Monday, February 27, 2012

A Soldier Artist Remembers the Fallen

Almost a year ago I put a clipping outside my office door, a story from the Globe and Mail profiling Poto Leifi, a commercial artist who enlisted in the US Army in 2005 and put his talents to work commemorating his fallen comrades. I took the clipping down today, and suddenly realized that I had never blogged it.

A fan of vintage posters and artwork, Leifi composes tributes to fallen US soldiers in the style of old World War Two posters. Leifi noticed that when he started experimenting with putting fallen soldiers' faces into his work, "the posters came to life in a very profound way". I would certainly agree with that.

The Globe and Mail article can be found here. Sadly, there are only a few of Leifi's commemorative pieces on the web to my knowledge.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tactical Ministry in Kabul

Captain the Reverend Howard Rittenhouse, Padre of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and Task Force Chaplain of the Canadian Contribution to the Training Mission in Afghanistan, adds a black liturgical scarf to his normal dress of arid-pattern CADPAT in preparation to conduct a service.
Photo : MCpl Rory Wilson

My padre buddy Howard is featured in a piece in the CF Land Forces Western Area newspaper, Western Sentinel, profiling his ministry in Kabul. The story is carried on the CEFCOM website here. The work described in this article is typical of what a good chaplain does and what a chaplain can offer to deployed troops. Howard is just finishing a rotation with the Afghan training mission. Hard times over there for NATO troops right now. Spare a prayer and a thought for the folks there and for the next batch to go over, including another padre friend of mine.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"I"ve managed to ... save most of them": The Limits of Lincoln's Mercy

A little background here since, unless you follow my wargames blog, you won't know that I have a longstanding fascination with the American Civil War. For me one of the many compelling things about that period is the character and leadership of Abraham Lincoln, and the humanity of the man seen so luminously in his careworn, homely, and wonderful face.

The New York Times' Opinionator section has been running a regular series of historical vignettes marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which you can follow on Twitter. Today's piece by historian Ron Soodalter, "The Limits of Lincoln's Mercy", got my attention.

Lincoln was famous for his clemency, and regularly commuted death sentences for Union soldiers. "Gen. Joseph Hooker once sent an envelope to the president containing the cases of 55 convicted and doomed deserters; Lincoln merely wrote “Pardoned” on the envelope and returned it to Hooker." While his mercy often frustrated his war leaders, Lincoln held firm, once telling a friend:

I reckon there never was a man raised in the country on a farm, where they are always butchering cattle and hogs and think nothing of it, that ever grew up with such an aversion to bloodshed as I have and yet I’ve had more questions of life and death to settle in four years than all the men who ever sat in this chair put together. But, I’ve managed to get along and do my duty, as I believe, and still save most of them.

However, in a case I had never heard of before, Lincoln refused to cancel the execution of Nathaniel Gordon, the only man in US history to be sentenced to death for slave trading. The normally merciful Lincoln refused requests from the condemned man's wife and mother, justifying his decision on these grounds:

I believe I am kindly enough in nature, and can be moved to pity and to pardon the perpetrator of almost the worst crime that the mind of man can conceive or the arm of man can execute; but any man, who, for paltry gain and stimulated only by avarice, can rob Africa of her children to sell into interminable bondage, I never will pardon.

I'm grateful to Soodalter for this little gem of history. It gives a new perspective on Lincoln's character, and challenges a conventional wisdom (as I understand it) that his approach to slavery was essentially pragmatic. The approach may have been pragmatic, but the quotation about Gordon suggests that his personal feelings about slavery were resolute and unchanging.

The Three Voices of Ash Wednesday

(Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail) Hide caption
Natalie Lucas receives an ash cross on her forehead during Mass on Ash Wednesday at St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto.

Preached at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, AB
22 February, 2012

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday is a service much beloved of Christians despite, or perhaps because of, its strangeness. And it is a strange occasion, isn't it? It's a night when we hear things that we seldom hear from the culture around us.

In an age when shame and embarrassment seem out of fashion, and prominent people seem to brazen their way through the most heinous misdeeds, we hear the call to repent. We hear one of the most urgent and most frightening voices of the Old Testament, the prophet Joel telling us to run, not walk to church and beg God to 1turn aside his anger at human sinfulness.

In an age when personal fulfilment is linked to consumption and gratification, we stand at the beginning of Lent, and hear the call to fast. We are asked to revisit the ancient Christian disciplines of abstinence and self denial. If only in a symbolic way, for forty days, we are asked to follow our Lord into the wilderness. We are asked to turn down the volumes of our egos and bodies so that we can hear, however faintly, the voice of the Spirit.

In an age when we yearn for youthfulness and longevity, and vigorously deny the reality of death, we feel the cold dry ashes on our foreheads, and are called on to "remeber that you are dust, and to dust you shall return".

