Wednesday, February 27, 2013

From George Herbert, A Poem For His Day

Today in the calendar of the Anglican Communion is dedicated to remembering one of our "saints", the 17th century poet and clergyman George Herbert. I put "saints" in quotation marks since the Anglican understanding of sainthood is somewhat different from that held by our Catholic brothers and sisters. Anglicans don't see saints necessarily as miraculous or intercessory figures, but rather as those worthy of remembrance examples of a spiritual gift or God-directed life. The editors of the prayer book For All The Saints: Prayers and Readings For Saints' Days, put it well:

The habit of remembering "the friends of God" has been one of the great delights of Christian people since the dawn of the Church. The reason for this is neither fancy theology nor sub-Christian superstition. It is simply that the history of God's mighty acts of salvation is always a personal personal history. The Church believes that the divine purpose of justice, mercy, and love is revealed in the stories of particular persons. INdeed, it is through the stories of individual saints that the Almighty renews and strengthens the witness of "the holy people of God". Thus, the Calendar of Saints is meant to jog our memories, to remind us that today or tomorrow is the heavenly birthday of someone whose faith, holy life, and witness to Christ were so great in their time that they continue to be a cause for celebration by us in our own time." (FAS 11).

We remember and celebrate Herbert because, after much struggle and ambition, he turned his back on a life of social advancement at court to become a humble country parson, as well as an accomplished poet of Christian verse. Some of his poems have been set to music, such as "Come My Way" which lives in Ralph Vaugh Williams' haunting setting as part of "The Call". Here's my favourite Herbert poem, offered today for everyone who ever felt that they weren't good enough for God.

1Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, 2 Guilty of dust and sin. 3But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack 4 From my first entrance in, 5Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning 6 If I lack'd anything. 7"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here"; 8 Love said, "You shall be he." 9"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear, 10 I cannot look on thee." 11Love took my hand and smiling did reply, 12 "Who made the eyes but I?" 13"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame 14 Go where it doth deserve." 15"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?" 16 "My dear, then I will serve." 17"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat." 18 So I did sit and eat.

More Herbert poetry here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Poet Laureate Of The Hanoi Hilton

An inspiring story about John Borling, the US airman whose poems, tapped out in code in the notorious North Vietnamese prison, the "Hanoi Hilton", kept alive the hearts and souls of his fellow captives. His book, Taps on the Walls, has been recently published.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Leaving The Retreat Centre: A Sermon For The Second Sunday Of Lent

"One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of The Lord, and to inquire in his temple." (Psalm 27:4)

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, The Second Sunday of Lent, 24 February 2013. Texts for Lectionary Year C: Genesis 15:1-12,17-18; Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Luke 13:31-35

I don't normally preach on the psalms, and I don't have a good reason for that, really. I suppose, like most preachers, I am attracted to the gospel as the primary voice of the Sunday readings, which does us all a disservice, because the psalms have much to say to us. So, for the rest of Lent, I want to focus my messages on the psalms. This Sunday we hear Psalm 27, a rich feast of ideas that has been described as a mix of "raw honesty and terror ... [that] should bring us to our knees".

Rolf Jacobson, a professor of biblical studies at Luther Seminary, lost his legs to cancer when he was a teenager. At first he was told he was going to die of his cancer, but when he learned that he was going to live, he describes how he had to manage new fears. How was he going to get through life without his legs? How was he going to manage that? The first verse of Psalm 27 became a kind of touchstone for him, a source of strength that helped him go forward: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?".

That first verse is indeed a wonderful promise, full of power, but Psalm 27 is not a magical spell. It is a great statement of faith, but it is also fully honest. The psalm has been described as a debate between trust and need. The first half is full of confidence, as the psalmist practically boasts of how God will get him through every crisis and threat. Verses 2 to 6 develop this idea. The psalmist boasts that his enemies can lay siege to him, surround him like a hostile army, but he is unafraid. No matter what happens, he says, "I will sing and make melody to the Lord" (27:6).

The verse that speaks to me in this first half is verse 4: "One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of The Lord, and to inquire in his temple." (Psalm 27:4). This is not only an expression of confidence, but it is also full of longing. The Psalmist loves the sanctuary of the Lord for its beauty and serenity, but also wishes that he could remain there in untouched confidence and peace, spared from the challenges of life. It is a verse that speaks to me of every beautiful church or cathedral I've lingered in, every peaceful sanctuary or retreat centre where I founjd a refuge from the world.

We call the "retreats" because we know that we can't stay there forever. We "retreat" from the world and its cares for a time and go somewhere holy - a monastery, a church camp, some place where beauty and holiness and prayerful attention to God are maintained and offered to we who need them. The last time I was on retreat I stayed in a rustic cabin in the woods behind a Franciscan monastery, and worshipped with the brothers twice daily, in their chapel with windows overlooking the Canadian Rockies. When the time came to go, part of me wanted to stay.

