Thursday, April 30, 2009

Can Unethical Conduct Be Ignored?

There's been a great deal of comment on the Obama administration's decision to end practices (eg, waterboarding) deemed to be torture, but not to investigate and possibly charge those who conducted such activities under the Bush administration. Some have argued that investigations leading to proseuctions would inevitable be political, partisan witch hunts and not justice. This thoughtful piece by a US Baptist minister and law professor argues the contrary.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often said that an unjust law is no law at all. Every member of the U.S. military and national security operative knows that one is duty-bound to disobey an illegal order. Thus, the claim that anyone who counseled or committed acts of inhumanity or torture in the challenging aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks somehow relied on orders from the White House, the Pentagon or any other authority is immoral. The issue for President Obama and the nation is whether Americans have the integrity to demand that inhumanity and torture counseled and perpetrated in our names be investigated, prosecuted and punished. A just society will investigate and punish inhumanity and torture.

Read the whole article.

Military Image of the Week

The Reverend Paschal Hanrahan who is padre to the British military Medical Group in Basra, Iraq, presides over a memorial service at the Basra Contingency Operating Base, Basra,service to the British Service personnel and civilians who have died since operations began in Iraq in 2003. This week the British and Iraqi governments announced an end to UK combat operations in Iraq. Read more here.

Canadian Chaplain Starts Kandahar Tour the Hard Way

This piece, courtesy of my brother the Mad Colonel, appeared recently in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and was picked up on the DND news feed. The story makes the essential point that once chaplains are seen by the troops, then their services will be utilized.

Tough start to female chaplain’s tour
Belanger presided over ramp ceremonies for two soldiers, both women, in two weeks
By PATRICE BERGERON The Canadian Press
Tue. Apr 28 - 5:55 AM
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Afghanistan has never been a very hospitable place where women were concerned, but the start of Maj. Martine Belanger’s tour of duty has been even more difficult than most.

The Catholic lay chaplain has become a familiar face at Kandahar Airfield after she presided recently over ramp ceremonies for Canada’s two latest fallen soldiers, both of them women.

Read the whole story here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Portrait of an Inspiring Runner

I thought I was hurting this Sunday as I finished the local ZX 10km fun run. If I'd known about this guy then, I would surely have run faster.

This is Royal Marine Ben McBean, 22 years old, who recently lost an arm and a leg while serving in Afghanistan. last Sunday, April 26th, he finished the London Marathon on a prosthetic limb in six hours and fifteen minutes, despite considerable pain. Marine McBean managed to raise 8000 pounds (about $16,000 Canadian dollars) for the Help for Heroes fund. As he put it, "My neck was aching, my back was aching and everyone was overtaking me. But I thought of my mates serving in Afghanistan on the front line and I kept going." Another UL serviceman also wounded in Iraq is doing a marathon on crutches, a few Ks a day. See the complete story here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Where Should We Bury Our War Dead

Almost a year after I reported on this story out of Australia, regarding the discovery of a mass grave of British and Australian soldiers killed at the Battle of Fromelles in France in 1916, the British government has announced that "The first new military cemetery to be created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission since the end of the Second World War will be built for hundreds of soldiers who died in an unsuccessful attack 92 years ago." Read the story here in the Times Online.

Orginal piece below:

Leave our old soldiers to lie in that rich earth
Sydney Morning Herald
Judith Keene
June 10, 2008

With the excavation of Australian war dead under way in Fromelles, it is timely to recall Rupert Brooke's poem, The Soldier. Probably one of the most recited pieces from World War I, it begins: "If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England." Although Brooke himself died before ever reaching the battlefield, his patriotic words provided comfort to many of his countrymen facing the bleak future where their loved one had fallen in a foreign land.

In the history of warfare, World War I marked a new era. The scale of death was unprecedented and the immobility of the front meant that the living fought and died among the decomposing bodies of the already dead.

Read the Whole Article

MP`s comment - interesting to note the difference in attitudes between the Commonwealth and the US. Perhaps no other country but the US could afford to repatriate so many of its war dead, but also may be the American sense of being set apart from other nations.

Back to Blue Helmets Unlikely for Canadian Military

There's been some sustained commentary in the media and in interviews with Canadians that the Canadian military's mission in Afghanistan is a betrayal of Canada's historic participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations. CBC journalist Brian Stewart explains why that view may be more nostalgic than realistic. Read his piece here.

