoken by a user (it was not computer driven). Today, ASR programs are used in many industries, including healthcare, military (e.g., F-16 fighter jets), telecommunications, and personal computing (i.e. hands-free computing).
As voice recognition improves, it is being implemented in more places and its very likely you have already used it. Below are some good examples of where you might encounter voice recognition.
Automated phone systems - Many companies today use phone systems that help direct the caller to the correct department. If you have ever been asked something like "Say or press number 2 for support" and you say "two," you used voice recognition.
Google Voice - Google voice is a service that allows you to search and ask questions on your computer, tablet, and phone.
Digital assistant - Amazon Echo, Apple's Siri, and Google Assistant use voice recognition to interact with digital assistants that helps answer questions.
Car Bluetooth - For cars with Bluetooth or Handsfree phone pairing, you can use voice recognition to make commands, such as "call my wife" to make calls without taking your eyes off the road.
Types of voice recognition systems
Automatic speech recognition is just one example of voice recognition. Below are other examples of voice recognition systems.
Speaker dependent system - The voice recognition requires training before it can be used, which requires you to read a series of words and phrases.
Speaker independent system - The voice recognition software recognizes most users' voices with no training.
Discrete speech recognition - The user must pause between each word so that the speech recognition can identify each separate word.
Continuous speech recognition - The voice recognition can understand a normal rate of speaking.
Natural language - The speech recognition not only can understand the voice but can also return answers to questions or other queries that are being asked. (https://www.computerhope.com/jargon/v/voicreco.htm)
Less than one second. That's how long it takes children to recognize their mother's voice. And that voice lights a child's brain up like a Christmas tree.
A new study from Stanford University School of Medicine studied how children reacted to mom's voice compared to a woman they didn't know. Kids were not only more engaged by mom's voice than a stranger's, scientists found, but this response was noted beyond just auditory areas of the brain.
Parts of the brain related to emotion, reward processing, facial recognition and social functioning are also amped by hearing from mom. In short, a child's ability to communicate socially is in a large way affected by how he or she reacts to mom's voice.
"Many of our social, language and emotional processes are learned by listening to our mom's voice," said lead author Daniel Abrams, a Stanford instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "But surprisingly little is known about how the brain organizes itself around this very important sound source. We didn't realize that a mother's voice would have such quick access to so many different brain systems."
Abrams considers this brain connectivity "a neural fingerprint for social communication abilities in children."
In the study, two dozen children, ages 7 to 12, underwent an MRI brain scan while listening to short clips of nonsense-word recordings, some from the mothers and some from a stranger.
Even in audio clips less than a second long, kids could identify their mom's voices with 97 percent accuracy.
The fact that so many parts of the brain lit up after hearing from mom was the real surprise for scientists, said Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the study's senior author.
"We know that hearing mother's voice can be an important source of emotional comfort to children," he said. "Here, we're showing the biological circuitry underlying that."
This reaction to dear old mom's voice may stretch beyond childhood. A study back in 2010 suggested that teenagers going through a stressful time were almost instantly soothed by hearing mom's voice on the phone, because the conversation helped reduce a key stress hormone and released oxytocin, a feel-good brain chemical believed to play a role in forming bonds.
So the next time you get a call from mom, don't let it go to voicemail, go ahead and answer.
Just hearing her voice -- as a child and as you're older -- will do you some good. (https://www.cnn.com/2016/05/18/health/mom-voice-study-trnd/index.html)
Did you call your mom on Mother’s Day? When you joined the millions of people all over the world who phone their mom on Mother’s Day, you may have called to let mom know that you were thinking of her, to thank her for kind and selfless actions on your behalf, to express your love and respect for her role in your life, to inquire about her current health and wellbeing, or to update her on your immediate family events. Mother’s Day continues to set the high watermark for the largest volume of telephone calls for any day in the year both within the United States2,3 and around the world. Among Americans whose mothers are still living, one survey4 found that 64% of adult children planned to visit their mom on Mother’s Day and another 25% planned to call her that day. Internationally, South African expatriates telephone most on Mother’s Day, increasing their call volume to 91% compared to any other day of the year, followed by Ghanians at 83%, then expatriates from China, Cameroon, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Japan, Kenya, and Britain.