In verses 7 to 12 however the mood changes. The psalmist seems to lose his confidence, and the voice raised in melodious song in v6 now sounds anxious and frightened. Hear me, God, don't leave me alone, don't abandon me to my enemies. The psalmist begs, "Do not hide your face from me" (27:9). These verses, heard in Lent, make me think of that terrible voice we hear from the cross, crying out in pain and fear, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?".

All week I've been struggling to say something profound about today's readings and about this psalm in particular, and all I've been able to come up with is that this psalm speaks to the human experience of our faith. At least, it speaks to my experience of faith. There are times I've felt close to God, when I've enjoyed a sense of the holiness and beauty that comes from worshipping with beloved Christians, of being in the company of wise and thoughtful believers, and I haven't wanted the moment to end. I've wanted to stay "in the house of the Lord all the days of my life". I haven't wanted to go back out into the world with all its ambiguities and moments when God seems far away or unreachable.
As is the case with many of the psalms, however, there is a "turn" or moment of development at the end. The psalmist reminds us of the faithfulness of God and urges us to "be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for The Lord!" (Ps 27:14). Much the same thing is heard in the final verse of our second reading, when Paul urges the Chrisitians at Philippi to "stand form in the Lord in this way, my beloved" (Phil 4:1).

Courage and perseverance are necessary to the life of faith lived outside of the retreat centre. Without courage and perseverance, fear can overcome our faith. We all deal with fear in one way or another: fear of an unknown future, fear of failure in our work, in our relationships and committments. Notice that the in the seocnd half of Psalm 27, the psalmist is honest about his fears, and is honest about the fact that bad things may, and probably will, happen to him. He doesn't ask God to make his enemies disappear, but only to give him the ability to walk "on a level path because of my enemies" (27:12). AS Rabbi Abraham Heschel has written, the psalmist here does the work of a prophet, in that "the role of the prophet is to cast out fear. The psalmist is not only praying to God, but also talking to himself". The psalmist reminds himself that God will be faithful, that he will see "the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living". We see the same faithfulness and trustworthiness of God in our other readings, in God's promise to Abraham (a promise which is made in the midst of a dark and fearful crowd) and in Jesus' longing to comfort God's people "as a hen gathers her brood under her wings", if only they will let her.

We know that the retreat centre, whether it's a monastery or a church service or just a quiet moment of devotional time, will not last. We go to these places and times to remind ourselves of the presence of God, of his faithfulness to us, and of his sworn intent to bring us to "the land of the living". That land need not just be heaven. It can be the pleasure and joy of daily life on earth, in relationship with God and with one another. The final verse of Psalm 27 thus brings us back to the certainty and joy of the first verse, and gives us a path forward through life: "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord".

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Thinking Ethically About The New Cool War

On the Foreign Policy website today, David Rothkopf uses the term "Cool War" (new to me) to describe so called "cyberwar", the use of computer hacking and digital attacks by state actors on one another. A very current example of cyberwar was in the headlines this Tuesday with the Mandiant report on Chinese Army hacking of US computer networks. Here's Rothkopf explaining why the "Cool War" is different from the "Cold War" that those of us over the age of thirty remember.

"This new war is "cool" rather than "cold" for two reasons. On the one hand, it is a little warmer than cold because it seems likely to involve almost constant offensive measures that, while falling short of actual warfare, regularly seek to damage or weaken rivals or gain an edge through violations of sovereignty and penetration of defenses. And on the other, it takes on the other definition of "cool," in that it involves the latest cutting-edge technologies in ways that are changing the paradigm of conflict to a much greater degree than any of those employed during the Cold War -- which was, after all, about old-fashioned geopolitical jockeying for advantage in anticipation of potential old-school total warfare.

The Cool War is largely different not only because of the participants or the nature of the conflict, but also because it can be conducted indefinitely -- permanently, even -- without triggering a shooting war. At least that is the theory."

I hope that someone in the legal and military comunity who thinks about Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) is tracking this. LOAC is geared to kinetic conflict, where bullets and bombs are employed to cause physical harm, and is designed to protect the innocent (civilians, non-combatants) from violence and ill treatment. The sanctions exercised by the world community (eg, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague, NL) are designed to deter the leaders of states or sub-state actors (militias, guerrilla armies, etc) from war crimes committed in a kinetic conflict through fear of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.

What fear, other than the fear of escalation to a kinetic, military conflict, deters those who order cyberattacks on other countries and, by extension, on their people? It's one thing to steal plans from a major defense manufacturer, but what happens when Cool Warriors start touching the lives of populations? In an increasingly fragile and technologically dependent world, this future is not hard to imagine. What if banking were to crash for an extended period, causing economic crisis and even hunger? What if the power grid were brought down in the depths of winter, or air transport was halted by the hacking of navigation aids, satellites, etc? What if civilian populations are displaced, harmed, or even killed by these actions? Could those responsible be charged with war crimes? Could these crimes even be defined?

