Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Lost And Found Jesus

Preached this morning at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, where I am stepping in this morning for the rector, the good Canon Gene Packwood.

A local family has decided to go into Calgary for the weekend. It's a large group - parents, aunts and uncles, kids and friends of kids. It's such a large group that they take several mini vans, and on the way home they stop in Strathmore for gas and Timmies. Pretty soon they discover that one of the kids is missing. Wasn't he in your van? No, we thought he was with you? If you can imagine the fear and anxiety that would set in at this point, then you're well on your way to understanding today's gospel relaxing from Luke.
It's easy to empathize with Mary and Joseph, Parents haven't really changed across the centuries, children still get lost, and the same emotions still arise. When Mary finally finds her son, after three days of what must have been increasingly frantic searching, and says to to her son that he has caused his parents "great anxiety", who could blame her for being at least a little bit cross with her son? Perhaps some of us would say things that, if Luke were telling our story, he would choose to edit to make fit for family consumption?
So we can understand the situation of the story and the feelings of the anguished and then relieved parents. Got it. But then we might ask ourselves, is this really the point of the story, to tell us that parents are parents, across the centuries? If the point of the story was to show us a scene from the childhood of Jesus, why then did Luke only choose this one? Why is it that this is the only story about the childhood of Jesus in any of the gospels? And why does this story take us in such a different direction from the Nativity story, so we go straight from the peace and mystery of Silent Night and candles and Christmas Eve to our next time back in church and this story of fear and anxiety in the crowded streets of Jerusalem?
Jerusalem. Perhaps the key to understanding this story is its setting. Why here? Why does Luke take us so quickly from peaceful and little Bethlehem to great Jerusalem, the home of the kings of Israel and the home of its God, who was thought to reside in the Temple? The first answer is Passover, when Jesus' family make the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But if we know the whole gospel story, we hear the words Jesus and Jerusalem and Passover and we can't help but think of the Passion story. There are other elements here which also foreshadow the Passion, such as the fact that His parents look for Jesus for "three days" and their son's presence in the Temple, the final place he will visit before the Last Supper, debating with the teachers, the same group that will judge him at the end. I think it's fair to say that Luke tells us this story to show us what Jesus has been born to do.
We began our worship this morning looking backwards to the peace of Christmas Eve as we sang the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Amid the lovely Victorian language of Phillips Brooks we sang these words in verse 4:
"O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today."
Here, amid one of the sweetest and gentlest of all the Christmas carols, is language that points us, firmly and unavoidably, to Jerusalem and to the cross, the places that Jesus must go for our sake if we are to be set free of our sin. To borrow from another Victorian carol, ("Good Christian Men Rejoice"), "Christ was born for this". Jesus must go to Jerusalem for our sakes, and I think Luke uses this story of the young Jesus to tell us this hard truth, as much as we might wish not to think of it.
As Luke finishes his story, he tells us that Mary "treasured all these things in her heart" (Lk 2:51). As I understand this verse, Luke is saying that Mary now has a clearer understanding of who her unusual son is and what he is meant to do. To say more on that matter would be the work of a novelist rather than of a preacher. I can't help though but to draw a connection between this passage, with Mary treasuring this mystery in her heart, and with what Paul tells us in Colossians, how we are to "Let the word of Christ dwell in us richly" (Col 3:16). Both verses seem to point to the importance of making room for Christ in our lives, thoughts, and deeds. It is an easy thing to overlook Jesus, as Mary and Joseph found on their way home. Ad a harder thing to seek him out if we are busy and frantic, as they were. If you are looking for a spiritual new year's resolution, you might trying harder to keep your eyes on Jesus, to not lose sight of him, and to keep his words and
Presence treasured in your heart.
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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Truest Answer Is: "I Don't Know Why"

The New York Times has been running a series of meditations on faith and contemporary life through this Christmas season, and yesterday offered this piece by Maureen Dowd, on the problem of explaining God's seeming refusal to intervene in and stop occurrences of evil. In theological terms this is called theodicy, and a wise clergy friend of mine once told me that it was a mug's game, best avoided. Dowd quotes another clergyman, the Catholic priest Father Kevin O'Neil, who answered her question, "Why, God?" with much wisdom. Here's a taste:

"I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not."

On a related note, National Public Radio's Tom Ashbrook did a great show on 21 Dec on Spiritual Responses to the Sandyhook School shootings in Newtown, CT. The panel included theologican Miroslav Volf, of Yale Divinity School, who lived through the Yugoslav War in the 1990s and has long reflected on the Christian response to evil. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christmas Apocalypse

Preached last night, amidst many adults and children, in a much mor abbreviated and chaotic form, at the CFB Suffield Base Chapel, in the Crown Village of Ralston.

So we all survived the Mayan Apocalypse. Congratulations! The fact that I didn't open the base chapel on Dec 21st may suggest to you that I was a bit sceptical about the whole event. Perhaps if there had been Hollywood-type things going on, liked rifts opening in the prairie or strange lights in the sky, I would have changed my mind, and doubtless you would have been here with me. But did anyone feel nervous that day? Not surprising if you did, as there is a lot of fear out there.

Tonight we are here for what might be called the Christmas Apocalypse, using the proper meaning of the Greek word, apocalypsis, meaning a showing or revealing (hence the last book of the Bible, the Revelation or Apocalypse of St. John). For what is Christmas but God revealing himself to us in the form of the baby in the manger? Charles Wesley understood this fact centuries ago when he composed one of the great carols, Hark the Herald Angels Sing: "veiled in flesh the Godhead see, / hail the incarnate deity". The Christmas story, at its heart, is about God in God's son, wanting to be seen and known by the world he loved into creation.

We need to recover this meaning of the apocalypse as something other than an ending to be feared. That sense of fear is redolent in our culture today. One hears of the zombie apocalypse, of the nuclear apocalypse, of the environmental apocalypse. We imagine a world of diminishing resources and unravelling social bonds, where neighbours turn on neighbour and devour one another. If one wonders where that fear comes from, ask the people of Newtown, Connecticut, or in any other place in the world where death or disaster erupt without warning.

For the shepherds watching over their flocks by night, gazing slack-jawed at the riven sky, it must have seemed like the apocalypse in our sense of the word as the world ending. But the message of the angel, indeed the enduring message of Christmas, is "be not afraid". The presence of the "incarnate deity" in the manger signals God's refusal to abandon us, even if that means His accepting and sharing the risks (betrayal, humiliation, death) of our human nature. God chooses to share our lot, that he might, as Wesley put it, "raise the sons of earth" and ultimately save us from our capacity to hurt and kill one another.

The Christmas apocalypse renews and reveals God's intention for creation, that we be in relationship with God and with one another. It does not diminish the reality of evil (think of Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents, those dark shadows at the edge of the Nativity story), but it promises that evil will be undone by the work begun in this birth, and it tells us, as it tells the shepherds, "be not afraid".

A very merry Christmas to you all. Enjoy your time with friends and family, especially those from the UK who may be visiting you here. Tonight we've worshipped by candlelight (miraculously without any disasters) and sung the old carols. It's been lovely. But we've also had a reminder that the apocalypse started tonight, in the sense of God revealing himself to us in the form of his son, a revelation that signals the beginning of the end of the old order of sin and death. Remember these things in the new year, when the nameless, ominous fears out there in the culture rear up again. Be not afraid, for unto us, this day, in the city of David, is born a Saviour, Christ The Lord.
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Location:CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB

Best Christmas Card Postage Stamp Of The Season

I was delighted to get a Christmas card this week with a stamp featuring a vintage VW camper van w Canada flag and canoe, part of Canada Post's Canadian Pride series. Other than that it's a VW, it's a pretty iconic Canadian image.

Here's our own iconic image, the lovely Kay (aka Mrs Padre) alongside our '85 Westy, Appa The Volksbison, and our canoe, Free, at Spruce Coulee Lake, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, last summer. All that's missing is a Canadian flag. It's minus gazillion outside tonight, but as I revisit this picture I'm comfortably warm and summer sun lazy again. And was that a loon I just heard?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Archaeology Of Compassion

Those ethicists who claim that the capacity for altruism is hardwired in human nature may take heart from this story. Yesterday's New York Times carried a piece about an archaeological dig in Vietnam which revealed an ancient skeleton showing signs of lifelong paralysis. The fact that the individual lived well beyond adolescence strongly suggests that his family/tribe were willing to care for a non-productive member. One of the archaeologists involved in the study is quoted as saying that "the provision and receipt of health care may therefore reflect some of the most fundamental aspects of a culture."

