Thursday, September 13, 2018

Remembering Canadian Great War Chaplains in the Hundred Days

The text below is from an email sent by my friend and colleague, Dr. Duff Crerar, author of Padres in No Man's Land (McGill Queen's 1995, 2nd ed 2014).   Duff regularly sends Canadian chaplains these emails to tell us what our predecessors did on certain notable dates, and thus to remind us of our legacy.  MP+

Canadian Chaplains and breaking the Drocourt-Queant line.

German Wire - Part of the Drocourt-Queant Line Fortifications

By 17 August, the Canadian Corps had clawed deeply into German lines at Amiens. As the push ground down in the maze of old 1916 trenches, General Currie and Third Army Commander Rawlinson pushed for a relocation of the Canadians to where the Germans would not expect an attack. British Commander Douglas Haig concurred and persuaded the Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch to agree. Currie’s force was transferred to General Horne at Arras. Here the Germans had fortified a strong belt of defences, thirty kilometers deep, as far back as the partially-drained Canal du Nord. Behind it lay Cambrai. If the Canadians could break in here, the German defences southwards would be turned and the whole front opened for exploitation.

The Canadians had to work fast: Currie had two divisions in the line by August 23. They would jump off three days later, backed by the other two divisions and the 51st Highland Division. Twenty-six Brigades of Artillery and one British Tank Brigade joined in the attack. The first skirmishes at Neuville-Vitasse were over in minutes: hearing the Canadians were in the line, the German defenders were already evacuating the objective when the attack began at After great initial gains the offensive ground down in heavy rain, bogged tanks and accidental attack by friendly air forces. When the Canadians finally outran the range of their guns, it was time to pause.

On 30 August the First Division carried out a textbook breakthrough and capture of the critical launching points for the new attack and held them against heavy counter-attacks.  Currie planned a renewed attack for 2 September while his guns blasted fields of uncut wire. Altogether, over 101,000 Canadians and 47,000 British troops were under his command.

The breakthrough, once again, was sudden and decisive, and the advancing Canadians again outran their artillery coverage. German flank attacks hit the 15th and 16th Battalions hard, leading to hand to hand combat in the wire until tanks arrived. Heavy resistance occurred in the central area, though by the end of the attack the critical Mont Dury was taken and held. The D-Q line was cut, but Currie would plan a separate and final assault to cross the Canal du Nord. The Germans left in between the Canadians and the Canal banks were already streaming back to dig in on the other side.

Throughout these operations, the Canadian padres worked as they had at Amiens. Father F.L. French, Senior Chaplain, Canadian Corps, was able to have up to twenty of his priests flow between medical posts and stretcher parties. About twenty padres “jumped off” with attacking waves, while the artillery chaplains visited guns, wagon lines and manned burial parties.

George Taylor accompanied his Seventh Brigade battalion on the 28 August attack, which ended in Jig-Saw Wood. Snipers re-wounded men even as he was dressing them. Thirsty men greatly appreciated the coffee he had in two thermos bottles stuffed in his haversack. He rounded up about sixty German prisoners to carry stretchers, but heavy shelling made it so hazardous that he held off making a second trip until after dark. Then, assisted by the Medical Officer, he brought out the rest by moonlight.

German prisoners, possibly waiting to carry the Canadian on the stretcher to the rear.

G.A. MacDonald, taking over as Senior Chaplain, 4 Division from the wounded A.M. Gordon, reported that his padres were busy across the field meeting reinforcements with encouragement, writing letters to next of kin, assisting at RAPs. He had acquired a certain notoriety at Amiens by accompanying the 54th Battalion onto the final objective.  G.H. Sparks visited all the batteries in his care, and then reported to a Dressing Station, from 3:30 am to almost noon. In that time he wrote seventy-one letters while offering prayer for patients and with staff.

The Van Doos had lost their padre, Father Desjardins, to gas on 28 August, so Father Fortier took over, encountering a wounded Georges Vanier, who would lose his leg in the event. The Medical Officer offered alcohol to Vanier, but Fortier advised against it, to keep his head clear. Vanier took the padre’s advice. Fortier gave the future Governor General absolution before he was carried to the rear.

One of the most extraordinary deeds of courage was carried out by E.E. Graham, on behalf of the French Canadian unit, when in broad daylight he made repeated trips under fire to pluck half a dozen Van Doos off the barbed wire. Although recommended for a Victoria Cross, the Army chose to award the Distinguished Service Order instead. On 2 September he spent the day with the battalion as it attacked the D-Q “Switch”. Although in hospital at this time, Father Ambrose Madden, M.A., also was awarded the D.S.O. for his service at Amiens, where he received his third wound of the war.

Frank Buck’s work with the 46th Battalion in the opening days of September included several days at the RAP under heavy shelling. He led stretcher parties and went forward for a second day under fire as the Battalion advanced. For his work at Drury and St. Quentin he was awarded a Military Cross, one of several awarded to padres after the fight.  Military Crosses also went to S.E. McKegney (58th Battalion), Fathers C.A. Fallon (102 Battalion) and Thomas O’Sullivan (Engineers). They had exposed themselves to heavy fire locating wounded in open country, offering first aid, and seeing to their evacuation.

