Thursday, January 31, 2013

Confessions Of Two Liberal Gun Owners

I have am ambivalent relationship with firearms. I never acquired a firearms license until I was in my thirties and then became interested in American Civil War reenacting. In the real army I am a non-combatant by virture of my trade, and yet I have two rifles at home (one a replica .58 calibre rifled musket from my reenacting days, the other a WW2 era SMLE4 because as a history geek I wanted to own the same type of weapon that my father carried). Most of my army friends are knowledgeable firearms experts and collectors, who look askance and rather pityingly at me when I bring out views on gun control, which are reinforced at home by a self-administered diet of liberal media such as NPR. As a gamer I spend an inordinate amount of time painting lead and plastic figures carrying weapons. As a Canadian I'm grateful that I live in a country that is culturally and historically different from our neighbours to the south, with their singular relationship to firearms, and yet there is much about the United States I admire. So it's all rather complicated.

This essay by American author Justin Cronin describes a similarly complicated relationship with firearms, and is worth reading. In my heart I wish that Cronin's line of thought took another direction, but in my head, I can understand why a family man, in a society awash with guns, would conclude that "I am my family’s last line of defense". I'm grateful that I live in a society where I feel that I don't have to draw the same conclusion, but I can understand his thinking.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Sum Of Our Parts: A Sermon

Sometimes Sunday's sermon has to wait a few days until it is pretty enough to go on the blog. This sermon was an ugly mess last Sunday.

Agnus Day appears with the permission of"

A Sermon For The Third Sunday Of Epiphany, Preached at Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB Texts For Sunday, January 27, 2013, Lectionary Year C: Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." (1 Cor 12:2-21)

What would it be like to be part of a community which valued every member equally, so that everyone was indispensable? Wouldn't that be an amazing, validating experience, to feel that you really belong, especially if you had never felt that way before? When Paul was building one of the first Christian churches, in the Greek city of Corinth, he was reaching out to many people who felt dispensable, or, if they had any value at all, it was for being human machines with a certain monetary worth but no intrinsic dignity. If you've ever watched a film like "Gladiator" or "Spartacus", you will have some sense of what world the church in Corinth lived in. Society in the Greco-Roman world was built on inequality and subservience. A few very rich ruled at the top, then free citizens of varying incomes, then a mass of slaves valued only for their unpaid labour. it was a society where people knew their place, and were mostly kept there, often brutally so.

In the midst of the world was the apostle Paul, telling people that that in deciding to follow Jesus they had joined a new society where all are equal: "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor 12:12-13). In these verses, Paul is saying to the Corinthian church that whatever their previous identities in the world, whether free or slave, whether identifying with Judaism either ethnically or as a convert, or Greek" as in someone ethnically, philosophically and religiously from the vast and complicated world of ancient Hellenism, wherever you were from, whatever class you belonged to, whatever or whomever you owned or were owned by, that no longer matters.. Paul is talking, as he often does in his letters, to people who are recreated, made new creations by the transforming love of God in Christ.

In Paul's language, the phrase "in Christ" is hugely important. The body of Christ is a community unlike any other that existed in Paul's world. It is a spiritual community, in the sense that all are what Paul elsewhere calls "saints", people called from their old lives of sin and death into new life. As a spiritual community it is animated by gifts of the spirit, so its members can love, forgive, teach, and instruct one another. It is also a political community, in the Greek sense of the word polis as city or community. The body of Christ is a polis, a political entity, in that is has a physical address, real people, a real presence in the world. The polis or city of Christ has no internal divisions of class, worth, or race. Whatever roles they may play or whatever spiritual gifts they may have, all are equal. All are loved equally by God. All are part of the body of Christ.

We may feel that Paul rather flogs the horse in developing his metaphor of the body and how each part of the body is indispensable. While he may belabour the point, he was most likely trying to settle in this early church as to which gifts were most important. Paul's answer flies like a straight arrow from his initial premise that all are new creations in Christ. All members, and all their gifts, are of value, he says: "As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you" (1 Cor 13:20-21). In the heart of this detailed and perhaps overlong metaphor is a simple message, that the words "I have no need of you" are words that have no place in the life and thought of the church, for it denies the gospel.

