Sunday, March 26, 2017

British Para Padre's Thought For Today

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Thirst and Good Water: A Sermon On John 4 For The Third Sunday of Lent

Preached at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, The Third Sunday of Lent,  19 March, 2017
Lectionary Readings:  Exodus 17:17, Psalm 95, Romans 5: 1-11, John 4:5-42

but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ (Jn 4:14)

A few years ago I was incredibly thirsty.   I was on the third day of military adventure training on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains.  Our goal was to climb three mountains in three days.  It was an amazing experience, but the last day was the hardest, because coming down the third mountain, I ran out of water.  

It was summer, and up there on the mountainside, the sun seemed close enough to touch as it burned in a brilliant blue sky.  I had one of those camelbacks, a bladder of water, about two litres, that you wear on your back and such through a tube.   With the exertion, the summer heat, and the constant wind drying my face and mouth, I got really thirsty, and half way down the mountain my water was gone.  

I will never forget those last few hours, stumbling down the mountain, my throat and tongue as dry as old rocks, my legs dragging, and my sight starting to blur at the edges.  If I had found a nasty puddle or some stagnant pond, I would have fallen face down and drunk my fill, but fortunately I made it to the parking lot at the base of the mountain, where we had water in the van.  But oh, I pray I am never that thirsty again.

Imagine now a traveller sitting beside a well under the Middle Eastern sun, at the hottest part of the day.  He is thirsty, he knows there is water down there in the well, but he has no pail.  Then a shape comes between him and the sun, a woman come to the well at noon, when you would least expect someone to come to draw water, and she is looking down at the traveller curiously, for he is out of place here, in her land.  And so begins one of the longest and most wonderful conversations in all of scripture.

There are so many ways we could look at this rich passage.  Many preachers focus on its inclusivity, noting how Jesus shows no interest in the traditional barriers of his day – man/woman, Jew/Samaritan – that would normally prevent such a conversation from ever starting.   Others focus on the Samaritan woman herself, noting her keen intelligence, her willingness to talk theology with Jesus, and her role as an evangelist when she goes off to tell her village about Jesus.   Both approaches would note that John’s Jesus does not appear willing to go along with the traditional female stereotypes of his day.

While these are two ways of helping understand this conversation, I am interested (as my opening story suggests) in how John uses the ideas of water and thirst.  Like Jesus talking to Nicodemus about being born again (John 3:1-17), as we heard in last week’s gospel, this is a conversation that works on several levels.  Jesus and the Samaritan woman are talking about physical water and physical thirst (“Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’” Jn 4.7) but it is also about something far more – spiritual thirst?  Spiritual renewal?  Baptism?  Eternal life?   Let’s try to sort out these images and see where John is going with them.

Like the conversation with Nicodemus, however, this conversation starts to go to unexpected places.  When the woman marvels that a Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, Jesus replies that she would be better off asking him for water.  

10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’  

In his reply, Jesus hints at two things, the first being his identity as something far more than just a random, wandering Jew, and the second being that he, as the Messiah, might actually be the cure for her thirst, by offering her something better than the well water.

Living water’ in Jesus’ day meant water that moved, as opposed to the still water one finds in a well or cistern.  The advantage of moving water, of course, is that it is fresh and not stagnant.  My first parish was in the country, and there was an underground spring near the church that had been bubbling away since at least pioneer days.  There was always a tin cup beside the spring, an invitation to the passerby to stop and drink, and on a summer’s day the water was clear, cold, and delicious.   This spring and cup, beside a church, seemed like a perfect metaphor for what church should be, a place of refreshment and life for the weary and thirsty.

We can imagine  the Samaritan woman now, looking sceptically at this stranger.  “Seriously, random thirsty Jewish guy?   You’re offering me water now, and living water?  Where are you hiding that, huh?”  Jesus’ reply takes the conversation further from the literal to the symbolic.

Once again the conversation moves a step further away from the literal to the symbolic.  

13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’
This answer leads the Samaritan woman into a series of questions and a dawning realization that this stranger might me be more than he says he is.   As she tells her neighbours,  he just might be even be the Messiah (Jn 4.29).  For us, as followers of Jesus, knowing who he is, our questions might be different, in that we might ask ourselves, ‘what exactly is this water that Jesus speaks of?  Is it a symbol of something else?  How are we supposed to understand it?’   Or, perhaps, our question is exactly the same as that of the Samaritan woman:  ‘Ooooh, that water sounds good.  Where can I get some?’

I don’t actually think we have to decide exactly what the water is.   I think what’s important, as other scholars have noted, is that the water is a gift from Jesus, it belongs to him and he is willing to give it to us.   It’s also important for us to note that, whatever the gift is that Jesus is offering us, it has something to do with eternal life.  We also note that this gift of water of eternal life is better than anything else we might have or want.

By this time in the conversation, it’s fascinating to note that the actual, physical well has ceased to matter.  No one is interested in it anymore.  In fact, the Samaritan woman leaves her water jar at the well because it’s now more important to go tell her neighbours about Jesus (Jn 4.29).  Instead, she has chosen what Jesus has to offer, even if she doesn’t quite understand it, and I wonder if the same is true of us.

In his commentary on this passage, the Anglican theologian and scholar N.T. Wright simply notes that the opposite of living water is stagnant water.  Stagnant water can have mud and crud and critters floating in it.  On my way down that mountainside, as I said earlier, I might have been content to fall down beside a puddle of stagnant water and drink from it, but it would have been only from desperation.   Wright is suggesting that far too often people settle for stagnant water because that’s all we get.   We take temporary fixes, compromises, half truths, and sometimes we even fall into destructive substitutes for our true needs.   Our souls cry out for something true, something life giving, for love and forgiveness and acceptance, and we find instead lies and addictions and an empty, hollow craving that comes back all too soon.

This is the appeal of Jesus, because he offers us living water, he can fill our souls and lives in ways that the world can’t.

Time permits me from talking about the conclusion of this passage and Jesus famous remark about how 'the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4.35), which people (rightly, I think) take to be a reference to evangelism.  So let me close be making the following suggestions.   

