Tuesday, January 25, 2011

US Soldier Loses Big, Wins Big

Once I was a lot heavier than I am now, and it was a tough go to get fit enough to join the military. While I'm proud of my achievement, it was nothing compared to this guy. Great inspiration for anyone considering passing on their trip to the gym. MP+

Face of Defense: Guard Soldier Loses 100 Pounds
By Army Sgt. Rebekah Malone
Louisiana National Guard

PINEVILLE, La., Jan. 25, 2011 – Army Spc. Alejandro Zuniga of the Louisiana National Guard scored 401 points on his most recent Army physical fitness test -- something even he found hard to believe, considering the state he was in less than two years ago.

Army Spc. Alejandro Zuniga of the Louisiana National Guard runs four miles a day, six days a week. His workout routine -– which led to a 100-pound weight loss -- allowed him to exceed a perfect score on the Army physical fitness test. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Scott M. Mucci

Zuniga, a member of the 1021st Engineering Company, 205th Engineer Battalion, overcame tremendous odds recently when he racked up well over the maximum number of points needed to score an excellent rating on the test.

Just 18 months ago, and 100 pounds heavier, Zuniga was battling despair and depression. One day, he’d had enough.

"When I was bigger, I was on the edge of depression. I felt helpless," Zuniga said. "Just one day something someone said struck me. I am so much more confident now."

Too large to run, Zuniga started by walking. Within a couple of months, he was able to run three miles without walking. Today, he runs four miles a day, six days a week, then boosts his workout with 100 push-ups a day and lifts weights for at least an hour. This strict program allowed Zuniga to achieve a feat few Guardsmen attain.

Read the whole piece here.

More on Those Rascally Crusader Knights

I can't resist posting this piece from FP's Tom Ricks, who himself can't resist taking a swipe at Seymour Hersh for his theory that the crusader order the Knights of Malta are alive and exerting influence in the US Special Forces. MP+
Here's a hot tip for Seymour Hersh
Posted By Thomas E. Ricks Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 11:15 AM

Hey Sy, a friend with good military connections tells me that U.S. special operations forces were covertly involved in the Knights of Malta's stalwart defense of the island in 1565 against the Ottoman Turks. Lifting the siege was easy because the Turks turned tail when they saw those Ma Deuce .50 caliber machine guns. The hard part was finding the time machine, but apparently Hollywood had some lying idle.

But, Sy, be careful!: There is no truth to the nasty rumor that the Knights wanted to seek supernatural assistance by offering a Black Mass, but were unable to find any virgins among the U.S. special operators.

Seriously, looking forward to the New Yorker article that will lay this all out. Good luck to those celebrated fact-checkers.

British Army Addresses Mental Health On The Front Lines

Saw this story in the UK MOD news today. Nice to see a military taking a proactive approach to mental health on the front line, rather than waiting to pick up the pieces at home. MP+

Managing mental health issues in Helmand
A Military Operations news article
24 Jan 11

In a stark diversion from his traditional role, a Company Sergeant Major in Helmand is helping his unit to talk through any problems they may have and overcome any mental health issues.

Company Sergeant Major Stuart Potter in discussion with one of his troops regarding his experiences on a recent patrol
[Picture: Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Company Sergeant Major (CSM) Stuart Potter is currently on the front line in Helmand province with 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, in the southern Nad 'Ali area.

He operates the TRiM (Trauma Risk Management) system which teaches soldiers to spot signs of mental distress in their colleagues.

The aim is to encourage troops to talk about their problems and seek help at the earliest stage from the team of community psychiatric nurses and consultant psychiatrists who are on hand in Afghanistan to provide any care and treatment needed.

It's a far cry from CSM Potter's day job at the battalion's headquarters in Shropshire where he is more used to being feared by his troops for his hard line on discipline. He explained:

"In the UK I enforce discipline; I shout at soldiers about their uniform, being late for work or having a 'few too many'.

"In Afghanistan, sometimes I shout, but mostly I listen. I listen to soldiers telling me how they put themselves into danger for their mates, how they extracted a casualty while under fire. How they were scared when they thought their number was up."

CSM Potter says that listening is vital on the front line:

"On patrol it can go from having a laugh with kids and building up trust with local nationals to lying in an irrigation ditch trying to locate the enemy in a blink of an eye.

"No matter who you are, the realisation that you are in someone's sights, that someone wants to kill you, is traumatic; that's where TRiM comes in.

"After every patrol the patrol base commander holds a debrief; they discuss the patrol and identify any lessons learnt, everyone has their say.

"This is the first and, in my view, the most important part of the TRiM process. There is no blame or shame. We all say what we feel.:

Read the whole story here.

When Is A Command Unlawful?

Military ethics is a focus of this blog (readers who have described the blog to me as being "eclectic" may be surprised to learn that it has a focus!) so I flagged this piece from the December 1st issue of the Canadian Forces newspaper, The Maple Leaf.

Military ethics recognizes the principle that not all commands are lawful, and so an unlawful command need not be followed. However, not all commands are unlawful, and the pressures of military operations don't allow for all commands to be exhaustively scrutinized. A 2010 finding of the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada in Regina vs. Liwjy ruled that a mere difference of opinion between a subordinate and a superior as to whether a lawful order was the best course of action is not grounds for a soldier to disobey that order.

