Tuesday, September 29, 2009

US Army Sergeant-Major offers God and coffee to troops

Face of Defense: Soldier Serves up Counsel, Coffee
By Army Pfc. J. Princeville Lawrence
Special to American Forces Press Service

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq, Sept. 25, 2009 – Army Sgt. Maj. Virginia Stickler enjoys serving up drinks and snacks, as well as a bit of advice, to her fellow soldiers here at a coffee shop that speaks volumes about her deployment.

Army Sgt. Maj. Virginia Stickler, a member of the Kansas National Guard’s 287th Sustainment Brigade, is the manager of God’s Grounds, a coffee shop on Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq, that serves free drinks, snacks and movies -- as well as advice -- for soldiers. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. J. Princeville Lawrence

God’s Grounds is next to the chapel in an area of repose and comfort that soldiers come to for more than just a cup of coffee.

Stickler, a California native serving with the Kansas National Guard’s 287th Sustainment Brigade, is the manager, and is more than happy to serve up espressos, slurpees, honey buns and muffins. There is a refrigerator full of drinks and shelves of snacks courtesy of the chaplains, people back home and Army supply. This is a place where folks kick back on the couch, munch on a snack and watch a movie. The best part is, it’s all free.

And for those in need of some guidance, that’s free too.

“A number of soldiers come here, and they’re stressed and they’re away from their families, away from their support systems and they come here to kind of talk and ventilate, and I’m able to listen,” Stickler said.

For many soldiers, God’s Grounds is a source of help in troubled times. Soldiers can talk to people like Stickler, who draws from a lifetime of experience in helping people. She has two master’s degrees, a doctorate and experience as both a drug and alcohol counselor and a marriage counselor.

Read the whole piece here.

Religious whack jobs on the streets of Ottawa

Sent to my via my brother the Mad Colonel, from Sept 25th's Ottawa Sun. This is especially funny to me because +Linda Nichols was an adjunct faculty of mine at Wycliffe College before she became a bishop. Nice to see that Anglicans are trying their hands at old-fashioned evangelism! MP+

A neuroscientist on torture and the brain

This piece from the Baptist website ethicsdaily.com goes beyond moral and ethical arguments against torture. According to a neuroscientist, torture is unreliable because it damages the brain and degrades the ability to distinguish truth from unreality. An interesting argument against the "ticking time bomb" case for torture which advocates the use of torture to advance the greater good. MP+

Why Have Americans Been So Quick to Justify Torture?

By: Mark Johnson
Posted: Friday, September 25, 2009 5:52 am
Section: EthicsDaily.com's Latest Articles

Torture is not only cruel. It is also ineffective and unreliable, according to a leading neuroscientist studying the effects of the brain under conditions of extreme, repeated and prolonged stress.

Writing in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, Shane O'Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin points to studies showing that changes in brain chemistry from torture actually lead to more confusion and an increasing inability to separate reality from fantasy. In short, torture does not lead to truth-finding, but to a compromise of "the normal functioning of the brain."

Read the complete text here.

Is Worship Boring?

This piece from the Washington Post by Erica Brown, a Scholar-in-Residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, came to my attention via an Anglican clergy discussion list. Providentially, I read it the same day I had lunch with a chaplain colleague who had returned from a six month tour at the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, working with very seriously wounded soldiers and their families. My friend, a Roman Catholic, told me that what sustained him spiritually during this gruelling time was attending Mass as often as he could, and daily if possible. When a nurse friend asked him how he could do such a repetitious thing, he replied, "you breathe and eat, don't you?". MP+

Bored in Worship? No Wonder

The poet Dylan Thomas once wrote, "Something is boring me. I think it's me." This humbling confession gets to the heart of an issue long kept under wraps within faith communities. People are bored. People are terribly bored in churches and synagogues and mosques world-over. The liturgy can feel stale or archaic. The leadership of faith institutions can be out of touch with issues of contemporary relevance. In the fast-paced, ever-changing modern world of technology, religion can seem quaint but uninteresting to a young generation of hipsters who can't seem to understand the appeal of tradition.

