Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Siri Doesn’t Know

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I recently joined the millions of smart alecks who have asked Siri questions they know are hard or impossible to answer. (Siri is the electronic voice that tries to answer questions for users of IPhones.) “What’s the meaning of life?” I asked.
“I don’t believe there is a consensus on that question,” answered Siri.

Pretty good answer, actually. Not only is there no consensus; many people believe life has no meaning. You’re born, you die and that’s it. We’re all part of a heartless, impersonal universe that developed randomly and meaninglessly.

Although I have long accepted evolution as an explanation of how the universe got where it is, I can’t accept that there’s no “why,” that it is random and lacks purpose. It would make the Big Bang akin to a huge explosion at a paper factory that miraculously results in the library of Congress where there are 155.3 million books and items.
Life Has Meaning
No, I believe life has meaning and in my opinion, nothing is more important than learning what that is and living accordingly.

Recently, I’ve rediscovered Simone Weil, the French philosopher and activist who was born into a wealthy, agnostic family of intellectuals in Paris. Besides becoming an academic, she was active politically, but over time lost faith in political ideologies and was drawn to Christianity. She died in 1943 at the age of 34.
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Simone Weil
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Interestingly, Weil – whose life was immersed in intellectual pursuits - wasn’t drawn to religion by any intellectual arguments. While traveling in Portugal, she came upon an outdoor religious service that moved her and later had a mystical experience in Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis. Those experiences led her to a discovery that overshadows rationality and emotion.

“There is a reality outside the world,” she wrote, “that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.

“Corresponding to this reality, at the center of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world.”

But it is a reality whose access isn't through normal channels. "Another terrestrial manifestation of this reality lies in the absurd and insoluble contradictions which are always the terminus of human thought when it moves exclusively in this world," she wrote.
For many of us, much of the time, what we experience is God’s absence. Even Jesus, who Christians believe is “God among us,” had this experience. Dying on the cross, he recited the beginning of Psalm 22.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

But like many of us searching for God, Jesus didn’t stop at questions. Further gospel texts show his trust in his father as expressed in subsequent versus of the same psalm, with which Jesus was intimately familiar.

“Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you delivered them.”

In an on-line article, Daniel Gallagher, a priest and translator for the Vatican, comments on Pope Francis’ thoughts on faith.

God Didn't Dictate Abstract Truths
For Francis, writes Gallagher, “faith is a journey; it is a history. God did not reveal himself by dictating abstract truths but by acting in human history. The response of faith, in turn, is historical, meaning that it must be renewed and refreshed again and again. Francis even suggests that faith is not genuine unless it is tinged with a trace of doubt.

“‘The great leaders of God’s people, like Moses,’ he quotes Pope Francis as saying, ‘always left room for doubt. We must always leave room for the Lord and not for our own certainties. We must be humble. Every true discernment includes an element of uncertainty open to receiving spiritual consolation.’”

Siri may not know the meaning of life. That’s generally left to people of faith, and faith is “acquired” by “doing,” through our relations with others, with prayer and patience and by acceptance of uncertainty.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What Makes Us Happy?

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What was the happiest day of your life?

The “politically correct” answers would be, “the day I got married,” or “the day my children were born.” Fact is, I didn’t realize at the time how happy my spouse and children would make me. What about, “when I got my first job,” or “when I retired?” Similar answers apply.

In reality, for most of us happiness can’t be captured in such events. Happiness is ongoing, a more permanent thing. Yet, though the definition of happiness may be illusive, we all think we know it when we see it. Teens are certain their first love is “the love of their life.” The new house “couldn’t make us happier.” In my new job, “I’ve never been happier.”

Happiness is one of the most written about topics these days. It’s discussed endlessly on talk shows and in homilies and graduation speeches. The main question is, what makes us happy? There are so many answers. But why so much concern now about happiness? Did our parents and grandparents have discussions about happiness?

Maybe not, but happiness has always been a hot topic, always at the top of any list of human aspirations. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher who lived almost 400 years before Christ, is quoted as saying that “happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

Robert Waldinger
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So back to the question, “What makes us happy?” Here are some thoughts by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger presented in a TED talk in 2015. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. The nonprofit organization with that name sponsors conferences on those topics around the world.

A recent survey asked millennials what their most important life goals were, Waldinger said,

“and over 80 percent said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. And another 50 percent of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous.”

Waldinger is director of an unusual study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, claiming to be “the longest study of adult life that's ever been done.”

