Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Fantasy For Christmas Eve

I preached this sermon three years ago when I was the Rector of Grace Church, Ilderton, and St. George's Middlesex Centre. I don't normally use creative writing in preaching - this was a bit of an experiment, and I'm not sure what my parishioners thought of it, but I rather like it. MP+

A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2006
Grace and St George’s Churches

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”. Titus 2:11

It’s dark when the sound wakes you. Not some polite “is anyone at home” tapping at the front door, but a loud urgent banging, as if someone’s trying to tell you that the house is on fire. The person at the door may be someone you’ve known all your life, or it may be a mere acquaintance, but the look on their face and a few urgent words are enough. You know that if you don’t go with this person, you will regret it for the rest of your life.

There may be a sleepy child and a protesting spouse that you have to wake and bundle up, or it may be that you’ve been alone in this house for far too many years. You struggle into coat and boots and follow the messenger into the cold night air, to where a vehicle sits running. Perhaps you slide onto the leather seats of a sleek import, or sit on the cracked vinyl of a muddy farm truck, smelling comfortably of wet dog and gun oil. You head off into the night.

A few folks have left their coloured lights on, but without the snow and in the damp night they seem pale and dim. For years you and your neighbors have hung lights and decorated for a time you’ve called the holidays, with only a vague sense of what it all means, and a nameless hope that somehow the lights and the gifts will keep the darkness at bay. Tonight this is hope is faint, and the town huddles into itself, surrounded by dark and wet fields, as if not even daring to dream.

You head into the dark tunnel of the night, and then your driver points to a something. At first it’s a glow glimpsed through the tree tops, but once you’re in open country you see it clearly through gaps in the scudding rain clouds. A comet or meteor, perhaps, hanging low in the sky, a clean, silvery glow, like running water sparkling on a sunny day. It’s like your dearest memory of seeing the northern lights when you were a kid, only purer and more magical, if that is possible. As you drive you feel a nameless sense of expectation.

You realize that you’re not alone on the road, even at this late hour. Other vehicles are heading in the same direction. You start to wonder what concession you’re on, because the landscape looks unfamiliar in the silvery night. Finally you pull off a gravel road into a deeply rutted farm laneway, and stop where the others are parking.

The ground is wet and the mud pulls at your boot as you make your way up the lane. You pass an old delivery truck bearing the name of a long defunct business, and a Chevy of a vintage normally seen at heritage shows. Others are walking with you now, and some are neighbours and you nod to them, but others are strangers, and some are adults you remember from when you were a kid, all walking with you up this laneway.

A small crowd has assembled in front of a barn that’s seen better days. You see people you know – Anne from curling and Joe from Lions and the couple who run the restaurant, and Mr. Olson, your schoolbus driver from long years ago. They’re mixed in with strangers in muttonchop whiskers and tight bun hairstyles you’ve seen in old pictures. An immigrant family in rough workclothes stands beside a group of First Nations people in deerskin and fur wraps. To one side is a small knot of olive-skinned, bearded men in thick homespun, carrying serviceable crooked sticks and one holding a young lamb, and beside them a homeless man in an old parka and some folks from the Crest Centre. All patiently wait their turn until, in ones and twos, they can enter the barn and look inside. Breaths mingle in the night air, but you notice that you’re not cold.

You watch those coming out of the barn, and each is different. Some are grinning and some look quiet and thoughtful, but all seem taller as they leave, and their faces are bright with some new inner glow. Then it’s your turn, and you push back a rough sheet of plastic and enter. Inside it’s fragrant with straw and warm animals. A single light bulb hanging from a wire reveals two strangers, a very young woman, and behind her an older man, his body hardened with work but his face gentle. Their newborn child is wrapped in clean horse blankets and cushioned amidst a pile of woolsacks and feed bags. Two barncats watch with glittering eyes, and a horse snuffles in the shadows.

You don’t wonder at why these people and this child are here, and not in some clean hospital. You only draw closer, holding your breath, until the mother smiles her permission at you and you find yourself kneeling in the clean straw. The child opens his eyes and looks at you, like no other person has ever looked at you before. You feel a great surge of release as the locks on the secret and shameful places of your soul open, and the iron doors of regret and long-nurtured anger open to the bright light of this child’s presence. You feel cleansed and scoured, your soul freed of its grime and cobwebs. You realize that you’re not alone, not left to suffer and doubt and fear. Somehow, you know that this child has come to serve, has come to keep company, has come to save.

As you stand and prepare to leave, the child holds your gaze a moment longer and you realize that this gift is not for you alone. It is for all those here with you, and for those in countless other places. You realize that this child is also present in nursing homes and small towns, in city shelters, in army camps, in hospitals and prisons and every place in between. He is here now, in this moment, and in all the times before and in all the times to come.

And so you leave this place, and turn back into the night. Outside in the farmyard and in the surrounding fields, the mud and the wet are gone, covered by snow that is whiter and cleaner than any dream of childhood winters. The dismal rain clouds are gone, and the sky is ablaze with stars, as if escorting that one silver light that still draws newcomers up the laneway. You and your companion make your way back to the car, walking with others. People are thoughtful and quiet, but you exchange looks with Ann and John and Mr. Olsen and the folks from the old pictures. You know now that the child loves all these people, and somehow all carry the marks of that love in their gentleness to one another.

Your companion head the car back down the laneway. Later you could never recall how long it took to get back to town, whether it was minutes or hours, but it was long enough for the stars to grow pale and for a golden sun to start climbing into the clear blue sky. Your last memory is singing the old carols together as you neared home, something about a little town where the hopes and fears of all the years have come together in this one night.

©Michael Peterson+ 2006

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Notable Quotable - Stanley Fish on the Paradox of Christmas Generosity

"In short, however much you try — indeed, because you try — you can’t be good or do good. A hard lesson, especially in this season."

Read the whole piece here.

Asian Spammers Find Mad Padre


If you don't know what this means, then sorry, I can't help you either, other than I think it's Japanese and not Chinese. However, I have learned two things in the last few weeks.

1) If you put a post with the word "Job" or "Jobs" in it on blogspot, you'll attract the attention of someone in Asia who seems to want to sell something.
2) How to moderate posts on blogspot.

So for those of you who read this blog and post on it (my eternal thanks to y'all), I am moderating comments, simply so that I can catch this sort of spam and delete it before it appears on my blog. Rest assured, it is not censorship ... well, ok, it's censorship lite. But at least no one is getting tortured. At least, that's what the Canadian government assured me. Trust me on this.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mary For Us: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, CFB Greenwood, 20 Dec, 2009
The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Lectionary Year C
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:47-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

This last Sunday before Christmas, before we are called to the manger on Christmas Eve to worship the newborn Jesus, our readings invite us to spend some time with his expectant mother Mary. Today I invite us to think about who Mary was, what she has come to represent in the life of the church, and what she offers to us as we try to grow in our own spiritual lives.

Detail of stained glass window, Holy Rosary Chapel, Weber Centre, Adrian, MI – photo by the Rev. Susan McCullough

If I asked you to imagine the Virgin Mary, you might very well envision a beautiful and gentle young woman. This image shows Mary as a young maiden. It captures the spirit of Mary as the “mother mild” in the words of the famous carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Because this image comes from a Roman Catholic church, the artist has included rich laces and clothing appropriate to the lofty status that Roman Catholics give to Mary as a the royal mother of God.

The Church of Rome has given Mary many titles and dignities over the centuries – Queen of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God. Over the centuries the church came to venerate her and pray to her directly, trusting that she could plead the case of sinful humanity to Jesus and he, as her son, could not refuse her. This veneration, and the rise of doctrines such as her freedom of sin and of her being taken up into heaven (the feast of the Assumption, traditionally celebrated on 15 August), are not part of our heritage as protestants. During the Reformation in the 1500s the reformed churches saw Catholics as worshipping Mary (for example, through the rosary) instead of the Trinity. Thus, if you grew up in a protestant church, you probably didn’t think much of Mary except at Christmas time. Protestant churches believed that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception because it is clearly stated in scripture and creed, but they did not go out of their way to offer Mary any special honour or devotion since they perceived such traditions as unbiblical.

