Thursday, May 31, 2012

Language Play Of The Week

Every now and then I read something - a phrase, a turn of thought, and I think, "wow, Writer Dude, you just nailed that". OK, I realize that my last sentence wasn't exactly an example of the kind of effective writing I'm talking about, but you get my point. Here's the fifth in what is thus far proving to be a somewhat more regular feature in Mad Padre.

The church signboard is a medium for very short, pithy messages - think of it as the haiku or twitter of evangelism. Most church signboards are the realm of hackneyed phrases and cliches, but occasionally they can be quite good. Written on a piece of paper or on a computer screen, I wouldn't rate this as a Language Play of the Week, but in the context of the church sign, and given the ethical pithiness of the final line, I think this is deserving.

Thanks to the Chesterton and Friends blog for noting this. Fans of The Big Lebowski will recognize the Latter Day Dude reference.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

We're Not All Heroes

A reader of Tom Rick's military affairs blog makes a good point about how contemporary society and media lavish the word "hero" on practically everyone in uniform, to the point where the meaning of the word and the concept of heroism is being seriously devalued.

The same reader makes the point that because only a tiny fraction of society's members join the military, and a smaller fraction of those actually see combat, the overuse of the word hero betrays a guilty conscience at the disconnect between society and military.

"Sadly, as Americans we have devalued the word 'hero' by applying it to merely the performance of one's responsibility, much like parents today overly praise their children for everyday accomplishments. Particularly, especially in the media the expression 'hero' seems generic and contains a disturbing element of pandering.

Today, there is a vast void between those that wear a uniform and go in harm's way and those that don't. We watch from afar as uneasy spectators as our countrymen suffer death and wounds of the flesh and mind for causes we often hold in doubt. So we revert to a hyperbole of gratitude that is seemingly harmless but in fact laced with insincerity."

I have heard similar points repeatedly of late and they ring true to me. While the quote above comes out of the US context, I would say that the same is true of the Canadian situation. Noah Richler, whose recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About War, makes much the same point when he notes that our rhetoric on Canada's recently concluded combat mission in Afghanistan belies the fact that less than 1% of the population, as deployed soldiers and their immediate families, were actually touched by that war (compared to 18% of the population in World War One. Afghanistan, Richler writes, "has not even slightly been felt by Canadians other than as that flattering, self-aggrandizing idea" which is reinforced by terms like "Highway of Heroes".

The Richler quote comes from a May 2 essay in The National Post, and I have not read the book yet, but plan to. While I disagree with some of what I've heard him say in interviews, I think Richler, like Ricks' readers, are on to something. I agree with them that the disconnect between North American elites and their all-volunteer militaries is becoming increasingly profound. Fewer and fewer sons and daughters of moneyed and privileged families choose military service, as witnessed by Mitt Romney's sons, who their dad claims serve America by serving his campaign rather than by serving in uniform. The rank and file of our volunteer forces come from disadvantaged and marginal parts of the country, as suggested by the claim, sometimes made by military members, that they are the real 1%. The 99% of society is content to outsource its wars to this small minority, in the same way that Victorian England fought its imperial wars with small armies of despised Tommies from the slums, augmented by colonial mercenary minorities from the British Isles and the Empire abroad. Meanwhile, the 99% adopts a sentimentalized rhetoric of heroism, sacrifice, and gratitude to the service of its troops that masks this social disparity.

Please don't get me wrong, for I am deeply humbled that men and women in uniform are seen as heroes. I know many in the CF who remember and would not return to the days, after Somalia, when they never wore their uniforms in public. I merely wish that there was more honesty in much of our talk about heroism and service. I can't help but think that true heroism and service, for the rich and for the poor alike, could be better measured by accepting without complaint the call to serve in the military, whether through a national service scheme or through conscription in time of war. That might make our talk of heroism more meaningful.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The American Civil War Day By Day

There are a number of sesquicentenial (175 years if you're wondering -- errr, wait, strike that. 150 years, thanks to an erudite Mad Padre reader) anniversary blogs tracking the American Civil War, but one I discovered today and wanted to flag is this labour of love by a talented amateur historian, Allen Gathman, Seven Score and Ten: The Civil War Sesquicential Day By Day. A quick glance of some recent posts shows that it covers an interesting gamut, from military to social and racial history. Fans of the Civil War should bookmark this blog.

Wholesome Foods Can Make You Immoral

Listening to NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" this Saturday put me on to a study that speaks to this blog's interest in society and ethics. Prof. K.J. Eskine published a paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science (May 15, 2012) on findings which suggest that wholesome food can make you, well, kind of a jerk. Study participants were shown pictures of packages of organic food, and then given questionaires, in which they "volunteered significantly less time to help a needy stranger, and they judged moral transgressions significantly harsher than those who viewed nonorganic foods".

In contrast, those who viewed pictures of comfort foods, such as brownies, displayed far less willingness to judge others harshly - as one of the NPR participants put it, these people "were in their own shame spiral" whereas the guy looking at pictures of "organic kale was, like, let the bastard die".

While I can't comment on the methodology of this study, it does seem to reinforce the necessity of ranking humility and charity among the traditional virtues, as, without them, virtuous people tend to be unpleasantly self righteous.

The same segment from the May 27 show also continued the theme of ethics by explaining how the seagoing rule of "women and children first" died after the sinking of the Titanic, and alerted listeners to a revolutionary new catchup technology which may or may not make us feel more virtuous.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Parthians, Cretans, Phrygians ... Albertans?" A Sermon For Pentecost Sunday

Pentecost Sunday, Readings (Lectionary Year B): Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

“And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."

