Sunday, September 30, 2012

Being Salty: A Sermon

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 30 September, 2012. Lectionary readings for the Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

"Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." (Mark 9:50)

What does Jesus mean, I wonder, when he tells us to "have salt" in ourselves? My guess, based on today's gospel, is that he is talking about what qualities he wants in his followers, and that he is using salt in the same sense that elsewhere in the gospels he talks about wanting his disciples and followers to be yeast and light for the world. Near as I can figure, Jesus is saying that he wants his disciples to make a difference for good in the world, to be that special agent by which the world sees and is drawn to the kingdom of God.

Well and good, I hear you say, but you still haven't really explained "salt" to me. How exactly am I supposed to be salty? Good question. Perhaps we can start by looking at what comes after the conjunction. Jesus says, "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." The quality of saltiness, Jesus seems to be saying, is linked to peacefulness, to the absence of conflict, to mutual harmony, forbearance, or something along those lines. In other words, one of the hallmarks of the authentic Christian life is that it has an ethical character.

If you have spent some time in the life of a church or congregation and be burned by some kind of conflict, this is the approved time in the sermon when you can snort or laugh derisively at the proposition I have just made. Go ahead. Take your time. I understand. Like you, I get that churches are not always peaceful places. Why else do ministry specialists like the Alban Institute publish dozens of books on toxic churches or conflict management in congregations? We aren't very good at the whole being at peace thing.

I think the same was true of the early church. The story we hear in today's gospel of Jesus, the disciples, and the Other Exorcist might be read as a story offered by Mark to help find common ground between different groups and individuals who all profess to follow Jesus.

Why do you think the disciples wanted to stop this Other Exorcist, whoever that person was, from casting out demons? After all, he was using Jesus' name? What was the problem?

Mark doesn't tell us what it was the disciples objected to exactly. Perhaps, given their concern with status as we saw in last Sunday's gospel, they were threatened. Maybe they felt that their proximity to Jesus gave them an inside track on divine favour. Maybe they felt that he wasn't properly commissioned or ordained to perform this act (anticipating churchland debates today over lay versus ordained ministry). Perhaps he wasn't doing the exorcisms in a way that they approved of (thus anticipating churchland debates today over denominational differences, churchmanship, music, high vs low liturgy, etc). Who knows exactly, but it sounds familiar, doesn't it? I am reminded of a joke in my Canadian denomination, which asks why there are two Anglican seminaries facing each other across Hoskin Avenue in Toronto? Answer, because the Church couldn't afford a third. Ba-DUMP.

Jesus' answer seems to be, essentially, "Meh, let him, as long as it's in my name, the more the merrier" (Mk 9:39-40). Jesus goes on to say something that seems to be unrelated (this pericope feels to me a bit like Mark padding things out with a stitchwork of Jesus sayings) but is, I think, in fact linked. Jesus says "For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward" (Mk 9:41). What Jesus is saying here, I think, is that those who recognize the name of Jesus will treat others in ways that is Jesus-like, that is, with charity and love symbolized by the image of the cup of water given. That idea of a community of followers marked by a shared ethos of love, service and hospitality is echoed is set up in the last verse of last week's gospel also from Mark, where Jesus said "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." (Mark 9:37).

Today's gospel is helpful in discerning what is appropriate and faithful Christian practice. There's an old Dire Straits song (Industrial Disease, from the Telegraph Road album, if you're wondering) which has they lyric "Two men say they're Jesus / One of them must be wrong". It's a little more complicated when two or more people say they are doing things in Jesus name. Does today's gospel mean that anything goes if it is done in Jesus' name? Does it sanction the pastor who burns Korans in Jesus' name, or the protestors at a military funeral with signs that say God hates fags and defend their actions as free speech done in the name of Jesus, or the polygamist who claims to follow Jesus while preying on young women? If these seem like extreme examples, consider the affluent and mostly segregated suburban church following a gospel of financial prosperity, or the inner city cathedral which ignores the homeless at its doors? Are they really acting in Jesus' name?