Two of our readings this morning tell part of Mary’s story and invite us to think about her. The gospel reading from Luke (1:39-45) tells the story of how Mary meets her much older cousin Elizabeth. This meeting is sometimes referred to as the Visitation, and it is one of the Joyous Mysteries in the Catholic tradition. These two women have both come to be mothers in miraculous circumstances. The childless Elizabeth, well past menopause and into her old age, finds herself pregnant. For Elizabeth pregnancy has lifted the shame of being childless or “barren” as scripture puts it, and it confirms the truth of the prophecy told to her husband Zecharaiah by the angel in the temple. For Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary, pregnancy before marriage could have been a disaster, but Mary has accepted her role in God’s plan to save humanity through the son she will bear. The link between these two women is emphasized when Elizabeth’s child leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice, for Elizabeth’s son will be John the Baptist, who will foretell the coming of Jesus. Both of these women are thus playing their part to make God’s plan of salvation possible.

Part of the Visitation story is the song that Mary sings. We read the words of this psalm together in lieu of our usual psalm. These words, like are gospel, are also from Luke (1:47-55). Today the church calls this song the “Magnicat”, the Latin rendering of the first few words “My soul magnifies the Lord”. In the liturgical churches the Magnificat or the Song of Mary has many musical settings and is a well-established part of church tradition. Some scholars believe Luke took this song from one of the first hymns to Mary of the early church, since the Magnificat appears to have been written as a song and since it is a very literary and poetic thing for a young girl from Galilee to say. Whatever its origins, the Song of Mary is important for Christians because it reminds us of God is faithful, keeping his promises to Israel and to all its generations, up to our own day. The Song reminds us of God’s mercy and of his love for all his creation, even and especially the poorest and humblest. Like God’s choice of Mary and Elizabeth, two women with no stature or importance in the world’s eyes, the Magnificat is a song of hope and promise to us that God loves us and stands with us, no matter how ordinary and insignificant we may be in the world’s eyes.

Who was Mary? Scripture is clear that in the eyes of the world, she wasn’t anyone special. The biblical scholar Elaine Park reminds us that she lived in a small town, Nazareth, which only had one well. Mary would have shared the communal life of women’s work: washing, mending, and cooking. She was no doubt used to hard work and her hand were starting to get rough with labour. Besides the community of work, Mary would have taken her place in the community of faith. She would have kept the traditional feasts with her family. She would have gone to the village synagogue and learned the traditional psalms and the stories of how God was faithful to Israel. She might well have made the pilgrimage to the great temple in Jerusalem. So, before she became known to us as Queen of Heaven or Mother of God, she was an ordinary young Jewish woman, trusting that the God of her people would be there for her throughout the life ahead of us.

Who is Mary to us? I just said at the outset that Mary was trusting, and that leads me the first of Mary’s qualities that are important for us. Mary is faithful. When the angel came to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah in the Temple he doubted that his wife could conceive, and so he was struck dumb until his son was born However, when the angel comes to Mary, she does not doubt. She is certainly puzzled, and she asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34), but when the angel explains how she will receive the child through the Holy Spirit, she does not doubt. When you think of how strange a thing the angel was saying, Mary could easily have doubted. How often do we doubt far less strange things in our own spiritual lives? It is easy to doubt that God will answer our prayer, that God is listening, or even that God loves us. In such cases, we would do well to remember the faithfulness and serenity of Mary

Mary does not doubt, and she does not refuse. The second quality of Mary is that she is obedient. Yes, if you are wondering, I said obedient. I know that is not a popular word, not even in today’s military, but obedience is part of the Christian life. I recall a comment I heard the theologian Stanley Hauerwas make about his frequent visits to churches as a guest preacher. Usually, he says, there’s someone at door after the service who shakes his hand and says “Interesting message there, preacher, I’m not sure I agree with it”. Hauerwas said that he is often tempted to reply “It wasn’t my message, it was God’s message, and your job isn’t to agree, your job is to obey”. Mary knew that what the angel was saying to her could easily wreck her life as an unwed mother. God allowed his plan of salvation through the birth of Christ to rest in her hands, just as he allowed it to rest in Jesus’ hands in the Garden of Gethsemane. Both said yes to God, and allowed the doors of salvation to open for us. How can our faithfulness and obedience open God’s doors for others?

The third quality of Mary’s that I want to stress is her desire for justice. The words of the Magnificat are about God’s concern for all people, especially the least among us. Mary says “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:52-53). The Christmas story is full of signs that God’s salvation is for all people, from the choice of two humble women to be mothers of God’s messengers, to the message to the shepherds to come to the manger, to the promise of the Magnificat that the hungry will go ahead of the fat cats. As we look back on 2009 we see many signs that the Fat Cats have been doing pretty well for themselves. I know however that many of you have the Magnificat spirit firmly in your hearts, whether you work for Lions or for the food bank or for all the other charities you support. In the 1800s Charles Dicken had the Ghost of Marley in A Christmas Carol remind Scrooge that humanity was his business.

Mary’s final quality that I want to highlight is her joy. At least one biblical scholar has noted the importance of Mary’s words being in the form of a song. We sing at times of sorrow, and we sing at times of joy. The Song of Mary echoes another song of joy of another Mary, that of Moses’ sister by the Red Sea after God has drowned the army of Pharaoh and saved Israel (Ex 15:20-21). We think of Mary as being “gentle”, “meek” and “mild” but the Magnificat is a moment of joy and celebration. In the worship of the church it can be sung as a solemn chant, as in the Anglican service of Evening Prayer, or it can be sung in upbeat and lively ways, as our choir did this morning. The Magnificat reminds us that Mary does not accept her duty as a burden to carry, but rather as a cause of joy and wonder at what God is doing in her life. For Mary, her joy comes from the totally unexpected grace that God has given to her. When the angel comes to her, he twice calls her “favoured one” (Lk 1:28, 30) and Mary is amazed that God should love her so much. Likewise, when Elizabeth realizes that she is being visited not just by her young cousin but also by the mother of her Lord, Elizabeth asks why this honour has been given to her. The joy of Mary is the joy of the unexpected blessing, it is the joy of every Christian that God should reach out to us and choose us to receive his love and have a place in his kingdom. Mary’s joy is nothing less than the joy of salvation, and it is a reminder to us to carry our own joy beyond the season of Christmas and into the year to come.

Mary is many things to the Christian churches, and we may not all agree on what she stands for. I have suggested today that she stands for faithfulness, obedience, justice and joy. She models these qualities for us as qualities of the Christian life, a life open to the will of God, trusting in God’s purposes, sharing God’s love for all, and joyous in the gift of God’s love and salvation. May we all share in these eternal qualities which makes Mary model for Christians of all denominations in our common life with Christ, now and always.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Day With Rescue 309

I've mentioned here earlier that one of my secondary duties at 14 Wing is to serve if called as a spotter on Search and Rescue flights. A SAR spotter serves as the eyes of the search aircraft, and on a long search typically supplments the regular back end crew of SAR techs and loadmaster who also take their turn in search windows. You need to take turns because after about twenty minutes your eyes get tired and you are ready to take a rest before resuming your place in the search. The spotters are essential because the crew up on the flight deck are busy with their tasks and can't spare much time for looking around.

Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft.

In a C130 Hercules, there are two search windows, one each side of the fuselage, near the tail ramp of the aircraft. You sit in a chair, as seen here in this rather blurry photo, and you stick your head as close to the window as possible, scanning from directly below the aircraft to up to a mile out.

413 Squadon SARtech in the search window of a Hercules.

On Wednesday of this week I got a call from Wing Ops at about 10:30pm to be ready to go out at first light. A fishing vessel had sunk off Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and while three crew were recovered by a Coast Guard vessel, the captain was missing. Since the captain was said to be wearing a survival suit there was some hope for him, but it was snowing over the search area on Wednesday night, preventing the use of night vision equipment. I didn't sleep much that night. I kept thinking of how warm my bed was, and of how someone might still be alive in the frigid ocean, waiting for the light and trying to stay awake.

It was certainly frigid in the Herc at 06:30 when I reported. I was grateful for gloves, long underwear and toque as we loaded and prepped the plane. There were three spotters in addition to two SAR techs and the loadmaster in the back end and all would be taking turns watching. The SARtech sergeant briefed us on what to look for - the fisherman's suit was orange but so were the many lobster floats in the area. A floating man look would be X shaped, whereas floats are round, so don't call the alarm unless you see the X shape.

It warmed up quickly once the engines started, and soon we were over the area and starting to fly search legs from 1000 feet down to 600. A Cormorant helicopter, also from 413 Squadron, was examining the coastline in our area (called a coast crawl in SAR parlance) and at one point we saw the Coast Guard vessel Edward Cornwallis also at work. After my first time in the window, I was amazed at how quickly twenty minutes had gone by. I'm not always known for my ability to focus, but I don't think there was another thought in my head besides trying to sort out what I was seeing below, and the sight was impressive: the green rolling sea flecked with whitecaps, lobster floats aplenty, and the occasional seabird scudding over the waves far below. It was a total surprise when the next spotter tapped my arm to tell me it was time for my relief.

