Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Fantasy For Christmas Eve

I preached this sermon three years ago when I was the Rector of Grace Church, Ilderton, and St. George's Middlesex Centre. I don't normally use creative writing in preaching - this was a bit of an experiment, and I'm not sure what my parishioners thought of it, but I rather like it. MP+

A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2006
Grace and St George’s Churches

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”. Titus 2:11

It’s dark when the sound wakes you. Not some polite “is anyone at home” tapping at the front door, but a loud urgent banging, as if someone’s trying to tell you that the house is on fire. The person at the door may be someone you’ve known all your life, or it may be a mere acquaintance, but the look on their face and a few urgent words are enough. You know that if you don’t go with this person, you will regret it for the rest of your life.

There may be a sleepy child and a protesting spouse that you have to wake and bundle up, or it may be that you’ve been alone in this house for far too many years. You struggle into coat and boots and follow the messenger into the cold night air, to where a vehicle sits running. Perhaps you slide onto the leather seats of a sleek import, or sit on the cracked vinyl of a muddy farm truck, smelling comfortably of wet dog and gun oil. You head off into the night.

A few folks have left their coloured lights on, but without the snow and in the damp night they seem pale and dim. For years you and your neighbors have hung lights and decorated for a time you’ve called the holidays, with only a vague sense of what it all means, and a nameless hope that somehow the lights and the gifts will keep the darkness at bay. Tonight this is hope is faint, and the town huddles into itself, surrounded by dark and wet fields, as if not even daring to dream.

You head into the dark tunnel of the night, and then your driver points to a something. At first it’s a glow glimpsed through the tree tops, but once you’re in open country you see it clearly through gaps in the scudding rain clouds. A comet or meteor, perhaps, hanging low in the sky, a clean, silvery glow, like running water sparkling on a sunny day. It’s like your dearest memory of seeing the northern lights when you were a kid, only purer and more magical, if that is possible. As you drive you feel a nameless sense of expectation.

You realize that you’re not alone on the road, even at this late hour. Other vehicles are heading in the same direction. You start to wonder what concession you’re on, because the landscape looks unfamiliar in the silvery night. Finally you pull off a gravel road into a deeply rutted farm laneway, and stop where the others are parking.

The ground is wet and the mud pulls at your boot as you make your way up the lane. You pass an old delivery truck bearing the name of a long defunct business, and a Chevy of a vintage normally seen at heritage shows. Others are walking with you now, and some are neighbours and you nod to them, but others are strangers, and some are adults you remember from when you were a kid, all walking with you up this laneway.

A small crowd has assembled in front of a barn that’s seen better days. You see people you know – Anne from curling and Joe from Lions and the couple who run the restaurant, and Mr. Olson, your schoolbus driver from long years ago. They’re mixed in with strangers in muttonchop whiskers and tight bun hairstyles you’ve seen in old pictures. An immigrant family in rough workclothes stands beside a group of First Nations people in deerskin and fur wraps. To one side is a small knot of olive-skinned, bearded men in thick homespun, carrying serviceable crooked sticks and one holding a young lamb, and beside them a homeless man in an old parka and some folks from the Crest Centre. All patiently wait their turn until, in ones and twos, they can enter the barn and look inside. Breaths mingle in the night air, but you notice that you’re not cold.

You watch those coming out of the barn, and each is different. Some are grinning and some look quiet and thoughtful, but all seem taller as they leave, and their faces are bright with some new inner glow. Then it’s your turn, and you push back a rough sheet of plastic and enter. Inside it’s fragrant with straw and warm animals. A single light bulb hanging from a wire reveals two strangers, a very young woman, and behind her an older man, his body hardened with work but his face gentle. Their newborn child is wrapped in clean horse blankets and cushioned amidst a pile of woolsacks and feed bags. Two barncats watch with glittering eyes, and a horse snuffles in the shadows.