Coincidentally, last night I watched the film Cloud Atlas, which, in so far as I could make it out, is about the ability of acts of kindness and altruism to echo across generations ("by each crime and every kindness we birth our future", as one character says). Or something like that. It was one of those long, artsy films where I wasn't sure if it was being profound or simply playing an elaborate game (look, there's Tom Hanks again, in yet more makeup, doing yet another dodgy accent! Look, there's Halle Berry). However, the author of the novel Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, seems like an interesting chap, and is going on my reading list.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Talk To Sea Cadets

Back in May I was approached by the commander of the local corps of Royal Canadian Sea Cadets to help them organize a service for Battle of the Atlantic Sunday. I get the impression that the Sea Cadets are a bit thin on the prairie, and struggle to stay viable, thanks to their leaders and parents, which is a pity, as it is a fine organization that gives young people real challenges and leadership skills. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with these young people and their leaders, and so I was very pleased to get an invitation to speak at their mess dinner last night. Below is the text of my talk, given to an audience ranging from ages 12 to 65. For the young cadets, the evening was an introduction to the mysterious ritual of the mess dinner, and I have to say, I had a better time than I have had at more than a few mess dinners.

Thank you for the invitation to speak to your mess dinner tonight. As you can see, I am wearing a red coat, which means that either I'm a soldier or a Mountie, and either way therefore no expert on being a sailor. In fact, everything I know about ships and the sea comes from books and movies. Well, almost everything. Tonight I want to tell you about two Canadian warships that I have visited in the last two years, and what I learned from those ships about navies and about sailors.

Aboard HMCS Sackville, Halifax, NS, August 2010

In 2010 I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia and visited HMCS Sackville, the Canadian Naval Memorial. Ifmyou are ever in Halifax it is worth the time to visit, as you will get no better feel for what life was like at sea for your grandparents' generation. Sackville was a small warship called a corvette, built to hunt and destroy enemy submarines and to escort the convoys that took troops and supplies to Europe in Workd War Two.

By today's standards, Sackville is tiny and primitive. There isn't a single computer on board. The guns were controlled by eye and calculating range and angle by brainpower and experience. The weapons used to attack submarines worked the same way, you used sound to find the submarine under water, you used math to calculate where and how fast the sub was going, and then you tried to get there to drop your depth charges, or undersea bombs, on top of him.

When you weren't hunting submarines you tried as best you could to stay warm and dry, but in a North Atlantic storm, good luck with that. Corvettes were small and rolled badly in high seas, leaving their crews soaked, bruised, and exhausted. You always thought about the enemy torpedo that might be coming through the water to hit your ship, and whether you would die in the explosion or be drowned in the cold oily water. Men sometimes cracked under the stress.

Corvette crews were volunteers and most had never been to sea before the war. They had to learn on the job. They relied on the experience of a few professional sailors, they relied on their training, and they relied on each other. When you went down to bunk far below the waterline, with little chance of escaping if you got hit, you relied on the men on watch to stay alert and to give a good warning if they saw danger.

On the stern of the Vancouver, Esquimalt Dockyard, November 2012

Last month I was in the Navy dockyard at Esquimalt, on Vancouver Island, and I had the chance to take a tour of HMCS Vancouver. The Vancouver is a warship called a frigate. It does the same basic job that the Sackville did sixty five years ago, patrolling the ocean, protecting friendly ships and hunting enemy ships and submarines. That's where the resemblance ends.

The Vancouver looked like it was five times the size of the old Sackville. It's crew is twice as large as Sackville, around 200. It uses modern missiles and carries a helicopter. It is stuffed with computers, which control the weapons, the engines, the navigation, everything. The crew still have to understand math and geometry and navigation, but the computers help them do these things much faster than they did on ships like the Sackville. In terms of firepower, a ship like Vancouver today is probably ten times as deadly as many ships from World War Two were. The other thing that was very different from World War Two was the presence of women in the Vancouver's crew. In fact, Canada now has at least one warship captain who is a woman.

So that covers some of the differences. What hasn't changed? The Vancouver still goes out into storms. Sometimes it rolls so badly in high seas that many of the crew are badly seasick and need to take pills. The living spaces are still cramped. There's little room for privacy. There's still stress. I spoke to a young woman, a weapons controller, who described what it's like to be in the combat control centre. It's a big room, full of people and computers. It's kept dark, so the only light comes from the computer screens. There are no windows, so your only sense of what's going on comes from your screen and from your headphones. As this young sailor told us, she has to focus and do her job and not think about the torpedo that might come and break their ship in half like a twig. Instead she has to trust those around her to do their jobs, just as they are trusting her. Anyone who sailed on the Sackville would get that.

Vancouver had just gotten back from six months off the coast of Somalia, hunting weapons smugglers and pirates, and she was going into drydock for long and expensive repairs. Te next day I read a newspaper story about the problems our Navy has. The story said that we don't have enough ships, that the ones we do have, like Vancouver, are getting old, and there's not enough money. I'm sure the story was right, but you know, it's always been that way in Canada's history, In World War Two we didn't have enough ships at the beginning. We built small ships like the corvettes because our shipyards were too small to make bigger ships. We didn't have enough sailors, so we trained volunteers, including a lot of prairie kids who had never been to see before, and they got the job done. The same was true of the army and the airforce. The same thing was true of the Canadian Army when we first went to Afghanistan. All our gear and clothing was green because we never planned on going to a desert country, and there's not a lot of green in Afghanistan. Our vehicles weren't well defended, we didn't have the right helicopters to move our troops around, etc etc. What kept us going until we got the good stuff was our people.

If you were in church back in May at the Battle of Atlantic service you heard me say that I was surprised to learn that there were sea cadets here in Medicine Hat, on the prairie. I kind of thought you needed to be close to oceans and ships to be a sea cadet or a sailor. But now understand better what it takes. Visiting the Sackville and the Vancouver told me that a ships' crew don't just need seatime and technical training, though those things are good. They also need leadership, and teamwork, and the ability to trust their leaders and peers. They need courage and patience to deal with stress. If you can learn those things on Sea Cadets, then you'll be off to a good start and well on your way to going to sea, or wherever else you go in life.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christmas at Suffield 2

My work at Suffield also takes place outside the chapel. A garrison padre's lot is generally a quite one. People are busy in their workshops and offices, and other than sports and social events, it's harder to visit the troops than it is in the field, where most people stand around between sort bursts of strenuous activity. Fortunately, there's Christmas, or "silly season" as the troops call it.

The army has its own Christmas traditions, including "subbies' carolling", a night in which the junior officers ("subbie" from the English word "subaltern" meaning a young lieutenant) visit the senior officers' homes in ascending order, ending with the colonel. At each stop the young gentlemen stand on the porch, bawl out a carol, and then are invited in for festive cheer. Rather a lot of drinking happens, and by the time the night ends at the colonel's house, chaps are often quite fare gone, and often rack their brains the next morning, wondering if they did anything at the boss' house that will compromise their careers. We did our carolling the first week of December, and I embraced the thankless ministry of the designated driver. One of our captains ended his night in a spectacular degree of inebriation requiring casualty evacuation, so I never did make it to the colonel's house, but the stories I heard. There are stories about me from a previous year, involving a teddy beer, but don't believe them.

Another Christmas tradition in the army is the soldier's Christmas dinner, in which the officers and NCOs serve a Christmas dinner to the junior ranks (corporals and privates). Several customs are often observed during this event. Promotions are announced, and the oldest and youngest junior ranks are invited to sit at the head table. The Colonel and the youngest private exchange tunics, and the young soldier gets to be the CO for an hour or two, in a military version of the Lord of Misrule.

I don't know the age of this tradition, which most likely has its origins in the Vctorian era, when Christmas began to be widely sentimentalized. In the Canadian army it is a tradition of some age, and its most famous observance was during the Battle of Ortona, Italy, in 1943.