Most of us, perhaps not all, but most of us, are here because at some point in our life’s journey our souls got really thirsty and we wanted the living water that Jesus can offer.  Can each of us, in our own words, in our own way, find a way to put into words what that thirst, what that spiritual need, was for us?  What made you decide that you needed what Jesus was offering?  Just think that question through so that you can find some way of explaining it, in the event that you are in a conversation where you can naturally speak about why your faith makes a difference in your life.   We Anglicans don't do evangelism easily, but I think we all have opportunities with friends, family, and acquaintances, to speak about why our faith is real and life-giving to us, and our words may well fall on thirsty ears.

Next, ask yourself what it would be like for St. Margaret’s to be known as a place of living water, where people who had been desperately thirsty had found what they needed to stay alive?  In our bible study of Revelation on Wednesday night, we were looking at Chapter 2, the letters to the seven churches, and Father Simon asked us to imagine what sort of letter Jesus would write to St. Margaret’s.   For my part, I would want Jesus to write that he was pleased that we weren’t a church of stagnant water, where people went through the motions while they were spiritually dying of thirst.  Instead, I would want Jesus to say that St. Margaret’s was a place of living water, where people had said yes to the gift of eternal life that Jesus offers, and wanted to share that love, that forgiveness, renewal, with others.  

Once we know we have found that living water, then, like the Samaritan woman, we will want to run and tell our neighbours, because chances are the neighbours are as thirsty as we were, and are looking for good water.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Chariots of the Hepta-Gods: Thoughts on Arrival, Aliens, and Theology

(Warning: some spoilers follow).

In so much as I followed this year's Academy Awards, I was curious about the fate of the one contending film I have seen so far, Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve.  I suppose best sound editing is a significant accomplishment, and honestly I wasn't expecting more of an ambitious and clever SF film made in the tradition of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE3K).

Arrival is a clever, poetic film about complex issues such as human proclivity for irrational action and the very rational challenge of communication outside of any known linguistic framework with a very alien intelligence.  No wonder it didn't win more Oscars.

There are very clever reviews of the film, such as this one, which say more than I ever could.   I will simply offer one thought, which occurred to me long after I saw the film but was still processing it, which was this.  What a shame that we learn nothing about what the aliens believe.

Within the SF First Contact trope, there are two basic premises.  The first is that the aliens are hostile (think Independence Day, War of the Worlds, The Thing, Mars Attacks, and so on).  In this premise, it doesn't matter what the aliens believe.  The aliens are usually implacably hostile and it's us or them (the TV series Falling Skies might be included here, though the motives of the aliens, while hostile, are open to question).

The second premise is that the aliens are benign super-beings who offer humanity the possibility of rescue from our own fatal errors and ways (think Contact, CE3K, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Childhood's End).  In this premise, the challenge for humanity is to rise above our fears and ignorance and be open to the redemption that the aliens offer through their superior philosophy and technology.

In Arrival, the aliens, referred to as Heptapods, clearly fall into the second category.  Despite their totally alien appearance and their articulate tentacles, the heptapods arrival to a shocked Earth is
profoundly enigmatic.  What do they want? is the organizing premise of the film, and we slowly
learn, thanks to the efforts of a scientist and an astrophysicist, that they have something to offer us, technologically backward and benighted as we humans are.  What unfolds in Arrival is something decidedly like the theological idea of grace as an undeserved gift.

The Christian in me can't help but see this second kind of First Contact film as a kind of modern, secular retelling of the parousia, or the Second Coming of Christ, though the original Greek meaning of the parousia as the visit of a king or emperor may be more apt.  In Christian thought, as expressed most clearly in the Book of Revelation, Christ returns to Earth to judge the world, end sin, overthrow God's enemies, reward the faithful,  and usher in a new and unending reign of his Father's rule.  These ideas are grouped in the subset of Christian theology known as eschatology.

Eschatology for many Christians is something of an orphaned child of Lady Theology these days.  Mainstream Christians (like most of my fellow Anglicans) have largely yielded it to the custody of evangelical Protestantism, which looks anxiously for signs of the end times, and prefer instead to focus on the Kingdom of God in the here and now of life in the incarnational presence of the Son of God.   Indeed, as Church of England theologian Ian Paul notes, many Christians are decidedly uncomfortable with eschatology altogether.

I can see why.  Talk about the Second Coming is awkward around non-believers, because it feels profoundly coercive:  use what little time you may have left to get right with God before the Big Day.  Indeed, the whole notion that God will return and usher in an eternal age of His reign strikes at the very heart of liberalism: choice.  What if I don't want to live in the New Jerusalem?  What if I don't believe that God has any right to judge me?  What if I would rather the world doesn't end, so I can see my grandkids and work on my bucket list?

For these reasons, I suspect that the Good Aliens Come to Earth trope functions as a kind of secular substitute for the parousia.   The heptapods of Arrival hang over the Earth but do not announce their plan for humanity.  They offer possibility but not judgement.  They make no demands except that we be smart and figure it out, if we can.   Whatever redemption they offer is one of our choice and making. 

While Arrival feels like a parousia for our times, it is not a didactically secular version of this trope.  For that, see A.C. Clarke's 1953 novel Childhood's End, in which the arrival of the benign aliens, the Overlords, ends religion and superstition and ushers in a new stage in human evolution.   Denis Villeneuve, on the contrary, invests Arrival with a decidedly mystical air.  The heptapods seem to be free of linear time as humans experience it, which for me evokes the Christian eschatological idea of Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who breaks into human time.

In their interactions with Louise, the linguist played by Amy Adams, they allow her to see her daughter, whose birth, life and death do not seem to have yet happened, and whose communications with Louise provide significant moments of insight and advance in understanding the heptapods.  

In suggesting that there is some non-linear existence which intersects with our own condition, trapped on the one-way track of human time, Villeneuve teases us with the notion that there may be more to life, death, and life after death.  At the same time the heptapods, so inscrutable, can display the grace of forgiveness, even up to the death of one of their own.  