Despite long-established global trends for families to be widely dispersed geographically, maintaining contact with our mother’s voice has, surprisingly, not only failed to follow those trends, but marched strikingly in the opposite direction. According to the Pew Research Center,6 in 1989 only 32% of adults reported that they saw or talked with one of their parents (usually their mother) every day, but in 2006, 42% reported doing so. These more frequent conversations between child and parent increased whether the child and parent lived in the same town or not. For the latter, whereas only 8% of adult children had daily telephone conversations with their parent in 1989, 22% reported doing so in 2006.
For all these parent-child telephone contacts, even when both parents are living, the child’s conversations are most often with mom (61%) rather than with dad (18%) or equally between both parents (21%). What accounts for this over-whelming propensity to talk with our mothers? What is it about conversations with mom that matters to this extent? Why is it that adult children maintain such enduring vocal ties to their mother? Does mom need to hear from her children? Or do her children, even those long past their childhood, need to hear from mom? Have you ever entertained the possibility that all these conversations with mom may originate from our needs to hear her voice rather than from her needs to hear ours?
At least 3 lines of research appear to converge on the notion that hearing our mother’s voice may confer more than just familiar, pleasing sounds to our ears. One line of research supports the long-recognized preference that human infants display for their mother’s voice. Another notes the soothing effects that a mother’s voice has on preadolescent girls. A third line of study extends directly into critical care by considering whether the familiar voice of our mother may be capable of penetrating the neurologic impasse of unresponsiveness associated with severe traumatic brain injury (TBI).
A newborn’s recognition and preference for their mother’s voice occurs early in life, very likely during fetal development, and can be demonstrated in neonates 1 to 3 days old7 as well as in newborns younger than 2 hours old.8 In summarizing these classic studies, Smith et al9 relate that this preference for the mother’s voice derives from a unique prenatal priming that transpires during fetal intrauterine existence. Additional evidence10 reveals that at least as early as 4 months of age, infants process auditory stimuli from their mother’s voice at a higher amplitude than they process auditory input from female strangers, suggesting that maternal voice stimuli undergo a unique form of cerebral processing that lends support for the existence of neurophysiologic mechanisms that reflect a child’s preference for his/her mother’s voice. (http://ccn.aacnjournals.org/content/30/4/13.full)
Kids can recognize their mothers’ voices in less than a second, a new study shows. And those whose brains show more connections when they hear their moms’ voice are more socially gifted than those whose don’t.
The study, which was conducted at Stanford University and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, looked at the brain activity of 24 normally developing children between the ages of 7 and 12, as they listened to recordings of various female voices saying nonsense words. Some of the words were spoken by the child’s mother and others were said by another mother not related to the child.
While researchers have long known that children are much more aware of their mothers’ voices than other sounds, and that maternal voices play an important role in kids’ brain, social and emotional development, “we don’t really know what brain circuits are selectively engaged in children in response to their mother’s voice,” says the paper’s author Daniel Abrams, a researcher in the psychiatry department at Stanford. “We thought it would be important to know how the brain organizes itself around a biologically relevant sound source like mom.”
First the researchers tested to see if kids could recognize their own mother’s voice saying psuedo-words. (For those who wish to try this at home, the words were teebudishawlt, keebudishawlt, and peebudishawlt.) The kids got it right 97% of the time, even though they heard the voice for less than a second.
Then, using an fMRI, the researchers looked at which areas of the brain were most activated by the sound of these voices. And not surprisingly, the moms’ voices stimulated many more parts of the brain than just those that normally deal with auditory stimuli. The brain scans showed activity in the reward center, the area associated with processing emotional information, and in the network that detects information that is self-referential.