One thing is for certain. We are, as Rothkopf writes, "in the midst of a sea change in the way nations project force". It would be helpful for the international community to discuss how we might limit the uses of this new force, while we still can.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Drones Are Like Laparoscopic Surgery"

Another tip of the beret to Mad Padre's Man In Dublin for putting me on to this piece in Slate Magazine by William Saletan defending the West's use of drones in places such as Afghanistan and Yemen as being the best possible way to reduce civilian casualties. It's tempting to see a vindication of Saltaan's argument in the release today of a U.N. report saying that "For the first time in six years the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan declined", although as this New York Times article suggests, the decline may also be due to other factors, such as the ongoing drawdown of NATO ground troops.

While Saletan rightly points out that drones are still creepy for a bunch of reasons, I think he's right that they are preferable to conventional aircraft and bombs when there is time to identify the target with minimal risk. A human pilot coming in fast and worried about ground fire does not have the luxury of time and careful study of the target, as Canadian troops in Afghanistan learned to their grievous cost.

Military Goats In History (Behaving Badly)

Mad Padre's Man in Dublin sends this wonderful piece on military goats. As longterm readers of this blog know, one of our primary missions here at Mad Padre is to sing the praises of that most noble of animals, that paragon of animals, the battling billy, the military goat. May a regiment has been graced by the elegance of a well turned out goat mascot on parade, but sad to say, goats, like soldiers, don't always behave well. Fortunately the story of Lance Corporal William ("Billy") Windsor is one of redemption.

Monday, February 18, 2013

"Sourness And Shrugs": Ross Douthat On The Waning Of Catholic Influence In America

In a Feb 16th essay in The New York Times, Ross Douthat writes on how the "Catholic moment", but which he means a time when Roman Catholic thought still had traction in American politics and society, is passing with the incumbency of the current pontiff. Whereas his predecessor was widely revered and mourned, even by secular news media, Benedict's passing will be marked by "sourness and shrugs". This waning of influence is unfortunate, Douthat writes, since Catholic thought has an egalitarian idea of the common good at its heart, but it is not surprising.

"The collapse in the church’s reputation has coincided with a substantial loss of Catholic influence in American political debates. Whereas eight years ago, a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today’s Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.

Indeed, between Mitt Romney’s comments about the mooching 47 percent and the White House’s cynical decision to energize its base by picking fights over abortion and contraception, both parties spent 2012 effectively running against Catholic ideas about the common good."

Douthat concludes that this decline, while understandable, is also the result of the rejection of ideas of the comon good by the elites themselves:

"The recent turn away from Catholic ideas has also been furthered by a political class that never particularly cared for them in the first place. Even in a more unchurched America, a synthesis of social conservatism and more egalitarian-minded economic policies could have a great deal of mass appeal. But our elites seem mostly relieved to stop paying lip service to the Catholic synthesis: professional Republicans are more libertarian than their constituents, professional Democrats are more secular than their party’s rank-and-file, and professional centrists get their encyclicals from Michael Bloomberg rather than the Vatican.

Canadian and European readers of this blog will find it odd that anyone could yearn for the domination of a modern society by church fostered ideas, but there is a difference between theocracy and a reasonable consensus on ideas of human value, dignity, and mutual obligation. I think Douthat is right to note the moral and intellectual vacuum that Catholicism's demise is creating. The decades ahead will be challenging ones for Christians, both capital C and, like me, small c Catholics, who wish to advocate something other than the pious individualism that passes for much of contemporary Protestantism.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Nearness Of God": A Sermon For The First Sunday Of Lent

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 17 February, 2013

Texts for Lent 1, Lectionary Year C: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2,9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (Romans 10:8)

“What are you giving up for Lent, Padre?” I’ve been asked that question a few times the last few days, and no doubt I incurred them after advertising the start of Lent on Wednesday with my ash-smudged forehead. If the questioner had some time, I tried to point out that Lent is not just a time of self-imposed abstinence from some luxury or pleasure, but can also be a whole range of spiritual disciplines. For me, I explained, I wanted clear some clutter and business in my day so I could try to be more attentive to the voice and presence of God.

