Thursday, September 8, 2016

Kenneth A. Briggs on the Vanishing Bible

An article in today's Religion News Service has me wanting to read Kenneth A. Briggs' new book on the diminishing place of the bible in North American Christianity, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America (Eerdmans). 


In her article for RNS, reporter Emily McFarlane Millar describes what Briggs found as he was writing the book:


Along the way, he met a homiletics professor who encouraged her students to explore the text by exchanging roles with the characters in biblical accounts, and he came across professors at evangelical colleges surprised by how little their incoming students knew about the Bible. He attended a meeting of Bible promoters in Orlando, Fla., worried nobody was reading their tomes; the academic Society of Biblical Literature convention in Chicago; and a traditional Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania. He was deeply moved by his visit to a federal prison in upstate New York, where, he said, the inmates knew the Bible better than he did.


As a preacher in a liberal Protestant denomination, I have found I cannot take for granted that congregations have a working biblical literacy.   Thanks to the three year lectionary, they will probably know the core gospel readings, but most do not seem to know the grand lines of the biblical narrative, what Richard Hooker once called the "main drifts" of scripture.   By "grand lines" I mean covenant theology (old and new), the adoption of the gentiles into the chosen people, the relationship of Jesus to the prophets, or how Revelation concludes God's plan of redemption (as opposed to it being a book of predictions and prophecy).   It's difficult in a fifteen minute sermon to develop any of these ideas, especially if, as I am, one is an occasional preacher.


Bear in mind that I am speaking now of a dwindling group of churchgoing Anglicans who have been doing this, most of them, for a long time.   I am interested in knowing what the bigger picture is, according to Briggs, but I am sure it is not a pretty one.


I am not clever enough to point to all the reasons why the bible is fading from our consciousness.    I can guess at a few of them.  Within the church, I suspect it may be an erosion of belief in preaching among clergy, or a sense that it is not foremost among their priorities.   Most parishioners, I find, have low expectations of the sermon.  My late father once said that the sermon was a time when he could lightly close his eyes.


Among the culture as a whole, I suspect there is a widespread distrust in the bible as an archaic book of bronze age make believe.  Watch any half hour of the political comic Bill Maher on HBO and you will get this loud ad clear.  There is also a skein of post-modernity which distrusts narratives of authority, and easily deconstructs the bible as an arbitrarily compiled compendium of texts by the men who ran the church.  There is also a widespread and (I think, often justified) suspicion of Christian fundamentalists who use the bible in a highly selective way.   Fans of The West Wing will remember President Bartlett taking apart a fundamentalist evangelist by using the contradictions in her proof texts against her.


If you have read my sermons here on this blog, you will, I hope, agree with my assertion that I am a thoughtful preacher who approaches scripture carefully.   I try to be mindful of the strangeness of the bible, of its foreign and difficult nature, and I am often leery of it.  But, I am also enough of a follower of Karl Barth to agree that without this scripture, we only have our own ideas and constructs of God (which Barth dismissively referred to as religion) to fall back on.   Simply put, I can't know God except through the bible.  I would have nothing to say as a preacher without it.  I believe that the bible helps us to be human, and so I conclude these thoughts with some of Briggs' words in the RNS interview.


One thing we miss in this is the potential to enlarge our minds and hearts and spirits. I think the Bible is the springboard to opening all kinds of ideas, thoughts, beliefs about what our life is about. And I think without it, it narrows our perspective and gives us a much more truncated view of what the possibilities are. I don’t think we’re getting as much of the larger picture by avoiding the source that has been that pathway to all kinds of discovery. (It’s been the pathway to) entertaining most profound thoughts about what possibly we might belong to beyond ourselves or our immediate communities.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why Go To Church? A Sermon For The 14th Sunday After Pentecost


Preached Sunday, August 21 at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, ON.  


Lectionary Readings for Sunday, August 21
Jeremiah 1:4-10 or Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day? (Luke 13:16)

 

Today I want to talk about the Sundays and why we come here Sunday mornings.    I have two points to make.  The first is that our attitudes about Sunday may be linked to rules and expectations - we may be here because, at some level, we think we should be here for various reasons - our duty to God, our duty to the church, to one another.  I think we all get this.   The second is that we are here because we need to be here, we need the healing that only God can be give us.   I wonder if we all get this.  I want to suggest that when we understand the difference between should be here and need to be here, we can be more effective at convincing others to join us on Sunday.  
 