Repentance. Self denial. Mortality. These are the three voices of Ash Wednesday, the voices that are waiting to guide us through our Lenten pilgrimage. They are difficult voices, to be sure, and there are many times when we would rather not listen to them. But even when we are not in the mood to listen, I think we can agree that we are grateful for the honesty of these voices. For all its strangeness, there is a truthfulness about Ash Wednesday. That honesty is the reason, I think, that the culture avoids Lent like the plague. Christmas and Easter can be co-copted, encrusted in layers of sentimental goo and conscripted to serve profit and self-gratification, but not this day and season.

The culture doesn't know what to do with Ash Wednesday and Lent. It has no purchase on these ideas, can find no way in to turn and exploit them, and so leaves them to the faithful.

So what do we, the faithful, do with Ash Wedneday? How can we profit from this strange and austere gift? Perhaps by spending some time with these three voices of repentance, self denial, and mortality, and thinking about how they remind us of our complete dependancy on God, we can begin to answer that question.

If we start with repentance, we should start by agreeing that it is a challenging word for us. It's challenging because it strikes at the heart of our sense of self esteem, the psychological coin of the realm of our culture. Really, who wants to be told, as the Psalmist tells us, that "I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me" (Ps 51.5)? Assuming that we can get over that pyschological hurdle, we then wonder, how do we do repentance? Is it an emotion that we should do for the things that we feel really bad about? Is it an action that we should perform to make amends for our misdeeds? How badly should we feel? How heroically should we make ammends? How do we know that our repentance is good enough for God?

When we get stuck in these questions, we need to remind ourselves that repentance is linked to Jesus. In Mark's gospel, which we've been following through Epiphany, the first words Jesus speaks are these: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." These are the same words, and the same gospel passage, that you will hear this Sunday, the first of Lent. These words are central to any understanding of the call to follow Jesus. If sin is nothing more than the human tendency to get in trouble and make a mess of things when we rely on ourselves, then repentance is about turning to Jesus, listening to him, and following him. If it helps, say the verse to yourself this way: the kingdom of God has come near; turn around, and believe in the good news. The beginning of repentance is in our turning from our own priorities, fixing our gaze on Jesus and following him.

The second voice of Ash Wednesday and Lent is the voice of self denial. If we listen to what Jesus says in today's gospel, it seems comically opposed to the liturgical act we shall do in a few moments, smearing ashes on our foreheads in a public display of piety. Doesn't Jesus warn us to "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven" (Mk 6:1)? Isn't the charge of hypocrisy and false morality a stick that religion is still regularly beaten with today? We certainly don't want to be thought of as hypocrites and pious frauds, do we? But then how do we square these words of Jesus with his great commission to be visible in the world as evangelists and messengers of the good news?

I find it helpful to think about the traditional disciplines of self denial and fasting in terms of the inner state that Jesus is calling us to. You might call that inner state humility or humbleness. The act of giving up something, even something symbolic for the forty days of Lent, is not really about the body but about the mind and the spirit. We all have bodily desires, but truth be told, they are fairly modest - a place to sleep, something to wear, something to eat. It's the mind and the spirit, what psychologists call the ego, that gets us into trouble when they propel us beyond our basic needs.

The ego is about self importance and self gratification. The ego drives the hypocrites in today's gospel, who want the public approval and status that came from conspicuous piety in their culture. In today's culture we seek public approval and status in other ways, through wealth and power, but the ego rewards are the same. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why Mark's Jesus is so adamant that he not get public credit for his healings and miracles. Jesus knew that fame and power and ego belong to the realm of sin and self-isolation from God, which explains why he was able to resist the devil's temptations in the wildnerness. Repentance means turning away from the blandishments of ego, which tempts us into self entitlement, the feeling that we are better than others and deserve more.

When Jesus tells us to practice our alms in secret, he is talking about something a lot more than just being a silent donor in a charity campaign. The idea of secrecy here is an example of self denial, a refusal to let the ego demand rewards and status that put the self before others and isolate the self from God. Somebody who gives without expecting anything in return, who sees the needs of others, who ranks the common good above their own needs, who is free of self importance and self entitlement, isn't just a rare person. A person like that is someone who has glimpsed the kingdom of heaven and helped realize it on earth. Christians are especially poor at this, I fear, because we often want to enforce our piety and our morality upon others, which leads us back to the realm of the ego. We forget that it's not our responsibility to enforce the kingdom of heaven. All we have to do is try to live it in such a way that it becomes attractive to others. Self denial is about, as Paul says, our being allowed to share "the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21) without becoming self righteous ourselves.

The third voice of Ash Wednesday is mortality. If the message of our first reading from Joel is a call to some sort of frantic, last minute action to escape from 1disaster, then the imposition of ashes reminds us that there is no escape. Ash Wednesday tells us that we are all going to die. This knowledge can come as a gift if we choose to accept it, because it teaches us to deny ourselves in life. Self denial, the practice of giving up something for Lent, can be more than just a temporary inconvenience. It can be a way of reminding ourselves that our appetites, our ambitions, our senses of entitlement will all run up against the hard limit of our death.