Coffee stall operated by the Canadian Chaplain Service during the Hundred Days fighting.   Note the hasty sign beneath the "Art Mun Depot Harcourt" sign. Photo courtesy of Dr. Duff Crerar.

There were casualties, as well. E.E. Graham’s charmed life was interrupted on 30 September, by leg wounds which forced him to the rear. Chaplains who were exhausted or winged by enemy fire had to be replaced in a hurry. Senior Chaplain Louis Moffit found one, an ordained Lieutenant in the 42nd Battalion who was recuperating from minor wounds after Amiens. He was taken on Chaplain Service Strength in October. W.G. Clarke, a Baptist, was given speedy ordination in England and taken on strength, as was J.G. Gibson, a Methodist minister in the ranks.

Father James Nicholson almost became a casualty when he and the Medical Officer plunged into a dugout full of armed Germans at Monchy Le Preux. The startled Germans surrendered to him instead. Cyrl D’Easum also turned up, after burying 78th Battalion casualties in the open, with another eight Germans who had insisted on surrendering to him. His reckless work with the wounded and dying while under machine gun fire was recognized by the award of a Military Cross.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Military Goats In Canada

Long time readers will know, and we hope, support, this blog’s devout belief that no beast of creature is more endowed with nobility, martial spirit, intelligence and good looks than the military goat.

Last month, while travelling on holiday with my son, we stopped at Old Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, and I was delighted to find not one but two goats.  Each goat was provided with staff, two smartly uniformed reenactors, who answered questions from the tourists.  The goats were too busy cropping the sward to reply to questions.


The day before, in Ottawa, my son John and I also saw the final changing of the guard on Parliament Hill for the summer of 2018, and while no goats were on display, there were plenty of red coats.   

One doesn’t wish to be overly jingoistic, but in a year where President Trump has been ratcheting up the pressure on us with his trade and tariff threats, and threatening the ruination of Canada, it was very reassuring to see Canadian pageantry - civil, orderly and just a tad understated - on display.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

In the Garden: A Sermon on the Song of Songs

Preached the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018, at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON,Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; (First Reading) Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; (Semi-continuous First Reading) Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 15; (Second Reading) James 1:17-27 Song of Solomon 2:8-13




The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 


My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." 



Today I’m going to do something I’ve never done before as a priest.  I’m going to preach a sermon on the Song of Solomon, for several reasons.   First, as you may have heard me say a few times, I love theHebrew Scriptures,, which I don’t think we hear preached on enough in the life of the church.    Second, the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs or Canticles (I will just call it “the Song” in this sermon) is one of the strangest and loveliest books of scripture, a love poem which, because of its poetic and even sensual quality, sometimes seems out of place in the bible.


It seems a little random that we are hearing the Song as our first lesson this particular Sunday.  Why is that?    Well, all summer, as we followed one of the tracks of the schedule of readings known as the Lectionary, we have been hearing stories about King David.  Two Sundays ago we heard about David’s death and started to hear about his son and heir, King Solomon.   While he had his faults, scripture celebrates Solomon for his great wisdom, which it describes as the one blessing he asked of God and which God granted him (“I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” 1 Kgs 2:12).


Because of his reputation for wisdom, it was traditionally believed that Solomon was the author of the Book of Proverbs, which we will be hearing some of in September, and of Ecclesiastes.    There was a traditional teaching of the ancient rabbis that Solomon wrote the Song as a young man in love, Proverbs as a mature man who has traded love for wisdom, and Ecclesiastes as an old man, somewhat jaded and well aware of his mortality.    Biblical scholars tend to think that Solomon didn’t write all of these books, and that their actual authorship is much more complex.  However the fact that the Song and Proverbs are attributed to Solomon is certainly one reason why they show up on in the liturgy of the church.


When you read it, you might well be surprised that the Song is even in the Bible, because it doesn’t seem very, well, biblical.    The Song isn’t even a Song, really, but is best described as a kind of play in which there are two characters: the two lovers, the Man and the Woman, and then a group or chorus that comments on what is going on.     It’s not a long book, just eight chapters, so it can read in one sitting, but depending which translation you are reading, it can be difficult to follow.   The voices of the two lovers entwine, like a love duet, with expressions of desire and praise for the other’s beauty.  The Song ends, much like our first reading today, with an expression of desire and a longing to be together:


"Make haste, my beloved,

and be like a gazelle

or a young star

upon the mountains of spices!” (SgS 8:14)


In the rest of this sermon, I would like to focus on three things.   The first is how the Song reminds us of the importance of earthly, human love, something the church has not always been good at understanding.  The second is how the Song describes love not just from the man’s point of view but also from the woman’s point of view, which again is something the church hasn’t been good at.   Finally, I will talk about the importance of nature in the Song and how it connects our human world to the natural world as part of God’s creation.


The Song is, as I said, sensual in parts, even erotic, though the language is highly poetic in the language and images of the day.    As the man and woman praise the beauty of each other’s bodies, there are some passages that wouldn’t make the greatest pickup lines today, as when the man says to the woman “Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies” (Sg 7:2).   That might not go over too well, like the man’s praise that “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead” (4:1).  On the other hand, verses such as “your kisses [are] like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth”, well, those work just as well now as they did then.  There are times where the Song just crackles with longing.