Jesus tells his disciples "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me". As I understand that passage, Jesus is saying that for an act done in his name to be true or authentic, it will not bring discredit on Him. There's the test, I would say. A gospel of hatred and division and exploitation, as some Christians have preached and followed in past and some still do today, will not bring any credit on our Lord. It will be seen through, mocked, and shunned. A congregation that bickers and quarrels amongst itself will not attract newcomers, and will, one day, wonder why it is closing. A true deed of power is something as simple as the glass of water offered to the thirsty. It is something as humble as we see in the reading from James, of a community of believers, however humble, who visit and pray with the sick, who sing with joy, and encourage one another. It is a congregation that understands why Jesus preaches and teaches hospitality, because to welcome the stranger is, in a profound and real way, to welcome Christ and the Father who sends him into our midst. Those are going to be the churches that don't need to worry abot closing.

That is what it means to be salty. Saltiness is flavour, and the flavour of the kingdom of heaven is peacefulness, the absence of conflict and hatred and fear. May we be salt that brings the good taste of the kingdom of heaven to a world that, too often, knows only the taste of bitterness. Amen.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review And Language Play Of The Week: Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds.. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.

For some years now I have been wondering when we might start seeing the literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By literature, I mean something akin to the prose and poetry that emerged a decade or so after the Great War of 1914-18. A goodly number of memoirs have been published and some have great merit, such as Patrick Hennesy's Junior Officer's Reading Club. Some journalists have also written books whose literary quality is remarkable, such as Dexter Filkins' The Forever War. But where is the poetry and the novels which might be compared to Wilfred Owens and Seigfried Sassoon, or is it too soon?

Last week in our local public library my wife found a novel in the new Hot Picks section, and told me I had to read it. I immediately noticed the cover blurb from novelist Tom Wolfe saying that The Yellow Birds was "The All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab wars". Wolfe sold me on reading this novel with that one comment, and while he set the bar pretty high and comparisons are easy, I think this book may stand the test of time as an important war novel of the period.

The other thing that caught my attention from the dust jacket was the author bio, which sold me on Kevin Powers as someone who might be superbly equipped to be a literary voice comparable to an Owen or Remarque. Powers was a enlisted infantryman in the US Army who served in Iraq in 2004-05. He went on to earn a Master's of Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was the Michener Fellow in Poetry. You can here an interview with Powers on NPR's wonderful Dianne Rehm show here.

I won't say much more because the plot is complex and I don't want to spoil it, but the quick summary is that it followers two young US soldiers in the worst parts of the Iraq war. The novel jumps back and forth in time, and has a lot to say about the effects of war on the psyche. Anyone wanting to understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the debilitating way that it traps soldiers in the past should read this book. Powers writes prose like a poet, albeit a young poet. Some passages struck me as overwrought, but much of the novel, even the combat scenes, has a lyrical, even dreamy quality which strangely accentuates rather than conceals the brutality of the subject.

As an example of the literary quality of the book, I offer this passage, which also gets the Mad Padre's Award of Language Play Of The Week for the way in which it develops the metaphor of a stone into a complex meditation on memory and alienation.

Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed. I knew, watching them, that if in any given moment a measurement could be made it would show how tentative was my mind's mastery over my heart. Such small arrangements make a life, and though it's hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of those parentheses which were the beginning and the end of my war: the old life disappearing into the dust that hung and hovered over Nineveh even before it could be recalled and longed for, young and unformed as it was, already broken by the time I reached the furthest working of my memory. I was going home. But home, too, was hard to get an image of, harder still to think beyond the last curved enclosure of the desert, where it seemed I had left the better portion of myself as one among the innumerable grains of sand, how, in the end the weather-beaten stone is not one stone but only that which has been weathered, a result, an example of slow erosion on a thing by wind or waves that break against it, so that the else of anyone involved ends up deposited like silt spilling out into an estuary, or gathered at the bottom of a river in a city that is all you can remember.

Friday, September 28, 2012

RIP Bruno Bobak, Canadian War Artist

The Globe and Mail and other Canadian media outlets on Thursday reported the passing of Bruno Bobak. I didn't know his name, but I have seen and loved much of what he drew and painted in World War Two. The influence of the Group of Seven, an iconic Canadian school of post-impressionism, is visible in his work. Bobak was the youngest war artist to be officially sponsored by the Canadian military during the war, and was attached to the 4th Armoured Division, which served in Italy and NW Europe.