Members of the Seaforth Highlanders sit down for their Christmas dinner. Photo: Terry F. Rowe / Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-152839

Our own Christmas dinner saw Canadian and British soldiers sharing the same tables, and being generally well behaved, knowng that their RSM's eagle eye would catch anyone who started a foodfight. The food was excellent, and the soldiers enjoyed several cans of beer along with turkey and all the trimmings, as well as Christmas crackers.

Something I like to do at Suffield when I am called upon to say grace is to write some sort of rhyming grace that captures the spirit of the occasion, on the theory that people are more likely to listen to a grace if it is humorous and interesting. Here is my attempt for this year's soldier's Christmas dinner. The reference to hockey is to the Suffield ice hockey tournament (privates vs corporals vs sergeants/warrants vs officers that occurs the morning of the Christmas dinner.

Put down your tools, ignore the phone, In a week or so we're going home. Today's a day for food and cheer, For the holidays are drawing near.

May this morning's hockey rivalry, Give way to festive revelry. May we who traded shots on goal Now say "Happy Christmas" and "Noel".

God bless all who serve, as they are able, And bless each Canuck and squaddie at the table. Lord, be with us as we take our ease, And guard our comrades overseas.

Once the soldiers are dismissed to their afternoon off work, the high priced help gets busy with mop and dishrag, and once the mess is cleaned, the tradition of the Mess At Home begins. This year it was the Officers' turn to be invited to the Warrants' and Sergeants' mess for a reception.

Usually for these visits there is a price of admission, some act or performance that shows had badly the visitors want in. My task, along with a young REME lieutenant named Andy, was to come up with a Christmas song. After a few dead ends I remembered the carol from the Christmas truce scene in the 1968 Richard Attenborough film, Oh What A Lovely War.

Our singing wasn't nearly as good as harmonies in the film. However, this is what Andy and I came up with, helped by a few other submissions.

<p>It was Christmas time at BATUS*, the happiest day of the year, Men's hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer, When up spoke RSM McCormack, his face as bold as brass, Saying "We don't want your Christmas pudding, you can stick it up your ... TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY, COMFORT AND JOY, OH TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY

Now there were several sergeants, an elk** they swore to get They booked the day off sick and got on the internet. So sorry RSM Reid, that you didn't get to hunt, Pity that your elk as gone, to some civvie ... TIDINGS OF .....

Nw there were several Warrant Officers, who guessed they might promote Totty, Emerson and Robbo are but three to note Early Xmas pressie time, for them as you could tell, But we are also winners, cos they need to ring the ...***\ TIDINGS OF ......

MNow the Sergeants and the Warrants they are thick as thieves, Lots of dirty tricks they have hidden up their sleeves. When they're playing hockey they love an illegal hit Peace on earth to all ... they couldn't give a .... TIDINGS OF ...........

Don Reid is off to study French, the Base would go to hell, Were not for the efforts of that gallant gunner, Bell. Now some may wonder how he got to carry that pace stick,**** The answer's very simple, they chose the biggest ... TIDINGS OF .......

And now our song comes to an end, we hope it brought you cheer, Now open up the bloody doors, and give us food and beer. Perhaps you didn't like our rhymes, perhaps you thought they suck, It makes no difference to us, cos we don't give a ... TIDINGS OF ..........

*BATUS = British Army Training Unit Suffield **elk = tragedy this fall when no one at the base won an online competition to get a hunting license for one of the elk in the Suffield training area ***ring the bell = a costly mess tradition, when one is promoted, where you have to ring a bell at the bar signifying that you will buy everyone a drink ****pace stick = the ceremonial stick, used to measure pace length for drill, identifying the senior noncommissioned officer in a base or formation

Our singing did get us admission, even though it was dismissed by our British senior host as "a crap song that someone wrote", but to actually enter the building we had to crawl through an obstacle course involving tables, camo nets, shots of alcohol and custard powder (a long story). Once inside, my memory gets rather hazy, but I did meet up with my friend Andy the REME officer, and I was saddened to see that someone had taken a set of clippers to one side of his spectacular wax moustache, a holdover from Movember that we had all become quite proud of.

"My subject is war, and the pity of war."

And that, gentle reader, pretty much exhausts the subject of what I did at Christmas at Suffield this year. After tomorrow's service I'll shut down the chapel, as the Base and the married quarters will be pretty much deserted, and I'll devoutly pray that my pager remains silent as everyone enjoys a safe and happy holidays.

Christmas At Suffield 1

Things are winding down at CFB Suffield, the base where I am currently posted. One of my duties as Padre is providing worship services at the small base chapel. If you follow my sermons on this blog, most are preached in this setting. Well, sort of. The chaotic nature of the chapel, where parents and kids are mixed together because we are too small for a Sunday school, means that the sermons here are the formal versions. What I preach on Sunday mornings is usually much simpler and aimed at all ages. But I digress.

Our chapel was decorated on the first Sunday of Advent. A spanking new Advent banner stands behind our Advent wreath. On the left, you can see one of our two new flat screen monitors getting its first use. The chapel was fortunate enough to get a large equipment grant ($30K+) under the previous base command, with the aim of making our services more contemporary and accessible to the community. Most small churches could only dream of such an outlay. For those of you who are curious, the program we are going to run on these monitors is called Easy Worship. I also plan to use content from a Christian multimedia developer called The Work Of The People - it's thoughtful and theologically rich material, as well as being well produced.

After our Advent 1 service, some of our families put the finishing touches on the creche after a delicious pot luck lunch. Church suppers seem to mirror the feeding miracles in the Gospels, there is always more than enough food..

The following Sunday, Advent 2, the chapel was home to the first Nativity play I've seen in my three Christmases here. The seed for this idea was sown, I believe, by one of the British Army chaplains coming through on training this summer. Padre Nigel had a good noise for finding a cup of tea, and often visited the British wives club that meets in the chapel hall. Pretty soon the idea took root and as he left, Nigel apologized with a cheeky grin for leaving the job to me.

Actually it wasn't much work. I helped the ringleaders write and revise a script, and gave them the few fruits of my wisdom from my time in the civvie church, namely, keep it simple. About ten hours of preparation came together in a chaotic fifteen minutes of performance.

The shepherds visit the manger. The costumes were all done at home, and some were quite well done. Note the angels sitting off to one side at the prieu dieu.

Shepherds are followed by the wise men. It's a pity that the little girl in the lady bug costume isn't in this shot. She was quite lovely, and spent much of the play sitting beside the boy in the camel costume. Isn't that in Isaiah somewhere, about how the ladybug and the camel shall lie down together?

My only regret of the night is that for almost all of the children in this play, only a very few had ever been in the chapel before the rehearsals. A friend of mine noted that only 6% of the British population are churchgoing today, and I would say the percentage is lower in this expat British community. However, I found it interesting how many of the wives wanted to do "a proper Nativity play", so maybe the seed that Padre Nigel planted will take root.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

For All Flesh: A Sermon for The Second Sunday Of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent. Lections for Year C: Malachi 3:16, Luke 1:68-79, Phippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6 To be preached at Christ the King Chapel, Crown Village of Ralston, CFB Suffield, 9 December 2012

"...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:2-3)

"All flesh shall see the salvation of God", says John the Baptizer. Advent reminds us that the Lord is coming for us, for each of us, for "all flesh", in our time of need. Advent reminds us of our need for salvation, of our need to be forgiven of our sins. Advent asks us if we are ready to accept the change that we need, the change that is "salvation".

Let's pause for a moment and think about what "salvation" means in our time and place. If I asked my friends and coworkers if they are saved, I would get blank or hostile responses. There are too many filters in place, too many associations with Ned Flanders and pious TV preachers, for the idea of "salvation" to get a sympathetic or understanding reaction from them. And yet, I am sure, most of my friends and coworkers have some idea of an opposite meaning to "salvation".

Do you ever feel lost in the world? Ever feel alienated from and left out by those in charge, by those with money? Do you ever feel powerless, or drifting, or small? Do you ever feel that you don't really count? If we defined the opposite of "salvation" in these terms, I think we would start getting some traction in our dialogues with those who are indifferent or hostile to the Christian message.