When I was in the spotter chair I was able to listen to the crew on my headset. I'm always amazed at the quiet and professional tone of aircrew as they go about their business, the technical jargon interspersed with jokes and ordinary conversation. They're focused but also relaxed and the sense of competence is very reassuring to a novice like myself. There was the usual banter about watching their language with a padre on board, but otherwise I felt part of the team.

By noon, off Tuskett Island south of Yarmouth, the snow was getting worse. It was difficult to see anything out of the window, and I was startled when one of the pilots said that he was becoming uncomfortable with the low visibility. When I heard that comment while we were banking at barely 600 feet above water I couldn't see through the snow, I don't mind saying I got a little nervous. We headed back to base at Greenwood, very calm and professional despite visibility at the airfield being a mile or less, while waiting for the SAR control centre in Halifax to decide if the search would continue. While we were at lunch we heard it had been called off. After 24 hours in the water in winter, even in a survival suit, there was no chance the fisherman would still be alive and the opinion was that he must have been caught on the boat when it sank, since we hadn't seen a body.

It was a disappointing outcome to my first search. At the same time, it was impressive to see the professionalism of the SAR crew at work. Every time there is an incident of this sort the media often second guess the search efforts and ask if there are enough resources in the right places. The answer is that no, there will probably never be enough resources, but Canadians should be proud of how many military and Coast Guard assets were at work looking for one person in difficult circumstances. May God receive the soul of the lost fisherman into his eternal care, and may be bless and protect all those SAR personnel who work, in the words of their motto, so that others may live.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

British Vicar's Wife Enjoys Recounting Her Days as a Stripper

I can sympathize with Mrs. Stephenson, a Nottingham, UK woman tells people she was a stripper before she married her CofE priest husband - read BBC article here. My wife also dislikes being introduced as "the Vicar's wife" or "the Padre's wife", but she stripped furniture, not chickens. The Church of Rome may be thinking twice now about its offer to married Anglican clergy to come over and bring their wives.

Archbishop of Canterbury: Marginalizing Christians is "Cultural Suicide"

I pity the spiritual head of my church, Rowan Williams. With his impossible eyebrows, professorial manner and nuanced approach to problems like homsexuality in the church, he seems a man out of synch with the times. So I was pleased yesterday to note Melanie Phillips in the Mail Online commending the Archbishop of Canterbury for reminding the state why it needs Christianity. MP+

By Melanie Phillips
Last updated at 8:51 AM on 14th December 2009

Just for once, the Archbishop is right ... treating Christians as cranks is an act The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, comes in for a lot of stick - not least from columnists like me.

But in the past few days, he has said something important. He has criticised Government ministers for thinking that Christian beliefs are no longer relevant in modern Britain, and for looking at religion as a 'problem'.

Many Government faith initiatives, he observed, assumed that religion was an eccentricity practised by oddballs, foreigners and minorities.

Read the whole piece here.

Electronic Rights Battle for Older E-Books

Continuing to track the news on the growth in e-books. An article in today's New York Times discusses the publishing battle over older books. When I was on a library board, we worried over the pressure to replace traditional print book stacks with internet computer terminals, new media shelves, etc. While these changes were good responses to changes in literacy and how people today find and consume information and cultural products, it did mean that fewer shelves meant that older books became harder to find outside of used bookstores. Ebooks many well bring many older titles back into print, provided that the rights issue can be figured out. MP+

Legal Battles Over E-Book Rights to Older Books
Published: December 12, 2009

William Styron may have been one of the leading literary lions of recent decades, but his books are not selling much these days. Now his family has a plan to lure digital-age readers with e-book versions of titles like “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and Mr. Styron’s memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible.”

But the question of exactly who owns the electronic rights to such older titles is in dispute, making it a rising source of conflict in one of the publishing industry’s last remaining areas of growth.

Read the whole article here.

Military Picture of the Week: Santas Past and Present

Two milpics of the week, courtesy of my brother the Mad Colonel, both reflecting the spirit of Christmas in uniform.

British foot patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan:

American troops bringing Santa to English children, 1942. Rather hard to see, but the tanker on the left appears to be wearing some sort of Santa suit under his regulation helmet:

Monday, December 7, 2009

More Military Goats in the News

As the small and elite band of regular readers of Mad Padre will know, Military Goats are no stranger to this blog. Indeed, we at Mad Padre are determined to document the role of that most unsung of military goats and to give them their proper due.

Courtesy of the UK MOD's "Image of the Day", here is "Private Derby", the regimental mascot of the Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters), recently returned from a distinguished tour in Afghanistan, in front of Worcester Cathedral. Read more about the Mercians' return here.

As Afghan Detainee Debate Rages On, CF Personnel Look Good

An article in Monday's Globe and Mail cites concrete evidence that an Afghan captured by Canadian Forces personnel in 2006 and then handed over to Afghan police was indeed beaten and mistreated. While that is disturbing news, I drew some comfort from the fact that "Canadians intervened and took the detainee back ... Canadian medics then treated the man's injuries." As the article goes on to say, "The incident – and another in which Canadians refused to transfer prisoners threatened with death – suggest Canadian soldiers were well aware of their obligations under the Geneva Convention."

On Friday I just finished a CF course which described the many changes in ethics, leadership and accountability made by the Forces since the Somalia affair in 1993. Today's G&M article seems to confirm that positive changes in the military culture have indeed occurred.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

(Real) Good News for Real People

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Year C, Baruch 5:1-9, Psalm 126, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, 14 Wing, Greenwood

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Lk 3:1-2)

Certain passages in the lectionary, the church's three year cycle of liturgical scripture readings, are thick with hard to pronounce place names and proper names. In seminary we used to refer to these as "Jerusalem phone book" passages. These passages are often daunting for lay people charged with the important office of reading scripture during the service, an office that reminds us that scripture is shared by all people, ordained and lay alike, as a common resource. (Hence the playful acronym of B.I.B.L.E. - Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth).

I suspect however our layreaders are secretly relieved that it’s my job to read aloud today’s gospel reading, with all those hard to pronounce names and places: Lysanias, Caiaphas, Ituraea and Trachonitis. These are hard enough for experienced churchgoers, but imagine some visitor to our service who knows nothing of the Christian story. He or she might think they had stumbled into an ancient history listen. Who are these people? Where are these places? Why should I care? Good questions. Why should we care?

The first reason to care is that this is real. Throughout his telling of the story of Christ, Luke takes pains to remind us that this story actually happened. Abilene, Ituraea and Trachonitis (all parts of modern Lebanon) were real places, as real as the Annapolis Valley. Herod and Tiberius and Pilate were real rulers, with real power, and we know they had power because later Herod will have Herod killed and Pilate will have Jesus killed. In this world lived real people, people as real as us. They paid harsh taxes, struggled to feed their families, lived in fear of armies and robbers, enjoyed little or now medicine and could scarcely imagine the lifestyles of the rich who ruled over them. And like us, these people were hungry for good news.

We too are real people. We have more comforts, more medicine, and more money than the people of Luke’s age, though as I’m sure you know, there are people in our communities who are hungry and poor and hopeless. Our lives are safer and we don’t need to fear our rulers, but I don’t think many of us have much love or faith for those in authority over us. We don’t worship idols or multiple deities like the people in Luke’s time did, unless you count all the brand names and designer labels we seek in the temples of our big box stores. Yes, Luke’s world was more primitive than ours, and far away in time, but its physical and spiritual hungers still persist, and the need for good news remains.

John is the first one who announces this good news. He has no agenda of his own. He is not political, he seeks no gain. He makes no distinction between rich and poor, and his message is for all people. “All flesh”, he says, all people, “shall see the salvation of God”. God is coming as his prophet Isaiah said he would, to level and remove the barriers (“mountains”, “rough ways”) that keep people from God and from one another. John calls on all people to prepare themselves for the coming of God, and the way to prepare is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3).

As I was preparing this sermon, I was reminded that most people don’t need to be reminded of things they feel bad and guilty for. Most people, I find, know their flaws and their faults all too well. What keeps most people from God or from a rich spiritual life is that we carry the burdens and shames of our lives in secret, convinced that God will never really love or forgive us. As someone said to me this week, “I go to church thinking that I have to act good to be like everyone else, but inside I wonder if I really am a good person because I think and do things I know are bad”. John the Baptist is the person who comes and calls all to give our secret burdens and shames to God, knowing that we will be lovingly accepted and even changed.