Have you ever wondered who these people were, these Parthians, Cretans, Phrygians and people with other hard to pronounce names?

They were Jews living in the ancient Diaspora, the scattering of God’s chosen people across the earth, and they had come to Jerusalem as pilgrims, as Jews, Christians, and Moslems do today. These Jews had come to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Pentecost, and they happened to come in the aftermath of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

These foreign Jews have come running to the site of the visiting of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and their followers, gathered together, and can now hear their preaching and carrying on in the many languages represented.

So that’s who these guys were. Foreign Jews, touched by a miracle. And, like people today, in a sign that not much about human nature has changed, they react differently. Some are sceptical (these guys are drunk, they say) and others believe. Of the latter, about “three thousand” commit themselves to what Acts calls “The Way”.

What became of them? What happened when the went home to Parthia, or Phrygia, and Crete, and Libya? What were the rest of their lives like?

Scripture doesn’t tell us, and I’m not going to speculate … too much. T.S. Eliot once imagined the Magi in later life, touched by a miracle and restless, disaffected, cut off from their peoples and cultures by this new thing they barely understood. Was it like that for these three thousand or so?

Perhaps, perhaps not. We know that churches formed around the ancient world following the Resurrection and the events that followed, as ripples spread out from Jerusalem across time and distance. Perhaps some of these three thousand founded some of these churches. We know from Paul’s letters that these churches were often fractious places, divided over authority, over teaching, over wealth, and sexuality, and inclusiveness towards gentile believers and foreigners. That doesn’t sound overly different from the church today, does it?

Perhaps some of these first believers, these Elamites and Parthians and Cretans, had family members and friends who didn’t accept their new faith. Perhaps estrangements followed, and perhaps these first believers suffered because of their faith in their work, careers, and communities. Perhaps they experienced disappointments later in life. Perhaps some of them lost faith, or caved in to pressure, and fell away. We don’t know.

What can we say of those who remained faithful, who lived out their lives in Parthia, and Phrygia, and Crete? Were they any different than we who live in Alberta, or other far flung places? Not much, really.

Like these first believers, we live in a church of many different nations and languages. We have met some of those foreign believers here, in this chapel, people from all parts of the world, from every corner of the British Isles and its former colonies, Africans, Ghurkas, Fijians, and the like. We know that despite these differences, we have in common the fact that God has reached out to us and called us friends, called us in our own language.

Like these first believers, we have the promise of God’s friendship, and the sign that friendship is the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to his disciples, as we heard in our gospel reading. So what can we say of the Spirit?

Sometimes I wish the spirit worked the way it did in Acts, dramatically, like a comic book or a movie about super heroes. I wish it created a commotion in this chapel that brought crowds running to see. Perhaps it does work that way in some churches. What I can say, however, is that it is the same spirit of truth that Jesus promised his disciples. It speaks to us through scripture, through the sacraments, through the fellowship of our church. It reminds us that the things we believe and strive for are unique in all the world, and will not disappoint us when all else does. It reminds us that God is with us, in our struggles, in our day to day difficulties, as it was with all those who returned from Jerusalem to Parthia, Prhygia, and Crete, to live out the rest of their lives. So it is with us.

I suspect, if we were all to take a moment, we could think of a moment in our lives when the Spirit was especially strong in our lives. You may not have spoken in tongues or performed miracles, but you felt a strong sense that God was with you when it counted, that his presence had made a difference in your life and connected you with his love and the love of his Son.

The little flame in your bulletin today is a reminder that you can take away, stick in your bible, your wallet, etc, as a promise “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' That promise holds as well for you as it did for the Prhygians, for all who want to respond to God’s call that comes to us, in our own time, in our own language, in our need.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Military Picture of the Week

With a heart full of (typically understated and modest, self-effacing) Canadian pride, I offer this week's milpic, courtesy of the UK MOD news feed.
A member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (left) and his Household Cavalry counterpart pass on Horse Guards Parade, London. [Picture: Trooper Mark Larner, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]

Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were invited to replace the Queen's Life Guard of the Household Cavalry Regiment (HCR) at Buckingham Palace yesterday, 23 May. It is the first to date that this duty has been performed by a foreign unit. The only other British unit to mount The Queen's Life Guard is The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery. More here.

Coincidentally, members of the HCR, considerably less resplendent than in the above picture, are currently here at Suffield participating in British Army training.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Language Play of the Week

Every now and then I read something - a phrase, a turn of thought, and I think, "wow, Writer Dude, you just nailed that". OK, I realize that my last sentence wasn't exactly an example of the kind of effective writing I'm talking about, but you get my point. Here's the fourth in what is thus far proving to be a highly intermittent feature in Mad Padre.

Hilary Mantel as Holbein might have painted her. Very clever, New Yorker, very clever.

I am indebted to James Wood for his 7 May review of Hilary Mantel's second novel on Henry VIII's servant and chancellor, Thomas Cromwell. I like historical novels, but I had to wince in agreement with Wood that this genre is "not exactly jammed with greatness". He argues that what makes Mantel stand out is that she "seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties."

Here's the passage that earns Mad Padre's Language Play of the Week. Here Thomas Cromwell is thinking about his son, Gregory, from Mantel's first novel in the series, Wolf Hall.