As Christians at the start of Lent, we know that we follow a Saviour who is en route to the cross. If we heard the transfiguration story last Sunday, we know that Jesus comes from a place that is more glorious and wonderful than our ambitions and egos could possibly imagine. At the end of the transfiguration story, however, Jesus turns his back on that glory, to accompany his friends and journey with them. We know that there is no glory or reward where Jesus is going, only a hard and shameful death that the kings and rulers of the world cannot begin to comprehend. We may not understand exactly why Jesus had to die, but we know that it is the fullest possible expression of his determination to stand in solidarity with humanity. We know that God is willing to go where we all must go, even to death, and that through his willingness to die for us we are saved.

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our utter dependence on Christ. If we don't repent and turn to him, we find ourselves, like the culture, slaves to our egos, serving our own interests for as long as we can until we are tragically surprised by the death we do out best to deny and ignore. Ash Wednesday does not seek to deny that life can be tragic - it asserts the reality of dust and our return to dust. What it does offer us is the knowledge, as Paul offers in our second reading, that Christ goes with us, to the grave and beyond, so that, as Paul says, we are "dying - and see - we are alive". What better way can there be to think of the Christian life?

Tonight, as you go forward to receive the sign of ashes, the ashes will remind you that we are dying. The sign made by those ashes, the sign of the cross, repeats the sign made on your forehead at your baptism. The sign of the cross will remain bound to us, luminous and eternal, long after you and I have turned to dust, to mark us as belonging to the God who conquers sin and death. Knowing that you bear that mark of death will strengthen you for life, the life that God created you for, selfless, alive, and luminous. So go forward fearlessly tonight, and when you leave this place and the ashes have faded, remember that you are "dying, and wonderfully alive in Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Really Bad VW Bus Day

This shot is from a collection assembled by Jon Rafman, a series of "beautiful and strange images" captured by the Google Street View car for his project entitled “The Nine Eyes of Google Street View” . These are all images caught by the camera of Google street view cars from around the world.

I feel for the chap in this photo, especially if that's his VW bus burning on the street. I'm praying I never look out one day and see the same thing going on with mine!

Military Picture of the Week

The last MilPic of the Week was a shameless picture of a soldier with a puppy. Cat fancying readers of Mad Padre have been demanding equal time, so here you go.

Twenty-four more shameless pictures of soldiers with cats and dogs here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ethical iPads Coming

As I inch closer to my iPad purchase, I was pleased to note today's Globe and Mail editorial, encouraging Apple's recent efforts to improve the lot of its workers in China through such initiatives as joining the Fair Labour Association. This topic generated considerable discussion here and may be of interest to MP readers. Here's the conclusion of the Globe's oped piece:

"Apple doesn’t want to be associated with foreign workers who are so despondent they would rather jump out their dorm window than assemble another iPhone 5. Instead, it has a chance to be a transformational leader and inspire other blue-chip hi-tech companies to take labour violations in China and elsewhere more seriously."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Using Light to Unlock the PTSD Trap

I've been hearing bits and pieces about EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), a relatively new approach to treating people with severe PTSD. This story from the Telegraph, about how EMDR has helped a UK army nurse, is interesting. The account of how Hilary Horton got her PTSD is also a reminder that pscyhological wounds can be inflicted on support trades as well as on front line personnel. Worth reading. MP+

No-nonsense nurse: Hilary Horton at Al Amarah base in Iraq, where she dealt with the bodies of six military poilcemen Photo: GABRIEL SZABO/GUZELIAN

By Clare Goldwin
7:20AM GMT 20 Feb 2012
Hilary Horton has the no-nonsense attitude you’d expect from someone who was an intensive care nurse for 20 years, has worked in women’s prisons and is a former Air Force reservist. So it is a surprise to learn that five years of her life were virtually destroyed by constantly reliving one of the Iraq war’s grimmest episodes.

The former Air Force nurse was responsible for the bodies of six Royal Military Policemen who were murdered as they manned a police station in southern Iraq in June 2003, a killing spree that became notorious. Hilary was badly affected by her experience, and in 2009 she was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suffering regular flashbacks, fits of weeping and loss of confidence.

Read the whole piece here.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Terrible Beauty: A Sermon for the Transfiguration

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 19 February 2012

Last Sunday of Epiphany / Transfiguration Sunday, Lectionary Year B
2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. Mark 9:2-3

He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Those lines from Irish poet W.B. Yeat's "Easter, 1916" are from a poem about how ordinary people can become extraordinary people in extraordinary times. Yeats' line "A terrible beauty is born" is always at the back of my mind when I read the Transfiguration story, which is traditionally used in the life of the church to signal the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent.

Even though we may not know what exactly to make of this particular event in the life of Jesus, our culture is very fond of transfiguration stories in general. We love the story of the ugly duckling become the beautiful swan, the scrawny kid who becomes the all star athlete, or the little girl who becomes the pop diva. We love those stories because we find it inspiring to believe that someone as ordinary as you or I can go to great heights.

But as we know, these inspiring stories too often don't end well. The beautiful swan turns out not to be so clean and pristine after all. The star athlete ends up in a doping or betting scandal. The pop diva becomes a drug raddled wreck found dead in a hotel room far too young. It's as if the trajectory of these stories is often doomed to follow the adage of what comes up, must come down. Indeed, the dark side within us almost demands that this narrative arc be followed its course, from inspiring legend to dark tragedy.