All through our readings this morning, we heard that message offered in various ways. The prophet Baruch told the people that God would take away their garments of sorrow and dress them like kings and queens, so they could hold their heads high knowing that they are God’s children. The psalmist promises that instead of tears and weeping, God will fill our mouths with laughter and our eyes with joy. St. Paul tells the Philippians that the prison holding him means nothing compared to the love and friendship that God is spreading amongst them. Running through our readings like a golden thread is the promise that God offers us love and forgiveness and glorious change both in this life and in the life to come, if we are ready to ask for these things.

God’s good news comes to real people and real places, as it did in the times of Pilate and Herod and as it has in every time between then and now. We are called to make ourselves ready for the coming of the Christ. If we have tears and sorrows, if we carry burdens we dare not admit to ourselves or to those around us, we are called to confess them to God and to seem forgiveness. If this is true of you, perhaps now is the time to speak to a minister, to speak to one you have wronged, or just to give these things over to Jesus. He’ll be there for you. If you are bothered by the tears and hunger of those around you, then what will you do about it? Our chapel community has identified needs we wish to address, such as helping a foster child. What more can we do?

Now is the time of Advent. The good news comes to us in our time. It is real salvation for real people. John the Baptist calls to say that God is ready to receive us. Will we be ready to receive him?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New Call of Duty Game Poses Ethical Challenges to Gamers

My son introduced me to the Call of Duty franchise on his XBox. I found the historical content of the WW2 games more interesting than the games themselves. OK, I liked the one about shooting Nazi zombies, that was fun. But as the games become more visually complex and even aesthetically pleasing, the simulation of violence became more and more troublesome for me as a parent, and I started looking at the age ratings for the games he wanted to get.

If he was still living with me, I'd probably say no to the latest installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which is getting a lot of buzz for posing ethical problems which may even put off some gamers. The buzz seems to focus on a sequence when the player is called on to join in massacring civilians at an airport in order to infiltrate a terrorist gang. Chris Sullentrop writes on that "It's the most anti-war war game I've ever played, a murder simulator that won't let you forget the nature of your actions."

The always interesting David Aaronivitch, writing in The Times, is less sanguine about the ethical dilemmas the game will pose:

"With the new Call of Duty, the airport scenario has led to an on-screen warning that precedes the bloodshed. “Some players,” it says, “may find one of the missions disturbing or offensive. Would you like to have the option to skip this mission?” How many of the 1.23 million people who bought the game in Britain this week in the first 24 hours of its availability — collectively paying £47 million in the process — do we imagine, opted to skip? My guess is round about none. How many of them were actually under 18? Or buying for people under 18? Though the supposed retail price is £55, my local HMV was offering it for £9.99 if you traded in an old game, so money wasn’t necessarily a problem."

Is there anyone else out there worried about all those disaffected kids in black raincoats, sitting in their basements shooting civilians in an airport? And is there anything just a little hypocritical about the game designer's apparent refusal to include children among the civilians that the gamer can massacre, or should we feel comforted that there are still some boundaries that apparently can't be crossed? Shooting Nazi zombies is so uncomplicated by comparison.

Today's Running

Zero. Zilch. Nada. Chained to my desk working and finishing off an online exam for my OPME (Officer Professional Military Education, once fondly called Opey Dopeys) course Canadian Defence Management. (I didn't know it was managed - who knew?). Hopefully tomorrow, if the SAR training flight for spotters wasn't take too long.

Yesterday I managed 5k in 30m47s dawdling around the circular track at the gym. And despite my best intentions, I haven't logged all my runs in November so I have no idea what the mileage is. Oh well, December is a fresh month.

A Soldier's Take on the Cost of Free Speech at Home

Living in a military community I often see the bumper sticker "If you don't stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them". I can understand the sentiment. When you identify strongly with the military, either serving, retired, or connected to a military member in some way, it's easy to feel protective when others question the cause. But these bumper stickers also make me uneasy. It's a short step beyond that kind of protective instinct to jingoism and simplistic "my country right or wrong" patriotism.

In Canada the media is, I find, generally balanced and careful in its handling of the debate on the future of the Afghan mission. In the UK, with it's famous rough and tumble politics, that debate is much sharper, especially as the Brits are talking about deepening their Afghan mission whereas we've sad we're done in 2011. This piece in the Independent by British soldier and author Doug Beattie raises interesting and thoughtful questions about the impact of political debate at home on the soldier in the field.

"But what effect does this negativity have on the soldier getting ready to go to Afghanistan, and what effect does it have on the soldier living, fighting and working in Helmand on a day-to-day basis? "An unwinnable war," say some. "A price not worth paying," say others. "The military presence is making the whole situation in Afghanistan far worse."

These are all headlines the soldier can't understand, doesn't agree with and makes him feel that his efforts in Afghanistan are both misunderstood and not valued. The soldiers' voice remains silent, as those who have never been in Helmand give their analysis of how the campaign is developing and how badly we are doing.

In the isolated patrol bases, news reaches the men and women only sporadically. Newspapers, usually at least five to seven days old, carry the headlines of opinion polls saying troops should be pulled out, or that the Afghan people don't want us there. Numerous interviews with MPs seem to use the military as some kind of political football, in an attempt to either attack the Government or defend it. In doing so, they undermine the very men they are trying to support."

Read the whole piece here.

On Spiritual Survivalism

Two weeks ago I preached a sermon using the movie 2010 for a launching pad on the apocalyptic words of Christ in Mark 13, focusing on Christ's words "do not be alarmed".

I was reminded of this sermon when I noted this piece in today's Washington Post about Christian survivalists, which included this comment from a storeowner who sells supplies to these people:

"This is one way people feel like they're taking control of their own situations again," he said. "We've had so much drama. It's like getting your oil changed in your car. You've done something that feels good. It's the same way with somebody going down and getting a survival kit and having extra food or water. It gives them that level of a little bit of security."

Well, I suppose wanting to be in control is understandable, especially in such fraught times as these. It seems from the article that the point of survivalism is to be around in time to see the end times. But isn't the point of the apocalypse that God is in control, whatever happens?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Toe Still in the Water on EBooks

As Christmas approaches I've been considering making an e-book reader my present to myself. However, there are too many questions for me to have firmed up a decision. I haven't heard yet whether Amazon's Kindle reader is going to be available in Canada any time soon. Sony's reader is another choice, but Sony's selection of titles is still limited to mass-market best-sellers for the most part, and the free stuff available from Google which might augment Sony's small library is, from what I can see, all public domain and therefore old. Not that old is bad, but I'm looking for a way to digitally read recent publications that interest me, and if I could put a digital subscription to a newspaper and/or magazine, like the New Yorker, on the same platform, that'd be bonus. David Pogue, techguy for the NYT, writes today that Amazon is moving to open up it's ebook store (380K titles thus far) for non-Kindle platforms, which is pretty smart of them I think since it doesn't look like any one ebook platform is going to be dominant any time soon.

Some sensible advice from Slate's tech guru Farhad Manjoo is to wait and see what Apple's entry into the market will be. I've got enough paper books on my bedside table to wait for them, and Advent is the season of waiting.

One thing Pogue said that stuck with me is what an amazing time we live in for literacy and communications.

"But two things are for sure: e-books are evolving at a screaming pace, and their appeal goes well beyond gadget freaks.

In short, 2009 was a year like any other year: filled with breakthroughs and breakdowns, progress and pushback. Still, we stand at an amazing point in high-tech history. Our airplanes offer wireless Internet, we can make free Skype calls to China and talk for hours, and our children edit video for homework."

Today's Running

Last night's meeting of the ZX Cycle and Running Club must have inspired me, because I turned in just a shade over 8k in 45 minutes on the treadmill, a half km better than my last effort in that time. :)

The club has several relay runs planned for the new year, including Rum Runner's (Halifax to Lunenburg, very scenic)and the Cabot Trail. I'm hoping to do these plus the Bluenose Half Marathon come the spring, so no time like the present to get serious. Not sure I have anything left in the tank for the spin class at 6 tonight. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Notable Quotable - Mammon Was Given A Pasting

This quote by John Sentamu, the Uganadan-born Archbishop of York and #2 in the Church of England, on the aftermath of the crash of 2008 and the subsequent recession and credit crunch:

"Mammon was given a pasting. We may go back up to where we were, in the belief that now the markets are becoming more stable, but I'm not sure people really trust that any more. We've lived in this libertarian time where choice was seen as important and the free market was important, and as long as you did it within the law you could do whatever you wanted to. It's now beginning to dawn on people that choice isn't all there is about life. My neighbour matters."