Going to Church in Wisconsin Can Be Dangerous

This story from the Chicago Sun-Times from Friday, April 24 is certified Mad Padre worthy. I'm not sure what's scariest in this story, but I'm pretty sure my homiletics instructor at seminary didn't recommend using actual weapons as sermon illustrations:

SHEBOYGAN FALLS, Wis. -- The Sheboygan Falls pastor recently cited for a bow and arrow demonstration in church is now charged with carrying a concealed weapon into a police station.

A criminal complaint says the Rev. John Putnam came to the Sheboygan Falls Police Department to answer questions about a suicidal parishioner. An officer says Putnam was wearing body armor and a police-style jacket and had a handgun concealed in the jacket.

Putnam was given the body armor by the Sheboygan County Sheriff's Department, where he's the chaplain. The 30-year-old pastor of Pentecostals of Sheboygan County has pleaded not guilty to carrying a concealed weapon.

Putnam was cited in March for having a parishioner fire an arrow across the front of church as part of a sermon exhibition. AP

As Fallen Soldiers Return Home, Chaplains Comfort the Living

This piece from the American Forces Press Service does a good job of describing one important facet of a military chaplain's work.

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., April 24, 2009 – The night sky looked calm and tranquil from a gently soaring aircraft, miles above the Eastern Seaboard towns below. However, there was nothing tranquil or calm in the hearts of one family on board, traveling to Dover Air Force Base to witness the dignified transfer of their son’s remains.

Air Force Chaplain (retired Lt. Col.) David Sparks counsels a fellow Port Mortuary team member at Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Del., April 21, 2009. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Their son, their Marine, their hero had paid the ultimate sacrifice in the mountains of Afghanistan only the day before. The staff at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center would carefully prepare his remains for transfer to his final resting place.

As the family arrived at the Dover flightline, the mother’s tear chalice overflowed and her emotions began to stream from her eyes. Her husband quickly comforted her with his embrace as a Port Mortuary chaplain swiftly made his way over to console the grieving couple.

Read the whole piece here:

More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops

"More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs."

This piece from yesterday's New York Times picks up a theme I've been hearing a bit of lately, that Christianity, especially right-wing Christianity, may be on the decline in the United States. Find the complete story here.

Probably the activities of secular humanist groups in Canada is not such a big deal, unless of course you live in Halifax.

Friday, April 24, 2009

British Army Celebrates St. George's Day in Afghanistan

I'm posting this a day late, but the UK DOD just served up this great story about how one regiment of the British Army (2 Royal Regiment of Fusiliers) honoured the 40th anniversary of the amalgamation of the Regiment's four regional Fusilier antecedent regiments on St. George's Day, 1968, by wearing red and white roses beside their cap badges.

See the complete story here.

In honour of St. George's Day, here's the Anglican collect from For All The Saints:

Almighty God,
who called your holy martyr George
to bear before the rulers of this world
the banner of the cross,
grant that we may be strong
in every battle aganst sin,
and attain to the crown of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Canadian Casualty in Afghanistan - Maj. Michelle Mendes

A Canadian officer, Michelle Mendes, was found dead in her quarters at the Nato base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, yesterday afternoon.

Information on the circumstances of death is sparse. A statement by the Department of National Defence can be found here. A piece by the Globe and Mail, linking this death to other suicides in the Canadian military, can be found here.

Major Mendes becomes the third Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan.

May she rest in peace, and may light perpetusl shine upon her.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Visit Historic, Creepy Nova Scotia

OK, is it anyone else, or just me, who finds the cover of this brochure just a little bit creepy?

US Military Health Issues and Health Care Roundup

The other day I subscribed to some news feeds from the Pentagon website. A bit like drinking from a firehose but many items that are apropos to my trade.

Here's an interview with Col. James Rice, the director of the US military's Army Wounded Warrior (AWW)program, as he discusses the launch of AWW affiliates, organizations willing to help wounded ex-military continue their lives with education or employment. In the interview he praises the Raytheon corporation for being willing to work with wounded veterans with severe cognitive and psychological deficits - some proof that the military industrial complex can do the right thing. See the interview here (PDF transcript or a scratchy MP3 file). Also heartening is Rice's statement that the US military will not set a timeline for the care of wounded ex-members, but will work with them and for them "for as long as it takes".

This video profile of Dr. Maria Mouratidis, a neuropsychologist and traumatic brain injury expert at National Naval Medical Center, is inspiring. Her emphasis on listening and hope offer food for thought for chaplains as well as for doctors. See the video here.

