Thursday, December 30, 2010

Life in Suffield 3: More Fun on the Prairie with the British

These pictures have been hanging around on my hard drive since late October, when I had the chance to make another trip out to the training area (or "The Prairie" as the British call it) to see the last of the UK Battlegroups go through this year's training exercises, PRAIRIE THUNDER. I had the good fortune to go out as the guest of the Queen's Dragoon Guards, the British armoured unit that was here this summer as the OPFOR (OPFOR = Opposing Force, the troops who play the "bad guys" against the exercising troops). Thanks to the QDG's padre, Major Alex Bennett, I was able to link up with their QM (quartermaster or supply officer), Capt. Tim Moore, who was going out with his cooks and supply trucks to provide a barbecue meal for troops that had been out for oer a week.

The weather was cold, slightly above zero Celsius during the day and around -7 at night. We arrived in the training area about three PM and the cooks set up their tents, large gas barbecues, copious supplies of food, and got cooking.

Capt. Moore and his staff cooking for several hundred expected guests.

The first guests arrive. Land Rovers of the QDG light reconnaissance force.

I had the pleased of helping serve the troops as they arrived, hungry and cold, many of them having been awake and active for several days straight. I heard a number of strong and melodious Welsh accents and learned that the QDG are mostly recruited from Wales. Ah, that explained all the fellows I've been seeing on the base's running trails wearing PT shirts with "The Welsh Cavalry" stencilled on the backs. Amidt these young squaddies I heard a strong Canadian voice and met a strapping young man from Vancouver. He explained that living in the UK was expensive and the British Army looked like a good job. Good for him.

During the afternoon I had a chance to look around and see some of the kit that the British have assembled to prepare their troops for the sights and culture of Afghanistan. Here is a so-called "jingle bus", one of the colourfully painted buses and vans you see in that part of the world.

I'm not too sure what this was all about.

Possibly another one of the goat mascots that the British army are so fond of?

As sun was setting I linked up with Major Alex Bennett, the QDG/OPFOR padre, an Anglican priest like myself. We bumped into British Army photographer Steve Woods, who had flown over to Canada to cover PRAIRIE THUNDER, and he was gracious enough to take some shots of the two of us - his email sending them to me was entitled "Prairie Padre Photos", displaying a nice touch for alliteration. This one is my favourite.

Sgt. Woods, or "Woody", has a blog here, and his work is well worth a look. He's a truly gifted photographer.

A very cold and dark night descended on us. Alex and I waited for transport to a mock Afghan village known as "Hettar", where the next phase of the exercise would begin. We were next to a platoon of Nepalese Ghurka soldiers, who appeared cheerfully impervious to the cold. I chatted with their English officer, who when asked admitted that he knew enough Nepalese "to get by with the lads". I once wrote a paper on England's Gurkha soldiers while an undergraduate and it was a thrill to see these representatives of a proud soldiering tradition live and up close.

Once bussed to Hettar, Alex and I dossed down, as the Brits say, in a building meant to represent the local mosque. I say "represent" because I want readers to be clear that this was not a consecrated religious structure used for worship, so there was no question of disrespect or worse. The building was used as an HQ by the exercise control staff, and was jammed with all sorts of kit, including these rather gruesome mannequins representing victims of bomb blasts.

It was rather discooncerting to have these chaps feet from my head as I tried to sleep, but at least they didn't snore, which is more than I can say for Padre Alex.

When morning came I learned that there would be at least a day's lull before the training resumed, so I caught a lift off the prairie. Two days later, however, I was back in Hettar. BATUS was looking for bodies who would get dressed up in Afghan clothing and help populate the village as the British troops came through, practicing their patrolling techniques. Here's me dressed up as a local.

Pretty unconvincing, but fortunately the real atmosphere was provided by Afghan-Canadians who are brought in to act as the local population. I have no pictures of these folks to post here, since there are security considerations. The Afghan-origin interactors are understandably nervous about the bad guys identifying them on the internet and then taking reprisals against family and friends overseas. The Afghan-Canadian interactors are recruited and supported by an Alberta based film company that provides the same services to the Canadian Forces at our training base in Wainwright. One of the Canadian staff of this company that I spoke to was an ex-Canadian army infanteer with several tours of Afghanistan, so these folks knew their stuff. Once you were on the ground in Hettar, I felt I was on a film set, and it was as close to the real thing that I am likely to get for some time. Here's an exterior shot of Hettar's "mosque" against a crisp prairie sky.