None of which is to suggest is that the heptapods are gods, for all that they sometimes seem godlike.  Their sudden departure leaves us scarcely fewer questions, and, perhaps, even with more.   For my part, I would have liked to have known if the heptapods have the same questions as we do.  Are we created, and if so, why, and for what?  What is our purpose?

 In the warm, generous and unafraid character of Louise, and her decision to embrace that the life that the heptapods have partially revealed to her, we may see shards of answers to those questions.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Faith At The Fort: Garrison Religion In Toronto In The 1800s

It's been very quiet here since Christmas.   In my spare time, when not working or helping my wife's battle with cancer, I've been focusing on my hobbies, which are described in my other blog here.  

However, I did write a piece in December at the invitation of the Friends of Fort York, which preserve the historic war of 1812-era British fortification in Toronto. 

Pedestrian entrance to Fort York off of Bathurst Street.  The Gardiner Expressway, visible to the left, and the condo towers in the background, show how Toronto has grown since the early 1800s and how the lakeshore has been pushed back.  In its heyday, Fort York lay on the shore of Lake Ontario.

Given my slight expertise in military religious history, I was asked to write a piece on religion at the fort in the 1800s, a difficult subject given that so much of lived religion (actual beliefs and practices) is not nearly as well documented as is official religion (formal church history).

Members of a Royal Artillery battery at Fort York in the mid 1800s.  What did they actually believe?

While not an extensive piece of original research, I did get to look at some of the Toronto diocesan archives which show births, baptisms, weddings and funerals at the Fort, as well as some other original source material.

Baptismal register showing christenings of children born to military families of the British Army's 68th Regiment in 1828, and signed by the acting garrison chaplain.

It is impossible to generalize about lived religious life on the basis of the documents available to us.  While the British redcoat had a reputation as being foul-mouthed, drunken and irreverent.  While this may be true then as now of some soldiers, this stereotype ignores the influence of Methodism, missionary movements and Christian welfare organizations that actively reached out to British soldiers throughout the empire.  The stereotype also ignores the role of religion in the lives of Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and various non-conformers whose spiritual needs were not met by official military chaplains, who were almost entirely Anglican.   It is also impossible to generalize as to how official religion -- the round of church parades, weddings, christenings and funerals -- was received by soldiers.  To some, official religion may have been an irritant, but to others it may have been a reassuring if seldom thought of part of life.

 My conclusion in the article is thus that "While the average soldier may have been more comfortable in a tavern than on church parade, he may also have been more devout than is commonly supposed."

The article begins on page 3 here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Military Goats Update

It's been ages since we at Mad Padre paid homage to the noble military goat, so here, because it's Friday, is William Orpen's 1917 painting, "The Mascot of the Coldstream Guards".

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Perfect Enough?" A Sermon on Matthew 5: 38-48

For various reasons, this blog has taken a back seat to my fun hobby blogging, which I seem to have more energy for.  However, each time a batch of new students comes through the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain School, one of them invariably asks me if I am THE Mad Padre, which is about as close to celebrity status as I am likely to come.

In that spirit of mixed guilt and vainglory, here is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday, 19 Feb,  at St. Margaret's of Scotland Anglican Church in Barrie.  St. Margaret's is one of the healthiest Anglican parishes I've seen in a long while, not without its challenges but it has a shot at a long and bright future, in large part due to an excellent priest, Fr. Simon Bell.   Simon+ has been kind enough to let me preach and preside on occasion.

I'm struck by how much of my preaching these days seems to involve some sort of ecclesiology, as if I am trying to work out and defend the importance of church and of worship.  These days, I think this may be one of the preacher's most important tasks.  MP+

A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Epiphany
Lectionary;  Leviticus 19: 1-2,9-18; Psalm 119: 33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)

Perfect can sometimes be an awkward, even threatening, word.  It’s ok in casual use, when we might use “perfect” in a limited way to describe good things that are out of the ordinary.  A  sports announced might say that pitcher might throw a perfect fastball to make the third out with the bases loaded.   A winter vacation on a tropical beach might be the perfect holiday.  The first time you see a newborn grandchild, you might say that the infant is perfect, even though you know that the infant may grow up to be loved despite the flaws.  

However, when the word perfect is loaded onto our shoulders, then it can be an awkward, even heavy burden.   When an employer tells us to do a perfect job on an important task, we might well feel anxious.  Despite the expectations of out culture, we know that we probably won’t give our children the perfect child, or our loved one the perfect marriage.   Most of us, unless one is a narcissist who somehow became President of the United States, have a very firm grasp of our imperfections.

It may have discomforted you, even alarmed you, to have heard this morning in our scripture readings that God wants us to be perfect.  In our Gospel reading from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus tell us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).  By the time you heard those words, you may well have been digesting our first reading from Leviticus, when God tells Moses to let the people of Israel know that “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev  17).   If you weren’t taken aback by that line, perhaps you were a bit rattled by Paul’s statement in our second lesson that  For “God's temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor  3:16).

So some of us may be feeling inadequate, even alarmed by the expectations we hear from scripture this morning.   If I can’t promise my boss or my supervisor that I will be perfect, that I will flawlessly fulfil their expectations of me, how on earth could I assure God that I will be perfect?  Aren’t we sinners?  Isn’t that why we say the prayer of confession together each Sunday?  Don’t we depend on the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to take away our sins?  

So how we can be perfect?

If that question bothers you, I would say two things.  First, relax, because you’re not as bad as you think.   I mean, you’re here, aren’t you?  You’re the people of God, chosen by God for adoption into his family, called to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself.  I’m not an expert on St. Margaret’s, but I think I can safely say, after six months of studying you, that you seem to grasp these things pretty well.   In the time that we’ve been here, your care and love for one another has been pretty evident.  You’ve shown that to us since Kay got sick.  You take being church seriously.  You chose a thoughtful and committed pastor to lead you, and you listen to him.   You welcomed the people of St. Giles with compassion and respect to their past and to their traditions.  You welcome newcomers each Sunday.   Your not afraid to pray for others or to share what God is doing in your lives in ways that some Anglicans would be too reserved to do.  