If you dont know this particular gospel story from St. Luke, I am sure that you know many like it.   Many times in the gospels, Jesus does something on the Sabbath which offends the Jewish leaders, who insist that all work is prohibited on the Sabbath because of their religious law.  Many sermons on these kinds of gospel readings follow the same line, namely that the religion of Jesus day was built on laws and rules, whereas Jesus is all about being true to God rather than following man-made rules.  Personally, I dont think this sort of interpretation is very helpful, because it keeps us from asking a more important question, which is what is the Sabbath, or Sunday in our context, really for?

 

Let me make the question more personal.   Why do we come to church?   When there are so many more things that we could be doing on Sunday, why do we feel the need to come here and spend the best part of the morning doing what we do?   if I passed out paper and pencils and asked you to write down your own individual answer, and then asked you to pass them up to me, I am sure I would get a wide range of responses.   You might be here to be with your friends, your parish family, or because you love this church.  You might be here because you love the hymns and like to sing, or because you feel a sense of responsibility to keep this all going in age when fewer and fewer seem to need it.    Maybe, to some degree or other, all of these things are working at different levels in us.    But I wonder, how many of us are here because, like the bent-over women in the gospel, we are here because we Jesus help?

 

While you think of how you might answer the question of why you come to church on Sunday morning, its worth thinking about what the expectation was in Jesus time.   The obligation to honour and keep the Sabbath was part of Jewish law, as given in the Torah.   As you may remember, the fourth of the ten commandments given to Moses was to Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (Ex 20:8).   This commandment formed the basis for the many laws and customs which forbade work on the Sabbath, customs which many observant Jews follow to this day.    The idea behind these laws and customs was to create a way of life in which the faithful were constantly reminded of their relationship to God, and of their dependence on God.   As I said earlier, sometimes when we read the gospels these laws seem petty and foolish, but when you think about it, the idea of a way of life in relationship to God sounds quite attractive.

 

Some people think that Jesus came along to get rid of the law, but there is no real evidence of that.   What seems more likely is that Jesus had a different understanding of the Sabbath law.

 

The biblical scholar David Lose notes that there are two versions of the Fourth Commandment in the Old Testament.  The first, from Exodus 20, links the Sabbath to the first creation account in Genesis, where God rests after six days of labor. As God rested, so should we and all of our households and even animals rest.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1588

 

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any workyou, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

 
The second version of the Fourth Commandment is found in Deuteronomy 5 where, according to Lose, it links Sabbath to freedom, to liberty, to release from bondage and deliverance from captivity.

 

12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any workyou, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

 

This passage conveys a very different idea of Sabbath-keeping.  The Sabbath is not just a day of rest, but it is a day to remember Gods freeing his people from their captivity in liberation.  The Sabbath is not just a day to take a break from work, but it is also associated with God rescuing and saving the people that he promised Abraham that he would create out of his descendants.

 

I agree with Lose that this second, Deuteronomy understanding of the Sabbath as liberation and salvation, may be what Jesus is thinking of here in Luke when he confronts his opponents.   Jesus calling the woman a daughter of Abraham (Lk 13:16) is telling, I think.  By linking her with Abraham, Jesus is reminding his opponents of Gods promise to create and bless a people that would arise out of Abrahams descendants.    By linking his healing of her physical condition with freeing her from her sin, her bondage to Satan, Jesus is linking his ministry with Gods saving of Israel in the Old Testament.  Just as God led his people out of slavery in Egypt, so now will Jesus lead his followers out of their slavery to their sin.

 

Under Christianity, the holy day of the Sabbath (Saturday) moved to Sunday (the day associated with Christs resurrection).    Christians celebrated Sunday as the day of Christs victory over death, the victory that points the way towards our own salvation.    Over the centuries Christians assumed that the Fourth Commandment applied to Sunday, and observed Sunday as a day of rest, as a day not to work or shop or drink or whatever.  

 

So heres a question.  What if todays gospel is about how we as Christians should see think about Sunday and why we go to church.  What if we got rid of our ideas that Sunday was a day of obligation, that we come to church because, somehow, it is where we have to be.   What if, instead, we came to church because we know that we, like the bent woman in todays Gospel, need to be healed?  What if we came to church out of a sense of dependance on Jesus as the one person who can free us from sin, from all that we dont like about ourselves and the world around us?  What if church was the place where we turned to Jesus, confident that he can heal and free us?   What if we came to church out of an immense sense of gratitude that Jesus has allowed us to straighten up, to unbend ourselves, and to stand free of all the burdens that have been laid on us over the years?   If we had the faith to come to church for these reasons, and the belief and the courage to invite others to come to church for these reasons, then I think that we would be well on our way to revitalizing this church.   

