Sunday, December 25, 2011

Seen On The Morning Run

Some runs are better than other ones, but even on the really good ones, when I've enjoyed being out and working out, I always enjoy seeing the front door of my house at the end. This was the view this morning of Christmas Eve, about 10:00am on a gorgeous and clear sunny day with our festively attired front stoop and some fresh snow on the mailbox garland. Consider this my Christmas card to all Mad Padre readers.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Luke and Linus: A Sermon for Christmas Eve

A Sermon Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, AB
Christmas Eve, 2011

Lectionary Year B, Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

The hip and cool coffee retailer Starbucks (or “Tenbucks” for those of you who prefer the cheaper and more wholesome ambience of Tim Hortons, is very shrewd about its holiday marketing. As folks wait to place orders for their eggnog lattes, they can browse a small selection of music. The music, like the coffee, is usually very hip and cool, but at Christmas, praise be, Stabucks includes The Charlie Brown Christmas. Perhaps this selection is marketing aimed at nostalgic baby boomers like myself, who grew up with this cherished TV special. Perhaps its also aimed at hip, sophisticated types who will appreciate the jazz score by Vince Guaraldi. But it’s there, in Starbucks of all places, and it’s not called A Charlie Brown Holiday Special. It’s called A Charlie Brown Christmas. That in itself is so cool as to be practically miraculous, but not as miraculous as the story of the making of the little TV show that became an icon.

Back in 1965, in the slick, corporate America depicted in Mad Men, Charles Schulz and his business partner Bill Melendez had received a small amount of money to create a half hour TV Christmas special featuring characters from Schulz’s popular cartoon strip, Peanuts. The made the show on a shoestring budget and then went shopping for a netork sponsor and pitched the show to CBS. At first the network shied away from it. They didn’t like the child actor’s voices, the animation looked too primitive to them, and they didn’t think the jazz soundtrack would appeal to mainstream America. But most of all, the network suits were afraid of the Christian content. Not only did the Peanut’s gang sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” but Linus reads the whole nativity story from Luke, just as we heard it in tonight’s gospel. It took a last minute appeal by Melendez to personally sell the network president, who finally relented, even though he grumbled that airing the Peanuts special would mean preempting an episode of The Munsters.

The result was TV history. When it aired on CBS on December 9, 1965, the Peanuts Christmas special was seen by half of the households in the US. This show has become an icon, part of the memories and Christmas tradition of several generations. Today Canadian Tire and other retailers offer a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, and a DVD collectors edition is available at Starbucks. Something in that half hour show, so primitive by today’s production standards, has touched a deep chord of hunger and need in millions of people over 45 years, and the reason for that is, I believe, quite clear. I believe that the real magic in that show comes towards the end, when Linus finishes reading the Lukan nativity in the ancient King James language and says “That’s what Christmias is all about, Charlie Brown”. When we hear Linus says that, we know in our hearts that he’s right, he’s nailed it. Years later, when Charles Schulz described how he had to fight to keep the reading from Luke in the show, and he told how he said to his partners, "If we don't tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?"

As Christians we have a pretty clear sense of what the true meaning of Christmas. At its heart is the idea of Emmanuel, the promise that God is with us. The birth of Jesus reminds us of God’s love and solidarity with us, of his refusal to be a distant, unknown and feared God. We may not understand or grasp all the majesty and mystery of God, but in Jesus we have a way of approaching and understanding God and, because God’s son chose to share our human condition, we know that God understands us as well. We also know that the birth of Jesus is connected to God’s desire to rescue us by taking on all aspects of the human condition, including the hatred, fear, violence, and greed that we call sin. That is the connection between Christmas and Easter that is expressed in the Magi’s gifts of frankinscence and myrrh, things associated with funerals and burials, because Christ is born to die for our sakes. Christmas is about our rescue from loneliness, darkness and death.

All of these themes are expressed in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Think of Charlie Brown, plunged into darkness and despair by the cruelty and scorn of the people around him and by the soullessness and commercialism of a world that we only see at night. Then think of how Linus brings his friend out of this darkness through reminding him of Luke’s gospel story, helps bring Charlie Brown’s dying little scrap of a tree back to life, and reunites Charlie Brown with the other children, who are no longer scornful and cruel and have become gentle and loving. In his simple and brilliant way, Schultz uses the story of Charlie Brown to act out the themes of rescue, redemption and resurrection that are part and parcel of the gospel of the birth.

Tonight I’ve talked about stories that breath life and hope and magic into the world. The world of 1965 was different from the world of 2011 in many ways, and certainly far different from the world of Augustus and Quirinius that Luke takes us too. But in essence it was and is the same world. It was and is a world of darkness, a world made tired by fear and greed. But it was and is the world that God made and loved and loves today, the world that God’s son was born into and continues to be born into each and every Christmas It was and is a world that the light of Christ stubbornly comes to, whether in the flickering torches of the manger and the star from the east, or the flickering light of a 1965 TV show, or in the LED lights and displays of today, for across the years and to all of us “is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord”. Thanks be to God.

A Fantasy For Christmas Eve

Five years ago I preached this sermon while I was in a rural parish in SW Ontario. After the service several folks gently accused me of ripping it off of someone like the CBC's Stewart MacLean, which I took as a compliment to the sermon if not to my character, since I had in fact written it. It was my first and to date only homiletic creative writing. I leave it to you to judge its merits, but to you, readers of Mad Padre, consider it a Christmas gift. Blessings to you all, and may you know God's love and sustaining presence in the new year. Michael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Michael Peterson+ 2006

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Back To The Summer: Adventure Training In The Rockies

As the daily temperatures drop and winter approaches on icy feet, I find myself retreating into pleasant memories of this summer, including things I haven't managed to blog about yet.

In August I was lucky enough to get a spot on an Adventure Training trip to Alberta's Rocky Mountains, in the Kananaskis region. Adventure Training is army speak for going on a rather strenuous holiday at taxpayer's expense, so to you, the Canadian taxpayer, my thanks.

Our leader was Major Charlie McKnight, a qualified mountain warfare instructor who knows the Rockies as well as anyone, so we were in excellent hands. Three non-commissioned members, myself, and another officer signed on to do three peaks in three days, all of us thinking that mountains were kind of tall and steep, but not doubting we could do this thing. After all, the climbing we would be doing is called "scrambling", which is not technical climbing with ropes, pitons, and the like. Even so, it was more than a walk in the park. As the Major said several times in a jovial but serious way, "Pay attention to me, because mountains can kill you." We paid attention. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding and challenging things I've ever done.

Our first climb was a peak known as Windy Tower, an imposing looking slab of rock when seen from the parking lot. The first few kilometres were along an almost unforgiving forest trail that had me stopping and wheezing every few hundred metres. It only took us an hour on this trail to be thankful for the trekking poles we were instructed to bring. They proved invaluable in propelling us upwards.

Our lungs and body soon acclimated and within a few hours we had cleared the treeline. As we climbed, Spray Lake, a large and long lake beneath us, steadily grew smaller. As we neared the summit, we learned why the peak was named Windy Tower. Despite the warmth of the summer day we had felt earlier, on the summit we quickly broke out jackets and fleece vests, and I had to jam my hat firmly on my head to keep it from blowing away.

