Sunday, July 21, 2013

On Distractions And "The One Thing" : A Sermon

This sermon is my last at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield. My three years as Base Chaplain and Chapel Life Director end next Wednesday. It's been a blessing to have this ministry of Word and Sacrament. Sometimes a military chaplain can become so involved in field or administrative work that we forget we are priests and ministers. Indeed, some of us no doubt seek out military ministry to get away from the daily grind of charge or parish, but in that grind is our vocation, whether we want or, sometimes, don't. So as I told +Peter, my Bishop, I am thankful that my three years here reminded me almost weekly that first and foremost I am a priest of the church.

Preached Sunday, 21 July, Christ the King Chapel, Crown Village of Ralston, AB. Lections For The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost (C): Genesis 18:20-23, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10: 38 - 42

"Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing." (Luke 10:41)

I sometimes wonder if, had I been born several decades later, if I would have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, as so many young people are today. I often find it difficult to concentrate on just one task for an extended period of time, and find my attention splintering as my mind flits from one thing to another. I get bored with a task quickly, and find myself working, often ineffectually, on several projects at once. I couldn't say if this condition is be aide of some deficiency or chemical imbalance in my brain that might be treatable, or if is simply because I live an increasingly complex world with a surfeit of distractions. Since I have been fairly high-functioning and achieving for most of my life, I suspect it is the latter.

Technology and psychology writers have suggested that there is a link between our devices, such as smart phones, and brain processes that work like addiction. Take something as simple as checking your smart phone or tablet for new messages. Every time you check and find a new email or tweet or text, your brain's pleasure centre is activated and dopamine, the chemical associated with curiosity and reward, is released, leaving you craving the next reward of a new email, and thus driving you back to your phone every five minutes. Certainly this has been my experience of technology, and my observations of people using technology in public places seems to suggest that I'm not alone.

Seeing as I am composing this sermon on my iPad, I am not going off on an anti-technological screed. I'm a fan of technology. Technology enables us to be more produce more, to communicate more, and to learn more, which can all be worthy goals. However, technology leaves us susceptible to a narrative that our culture wants us to buy into. That narrative convinces us that we need to multitask, to do and produce more with less, to want more and to fill our waking moments with work and pleasure. The price of living according to that narrative is the splintered self, our identities pulled between a host of different priorities and demands.

What I am calling the "splintering" of the self into shards of attention and focus is a condition that is hostile to spiritual well being. The great religious traditions use words like balance, centring and presence to describe a healthy spiritual state. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the scriptures often point us to the need to be intentional about focusing on God's presence and on our relationship to the divine. Psalm 46:10 famously says "Be still and know that I am God", the psalmist reminding us that stillness, our setting aside of our worries and fears in a worrisome world, is necessary if we want God to be our "refuge and strength" (Ps 46:1).

In her commentary on today's gospel reading from Luke 12, Elizabeth Johnson observes that the Greek word used in Luke 12:40 to describe Martha, periespato, is often translated as "distracted" but it has the sense of being "pulled in all directions". Commentators and preachers talking about Martha and Mary often get mired in discussions of gender and women's work. As Johnson reminds us, the story isn't about whether Mary is right or wrong to take the non-traditional posture of a male disciple listening to Jesus, or whether Martha's tradition al role of service and hospitality is less valuable. Instead, she suggests, Martha's state of being pulled apart and distracted by her work and her sister's choice leave her resentful and unable, as host, to be fully present for the guest under her roof (compare her role as hostess to that of Abraham as host in our first reading from Genesis).

In his response to Martha, Jesus mysteriously says that "there is need of on,y one thing". I think Johnson is right that we can read this statement not as Jesus' rebuke of Martha, but as his invitation to her. "The one thing needed is for Martha to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words, to know that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God."
In our gospel reading from last Sunday, the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10, we heard of one man who chose the one thing, who chose to be fully present to the divine by being fully present for another. The Samaritan's care for the other is not only remarkable for his generosity and sympathy, but also for his selflessness. We don't know what busy errand the Samaritan was en route to, but whatever it was, he set it aside long enough to be fully present in service to another. The men who didn't stop, the Priest and the Levite, may well have decided that their business in Jericho was so pressing and so important that they had no time to stop. I have sometimes heard it said of the Priest and the Levite that they didn't stop on religious grounds, for fear of contaminating themselves with blood and becoming ritually impure, but what if it was as simple as they felt they were too busy, too distracted by their self importance?