So you do church pretty well.  You’re not perfect, so don’t get too relaxed and all complacent, but you’re not bad.

The second thing I would say to you, and this is far more important, is that it’s not up to you to be perfect.   You can’t get there by yourself.  That’s God’s job.  That’s why he chose you and called you to be here.  God has done a wonderful thing in creating and shaping all of us and getting us this far in life, but he’s not done yet.  In our reading of Matthew’s gospel, the last line uses the word “perfect” (5:48), but the word in Greek, teleioi, can also mean complete.  (I owe this insight to the Working Preacher podcast for this Sunday, found here).

Speaking personally, I find that while I have my doubts that I can be perfect, I want to be complete.   I want to be, fully and wonderfully, the person that God created, in God’s likeness.  I want to be rid of the things that hold me back, the things that sometimes make me feel empty inside, so I can be complete, the way God wants me to be.   I suspect that I’m not the only one here who wants to be complete.  And I think, really, that’s why we come to church, because it gives us a vision of the world as we want it to be.

Think of today’s gospel reading, not as a list of impossible demands, but as a vision of God’s kingdom, complete and fully realized on earth.  It’s a kingdom where need is met with generosity, without conditions or resentment.    It’s a kingdom where cycles of violence and hatred are broken by love and reconciliation.  It’s a kingdom which does not depend for its existence on threatening enemies, but sees enemies as worthy of prayers rather than of hatred.  It’s a kingdom where love and relationships aren’t confined to small in-groups and cliques, but where love and relationship are offered to strangers and outsiders.  Is that kingdom realistic?  Perhaps not by earthly standards.  But wouldn’t you want to be a part of it?

Now think of church as a place where we do things that aren’t realistic by earthly standards.  We shake the hands of strangers and wish them well.  We practice being kind and gracious speech in the words of the liturgy (the lord be with you … and also with you).  We meet people we might never otherwise associate with, eat with them, pray with them, together confess our need for and dependance on God.  We honour all the generations, old and young.  We welcome the poor, the rich, the fit and the frail, the banker and the street person.   We give our hard-earned money to a cause that some would consider totally ridiculous.  We form a community that has value solely because we see the face of Christ in one another.  We are a community that is open to Christ’s work in us and amidst us, because we know that only in our dependance on Christ will we be complete.

These things that we do, Sunday by Sunday, show us what the kingdom of God looks like.  They show us what being perfect in Christ, being complete in Christ, looks like.   If we do these things with enough frequency, care, and attention, then they become automatic, a way of life that goes with us into the world for the rest of the week.  This is how we, and the world around us, grow and become more perfect, more complete, as God intended us to be.

This morning I used the building blocks to show the children what Paul meant about building our foundation on Christ, the one sure thing.  I can’t think of a better image going forward to our vestry meeting next week, or a better vision of what this parish is and needs to be, a community built on the sure foundation of Christ, who makes us perfect, and who makes us complete.   

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Empty Creche: A Sermon For The First Sunday After Christmas

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, 1 January 2017, the First Sunday After Christmas.


13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

Matthew 2: 13-23


I haven’t met anyone yet who will be sorry that the 2016 is behind us.  By general consensus, it’s been a brutal year.  All the celebrities dying was sad, to be sure, but the real horrors of the year were cities flattened by ruthless and indiscriminate bombing, dictators killing their people, unwanted refugees shivering on borders and drowning at sea, the rise of hatred and bigotry on the internet and in elections, and countless terrorist attacks across the world.   


If there was one image that seemed to be especially shocking, at least for a few days, it was the tourists and shoppers mown down in a Christmas market in Berlin by a terrorist in a truck.   A European style Christmas market is a magical place, with its handcrafted gifts,  music and carols, bright lights, fragrant smells and hot drinks to guard against the cold night.   To imagine that scene moments later, the screams and sirens loud among the smashed stalls and broken bodies, is almost too terrible to contemplate.


I think we feel the same horror as we contemplate today’s gospel reading from Matthew.  The little town of Bethlehem, which we imagine from countless Christmas cards, is violated and profaned.   The silent streets echo with the tromping boots of Herod’s soldiers and the screams of mothers as the killers go from house to house.  The wise men have hastily left town, the angels are silent, the skies are dark again, and the the holy family are on the road as refugees, fleeing for their lives.  It’s as if Matthew had no interest in allowing us to linger in the peace and magic of the nativity, but wanted to throw us back into the pain of real life as quickly as he could.


The transition from Christmas to this Sunday is a movement from heavenly vision to earthly violence, from miracle to madness.  The change of tone can indeed shock us, the faithful who know these stories, but I think it’s more shocking to those who lack perspective because they don’t know the gospel story.   This morning I want to suggest that our reading from Matthew today helps us to understand Christmas as part of God’s larger story. 


You see, if we allow ourselves to think of Christmas as just a kind of magic sanctuary, a kind of peaceful winter wonderland that we can go to get away from it all, then I think we will be especially vulnerable and disappointed when Christmas ends and real life reasserts itself.  If we don’t connect Christmas with the world of Herod then and ISIS now, a world where innocents are still routinely slaughtered, then we aren’t helping ourselves or others to see why we need the Christian faith in this world. 


So how does today’s reading from Matthew help us connect Christmas with the world and with the larger Christian story?  Let’s go back to the gospel reading and look at what God is doing here.   God is an active, protective and determined presence throughout the story.   When we pick up the story the Magi have just left, warned by God not to visit Herod on their way home.  Next, Joseph is warned to flee into the night and to take the family to a very specific place - Egypt.