You don’t wonder at why these people and this child are here, and not in some clean hospital. You only draw closer, holding your breath, until the mother smiles her permission at you and you find yourself kneeling in the clean straw. The child opens his eyes and looks at you, like no other person has ever looked at you before. You feel a great surge of release as the locks on the secret and shameful places of your soul open, and the iron doors of regret and long-nurtured anger open to the bright light of this child’s presence. You feel cleansed and scoured, your soul freed of its grime and cobwebs. You realize that you’re not alone, not left to suffer and doubt and fear. Somehow, you know that this child has come to serve, has come to keep company, has come to save.

As you stand and prepare to leave, the child holds your gaze a moment longer and you realize that this gift is not for you alone. It is for all those here with you, and for those in countless other places. You realize that this child is also present in nursing homes and small towns, in city shelters, in army camps, in hospitals and prisons and every place in between. He is here now, in this moment, and in all the times before and in all the times to come.

And so you leave this place, and turn back into the night. Outside in the farmyard and in the surrounding fields, the mud and the wet are gone, covered by snow that is whiter and cleaner than any dream of childhood winters. The dismal rain clouds are gone, and the sky is ablaze with stars, as if escorting that one silver light that still draws newcomers up the laneway. You and your companion make your way back to the car, walking with others. People are thoughtful and quiet, but you exchange looks with Ann and John and Mr. Olsen and the folks from the old pictures. You know now that the child loves all these people, and somehow all carry the marks of that love in their gentleness to one another.

Your companion head the car back down the laneway. Later you could never recall how long it took to get back to town, whether it was minutes or hours, but it was long enough for the stars to grow pale and for a golden sun to start climbing into the clear blue sky. Your last memory is singing the old carols together as you neared home, something about a little town where the hopes and fears of all the years have come together in this one night.

©Michael Peterson+ 2006

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Notable Quotable - Stanley Fish on the Paradox of Christmas Generosity

"In short, however much you try — indeed, because you try — you can’t be good or do good. A hard lesson, especially in this season."

Read the whole piece here.

Asian Spammers Find Mad Padre


If you don't know what this means, then sorry, I can't help you either, other than I think it's Japanese and not Chinese. However, I have learned two things in the last few weeks.

1) If you put a post with the word "Job" or "Jobs" in it on blogspot, you'll attract the attention of someone in Asia who seems to want to sell something.
2) How to moderate posts on blogspot.

So for those of you who read this blog and post on it (my eternal thanks to y'all), I am moderating comments, simply so that I can catch this sort of spam and delete it before it appears on my blog. Rest assured, it is not censorship ... well, ok, it's censorship lite. But at least no one is getting tortured. At least, that's what the Canadian government assured me. Trust me on this.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mary For Us: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, CFB Greenwood, 20 Dec, 2009
The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Lectionary Year C
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:47-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

This last Sunday before Christmas, before we are called to the manger on Christmas Eve to worship the newborn Jesus, our readings invite us to spend some time with his expectant mother Mary. Today I invite us to think about who Mary was, what she has come to represent in the life of the church, and what she offers to us as we try to grow in our own spiritual lives.

Detail of stained glass window, Holy Rosary Chapel, Weber Centre, Adrian, MI – photo by the Rev. Susan McCullough

If I asked you to imagine the Virgin Mary, you might very well envision a beautiful and gentle young woman. This image shows Mary as a young maiden. It captures the spirit of Mary as the “mother mild” in the words of the famous carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Because this image comes from a Roman Catholic church, the artist has included rich laces and clothing appropriate to the lofty status that Roman Catholics give to Mary as a the royal mother of God.

The Church of Rome has given Mary many titles and dignities over the centuries – Queen of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God. Over the centuries the church came to venerate her and pray to her directly, trusting that she could plead the case of sinful humanity to Jesus and he, as her son, could not refuse her. This veneration, and the rise of doctrines such as her freedom of sin and of her being taken up into heaven (the feast of the Assumption, traditionally celebrated on 15 August), are not part of our heritage as protestants. During the Reformation in the 1500s the reformed churches saw Catholics as worshipping Mary (for example, through the rosary) instead of the Trinity. Thus, if you grew up in a protestant church, you probably didn’t think much of Mary except at Christmas time. Protestant churches believed that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception because it is clearly stated in scripture and creed, but they did not go out of their way to offer Mary any special honour or devotion since they perceived such traditions as unbiblical.