I think we probably know at the gut level that these words are wrong. In the life of our community on a military base, we can easily find counterparts to Paul's analogy of the body, where the words "I have no need of you" would make no sense. A lot of you play ice hockey, and you knows that on every team there's always that person who thinks they score themselves rather than pass the puck. If enough people think that they have no need of their teammates, they won't be an effective team. Likewise, for you soldiers, you know that if an infantry unit goes off on exercise and says they have no need of signallers or logisticians, that unit won't be combat effective for very long, hence the term "combined arms". The same is true of the church. A church needs ministries of bookkeeping, greeting, and hospitality as much as needs the ministries of its clergy and worship team. But this idea of interdependence goes deeper than a simple, prosaic division of labour.

In our gospel reading today, we heard Jesus innagurating his ministry by naming those he was concerned with - the poor, the sightless, the captive - precisely people to whom the society of his day had said "I have no need of you". Now think of the church's place in the world today. Think of how many people regularly hear the words "I have no need of you". The old person in a youth-obsessed and age-denying culture, the worker whose job is outsourced, the working poor holding down two or three part-time jobs who are told they are part of the "47%" of takers, all hear the words "I have no need of you". We give in to "I have no need of you" thinking when we live in the gated community, when we arm ourselves against a coming collapse, when we subscribe to identity politics of people like ourselves, and when we limit the life and mission of the church to that of a pious enclave. The church today fears for its relevancy at a time when increasing numbers of the poor and the disenfranchised hear the words "we have no need of you". Today in the New York Times the well-meaning Thomas Friedman writes that to get ahead in today's economy, where increases in productivity no longer translates into increased prosperity for many, people will need more initiative, more education, and more passion to "demonstrate how they can add value better than the new alternatives". Economically, it may make sense to show how one is valuable to the bottom line. However, the church speaks for God's economy, and just as the scrolls were opened in Nazareth and Corinth to preach "the year of the Lord’s favor" (Lk 4:14-21), so must the proclamation of our good news remain today, that God never says "I have no need of you". Amen.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, January 28, 2013

No Soldier Is An Island

Just before Christmas my buddy Padre Howard, a handsome but clueless individual, called me to say that he needed some writing from me for the first thing in January. Howard coordinate chaplains' submissions to The Western Sentinel, the newspaper of Canada's Army in western Canada. Burdened by vague feelings of affection and loyalty to Howard (he has a nice moustache, a lovely family, drinks Guinness... and that's all i've got, really), I agreed. While casting about for a topic, I thought it would be quite awesome if I could quote a Renaissance metaphysical poet in an army newspaper and get away with it, and I did. Mr. Argyll, my Literature 12 teacher who introduced me to John Donne, would be proud.

In all seriousness, the submission was written while I was finishing off a series of charitable events with many good hearted folks from the base, and feeling quite inspired by them, and my feelings of despair and horror in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, USA, in December. The intersection of those feelings lead me to Donne. You can see the piece here and then navigage to page 17. Or, to make it easier, you can read it below.

“No man is an island” wrote the English poet John Donne. If Donne was alive today instead of 400 or so years ago and been more gender aware, he would have probably written “no one is an island”, but the point is the same. Donne was saying that all of us are connected, one to another, or, in his words, “I am involved in mankind”. When we ignore this fact, our lives become isolated and stranded, like a barren island cut off from the mainland.

As I write this, just before Christmas, I am, like all of us, trying to find some meaning in the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I have no answers. I am not sure that anyone does. What could one say? All that we can say, with any certainty, is that one person, for whatever horrible and misguided reason, rejected his connection to his fellow humans. Whereas the poet Donne felt that “any man’s death diminishes me”, Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, turned that sentiment on its head. He, like other mass killers, seems to have gone to a place where the only meaning was in the death of others.

Our American friends and neighbours are now beginning a long and painful debate. This debate will involve individual and constitutional rights to bear arms, the need of society to protect itself, and issues regarding mental health. Some of this debate will be uniquely American, but the issues around society and mental health know no borders.