It seemed to come as a shock to one person that I should say this. “Don’t you have a direct line to the Big Guy, Padre?” I like to think we all do, I replied, adding that God is interested in communicating with all of us, and not just the professionally religious. Those in the evangelical and pentecostal wings of the church might find it odd that we need a season called Lent to assert the truth that God wants to communicate with us, and I have some sympathy with their viewpoint. However, as a creature of the liturgical church, I find the seasons of the church year, each with their own theme, to be helpful, each in their own way. Lent is a reminder to me that the "direct line to the Big Guy" is there for a purpose. Have you ever lost your cell phone on your desk, under a pile of clutter? Ever had to call your cell phone to find out where it is, as I do at least once a week? Perhaps this analogy is one way to explain traditional Lenten practices, as an opportunity to remind to remind ourselves that God is closer than we think.

We need to be reminded of the presence of God not just in times of business and distraction, when we merely forget or become lazy, but also and more importantly in times of adversity, when despair and frustration leads us to think that we are alone and helpless. If you were wondering why our first lesson today, from Deuteronomy, with its talk of first fruit and harvest, seems to be more suited to the season of Thanksgiving, that’s because this reading comes from a time of adversity. The person speaking in this lesson is Moses, and the time is the forty years of wandering in the wilderness after the people of Israel have escaped from exile in Egypt. The Christian tradition has always seen the forty days of Lent as reminder of the forty years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, but it’s more than just a bit of number symbolism.

Think for a moment about the context of this passage. Where are God’s people when Moses is speaking. They are in the wilderness. They have no home, no certainty, no comfort, no security. God hasn’t spared them from these things. And here is their leader, old Moses, going on about this land that God is going to give them. Did they have faith in Moses’ promises? Did they have an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude? Surely, if they were like us, it was a bit of both. But notice how Moses is speaking to them. It’s very ritualistic, formal language, as we might expect from a book that had become part of the DNA and memory of Israel, centuries after the Exodus. But that formal language has a purpose. Look at the phrase “the Lord your God” and how often it is repeated in this passage. It occurs nine times by my count, and once a variation, “the Lord of our ancestors”. Why this repetition?

This repetition seems designed to stress the relationship between God and his people. The possessive adjective “your” is key here. In the middle of the wandering, in the middle of adversity, the relationship is unbroken. It is not a distant God. It is not an abstract God. It is “your” God. It is a God who is intensely interested in his people, and who has promised to be with them in their adversity and to bring them out of adversity into a better place. It is a faithful God. It is our God.

Notice how in our Gospel reading from Luke, in the temptation of Christ during the forty days in the wilderness (another Lenten echo!), Jesus remembers the promises of Moses. Jesus twice quotes from the Old Testament, the scripture of Israel, and says “the Lord your God”. It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t speak of “my Father”, for Satan has twice taunted him with the question (later to be heard at the foot of the cross) “If you are the Son of God”. But Jesus, as a faithful Jew, as someone who as a boy (as we saw in the story of the young Jesus in the Temple) responds with the promise, the covenant made by God, that he is “your God”, the God of his people. Perhaps he is reminding Satan that God is “your God”, that even Satan is not exempt from God’s power (as indeed he is not), but Jesus also reminds us that God, his father, is our father too, and will be faithful to us.

And what of us? We have the reminder, from St. Paul, in our second lesson from Romans, that the promise of God applies to us as well, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him”. The promise of Moses is made in turn to us. God is “our God”. He is and will be faithful to us in our turn. He is not a distant God. He is personal and real and he is, as Paul reminds us, near us. Lent is not about tuning into a distant, faint voice on the spiritual radio. It’s a time for reminding ourselves that Jesus, the Word made flesh, is right here, with us, by us, for us, and so we need not fear or be alone.

“The Lord your God”, Moses said. This week, my suggestion is that whenever we feel that we are in a wilderness moment when God seems far away, or indifferent to our situation, or just impersonal, is to remind ourselves what that “your” stands for. Substitute your own name for the pronoun. Say “The Lord [insert your name here]'s God”, do a bit of a mashup with Romans, so it becomes “The Lord [insert your name here]'s God is near”. Once you've reminded yourself that God is near, find a way to take advantage of that proximity, in whatever spiritual practice (quiet time, lectio divina, prayer, meditation) works best for you. You will find, I am sure, that it deepens your experience of Lent in a way that giving up some favourite treat can't do by itself.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Blow the trumpet!" A Sermon For Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is one of my favourite days of the church year. It's one of those few moments of total honesty in an age and death denying culture, when we hear that we are going to die ("Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"), and yet pointed to the mystery of Easter and the resurrection in such a way that the unflinching reminder of our mortality does not trouble us. I also love the chance to hear from the prophet Joel, one of the strangest and most poetic books of the Old Testament. I am not preaching today, since our base chapel service has to be short enough to accomodate a thirty minute lunch break. However, I did find a sermon that I preached when I was in my last parish, just a week shy of six years ago. Most of my sermons haven't aged well, but this one, I think, isn't bad. I hope this sermon is helpful to you as you enter the season of Lent. MP

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday, St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, Ontario, 21 February, 2007

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

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” (Joel 2:1)

The other night at our St. George’s parish council meeting we were considering some building issues, and we got onto the subject of smoke alarms. There is a certain irony in a church being required to have a smoke alarm, since these devices are useful to awaken sleepers and alert them to danger, and there few people who sleep in churches (or so we preachers hope).