How To Spoil A First Person Shooter

A friend of a friend on Twitter put me on to the website XKCD, A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math, and Language. Well, those are three of my favourite things. The math bits are over my head, but the site as a whole is often mordantly funny, a must for tech savvy hipsters.

I found this cartoon extremely funny. It says everything about the first person shooter genre of video games better than anything I've written on the subject, and with only .01% of the words.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

US Army To Down Tools Tomorrow And Focus On Suicide Prevention

I noticed via Twitter that the US Army has announced that it will set aside normal business tomorrow, operations permitting, and deal with suicide awareness and prevention.

That is a pretty huge deal for the largest service in the US military to suspend normal duties for a day, and an indication of how seriously they are taking the issue. I visited the US DOD website today and you can see from this page that the Army is putting a lot of resources into this problem, which seems to be getting worse. One day can't turn the problem around, but I hope it helps.

Again With The Drones: NYU/Stanford Study Addresses Social/Cultural Impact Of Drone Warfare In Pakistan

I've posted on several items in the military/political news regarding the West's increasing reliance on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (commonly called drones) to conduct military actions and extra-judicial killings as part what we have come to call the War on Terror. These articles have focused on the usefulness or counter-productiveness of these weapons on foreign policy aims and on their implications for military ethics and the laws of armed conflict.

Living Under Drones, a joint study by academics and Stanford and New York universities is the first, to my knowledge, to focus on the impact of drone warfare on a population and culture. The researches conducted numerous interviews in Pakistan, the main theatre of US UAV/drone operations. Their findings challenge the prevalent idea that drones are a surgical and precise weapons system, and suggests that a very small percentage of the thousands believed killed by drone strikes in Pakistan were actually key terrorist leaders.

This paragraph from the report (p. 11) is worth quoting in full, as it speaks to what the report claims is the impact of sustained drone warfare on the culture and lives of the people living beneath them:

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.

Besides rekindling the ethical debate on whether drone technology gives the executive branch an illegal, or at least an extrajudical, power of lethal sanction, to my mind it also raises other questions. The whole policy of COIN (counterinsurgency warfare), widely touted as the only viable means of ending the wars of the last decade, and especially Afghanistan, rests on the idea of winning the hearts and minds of the people while isolating and fighting the insurgents. But if, as the report requests, drones make whole populations fearful and then hostile to the US and to the West, then is this technology working for us or against us?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sven Hassel, Peter Rabbit, Mad Padre And The Mystery Of The Page View Spike

For a few days now, I've been puzzled by a spike in the number of visits to Mad Padre. Normally, this humble little blog gets 30-40 visits a day (no, not all from me, I don't count those. Sheesh.) Yesterday, the utility told me that Mad Padre had 339 pageviews just on 23 September. Eighty two of those visits were to my post on the Grenadier Guards band visiting Suffield, which I could understand, since the Grenadier Guards is probably frequently googled by British Army buffs. However, 190 pageviews were to a very early post here, from 1 August, 2008, Peter Rabbit, Tank Killer. I was wracking my brains as to why a 4+ year old post was getting that much attention.

The answer lay in the fact, unknown to me, that Sven Hassel died in Denmark several days ago. If you don't know who Sven Hassel was, I can explain by saying that in the mid 1970s, when I was a preadolescent, my older brother had two things that fascinated me and were forbidden to me. One was a collection of Playboy magazines, the other was a copy of Hassel's book, Wheels of Terror. Both were pornography of a kind. Hassel, a Dane who may or may not have been soldier in the German army (details of his wartime life are debated)wrote a lurid series of novels on a group of misfits in a German penal regiment that somehow got lavished with state of the art German Tiger tanks. Comparing these books to All Quiet on the Western Front would be a gross insult to Remarque. My 2008 post, Peter Rabbit, Tank Killer, is a brilliant (not mine, I hasten to say) mash up of Beatrix Potter with Hassel's grand guignol pornography of violence.