Over the Christmas season just passed, I have been inspired time and again by how my military and civilian colleagues have gotten “involved in mankind”. I’ve seen volunteers step up to help the Salvation Army, the United Way, the local food bank, soup kitchens, you name it. These people don’t want recognition. They don’t do it for their PERs or a letter from the Padre to their COC saying how swell they are. They just want to do something to help others. They realize that human beings aren’t designed to be islands, and that we do best when we are connected to one another. I’m definitely not a shrink, but I will say with certainty that our mental health depends on each of realizing, as Donne wrote, that we are “involved in mankind”. This is good advice, and not just for the Christmas season.

A while ago at CFB Suffield, we sat with glazed expressions through two days of stupefying annual briefings, but amidst this death by powerpoint I remember some good stuff on mental health. We were told to keep an eye on each other, and to check in with friends and colleagues if we see them starting to detach themselves from others. Here for me is the hope I need when stories like Newtown look so large. The truth, and the key to healthy living, is that we none of us our islands. We do best, we even thrive, when we reach out to others, because we are all “involved in mankind”.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

More On Drones And Privacy/Policy Issues

In 2008, when I was being posted to 14 Wing in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, my realtor at the time was quite excited about the prospect of the Wing standing up a UAV (unmannaed aerial venicle, or drones) squadron. The influx of new personnel, he argued, would be good for home prices and should coincide with the send of my posting, giving me good resale prospects. There would also be a boost for the local economy,new stores, etc. I wonder now how many local residents would have welcomed the prospect of frequent drone training flights and incursions on their privacy.

This story from US National Public Radio (NPR) from upstate New York talks about the impact of military training flights of drones on the civilian community and the privacy issues involved. Those domestic privacy rights issues are also discussed here in an NPR interview with a law professor.

Besides domestic privacy issues, the larger issue I think is the use of drones to target and kill high value targets associated with terrorist organizations, the transparency of policies around drone use to the electorate, and the compatibility of these policies with universally accepted Laws of Armed Conflict. A useful discussion of these issues occured last night on the PBS News Hour:

Watch Exploring Effectiveness, Consequences of Drone Warfare on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

US Militay To Lift Ban On Women In Combat Roles

Discussion of this story on last night's PBS News Hour:

Watch Secretary Panetta Lifts Military Ban on Women in Combat on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rick Warren On The Most Countercultural Thing You Can Say

If you move in Christian circles today or have done so in the past ten years, you will be familiar with Rick Warren and his book, The Purpose Driven Life. A copy of that book sits to hand on my bookshelf as I type this. I confess I've struggled to read it from cover to cover, but it is there and it a useful introduction to faith, as the Alpha course was in its day. I ran across Warren on Newsweek's Beast TV today, and in a short interview he has some interesting things to say about social media (he's kidding about going to hell if you don't follow him on Twitter ... I think), the top two mistakes young people make, and the most countercultural thing you can say today.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Notable Quotable: "You Christians Eat Your Own"

I came across this piece on Christopher Benson's excellent blog, Bensonian, , in which a Christian pastor has occasion, thanks to a non-believing friend, to rethink grace and forgiveness. The subject of their conversation is disgraced televangelist Ted Haggard, and the friend's comment, "You Christians Eat Your Own", forces the pastor to reconsider his own hardness of heart. Here's an excerpt:

"He was running late for a meeting and had to take off. I, however, could barely move. I studied the TV and read the caption as a well-known religious leader kept shoveling dirt on a man who had admitted he was unclean. And at that moment, my heart started to change. I began to distance myself from my previously harsh statements and tried to understand what Ted and his family must have been through. When I brought up the topic to other men and women I love and respect, the very mention of Haggard’s name made our conversations toxic. Their reactions were visceral.

Please understand, this isn’t just my experience. Just Google his name and read what is said about him in Christian circles. Most Christians would say God can forgive him, but almost universally people agree that God will never use him again. When I pressed the question, “Why can’t God still use Ted?” I was dismissed as foolish or silly. Most of these people got mad and demanded I drop the subject. Perhaps they saw something I was missing, but this response seemed strange. After all, I reasoned, Jesus restored Peter after he denied Christ. That’s a pretty big deal. And what about the Scripture that teaches us that the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable? So I felt I needed to meet Ted for myself."