"He smiles. What he says about Gregory is, at least he isn’t like I was, when I was his age; and when people say, what were you like? he says, oh, I used to stick knives in people. Gregory would never do that; so he doesn’t mind—or minds less than people think—if he doesn’t really get to grips with declensions and conjugations. When people tell him what Gregory has failed to do, he says, “He’s busy growing.” He understands his need to sleep; he never got much sleep himself, with Walter stamping around, and after he ran away he was always on the ship or on the road, and then he found himself in an army. The thing people don’t understand about an army is its great, unpunctuated wastes of inaction: you have to scavenge for food, you are camped out somewhere with a rising water level because your mad capitaine says so, you are shifted abruptly in the middle of the night into some indefensible position, so you never really sleep, your equipment is defective, the gunners keep causing small unwanted explosions, the crossbowmen are either drunk or praying, the arrows are ordered up but not here yet, and your whole mind is occupied by a seething anxiety that things are going to go badly because il principe, or whatever little worshipfulness is in charge today, is not very good at the basic business of thinking."

Wood notes that the passage works because it uses present tense (which overcomes the "long ago and far away" feel of the standard historical novel as well as "a free indirect style to establish Cromwell’s likable bluntness". I agree, and I love how that "free indirect style" veers away from Cromwell's son to his own experience as a soldier, and how Mantel captures brilliantly in a few, darkly comic sentences, what authors have been saying about war for ages, that it is stupid and chaotic, usually because it is run by stupid people. Update the language and it could be about any war up to the present.

Don't think, gentle reader, that I took James Wood's word for how good Mantel is. I grabbed Wolf Hall and devoured it over the long weekend. I now have the second novel, Bring Up The Bodies, which takes the story from the fall of Anne Boleyn to Henry's third marriage to Jane Seymour.

Because I am so fond of Mantel, let me give you another passage, like the fellow on your street who drives his car with the music cranked and the windows open because he wants you to love the Black Keys as much as he does. Except I'm quieter. This passage is from a conversation Cromwell is sent to have with a troublesome English lord, the Earl of Northumberland, who needs to walk back rumours he has spread about his love for Anne Boleyn, before she has become the queen. Like the first passage, it captures the foolish, archaic world of medieval warfare with the world of commerce that has shaped Cromwell.

"He will not. He respects all ancient titles. All ancient rights."

"Then let's say I will. Let's say I will rip your life apart. Me and my banker friends."

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbone, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

"I picture you without money and title," he says. "I picture you in a hovel, wearing homespun, and bringing home a rabbit for the pot. I picture your lawful wife Anne Boleyn skinning and jointing you this rabbit. I wish you every happiness."

That passage works because, as Wood says, it is really about the modern world, about globalization and the power of finance which seems to be the only power that matters today. It works because of its internal lyricism ("the ships with sails of silk") and the contrast with Cromwell's blunt threat at the end, and it works because it supports the novel's overall characterisation of Cromwell as a pragmatic, modern man who understands the world, even if he does not control it. It's lovely.

Do yourself a favour and get to know Mantel. If you ever watched The Tudors on TV and felt dirty afterwards, you'll feel better.

Read more

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Domine Ora Pro Nobis

A Sermon For The Seventh Sunday Of Easter, 20 May, 2012. Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

Today's readings didn't really inspire me while thinking of them last week. The first reading, about the election of Matthias over Justus (two guys who are never heard of again in scripture) is one I've often heard read at ordinations, which seems a little odd as one would hope that an ordination, while a spirit led process, should not also be a random process. My friend and colleague Gene Packwood has a nice sermon on this text today, but I don't. The second reading from 1 John, on the connection between belief and eternal life, is a fine protestant sentiment but not especially helpful to me where I was this week. And the gospel from John 17, well, my heart sank before this thicket of Johannine language. Ack! I went to one of my standard guides for sticky homiletical wickets, David Lose from Working Preacher, and he started his column by saying that this passage from John 17 is "among the most difficult to preach in the New Testament". Ack! But then Lose said something which unlocked a small door and got me thinking, and more on that anon.

A few thoughts about prayer, first. When I was newly ordained to my first parish, in my second week there, the second reading was from one of the espistles which counselled believers to pray without ceasing. My sermon talked about hw the command to pray is one of the most important things that believers were being asked to do in this passage, and that this command carries on through the ages of the church to our own time. I suggested that we do a prayer audit, that we consider where prayer was in the life of our parish and in our own spiritual lives, and see what we could do to improve our practices around prayer. The sermon met a polite but quiet and non-commital response. Perhaps it was the reticence of a liturgically grounded congregation, their reluctance and uncertainty to comnsider a more charismatic, extemporaneous, or uncomfortable style of prayer in small groups or home groups or individually or whatever. I just know that the idea of the prayer audit didn't go far, and to my shame I never did much to push or to model the idea, until one night when a young and beloved member of our congregation had a horrific accident, and suddenly the church was full for an unsecheduled prayer vigil and we all prayed our hearts out. So we can pray, but we find it difficult unless well motivated.

Perhaps the difficulty we have in praying explains why the disciples asked Jesus to model it for him, and why the Lord's prayer, because it is simple, easy to commit to memory, and covers all the bases of our needs and of our relations with others, is so well known and so well used. It is the one prayer that works unfailingly in any situation I've found myself in, from the parish council meeting to the deathbed and everywhere in between. It is one of our Lord's greatest gifts, and because it comes from Jesus, who spent his life and ministry modelling the importance of prayer for his disciples, because these are the very words that Jesus gave us, it is the prayer we turn to the most.