 

Amen.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Turning Chaplains Into Military Ethicists

The Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre (CFChSC) at Canadian Forces Base Borden, where I work, started its annual Intermediate Ethics Course this week. 




The course is a career course for CAF military chaplains to take early in their careers to prepare them for one of their roles as ethical advisors to command teams and to military and civilian personnel generally.   Building on the theological and religiously informed ethical systems that chaplains learned in their formation as clergy, we train them in a variety of ethical systems, including the CAF's Defence Ethics Program .  The training is practical, and uses concrete scenarios and case studies to prepare chaplains for the kind of real-world problems that they will face in the military context.




Chaplain candidates in fierce ethical debate.


One of the problems we face in our training in military ethics is that you need a foothold on both sides of this compound subject.    Most chaplains know something about ethical traditions through their theological formation, though they may know more about Christian ethics than they do about the classical philosophical traditions.    What they lack, sometimes, is a sufficient knowledge of the military environment to do apply the ethical traditions well.

To that end, I offered the class a short reading list of online resources to help them shore up their military knowledge, and to show them how some smart folks in the military community are tinking hard about ethics, particularly in light of new technologies and the changing battlespace.

This list may interest readers of this blog, either chaplain colleagues or folks who are generally interested in the subject.

1)
A privately published military blog – most articles authored by US defence community people including some serving military.   Lots on foreign policy, military news, leadership, strategy, and technology.
Articles like this one on killer robots make it worth the read for military ethicists.

2)
This online journal describes itself as “an international journal focused on strategy, national security, & military affairs”. 
Contributors are mostly US military, serving and retired, with some allied military contributors.
A quick use of the search feature for articles on “ethics”yields some impressive results:


3)
This military news blog is anything but boring.   Its masthead says:  “From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world”.
 The articles on politics and culture offer food for thought for ethicists.
4)

A very funny and thoughtful blog by a serving US Army officer.   Star Wars fans will find things to like.
 
5) 
By a professor of philosophy whose research and publication interest is in military ethics. 
 
6)
Mostly US military – a group of active duty officers writing about the military and the military ethos.  Many of the contributors here are worth your knowing.  Many of them are also active on Twitter, which is a whole other thing to follow.
 
Enjoy these links and chime in on any others that you would recommend.
MP+
 





Monday, August 8, 2016

Five Thoughts on Sharing Faith: A Sermon For The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost


I was filling in for the Rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, yesterday.   Since I know the parish's recent history, it was relatively easy to prepare this sermon.  They are currently in the difficult process of considering whether to amalgamate with another parish or to try and revitalize the parish and stay in their present location.  I thought some comments on how we share faith (a challenging subject for us Anglicans, who aren't gifted with evangelical skills), might be useful since no matter where we are, our churches need to be persuasive and attractive examples of the positive difference that God in Christ makes in our lives.  MP+

Five Thoughts on Faith Sharing: A Sermon









Texts this Sunday:  Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32-40

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)

 

Sometimes in my work as a military chaplain, I meet people who are uncomfortable with religion, and I sometimes look for a joke to break the ice.   When I meet someone who I know is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan (and believe me, it’s not hard to spot a diehard Leafs fan), I have a line that I like to use.  “I see you’re a Leafs fan”, I say.  “Nice to meet another person of faith”. 

 

Most Leafs fans will wince and smile good naturally at that little joke.   After all, a Leafs fan is someone who is in it for the long haul, despite the evidence to the contrary.  They may see a Stanley Cup again, but since the last one was in 1967, Leafs fans may well doubt that they will see another in their lifetimes.

 

Part of the joke is the comparison between faith in a long-shot hockey team and faith in religion.  Both types of faith might seem misplaced to skeptics, whether the skeptics are Ottawa Senators fans, or atheists and agnostics.   Both might say, why put your faith in something that isn’t going to deliver?   The atheist might say, its even worse for you religious types.   At least the Maple Leafs are a real, actual hockey team.  We know they exist. 