The famous Darley and Batson experiment (1973) created an artificial sense of busyness and a sense of hurry in seminary students, and then observed their willingness to help a stranger slumped on the ground. The researchers found that a sense of "hurriness" in their subjects contributed to their unwillingness to help the stranger, even when one of the tasks the subjects were rushing to complete was a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan! Had the researchers known the Greek term, they might have substituted Luke's perispateo for "hurriness".

As I write this, I am very much aware that I could be doing a dozen other pressing things related to a relocation and winding down a busy job. I confess my thoughts are much distracted by these pressures, and I certainly feel that right now I am a poster child for perispateo. The only solution that I know of is to focus on "the one thing", on Jesus and his word that I will share with others tomorrow, and on my relationship with the other, wherever I meet them. I know that for me and you, life will continue at its crazy pace. Technology will continue to be a blessing and a curse as we continue to live and work at that pace. We will continue to feel perispateo, pulled in many directions, like Martha. The only way that allow us to manage, to escape being pulled deeper and deeper into the cycle of our distractions and its call to selfishness, will be for us to also find moments like Mary, to be still and sit with Jesus, and remind ourselves of the one thing, of our call to love him and our neighbour.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Month After The Alberta Floods

Just over a month ago southern Alberta experienced unseasonably heavy rains which caused significant flooding from the Rocky Mountains through Calgary as far east as Medicine Hat, where I currently live. It was a tense time, but one in which the Canadian Armed Forces distinguished itself in a series of rapidly mounted rescue and engineering operations. A brief description of those operations, and some photos of flooded Medicine Hat, can be found here.

Today the city is back to normal and gearing up for its annual Rodeo Week. Kay and I were downtown today for another summer highlight, the Chili Cookoff, and wandered around downtown on a hot day under clear skies. It was quite a different mood from a month ago, when the city felt like it was under siege. I took some photos at the time but haven't had time to post them until now.

This was the scene in front of City Hall on Saturday, June 22. The flood had already hit Calgary and South Saskatchewan River was expected to crest on Sunday.

Looking north from the Finlay Bridge at the South Saskatchewan River, which was already higher than I'd ever seen it.

By early Sunday, June 23, the SSkR was over its banks and rising. Here's the same view of the now aptly named River Road in front of City Hall that morning.

From the middle of the Finlay Bridge that morning, showing significant amounts of debris racing down the river.

And looking east from the Findlay Bridge at the CP Rail Bridge, where, it was said, the railway had left cars parked on it to add weight and stability.

By Saturday night the CFB Suffield was working closely with the City of Medicine Hat, coordinating whatever material and personnel resources we had that the City could use. Our engineering and logistics personnel were working hard that day, and were also preparing to support a battlgroup from the Army's First Brigade, which was making the six hour road move south from Edmonton to arrive in our area Sunday. Kay and I had one of our young engineering officers over to dinner that evening, as the poor fellow had been working all day, and then I accompanied him to the City's emergency command facility to hang out and see things first hand. I will never forget being in the City war room and seeing a map which showed the worst case scenario, which assumed that the SSk River would crest at over 6000 cubic metres per second. Accprding to that map, every berm, levy and defence the city was building would be overwhelmed, tens of thousand would lose their homes and businesses, and the city would have been wrecked. As it was, ten thousand residents in low lying areas were under orders to evacuate. It was very sobering, and as I drove home that night I was grateful that Kay and I lived on high ground, out of any possible flood zone.

I recall that Sunday as being a fairly surreal day. After taking pictures on my morning run down by the bridges (the RiverGawk Run, as I called it) I drove to the base and marvelled at how strange it was to cross the bridge on the Trans Canada Highway, with the water just metres from the bridge bottom and still rising. During our chapel worship we prayed, quite earnestly, for our communities. After church I stopped in at the command center we had set up at the Base, but things were quiet there, as the battlegroup from Edmonton was on the ground and had taken over primary liason with the city. There was nothing more we could do but help them, and wait to see how high the river would crest, which was expected in the small hours of Monday morning. By 4pm that afternoon there was talk that every bridge across the SSk River would be closed, including the Trans Canada Highway, so not wanting to be cut off, I headed home. As it turned out, the TCH was never closed, though the two older road bridges in Medicine Hat, a city divided by the river, were closed that afternoon and remained closed for several days.