Besides myself BATUS dressed up a number of Canadian civilians, including teachers from the grade school in Ralston, where many of the British kids go, and some business people from Medicine Hat. It was an excellent and thoughtful way for BATUS to give these folks a perk and a chance to see what they do. For those of us who liked flying, we also had the thrill of a helicopter ride out to the prairie and back, rather than a jolting hour long ride along rutted dirt roads.

These shots were a bit of a challenge for my little iphone camera, but they convey a sense of the prairie. In the second shot you can see a herd of antelope to the left.

Once in Hettar we milled about, waiting for something to happen. The Afghan interactors brewed a constant supply of tea, or chai, and it was a thrill to accept a cup from one elderly gentleman, who tried to teach me a few words of Afghan which I've sadly forgotten. In time the British army arrived, and their patrolling techniques were tested when a simulated suicide bomb went off in the middle of the market. We had been warned to stand clear of the area, because a very powerful charge was used to simulate the blast, but what followed was extreme. The interactors rushed into the smoke with a variety of gruesome simulated wounds, and the resulting chaos and carnage and noise was overwhelming. According to a British sergeant major who was the minder for us Canadians, the troops reacted well, always vigilant while doing what they could for the local populace. It was an excellent simulation for these troops, who are, unfortunately, likely to see the real thing when they go overseas sometime soon.

So ended my last trip to the prairie for 2010 and another adventure in Suffield. I came away with a healthy respect for the work that BATUS does. As the BATUS CO Col Carver said at his Christmas address to the troops, if all this work saves just one life in theatre, then it will have been worth it. Amen.

Why Priests and Guns Are a Questionable Idea

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot indeed. Sent to my by my nephew Tom. Obviously Eastern European armies have different regs on chaplains bearing arms than we do.

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 Christmas Letter

Dear Family, Friends, and Readers of MadPadre:

When I sent out our Christmas cards this year (a pathetically small number considering the number of lovely folks who are in our lives), I promised a Christmas letter on the blog. Some folks are emailing me today and saying, "Hey, where's that letter"? Doesn't time fly when you're procrastinating?

Kay says godbye to her garden in Kingston, NS, this August. The unsung sacrifices of the military wife and gardener.

Last Christmas Eve, Kay and I were in Kingston, Nova Scotia, in the heart of the Annapolis Valley. I remember it as being fairly mild, with some snow. This year, thanks to the great dartboard known as the Canadian Forces Chaplains' Branch posting plot, we find ourselves almost clear across the country in Medicine Hat, Alberta. There's snow here as well, though it's dwindled to ankle-height after a few chinooks since the snow came in mid-November. It's colder, too, that particularly dry, prairie cold that shocks your lungs with the first few breaths of outdoor air. It was a bracing -15C on my morning run, which is doable if you keep moving (moving slowly, given the ice everywhere).

At 60,000, Medicine Hat is somewhere between a small city and a big town. Down in the SE corner of Alberta, it feels somewhat isolated: three hours to Calgary, threeish to Swift Current, fiveish to Edmonton, a full day to Vancouver - moaning about our 90 minute drive from Greenwood to Halifax now seems rather lame by comparison. Locals call it "The Hat" and call themselves "Hatters". I myself am a proud member of the Mad Hatters Running Club. The locals are friendly, perhaps because so many are from Atlantic Canada. It's mostly an oil and gas and railway town, and since a lot of people find employment or connections to CFB Suffield, 45 kms to the west, it's a military friendly community. Friendly, that is, except sometimes to the young Briish troops who come here in the summer times for training, and who like to spend money in town. One hears some mixed things about the squaddies, but if the British Army pulled out of Suffield, this town would be hurting.

CFB Suffield is home to BATUS (British Army Training Unit Suffield), its main reason for existing. While a Canadian base, it is part of the the UK Defence Training Estates, since its huge area of prairie has made it ideal for training with large numbers of tanks and troops. Suffield is also home to Defence Research and Development Canada, which does a lot of research with nasty stuff. While it sounds spooky and scary secret (there's a Suffield joke that if the Zombie Apocalypse ever started anywhere, it would likely start here), they do good work, especially in the area of combat medicine and trauma research. As Canadian Forces Bases go, Suffield is quite small, with about a hundred Canadians in uniform and three times that many civilians, so my work is quite manageable. Some of my earlier posts here on Life in Suffield will give you a flavour of that work.

Our Medicine Hat house on Christmas Eve

Kay and I bought a "character home" in an older, settled part of town called SE Hill. "Character home" is a euphemism for money pit, I think, but we are slowly making it home and plan a kitchen reno over the winter and a new roof in the spring. Kay made a start on transforming the garden into something closer to her tastes, but that will be a long term project. Kay has found a congregation she likes in the Hat, St. Barnabas, where people seem to have a lively faith and a willingness to pray. She's started some volunteer work with the local SPCA, and is sowly finding her way on Facebook, if you want to look for her there. Come the spring she hopes to get hired on with one of the local garden centres, even if the trees and shrubs here are different (and to her eyes uglier) than the ones she's used to.