It’s also possible that the kids were visualizing their mother’s face when they heard the nonsense words. “One of the other brain circuits that was engaged by mothers’ voices is a part of the brain that is associated with seeing faces, which was odd,” says Abrams. Since the kids were looking at a black screen at the time, brain activity in that area was unexpected.
Separately, the researchers also assessed the kids’ social communication scores and found those who were the most socially adept had a particular brain pattern in reaction to their moms’ voice; the various circuits communicated with each other better. “What we found is that kids with the best social communication abilities also showed the strongest brain connectivity between the networks,” says Abrams. “It’s kind of a fingerprint for greater social function.”
Abrams hopes his research will lead to further examination of the brain mechanisms of kids whose social ability is not strong—say, kids on the autism spectrum—and whether they have weaker inter-connections between networks. “Using this exact same design,” he says, “we can start to tease apart in kids on the spectrum the nature of brain processing for these different categories of vocal sources.” (http://time.com/4328353/kids-brains-moms-voice/)
The history of the Church contains numerous examples of men and women who were called to sainthood and actually became saints because the Lord would not allow them to be snatched from his hand. For example, in the New Testament, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Paul were both headed in the wrong direction until they encountered Christ who changed their course in life. In the 4th Century, St. Monica refused to let her son Augustine be snatched from her hands and the hands of Christ. While Augustine led a dissolute and selfish life with no regard to the teachings of Christ, Monica steadfastly prayed for his conversion. Finally, at age 32, Augustine was baptized and went on to become an outstanding bishop, a great theologian, and a saint. If we take a quantum leap into the 20th Century, we find Dorothy Day who had a child out of wedlock in her youth but later became a tireless advocate for the poor and a social justice activist. Thomas Merton lived extravagantly as a youth, fathered an illegitimate child, and joined a Communist group. His autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain, describes how he became a convert to Catholicism and entered a Trappist monastery. Merton's books on contemplation, modern spirituality, and civil rights made him one of the most widely read authors of his time.
In every age and place, God's grace seems to grip and hold fast to people's souls even after they had wandered far astray from him. Yet, without forcing them and by respecting their freedom, the good shepherd drew them into a close relationship with himself. He enabled them to discover their best selves and true vocation in life. Carroll Stuhlmueller acknowledges that this mysterious profound relationship is "established by God's initiative, and we are caught!" However, this does not mean that we are absorbed into something or someone alien to ourselves, thus reducing us to slavery. "Rather, we are caught because Jesus speaks what is most genuine about ourselves and what is most attractive about our future." (Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for the Easter Season [Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980], p. 68)
Author John Charles Ryle offers his understanding of Christ's words that the sheep who hear his voice and follow him will never perish: "Not one of them shall be lost and cast away...If they err, they shall be brought back; if they fall, they shall be raised. The enemies of their soul may be strong and mighty, but their Savior is mightier; and none shall pluck them out of their Savior's hand." (John Charles Ryle, John [Marshall Pickering, 1990] p. 193)
Grace D. MacKinnon was born into a poor Hispanic home in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas and has been afflicted with cerebral palsy from early infancy. When she was six years old, she was sent to the Moody State School for Crippled Children in Galveston, Texas. Grace struggled but at last succeeded in learning how to feed herself properly and walk with crutches and braces. People reached out to help her, but she still agonized why she was so different from everyone else. Like any teenage girl, Grace felt attracted to boys but could only dream about having a boyfriend. On the one hand, like the psalmist in the Scriptures, Grace sometimes raged in anger against God-"Look how crippled I am! Why am I not good enough!" On the other hand, as so often happens in the Book of Psalms, her anger was transformed into peace and her outrage into acceptance. She realized that God had not rejected her at all, but had chosen her for a significant mission.
