Monday, December 29, 2014

Incarnational Ministry In A "Suicide Wagon": A British Army Padre's Story Of Afghanistan


During my time working with the staff of British Army Training Unit Suffield, I was fortunate to get to know many fine padres from the UK’s Royal Army Chaplain’s Department.  Several kept in touch with me once they left Suffield and deployed shortly thereafter to Afghanistan.  This story is from one of them,  who was in Helmand Province sometime in 2013, and I was reminded of it recently while sorting some emails.  It's as good an illustration of the work of an army chaplain as any I can think of, and it’s too good not to share.

  Some time ago, a young man spoke to me about his role as the resupply fuel truck driver.  He makes journeys to forward patrol bases carrying 50,000 litres of fuel and he affectionately referred to his vehicle as the ‘suicide wagon’.  I made a mental note to travel with him on his next trip and, as the Sergeant Major had to cancel his plans at the last minute, I was fortunate enough to take his place alongside the driver only a week later.  We lined up in a convoy of vehicles waiting to leave the base and the conversation went something like this - Me:  “Shall I say a prayer before we go?”  Driver:  “Go on then, when you’re ready, Padre!”

I gave him a set of ‘dog tags’ with a Scripture verse and a cross and these are now hung by their chain from the seatbelt cutters mounted in the cab.  As we chatted the driver asked about my sharing the risks and not carrying a weapon for protection.  (As chaplains we are ordained ministers from our sending Churches and although we wear uniform we are not soldiers and do not bear arms, we are here simply to serve).  I always take the stance that the lads are my protection; “we’ll be alright, Padre” he said, “you’ll see!”


The Church calls this ‘Incarnational’ ministry – in the same way that God emptied Himself of all the glory of heaven and lived an earthly life among us as Jesus – so we seek to share the same lives and conditions as those we serve.  That young man is getting married in October at the end of the tour.  He didn’t need me to say I would pray for him, although I do – he needed me to travel with him along the road.  Oh, and he was right too, we were fine!

I’m happy to say that this Padre and the young driver returned safely from their tour.  MP+


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Canadian Christmas On Salisbury Plain, 1914



This post is taken from the Advent/Christmas edition of the newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, for those of the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service of the Canadian Armed Forces from the Anglican Church of Canada.   In each edition I have been writing a piece looking at the ministry of Anglican chaplains in the Great War a hundred years prior to the writing of each newsletter.  This piece focuses on the first Christmas of the Canadian Expeditionary Force overseas. MP+

Christmas On Salisbury Plain, 1914


Over thirty thousand Canadian soldiers, most of them living under canvas, spent their first winter of the Great War on Salisbury Plain, a large military training area in the south of England.  George Anderson Wells, who went on to be a famous Bishop, was there as padre to the 6th Fort Garrys, and described the camps as “an endless field of mud” where “tent peg would loosen and the tents blow down in high winds”.   The cold and wet conditions put many on the sick list and claimed some lives due to illness.  Morale was further tested by deficient equipment, including shoddy boots with heels made of compressed paper that simply rotted in the mud.  While few could imagine what lay ahead, this first taste of mud and misery was preparing them all for the trenches in France and Belgium.



Canadians in the mud on Salisbury Plain, winter of 1914-15 


Chaplains busied themselves with visits to the many sick in hospitals and infirmaries, and tried to organize evening concerts and activities to maintain morale.   Many padres found themselves torn in one direction by their allegiances to the powerful temperance movement back in Canada, which was supported by their prohibitionist commander, Sam Hughes, and in the other direction by their soldiers’ frustration with the alcohol ban and the so-called “dry canteens”.   Local pubs in the area tempted many thirsty troops.   In the words of the Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, this led to “quarrelsome” and “disorderly” conduct, which was not solved until local villages were placed off limits and “wet canteens” were allowed as per British Army practice.   Problems arising from alcohol and discipline issues must have kept the padres busy indeed.


While some men were granted leave in the weeks leading up to Christmas, military training kept up at a brisk schedule all through December.  For example, the War Diary of the 2nd (Eastern Ontario) Battalion mentioned that on 23 December, drills were conducted on The Company In The Attack.  Christmas Day saw some respite.  The War Diary of the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion describes “a holiday [with] no parade of the Bn.”, parties in various Messes, and in the evening “a bon-fire for all ranks and an open air concert” with a special dinner provided by the Toronto City Council. 


Unlike their Roman Catholic colleagues, Anglican and other protestant padres could enlist local churches for Christmas services.  Canon Frederick Scott  obtained the loan of the church of St. Mary and St. Melor, Amesbury, from its Rector for a midnight eucharist, and sent notice of the service through his Brigade. 

Interior of the church of St. Mary and Melor, Amesbury, Wiltshire, Diocese of Salisbury, taken 1905


Canon Scott describes the service that Christmas Eve.


“In the thick fog the men gathered and marched down the road to the village, where the church windows threw a soft light into the mist that hung over the ancient burial ground.  The church inside was bright and beautiful.  The old arches and pillars and the little side chapels told of days gone by, when the worship of the holy nuns, who had their convent there, rose up to God day by day.  The altar was vested in white and the candles shone out bright and fair.  The organist had kindly consented to pay the Christmas hymns, in which the men joined heartily.  It was a service never to be forgotten, and as I told the men, in the short address I gave them, never before perhaps, in the history of that venerable fane, had it witnessed a more striking assembly.  From a distance of nearly seven thousand miles some of them had come, and this was to be our last Christmas before we entered the life and death struggle of the nations.  Row after row of men knelt to receive the Bread of Life, and it was a rare privilege to administer it to them.  The fog was heavier on our return and some of us had great difficulty in finding our lines.” 

Wishing all readers a peaceful and joyous Christmas, and every blessing in the year to come.  Michael+

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book Review: Military Chaplaincy in Contention: Chaplains, Churches and the Morality of Conflict

This review was written earlier this year and appears in the Advent/Christmas edition of the Newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, Royal Canadian Chaplain Service.  MP+

Military Chaplaincy in Contention: Chaplains, Churches and the Morality of Conflict. Andrew Todd, editor. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.

 In this compilation of essays, British military chaplains and theologians reflect on the United Kingdom’s decade long engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Canadian readers of this book will immediately notice differences between our two chaplaincies. The military chaplains who contributed essays were or are members of the Royal Army Chaplains Department (RAChD), so there is no experience of tri-service chaplaincy here. As members of a Christian organization, they lack the nuances and multifaith awareness that CAF chaplains have been gaining since 2003. Their ecclesiastical relationships are not as strong as ours are, and they are aware that their churches share British society’s uncertainties about these wars. Nevertheless, their struggles with the moral ambiguities of asymmetric conflict, with the demands of military missions and theology, and with the changing role of religion in the military and society, will be struggles that any CAF chaplain can identify with.

The book’s title, Military Chaplaincy in Contention, was deliberately chosen by the editor, Andrew Todd, Director of the Chaplaincy Studies program at Cardiff. As Todd notes, the ministry of chaplains is “in contention” not only because the Iraq and Afghanistan missions were/are contentious, without a consensus of support within UK society, but also because the chaplain’s role, often doing “instantaneous theology” within the complex demands of military operations and under the media gaze, raises the public question, “to what extent is a largely Christian, religious presence appropriate in this public context”? The essays that follow take their tone accordingly. They are provocative, challenging, and provide ample food for thought.