Sunday evening I learned that my friend Padre Howard, the chaplain to the 3rd Battalion, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, was across the river with his unit in a high school, and would be going out that night to sandbag. Since the TCH was open, I crossed over to visit, and not wanting to show up empty-handed, I stopped first at the only Tim Horton's coffee shop left open to get a dozen large "double double" (two cream, two sugar), or as the troops say, "NATO standard" coffees. I was very pleased when the Timmies manager gave them and a bag of cookies to me at no charge. For my non-Canadian readers, this sort of thing, plus delicious, addictive coffee, is why Timmies is a Canadian icon.

The author and Padre Howard Rittenhouse (left) enjoying their TH coffee.

At 9pm I stowed away on a bus with Howard and thirty odd soldiers from the Patricia's HQ company, crossing a now-closed bridge and heading into the heart of the flood zone, in a part of Medicine Hat called "The Flats". Much of the hard work had already been done. Rows of interlocked wire cylinders, called Hesco, had already been placed along streets and were being filled with dirt and gravel by front end loaders. The science and engineering behind this was obviously carefully thought out, and it was heartbreaking to see how the planners had decided that some parts of the neighbourhood could be defended this way, and others sacrificed. The Flats were mostly dark, with power and gas cut off, and police watching as the last evacuees left. One fellow, who had retured to get his vintage motorcycle, called out his thanks as he left, even though his house was on the wrong side of the Hesco defences. That was pretty moving. For the rest of the night, like typical grunts in a bigger battle, we wandered the neighbourhood, sometimes getting lost, filling and stacking sandbags according to a larger plan that we didn't really understand. The troops I was with had been working for almost two days straight with only a few hours sleep, and were uncertain if they would get their leave in a few days, as 3 PPCLI had block leave for the summer scheduled soon. Nevertheless they were cheerful and hard working, and all had stories to tell of how locals had fed them and been kind to them in many ways. It was inspiring.

The story has a happy ending. The flood crested early Monday at around 5300 cu metres p/s, well below the doomsday scenario. Some homes and businesses were damaged, but it was widely agreed that the city had gotten off lucky, compared to towns further west like High River, which was devastated. The troops all went home by Wednesday and got their leave, and we at the Base went back to business as usual. Last week Kay and I were driving in the Flats and saw many homes with dumpsters out front, full of wet carpet and drywall, so clearly a lot of folks were affected, but it could have been much worse. For a few days the City pulled together, rich and poor alike, and some of the heroes wore uniforms. It was a high note to finish my three years here with. The following Sunday, in the Base Chapel, we gave thanks for prayers answered.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Canadian Army Goes Back To The Future

This photograph of a group of junior officers relaxing was taken sometime around 1960. You can tell they belong to the Canadian Army because of the cap badges, if you know what you're looking for. The fellow in beret second from right, who just happens to be my father, wears the cap badge of the Royal Canadian Regiment, while the fellow seated far left is a Royal Canadian Dragoon (I can't make out the other cap badges). You can tell they are junior officers because four of them visibly wear three pips on their shoulders showing that they are captains, reflecting the evolution of our military from the British Army.

Today Canadian Army officers wear the American-style bars that we adopted in 1968, but earlier this month it was announced that we are going back to the future. As my brother the Mad Colonel put it, it's "Not quite back to brown uniforms, boots and puttees but getting there". These changes were announced by the Rt. Hon. Peter McKay in early July before he finished his tenure as Minister of National Defence. The commander of the Canadian Army, General Devlin, has said this:

“The restoration of these features is a significant step in the restoration of the Canadian Army’s traditions,” said Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, Commander of the Canadian Army. “Symbols and traditions establish links to soldiers’ heritage, and are important. It is very significant that our non-commissioned members have the prospect of being able to bear the same ranks as their forbearers, and our officers will proudly wear the same insignia worn by Canadians who fought in the First and Second World Wars and Korea.”

This somewhat oversized graphic shows the rank insignia that Army officers will adopt. Non-commissioned members will keep their rank but in some cases will return to old rank titles such as Sapper, Bombardier, Fusilier or Guardsman rather than Private, depending on their regiment.