Now what if we continued that dialogue by touching on today's gospel? What if we looked at how Luke describes the coming of John, the Messenger of God, by situating it in the reigns of those religious and political figures in power? The word of God bypasses the players and the halls of power of its day. The word doesn't stop with Lysanias or Caiaphas, but it goes all the way to "John son of Zechariah in the wilderness"(Lk 3:2). It's as if the word of God were to come today, ignoring the CEO and the General and the celebrity and going instead to the wild eyed street person on the corner. John is chosen, and John's job is to tell anyone who will listen that God is coming for all, and not just a few.

For all, and not just a few. As I write these lines, I'm thinking about Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse whose name has become a terrible footnote in the story of Britain's latest royal pregnancy. We can only imagine the terrible forces that led her to took her own life after finding pinned in the spotlight after a prank call by radio presenters went viral. The story of Britain's new royal heir was never meant to be about little people like her. It was supposed to be a story about the few at the top, but Saldhana fell into the machinery of our insatiable worship of power and celebrity. Our indifference to the dignity and individuality of ordinary people created this machinery, and that machinery caught her and chewed her up, leaving us to use inadequate words like "tragedy" and "remorse". It would have been nice if she had been spared, but if we really believed that, we wouldn't allow the machinery to keep running.

Surely a word like "salvation" is more appropriate to the situation. We can wring our hands over the perversity of our human orientation to the few, and the harm it causes, while never understanding or acknowledging the evil and inequity of the arrangement of our world, or we can recognize that God's vision is so much more broader and generous than ours. In God's economy all our worthy of salvation. The royal and the CEO and the celebrity are as worthy of God's word as the wild-eyed prophet in the desert, as deserving of mercy as the widow and the leper that the one preached of by John will come to aid and to love.

One of the glad tidings that we hear at this time of Advent is that all are equally created, all are loved, all are invited to love and turn to a gracious God. In so much as we have not heard this message, in so much as we have complied with merely human valuations of the worth of others and all the harm thus done, we are called to repent. In so much as we are offered a new way of living in the economy of God, a way of life called "salvation", we should rejoice. For unto us, unto all of us, a child is given. Amen.

What's With The Generals?

It's been a while now since the fall of US General David Petraeus from his post-military job as head of the CIA and all the weird stuff about half naked FBI agents, duelling socialites, and fluffy emails that followed. I first read about Petraeus in journalist Tom Ricks' book on the US-Iraq war, Fiasco, where he emerged as one of the few smart and capable US generals to have emerged from that sad business.

Since the Petraeus business there have been a lot of clever but predictable jokes on late night TV about the "military adultery complex". A more thoughtful comment came from Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker magazine, who wondered why we are surprised that generals should give in to a basic human instinct. "Desire", Gopnik writes, "is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power."

I agree with Gopnik that senior military men can be led by lust to do dumb stuff just as well as ordinary mortals, even though militaries tend to frown on sexual misconduct. Anyone in The Canadian Army familiar with the downfall of General Menard will know this to be true. However, after reading "General Failure", hisarticle in the current issue of The Atlantic Magazine, I find myself agreeing with journalist Tom Ricks that what a general does with his genitals is the least of the problem.

Going back to the US Army's experience in Western Europe from 1944-45, Ricks notes that the sacking of senior commanders (6 Army divisional and 5 corps commanders) was quite common. This is not surprising, he argues, since a general must master a highly demanding skills set, and be able to lead in a complex situation of maximum stress and physical demands. Not everyone met that standard, and the demands of facing a professional and competent German army required pitiless culling of inferior leaders. Compare that era to America's last ten years of war, where an internal culture of military careerism, abetted by an outside lack of interest and understanding of the military by civilian journalists and politicians, protects lacklustre generals. As Ricks writes, "Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war."

Ricks' Atlantic article is a condensed version of the argument in his new book, The Generals: American Military Command From World War Two To Today, reviewed herein the New York Times. This book is definitely one I am hoping to read over the Christmas holidays.

If you want more of Ricks on this subject, you can watch his Dec 4 interview on the PBS News Hour here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"I Don't Think That God Is On Anyone's Side": British Army's Chaplain General Speaks

Chaplain-General the Reverend Jonathan Woodhouse [Picture: Corporal Steve Blake, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]

The UK MOD's People In Defence series this month featured the British Army's Chaplain-General on his work and thinking. I particularly liked the answer he gave to this question:

LM: In war films, chaplains traditionally reassure soldiers that God is on their side, but logically he can't be on everyone's side? What's your take?

JW: I don't think that God is on anyone's side. It's up to us to be on God's side and seek out the way he wants us to live. In certain circumstances soldiers are allowed to use lethal force as a last resort but there are very clear rules of engagement. We minister to people who may be called on to use lethal force and that brings a creative tension. War is always the last resort.

Read the whole interview here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Seen On The Morning Run: Three Views Of The River

My Saturday morning running route of late has been taking me by the same bend in the South Saskatchewan River, and taking pictures of the river in its various moods and seasons has become a good excuse to stop and catch my breath for a few minutes.

Here's the river on a calm and mercifully warm day in late October with little hint of the winter to come.

Nearly the same spot in early November, after the first snowfall of winter, with ice starting to form at the bend.

And the river as it appeared this morning, 24 November, after a week of cold weather and thickening ice.

Today's run, a very slow 16km, got me over the symbolic number of 2000 kms logged since spring 2010 using the Nike Plus app, a full month ahead of schedule. It would be nice to get to 2100kms before this Christmas.

Cheers and thanks for looking. MP+

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Military Picture Of The Week

Milpic of last week, actually. I was lucky enough to attend a Land Forces Western Area chaplains' conference last week and our boss was generous enough to choose the Royal Canadian Navy Base in Esquimalt, BC, as our venue. This was especially kind of him because Esquimalt is in lovely and mild Victoria, whereas the Army bases in Western Canada (Edmonton, Shilo, Suffield) are all cold and dreary places in winter. On our last day a number of us had a chance to tour the frigate HMCS Vancouver, which is about to go into refit. This photo was taken from her stern, looking across the harbour. The big ship is one of the RCN's two fleet supply and replenishing ships, Provider, I think, looking very spry for her 40+ years. Can't tell you which ships the others are. It would be a good go, being a Navy chaplain, I think.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Two Iraq War Novels

Last month I posted a review of Kevin Powers' novel on the US war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds, and wondered if this novel might be an indicator of the kind of literature we might expect from the wars of the last decade.
Since then I've finished two more novels on the Iraq War, both by American writers. Both could be described as satire, which isn't a surprise really, when you consider that the Iraq War has already generated books with titles like Fiasco ( Tom Ricks). Journalists like Ricks and David Finkel (The Good Soldiers) have already documented the futility of the US Army's task in Iraq, blundering around like a well-meaning, tormented and destructive giant. It's not surprising that the novelists would mine the veins of absurdity and dark humour in that terrible story.

Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk ( new York, Harper Collins, 2012) is about the war on the home front, or US Homeland as it became after 9/11. A squad of US Army soldiers, the Bravos, were documented by an embedded news crew in a firefight and have been turned into overnight heroes and media stars, giving the folks at home, finally, something to feel good about in a confusing war.
The highlight of a nationwide media tour for Billy Lynn and his fellow Bravos is an appearance in a half-time extravaganza at a Dallas Cowboys football game. In a recent post here I included a few paragraphs from that scene as an example of Fountain's prose, which is often virtuosic. Fountain amps up his writing to capture his subject, the sheer excess of American culture, it's material abundance and the often childlike attitudes of its citizens. In shooting at such a big and obvious target, Fountain manages to avoid the trite and obvious. His tone is angry and comic, but he manages to create a sympathetic and self-aware character, a young soldier smart enough to realize that he is caught up in something huge and rich and even terrifying, so that going back to war seems like a relief at the end.

