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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: The Junior Officers' Reading Club

Patrick Hennessey. The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin), 2009.

During the British Army's training season here at CFB Suffield you can spot them in the officer's mess - young Brit officers with big hair, a certain languid grace and a devil-may-care attitude. They fall into two groups, the young subbies (lieutenants) here with their battlegroups, training to go over to Helmand province in Afghanistan, and slightly older captains who have already been over there and are now here as trainers, imparting their hard-won lessons to the first group. Reading Patrick Hennessy's book gives me a sense of what their lives and their army is like.

Patrick Hennessy is a bright young man (born 1982) from a family of soldiers who did well at Sandhurst, was assigned to the Grenadier Guards, and went from Iraq to Afghanistan, where he mentored a piratical group of Afghan National Army soldiers. In the process he did very well, saw an insane amount of combat, got badly burned out, and came to realize that he and his peers had followed the trajectory of each generation before them, learning lessons the hard way, by personal experience and coming of age. As he writes in the introduction, his cohort could only learn so much from their seniors, not because the seniors couldn't teach, but because the juniors had to walk that road themselves.

"Too Cool for School" was what we'd been called by the smarmy gunner colonel on a course down in Warminster, congratulating through gritted teeth the boys who'd picked up gallantry awards, too old now to win the spurs he never got the chance to while he was getting drunk on the Rhine and flying his desk.
But in a way he was right: what did we know just because we'd had a few scraps in the desert? The bitter, loggy major who sat next to him had probably been to the Gulf back in '91, when we were still learning to read; probably had been patronized himself when he was a crow by returning Falklands vets who in turn had been instructed by grizzly old-timers sporting proud racks of World War Two medals, chests weighed down by Northwest Europe and Northern Desert Stars, which told of something greater than we could comprehend, the stuff of history imagined in black and white when no one was anyone without a Military Cross. Our grandfathers were heroes, whatever that meant, and they had taught the legends who charged up Mount Tumbledown in the Falklands and had returned to teach us.
We who didn't believe them."

I suppose that excerpt repeats a cliche as old as Achilles, that each generation in turn must go to war to prove itself as their elders did, and in turn must experience war and its many disillusionments first hand. Hennessey is a bright young man, and he tells this old story in the language and context of his generation: ferociously skeptical, media astute, cynical but wanting meaning. There are times when, as a chaplain and a person of faith, I find myself wincing at his honesty, as when he writes that he "was overcome by a surge of revulsion at the hypocrisy of the thing, the crap being peddled by the padres that somehow makes it all right for a nineteen-year-old to die if he's going to heaven. That surely can't have been the same heaven the suicide bombers who blew up the UN workers were off to. After the Old Testament trials of the week I'm done with the religious bullshit dimension of what is going on" (24-25). Brutally honest, but I'm grateful for it. It's good to know your audience.

Despite its title, this book is more about combat than about literature. The Book Club in the title was the author's initial peer group, but they are only briefly sketched characters and we soon lose sight of them. However, Hennessey was himself an avid and eclectic reader in theatre, and his choices are interesting. Some of his reading connects him with a long tradition of adventurous British soldier-scholars, such Wilfred Thesiger's The Marsh Arabs. As something of a satirist himself, it's easy to see why Hennessey enjoyed military send-ups such as Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies and Joseph Heller's Catch 22. More contemporary choices included Brett Easton Ellis (himself once a bright young man). And of course there are the 21st touches, ipod playlists, DVD series, email and videos.

I won't spoil the ending. Along the way, one admire's Hennessey's love for the Afghan soldiers he served with, and shares his unease as to the West's longterm commitment to the Afghan people. As an addition to the genre of military memoirs, it's a useful update, even if the tropes (alienation from former civilial friends, resentment at rear-echelon types, disillusionment with the experience once so eagerly sought out) are familiar. If war is indeed a cliche, then each generation it seems must discover that truth for itself, and Hennessey is an apt spokesman for those who came of age in the War on Terror. My hope is that somewhere out there, a similarly articulate young Canadian soldier is working on his or her own account of Afghanistan.

A quick final note on the cover art shown above. The choice of a pile of dog-eared paperbacks, some suspiciously resembling the old Penguin Classics, is inspired. It reminded me of the chapters in Paul Fussell's chapters in his book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989), on how paperbacks, miraculously suited to the pockets of battledress, helped soldiers pass the time and stay sane. Regretfully, Penguin has seen fit to adorn the pile of books on the cover with little soldiers who, from their weapons and helmets, are conspicuously US. Could they not have used images of British soldiers? Surely the North American market could stomached that.