If you are wondering why the church saw fit to keep this book in the bible, that’s a good question.    For a long time, well into the middle ages, the Song was read spiritually, so that it could be interpreted along the lines of the man being Christ and the woman being the church.   However, the fact that someone would want to read the book this way, as opposed to just taking it literally as a love song, says something about the church’s long and tortured history with human sexuality, which goes right back to the story of how the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin, and which continued for centuries in celebrating chastity as godly and the human body as a source of temptation and evil.   In such a worldview, marriage was a necessary evil, good only for the procreation of children.


The Song reminds us of the artificiality of this dualistic theology which celebrates spirit at the expense of body.   It reminds us that real flesh and blood people lived in biblical times, just as they did today.  It reminds us that human desire is natural, even beautiful, and that our bodies and our sexuality are gifts that are part of God’s creation.   Our own Book of Alternative Services reminds us of this in the marriage liturgy, when it begins by describing marriage as “a gift of God” in which the partners may “know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love” (BAS 528).   The editors of the Serendipity Bible, designed for small groups in evangelical churches, uses the Song as the basis for a bible study on marriage and intimacy.   The Song reminds us that our faith speaks to all areas of life, and that intimacy, trust, and affection can be part of our lives as Christians.


This realization is made more remarkable because the woman is a full and equal voice in the Song of Songs.   If you heard the sermon that Jenn, our theological student, gave last month on the story of David and Bathsheeba, Jenn noted that Bathsheeba is essentially voiceless and powerless.    She is merely a beautiful object that David wants and gets, however immorally he does so.   In contrast, the woman in the Song is an equal partner in the duet.   She speaks with as much poetry and passion, she relishes her lover’s beauty as much as he does hers, and her longing is just as strong as his:


Awake, O north wind,

and come, O south wind!

Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.

Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits.” (Sg 4:16)


The Song reminds us that men and women are equal and full participants in God’s creation.   


The final thing I would point out about the Song is the importance of nature and natural images.   In the passage from our first lesson, the woman describes her lover as being like “a gazelle or a young stag” (2:8) or elsewhere as an “apple tree”.  Likewise the man describes the woman elsewhere as being a “dove”, a “mare”, and the woman describes herself as a “rose of Sharon” and a “lilly of the valleys”.   The entire Song is full of references to animals, and one scholar has counted twenty four plant species.    Biblical scholar Elaine James calls the Song a very green poem, written at a time when humans lived much more closely to the natural world than most people do today.    The Song reminds us that the natural world, which appears to be changing and disappearing at a frightening rate, is part of God’s creation, and reminds us of our obligation as stewards of creation to care for that world.


So while the Song is in many ways a very sensual poem, full of natural images of the earth and of human desire, it is also a very spiritual poem.  The idea of the earth coming back to life - for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone - is also an image of redemption and salvation.   One commentator I read this week noted that today’s passage would be a great scripture reading for a wedding where one or both parties had experienced a divorce or the loss of a spouse.   Likewise, even for those of us for whom the youthful fires of love might have died down a bit, there is in the Song a powerful affirmation of human love as something that is powerful and wonderful.


Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm

For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.   

Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. (Sg 8:6)


For those who carry the memory of a love and life well lived, or who nursed and cared for a loved partner through sickness and old age, the Song speaks to them as much as it speaks to young lovers.   The Song of Songs is one of the great gifts of scripture, a reminder that God is with us even in the earthiness of our lives.    The Song of Songs would make a great extended bible study, perhaps one day when I am brave enough to lead it, and some of you are brave enough to join me.




Monday, July 30, 2018

Limited Resources, Abundant Promises: A Sermon

I enjoy supply preaching during the summer.  It allows my civilian colleagues to take well-deserved holidays and it gives me a chance to get to know local churches.   Yesterday I preached this sermon in a small two-point parish about thirty minutes north of Barrie, ON. MP+

Preached at St. Paul's, Midhurst, and St. John's, Craighurst, Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 29 July, 2018. Readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost:  2 Kings 4:42-44, Psalm 145:10-19, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21

"Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen." (Ephesians 3:20-21)

A friend of mine is a volunteer with the Diocese of Toronto, using her administrative talents to help parishes get back on track.   This week I accompanied her into Toronto to an inner-city church which is struggling and needs her help.  

When we got there on a hot summer evening, the church didn’t look like much.   No graceful stone or lofty steeple, just a solid pile of workmanlike brick that had clearly seen better days.  Inside it was stuffy and airless, and while the sanctuary was peaceful, with light floating through the stained glass by the altar, the place looked shabby and cluttered, with old books and mismatched furniture jumbled together by the front doors.  In short, it didn’t look like much, but my friend sat down with the warden, and they got to work.  I had an hour to wait, as I wandered through that old church and thought about St. Paul’s words of promise in Ephesians.

We know most of those words in our second lesson well,  so well that most of us could likely repeat by heart because they come from the doxology, the prayer of praise which concludes our Eucharistic liturgy from the Book of Alternative Services.