Today's gospel, from John 17, is part of a much longer prayer that Jesus prays for his disciples while he is with them in the upper room the night of his arrest, the night we commenorate as Maundy Thursday. It is a complex and difficult prayer, one that makes us all the more grateful for the simplicity of the Lord's Prayer, but amid these complex words are familiar and reassuring themes. We hear the theme of the Good Shepherd when Jesus prays to God to continue to protect the disciples and guard them, as he has guarded them (Jn 17:11-12). He talks about the difficulty of living in the world, acknowledges the persistence of evil, and prays that God will continue to keep them in the truth and light that Jesus has shown them: "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is the truth" (Jn 17:17). Jesus is aware that when the disciples go out into the world, a world which will hate them and persecute them as it will persecute and kill the Son, then the disciples will need all the help that they can get, and this reading thus prepares us for the story of Pentecost next week.

Well, all well and good, you can say, if you think of this reading as church history, and why wouldn't you, the way the lectionary ends it at verse 19. All of Jesus' references to "them" suggest that he is just praying to God for the original disciples, for the heroes of our faith who lived so long ago. Who could blame a person for having trouble connecting to this passage?

Remember David Lose? I mentioned that said something valuable to me this week, and that was simply to go on and read the next line of John 17. Here's what Jesus says that didn't make it into the reading. Here's John 17:20

"20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one."

Who are those who "will believe in me"? Well, they are us, you and me, and every soul who as followed Christ through the centuries in between. As David Lose puts it, Jesus asks for us the same things he asks for the disciples:

The same things -- that we may find God's support and encouragement and that we may be one in fellowship with each other and God. And, of course, these two things go together -- as we gather together to hear God's Word and to remind each other of God's promises, we are not only drawn together in deeper fellowship but also find the strength and courage to face the challenges that come from living in the world and bearing witness to the alien and alternative gospel of grace, abundance, courage, and love that is ours in and through Jesus.

The world that we go out into is the same world that Christ went out into that night. It is still harsh, often hostile to the truth, often cruel. God doesn't promise us a free ride, or immunity from bad things, but he promises us his presence in the risen Christ and in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter that Jesus asked to remain with his followers after his departure, and he promises to be with us and catch us at the end. And, along the way, the Son continues to pray for us, through his unceasing love.

You know how much it means what it means when you are going through a hard time, and a friend or loved one says I'll pray for you, not a meaningless sentiment, but something you know that person really will do? Doesn't that simple promise, "I'll pray for you", mean so much to us at these hard moments? What if you could believe that Jesus was saying the same thing to you - "I'll pray for you". Today's gospel reading reminds us that he is praying for us, for "those who will believe in me". To remind you of that promise, in your service bulletin you will find a little yellow post it note. If it is helpful, I invite you to take a moment to write down whatever it is that you want Jesus to pray for on your behalf. You can share it with others if you wish. Once you've written it down, I invite you to carry that note with you on your person this week. If you hit a rough patch, take it out and remind yourself that Jesus' prayers are for you, that you have a shepherd and protector who is mightier than death itself who is there, in your corner.

Our Father, we thank you for the gift of the Lord's prayer, but also we thank you for the other prayer of your Son our Lord, that prayer he made for all of us that night in the upper room, all his disciples, which he continues to pray on our behalf. Amem.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Seen On The Afternoon Bike Ride

Taken this Friday afternoon around 1pm, on the western edge of Medicine Hat on the Ross Glen trail, overlooking Seven Persons Creek and the rail line. It looks sunny in the distance to the south, but that dark line at the top of the photo is a rain cloud just waiting to dunp on my friend Kevin and I. Within minutes of taking this picture the skies opened, rain mixed with hail, and there was thirty minutes of wet, shivery misery in store until we could take shelter at a Starbucks and warm up. Still a good ride, and this was a nice shot worth stopping for.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Even On The Gentiles, Even On Us: A Sermon For The Sixth Sunday Of Easter

Preached Sunday, 13 May, Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB Sixth Sunday of Easter, Lectionary Year B: Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

"The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles." (Acts 10:45


This text from Acts is from a reading that is almost laughably short, and so abbreviated that we strain to remember its context and to make sense. By itself, the verse is about surprise, about God acting in such an unforseen and generous way that it shocks those who thought that they knew God and knew what his rules were, and that in itself is not a bad lesson. Given his record in scripture and in the world, it's always better to be surprised by what God might do, than to think that you have him figured out.

If we want to make wider sense of this first reading, we have to look at the whole of Acts 10, and we have to start with Cornelius, the guy who, along with his family and friends, is getting the Holy Spirit poured out on him in Acts 10:45. And, for a sermon in a military chapel, it makes sense to start with Cornelius, because he was a soldier.

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. -- Acts 10:1-2

Cornelius was what we would today call a junior officer, a man commanding roughly a hundred soldiers in one of Caesar's legions. I've just finished reading Simon Scarrow's historical novel, Under the Eagle, about life in the Roman army, and if that is any indication, Cornelius, even though "a devout man", would have been a hard bitten soldier. Rome's legions marched all over the known world, they fought everyone from Britons to Persians, and sometimes fought each other. They knoew how to fight, how to campaign, how to build, how to govern conquered peoples, often quite ruthlessly. So, from the point of a Jew like Paul and the other disciples, who remembered the Roman soldiers taking Jesus to the cross, a man like Cornelius was a man to be feared and, probably, if they could manage it, avoided. Not only was he a soldier, he was a Gentile, a non-Jew, someone not of God's chosen people.

We are told, though, that Cornelius "feared God ... gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God". While it may seem surprising that he devoted himself to the Hebrew God, we should remember that the Romans were polytheists, who were comfortable with the idea of multiple gods and multiple spiritual options, provided they did not disturb the Roman order. We know from elsewhere in scripture that Gentiles were interested in the Jewish faith, and were sometimes called Godfearers, so Jews wouldn't have been surprised that a Roman officer prayed to Jahweh, but that didn't mean he was one of them.