Why Egypt, we may ask ourselves?  Presumably Egypt is far away, outside of Herod’s reach.   That makes sense, but we also remember that Jews have lived in Egypt before, in slavery, and that an Egyptian pharaoh tried to murder all the Jewish first born males, as Herod tries to do in Bethlehem.    That connection links Herod with Pharaoh as earthly kings and tyrants who are hostile to God.  The connection also reminds us that the Jews were led out of Egypt by one who God picked to save them, Moses.   Jesus’ connection to Egypt as a kind of second Moses is very important to Matthew, because it establishes Jesus’ connections as a saviour and leader, a kind of second or greater Moses who will come to save his people.


Matthew goes on to describes how Herod is replaced by another tyrant, Archelaus, which causes God to intervene again and warn Joseph to find a quiet spot, Nazareth, to lay low and raise his family.  I suppose there are two ways of reacting here.  One is to notice how worldly power keeps throwing up these powerful and dangerous kings, and how it keeps going on, so that Archelaus is followed by another Herod, and Pilate, but in a story that began with the Roman emperor ordering a census so that all the world may be taxed, Matthew has taught us a lot about how earthly power works.  At the same time, Matthew has shown us how God’s power is different and persistent, working in quiet ways to resist and outlast the petty tyrants of the earth.   The confrontation between Jesus and Pilate in John’s gospel, and Pilate’s troubled question “Are you a king?”, has its roots in Matthew’s version of the nativity story.   Matthew is reminding us that followers of Jesus are subjects of a different kind of kingdom, and that we need to be wary of the claims of earthly rulers and would be rulers, whether they live in Herod’s palace or Trump Tower.


Finally, as we hear today’s gospel, we hear over and over again how the birth of Jesus is the fulfilling of prophecy.  In our reading today there are no less than four references to prophecies being fulfilled.  We may think this is a bit of overkill, that Matthew is working too hard to establish Jesus’ credentials as Messiah, but think about what Matthew is saying here.  For Matthew, God plays the long game.  God has a plan for salvation, God is determined to bring as many out of the petty, dark kingdoms of humanity to his son’s kingdom of light.   Like a jujitsu fighter, using the strength of his opponents against them, God takes on the tyrants of earth - Herod, Archelaus, Pilate, any number of those who follow - with the weakness of a   carpenter’s son from Nazareth, and at the end of the day it is Jesus who is left standing.  Prophecy in Matthew means promises made and kept by a faithful God whose word is true and whose son can be trusted.   To use a word that we love to throw around today, God is authentic, he’s the real deal.


I’ve listed three connections between the Christmas story as told by Matthew and the larger Christian story.  It’s a shame that the lectionary and our worship on Christmas Eve, when our churches are most often visited, don’t do a good job of making these connections.  Perhaps if we did, our Christmas Eve visitors might stick around and enter more deeply into the Christian faith.   This week I read an interesting essay by  Ian Paul, a British theologian, on what the Anglican church gets wrong about Christmas.  



Paul talked about how the story that we tell on Christmas Eve is largely disconnected from the rest of the story of Jesus.   Christmas alone doesn’t tell us much about how Jesus comes to save the world by saving us from our sin.  Christmas carols and candlelight are all well and good, but they don’t tell the story very well, whereas, (and here Paul quotes N.T. Wright), the Advent hymns do tell the story.  As N.T. Wright notes, “Advent hymns are … deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out”.  Unfortunately, most Christmas Eve visitors haven’t heard had the benefit of preparation and context that Advent offers us.


The second reason, according to Paul, is that a lot of Christmas messages and sermons we hear don’t really help us to hear the gospel.  By focusing on the Incarnation, on God’s decision to send his son to live amongst us as a human being, it’s fairly easy to draw the idea that we must be pretty good if God decided to hang out with us.  If we merely conclude that the Incarnation is about affirming the dignity of human existence, then we don’t really need to change.  As Ian Paul says, if “people leave Midnight Communion thinking ‘Well, it’s all OK, so no need to go to church till next Christmas”, then they will miss the who point of the gospel, which is about God’s determination in Christ to save us from ourselves.  As I understand his message, Ian Paul is saying that Christmas needs to be about salvation rather than affirmation.


Today, two thousand and seventeen years (give or take) after the birth of Jesus, I think we can agree that the world hungers for a message of salvation.  As we look to the near future, we hear talk of a new nuclear arms race, of rapidly melting polar ice, of old treaties and alliances ending.  People seem to lose faith in democracies and open borders, and put their trust in strongmen.  Cynicism and brutality seem to thrive.  King Herod, the butcher of Bethlehem, would certainly look at Aleppo and tell Bashir al Assad, “Job well done.”.  


One doesn’t have to go to Aleppo to see the need for salvation.  Who knows what anguish and tragedy may be concealed in the comfortable houses around this church?  Yesterday local media reported that a gas explosion in a middle class Mississauga neighbourhood this summer was deliberate, a double suicide of a middle aged couple.  Police found notes amid the rubble, including this one, which read


“Dear God, as of next week everything will fall apart for us,” begins one note. “We owe mortgage, company, house taxes, water bill, gas bill, hydro bill . . . and we have No Money to fix or pay anyone.”


I don’t think most people are looking for are looking for affirmation or for religion to tell them that they’re basically ok.  I think most people want to hear that God is interested in them enough to save them.  They want to be saved from tyranny, from hunger, from bombs, from debt, from despair, from a sense of hopelessness so strong that it would lead them to blow themselves up in their own home.


The message of Christmas is the message of salvation.  It’s the message of God who is faithful, who keeps his promises, who is determined not to lose us.   The Christmas message may be about peace and joy in the manger, but it’s also about God’s presence with us in those moments when there is no peace and joy.  It’s about God’s faithfulness to keep the promises he made long ago to his people, and it’s about the power of his son Jesus Christ to overthrow the kingdoms of power and tyranny, the kingdoms of darkness and death.   When the stillness of Bethlehem is replaced by chaos, when the nativity scene is dark and the stable is empty, the angels and shepherds gone and the holy family fled, this message of salvation is what we need to hold on to, now, and as we face whatever the new year may bring.




Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: Brian Castner`s All The Ways We Kill and Die

My military ProD reading lately has included Brian Castner, one of the writers to have emerged from America`s post-9/11 wars. A US Air Force EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) officer, Castner commanded teams of EOD operators in Iraq. In 2012, he wrote The Long Walk Home, a memoir of his time there, and his struggle to make peace with his memories, emotions and PTSD. In 2016, he published All The Ways We Kill and Die, chronicling his attempt to make sense of the death of a fellow EOD operator in Afghanistan. This second book is by turns a memoir, a piece of journalism, and an of-the-moment military history of the Improvised Explosives Device (IED), the signature weapon of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both books feature an unsparing honesty and a clear, bitterly beautiful prose style. Civilian and military readers alike will want to get to know this writer. I am very happy to say that my review of Castner appeared today in the online military journal, The Strategy Bridge. You can find it here. MP+

Monday, October 24, 2016

Preparing Chaplains For The Next War

As my current duties include directing a course designed to prepare new Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) chaplains for their first operational deployment, I try to keep an eye on the professional literature.   As geopolitical tensions continue to rise, I have been thinking quite often about the possibility of a conflict with a near-parity opponent, meaning, most likely, Russia.  This reading has led me to offer some thoughts which are predominantly intended for my chaplain colleagues.  Of course, these thoughts are entirely my own and do not reflect the positions of the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service, its School, or the CAF.

CAF personnel from all three services participate in OPERATION REASSURANCE "in Central and Eastern Europe as part of NATO assurance and deterrence measures."  We also have an ongoing assistance and training mission in Ukraine as part of OPERATION UNIFIER.

Glebokie, Poland. 31 July 2015 – Corporal Philippe Lyonnais carries a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle (M2CG) followed by Corporal Emilie Gauthier-Wong carrying the 84mm rounds for the M2CG during a live fire exercise at Mielno range in the Drawsko-Pomorski training area in Glebokie, Poland on July 31, 2015 during Operation REASSURANCE. Photo: Corporal Nathan Moulton, Land Task Force Imagery

The training we are doing in REASSURANCE, not to mention our military posture in Eastern Europe, is significantly different from the stability and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations that the CAF was commonly practicing when I became a chaplain a decade ago.   During the Afghanistan era we focused primarily on asymmetric warfare, (a notable exception was Operation Medusa in 2006, which was the Army's largest set-piece engagement since Korea).  Our chaplain training assumed a battlespace that featured:

- robust and extensive logistics and secure rear-area base networks made possible in large part because of private contractors and local labour.
- complete air-superiority, including the ability to insert, evacuate, and rotate troops as required.
- significant technological advantages over the enemy, including night-vision and thermal capability. precision guided munitions, long range artillery and armour support, UAVs and aerial surveillance, and close air support (CAS).
- uninterrupted command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) capabilities.
- a comprehensive commitment to soldier welfare, including regular and dependable home leave allowances mid-tour, and regular communications, including via social media, with loved ones at home.
- the luxury of being able to focus on ministry to a relatively small number of Canadian casualties.
- an emphasis on civil-military cooperation (CIMIC), perhaps more so than on combat operations
- a relatively low-threat environment.
None of these points is intended to minimize the impact of what chaplains experienced in Afghanistan, or to suggest that they did not experience hardship, difficulty or danger in their ministry.   I know colleagues who suffer to this day, mentally and physically, because they were exposed to mortal danger or gave to much of themselves in ministering to others.   If you are nearly blown up by a rocket attack or by a primitive IED, the trauma is still real, even if it is incurred in an asymmetric conflict.  While no CAF chaplains were killed or wounded in action in Afghanistan, the number of those suffering from PTSD, from my own, admittedly anecdotal knowledge, is proportional to rates in the CAF as a whole. 
Nevertheless, chaplains enjoyed significant advantages and resources in their ministry that their predecessors did not enjoy in Canada's previous wars.   Our padres had a high degree of mobility and movement to allow them to reach troops, even in Forward Operating Bases.   They had access to support from bases and rear-party ministry teams in Canada when arranging repatriations or aiding a deployed soldier's family in times of crisis.   They worked in interdisciplinary teams with civilian helping professionals such as social workers, and so did not have to bear the load of maintaining soldier welfare by themselves.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as the Afghan mission evolved from combat to aid and training, padres were ministering to soldiers with a very high probability of coming home alive and in one piece.   We cannot expect a future conflict to have these characteristics.

It is a truism that armies train to fight the last war.   However, the literature I am reading suggests that strategists, particularly Americans, now believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sui generis, one-of-a-kind conflicts, and were even poor preparation for the kind of war fighting that a conflict with a near-peer adversary would require.  Should "assurance and deterrence" fail, and
Canada  become involved in such a conflict, perhaps through invocation of NATO Article Five after a Russian attack on a Baltic country, our recent military experience may be of little use to us.  For the  CAF, the transition to a war with a peer opponent might be historically analogous to its participation in the South African war, in which Britain's professional army enjoyed significant advantages over their Boer opponents, and 1915, when our small Expeditionary Force went up against a huge, well equipped, and professionally led conventional Germany army.  While images of Canadian gallantry at Second Ypres adorn many a CAF mess today, our first battle of the Great War was a significant shock for an army hitherto only experienced in garrison life and colonial warfare.


Fighting a peer opponent.  Richard Jack's painting of Canadian troops holding the line at Second Ypres, courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

Chaplain training for the next war needs to pay attention to articles like this one, in which strategic leaders like Tom Mahnken, president of the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is quoted as saying that  “Like the European powers at the start of World War I, we could find ourselves tremendously unprepared ... surprised, and unpleasantly surprised.”  In a speech that has been widely circulated in military social media circles, US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley has warned that the battlefield of the near future will be decidedly unpleasant, an environment where being surrounded and constantly on the move will be normal.  "There will no clear front line, no secure supply lines, no big bases like Bagram or Camp Victory with chow halls, air-conditioning, and showers. With enemy drones and sensors constantly on the hunt for targets, there won’t even be time for four hours’ unbroken sleep. So, says Milley, “being seriously miserable every single minute of every day will have to become a way of life.”