Read the whole piece here. I found it personally quite challenging. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

In The Midst: A Sermon For The Second Sunday After Epiphany

A Sermon Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 20 January, 2013

Readings For the Second Sunday After Epiphany, Proper 2, Lectionary Year C: Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1011, John 2:1-11

"Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana in Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him." (John 2:10).

A wedding is where all sorts of human hopes and dreams come together. There bride wants to be beautiful and wants the day to be magical. The groom hopes he won't embarrass himself. The newlyweds, whether they are quite new at this or have been together a while, sense that this will be their entry, as one couple I know and love put it, into "happily ever after". The parents on both sides hope for the things all parents want out of weddings - happiness for their children, grandchildren for themselves, a happy family gathering, and for all the mundane arrangements of the day to go as planned, especially if they have paid for these arrangements! And God forbid that anything should go wrong or run out. The wedding, in short, is life, with all its hopes and fears, and here, in the midst of this wedding at the start of John's Gospel, is Jesus, with his mother and disciples, in the midst of life.

Here is Jesus, and the wine has run out. And what follows is a story (not surprisingly, much beloved of soldiers) where Jesus saves the day by turning the water into wine. Theologians and biblical scholars tell us that this act is not a miracle, but rather, in the language of the Fourth Gospel, a "sign". John sums up the story by saying that the point of this story is for Jesus to "reveal his glory", to show himself as the Son of God and to give the disciples a reason to believe in him. The timing of this story in the lectionary and life of the Church is the season of Epiphany, a time when we are reminded of the identity and mission of the one born at Christmas. Which is all well and good, I suppose, but a little cold and abstract as well. What about us, about we who go to weddings and family gatherings and all the other events that mark our full and busy lives, with all our hopes and fears? What hope does the revelation of the Son's glory give us?

This is a fair question, and to answer it we need to remind ourselves that this story does not happen on a far mountain top, or in a boat on a stormy lake, but at a wedding, in the midst of life. It may not seem that Jesus in this story has much interest in the life going on around him. He shows little sympathy for the unfortunate newlyweds ("Woman, what concern is that to you and me" Jn 2: ) as if indifferent to their poor choice of a wedding planner. I can even imagine him rolling as eyes as his mother speaks to the servants, no doubt pointing to him proudly as she does, but he acts, for whatever reason, and there is wine, crazy amounts of wine, and it is better than anyone in their right mind would expect at this stage of proceedings. And it may seem like a small thing, wine, even good wine, given that no lepers are healed or cripples restored, but the abundance of wine points to the larger promise that Jesus makes later in this gospel, that he has come so his followers may have life, and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10).

We who are in the midst of life are haunted by scarcity. We may have the sense to plan adequately, for a wedding feast, but we know that other things are beyond our control and may give out. There may not be enough time, enough meaning, enough love, or self respect, or dignity. We may not know it as newlyweds, when life is full of potential, but for those of us old enough to watch the newlyweds heading for their happily ever after, we know that the odds are against them, and we fear for them. And there is Jesus, the Son of God, there in the midst of our lives, pouring out himself, careless of the cost, that we may have true and abundant life. This sign at the wedding of Cana is the first of his signs. The last sign in John's gospel will be given at the cross, where Jesus goes to pour himself out for us, that we may have life, and have it abundantly. Amen.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Back To The Stacks

I got a very pleasant letter this week, the formal answer to my application for one of many post-graduate degree progams to be sponsored by the Canadian Forces in the 2013-14 school year. At least, it had a happy ending, though the first paragraph (thank for you application, competition for this program was rigorous, and your qualifications were carefully considered) left me with a sinking feeling. I've gotten too many "You're good but not good enough" letters in my day. But I bashed on to the second paragraph which began with the golden words "I am pleased to inform you ..". Huzzah!