 

Some people will say that faith is necessary because we have no proof of the existence of God.   Faith thus becomes a problem when we try to share our belief with others, because if other people don’t have faith, how do they get it?  How do we help others come to faith?  I think this can be one of our biggest problems as we try to grow and revitalize the church.

 

And yet, faith is real, according to our first lesson.   Our reading for Hebrews speaks of faith in terms of “assurance” and “conviction”.  The modern language bible, The Message, puts Hebrews 11:1 this way:  “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living”.  So faith is real, it’s a vital part of our lives, it’s the key to a good life.  So  today I invite you to think with me for a bit about what it means to be a person of faith and how we explain faith to others in a way that makes them want to share it? 

 

I think this second question, of faith sharing, is super important because we have to know the answer if we want to revitalize Trinity, or indeed, to revitalize the Christian church.    I’ve been thinking about this question since we at Trinity started to think about our future, and whether we can revitalize our church.   I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter if we put out better signs, or change the music, or even make the building more accessible.   All of those things are good in and of themselves, but they don’t make our faith attractive to others.   I think the only thing that will revitalize this, or any, church, is if we can show others that our faith makes a difference in our lives, that we have found something that they need and want.  So how do we do that?  I want to suggest five ways to understand and share faith.

 

  1. Faith isn’t invisible
     
    Yes, tour reading from Hebrews says  that faith is about things “hoped for” and “not seen”.  In v 3 it says that what we know, the world around us, was prepared by God  “from things that are not visible”.   There is a sense in which God is invisible.   Indeed, Jesus tells Doubting Thomas that “Blessed are those have not seen and yet believed” (Jn 20:29).    Fortunately, the church is visible.   The people of God are real.   The word of God can be read or listened to.   The love of God is visible in the world because of what the people of God do.   When Kay and I joined Bill and Diane and Lequita at the Bayside Mission last Wednesday, our faith was visible and it was seen by the many persons who came up after the meal and thanked us.   So, faith is visible in the lives of the faithful.  I think Trinity gets this first part pretty well, because we do a lot.   We just need to keep asking ourselves, when we seem too busy or too overstretched, if our actions are about showing our living faith, or if they have some other motive.  If our actions aren’t about faith, maybe they are not so important.
     
     
    2) Faith comes from God, not from us
     
    Sometimes we think that faith is something we do ourselves, that if only we will hard enough, we can make ourselves believe in God.  Instead, Hebrews makes it clear that faith comes from God and from our relationship with God.   At 11:3 Hebrew says that “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God”.   God created the world, created us, to be in relationship with him and to know him.   There are lots of ways to believe in how the world came to be, whether through evolution or creation.   Personally I don’t believe that science is incompatible with faith.   As Christians we believe that our lives come to us as gifts from God, and that God gave them to us because he is good, he wants us to flourish, and he wants us to know us.   It’s like knowing that we have someone in our lives who loves us deeply for who we are and wants the best for us.   If we open ourselves to that love in gratitude, then we can participate in that relationship,  It’s the same with God.   The starting point isn’t whether we have enough faith to know that God exists.   The starting point is deciding whether we want the relationship that God offers us.
     
    3) Faith is about Jesus.
     
    It’s true, we Anglicans aren’t comfortable talking about Jesus and being born again.   But, we are Jesus people.  We are his disciples and his followers.  It all starts with Jesus.  Literally.   At the very beginning of the book of Hebrews, it says that Jesus “is the reflection of Gods glory and the exact imprint of Gods very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3).  In other words, Jesus was there at the creation that gave us our planet and our lives, Jesus is like oxygen and sunlight in that he sustains our lives, and Jesus wants to know us.   In our gospel today, we hear Jesus say “Don’t be afraid, your Father wants to make you part of his kingdom”.  Jesus is the one who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.   These are all good things.  I once heard a friend speak approvingly about the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader.  “He talks about love, and being kind to one another, and about forgiveness.  It’s so refreshing!”   That sounds wonderful, I thought.   Jesus speaks about these things, too.  Why don’t we as Anglicans talk about the refreshment, the love, the forgiveness we have found in Jesus?     What if we were as comfortable speaking about Jesus as we were talking about out stained glass, or about our liturgy?  What if we talked about Jesus with an intimacy, even a longing, that made others wish they knew Jesus better?
     