It then became important for Grace to demonstrate to herself and others that she could make it on her own through life. So she decided to attend the University of Texas where she joined the campus Newman Club for spiritual and social support. After graduation, Grace was invited to serve on a parish council and be a lector for Sunday Mass. She went on to earn a master's degree in theology, began writing a weekly newspaper column called Dear Grace to answer readers' question on the Catholic faith, and started her own web page on the internet (www.DearGrace.com)
When she looks back over her life, Grace is amazed at how God worked everything out for her. "Suffering is indeed a great mystery," she says, "but if God is allowing me to suffer visibly, it is because God is using it as a sign of love for others....People who are disabled have an opportunity to inspire others by their very presence in the world." As long as Grace keeps God's providential care for her in focus, she does not mind being different and has no fear of ever being snatched out of God's hand. (Jeff Cavins and Matthew Pinto, Amazing Grace for Those Who Suffer [West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2002])
Congressman Jim Ryun of Kansas ran 3 times in the Olympic games (1964, 1968, and 1972), won a silver medal in the 1500-meter race in 1968, and at one time held the World Records in the mile, 1500 meter and 880-yard races. In a book he's written with his sons, Heroes Among Us, Ryun focuses on heroes whose religious faith was the foundation of the difficult and heroic decisions they made. "It is this faith that motivated these heroes to greatness, for their faith gave them the ideal of self-sacrifice, of the strong sacrificing for the weak. Their faith gave them a moral foundation from which to view the world around them and it gave them the courage to act rightly."
One of Ryun's stories of heroism is about an English nurse named Edith Cavell. She was the head of a nursing school in Belgium at the time World War I broke out. When the German army conquered and occupied Belgium in August 1914, the outnumbered Allied British and French armies had to leave thousands of soldiers behind enemy lines during their retreat. Even though the Germans threatened death to anyone who would aid stranded soldiers, for almost a year Edith Cavell and her staff at the nursing school (now a Red Cross clinic) harbored and helped numerous Allied soldiers to escape. The Germans arrested Edith with several others in August 1915, tried them for treason, and sentenced them to death by a firing squad.
The night before her execution, the Germans allowed an Anglican chaplain, Rev. Gahan, to bring her the Holy Sacrament. He said to her, "We will always remember you as a heroine and martyr." "Don't think of me like that," Cavell responded. "Only as a nurse who tried to do her duty." On the morning of October 12, 1915, before she was executed, Cavell handed her prayer book and copy of the Imitation of Christ to the chaplain accompanying her and said: "Ask Rev. Gahan to tell my loved ones that my soul I believe is safe, and I am glad to die for my country." Certainly Edith must have heard earlier in her life Christ's words saying that those who follow him would never be snatched from his hand. We might wonder if it ever occurred to Edith how real those words would one day become for her. As a tribute to her heroism, Mt. Edith Cavell in Alberta, Canada, has been named after her. (Jim Ryun & Sons, Heroes Among Us [Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2002] pp. 215-237)
Theresa Marie (Terri) Schiavo suffered a cardiac arrest in 1990. A Florida court found her to be in a persistent vegetative state, while other experts claimed that she could be rehabilitated. Terri's husband Michael obtained a court order last year to remove her feeding tube, saying that she had told him and others that she would not want "tubes" to keep her alive. However, Terri's parents deny this and are fighting to keep her alive. Six days after her feeding tube was removed, the Florida legislature authorized Gov. Jeb Bush to prevent the withholding of nutrition and hydration "from such a patient." He did so, and now the case is back in the courts.
Terri Schiavo's case is complicated because it includes medical, legal, ethical, financial, and family issues. Here are some observations by Fr. John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University. He begins by offering two important principles. "One, I do not have to do everything in my power to keep myself or others alive. Two, I must not intentionally kill myself or another person." Based on these two premises, he says that in itself (apart from motives or circumstances), removing tube feeding is not an intent to kill, but simply a decision not to do "everything" to keep someone alive. In the ideal world, it would be good if we could wean someone like Schiavo away from artificial means to feed her. However, even for devoted caregivers in the real world this is labor intensive, costly, takes considerable time, and may still cause complications (just as tube feeding might) Kavanaugh asks a basic question about what human nourishment should be. "It is not like filling up a gas tank....it is as much about companionship as it is about refueling." Tube feeding is best used in emergencies or for short-range problems. Unfortunately, tube feeding often becomes a convenient way to keep a body nourished but without companionship, or ends up only prolonging the natural process of dying. (John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., "Food for Terri Schiavo" [America, Nov. 24, 2003] p. 8)
In the light of today's Scripture, we might ask if we should see Terri Schiavo among those being prepared by the Lord for a peaceful death and entrance into heaven: "They stood before the throne and the Lamb dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.... These are the ones who have survived the great period of trial.... and God will wipe every tear from their eyes." (Rev 7:9.14.17) In spite of the tragic circumstances of her present state, can we see through faith the good shepherd promising that she will never perish, because he will give her eternal life? Are we able to picture her in the loving hands of God from which no one can snatch her?