Resting and sheltering from the wind at the top of Windy Tower. Spray Lake lies beneath us.

Dave Williams admires the view from Windy Tower. I couldn't bring myself to accept his offer to sit beside him, it was too far down.

Me looking self-satisfied at the top of Windy Tower:

At the restaurant that night, the only part of me that didn't feel destroyed was my appetite. It was all I could do to shuffle to the barstool-type seat at our group's table, and the climb up exhausting, but the food (no beer or alcohol allowed) was heavenly. Then back to our spartan accomodations at Trail's End Camp near Cochrane, AB, at the facility the British army uses for adventure training and kindly leant to us.

Our goal the next day was The Fortress, near Canmore, AB. At 9,843 ft or 3000m, it ranks as the 262nd highest mountain in Canada.

Our approach route had to be improvised at the last minute by Major McKnight, since the path he had wanted to take was closed due to bear activity. He found us a route that followed a logging road for several kilometres, then took us along a forest path that skirted several avalanche routes. The Major pointed out several places where recent avalanches had damaged and carried away trees. Seeing a massive tree trunk smashed to kindling made me respect what an avalanche can do.

Between the treeling and the base of the summit, we had to navigate two short cliffs, called headwalls. After struggling up them on paths that sometimes seemed vertical, we were greeted by wondrous sights, two small hanging valleys, each with a waterfall-fed lake. This one, as I recall, was stocked with fish for any hardy angler that might lug a pole up to it.

Me looking tired but still self-satisfied on top of The Fortress. The little stone statues, inukshuks, were everywhere on the mountains.

Our final day's climb was Mount Yamnuska. As seen in this picture, our route would take us up to the base of the mountain and then its right flank to climb it from behind. Coming back down, we would circle the mountain from behind, come around its left flank, and the descend the scree slopes in the centre of this image, following the white paths you can see in the centre.

Yamnuska had some interesting features, including an ascent of several hundred feet through a moderately challenging chute of rock. In this picture, Maj. McKnight is working his way up after carefully watching us all ascend.

Another challenging section was a ledge, about five feet wide in sections, several hundred feet in length, that had to be traversed with the aid of a stout cable at waist height. The cable and one's balance were all that prevented a nasty and almost certainly fatal fall, so it took a bit of concentration. This is Dave Williams crossing the ledge.

After a trip of about four hours up, our team at the top of Yamnaska. Back row: Master Bombardier , Major Charlie McKnight, Corporal Nick Gervais, Corporal Klayton Heal. Front row: Captain Dave Williams and myself.

Our descent was quite a bit faster because of the scree slopes I mentioned earlier. A mountain looks subtantial from a distance, but in reality it is fighting a losing battle against gravity, weather and erosian, and much of a mountain is in small pieces. Below Yamnaska were long slopes of small rock which cushioned and absorbed your impact as you ran and leaped down them. Maj. McKnight called it "running on the moon" and he showed us the way, making long, graceful leaping steps that ate up hundreds of metres in just a few seconds. This is me, looking considerably less graceful.

We had started the climb at about 08:00, and by mid afternoon we were all safely down. Three climbs in three days left us in various degrees of stiffness and agony, and I was walking like a man in his nineties. But for those of us who were new to the mountains, we had seen and done things that were incredible. It's hard to relate the sense of engaging with these peaks that look impossibly grim from the highway, learning their secret routes, and gradually realizing that you have ascended to what seems like the highest point in the world. From these heights, you have a sense of how incredibly fragile the human body is against sheer height, empty space, and rock, and yet how beautiful the world is. For Major McKnight, a man as comfortable in this world as in his own backward, we all felt enormously grateful for his leadership and oversight, and for me at least, some of his enthusiasm rubbed off. I will be back to the mountains this coming summer, I am sure.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Economics Of Death

Kudos to the Globe and Mail for running this latest piece in their series on end of life issues. As Canada's population ages along with the rest of the Western world, death will consume more and more of our health care dollars. Personally I welcome the discussion this article invites. While I worry that an economic analysis like this could lead us toward the sort of future envisioned by P.D. James in The Children of Men, where the aged are invited to quietly (and cheaply) off themselves, the reality is that Canada is looking at 300-400,000 deaths a year by the 2030s, when I will likely be approaching the end of my lifespan. With current costs of $30K+ for terminal illnesses or death from old age, that's a lot of money. Perhaps, as the article suggests, more frankness and honesty as to how we want to die (eg, "do not resuscitate’ or "no heroic measures" instructions) could be a good first step in making health (and death) care sustainable for the future. MP+

How much does dying cost Canadians?
lisa priest
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Nov. 28, 2011 8:44PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011 10:35AM EST

Of all the financially grim statistics confronting Canadian health care, this ranks among the grimmest: About 25 per cent of all health-care costs are devoted to caring for patients in their last year of life.

Provincial governments are scrambling to contain health-care spending, even as an aging population begins to place increasing demands on the system. Yet there is also a growing recognition among policy makers that they cannot make efficient spending decisions without a better understanding of the economics of death.

Whole article here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A University Chaplain Brings Some Peace To Tense Campus

The tense campus is University of California at Davis, site of the now-viral images of a university peace officer casually pepper-spraying a row of sitting and apparently peaceful demonstrators on 18 November. The chaplain is the Rev. Kristin Stoneking, who was called in to campus the following day to defuse a tense situation outside the administration building. A group of students, feeling excluded from a press conference being held by the university chancellor, had gathered and the administration staff were feeling threatened and excluded.

Chaplain Stoneking was able to act as an interlocutor between the two groups, escorted the chancellor from the building, and descalated a potentially tense situation.

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi walks with Rev. Stoneking past silent protesters as she leaves her office at the campus in Davis, California November 19, 2011. (BRIAN NGUYEN - REUTERS)

On her blog, Chaplain Stoneking wrote this:

What was clear to me was that once again, the students’ willingness to show restraint kept us from spiraling into a cycle of violence upon violence. There was no credible threat to the Chancellor, only a perceived one. The situation was not hostile. And what was also clear to me is that whether they admit it or not, the administrators that were inside the building are afraid. And exhausted. And human. And the suffering that has been inflicted is real. The pain present as the three of us watched the video of students being pepper sprayed was palpable. A society is only truly free when all persons take responsibility for their actions; it is only upon taking responsibility that healing can come.

Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car? Because I believe in the humanity of all persons. Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid. Because I believe that in showing compassion we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies and in turn leads to the change that we all seek. I am well aware that my actions were looked on with suspicion by some tonight, but I trust that those seeking a nonviolent solution will know that “just means lead to just ends” and my actions offered dignity not harm.

I like this story because I believe it points to a function that all chaplains have the potential to fulfil, namely witnessing to our common humanity and values. As the Occupy movement becomes taken up in ideological talk of class warfare by both sides (note the perception of militarization in the linked articles), we need voices to pull us back from dehumanizing and demonizing one another. MP+

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Seen On The Run

Two images from some recent runs of things that caught my attention.

Last week in downtown Calgary, during an all-too brief run along the south bank of the Bow River, I came across this carved monument, a gift to Calgary from the Hungarian Arts and Heritage Association of Alberta. It had just snowed for the first time this winter just moments ago, and my footprints were the first along the trail. If I hadn't read the inscription, I would have guessed that the carving style was Japanese.