Andrew Totten, currently the Assistant Chaplain General, RAChD, and a veteran of many deployments including Afghanistan, carefully explores the differences between two words that every chaplain must negotiate, “moral” and “morale”. While “morale” speaks to the chaplain’s pastoral role of caring for and encouraging soldiers, Totten notes that chaplains must also engage with “moral” issues of right and wrong. This engagement can be difficult when British Christian churches are conflicted about war and give their chaplains little support or framework to reflect on the morality of warfare. If chaplains avoid issues of morality and default to merely being“morale sustainers of soldiers”, Totten argues, then they have failed their primary role, which is to help soldiers distinguish between right and wrong. As Totten notes, military duty in Helmand Province comes with an ethical component. He writes that he has often observed British soldiers enduring great discomfort and risk while “encouraging local nationals to support the people and processes of civil society”, and so chaplains must share and engage with “soldiers’ needs and experiences”.

Likewise, Philip McCormack, Chief Instructor at the UK Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre, argues that chaplains and their churches cannot sit quietly on a comfortable and removed moral high ground, but must “become active participants in a dialogue on how to create a moral/ethical resource or framework for those who find themselves in the most morally challenging situations of our time”. Other contributors in this section address moral aspects of interrogation of suspected terrorists and the implications of the increasing use of robotics in warfare.

Peter Howson, a retired RAChD padre and Methodist pastor, examines the sometimes strained relations between chaplains and the British churches, which often think and act like “functional pacifists”. This chapter made me especially grateful for the role of our own Interfaith Committee on Canadian Military Chaplaincy in the life of our Branch, and led me to conclude that our chaplaincy is markedly ahead of the British in terms of our relations with Canadian faith groups. Jonathan Ball, a retired RAChD padre and Anglican priest, offers a strong essay on the role of liturgy in deployed contexts. Ball examines the experience of padres with British Army deployments in 2010, when an astonishing 78 soldier deaths in one brigade proved that vigils and memorial services show that liturgy, carefully planned, still has the power to console and comfort, even in the British context where society, especially male society, is increasingly estranged from religion. Two final essays both address the Christian just war tradition as a resource for chaplains, and examine the connection between military mission and morality.

The essays in Military Chaplaincy in Contention highlight some of the differences between our Branch and our British colleagues. However, the contributors to this thoughtful book all recognize a universal role of our vocation, namely that effective chaplaincy must be located “within the military community: providing space for military personnel to air their doubts, or raise questions about the rules that govern military life; acting as a critical friend to the commanding officer; questioning, when necessary, the way in which military strategy is carried out”. In those respects our role is the same, regardless of the uniform or faith identifiers we may happen to wear.

Reviewed By Padre Michael Peterson

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain Branch Is Now the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service


I am remiss in blogging this piece of news from October, and am still getting used to the fact that the organization I work for now has a new name. This announcement follows in the path of previous moves to rebrand components of the CAF with their historic names and royal designations.

From the point of view of the MA thesis I am currently writing, on the Branch’s …. errr, Service’s (this will take some getting used to) move to pluralism in the last decade, it is interesting that this press release stresses both the traditional identity of the Chaplaincy and it’s new religious diversity as “an interfaith team that includes representation from … over twenty Christian denominations and from the Jewish and Muslim faiths”.   That’s a pleasant contrast, new wine in old bottles.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Video Games Revisited: When "Kill 'Em All" Is Not A Valid Strategy

I’ve written here and elsewhere about the role of the video game, specifically the First Person Shooter (FPS) in military culture.   As a guest writer on journalist and historian Tom Ricks’ Best Defence Column, Jim Gourlay suggests that the blockbuster status of FPS releases like Call Of Duty, and their “Kill Em All” approach to problem solving, foster a worldview that is “wholly unrealistic” and he suggests that “their broadening influence on American military culture and defines thinking may be toxic.”    Here’s an excerpt of Gourley’s piece in which he contrasts the FPS approach with that of “empathy games” which come closer to describing tactical and strategic situations that First World militaries increasingly find themselves in.

"An entire generation of adults grew up playing games as soldiers shooting the enemy, and they're still playing today alongside their own children. The games have grown, as well. The gaming industry's revenues are now on par with Hollywood, and shooters have become the game equivalent of big-budget blockbusters. It's in this Michael Bay approach to production that an entire dimension of realism is abandoned: the reality of cultural influences on operational outcomes, the inexorable link between military actions and political consequences, and the acceptance of risk to your own forces in order to win the support of local populations. Call it COIN or "hearts and minds," it boils down to the same thing -- empathy. 

But whether it's fundamentalist terrorists, aliens bent on planetary conquest, or the zombie horde, the essential mechanic that makes FPS games so addictively fun is their "kill 'em all" approach to every situation. Whereas top American military leaders have explicitly told us that we can't kill our way out of Afghanistan, FPS games are built on the belief that you can. Outside observers of American culture believe the games are winning the messaging war, making us more likely to enter conflict and less equipped to find a successful way out.”  

Read the whole piece here and watch for later instalments in Gourley’s argument.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Chaplain Honour Roll

Kudos to Mad Padre’s Man In Norwich for telling me about this website dedicated to UK war memorials.   Very much a work in progress at the moment, but the author has an interest in British and Imperial/Commonwealth military chaplains and has an impressive amount of data assembled on padres who laid down their lives for their fellows.  To my shame, I was not aware that so many Canadian chaplains died on active service in World War Two, far more than I knew of.  My chaplain colleagues may find this site interesting.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Sermon For Remembrance Day

Preached at St. Coliumba’s Anglican Church, Remembrance Day Sunday, November, 2014

Three weekends ago I happened to be in Ottawa, near Parliament Hill.  I’d been told that there was an honour guard of Canadian Armed Forces members at the National War Memorial and I wanted to have a look at them.   I was not disappointed.   Two young soldiers, immaculately turned out in their dress uniforms, stood at attention at the base of the tall stone pillar, beneath the larger than life bronze statues of soldiers from their great-grandfather’s war.  A young private, a Reservist from the Nova Scotia Highlanders, stood a short distance away, ready to speak to the public.   I asked him some polite questions about the purpose of the ceremonial guard.  In clipped, professional tones, he told me it was part of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, and that the guards were drawn in turns from the Army, Navy, and Air Force.    As we talked, another soldier played a lament on the bagpipes.  Tourists grinned happily while they took each other’s pictures with the soldiers in the background.   I complimented the Private from Nova Scotia on a job well done, and left.  As I walked away, I wondered if that young Private was old enough to shave.

Four days later we learned that one of those young honour guards lay crumpled and dying at the base of that monument.   He was Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a handsome young man with a winning smile, a dog and a little son.  He died two days after another soldier, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, was mowed down by a car.  Both were singled out and killed because they were wearing the uniform of their country.   In both cases, the attackers were mentally unstable loners who used jihadist language but appeared to have the sketchiest understandings of Islam.   For several days, the country held its breath until we realized that this was not an organized plot, and that we had no reason to fear our Muslim neighbours and fellow citizens.   In Alberta, in the Air Force town of Cold Lake, when someone sprayed hate graffiti on the walls of a mosque, members of the community pitched in and helped clean it up.   Some of those who helped wore military uniforms.   Canadian values of acceptance and pluralism (I won’t say tolerance because that is a stingy, miserly word) held firm.   My boss, the Chaplain General of the Canadian Forces, joined with Muslim and Jewish leaders at the Anglican cathedral in Ottawa for an interfaith service called Prayers for Ottawa.  In the ways that matter, Canada came out of this week more itself than ever.