We will never know what made Cornelius turn to God at first. Did he see too much horror on his campaigns? Did he do things he regretted? Was he simply a spiritually curious man, not common in a soldier but not unkown either? Those questions are best left to a novelist like Simon Scarrow, but it's not too much to sprculate, I think, what he believed at first. Luke (using his name as the author of Acts) tells us that Cornelius prayed and was devout, but did he have any faith that his prayers were answered? Did he believe that God would return his love? Or did he regard God as some lofty and aloof deity, like Jupiter, who wouldn't stoop to take an interest in a mere man like himself? Whatever he may have believed, certainly he is surprised, actually, terrified, when God actually answers his prayers.

One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius," He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain man named Peter." -- Acts 10:3-5

God's answer to Cornelius, which sets him in motion to meet Peter, is the first of two surprising things that God does in Acts 10. The second surprising thing God does is the vision God sends to Peter while Cornelius' messengers are en route.

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heavens opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." The voice said to him a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This happened three times. -- Acts 10:9-16

"What God has made clean, you must not call profane."

If we wanted a theme for today, this verse would do nicely, I think. Whether it is a Gentile Roman soldier or a whole dinner menu previously probited to Jews by Torah, God can decide if he will change the rules and now call it clean. This reversal can either seem capricious, if one has a certain view of God that inclines to the suspicious, or it can be seen as a generous next step in God's plan to renew the world following the resurrection. If God can overcome death, then surely he can overcome cultural and religious divides between humans. What happens next in Acts are the first steps towards a new vision of humanity. Peter leaves his home, follows Cornelius' messengers, and finds himself at the doorstep of a Roman officer. I wouldn't have blamed Peter if he eyed Cornelius a little warily at first. In some ways they were similar, both men accustomed to hard work and the outdoors, but they would have been shaped by different cultures, the Jewish fisherman and the Roman soldier, and they would have been aware of the power imbalance between them. One word from Cornelius could have a man like Peter arrested, even killed. And was Peter human enough to look at Cornelius and be at least a little sceptical of him? Was this just another Roman pursuing some exotic foreign religion, like a middleaged North American might dabble in Buddhism or Kabbala?

Whatever he might have felt, Peter starts speaking when Cornelius invites him in and asks him to teach himself and his household. Peter tells them the story of Jesus, of how he came from God as God's son, what he did, how he died and rose from the dead as the prophets said he would, and how he commanded his disciples to preach and to forgive sins in his name. Peter starts speaking, and God does the rest. "While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. (Acts 10:44). And so Peter realizes what God is up to. God hasn't just changed the rules as to what is fit to eat. God has changed the rules as his followers. It's no longer just a group of spiritual insiders who can follow him. God wants everyone, as many as want to follow him, whereever they were born, however they were raised, whatever they did. As Peter said when he started to speak to Corneius and his family, "I now realize that God has no partiality" (Acts 10:34).

For Corenlius, the surprise was that God would actually answer his prayer and, what is more, that God was not the aloof Mt. Olympus type God of Roman imagination, but that God wanted to be in relationship with him. Cornelius went from someone who feared God to someone who was a friend of God, in the way I think that Jesus says in today's Gospel when he says that "I do not call you servants any longer ... but I have called you friends" (Jn 15:15). For Peter, the surprise was that God had changed the rules and broadened the definition of who could be his people, from a select few to ... well, to anyone who wanted it. Truly a God of surprises.

What are the surprises that God may have in store for us? Could it be that we, like Cornelius, might actually find our prayers answered, and that the aloof God we might have feared might actually love us back and want to be in relationship with us as a friend? Could it be for we in churchland as gatekeepers of the institution, like Peter, that God doesn't have as narrow a few of who's in and who's holy as we do? I suspect today that in many churches, pastors of a certain theological, liberal bent are connecting President Obama's recent statements on gay marriage with that particular debate in the church, and saying that this is another Acts moment where God is doing something surprising. That may or may not be true, and for now, like Peter, I am prepared to role with the punches if God is indeed revising the rules on what is profane and unclean. Certainly the lesson in Acts is to be ready to be surprised.

Whatever God may be doing in the world, it is safe to say that his generousity and grace are bigger than we can imagine. If there are churches that think that certain people, be they the homeless or millionaires, be they soldiers or long haired freaks, or just devotees of a certain kind of worship and denomoinational structure, if they think these people are unwelcome in their midst, it is virtually certain that God has different ideas. And, if there are people who quietly pray, and do good, and wonder if they, like Cornelius, are far from a God who doesn't really consider them to be his own, then they too are going to be surprised. All we can be certain of is that it's God who decides what is clean or what is unclean, and, I think we can safely say that God always errs on the side of generosity in making these calls, and that we are all the better for it. Amen.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Military Picture of the Week

British Challenger Main Battle Tank, outside BATUS headquarters, CFB Suffield, taken last week on a rare sunny day.

Decades ago, during the latter part of the Cold War, the prairies here were crawling with Challengers. From what I am hearing now, however, the future of these giant tanks is by no means assured. British government austerities will see the armoured regiments of the British Army pared back, and these tanks will most likely be relegated to second-line service with the Territorial Army.

Canada's main battle tank, FYI, is the German-built Leopard 2, operated by three regiments in the Canadian Army, two English and one French Canadian. Unlike our British colleagues, who operate in the more mountainous Helmand province, Canada's role was in the plains around Kandahar, and so we were able to send tanks to Afghanistan, where they provided good support to the infantry. That service may well have justified the Leopard's role in our OOB for some years to come.