David Abrams' Fobbit (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2012) is not as literary as Billy Lynn's. Whereas Fountain is an accomplished writer, Abrams is a former US Army officer who kept journals while serving in public affairs in Baghdad in 2005. Fobbit is the novel he wrote from those journals, and the title comes from a satiric name used by combat troops for their comrades who never leave the comforts and security of FOBs (Forward Operating Bases).
Abrams's characters are fobbits working at a variety of tasks, including public affairs, in a bureaucratic and surreal system far removed from the exploding IEDs and ambushes of Baghdad. Among this less than heroic cast is Sgt. Gooding (With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle, he was the poster child for the stay-back-safe soldier"), a public affairs peon tasked with writing meaningless and sanitized press releases according to the whims of his superiors. Abrams main point, that rigid, timid and mendacious military bureaucrats will always be outmatched and outwitted by the 24/7 news cycle, is his own signature contribution to the rich vein of military satire.
There were times when I thought Abrams overplayed his hand in signaling the kind of book he wanted to write. It is not a coincidence that while on leave in a dismal R&R facility in Qatar, Sgt Gooding reads Joseph Heller's Catch 22 poolside. That is not to say that Abrams has not written a smart, funny and perceptive novel. Anyone who has languished in a modern military headquarters will find something to laugh at it shake their head at.
Both are novels are rich in dark humour and irony, and both show writers capturing modern war, which remains, as Great War poet Gilbert Frankau once called it, a "loathsome, servile murder job", only now with more creature comforts.
When someone finally edits an anthology or teaches a course on the literature of 21st Century War, I predict that Fountain and Abrams will both be mentioned (as will Kevin Powers). Fountain may get more mention for his stunning and angry poetry/prose, which reminds me of Allen Ginsberg's outrage from a previous generation, but both books will be remembered.
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Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Remembrance Day Talk To Schoolchildren

I've been asked to give a talk tomorrow at the Canadian-British grade school in the Crown Village of Ralston, the married quarter patch at CFB Suffield. MP+

I think it's great that you at Ralston School are having this Remembrance Day service, because it's really important. I am sure that lots of people have told you at.

I also think its great that you are doing this service because it's a really hard thing to do. I mean, think about it. It is a hard thing to do, if you really think about it. It's hard if you really think about what you are remembering.

What are we really remembering today? We're remembering young people, not much older than you, who died in wars. We're remembering families that had to leave their homes and run for their lives. We're remembering kids that had to grow up never knowing who their moms or dads were.

These are hard, difficult things to remember, if we really think about them. So wouldn't it be easier if we didn't bother with Remembrance Day? Would it be so bad, really, if we just forget all about this stuff?

Well, what would happen if we forgot other things? What would happen if we forgot about our families and our friends? What would we be like if we forgot our parents, or our teachers, and all the things they've taught us? What would we be like if we forgot where we live?

If we forgot these things, it would be hard for us, wouldn't it? We wouldn't be the same people we are now. We'd be in a lot of trouble, not knowing who we are or what we were supposed to do.

So what sort of people would we be if we forgot about Remembrance Day?

If we forgot the soldiers who died in wars, and if we forgot about our veterans, we would have trouble being brave, or loyal, because we wouldn't know what bravery and loyalty looks like.

If we forgot about the soldiers who died in wars, and if we forgot about our veterans, and what they fought and died for, we wouldn't care about other people so much. We wouldn't really care about helping other people if they were attacked or if they were suffering.

If we forgot about all the innocent people who have died in wars, we wouldn't know how horrible wars really are. We might even think that wars were fun or exciting, instead of thinking that fighting is something we do only when we really have to.

So well done, Ralston School. Thank you for remembering and for thinking about these difficult things. Because, really, Remembrance Day isn't just about remembering them and how they died. Remembrance Day is also about remembering who we are and how we want to live.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:A Remembrance Day Talk For Schoolchildren

Friday, November 2, 2012

Language Play Of The Week

We have an occasional feature here at Mad Padre called Language Play of the Week. Actually it's more like Language Play of the Quarter but I digress. Every now and then I come across a passage that makes me say "Wow, Writer Dude, you totally nailed that." OK, that last phrase wasn't especially felicitous, but you get my point.
I've just finished Ben Fountain's novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a satirical take on America and the so-called War on Terror (what do we cal the wars of the last eleven years - surely there is a better title?).
The prose is magnificent, excessive, scaled up to Fountain's subject, which is the lavish power and wealth and emptyheadedness of America and his rage about it. I could cite so many passages where I was left stunned by the language. This one comes at the book's climax, when a group of young US soldiers, instant YouTube heroes of the Iraq war, are feted at the halftime show of a Dallas Cowboys game. Be warned that the language here is rough.
"Such an unholy barrage of noise pours forth that Billy thinks he might be lifted off his feet. It is a dam bursting, bridges collapsing at rush hour, tsunamis of killer froth and boulder-sized debris revising the contours of the known world. Just assume you're going to die, so they were instructed the week before deploying to Iraq. Affirmative! Roger that! Sir yes sir! Carnage awaits us, we are the ones who will not be saved, the poor sad doomed honourably fucked front line who will fight them over there so as not to fight them here! A harsh thing for any young man to hear, but this is a part of every youth's education in the world, learning the risks that are never fully revealed until you commit. Destiny's Child is really laying into the strut, they could be wading through a storm surge up to their waists, goddam, so how is he supposed to redeploy with such sights in his head? Within days, no, hours, Bravo is back in the shit and he's waiting for them to say it again, he dreads it but the harsh words need to be said, you're going to die, just get that part of it over with please, but no, no one will do it, they get Beyonce and her mouthwatering ass instead!
Maybe it's not supposed to make sense. Or maybe not for you, Billy reasons, because you are a duh-umb shit. Then they turn, he's missed the hash mark by half a beat, the Drill grunts razor-sharp on the mark while Bravo flops around like loose shoelaces. "Change step march," Day woofs sotto voce; as team leader he's responsible for getting them through halftime with some semblance of their dignity intact, and now he counts time with the Drill grunts, trying to shoehorn the Bravos into lockstep. "Left, left,", the mantra settles Billy's mind and his feet start to follow, though it would help if he had a weapon in his hands. Just ahead are the Rots [ROTC students], a herd of shambling big-assed kids, many of them no doubt older than Billy and yet they look so young from the back, their soft, fleshy, baby- fat necks practically screaming for the sacrificial ax to come down.
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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Praise Of Dependency

I have had spotty internet access lately and so am only now posting last Sunday's sermon. For preachers who may be reading, I have an interesting dynamic working at the military chapel where I currently preach. We have several new families with young children (praise God!), but not enough of a critical mass for a Sunday school, so the adult sermons only appear here or in printed form at the back of the chapel for the grown ups. An extended children's talk, usually with props, takes the form of a sermon, and everyone seems happy that way. I certainly have more fun preaching when the kids are engaged, rather than trying to talk over the children's boredom or discomfort.

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 28 October, 2012. Readings for the Twenty Second Sunday After Pentecost, Year B: Jeremiah 31:7-9, Psalm 126, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52

When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47)

Several conversations lately have got me thinking about the word “dependency” and how people seem to feel about it. For many people, “dependency” seems to be an ugly word.

A young man told me that while he loves a girl, he doesn’t want to get into a committed relationship with her because she will be “dependant” on him. He might rethink things if she went back to school, started a career, and became more, well, independent.

A mother told me that she despairs of getting her dropout son to leave home. If he must be dependant, she said, I’d rather he was dependant on welfare than on her.

An elderly lady told me she hated the onset of winter because she fears driving in the snow and hates being dependant (her word was burden) on friends and family for rides.

Admittedly these three vignettes are just that, and it’s always dangerous to say much on the strength of anecdotes. However, I think it’s fair to say about our society is that our ideal condition for humanity is that we be independent, self sufficient free agents. Some of this is biological; we want to wean our children and bring them to successful adulthood, rather than see them living in basements. As we age, we resent the limits to our autonomy imposed on us by our deteriorating bodies and faculties.

The apex of human life, since the days of our first hominid ancestors, is surely the period of maturity where we are physically strong and able to provide for ourselves. The desirability of this condition is also at the heart of consumerist culture, which celebrates human life as a series of choices made by autonomous and financially independent individuals.

Religion, I think, has always been threatening to this ideal human state of autonomy because it threatens to pull us into webs of dependency and obligation. Religion is perceived to make claims on our choices, on our money, and on our individuality. At least, I think that’s what a colleague was thinking at the mess last week, when he said that he didn’t like hanging around with church people, because if he did he would feel that he owed them something. And I think that’s what another colleague of mine was thinking when he told me that he didn’t want to be a Christian if it meant following rules and obeying the church’s teaching.