“For 75 years, we've tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year,” he said, “asking about their work, their home lives, their health, and of course asking all along the way without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out.

“About 60 of our original 724 men are still alive, still participating in the study, most of them in their 90s. And we are now beginning to study the more than 2,000 children of these men.” Waldinger is the fourth director of the study.

“What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we've generated on these lives?” he asks. “Well, the lessons aren't about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

“It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they're physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic.”

It's the Quality That Matters

The study also shows that it’s the quality of those relationships that matter, and they protect our bodies as well as our minds. And as in marriage, quality relationships usually require a lifetime of work.

So what’s the status of happiness these days? Some see the increased amount of “screen time” in our society as a threat to relationships. Not necessarily. As long as we’re in control, social media can enhance our relationships with family and friends.

But for most of us searching for God, even quality relationships with spouses, family and friends aren’t enough. The famous quote ascribed to St. Augustine seems as applicable now as it did in his day: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Human relationships are an important way of relating to God, but many feel the need to connect with the mysterious, transcendent God of the Hebrew and Christian bibles, and that’s where religion comes in.

One derivation of the word “religion” is the Latin verb, religare, or “bind together.” And that’s what religion does, or should do. It binds together those who are searching for God, helping in the search, inviting all to joyful worship and together to look forward to a joy that, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, “can’t be taken from you.”

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Can We Live in God’s Presence?

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Many people are uncomfortable, even embarrassed, by personal expressions of religious belief or practice. So be warned, I’m about to engage in such an expression.

About a year ago, I started the practice of “placing myself in God’s presence” before my normal morning prayers. I sit comfortably in a quiet place, sometimes in the early-morning semi-darkness, and pray something like this:

“Father, I know you are here with me, in me and around me and in and around the billions of other people on earth, believers and non-believers. And that you stretch from here to beyond the ends of the universe. Help me to believe, and recall your presence throughout the day.”

Some May Not Be Ready

I realize some people searching for God may not be ready for this kind of prayer. After all, it assumes that to some extent, you’ve already found God. But as I’ve mentioned before, I believe you acquire faith at least partly by “doing” it. At some point, you just have to jump in. It doesn’t mean you still won’t have doubts because in my view, faith means accepting uncertainty. And this, in my opinion, doesn’t contradict the idea that faith is a gift from God.

Isn’t awareness of God’s presence in the world one of the goals of skeptics searching for God? If we’re not aware of God’s presence, what difference does it make whether or not we believe in him/her? And we don’t “acquire” faith just by reading books or hearing rational arguments. It requires practice.  

In “Living in the Presence of God,” John Hardon, S.J., writes about what the presence of God could mean.

John Hardon, S.J.
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“A person may be physically present in a room, but unless we are somehow aware of that person being there, and respond to that presence, he or she might just as well not be there.”

So awareness is what we’re talking about here, awareness of someone who isn’t physical, “the reality which is independent of space and time,” as Hardon puts it. And as we become aware, God becomes present to us.  

“If, then, we wish to cultivate living in the presence of God, we must set our minds to think about God,” he writes. “We must place Him before the eyes of our mind.” And this God will not force him/herself on us. “We must look at Him with the power of our mental reflection enlightened by faith.”

Still, it’s often hard for me to focus on this presence. I’m often still sleepy in the morning. There are distractions, mostly from inside my head. That’s why it’s important to choose a time when and where distractions are minimal – such as in early morning and a place where you can be by yourself.

It’s also important that my prayer doesn’t become an empty ritual, something I do simply out of habit. That’s why I change the wording often and sometimes don’t use words at all, but simply try to feel God’s presence and bask in it.

And you can't be discouraged when you get distracted, forget what you’re about or have doubts, feeling that it’s a waste of time, that God doesn’t care about what you have to say or even that there’s no God to hear your prayer.

That brings me back to the subject of doubt and what theologian and philosopher Tomas Halik, whom I often quote in this blog, has written about his own doubts and the realization that followed.

Inexhaustible and Bottomless

“True religious faith on earth can never end like a successful search for some object or other – i.e., by finding and possessing – because it is not directed toward some material end, but to the heart of mystery, which is inexhaustible and bottomless.

“The path of … people often on the fringe or beyond the visible frontiers of the churches, in the zone of questions and doubts, in that singular region between the two fortified camps of those ‘whose minds are made up’ (i.e. self-assured believers and self-assured atheists) helped me get a fresh understanding of faith and of the One to whom faith relates.”