But boredom can actually help faith if we allow ourselves to wallow in it just long enough for it to spark creativity. Think of a child who begs his mother for something to do only to be told that he is on his own. He must find his own entertainment. After sitting with self-pity for a while, he rummages in the toy box and two hours later has created a whole imaginary city. He sat with boredom long enough to get bored of his boredom and then found his own creative way out.

Read the complete text here.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A US Chaplain Describes a Soldier's Calling

Army Lt. Col. John Morris, 34th Infantry Division chaplain, presents Army Staff Sgt. Bellatrix Estrella, a chaplain's assistant with the division, with a Bible during a religious support conference for unit ministry teams at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq, June 30, 2009. Minnesota National Guard photo by Sgt. Mark Miranda

Face of Defense: Division Chaplain Answers Call
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Sept. 23, 2009 - For many chaplains, providing spiritual and mental support for soldiers is a calling. But for one Minnesota Army National Guard chaplain, that's just part of the equation.

The real calling is that of being a soldier.

"I've often said in sermons to soldiers that I believe serving in the military is a call, and that it's a call to be a peacekeeper or a peacemaker," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Morris, chaplain of the 34th Infantry Division, which is currently deployed to Basra, Iraq.

"These phrases that we use like selfless service, which is a common phrase in the Army, it's a vocational, religious connotation whether a person has a spiritual background or not," Morris said. "We're calling them to self-sacrifice on behalf of other people."

Read the whole piece here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

British Paratroopers Remember Operation Market Garden

A History and Honour news article
21 Sep 09

To commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem more than 500 British paratroopers have re-enacted the event in the presence of veterans and the public.

On Saturday, soldiers from The Parachute Regiment and other UK airborne forces jumped onto the drop zone at Ginkelse Heath near Arnhem to honour those who made the jump 65 years ago.

In front of huge crowds on a beautiful, clear day, and around 50 veterans, a total of more than 1,000 Allied troops, including Dutch and US, parachuted onto the site in a re-enactment of Operation Market Garden.

Troops deploy from a C-130 Hercules over Arnhem
[Picture: Cpl Rupert Frere RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

Read the whole story here.

Private Jonathan Couturier Comes Home

This blog is determined to note and honour each of Canada's soldiers to fall in Afghanistan. The latest, Private Jonathan Couturier, was killed by an IED strike in Afghanistan on Friday, September 17. His body returned home to Canada on Sunday, Sept 20th. The same explosion injured eleven of his comrades. Pte. Couturier served with the 2nd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment, based in Valcartier, Que. He becomes our 131st fatality since the mission started in 2002. Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him.

CBC News reported that Pte. Couturier's family had doubts about the value of the mission, doubts that were echoed by the Bloc Quebecois party.

Today the Globe and Mail is reporting that Ottawa has received the report of US General McChrystall in a non-committal manner. The Canadian government is not making any predictions as to what its presence in Afghanistan will look like as of 2011. The Globe quoted "[n]ew Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin, a member of the Manley Task Force that helped chart the future of Canada's Afghan mission early last year, [as saying that] 'To try and predict where we're going to be in the summer of 2011 is foolhardy ... We have no idea'". In an oped piece in today's Globe, Jeffrey Simpson says that we can forget about the next phase in the Afghan war being a NATO effort: "The Americans alone must implement Gen. McChrystal's strategy, the outcome of a hard-nosed analysis of the challenge of winning in Afghanistan. However, executing even this refined strategy will be next to impossible."

General McChrystall's unclassified report to US Defence Secretary Gates may be found here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Arkansas Guard Seeks Community Support in Preventing Suicides

American Forces Press Service

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark., Sept. 21, 2009 – Senior leaders in the Arkansas National Guard, including the state governor, are asking for the public’s help to stop suicides among its troops.