Two of our readings this morning tell part of Mary’s story and invite us to think about her. The gospel reading from Luke (1:39-45) tells the story of how Mary meets her much older cousin Elizabeth. This meeting is sometimes referred to as the Visitation, and it is one of the Joyous Mysteries in the Catholic tradition. These two women have both come to be mothers in miraculous circumstances. The childless Elizabeth, well past menopause and into her old age, finds herself pregnant. For Elizabeth pregnancy has lifted the shame of being childless or “barren” as scripture puts it, and it confirms the truth of the prophecy told to her husband Zecharaiah by the angel in the temple. For Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary, pregnancy before marriage could have been a disaster, but Mary has accepted her role in God’s plan to save humanity through the son she will bear. The link between these two women is emphasized when Elizabeth’s child leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice, for Elizabeth’s son will be John the Baptist, who will foretell the coming of Jesus. Both of these women are thus playing their part to make God’s plan of salvation possible.

Part of the Visitation story is the song that Mary sings. We read the words of this psalm together in lieu of our usual psalm. These words, like are gospel, are also from Luke (1:47-55). Today the church calls this song the “Magnicat”, the Latin rendering of the first few words “My soul magnifies the Lord”. In the liturgical churches the Magnificat or the Song of Mary has many musical settings and is a well-established part of church tradition. Some scholars believe Luke took this song from one of the first hymns to Mary of the early church, since the Magnificat appears to have been written as a song and since it is a very literary and poetic thing for a young girl from Galilee to say. Whatever its origins, the Song of Mary is important for Christians because it reminds us of God is faithful, keeping his promises to Israel and to all its generations, up to our own day. The Song reminds us of God’s mercy and of his love for all his creation, even and especially the poorest and humblest. Like God’s choice of Mary and Elizabeth, two women with no stature or importance in the world’s eyes, the Magnificat is a song of hope and promise to us that God loves us and stands with us, no matter how ordinary and insignificant we may be in the world’s eyes.

Who was Mary? Scripture is clear that in the eyes of the world, she wasn’t anyone special. The biblical scholar Elaine Park reminds us that she lived in a small town, Nazareth, which only had one well. Mary would have shared the communal life of women’s work: washing, mending, and cooking. She was no doubt used to hard work and her hand were starting to get rough with labour. Besides the community of work, Mary would have taken her place in the community of faith. She would have kept the traditional feasts with her family. She would have gone to the village synagogue and learned the traditional psalms and the stories of how God was faithful to Israel. She might well have made the pilgrimage to the great temple in Jerusalem. So, before she became known to us as Queen of Heaven or Mother of God, she was an ordinary young Jewish woman, trusting that the God of her people would be there for her throughout the life ahead of us.

Who is Mary to us? I just said at the outset that Mary was trusting, and that leads me the first of Mary’s qualities that are important for us. Mary is faithful. When the angel came to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah in the Temple he doubted that his wife could conceive, and so he was struck dumb until his son was born However, when the angel comes to Mary, she does not doubt. She is certainly puzzled, and she asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34), but when the angel explains how she will receive the child through the Holy Spirit, she does not doubt. When you think of how strange a thing the angel was saying, Mary could easily have doubted. How often do we doubt far less strange things in our own spiritual lives? It is easy to doubt that God will answer our prayer, that God is listening, or even that God loves us. In such cases, we would do well to remember the faithfulness and serenity of Mary

Mary does not doubt, and she does not refuse. The second quality of Mary is that she is obedient. Yes, if you are wondering, I said obedient. I know that is not a popular word, not even in today’s military, but obedience is part of the Christian life. I recall a comment I heard the theologian Stanley Hauerwas make about his frequent visits to churches as a guest preacher. Usually, he says, there’s someone at door after the service who shakes his hand and says “Interesting message there, preacher, I’m not sure I agree with it”. Hauerwas said that he is often tempted to reply “It wasn’t my message, it was God’s message, and your job isn’t to agree, your job is to obey”. Mary knew that what the angel was saying to her could easily wreck her life as an unwed mother. God allowed his plan of salvation through the birth of Christ to rest in her hands, just as he allowed it to rest in Jesus’ hands in the Garden of Gethsemane. Both said yes to God, and allowed the doors of salvation to open for us. How can our faithfulness and obedience open God’s doors for others?