Finally, in this brief statement, Admiral Mullen, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, address the problem of suicide in the US military. See the video here. It was recently announced, though I don't have the source to hand, that the number of suicides this year exceeded fatal casualties in Iraq for the US military. This represents both the slowing of the operational tempo in Iraq and the seriousness of this problem.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Wargames Report - Canucks and SS mix it up in Normandy

My son John, whose painting work has been featured here earlier this month, wanted to see all of Dad's 15mm WW2 miniatures collection on the table. Dad thought a lot of it wasn't ready for prime time, but he agreed, as it would an excuse to try out the Rapid Fire miniatures rules he bought a year ago. The battle was loosely based on the initial fight of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders for the Norman village of Authie on 7-8 June, 1944.

Here's the Canadian force. The miniatures here are mostly Battlefront, though the two tanks with a slightly darker paint job are Old Glory Sherman Firefly tanks, a variant of the Sherman carrying a 17pdr cannon. In Rapid Fire terms, the Canadians had two squadrons of Shermans, an independent troop of Achilles M10 tank destroyer, four companies of infantry with their HQ company and support company, and a carrier platoon. In support was an offboard battery of 25pdr guns with an onboard Sherman observation tank.

And the German force representing elements of 12th SS Division, consisting of a platoon or zug of Panzer Mk IV tanks, two Panther G tanks, two PAK 75 AT guns with transport, a platoon of panzer grenadiers and a headquarters group (two HMGs, a command team, an OP team, and two antitank or "panzerknacker" teams. The Germans had the support of an offboard battery of 105mm guns. All miniatures are Battlefront.

The battlefield, showing the central feature, my spiffy village courtesy of Paper Terrain:

And the larger table - since I forgot to take one before the battle started, this table shows the battle at midway point. We rolled randomly to see what side the Canadians entered from, and they got the two parallel roads screened by hedgerows and the open field in the centre - the yellow felt represented a crop field and offered moderate cover.

Achilles TD troop leads off on the left, while A Sdn of the Fusiliers take up positions on the ridge in the centre overlooking Authie.

The tank destroyers immediately take fire from this German AT gun, which may son posted to cover the road. Good call on his part. The result, heavy damage, forces a morale check which, because the TDs are acting as an independent detachment, is hard to beat. The TD leaves the table for the rest of the game.

B Squadron of the Sherbrook Fusiliers advance confidently up the road on the Canadian right.

D Company of the North Novas advances behind A Sdn of the Fusiliers:

Ambush! My son John unleashes his zug of Panzer IVs - the thick hedgerows prevented my spotting these guys until it was too late. Should have known he'd be all sneaky and tricksy. The German tankers knocked out the first two Shermans, and the Firefly failed its morale and had to remain in place for several turns.

In the centre, A Squadron of the Fusiliers bears down on Authie. Carriers bring up a Vickers heavy machine gun team and a PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank) tank-hunting group on the right. A German panzerknacker anti-tank team is spotted in one of the houses and put on the board, but at present they are out of range of the Canadian armour.

Flushed with success, John shifts his Panzer IVs over to engage A Squadron, but this time the Canadian tankers are ready. One Mark IV is destroyed and another receives light damage. They pull back.

D Coy of the North Novas finds a gap in the hedgerows and tries to push forward with on the extreme right, hoping to outflank the two reamining Mark IVs.

Unfortunately they are caught by coaxial machine gun fire when the Mark IVs shift back to the Canadian right, catching D Coy in the open. Reduced to nearly half strength, the company pulls back, screened by the company PIAT team which remains to duel the tanks. Heroically, they inflict light damage on the second surviving Mk IV before being wiped out.

The surviving Firefly from B Squadron also moved into the open to try and defend the retreating North Novas, but was also knocked out.

Note to self - make some brewed up markers for tanks that look more convincing than white puffballs.

However the battle began to turn against John. He decided it was time to commit his mobile reserve and moved his two Panther Gs to the edge of town, confident that they would blow the Sherbrookes off the field.

Undaunted, A Sqdn concentrated their fire on the newcomers, and incredibly, destroyed the two Panthers immediately! Emboldened by this development, C Company of the North Novas advanced on A Sqdn's immediate right with the intent of rushing into Authie.

At this point John made the mistake of moving his infantry out of the buildings in the village, where they were impossible to spot unless my troops were right on top of them. This company of SS Panzergrenadiers line a hedge to block C Coy's advance, but they were now visible to several command elements. Minutes after this picture was taken, they were half-destroyed by fire called in from the offboard artillery.