"We constantly call on our men and women in uniform to help us,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, commander in chief of the Arkansas Guard. “We ask for it here in Arkansas all the time -- from ice storms to floods to tornados. This is now an example when the rest of us need to help them.”

Read the whole article here.

One Soldier's Take on What Victory in Afghanistan Might Look Like

I came across this thoughtful post on an American serviceman's blog, via "The Sandbox" forum on the cartoonist Gary Trudeau's website. As Canadians and Americans alike debate whether further sacrifice in this remote country is worthwhile, and ask what victory might look like, this post is worth reading. MP+

A blogger friend, military supporter whose husband has served in this war, asked what victory looks like in Afghanistan. It’s a good question, and one that I think is probably in more minds than just hers. So I’m going to take a whack at answering it.

First, I never really think in terms of “victory.” There will be no grand surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship in this conflict. Insurgencies don’t die in a horrendous bright flash of light and culminate in a giant sigh of acceptance of defeat. They dwindle and starve, become a criminal problem, and finally fade out largely from lack of interest. Twenty years from now, former insurgents will own shops and other businesses and live relatively obscure lives here in Afghanistan. Some may even be in government. No, I don’t use the word victory. The words that we use are important, and they are powerful. They evoke images. Americans love victory, even as they love the underdog, most Cincinnati Bengals fans who don’t even bother to show up to games by mid-season demonstrate that the underdog appeal fades in the face of repeated defeat.

I think in terms of success or failure. The previous Afghan government, if you could call it that, was not so much governing as ruling over a failed state. So let’s talk about what success looks like in Afghanistan. We can describe it simply, but then you have to drill down to what that actually means. For starters, success in Afghanistan includes a stable government devoid of dysfunctional or disabling corruption. What does that mean? Look at our own level of corruption in the United States… don’t act like we don’t have corruption… but it’s generally not disabling. Disabling means that whatever corruption is present interferes materially and consistently with the provision of basic governmental responsibilities; what we often call basic services. It means an Afghanistan with a rising economy, dropping unemployment, a growing standard of living, climbing literacy rates and ever higher standards of education. It means an Afghanistan where there is a basic rule of law and where the citizens feel relatively safe in their homes and neighborhoods and where nearly all feel that there is some access to justice. This means that one of the basic services is security; the ability of the populace to live without threat or intimidation.

Read the whole article here.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Sermon for Battle of Britain Sunday

The Sunday closest to September 15th is traditionally known as Battle of Britain Sunday. I had the opportunity to offer a few words Sunday afternoon at a ceremony hosted by the local chapter of the Royal Canadian Air Force Association. The text I used came from the lectionary for this Sunday:

Mark 9:30-37
they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Today we remember a small group of aircrew who have become collectively known as “The Few”, from the famous tribute of Winston Churchill, that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. Who were “the few”? They were, for the most part, young men. In the old black and white photographs, they look very young indeed, confident in their strength and sense of invulnerability, as young men are. They came from Britain and occupied Europe, and a few of the few came from places such as Montreal and Winnipeg, from Vernon BC and Rosthern, Saskatchewan.

Over the space of one summer, a time of year and a time of life when they should have been dating and riding motorcycles and playing sports, these young men fought to the death against an experienced and well trained German air force. Flying as many as four sorties a day, pushed to the limits of exhaustion, they held the line in the air, and saved the British nation from a terrible slavery. Had they failed, it’s difficult to imagine how freedom and democracy could ever have been restored to the peoples of Europe. If ever a battle saved the world, this battle was it.

Just as our young men in Afghanistan are paying a physical and psychological cost today, so these young aircrew paid a great price in their own battle. One father remembered how his pilot son was consumed in body and spirit by the fighting:

He was a changed lad, time took care of that taking him from a young man with a bright future before the war to a man that seemed full of hatred, he said that he felt as if he was a human killing machine and said that if he ever dies, then put on his headstone "Here Lies Another Human Killing Machine”. On leave he could not sleep, or he would scream out in the night. How he died we will never know, he went out on a mission, and never came back, and that's the sad part, we do not even have a grave where we know that he is at last resting in peace.