    4) Faith is about the long journey
     
    In our lesson today, we hear about figures from the Old Testament like Abraham who “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Heb 11:13).   Faith isn’t about believing so hard that we will get what we want when we want.  That’s positive thinking, not faith.   Faith is trusting that things will work out according to God’s timelines, and not ours.   Faith is what keeps the antipoverty activist going, like the people who keep the Salvation Army Bayside Missing in business.   They know that poverty isn’t going to end any time soon, but their faith and their relationship with Jesus tells them that the least among us are the dearest to God.   Faith is what keeps us going through grief, through funerals, and through the long days at the cancer war.   Faith is knowing that God is faithful to us, that his promises to us will come true in God’s time, whenever that may be.    In a world so stressed, fearful and so worried about the future, imagine how attractive faith, and the peace that passes all understanding, could be.   Wouldn’t you want to share that?  Wouldn’t you want to have that?
     
    5)  Faith is found in our lives.
     
    Earlier this summer, a member of this congregation got up to read a lesson.  Before he started, he spoke about what this lesson meant to him, and about how it summed up lessons taught to him by his mother when he was growing up.  He spoke simply and from the heart   I was totally amazed.   I tried to imagine a church where people could do similar things, sharing simple and from the heart stories about the difference that faith makes in their lives.    You see, as Anglicans I think we balk at evangelizing because we don’t know how to do it.  We don’t have the language of witnessing, it’s not part of our denominational DNA.  We are the church of shy introverts who love our books and our prewritten prayers.   Mostly we’re private people.   However, I haven’t met that many people who don’t like to talk about themselves.   Most of us I think could tell a story about how our faith got us through a significant and difficult life event or a dark time.  Imagine if you had the confidence to tell your own story to a friend or acquaintance who was going though a similar dark time, but who didn’t share your faith.  You could say something like, “That sounds like a very tough place that you’re in.  I’m so sorry.   When I went through a dark spell in my own life, my faith really made a difference.   Would you mind if I told you that story?”   I could see that sort of dialogue being far more effective than simply asking a friend to come to church with you on some Sunday.
     
    In this sermon, I’ve tried to suggestive ways in which we can think about faith in a way that might revitalize our church and make it more attractive to others.    I’ve suggested that:
     
    1)Faith is real because it is seen in the lives and actions of the faithful
    2) Faith is a relationship we are invited into
    3) Faith centre on the life, words and love of Jesus
    4) Faith is for the long haul
    5) Faith is found in our own stories, which we can share with others
     
    I pray that these words and these ideas may be helpful to all of us as we think about the future of our church.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review: David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service






David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service.  Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2013. 

I am slowly working my way through a stack of books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been published in the last few years.   My hope is that these books will be useful in the ongoing work of my unit, the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain School and Centre, and that they will better prepare my colleagues to support those, soldiers and their families, who have been touched by war.

Most of these books are about the US experience in the so-called War on Terror, or as journalist Dexter Filkins called it presciently, almost a decade ago, The Forever War.  However, today's title, while by a US author about US soldiers, seems highly relevant.  As Romeo Dallaire and Carol Off. write in their forwards,  “it could just as easily have been written about Canadians in Afghanistan”. 

“(T)he after-war continues, as eternally as war itself” is how David Finkel ends his book, Thank You For Your Service.  For years now, Finkel has dedicated his work as a journalist to documenting the reality behind the words, “thank you for your service”, too often uttered by those who know nothing to those who can say nothing about the horrible things they have seen and done.  In his honest and unsparing account of ordinary people trying to repair their lives, Finkel reminds us that the terror continues in what he calls the after-war.  Young men return broken and ashamed, afraid to tell their partners “stuff” for fear that they will be seen as monsters.  Young women try to find the patience to raise frightened children and protect them from fathers who have changed.  “As soon as he got home”, one wife says, “he really wasn’t the same no more at all”.

In an earlier book, The Good Soldiers, Finkel embedded with a US Army unit tasked with patrolling one of the most violent parts of Baghdad, “a sorry bomb-filled neighbourhood ... (where) the war felt eventually like the wrong everything”.  These soldiers would armour up, go through their good-luck rituals, and load into convoys of lightly armoured Humvees,   never knowing when they would be blown up.   I reviewed The Good Soldiers here in 2009.  Towards the end of his earlier book, Finkel focused on difficulties of soldiers coming home to the US on leave during their tours. 

