“And if the bugle gives an unclear sound, who will get ready for battle?” I Corinthians 14:8 CJB
Well, I suppose the time has come to tell you something about me you don’t already. In my youth I was a bugler! I played the trumpet in high school and college, and every summer I worked at a family camp in Vermont on the shores of Lake Champlain, where, among my other duties, I played the bugle!
At 7 a.m. I would shatter the stillness of the morning with the crisp piercing sounds of reveille. Thirty minutes later I played the second call to rise, a more-gentle reminder to those who had gone back to sleep, that the day had actually started without them, I had my biggest audience when I played mess call ~ hungry campers gathered round, not allowed to enter the dining hall until they heard that rapid succession of notes that started their gastric juices flowing. Then, of course, there was taps. I would stand alone in the dark of night and play those long and deliberate sounds which ment the time for rest had come. All over camp lights would go out, ~ all except for the starlight. Of all the bugle calls, my favorite was the call to church. Twenty minutes before Sunday service, when the local minister arrived from town, I would call some three hundred campers to worship with sounds from the bugle which were both slow and deliberate as well as light and lively.
So, when St. Paul presents the image of a bugle for our meditation, you need to know that I come to the passage with a certain history. If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? With those words, Paul invites us to consider both the sound of our leadership and the need to prepare for battle. Let us take them in reverse order.
Many are suggesting these days that military images of Christianity are no longer politically correct, and are considered to be inappropriate in services of worship. They cite the fact that for too many centuries our sacred tradition shamefully used conquest and domination to increase its influence in the world. Their point is certainly well taken, and it is in deference to their feelings that we no longer sing hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers unless the language is politically corrected.
But the fact remains that there is a war going on between those that inspire excellence and infuse virtue, and those forces that encourage mediocrity and demoralize. And we send our children off every day to those fields of battle, often completely unaware that everything they are and ever hope to be literally depends upon how well they survive the war. To remain silent for the sake of political correctness, it seems to this old bugler, is to send them into conflict totally unprepared, and that is not only tantamount to surrender, but is probably the single greatest indication of defeat!
The theater for the war is our contemporary western culture. (I’ve never understood that use of the word theater, because it is not entertainment, and those who go there are definitely not spectators.). But like a theater of war, battlefields are everywhere. They may be school yards or street corners, chat rooms on the internet or community centers, places of employment or environments of home. Wherever character is being formed or attitudes are being shaped, wherever vision is being inspired or talents are being developed, wherever relations are being established or moral values are being taught, war is being waged to determine the very nature of our children’s lives.
Signs of victory and defeat are often subtle, and are only evident when we spend a lot of quality time with our children. But for those with eyes to see, each and every day children return from the battlefields either a little more valiant or a little more wounded, either a little more hopeful or a little more cynical, either a little more focused or a little more confused, either a little more affirmed or a little more compromised. The battle, in and of itself is not evil. We cannot shelter them from it. It is the nature of reality that makes our moral freedom possible! But to send our children into battle unprepared is unconscionable!
Perhaps now, Paul’s image of the army bugler may seem, if not politically correct, at least socially relevant. He had in mind a whole different set of bugle sounds from the ones my campers used to hear: sounds that represent instructions from the General overseeing the battle, the One implementing the strategy that promises victory. They are bugle calls that announce when to charge and when to fall back, and so forth. By that image Paul asks us to imagine what happens on the field of battle when those in conflict are getting uncertain and confusing sounds from the bugler. We dare not put this image down without considering what sort of mixed messages we may be sending our children, messages that render them helpless as they struggle for their lives.
Are we sending them clear signals about the sanctity of human sexuality, whatever their sexual orientation may be, and the sacred purpose for every human life? Or are our messages so indistinct that our offspring allow themselves to be exploited and influenced by every fad or fashion that comes along? Do we announce with clarity and passion the moral values that build strong character and the spiritual virtues that become resources for survival? Or do we send out the signals that let them know they’re on their own in a struggle where only the fittest survive? Certainly allowing them to consider themselves victims is tantamount to surrender without a fight!
When they are surrounded in battle by racism, or prejudice, or intolerance, or injustice, are we broadcasting with strength the unconditional nature of love, the value of insight and understanding, the importance of respect, the need for courage? Or by our silence do we let them fend for themselves, saying with a sense of self-consolation, “I’m glad I grew up when I did”? And when in combat they are confronted with life choices, do we proclaim the value of sobriety, the rewards of authenticity, the blessings of humility, the resilience of faith? Or do we leave them to flounder by saying one thing with our words and another by our actions ~ muddled messages for those muddied in battle?
Last year at a Fourth of July picnic, I met a young father who talked about the importance of teaching children not only the value of life, but the values that guarantee success. He told me about how he was implanting those values into his son, by teaching him a list of values titled To Achieve Your Dreams, Remember Your ABCs. He then called his son over for a demonstration.
The young father explained that they train together daily, father implanting and then asking his son to reply. He smiled at his son and said, “What’s A?” And the answer came back instantly: “Avoid negative sources, people, places, things and habits.” How about B? the father asked: “Believe in Yourself!” “What’s C?” he asked. “Consider Things from Every Angle.”
I was impressed to say the least. “Go ahead,” said the young father, “ask away.” “H” as posed, and the child replied, “Hang on to your dreams.” “O”? “Open your eyes and see things as they really are. “Q?” I asked. “Quitters never win, and winners never quit.”
The father went on to explain that life puts children into compromising situations all the time, and in that instant they get confused. But when these values become second nature in my son, they will speak loud and clear about how life is meant to be. How’s that for preparing a child for the battlefields of life on which they must live? I consider that Sound Leadership.
My children had never thought of me as a bugler, and had never heard the sounds of my bugle calls. (I hope across the years that they got the messages I sent in other ways.). As for my bugle, it had been reduced to an artform. It hung on the living room wall for years as part of a collage with a vine from a planter growing around it. There was, however, one memorable exception.
During my years as a single parent, with two children in high school and one in grade school, I used to rise early, go down stairs and cook breakfast, and then call them to the table. As was my custom, one Sunday morning I called upstairs to my sleeping children, “Breakfast on in five minutes!” There were no sounds of feet hitting the floor or bathroom doors slamming. five minutes later I called again, “Breakfast is on the table. Your eggs are getting cold!” Still no sign of wakefulness.
So I went to the living room wall like an old soldier retrieving his weapon, untangled the vine and took my bugle down! Then pointing the horn up the stairwell I hit them with the crisp clear sounds of reveille! Before the call was finished, three excited kids came sliding down the stairs in their pajamas. My son gasping spoke for the others: “Dad! Don’t ever do that again!”
But maybe we should do it again, and again. For consider this: In that moment those three children had their wake-up call ~ and a whole generation of young people need to have a wake-up call to reality. In that moment my children responded with a spirit of excitement and a sense of adventure ~ adrenalin flowing and hearts pounding ~ and that is precisely how children need to feel to face the battle of everyday life. In that moment hungry children responded to the call to nourish their appetites with good dietary habits ~ and there are legions of young people who have no idea what they need to do to stay physically healthy, morally strong or spiritually fit.
Life on earth is not easy, but I am certain that the soul remembers what it was like to be with God before its temporal incarnation. For every now and then when I turn an attentive ear toward God, I can hear the unmistakable sounds of a bugler in the army of the Lord. And I am unafraid.
October 10, 2021
Peoria Presbyterian Church