So, barring budget cuts and unforseen austerities, the next step in my military career will be going back to school. If all goes to plan this summer, Mrs. Padre and I will sell our house in Medicine Hat and head back east, back to the province of Ontario, and to the city of Kitchener-Waterloo, where I will be doing a two year MA program in Religion and Culture at Wilfred Laurier University. K-W as the locals call it is home to Canada's biggest and coolest Oktoberfest, so I expect we will fit right in.

It's too early to say when we will move, or what exactly my studies will focus on. I would like to learn as much about Islam and about the possibilities and limits of religious dialogue between Islam and the West, varying cultural views of the sacred and the secular, etc, but that will require more thought and discussions with their faculty. Whatever the focus is, it will be an interesting few years. The idea of being paid by the Army to be a graduate student has its attractions. I've been a starving grad student, and it sucked. Once the degree is done I'll put the uniform back on and go where the army sends me - I'm told this post-grad leads to a slot in a think tank in the doctrine and training establishment in Kingston, ON, but we shall see.

For now I am looking forward to revisiting one of the great pleasures I knew as a graduate student, namely having hours to roam the stacks of a good university library. I was talking about the American poet William Stafford in a recent post here, and I am reminded of his poem "Afternoon in the Stacks"

An Afternoon in the Stacks By William Stafford Closing the book, I find I have left my head inside. It is dark in here, but the chapters open their beautiful spaces and give a rustling sound, words adjusting themselves to their meaning. Long passages open at successive pages. An echo, continuous from the title onward, hums behind me. From in here the world looms, a jungle redeemed by these linked sentences carved out when an author traveled and a reader kept the way open. When this book ends I will pull it inside-out like a sock and throw it back in the library. But the rumor of it will haunt all that follows in my life. A candleflame in Tibet leans when I move.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sadly, No Death Star Anytime Soon

It's astonishing to me that over 30,000 people signed a petition calling on the White House to "build the "Star Wars" inspired super-weapon to spur job growth and bolster national defense". I shouldn't be surprised at what people will sign. When I was on a whale watching tour in Nova Scotia I was entranced to learn that Greenpeace had called for names for a humpack whale it was following on its South Atlantic migration, and the winning name, with 119,367 votes, was Mr. Splashy Pants.

I still want to know, what were these people thinking? Does anyone really, seriously think that a Death Star, a moon-sized, galaxy roaming, planet-killing vessel, is either feasible or desirable? And how would it protect US security, seeing as US security problems, such as North Korea and Iran, are, well, on the same planet as the US? That would rather invalidate the planet-killing capability of the Death Star.

Fortunately, cooler heads are prevailing in Washington. On Friday last, "Paul Shawcross, an administration adviser on science and space, said a Death Star would cost too much to build — an estimated $850 quadrillion — at a time the White House is working to reduce the federal budget. Besides, Shawcross says, the Obama administration "does not support blowing up planets."

So it being a slow day in the mess, a bunch of us were thinking that it would be cool to be part of Death Star Command, assuming that such a thing was ever stood up. Just the shoulder badge alone would be awesome.

On the way home, I got to thinking about the merits of Canada stepping in, since the US is not interested in the project. I decided it would be unlikely, and here's why.

Top Ten Reasons Why Canada Probably Won't Build a Death Star

1) Language issues: would it be called "The Death Star" for English Canada, "L'Etoille de la Mort?" for French Canada, or "Dat Big Shiny 'Ting Dat Blows Stuff Up" in Newfoundland?

2) Provincial issues: Ottawa would have to parcel out construction projects to the provinces, requiring extensive drydock to spacedock upgrades in Halifax, Vancouver, and Montreal. A large Death Star maintenance contract to Winnipeg would be cancelled at the last minute and given to Quebec, thus creating a new generation's worth of East-West hostility.

3) Interservice issues: Fighting between the Navy and the Air Force over ownership of the Death Star project would take at least a generation to sort out. The Army would settle for a modest role as the Death Star Security Force, but this would mean long delays while white plastic stormtrooper uniforms were procured.

4) Cost issues: the Minister of Defence would lowball the cost at $600 quadrillion, and then revelation of cost overruns running the total to $850 quadrillion would paralyze Parliament for years. This delay would not include the costly F35 to TIE Fighter conversion project, which would have its own set of cost overruns and its own parliamentry debate. Expect a Crown Commission to be appointed to look into the costing issues.