If there was any chance of you sleeping through this service, however, the first words of our first lesson should have jolted you wide awake.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! (Joel 2:1)

The prophet Joel paints an image of the entire land of Israel responding to this urgent summons. People run in from the fields, parents snatch up children, weddings are interrupted and priests raise their hands to beg for mercy for God’s people. In a scene that could be out of a Hollywood movie, a great horde of locusts is approaching, more terrible than an invading army, devouring the crops, and threatening the land with famine and disaster. This is no natural calamity, for Joel says that this is “the day of the Lord”, this is just punishment for Israel forgetting its identity as God’s chosen people.

It’s tempting to compare Joel’s vision of God’s people in crisis with our own experience in our time. People like Al Gore in his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” warn of equally terrible environmental catastrophes. Threats of the extinction of animal species, contamination of food from toxins and pollutants, and doomsday terrorist scenarios continue to dominate the news. The louder the alarm bells get, however, the louder the controversies get. Is global warming really happening? Will we really have to sacrifice our lifestyles? What’s the best thing for us to do? It’s easy to imagine that if the prophet Joel was writing today, he would describe a special commission being set up to study if the locusts were really so bad and what their economic impact might be.

Of course, Joel isn’t sounding an environmental or an economic alarm. He’s sounding a spiritual alarm. Israel has sinned, and now that God has sent the locusts to get its attention, Israel had better repent, and quickly. The prophet is sounding the alarm, but he also offers hope, for God loves His people and He is prepared to forgive them. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). The theology of Joel is as simple as his language is vivid. God has the right to punish, and God in his love is ready to forgive.

Tonight, the message we are hearing from scripture is just as simple. God has the right to punish us for sin, and God, in his love, is ready to forgive. Tonight there is no tolling bell or ringing alarm. We are free, if we like, to strike some sort of internal commission within our souls to see whether the problem of our sin is really that bad. We can decide that we’re not all that bad, that we can we don’t really need what’s offered here tonight, that we can negotiate our day of reckoning on our own terms, if and when it comes. Lord knows lots of people aren’t here tonight. My running group, for example, is out doing hills to prepare them for an upcoming race, because hills make a runner faster and stronger.

Tonight there is no violent warning. Tonight there is only the light brush of ash across our foreheads, to reminder us that all our training and all our speed, all our strength, all our self-reliance and accomplishments and ambition must come to this: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. This simple sign, these blunt words, remind us of our limitations. They remind us that we are not gods, that we are not immortals, but rather creatures, with a beginning and an end to our days.

As we are reminded that we are creatures, we are also reminded of our creator. There was a cross traced on our heads once before, before all the Ash Wednesdays, and it was traced not in ash but in holy oil, on the day of our baptism, when we died and were reborn in Christ. That baptism is the solution to our sin, it is the answer to all our regrets and sorrows. At our baptism we were asked then, either directly or through our sponsors, if “whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” (BAS p. 159). And just as Joel told Israel that God was ready to welcome his people home, so St. Paul reminds us that in Christ the day of salvation is made available to us, if we chose to accept it. We are not gods, but Paul promises us that through Christ we can share in “the righteousness of God”, and that promises makes us all look pretty clean and shiny, even with that little smudge of ash on our cheeks.

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin says to his tiger friend, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it”. “Maybe you should apologize to her”, Hobbes says helpfully. Calvin thinks about this, and then says “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution”. With respect to Calvin, there is an obvious solution, and it’s on offer tonight. Repentance is going beyond being sorry to own up to our actions, and to make amends for them. Tonight, at the beginning of Lent, we are invited to a time of inner reflection and repentance. Tonight is an invitation to spend the next forty days as disciples following Christ in repentance and in love. It will not be an easy journey, because it leads to the cross and the cross, like repentance, seems like death. But don’t be fooled. Ahead is Easter, when we rediscover that through the risen Christ, our repentance brings us life. Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

Emil Kapaun: A Chaplain Saint To Be?

A big tip of the beret to Mad Padre's man in CFB Gagetown for putting me on to this story about an army chaplain I had never heard of.

Father Emil Kapaun is the subject of a BBC news profile. He was a Kansas farmboy who was ordained to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic church in 1940, and served in as a chaplain in the US Army in 1944-45. He returned to the army for the Korean war, and on 2 November 1950, during the American reverses of the terrible first winter of the war, his unit was overrun by Communist forces. Refusing orders for all able-bodied men to withdraw, he remained with a group of seriously wounded soldiers, negotiated their surrender, and went into captivity with hundreds of American prisoners.