Seen this morning in Kin Coulee Park, Medicine Hat, during a chinook warmed and windy day. Some water continues to trickle over a little weir, while the bare trees and the dry yellow grass await the coming snow. The Park was an irresistible detour while running home after dropping my car off for its snowtire spa day. If this winter is like the last one, I'll need those snowtires soon. It got so thick last year that the trails and roads in parks like this one were no-go for runners.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Seen On The Morning Run

Today's image is, well, me. This grisly visage was what my fellow runners from the Mad Hatters Running Club had to look at during our 10k outing this morning. They said the high today was -14 C, but this morning with the wind chill I think it was at least -20. THe good thing about running in a prairie winter (and this is just the first taste of it) is that no matter how much you dread it starting, you feel so good when it's done. Worst thing: the dreaded frozen moustache.

Yes, I know, your eyes are bleeding, aren't they? Sorry.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Meeting Royalty: A Sermon for the Reign of Christ Sunday

A Sermon Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 20 November, 2011.

The Reign of Christ and Last Sunday of Pentecost, Lectionary Year A. Ezekiel 32:11-16,20-24, Psalm 23, Ephesians 115-23, Matthew 25: 31-46.

Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:45)

My brother sent me a news story this week about an Australian soldier who was invited along with his family to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Normally Australian corporals don't get invited to tea at the Palace, but they made an exception for Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith. While in Afghanistan, the Corporal charged an enemy machine gun position in order to save his comrades. This action was considered special enough that Corporal Roberts-Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth's highest decoration for valour in combat.

Typically self-effacing as soldiers are, "Big Ben" as he is known by the media said that "At the time it was just something that needed to be done". This battle-hardened soldier confessed that he was quite nervous to visit the Queen in her home, but found that "She’s a lovely lady and made me very comfortable. It was easy to talk to her."

If the Corporal was nervous to meet a gracious elderly queen with corgis as her feet, the encounter with the Son of Man in today's gospel is much more intimidating! Here, almost at the end of the gospel we have travelled with this summer and fall, Jesus tells his disciples that he will return in glory as the "Son of Man" to judge all humanity. The criteria for judgement are quite simple. Those who paid attention to the "least" around them will be given a place of honour and "eternal life", and those who ignored the "least" around them will be shamed and condemned to "eternal punishment".

In his commentary on this passage, David Lose remarks that there is a significant "Yikes factor" at work when we hear about the sheep and the goats and judgement. As he writes, "Not only does it feel more than a tad threatening but it also seems to run contrary to much of our inherited theology about grace". Christians are taught that we are saved by faith in Christ and by the underserved love of God, but if in fact our judgement and our fate in eternity depends on what we do in life, then do any of us have really have a chance? If the Sheep extreme is, say, Mother Teresa, and the Goat extreme is the unregenerate Scrooge (or maybe Bernie Madoff), where do we fall in the spectrum? How much do we have to do to earn sheep status? And what about this gospel lesson's emphasis on prison visiting? What if I don't know anyone in prison? Does volunteering for a food bank count instead?

Before we get too agitated about the Yikes factor here, we need to pause and remember that what we are hearing is not new. A few weeks ago in Matthew's gospel we heard Jesus say that all of God's law and teaching could be summarized as "Love God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself". Jesus reminds us that our regard for others flows out of our relationship with God who creates and loves us. It's not a matter of doing some many good works in hopes of earning Sheep status before the Day of Judgement. Rather, it is about recognizing Christ as the King of a realm that works by different rules than those of the world we know. If , as some say, the kingdoms of the world are run by and for the one per cent, the inner circles and cronies, then the Kingdom of God is about the all the rest, what Jesus today calls "the least." A Christian is someone who recognizes that God has different priorities. As the theologican Stanley Hauerwas says about today's gospel reading, "The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid 'the least of these.'"

So failure to act in the world as a Christian s not an option. If one decides to be a subject of Christ and live in the Kingdom of Heaven, I don't think it's possible to fail to act. People today speak of the church's irrelevance in an overwhelmingly secular age, but I think that as the spirit of that age becomes more and more manifest, the gospel speaks to us with a greater urgency. When wealth is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, when powerful voices seem to reject the notion that they should have to pay taxes, and when a presidential candidate blames the poor for not being sufficiently industrious, then there is a problem. As Christians, our calling to live and act differently in this world becomes clearer by the day, it seems. We may see the lmits to what our individual actions can do to change things, but we also know that the boundless love and righteous anger of God are limitless, and that both will one day be fully revealed.

Just as failure to act is not an option for Christ's followers, I don't think that trembling in fear of him is an option either. David Lose reminds us that today's lesson comes just before the final acts in Matthew's gospel, as Jesus chooses the the cross for all of us. In the paradoxical way of that cross, the shame of his death becomes the glory of the King who dies to serve his undeserving subjects. As David Lose notes, the one who will one day come to judge us is the same one who first came to be judged for us. So ... the one who came, the one who comes, and the one who is coming again -- is undeniably and unalterably for us...and all the world. And suddenly our "yikes" is transformed into "thanks be to God."

What Lose is saying is that Jesus chooses to make goats into sheep. Even if, as I've said here before, sheep can be kind of messy and dirty, they are still sheep. We don't become sheep by our own efforts and works. What we do as believers living as subjects in God's kingdom comes from the work that Christ has done for us on the cross. Everything else flows from that work of redemption and transformation. Which means that while we may, like the Australian corporal I mentioned earlier, be nervous about meeting Christ the King, in fact it is and will be a wonderful encounter. So if today's gospel makes you feel sheepish about being ready to meet Christ one day, it's ok to be sheepish. After all, he is a shepherd as well as a king.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Military Video Games: "The Promise Of Plausible Heroism"

In a thoughtful piece in the NYT, Seth Schiesel makes the point that the new generation of incredibly attractive modern war video games (I confess I'm tempted to get an XBox and start blasting away) are supplying narratives of war and heroism that the wars of the last decade have not given us. MP+

A scene from Battlefield 3.

November 15, 2011
Recruiting the Inner Military Hero in Men

If there were a draft in this country, video games about war probably wouldn’t be so popular. The fantasy would be less appealing if the reality of killing and dying in combat with other human beings were more imminent for more people.

A military draft is now unthinkable in America. And so bullet-spewing first-person shooter games like Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 seem likely to continue to reign among men as the most consistently popular genre in video games. According to game companies and analysts, the expansion of gaming onto social networks (FarmVille, Sims Social) and cellphones (Angry Birds) is largely being propelled by women. But the core console and PC gaming world — where players spend $60 on a product that has cost tens of millions to create — is still mostly driven by the tastes of young and reluctantly middle-aged men.

Despite the public’s political exhaustion after a decade of real war, imaginary war remains as popular as ever. Both Battlefield 3, published by Electronic Arts, and the new Call of Duty, from Activision, will be among the year’s biggest-selling games. In terms of design polish, production values, visual presentation, multiplayer appeal and even such storytelling as there is, they deserve all of their success.

But what makes these games so much fun for so many people in the first place? Of all video games, first-person shooters usually elicit the most confusion, consternation and derision in people who don’t play them.