For chaplains, our training should demand that we think about the demands of doing our ministry in a battlespace with these characteristics:

- no safe bases from which to minister.   Tactical and brigade level chaplains, normally attached to service and support, B echelon or HQ elements, will be frequently on the move.  Fighting and support units will all be at some degree of risk from from artillery, air attack, or even from tactical nuclear missiles.
- air superiority may be contested or even denied by enemy anti-access /area denial (A2/AD) weapons systems.  C3I capabilities may be degraded by enemy Electronic Warfare and jamming operations.  Chaplains may find themselves part of a force cut off from Canada for long periods.
- casualty ministry will be the norm.  The ornate ramp ceremonies practised in Afghanistan will often be impossible when airspace is heavily contested or even dominated by the enemy.  Lost arts from the mobile battlefields of World War Two, including grave registration and hasty casualty collection ministry, will need to be relearned. 
- battlefield ministry will be the norm.  This task will be complicated by the social impact of secularism and pluralism.  The twentieth century padre had the advantage of ministering to soldiers from a culture shaped by Christianity.   However, the old axiom of no atheists in foxholes will likely reassert itself and hasty prayers before and after actions, another chaplain skill from twentieth century conflicts, will doubtless be valued by soldiers whom we previously thought of as quite secular.
- self-directed ministry will be the norm.  During Afghanistan the CAF chaplaincy developed elaborate command and communications protocols for events like casualty notification, with each step in the process being reported to a host of persons back in Canada.  In the event of war with a peer competitor, with communications severely degraded, chaplains will need to function independently for days or weeks at a time.  It is doubtful that chaplains will have the assistance of civilian helping professionals such as social workers.   Other than their partnerships with CAF medical personnel, chaplains will be working on their own to support morale, welfare and mental health as best they can.
- military skills will be paramount.  The highest honour troops can give a chaplain, that he or she is a "soldier's padre", must be the norm and not the exception.  Chaplains will be as dirty, unfed, cut off, scared and miserable as anyone else.  They will need to know how to use a map and compass, conceal their positions, give first aid and even drive some military vehicles as required.  They will need to do all these things while effectively giving spiritual aid and morale comfort to their troops.
- chaplain casualties will be normal.  In late World War Two, the British and Canadian armies, chaplain casualties (KIA and WIA) were proportionally as high as that of the combat arms.  If the first stages of a future war go badly, as they did in WW2, chaplains will almost certainly become POWs and will need to minister in austere conditions.

Battlefield ministry in 1944.  A Canadian Army chaplain aids in the evacuation of the wounded in Normandy.

Much of the training that these points would require would have to be delivered in the field, either on regularly scheduled exercises or in whatever workup training was possible in the event of or after the start of hostilities.   Training at the Chaplain School, which is predominantly academic in nature, would have to be significantly reimagined in a conflict of any significant duration.  In focusing on ministry in theatre, I have not discussed what domestic or rear-party ministry would look like.  The amount of pastoral work required to notify next of kin in Canada after a significant engagement, with large numbers killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner, would be a herculean task in itself.

Finally, we need to consider the enormous spiritual and psychological demands that ministry in this type of conflict would make of chaplains.   In garrison ministry, or even on some deployments, our chaplains have not always met the mark.   In the battlespace of the near-future, chaplains will be conspicuous in their successes and failures, at a time when they will be needed more than ever.  Success will depend on the cultivation of physical fitness, military skills, fieldcraft and, above all, highly intentional and meaningful spiritual preparation.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Law And Order Sunday: A Sermon For the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St. Margaret's of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 16 October, 2016

RCL readings    : Jeremiah 31: 27-34;  Psalm 119: 97-104; Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18: 1-8

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 37:33)

A grumpy judge.

Did you notices that judges and judgement run through our readings this morning?  In Jeremiah, God speaks like a judge who has gotten tired of punishing Israel and is going to try something different.   In Luke, Jesus tells a parable of a grumpy judge who is persistently badgered by a widow until he gives in to her.   In second Timothy. Paul tells us to follow Scripture and do the right thing, until the day when God and Jesus return “to judge the living and the dead”.

That’s a lot of judges and a lot of judgement.   It makes me wonder how comfortable we are with this legalistic aspect of our relationship to God.   To be sure, our faith teaches us in the creeds to think of God as our judge, but if you’ve ever been in a courtroom, and seen a judge in action, you may not draw a lot of comfort from that image.   The legal system can be very intimidating when you see it working. 

I remember going to court as a character witness for a young soldier who had done something stupid. On the whole, it could have gone a lot worse for the soldier.  Afterwards, he told me “Padre, I was scared, that judge was really mean!”  I said no, I thought he was being fair, but I did agree that it was a scary business and suggested that he stay out of courtrooms in future.

I think the same is true of our faith lives.  We know that one aspect of God is that he is a our judge, but we all hope to stay out of the courtroom.   It’s easier for many Christians, myself included, to focus on a personal relationship with Jesus as friend and Saviour.   Or maybe, if we are feeling guilty and nervous about that final judgement, we may think of Jesus as the defence lawyer who will gain us the mercy of the court.

Even if judges and courtrooms make us nervous, I doubt any that any of us would want to live in a system where the legal system is either corrupt or just doesn’t work.   We want just laws, fairly applied, because we hope that they will protect us, our loved ones and our property.   So much of the anger in politics today, especially in the US election, seems to be about certain people being above the law.   I think too that if we are honest, we will admit that we need laws and judges to protect us from ourselves and our worst instincts.  Take a church, for example.  We put some people in positions of responsibility, with access to the very young or the very vulnerable.  Others have responsibility for money.   The system only works if everyone takes responsibility for their actions, and if they are held accountable.  That's why we as church volunteers submit to police background checks, even if we would rather not want to (has *anyone* ever been happy to get one?).