Today’s gospel reading celebrates dependency. In blind Bartimaeus, we see who knows all about dependency. As a beggar he is used to being a burden up in others. He also knows something about Jesus. He’s heard enough ahead of time to call Jesus “Son of David”, addressing Jesus as the Messiah, the Saviour. His loud voice and his words “Son of David, have mercy on me” are totally shameless, because desperate people don’t have the luxury of a sense of shame. Bartimaeus knows that he needs help, and he believes that Jesus can help him.

It’s interesting that Jesus’ first words to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk 10:51) are the same words that he says in last Sunday’s gospel to James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Mk 10:36). But whereas the two brothers asked Jesus for a share of his heavenly glory, Bartimaeus asks only for his sight. Bartimaeus has no illusions about glory. He has lived in darkness all his life, and all he wants is to see. Bartimaeus, who knows all about dependency, knows that he must be fully dependent on Jesus for help. He must throw himself on the mercy of Jesus.

For the last few Sundays we have heard stories from Mark about people who couldn’t be helped by Jesus because they couldn’t admit their dependency. The rich young man couldn’t envision life without the riches that gave him his independence and autonomy. James and John asked for a share of Jesus’ glory, but only so they could be powerful rulers. Their vision of God was an earthly vision that celebrated power over dependence and so they couldn’t understand that God would come to them as a servant. But Bartimaeus gets it. He knows that only God can help him, and he isn’t ashamed to say it.

The lesson for us in today’s gospel, I think, is that the old slogan “God helps those who helps themselves” isn’t in fact all that helpful. That slogan comes from a human desire for independence and autonomy. It’s dishonest, because it doesn’t admit our absolute and utter need for God’s grace and love and power in our lives. God wants to help us. It’s why he came to earth.

Soin the week to come, imagine yourself in the place of Bartimaeus. Think of whatever it is in your life or your heart that you would bring before God. What needs fixing? Don’t flinch from your dependence on God. Be honest about your need. Jesus is coming, he’s passing before you. Don’t hold back. Don’t be too proud to ask for help,. Don’t think that God has better things to do than to help you. Call him him. Ask him for help. He knows what you want.

What will happen to you afterwards? I think that in our encounters with Jesus, if we are honest, we become less interested in what we can do for ourselves, and more grateful for what God can do for us, and for what we can do for God’s help. After his encounter with Jesus, we are told that Bartimaeus followed Jesus. We too are called to follow Jesus. To many, being a follower doesn’t sound attractive, if it means a surrender of autonomy and individuality. But in the encounter with Jesus, we find that by following him, we are led out of the loneliness and sadness that comes from our vain attempts to be self sufficient, and into the warmth of dependence on God and on one another.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

Christopher Buckley. They Eat Puppies, Don't They? New York: Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2012.

If you enjoy hip and funny political and social satire, you'll like this book as much as I did. This novel is both silly and smart.

Bird McIntyre, a lobbyist working for a defence contractor with the delicious name of Groepping Sprunt, a maker of killer drones the size of blimps, finds himself working for a fictitious think tank funded by his employer. His new job is to drum up hostility against China, and, hopefully, more contracts for Groepping Sprunt. He needs the work to pay for his horse crazed trophy wife, but his marriage and morals fall even further when he falls in with Angel Templeton, a beautiful and hawkish neo conservative who sees peace as the greatest threat to America.

Here's a quick taste:

"What are you proposing? That we start a rumour that Beijing tried to kill the Dalai Lama on his way into a meeting with the pope?"

"Yes. Exactly."

"And what are we offering by way of evidence?"

Bird grinned. "Who needs evidence when you've got the internet?"

"So we post it on your Facebook page that the evil Chinese tried to poison him. And you expect that to lead the evening news?"

"There are a few details to work out." Bird leaned into Angel. He could smell her perfume. "Friday I stayed up until the roosters started, doing research. The Dalai Lama is the one thing having to do with China that Americans actually care about. Human rights? Zzzzz. Terrible working conditions in Chinese factories? Zzzzz. Where's my iPad? Global warming? Zzzz. Taiwan? Wan't that some novel by James Clavell? Zzzzz. When's the last time you heard anyone say, "We really must go to war with China over Taiwan? But the Dalai Lama? Americans love the guy. The whole world loves him. What's not to love? He's a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and nirvana. All that. We can't get enough of him. If the American public were told that those rotten Commie swine in Beijing were" - Bird lowered his voice - "putting ... whatever, arsenic, radioactive pellets, in his yak butter, you don't think that would cause a little firestorm out there in public-opinion land?"

I won't give away the ending, but I will say that along the way I enjoyed Buckley's shots at bad action novels written for men, the kind you see in airport bookstores (Bird is working on an unpublished quartet of truly awful novels), as well as his imaginings of what happens inside Chinese politburo meetings. They Eat Puppies is brain candy for political junkies, but along the way manages to nail much of what's wrong with politics and the manufacturing of public opinion. A Mad Padre recommendation.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Cheerleaders And The Bible

This week the New York Times updates the debate over the bible quoting cheerleaders in the township of Kountze, near Houston, Texas. Until recently, high school football games in Kountze feature inspirational verses on banners held by the cheerleaders. The pracice has been stopped by the school superintendent, Kevin Weldon, "out of concern that the signs were unlawful and amounted to school-sanctioned religious expression".

The story is interesting because it challenges easy blue state / red state cliches about left wing bureaucrats versus read meat small town fundamentalists. AS the NYT story points out, Weldon is very Texas: a protestant, a former high school football coach, and a hunter who because of his constitutional principles finds himself uncomfortably aligned with atheits.

There's a thoughtful op-ed piece by the NYT here which makes the point that Weldon's view locally is in the minority, and while politicians such as Governor Rick Perry have weighed in on the side of the cheerleaders, this story shows "the dangers of a union between church and state. In this country — including in Texas — the Constitution does not leave religious freedom up to majority rule."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Military Photo Of The Week

Sometimes it's about more than guns.

Guardian caption: Captain Anna Crossley speaks the Pashtun language which helps her to gain access to compounds, and the women that live inside them. She often pretends to have what she refers to as a 'Helmand husband', to boost her rapport with the women who do not understand the concept of remaining unmarried Photograph: Alison Baskerville.

Background on this picture and more photos here

Monday, October 22, 2012

You're Gonna Have To Serve ... Everyone?

Readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost (Year B): Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

Christ the King Chapel, Sunday, 21 October, 2012

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mk 10:45)

In just about three weeks, one of two men will get to be the most important person in the world for the next four years.

You may not be following the American presidential election at all, or you may have strong opinions about the suitability of either President Obama or Governor Romney for this job. It doesn’t really matter. Just think about any spy movie or thriller you’ve ever seen which shows the US President in the Oval Office? What do you imagine?

You may think of a dignified looking man (or maybe a woman) in an expensive suit of clothes behind a big desk, someone who got where he is because powerful people spent millions of dollars to put him there. You may think of someone who receives deference and respect. You may think of guards ready to throw themselves between him and an assassin’s bullets. You many think of someone with incredible military power at his beck and call.

You’re thinking of these things because you’re thinking of power as humans understand it. It’s the way we think the world works. It’s the way James and John think when the ask Jesus in today’s gospel to have a share of Jesus power when he as the conquering Messiah rewards his followers.

No, Jesus says. It doesn’t work that way. Jesus tells them that his followers must be prepared to be slaves and servants.

Imagine how shocking this would have been to people in the ancient world, where there were slaves and servants, hearing this gospel for the first time?

How shocking is it to us? Perhaps it’s hard for us to really take on the idea of being a servant today, other than whatever ideas we may have imported from Downton Abbey or other costume dramas with maids and butlers in the background. Perhaps it’s hard for us to be shocked by this passage because over time Christianity has blunted it, dumbed it down to the notion that we should be nice to others and not too pushy.

We should be shocked. It should be hard for us to comprehend, because Jesus is talking about something so foreign to us that we struggle to take it in. How can the Kingdom of God be a kingdom of service? How can the Son of what the Psalmist calls the Lord, the Most High (Ps 91:9) be the one who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45)?