The third quality of Mary’s that I want to stress is her desire for justice. The words of the Magnificat are about God’s concern for all people, especially the least among us. Mary says “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:52-53). The Christmas story is full of signs that God’s salvation is for all people, from the choice of two humble women to be mothers of God’s messengers, to the message to the shepherds to come to the manger, to the promise of the Magnificat that the hungry will go ahead of the fat cats. As we look back on 2009 we see many signs that the Fat Cats have been doing pretty well for themselves. I know however that many of you have the Magnificat spirit firmly in your hearts, whether you work for Lions or for the food bank or for all the other charities you support. In the 1800s Charles Dicken had the Ghost of Marley in A Christmas Carol remind Scrooge that humanity was his business.

Mary’s final quality that I want to highlight is her joy. At least one biblical scholar has noted the importance of Mary’s words being in the form of a song. We sing at times of sorrow, and we sing at times of joy. The Song of Mary echoes another song of joy of another Mary, that of Moses’ sister by the Red Sea after God has drowned the army of Pharaoh and saved Israel (Ex 15:20-21). We think of Mary as being “gentle”, “meek” and “mild” but the Magnificat is a moment of joy and celebration. In the worship of the church it can be sung as a solemn chant, as in the Anglican service of Evening Prayer, or it can be sung in upbeat and lively ways, as our choir did this morning. The Magnificat reminds us that Mary does not accept her duty as a burden to carry, but rather as a cause of joy and wonder at what God is doing in her life. For Mary, her joy comes from the totally unexpected grace that God has given to her. When the angel comes to her, he twice calls her “favoured one” (Lk 1:28, 30) and Mary is amazed that God should love her so much. Likewise, when Elizabeth realizes that she is being visited not just by her young cousin but also by the mother of her Lord, Elizabeth asks why this honour has been given to her. The joy of Mary is the joy of the unexpected blessing, it is the joy of every Christian that God should reach out to us and choose us to receive his love and have a place in his kingdom. Mary’s joy is nothing less than the joy of salvation, and it is a reminder to us to carry our own joy beyond the season of Christmas and into the year to come.

Mary is many things to the Christian churches, and we may not all agree on what she stands for. I have suggested today that she stands for faithfulness, obedience, justice and joy. She models these qualities for us as qualities of the Christian life, a life open to the will of God, trusting in God’s purposes, sharing God’s love for all, and joyous in the gift of God’s love and salvation. May we all share in these eternal qualities which makes Mary model for Christians of all denominations in our common life with Christ, now and always.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Day With Rescue 309

I've mentioned here earlier that one of my secondary duties at 14 Wing is to serve if called as a spotter on Search and Rescue flights. A SAR spotter serves as the eyes of the search aircraft, and on a long search typically supplments the regular back end crew of SAR techs and loadmaster who also take their turn in search windows. You need to take turns because after about twenty minutes your eyes get tired and you are ready to take a rest before resuming your place in the search. The spotters are essential because the crew up on the flight deck are busy with their tasks and can't spare much time for looking around.

Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft.

In a C130 Hercules, there are two search windows, one each side of the fuselage, near the tail ramp of the aircraft. You sit in a chair, as seen here in this rather blurry photo, and you stick your head as close to the window as possible, scanning from directly below the aircraft to up to a mile out.