In one respect, however, Canada has changed.   I think it will be a long time before any of us wear a poppy casually.   Perhaps there was a time when we wore the poppy out of habit.  Perhaps we saw a young Cadet with a poppy box outside Zehrs and thought, “Oh yes, it’s that time again.”  I think this year we will take the poppy more seriously.  The poppy reminds us that all those names carved in stone, all those names from our grandparents wars, belonged to real people.  As John McRae wrote of the dead nearly a century ago, “We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved, and were loved”.  If you have, like me, been following the weekly column in the Record on Kitchener-Waterloo residents who died in the First World War, you will know what I mean.  All of these young men (and some women) in those stories left real families and real jobs, and real houses, some of which still stand today.  They never came home.  Patrice Roy and Nathan Cirillo, or the 157 young men and women lost in Afghanistan, are no different from the dead of Korea, of Dieppe, or of Passchendaele.  They were all real people. Cartoonist Bruce McKinnon put it well the day after the Ottawa shooting, when he drew the image of bronze statues climbing off the War Memorial to raise the body of Cpl. Cirillo into their ranks.

As a soldier and as a chaplain, I’ve wrestled with quite a few emotions since these events.  As a soldier, I’m proud of people like Roy and Cirillo.  The four values of the Canadian Forces are Courage, Loyalty, Duty, and Integrity, and these two men seem to have lived these values right up to the end.   However, as a chaplain, I struggle with our instinct to reach too high on occasions like this.    At Nathan Cirillo’s funeral, someone said that he died at the most sacred spot in Canada, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  It is certainly sacred in that it is a consecrated site, an actual burial place.   However, beyond that, I think we need to be careful about how we apply the word sacred to the War Memorial and what it stands for.   I think we need to take care that we dont say that these deaths were pleasing to God, and I don’t think, frankly, that as Christians we can say that.   The young men who left jobs as clerks and farmers in Waterloo region to go to Flanders in 1914 were told that they were fighting for God, King and Country.   The young Germans they fought were told the same thing, and they wore belt buckles on their uniforms on which were stamped the words “Gott Mitt Uns” (God With Us).   In some cases, those young Waterloo men and their foes in the other trenches spoke the same language and may even have been related, because, as you know, Waterloo wasn’t called Waterloo in those days.  It was called Berlin.  I don’t see how God could have taken sides in that war.  I just can’t see it.

I have a friend, a bright young officer, who asked me once why chaplains don’t pray for a good smiting.  I asked him what he meant.  He told me, “When I was in Afghanistan, before we went out on a mission, I wanted the Padre to pray for God to help us smite our enemies.   No one did.  I like Padres, but why can’t you guys pray for a good smiting?”  Probably, I told him, because we can’t.  If we did, then would we be any better than those who recruit suicide bombers and promise them a speedy trip to paradise if they kill in Allah’s name?   I think that’s why my trade is the only one in the military that don’t carry weapons.   Doctors and medics carry weapons to protect their patients.   Clerks and cooks carry rifles because they may just get called on to fight.  Chaplains don’t carry weapons of any sort.  We’re not allowed to, and we wouldn’t want to if we could.  There’s a story about a group of soldiers out marching somewhere, and their chaplain was with them.  “Padre,” one said, “Why don’t you carry a rifle?  That’s not normal.”   Before the chaplain could answer, another one said, “No, you don’t get it.  Carrying a rifle everywhere is not normal.  The padre’s the only one who’s normal.  He’s here to remind us what normal is.”

Most chaplains I know love this story because it speaks to who we are and why we’re there.  Some say that we as clergy condone war and violence just because we wear the uniform.   We don’t think we do.  We think we are there to show God’s love to the men and women who have accepted their role, as hard as it may be for them.  No soldier in their right mind wants to go fight and kill, but that is what they are trained to do, and that is what they are called to do by the country they serve.    Soldiers, because of their profession, have to go to dark places that seem far from God, and that is why chaplains go with them, to remind them that God has not abandoned them.   Many soldiers are touched and damaged by the brokenness they must face.   Many struggle with addictions of various sorts.  Their relationships are strained by long absences and many military marriages fail.   Not all soldiers do the right thing.  Some become coarse and brutal.   Calling all soldiers “Heroes”, as society likes to do, does them no favours.  They don’t call themselves heroes.  They are ordinary people, and like you and me, they are sinners.   That’s why we chaplains chose this ministry, because it’s full of broken people who need the assurance of God’s love.

Very few Canadians have any real connection with the military.  Unless you live in a military town, chances are you don’t see people in uniform.  It’s not the career of choice for bright young people who want money and comfort.   However,  as Anglicans, you have a connection with the military.  The Anglican Church has over forty of its clergy in uniform, either part time or, like me, full time.   Anglican chaplains are leant to the military by the Church.  The Diocese of Huron supported me financially as a theological student, and then after I did four years of ordained service, Bishop Bruce Howe let me go to the military.  In effect, he was writing off your investment in me.  He didn’t have to, and not all bishops do, but he agreed that the military was a valid calling for me.   General Synod gives us chaplains a Bishop Ordinary, who is currently Bishop Peter Coffin, a retired Bishop of Ottawa, and helps us pay him a small stipend, too small for all the work he does for us.  When +Peter retires in a few years, General Synod has given us permission to elect our own Bishop Ordinary going forward.   Many chaplains go back to the civilian church when they retire from the military.  So in many real ways, you as the Church are connected to the Canadian Forces through the men and women you send to it as chaplains.

There was a time, long ago, when the Anglican Church just assumed that Canada should be a Christian country.   The Church tolerated Roman Catholics and even Methodists, but really felt that all Canadians should be Anglicans.  One of the reasons the Church sent clergy to the military was that we wanted to make soldiers more Christian, and preferably Anglican.   Today my colleagues and I work with people of many faiths and, often, of no faith.   If there’s an Anglican, or a Christian, who wants our services, we’re there for them.   We’ll happily celebrate the Eucharist using the hood of a truck for an altar.   But, if we meet a Jewish soldier who wants to celebrate Passover, or a Muslim whose sergeant won’t let him grow a beard, or a pagan who wants time off to celebrate the solstice, a chaplain will go to bat for those folks until they get what they need.   As we like to say, we minister to our own, we help others get their faith needs met, and we serve everyone.   We like talking to the “spiritual but not religious”, or to grizzled atheists and agnostics who say they would burst into flame if they ever set foot inside a church (so far, I’ve never seen this happen).  We always  try to show these men and women that God is with them, and sometimes we use words to tell them that.   You as the Church can be proud of the work that your Anglican chaplains have done, and continue to do today, such as the work of Canon Rob Fead of the Diocese of Niagara, who served the Cirillo family in their time of grief.