Sylvia is a sad but thought-provoking movie about a gifted creative person who committed suicide. The film opens with an American poet named Sylvia Plath coming to England in 1956 on a Fulbright scholarship. She meets Ted Hughes, joins his circle of poet friends, and is soon drawn into an intense romantic relationship with him. They marry quickly, travel to the U.S. to teach, have two children, and return to England. Sylvia's outer professional life as a poet was productive and made her famous, but within she was disturbed because of a deep paranoia and insecurity. Sylvia was jealous of her charismatic husband's popularity with other women, and it was not long before her fears became a self-fulfilling prophecy when Ted had an affair that destroyed their marriage. Sylvia's psychic state continued to spiral downward and culminated in her suicide in 1963 at age 30.
There is a song Mahalia Jackson used to sing titled "Ain't Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Had." None of us really knows, let alone appreciates, the pressures, stresses and troubles anyone has, because we "haven't walked in his or her's moccasins." Our human condition and the milieu in which we exist impose limits on our physical, mental, and psychic capacities. When people are overburdened and feel overwhelmed, or suffer from severe depression and frustration, they are in danger of having a breakdown. How else can we explain why people, whom we know to be good, gentle and kind, suddenly commit an extreme act of violence on themselves and take their own life? It's not the same person we know committing such an act, but a person who has broken down and become irrational. This is why the church tries to show compassion and understanding to suicide victims and their families. Who of us would dare to say that we would have done differently or better had we been in the same set circumstances as the victim? This is why we try to visualize Christ holding a suicide victim like Sylvia in his hands and saying, "No one shall snatch you out of my hand. No matter what happens, I will always hold you fast."
In his book Broken but Loved, Fr. George Maloney, S.J. touches on an important dual consideration to the way the Lord holds on fast to us even in our brokenness. Jesus calls us, not just to receive his healing love, but also to go out into the world to be wounded healers for others.
You were broken, but always loved.
Now be love to those who still know
not of My healing, loving power.
Tell them the Good News
that darkness can be turned into light...
Absence is driven out by presence,
brokenness can be healed by love!
(George A. Maloney, S.J., Broken But Loved [Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1981] p. 109)
My wife and I are always amazed that, among the more than twenty horses stabled at the boarding barn, we can pick out the distinctive voice of the mare we have lived and worked with for fourteen years. She knows our voices, calls to us, and we recognize her effortlessly. While one horse sounds like another to the careless ear, when you know them, they are as individual as people. And their loyalty is amazing.
Just as the Good Shepherd holds fast his sheep, so does 13-year-old Wei Minzhu in the Chinese film Not One Less hold onto the students entrusted to her. When Teacher Gao has to leave the village to care for his sick mother, the mayor secures the girl as his substitute. The old teacher almost cancels his trip when he sees how young and inexperienced the substitute is. He admonishes the girl that when he returns, there had better not be "one less" pupil than when she had begun. (The teacher's meager salary is based on the number of pupils in a class.) Wei Minzhu has little skill, and certainly no experience, as a teacher, save one, and it is not so much a skill, as a character trait-tenacity. When a coach comes to recruit one of her girls who is a fast runner, Wei Minzhu not only refuses to grant permission for the girl's release, but she hides her in order to keep her. The mayor and the coach prevail, pointing out that it is for the student's best interest. Having lost one pupil, the girl is determined not to lose another, even though the boy taken away to the city has been a troublemaker for her. With the help of the class, she manages to raise money to follow him to the city, but how to find one boy in a vast sea of thousands? She decides to try to get onto a TV program to make her appeal, but the manager will not even talk to her. Again, her iron tenacity prevails as she practically lives outside the station during the next few days. Young Wei Minzhu is an unlikely shepherd, but she strives with all her might to keep her promise that there will be "not one less" member of her flock when her master returns.