He quoted a mental health care specialist who described home as a  "a place of disaster" for most soldiers, whose trips home to the US on leave midway through their tour were not what they expected.   "There's an anger in guys when they go back. They want to go home and be normal, and they're not quite normal," he said, and added, "Coming back from leave is the worst part of the deployment".  Now, years after the war, home is more than ever a place of disaster.

In Thank You For Your Service, Finkel follows some of these same men after their return to the US.  Some came home broken by too many deployments, having seen too much and feeling too much guilt for comrades shot or burned to death inside their vehicles.   The same bonds which held them together would eventually work against them, for as Finkel writes, “To be a soldier in combat was to full love constantly”, only to have the loved one killed or shattered or burned before one’s eyes.


For some of these returning soldiers, these lost comrades haunt them waking and sleeping, like one soldier whose friend appears regularly and says “You let me burn”.  For others, the effects of loss, guilt, and post-traumatic stress are compounded by the physical effects of violence on the body and especially on the brain.  Cognitive loss and dementia are just as real to these soldiers as they are to some professional athletes.   In this harrowing passage, Finkel describes the long-term effects of such an injury on a soldier who, years later, cannot remember how to buy flowers for his wife.

 "Before he got blown up, he could have figured it out.  How hard is it to buy roses?  There’s a flower shop on Fort Riley.  They sell them at Walmart.  But such are the effects of being in a Humvee that rolls over three buried 130-millimeter artillery shells, which explode at the perfect moment.  Up he went, and down he came, and once his brain was done rattling around from a blast wave that passed through him faster than the speed of sound, here came the rest of it.  Memory, fucked.  The ability to pay attention, fucked.  Balance.  Hearing.  Impulse control.  Perception.  Dreams.  All of it, fucked.  “The signature would of the war” is what the military calls traumatic brain injury …  (198)

 Thank You For Your Service takes the reader through a labyrinth of damaged bodies and psyches, and of broken relationships and domestic abuse, that plays out in bleak neighbourhoods around a military base, or in the offices and clinics of a bureaucracy hastily-assembled by a military scrambling to understand and cope with these many unexpected casualties.    While Finkel is sympathetic to the many military and civilian personnel struggling to assist these injured veterans and their families, his conclusion, again and again, is that it is not enough.  Ordered by the chain of command to analyze each suicide, unit and brigade leaders struggle to find out if the member has taken mandated suicide prevention training, as much to cover themselves as to develop lessons learned.  Well-meaning generals cooperate with medical researchers to assess risk factors for suicide, but find that explanations are elusive.  Soldiers are medicated but cannot find adequate long-term treatment programs.   Wives feel alone and cut off from help.  Families struggle to pay the bills as unemployable and wounded veterans run through their benefits.   All of these ongoing struggles are what Finkel calls the “after-war”, as if getting blown up in Baghdad is just the start.

 This is one of the most difficult and demanding books I have ever read about contemporary warfare.   Finkel’s honesty, and the incredible degree of access he has gained to ordinary and damaged people gives this book a brutal and stark truth that a hundred war novels and films could never hope to capture.   It is a book that demands far more of society than empty slogans and cheap celebration of its “warriors”.  While Finkel is not prescriptive in his solutions, he seems to suggest that these veterans demand, and are owed, far more time, attention and care than they currently receive.  However, a society that would pay its debt to these men and women would first have to acknowledge what it asked them to do, and that admission might prove too difficult.

 We should all read this book if only to gain a better understanding of how the ongoing physical, mental and moral injuries of the “after-war” can isolate and oppress those who have returned to an uncomprehending country that no longer feels like home.   A person of faith will note that there is next to nothing said here about how faith or spirituality can be resources for such veterans, a notable absence that should be noted by those chaplains working in the area of spiritual resilience. 

One sees glimpses of hope and endurance here and there, in the care and love that these broken soldiers show one another, or in the determination of a few to walk with them and help them.   As the book ends we see one family seem to start a new life together, somehow still together after countless quarrels and fights, but by then we have learned of  many others who never survived the after-war, having chosen to end their own pain and struggle through suicide.   As a chaplain you will find no easy answers for ministering to veterans like the ones described here, but you will better appreciate the reality of the pain and the immensity of the need.

MP+

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Royal Canadian Navy Chaplain Recognized for Meritorious Service

On February 27, 2014, a major fire broke out in the engine compartment of the Royal Canadian Navy supply ship, HMCS Protecteur.   For the next eleven hours, the crew worked without power, in smoke and darkness, amid rough seas, to save the ship.   The situation was especially critical given that, as a supply ship, Protecteur was carrying fuel and ammunition.   Had the crew lost control of the fire, the result would have been catastrophic.  Once the fire was extinguished, Protecteur was dead in the water, 600 kilometres from the nearest port, Pearl Harbor. 