Google's Blogger Dashboard also showed me that most of the visitors to my blog interested in Peter Rabbit Tank Killer were coming from a site called metafilter, where, lo and behold, someone had posted a link to the Potter/Hassel spoof on my blog. I was a little deflated to solve this mystery. Just seeing the increase in pageviews was encouraging me to think that people are being drawn to this blog's eclectic miz of spirituality, erudition, dry humour, and kickass sermons. Well, some of you are, to be sure, and I am happy to note that in a few weeks or maybe a month, Mad Padre will reach 100,000 pageviews over four plus years. There are many times I think of wrapping this little vanity project up, and then I hear someone tell me how much they value this space, and I am encouraged. So thank you for your support. And hey, you, Sven Hassel fan guy, stick around. You might like it here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation And The Good War

In this sesquicentennial year of the American Civil War, Sept 22, two days ago, marked the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln Administration's Emancipation Proclamation, the document which promised freedom to all slaves in rebellious states as of 1 January, 1863. In a short essay on this event, John Fabian Witt, a professor at Yale Law School, makes the interesting argument that the Proclamation made possible our thinking today on the laws of armed conflict.

In this essay, Witt tells the story of how the Union turned to a legal scholar, Columbia University's Francis Leiber, to produce a document (Code For The Government Of Armies In The Field or the Leiber Code), describing the legal framework that would govern the prosecution of the war once the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Leiber's document did not limit the degree to which a war could be aggresively fought (until then, strong European powers like Prussia were suspicious of legal limits on warfare for this reason) but it did say that even a total war had to respect certain human rules. Leiber's document, Witt argues, opened a path to subsequent agreements such as the Geneva Conventions.

The rules of armed conflict today arise directly out of Lincoln’s example. They restrain brutality. But by placing a stamp of approval on “acceptable” ways to make war, they legitimate terrible violence. The law does not relieve war of all its terrors; it does not even purport to. But it stands as a living reminder, a century and a half later, of how thoroughly the United States’ most significant moment still shapes our moral universe.

Interesting. I thought I knew a little about the Civil War but I had never heard of Leiber or his document. Witt has a book out, “Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History", and it is going on my reading list.

History Geek footnote: Francis Leiber (so says wikipedia) was born in modern day Germany, served in the Prussian Army during the Napoleonic Wars, and was wounded at Waterloo. How cool is that?

In The Ditch With Jesus: A Sermon

A Sermon For The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Year B), Preached At Christ The Kng Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 23 Sunday, 2012.

Lections: Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

"He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." (Mk 9:35)

While I was thinking about this sermon on Saturday morning, I was in a ditch picking up garbage. My wife Kay belongs to a church that takes responsibility for a stretch of highway just outside town, and today was their day to go walk a kilometre of roadside and pick up litter. The bit that Kay and I were given was just across from a very busy Tim Hortons (non-Canadians, think Starbucks, sort of) and so there was a LOT of trash.

Usually I prefer to write my sermons in my comfortable study, surrounded by all my highbrow intellectual books and biblical commentaries, with my diplomas on my “I love me” wall. Being in a ditch was not at all comfortable. It wasn’t physically comfortable because the act of bending over repeatedly for several hours to pick up litter makes the back and legs hurt. I am more grateful than I can say that I don’t have to do stoop labour for a living, and I now have a better idea of what it’s like to work in the greenhouses around here.

Besides the physical discomfort, being in a ditch picking up litter wasn’t mentally comfortable, either. I know that some of you will think I’m a big fat jerk for saying this, but I wasn’t really keen to be seen in a ditch picking up trash while other people drove by in their comfortable cars and trucks. I had a lot of time to reflect on why I felt this discomfort. Why wasn’t I bursting with civic pride that I was doing my duty as a model citizen, pitching in to make my community more beautiful? Why wasn’t I going with that emotion? (Aside: after this sermon, several people told either me or Kay that they had driven by us on Saturday and thought that convicts were out working - I'm not sure if I felt better or worse for that!)

I decided that my discomfort came from the fact that I have internalized the idea that such work is menial labour, the kind that our society gives to the uneducated, unskilled, or immigrant. It’s not work for credentialed, intellectual, important people like me. So I have to say, I felt pretty abashed as I reached for yet another discarded coffee cup and remembered today’s gospel.

In Mark 9 the disciples have been having an argument while travelling with Jesus to Capernaum. When Jesus asks them what the argument was about, they tell him that “they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (Mk 9:34). I wonder if they were a little sheepish when they confessed that to Jesus, as if realizing suddenly that their master has never showed much interest in status and greatness. Jesus has been wearing his feet to nubs, walking from town to town teaching and helping people, and here they are arguing about which one is the best disciple. Me in my ditch today, ashamed of my garbage bag, I can relate to their sudden feeling that they have missed something really important about Jesus’ message.