413 Squadon SARtech in the search window of a Hercules.

On Wednesday of this week I got a call from Wing Ops at about 10:30pm to be ready to go out at first light. A fishing vessel had sunk off Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and while three crew were recovered by a Coast Guard vessel, the captain was missing. Since the captain was said to be wearing a survival suit there was some hope for him, but it was snowing over the search area on Wednesday night, preventing the use of night vision equipment. I didn't sleep much that night. I kept thinking of how warm my bed was, and of how someone might still be alive in the frigid ocean, waiting for the light and trying to stay awake.

It was certainly frigid in the Herc at 06:30 when I reported. I was grateful for gloves, long underwear and toque as we loaded and prepped the plane. There were three spotters in addition to two SAR techs and the loadmaster in the back end and all would be taking turns watching. The SARtech sergeant briefed us on what to look for - the fisherman's suit was orange but so were the many lobster floats in the area. A floating man look would be X shaped, whereas floats are round, so don't call the alarm unless you see the X shape.

It warmed up quickly once the engines started, and soon we were over the area and starting to fly search legs from 1000 feet down to 600. A Cormorant helicopter, also from 413 Squadron, was examining the coastline in our area (called a coast crawl in SAR parlance) and at one point we saw the Coast Guard vessel Edward Cornwallis also at work. After my first time in the window, I was amazed at how quickly twenty minutes had gone by. I'm not always known for my ability to focus, but I don't think there was another thought in my head besides trying to sort out what I was seeing below, and the sight was impressive: the green rolling sea flecked with whitecaps, lobster floats aplenty, and the occasional seabird scudding over the waves far below. It was a total surprise when the next spotter tapped my arm to tell me it was time for my relief.

When I was in the spotter chair I was able to listen to the crew on my headset. I'm always amazed at the quiet and professional tone of aircrew as they go about their business, the technical jargon interspersed with jokes and ordinary conversation. They're focused but also relaxed and the sense of competence is very reassuring to a novice like myself. There was the usual banter about watching their language with a padre on board, but otherwise I felt part of the team.

By noon, off Tuskett Island south of Yarmouth, the snow was getting worse. It was difficult to see anything out of the window, and I was startled when one of the pilots said that he was becoming uncomfortable with the low visibility. When I heard that comment while we were banking at barely 600 feet above water I couldn't see through the snow, I don't mind saying I got a little nervous. We headed back to base at Greenwood, very calm and professional despite visibility at the airfield being a mile or less, while waiting for the SAR control centre in Halifax to decide if the search would continue. While we were at lunch we heard it had been called off. After 24 hours in the water in winter, even in a survival suit, there was no chance the fisherman would still be alive and the opinion was that he must have been caught on the boat when it sank, since we hadn't seen a body.

It was a disappointing outcome to my first search. At the same time, it was impressive to see the professionalism of the SAR crew at work. Every time there is an incident of this sort the media often second guess the search efforts and ask if there are enough resources in the right places. The answer is that no, there will probably never be enough resources, but Canadians should be proud of how many military and Coast Guard assets were at work looking for one person in difficult circumstances. May God receive the soul of the lost fisherman into his eternal care, and may be bless and protect all those SAR personnel who work, in the words of their motto, so that others may live.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

British Vicar's Wife Enjoys Recounting Her Days as a Stripper

I can sympathize with Mrs. Stephenson, a Nottingham, UK woman tells people she was a stripper before she married her CofE priest husband - read BBC article here. My wife also dislikes being introduced as "the Vicar's wife" or "the Padre's wife", but she stripped furniture, not chickens. The Church of Rome may be thinking twice now about its offer to married Anglican clergy to come over and bring their wives.

Archbishop of Canterbury: Marginalizing Christians is "Cultural Suicide"

I pity the spiritual head of my church, Rowan Williams. With his impossible eyebrows, professorial manner and nuanced approach to problems like homsexuality in the church, he seems a man out of synch with the times. So I was pleased yesterday to note Melanie Phillips in the Mail Online commending the Archbishop of Canterbury for reminding the state why it needs Christianity. MP+

By Melanie Phillips
Last updated at 8:51 AM on 14th December 2009

Just for once, the Archbishop is right ... treating Christians as cranks is an act The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, comes in for a lot of stick - not least from columnists like me.