After Thanksgiving, a Question: Why Give Thanks?

I liked this essay by the Rev. James Christie, a Canadian theologian, which appears in this month's issue of The United Church Observer. Christie's main point - any good relationship, including the one want to have God, is founded on please and thank you. MP+

Military Picture of the Week

I continue to love the work of the British military photographers! This photo is the MOD's Image of the Day for 10 Oct 2011. MP

Lightning strikes in the distance behind Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, as troops wait for the first rainfall on Operation HERRICK 15, which officially began yesterday when 20th Armoured Brigade took over command of Task Force Helmand in Lashkar Gah from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. Click here to read more. [Picture: Sergeant Steve Blake RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Call The Doctor (Because No One Else Can Help You)

Fr Pierre Martinius nursing plague victims, 1564. N532/0007 Rights Managed

I was ordained just after the SARS epidemic haunted North America for a very brief and unpleasant time in early summer. My bishop let we his clergy know that if things got as bad as the doomsayers were predicting, he would remove any of us who refused to visit the sick or worse, to use a phrase with echoes of the Black Plague, deserted our parishes. I confess that for a few days I entertained romantic thoughts of myself acting like Father Paneloux in Albert Camus' The Plague, faithfully preaching, visiting, and burying (not that Fr. Paneloux was a hero to Camus, mind you, but it comes to mind). Fortunately such heroics weren't necessary. SARS vanished as quickly as it came, a blessed few had to be buried, and none of my clergy colleagues had to be removed.

I was reminded of SARS as I watched Stephen Soderbergh's scary and smart film Contagion last week. I'm sure Soderbergh wanted us to be reminded of SARS and all the other diseases that haunt this now all too flat earth. That's the conclusion of David Denby in his very fine review in The New Yorker. r I'm not the only Christian blogger to recommend this film, which is fast-paced, thoughtful, and scary as hell. However, as I watched Contagion, I looked in vain for a priest, minister, or even a church. Not a sign of one. While Contagion does set up a conflict between rational science, reperesented by the heroic and steadfast researchers and doctors in the film, and irrationality, Soderbergh doesn't bother using faith as his straw man.

The straw man here is the blogger and conspiracy theorist played by Jude Law, who plays on fears of collusion between governments, medicine, and big pharma to discredit the vaccine which finally arrives late in the film to save society tottering on the brink. It's a good conflict, and it's a worthy anttodote to the wild and half baked theories infecting the internet. But I was taken aback by the final words in Denby's review"

"No one prays, no one calls on God. "Contagion" lacks any spiritual dimension - except for its passionate belief in science and rational administration. The movie says: When there's real trouble, we're in the hands of the reality-based community. No one else matters."

Amen ... I think. I'm grateful for Soderbergh for valourizing science and public administration in this film. Many of the characters in Contagion, like the doctor played by Kate Winslett, are worthy heirs to Dr. Rieux, the real hero of Camus' The Plague. As Francis Fukuyama writes in the introduction to his 2011 book, The Origins of Political Order, there is a prevalent notion that we would all be better off if modern states were dismantled when, in fact, they are damned complicated, took a long time to build, and are generally good for us. Soderbergh's film underscores that point rather well. It's just the spiritual emptiness in it which, once Denby pointed it out to me, saddens me.

Or maybe it's not spiritual emptiness, but rather a displacement of spirituality that's going on. In the same (Sept 19, 2011) issue of The New Yorker, Paul Goldberger offers an essay on how architects are rethinking buildings dedicated to medical research and science. Speaking of Louis I. Kahn's design for the Salk Institute, he writes that the building gives "research scientists private, almost monastic solitude". So that's where the monks have all gone! I guess I'll take some comfort in the idea that monasteries, once dedicated to being set apart to pray for the world, have given place to laboratories working to save the world. It's an appealing and comforting alternative to the old SF movie cliche of the laboratory where bad things and nightmares are hatched. I take more comfort in the idea that God the creator, who created humanity to use its formidable intellect, finds delight in these beautiful buildings and tenacious humans who work to save life, which, I suppose, save for the mention of God, was Soderbergh's point as well.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Labour of Love

"What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?" (Isa 5:4)

A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB

Year A Lections for Pentecost 16: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15 (14, 15), Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

I haven't toured a lot of wineries but whenever I do I am impressed by how much work it is to create a place that grows good wine. Some years back I was visiting friends on Pender Island in BC's Gulf Islands and they took me to Morning Bay Vineyards. This winery is quite new, and was created by blasting terraces out of the island rock, hauling in good earth, and planting vines brought over from Europe. It took them eighteen months to build the vineyard before they could start production, in what was clearly a labour of love, and they make some very nice wine.

