Sunday, May 22, 2011

Still Here: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Preached on Sunday, May 22, at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB

Lectionary Year A:
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

I woke up this morning. Pity, because I was rather counting on the prophecy of Harold Camping and so didn't write a sermon for this Sunday. I refer to the octogenarian fulminator of fire and brimstone who predicted that the rapture would occur on 21 May, 2011, at or around 6pm local time, a degree of specificity that I found rather mysterious. Mr. Camping has been wrong before, and may revise his forecast for some time to come. Or he may just be a few days off, in which case the joke is on us.

Actually the joke has been on people of faith for some time since Mr. Camping joined the company of the Koran-burning self-styled pastor of Florida to be the public face of Christianity and grist for the mill of late night monologuists, stand up comics, and urbane atheists. That's fine. St. Paul said that it would be so when he warned the early Christians in Corinth that "the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." [1 Cor. 1:18.

However, Harold Camping and his followers have managed to distort the message of the cross in a way that is particularly lamentable and unfortunate. First there is a very particular statistic they have put out, that only 3% of those living and who ever lived will be caught up in the rapture, leaving the remaining 97% to some very grim final months before the end of days. I am not sure where the statistic of 3% came from, but it seems representative of sects and cults which use a theology of the small and elect remnant as a selling point to prospective recruits, who can presumably feel quite chuffed that they have made it in.

In light of today's gospel, this 3% claim seems to be an especially niggardly presentation of God's grace. Jesus tells his disciples that "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places" (John 14.2). That adjective "many" doesn't sound niggardly to me. It is in keeping with all the parables, such as the wedding feast or the workers in the vineyard, in which Jesus points the generosity of his Father. It is in keeping with the theme of John's gospel, which speaks of God's determination to save "the world" rather than an elite few. There is talk of judgement in the gospels to be sure, and talk of consequences for actions and for unbelief, to be sure. But I would argue that any prohecy which represents God as parsimonious should be discounted as unbiblical and unhelpful teaching.

I say "unhelpful teaching" quite deliberately, because I think Mr. Camping portrays an innacurate and even repellent view of Christianity. By way of example, while I was having breakfast with friends on Saturday I overheard a couple at the next tablt talking about the Camping rapture prophecy. "Overheard" really means my being nosy, because I'm always fascinated to hear other people's ideas of spirituality and religion, and what I heard was dismaying. The couple were saying that no one knew when they would die of cancer or be hit by a car, and so why worry about the end of the world. To them, the faith that Camping was supposedly trying to represent had been reduced to a message of random chaos and death. If that is how his message is being widely understood, then Mr. Camping has a lot to answer for.

Christian doctrine does teach that the world as we know it will end, that there will be a judgement and second coming, and then a new creation. As for the timing of the end of days, any serious biblical scholar I have ever read and any wise pastor I have ever heard would say that the "when" is uncertain and unknowable. In Matthew 24, one of the most famous of the apocalyptic passages in scripture, Jesus says that this will all come at "an unexpected hour", which means to my mind "unpredictable" (Matt 24:36-44). As for the nature of the end of days, the "how" of it, I am persuaded by biblical scholars such as N.T. Wright, based on Romans 8 and related texts, that the world as we know it will be restored and re-created to be the world that God always intended it to be. TO my mind the popular idea, a la Camping, that the world will be blotted out in fire and destruction is at odds with the doctrine of creation which should be the cornerstone of systematic theology. In other words, a loving God who created us and our world must be so invested in the fate of that creation that he would not wipe it away.

The questions "when" and "how" are asked in today's gospel by the disciples who sense their own world ending. Today's gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter takes us back five weeks and change to the upper room, as Jesus warns his friends that he is about to be taken from them, and says "Where I am going, you cannot follow" (Jn 13:26). To his fearful and uncertain friends, all Jesus can offer them is the reassurance of his faithfulness. "Believe in God, believe also in me" (14:1). I love the point made by Sara Heinrich in her online commentary on this gospel that "believe in me" could easily be translated from the Greek as "keep on trusting me". Whereas "believe" in the life of the church often means assent to a set of creedal or abstract propositions, "keep on believing in me" is, as Heinrich notes, music to our ears in an all-too cynical age. It is a call from the faithful shepherd who, as we saw in last week's gospel (John 10:1-10)knows us by name and has promised to watch over us, guard us, and to die for us. That is a call to be trusted.