Because you are the Church, and because you are connected to the military through your chaplains, and because you are Canadians, I think you have some responsibilities.   You are called to think about God’s will and plan for humanity.  Is war part of that plan?   Can war and violence be justified?   What does the cross say to us about the use of violence?   What does the Resurrection say to us about death and life?    What is the church called to say in times of war and violence?   Do we speak in the name of a triumphant God who takes sides in human conflict, or do we follow a God who weeps for a broken world and calls it to peace and new life?  These are issues that you the Church are called to wrestle with, and not just on Remembrance Day.  Let me close by offering some suggestions to help you with these responsibilities.   Pay attention to the news about places like the Middle East.  Try to resist easy judgements and answers, and try to dig into the stories.  Listen to different voices, such as the News Service on the Anglican Communion website, or even Al Jazeera.  Support the troops but find out what they’re doing.  Why are we sending troops and planes to the Middle East?   What are Canada’s goas there? Are you hearing enough about these things from your elected leaders?   While we’re talking about elected leaders, ask them what is being done for military families, for veterans young and old, especially those struggling with mental and physical injuries.  Are you satisfied that enough is being done?   Finally, as people of God, pray.  Pray for peace, and pray for those who are called to bear arms in the absence of peace, and pray for my colleagues, chaplains of all faiths, who minister to our soldiers and their families.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Military Goats In The News

As longtime readers of this blog know well, nothing excites our admiration more than that most noble, martial, and proud of animals, than the military goat.   It is this blog’s stated policy and fondest wish that more armies adopt this fine creatures as mascots.  This picture and caption from today’s UK Ministry of Defence daily email:

Almost 100 soldiers from 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment paraded in Gheluvelt Park, Worcester, to mark the centenary of the 2nd Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment’s victory against the Germans at the battle of Gheluvelt. On the morning of 31 October 1914 near the small town of Gheluvelt in Belgium, the Germans broke through the Allied defensive line. With an easy route to the Channel ports and 13 German Battalions on the charge, The Worcestershire Regiment’s 2nd Battalion were called to counter attack. Elsewhere across the Allied line, orders were issued to prepare for a general retreat. Already down to half of their capacity due to 10 days of hard battle, against overwhelming odds the 2nd Worcestershire showed immense courage, pushing the Germans back and plugging the gap in the Allied defensive line, saving the Channel ports in the process. In the picture, the Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire is introduced to the regimental mascot, Private Derby XXX. [Picture: Sergeant Mike O'Neill, Crown copyright]

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Military Picture of the Week: Odd Man Out

One of those three Grenadier Guardsmen is actually a cake, which may be the strangest thing I’ve ever written on this blog.



The cake is to celebrate the start of the British Legion’s annual Poppy Campaign.  More info here.




Thursday, October 23, 2014

Canada Gets Back Up

This image from today’s Halifax Chronicle Herald captures how I and many Canadians are feeling today.   In the four days since I posted a picture of my visit to the Ottawa War Memorial, there have been two attacks on Canadian Armed Forces personnel.   On Monday a Regular Force RCAF Warrant Officer was killed in a Montreal parking lot by a by would be jihadist who mowed him down with his car, and yesterday an Army Reservist was shot and mortally wounded while part of the ceremonial guard mount at one of our country’s most honoured (and, in a secular sense of the word) sacred places.   The gunman then went on to Parliament Hill, and in a video that I still find surreal, died in a gun battle, shot by our Parliament’s Sergeant of Arms, an ex-RCMP officer, who is today an undisputed national hero.  

What to make of this?   It’s too early to say, but members of the Canadian Armed Forces, still enjoying the public approval from their role in Afghanistan, will be struggling (as I am) with the perceived loss of pride and identity in being told not to wear their uniforms in public.   Hopefully that order will be lifted by Remembrance Day, and we can pay our respects to the old and newly fallen as we should, but we now have to think about security issues in our own country.  In that sense, while there is some in his piece yesterday that I disagree with, journalist Glenn Greenwald does make a good point.  Canada has been at war for thirteen years, ever since our troops first went to Tora Bora in Afghanistan, and while we’ve refurbished our military prestige and pride following the dark years and moral failures of the 1990s, we have been complacent.  We never thought that our enemies would strike us here.  We assumed that either we were too small to be an important target to Bin Laden and his followers, or that if homegrown extremists tried, then our security services would catch them, because they all seemed pretty inept.   Now, in three days, we can’t afford those misguided assumptions.  

I hope we don’t slide into a security state mentality like our southern neighbours have.   Their post 9/11 habit of replacing that lovely and historic word of liberty, “America”, with “Homeland”, which to my mind hearkens back to 19th century European “blood and volk" nationalism, is unfortunate, but that’s just my opinion.   I hope that Parliament will reopen to visitors soon, although I suspect that visitors will have to go through metal detectors and other security measures.  It’s still our Parliament, and should remain so.   The National War Memorial will take on a new significance, to be sure, and there will be new resolve to fight against ISIS and forces like it, even if it’s still unclear whether these attacks of the last tree days were jihadist ordered, jihadist inspired, or just copycat violence by mentally fragile and angry loners.  As a former Commanding Officer of mine said yesterday, if we were complacent and ambiguous about the Syria deployment last week, now Canadians will be resolved, and military history shows that when we are angry, we punch above our weight.   

The most encouraging thing for me yesterday was hearing that the Ottawa Police, with parts of the capital still in lockdown, sent this message out to the city’s Muslim community.  If you feel unsafe, or threatened, let us know and we’ll protect you.   If that virtue of Canadian solidarity and tolerance makes it through the days to come unscathed, then we’ll be alright.

God bless and protect all those who serve and protect our country, whatever uniform they wear.





Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week

I took these two pictures at the National War Memorial on a chilly noon in Ottawa this last Sunday.   As part of the anniversary of the start of the First World War, the three branches of the Canadian Armed Forces are mounting a guard there during (I believe) daylight hours.   When I visited it was the Army’s turn.   These young soldiers were standing guard at the front of the memorial, facing down Elgin Street, and on the far side, facing Parliament Hill, a piper was playing.   The turnout of these lads was immaculate and their bearing was every inch the soldier.   If you find yourself in Ottawa in November it’s worth a visit.




Friday, October 17, 2014

How Do You Like Them Apples?


Kay and I just returned from the Berkeley Springs region of West Virginia, where we spent a week with her siblings. Since we were the advance party, we got to sample some local culture, including the kickoff parade of the local Apple Butter Festival.   Who knew there were so many apples?  Extra marks for identifying the types of apples represented here.

I have some more photos to post when I get back from a conference happening this weekend.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Notable Quotable: "I Couldn't Care Less If Jackie Was Technicolor"

Yesterday’s New York Times carried the obituary of George Shuba, the man shown below shaking the hand of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in professional baseball, when they both played for the Montreal Royals .  The Royals were the farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers.   

On April 18, 1946, Robinson hit a home run in the Royals’ season opener against the Jersey Giants.   Shuba went to the plate to shake Robinson’s hand as he finished rounding the bases.   Sixty years later, Shuba would say:  “I couldn’t care less if Jackie was Technicolor.   As far as I was concerned, he was a great ballplayer - our best.   I had no problem going to the plate to shake his hand instead of waiting for him to come by me in the on-deck circle."

 Shuba and Robsinon both went on to the major leagues, where Shuba had a respectable performance before returning to his home town of Yougstown, Ohio, where he worked as a postal clerk.  He would probably have been forgotten to history had it not been for this picture, but I’d have to say that he was, in his own way, one of the greats.

Sadly this moment occurred at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City.  It would have been a great Canadian moment had it occurred in Montreal, a time in Robinson’s career that was sadly overlooked in the recent biopic “42”.