The idea is as foreign to us as it would be if either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney, having won the election, refused to wear the fine suits and live in the White House. What if the winner decided instead to live with the poorest people, in the shelters and on the heating grates, so they could better understand their needs? If Hollywood made a movie along these lines, nobody would believe it. But God does the same and more, even to the point of dying for us.

How Jesus can be a ransom for us, how he can take our sins on us, as the prophet Isaiah seems to suggest he will, is a mystery that theologians struggle with. All that I, a simple preacher, can point to, is the simple and wonderful truth that Jesus lives a human life, and dies a human death, for many, for us. It is the action of the God who chooses to stand with the people he created, to serve them when he might expect to be served by us.

Because humans tend towards a distorted idea the of power as a zero-sum game, we conclude that power is about rulers and the ruled. Like James and John, we accept that there must be winners and losers, celebrities and masses, rich and poor, and so on. But as Christians, we encounter a God whose thinking could scarce be more alien than if he had stepped off a spaceship from another world. This servant God calls us to stand with him, and to be a servant like him.

Bob Dylan once said “you’re going to have to serve someone”. The thinking behind that song leads to the question, who will you serve? In the light of our Gospel, that’s the wrong question. The question Jesus asks is larger, and more startling. Jesus asks us, if we all thought and lived as servants, what would the world look like if we all served, not someone, but each other? My guess is that if we all thought and lived as servants, sharing the self sacrificing mind of Christ, then the world would look like the kingdom of God.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sam Harris On Science And Morality

Our Man In Dublin asked me what I thought of this TED talk yy Sam Harris on Science and Morality from 2010. Sam Harris, if you haven't heard of him before, is often included among Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens as a powerful voice in contemporary atheism.

Some quick responses to the talk as I understand it:

Given that science is factual and empirical, must science be neutral on the subject of morality and human values, a subject which supposedly does not admit to measurement and objectivity? I think he's right to say that human morality can be discussed factually. I agree that we can speak objectively about concepts such as human health and wellbeing, in that it's better to be alive than to be dead, it's better to live in a healthy society than in a failed state.

I agree with his suspicion of moral and cultural relativism, and with his claim that a view of universal morality would and should condemn cultural practices such as the honour killings of raped daughters. I would accept in principle that religious practice can be trumped by secular morality in certain circumstances, if those religious practices (eg, suttee, honour killings, polygamous marriages with child brides) are obviously harmful to human wellbeing.

Because I am a Christian and a priest and Harris is a secular atheist, he and I differ on the idea that my notions of human wellbeing and morality derive in some form from divine revelation. Harris' reference to religious leaders as "demagogues" who derive their moral worldviews from "whirlwinds" shows his obvious hostility to my moral worldview, although I can't help but noting that in an example of what a continuum of moral views might look like, he puts serial killer Ted Bundy at the negative end, and the Dalai Llama at the positive end. If I had the chance to ask Harris a question that day, I would have asked him whether he would call the Dalai Llama a demagogue and a representative of a "delusional" belief system?

This is my first exposure to Harris, so I would want to be careful about rushing to judgement about his claim that humanity might and should evolve to a universal, secular morality. I would want to know what guarantees he would want that such a universal morality would be benign. One can think of several regimes in recent history that have jettisoned religious views of morality and imposed tyrannous and lethal secular moralities on their peoples. Perhaps the best guarantor for an empirically measurable view of human happiness would be a society where dialogue, coexisgence, and respect between religious and secular views of morality was possible?

We Need A Vicar

My brother the Mad Colonel sent me this recently.

I found the video absolutely delightful. I hope they find a new vicar soon, and I hope he (or she) has a good sense of humour. I suspect it will be an essential quality in all applicants!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

This Call's For You

If you are a prosperous sort of person (and, if you are an inhabitant of a First World country, you are prosperous compared with most people in the world today), then you probably feel some sympathy for the rich man in today's gospel. Which one of us wouldn't balk at Jesus telling us to sell what we own and give it to the poor. Really, Jesus? Seriously? Isn't there something a little less extreme that we could do?

Because we tend to sympathise with the rich man, it's easy to miss the fact that Jesus asks him to do two things. First is the request to sell his goods and give them to the poort. That's phase one of his tasking. The second phase, once he has completed phase one, is to "come, follow me". When Jesus says "follow me" in the gospels, it's important. The people he says it to, and the people who follow him, are called disciples.

So today's gospel isn't just about the use of money, or "stewardship" in church terms. It's also about following Jesus, or "discipleship", as the church calls it. And it's important to note that stewardship, like everything else in our faith, starts with discipleship.

The preacher Will Willimon notes that this may be the only person in the gospels who declines Jesus' words "follow me". He's the only one who can't accept the demands that go with discipleship.

What are these demands? While Jesus says some pretty severe things in Mark, like today's sell all you have and give the cash to the poor, or pluck out your eye if it offends you, as he does in last week's gospel reading, actually the things he asks of his disciples aren't so extreme, and usually the disciples fail even these tasks. Be humble, he asks of them, and they quarrel over who is the most important. Stay up and pray with me, he asks at Gethsemane, and they fall asleep. And Jesus still loves them, just as he loves the young rich man (Mk 10.21).

It's because Jesus loves his disciples that he is going where he's going. Mark tells us that this story happens "As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey" (10.17). That's a significant detail, because Jesus is going to Jerusalem, and to his death on a cross. As he often tells the disciples, only he can do this thing. Where I am going, he says elsewhere, you cannot follow me. The disciples can choose to follow, but they cannot go where Jesus must go, or do what he must do. They, we, can only follow.

When the disciples are shocked by what Jesus says to the rich man, they think that salvation, or approval in the eyes of God, is impossible. "Then who can be saved?" they ask, and Peter takes it one step further, saying to Jesus, "Look, we have left everything and followed you" (Mk 10:26,28). To paraphrase Peter's words, "You owe us. We've been good. We've left our boats and our ways of life behind. We've kept our end of the bargain. Now it's your turn". But God's grace doesn't work that way.

Jesus says this about salvation: "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible" (Mk 10.27). Or, as Luther and the Reformers came to understand, it's all about God's grace, feely given, and not what we do, because what we do can never be enough to earn our salvation. Only God's son, freely giving himself on the cross, can do this. The irony of the story is that, had the rich young man thrown himself on Jesus' mercy, he would have what he wanted.

Answering the call to discipleship means answering the call of a generous God who will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Our lives as disciples, our Christian lives and caracters, is subsequently formed by our relationship with that generous God, so that what we do with our money, what we do for and with others, how we love, will acquire its full share of grace. But it is never what we do by ourselves. Whatever we do as Christians, it can only begin out of gratitude.

The preached Will Willimon notes that the Rich Man in today's gospel,

Seen On The Morning Run

Taken this morning at the top of Carry Drive hill in Medicine Hat, looking east towards the South Saskatchewan River, on an unseasonably warm October day. I was tryng to capture the light on the far coulees, but my iphone camera wasn't quite up to it. Despite those clouds in the photo, the day turned out kindly and I got a goodly bit of fence painted in my back yard once I recovered from my 10ks.

The Church Militant And Air Mobile

A tip of the beret to Mad Padre's Man In Dublin for spotting this wonderful story about the Russian Army's introduction of a new piece of kit, something it claims is it "the only flying chapel on Earth".

This airmobile chapel is designed to accompany Orthodox priests assigned as chaplains to Russia's airborne forces. The chapel is apparently slung on the sort of pallet used to transport equipment or armoured vehicles. Besides the icons (including, one presumes, one of St. Michael. the patron saint of airborne soldiers) and the cool steeple at the top, the chapel is also equipped with a diesel generator and other comforts.

Russian chaplains are shown in training for their airborne duties. I must say I am quite jealous.

More can be found at an intriguing blog called Subtopia: A Field Guide To Military Urbanism.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Seen On The Morning Run

Kin Coulee Park, Medicine Hat, around 07:30 yesterday morning. Fall fights its doomed battle with winter for dominance.

This run put me at 1844 kms logged with Nike Plus since June 2010. So far I'm on track to break 2000 before New Years, God willing.