5) Procurement issues: the Department of Defence would be castigated for considering European and US bids for design and construction of the Death Star. Demand would increase for a "made in Canada" Death Star, and at some point, someone would write to the Globe and Mail demanding that the Avro Arrow be built instead of a Death Star.

6) International law issues: Canadian Military police would be tasked to run the Death Star detention facilities, which, as Star Wars fans will recall, seems to be the second raison d'etre of having a Death Star other than blowing planets up. Post-Afghanistan concerns about potential mistreatment of Death Star detainees under international law would add yet another paralyzing debate to Parliament, especially when plans for the floating black globe with hypodermic needles were leaked. Situation is further complicated when Parliamentry subcommittee examines possible intergalactic law as it applies to alien detainees and their rights, such as Bothans and fur combs. Many long Supreme Court appeals ensue.

7)Security issues: Speaking of leaks, all the plans for Canada's Death Star would be sold by an RCN intel sub-lieutenant to a potentially hostile power for $200 and a pack of smokes. Luke and Han will not rescue the sub-lieutenant.

8)Manning issues: Crewing Canada's Death Star will require everyone currently serving in the Canadian Forces and then some. Civilian DND staff will be required to make up the Death Star's complement. Unfortunately, federal hiring freezes will make this impossible.

9)Environmental issues: Concerns about the habitat of the giant squid monsters in the Death Star trash compactors, and the need to protect them, will require that large sections of Canada's Death Star be declared as Environmentally Protected Areas, thus significantly degrading its operational effectiveness.

10) Cultural issues: Canadian public has a massive freak out when it learns that the federal government is building a Death Star. Massive debate in CBC and other media ensues as to whether a "Death Star" is in keeping with Canadian values and image in the world. Canadian neocons say "damn skippy it is", everyone else says no. Finally the government compromises on a Canadian Peacekeeping Star, but due to budget constraints what is finally built is a Canadian Peacekeeping Asteroid whose primary armament is a slightly larger Canadarm. A prototype is built, the project is cancelled, and the prototype is mysteriously destroyed, thus giving Canadian nationalists and conspiracy theorists new grist for their mill (see Avro, Arrow).

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book Review: The Dog Stars

Peter Heller, The Dog Stars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

Peter Heller might be described as a poet adventurer, a title I wouldn't mind having on my business card. With an MFA in writing and poetry, Heller has gone to some of the most extreme places on earth, and lived to tell the story inNational Geographic Adventurer, Men's Journal, and other journals. I first heard him interviewed on NPR this summer while I was painting a fence, and the discussion was so interesting that the paint on my brush almost dried while I was listening.

To call this debut novel post-apocalyptic would do it an injustice by lumping it into a vast and often shoddy sub-genre. It is however set in a world ten years after a flu epidemic has killed almost everyone. The few survivors are almost all armed, dangerous, and distrustful. The protagonist, Higgs, is a pilot who has three relationships left: with his old Cessna aircraft, with his dog Jasper, and with Bangley, a gun-loving and people-hating loner who tolerates Higgs because he is useful.

I found this an absolutely beautiful and haunting book. Heller writes well, as you would expect from someone schooled in poetry. In the book Higgs declares that he is a fan of American poet William Stafford, whose poems are Western, hard, sharp and yet often whimsical (see "Choosing a Dog" as an example). You can see the influence of Stafford in this book. Here's a sample of Heller's writing, which reveals what it feels like when a man who has been overburdened by loss and grief can't sustain it any longer.