Last Sunday I talked about how Jesus realized that he could only demonstrate God’s power to the world in two ways, by the cross and by the empty tomb. The cross was the only way to show a radical vision of love and forgiveness to a world that thinks in terms of power and prestige. That was why Peter tried to persuade Jesus that there must be some other way for Jesus, because to him a Messiah was someone who wielded great power and authority. When Jesus went on to say that his followers had to take up a cross, die to the world, and follow him, he was talking about a rejection of the “who’s the greatest” mentality that the disciples, or me in my ditch, were still buying into.

Jesus demonstrates his point to the disciples by picking up a child and saying 37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." This verse is sometimes taken to be a call to adopt a spirituality of childlike simplicity. As the preacher Alyce McKenzie writes, these sermons urge us to become `more pure, more innocent, more humble, more spontaneous, more trusting`.

Those are great things to be, but I think they start with our decisions about who we want to spend time with and what we want to do with them. I`ve seen smart, gifted Christian leaders dedicate themselves to working in Larche homes, or in prison ministry, or in small rural parishes when their gifts of preaching and exegesis could have served wider audiences. In my own service in a military chaplaincy that is often tempted by rank and prestige and medals, I have seen the same capacity for service. My first chaplain team leader, a major, spent a day on his hands and knees cleaning up a military residence when the family he had put in there on an emergency basis had trashed the place. He did it because he felt responsible, but also because he knew that someone had to, and it might as well be him. He will remain among the best chaplains I have ever known.

In making these choices to give themselves to situations where the only currencies are love and service, Christians like these ones show that they understand something of what it means to welcome, and to follow, our Lord. May we, who aspire to be Jesus`followers, also understand what kind of greatness He offers us.

Image courtesy of Agnus Day.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Grenadier Guards Band Visits Suffield

CFB Suffield was treated to some pomp and circumstance last Wednesday evening as only the premier band of the British Army can deliver it. The Band of the Grenadier Guards performed the Beating the Retreat ceremony, a sunset concert and an annual tradiiton at Suffield. The band had a busy schedule touring Southern Alberta, and was in Suffield to complete a year of celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of British Army Training Unit Suffield.

This makes three British military bands that I've had the privilege to see and hear during my posting at Suffield, and this band was far and away the best. The quality of their footdrill, as well as their musical ability, was amazing and showed the Brigade of Guards traditions to good effect.

The Guards are no strangers to Suffield. A Grenadier Guards battle group came through Suffield last year, all business, to train for Afghanistan and went over early this year. It was good to see the ceremonial face of the regiment this time. And there they go, off into the sunset.

Military Picture Of The Week

I took these photos two weeks back while on holiday in St. John's, Newfoundland. While going for an early morning jog up Signal Hill, I detoured off the road and passed Queen's Battery, an 18th century fortification guarding the harbour.

Maker's stamp on one of the cannons. Sure looks to me like this was made in 1708, unless I am misreading it. If so, that's about as old a piece of wesern military history as one is likely to come across in Canada.

Both photos taken with my iphone 4.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me: A Sermon

Is it too late to post last Sunday's sermon? My blog statistics tell me the sermons are the most read posts, so I hope not.

Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me - A Sermon For The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year B Lections: Isaiah 50:4-9a or Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 116:1-9, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 16 September, 2012

“Jesus asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29)

I always feel sorry for Peter, especially when reading this scene from Mark. Jesus asks “Who do you say I am?”. It's hard to think of a question that's more important for folks, like Peter, like you or men, who want to follow Jesus. It is, really, the big question, and Peter gets it right ... sort of. “You’re the Messiah!” he blurts, and this is a pivotal point in Mark’s gospel. Until now, Jesus has been guarding his identity, but now he invites his disciples to go deeper by sharing who he is and what his mission really is.

So full marks to Peter for getting it right, by saying that Jesus is the Messiah, which means the anointed one, a special person set aside by God to do great things for God’s chosen people, the Jews.