The life of Jesus can be seen to follow this parabolic narrative arc, rising from humble origins as the carpenter's kid to the superstar healer and miracle worker, trying to keep one step ahead of the crowds, and ending on the cross as an object of scorn and pity as if in fulfilment of the psalms (Ps 22.7, 109.25). Indeed, if one follows the path through Lent up to Good Friday, we complete the second, back to earth part of this parabola, which would indeed end in tragedy were it not for the Resurrection.

However, on this day, we see the story of ascent and descent in miniature in the transfiguration. As seen through the eyes of the chosen few who go with him, Jesus ascends the mountain, is transformed into a blinding white form in the company of Moses and Elisha, two embodiments of the Jewish faith, and is granted the full authority of heaven in the voice that says "Listen to him". Before their squinting and bewildered eyes, Jesus becomes the superstar of heaven, a megacelebrity of only anyone else was there to see it.

And then the moment is done. The light fades, Moses and Elisha are gone, the heavenly voice is still, and Jesus returns to his friends, telling them to be quiet about it all because his time is not yet come. I always like this part of the story, the return from the summit, and imagine the disciples looking at Jesus, trying to reconcile what they saw up there with what they see now, the person they know. They would see again the familiar face, the rough carpenter's hands, the sandalled, dusty feet made calloused by months of tramping about. They would see the simple, homespun clothes, dirty and travel stained, and hear the familiar voice. If a terrible beauty was born up there, it has now faded away, and yet they remember what they saw, even if they don't understand it.

Perhaps one purpose of the Transfiguration story is to stress Jesus' credentials, to remind us that heis the Son of God, but I think its greater purpose is to repeat the Christmas idea of Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is not a celebrity pulled down from on high by tragedy. He returns willingly, because his mission is with us. As he walks down the mountain with his friend, he knows the world he will return to. He knows that world is full of weak, bad, and even evil people. He knows it is a world of sickness and death. He knows the hypocrisy, vanity and cruelty of its leaders, and the desperate plight of the many. He knows the need of this world, and he knows that world has a cross waiting for him, and he goes there. He's that sort of God.

The preacher David Lose recalls that after a Sunday on which he had preached, a person said to him, "Those were beautiful words, Pastor, but I don't think you'd say them if you really new me." Lose goes on to say that "The ache in those words stays with me still. How many of our people -- and truth be told, on any given day, how many of us -- wonder the same. Could God possibly love us if God new just how broken and at times dark our lives can be?"

The Transfiguration story answers Lose's rhetorical question in the affirmative. That's the reason Jesus comes off the mountain, to be with people like us, where the need is. Too often, I fear, church encourages us to think of Jesus like a stained glass image, all purity and glory and haloed perfection, up there where the air is clear, too perfect for us to bother him. If you think that, sometimes, then try thinking of Jesus coming down the mountain. Think of that young, strong man with the rough hands and the light in his eyes, dressed in clothing that is somehow both blinding white and yet stained and everyday, walking purposefully towards you, because he knows who you and what you need.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Leading the Blind: UK Soldiers Make Difficult March for Charity

Inspiring picture and caption from the MOD news service:

Soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh head out onto the local streets as they take part in a 50-mile (80.5km) walk from their home barracks in Chester to Llandudno - blindfolded. About 30 soldiers from the unit took part in the gruelling fundraiser for St Dunstan's, a charity which gives physical and emotional support to blind and visually impaired ex-servicemen and women. [Picture: Sergeant Alison Baskerville RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

Miliary Goats in the News: WW1 Goat Unearthed

The Daily Mail is calling it the "Pompeii of the Western Front". Recently, construction on a highway near Carspach, France, discovered a group of twenty one German soldiers from the First World War, who were buried suddenly by an explosion which collapsed their underground shelter in 1918. These unfortunates and their possessions remained well preserved and undisturbed until archaeologists were called in to excavate the site.

Readers of Mad Padre will know that this site maintains a keen watch for all mentions of that most intrepid and unsung of creatures, the military goat. There is a goat angle to this story, since while excavating his trench system the archaeologists also unnearthed the skeleton of a goat. The goat is "assumed to be [have been]a source of fresh milk for the soldiers".

German soldiers with goat in World War Two (sadly, no pictures of Great War Germans with goats are available to my knowledge).

This story does throw some light on the everyday life of soldiers in the trenches, and hints at a practical use for the strange custom of the goat as a unit mascot. While it gives me no pleasure to imagine the horrible last seconds of these men's lives, it does give me some pleasure to imagine that their last days were made more pleasant by the company (and milk) of that most noble and sagacious of creatures, the military goat.