Monday, September 29, 2014

A Great Weekend By A Great Lake


Kay and I took Appa the Volksbison, our ’85 VW Vanagaon camper, down to Lake Erie this past weekend.    On the plus side, I had recently discovered that our camper’s onboard fridge was actually functional.   I had ordered a kit to convert the space to extra shelving and storage, but had been procrastinating about taking the fridge out and junking it.   However, on our last outing, I was startled to discover that some of the items stored in the fridge space were cold to the touch!   Evidently I had it set so that it ran off the battery while the van was in motion, and I realized that the fridge was working.   A little tinkering with it this summer, and some YouTube research, taught me how to run it off an external power cord while parked, to get it properly chilled, and then how to get the pilot lit so that it could run on propane once we reached our destination.   This meant that we had all the VW’s original systems working:  the propane stove, the fridge, and the water tan/sink/tap.   Excited, we searched for a destination and settled on Wheatley Provincial Park, down on Lake Erie.  Wheatley is not far from Point Pelee, which is the southernmost point in Canada, on a latitude with Northern California.

We made it.  Appa is old and slow and somewhat prone to overheating, so I kept a close eye on the temperature gauge, but we made it there and back without much incident.  We were blessed with a perfect early fall weekend and a campsite by the water.

If you peer into the side door, you’ll see Kay celebrating our arrival.


Walkway to the beachfront along Lake Erie.



 Some of the park’s many denizens.  We got up before sunrise on Saturday morning and were treated to the unforgettable sight of stars reflected on the water.    I wish I could have captured that in a photo, but some things are best saved for memories.  I may never see starlight reflected on water again, but I’ll never forget the sight.




I tried going for my morning run along this beach.   It wasn’t my fastest run.   In fact, it was like one of those dreams when you’re trying to run away from monsters but caught in quicksand.


 Church by the lake.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

With The Royal Highland Fusiliers Of Canada

My friend Padre Neil is away this month at the Canadian Forces Leadership School in St. Jean, QC, getting the official training and qualifications to set the seal on his pre-existing awesomeness as a padre.   Unfortunately his absence left his reserve unit, the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada, in a bit of a lurch, as they wanted him to offer a prayer and blessing at their parade this past Saturday.   I was happy to fill in.

The RHFC are one of the many colourful Reserve regiments of Canada’s Army.  As you can see below, their ceremonial dress uniform is a Highland variation of the less glamorous, plain green DEU (Distinctive Environmental Uniform) worn by most Regular Force army units. I felt quite plain standing next to them.  The Fusiliers have a proud history, with their roots in the various militia regiments formed in the Waterloo Region of SW Ontario since the mid 1800s.  In World War 1, a rather confusing period in the lineage of Canadian regiments, the RHFC’s ancestors  included the 108th Battalion CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force), the 111th CEF, and the 29th Waterloo Regiment, Highland Light Infantry of Canada (HLI). During World War Two the HLI earned a distinguished reputation in places such as Normandy and Holland, and claimed to be the only Canadian regiment never to have given up a prisoner or man missing, or to have yielded its ground to the enemy.  In 1965 the HLI was amalgamated with another local militia regiment, the Highland Fusiliers of Canada, thus becoming the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada.   Many members of the RHFC deployed to Afghanistan in the last decade as augments to Reg Force regiments, and so the RHFC will soon receive a new Battle Honour, Afghanistan, for its colours.



It was a perfect day for a parade.  September has been cool and wet, but the sun came out on cue.  In this photo, the Colour Guards stand before the Commanding Officer,  preparing to lay the colours on the regimental drums during a short parade at the cenotaph in Cambridge.   The Pipe Sergeant Major is standing on the cenotaph.   My role in the service was to offer this short prayer, and since I couldn’t find a specific prayer for the RHFC,  I adapted from the Regimental Collect of the British Army’s Royal Highland Fusiliers, which are allied to Canada’s RHFC.  Padre Neil, your homework is to see if there is in fact a proper prayer for yur regiment, and if so, to make it more visible for future use.

Gracious and loving God, look with favour on the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada.   Keep us all mindful of their legacy of heroism, sacrifice, and service.  Abide with them, in all the places where they may be called to serve, and strengthen them to resist to the uttermost all assaults of evil.   To their leaders, give wisdom, and to all ranks, give valour.  Inspire them to serve in their day and generation so that they may worthily uphold the trust that has been handed down to them, and give them we pray your continued blessing.  Amen.

To my chaplain friends, there is a useful resource on Collects of the British Army here.   Someone should compile a similar list for the Canadian Army.   


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Plug For The Great War Blog

I discovered this blog the other day, and I recommend it.  Each day covers a different aspect of World War One.   It’s well written and researched, and worth the time of anybody interested in this period.

This image from today’s post explores the links between the Edwardian ethos of masculine values, amateur athletics, muscular Christianity and recruiting.


Monday, September 8, 2014

A Good Day At Church

Kay and I took church with us to Rockwood Conservation Area this weekend.

The traffic on the way to church was light and there was lots of parking.

 We decided we would sit right in front of the altar rather than as far back in the church as humanly possible.  

Safely home thanks to Appa the Volksbison.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week


This picture comes from the Foreign Policy website’s Photos of the Week feature and shows Afghan National Army personnel praying at a graduation ceremony at the ANA Training Centre in Kabul on 24 August.  These are the faces of the army that NATO members, including friends of mine, have been labouring to train and guide for the last few years.  They face a difficult future, with a government still paralyzed by deadlock after a recent national election that shows the country’s ethnic fault lines and distrust, and an undefeated Taliban insurgency.  Good luck to them.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Slogan For The Sign: A Sermon For Sunday, August 31st

Preached at St. Columba’s Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario, The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost.

Readings:  Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6,23-26; Romans 12:9-21;  Matthew 16: 21-28

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  (Matt 16:24)


Pity the person who gets told by God to do something.  Often in the Bible, when God gets ahold of someone and says “do this”, they don’t want to and maybe that’s because God’s plans often don’t sound like a lot of fun.  Take Moses in our first reading.  God says “I’ve got this great plan to get you and your people out of slavery in Egypt and settle you in this amazing place.”  Moses says “Who, me?” and then  “What if it doesn’t work?”  In our gospel reading, Jesus tells Peter and his disciples about his plan to go to Jerusalem, and they don’t like it very much.  Jesus says to Peter and company, and this is my rather loose translation, “I have to go to Jerusalem to die so that I can rise again, and you know what?  That’s kind of like what you have to do to be my followers. “   Matthew doesn’t tell us how the disciples react to this, but they’re probably confused and alarmed.   I suspect we are too, every time we hear this passage about taking up crosses, and denying ourselves, and dying so that we can live.   It doesn’t sound like a good deal.  It doesn’t seem like a great invitation to come and try the Christian faith.   But today I want to suggest that these words are crucial to our life and our mission as God’s church.


First, let me tell you a small story about church advertising and biblical slogans.


Before the Canadian Forces sent me to Waterloo to go back to school, my last job was at an army base out west, where I ran the small base chapel.    The chapel had a very old and outdated sign, and one day Base Engineering told me they were replacing it, and what did I want on the new sign?  


My first thought was that I would like the sign to include a scripture verse, something welcoming and inspiring.   I wanted something that would reach out to the many soldiers and families who normally avoided the chapel like the plague.    I wanted something that would speak to soldiers who came to the base for training, fired and far from the homes and families.