Chaplain Kapuan's conduct in captivity, despite misery, starvation and disease, was exemplary. "He gave his life for those people that he was serving," says Father John Hotze, an investigator for the diocese advocating for Kapaun's canonisation. At the time of his death, he was giving his life for his fellow prisoners... and he was that example of Christ present in the world today."

The Catholic church is currently in the process of investigating whether he should be elevated to the status of a saint. If that were to happen, he would be the first member of the US military to be named a saint, and, I believe, the first military chaplain to receive that honour. Mad Padre shall which this process with interest.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Transfiguration: Beyond Belief?

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB Sunday, 10 February, The Last Sunday of Epiphany / Transfiguration Sunday Texts for Lectionary Year C: Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2, Luke 9:28-43 Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

This week I was speaking with one of our soldiers, a bright young lad who seems genuinely interested in Christian belief. He asked me, “can you believe in physics and religion?” He was asking me this with regard to the story of creation in Genesis, but diigging into his question, I realized he was asking me, essentially, whether faith and reason were compatible.

I began my answer by saying that I agree with a long tradition of Christian theology and philosophy which hold that faith and reason are compatible. In the case of Genesis, I said that personally I did not want to disregard the evidence of geology (particularly the fossil record) and physics (specifically, studies of the age of the universe) which on the surface seem to contradict the biblical account of the world being created in seven days. I noted that some biblical scholarship takes a figurative account of the creation story, noting that the Hebrew word for “day” in Genesis can mean “age” or “a long time”, and so what we could have is a poetic account of creation that is compatible with an evolutionary perspective. I cited one of my professors from seminary, John Bowen, who liked to say that the process of creation (a literal account of seven days vs evolution) is one of those things that Christians can disagree one, since the mechanics of creation are not creedal.

When we got to the New Testament, however, I told my engineer friend that my beliefs would seem decidedly irrational to someone outside of the faith. As a creedal Christian, meaning someone who subscribes to the creeds of the church, I believe that the historical man Jesus was also the Son of God, a person of the Trinity, that he died, rose from the dead, returned to heaven, and will come again. There, I said it. Doesn’t sound very rational, does it? There is nothing in the world of science that I can appeal to or take refuge in to support my belief, no equivocation in translation of words in the bible. You either believe this stuff or, because it doesn’t sound rational, you don’t.

Our gospel story of the transfiguration today is decidedly irrational. Jesus goes up a mountain with two of his friends. He meets two figures from the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, who are somehow recognizable as themselves and who seem to have some sort of afterlife. Jesus then is transfigured, becoming “dazzling” with glory, and then a heavenly voice from a cloud is heard. As one of the sheep in our weekly cartoon, Agnus Day, comments, “Jesus is talking with two dead guys and his head becomes a light source. How much weirder can it get?” Indeed. Which is why I’m grateful for this gospel story, because it shows us the true nature of the God we worship.

There are several times in the gospels that we see the true nature of Jesus. The greek has a word for this true nature, doxa. We translate this word as “glory”. When the shepherds see the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, we are told that the glory of the Lord shone around them. At Jesus’ baptism, we also hear the voice from heaven, reminding us who Jesus is. The vision of Jesus here on the mountain reminds us of “the two men in dazzling clothes” who appear to the women in the empty tomb in Luke 24. In all these places, as in the Transfiguration, it is as if we get a glimpse of heaven, of the things that will be, breaking through the veil of our earthly reality. These things give us hope, and remind us of the God that we worship.

Why don’t we see God this way all the time? Perhaps it's because the glory of God, were it to remain with us, would be oppressive, even coercive, demanding our obedience and submission. But God doesn't work that way. Most of the time his son is fully human, a human who laughs, goes to weddings, shares meals, becomes irritated, suffers, and dies. It’s been said that the time between now, Transfiguration Sunday, and Good Friday, the end of Lent, is framed by two mountain tops. The first is the mountain we visit today, the mountain where God is revealed in glory through his Son. The second mountain is Golgotha, the place of the skull, which we visit on Good Friday. Is God revealed in glory through his Son at Golgotha, on the cross? It depends on what you define as glory. The cross is, as St. Paul reminds us, an instrument of shame and pain, but it becomes glorious because Jesus chooses to go there, for us. Rather than a dazzling glow that confounds and blinds us, the cross, as painful as it may be, is something we can contemplate and remain with, even take upon us, for it becomes an emblem of the way that Jesus calls us to follow – a way of self-giving, of care and love and forgiveness of others. It’s through the cross, and following the cross, that we see others, and where others can see God in us.