Westfalia Wistfulness

Last week the housing people at CFB Suffield served notices that garage tenants had to empty them in prepartion for new doors being installed. That gave me the perfect excuse to pay a call on Kaiser Bill (short for Wilhelm) where I had parked him in fear of a winter that, so far, has never come (I am not at all convinced that the money spent on this garage as been worth it). I hadn't turned the key since I took him there on 11 November, and was afraid that cold weather might have killed the battery, but after a few growls he started up and now sits parked behind the base chapel.

Driving Bill around the PMQ patch a few times to perk him up a bit made me start looking forward to warmer weather and a chance to bash around Alberta and parts further, which may explain why, after seeing a 20mm model of a VW Bug on the Guild Wargamer's site, got to wondering if there was a 1/72nd model Vanagon out there, maybe something diecast, to sit on my desk and cheer my winter thoughts.

Haven't found one yet, but did find a great discussion on the Car Lust website of the lovable and quirky Vanagon, with this amazing video. Check out the awesome 1980s lettering, the strange choice in music (especially the creepy final lyrics) and the handsome bearded gentleman who may have a romantic companion joining him, or possibly just lives in hope.

So all this has me thinking that there's still time before winter's over to get the replacement propane tank purchased from GoWesty installed, and maybe a few other touches, like replacing the broken fridge with a storage unit, before this year's Westy season.

Roll on spring.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Price of Healing: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

A sermon preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 12 February, 2012

Proper 6, Lectionary Year B, 2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45

Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" (Mark 1:41)

Our readings from scripture today, especially from 2 Kings 5 and Mark 1 (and, I suppose, Psalm 30), invite us to think about healing, which is especially significant given how many of you in our small chapel community work or have worked in the profession of nursing. It's also a happy coincidence since our chapel cycle of prayer this morning remembers our Canadian Forces base surgeons finishing and starting tours here, and asks for skill and care for them as they treat their patients.

There's nothing wrong with praying for healing. I don't know of a church that doesn't include intentions for the sick and for the suffering in its Prayers of the People. We pray for our loved ones and friends when they go into hospital or face surgery, and I doubt that any of us here, if we were sick, would not feel comforted knowing that we were being upheld in the prayers of faithful people.

If we are at all honest, we will admit that when we pray for healing, we don't always pray with confidence. We may ask fervently, especially when it is for ourself or for a loved one (and are there any prayers more fervent than prayers for our sick children?), but we ask with the knowledge that not all prayers for healing are answered. For some, the denial of prayers for healing can be a faith-shattering experience.

As a mentor of mine said once, a preacher should avoid theological explanations for the existence of evil and the perceived inadequacies of God. Trying to explain these things is a mug's game. As a priest, I've seen the children of parishioners come back from seemingly fatal injuries, and I've seen others taken away without warning, and I could never say how the hand of God worked in any of these situations.

If our expectations of God are like the expectations of Canadians for their health care system (quality health care available at all times for all people), then God will always prove disatisfactory. In any case, I am not sure that today's readings have any sympathy for those expectations. The story or Elisha and Namaan in 2 Kings is really about the superiority of Israel's God to those of its militarily powerful neighbours, while Jesus does not cure the leper in order to build up his practice as a healer. Rather, in telling the leper to go "and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them" seems intended to establish Jesus' authority as the Messiah who comes to fulfil the law and prophets.

What is most interesting about these two stories, I think, is how God's power is shown to work. In the case of Namaan, a powerful general, the Patton or a Stormin' Norman Schwartzkopf of his day, has to submit to the advice of a servant, present himself to the prophet of a God he does not serve, and be healed by that God. Namaan's brand of worldly power is shown as nothing compared to God's power. Yet in the second story, the Son of God, who has power over demons, ends up swapping places with the outcast leper. At the end of the story, the leper is made whole and returned to his community whereas Jesus becomes the outsider because of his fame,to the point where he "could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country".

Luther Seminary professor Sarah Henrich is right, I think, to see a shadow of the cross in the exchange of positions between Jesus and the leper. She writes that "this exchange of realities between Jesus and the man whom he has healed ... points long-range to the role that Jesus is willing to take for humanity itself, giving up his life of freedom for the loneliness of the one isolated on Golgotha, whose "willingness" is a proclamation in its own right. He will use the language of "willing" in 14:36, exchanging his own desires for what the Father "wills."

Henrich's point is that Jesus mission is to go to the cross for humanity's sake to cure us all of sin and death. The healings and miracles done along the way to that goal are signs and indicators of Jesus' power and purpose, not goals in and of themselves. In going to the lonely place of Golgotha and death, Jesus by his cross-stretched arms embraces the whole of humanity's sickness: all of our cruelty, selfishness, all the deaths we inflict and all the deaths we suffer. All of these things are taken on by Christ, and in his unlooked for resurrection we have the first sign that God will make good on his intention to banish these things from his creation.

The widespread loss of faith in the promise and purpose of God by our contemporaries manifests itself in our turning to medicine to save us. Poll after poll in Canada and its provinces shows that health care is the number one concern of Canadians, far eclipsing issues like foreign aid. Our fixation on health care and on related issues such as longevity, a subject that seems much in the media of late, underscores a point that the theologian Stanley Hauerwas likes to say. According to Hauerwas, we want to live as long as possible, until the point where we entrust ourselves to medicine so that we die painlessly, in our sleep, and not knowing we are dying at all, thus denying the reality of death. At the same time, the inequitable consumption of health care resources, from analgesics to doctors, in the developed world leads to an increase in the realities we try to ignore, death and suffering, in the developing world.