Taken w my iphone using the Pro HDR app.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Propane Gain

Look beneath the appalling line of rust in this photo. Ok, I hear you say, I'll look below that appalling rust. Ummm, what exactly am I looking at?

Aha! I say, so glad you asked. What you see there is a brand new propane tank for Wilhelm, or Kaiser Bill, as we call him, my 1985 VW Vanagon camper. When I bought Bill, the original tank was badly rusted and an RV dealership told me the valve was rusted shut and maybe I could find a replacement from a wrecker's yard. I didn't much relish that possibility, since if I could find one, it would likely be as rusted and sketchy as my original. But then a friend of mine told me about the brnad new propane tanks available from Go Westy, and I thought it could well be $300+ dollars well spent if that meant I could greet Mrs. Padre in the morning with a cup of hot coffee brewed on the onboard stove, rather than go outside, possibly in the cold and rain, to wrestle with the Coleman stove. Plus, the idea of actually using the stove in the mornings or in the evenings raised the enticing possibility of a heat source, since, as we discovered on a late summer trip to Waterton National Park, Bill can be quite Chill in cold weather.

The tank duly arrived from GoWesty, and parted me with another $70 for duty when the UPS guy showed up at the door. Mrs. Padre had not been prepped for that possibility, as I had not considered it, and was not amused to have to pay for it. Now to make it work. This Monday, I met up with my friend Ronnie, a member of the local Vdub Club. Seems there at least a half dozen of the Brits stationed here at BATUS who have bought old VW campers and are restoring them with the aim of shipping them back to the UK when their tours are done. It took several hours and a bit of straining, as the new regulator was too long to allow a fitting with the gas pipes running up into the stove, or "cooker" as Ronnie put it, so we had to swap it with the regulator from the old tank, but a fit was achieved. Haven't tested it yet, but getting the tank filled and tested is on the agenda.

Kaiser Bill, fully recovered from the propane tank transplant, and resting under a convenient awning behind the base chapel.

I found out the next day that while Ronnie was helping me, his British army duty phone had fallen out of his pocket, and as I merrily drove away, Bill crushed it into a million places. Some legacy German hostility to the British army, perhaps? Ronnie told me that the BATUS SigsO had been dubious about his claim that "The Padre drove over my duty phone", so I called Major D, confessed that I had apparently destroyed one of HM's Duty Phones, and would report for punishment at a time of his choosing. Fortunately for me, Major D was amused, and told me this incident would make it into his memoirs under the heading of Humorous Army Stories. Imagine my relief to be so reprieved.

Next on the agenda: getting the tank filled and tested, having the fuel injectors cleaned by a local garage, replacing the struts on the rear gate, taking out the useless fridge and replacing it with a storage shelf kit on order from Go Westy, and our first road trip before May is over. Grinding off the rust, sealing the metal, and repainting are longer term projects.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A US Marine Chaplain At Work In Afghanistan

Noodling around the US DOD website, I found a story on a chaplain's work in Afghanistan, a subject I like to feature here from time to time. I've had a chance to meet several of my US chaplain colleagues and find them quite impressive as a group. Several things of note - the US military does not seem to use the term "padre" as British and Commonwealth ones do; the term is either "chaplain" or, more informally, "chappie". Also, the article quotes Lt. Cmdr. Tews' "religious assistant". The role or MOSID of chaplain's assistant is unique to the US military. This person is a non-commissioned officer who acts as a field assistant and bodyguard for US chaplains, who are, like their Brit/Com colleagues, non-combatants. The Canadian Forces considered adopting the MOSID of a chaplain's ssistant recently, but it was a non-starter, which is not surprising considering that our military is vastly smaller than that of the US and we have far fewer chaplains deployed at any given time. Usually we will rate a driver if we are deployed and the situation allows for going outside the wire.

Anyway, "chappie" Tews seems like he's worth his salt. MP+

Navy Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Mark Tews grew up in a military family and now provides for the spiritual needs of Marines deployed to Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Mark Garcia

By Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Mark Garcia
Regional Command Southwest

FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELARAM II, March 26, 2012 – Growing up as a self-described “military brat,” Navy Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Mark Tews said he knew he wanted to serve his country. But he also felt a calling to be a minister.

Navy Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Mark Tews grew up in a military family and now provides for the spiritual needs of Marines deployed to Afghanistan.

Before his June 1996 commissioning, the chaplain for Regimental Combat Team 6 said, he had been a minister at a parish for four years and knew he wanted to continue that career while in the military.

“I always wanted to kind of follow in my dad’s footsteps by being patriotic and serving my country, but I also had a calling to ministry,” said Tews, 53, from Alvin, Texas. “I knew the only job I could do that in would be as a chaplain, and the Navy happened to be the only branch looking for chaplains at the time.”

During his time in the Navy, Tews has had the opportunity to be a chaplain for Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and has served in Navy surface and aviation commands.

“I think the Navy is one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had,” Tews said. “I’ve liked the Navy ever since I decided to join. I like the variety and diversity associated with my job.”

During his career, Tews said, one of his sons served a four-year enlistment in the Marine Corps, which allowed him to gain some insight into what Marines go through.

“He’s one of the best chaplains I’ve ever worked for,” said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James Vanzella, a religious assistant from Lodi, N.J. “He can relate to the Marines because one of his sons is a former Marine. He knows how to talk with and handle Marines -- get on their level, understand where they’re coming from and what they’re going through.”

Vanzella said it is extremely important for Marines to have a chaplain at their disposal.

“If a Marine is having a bad day and needs a place to go and to feel safe and talk about any issues, the chaplain is always there for them,” he explained. “For Marines, this is a place of sanctuary where they don’t have to worry about anything and can talk with the chaplain about anything.”