Though we place ourselves in God’s presence, we can’t “possess” God. But we can arrive at a realization of God’s presence to a point where Psalm 138 (in Catholic Bibles) moves us.

“O where can I go from your spirit, or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there.

“If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
Even there your hand would lead me, your right hand would hold me fast.”

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Religion A Way of Seeing

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In his book, “Who Needs God?” Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story.

A man receives a message that a relative died and left him valuable property. He was to contact his rabbi for details. “Excited, he went to the rabbi, only to be told that the relative was Moses and the valuable property was the Jewish religious tradition.”

The man was disappointed that his legacy “was religious wisdom and not downtown real estate,” writes Kushner, who became famous for his book, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

Many modern people, some who say they are “spiritual but not religious,” have various reasons for rejection of religion. Here are a few of the most common mentioned by Kushner, and my brief response to each.

·      Distrust, sometimes even contempt for, official representatives of religion. That may be warranted in a few cases, but it really doesn’t address one’s own spiritual and religious needs.

·      The boring nature of religious rituals; nobody understands or appreciates them. It’s true that if you don’t see with the eyes of faith, you can’t appreciate religious rituals.

·      People living in unenlightened times needed religion, but not people today. If you read the Psalms, you’ll see that people haven’t changed much in thousands of years. We have the same basic need and longing for God as people in the past.

·      Religion results in violence and harms more people than it helps. This isn’t supported by the facts. History shows that the amount and level of violence by atheistic groups and governments far outstrips violence done in the name of religion.

·      Churches and synagogues are breeding grounds for hypocrisy, self-righteousness and small-mindedness. Not in my experience. Those vices are present in some religious people, but the vast majority of religious people I know are honest, humble and open-minded.

·      There’s no time in my life for religion. This one’s hard to argue. We don’t make time for what isn’t important to us.

Harold Kushner
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Kushner believes, however, that many people with these views of religion have vague feelings of unease about the lack of religion in their lives. They feel “there must be more to life than this.” There’s a lack of rootedness, a feeling that you have to figure things out for yourself because the past can’t be trusted as a guide.

But Kushner writes that many of us, religious and non-religious people, are confused about what constitutes religion. Religion, he writes, is not primarily a set of beliefs but a way of seeing.

“It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts,” he writes.

He provides as an example a stroll down the halls of a hospital. “One person will see an endless chronicle of pain and suffering, and conclude that the world is a mess and life is Somebody’s idea of a nasty joke.

“Another person, seeing the same situation, will come away having learned something about human courage and resiliency. Her conclusion will be that incurable illnesses are a painful outrage precisely because life is good and holy.”

A week or so ago, I was standing in a classroom at Holy Family School in Des Moines facing the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the fourth graders I help with reading. It struck me that the flag is just a piece of cloth unless it has meaning for you, unless you see it through the eyes of patriotism.

Only Through the Eyes of Faith

Church and synagogue services are like that. They make sense only through the eyes of faith. In fact, you could say the same for life itself. You’re born, you live a life of bounty or misery or a mix of the two, and you die. Only through the eyes of faith does it make sense.

So how do people searching for God acquire eyes of faith? You start by being open to religion, the most obvious path to God. You pray. You read and view religious and spiritual material that can help. And by “doing” the faith, that is, being God-like to others.

It’s no accident that so many of Jesus’ miracles in the Christian Bible are about recovering sight, physical and spiritual. A blind man and beggar named Bartimaeus, for instance, was on the road from Jericho when he cried out to Jesus. When Jesus asked what he wanted, he replied, “Rabbi, I want to see.’

‘On your way,’ said Jesus, according to The Message translation, ‘Your faith has saved and healed you.’ In that very instant he recovered his sight and followed Jesus down the road.’”   

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Selflessness Part of Who We Are?  

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When I was a reporter, I did a story about Ed, a man in his 80s who took round-the-clock care of his demented wife. Alzheimer’s disease had already attacked her motor skills. She could make noises but couldn’t form words; she could barely move her limbs and spent most of her time standing or sitting still, seemingly staring into emptiness.

Ed bathed her, took her to the bathroom and fed her. He wore an old tweed sport coat, one pocket bulging with a wind-up alarm clock which he set to go off every four hours. It had a loud, irritating ring, but it signaled when she took medication and he never missed giving it to her exactly on time, day and night.

Even though Ed had been doing this for 10 years, I never heard a complaint from him. On the contrary, he took it all as the normal thing to do when someone, especially a loved one, needs help. And she was the love of his life.