With the Grenadiers blown out of the way, C Company of the North Novas (those crazy brawling Cape Breton boyos!) rushed across the lane and put the bayonet to the crew of a PAK 75 that John had deployed behind a hedge.

On the left, John moved two more companies of Grenadiers out of the sheltering buildings in a counterattack down the road. However, this move exposed them to machine gun fire from several of my Universal (Bren Gun) carriers and from more observed artillery fire.

The survivors attempted to halt the advance of the Fusiliers in the centre with a few Panzerfaust shots but were driven off by the supporting infantry of A Coy of the North Novas, seen here advancing on Authie from the Canadian left. You can also see one of the Paper Terrain buildings, showng the ruined shell after the outer, intact version of the building is removd - a nice feature. By this point several buildings had been brought down by tank HE and offboard artillery fire.

A Sqdn's Firefly deploys to engage the two remaining Panzer Mk IVs, which are still being pesky.

The Firefly is jumped by some surviving and quite fanatical SS Panzergrenadiers, and sustains light damage. However, it is rescued by C Coy of the North Novas, the stars of the game, who wiped out the few remaining SS troops.

Another Sherman from A Sqdn moves into Authie and kills one of the two remaining Mk IVs with a lucky shot. Beside it a Vickers team from the Novas has taken up position in the ruined cafe and is supporting the advance of A and B Coys into the town. The other Mk IV, being heavily damaged alredy, failed its morale check and withdrew, along with the remaining German infantry. One PAK AT gun survived and withdrew to screen the withdrawal. At this point John and I were happy to call it quits.

In our AAR, John felt that he didn't use his anti-tank guns as effectively as he could have, and also learned that he needs to shelter his infantry better. Had he done these things, he could easily have stopped me cold, given the too predictable axes of my advance.

We decided that we liked the Rapid Fire rules, although after playing a lot of the Too Fat Lardies rules, which emphasize leadership, fog of war and the friction of the battlefield, RF with its IGO/UGO structure seemed a little "gamey". However, there is much to like with these rules. Dad is currently working on enough figures for another Normandy scenario, the Battle of Rots, and hopes to report on that soon.

The Good Shepherd - Revisted

I first posted this story on November 8 of last year. Today the UK's Department of Defence posted an account of how the stroke-blinded pilot, Jim O'Neill, had a chance last Friday to return to RAF Linton and thank his rescuers in person. Since November he's gradually been recovering his eyesight and was well enough for a friend to fly him back to RAF Linton in the same Cessna he was flying at the time of his stroke. O'Neill said "It was wonderful to meet Wing Commander Gerrard. He saved my life. Back in November he came alongside and calmly told me 'left... stop, descend... stop' until I reached the runway. I really don't know how he did it. This is a day I wouldn't have missed for anything." Read the account here.

Original post, November 8, 2008:

A friend of mine sent me this story from the British press, about a small aircraft pilot blinded in mid air by a stroke, and brought down safely to ground by a Royal Air Force ground controller and an aerial "shepherd". Here's a quote from the British Mail Online:

"The stroke put pressure on his optic nerves, rendering him completely blind.

Flt Lt Terry O'Brien, Linton's Air Traffic Control Officer, said: 'When Mr O'Neill contacted us we knew he had a vision problem but we thought he had been dazzled by the sun.
'He just kept apologising for not being able to land. He kept saying he couldn't see the airfield but I didn't realise he was blind.
'He came in but missed the runway, even though we are on a massive airfield.
'We then realised he couldn't see the runway and clearly the problem was getting bigger and bigger.'

Wing Commander Paul Gerrard, 42, a former Tornado display pilot, was then contacted in the Tucano.

He flew within 300ft of the Cessna and guided it down. It landed at high speed, bounced twice and stopped at the very end of the runway.
Group Captain Mark Hopkins, station commander at Linton-on-Ouse, said: 'The RAF has the best pilots and air traffic controllers in the world.
'Shepherding aircraft in this way is something we do from time to time, but this is a very strange case.'

Mr O'Neill runs a travel, hotel and conference booking agency.

Doctors are confident some vision will be restored when the swelling in his brain recedes.
His wife, Eileen, 63, said: 'It's a miracle Jim is here today. The RAF are heroes. They were so cool and calm and talked Jim down. Without them, he wouldn't be alive.
'We are a very religious family and I believe there was an angel on his shoulder as he came in to land, helping Jim alongside the RAF crew.'

The story put me in mind of Frederick Forsyth's short story about a similar aerial rescue, "The Shepherd", which, in a wonderful Canadian tradition, used to be read by the late and incomparable Allan Maitland on CBC's As It Happens. I was delighted to find a link to a recording of Maitland's reading - you'll need Real Player to listen. Enjoy.