But in the past few days, he has said something important. He has criticised Government ministers for thinking that Christian beliefs are no longer relevant in modern Britain, and for looking at religion as a 'problem'.

Many Government faith initiatives, he observed, assumed that religion was an eccentricity practised by oddballs, foreigners and minorities.

Read the whole piece here.

Electronic Rights Battle for Older E-Books

Continuing to track the news on the growth in e-books. An article in today's New York Times discusses the publishing battle over older books. When I was on a library board, we worried over the pressure to replace traditional print book stacks with internet computer terminals, new media shelves, etc. While these changes were good responses to changes in literacy and how people today find and consume information and cultural products, it did mean that fewer shelves meant that older books became harder to find outside of used bookstores. Ebooks many well bring many older titles back into print, provided that the rights issue can be figured out. MP+

Legal Battles Over E-Book Rights to Older Books
Published: December 12, 2009

William Styron may have been one of the leading literary lions of recent decades, but his books are not selling much these days. Now his family has a plan to lure digital-age readers with e-book versions of titles like “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and Mr. Styron’s memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible.”

But the question of exactly who owns the electronic rights to such older titles is in dispute, making it a rising source of conflict in one of the publishing industry’s last remaining areas of growth.

Read the whole article here.

Military Picture of the Week: Santas Past and Present

Two milpics of the week, courtesy of my brother the Mad Colonel, both reflecting the spirit of Christmas in uniform.

British foot patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan:

American troops bringing Santa to English children, 1942. Rather hard to see, but the tanker on the left appears to be wearing some sort of Santa suit under his regulation helmet:

Monday, December 7, 2009

More Military Goats in the News

As the small and elite band of regular readers of Mad Padre will know, Military Goats are no stranger to this blog. Indeed, we at Mad Padre are determined to document the role of that most unsung of military goats and to give them their proper due.

Courtesy of the UK MOD's "Image of the Day", here is "Private Derby", the regimental mascot of the Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters), recently returned from a distinguished tour in Afghanistan, in front of Worcester Cathedral. Read more about the Mercians' return here.

As Afghan Detainee Debate Rages On, CF Personnel Look Good

An article in Monday's Globe and Mail cites concrete evidence that an Afghan captured by Canadian Forces personnel in 2006 and then handed over to Afghan police was indeed beaten and mistreated. While that is disturbing news, I drew some comfort from the fact that "Canadians intervened and took the detainee back ... Canadian medics then treated the man's injuries." As the article goes on to say, "The incident – and another in which Canadians refused to transfer prisoners threatened with death – suggest Canadian soldiers were well aware of their obligations under the Geneva Convention."

On Friday I just finished a CF course which described the many changes in ethics, leadership and accountability made by the Forces since the Somalia affair in 1993. Today's G&M article seems to confirm that positive changes in the military culture have indeed occurred.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

(Real) Good News for Real People

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Year C, Baruch 5:1-9, Psalm 126, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, 14 Wing, Greenwood

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Lk 3:1-2)

Certain passages in the lectionary, the church's three year cycle of liturgical scripture readings, are thick with hard to pronounce place names and proper names. In seminary we used to refer to these as "Jerusalem phone book" passages. These passages are often daunting for lay people charged with the important office of reading scripture during the service, an office that reminds us that scripture is shared by all people, ordained and lay alike, as a common resource. (Hence the playful acronym of B.I.B.L.E. - Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth).

I suspect however our layreaders are secretly relieved that it’s my job to read aloud today’s gospel reading, with all those hard to pronounce names and places: Lysanias, Caiaphas, Ituraea and Trachonitis. These are hard enough for experienced churchgoers, but imagine some visitor to our service who knows nothing of the Christian story. He or she might think they had stumbled into an ancient history listen. Who are these people? Where are these places? Why should I care? Good questions. Why should we care?