New dino friend at Tyrhell Museum, Drumheller, seen this August
We've done a very little sightseeing since we've arrived in Alberta. This August we visited the excellent Royal Tyrrhel Dinosaur Museum in Drumheller and saw a little bit of the Badlands. Today we're off to have a look at Calgary and then north to visit friends in Edmonton.

I've transferred my membership in Lions to one of the local clubs. I like the people and the chance to give back to the community as time permits. I was invited to join the Board of the United Way of SE Alberta after getting involved with their campaign on the base, and enjoy working with the UW for the same reason. I'm slowly stepping up my running practice. This September I ran a very slow half marathon in Drumheller, my first in two years. Afterwards I remembered my promise to myself to do a full marathon before I turned fifty, and I only have eleven months to keep that promise.

That's a little bit of our lives out here on the prairie. Kay and I hope that you were blessed in spirit, family and friendship this Christmas, and we wish you all good things in the year to come.



Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Dinner with Hitler

This one cracks me up every Christmas.

Christmas Dinner at the Front, Holland 1944

As you look forward to what you'll be eating this Christmas dinner, you can listen to this piece of CBC audio reporting from Holland, broacast n Dec 4, 1944. A Canadian army cook, Frank Barley, describes what he'll be serving the troops for their Christmas dinner.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Managing Expectations: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

I've preached all through Advent and Christmas now, but am behind in getting my sermons uploaded. Truth to tell, the concluding paragraphs of this one weren't finally written down until today (today being Christmas Day, despite the date of this post), and my sermon for 4th Advent and Christmas Eve was extemporaneous. As you can see from the image below, I was haunted by the image of the road from the AMC series The Walking Dead, and it's echoes of haunted post-apocalyptic highways in Cormac McCarthy or another novel I've just finished, S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, and the image of the highway in Isaiah. MP+
Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Third Sunday of Advent, 12 December, 2010

Lectionary: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3)

In a previous life, when I worked in a sales department, we were taught something called “managing customer expectations”. This technique involved walking a fine line. On the one hand, we were expected to support the promises made by our marketing department and brochures, but on the other hand we had to prevent the customer from expecting more than we could deliver. It was in this job that I came to fully appreciate the black humour in the Dilbert cartoon strip.

Today’s Gospel reading starts with John the Baptist. Some time has passed since we met John last week, on the second Sunday of Advent (Matt 3:1-12). Then John was the herald in the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me”, John promised. In the tradition of Israel’s prophets such as Malachi, John said that the one to come would bring a purifying fire to cleanse Israel, and he warned that there was little time left to repent. Since the time of that warning, Jesus has been active in Galilee, teaching and performing miracles, and word has spread about him. In that time, John has offended King Herod with his own preaching, and is now a political prisoner. Like many prisoners, John still finds a way to send a messages, and so he asks through his own disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s seems much less confident now than he was in the wilderness. He almost seems querulous. When I hear these two gospel readings in Advent, I always wonder what happened to John’s certainty about the Messiah.

John the Baptist is a huge part of the Advent story as the church’s lectionary unfolds it. He stands for the two great and interrelated themes of Advent, preparation and repentance as the faithful make ready for the coming of Christ. It is interesting to speculate on what happened to John in prison to sap his certainty in the one he preached of in the wilderness, but as some biblical commentaries note, that would just be speculation. Far more interesting is that whereas in last Sunday’s reading John used the first person “I” and “me”, in today’s reading John uses the first person plural: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As David Hare notes, John hear appears to be speaking here for the people of Israel, who throughout this part of Matthew are not agreed on who and what Jesus is (Matt 9:33-34, Matt 12:23-24). And perhaps more to the point, John speaks for us, the people of God, as we wait for Jesus and as we wonder who he is and what he means for us. “Are you the one?”

We know that John had set himself apart from the mainstream of his people, rather like the Dead Sea Scrolls Qumran community had done. Dressed as an ascetic hermit, living in the wilderness, and preaching a baptism of repentance, John aligned himself with those prophets who foretold a coming judgement, which would cleanse Israel and reduce it to a righteous remnant. Perhaps John also hoped that Jesus as Messiah, a warrior king who would bring political liberation from Rome and its’ petty client kings for the people of Israel. Certainly John had expectations of who the Messiah would be and what he would do, and perhaps, as John languished in prison and Jesus stayed in remote Galilee, far from the seat of power, John was worrying that he gotten it wrong.