Fortunately, there are many examples around us of those who practice the healing arts in ways that we might call Christ like, meaning that they do so not for gain and often at great cost to themselves. Last week the news from Syria, where Namaan's successors have been unleashed, told of medical students who have left school to work in field hospitals, or of those who risk death to bring medicines into blockaded and shelled cities such as Homs. These examples raise the interesting question of whether the benefit of the healing arts is not only the eradication of disease and suffering but the restoration and reclamation of community. After all, the point of today's gospel is not only that the leper was healed, but that the price paid by Jesus to do so also restored the man to his community.

Returning to Hauerwas, we might ask ourselves, what benefits might we gain if we were willing to see medicine more honestly, not as the means to deny our own death and suffering, but as the means to restore community? If the developed world were to divert some of the health care money we spend on ourselves to others at home and abroad, would the benefits realized in a wider vision of the human community outweigh the sacrifices we might bear? And would not that sacrifice be true to the spirit of today's gospel?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Power Dressing in Church: A Protest Against Clergy in Robes

Thanks to CF chaplain friend, @PadreShaun, for tweeting this piece from The Telegraph about a tempest in the Church of England over priests being "forced" to wear robes. According to the Rev. Andrew Atherstone, a curate and tutor at Oxford's Wycliffe Hall, clergy wearing robes in worship are a hindrance to mission and evangelism because "Robes can be a form of power dressing - they can reinforce the divisions of a stratified society, where deference to rank and authority is key".

Or, as Bishop Broadbent once said, no one wants to see "the clergyman up front in robes, looking a right wally".

Familiar ground to many in churchland, I am sure. I seem to recall that the Reformation included many debates about the wearing of robes, or vestments to use the correct term, by worship leaders. I recall attending one evangelical bible church where the preacher rallied against his childhood upbringing in church, being told what to believe by guys in robes on thrones. And I get the fact that some of my low church Anglican colleagues are sceptical of liturgical traditions, including vestments. I also get the fact that when you see a bunch of us clergy in full costume as above, heavy drapery covering our pear shaped bodies, we can look a bunch of right wallies.

However, the argument of the Rev. Atherton to me carries more than a slight whiff of trahison des clercs about it. The silly reference to power dressing and stratified societies, other than showing how thoroughly post-structuralist theory has permeated the academy, reminds me of a recent interview with the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who said that an emphasis on correct spelling and grammar was simply the upper classes buttressing their dominance by claiming correct language as a buttress of class dominance. And I thought the point of the OED was so I could speak and write real good.

I have no objection to messy church, street church, family services with puppets, whatever might allow the gospel to reach people where they live. That's all fine. As an army chaplain, I've pulled my stole out of my pocket and thrown it over my fatigues to worship. No problem. But there is an Anglican tradition which Father Roland Palmer once summed up as "readiness and decency" which assumes that dignity, beauty, mystery and decorum have their place in worship. The reason I occasionally go out of my way to attend an Anglican parish where this tradition is upheld is because the right wally in robes points me to something greater than him or her and me, namely, to God. I worry that if the Rev. Atherton's thinking catches on, people whose souls yearn for theses things will stop coming to Anglican worship, and go elsewhere to be fed.

So tomorrow, gentle reader, I'll be the right wally in the front with the robe. And maybe even a chasuble if the spirit moves me.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

"Words That Shape The Soul": Eugene Peterson on Scripture

Christian educatior and writer Christopher Benson maintains a blog that I sometimes disagree with (especially on politics) but which I always find thoughtful and nourishing.

Today's notable quotable comes via his blog, an excerpt from spiritual theologian Eugene Peterson on the authority of scripture and its misuses. Here's an excerpt:

" ... words of Scripture are not primarily words, however impressive, that label or define or prove, but words that mean, that reveal, that shape the soul, that generate saved lives, that form believing and obedient lives. Impersonal, opinionated, propagandizing, manipulating words, no matter how ardent and accurate, inflate upward. They loose rootage in hearts. They lose grounding in human dailiness. They are no longer at the service of listening and responding to the word, those words that reveal God’s will and presence, the language in which we are invited to likewise reveal ourselves in prayer and praise, in obedience and love. Having and defending and celebrating the Bible instead of receiving, submitting to, and praying the Bible, masks an enormous amount of nonreading."

Read the whole piece here.

Military Picture of the Week

US Army Sgt. 1st Class Russell Minta, senior noncommissioned officer for the Defense Department's Military Working Dog Breeding Program on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, holds a puppy in his hand. The program provides working dogs to every service branch and numbers among the largest military breeding programs in the world. DOD photo by Linda Hosek

More adorable Army Puppy photos here.