The first reason to care is that this is real. Throughout his telling of the story of Christ, Luke takes pains to remind us that this story actually happened. Abilene, Ituraea and Trachonitis (all parts of modern Lebanon) were real places, as real as the Annapolis Valley. Herod and Tiberius and Pilate were real rulers, with real power, and we know they had power because later Herod will have Herod killed and Pilate will have Jesus killed. In this world lived real people, people as real as us. They paid harsh taxes, struggled to feed their families, lived in fear of armies and robbers, enjoyed little or now medicine and could scarcely imagine the lifestyles of the rich who ruled over them. And like us, these people were hungry for good news.

We too are real people. We have more comforts, more medicine, and more money than the people of Luke’s age, though as I’m sure you know, there are people in our communities who are hungry and poor and hopeless. Our lives are safer and we don’t need to fear our rulers, but I don’t think many of us have much love or faith for those in authority over us. We don’t worship idols or multiple deities like the people in Luke’s time did, unless you count all the brand names and designer labels we seek in the temples of our big box stores. Yes, Luke’s world was more primitive than ours, and far away in time, but its physical and spiritual hungers still persist, and the need for good news remains.

John is the first one who announces this good news. He has no agenda of his own. He is not political, he seeks no gain. He makes no distinction between rich and poor, and his message is for all people. “All flesh”, he says, all people, “shall see the salvation of God”. God is coming as his prophet Isaiah said he would, to level and remove the barriers (“mountains”, “rough ways”) that keep people from God and from one another. John calls on all people to prepare themselves for the coming of God, and the way to prepare is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3).

As I was preparing this sermon, I was reminded that most people don’t need to be reminded of things they feel bad and guilty for. Most people, I find, know their flaws and their faults all too well. What keeps most people from God or from a rich spiritual life is that we carry the burdens and shames of our lives in secret, convinced that God will never really love or forgive us. As someone said to me this week, “I go to church thinking that I have to act good to be like everyone else, but inside I wonder if I really am a good person because I think and do things I know are bad”. John the Baptist is the person who comes and calls all to give our secret burdens and shames to God, knowing that we will be lovingly accepted and even changed.

All through our readings this morning, we heard that message offered in various ways. The prophet Baruch told the people that God would take away their garments of sorrow and dress them like kings and queens, so they could hold their heads high knowing that they are God’s children. The psalmist promises that instead of tears and weeping, God will fill our mouths with laughter and our eyes with joy. St. Paul tells the Philippians that the prison holding him means nothing compared to the love and friendship that God is spreading amongst them. Running through our readings like a golden thread is the promise that God offers us love and forgiveness and glorious change both in this life and in the life to come, if we are ready to ask for these things.

God’s good news comes to real people and real places, as it did in the times of Pilate and Herod and as it has in every time between then and now. We are called to make ourselves ready for the coming of the Christ. If we have tears and sorrows, if we carry burdens we dare not admit to ourselves or to those around us, we are called to confess them to God and to seem forgiveness. If this is true of you, perhaps now is the time to speak to a minister, to speak to one you have wronged, or just to give these things over to Jesus. He’ll be there for you. If you are bothered by the tears and hunger of those around you, then what will you do about it? Our chapel community has identified needs we wish to address, such as helping a foster child. What more can we do?

Now is the time of Advent. The good news comes to us in our time. It is real salvation for real people. John the Baptist calls to say that God is ready to receive us. Will we be ready to receive him?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New Call of Duty Game Poses Ethical Challenges to Gamers

My son introduced me to the Call of Duty franchise on his XBox. I found the historical content of the WW2 games more interesting than the games themselves. OK, I liked the one about shooting Nazi zombies, that was fun. But as the games become more visually complex and even aesthetically pleasing, the simulation of violence became more and more troublesome for me as a parent, and I started looking at the age ratings for the games he wanted to get.

If he was still living with me, I'd probably say no to the latest installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which is getting a lot of buzz for posing ethical problems which may even put off some gamers. The buzz seems to focus on a sequence when the player is called on to join in massacring civilians at an airport in order to infiltrate a terrorist gang. Chris Sullentrop writes on that "It's the most anti-war war game I've ever played, a murder simulator that won't let you forget the nature of your actions."