See the rest of Sentamu's interview with Stephen Moss of the Guardian here.

Sentamu's quote chimed with "Eight Days", James B. Stewart's riveting account of the banking crisis on Wall Street in Sept. 2008, which appeared in the Sept 21, 2009 edition of the New Yorker Magazine, which reads with all the suspence of a page-turner, even if I didn't understand the financial jargon (who did? wasn't that the problem?). George W. Bush, a surprising hero in Stewart's account, asks this of his financial advisors:

"How have we come to the point where we can't let an institution fail without affecting the whole economy? Someday you guys are going to need to tell me how we ended up with a system like this. I know this is not the time to test them and puit them through failure, but we're not doing something right if we're stuck with these miserable choices."

Sounds to me like Bush and the Archbishop are both recognizing, in their own way, that the emperor has no clothes.

Unfortunately only a precis of that piece is still available online (unless you want to buy a digital subscription to the NYT, which would be an excellent Christmas present for yourself or for someone you like).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More on Canada and the Afghan Detainee Question

Driving home from Halifax tonight I caught this discussion on CBC's the Current featuring two professors of international law, including Payam Akhavan, a former prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunals Court in the Hague.

So as I understand these two professors, here's what the questions viz our treatment of Afghan detainees boils down to:

1) The issue isn't what's happening in Afghan prisons now. The period in question is May 2006 and the eighteen months afterwards.

2) It doesn't matter if any torture of Afghan detainees actually took place. According to international law, what matters is whether there was a known risk of mistreatment. If Canadian officials had reasonable cause to fear the risk of mistreatment of detainees at the hands of Afghan authorities, then they shouldn't have handed over anyone.

3) The conduct of Canadian soldiers in the field is not at issue, as they had reason to believe that they were following lawful orders. The issue is higher up in the chain of command, up to the Minister of Defence, and if they can be accused of violating the Geneva Convention by knowing of the risk of mistreatment during this sixteen month period.

All of which raises the question - if we thought at the time that the risk of mistreatment existed, what were we supposed to do with detainees? Keep them ourselves? Give them to the Americans? Send them to the Hague? Also, at what point are we free of the risk of mistreatment of detainees by the government we're supposed to be helping? When the next round of Afghan elections is totally free of corruption and transparent? When the Afghan police stop extorting bribes from their own people?

Are we talking about moral and ethical absolutes, or about works in progress?

Druids and Pizza

A friend of mine in London noticed this poster at the University of Western Ontario.

OK, I'm sorry if these questions lack the appropriate spirit of respect due to interfaith matters, but they do come to mind.

How does one get to be an Archdruid? Seminary? Ordination?
Is that beard real?
How ancient is the druidic presence in America - did they come over with the Mayflower or earlier with Vikings?
Is pizza a traditonal druidic food?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Royal Visit - A Sermon for the Reign of Christ the King

The Royal Visit
A Sermon for the Reign of Christ the King, Lectionary Year B
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Psalm 132, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

“One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God?” (2 Samuel 23:3-5)

Earlier this month, Canada had a brief royal visit from Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. The press had the usual discussions about whether the monarchy was still relevant, but it appeared that the royals were well received, especially at CFB Petawawa where they visited with the families of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. During the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa, however, the Prince was upstaged by the Governor General, who of course represents his mother the Queen in Canada.

I think that most of us would go at least some distance to see a royal visit if it was anywhere close to our homes. It seems to be human nature, I think, that we want to be close to those who hold power, even if they are, as is the case with the royals, figureheads. At their best, they embody the best of our heritage and values, especially service to country and to one another. At worst, well, the tabloid age of journalism has made the point that the royals are people too, with flaws that are all too common. Even though we know that the royals are human, I think we’d be happier going to see them than having them come and visit us. I wouldn’t want the Queen or Prince Charles sitting in our living room, trying to make polite small talk while they politely ignore the cat fur and the unfashionable upholstery. And yet today we are asked to prepare our hearts and our homes for the greatest royal visitor of all.

Our first reading today reminds us that our homes, like everything else in our lives, are part of God’s domain. We heard these verses from our first reading, from the Second Book of Samuel.

“One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God?” (2 Samuel 23:3-5)

These lines, traditionally thought to be among the final words of King David, express the king’s satisfaction as he looks back on his life and on his reign as the King of Israel. David feels that he has been a good king, ruling over his people “justly” and as one who fears and obeys God. He compares his reign to a glorious sunrise, catching the morning dew of a fertile land, and he says “Is not my house like this with God?” Another way of translating it might be “Surely my house is like this with God”.

This last question is of course a rhetorical question, one you ask when you expect a certain answer, as in, “Am I a cool guy or what?” I suspect that David’s subjects would have said “Oh yes, your majesty, your house is indeed like a glorious sunrise in God’s eyes, truly you get a divine gold star and an A+ for being such a great and holy king”, when in fact, if they knew David’s real story, they might have thought something qute different. If you know anything of David’s story, as the biblical professor Ted Smith points out , you may remember that David’s house, like any royal house, has its share of sordid stories, including David and Bathsheeba, or David’s son Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar, or David’s war with his son Absalom.

If you were alive in biblical times and you had half a brain, you knew that kings and emperors did not live up to the legends they promoted about themselves. I’m watching the HBO series Rome, about the rise to power of Julius Caesar and the cynical and manipulative moves between him and his rivals. The emperors who came after Caesar claimed to be divine and had their statues placed in temples, but people knew that they carved their way to the top over the bodies of their rivals. So, turning to our second lesson, when Christianity came along and claimed that Jesus was “the ruler of the kings of the earth”, that was a big deal. As Bishop Tom Wright is fond of saying, Christianity claimed for Jesus a power that no Caesar or Emperor could touch, because Jesus’ power came from his being the son of God, who raised him from the dead to be the judge of all and the saviour of those who believed in him. No David or Caesar could match that claim.

Today is known in the church calendar as the Reign of Christ the King. The designers of the lectionary have chosen readings which remind the church that Christ is our ruler. We think of Jesus in many ways – as a teacher, a friend, the one we confide our prayers to – but today we are called to say, as the church said in the days of Caesar, that Jesus is Lord. That’s a huge thing to say, and I wonder if we really understand what it means. Jesus is Lord of the universe because he was one with the Father at the dawn of creation. Jesus is Lord of Life because he rose from the dead. Jesus is Lord of the Earth because his authority is greater than all the flags, all the political causes, and all the consumer goods that compete for our attention. Jesus is the Lord of all races and all colours, because he died for all of us, without favouritism. In short, Jesus is Lord of our lives. Just as Jesus did his Father’s will in his life and in his ministry, he demands that we put him above all other things. Again and again in the gospels, Jesus asks his followers if they understand that he is Messiah, if he is Lord.

Notice that Lord doesn’t mean conqueror. Jesus doesn’t work the way that human lords and kings work. When King David was dying, he told his son Solomon to start his reign by killing his enemies, and that’s what happened. The opening chapters of 1 Kings, describing the start of Solomon’s reign, are quite bloody This bloody kingship is also what Pilate understands, which is why he has so much trouble understanding Jesus in today’s gospel reading from John. The Reign of Christ starts in a very different way. Through the four Sundays of Advent, starting next week, the Reign of Christ begins in quiet hope and expectation. We hear the familiar Advent messages of comfort and of deliverance. We hear from the prophet Isaiah of the one who comes, not to conquer and dominate, but to serve and suffer from our sake. We look for the coming of the Prince of Peace, and we make ourselves ready.

If you are a Canadian Forces member, the month of your birthday is the time of year when the military asks you about your readiness. Are all your forms up to date? Have you had all your shots? Are you missing any training? If you were called to deploy suddenly, would you be good to go? For the church, Advent is our Annual Readiness Verification. Next Sunday evening, if you are at the Hanging of the Greens service, we’ll sing an Advent hymn called “People Look East” which includes these words:

Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

These words remind us that Advent is more than just preparing our church with candles and greenery. Advent is preparing ourselves for the coming of the royal visitor who comes to Bethlehem, heralded by angels, greeted by shepherds, born in a manger for all our sakes. Be warned that this royal visitor will not just come to public places like an earthly celebrity or VIP. This royal visitor will knock on the door of your heart and ask to be let in. Are you ready? Have you thought about what it means to follow Christ as your lord and king? What do you need to do make ready? For the King is coming.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt's Ten Reasons to Go to Church

As noted on Ethics, some good arguments from one of America's favourite presidents. Makes me wonder if a similar document came from a Canadian prime minister. Anyone know? MP+

Teddy Roosevelt's 10 Reasons for Going to Church
Barry Howard
Posted: Wednesday, November 18, 2009 5:20 am

Some people go to church regularly, some go occasionally, and others seldom go at all. How important is church participation? Are there good reasons that I should go to church?