When I hear John’s question, I hear it echo in ways that pick up the anxieties and longings of our own day. One doesn’t have to be religious to be asking “are you the one”. Are you the one who can fix our schools? Are you the one who can get our hospitals and ERs working again? Are you the one who tell me how to raise my kids? Are you the one who can make me feel good about myself? Are you the one who can lift us out of our petty squabbles and give us a something to believe in and work for? I am sure there are Christians, people of faith, who ask “are you the one”. Are you the one who can fill our empty churches and breathe life back into our denomination. Jesus, it all happened so long ago and sometimes it seems so hard to believe, even at Christmas. Are you the one who was really born of a virgin. Are you the one who did all those miracles and who rose from the dead? Are you the one who will come again? Are you the one?

I talked earlier about managing expectations. Notice, in the answer he gives to John, how Jesus doesn’t do anything to diminish John’s expectations or to put realistic limits on what John is hoping for. Quite the opposite happens. Jesus fully aligns himself with the bold promises made by an earlier prophet, Isaiah. As we heard in our first lesson, Isaiah promised that a day would come when the blind would see, the deaf hear, and the lame could “leap like a deer” (which, if you watch deer leaping from back yard to back yard here in Ralston, is something to behold!) (Isa 35:5-6). As he does in Luke's gospel in his hometown synagoge, at the start of his ministry, so Jesus does here, fully aligning himself with the audacious promises of Isaiah and saying, in effect, I am the one whom the prophets foretold, the one who will save Israel and renew creation.

Jesus says the same thing to us, not managing or limiting our expectations but rather unleashing them to beyond what we can hope for. As Craig Satterlee et al point out in the latest of the excellent Augsburg New Proclamation preaching series, our culture today is full of apocalyptic fears and expectations. Living as we do in the midst of immense social, technological, even geopolitical change, I see these fears and expectations in the midst of popular culture. Two quicl examples, both centered on image we heard in Isaiah today of the highway. I've been watching the AMC miniseries The Walking Dead, with its iconic image of one of the last humans riding a highway into a city teeming with zombies. Like Cormac McCarthy's bestselling novel The Road of some years ago, this image takes the highway, which North Americans have long associated with unlimited freedome and adventure, and turned it into an image of menace, fear, and wrecked hope.

Now contrast that image with the image of the highway from Isaiah:

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa 35:8-10).

We approach this Christmas amidst our own personal expectations (will it be perfect, will my loved ones appreciate all my gifts and efforts, will I cope with being alone, with being stressed, with being sad) and amidst our larger fears and hopes (will I find/keep a job, will things get better/worse, will we be safe, will it matter). If we are Christian, and we see our understanding of Christmas becoming more and more marginalized and seemingly irrelevant against the culture's understanding of Christmas, it's easy to echo John and ask "Are you the one?".

The message of this Sunday, and the joy that is the quality traditionally associated with the third Sunday of Advent, is that yes, the one who is coming is the real deal, he is the Messiah, and the road he invites us to walk upon is safe, and straight, and will lead us to a good place. It is a bold and wonderful promise, made with the full guarantee that God made to the prophet Isaiah, that the world will be renewed and restored by the Messiah who brings God's re-creation. There's no need to manage or spin or limit this expectation, merely to embrace it and to look joyfully for the one who is to come.


Monday, December 6, 2010

That We Might HAve Hope: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 5 Dec 2010.
2 Advent (Year A)

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope." (Romans 15:4)

Sister Madonna Buder is known in some athletic circles as “The Iron Nun” because in addition to being a Roman Catholic sister, she is also a champion triathlete. She holds many medals and titles in her age categoryfor international events such as the Hawaii Iron Man competition. For the record, an iron man event includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run.. In her pictures she looks young for her years, lean and wiry, as you’d expect an endurance athlete to be, but what really catches your attention is her megawatt smile. I just know that if I was sucking wind around mile ten and I saw her smile at me, I’d get right back in the race.

Reading this book, I am continually impressed by what a big part encouragement plays in her story. Buder begins with a memorable story of how she was encouraged to finish the 2005 Kona Hawaii Ironman by two spectators who ran with her and urged her on to the finish line when she didn't think she could do it. She did, and thanks to her "angels" finished hust 57 seconds under the cutoff time.

Another story about another Kona Ironman involves describes how Buder in turn played the role of an ecouraging angel when she learned that a priest was in the race. Buder was already out because she had missed the cutoff time on the swim portion, but she got back on her bike and accompanied the priest, who was clearly struggling. Buder rode up beside him, shouted “You can do it, Padre”, and safely guided him through some crowds where his inexperience might have led to a crash. Left to his own skill and endurance, he probably would have failed. With his skill and endurance, plus Buder’s encouragement, he successfully finished. Buder gave him the hope to go on and finish.