What verse do you think I chose?   I’ll give you a hint.   It was from Matthew’s gospel, but it wasn’t anything from today’s reading.   Today’s ideas of self-denial and taking up a cross to follow Jesus might mean something to believers who have a wider context of the Christian faith to put them in.  Perhaps they might mean something.  I’ll come back to that in a minute.  But the idea of attracting the stranger with a church sign that said “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”?  I don’t think so.


The verse I did chose was from Jesus words at the end Matthew 11:


 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)

Anglicans of a certain vintage will remember that this verse forms part of the so-called Comfortable Words, found in the old Prayer Book service of Holy Communion.   These verses focus on the love and forgiveness of God and on the spiritual refreshment that we will find in the eucharist.

That verse seemed like an excellent invitation to come to chapel, so we went with it and in due course it appeared, in both official languages (this being the CF, after all) on the new sign.   I don’t know if the sign made the difference, but every now and then, as the chapel was usually unlocked, I would find a soldier quietly sitting in a pew, lost in thought or prayer.   These occasional visitors seemed to associate the chapel with a place of comfort and spiritual rest from their troubles, and I’m glad they did.

But here’s the paradox.   Church should be a place of shelter and comfort and rest, but it has to be more than that.   t should also be a place where we are made to feel uncomfortable.  Not physically uncomfortable, but challenged, pushed out of our comfort sone and complacency. If we think of our faith as the solution to our troubles, as the refuge we seek when the world is too much to bear, then how do we accept the Jesus who seems to want to add to our troubles?   How do we respond to the call of a Saviour who says “deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me” and how do we square that call with the same Saviour who we want to see as the solution to our problems?

Peter also seems to have that problem in our gospel reading.   Why does he get so upset when Jesus says that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed?  No no! he says. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you”.  Peter sees that Jesus is the Messiah, the Saviour sent by God, but he doesn’t understand how Jesus can do any good as Saviour if he gets himself killed.  Peter is probably still thinking of the Saviour as a conqueror who can free God’s people from Rome, just as Moses saved them from Egypt.  He hears Jesus’ prediction, and I think it sounds to him like a prediction of defeat.

But here’s what Peter misses.   Jesus not only predicts his death, but he also predicts his resurrection.  Jesus says that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Now we are still relatively early in Matthew when Jesus says this, and the disciples really don’t get it until after the resurrection, but we, the church, we who understand Easter, we should get it. 

 What we as the church should understand is that Jesus has already gone to the worst place possible, to suffering and death, and come out the other side, and he did it for us.  We may not understand how the cross and the empty tomb happened, exactly, but we know that through his death and resurrection Jesus has shown us that God responds to our suffering.   So we know the end of the story, and it’s a happy ending.    But that still leaves us to make sense of the “take up your cross and follow me” bit.  How do we do that?

One thing I read on this subject that was helpful was the suggestion that Jesus is speaking to us as the church rather than as individuals.   Think about who Jesus is speaking to … Peter.  In last Sunday’s gospel, from Matthew 16, Jesus called Peter “the rock … on which I will build my church” (Mt 16:18), and he promises that the church will endure every assault:  “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”.   It’s not that the church will not be tested.  Jesus never promises that church will escape hardship, but he does promise that the church will not be defeated, because the church is anchored in God’s promise and power, which we see in the resurrection.  

So if Jesus is speaking to Peter as the church, which means that Jesus is speaking to us, he does have some things to say about the church’s role in the world.   I want to suggest that Jesus challenges the church to take risks, to go beyond itself, to act for others rather than its own interests.   It’s a challenge, but it’s also a promise, because Jesus says that in self-sacrificial giving, the church will find life.  Let me give you two quick examples of what I mean.

First, if you read the latest Anglican Journal, you read about the hospital in Gaza that is supported by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem.   This hospital has been providing medical care and shelter to the people of Gaza since the latest war with Israel began.  I don’t think the staff there care if their patients are Anglican, or Christian, or Muslim.  The hospital has been working through the bombs and explosions, it’s been damaged, and now it needs help.  Working there isn’t a job got anyone.  You’d need medical skills, and language skills, and extraordinary courage and compassion, to work there.  But supporting the hospital, through the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, is something that every one of us can do as parishioners, as Anglicans, and as followers of Jesus.  What would it be like if we worried about helping these sorts of partners in our communion as much as we worried about our own parish bills and projects?

My second example has to do with the recent stories in the local paper about churches in Kitchener and Waterloo that have regretfully stopped their long involvement with the Out of the Cold program.  For various reasons, they are no longer able to contribute, but their announcements has sparked a new debate in KW about how our communities respond to needs around us.  When I was in parish ministry in the Ilderton area, some of my people participated in a similar program in London.  it was hard work, it took time and it took money, but I never saw anything else in my four years there do so much to give my parishioners purpose and meaning and a sense of being active followers of Jesus.    Kay and I have only been with you for a year now, but our sense is that a similar spirit of caring and ministry is here at St. Columba’s, and as Julia said recently, this coming year may be a time when God shows us some new phase in our ministry.

So, we come back to taking up crosses and following Jesus.  If we think of that call simply as personal hardship that we need to inflict on ourselves because, well, that’s what Christians do, we’re not supposed to have any fun, then it will be a terrible and unattractive idea.  But, if we think of ourselves as the church, built on the rock of God’s promise to Peter, guaranteed its survival by the resurrection of Jesus through the limitless power of God the Father, then what burden do we have to fear?   If we enter into the call today in the right spirit, we’ll find that the cross is an easy thing.  We’ll trade the heavy burdens of our selfish cares for the cross and find rest and new life and purpose, and that’s a good message to put on any church sign.


Friday, August 29, 2014

"He Transformed The Hut Into A Cathedral": A Chaplain Hero Of The Korean War

My brother the Mad Colonel passed on this video about Chaplain Emil Kapaun, a Roman Catholic priest and US Army chaplain who gave his life to serve and inspire his fellow prisoners in a Chinese prison camp during the Cold War.   A real treat to hear a recording of his voice in this video.  Father Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2013.[

Here’s an excerpt from the Medal of Honor citation, as posted on the US Army website here.

"Once inside the dismal prison camps, Kapaun risked his life by sneaking around the camp after dark, foraging for food, caring for the sick, and encouraging his fellow Soldiers to sustain their faith and their humanity. On at least one occasion, he was brutally punished for his disobedience, being forced to sit outside in subzero weather without any garments. When the Chinese instituted a mandatory re-education program, Kapaun patiently and politely rejected every theory put forth by the instructors. Later, Kapaun openly flouted his captors by conducting a sunrise service on Easter morning, 1951."

 It’s interesting how closely Kapaun’s story mirrors that of Padre John Foote, a Canadian Army chaplain captured at Dieppe in 1942.   Both men seemed to sense that the conditions of captivity called forth the greatest needs of soldiers for hope and spiritual comfort.   Foote was fortunate enough to come home, unlike Kapaun, but both are icons of service and corps pride to chaplains and padres today.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

An Anglican Haven In Florence

This piece appeared this week in the quarterly newsletter of the Anglican Military Ordinariate (aka Canadian Forces Anglican Chaplains).  Since I edit the AMO newsletter, this publication is no great distinction.  