The always interesting David Aaronivitch, writing in The Times, is less sanguine about the ethical dilemmas the game will pose:

"With the new Call of Duty, the airport scenario has led to an on-screen warning that precedes the bloodshed. “Some players,” it says, “may find one of the missions disturbing or offensive. Would you like to have the option to skip this mission?” How many of the 1.23 million people who bought the game in Britain this week in the first 24 hours of its availability — collectively paying £47 million in the process — do we imagine, opted to skip? My guess is round about none. How many of them were actually under 18? Or buying for people under 18? Though the supposed retail price is £55, my local HMV was offering it for £9.99 if you traded in an old game, so money wasn’t necessarily a problem."

Is there anyone else out there worried about all those disaffected kids in black raincoats, sitting in their basements shooting civilians in an airport? And is there anything just a little hypocritical about the game designer's apparent refusal to include children among the civilians that the gamer can massacre, or should we feel comforted that there are still some boundaries that apparently can't be crossed? Shooting Nazi zombies is so uncomplicated by comparison.

Today's Running

Zero. Zilch. Nada. Chained to my desk working and finishing off an online exam for my OPME (Officer Professional Military Education, once fondly called Opey Dopeys) course Canadian Defence Management. (I didn't know it was managed - who knew?). Hopefully tomorrow, if the SAR training flight for spotters wasn't take too long.

Yesterday I managed 5k in 30m47s dawdling around the circular track at the gym. And despite my best intentions, I haven't logged all my runs in November so I have no idea what the mileage is. Oh well, December is a fresh month.

A Soldier's Take on the Cost of Free Speech at Home

Living in a military community I often see the bumper sticker "If you don't stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them". I can understand the sentiment. When you identify strongly with the military, either serving, retired, or connected to a military member in some way, it's easy to feel protective when others question the cause. But these bumper stickers also make me uneasy. It's a short step beyond that kind of protective instinct to jingoism and simplistic "my country right or wrong" patriotism.

In Canada the media is, I find, generally balanced and careful in its handling of the debate on the future of the Afghan mission. In the UK, with it's famous rough and tumble politics, that debate is much sharper, especially as the Brits are talking about deepening their Afghan mission whereas we've sad we're done in 2011. This piece in the Independent by British soldier and author Doug Beattie raises interesting and thoughtful questions about the impact of political debate at home on the soldier in the field.

"But what effect does this negativity have on the soldier getting ready to go to Afghanistan, and what effect does it have on the soldier living, fighting and working in Helmand on a day-to-day basis? "An unwinnable war," say some. "A price not worth paying," say others. "The military presence is making the whole situation in Afghanistan far worse."

These are all headlines the soldier can't understand, doesn't agree with and makes him feel that his efforts in Afghanistan are both misunderstood and not valued. The soldiers' voice remains silent, as those who have never been in Helmand give their analysis of how the campaign is developing and how badly we are doing.

In the isolated patrol bases, news reaches the men and women only sporadically. Newspapers, usually at least five to seven days old, carry the headlines of opinion polls saying troops should be pulled out, or that the Afghan people don't want us there. Numerous interviews with MPs seem to use the military as some kind of political football, in an attempt to either attack the Government or defend it. In doing so, they undermine the very men they are trying to support."

Read the whole piece here.

On Spiritual Survivalism

Two weeks ago I preached a sermon using the movie 2010 for a launching pad on the apocalyptic words of Christ in Mark 13, focusing on Christ's words "do not be alarmed".

I was reminded of this sermon when I noted this piece in today's Washington Post about Christian survivalists, which included this comment from a storeowner who sells supplies to these people:

"This is one way people feel like they're taking control of their own situations again," he said. "We've had so much drama. It's like getting your oil changed in your car. You've done something that feels good. It's the same way with somebody going down and getting a survival kit and having extra food or water. It gives them that level of a little bit of security."

Well, I suppose wanting to be in control is understandable, especially in such fraught times as these. It seems from the article that the point of survivalism is to be around in time to see the end times. But isn't the point of the apocalypse that God is in control, whatever happens?

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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