Advent is a season with many facets. Last week we discussed how Advent is about the Coming of the Saviour at an unforseen hour, and thus about and our need to make the best use of the time given to us as followers who are accountable to Christ for the use of our time, talent, and treasure. We hear some of that in Matthew’s Gospel today in John’s preaching, when he talks about bearing worthy fruit. Advent is also about the righteousness of the Son whom God has appointed to judge the world, ad we saw some of that the week before Advent during the Feast of the Reign of Christ. Advent is the assurance of the righteousness of the King who will come to restore the reign of God's justice and mercy, and in a world of Wikileaks and of stolen elections this week, we need the assurance that there is one king who is righteouss and incorruptible.This Sunday is about another aspect of Advent. It's about hope and encouragement for God's people that we are not forgotten, for our King and Messiah will come.

Hope is a fragile thing that keeps us going. The military historian, B.H. Liddell-Hart, once said that armies lose battles only when they lose hope. The same is true of sports, marriage, business, or any other significant part of the human condition. Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning. The hope that things will get better, that some happiness or prosperity will be found, is what leads us to marry, to have children, to change jobs, to go back to school, to emigrate, etc. The hopefulness of leaders can inspire us, as we saw when Barack Obama was elected and his book, the Audacity of Hope, was a bestseller for months. But when things fail to improve as quickly as we would like, hopefulness can seem deluded, even foolish, as Sarah Palin implied when she taunted Obama with the question, “how’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?”

In our second reading , we hear Paul write to the fledging church in Rome that "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope." (Romans 15:4). This statement deserves some thought, especially if we are used to thinking of Scripture as being about doctrine, or being a collection of metaphors and stories. Paul is saying that the purpose of scripture is to give us hope and encouragement. This thought is worth hanging onto when we feel overwhelmed by circumstances, whether we're despairing about the fate of the world or the church, or we're just overwhelmed by the ordeal that Christmas has become, or whatever our circumstance might be. Paul is encouraging us to hear a message of hope.

In our readings today, hope is Isaiah telling an Israel broken by invading armies that it will be come an earhly paradise of peace and healing for all nations. Hope is John the Baptist in Matthew saying that in the wilderness of their hearts it is still possible to turn to God and be made new. Hope is Paul telling a ragtag collection of slaves and free people, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, that in the heart of the mighty a mighty empire built on power and slavery and rigid class and gender divisions, ruled by a supposed man-god emperor, that these disparate people will become a new community through the word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

That Paul is writing to a new community formed by grace underscores the second point about Advent hope. Paul writes that the purpose of God's encouragement in scripture is so that we may "live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus" (15:5). This new community will come together in worship and praise, and its members will show the same grace to one another that they have received from God: "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (15:7). Note that Paul isn't speaking to individuals. This isn't a message of hope in personal prosperity or enlightenment. Rather, it's a message of hope that we in the community of believers in Jesus Christ, we can find a foretaste of heaven in our common worship, love, and welcome, one of another.

At the end of her story about the race angels who helped her in the 2005 Kona Ironman, Sister Buder describes how she corresponded with them and thanked them for coming aside her and encouraging her. One of the wrote back and said that she did it because in the running community she has found a greater unity and spirit of caring and mutual support than she has found anywhere else. It's wonderful that people can find such rewards in communities dedicated to a specific practice or pursuit. How much more wonderful would if be if more people could find even greater rewards in the church.

This year at Advent, this base chapel is learning about something called the Advent Conspiracy. It's a challenge to step out of the consumer-driven pressure of a false generosity and to turn outwards, so that our presents become presence to one another and to the world. The theme of this year's campaign, clean and safe water, is a concrete example of how Christians can share God's love with a wprld where many lack clean water. It's one way that we can rediscover that great theme of Advent, the theme of God's hope and encouragement to be his people and his community for the world's sake.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Military Picture of the Week - The Return of the RAF Moustache

Saw these pictures back in early December, as the "Movember" phenomeonom was ending. These characters are Royal Air Force personnel from 1 Air Mobility Command who had pictures of themselves and their "Movember" moustaches taken in vintage World War Two uniforms. See more pictures of them here.

Military moustaches

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Anglican Journal Special Issue on Military Chaplaincy

Lieutenant Commander the Rev. David Greenwood leads a baptism in Bosnia.

Kudos to The Anglican Journal, the newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada, for dedicating much of the space in its latest issue to covering military chaplaincy in the Canadian Forces.

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