Although he does not use the metaphor of shepherd, hymn writer George Matheson's "O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go" celebrates a love that will not give up, as well as suggesting the proper response of believers. This hymn is a sublime example of how something of great beauty can grow out of intense personal suffering. Born in Scotland in 1842, while a teenager Matheson's eyesight faded steadily, despite the doctor's pronouncement that nothing physical was wrong with his eyes. Despite his blindness, Matheson proved a brilliant student at the University of Glascow, graduating at the age of nineteen. He became a pastor and won renown as a preacher, even being invited to preach for Queen Victoria during one of her visits to Scotland. Called to a two thousand-member church in Edinburgh, Matheson tried to become a scholar, but his lack of vision made it impossible to study all the texts such a career would have required. Instead, he became a writer of the inner, devotional life, with this one hymn becoming his lasting contribution to the church. He wrote that it came to him without any work on his part on the evening of June 6, 1882, the day of his sister's wedding. He was alone when something that he never revealed happened to him, which caused the "most severe mental suffering." The hymn is the result. Some have speculated that the occasion of his sister's wedding brought back to him the time when a girl he had been in love with rejected him because of his impending blindness, but no one will ever know, nor need we. Like Matheson, who remained a bachelor all his life, we need to learn to surrender to the "ocean depths" of the love of God, and then we will discover an even greater life than we could have imagined or desired. Employing the symbols of light, joy (and pain and rainbow), and cross, the author shows us how out of "dust of life's glory dead," that is, what we have give up for God, will blossom the red flower, symbolic of "Life that shall endless be."
You've probably heard the familiar revival hymn: There were ninety and nine that safely lay, in the shelter of the fold/ but one was out on the hills far away, far off from the gates of gold/ away on the mountain, wild and bare/ away from the tender shepherd's care. While events such as the massacre at Columbine High School introduce us to people who held fast even in the midst of that awful carnage. Reading again the accounts of those terrible moments we are introduced to numerous Good Shepherds. They were the teachers and students sheltering others, aiding others to escape, caring for the wounded and staying with the dying. Good Shepherds hold us fast, giving their lives for others, sometimes in one courageous act and more frequently one day at a time, but always with the words of the Chief Good Shepherd guiding them , "so that others may have abundant life."
The first time my son accompanied me on a "grown-up" roller coaster, he was adamant that I hold tight to his hand. When I noted all the safety equipment designed to keep him restrained and inside the seat, he told me he knew that, but he still needed to make sure someone was holding him so he could not be taken away by the wind.
When we think of Jesus as a shepherd for us, we often interpret that to be a rather serene, passive role for Jesus to play. Yet in Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Jack Miles reminds us that in ancient Israel the duties of a shepherd were anything but serene and passive. While shepherds did perform relatively routine tasks like feeding and herding their flock, they also had to be constantly vigilant in case a wild animal might try to attack one of their sheep. In those days the Asiatic lion lived in the Jordan River valley, and wolves were often seen roaming in the hills of Galilee and Judea. Armed with hand weapons, the shepherds needed to be ready in an instant to protect their flock from those predators.
In the United States, we have often come to assume that those who belong to Jesus, those whom he holds steadfastly in his hands, are primarily Christians of European or North American citizenship. By and large we have come to assume that we are the "insiders" who are Jesus' chosen sheep, while the rest of the world is relegated to a less close relationship with Jesus. But Philip Yancey suggests that maybe Jesus has gotten tired of the way that Europeans and North Americans have indicated their lack of interest in being his flock. With church membership and worship attendance experiencing a widespread decline, could it be that Jesus is looking for a more receptive audience? Yancey says, "As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God 'moving' geographically from the Middle East, to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he's wanted."