Hooray for Peter! We can imagine the big smile on his face, the other disciples slapping his back and approving of him for getting it right, perhaps for daring to say what they are thinking. But then it gets serious. Jesus has the disciples close in on him, his voice gets lower, and he starts telling them what he, the Messiah, is going to do for Israel. There, in the Roman built and named town of Caesarea Philippi, the embodiment of the rule of the godless over God’s people, Jesus says that he will not be the political and military saviour they were doubtless hoping for. In fact, Jesus says, he is going to experience shame, suffering, and death at the hands of the leaders of God’s people, and then, three days later, he will rise again (Mk 8.30-31).

I’m not sure Peter ever hears that last bit about Jesus rising again.

“Wait just a minute, Lord. Back up that bus! That isn’t going to happen to you! You’re the Messiah, for God’s sake!” Or words to that effect. I infer that Peter says something like this, based on Mark’s saying in verse 32, “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

I’ve always felt that Jesus is quite harsh in what he says in response. "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mk 8.34). That is quite a harsh thing to say to your star pupil. Jesus doesn’t explain it, but rather turns to the crowd and says a bunch of stuff about taking up crosses, laying down’s one life, giving up the world, and following him.

We are about to get a new sign for this chapel. I asked the sign shop to print the verse from Matthew where Jesus says “Come unto me all you who are weary, and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest”. That seemed like a comfortable and attractive invitation to passers by to join us here. What do you think now? Should I have put Mark 8:34, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? Or Mark 8:35, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”? What do you think?

Perhaps one way to answer this question is to think about why Jesus compares Peter to Satan. In another gospel, Matt 4:8-10, when Jesus is tempted in the desert, Satan offers him all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will serve him. Jesus angrily sends Satan away. At the start of Mark’s gospel, we are only told that Jesus is tested in the desert, but maybe Mark is making a reference to the kind of temptation that Jesus rejected. Jesus must have known that his task was to show the world God’s love and forgiveness from the cross. He could not have done the same thing from a throne, from a seat of power as the world understood it.

Jesus comes to the world to show us that God’s love is not dependent on power as we understand it. God’s power is to be demonstrated in two ways, by the cross, and by the empty tomb. Jesus points to these things, but people at the time do not understand it. Do we?

I am sure that Peter was surprised by this answer, and probably didn’t understand what he was hearing. I wonder if the same is true of us. What expectations do we bring to our faith? What goals do we give to God to accomplish for us? If we want God to fix the world in a way that we would want, I think we are sure to be surprised and even disappointed.

If we interpret Jesus' words about dying to the world and taking up our cross as a call to embrace an ascetic life of suffering, I think we miss the point of Mark's gospel. Nowhere in his travels or interactions thus far does Jesus to anything to add to anyone's suffering. Jesus is the avowed enemy of suffering and misery. Really all he asks, at least all he asks in concrete language, is for us to follow him. But we have to understand that the person we follow is not powerful, prestigious, or capable as the world wants its leaders to be. Jesus knew, back in the desert, that his path could never be the sort of path that the world's would-be leaders want to tread. Now, his disciples get the first real glimpse of what path they are on. Now, we his followers are reminded of the path our LOrd takes in this world.

In a time when security, power, wealth, manipulation, persuasion, and hatred seem to be the only forces at work in the world, what surprises is God offering to us to discover? Can we follow Jesus and find a world where dialogue, forgiveness, and compassion are greater forces than the world thinks they are? This question may seem naïve and dangerous in a world where embassies are stormed in the name of God, and where killer drones are dispatched in the name of national security (and, sometimes, of God). The question may be naïve, but the question leads us, I think, to the Kingdom of God.

Newly Found Papyrus Talks Of Jesus' Wife

We don't usually talk religion in the mess but I am so expecting to get asked about this story over a beer at happy hour tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Catholicism(s) And The US Election

As a Canadian following the US election season with great interest, I can't help but notice that one essential difference between our two countries is that God and religion is virtually absent from our politics, but prominent in theirs. One characterization that Canadians might be excused for buying into is that the Republicans are the religion party, particularly of an evangelical-centric, exceptionalist type of Christianity, while the Democrats are predominantly secular.