Trust the marketers to show us the way. The people who make these games know exactly which of their audience’s psychological buttons they are trying to push. The tagline in the commercial Activision has been running during football games and other television programs to promote Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is “There’s a soldier in all of us.” The official trailer has been pulling in about a million hits a day.

Read the whole piece here.

Atheists In U.S. Military Seek Official Status

From last week's Baltimore Sun. As an aside, I can't imagine a Canadian military chaplain, faced with a similar situation, telling a soldier that "this is God's army". MP+

Army Capt. Ryan Jean, an intelligence officer at Ft. Meade, Md., is an atheist who seeks official recognition for nonbelievers on par with that of Christians, Jews and Muslims. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / October 20, 2011)

By Matthew Hay Brown, Baltimore Sun

November 14, 2011, 3:40 a.m.
Reporting from Ft. Meade, Md.— Capt. Ryan Jean wanted to perform well on the Army's psychological evaluation. But he also wanted to answer the questions honestly. So when he was asked whether he believed his life had a lasting purpose, Jean, an atheist, saw no choice but to say no.

Those and other responses, Jean says, won him a trip to see the post chaplain, who berated him for his lack of faith.

"He basically told me that if I don't get right with God, then I'm worthless," said Jean, now an intelligence officer at Ft. Meade. "That if I don't believe in Jesus, why am I in uniform, because this is God's army, and that I should resign my commission in order to stop disgracing the military."

Jean says experiences such as that confrontation three years ago, when he was serving at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, have spurred him to seek Army recognition as a humanist lay leader — on par with Christian, Jewish and Muslim lay leaders who help military chaplains minister to the troops.

Read the whole story here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"This Should Haunt All Of Us": A US Army Officer Calls For Better Ethical Training For Soldiers

Apropros of yesterday's post on waterboarding, here's another take on the role of torture in contemporary warfare.

H/t to Tom Ricks of the Best Defence blog for flagging this excellent piece on ethics and combat by a junior US Army officer, based on his recent experience in Afghanistan.

Kevin Bell argues that ethics can't be left to chaplains as subject matter experts because nobody else needs to know about it. He argues that because of the stresses that junior officers will feel in a counter-insurgency environment where the enemy is largely unknown, the temptation to resort to torture as interrogation will be huge because of anger and the desire for revenge will be enormous.

"Reasonable people can disagree about the best arguments for and against torture. For us as soldiers, though, these claims are beside the point. We are required by duty and honor to uphold our country’s statutory and treaty obligations, which state that torture is categorically unacceptable. To better fulfill this duty we have to do more to confront the ethical dilemmas of our profession before we go to war. It isn’t enough to know the rules if we are still unsure in a time of weakness what to do with detainees who might have tactically useful information. Our training
and leadership culture have to reinforce our understanding that the ethical treatment of prisoners doesn’t undermine the counterinsurgency strategy."

Whole article here. A must read for army officers.

On The Wargames Blog: Confederate Gunners

Posted on my wargames blog yesterday, some photos of a group of American Civil War gunners just finished. Lots more toys on the mad padre workbench to keep me busy this winter.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

US Soldier: Waterboarding Is Torture, Period

I came across this piece in Small Wars Journal by Malcom Nance, a US counter-terrorism guy, on how waterboarding as an interrogation practice is torture, pure and simple, and how equivocation in US government and media circles on its continued use is a "crisis of honor". A must read for anyone interested in military ethics. Here's a sample:

"Until recently, only a few countries considered it effective. Now American use of the waterboard as an interrogation tool has assuredly guaranteed that our service members and agents who are captured or detained by future enemies will be subject to it as part of the most routine interrogations. Forget threats, poor food, the occasional face slap and sexual assaults. This was not a dignified 'taking off the gloves'; this was descending to the level of our opposition in an equally brutish and ugly way. Waterboarding will be one our future enemy's go-to techniques because we took the gloves off to brutal interrogation. Now our enemies will take the gloves off and thank us for it.

There may never again be a chance that Americans will benefit from the shield of outrage and public opinion when our future enemy uses of torture. Brutal interrogation, flash murder and extreme humiliation of American citizens, agents and members of the armed forces may now be guaranteed because we have mindlessly, but happily, broken the seal on the Pandora's box of indignity, cruelty and hatred in the name of protecting America. To defeat Bin Laden many in this administration have openly embraced the methods of by Hitler, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Galtieri and Saddam Hussein."

Seen On The Morning Run: Winter Starts To Grip The River

Running along the bank of the S. Saskatchewan River this morning around 07:00hrs, I stopped to take this and several other shots of the first ice forming on the water. I was glad I turned off my music to do so, because it allowed me to hear the ice actually moving on the river, something that can only be described as a hissing sound, like water on a hot skillet heard from the next room.

Total distance this AM: 7.1k. Listened to: NPR Podcast, Diane Rehm show Friday news round up, which while very informative did little to speed my pace.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Life in Suffield: The Mad (And Bad) Padre On Ice

Last week marked my second ever ice hockey game. Our Base Public Affairs Officer, Nicole, came to the rink for the game featuring the Officers' Mess vs the Senior Warrants and Sergeants' Mess, and took many thrilling action shots.

I am not among these thrilling action shots, because I saw no action, other than slowly careening (if that's not a contradiction in terms) about the ice, trying to get close to the puck while trying not to run into anyone. However, Nicole did capture this shot of me during the warm up, tapping a puck with my stick (and look, one of my skates is off the ice!)

Like all small communities, the ice rink here in Ralston is the beating heart of the community. For the mostly British population resident in the married quarters patch, they have ample opportunity to get good at hockey during a two year posting, and some of them are very good. In fact, the Officers' Mess team would be lost without our British players.

They are very kind to let me play with them and perhaps before the season is over I'll have a more dramatic picture to post here, or at least something dramatic to report (a pass? an assist? perhaps a goal?).

"They Facilitated the Horror": A New Study Of German Chaplains in Hitler's Army

In the National Post today, Canadian professor Doris Bergen talks about her research on the paradoxical place of German chaplains in Hitler's army, and how their presence did not stop and may even have facilitated the atrocities committed in places such as the Eastern Front. Here's an excerpt:

"For all her work she had done on the Holocaust, she had never given much thought to the role of Christian chaplains who served the cause of the Nazi Germany.

The chaplains were always in a strange position, she explained. Pure Nazi ideology was at its core pagan. The SS, for example, never allowed chaplains in their midst. Hitler probably would have thought Nazism was enough for the troops, she said. At the same time, 95% of Germans were baptized Christians who continued to belong to the mainstream churches. German soldiers had the words Gott mit uns (God with us) on their belt buckles.

“What I tried to show that the chaplaincy was in an uncomfortable position, that they were also in a position of suspicion.” In the field, the chaplains had to keep adjusting themselves. While there were many who wanted their services there were fanatical Nazis among the troops who hated the chaplains and would taunt them.

“That pushed the chaplains into a position that wouldn’t offend some of the troops. It pushed them in a direction to make their lives easier.”