While most of us know these so well that they might scarcely bear a second look, it’s worth having a look at them in the context of today’s lessons and Gospel reading.  The designers of the Lectionary certainly thought carefully because they wanted to underline that word “abundantly” 

These words are full of promise and blessing because of that word “abundantly” (Eph 3.20) Actually its two words, because Paul is making a compound adverb here (υπερεκπερισσου — huperekperissou)  which some translations put as “exceedingly abundantly”.   The word has a kind of “super duper” quality to it.   God isn’t going bless us just enough to get by.  God isn’t going to give us an unexpected amount so that we are pleasantly surprised.   No, its way more than that.  God is going to do so much that we will be gobsmacked.   God is going to blow our socks off.   God will knock our socks off.  Which is why we say in our liturgy, following Paul, “more than we can ask or imagine”.

We see glimpses of what that abundance looks like in our other lessons.   From Second Kings we hear of how the prophet Elisha feeds a hundred people out of what sounds like nothing more than a large shopping bag (2 Kgs 42-44).  This comes at the end of a long list of other miracles performed by Elisha.   Today we also heard the psalmist praise God’s abundance  ( Ps 145: 15 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. 16 You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. 17 The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all
his doings. 18 The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.) and of course our Gospel shows Jesus performing a feeding miracle that makes people think he is Elisha returned to earth (Jn 6:14).

The point of these stories, and the reason why they are chosen for our lessons this Sunday, is not to lead us into thinking that we never have to go to Loblaws again.    Those of you who were involved in the BBQ dinner at Craighurst on Friday certainly know how much work goes into preparing a church dinner!   Rather, the point of these stories is to say something about the character of God.   All these readings remind us that God is, in Paul’s words, more powerful than we can possibly imagine, but is also a God who is kind and good to his people – as the psalmist says, he is is “just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (Ps 145:17).  All these stories say something about being in a relationship with God which makes all this abundance.

We see something of this relationship in today’s Gospel.   After Jesus impresses the crowd by miraculously feeding them, the people want to “come and take him by force to make him king” but Jesus wants none of this and gives them the slip – “he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (Jn 6:15).  Why wouldn’t he want to be king and end up on a throne rather than on a cross?  I think the explanation here, as I suggested when I last preached to you, is that Jesus knows he will have to stand before Pilate, and show the difference between the kingship of earthly power and the kingship of God’s abundance.   Jesus can only embody the abundance and love of God if he resists ideas of earthly power and remains connected to his Father, even if that means escaping to a lonely mountain.

For the same reason, Elisha in our first lesson is referred to as a “the man of God”.  I don’t think this is just a polite address, like when we call a clergyperson a “man or woman of God”.  The word “of” in the phrase is actually possessive, it means a “man belonging to God”.  Elisha can do these things because, like Jesus, he knows that he belongs to the Father, that he is in a relationship of obedience to God through which he can do these things.    

The same is true of us, really.   Each of us, or could be, a man or a woman of God.   Each of us can be in relationship with God, focused on him and attentive to his will, in such a way that we he can work with and through us.  Let’s look again at what Paul says in Ephesians: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).  This doesn’t mean that we are given powers, like superheroes in some summer movie.  Rather, it means that through our relationship with God, we allow God to work with us and through us.   We become, as is often said, God’s hands in the world, in ways in which we can’t always predict.

Think of how a typical church dinner plays out.  I have never seen a church dinner where the food  There’s always enough to go around and more besides.  And why is the church meal one of our favourite activities?   Surely it’s because the church meal grows naturally out of our Eucharist, our communion.   That shared meal at the heart of our worship brings us together around Jesus.  In John’s gospel, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus tells his followers not to look for him just for more food.  The food, he tells them, is just a sign of who he is, the Son of God, and it leads to one of his famous “I Am” speeches that we preserve in our eucharist:

“I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. (Jn 6:35)

These words, like the dismissal “to love and serve the Lord” at the end of our service, send us back into a world which doesn’t have enough bread, enough love, enough care.  Our church dinners are just a small glimpse of this abundance.

Sometimes the extravagance of the promise might seem ridiculously greater than the means on hand to fulfil it.   A few loaves, some fish, and crowds of hungry people.  Seriously?   But isn’t it always this way?   Doesn’t it always seem hard to hope, hard to pray, hard to just keep on going as church in a seemingly indifferent world?   I think of my friend, walking into that faded old church, because God gave her those talents and the desire to use them in what some might think a lost cause.   And really, isn’t that why we keep these churches going?   We keep them going because  the feast is for all, whoever is hungry or thirsty, whoever needs a home, whoever needs forgiveness, whoever needs love, or attention, or dignity, or refuge, whoever needs truth and goodness and hope.  That’s who the feast is for.  That’s who our God is for.   That’s the need our God enables us to meet.   Amen.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Remembering a Canadian Great War Chaplain: Donald MacPhail

I owe this chaplain story to my friend Dr. Duff Crerar.   I had never heard of Padre MacPhail or of the Llandovery Castle until he told me the story.  The text and photo are his.  MP