As I think of the scripture reading I shared with you just now, I draw comfort from that thought that the same God who took children into his lap must sorrow to see how war tears young men out of their childhood. I take comfort in believing that God was there to catch these aircrew who, in the words of the poem High Flight, touched His face in their final moments.

In this scripture reading, we also heard our Lord say that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This handful of aircrew flew for the sake of many – the people of Britain and of the occupied countries waiting to be freed. And as we in the Air Force know, they could not fly without the support of many others. When we think of “The Few” we must also remember armourers, refuellers, engineers, fitters, mechanics, ground crews, radar operators, plotters, wireless operators, members of the Observer Corps, anti-aircraft gunners, barrage balloon operators, civilian utility workers, many of whom worked and died at their trades as the bombs fell on their airfields. These men and women show an air force that knew how to work together, and they teach us the truth of our Wing’s motto, “Operate as One”. We depend on one another, just as they did.

Today let us remember these examples of courage and self-sacrifice that are such an important part of our Air Force tradition. Let us remember that we too are called in our own time to stand as the few against forces of darkness and evil. Just as our grandfathers flew against the darkness of Nazi tyranny, and just as our fathers flew through the Cold War to preserve peace, so we play our own part against terror and chaos. We still have too few airframes. We still have too few personnel. We are still stretched too thin. We still have the same God, who is faithful and trustworthy. To his love and power we entrust those young men who never flew home, and we ask his blessing on this Wing as we continue to be servants of one another and of the people we protect. Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Training A "Flip Flop" Army

This piece from National Public Radio describes the challenges faced by western militaries in training the Afghan National Army to stand on its, a key part of Canada's strategy there going forward. MP+

Capt. Benjamin Tupper has some stories to tell about his work with new Afghan soldiers. His new book, Welcome to Afghanistan: Send More Ammo, details his time as an embedded trainer in the Afghan National Army.

Tupper, a member of the Army National Guard, calls the troops he worked with "The Flip-Flop Army."

"Afghan soldiers — it's a new army. It's a young army," Tupper tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "And there's really no uniformity, per se. "It wouldn't be uncommon to have some Afghan soldiers jump out of a pickup truck in pursuit of Taliban wearing flip-flops or basketball sneakers, Speedo swim goggles, baseball caps, New York Yankee T-shirts — the gamut."

Army National Guard Capt. Benjamin Tupper

But, Tupper said, that doesn't keep the soldiers from staying in "fighting form."

"They come from a tradition of individual fighters," Tupper says. "That is how you make your reputation. Individual acts of bravery and courage."

Some of the funniest things happen when your life is on the line and you do something stupid.

In fact, Tupper says he heard many American soldiers say of the Afghan soldiers: "These guys are braver than anybody I've ever seen."

Tupper calls his book a tragicomedy, although he's aware of the danger in calling a book about war a comedy. But Tupper thinks some of the most dangerous moments on the battlefield can also be the most amusing.

"Some of the funniest things happen when your life is on the line and you do something stupid," Tupper says. "And you go back that night, and you sit around the base, and you retell the stories, and you'll never laugh harder."

Tupper maintained a blog during his work with the Afghan National Army. "I found it very therapeutic," he says of the blog.

"And I didn't spare any details. I had to be open and honest about what was going on and what it was doing to me and how difficult it was," Tupper said.

"You know, the Army gave me pills for sleeping, and pills for anxiety and depression — but for me, writing is what worked the most."

Hear the whole interview here.