No More Non Christian Prison Chaplains Says Canadian Government

A friend of mine put me on to this story tweeted by the Canadian church's Anglican Journal, reporting that the Canadian government will not renew contracts for non-Christian chaplains employed in Canadian federal prisons.

Vic Toews, the minister responsible, has apparently decided that non-Christian prison chaplains are not a good use of taxpayers' money and that Chris stian chaplains can take up the slack in ministering to Wiccans, First Nations believers, Moslems, etc. A spokeswomen for the minister is reported as saying that the government "is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded … [Christian] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths."

In today's Globe and Mail, journalist Lorna Dueck pushes back against the notion that Christian chaplains can adequately serve the needs of inmates of other faiths. She argues that the move not only promotes the impression at the government is giving Christianity preemince over other faiths, but also rests on the strange belief that all spiritual needs can be met by one faith. It would be like asking me as a Christian chaplain in the Canadian Forces to minister to a Moslem or First Nations soldier.

Dueck also argues that effective prison chaplaincy can serve the goals of rehabilitation and recidivism, which should also support the good use of taxpayer's dollars argument so beloved of Mr. Toews. I was pleased to see Ms. Dueck quote my fellow Wycliffe College alumnus, the Rev. Eleanor Clitheroe, CEO of Prison Fellowship Canada,who makes this argument:

“There are three parts we’re talking about here: spiritual issues, ethical issues and religious or faith issues. Faith is more than ethics. Ethical issues are around behaviour, and that’s important, but it has to be rooted in something for behaviour to change,” said Rev. Clitheroe. “When it is rooted in faith, we see the real transformation in people’s lives. It’s our view that Christian chaplains are not equipped to deal with languages, sacred writings and traditions of other religions. Because religious support is so effective, we would hope [Mr. Toews] could consider the distinction between ethical and spiritual support and faith-based transformation.”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Marriage And Community: A Sermon

A Sermon For The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Preached At Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 7 October 2012

Readings For Proper 27, Year B: Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." (Gen 2:18)

Today’s readings, and particularly the linkage between Genesis 2 and Mark 10, invite us to think about marriage and divorce. The pairing of these two subjects, particularly on a weekend devoted to giving thanks, doesn’t seem especially inviting, does it? Many of us have experience with divorce, either first hand or through our families and friends. Those of us who know about divorce and still feel called to worship will probably not be pleased to consider the subject today, in church. After all, the church doesn’t have an especially good track record in speaking to divorce. Divorced people often feel condemned by the church, or abandoned by church peers who don’t know how to deal with them, or even feel unable to return to church because of they may feel shame and guilt.

Divorced people know that marriage is hard. Married people know that marriage is hard. It’s especially hard in the military. Stress, frequent time apart, and frequent postings all seem to stack the deck against military marriages working for long periods of time. I am not sure if the probability of divorce is higher in military marriages than in the civilian world, where the chances of divorce are now greater than 50%, but it feels that way.

What words of hope can the church say to those who are married, especially to those who are married in the military world? Given that one sometimes hears calls for the church to get out of the marriage business, it may seem that the church is bereft of words, or wishes to abdicate its role in the face of changing definitions of marriage and gender.

I think that if the church has anything to say, we need to recover and understand the words of our first reading today from Genesis: Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner" (2:18). However we understand Genesis, whether literally or figuratively, we need to understand it as God’s intention for the world he has created. All theology starts with the doctrine of creation, and that doctrine says, basically, God is good, and creation is God’s good and gracious gift to those God brings into relationship with him. Among the good gifts of God is community.

While God creates humans as being gendered, the traditional translation of Gen 2:18 is misleading. While it says “man”, biblical scholar Sara Koenig reminds us that the word man in the Hebrew, “’adam”, is in fact gender neutral. The verse could be translated as “It is not good that human or person should be alone”. So one key to understanding our human nature is that God never designed us to be solitary creatures. We are created for one another.

A second comment on the language of Gen 2:18 needs to focus on the words “helper” and “partner”. These words do not necessarily mean subservience. The helper or partner is not a servant. Again to quote Koenig, she notes that in Hebrew the word “ezer is used in the Hebrew most often to refer to God (e.g. Psalm 121:2), and it connotes assistance from a superior”. So humans, as exemplified in the book of Genesis as Adam and Eve, are created to be in community with one another as partners.

When I counsel people for marriage, I take them through the marriage vows and note that the vows are mirror images of one another. Neither the bride or the groom has a different job. Everything there, the sickness or health business, the better or worse stuff, is the vocation of both parties. If those vows are taken seriously and grown into, then the bride and groom will grow into a partnership with one another. Their marriage will become a community, expanding into friendships, relatives, and children, and children’s friends and their parents and so on, but it begins with the partnership at the heart of community. Perhaps if the church kept its nerve and continued to speak on this idea of marriage as a vocation, we wouldn’t want to get out of the marriage business. Rather, we might find that we have a better vision of marriage for a world which increasingly sees marriage as disposable or inherently flawed or obsolescent.

And what about divorce? What about those marriages that do fail, sometimes through no fault of one of the would be partners? It may be that such people, when they hear Jesus speaking in Mark 10, hear words of condemnation. In fact, I think Jesus is speaking words of condemnation, but he is in fact condemning a male-dominated society that sees women as disposable. There were divorces in Jesus’ day. Husbands could invoke “Moses” as per Deuteronomy 24:1-2 and get rid of their wives if they did something “indecent”, a word which could be interpreted as practically anything, such as being a bad cook. In a society where adult women had no place outside of marriage, the consequences of divorce were devastating and even deadly. So I suggest, with other commentators, that Jesus’ words here are part of his pattern of compassion and recognition of the women around him, such as the women he saved from stoning for adultery.

In invoking Genesis and the idea of community as the foremost intent behind creation, Jesus is reminding his audience of their interdependence. He is saying that no one is disposable. He is saying that human relationships, at their deepest level, are meant to be profound, sacred, giving us life and meaning. He is pointing to an idea of community, first seen in his relationship with the disciples (men and women) around him, and later seen, up to today, in the church.

Jesus’ prohibition against divorce in Mark 10 thus needs to be seen carefully. It may be that some marriages, sadly, have to end. Marriage exists in what we call the fallen world, and is subject to the influence of sin. Violence, injustice, betrayal and indifference are not just hostile to marriage, they are hostile to community. No community, whether a man and a wife or a larger group, can survive such threats indefinitely. They must be repaired in some way. It may be that the best thing that the church can extend to divorced people is a viable and attractive vision of community, one that doesn’t judge but which heals and restores. Ideally the church can play a role in teaching and exemplifying a vision of human community that will give the divorced hope that marriage, like all other aspects of lives, is not beyond God’s redemption.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Notable Quotable: C.S. Lewis On Running

"If one could run without getting tired, I don't think one would often want to do anything else."

I saw this via Twitter just now from @CSLewisDaily. The quote I believe is from The Last Battle. I'm pretty sure Jack wasn't talking about running in the jogging sense, but I would add my own AMEN to the sentiment.

Military Goats In The News

As all faithful readers of this blog know, there are few things dearer to the heart of Mad Padre than that paragon of martial prowess, that prince of nature and epitome of military tradition ... I refer, gentle readers, to the military goat.

This noble creature is Shenkin, the regimental goat of the UK's 2nd Battalion, The Royal Welsh, who was present when the battalion paraded through Bridgend, Wales, yesterday. Image courtesy of the UK MOD.

I'm Published In Canadian Army Journal (In A Small Way)

A little under a year ago I posted a review of Lizzie Collingham's fascinating history on the role of food (or lack of it)in World War Two. I had submitted that review to the Canadian Army Journal, which encourages book reviews from serving members. After trimming it down to 500 words as per their request, I heard nothing more from CAJ and decided they weren't interested.

I was quite chuffed therefore to open my mail at work on Thursday, behold a shiny new copy of CAJ and find my review therein. The editors did a great job of dressing up the two page spread for my review with some well-chosen histrical photos, so it looks great. CAJ is wonkish and dense, and I'm not really sure how many of my colleagues read it, but I'm pleased that the editors picked up my review. Food supply is going to be a strategic issue in the 21st century, and Collingham's book gives us an historical perspective to understand this issue in our own time.

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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