I stood in the shade of the tree on the cool breath of the moving water and let the sound, the light breeze blow through me. I was a shell. Empty. Put me to your ear and you would hear the distant rush of a ghost ocean. Just nothing. The slightest pressure of current or tide could push and roll me. I would wash up. Here on this bank, dry out and bleach and the wind would scour and roughen me, strip away the thinnest layers until I was brittle and the thickness of paper. Until I have crumbled into sand. That's how I felt. I'd say it was a relief to have at last nothing, nothing, but I was too hollow to register relief, too empty to carry it." (p. 197)

The Dog Stars was the last book I read in 2012, while I was still coming to terms with the massacre of children in Sandy Hook, CT, and listening to America's anguished and confused debate over its love of firearms. That debate has a displaced but very real place in this book. Higgs depends on Bangley's deadly skill with firearms because most of the survivors are, as he says, "not nice". Bangley's philosophy, which the NRA would approve of, is shoot rather than negotiate if that is the price of self-protection, and in this world of violence that seems like a sensible approach. Like a good liberal, Higgs however is convinced that it must still be possible to connect with other humans, and that conviction drives the second half of the book.

One my fascinations with the much in-vogue apocayptic strain in popular culture is with what it reveals about our contemporary anxieties. Heller I think is mining that vein quite deliberately, for example describing the woods Higgs walks through, where half the trees are dead from blight and beetle, and where trout no longer swim in the warming mountain streams. It's not the barren world of, say, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but rather is a world that feels eerily and scarily like our own, a world that is fragile and already slipping away. And yet it's a world that is still capable of some sort of redemption, even though God is not mentioned or even thought about once.

I happily recommend this novel to you and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts if you've read it. MP

Whither The Mad Padre Blog?

This cartoon sums up how I've been feeling about what I've come to think of "the God Blog" of late. There are times when I feel like the vast majority of people visiting the blog are spammers or their sinister robotic minions. That feeling was reinforced for a while wen I had enabled email notifications of posted comments, which all seemed to boil down to viagra, porn, or cheap designer handbags. That depressing onslaught, plus a variety of time pressures, sketchy internet access, old computer issues, and frankly a certain amount of lethargy have conspired to make me want to chuck it and shut it down and just focus on my wargaming blog, which, frankly, can be more fun and more interactive.

When I am tempted to give in to this sentiment, I think of two emails I received late last year from readers of this blog. In a conversation with one reader, I was being rather whiny and complaining that this blog didn't seem to be having much of an impact. I got this back:"

Mike, to be fair - the God blog is never going to attract a huge number of hits. However, it does bring your sermons to a potential wider audience and I think that's important. Any fool can write with conviction, but you write with wit and fluency and power and that is too rare a thing to hide under a bushel.


You're always going to have to write sermons and I think the discipline of putting them up online forces you to do a good job because while the congregation may forget, the Internet is forever."

I needed to hear that. The rationale for this blog has always been, at least in part, homiletic. The "Padre" part of the title has always been my acknowledging that I am an Anglican priest, called to preach the good news of Christ. Over the last five years, the blog has allowed me to share messages and sermons, usually fleeting and ephemeral things given in small chapels, with a wider audience. Some Mad Padre readers have told me that they can't or don't attend worship, and find it helpful to read the sermons I post here. Preachers are often vain, egotistical beings, and I need to remind myself that it's not about me. Karl Barth taught that the preacher is one who simply points away from himself to the cross. Smart chap, that Barth. Non nobis domine, and all that.

The other bits included in the "Padre" part of the title reflect my profession as a military chaplain, my take on the military ethos and ethics, and related issues. The "Mad" part of the title has been a signal that I try to take all of the above with a healthy sense of humour. Most people regard Christians in general and clergy in particular as dour, cheerless individuals, whereas I have always found that being slightly mad in a good way allows relationships to start and dispells stereotypes. So that explains the bits about goats, cartoons, etc. Besides, "Mad Padre" is fun to say. However, even that motivation flags on occasion. Another reader sent me this comment at a time when I needed to hear it.

Thanks so much for your blogs, which I have really enjoyed. I very much like your wargaming blog but your other non-wargaming blog has been a real treasure trove of thought provoking material, stunning shots of the Canadian prairie and country and some super shots of regimental goats!