Actually, the Bible calls on believers to be the church, and not just go to church. But to effectively be the church, believers need to faithfully gather with the other members of the body of Christ for equipping and encouragement.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, believed in attending and participating in church. In 1917, in an interview with Ladies Home Journal, President Roosevelt offered at least 10 reasons for going to church:

Read them here.

American Muslims Respond to Fort Hood Inquiry

I was interested to read this piece in part because it shows a face of American Muslims in the military that needs to be remembered in the days ahead, and as well because I was not aware of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, whose duties include providing the ecclesial enforsements for Muslim chaplains serving in the US military. MP+

Muslim Leader Calls Fort Hood Review Critical to National Security
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 19, 2009 – The director of a Muslim veterans organization said he welcomes Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ announcement today of a Pentagon probe into the attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, calling it a matter of national security.

Qaseem Ali Uqdah, executive director of the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, and a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, credits military leaders with establishing a climate that’s prevented any backlash against Muslims servicemembers since the Nov. 5 shooting.

Gates announced a sweeping review today that will look into events leading up to the rampage that left 13 people dead, and whether military officials should have been more aggressive in raising a red flag about the accused shooter, Army Maj. Nidal M. Hasan.

“This is not about Muslim,” Uqdah said of the probe. “This is about national security. This is about an incident in which an individual committed a criminal act.”

Read the whole piece here.

Late US War Hero had Canadian Connection

Other than the fact that this guy led the last known bayonet charge in US military history, my favourite part of the obituary below is that Millett deserted the US Army Air Corps in 1940 to fight with the Canadian army, then turned himself in after America entered the war. Quite the character and a real infanteer, God rest him. MP+

Face of Defense: Soldier Who Led Last Bayonet Charge Dies
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 2009 – Retired Army Col. Lewis L. Millett, who earned the Medal of Honor during the Korean War for leading what reportedly was the last major American bayonet charge, died Nov 14.

Retired Army Col. Lewis L. Millet wears his Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and other medals earned in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He served as honorary colonel of the 27th Infantry Regiment Association, and was active in veterans events almost to his death Nov. 14, 2009. U.S. Army photo

Millett, 88, died in Loma Linda, Calif., after serving for more than 15 years as the honorary colonel of the 27th Infantry Regiment Association.

Millet received the Medal of Honor for his actions Feb. 7, 1951. He led the 25th Infantry Division’s Company E, 27th Infantry, in a bayonet charge up Hill 180 near Soam-Ni, Korea. A captain at the time, Millet was leading his company in an attack against a strongly held position when he noticed that a platoon was pinned down by small-arms, automatic, and antitank fire.

Millett placed himself at the head of two other platoons, ordered fixed bayonets, and led an assault up the fire-swept hill. In the fierce charge, Millett bayoneted two enemy soldiers and continued on, throwing grenades, clubbing and bayoneting the enemy, while urging his men forward by shouting encouragement, according to his Medal of Honor citation.

"Despite vicious opposing fire, the whirlwind hand-to-hand assault carried to the crest of the hill," the citation states. "His dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder."

Read the whole piece here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Military Picture of the Week

It's Friday and with Remembrance Day now safely behind us for another year, I hope it's now not too irreverent to post this photo, courtesy of my brother the Mad Colonel, who seems to have a line on shots of major uniform malfunctions.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

View Interactive Map on

Last Friday did this in 41.31, did it today in 40.43. :)

Not a bad week so far. Ball hockey with the wing firefighters on Wednesday with accompanying scrapes and bruises, 7.5k in 45mins on the treadmill Tuesday, and a 45 minute spin class on Monday.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Do Not Be Alarmed" - This Sunday's Sermon

Preached this morning at St. Mary's, Auburn and Christ Church, Berwick, in the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, at the kind invitation of the Rev'd Charles Bull. Thanks to both congregations for a warm welcome and good worship. MP+

A Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost,
Preached at St. Mary’s Church, Auburn, and Christ Church, Berwick
Lectionary Year C: Samuel 1:4-20, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18),19-25

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come (Mk 13:7)

It’s a great pleasure to be with you this morning, and a great honour to be allowed to share your rector’s pulpit. I bring you greetings from the people of St. Mark’s protestant chapel in Greenwood, some of whom I think some of you know, as they seemed well aware that I am in your parish this Sunday. I also bring you greetings from the Anglican clergy serving as chaplains with the Canadian Forces and from our Bishop Ordinary, the Right Reverend Peter Coffin. There are roughly a dozen of us serving in this Diocese, and we are grateful to you and to your bishops for your support of our ministry. When Charles and I were discussing my visit to this parish, we were first thinking that I would come on Remembrance Day, which would have been delightful but that is, as you can imagine, a busy time for a military chaplain. Had I been here then my sermon would no doubt have had a backwards looking quality, as is fitting for a day dedicated to historical memory. This Sunday however I want to look forward, as prompted by my text from today’s gospel reading: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come (Mk 13:7).

Today’s gospel comes from an episode in the last days of Jesus’ ministry as described by St. Mark. Some of his disciples, like the proverbial country mice in the city, are impressed by the size and grandeur of Jerusalem and of the Temple built by King Herod. Jesus is unimpressed with these buildings, and after predicting the destruction of the Temple, goes on to describe what the last days of humanity will look like. He describes wars and natural disasters and religious confusion, but in the midst of these grim predictions Jesus says, almost casually, “do not be alarmed”. It’s that simple phrase, “do not be alarmed”, that I wish to focus on because in it we hear one of the greatest and simplest of the messages of good news that we call the Christian gospel. “Do not be alarmed” is also the hardest advice to follow when we are faced with the possibility of things ending.

Yesterday I read a news story about how a NASA astronomer is being plagued with calls and emails from people who are convinced that the end is coming – in 2012, to be exact. This scientist has heard a few teenagers say that they want to commit suicide and has also heard from several mothers saying they are thinking about killing their young children in order to spare them from the end of the world. These folks appear to be spooked by a film soon to be released by Sony Pictures called “2012”, which takes an ancient Mayan calendar, a mystery planet, and other cosmic forces and cooks them into movie where pretty much everything in the world gets destroyed. The director, Roland Emmerich, has made several previous disaster films, including “Independence Day” when the world nearly gets destroyed by aliens, and “The Day After Tomorrow”, which climate change freezes half the Earth. When I watched the trailer of “2012” on the internet, it showed some powerful religious symbols being destroyed, such as the famous Christo Redemptor statue standing over Rio de Janiero and the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, which we see crushing the Pope and a crowd of Christians praying for mercy. While these images don’t hold out much hope for God, the trailer suggests that there is hope and that a few humans, played by photogenic actors, who will survive the coming apocalypse. Besides this movie, there are apparently dozens of books on the market describing the coming apocalypse of 2012 and giving some helpful suggestions to survive it.
As a Christian I’m interested in what these sorts of films and other cultural products say about the fears of our society through the decades. Over the last three generations we have worried about fascism and communism and nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction. Today the weapons are still with us, and we fear that they will fall into the hands of religious radicals. We fear terrorism and drugs and pandemics and food shortages. We worry about financial collapse and the end of oil and we worry that we’ll have to give up our comfortable way of life. At the same time, we see signs of climate change, environmental collapse, dying oceans and vanishing species. Movies like 2012 exist, I think, because they feed off the tensions and fears that we carry within us as a society. But perhaps, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested this week, we need these fears because we don’t want our imperfect society to stumble along for ever. Rather, we need to imagine something bigger than ourselves which has the power to finish and judge us.

"Humankind fears judgment, of course. But we depend on it as well. The possibility of dissolution lends a moral shape to history: we want our empires to fall as well as rise, and we expect decadence to be rewarded with destruction. Not that we want to experience this destruction ourselves. But we want it to be at least a possibility — as a spur to virtue, and as a punishment for sin."