Canadian Navy Captures Pirates, Has to Let Them Go

This article from today's Globe and Mail praises the good work of Canadian warship HMCS Winnipeg, whose crew captured a group of Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden after a seven hour chase, making the capture in the dark. However, because the capture occurred in international waters, the Navy had to release the Somalis after briefly detaining them and confiscating their weapons.

It was news to me that we were practicing a catch a release policy against pirates, but then again, remembering what abuses happened the last time the Canadian military captured Somalis in an ill-defined operation, it's a good thing that strict rules of engagement are being follower. Ethical kudos go to this Canadian admiral for this statement from the G&M's article:

“There have been a lot of comments in the media about how much easier it was a couple hundred years ago, when we could just hang them from the yard arm,” Canadian Rear Admiral Bob Davidson said in an interview with CTV's Question Period Sunday. “There's the rule of law that needs to be applied, so we're not currently regularly detaining them, no. There are all kinds of challenges with that.”

An American Forces Press Release with more information on anti-piracy operations in the region can be found here.

If this problem gets worse (and one suspects that it may be something of a crise du jour, then the international community will have to decide what to do with these guys once they are captured, and really go after the rings backing these young men from a country with little or no rule of law.

With An American Platoon, Ambushed in Afghanistan

This photo shows an American infantryman, running for cover after been dazed by an IED blast which killed a comrade and started an ambush of his platoon by Taliban forces.

The accompanying article, published in today's New York Times, captures the frustrations and dangers faced by NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan while trying to determine friend from foe. It's an amazing piece of reportage by a journalist willing to go into harm's way for the story, and it inspires great respect for the work of the infantry. Read the article here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Musical Adventures in Nova Scotia

This afternoon Kay (Mrs. Padre) and I drove across Nova Scotia to the south shore - our destination being the historic port town of Lunenburg. St. John's, Lunenburg was the venue for a concert by two musical choirs: The first was the Ernst Family Singers, a Lunenburg-based family choir consisting of parents Gregg and Jennie and their eight (!) children. They were unknown to us and would prove to be a delightful surprise. The other choir was the Togni Consort, a group specializing in Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, under the direction of Peter-Anthony Togni, who is well known to long-time listeners of CBC Two (or, to show my age, CBC FM). The concert was arranged by the St. Cecelia Concert Society, whose website describes their role as being "the premiere presenter of classical music in Atlantic Canada".

The venue for the concert couldn't have been lovelier. St. John's Anglican Church is the second-oldest Anglican church in Canada, and is in the centre of the beautiful port town of Lunenburg, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. On a personal note, Bishop Bruce Howe, who ordained me when he served as Bishop of Huron in 2004, was rector of St. John's from 1980 to 1988. The current Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Fred Hiltz, was also rector of St. John's from 1988 to 1995.

St. John's maintains an excellent website and offers a virtual tour whose pictures are far better than the few poor digital pics I was able to take inside the church. One of the astonishing and inspiring things about the church is that it was virtually destroyed by fire in 2001, but was lovingly restored to its original 18th century appearance. You would be hard pressed to realize this fact if you were sitting inside and didn't know the story. This bell, donated by the Jessen family, was recovered from the church and now sites outside the church to tell the story.

The inside is ornate and dignified, in the Anglican neo-Gothic tradition of leaving no space undecorated. Here's a quick shot I sneaked of some of the Ernst family opening the concert.

The program of music was lovely and ambitious. In honour of today being Easter Sunday for the Orthodox Church, Togni chose several pieces from the Russian tradition, including sacred music by Sergei Rachmaninoff which complimented the male voices of his singers and of the Ernst family. The Ernsts - wow. I was expecting some sort of cliched gospel-signing family, but right off the bat they were dazzling, offering a polyphonic rendering of Psalm 97.3, Viderunt Omnes, where the individual syllables soared and stretched and interwove brilliantly. The Ernst family includes some talented arrangers - John Ernst gave us a lovely version of the spiritual "I am a Poor Wayfarin' Stranger". Together with the Togni Consort, the Ernsts gavea wonderful homage to Canadian black composer Nathaniel Dett, offering a beautiful rendering of his "Listen to the Lambs".

Kay and I drove the ninety minutes back to Greenwood well and truly fed by this wonderful afternoon of music. At times our little part of the province seems backward and isolated, but days like this remind us what a lovely and culturally rich place Nova Scotia can be. If you get the chance to catch the Ernsts and/or the Togni Consort, do so. You won't be disappointed.