Nations at Risk - and Why It Matters to the Global Church

In a recent article in The Christian Century, Philip Jenkins describes what happens when states can no longer deliver basic services and security to their people. He also notes that states are on the alert list to fail will by 2050 contain the world's largest Muslim and Christian populations. MP+

Notes from the Global Church
September 08, 2009

Nations at risk

by Philip Jenkins

It's the world's least desirable club: the league of failed and failing states. Every year, the Fund for Peace presents its list of the world's shakiest political entities. Qualifications for entry into the club include such factors as demographic crisis, economic decline and bloody intergroup conflict. A failed state is one that loses control of large parts of its territory and fails to provide rudimentary public services. State agencies become in effect criminal organizations, allied with gangs and terrorist factions in bloody battles over state property and natural resources. Gradually, the accumulation of disasters leads to the utter collapse of state authority and its replacement by private militias or warlords. Last year, unsurprisingly, Somalia led the pack of quasi-states and nonstates.

Understanding the process of state disintegration is vital for anyone who cares about religion and the fate of fellow believers. Failed states are the troubled home of some of the world's largest populations of both Christians and Muslims, and the concentration of both faiths in dysfunctional and violent countries will grow apace in the coming decades. Billions of people will have to cope with settings utterly lacking in the fundamental protections and services that Euro-Americans take for granted.

Read the whole article here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Afghanistan Roundup - A Hard Week

In the time I've been away from this blog three more Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, bringing the total number of deaths in theatre to 130. The three soldiers were all from the province of Quebec.

Today there was a ramp ceremony in Kandahar as Private Patrick Lormand, an infanteer with the 2nd Battalion, the Royal 22nd Regiment, began his journey home to Canada. He was killed and four soldiers wounded when their Light Armoured Vehicle was flipped by a powerful IED near Kandahar this last Sunday.

The Globe and Mail's coverage suggested that comments on Pte. Lormand's death by the Canadian military and by the Governon General were aimed in part at Senator Colin Kenney, chair of the Senate committee on national security and defence, who published a letter this weekend warning of a "Vietnam ending" to the war in Afghanistan. For the Globe's coverage, click here.

last week in Afghanistan two more Canadian soldiers were killed. Major Yannick Pépin and Corporal Jean-François Drouin, members of 5e Régiment du génie de combat, based at CFB Valcartier, were killed by an IED near Kandahar on Sept 6.

Maj. Pepin's body arrives at CFB Trenton on 9 September.

Major Pépin was the highest ranking officer thus far in the mission to be killed by enemy action. Major Michelle Mendes was found dead on base in Afghanistan in April of this year.

Maj. Yannick Pépin

Cpl. Jean-François Drouin

Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them.

Making the news of Canadian casualties harder is other news out of the country, which I've heard on US National Public Radio and elsewhere, that the recent Afghan national election featured appalling rates of cheating and corruption. Today the Globe and Mail reported that a newly released video by Osama Bin Laden, taunting the West for engaging in a hopeless cause, is echoed at home. Besides the comments by Senator Kenney referred to above, in the US leaders such as Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, are similarly pessimistic. Feinstein has said that “I do not believe we can build a democratic state in Afghanistan. I believe it will remain a tribal entity". Read more here.

Today the Globe and Mail also reported that a UN body has ordered a recount of ballots at 10% of Afghan polling stations, which may well mean that a runoff vote is necessary. This result could be seen as proving Senator Feinstein's point, or it could be seen as proof that democracy is working, with international help and scrutiny - a case of the glass half full or half empty.

Canada's military will continue to do what it's political masters, from the Prime Minister and Parliament through the Minister of National Defence, tell it to do. As I write this, the current rotation over there is starting to count the days before they come home, hoping that there will be no more ramp ceremonies for a while. My chaplain friends at Valcartier, home of the army in Quebec, continue to work flat out comforting the families of the recently killed and wounded. Another chaplain friend is now home from working at the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, after spending six months caring for the severely wounded and their families, whose stories are not much told here at home. Another rotation prepares to deply this December.

Please continue to pray for our soldiers and that good may come from their work and from their self-sacrifice. While the military success and geopolitical future of their mission remains uncertain, their dedication and professionalism continues.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Crumbs From the Table - A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, CFB Greenwood, 6 September, 2009

Lectionary Year B, Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17, Mark 7:24-37

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:26)

For the quotation below from C.S. Lewis' "God in the Dock", I'm indebted to the blog Anglican Continuum's defence of the BCP Prayer of Humble Access. For the story from Fred Craddock, I'm indebted to the Presbyterian preacher Dirk Ficca. The links below will take you to the respective sources.