Now a sophisticated New York Times columnist won’t say it, even if he uses religious-sounding words like “judgment” and “sin” but as a priest speaking to you the faithful, I can say it. I can say that we as Christians have a story that begins with creation in the Book of Genesis and ends in Revelation with judgement. Even if we don’t read our bibles from cover to cover, we summarize this story every week in our creeds, including the statement that Christ “shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead” (BCP p. 71). Not only does the Christian story go from the beginning to the end of time, it is bigger than time itself, because we believe God as Alpha and Omega created time and lives outside of time. He was there before the cosmos was created and he will be there after it ends. As Christians we have a saviour, Jesus Christ, who is coeternal with God and because of his work done once and for all on the cross, as we heard in Hebrews this morning, we need not fear the end of our days or the day of judgement. The essential thing is that our names are written in the Book of Life. The rest is details. So what are we as Christians to do with this story?

I would say that we are called to spend the time we have standing with God against the work of evil in the world. We know that sin and evil are real. Christ warned his disciples that there would be wars and false messages and chaos in the world. The Book of Revelation speaks of the reality of sin and the devil, and we name this reality every time we witness a baptism in church. One of the great temptations of our time, in the pluralistic and tolerant west, is that we trivialize or downplay the existence of evil. An event like the Fort Hood shootings comes along and we look for sociological or psychological reasons, while not fully admitting that this was an evil act. When I speak to young soldiers preparing to deploy, I tell them that they need to understand that good is real, and so is evil. They will see evil things overseas. They’ve seen it, whether in the poverty of Haiti or the killing of Rwanda and Bosnia or the violence and fanaticism of Afghanistan. We see the reality of evil in every act of terrorism abroad and social injustice at home, where the needs of banks and shareholders seem to take precedence over the needs of the legions of poor and unemployed. We see the reality of evil in the steady exhaustion and abuse of God’s world. We are called to fight evil, fear and chaos with the light and love of the gospel for as long as we are given on earth, but we are also called to remember that we are mortal. Our time will end. Our lives will end. Our world will end. We need not be afraid of these things, for scripture promises us that evil, darkness and death will be defeated (Rev 21-22).

All through scripture, one of the great refrains, one of its main drifts as the Anglican divine Richard Hooker called them, is the call of reassurance “Be not afraid”. Adam and Eve hide in the garden, ashamed of their nakedness and of their disobedience, and God calls them back into relationship with him. The angels tell the shepherds to “fear not” when “mighty dread had seized their troubled minds”. The disciples are “startled and terrified” to see the risen Christ, and Jesus says “Peace be with you” (Lk 24:37). When John sees “the one like the Son of Man” in Revelation he falls to the ground “as though dead” but he is raised up and told “Do not be afraid” (Rev 1:17). Again and again in scripture, God’s hand is extended, raising us up out of fear and darkness and death, drawing us into the light and love and light of his presence. The root of all our sin is found when we ignore that outstretched hand and try to cling to our old lives, hoping for a little more time, a little more security, a little more comfort. There are many ways the world can seem to end. An IED can explode in Afghanistan. A job can vanish. A marriage can end. A diagnosis can be delivered. We can be wiped out on the highway. Darkness and death may seem to surround us. In the midst of these things, the Christian message as described in our second lesson remains as true as ever. Encourage one another. Fight for good. Be confident in the work of Christ, whose sacrifice made once and for all has set us free. This is the Christian story, and it is a never-ending story. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.”


Friday, November 13, 2009

A Much Needed Debate on Canada's Future in Afghanistan

Start with this intelligent discussion between Macleans magazine columnists Andrew Coyne and Peter Wells, which includes this gem by Coyne:

"I know you’re not necessarily advocating withdrawal, but the implication—that we can leave Afghanistan to its fate and all will be well, or at least better—underestimates our adversary. We chafe because we have been in Afghanistan for eight years. Our enemy is bent on avenging the “tragedy of Andalusia,” i.e., the demise of Muslim rule in Spain, in 1492. We will be fighting them somewhere, I expect, for decades."

Also spot on is Peter Wells' comment that it's well past time for the government of the day to get its messaging straight on the future of the mission: The only thing worse than a tight-lipped and sullen government is one that babbles incoherently."

If you want more of this discussion, watch this CPAC special presentation between Wells, Coyne, Mercedes Stephenson (no idea who she was before watching this), Scott Taylor of Esprit de Corps magazine and former ambassador to Afghanistan Chris Alexander. About time we had a discussion like this.

Today's Run

View Interactive Map on

7.1 km today, 41m31s. Slow, but not too bad for someone about to turn 47 tomorrow. :)

Military Picture of the Week

It's Friday and that means another milpic of the week, courtesy of my brother the Mad Colonel. There are apparently Indian and Pakistani soldiers. Glad to see them competing at drill and not with H-bombs.

My Boss Looks Good in Green

As noticed in the Globe and Mail. Nice to see the GG wearing army green on Remembrance Day. She looks good even though the Prince is sporting more bling.

Canadian Soldiers Patrol With the Best

A small shout out to the Canadian Army and to members of 3RCR for their excellent results at the first International Patrols Competition in Chile's Atacama Desert this September. Maple Leaf coverage here.

Wasn't able to find any photos of the 3RCR team but this photo of the US Army team from the 75th Rangers gives a sense of what it was like.

Photo credit Capt. Manuel Menedez , 75th Army Rangers

Vietnam, Iraq Vets Join to Tell Stories

Veterans often say that sharing stories with sympathetic listeners who share a common bond is a key to mental recovery and spriitual resilience. I'm especially interested in the upcoming PBS documentary mentioned in this piece (see link below). MP+

Vietnam, Iraq Vets Recall War Experiences
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 12, 2009 - Generations of American servicemembers braved and survived the din, destruction and uncertainty of war to return home to enjoy the freedoms they helped to preserve for their fellow citizens.

Yet, returning veterans also can experience troubling wartime memories after the shooting stops.

Robert H. Shumaker, a tall, erect 76-year-old retired Navy rear admiral with a shock of silver hair and bright blue eyes, is a famous U.S. military veteran who coined the term "Hanoi Hilton" when he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

DoD photo by Gerry J. Gilmore

Shumaker was at George Washington University’s Marvin Center on Veterans Day yesterday, watching volunteers write letters to servicemembers and their families and assemble care packages for troops.

“It is really uplifting seeing the patriotism of people and the compassion of people to do this,” Shumaker said. The event was sponsored by military-support organization Blue Star Families and ServiceNation, a national campaign that encourages volunteer service, in partnership with Target and the Public Broadcasting Service.

Read the whole piece here.

Chaplains Play Role in Helping Fort Hood Return to Normal

Fort Hood Offers 24-Hour Grief Counseling
By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joy Pariante
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT HOOD, Texas , Nov. 12, 2009 – In the aftermath of the Nov. 5 shootings here that left 13 dead and 38 wounded, soldiers, family members and civilians who work on post are looking for answers, and for help in grieving.

U.S. Army soldier buries his head in his printed program during a memorial service on Fort Hood, Texas, honoring the 13 who were fatally shot in a Nov. 5 shooting spree by a lone gunman on post, Nov. 10, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Grazyna Musick

Following any loss, individuals and communities go through a grieving process which can be complicated, unpredictable and long-term. Fort Hood leaders have set up a Grieving Center at the Spiritual Fitness Center within the Resiliency Campus that is being staffed 24 hours a day with chaplains and Military Family Life counselors to help anyone in need.

Since the massacre, the Spiritual Fitness Center has doubled the number of chaplains and Military Family Life counselors on duty to ensure there are enough to meet with all the people who need someone to talk to, , said Chaplain (Maj.) David Waweru, on-site coordinator of the Spiritual Fitness Center.

Read the whole story here.

Running in Theatre

I'm always intrigued by stories of military personnel who meet their running goals while deployed in theatre. There are a lot of stories out there, and this one about a US Army officer is typical of the dedication and perseverance with which these folks meet their goals. If you have a running story from in theatre, leave a comment. MP+

Face of Defense: Captain Adapts Running Regimen
By Army Sgt. Matthew E. Jones
Special to American Forces Press Service

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq, Nov. 12, 2009 - Many soldiers find it difficult and inconvenient to conduct physical training in a field environment. Temperatures in Iraq can top out near 150 degrees, and running in a dust storm is no picnic.

But Army Capt. Alex Quintanilla, an automation officer in the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he began training for his first marathon while deployed to Iraq in 2005, and he hasn't stopped running since.

Army Capt. Alexander Quintinilla races in the Peachtree 10K at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq, July 4, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew E. Jones

Quintanilla, a resident of Burtonsville, Md., recently ran the Marine Corps Marathon at Asad, Iraq, as one of 309 runners. His brother, Edwin, was among more than 21,000 runners participating in the primary Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

Running seems to run in the Quintanilla family. The captain's brothers -- Edwin, William and Wilbert -- ran with him last year in Washington, and they each finished the 26.2 mile race in less than four hours.