Since I have spent the last three years working with British Army personnel at CFB Suffield, I am familiar with British army insignia and know things like how a Major's crown is smaller than a Warrant Officer's crown. My colleagues without this experience will struggle at first. While I respect General Devlin's desire to honour our heritage, I do find it slightly ironic that no one currently wearing officer's rank in the Canadian Army is old enough to wearing the British-style rank of my father's day. That generation has either passed on or is in retirement. It's also curious that, as Colonel Ian Hope wrote of his time leading Task Force Orion in Afghanistan in 2006, our interoperability in theatre in the last decade has been with the US Army, so that culturally we are more like them now than we are like the Brits. American and Canadian soldiers can currently look at each other and understand the rank insignia, but there will be some Yanks scratching their heads in future theatres until they figure out our "new" ranks.

Fortunately for me, this is all above my pay grade and it won't matter in the short term as I am shortly taking off the uniform for two years while a soldier-student, so it's back to school before it's back to the future. In two years from now, I'll be putting on a new-style army combat uniform with (possibly, depending on the time it takes to phase this in), three captain's pips and maybe a major's crown to look forward to one day. For army chaplains, though, a vexing question presents itself. The combat uniform slip-on (the piece of fabric worn on the chest of the combat or everyday uniform to show rank and trade) only has room for three captain's pips, which is why British army padres of captain's rank wear crosses on their collars and the word "Padre" as part of their name tag. With the current Canadian slip-on for army padres, there is enough room for both the rank bars and the cross (or crescent or torah scroll). What will Canadian army padres of captain's rank wear when we go back to the future? Black puttees, perhaps?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"I Enjoyed The War": A Meme For Sir Carton De Wiart

Thanks to Foreign Policy, I learned that the wikipedia biography of twentieth century British soldier, Sir Carton de Wiart, has gone slightly viral as having the best opening paragraph ever written on wikkipedia. See if you agree.

"Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart[1] VC, KBE, CB, CMG, DSO (5 May 1880 - 5 June 1963), was a British Army officer of Belgian and Irish descent. He fought in the Boer War, World War I, and World War II, was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip and ear, survived a plane crash, tunneled out of a POW camp, and bit off his own fingers when a doctor wouldn't amputate them. He later said "frankly I had enjoyed the war."

Carton de Wiart was truly a larger than life character. His World War One service began with the gloriously named Somaliland Camel Corps, and he lost an eye while fighting in East Africa. Invalided back to England, he told his Medical Board that he wished to fight in France, which they would only agree subject to "the astonishing solution that if I found I could wear a glass eye they would consider me". De Wiart wondered if this condition was based on the Board's concern that the Germans not think that "we were reduced to sending out one-eyed officers". He returned to his Board wearing "a startling, excessively uncomfortable glass eye", was passed fit for duty, and promptly threw the glass eye out the window of his taxi, adopting the black eye patch which he wore for the rest of his life.

My favourite De Wiart story occured on his second medical return to England, after losing his hand in France. He was approached by a member of his club and asked if he would second the man in a duel against another man who had "been paying undue attention to a lady". De Wiart readily agreed, as the prospect seemed "a lively change from the sick bed" and because he thought "duelling a most excellent solution in matters of the heart". De Wiart then called on man who was giving offence to his friend, and assured him that his friend was deadly serious about pursuing the duel. After being unable to persuade De Wiart to have the duel called off, the man wrote an affadavit promising not to see the lady again. In De Wiart's words, "It was a tame end: it seemed to me that as he did not like the lady enough to fight for her, he needed a thrashing". This story can be found in Max Hasting's Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes and in De Wiart's own autobiography, Happy Odyssey (Cape 1950).

So, Sir Carton de Wiart, you glorious crazy old soldier, this meme's for you:

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Road Full Of Bodies: A Sermon

Preached at Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, 14 July, 2013.

Lectionary Texts For Proper 10, Yr C: Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 25:1-10, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

I am almost finished my tour here at Suffield. This is my penultimate sermon here. Next Sunday's will be the last one and then I will be going on hiatus as a weekly preacher while I pursue two years of graduate studies. God willing I will still preach from time to time.

Our gospel reading today, the parable of the Good Samaritan, is Jesus' answer to the question of "who is my neighbour?". The questioner is a pious man who, we sense, is hoping to find reasonable limits on his religious obligation to be concerned with the welfare of others. The parable, the story of a religious outsider who helps a helpless stranger at cost to himself when religious insiders would not bother, seems to say that there are no limits on our obligation to be concerned with the welfare of others. In response to the pious man's question of "who is my neighbour", Jesus' answer is "everyone".