Are we more concerned that we are in the hands of God, or are we more concerned about what we can put our hands on? If you think that everything that can be owned on earth already is owned, you may be right. But what about what's on the moon? A Newsday article (10/3/03) told about a fellow who has been selling people property on the moon for more than 20 years. Dennis Hope first got the idea of selling property on the moon on November 22, 1980, when he was going through a divorce and was almost out of money. As he was driving home that night, he thought to himself, "If only I had a lot of property...." Then he looked up at the moon and said to himself, "Now, there's a lot of property!" Immediately he began to research who owns the moon. He discovered that the United Nations' Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forbids any government from owning planetary property, but it didn't specifically say that individuals couldn't own land in outer space. So, he proceeded to file a claim on the moon at a San Francisco courthouse, and he filed a notice of what he was doing with the United Nations, the United States, and the then-Soviet Union. None of those bodies responded to him, so he assumed that it meant they didn't object to what he was doing. With there being about 10 billion acres of land on the moon, he originally decided to divide it into 5 or 6 million lots, with each one being 1,7770.5 acres, which he sold for $15.00 per lot. Buyers, though, were not allowed to be choosy. When they sent in their money, they would then be told the coordinates of their property. When the Internet came on the scene in the 1990s, Hope saw a brand-new marketing opportunity. With the increase in sales volume, Wood decided to shrink each plot of land down to one acre, which sells for $19.99. According to a recent Dun & Bradstreet financial report, Wood's company, Lunar Embassy, has about $700,000 in annual revenue. To date, he has sold more than 430 million acres on the moon for a total of more than $6.5 million. Owners include dozens of celebrities and regular people from more than 180 countries.
With an increase in the number of asylum seekers, Great Britain has struggled with how to decide who really belongs in their country and who doesn't. A Reuters report (9/3/03) from London noted that in 2002 Britain received asylum requests from 103,000 people, more than any other member of the European Union received. The increasing immigrant population is causing some British citizens to wonder whether all those people are genuinely a part of their society. A report last year, "Life in the United Kingdom," proposed that potential immigrants be given a "Britishness test." The purpose, the report said, would be to make sure that those who are coming from other countries would be prepared to be integrated into British society. The test could possibly include such things as knowledge of the English language and of various aspects of British culture. The subject has been a controversial one for some time. Margaret Thatcher caused a stir when she suggested that there should be a "cricket test," whereby immigrants could only be considered British if they cheered for the England cricket team.
Ultimately what Jesus is doing in this passage in John is inviting his followers to trust him. In The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Francis Fukuyama asserts that trust is the most essential quality for any community to function. He states that "if members of the group come to expect that others will behave reliably and honestly, then they will come to trust one another." Jesus invites his followers to see for themselves how reliable and honest he is.
The image of sheep and shepherds is found throughout the Bible. We tend of think of sheep as rather peaceful creatures. After all, when someone has trouble falling asleep, we traditionally tell the person to try counting sheep. A Reuters article (10/22/03), however, reports that sheep can experience stress. A student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, did a study in which he claims to have determined that sheep communicate their stress by changing the timbre of their voice. The student believes that his findings can help farmers to better care for their flocks. For his experiment, he recorded the sound of sheep bleating when the mothers were in the presence of their lambs. Then he separated the mothers and lambs and noted the changes in their bleating. The student said that stress could also be analyzed by examining the sheep's blood but listening to the animals' bleating would be far easier and cheaper.