How can others see the glory of God in us, in we who aren’t very glorious or very impressive to look at? Paul says in our second lesson that we too, as Christ’s followers, are caught up in his glory, and being changed by it. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). Do you remember how Paul defined love last Sunday? He said that “4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7). As I said last Sunday, that love isn’t manufactured human sentiment as we might find on a Hallmark card. That love is the gift of the Spirit, it is the same love for us that God shows for humanity on the cross.

The glory of God offends and contradicts reason, but even more confounding to reason is the idea that we, God's people, can be transformed by and show that glory to the world in the life and love that God calls us to. I can't explain or rationalize this to others with the same comfort that I can talk about creation. What I can do, what we can do, is listen to Jesus carefully and attentively, as the voice from the cloud calls us to. We can follow him, live as he calls us to live, and open ourselves to the love of God which is the gift of the Spirit. In so doing, we have the promise that we too, ordinary, unremarkable, flawed human beings, will find ourselves transformed and able to stand in the full glory of God.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Call For Standards On Drone Use

As regular readers of this blog now, the ethical implications of drone warfare are an interest of mine. The technology has progressed so far and so rapidly since the 9/11 attacks that the West, and particularly the United States, has an efficient and, one might argue, addictively simple means of eliminating (killing, to be blunt) its enemies. Documents being made public this week by the Obama Administration will, I hope, be a useful first step in developing policies for the use of these weapons. Skeptics might pause to note that the interest shown in these documents by memebrs of the US congress seem largely driven by the executive branch's use of drones to order the killing of US citizens associated with terrorist organizations, vice the approximately 3,000 people killed by drone strikes during US actions against Al Qaeda. With more and more countries pursuing drone technology, at some point the international community will need to decide how to include drones within international treaties and frameworks known collectively as the Laws Of Armed Conflict (LOAC), unless we want a complete free for all of targetted, extrajudicial killing.

I was pleased to see that the New York Times issued an editorial today calling for a greater degree of transparency on the use of drones and for guidelines on their use against US citizens. Here's an excerpt: "At a minimum, United States rules should specify that no one can be killed unless actively planning or participating in terror, or helping lead the Taliban in Pakistan or Al Qaeda. Killing should be authorized only when it can be demonstrated that capture is impossible. Standards for preventing the killing of innocents who might be nearby should be detailed and thorough."

A helpful primer on drones can be found here, courtesy of Propublica, "an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest."

Military Picture Of The Week: Not Glamorous But Necessary

An army logistician takes a lot of guff from combat arms soldiers -- until they need their food, water, ammo and mail, and then it's all smiles and thanks. In a theatre like Afghanistan, the troops running and guarding the supply convoys are as exposed to enemy threat and action as anyone else. These British army supply vehicles of the Royal Logistics Corps (RLC) show the signs of that danger, particularly in the metal grilles and cages designed to protect them from rocket propelled grenades.

The caption to this photo from the UK MOD website is below, and a longer article on RLC supply efforts in Helmand Province is here.

Here's the caption from the UK MOD website: The Immediate Replenishment Group, part of the Transition Support Unit in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand province, is currently made up of members of 40 Commando Royal Marines and the Royal Logistic Corps and is responsible for delivering a variety of stores to patrol bases and other outstations in the surrounding Afghan desert. [Picture: Leading Airman (Photographer) Rhys O'Leary, Crown Copyright/MOD 2013]

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"I’d Already Rehearsed How I Would Kill Myself": New Treatment Hope For Those With PTSD

I've been tracking stories about eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) for about a year now, though the therapy has been around for several decades. I'm not a medical man, so I can't comment on whether the medical and scientific community has yet ruled on its ultimate effectiveness. A paper published on the Tufts Medical Centre website notes that EMDR research is still ongoing, though the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs and the Dept. of Defense "identify EMDR as a valid therapy for PTSD". Canada's Ministry of Veterans Affairs offers a more cautious assessment, saying it is "unclear whether [EMDR] is as effective as CBT )Cognitive Behavioural Therapy".

A piece published today on the UK Ministry of Defence website, and originally published in the UK's Soldier magazine, offers a very positive account of one British veteran's experience of EMDR as a treatment for PTSD incurred on his many deployments. Steve Johnson, a sergeant in the Royal Military police, is quoted as saying "I thought I had dealt with everything I saw but the sessions brought it out and put it back in order. Different things help people in different ways but for me EMDR is the only reason I am here today. I can’t explain the science behind it, but it worked."