I'm currently in the process of reading Michael Burleigh's book Moral Combat: A History of World War Two, which proves from documentary sources that rank and file German soldiers (including chaplains) could not have been present in invaded Soviet Russia without witnessing the massacres of Jewish and Slavic civilians by specialized Nazi formations. The presence of chaplains, and their vain attempts to intervene in these massacres, is indeed the starting point for Prof. Bergen's study. It doesn't surprise me that most of these German chaplains shared the mindset of many Germans - that Hitler was good for Germany, that Nazism was a bulwark against Communism and atheism, that Jews were enemies, etc. Not every Christian had the clarity and the courage of those who followed Barth, Bonhoeffer and the confessing church. I wouldn't want to have made those choices myself.

I will look for Bergen's study in print. Her subject is a cautionary tale that all military chaplains and people of faith should study.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Zombie Apocalpypse, Christian Apocalypse

A Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost, Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 6 November 2011

Lectionary Year A, Proper 32. Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thess 4.13)

In this text from our second lesson, Paul reminds us that Christians are people who have hope in the future. Not the anemic hope that everything will somehow turn out ok but the robust, eschatological hope that God will win and that fear and death will lose. I mention death because Paul is writing to a church where death has shaken hope in the future. The early Christians in Thessalonica appear to have believed that Christ would return soon, and now that some believers have died, theire hope is shaken. What of their beloved dead? Will they be saved as well? What if those now living die before Christ returns? Will they be saved as well? Paul, as one of their pastors, addresses these fears by saying that the Thessalonicans don't need to despair: "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died" (1 Th 4:14).

Christianity is faith that is as much about the dead as it is about the living. The church, like Israel before it, believes that it is for the generations past, present and future. Through its feast days All Souls' Night and All Saints Day (which some congregations are celebrating today), we remind ourselves that we are united with the great cloud of witnesses, with those who, as the old prayer book puts it, have gone before us in faith and fear. The church also looks forward to new generations, in its sacraments of baptism and marriage, trusting that the future is in God's hands. Because we believe that the generations are united across time in God's creation, and because we have hope in what God will do from the here and now to the end of time, we do not fear the dead. They, like the living and those yet to be born, are part of the church.

For the last few weeks, the lawns of houses around me have been transformed into mock cemeteries as meighbours decorated for Halloween, surely the biggest spending holiday behind Christmas. In the popular idea of Halloween graves and the dead are accessories, part of the fun of a good clean scare that ties into our ancient fear of the dark and things going bump in the night. But under all that, I think, something more profound is going on. How a culture sees (and even fears) the dead is an index of its outlook on the future, particularly whether it sees the future as a thing to be dreaded or longed for. When our society fears a future where the dead are walking around eating the living (something pop culture calls "the zombie apocalypse"), that to me is a sign that something is badly broken in our hopes for and views of the future.

I mention zombies because it's slowly dawning on me that I have acquired a reputation around the base as "the zombie padre". I don't think "zombie padre" means that I'm not shambling about uncertainly and moaning (except after morning PT, maybe) but rather, I gather, speaking confessionally, that it has to do with my well-known enthusiasm for that grotesque and quite trendy subgenre of horror movies.

Very briefly, the zombie genre, as developed by film directors such as George Romero, assumes that virus (or similar explanation) causes the dead to rise and become mindless, flesh-eating and remorseless threat to humanity. Because the zombie virus is highly contagious, the numbers of zombies rise exponentially, overrunning civilization and leaving the few human survivors hunted and scattered. The Walking Dead, a TV series currently running on AMC, is perhaps the best contemporary example.

I enjoy the zombie genre because it's viscerally as well as intellecturally scary, tapping into many of the conscious or subconscious fears of the anxious time that we live in. The fear of civilization falling apart quickly and disastrously (see the interview with Niall Ferguson in today's Globe and Mail) seems very real as our economies and legislatures seize up and our leaders appear helpless and bereft of vision. The idea that one's family and neighbours could turn into ravenous killers evokes recent memories of ethnic cleansings around the world, and haunts the increasingly rancorous political and social discourse we see in the national life of our US neighbours. Finally, the idea of the numberless zombie horde surely points to our own fears that the human race, now at seven billion and climbing at a rate called "more bacterial than primate" by scientist Edmund O. Wilson, will outstrip and devour the resources of a limited, fragile planet. So while I enjoy the zombie genre as drama and as pop culture, I also think that it has something profound to say about our culture's fear that we have failed. Our culture doubts that much is meaningful, fears the future, and senses that death is greater than life, and this is why we need to hear the gospel of Christ.

The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected, is a gospel of meaning, of life's triumph over death, and of hope in the future. The gospel story of Jesus' life and work is a story about God's commitment to the world he created, and his determination to see that his creation continues to be good. The gospel story of Jesus' resurrection tells us that the kingdom of death, which the zombie genre both celebrates and fears, is made powerless by Christ's rising from the dead. The gospel's promise that Christ will come again is about hope, because it promises us that the future, however dark it may seem, is in God's hands and is therefore safe.

Both our second reading from 1 Thessalonians and our gospel reading from Matthew point to the future and to Christ's return. We call the return of Christ the Second Coming or the apocalypes, from a Greek word meaninhg "revelation" or "unveiling". Some Christian churches, like the ancient Thessalonicans, still place great emphasis apocalyptic theology, combing the Book of Revelations and other texts for signs and indicators of when the end times will occur. My own thinking on this is, to paraphrase what C.S. Lewis said about devils, that it Christians should neither think too much of these things or too little of them. The future is in God's hands, the dead are safe in God's keepings, and are lives are to be lived in faith with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

What all those means for those of us in between the past and future, in the present of the church, is to be worked out along with the rest of our Christian lives. Our gospel reading from Matthew 25 is a difficult one in that it can be taken as a call for a heightened vigilance which, like terror alerts, are difficult to sustain over time. What it does clearly say is that Christ, the bridegroom, shall return and shall know those who believed in and waited for him. As Holly Hearon notes in her commentary on our second lesson, Paul advises the Thessalonicans to continue to do the little, everyday things of Christian life:

For myself, I find this hope in the little things rather than the apocalyptic scenarios. Nonetheless, they are things that are also identified in the letter: in the encouragement we receive from one another (4:18; 5:14); in the practice of praying without ceasing (5:17) so that I learn to live in the presence of God; of discovering some way of giving thanks, regardless of the circumstances (5:18) because this helps me to see God at work in all circumstances; in not becoming complacent, but keeping awake even when I would prefer to numb my senses through alcohol, mindless television shows, or shopping sprees; in attempting to discern what it means to live by the grace and peace of Christ so that I may hold fast to what is good and abstain from evil (5:22-23).

Through these small things, lived day by day, the power and presence of God becomes real, as real as Christ coming down out of the sky, and offers me hope to face each new day with courage.

There will be days when the future, including death, will be scary, when our atavistic fears and impulses will be strong. In my first parish, I served a church beside an ancient(for Canada) country graveyard that could still be scary when I was alone there at night. On those occasions I would sometimes find myself whistling the fine Christian hymn "For all the saints", and was particularly encouraged by this verse:

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

If, as some might say, Christianity is merely hopeful whistling in the graveyard, then I would counter by saying that there are worse things to whistle.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Military Picture of the Week

Got this courtesy of Dana Rittenhouse. This was taken last week in Kabul, during the ramp ceremony for Master Corporal Byron Greff. The padre leading the bearing party is Dana's husband, Captain Howard Rittenhouse, chaplain to the Third Battalion, Prince Patricias' Canadian Light Infantry, and a dear colleague of mine.