The Power of Love

I was deeply moved by his dedication, impressed by the lengths to which human beings often take care of each other. And I was reminded of the power of love, capable of moving us to incredible acts of selflessness.

I know, some social scientists don’t see this kind of dedication as selfless, maintaining that it’s really a way for us to feel good about ourselves. A certain profane word signifying bovine excrement comes to mind here, but instead I’ll use a less offensive British term, “Bollocks!” 

The kind of behavior exhibited by Ed isn’t all that uncommon, in fact. From the small kindnesses to the extreme of giving one’s life for another, it seems to be an important part of who we are, or at least who we are meant to be.

I thought of Ed when I decided to write about the primacy of love for people searching for God. Love is undoubtedly the most commonly written and sung about word and the most universally and consistently ignored.

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It gets obscured by all kinds of other human feelings and viewpoints, sometimes confused with political correctness, sometimes used as a weapon in the culture wars, sometimes traded in for cheap imitations.     

For my money, no better description of the kind of love that people searching for God should have can be found than in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians in the Christian Bible.

As you may recall, it goes, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love….”

The writer isn’t against speaking in tongues, prophetic powers or “all faith;” just saying that they are important and useful only if love is present. You might say that love is the catalyst for the life that should be lived by a person seeking God, a sine qua non.


But it’s so easy to substitute other things – ideas, attitudes, behaviors – for love. We’re easily thrown off track by political or social views, confusing them with love. And we believe that religious practices or acts of charity – which can be motivated by something other than love - can replace it.  

Maybe we need a modern version of the tract from Corinthians, something that goes like this:  

If I go to church regularly but don’t have love….
If I have the minister, priest or rabbi over for dinner but don’t have love…
If I serve meals to the homeless but don’t have love…
If I tithe faithfully but don’t have love…
If I’m faithful to a political party that opposes abortion but don’t have love…
If I’m faithful to a political party that tolerates abortion but don’t have love…
If I’m cool, prosperous and “with it” but don’t have love….

Ed himself was a quiet guy but he spoke volumes about the primacy of love by the selfless way he lived. His would be an antonymous verse in the language of Corinthians.

If I love selflessly, giving of myself generously and wholly to others, I’m very close to God.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rage against God  

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Ellie Wiesel, author, Nobel Peace winner and survivor of the Holocaust, experienced the worst of what life can throw at a human being.

The camps created by the Nazis where Wiesel was a teenaged prisoner were places of evil incarnate. Prisoners and guards operated on the basest of animal instincts. Living felt worse than dying. Millions of prisoners were murdered, often on the whim of a guard or officer.

Before the Holocaust, writes Robert Douglas, Jr., Wiesel had been “one of the most devout Jewish children. Up until the end he waited for God to intervene (in the camps) in Biblical fashion. When that intervention was not forthcoming, he began to doubt in God and in His mercy.” That began the lifelong anger at God about which Wiesel wrote in numerous books.

Many Are Angry

But Wiesel, who died last year, is not alone. Many people are angry at God, because of the death of a loved one, failure at work or school, financial distress, even the perceived failure of faith.

"…Anywhere between one third and two thirds of people we've surveyed in the United States admit they sometimes feel angry at God in response to some current thing they are suffering with, such as a cancer diagnosis," psychologist Julie Exline of Case Western Reserve University says in an ABC News online report.

Exline examined the issue in psychological terms, comparing anger with God to the anger we feel toward others. Oddly, even non-believers say they’re angry at God.

"I don't have the solution for anger at God," said Exline, "but it's clear that people get angry at God and at other people for the same types of reasons. They didn't get what they wanted, and it's the other guy's fault.”

Tomas Halik
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The death of a loved one, especially a child, is perhaps one of the most common, and heart-wrenching, of reasons for rage at God. That’s because despite our professed beliefs, we view death as the worst that can happen and we won’t forgive God if he/she takes someone close to us, or if our own death is imminent.

Such anger is understandable. Life is an enigma, even for believers. God seems to hold all the cards. We’re not privy to his/her plans or reasons. “Ours,” says the old saying, “is not to reason why but to do or die.”

To me, this anger boils down to a rejection of a God who is a “mystery” in favor of one I can understand, one who is responsive to my wants and needs on my terms. We may not put it that way, or ever even express our anger, but many of us view God in such terms.