So if we can agree that law and judgement are desirable, even necessary, for our society, can we also say that law and judgement are necessary for our faith lives?  As Christians, like our Jewish older brothers and sisters, we believe in a God who is looking out for our welfare.  Like a parent, God sets rules to protect us and guide our development.   Paul reminds us of this in our second lesson when he says that God gives us scripture so that “everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”.  

I find that word “proficient” to be very interesting, because it is a word that belongs to the world I work in, the world of military training.  Someone who is “proficient” is well trained, skilled, highly capable of doing something.   You want a soldier to be proficient with weapons, just as you want an artist to be proficient with paints or a carpenter with tools.   So as Christians, Paul is saying, we are expected to be proficient in good works, which is presumably what Paul elsewhere calls the fruits of the spirit: mercy, kindness, charity and so forth.   We get proficient, Paul says, by keeping ourselves locked into the church’s teaching and “sound doctrine” and teaching.

The only problem for me when I hear this passage from Second Timothy is that I worry about how proficient I am, because I take proficiency tests all the time in the military and I do ok, but not great.    For example, in June I took a proficiency test in French language skills.  I was rated ok, meaning I can speak French and be understood, but it would be no great joy for a French person to listen to me.  Last month I did my annual test of physical fitness test, something all military members must pass.   I passed, which was great, but the evaluation basically said that I wasn’t a choice physical specimen.   “Even though you’re in your fifties and we’re making allowances for that, you could stand to lose some weight, you could be a lot faster, you could be a lot stronger.”   Yaaaayyyy, me, I said in a discouraged voice.

Now if I had to take a test of spiritual proficiency, to see if I was a good Christian, I think I would get the same sort of mixed results.  Well Michael, the angel would say afterwards, looking at its clipboard, you go to church, you give some money away, and you’re kind to stray kittens.  So you get a pass.  But, you lost in in traffic the other day, you spend far too much time thinking about your clothes, you said you were too busy to volunteer at the mission when you really just wanted to watch the baseball game, and you couldn’t name all ten commandments or get them in the right order.”  You get a pass, 51%, but you have to take the remedial class.  

I suspect that a lot of us think about our spiritual lives in this way, wondering if we make the grade, fearful to imagine what’s inside the ledger book that God keeps on each of us.  I also wonder if one of the problems we have in our relationship with God is that because we are taught to see him as a judge, we therefore see him as an impartial judge.  After all, we want judges to be impartial, we want to be treated fairly.   When I go to the hymn for my physical fitness text, the examiners don’t care who I am.  They just want to see how much I can lift and how fast I can run.   That’s why they use stopwatches.   You can’t lie to a stopwatch, any more than you can le to a police breathalyzer, and you get judged on the results.   This is the reason why judges and police act stern in public, because they have to uphold the law fairly, without favouritism.   Fortunately for us, God isn’t that kind of judge.

In our gospel today, Jesus tells the parable of the widow who wears down a corrupt judge with her ceaseless petitions.   Sometimes we get confused about the moral of this parable, and think that it’s about how our prayers only get results if we make a total nuisance of ourselves.   On the contrary, say many biblical scholars, the point Jesus seems to be making is more subtle.  If this corrupt judge shows mercy to a woman he doesn’t really care for, just to get rid of her, how much more will God do out of his love for us?  God, Jesus says, will “quickly” grant justice to us.

Our first lesson makes a similar point.  At this point in Jeremiah, God is rebuilding his relationship with his people, Israel, because they trashed the first relationship.  As Simon noted a few weeks back, Jeremiah was writing when Israel had been captured by its powerful enemies, its people scattered and enslaved in foreign lands.   The people of Israel  had started to believe that the promised land came with an unconditional guarantee.  They forgot that God had asked things of them:  follow the law given to Moses, do not worship false gods, treat the widow and orphan with justice, welcome the stranger, and so forth.  These laws were written in various books of scripture called the Torah, they were repeated by the prophets, and taught in the synagogues.  

Now God promises a new relationship with the people he has forgiven and restored.   Not only will Israel get its land and cities back, but it will have a new relationship with God.   In this new relationship, God’s law will not be set down in stone tablets, sacred scrolls or books.  Instead, it will be intensely personal, even intimate.  God`s law will live inside his people, written on their hearts, pulsing in their veins, as important as breath and life.     It will be a new way of living, rather like a stage in the spiritual evolution of God`s people, and it will be for ALL the people.   They ‘shall all know me, from the least to the greatest`.

God continues to give this gift to the church today.   Not all of us are theologically trained or gifted.  We don’t all go to bible study, though it’s a good thing for most of us and some of us should go more often.    We may not be able to name all ten commandments in the right order.   But, if we open our hearts to God, he will come to us and give us a sense of what he wants for us, and wants from us.   That internal voice, that guidance, is always there.   Call it the work of the Holy Spirit, call it our growing and maturing in the mind of Christ, but it is there, sometimes not even working at the level of words, but keeping us pointed to God.

I think this idea of an internal voice or guidance that keeps us pointed towards God helps understand one of the famous passages in Romans 8:  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

In all of our readings this morning, we have seen this image of God as a judge, and we are reminded that we are accountable for our lives, both in this world and in the next.    Rather than scaring us, the idea of accountability should comfort us, because it reminds us that God cares for us and wants us to live well, in our homes and families, in our workplaces and in our churches.   Accountability is part of our two-way relationship with God, because just as are held accountable, so God takes responsibility for us, guides us, and even forgives us for the many ways we fall short.   So we can be grateful that God is not an impartial judge after all, but rather a merciful and kind judge who is always there for us, even when we are far from him.  After all, earlier in Jeremiah 34, as God considers how Israel got in trouble because it forgot him, Jeremiah imagines Israel saying these words.

I was ashamed, and I was dismayed
   because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’ 

And God responding:

 Is Ephraim my dear son?
   Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
   I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
   I will surely have mercy on him, 
says the Lord. 

If that sounds a little like the parable of the Prodigal Son, then perhaps it is because one of the enduring figures of the bible is not the stern and terrifying judge, but rather the loving parent, waiting patiently for a loved and lost child’s return.

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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