After serving close to 16 years, Tews said, he wanted the chance to work with Marines again before retiring.

“I wanted to come back to the Marine side after being with the Navy for so long,” he said. “At my first duty station, I got to work with the Marines, and I enjoyed it a lot and wanted to get back to working with the Marines before it’s all said and done.”

While Tews misses his wife and sons, he misses 15-month-old granddaughter the most, he said. But he added that he understands that while serving his year-long deployment, his mission is to counsel, mentor and look after the Marines here.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"I Landed Crazy": An Iraq Memoir Of Note

Military blogger and journalist Tom Ricks has been flagging a book that I want to move quickly to the top of my reading list. The Long Walk is a memoir of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Demolition) operative in Iraq an apparently has a lot to say about PTSD and the aftermath of war.

This excerpt, posted elsewhere by Ricks, stuck with me:

The problem is that if I just painted the broad strokes I'd just look like a bastard. And that's what everyone with PTSD looks like. They're just whiny, or surly, or can't get their stuff together, or a bastard. And it's easy to dismiss someone and not help them when they're just a bastard. But if you take a minute to sit down and start going through things with them, then you realize that in reality they HAVE bastard. It's a disease. You really can get it. The only thing worse than bastard is the rash everyone around you breaks out in. It's called stigma, and it's an SOB.

If you have to be a bastard, at least try to be witty about it.

Peeling off those layers of stigma is no easy job, though. That's why most guys don't even talk about it to the shrinks. A lab coat and words like 'confidentiality' are to trust what a good OER is to merit. Just because you've got one doesn't mean you actually have the other. Our best therapists are not people with PhD's. They're the ones who've done the same "study abroad" program we have. I can talk about those things with other people who need to talk. I can tell those guys how I feel today without pulling any punches or getting all choked up the way I would punching it into a keyboard, because when I say it to them I know I'm telling them how they're likely going to feel in a few years.

Definitely a must-read for chaplains and others who work with returning soldiers, methinks.


"They Don't Look Much Different From Us" A Sermon For Battle Of The Atlantic Sunday

Preached at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, AB
Sunday, 6 May, 2012

When I was asked by the local Sea Cadet unit to assist with their Battle of the Atlantic Sunday, I recycled this sermon from one posted on this blog in 2009. Those who say that sermons can never be reused as is are quite wise. The original sermon was full of Air Force references, since it was preached while I was posted to the RCAF, and had to be rewritten substantially, and all the better for it. If you want to see the film clip from The Cruel Sea referenced below, you can find the whole film on You Tube and look in the last twenty minutes for the scene described. And I'm not sure why Blogger is centering all my text today. Stupid blogger. To busy to dissect the html and fix it. Grrr. MP

I have to confess, when Lt(N) Kelly Rasmussen approached me about doing a Battle of the Atlantic service here, in Medicine Hat, in the middle of the prairies, I thought: "Really?" It seemed a bit odd, doing such a service here, because, well, the last time I preached at a Battle of Atlantic Sunday was when I was posted at CFB Greenwood, the home of the RCAF’s 14 Wing, and a place that Fr. Gene remembers from his days as an air force brat. I have to say, and don’t take this the wrong way, that the service made sense at Greenwood, just minutes from the sea. Several of the squadrons still serving at 14 Wing were active in the Battle of the Atlantic, and in the Cold War decades that followed, Canadian aircraft continued to take off from Nova Scotia to hunt for submarines, albeit Soviet rather than German.

After Kelly and I spoke, though, I did some digging, and I realized how wrong I was. I realized that I shouldn’t have been surprised to find sea cadets here on the prairies, because the prairies seem to make sailors. “Prairie sailors”, as they were called, may have grown up far from the ocean, but they made excellent ships crews. Perhaps it was the wide open skies and the rolling landscape, which can look so much like the ocean. Maybe it was the desire to see the world while serving their country, or to just get away from Moose Jaw or Gimili or, well, Medicine Hat. Whatever the reasons, of the 110,000 men and women who served in the RCN, a third came from the prairie provinces, including 7500 alone from Alberta. So, for you Sea Cadets here today, you are in a long tradition and you can take pride in wearing that uniform as Prairie Sailors.

Model of a prairie sailor monumnent to be built at the Naval Museum, Winnipeg, MB

Part of the pride you as Sea Cadets should take in your uniform comes from remembering the Battle of the Atlantic, which is one of the reasons why we’re here today. What was this Battle, and why is it important? First, it wasn’t really a battle, since we normally think of a battle as something that happens in a day or so. This was five years, five long years of trying to keep the ocean between North America and Britain open and safe for ships. You see, today, if you want to go overseas, you take a plane. When our army sends soldiers and equipment, even tanks, to Afghanistan, we can put them on planes. Back then, if you wanted to send anything – a soldier, a tank, a box of bullets, supplies for the army and for the people of Britain – it had to go by ship. And the German submarine fleet, called UBoats, tried to stop our ships.

Before we could win the war against the Nazis in Europe, we had to win it in the Atlantic. It was a victory on which all the other victories depended. If the German submarine fleet had not been defeated, starvation and surrender would have been forced on England. The great landings such as D-Day could not have happened, and there would have been no liberation for the peoples of occupied Europe. The Nazi system of death camps and extermination would have prospered and spread. That these things did not happen is only due to the constant vigilance, great physical and spiritual stamina, and almost superhuman bravery which kept the Atlantic open. The Battle of the Atlantic was fought by sailors of the Canadian and Allied navies, mostly in small ships. But it wasn’t just the Navy. The Navy were supported by air crews, far out over the Atlantic in planes primitive by today’s standards, spotting UBoats and attacking them, and of course the Battle of the Atlantic was also fought by the men of the merchant marine, the sailors who couldn’t fight back, but who had to get the supply ships across the ocean. They were the ones who did most of the dying.