Like many of Jesus' parables which place ethical demands on his followers, this parable asks a lot of us. The Samaritan becomes involved in the life of the stricken man, paying a price in terms of time, convenience, personal goods and money. Regarding the latter, he doesn't even put limits on his risk, simply telling the innkeeper that on his return he will "repay whatever more you spend". While the Good Samaritan story is often mentioned in first aid courses I have taken, the price of concern for others here is considerably more than applying bandages or doing CPR while someone calls 911. The parable hints at a depth of love and self-giving that does not become fully visible to his followers until Jesus goes to the cross.

"A man was going down to Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers". Like the pious man who asks Jesus "who is my neighbour", I find myself hoping that God will allow me reasonable limits on my charity. As long as the parable is about a single body, about one person lying stricken, I can imagine myself rising to the challenge. One person seems doable. I could see myself stopping to help one person, especially if it was an unusual, even shocking occasion, like an accident on the side of a lonely prairie road. But what if the sight of that stricken person wasn't that unusual? What if the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was infested with robbers, and it was an everyday occurrence to find their victims? What if the road was strewn with bodies?

In the opening of his book Exclusion and Embrace, Croatian born theologian Miroslav Volf asks this very question. Exclusion is Volf's word for the human capacity, seemingly innate, to switch off our concern for others and even to seek to harm them because of their difference from us. Volf's own experience of wars in the former Yugoslavia allowed him to see this tendency and its extremes, such as ethnic cleansing, first hand. Ethnic cleansing for Volf is an extreme version of the human tendency to practice exclusion, where "Like the robbers in the story of the Good Samaritan we strip, beat, and dump people somewhere outside our proper space half dead." It is also possible, and indeed more common, argues Volf, for us to practice exclusion by abandonment, excluding others by placing them beyond the reasonable limits of our concern, so that "Like the priest and the Levite ... we simply cross to the other side and pass by, minding our own business".

For Volf as a theologian, exclusion is not simply a human tendency or practice that is to be lamented, avoided, and legislated against. Rather, it is part of our sinful state, meaning the distortion of God's creation and intention for the world. Because sin leads us to see the world in a self-based way, as a ceaseless competition "in a world of scarce resources and contested power", we default to a position where the best we can hope for is that we and those like us come out of this competition on top. This stance leads us to dehumanize others, not in the sense that we would willfully harm others, but in the sense that we can manage to ignore them, and see the suffering of others as the normal state of affairs. As Volf puts it, "I reason: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho will always be littered by people beaten and left half-dead; I can pass - I must pass - by each without much concern."

The opposite of exclusion in Volf's book is what he calls embrace. He defines embrace as the willingness to meet the stranger and to be open to the needs of the stranger without insisting that he or she be like us. This tendency does not come naturally to we who are so thoroughly implicated and grounded in the world of sin and exclusion. Embrace is practiced literally by the Samaritan, who is often depicted in art as physically lifting the beaten man from the ground and placing him on his donkey (or whatever animal it was). Embrace is a stance that is only possible to us because of the self-giving, what Volf calls the self-donation, of Christ. It is only the self-giving of Christ on the cross as the culmination and embodiment of his life, character, and teaching, that breaks the rule of exclusion and allows us to see another way, which the gospels call the kingdom of God.

Left to ourselves, we will not rise to meet the ethical demand of this parable, despite Jesus' final words to his questioner, "Go and do likewise". As Volf would say, we are too deeply implicated in the system of exclusion to successfully meet that challenge. The parable only works if it is seen as an opening, as a partial breaking through of God's kingdom. The key, I think, is Jesus' explanation of the Samaritan's motives that he is "filled with pity". The emotion of pity is often given in the gospels as the motive for Jesus' actions (eg Mk 1:41, Lk 7:11-17. Pity is the dynamic of embrace. It allows us to meet the stranger and to have some glimpse of their condition, some empathic connection that is not exclusion (defined as domination, the desire to remake the stranger into our own image, or destruction, the desire to remove the stranger through violence or neglect). Pity and self-giving are the powers displayed on the cross, for all our sakes. They are intrinsic to the mind of Christ which Paul exhorts us to take on and be transformed by. It is a tall order, to be willing to look on the stranger, to approach them, even embrace them and take on the dirt and blood that might come with the embrace. But that is our calling as followers of Jesus, and it is what he gives us the power to do, however reluctantly, for have we not already stepped into that kingdom ruled by embrace rather than exclusion? As we heard Paul say in our second lesson, "He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1:13-14). Amen.

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.


Blog Archive