Although Jesus will never abandon us, there are times when we abandon each other. One rather extreme instance of that occurred about two years ago. According to Reuters (12/1/03), a man in Cambodia realized that he had forgotten his wallet after he had finished filling up his motorcycle with gasoline. Since he did not have the money on hand to pay for the three liters of fuel, he told the gas station owner that he would leave his nephew with him as collateral until he came back. The 9-year-old boy was on the trip with his uncle in March 2002 to try and track down the boy's father in a nearby province. Before they reached that province, though, they ran out of gas. Two years went by, and the uncle never returned. The elderly lady who owns the gas station has chosen to keep the child. The old woman told reporters, "I have decided to take care of him and raise him as my own grandson." Even though the United Nations was deeply involved in reconstruction efforts in the early 1990s in Cambodia, child rights still remain a neglected subject in that troubled land.
By placing our trust in him, Jesus invites us to cast our fears aside. For some people, however, that is easier said than done. A new drug, though, might be of some help. CNN (11/10/03) commented on a small study that seemed to indicate that a pill might be able to help people overcome their worst phobias. Michael Davis, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine, conducted the study. His research found that the transmission of a certain protein to a brain receptor was crucial to overcoming fear. Toward that end, he found that a drug used in the treatment of tuberculosis, D-cycloserine, aids in such a protein transmission. The drug, which is sold by Eli Lilly under the brand name Seromycin, does not instantly eradicate fears. But in clinical experiments with rats, the drug apparently enabled the rats to unlearn their fears faster. For human trials, the researcher took a group of people who suffer from a fear of heights, and using virtual reality goggles, he simulated having them ride up a glass elevator in a hotel lobby. Each of the 28 participants was given a pill right before the test, but they were not told whether it was the drug or whether it was a placebo. A second similar session was also held. The subjects were then checked one week later and three months later. Those who had been given placebos were found to do slightly better than they had at the start of the experiment. But those who received the drug were found to do as well or better than people who had gone through eight therapy sessions-and they had undergone only two sessions. Furthermore, those who were taking the pill were twice as likely as those on the placebo to ride on elevators, drive over high bridges, and do other things that had caused them to panic at the start of the experiment.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Loving God, we give you thanks for moments, for people, for places where we can pause, connect, mend and celebrate, finding your spirit in our midst. We give you thanks for today and the way You hold fast to us, through thick and thin. Sustain us. Help us keep on keeping on and show us Your way. Amen
Help us create space for discerning your call, time to listen to your still, small voice. Be known to us in the sharing of our hearts; be known to us in the promise of what is yet to be, grounded in the many promises you have already fulfilled. Teach us patience. Teach us to tolerate Your suspense. Teach us resistance to evils, both small and large.
Forgive us for all that we have let go of. Teach us to hang on. Amen
We are older today than we were yesterday. And some of us are wiser. And some of us are more cynical. And some of us have caught the Spirit. And others missed the ball. And all of us had the same precious day. Anoint our minutes and our hours, Precious One. Make everyone grand and if not grand, full of Your presence and warmth. Let the little we give here be marked by a generosity of heart and an awareness of passing time. Amen.
Just a few short years ago, You turned the page to a new century. Many good things abound: Email, liver transplants, echocardiograms, frozen yogurt….and so much more that we could never mention. Such glory is yours. Even the Hubble, mercifully, is restored and once again peers far into your galaxies. As it retires, we stand amazed at all it showed us. For all that is good and new, we praise you. For all that is ancient and precious, we also praise you. For traditions and ink pens, the freedom to die at home, for worn shoes that never fail to bring comfort. For both the new and the old and the jazz they make together, we praise you. For youth and age, new guard and old guard, may all let their guards down and rejoice in their fullness in you.
O God Improve us. Blend our many notes into one harmonious whole. Let there be many variations and only one theme, your love for us and therefore our love for you and for each other. Don't take away the simple basic beats but instead direct us to full orchestration of your many themes.
Where there is fear, chase it.
Where there is control, tame it.
Where there is diffidence, dare it to be bold.
Let there be no outsiders here. Not one.
On this Mother’s Day let us celebrate our gratitude for the love and devotion of many of our mother’s. On this day help us to find sweetness in our Mother’s voice. As we think of our Mother’s voice some which we no longer can hear help us find wonder in the many things she did for each of us.
In the name of Jesus, who worked the edges on behalf of the whole and the holy. Amen.