The last time I preached here, my text was from John's Gospel, where Jesus says that "I am the bread of life" (Jn 6:48). I spoke about how Jesus was the good bread, the best source of nutrition for our spiritual and earthly lives, and to make this point I compared a loaf of locally produced, whole grain bread with a manufactured junk food. I gave you some questions to ask as you prepared to receive the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper this Sunday. These questions were:

1) How will you prepare to receive Communion? Have you reflected on why you in particular need to receive the love and the forgiveness that Christ offered through his self-sacrifice on the cross, a sacrifice that we remember in this meal of bread and wine?
2) How will reflect on your relationship with other Christians who come to the table, both here and in the wider church? We need to ask this question because we take communion not only as individuals, but also as fellow members of the Body of Christ.
3) Will you consider those who are not fed as we here are fed? What will we do, as we heard James say in our second reading today, about the poor who do not have enough to eat, and what will we do about those who are spiritually starving and need the good bread that Jesus offers?

4) What does Jesus mean to you? Do you believe that Jesus is who he says he is, the Son of God and Saviour, or is his message difficult teaching which you keep at arm's length?

Today we come to the Lord's table. The rite of our service happens to be according to the Anglican Church of Canada, but that is of secondary importance. What truly matters is that we gather as Christians to receive that good bread and wine which represents our Lord's body, broken on the cross, and his blood, shed for us. In that sense, it is a sombre and sad occasion, but fortunately for us that is not the end of it. It is also a joyous occasion, because we remember that our Lord's broken body rose from the tomb. Jesus appeared before his disciples as proof that God had power over death. His disciples had abandoned and denied them, but Jesus gathered them together, ate with them and sent them into the world as proof that God's love and forgiveness can set aside human sin and weakness. Today is a joyous and grateful occasion, because that power over death and that endless love are offered to us in this meal of bread and wine, uniting to us to all faithful believers across the world and across time. Does that sound like a feast, or what?

So everything's good, right? We have a God who loves and forgive us. We have Jesus, the good bread of eternal life, and it's offered to us today. Fantastic! But wait a minute. What about today's gospel reading from Mark, when we heard Jesus' conversation with the Syrophonecian woman? This lady was a non-believer, a Gentile whose daughter was ill, with what Mark calls "an unclean spirit" (Mk 7:25-26). She came to Jesus asking for healing for her daughter, and Jesus refuses her in what seems like a humiliating manner: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (Mk 7:27). Scriptural commentaries tell us that Jesus is denying the woman because she is not one of God's chosen people, the children of Israel, but what comes through most strongly after two millennia is the strong sense of rejection. To use the analogy of the good bread from my last sermon, imagine if you had gone to the French bakery and said "Padre Mike told me you had the best bread in the Valley, I'd sure like to buy some" only to be told "That bread is for special people, and not for the likes of you?"

However the woman, God love her, persists. She picks up on Jesus' figure of speech and says "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" (Mk 7:28). In other words, the woman argues for a second-class spiritual status. She's not a Jew, not one of the children of Israel, but she believes in Jesus and in his power, and therefore will settle for the scraps and leftovers of whatever gifts of God the Jews don't need. Now some people see the gentile women here as an example of persistence in prayer, similar to the parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). Others see the woman as a kind of feminist hero, who gently teaches Jesus to take a more inclusive view that sees all people in need rather than just ministering to a chosen few. But I'm sure what bothers us, and I'm willing to bet this flashed through you mind as you listened carefully to today's gospel, is the woman's self-abasement. How can she compare herself to a dog? How can she settle for crumbs and scraps. If the French bakery had told you that their bread was reserved for special people, would you say "Can I then have few crumbs, like the dog under the table?" No, of course not. You'd storm out of the bakery.