Worship is a big part of tourism for me.  I like the experience of the different, but also enjoy the sense that the Anglican Communion gives me a spiritual home wherever I go.  In this case, it was a gracious and historic Anglican expat church in Firenze (Florence), Italy, a city which may be my new favourite place in the world. MP+

The last edition of this Newsletter featured an account of Ann Bourke’s visit to Camposanto Teutonic, the chapel of the Swiss Guards at the Vatican.   I would like to suggest another destination for any readers fortunate enough to visit Italy, St. Mark’s (The English Church), Florence.   


The English were once the most prominent foreign community in Florence, and St. Mark’s is the city’s second oldest Anglican church, founded as part of the Anglo-Catholic movement of the 19th century.    Today it continues to serve the expatriate community and all English-speaking visitors to Florence.   St. Mark’s is part of a chaplaincy of the Church of England in Tuscany that includes two other churches in Siena and Bologna, and is also home to an Old Catholic congregation.  


The current chaplain is LCol. (retd.) William Lister, a former British Army padre.  I asked Father Lister how his ministry in Tuscany compared to his experience as a military chaplain.  He told me that “Florence has been an enormous blessing. It is not dissimilar to military chaplaincy in many ways - it is a discrete, ex-pat community - largely from Commonwealth countries and many with a military background. It is very much a 'chaplaincy'. We are a 'gathered community' joined by any and all English-speakers who find themselves in  Tuscany/Emilia Romana (including both tourists and students).”




The church is located within a palazzo dating from the 16th century.  From the street, St. Mark’s is not especially noteworthy, but the interior is calm and serene.  The artwork is quite lovely, and much of it, as Fr. Lister told me, was contributed by the first members of the congregation, many of them leading figures in the 19th century’s Pre-Raphaelite movement.  Today St. Mark’s maintains a strong liturgical tradition and is a centre of the local arts scene, particularly music, opera, and painting.  




St. Mark’s has a strong connection with the military, in that the interior contains two stone memorials commemorating members of the British Army who fell during operations to break the German Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign.   Many of these men are buried just outside Florence in the Commonwealth Cemetery at Girone, including over 30 Canadians.  Our own Padre Don Aitchison, chaplain to Toronto’s 48th Highlanders, tells me that he will likely be travelling to St. Mark’s later this year along with the 48th’s Honourary Colonel and other members to dedicate a memorial to the regiment’s fallen.   That dedication is planned for All Soul’s Day, and Padre Aitchison has promised an account of that trip for a subsequent AMO newsletter.


St. Mark’s maintains a number of apartments for short and long-term visitors, which would make an ideal base camp for a visit to Florence.  Details may be found on the church website.  St. Mark’s also features in Love and War, a new novel by the British author, Alex Preston, published by Faber.  Fr. Lister tells me that the novel’s hero is an Anglican priest and secret agent, which makes this sound like an irresistible read for the remainder of the summer, even if the Telegraph didn’t particularly like it..

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week


This image, courtesy of the UK MOD, is of 'Vera', a seventy year old aircraft and one of two surviving Avro Lancasters from World War Two, on her way to landing at RAF Conningsby.  Vera’s home is the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum just outside Hamilton, Ontario.  Vera is being teamed up with Thumper, the Lancaster from the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, for a series of events.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Book Review: A Point Of Balance: The Weight And Measure Of Anglicanism

This book review appeared in the Summer edition of the quarterly journal (well, newsletter, really) of the Canadian Armed Forces Anglican Military Ordinariate , the body of Anglican chaplains in the CAF.   The newsletter is pretty rubbish and prints any old thing (I can say that, I’m the editor).  MP+




A Point of Balance: The Weight and Measure of Anglicanism

Ed. Martyn Percy and Robert Bork Slocum, Moorhouse, 2013




Anyone who has served with the RCAF will likely know the adage about the venerable Sea King helicopter, that it is not one aircraft but rather “several thousand parts flying in close formation”.  Much the same thing has been said about Anglicanism.   In one of the first in this collection of essays, Martyn Percy tells a story about the Anglican theologian Henry Scott Holland who, while watching a flock of starlings flying over Cuddeson College, “remarked how like the Anglican Church they were.   Nothing, it seemed, kept the flock together - and yet the birds moved as one, even though they were all apart and retained their individual identity” (20).


This slim book of essays, part of the Canterbury Studies in Anglicanism series, is accessible and challenging.  The book’s contributors are British and American clergy and faculty, and all of them ask essentially the same question, namely, what keeps the constituent parts of Anglicanism flying in close formation?  This question is especially urgent since, as Percy notes, much has changed in the century since Holland watched the starlings over Cuddesdon.  Today the “flock” of Anglicanism contains birds of more than one type.  “Evolution - through cultural and theological diversity - has meant that many Anglican provinces have evolved to ‘fit’ their contexts, and the ultimate diversity of the species clearly threatens its unity” (20).


An example of this diversity is found in A. Katherine Grieb’s essay on scripture.   She notes that scripture, long seen as the “glue” of Anglicanism, is read and understood differently throughout the Communion.   Ugandan Anglicans, who largely practise a very pentecostal version of Christianity, hear the bible within the African oral tradition as “a deposit of authoritative and ‘universally’ recognized African like sayings”  and through the filter of the African Eastern Revival (32).  Thus a text like Deuteronomy 28:22a,27-28 is heard by many as a description of AIDS as a divine punishment for sin.    There are thus profound hermeneutical differences separating Anglicans in Uganda and other African countries from their counterparts in the first world.   Hermeneutics as well as Uganda’s church history and post colonialism thus drive many Ugandan Anglican’s understanding of sexual ethics.  Grieb suggests that process of “scriptural reasoning”, first adopted by scholars of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, might be a way forward and away from further fracturing of the Communion along North/South lines.  The principles of scriptural reasoning include a respect for the sacredness of the other’s texts, a recognition of differences, and a shared sense of hospitality and “God’s purpose of peace among all” (40).


In a similar vein, Tom Hughson proposes a rethinking of mission as “receptive ecumenism” in which Anglican churches in the North find ways to listen to those churches in the South which hear the gospel amidst suffering rather than affluence, and thus act as bridge, helping a post-Christendom North to understand the South and to hear the gospel anew.  Other writers explore reconciliation as spirituality (Philip Sheldrake), and koinonia as a gift of the Spirit (Robert D. Hughes).  In a section on praxis, Simon Taylor reflects on the changing nature of the parish in the contemporary Church of England, and Paula Nesbitt offers hard data on clerical and lay ministry and suggestions on how ministry models might adapt to the needs of the contemporary church.