I was reminded of my visit to Morning Bay as I was reading the first lesson from Isaiah, the song of the beloved's vineyard. "My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it" (Isa 5:1-2). Isaiah's song of the vineyard is an allegory and a warning. As the vehicle of the allegory, the labour and effort to create the vineyard is a reminder to Israel of the care and love that God has put into his covenant relationship with them. God's chosen people are the "choice vine", and as verse 7 explains, the fruit that this vine is expected to produce is "justice" and "righteousness". In other words, the people of Israel are expected to live according to the law that God gave them, both in their dealings with God and with one another. The warning to Israel is that they have not kept their covenant with God, the vineyard has produced "wild grapes" that cannot be made into wine. In a voice equally mixed with sorrow and anger, God declares that he will destroy the vineyard.

You can imagine how disappointed the owners of Morning Bay Vineyards would have been after all their investment and labour did not produce good grapes. At some point the love and hope and effort poured into a project just isn't enough to make it work. We hear some of that disappointment in God's words as Isaiah relates them: "And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?" (Isa 5:3-4).

In the Song of the Vineyard, Isaiah captures both the voices of the God of love who wants to be in relationship with humanity and the anger of God of Justice who is outraged by bloodshed and cruelty. The blending of these voices is far more subtle than the Old Testament, supposedly full of judgement and smiting, is often given credit for. The theologian Karl Barth, in his discussion of humanity's election by God, called these two voices the No and Yes. The No is the voice of warning and ultimately of condemnation, but it is not ultimately the final voice, or voices. The final voices are both the Yes of God's loving grace and forgiveness, and the Yes of those who choose that grace and forgiveness rather than condemnation.

By way of fleshing out that theological sidebar, let's note that the Song of the Vineyard is not the final song. That song is continued in today's Gospel, in Jesus' exchange with the teachers and the pharisees, and his parable of the vineyard that is grounded on Isaiah 5. Jesus' very act of telling the parable reminds us that the judgement and destruction of the vineyard threatened by the owner in Isaiah has not yet happened. In the parable, God's outreach to his created and chosen people continues, like negotiations continuing to the very last possible minute, wit one side being violently and irrationally intractable and the other being hopelessly generous.

David Lose, one of the wonderful voices of the Working Preacher website, compares the forbearace of the vineyard owner in the parable to the Sower in the parable of the Sower and the Seed. Both, he writes, are emblematic of what Lose calls God's "crazy generous love": "Who would do such a thing? No one...except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child than he does a businessman. It's crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love."

To be sure there is Barth's No, the voice of condemnation, in Matthew's parable. Interestingly, though, it does not come from Christ, but rather from Christ's antagonistic interlocutors, who are maneouvered into saying what the owner will do when his Son is killed: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time" (MAtt 21:41). I'm struck by what Loses and others note here, that these words of condemnation are not spoken by Jesus. They come, ironically, from those who will soon, in Matthew's Passion narrative, join in the rejection of Jesus. But these words of condemnation do not come from Jesus himself.

In Isaiah's Song, the owner of the vineyard vows to destroy and tear up what he has lovingly created and offered to humanity. In Matthew, in the shadow of the cross he will soon go to, Jesus the beloved son, with whom God is well pleased, embodies the vineyard. In chosing the cross, Jesus acts out the part of the obedient son in the parable. In his commentary on Isaiah 5, Mark Gignilliat of Beeson Divinity School makes the spot-on connection between Christ's broken and lifeless body becomes the uprooted vineyard. "It is a powerful image: God the Father before the cross with dead vines in his blistered hands. In the final analysis, God in a triune act of love destroyed his choicest vineyard -- this is my beloved son -- for the sake of planting a vineyard of love and grace in the whole world."

For me the gospel in this Sunday's lections is the reminder of the persistence of God and his desire to be in fruitful relationship with us. In this time of autumn and harvest, as living things shut down and the land becomes bleak, the hope of what God would bring to life in each of us seems somehow greater and more radiant.

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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