When I was younger, I stormed out of church with a similar sense of indignation. As a teenager before 1980 and the kinder language of the Book of Alternative Services, I always heard the Communion service in the language of the Prayer Book. In that older rite, just before the congregation receives communion, the priest and people say together the Prayer of Humble Access, which begins this way:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table,
O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much
as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. (BCP p. 83).
See the whole BCP online here.

My teenage self thought it demeaning to be relegated, like the Syrophonecian woman, to a few crumbs on the floor. Was I not a child of God, a person in my own right, deserving respect? I wasn't going to let the church diss me this way. So I stormed out, and I stayed out until my thirties. However, during that time I discovered that I wasn't so special or so wonderful after all. I did things that I was ashamed of. And like the Prodigal Son, when I came back to God I knew that I needed his love and his forgiveness, but I sure didn't feel that I deserved a place of honour that the table. A few scraps and crumbs would be fine for me. And most of the time, even though I'm now a priest of the church, I still feel that way.

Those who love the Prayer Book, and I'm now one of them, despite my teenage self, love what we call its sense of "penitential self awareness". The value of the Prayer of Humble Access is that it teaches us to be like the Syrophonecian woman, trusting in God's mercy rather and distrusting our own holiness. C.S. Lewis once said that it's very easy for religious people to be like the Pharisee who thanks God that he is better than other people (Lk 18:11), but in our hearts we now that no good can come from this way of thinking. It leads us to false holiness and hypocrisy. In reality, Lewis said, the hard and necessary truth we need to learn as Christians is that we all carry something which, if not lifted off our backs, will break us.

Fortunately for us, God gives us more than we think we deserve. In Mark's gospel, Jesus gives the woman more than just crumbs. He restores her daughter to full health, and he recognizes her worth as a loved child of God, a category which transcends and replaces lesser categories such as Jew and Gentile. In our own cases, if we bring to the table whatever burden it is that we fear will break us, God will lift it off our backs. In receiving the sacrament, we receive the power of God's love and forgiveness, a power greater than anything else we will find in heaven or in hell. If I could go back and tell my teenage self anything, it would be to listen more closely to the concluding words of the Prayer of Humble Access:

But thou art the same Lord,
whose property is always to have mercy:
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. (BCP 83-84)

Let me close with a wonderful story told by the preacher Fred Craddock about another blessing that came in the way of food.

A missionary was sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World War II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home.
His church wired him the money to book passage on a steamer but when he got to the port city he discovered a boat load of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world literally looking for a place to live, and these particular Jews were now staying in attics and warehouses and basements all over that port city.
It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, "Merry Christmas."
The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, "We're Jews
"I know that," said the missionary, " What would you like for Christmas?"
In utter amazement the Jews responded, "Why, we'd like pastries, good pastries like the ones we used to have in Germany."
So the missionary went out and used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for all the Jews he could find staying in the port.
Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States.
As you might expect, his superiors wired back asking what happened to the money they had already sent.
He wired that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for some Jews.
His superiors wired back, "Why did you do that? They don't even believe in Jesus."
He wired back: "Yes, but I do."

Today in Mark's gospel we heard a story about a woman who found the love of God despite herself. What mattered was that she believed in Jesus, and Jesus believed in her. Like the missionary in Fred Craddock's story, Jesus could have discriminated between Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean, but he didn't. He embodied the love of God for the whole world, for all who would accept and believe in him. Today we come to this Eucharist not because we deserve the good bread of Jesus, but because we need it. We don't have to settle for scraps. Today we're given a place of honour at God's table, a place we don't deserve or qualify for. We're there because we believe in Jesus, and Jesus believes in us and what we can be, with his help. Amen.

Michael Peterson+

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Canadian Embassy to Recreate Afghan Mission for US Public and Policy Makers

From Friday's Globe. Amazing that the DC authorities are willing to allow this simulated mayhem in the capital! Nice piece of PR work by the Canadian military - hope it works. MP+

Paul Koring
Washington — From Friday's Globe and Mail
Last updated on Friday, Sep. 04, 2009 10:52AM EDT

The Taliban will attack an Afghan village set up in the heart of Washington courtesy of the Canadian Forces, who will send in a medic in a dramatic effort to save a civilian crippled by the explosion.