HMCS Protecteur seen from the USS Chosin during towing operations after the fire.  This photo gives you a sense of Protecteur's size and the challenge of towing her.




I was very pleased to see the United Church of Canada website tell the story of Protecteur's chaplain, Padre Mike Gibbons (a United Church chaplain serving with the Canadian Armed Forces).   All of us in the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service are especially proud of Mike's service during the fire and in the days that followed.  As Mike told me the story, in the days following the fire, with much personal kit lost and the ship's laundry unusable, the crew worked in ragged, smoke-stained uniforms through many difficult attempts to establish a tow line and get the ship safely to port.


His ability to make connections with the US Navy chaplains at Pearl led to the Protecteur's crew getting much-appreciated bedding and other comforts on their return, a reminder of how the networks between chaplains of allied nations can significantly benefit the mission.





In his sardonic and self-effacing manner, Mike dismissed the commendations and decoration (Meritorious Service Medal), joking that there may be a connection between the fire and his need to get rid of his mess bar bills. 


His padre colleagues are very proud of Mike's service and example, which are in the very best traditions of the Chaplain Service.  It is also very gratifying to see a Canadian denomination recognizing the work of one of their own clergy in the military.







Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Military Picture Of The Week


From the DND / RCAF website:  Wing Commander John “Moose” Fulton, D.F.C., A.F.C., photographed on June 12, 1942, was the first commanding officer of 419 Squadron. He died on July 29, 1942, at the age of 29, and his name is engraved on the Runnymede Memorial in the United Kingdom, which records the name of airmen who have no known grave. PHOTO: DND Archives, PL-7742


I learned the story of "Moose" Fulton today on the Royal Canadian Air Force website, in a story about a recent reunion of his 419 Squadron in Kamloops, BC.  419 Squadron was part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and prepared fighter pilots for combat.  To this day, it is named after it's first commander.
 
419 “City of Kamloops” Squadron was named in honour of their beloved first commanding officer, John “Moose” Fulton, who grew up in Kamloops and from whom the squadron personnel received their designation as the “Moosemen”. 419 Squadron, whose unit badge portrays a charging moose, is reputedly the only Canadian squadron named after a person. And to this day, all 419 Squadron commanding officers retire their own call signs for the duration of their command and take the call sign “Moose” in honour of “Moose” Fulton. 

A very touching montage of photographs, including the only surviving member of 419 Squadron from World War Two, may be found here.

Monday, August 1, 2016

William Imboden on Trump, Christians and the 1930s

There is something of a media parlour game going on at present.  As Donald Trump's authoritarian leanings become more and more apparent, it's tempting to ask if our American friends are going through a Weimar moment, or wonder, hopefully, if their democracy is not too vitiated to withstand Trumpism.


William Imboden, a US national security scholar, today offers a perceptive analysis of how the political and social trends of the 1930s imbues our present moment.    Rather than identify Trump with any political figure of that era, Imboden writes that DT embodies the ethos of that time, when the "very values and institutions of democracy, capitalism, and a peaceful and stable international order themselves faced a crisis of public trust and legitimacy".


I found Imboden's theological analysis of the present danger for people of faith to be especially salient.   His identification of US theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as an advocate of robust resistance to evil as a guide for the Christians today is interesting and makes me want to read Niebuhr again.  Here is an excerpt of Imboden's argument about the temptation lurking in Trump's appeal to some Christians.


In a man who proclaims Christian faith yet boasts never to have asked God for forgiveness of sins and displays little knowledge of the Bible, many observant American Christians find themselves perplexed. Political commentator and devout Christian Pete Wehner has distilled the essence of Trump’s theology into a perverse worship of power. As Wehner wrote recently, in Trump’s mind, “a person’s intrinsic worth is tied to worldly success and above all to power. He never seems free of his obsession with it.” He then quotes Trump’s remarks to a group of evangelicals:
And I say to you folks, because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.
As Wehner points out, Trump’s obsession with power is inimical to the Christian Gospel, which proclaims the paradox that only in our weakness can God in Christ redeem us and make us strong.

Read Imboden's whole piece here.   It will take you a few moments, but well worth it.
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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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