Dana wrote that "The ramp ceremony went without a hitch - they actually practice it (and Howard had to lead the procession in a slow march - the hardest one to do, drag foot, hesitate, put down, start again) and Howard maintained his composure until he was all done - he was wearing a preaching scarf (that is the tradition) so did not have headgear which means he could not salute the casket as everyone else did. He was bothered by that so he walked over to face the casket and stood at attention for a minute as his gesture of respect - he said he started to lose it after that, and then watching the man's closest friends go into the herc to salute goodbye."

Doing Church in Hipster Brooklyn

Sometimes I'm tempted to think that churches are no longer countries for young people, and then a story like this one give me hope. Perhaps the "Skinny Jeans" angle explains why it was carried in the NYT's style section, but no matter. MP+

November 2, 2011
A Congregation in Skinny Jeans

ONE recent Sunday night on the south side of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a crowd of more than 100 men and women in their 20s and early 30s gathered.

True to the unspoken dress code of the neighborhood, they were wearing high-waisted skinny jeans, vintage T-shirts and deliberately homely sweaters. One woman in a floral romper, her platinum-blond hair cut in a shag, carried a Bob Seger vinyl record under her arm. After a gospel band played, the group listened as a man with a tattoo and a shaved head, Thomas Vito Aiuto, gave a talk that referred in turn to Woody Allen, jogging and London cabdrivers.

They were at church.

Resurrection Presbyterian Church and Mr. Aiuto (known as Vito), its pastor, have developed a reputation for attracting the artistic young denizens of the neighborhood to services that combine readings of Psalm 85 with sermons that have a somewhat secular inflection.

Mr. Aiuto, 39, bristles when his church is singled out as particularly cool. “I don’t want this church to be special,” he said over chicken mole at a Williamsburg taqueria. “I don’t want us to be a church for artists. I want it to be a garden-variety church. What we have to offer people is God.” He paused for a moment. “And I think our music is really good.”

While only one-quarter of the so-called millennial generation, those born after 1980, attend weekly religious services (according to a study by the Pew Research Center), young pastors like Mr. Aiuto and Jay Bakker, the son of the televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye, as well as groups like the Buddhist-inspired Dharma Punx, are tailoring their messages to young worshipers.

In Mr. Aiuto’s case, this can involve a certain irreverence (he made a rude gesture while illustrating a point about the parable of the prodigal son during a theological question-and-answer session after one recent service) and a dash of self-deprecation.

“I’m shocked I’m a preacher,” he said. “There’s a part of me that did and in some ways still feels that I have no place standing up and telling other people what to do or to believe.”

Read the whole piece here.

Notable Quotable: Gail Collins on Herman Cain and Frozen Armadillos

Gail Collins does some of the best satiricial and smart writing in politics today. From today's NYT, she writes on on the improbabilities of Herman Cain and frozen armadillos. Trust me, it's funny.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Canadian Soldier Killed in Afghanistan

Among the sixteen killed in an attack on an armoured NATO bus in Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday, 29 October. Master Corporal Byron Greff, of the 3rd Battalion, PPCLI, was the first Canadian soldier to be killed since the end of the combat mission, centered in Kandahar, this July.

For more on this incident and on MCpl Greff, Globe and Mail coverage here. The G&M article also mentions the deaths of three Australians, killed in a separate incident by an Afghan soldier they were training. Clearly Canada's mission in Afghanistan continues to have risks.

Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Noteable Quotable: Pope Benedict on the Christian's Military Life`

From Pope Benedict's to the International Meeting of Military Ordinariates (an Ordinariate is somewhat like a Diocese for military chaplains) at Rome, given 25 October. I admire the Pope's identification of charity as the cardinal military virture. MP+

"A Christian’s military life, in fact, is placed in relation to the first and greatest commandment, that of love of God and of neighbor, because the Christian military man is called to realize a synthesis that makes it possible to be a military man out of love, fulfilling the ministerium pacis inter arma.

I am referring, especially, to charity exercised by soldiers who rescue earthquake and flood victims, and also fugitives, putting their courage and competence at the disposal of the weakest. I am thinking of the exercise of charity of soldiers involved in de-activating mines, with the personal danger and risk involved in this, in areas which have been the scene of wars, as well as of soldiers who, in the realm of peace missions, patrol cities and territories so that brothers will not kill one another."

Read the full adddress here.

Notable Quotable: Simon Sebag Montefiore on Col. Qaddafi and the Deaths of Tyrants

From today's New York Times:

"Western leaders and intellectuals find Colonel Qaddafi’s lynching distasteful — Bernard-Henri Lévy worried it would “pollute the essential morality of an insurrection” — yet there are sound political reasons for the public culling of the self-proclaimed king of kings. Colonel Qaddafi’s tyranny was absolutist, monarchical and personal. The problem with such dictatorships is that as long as the tyrant lives, he reigns and terrorizes. As Churchill put it, “dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.”

Read the whole piece here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Running Like A (Pioneer) Girl

Continuing the running theme this morning, I was inspired by this article in today's NYT on Julia Chase-Brand, one of the great pioneering woman runners. Here she is running the Manchester Road Race in 1961. Gear and shoe geeks, check out what she's wearing - it didn't stop her from running hard and fast. That day she ran 4.75 miles in 33 min 40 sec and her result, finishing 128th ahead of ten men, was not allowed to stand.

At 69, she's still running today. Awesome.

There's also a piece on Canadian women distance running pioneers in this month's edition of Canadian Running.

Seen On The Morning Run

It was cold this morning when I set out just after 6am, with a hard frost on the car windows parked along my street. I was hesitant to launch out the door, but consoled myself with the thought that an early run does offer the consolation of a sunrise. Pausing by the South Saskatchewan River near the bridge on Altawana Drive, I was rewarded by this view.

Taken with my trusty iphone using the Pro HDR 3.01 app.

After the run (11.2km) I remarked to my wife Kay that it my headlamp kept slipping down over my eyes.
Kay: Doesn't it have a way you can tighten the strap?
Me: Uhhhh ... look at that, it does!

During the run I had tried to keep it in place by removing a glove and stuffing it under the strap of my headlamp, but her way seems easier somehow. Proof that
you don't have to be smart to run.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: Philip Kerr's Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Novel

Philip Kerr, Field Grey: A Bernie Gunther Novel. New York: G.P. Putnam's, 2011, ISBN 978-0-399-15741-7.

I'm a total World War Two junkie and an occasional fan of harboiled detective stories, so when I was in the local library last week and discovered a book combining the two, I couldn't resist checking it out and I wasn't disappointed.

Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther is a World War One veteran and a Berlin homicide cop whose career spans from the fall of the Weimar Republic to the rise of the Nazis and World War Two. This novel moves back and forth from Gunther's Berlin days to the postwar 1950s in Cuba and other locations. There's tons of material for history fans, and enough moral ambiguity for a squad of ethicists and philosophers, particularly in the centre part which asks, can a good man serve in the middle of SS under Heydrich, Hitler's executioner?