The idea is certainly not new. The Genesis story of Adam and Eve paints an ancient picture of human beings who would like to trade God in for a different model, one that we can control. Better yet, to replace him/her with us.

The Czech theologian Tomas Halik in his book Patience with God, writes about the relationship between faith and anger at God.

“An atheistic protest against God and belief itself stands on the soil of belief in a divine order of goodness and justice,” he writes, “and it actually confirms and acknowledges that belief by that pain and protest.

“If I want to curse God, I have to believe in His existence at the very least – so that I can then reproach Him for not being a god in accordance with my own wishes and criteria, for failing to live up to my notions of how He should behave. If I then decide to reject God, all I have rejected is my own (often unwitting) religious illusion.

Courage to Trust God

“Or, remain open with patience and trust to a possible ray of light – having rejected “the god who fulfills my wishes” in order to find courage to trust God the Mystery, and seek rather to understand his wishes and fulfill them. Often it is only via many crises and much searching that one learns to live in the presence of mystery, to bear even one’s own doubts, and finally to allow God the freedom to be a real God, often radically different from the ‘god of our dreams.’”

Pope Francis recently described anger at God as a form of prayer that fosters hope.

“Faith is not just silent acceptance or a ‘certainty that secures us from doubt and perplexity,’ but it also means ‘to argue with God and show him our bitterness without ‘pious pretenses.’

…But he is a father and he understands you; go in peace. You must have this courage. This is hope.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Benefits of Trust in God  

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The Vatican recently named the first-ever American-born person to be an official “martyr,” considered to be a step in the process to be declared a saint.

Though a Catholic, I’m not a fan of the canonization process. I do believe, however, that it’s valuable for those of us searching for God to know about people like us who were apparently successful in their search.

And the newly declared martyr, Stanley Rother, who was murdered in Guatemala in 1981, was like many of us. He grew up in a small farming community in Oklahoma. A mediocre student, he liked to work with his hands. In the small village in Guatemala, where he spent 13 years, he built a farmers' co-op, a school, a hospital, and the first Catholic radio station, which was used for catechesis to the even more remote villages.

Padre Francisco
When he arrived there, the Mayan Indians in the village had no native equivalent for “Stanley,” so they called him Padre Francisco after his baptismal name of Francis. According to witnesses, the beloved Padre Francisco was known for his kindness, selflessness, joy and attentive presence among his parishioners.

But a violent civil war was raging in Guatemala, much of it waged by the government against native peoples. Disappearances, killings and danger soon became a part of daily life, but Padre Francisco  remained steadfast and supportive of his people.

In 1980-1981, the violence escalated. Padre Francisco was constantly seeing friends and parishioners abducted or killed. In a letter to Oklahoma Catholics during what would be his last Christmas, the priest told the people back home about the dangers his parish faced daily.

Stanley Rother
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“The reality is that we are in danger …but if it is my destiny that I should give my life here, then so be it…. “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”

Rother obviously had the kind of trust in God that ignores fear and anxiety, that shoves aside worries about success or failure, the kind of trust that eludes most of us. We want to believe, want to put our trust in God, want to adopt the words of St. Paul, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” We just often fall short.

We grow weak-kneed at the first sign of failure, opposition or obstacle. We pray, but lack confidence in prayer’s usefulness. We want to be loving to others, but find ourselves criticizing them at the drop of a hat.

This may be the wrong liturgical season for a quote from the gospel of John whose context is the period after Jesus’ resurrection, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. In two surprise meetings with his disciples, Jesus’ first words are, “Peace be with you!”

According to the gospels, Jesus’ followers after his death were confused, guilt-ridden, scared and even disillusioned. They had abandoned him, after all. And even during his years as their leader, they weren’t exactly the model of faithful followers.

They doubted him, misunderstood his teaching, bickered among themselves for position. On the whole, they showed little faith or trust. They were like us, and like us, they needed peace, the fruit of trust. And that’s what Jesus provided.

Trust is hard. In the face of anxiety about our lives, and that of family and friends, and all that is happening in the broader world, it takes all the faith we can muster. But isn’t it a matter of accepting our position as human beings, and God’s position as God? A matter of accepting uncertainty and relying on patience and love?

The person who “dwells in the shelter of the Almighty,” says the psalmist, “says to the Lord: “My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!”

So what do you get from investing in such trust? The psalmist continues,

“Since he clings to me in love, I will free him;
Protect him for he knows my name.
When he calls I shall answer: ‘I am with you.’
I will save him in distress and give him glory.”