All of these essays are undergirded by a faith in what one scholar has called the “collective mind” of the church, and a belief that the Spirit “leads the Church into further penetration of the Truth” which will become apparent over time.  This process of leading is not rapid or easy, and the authors all recommend the virtues of patience, hospitality, and attentive listening to one another as our best resources and hope in this difficult and confusing time.  All the book’s contributors agree that our unity is desirable, indeed, commanded of us, and that no Anglican should say to another, “I have no need of you”.  In the words of Robert Runcie, as quoted by Percy, “Politeness, integrity, restraint, diplomacy, patience, a willingness to listen, and above all, not to be ill-mannered - these are the things that enable the Anglican Communion to cohere”. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Seen On The Run

Taken around 07:30 along the Grand River, Kitchener, ON, using the camera from my iPhone.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Blessing And A Limp: A Sermon

Preached at St. Columba’s Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario.   Readings for Sunday, 3 August, the 8th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 13A)

Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17:1-7, 16; Romans 9:15; Matthew 14: 13-21

Sometimes the best gift you can give a fellow clergy person is the gift of time.  My rector was just getting back from a month off this weekend and it seemed right to let her rest a bit longer and let me preach, for which, since I don’t preach much these days, I was grateful.   The genesis (pardon the pun) for this sermon came from something said by the participants in this week’s excellent Sermon Brainwave podcast.  I’d be lost without those guys to spark ideas. MP+

Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. (Gen 32:29-31)

 A blessing and a limp.   What an odd combination.  Sometimes the early books of the Old Testament seem as strange to me as anything out of any myth or fairytale.    The stories can seem odd and mysterious, and while we listen to them reverently in church, we struggle to make sense of them and wonder how they are relevant to our lives.  Today I would like to focus on our first lesson, and I am going to suggest that the combination of blessing and limp are keys to understanding how this reading helps us understand what makes us distinct as God’s people and followers of Jesus.

In today’s reading from Genesis, Jacob is nervously waiting to hear whether his brother Esau has forgiven him for cheating him out of his birthright.    Jacob has sent his family and goods ahead of him in hopes of getting Esau to calm down, and is anxiously waiting for news.   During the night a mysterious man appears, and the two wrestle each other.  We aren’t told why they struggle or who started it.   Jacob clings to the man, even after the stranger injures his hip, and then, with the dawn coming fast, the stranger begs Jacob to let go.  

That detail about the stranger wanting to escape before the dawn is curious, isn’t it?  In folktales and myths the night is often a time of magic and enchantment that has to end at sunrise.  Likewise, in many myths, names can be magical and powerful.  Knowing someone’s true name often gives others power over them.   The stranger refuses to give Jacob his name, but gives him a blessing.   He also gives Jacob a new name, Israel, “for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”.  And then the sun has risen and the stranger has gone, leaving Jacob with a limp, a new name, and a role to play in the creation of God’s distinct people, Israel.

So what’s going on here?   Who is the mysterious stranger?  Why does Jacob wrestle with him?  Why does Jacob get both a limp AND a blessing?   And what does this story have to do with us?   

Those are a lot of questions to throw out in a short summer sermon, but let’s take a few minutes to try and think through them.

We don’t know exactly who the stranger is, but it seems that he has some relationship to God.  Genesis 28 tells of how Jacob slept along in another lonely place and dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.  This story, which also happens at night in a lonely place, reminds us of that dream and suggests that the wrestling stranger may be an angel.  He certainly seems connected with God in some way, since he gives Jacob a blessing in return for his freedom, and Jacob, as the sun rises, concludes that somehow that night he has “seen God face to face”.  So why, if the stranger is an angel, or even God himself, does Jacob end with a blessing AND a limp?  That seems like an unattractive package.   I for one wold be happy just to have the blessing.

But what if Jacob’s limp is a key to understanding this story?  What if the story of Jacob at Penniel is about what happens when we encounter God? And what if the story is about how the encounter with God marks us in some distinct and permanent way?

All of us at some point have sought God for a blessing.   It certainly happened at our baptism, or when we brought our children or grandchildren for baptism.  It happened when we came before God with our loved one to see God’s blessing in marriage.   Perhaps the encounter wasn’t a pleasant one, but was more like Jacob’s wrestling match, when we struggled with God in some dark night of the soul, in a hospital or a tragedy or a suddenly empty home, when God seemed distant, or more like an enemy than a comforter, and we grappled with God praying that tragedy might turn into blessing.  And maybe that blessing happened, or like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemanee, we grappled with God in hard and anxious prayer only to learn that God’s will would lead us down another, unwelcome, path.  

We are like Jacob in that we seek God, we ask for the blessing, sometimes even struggle for it, but we are also like Jacob in that our relationship with God marks us and changes us.   We are not marked in the sense that we are physically injured and have to limp but we are changed, and in the eyes of the secular world, sometimes our Christian identity can look like a handicap.

Take our baptism.  We are literally marked, in water and oil, with the sign of the cross, and as we grow older and grow in the faith we come to realize that baptism changes us.   We learn that we are called to stand with God in the world, to renounce Satan, the “evil powers of this world” and “all sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God”.  You may not walk with a limp after renewing the baptismal covenant every time you stand in the congregation and welcome the newly baptized, but you marked by these words.  The baptismal covenant might be seen by some as a handicap, since it limits one’s ability to follow our culture and find freedom, identity and self-realization in things like the pursuit of wealth and sexual expression, but to Christians the baptismal covenant is a definition of our spiritual freedom as Christians (see St. Paul, Romans 8:21).

Take our worship.   Not only do we give up pleasant Sunday mornings to sit in church, but we hear things in our readings and lessons that mark us and change us.   Our gospel reading today, Matthew’s account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, marked us and changed us.  The disciples look at the hungry crowds and say to Jesus “send them away”.  Jesus doesn’t let the disciples off so easily:  “you give them something to eat”, he tells them (Matt 14:16).   One of the lessons of this story is that the compassion Jesus feels for the crowds translates into responsibility for his followers.  Gospel readings such as this one have a cumulative effect in shaping us as Christians.  They teach us that others, strangers we might prefer not to know, have a claim on our time, our money, and our compassion.  As Christians, we are meant to grow into what Paul calls the maturity and the fullness of “the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Some might call that a handicap.  We disciples would call that freedom.

Being a disciple of Christ means that we are, or should be, marked out and made visible in the world.  Sometimes that marking is self-sacrificial, and seems more like sharing the wounds of Christ than it seems like a blessing.  Take the Christian community in parts of Iraq today, whose homes are marked by Islamist groups with the Arabic symbol “nun”, the first letter of the word Nazarene or Christian.  That marking, that graffiti that comes in the night, means a choice between hasty flight, death, or renouncing the faith.   Or I think of two Americans who are marked by their discipleship by a horrible illness.  Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol are two medical missionaries, with Samaritan’s Purse, who contracted the terrible disease Ebola while working with patients in Western Africa.  They knew the risks, but I am guessing that they went to practice medicine in Africa because they follow a Saviour who took the hand of lepers and other outcast.   Again we ask, is this marking, as the doctors become the sick in an isolation ward, a handicap, something to be pitied, or is it freedom?  I can’t help but compare these two medical missionaries with the Australian couple who recently went to Thailand, where the surrogate mother they had hired had just given birth to twins.  The couple returned with one healthy baby, and abandoned the other, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. Was that choice an expression of freedom, or was it pitiful and wrong?  We would hope that no persons of faith would act like that Australian couple. 

The story of Jacob and the stranger in the night remains mysterious to me.   I can’t explain all of it, but I think that the keys to the story are the blessing and the limp.   I think they remind us of our own calling to follow God, to draw close to him and even struggle with him.   The story of Jacob reminds us that faith is a risky business.    Discipleship shouldn’t leave us unchanged.  When we draw near to Jesus, even grapple and struggle with him as he calls us to leave our old selves and old ways, to take up our cross and follow him,  we can be struck in all sorts of unexpected ways.   We can find ourselves walking differently, talking differently, living differently.  We aren’t the same.  To some, who see only the limp, this might be a thing to be feared or pitied.   But for us, we who follow the Saviour who walks on pierced feet, we know we are walking in the right direction, even if we are walking differently than we did before.




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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