Not every chaplain who lost their lives in Canada’s First World War died as a result of enemy action in the field. Some died from illness, such as Chaplain H. Ingles, who contracted meningitis in the wards at Shorncliffe Camp in 1914. Many Canadians were appalled at the 27 June, 1918 torpedoing of the Canadian-manned (and clearly marked) Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle, in which many nurses and other medical staff lost their lives. It was the worst Canadian naval disaster of the Great War, claiming the lives of 234 medical personnel, soldiers and sailors, including fourteen nursing sisters.
Among those lost was Presbyterian Chaplain and Honorary Captain Donald G. MacPhail, a graduate of Queen’s University Theological School and minister at Knox Church, Cayuga, when he volunteered for overseas service. As the ship was going down, MacPhail, who had seen action as chaplain to the 6th and 12th Brigades at the Somme and Vimy, was last seen assisting the nurses into a lifeboat which was later sucked under the stern as the ship sank. Just one nurse survived from that boat. Eventually a notice was received in London that MacPhail’s body had been recovered on the French coast, and he had been buried in Lamphaul, France. His widow sponsored a memorial window in the Cayuga church after the war. On the inscription she had placed: “He that believeth in Me hast everlasting life”. He is commemorated at Queen’s University in the John Deutsch centre Memorial Room

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Child Soldier: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, Diocese of Toronto

Sunday, 24 June, 2018

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost


Readings for this Sunday: 1 Samuel 17:32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41



A slender youth stands alone and fragile, armed only with a primitive weapon, while a hulking giant bears down on him.    His face is unafraid, and as his sling whirls faster and faster above his head, he squints into the sun to find his mark.    The stone flies fast and free, seeking its mark.  For a few seconds after the impact the giant stands still, and everyone holds their breath  in suspense before he slowly crashes to earth.


It’s a classic underdog story, the shepherd boy who stands against the mighty warrior when grown men have lost their nerve.  When I was a boy it was one of the favourite stories in my children’s bible.   Like the readers of young adult novels like The Hunger Games, I wanted to be a hero like David and prove myself to the adults.


The story of David and Goliath is a story of courage, but it has its place in the bible because it’s a theological story.   In part it is about vocation, about people hearing and responding to God.  David the boy shepherd is called by God to be a soldier, just as the Book of Samuel begins with the boy Samuel literally called by God to be a prophet.   It is also a story about faithfulness.  David, the most unlikely of soldiers, too young to carry the weapons of war, steps forward defeat a terrible enemy.    David’s role as a shepherd is certainly somewhere behind the imagery of Jesus, born a descendent of David, as being the Good Shepherd.  Finally, David and Goliath is a story about God’s ascendancy over the gods of the other nations.   David predicts that when he kills Goliath, “all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Sam 17:46).  One of the goals of the Book of Samuel is to show the power of God, even against ferocious enemies like the Philistines.


Of course, even though the story of David and Goliath has a theological point, it might legitimately give us pause for thought.    We could certainly have a discussion, even a debate, about how old children have to be for the story of David and Goliath.   We could ask the same of other Old Testament stories, like that of another hero, Samson, who killed thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:6).  Should we expose young children to stories of war and violence, even when they are in the Bible?  Even when the stories are about heroic underdogs?   Even the Revised Common Lectionary, which cut out some of the details such as David cutting off Goliath’s head, has qualms about the story.


The world we live in also gives us concerns about how we read and hear stories like David and Goliath.     We are uneasy with religious justifications for war and violence, whether in Afghanistan or the Middle East.   The wars of Israel in the Old Testament, and the idea that God could favour one people over another, make many Anglicans uneasy, and lead some parishes to keep the Old Testament readings out of their Sunday worship.    Also, the idea of David stepping into a soldier’s role may give some cause for concern, given that public figures such as Romeo Dallaire have championed the children who are often pressed into service in various wars.   Patricia de Boer and her colleague Benson from Africa Arise have visited us several times, and some of you may remember Benson’s talk about being a child soldier.  


So the David and Goliath story has lots of reasons to give us pause because of its violent nature, its theology of war and violence,  and its connections with stories in the news today.  What are we to make of it, and all the stories like it in the Old Testament?


I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues as a soldier and as a priest lately.  For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a group of chaplains at the Canadian Forces Chaplain School at Camp Borden.  Among the subjects we discussed was how Judaism, Christianity and Islam all deal with violence.  All three faiths call themselves religions of peace, even though they all have stories of war and violence in their sacred writings: Torah, Bible and Koran.  At various times in their histories, all three religions have claimed that their followers can kill in the name of God.


A friend of mine, who served as a young officer in Afghanistan, once old me that he appreciated chaplains, but before going out on missions, he wanted more than a prayer for peace and safety.  “How come you padres never prayed for a good smiting?  I would have liked a prayer for God to smite our enemies before I went out on a mission”.  My friend grew thoughtful,  paused, and said, “I guess the padres knew that there was probably a guy on the other side of the hill with the Taliban, praying that God would smite us.  I guess that’s the problem with smiting”.  My friend understood the problem.   Once we ask God to bless our violence, then where does it end?


 Thanks be to God that most believers today, whatever their faith, feel that it is better to talk to one another than to kill one another.    The Anglican Church of Canada is a serious participant in interfaith dialogue here in Canada and as part of the Communion throughout the world.  Here in Canada we have created a country where different faiths and races can live peacefully together.  Our Armed Forces have Muslim and Jewish chaplains serving our military personnel, and we may soon have the first Hindu or Sikh chaplain join us.  So yes, much has changed for the better, which gives us a better perspective from which to read stories like David and Goliath.