I would encourage anyone seeking treatment for PTSD to get a medical opinion on EMDR as a possible treatment.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Jesus And The Home Field Advantage: A Sermon

A Sermon Preached At Christ the King Chapel, Crown Village of Ralston, CFB Suffield, Alberta Sunday, 3 February, 2013 Texts for Lectionary Year C: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6,1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

"When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage." (Luke 4:28)

Martin Luther once said something to the effect that the work of the Reformation was accomplished by the Holy Spirit while he and a friend sat in a tavern and drank good Munich beer. On Friday I was sitting in a pub with my friend Father Gene, drinking two excellent pints of Canadian beer, and discussing this Sunday's readings. To be honest, we were both hoping the other would give us an idea for a sermon. Gene directed my attention to the end of today's reading, the disastrous conclusion to Jesus' debut sermon in Nazareth, and the phrase "all in the synagogue were filled with rage". He noted that usually the phrase "filled with" in the gospels and epistles is followed by "the Holy Spirit" as in Luke 4:14 when Jesus returns to Galilee "filled with the Holy Spirit". Unfortunately for Jesus, the Holy Spirit doesn't take with his home town audience. Rage wins the day.

If you follow sports you will know the term "home field advantage", when the crowd is cheering for their team and hoping that the out of town visitors will get a good thumping. The theory is that the crowd's energy and noise will inspire the home team and intimidate the visitors, though as the 2012 World Series reminds us, it doesn't always work that way. At the beginning of today's gospel reading, which continues from where we left off in Luke 4 last Sunday, Jesus appears to enjoy the home field advantage. We hear that everyone "speaks well of him" and is "amazed" at what he has to say (Lk 4:22). Their reaction reminds us of the story of the youthful Jesus in the Temple, when everyone is "amazed" by the lad's understanding. It all looks like a successful launch for Jesus' ministry, but then it all goes off the rails and the Spirit inspired preacher inspires rage in the home crowd. What goes wrong?

Perhaps the home town crowd can't get past the fact that they know Jesus as the carpenter's son, and so can't take him seriously. That might explain the testiness that Jesus seems to show in verses 23-24, when he attacks them for a scepticism that, oddly, no one has shown yet. A more important reason for their coming rage, I think, is the two bible stories that Jesus tells in verses 25-27. Jesus uses two stories about foreigners, non-Jews, who are favoured by God, to make his point that "no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown". In doing so, he seems to be consciously and deliberately rejecting the whole idea of the home field advantage and even of the home team. It would be like the star New York player stepping onto the field at Yankee Stadium for a key at bat, and pausing to tell the cheering crowd that he wasn't swinging the bat for them. You can imagine the cheers quickly turning to boos.

Why does Jesus seem to bring all this hate on him? The best way I can explain it, if I can pursue my rather lame baseball analogy, would be for thenYankee star to say that he was swinging the bat not just for the home team crowd, but for all baseball fans everywhere. Jesus starts his ministry by saying that God is for everyone, and not just for a favoured few. Jesus' preaching is thus a continuation of what John the Baptist says to the crowds about how they cannot count on being ancestors of Abraham (Luke 3:7-9). John thus sets the stage for the good news of Jesus, that God does not limit himself to a chosen people, but rather that God choose all people.

So why are the people in the synagogue in Nazareth filled with rage?

I have two possible answers to this question. The first answer may lie in the problem of grace. It’s hard to disentangle our sense of entitlement from the idea that God loves and redeems us. By entitlement I mean our sense that we tend to think of ourselves as being somehow worthy of God’s favour, but those other guys (insert name of group, denomination, disliked person) here. I think that’s one answer. For the home town crowd in Nazareth, it was easy for them to hear their native son proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favour”, provided it was proclaimed for them. We might ask ourselves, what if God’s favour is just as freely available to everyone here in Ralston who spend Sunday worshipping at the temple of ice hockey rather than here, with us, in the base chapel that we lovingly maintain and keep going. Is that really good news to us?

The second answer may be in the sheer seductiveness of rage. Rage, or at least anger, is easy enough to slide into when our sense of entitlement is somehow thwarted. I may begin a conversation with a customer service representative all polite and silver tongued, in the expectation that I will get my way, but I have found that when things don’t go my way then I can get surprisingly and easily unpleasant. It would me good, and perhaps you as well, to meditate on today’s second lesson, when Paul says that “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:4-6). We may be tempted to gloss over this text, often heard at weddings and sometimes dismissed as being saccharine, but it is in fact powerful and important, and deserving of a sermon in its own right. Paul speaks about love as a spiritual gift rather than as an emotion we manufacture out of romance or sentiment, and the solution to the seductiveness of rage is there if we want to pursue the spiritual gift of love more fervently. Be warned, though, that in pursuing that gift, we must set aside our senses of entitlement.

For Jesus leaving the synagogue that day in Nazarath, he certainly lost his first home game – in fact, the home crowd wanted to kill him! But Jesus didn’t give much though to home and away games. He played for everyone, which is why I am always evasive when people ask me to pray for their team in a big game. I answer that God isn’t much interested in sports events. Like his son, he wants everyone to win. Our question, the question that any athlete must ask, is this: what of ourselves do we want to give in order to win?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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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