Resurrection Uncertainties - A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

A Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Easter at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, Canadian Forces Base Greenwood.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. (Acts 4:32-34)

Last Sunday this congregation joined with the church universal around the world in proclaiming the good news of Easter, “Christ has risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.” Today, as we gather for what some churches call the second of six Sundays of Easter, we are called to consider the question - now what? Christ is risen. Now what? For many in the post-Christian, secular world, it's not even a question. Easter is chocolate, spring, a long weekend. All good things, but limited to themselves and to this time of the year. Even for many Christians, Easter is a short-lived holiday, lacking the emotional and sentimental appeal of Christmas. The English bishop and theologian Tom Wright has written that for many Christians, the resurrection, if they think of it at all, was something nice that happened to Jesus, but doesn’t have much if anything to do with their daily lives.

But Christians, if we are to be truly Christians, need to be a resurrection people. “A resurrection people” is the kind of phrase beloved by theologians and preachers, but what does it really mean? I would say that being a resurrection people means that we are called by our baptism, by our creeds, and by our faith to live in hope and confidence. We can live hopefully and confidently because we know that in the resurrection God has given the final answer to sin and death - the things that blight and distort and limit our lives. The passage that opened my sermon, Acts 4:32-35, reminds us that the Resurrection was not an isolated event limited to Jesus, but rather was an event of “great power” and “great grace” that affected and changed the behaviour of the first believers. And so our question for today is indeed, now what?, or, to put it more fully, how does the resurrection change us?

Change. What a lovely word for churches! (Anglican lightbulb joke: How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb? Change? My grandfather gave that lightbulb to this church!) Change, as we all know, is difficult. Most of us don’t like it very much, especially when it threatens or challenges us. The passage from Acts I read, which talks about Christians giving up their property and holding all in common, would be a very unpopular change in most churches, I am sure. Changes is also hard to predict. Last month I heard the Chief of the Air Staff, at the Air Force Mess dinner, remind us that for all the planning we do, we do a lousy job of predicting the future. The same is true of churches, both now and at the beginning of Christianity. In the first days after the resurrection no one knew where the church was going, or even if there would be a church. No one could say. Many of the versions of the gospel of Mark, the resurrection story heard in many Christian churches this Easter, end with these words: “So [the women] went out from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mk 16:8). Other versions of Mark, like the other gospels, fill in the ending with the women and the disciples meeting the risen Christ, and the book of Acts, as we hear this morning, takes up the story as the church is born out of the resurrection, but for the first few hours, when all the women had was an empty tomb, there was only fear and uncertainty.

I was interested to note that this Easter, in times of great economic and social uncertainty, many pastors reported that the shorter ending of Mark mirrored the fear and uncertainty in the lives of their congregations. The Rev. Tony Dusso, a Lutheran pastor near Chicago, was quoted as saying that “there’s a connection between those who have lost jobs or have had their hours cut or face medical uncertainties and these women who don’t know what lies in the future”. Another Lutheran pastor quoted in the same story commented that the shorter ending of Mark is like a season finale that leaves the viewer wanting to know more: “People are staring mid-sentence out into a future they cannot see or predict. It’s scary to think that God is alive and able to do things so far beyond our prediction and beyond our control”.

These days of uncertainty, with all the comparisons to the Depression of the 1930s, our sense of control has been severely challenged. Our retirement savings, which we were told would give us freedom in our fifties, are diminishing. One joke I saw recently said that RRSP now stands for Really Really Small Potatoes. Little in the news gives us much hope, but yesterday I came across one story which described an unexpected hope that one woman found when she lost control of her life. The woman’s name is Eve Birch, and she was profiled recently on the National Public Radio show, This I Believe.

After 25 years of chasing the American dream – job, mortgage, marriage, credit, it all fell apart for Eve Birch. Homeless, with just her truck and a few bucks, she found herself looking at a shack on a mountain road in West Virginia.