We Are Not the Dead: Soldiers' Faces Before, During and After Afghanistan

The UK's The Telegraph has published a series of pictures and interviews of members of the 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, before, during, and after their deployment to Afghanistan. In these powerful photos you can see the physical and psychological toll that the war has taken on these young men. Especially moving is this comment from one young private, who survived an IED explosion, of how he coped after going home: "I walked for miles and miles not caring where I stepped.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Few Good Neurons: Military Implications for Neuroscience Research

The UK's The Guardian reported yesterday on a paper by the British scientific body The Royal Society notes that current research in neuroscience has many implications for military technology and ethics that haven't been fully considered yet.

One of the technologies discussed is the Brain Machine Interface (BMI), a technoligy currently allowing users to control prosthetic limbs through brain signals, which could be applied to controlling weapon systems, either on the battlefield or remotely. As one of the paper's authors writes, "If you are controlling a drone and you shoot the wrong target or bomb a wedding party, who is responsible for that action? Is it you or the BMI? There's a blurring of the line between individual responsibility and the functioning of the machine. Where do you stop and the machine begin?"

This is an interesting question, though I'm not sure that there would be any distinction between a drone operator using a joystick and using a BMI to engage a target. Presumably in either case, responsibility stops with the human operator, whether it's a finger or a neural impulse that pulls the trigger.

An interesting field of development to watch in the next decade, to be sure.

Monday, February 6, 2012

:Remarkable Psychological Resilience": Surprising New Data on Prevalence of PTSD

From today's NYT, a short piece by Anthony D. Mancini, an assistant professor of psychology at Pace University, on a survey suggesting that the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among serving military may be lower than it is commonly thought to be.

Mancini's research focuses on the strength of what he calls "resilience", or "the human capacity to cope" for most people. His conclusion is that "we should remember that PTSD is a treatable condition and that a realistic and informed understanding of our inherent coping abilities can only assist treatment and, perhaps one day, even prevention of this debilitating disorder".

This message, that PTSD is treatable, is precisely what soldiers need to hear, and this date is encouraging.

Your Very Own Canadian Scene!

While noodling around the Government of Canada website today (it was work! The Defence Team Newsletter told me to go there!) I came upon a Cut Past and Colour activity for kids that allows you to, yes, create your very own Canadian scene.

Here are some highlights. I've noted those images which either display some degree or ingenuity, or a heavy borrowing from the CanGov Dept of Cliched Images Vault.

Fisherman having a tender moment with what appears to be a cod. Pity the cod fishery has collapsed.

Prairie grain elevator. Like cod, a dying species. I've driven a large chunk of the prairies and these are pretty much all gone, like the Canadian Wheat Board. A few tatterdemallion specimens still survive. The concrete silo thingys that have replaced them are quite ugly. Bring back the grain elevators!

Inuit igloo. Thanks, CanGov, for promulgating the idea that most Canadians live in these.

Actually, many of our Inuit and northern first nations live in derelict housing in communities like Atawapaskat:

Cow. Actually, I don't think of cows as being especially iconic images of Canada. Unless you are an Alberta Beef cow. Although most Alberta cows are contained by barbed wire fences, so I'm not sure if this is an Eastern cow or a Quebec vache. If so I am compelled to ask, what's wrong with Alberta cows? Why did you need to hire some snooty Eastern cow?

CN Tower. If snooty Eastern cows don't get Western Canadians riled up, then an image of Toronto is sure to incense many westerners. As they say, Toronto gives unity to the rest of Canada, since it is the one thing we are sure to hate. Still, I have to admit, the CN Tower is a better choice than one of our curiously shaped (Calgary Saddledome, Toronto SkyDome before it became named whatever it is now) or collapsing (Montreal Olympic Stadium) sports structures.

Mountie. OK, this image I like because it's an innovative and progressive take on an old Canadian icon. Just don't be fooled by this image into thinking that all Canadian Mounties look like supermodels. We do have many female Mounties and they are quite capable women. Some of them are not suing the Force for sexual harassment.


Images that the Feds could have used but, thankfully, didn't, because they would have been confusing images and probably hard to colour:

Provincial and federal ministers arguing over Health Care funding

First nations people and environmentalists arguing against oil pipelines,

Oil and gas industry spin doctors arguing that hydraulic fracturing, Tar Sands and oil pipelines are a good thing

NHL spin doctors minimizing hockey violence and concussions

Parliament on a rare day when it is actually in session

Trade mission to China selling Canada while trying to slip in that annoying UN veto

Feel free to mention your own iconic image that you would include in Your Very Own Canadian Scene. And, dear American readers, remember, you aren't really colouring if you don't spell it with a "u".

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Eagles and Turkeys

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 5 February 2011

Readings for Proper 5, Year B, Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

"but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

Caption: "Leadership is action, not position"

Are you familiar with motivational posters? You know them, those posters showing rowers or bobsledders with the caption “TEAMWORK”, or a person scaling a cliff with the label “PERSEVERANCE”? I confess that I’m not a fan of these posters.