Gunther is a decent guy surrounded by scumbags, including German communists, Nazis, cynical French intelligence operatives and naive but brutal Americans. Gunther is no choirboy but he's portrayed as tough, wisecracking, and essentially decent. Here's an excerpt of a scene where he's being interrogated by US war crimes investigators with a briefcase of hidden agendas:

"You enjoy playing Gestapo. It's a little bit of a kick for you doing it their way, isn't it? Secretly, you probably admire them and the way they went about extracting teeth and information."

They came close to me now, raising their voices beyond what was comfortable to hear.

"F**k you, Gunther."

"You hurt our feelings with that remark about the Gestapo."

"I take it back. You're much worse than the Gestapo. THey didn't pretend they were defending the free world. It's your hypocrisy that's offensive, not your brutality. You're the worst kind of fascists. The kind that think they're liberals."

One of them started knocking at my head with the knuckle on his finger; it wasn't painful so much as annoying.

I love that last line, it's typical of Gunther's attitude and Kerr's writing; both are tough and clever.

I won't say anything about the plot, except that it was a bit labyrinthine and sometimes I had trouble following it. I'll have to read it again, but I enjoyed it and was delighted to find that there are three more Bernie Gunther novels in Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy.

I liked this book and recommend it to history and detective fans alike.

UK Secular Society Says No Tax Dollars For Chaplains

h/t to my friend Pete Garnham for passing this story on. MP+

15 October 2011
By John McManus
BBC News

Secular campaigners have criticised the Armed Forces for funding military chaplains, and want churches to fund them instead.

The MoD revealed, after a Freedom of Information request, that it costs taxpayers £22m a year to support about 280 Christian padres.

The National Secular Society says that at a time of defence budget cuts the cost should be met by churches.

The Church of England said it was not considering such a change.

The chaplains work across all three services, and are drawn from the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Methodist Church among others.

There are also five civilian chaplains, who minister to Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist recruits.

Read the whole story here.

Jewish Chaplains Memorialized At Arlington Cemetery

H/T to my friend Padre Mike Gibbons for this story from the Huff post. MP+

The face of the Jewish Chaplains Memorial that was dedicated Oct. 24, 2011 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. The memorial, that stands on Chaplains Hill in the cemetery, is dedicated to the 14 Jewish chaplains who have died in service to the U.S.

In this family photo released by the Silberberg family, Rabbi Morton Singer, right, is seen in 1968 at Fort Sill, Okla. Singer was killed in a plane crash in Vietnam while flying to observe Hanukkah with Jewish soldiers. He was serious in his commitment to help American soldiers worship in wartime. Until recently, his name, and those of 13 other Jewish clergymen, were absent from monuments at Arlington National Cemetery that honor more than 240 other fallen military chaplains.

By Adelle M. Banks

Religion News Service

ARLINGTON, VA. (RNS) In a ceremony steeped in Hebrew prayers and military hymns, a monument to Jewish chaplains who died in active duty was unveiled Monday (Oct. 24) at Arlington National Cemetery.

“They are unrecognized heroes of both Jewish and American life, but today we begin the process of publicly acknowledging their contribution and their ultimate sacrifice,” said Allan Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Community Centers Association, which sponsors the council that endorses Jewish military chaplains.

The cemetery's Chaplains Hill has been home to three monuments -- one for World War I chaplains, another for Protestant chaplains from the two world wars and one for Catholic chaplains from World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

The newest addition honors 14 Jewish chaplains who died in combat, in accidents or of natural causes. They include one who traveled thousands of miles each month to reach Jewish military members in isolated areas in Alaska. Two others perished in plane crashes on their way to conduct Hanukkah services for military personnel.

Retired Rear Adm. Harold L. Robinson, director of the JWB (Jewish Welfare Board) Jewish Chaplains Council, said the memorial reflects the unity of the U.S. military's chaplain corps.

“To have that uniqueness not represented at Chaplains Hill fails to represent one of the gems of American life,” said Robinson, a retired Navy chaplain. “Now we visually symbolize that on Chaplains Hill.”

Read the whole story here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Jesus Was Killed By "Liberal Court"

Anyone care to guess who said the following?

The liberal court found Him guilty of false offences and sentenced Him to death, all because He changed the hearts and minds of men with an army of 12.

His death reset the clock of time.

Never before and not since has there ever been such a perfect conservative.

For over 2,000 years the world has tried hard to erase the memory of the perfect conservative, and His principles of compassion, caring and common sense.

The answer is: Herman Cain, who is the pizza flavour of the month in the US Republican nomination race. Thanks to the Huff Post for this lead.

I had no idea that Jesus was the "perfect conservative". I've also seen supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement post pictures of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple and claiming Him as one of their own.

Vindication, if anyone needed it, of Albert Schweitzer's old dictum that people seeking to recover a Jesus favourable to their thinking are like those seeing their reflection at the bottom of a well. Also, I think, vindication that Herman Cain is an idiot.

No Record for 100 Year Old Marathoner ...

... But He's Still My Hero

Anyone in the running world who has gray hair (comme moi) will have been cheered by the news last week that Fauja Singh, aged 100, finished Toronto's waterfront marathon on 16 October and became the world's first centarian to complete a marathon.

Fauja Singh, 100, raises his hands in celebration as he crosses the finish line in Sunday's Toronto waterfront marathon. Singh set a world record as the oldest person to complete a race of that distance. (Canadian Press

Unfortunately, Canadian Running magazine today reports that the Guinness World Book of Records has denied Mr. Singh the record, since he can't produce a birth certificate. Apparently official documentation wasn't that easy to obtain in rural India in 1911, the year Mr. Singh claims he was born. I can see why Guinness wants to protect its integrity, but a half-hearted boooo escapes my lips.

No worries, Mr. Singh, you're my running hero. And if I can complete my first marathon in under 5.40.01, the time you set as a 90+ man in 2003, then I'll be quite happy.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Do I really want the internet to be something I feel naked without?" Sam Graham-Felsen on Life Without the iphone

A few minutes ago I posted here on why I can't run without my iphone, and how it makes my life better in all sorts of ways. Is that a sign that I need an intervention? That thought crossed my mind after reading one user's account of how he decided to live without his iphone. Crazy talk, I know. Isn't it?

Notable Quotable: "Jesus would not be cutting U.S. foreign aid"

David Rothkopf, writing on Foreign Policy website, skewers the Republican presidential hopefuls, "a bunch of candidates who seem hell-bent on proving their essential Christian-ness", for their foreign aid (bad) vs defense spending (good) priorities:

As for cutting defense spending, where do you think Jesus would come out on that one ... especially if they taught any arithmetic in the Nazareth public school system of the Galileean Unified School District. Might he suggest that spending say, only eight times more than our next biggest rival was sufficient to maintain the peace and that we could use the extra $140 or so billion that saved us per year ... $1.5 trillion over a decade, to meet the budget cutting goals of the Supercommittee in one fell swoop? Might he note that there is no way to make the big cuts we need by chopping away at comparatively small programs? Or that somehow cutting the programs that help the rest of the world versus those that are designed to blow it up might send the wrong message?

Heck, it doesn't take being the Prince of Peace or a guy with a knack for stretching a budget (see the whole fishes and loaves thing) to recognize that this approach of eviscerating U.S. smart power while blindly protecting the brute sort is kind of dumb not to mention dangerous.

Read the whole piece here.