Molly Worthen, a professor of history at UNC, Chapel Hill, writing today in the NYT, reminds us that the real story is (surprise!) more complicated. This election Worthen rights, is a tale of two Americas but also is "a tale of two Catholicisms". Her call on the Democrats not to ignore the tradition of liberal Catholicism is also a reminder that religion, even in politics, has the potential "to address the basic questions of the human predicament."

Notable Quotable: Rosa Brooks On Drones And The Temptations Of Easy Killing

This article by Rosa Brooks on the US' increasing reliance on drone strikes appeared last week in Foreign Policy.

In the article, Brooks argues that the low cost and political convenience of drone technology is blurring the line between conflict and non-conflict, with implications for foreign policy and for traditional definitions of conflict and traditional limits on the use of force in conflict. Here are a few sentences from her conclusion:

"There's nothing preordained about how we use new technologies, but by lowering the perceived costs of using lethal force, drone technologies enable a particularly invidious sort of mission creep. When covert killings are the rare exception, they don't pose a fundamental challenge to the legal, moral, and political framework in which we live. But when covert killings become a routine and ubiquitous tool of U.S. foreign policy, everything is up for grabs."

I happened to read this article the same day that a chaplain colleague in the military called me to say that he had come across this blog (very flattering things he said, too) while organizing a symposium for military personnel involved in unmanned aviation and for the air force chaplains who minister to them. The discussions would focus on human and pastoral issues rather than on the foreign policy issues that Brooks mentions. The conversation with my colleague reminded me of how it is tempting to think of how the "legal, moral, and political" challenges in this kind of new technology have a direct impact on their immediate operators. The sniper, the artillerist, or the pilot, to give three examples, all share the UAV operator's ability to kill dispassionately and from a distance. Their trades and the technologies they use are no less deadly that those of the UAV operator. The drone guy is not less ethical than the sniper. But if Brooks is right, and I think contemporary affairs are bearing her out, the drone guy, increasingly, will be the first military trade that governments give problems to because he is a convenient, risk free alternative to putting boots on the ground. And so my chaplain friend is right to focus on the minds, hearts, and consciences that operate these new weapons. I am looking forward to hearing the results of his symposium.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Seen On The Morning Run - Kingston, Ontario

These pictures were taken last Saturday while I was in Kingston, Ontario, for a wedding. Kingston is a little gem of a city, and has tons of historic interest. The old downtown has wonderful old world limestone buildings, lots of decent restaurants and pubs, and cultural life. Nearby Queens University keeps the place young and vibrant.

Saturday morning a storm was blowing off Lake Ontario but since our hotel was on the waterfront I decided to risk going for a run along the harbour trail. That trail brought me to Murney Tower, one one of the Martello Tower fortifications built in the 1840s. Kingston was a strategic communications point and garrison, both during the War of 1812 and later as it anchored the Rideau Canal being built northwards to Ottawa, so the Crown was anxious to fort up the place in the event of another spat with the United States.

In the picture below, you can see how strong the wind was by looking at the trees to the right of the tower. When I was running into the wind, I was really just walking.

This photo shows a view of the Kingston Harbour and the choppy water. If you squint you can see two more red roofed Martello towers, one on the right at Royal Military College (Canada's version of Sandhurst or West Point), and one on the left by the inner harbour.

One of the pleasures of running, especially in a new place, is that it allows me to see things I would miss while travelling in a car. As I meandered around, I noticed how the local architecture mimics and echoes the Martello tower shape and theme. The picture below shows a residence building at Queens University. In the bottom right, just above the SUV, you can see an example of what I mean.

Another example of a Martello tower echo in a high-end townhouse complex I ran by along the waterfront.

So this post is a little longer than most of my Seen On The Run posts, but I encourage you to get out, be healthy, and notice things.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Review: Every Man Dies Alone

Hans Fallada. Every Man Dies Alone. 1947. Translated Michael Hofmann. New York: Melville, 2009.

It's been a while since I posted any book reviews here, not because I've stopped reading, but because I lost the habit of reviewing. Some of my blogging friends, such as Curt from Analogue Hobbies, post some excellent book reviews from time to time, and I hate to ignore a good example. Every Man Dies Alone doesn't sound like the cheeriest title to take on holiday, as I did recently, and it wasn't really light reading, but it did keep my attention.