So this week we go back to life as usual, and to the same questions. For some it be "when", as in "when will my prayers be answered", or "why" as in "why did this happen" or "how" as "how can I get out of this". We will still hear promises and calls for our trust. I note today (May 24) that Mr. Camping, who was "flabbergasted" that the world did not end on 21 May, is now saying the world will really end on 21 October of this year. I can't answer your "how", "why" or "when" questions but I can answer your "who" question. If you are wondering who to believe or who to trust, I would say that the shepherd who calls you to keep on trusting and believing in him is faithful and worthy to be trusted. Faithful to the word he gave to his disciples in the upper room, he died for them, went before them to prepare the way, and returned. He does this work of preparation for all of us, out of the infinite capaciousness and grace of the father's love. None of us know the "how" or "when" or "why" of our ends. We only know who will be there for us, and who is with us now. So let us not live in fear, as some would have us live, but let us live, and live abundantly (Jn 10:10), as Christ has called us to live.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"The Only Therapy Is Prayer": A Whole Country With PTSD

Journalist Anna Badkhen has written an unnerving piece (Trauma Center; How do you bring peace to a country where everyone has PTSD and the only therapy is prayer?) about Afghanistan posted 13 May 2011 on Foreign She describes something we can scarcely imagine - a country so ravaged by war and violence that the mental effects of war are widespread and where mental health resources as we in the West understand them are virtually non-existent. The lens through which she tells the story is Abdul Hamid, a hospital attendant whose loss of vision after exposure to ghastly sights is a sign of conversion disorder, the brain protecting itself from further horrors by shutting down the eyes. For Badkhen, Hamid comes to stand for the 1 in 3 Afghans who suffer from some kind of war-induced mental injury, and his reponse, making a pilgrimage to a Muslim shrine, is the only recourse available to those who dwell in a country where "the only therapy is prayer".

Her account of Badkhen's visit to the shrine is as memorable as it is horrific:

"Last Wednesday, Abdul Hamid's sisters led the gardener into the shrine's putrid crepuscule and anchored him, teetering, on the floor near the northwest corner of the tomb. Next to him, a young man clasped the railing and shook. A few paces away, another man, recently paralyzed on his left side after a stroke, moaned a lament he alone could comprehend.

A woman ran fierce laps around the tomb, as she has done for 20 years, marking each footfall with a sharp, piercing shriek, as though her voice could scare away the destitution, horror, and war all around her. Then she collapsed on the floor in defeat.

Disoriented and frightened, Abdul Hamid wept.

The ammoniac reek of urine wafting from the floor of a place supposed to be holy, the cacophony of sounds -- the rattle of the metal railing, the woman's screams, the incoherent keening, the slapping of palms against adobe walls -- made no sense to him. His sudden blindness made no sense. "I am afraid," he whimpered, again and again, "I am so afraid."

He curled up against the corner of the tomb railing and tied, with his sisters' help, a plain white string to a metal post with long fingers he could not feel. His sightless eyes teared. He lay on the floor awhile. Unseen by him, swallows tumbled down elegantly out of their nests in the ceiling and dove through the shrine's open green door to somersault above the golden plains."

Badhken's elegant and poetic prose is deployed to make the point that in a country where there are only 200 beds for mental health patients, this shrine to a dead holy man is an inaqequate substitute. Her style -- "putrid crepuscule", "amoniac reek of urine", the whimpering and tearful sufferer -- underscore the title's implied scorn for "prayer" as "the only therapy" available to these poor people. The counterpoint of the unseen swallows enjoying their freedom "above the golden plains" underscores the bondage of those poor wretches as the birds tumble freely above them in a presumably uncaring heaven.

As you can imagine, I take issue with Badkhen here. I was just in a mental health ward here in Canada yesterday and I wish with all my heart that such comfortable facilities, with such well trained staff, were available to the people of Afghanistan. But go into any western hospital or nursing home and you'll smell the "amoniac reek of urine" and see and hear the whimpering and screaming of the deranged and the mentally ill. It's not pretty, but it goes with the territory of mental illness.

That a pilgrim shrine should stand for the pitiful inadequacy of Afghanistan's mental health resources is unfair. Badkhen's choice of focus has undertones of patronising scornfulness, saying, in effect, "this is the best these poor benighted people can do and it doesn't make the slightest difference", and I wonder if this is permissable because it's an account of a Muslim country. Would Badkhen have used such a tone and such images to describe those who visit a Christian shrine, such as Lourdes? Would Foreign Policy have published it? Perhaps. Post Dawkins and Hitchens, scorn for religion and spirituality is permissable for our educated and dispassionate observers of the human condition. That such scorn should be entrenched in an otherwise moving acount of the widespread mental damage caused by war is disappointing.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Understanding the Science of Blast Injuries

In an era of asymmetrical war (meaning our enemies, being militarily weaker, sensibly prefer to blow us up rather than stand and fight us), the weapon of choice used against is Improvised Explosive Device. One of the ways an IED injures people is through the effects of blast, and so medical and defence researchers are working hard to understand these effects. Because some of that research is being done here at CFB Suffield, I was interested in this article in the Globe and Mail:

IED shock waves found to cause concussions

They have no visible signs of injuries, no head wounds or burns. But soldiers who are nearby when an improvised explosive device detonates may suffer mild brain damage, new research suggests.