It was abandoned, full of broken glass and rubbish. When I pried off the plywood over a window and climbed in, I found something I could put my hands to. I hadn't been alone for 25 years. I was scared, but I hoped the hard work would distract and heal me.
I found the owner and rented the place for $50 a month. I took a bedroll, a broom, rope, a gun and cooking gear, and cleared a corner to camp in while I worked.
The locals knew nothing about me. But slowly, they started teaching me the art of being a neighbor. They dropped off blankets, candles, tools and canned deer meat, and they began sticking around to chat. They'd ask if I wanted to meet cousin Albie or go fishing, maybe get drunk some night. They started to teach me a belief in a different American dream — not the one of individual achievement but one of neighborliness.
Men would stop by with wild berries, ice cream, truck parts and bullets to see if I was up for courting. I wasn't, but they were civil anyway. The women on that mountain worked harder than any I'd ever met. They taught me the value of a whetstone to sharpen my knives, how to store food in the creek and keep it cold and safe. I learned to keep enough for an extra plate for company.
What I had believed in, all those things I thought were the necessary accouterments for a civilized life, were nonexistent in this place. Up on the mountain, my most valuable possessions were my relationships with my neighbors.
After four years in that hollow, I moved back into town. I saw that a lot of people were having a really hard time, losing their jobs and homes. With the help of a real estate broker I chatted up at the grocery store, I managed to rent a big enough house to take in a handful of people.
It's four of us now, but over time I've had nine come in and move on to other places from here. We'd all be in shelters if we hadn't banded together.
The American dream I believe in now is a shared one. It's not so much about what I can get for myself; it's about how we can all get by together.

Eve Birch and the people around her lived as resurrection people. She calls it the American dream, but we could call it the Christian dream or the Christian vision of our life together. When you think back to Acts 4 and the first apostles who renounced private property and “held all in common”, it doesn’t sound threatening or pathetic, like some wacky sixties commune. Instead, it sounds as if these apostles discovered, as Eve Birch and her friends did, that “our most valuable relationships are with our neighbours. Or, to put it in more theological terms, the apostles discovered that the in bringing Jesus back to life, God was now inviting them to share that new life and to live in ways that they couldn’t begin to imagine at the time.

So, what if we tried to turn all of our fear and uncertainty around and ask ourselves, what is the resurrection change that God is asking of us? We may not be asked to sell our homes and possessions, like the first apostles, but what if we are being called to share their attitude and think, like Eve Birch and her new-found friends, of one another first and ourselves second? So many of our certainties that seem to be comfortable are actually unhealthy. They tempt us to say “OK, this is how it is, I know how the world works and I’ll look out for myself and my own interests”. Certainties can too easily harden into prejudice, complacency, and indifference. But if we allow our unhealthy, self-centered certainties to die with Christ on the cross, what God-centered and life-giving uncertainties will we find if we take the road that leads away from the empty tomb?

Let’s remember how it began for those first apostles in the days after the first Easter: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all”. The book of Acts tells us that great things happened afterwards. The first apostles and Christians weren’t guaranteed prosperity or safety or prestige. They didn’t get rich, or build nice churches, or even have long lives. However, in the post-resurrection world they discovered a new way of relating one to another, as brothers and sisters in the living Christ, and that vision of new life became so attractive that within three centuries it swept the greatest empire in the world. So, my friends, as we look at one another, brothers and sisters in the risen Christ, may we say “he is risen” in such a way that we are truly a resurrection people, full of the love of God and one another.

Repatriation of Trooper Blais causes controversy

Trooper Karine Blais, the second Canadian female soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, came home amid controversy last week. The flight carrying her body landed first in Ottawa to refuel and to allow over one hundred soldiers who had finished their rotations to disembark there. The plane then continued to Trenton with Trooper Blais' remains for the usual repatriation ceremony there. An anonymous email from a military member had told the media that there would be no ceremony or flag lowering in Ottawa, which caused the Chief of Defence Staff, General Walt Natyncyzk, to issue a public apology late Thursday. See coverage of the story in the Globe and Mail here and the CDS's statement here.

It would be unfortunate if this controversy caused Canadians to overlook the great care and attention that official Canada gives to our fallen soldiers and their families upon their return. Both the CDS and the Governor General were in Trenton last Thursday for Trooper Blais and her family, as they have been for many other repatriations. It's also worth noting that our small country and military have returned our Afghanistan casualties in the full light of press coverage and with full ceremony. In contrast, it may be worth noting that the Obama administration has lifted an eighteen year ban on press coverage of the return of killed American service personnel to the United States via Dover Air Force Base. See a Washington Post article on this change, marked by allowing the media last Sunday to witness the return of Staff Sergeant Philli Myers, also killed by an IED in Afghanistan, to Dover here.

Rest in peace, Trooper Blais and Staff Sergeant Myers, and may ight eternal shine upon you.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Contemporary War Poet

Students of British literature and of English literature (long may they thrive!) will know that there is a long tradition of poetry inspired by the experience of war. Wilfred Owen, Seigfried Sassoon and Keith Douglas are examples from the two World Wars.