A Runner's Reward: Prairie Sunrise

(Apologies to my Facebook friends who have already seen this photo)

Every time I go for a run, my iphone is grasped in my sweaty little paw (I really need an arm strap/holster for it). I carry it for a number of reasons. It's always smart to have a phone if one gets into trouble, main reason - especially as we head into a prairie winter. Also, I can listen to music (fast upbeat music is best for my pace - news and current affairs podcasts such as NPR's The Diane Rehm show are informative but slow me down). And, the Nike Plus application logs my progress, and makes me look forward to logging better pace times and distances. It's curious how, if I couldn't log my run digitally, a part of my brain would think the run was wasted - curious.

I also carry it for the camera function, which I upgraded with the HDR app. Occasionally I see things I like to capture, and to be honest, a few minutes break never hurts either. Today's reward for getting out in the dark was this sunrise, seen just south of CFB Suffield. The Alberta prairie can seem quite monotonous at times, but every now and then it offers its blessings.

I'm also happy to report that my pace is slowly coming down, even for long runs. Today it was a 6.05 min per km average pace for a total of 11kms in 1:07:04, despite some persistent knee pain which I'm going to have to get looked at. My goal this year is to get the down to a 5.45 race pace, break 2 hours for the half marathon and do a full marathon before I turn fifty in November 2012.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

British Soldiers Save Calgary Man ... With Credit Cards

Left to right: Private Ben Regan, Pte Lee Wingrove, Pte Cai Thomas, Lance Corporal Sam Neil and Sergeant Terence Wall
[Picture: Andrew Walmsley 2011]

It's a common complaint in SE Alberta that British soldiers training at CFB Suffield rum amok on leave and do disgraceful things. Not that anyone here complains about the money the Brits spend while on leave.

It was good therefore to see this piece in the UK MOD news service about five young soldiers who saved a Calgary man with an innovative application of their training.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Minstrel Boy To The Wars Is Gone ...

... in the ranks of the flip-flopped you will find him.

Provenance of this photo is unclear. Possibly it's from the recent fighting in Libya. A friend of mine is sure the guitar is not photoshopped, but thinks it may be staged, given the terrible muzzle discipline of the shooters.

Either way, it has my vote as the coolest combat photo of the 21st century to date.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review: Lizzie Collingham's The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food

I read this book in August and thoroughly enjoyed it. The review below is being submitted to the Canadian Army Journal's book reviews section and I thought I'd share it here. Good reading for foodies and history buffs alike. MP+

COLLINGHAM, LIZZIE, London, Penguin Books, 2011, 634 pages, $50.00.

That deaths (at least 20 million) from starvation, malnutrition, and related diseases exceeded deaths (19.5 million) from military action in World War Two may surprise readers of this book. Besides this shocking number of dead from hunger, millions more worked and fought for years on the brink of starvation. Lizzie Collingham, a British social historian, has done us a great service by offering a comprehensive picture of the grievous human cost of World War Two. She explores the role of food in the ideology that led the world to war, in the social context of total war and its cost on populations, and in the military context of feeding vast militaries. Collingham connects this piece of human history with contemporary security issues by noting the parallels between food availability and demands then and now.

The growth of urban populations and their growing demands for more nutritious and costly foodstuffs is not just a phenomenon of today’s world. The same trend was at work in the West and in Japan in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The US had enormous agricultural potential to exploit, while Britain could feed its population by leveraging its Empire and its maritime trade. The totalitarian governments of Germany and Japan, with their ideologies of racial superiority and entitlement, were unwilling to rely on trade with Britain and the US to feed their people. For the Nazis, who remembered the Allied blockade and use of hunger as a weapon during World War One, food security was a strong motivator. This book effectively argues that the German and Japanese desire to secure their food supplies was a major cause of World War Two.

German and Japanese planners looked to Eastern Europe and Manchuria respectively to resettle their surplus farmers and develop breadbaskets for their empires. The populations of these regions would be systematically displaced and starved, thus creating living room for the conquerors. Collingham calls this policy of deliberate extermination by starvation the “exporting of hunger”, the wholesale plundering of the food supplies of others so that the homelands would not go hungry. In fact the implementation of these policies was chaotic and unsuccessful. In eastern Europe the ingenuity with which people bartered, hoarded and found alternate food supplies meant that the Nazis accelerated their concentration and destruction of Jews in order to meet their self-imposed quotas of eliminating “useless mouths”. Policies of genocide and food security thus went hand in hand.

Collingham’s accounts of how governments worked to feed their peoples and militaries will fascinate students of logistics and social science. Total war placed enormous stresses on food production. Shipping and transport was destroyed or diverted from moving food to moving troops and war supplies. Factories switched from agricultural to military production, leaving tools, tractors and fertilizers in short supply. Agricultural labour was moved into militaries and industry. To compensate, governments adopted rationing based on their internal values of entitlement. For the US, the mobilization of its vast food resources inspired the slogan “Freedom From Want” as an American war aim, thus banishing ghosts of the Depression and inspiring a new middle class standard of prosperity. In Britain, egalitarian standards of rationing shed light on pre-war class-related nutritional deficits and led to social reforms that lasted until the Thatcher era. In the dictatorships, rations were allocated based on one’s value to the war effort. Soviet workers and soldiers functioned on the brink of malnutrition through the worst years of the war. In Germany, the ruthless plundering of other countries’ food reserves (as Canadian troops discovered liberating a starving Holland) meant that most Germans did not face starvation until the final collapse. Only Japan, which had its maritime shipping totally destroyed as the Pacific War turned against it, was unable to feed its soldiers and citizens. By 1943 the Japanese government was reduced to exhorting its people to eat “Decisive Battle Food” that included insects, rice straw and seaweed.

Adequately feeding militaries of millions posed huge challenges. In the Allied armies, the increased democratization of societies meant that citizen soldiers had higher expectations than did those of the Great War. Britain thus introduced its Army Catering Corps as part of reforms to culinary standards previously so low they caused sit down strikes in 1941 among Canadian troops stationed in Britain. The quality of field rations improved gradually, though in hostile environments such as the Desert and New Guinea, troops often survived on bully beef and biscuits. German troops were expected to augment their rations with food confiscated locally, at the detriment of occupied populations. Their Russian opponents were generally hungrier and became expert foragers, keeping scurvy at bay by eating nettles and boiling pine needles. The worst off were the Japanese, who, often isolated and marooned on islands, were reduced to eating dried grasses, palm starch, and, ultimately, each other. American troops became the wonder of the world for their seemingly unlimited rations, and it is no wonder, as Collingham notes, that “plentiful American food became a symbol of the United States’ economic prosperity”.

It is difficult for Canadians today to imagine a world where hunger and thoughts of food haunted waking life for billions, although for parts of the globe that world still exists. For decades after 1945, societies ruined by the war struggled with hunger while the victors, particularly Americans, dedicated themselves to increased consumption of meat and dairy products. Other countries followed the American example as they recovered, and so consumerism, obesity and “diseases of affluence” are legacies of the war. Advances in nutritional science, food preservation and storage technologies are more positive results. As global population and food demands continue to climb, as climates change and as agriculture reaches yield limits, Collingham predicts that governments (and, by implication, militaries) will once again need to manage the world’s food supplies and relearn the lessons of World War Two.

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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