The unique thing about this book it is one of the few German novels translated into English which is set in Nazi Germany and written by someone who lived through it. Hans Fallada, whose real name was Rudolf Ditzen was a German novelist who attained some fame in the 1930s. One of his novels, Little Man, What Now?, was translated into English and became a Hollywood film. He came to the attention of the Nazis, who wanted him to write propaganda for them, but Fallada was an unenthusiastic Nazi and did the minimum possible to stay out of trouble. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and barely managed to survive the war in a psychiatric institution.

In 1946 a friend of his with cultural connections in the Soviet sector tried to get Fallada on his feet by giving him a true life story to use as the idea for a novel. The story came in the form of a Gestapo file on a working class Berlin couple, Otto and Elise Hempel, who had turned against the Nazis. Over several years they tried to turn opinion against the regime by leaving postcards with anti-Nazi statements in public places. While they are now largely forgotten compared to student movements such as the White Rose circle or various army conspiracies, at the time they were a huge headache for the Gestapo, who feared that the Hampels were part of a much larger cell. They were arrested and executed in 1943.

In Fallada's version they become the Quangels, a simple, middle aged couple who lose their son in France. The novel follows their growing bitterness and their decision to turn against the Nazis. Besides being a psychological novel, it is also a police procedural, as Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo tries to track down the source of the postcards while trying to placate his brutal and impatient superiors. Fallada creates a number of secondary characters who illustrate the range of moral behavior in Nazi Germany. Some are idealistic, like the retired Judge Fromm who tries to shelter a Jewish neighbour and later tries to help the Quangels cheat the guillotine. Others are thugs and schemers who take advantage of the Party to rob and brutalize the weak. In fact, one of Fallada's themes is that the crooks run the justice system and the guiltless are their victims.

If you want a happy ending, this book really isn't for you. Fallada's vision of human beings is pretty grim. His villains are loathsome and depraved, and even the heroes, such as they are, are often feckless and ineffectual. All are caught in a tragedy that destroys the good and the bad. As an aside, he tells us Judge Fromm, who lived his life for the ideal of Justice, dies in agony when a British bomb destroys his house. The atmosphere of wartime Berlin is suffocating, a vast prison where neighbour spies on neighbour and no one can dare speak their mind. In such a world, Fallada seems to say that the only way to stay human is to refuse, as much as possible, to go along with evil. As Herr Quangel tells his judges, "At least I stayed decent. I didn't participate".

So not a happy or even an uplifting book if you need larger than life heroes to be inspired. But if you want an authentic look at a terrible period in history by someone who lived through it, and if you want to be challenged by some heavy thinking on the cost of ordinary, basic decency, then I recommend this novel to you.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ghosts Of Gander

Mrs. Padre are on our way home from vacation today, after two pleasant weeks. Once I get home I will try to post on some of the cool things I saw in Newfoundland (there were a few glimpses in my running posts), but one thing I wanted to share was my visit to an obscure spot just south of the Trans Canada Highway in Gander, Newfoundland. When I saw the sign to the turnoff, I suddenly remembered the story breaking 26 years ago, and I felt I wanted to make the pilgrimage.

Once Gander was a major hub for military and civilian aviation transiting the North Atlantic. It was during that era that the worst air disaster in Canadian and US military history occurred there on 12 December, 1985, when an Arrow Air flight carrying members of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division crashed there early on a winter morning.

Driving downhill along a gravel road leading towards Gander Lake, we came across this quiet park, hidden amidst the trees.

A plaque marks the 256 US soldiers and aircrew who perished in the crash. There were no survivors. The plaque was placed there by personnel of the RCAF's 9 Wing, CFB Gander, in 1995.

A monument at the site shows a US soldier of the era flanked by two children, symbolizing the peacekeeping mission that the 101st was returning from at the time.

This may seem like an odd post to write just an hour before I get on the plane, but the serenity of the place on a summer afternoon, combined with the tragedy of so many deaths of those returning for Christmas leave, made a deep impression on me. If you are ever passing through Gander and have a minute to visit the spot, I think you will feel the same emotions.

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Pearson Intl Airport, Mississaugua, Ontario

Monday, September 3, 2012

Seen On The Morning Run

Anglican cemetery, Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland. Mountains in the background are typical of the landscape here in Gros Morne Ntl. Park.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Main St N,Rocky Harbour,Canada

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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