Today in the UK Department of Defence news round up I was pleased to discover a contemporary successor to Owen et al, Lt. Col. J.B. Brown, a Logistics Officer currently commanding the British Army's 7 Transport Regiment Royal Logistic Corps, seen below in this marvellous Colville-esque photo taken in Iraq:

A DOD background piece on LCol Brown can be found here. I had a quick glance at some of Brown's poems posted online by the Sunday Times and they are powerful and of a high literary quality. See them here.

Speaking of Alex Colville, war artists, like war poets, are still at work as well. The UK DOD has also posted a small gallery of British artist Arabella Dorman's paintings of UK soldiers in Iraq - see her work here here, as well as a DOD backgrounder on her work here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Canadian Casualty in Afghanistan

The latest Canadian soldier to be killed on active service in Afghanistan is Trooper Karine Blais, who was serving with the 12th Armoured Regiment when the vehicle she was riding in struck an improvised explosive device near Kandahar City on 13 April. Four other soldiers were wounded in the incident. She is the second Canadian female soldier to be killed in theatre since the Afghan mission began, the first being Captain Nichola Goddard. The DND announcement of Trooper Blais' death can be found here Her body is being repatriated to Canada today.

The death of a Canadian female soldier happened to coincide with a march in Kabul this Wednesday by 300 Afghan women protesting new laws on the status of women in Afghan society recently signed into law by the Afghan government - coverage on that march can be found in the New York Times here. The day before, April 12, a prominent women's activist, Sitara Achakzai, was gunned down in front of her home in Kandahar. The Taliban have taken responsibilty for her killing. Coverage of this event is found here on the Independent's website.

It is not the place of this blog to make a linkage between these events or to editorialize on them. I simply pray that the courage and self-sacrifice of Trooper Blais, of Captain Goddard, and our other casualties there, along with people like Sitara Achakzai, may yet further the well being of all Afghan people.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Some of My Son's Miniature Painting Efforts

My fourteen year old son John continues to make Dad proud of his painting efforts. Recently he assembed some recent work for pictures for a school portfolio project illustrating some of his interests. I took the pictures and obtained his permission to brag on him a bit.

First up are some 1/35 scale German World War Two soldiers, I think by Tamiya.

We call the officer Leutnant Gruber, after our favourite character on the British comedy show, Allo! Allo!.

Here are some of John's Space Marines. I don't know the chapter name - Blood Angels, maybe? I just know I'm paiting up some Space Orks that I suspect will get badly slaughtered by these guys.

Bravo Zulu, John!

Cool Airplane Night

Last week I was asked to attend the Air Force Mess Dinner, a big affair here at 14 Wing, Greenwood. The dinner celebrated the 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada, and was located in a hangar belonging to 413 Search and Rescue Squadron. The hanger allowed the dinner to feature as set pieces two antique aircraft.

One was the replica of the Silver Dart, the first powered aircraft in Canada, which made its first flight here in Nova Scotia, at Baddeck Bay, on 23 February, 1909. Here's a link to the Silver Dart Project's website picture of the replica making it's centennial anniversary flight this year:

And the original:

Here's the same replica aircraft, which was disassembled and shipped to Greenwood for the Air Force mess dinner, as it appeared behind the head table.

One of the guests of honour at the dinner was retired Canadian astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason, who piloted the replica Silver Dart this February. Here he is wearing considerably less gear than he did on the Space Shuttle.

Tryggvason offered some very interesting remarks on piloting both the Silver Dart and the Shuttle, and dropped a few jaws when he described how much fuel it takes to get the Shuttle into orbit. He certainly underscored how much technological change has occured in one century.

Also present behind the head table was a rebuilt Avro Anson, a training aircraft that was used extensively here in Canada to train Allied aircrew during the Second World War. This aircraft has been lovingly restored but is not airworthy.

The other guest speaker was the Chief of the Air Staff, Lt. General Angus Watt, who circulated amongst the audience with a microphone, asking people to say how old the Canadian Air Force is (I guessed 100, which is wrong, but he should have known better than to ask a guy in an army red mess jacket). The correct answer can be found in the book that the CAS announced, a little publication, On Windswept Heights, which tells the history of military aviation in Canada. It can be downloaded here. General Watt reminded us that experts generally suck at predicting the future, and that the Air Force, together with the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces, would be kept busy preparing and training for an uncertain future.

For my part, I showed the fruits of the last three month's second language training by saying the grace in both official languages.

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.


Blog Archive