Quintanilla, a resident of Burtonsville, Md., recently ran the Marine Corps Marathon at Asad, Iraq, as one of 309 runners. His brother, Edwin, was among more than 21,000 runners participating in the primary Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

Read the whole piece here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Royal Navy Chaplain's Parish is an Aircraft Carrier

Excellent piece from the UK Ministry of Defence on te work of a chaplain on the Royal Navy's flagship. MP+

Navy chaplain's parish doubles overnight
A People In Defence news article
9 Nov 09

Remembrance week is a busy time for Armed Forces chaplains but, on a recent exercise, one Royal Navy reverend found his 'parish' doubling in size overnight.

Reverend James Tabor RN waves as the Naval Strike Wing Harriers launch from the flight deck of HMS Illustrious
[Picture: POA(Phot) Paul A'Barrow, Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

Reverend James Tabor RN is chaplain to the Royal Navy's flagship, HMS Illustrious, the nation's strike aircraft carrier.

Overnight the 500 or so ship's company almost doubled to 970 as Naval Strike Wing, 814 and 854 Squadrons, and 212 Flight (Endurance) embarked for Exercise Joint Warrior.

'The Bish', as Reverend Tabor is known, has been kept busy whilst at sea in defence watches:

"Life goes on," he said. "Like any small village, we have church on Sunday, prayers in the church each day, and bible study once a week.

"Days are spent walking the 'patch' and occasionally lending a hand. The sick get a visit in sick bay, and the regulators are on the regular circuit. A real treat is an invitation to a mess deck and a chance to have a cup of tea and a chat, just like a parish on land."

Read the whole piece here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

20 Years After the Wall Falls, Do We Know We're Free?

"This could be why we don’t celebrate the anniversary of 1989 quite as intensely as we should. Maybe we miss living with the possibility of real defeat. Maybe we sense, as we hunt for the next great existential threat, that even the end of history needs to have an end."

Excellent essay in today's NYT by Ross Douthat on the enduring paranoias of a liberal society. Speaking of paranois, Paul Krugman's essay in the NYT on how paranoia may be making the USA ungovernable is also worth reading.

On Being Military and Muslim

In the wake of the Fort Hood shootings, questions are already being asked about whether Major Hassan's rampage is related to his religion. Today the New York Times published a thoughtful piece on the difficult role of Muslims in the US military.

November 9, 2009
Complications Grow for Muslims Serving Nation

Abdi Akgun joined the Marines in August of 2000, fresh out of high school and eager to serve his country. As a Muslim, the attacks of Sept. 11 only steeled his resolve to fight terrorism.

But two years later, when Mr. Akgun was deployed to Iraq with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the thought of confronting Muslims in battle gave him pause.

He was haunted by the possibility that he might end up killing innocent civilians.

“It’s kind of like the Civil War, where brothers fought each other across the Mason-Dixon line,” Mr. Akgun, 28, of Lindenhurst, N.Y., who returned from Iraq without ever pulling the trigger. “I don’t want to stain my faith, I don’t want to stain my fellow Muslims, and I also don’t want to stain my country’s flag.”

Read the whole piece here. Other NYT coverage of the Fort Hood shootings included this story about how Hasan may have been giving signals of tension and frustration, possibly linked to harrassment he experienced in the military, before the shooting.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Giving Their All

Preached at St. Mark's Chapel, 14 Wing, Greenwood, 8 November, 2009.
23rd Sunday After Pentecost
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

"Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." (Mk 12: 43-44)

The Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey. The Field of Remembrance is established each year by the Royal British Legion, turning the grounds of Westminster Abbey into a sea of remembrance crosses with scarlet poppies. This year, there is a special plot of crosses to remember those men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each one bears a name, photograph and dedicated message. [Picture: Sergeant Ian Houlding, Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

One of the phrases we like to use to describe those we remember today is that they “paid the supreme sacrifice”. The phrase sounds slightly pompous and stilted, one of those words a politician or a preacher likes to use in a speech– “they paid the supreme sacrifice”. If those words seem abstract and remote, try these words -“they gave everything they had”.

For the young men and women who came back home along the Highway of Heroes, and for those legions buried abroad, “everything they had” was anything but abstract. Everything they had included the girl and the newborn waiting for them back in Edmonton Garrison. It included the fishing trip they would take with their buddies up in northern Quebec. Everything they had included the truck they’d buy with their tour money when they got back to the Rock. It was beers at the cottage and Saturday mornings at Timmies and maybe, one day, the chance to be like one of those old guys at the Legion with their medals and their stories, proud of their service and of their grandchildren.

No soldier I’ve ever met wants to give their all. They want to come home and enjoy the simple things I’ve just described. But most soldiers understand, at some basic level, the idea of unlimited liability, or the military’s expectation that the service they agreed to might lead them lawfully ordered “into harm’s way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives” . It may be a simple thing that leads them to put service before self, like Leonard Birchall placing himself between a comrade and a camp guard to take the beating on himself, or Smokey Smith, placing himself between his section and a forty-ton tank. It may be more complex, a vision of a better world worth fighting for, as Nichola Goddard saw when she wrote to her parents that “we have such a burden of responsibility to make the world a better place for those who were born into far worse circumstances”.

Today’s gospel reading introduces us to another person who gives all that she has. Jesus sees watches a poor widow offer her few pennies to the temple treasury. He praises her above all the other wealthy and holy people who give some and keep far more, and Jesus tells his disciples that “she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 1:44). For Jesus the widow becomes a symbol of a life given wholly to God, without any holding back, in stark contrast to the wealthy and self-important hypocrites who talk piously while looking out for number one.

When this reading comes up in church, preachers usually tell people to be like the widow and not like the scribes and hypocrites. It’s especially tempting to preach this way before the collection plate gets passed around. However tempting it may be, I think this approach to the text is dishonest. First, giving all we have doesn’t come naturally. It’s natural to want life and happiness and safety. Second, most of us are like the wealthy scribes and donors in the temple – we are willing to give up a little to feel good and look good, but we don’t want to give too much. And that, I think, is the point of the lesson. Jesus uses the contrast to ask if we are like the wealthy and pompous scribes, and asking us what systems of hypocrisy and self-interest we are caught up in.

This Sunday, close to Remembrance Day, the story of the widow who gives all she has seems uncomfortably close to the young men and women we remember who have given all they had. I don’t want the troops overseas now, and the ones preparing to go, to give all they have. I’m glad they are willing to give their all, but I want them to come home to all that’s waiting for them – the girl and the baby and the fishing trip and the Timmies and the ripe old age. I think instead that our gospel lesson challenges those of us who have much and give little, we who, in Jesus' words, are only giving a little out of our abundance. A lot of Canadians have yellow ribbon magnets on their cars and send little patriotic chain emails. They talk a lot about supporting their troops and about their love of country. They make jokes about Moslems and terrorists.

How many of us are like the scribes in Jesus’ story, doing a little for the sake of appearance while holding back more? How many Canadians have bothered to look at a map of Afghanistan or have tried to understand its complicated history, rather than just shrugging and saying "they're all crazy, let them kill each other"? While we try to help build a democracy there, how many Canadians lately have written to their MP or even not bothered to vote in the last election? How many would be willing to pay the increased taxes that will be required to make Nicholas Goddard's vision come true and help the people of Afghanistan? After Afghanistan, will we be willing to go to some other country we may be called to in the years to come? Will we willi pay the bills to help support our newest generation of veterans with the help and education that they will need, and be willing to listen to their stories?

This Sunday the faithful remember, as we do each Sunday, that God out of his abundance gave his all for us. As we heard in the first lesson from Hebrews, our Lord gave himself so that we may not fear sin and death: "But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb 9:26). That work is done once and for all, by the only one who ould do it. I think that when Jesus watched the widow in the temple, he was seeing in her a type, a foreshadowing, of the self-giving he was called to on the cross. For believers we are called to live in the light and life of that deed of cross and resurrection, to be worthy of Christ who "will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb 9:28).

This Sunday, so close to November 11, we are likewise challenged by the sacrifice of those we remember. Those who have given their all ask us a simple question. What will we, who have so much, give? We cannot redeem their sacrifice. Only He died for the sins of all can change and heal our broken and fallen world. But we can do more than just remember - we can live in a way that is worthy both of the many, and of the One, who gave their all for our sake.

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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