For the ships’ crews, the only thing worse than battling the storms of the North Atlantic and Arctic Seas was the calmer weather which kept them listening for the torpedo which could strike at any moment. The bravery, perseverance and sacrifice of these crews made possible the safe passage of supplies that would keep England in the fight, and the safe transport of the armies that would train and prepare for the liberation of Europe. On a personal note, my own father was one of the soldiers who crossed the Atlantic with First Canadian Division in 1940, and my own mother, a young war bride with three children, crossed the other way to Halifax in early 1945. There were more precious things than tanks and shells on those ships that the escorts faithfully shepherded.

I've spoken about the history of the Battle of the Atlantic, and now I'd like to make it a bit more real for you by showing you this scene from the 1953 film The Cruel Sea, an adaptation of the famous novel by Nicholas Montsarrat, based on his wartime experience in escort ships. Here the climactic scene comes at the end of a long chase. A British ship has been hunting a German sub, a U-Boat, for days, only the Captain believes it is still there. The U-boat is depth-charged, forced to the service, and after an uneven fight, the German crew abandons their submarine and swims towards the waiting enemy, which has let down scrambling nets and ropes to aid their rescue. As the coughing and dirty survivors are pulled on board, the first officer says to the captain, "They don't look much different from us, do they?" Throught the film, there are many scenes of the ships crew rescuing survivors of merchant ships, and being rescued themselves when their first ship is torpedoed. The point of the clip is to show that despite being the sworn enemies of the UBoats, the destroyer crew can recognize a common humanity in the oil-soaked figures they are pulling to safety.

Royal Canadian Navy survivors being rescued.

German UBoat crewman being rescued.
There's not much difference in these pictures, is there, and that's the point that the film makes. In the water, dazed, freezing, and choking on oil, all that men have in common is their frail humanity and the hope that someone, even someone who used to be an enemy, will rescue them because he too is a sailor. This vision of a common-humanity is what I, as a preacher, find most inspiring, and what I think we are called to remember this morning. I had another vision of this common humanity some years ago, when I was a student priest at an Anglican church in Kitchener. Several parishioners were veterans, including Charley, an RCAF Spitfire pilot with a distinguished war record. There was also Otto, a quiet, dignified gentleman with a strong German accent, who kept much to himself. It was only when Otto was dying that I learned his story – that as a young man he had served as a conscript sailor on a German U-Boat. He did not advertise the fact, and in an upper-middle class, very English Anglican church, who could blame him? But I found the idea of these two former adversaries, united Sunday by Sunday to sing and praise God, to hear scripture read and preached on, and to be strengthened by the holy sacraments, a very appealing story. This was, I believe, a vision of God's peace, God's shalom, that we are called to. As scripture says in many places, including in the prophet Isaiah, God's will is that all the nations are called to leave peaceably together (Isa 56:7).

Yes, it was a good and necessary thing that the submarines be defeated, for the reasons I've outlined above. Yes, it is a good and necessary thing that we, as sea cadets, as Canadians, remember our heritage. But this Sunday, we are also called to remember that the loving God we worship is the creator of all, and sees us all as his beloved creations. God sees unites us, and sorrows at what divides us. Those of you who have worn, and now wear your country's uniform, know that it is not likely you will soon be able to take it off for God. The world is still too dangerous, too uncertain. Peace is illusive and difficult to attain. But consider this - that God's purpose is always to bring peace out of war, for God is the sworn enemy of death, and darkness, and chaos, and is always working to bring life, and light, and peace into being. God's own raising of his Son, Jesus Christ, from the death, is the strongest proof of His intentions for the world. God, as I said at the beginning, is working in history, both in the account of St. Paul in Acts, in the history we remember today, and in our own time. Who would have predicted during World War Two that sixty years later Canadian troops and war material would safely cross a peaceful Atlantic to fight beside our German Nato allies in Afghanistan as we try to bring a better future to that country? The struggle is not easy, and much flawed, but I believe that light and life and hope are always God's purposes in the world. Will we stand with God, will we stand in God’s light, and take up our share of this work as he calls us to do?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"The Ordinary Bloke In Extraordinary Circumstances": Remembering Commando Comics

Robert Fleming, Curator of Fine and Decorative Art, National Army Museum [Picture: Harland Quarrington, Crown Copyright/MOD 2012]

Meant to post this last week. This piece in UK MOD daily feed took me back to my own days of reading war comics.

The UK's National Army Museum is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Commando Comics, which has used graphic storytelling to celebrate Britain's military heritage. While war comics may strike some as crude, jingoistic, hackneyed and unworthy examples of art, the exhibit makes the case that these comics are important repositories of an ethos and morality that any soldier or would-be soldier would identify with:

"OK, the themes may be simple, but they do present you with the tough questions of morality and the hard choices troops have to make in times of conflict.

As you turn the pages you ask yourself if you would discover the strength of character to do the right thing and help get your mates through it all, like the everyman heroes in the stories - just as many of us wonder if we would be able to crack on like our troops who are on operations when the going gets tough.

War is not glorified, nor is it trivialised. What is celebrated is that, in the face of adversity, given the right circumstances, normal human beings can be heroic. As Commando's editor Calum Laird says:

"It's about the ordinary bloke in extraordinary circumstances."

Readers of Mad Padre wishing to waste a little time are encouraged to visit the Commando comics website here.

Mad Padre

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


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