At least four times over two days this month, simulated IED blasts will bring the Afghan war – and Canada's combat role in Kandahar – home to Americans if an elaborate scheme based on modern training realism attracts widespread attention, as is hoped.

“If this works the way I want it to, more Americans will know what Canada is doing in Afghanistan,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Martin, a military attaché at the Canadian embassy.

Read the whole article here.

US Defense Secretary Objects to News Photo of Dying Marine

This story from the US AFPS raises what I believe are important questions about how the public understands the reality and human cost of war. While the motives of Secretary Gates are commendable in that he wanted to shield the family of the dead Marine, I wonder if privacy concerns will be used to censor unpleasant images. Consider the images of bodies on the battlefield taken in the Civil War by Matthew Brady, or the images of dead Marines at Tarawa in World War Two which shocked the US public when the appeared in mainstream media, not to mention the stream of images from Vietnam. In the case of Vietnam, these images may well have turned public opinion against the war. In all cases, they forced a democracy to remember that the decisions of its representatives to make war have costs which must be weighed. MP+

Gates Objects to News Photo of Dying Marine
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 4, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates used the strongest terms in trying to persuade the Associated Press to refrain from running a graphic picture of a Marine taken shortly after the servicemember was wounded in southern Afghanistan, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said here today.

Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard later died on the operating table Aug. 14.

The Marine’s family in New Portland, Maine, asked the Associated Press not to run the photo, which was taken by Julie Jacobson, who was embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

The AP put out a series of photographs of the Marine patrol, and Gates objected to one showing Bernard clearly in anguish while being treated. He had just been hit in the legs by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Read the whole story here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dan Baum on the Psychological Costs of Training Our Soldiers to Kill

In July of 2004, when the Iraq war was still fairly new, the New Yorker magazine published a piece by Dan Baum entitled "The Price of Valor" with the subtitle, "We train our soldiers to kill for us. Afterward, they're on their own". Drawing on the experiences of veterans of that war, and contextualizing it with S.L.A. Marsshall's controversial World War Two research on the apparent reluctance of soldiers over time to kill in combat, Baum asked some good questions about the psychological and spiritual costs of war. Five years later, it's an article that deserves to be re-read. MP+

Here's an excerpt:

A regular soldier can serve years in the Army and hardly ever hear the word “kill” outside bayonet practice, a vestigial relic of the days before the use of assault rifles. (No American soldier has participated in an organized bayonet charge since the Korean War.) Army manuals and drill sergeants speak of “suppressing enemy fire,” “engaging targets,” and “attritting” the enemy. “We attempt to instill reaction,” said Captain Tim Dunnigan, who trains infantry in the woods of Fort Benning, Georgia. “Hear a pop, hit the ground, return fire. Act instinctually.” Captain Jason Kostal, a twenty-eight-year-old former commander at Fort Benning’s sniper school, says that, even in a unit whose motto is “One Shot One Kill,” explicit discussion of the subject is avoided. “We don’t talk about ‘Engage this person,’ ‘Engage this guy.’ It’s always ‘Engage that target,’ ” he said. “You’re not thinking, I wonder if that guy has three kids.”

In his West Point classes, Peter Kilner found what he called “an institutional resistance” to the topic. “I don’t think people saw it as a great problem, as I do, so it hasn’t been integrated into the curriculum,” he said. When “60 Minutes” approached Kilner in 2002, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, he recalled an Army public-affairs officer telling him, “On the verge of war, we don’t need to be talking about this upsetting thing.” Colonel Thomas Burke, the director of mental-health policy for the Defense Department, told me that young soldiers shouldn’t be burdened with moral questions during training. As far as killing is concerned, he said, “Trying to get too deeply into it, I don’t know how much good it would do.”

Read the whole article here.

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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