We have our perspective, but its also helpful to be aware of the perspective and context of the Old Testament, which is for us, as Christians, part of our family story.  The perspective of the Book of Samuel is not as bloodthirsty and violent as we might think, because the Book of Samuel in many ways is a tragedy.   Samuel the faithful prophet does not want Israel to have kings, but the people wanted “a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Sam 8:5).  Saul becomes king, a flawed man who becomes jealous of David’s fame and success after Goliath.  David becomes king, a great king, but he too is flawed and tragic, and the kings who follow after ultimately bring Israel to ruin.   Only the Messiah who comes from the lineage of David can truly save Israel, and can truly save us.


If we reject the Old Testament, we reject the story of how God wants to save us.  It’s no always a pretty story, but that’s why we need to be saved, frankly.   It’s also our family story, as the people of God.  Think of the story like one of those black and white photos of an impossibly young person in an old uniform, a father or grandfather who went off to one of the world wars.    Those pictures honour the ancestor and his or her service, without glorifying the war.   Maybe that’s a helpful way to think of this story.   


The story of David and Goliath can be read, and even told to children in a appropriate manner, as a story of heroism and faith, but it is not a justification to violence.    David is a hero in a dark time, and a reminder that, as is so often the case in the Bible, God chooses unlikely people to do good things.   Goodness knows we need heroes, which is why we have saints.  Today there are other kinds of heroes that we can celebrate with our children - I mentioned Canada’s Romeo Dallaire and his work to rescue and rehabilitate child soldiers.  I am sure we can think of many other examples.    


 Most of all, it’s our hope, and our prayer, that our God calls us to work for a world where no one, and particularly no child, should ever have to do as David did, and pick up a weapon in God’s name.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Remembering Some D-Day Chaplains

It’s June 6th and a friend of mine on Facebook informed me about one of the first army padres ashore on D-Day.  Chaplain Julian Ellenberg was an Anglican priest assigned to the 8th Infantry Regiment of the US Army’s Fourth Division.  8IR claimed the honour of being the first infantry regiment to land from the sea on D-Day, as opposed to the airborne elements already inland.

Ellenberg was awarded the Silver Star for his work with the wounded on Utah Beach while under heavy fire.  Read more about him here.

Also today I learned about another US chaplain, a Roman Catholic priest and a Franciscan, who was killed on D-Day while attempting to secure a truce with German forces to arrange for the care of wounded personnel.  He served with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.  

His story is told here.

 Some years ago, I reported on receiving the eucharist from the communion kit of a Canadian padre, Walter Brown, who was also killed on D-Day.  Padre George Alexander Harris, who served with the Canadian Parachute Regiment, was also killed on D-Day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"The Church of the Ages": A Sermon Preached for the Anglican Military Ordinariate

Preached at the annual gathering of the Anglican Military Ordinariate of the Canadian Armed Forces, Cornwall, Ontario, 6 June 2018

Texts for the Commemoration of Wliiiam Grant Broughton, First Anglican Bishop in Australia: Ephesians 3:14-21, Psalm 112:1-6, Matthew 7:24-29

"I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love."  Ephesians 3:16-17


When I first started coming to Cornwall, the preachers at the AMO (Anglican Military Ordinariate) eucharists were doddering old chaplains in the twilight of their careers. …  I just never thought that that my turn would come so quickly.


Nevertheless, I was excited when I learned that I was to preach on the day of the commemoration of a pioneering colonial bishop.  As a boy at St. John’s School of Alberta, I paddled in a voyageur canoe named Bishop Bompas, after the first Anglican Bishop of Selkirk.  As a theology student, as part of my indoctrination into the heroes and legends of Wycliffe College, I learned the story of Isaac Stringer, famously known as the Bishop who ate his boots.   As the second Bishop of Selkirk in the Yukon, Stringer escaped starvation during a long snowstorm by boiling and eating his sealskin boots.     It sort of went without saying in the college ethos that any good Wycliffe grad would do the same for the sake of the gospel.   Fortunately in my ministry I’ve never had to eat anything more than some ill-advised words or to have swallowed anything more than some pride, both of which are part of a good spiritual diet.


The William Broughton, who we commemorate today,  was not however a heroic or especially eager colonial bishop.  It’s true that not every bishop cuts an heroic, swashbuckling figure.  In fact Broughton was one of those English country parsons that you find in a Trollope novel.  A scholarly type, Broughton at first thought himself fortunate to gain the Duke of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo, as a patron.  Sometimes however, a powerful patron can be a mixed blessing, because the Duke decided that Broughton should be the Archdeacon of New South Wales in Australia.  Sometimes it’s stay grey in the shadows.  Broughton doesn’t seem to have wanted this assignment very much - he said at the time that 'there is no ground for congratulation on my appointment’.   Furthermore, it appears that the Duke exaggerated the size of the stipend he would receive - in fact it just barely covered his expenses.   Also, Broughton also discovered that what he thought would be a short posting was anything but - he would in fact stay for as long as the British government wanted, and it would in fact be his life’s work.  Those of us who have ever been beguiled by the seductive words of a staff check during posting season can probably relate to him.