So whither Mad Padre? (I like saying the word "whither"). I will, as my British Army friends say, stag on. 2013 looks like an interesting year professionally, with a posting, a return to graduate school on the Army's dime to think about religion and culture, an increasingly complex military and geopolitical environment to think about, so that will all be on the agenda, with, I hope, a greater frequency of posts. And yes, there will be goats. So to you, whoever you are, visiting this blog for whatever reason, my thanks and blessings.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

God Loves Me Best ... And You Best ... And You ... Oh Yes, And You Too

"And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:22)

A sermon preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village Of Ralston, AB, 13 January 2013

Texts for lectionary year B, The Baptism Of Our Lord: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17,21-22

"Mom (or Dad) loves me best!" These words are sometimes heard in disputes between young siblings, ranking closely behind "You're stinky" as a means of winning the dialectic high ground. When the dispute is sent to the parent for appeal, the wise parent will say something like "No, I love you both just as much", even if inside the parent's heart there lurks the unomfortable truth that one child is in fact the favourite. The wise parent may indeed have a favourite, but will not admit it.

On this day in the life of the church that is sometimes called The Baptism Of Our Lord, we hear words of parental love and esteem in Luke's description of Jesus' baptism. A voice from heaven, which presumably is the voice of God the Father, declares that Jesus is "my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased". This words, like Luke's story of the young Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem which ends with Jesus growing "in divine and human favor" (Lk 2:52), might be taken as an endorsment or confirmation that Jesus is indeed suitable for his mission and ministry. If one accepts the Christology of the church's ancient creeds, one can say that the baptism story also confirm's Jesus' identity as the son of God.

Which leads to a question: If Jesus is indeed the Son of God, why does he need to be baptized?

Why does Jesus need to be baptized? This question is discussed fruitfully in this week's Working Preacher podcast but here's a quick stab of my own at the answer. If the baptism of John is important, and Luke tells us that "all the people were baptized" (3:21 - presumably all the people immediately around Jesus) then it makes sense that Jesus too would be baptized. If the baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins (which John's language about wheat vs chaff and the firey fate of chaff might suggest (Lk 2:17), then we might ask "what does Jesus need to be forgiven for at this point?". I have no answer for that question. Whether Jesus did anything in his youth that was sinful, or whether his whole life was sinless, seems to me a fruitless and rather medieval sort of debate. The best way to answer the question of why Jesus is baptized, I think, is to look at the words of the voice from heaven.

Note what the voice doesn't say. The voice doesn't say that Jesus is "my best Son" or even "my only Son". The voice simply says "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22). So what if the point of baptism is so that each of us, no matter how old we are when baptized, can hear that we are God's Son or Daughter, that we are beloved, and that with us God is "well pleased"? If that suggestion surprises you, if you don't think that you are deserving of such generosity, then take a look at our first reading from Isaiah, where God says "you are precious in my sght, and honored, and I love you" (Isa 43:4). The prophet was speaking these words to Israel at a time when God's people had lost everything to conquest and exile, but they still speak to we who continue as God's people, amid whatever loss and uncertainty we might feel.

That we are loved and precious in God's sight may come as a surprise to those who see themselves as unworthy, or who distrust what they see as an angry or judgemental God. It is the church's call to convey this message to those who need to hear them. If we accept them and believe that we are indeed precious in God's sight, it is the church's call to hear these words clearly and without complacency. What my wife derisively refers to as "Barney theology", the syrupy message that "God loves you", is bigger than a saccharine children's show. God does indeed love us, but for we who are baptized and have accepted this gift of grace, God's love comes with, well, I wouldn't call them strings or conditions, but it does come with a vocation. To be God's people is to accept that God's love transforms and, if you will, recalibrates us to a new way of being, as we will remind ourselves when we read our baptismal covenant in the place of our normal creed.

All this leads me to some final thoughts on baptism. Most pastors will say that they challenge parents who say that they want their children "done", which is what I call the immunization theory of baptism. The immunization theory focus on baptism as a one time fix with God, rooted in old and misunderstood ideas of original sin. Yes, I do believe that baptism is in some way with forgiveness of sin, but in a way that removes our fear and self-loathing of our sinful condition as a barrier to the love of God. I would say to parents who want their children baptized that if you believe that God is a wise and gracious parent who loves all his beloved children equally well, then why would you stop at a one time visit to his house? Baptism should be a lifelong invitation to know this loving parent better. And, as a last thought, baptism should also settle the "you're stinky" argument once and for all.

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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