I have nothing against teamwork or perseverance or whatever other value they happen to be promoting. It’s just that the posters themselves ring false. I used to work for a failing and poorly managed company which displayed these posters in its front offices. One poster exhorted us to fly like eagles. But back in the rear cubicles, where the parodic, demotivational posters were stealthily displayed, another poster said “It’s hard to fly with the eagles when you’re stuck with the turkeys”.

The people in the back cubicles felt that the demotivational posters were closer to the truth they lived. They knew that they could do their jobs with all sorts of PERSEVERANCE and TEAMWORK and COURAGE, but when the company hit a bad quarter, they could be pinkslipped, given ten minutes to pack, and marched out past the motivational posters in the front lobby. In short, these people couldn’t believe in the motivational posters because they lived and worked without hope. You could tell them to fly like eagles, but they believed they were stuck with turkeys.

I feel that the same eagle/turkey thinking can carry over to our spiritual lives if we think that our faith has to come from within. I could give you motivational posters with soaring eagles and captions like “FAITH: IT’S WITHIN YOU” or “CREEDS: YOU CAN BELIEVE THEM” or “LOVE ONE ANOTHER: YOU CAN DO IT”, but would they do anything for your spirituality other than to make you feel inadequate? I doubt it.

There are times when I feel like a spiritual turkey. There are times when I feel lazy, doubting, or weak. There are times in my ministry when I doubt that I will find any words of comfort or encouragement to help the hurting or grieving. There are times when the administration of the sacraments seems mundane rather than profound. In these times, I don’t feel like I can soar on eagle’s wings. During these times, I feel like the father of the dead child in Mark’s gospel, whose prayer to Jesus is “Lord I believe, help y my disbelief” (Mk 9:24). That’s a turkey prayer, not an eagle prayer.

When the prophet Isaiah (or sometimes Second Isaiah as some biblical scholars call the latter part of this book) wrote the words of our Old Testament lesson, he was speaking to a bunch of spiritual turkeys. The people of Israel had been conquered and decimated, the survivors taken from their land and living in exile in Babylon, the so-called Babylonian Captivity. For a modern equivalent of this disaster, imagined if Israel had today had been defeated by Iraq or Iran, and its survivors living as prisoners in Bagdhad or Tehran.

Isaiah was preaching to people who lived without hope, but that did not stop him from speaking some of the most hopeful words in scripture. The very first verse of Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”, is part of the Advent readings and was wonderfully set to music by Handel in his Messiah. Shortly afterwords come the words that John the Baptist would repeat to announce the coming of Jesus:

3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’ (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Isaiah’s message, like that of John the Baptist, is precisely the message that the hopeless need to hear. The message is that rescue and salvation comes from God, and no where else.

Because hopeless people often need to be shocked and even bullied into action, Isaish begins our reading today with words that may seem harsh.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning? (Isaiah 40:21).

Isaiah says to the survivors of Israel, “Have you guys really forgotten? You know this stuff. Don’t say that God has hidden himself from you.” He reminds Israel that God is greater than all kings, even the kings that have conquered them. People are mortal, but the God who created the stars without number is eternal. He will be there when all other things, like strength and youth, have failed. He will be the one who rescues Israel. It is he will lift them up and make them “mount up with wings like eagles” (Is 40:31). These are not the words of the motivational poster. The prophet is not saying that salvation comes from within. It comes from God.

I don’t think any of us wants or needs a God who encourages us to try harder or to think happier thoughts. We need a God who will rescue us. We need a Saviour. The rising up on eagles’ wings is a promise of the salvation of God, not a promise of self realization. The prophetic metaphor contains a word, raising or mounting up, that occurs again in today’s gospel reading. As Sarah Henrich notes, when Jesus raises up the mother in law of Peter, the Greek word Mark uses is the same word that he uses later to describe God’s raising Jesus from the dead. The word and the action both point to the powerful and regenerative word of God, the word of life and healing that conquers death, the word that unites us to God.

That is the word that I need to hear, not some inner motivational voice, but the voice of the God who comes to rescue. I believe that the God who raised Jesus from the dead can also make this turkey fly like an eagle.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Notable Quotable: David Gushee on Being Faithful in Times of Election

I am a huge news junkie, and since I have (God help me) discovered Twitter (@madpadre1 if you care to follow me) I have more hot breaking news, especially election news and opinion from the Excited States of America to the south, than I can fully digest.

It was with a sense of gratitude, then, that I came across this quote from ethicist and theologian David P. Gushee, which appeared in Christianity Today in 2007.

To affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord is to acknowledge that no political leader, party, flag, nation, or ideology can share lordship over my life. The one who confesses Christ alone as Lord cannot simultaneously affirm utmost loyalty of another idea or person.

This realization has constricted my understanding of politics. I’ve learned to fear the seductive power of political ideologies, the temptation to idealize political leaders, and the amoral bloodlust of partisan politics. Perhaps I have overreacted.

My study of German churches under Nazism has certainly formed my understanding of how disastrous the confusion of loyalties to God and country can become. But especially around election time, I feel my blood run hot for politics once again – so a reminder that Jesus Christ is Lord is very timely.

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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