Despite being lame and dependent on a cane, Broughton was willing to travel the long outback circuits of his archdeaconry, frequently being away from his home and family in Sydney.   The editors of For All the Saints certainly included him for his pastoral devotion, as well as for his diligent leadership.  The choice of today’s gospel reading from Matthew, (7:24-29) with its image of a house solidly built on rock, would warm the heart of any church administrator.  Broughton, like his contemporary Bishop Strachan in Upper Canada, laid the foundations for the Anglican church in England.   He worked with missionary societies to recruit and train clergy to serve a small and scattered population.  As the first Bishop of the colony he was a champion of education and built synodical structures for the church in Australia which would become a model for the communion.


So why is any of this important?  As Rowan Williams has observed, church history is God’s history.   The church across the ages, from generation to generation, is nothing less than God’s doing in the world.  The church is not human activity, and sometimes the church flourishes despite us.   William Broughton was a pioneer, but not all his plans were successful.  His dream of an independent seminary in Sydney failed, and he was disappointed by the Crown’s hands-off attitude to the colonial church.   In this respect, Broughton would have had much in common with his Canadian contemporary, Bishop Strachan. Both were high churchman in the political sense of wanting Anglicanism to be the national and established faith of the state, both were out of step with their age.  There would be no established church for the colonies.  Having lost these battles, both ended up believing that for the church to flourish, it must be solely dependent on the power and promises of God, on God’s word faithfully preached by a diligent and learned clergy, and on administrative and leadership talents of its bishops.


A perennial danger of our lives as clergy is to think that we are engaged in a human project, the success of which is largely based upon our efforts and skills.   The annual exercise of the brag sheet reinforces this mindset, as does the accrual of coins, diplomas, commendations, decorations, promotions, and all the other bric a brac of the successful career in military chaplaincy.    Were he here today, I am sure that Bishop Broughton would remind us that our business, if self-dedicated, is like the house built on the sand, soon washed away and forgotten. 


In his first charge to his clergy in Australia in December 1829, Broughton spoke of the priest, as “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God:a “ pledged by engagements so awful that every one of us by whom they are regarded with becoming seriousness must tremble, in [our] attempts to fulfil them, under a sense of [our] insufficiency”.  Surely one of the great satisfactions and even inspirations of church history is realizing that others stood were we do now, contemplating the heavy spiritual lifts of the day, and realizing their own inadequacies but for the grace of God.   Broughton went on in his charge to say that the only reason he could “with any degree of confidence undertake the duties with which I am here entrusted …was because of his “assured belief that God, whose Providence has guided my steps, will give me grace and power … faithfully to take the oversight of his church , and rightly to divide the word of truth unto all followers of Christ Jesus, our Lord”.


Today’s reading from Ephesians was surely one of the texts that Broughton was drawing on for this assurance.   The Apostle Paul, so often accused of bombast and arrogance in our day, actually speaks of his profound dependence on the power of the gospel and the gift of grace to proclaim it.   Our strength to get out of bed and put on the uniform, our faith in our vocations, our love for those who come to us for counselling - where could we find these things if they were not given to us by the Spirit?  How terribly empty and tired we would be were we not “filled with all the fullest of God” (Eph 3.19).


In closing, let me fast forward from colonial Australia to very recent history, a hot afternoon in May in Hamilton as the church gathered to commend one of its own to God.  Those of us privileged to be at the funeral of our brother Rob Fead heard Bishop Spence speak luminously of how Rob held up the light in the darkness, showing it to his parishioners, to his reserve regiment, to the friends and family of Nathan Cirillo, and to so many others.   Rob was a strong man, but it was not his light, or his strength.  It was the light of Christ, the love of God, and the strength of the Spirit that dwelled within Rob as gifts which enabled his remarkable ministry.   Rob used them well, and now he has passed from our church to the church of the ages, to take his place with Broughton and Strachan and all the others, the heroic and the unlikely, who God has enabled and used for his good ends.  So may it be said of us after our time, that God was able to accomplish in us “abundantly far more than all we [could] ask or imagine” and so to [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Adam Montgomery, The Invisible Injured: Psychological Trauma in the Canadian Military From the First World War to Afghanistan

Here is a link to my review of the subject book, which appeared on The Strategy Bridge (TSB) this week.   For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, TSB is an excellent online journal for anyone interested in military history, contemporary military issues from doctrine to ethics, and foreign policy.

Disclaimer: while I am an associate editor for TSB, I had nothing to do with the selection of this piece.