The shock wave produced in this type of explosion can travel through the brain and cause a concussion, also known as a mild traumatic brain injury, says Andrew Baker, a researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I Run On: How Running Saved One Military Wife

While I was putting together another "Face of the Fallen" post I came across this piece by Linda Ambard, wife of a US Air Force officer, which originally appeared in Runner's World magazine. On April 27, 17 days after this essay was published, her husband, Maj. Phil Ambard, was killed in Afghanistan. It is a moving meditation on what running can do for the soul. MP+

I Run On
2011/04 11:54 am
By Linda Ambard

After 35 years, running has carried me from my youth into middle age. It has opened doors, given me a scholarship, allowed me to travel. It has been a friend through stressful times. I ran as a child of an alcoholic, as a teen dealing with an eating disorder, as an adult coping with a failed marriage. And this year, while my daughter and husband are deployed in Afghanistan, running has become my companion.

When I married my husband, Phil, 23 years ago, I brought three children to the relationship. Their other father was not in the picture. At the time, Phil was a young airman who wanted nothing more than to leave the military, but after marrying me and taking on the responsibilities of a family, Phil committed to a long military career. In the meantime, he has taken us all over the world, and somewhere along the way four of our five children have joined the family business.

During our time in Europe, when Phil was deployed, I would push the two youngest in a double stroller. It meant a lot of huffing and puffing, and one of them was always asking questions, but running gave me a sense of comfort. It felt like a decadent treat. As a mom with five children under age 10, the best gift Phil gave me was freedom. When he walked in the door, I ran out for a run.

Read the whole piece here.

Faces of the Fallen for April 2011 Part Two

Here are some more of our US NATO allies, killed on active service, that we prayed for at Christ the King Chapel recently. Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them.

Spc. Sonny J. Moses, 22, of Koror, Palau, died April 18 in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany, of wounds suffered as a result of a grenade attack at Forward Operating Base Gamberi, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, April 16. He was assigned to the 101st Special Troops Battalion, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky.

Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin F. Bitner, 37, of Greencastle, Pa., died April 23 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, Fort Bragg, N.C.

The following Marines died April 23 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan:

Sgt. Sean T. Callahan, 23, of Warrenton, Va.

Lance Cpl. Dominic J. Ciaramitaro, 19, of South Lyon, Mich.

Callahan and Ciaramitaro were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Sgt. David P. Day, 26, of Gaylord, Mich., died April 24 while conducting combat operations in Badghis province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion, Marine Special Operations Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Lance Cpl. Joe M. Jackson, 22, of White Swan, Wash., died April 24 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Capt. Joshua M. McClimans, 30, of Akron, Ohio, died April 22 at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Khost province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with indirect fire. He was assigned to the 848th Forward Surgical Team, U.S. Army Reserve, Twinsburg, Ohio.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Remembering a Soldier and a Scholar

Some of my wargaming friends are quite gutted about this story. Apparently the guided tours he gave were legendary. I read his book Tommy years ago and loved it. RIP. MP+
Professor Richard Holmes

Professor Richard Holmes, who died on April 30 aged 65, was one of Britain's most distinguished military historians, and a distinctive broadcaster with a soldierly mien, imparting knowledge and enthusiasm in equal measure.

Battlefields were Holmes's natural habitat, and defined him as a television presenter, often up to his knees in mud for the BBC series War Walks in the 1990s, in which he toured the trenches of the First World War. He went on to make documentaries about the American Revolution in Rebels and Redcoats (2003), an acclaimed profile of Oliver Cromwell as part of the 100 Greatest Britons series in 2002, and the wide-ranging In The Footsteps Of Churchill (2005), which he accompanied with a book.

Although a born communicator with a quiet but decisive air and always at ease in front of the camera, Holmes was an unlikely media star. His old-school persona and academic background in a field of study that had lain largely neglected by modern television might have consigned him to obscurity, but he lit the vital spark to fire the viewer's interest and, simply by being himself, struck the perfect balance between erudition and populism. "I don't really see myself as a TV presenter," Holmes explained. "I'm a historian who likes telling stories."

His subject was war, described where possible from the point of view of the soldier of the line. He always sought to balance his innate gung-ho enthusiasm with a desire to keep the ordinary soldier centre stage. Although one critic mocked him as "the Sister Wendy Beckett of blood and guts", Holmes was always at pains never to glorify war.

Read the whole obituary here.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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