Friday, May 25, 2018

A Sermon For Ron Steffler and Pentecost

Late putting this up, but I preached this just after the funeral of a beloved and longtime servant leader of the parish, and was reflecting on how Pentecost gives us resources for spiritual resilience as Christians and as church.  MP+

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Diocese of Toronto, Pentecost Sunday, 20 May, 2018

Lections:  Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34,35b; Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-25

"When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. John 15:26-27


 In John Donne’s famous poem, “No Man Is An Island”, he writes that “any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Funerals can make us feel this way.  St. Margaret’s will feel like a diminished place for a while.    As Father Simon said on Friday at Ron Steffler’s funeral, there are many many ways in which we will miss Ron’s love, Ron’s service, and Ron’s gifts.  He won’t be sitting back there at Mission Control as he did on many Sundays, running the audio-visual display.   We’ll miss his care for the building, his attention to the website, and all of the many acts of help and assistance that Ron gave to so many of us - and so many of us can talk about something that Ron did for us.   The place will seem poorer without him.  As someone said on Friday, we’ve had enough funerals a St. Margaret’s for a while.  We’ve said goodbye to Ron, and Kay, and Randy, and others in the last six months.   Enough grief.  Enough sad memories.   Fortunately for us, it’s Pentecost. 


Our gospel reading today speaks to those of us with sorrow in our hearts.  It reaches out to us who may still be struggling with the grief and the memories that a funeral can trigger.  Jesus in John’s gospel is bidding farewell to his disciples, who will be left behind, but he promises them that he will not leave them.  He will send another, who he calls “the Holy Spirit, the Advocate”.   The Spirit will be God’s ongoing presence with his people.  The Spirit will be be a comforter, but it will be more than that.  The Spirit will enable God’s people to be a community with a very specific character and purpose.   Pentecost is about how God creates a community that has the faith, strength, and hope, to rise above adversity and to go on, even after the funeral of a beloved member.


So this Sunday, Pentecost, is about how we are here because God is all about community.  The story of the appearance of the Holy Spirit is a story of God creating a community with a certain shape and character - let’s call it a Pentecost community.   What are the hallmarks of a Pentecost community?   


First, it’s a diverse community.    It’s gathered up out of all sorts of people, different languages and backgrounds, different walks of life.  The Pentecost community is not Wonder bread.  It has the same diversity that we see at St. Margaret’s, very different people indeed, who are all here because God wants us to be here.


Second, the Pentecost community is a called community.  It began in a core group of disciples, who were all called by Christ, but different people are constantly being added to the story, like the crowds attracted to the disciples in Acts.   Think of how the community of St. Margaret’s and St. Giles is constantly growing and changing.  Some of you remember the heroic days in the storefront and portable, but to many of us, who came later, those are inspiring stories.   Whatever stage in the story we arrived at, we were called to be here.


Third, the Pentecost community is a gifted community.  The Spirit was incredibly generous to the disciples, equipping them with gifts of languages so they could be heard by people from all over the known world.  We too have gifts and talents, and we know something about God’s abundance.   As we prepared for Ron’s funeral, I heard people talk about how they never saw food run out at a church function.   That doesn’t surprise me, since our Saviour knew how to make a little bread and fish go a long way.  But think how people of this parish also turned out to help feed and welcome the people who came to see the Deanery Play Saturday a week ago.  Think too of all the gifts that came together in that play, and of how much money it raised for the Busby Centre, $6 thousand dollars.  The same day Sarah Ash ran a golf tournament for her late father, Randy Packham, and raised over $7 thousand dollars for cancer research.   The Spirit’s abundance works with our gifts in so many ways in our community, if we care to look for it.


Fourth, the Pentecost community is a community with a story to tell about God.  In Acts the people in the crowd say that “we hear [the disciples] speaking about God's deeds of power”.   This gift of tongues and gift of communication is in keeping with what Jesus ways of the Spirit in John: “he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (Jn 15:26-27).  A Pentecost community tells people about God and about our hope in God.  I think of Ron’ Steffler’s work maintaining the parish website and fixing the church and helping with the audiovisual so that people could come and hear God’s word spoken and preached, and I think he got this.  His ministry had a lot to do telling God’s story.


 Finally, the Pentecost community is a hopeful community.   Peter says to the crowds in Jerusalem that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”.  We are hear because our Saviour rose from the dead.   The resurrection tells us that death will not have the last word.  We may be well schooled in death looks like.  We may be uncomfortably aware of what cancer can do to the human body.  We may see some among us seen to diminish and become frail, but we are undaunted.  We are a resurrection people.   We know that nothing can separate us from the love  of God.  We believe that God is not finished with us, that his work of creating the world is not yet done. 


What that new world will look like, we are not sure, but we know that it will be a world without sin and death or cancer or any of the other things that we struggle with.  We know this because the resurrection of Christ is a sign of God’s determination to rid us of these things.   We may not know clearly how this will happen, but Paul says in Romans 8, in one of the most wonderful passages in scripture, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23).


So we are a Pentecost people.  Our community is the church, which has carried on across the centuries, forming and reforming, speaking to us in our time.   Our funeral liturgy speaks of how we go the grave singing our Alleluias, because we know that death does not write our ending, but is only the beginning.  We baptize the newborn in the promise that they will have their gifts, their part to play in God’s life of abundance.  And what abundance it is.  This weekend I met Miriam, who was then celebrating her second day on earth.   She really has no business being her.  Her mother had a partial hysterectomy several years ago and was told she would never have children.  And here Miriam is, a sign of God’s abundance and of the Spirit’s work in the redemption of our bodies.     And so we say, as a Pentecost community, as we do each Sunday, Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do more than we can ask or imagine.  Glory to God from generation to generation, in the church and in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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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