"The accused, a vehicle technician, had been ordered to perform a brake adjustment on a trailer using a specific technique. He disobeyed due to safety concerns. He spoke with an unidentified person at the CF School of Electrical Mechanical Engineers who agreed that an alternative method was potentially better. However, the accused’s superiors considered that their technique —which was the technique set out in the CF Technical Orders—was safe.

The CMAC reviewed the law established by the Supreme Court of Canada—our country’s highest court—and determined that the only exception to a CF member’s duty of obedience is where a superior’s command is “manifestly unlawful”. This is consistent with Note B to QR&O article 19.015, which reads, in part, “where the subordinate does not know the law or is uncertain of it, he shall, even though he doubts the lawfulness of the command, obey unless the command is manifestly unlawful.”

In essence, the court ruled that unless an order crosses "the high threshold of being mainfestly unlawful", then a soldier must deem a command to be lawful and must obey it, or a military ceases to function. Readers who are unfamiliar with militaries may be reassured to know that soldiers are not left in the dark as to whether a command is lawful or unlawful, relying only on "the gut test". Recruit courses, premission briefs, annual ethics training and rules of engagement for deployments are all part of military training.

Complete coverage of this story can be found here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is there a Sinister Crusader Conspiracy in the US MIlitary?

I have always enjoyed Seymour Hersh's pieces on US foreign policy that have appeared over the years in journals such as The New Yorker. Hersh reminds me a bit of Noan Chomsky - a lot of what he says seems somewhere between paranoia and hyperbole, but he makes you wonder what goes on behind the scenes.

Recently Blake Hounshell, writing on the Foreign Policy website, quoted Hersh from a speech given this January in which he accuses senior leaders in the US military special forces community of being members of an organization, the Knights of Malta, with roots in the Crusades of the middle ages.

"That's the attitude," Hersh continued. "We're gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That's an attitude that pervades, I'm here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command."

He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta."

Hersh may have been referring to the Sovereign Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic organization commited to "defence of the Faith and assistance to the poor and the suffering," according to its website.

"Many of them are members of Opus Dei," Hersh continued. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function."

"They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins," he continued. "They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community."

Apparently Hounshell's comments generated some heat, so here is today on FP fleshing them out:

Since my write-up of Seymour Hersh's talk is getting some coverage today, and many commenters have written in to dispute my post, I thought I should provide a little more context.

More than a few readers, including Salon's Glenn Greenwald, complained that I hadn't rebutted Hersh's arguments. That wasn't my intention -- I was relaying what Hersh said. I did make two editorial comments: that his speech was a "rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe" and that it "quickly went downhill" after its opening line. But I imagine that when most reasonable people read the transcript -- I don't have a video, unfortunately -- they will see what I'm talking about. As far as I know, nobody, including Hersh, is disputing my quotes.

I thought it was self-evident that several points Hersh made were off-base and conspiratorial, but perhaps it's worth spelling things out for everyone.

1. The idea that "we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals" is "an attitude that pervades … a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command." This is essentially unverifiable unless you do a survey of JSOC personnel. Good luck with that. For now, the weight of evidence suggests that JSOC is on the whole a highly competent and professional organization that has no intention of converting Muslims to Christianity around the world. If it were otherwise, I'm sure we'd be hearing about it from others besides Seymour Hersh.

2. Retired General Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.… Many of them are members of Opus Dei." McChrystal has already denied being a member of Knights of Malta; McRaven and JSOC have thus far declined to comment. But so what if they were? Everything I've seen tells me that the Knights of Malta are a public service organization, not some kind of Catholic extremist group. And Opus Dei is hardly the secretive cabal of ruthless assassins depicted in The Da Vinci Code. It has a Facebook page.

3. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function." I have no doubt that many in the U.S. military are religious, and yes, I've heard about Jerry Boykin, Erik Prince, and those rifle scopes. But the plural of anecdote is not data -- and acknowledging there are devout Christians in the military and implying that top military leaders are embarking on a "crusade" against Muslims are two very different things. "Zealotry is viewed as being unprofessional [in the SF community]," former Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp told Stars and Stripes. "Anyone who professes religion in an open way like that is suspect to where their real loyalties lie." (Do I really need to explain this?)

4. "They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins.… They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war." I believe Hersh is referring here to challenge coins, a common sight across the U.S. military. They seem pretty innocuous to me.

Actually, I have a Canadian Forces chaplaincy branch challenge coin that I keep in my mess kit. Last time I checked, I'm not a member of a secret crusading order. Bottom line, I tend to agree with Hounshell that "I'm going to go out on a limb here and just say it: Odds are good that JSOC is not being overrun by Catholic fanatics."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Saints Despite Themselves: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 23 January, 2011

This sermon almost didn't happen. Fishing for my sunglasses en route to Suffield, hit some ice, and suddenly I learned how all those other folks went off the road and into the ditch. Thanks be to God, car's ok, I'm ok, and an awesome tow truck driver was on the scene in minutes. I think he liked the fact that he got a minister to church on time. MP+

Proper 3, Lectionary Year A
Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1,5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

Text: 1 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Cor 1:10)

My focus today is our lesson from First Corinthians, and my subject is unity and division. Those of you who are Canadians will know all about divisions. It’s practically in our national DNA to obsess about the things that divide us – language, region, and of course, hockey. We could have a vigorous debate today about whether the Sens or the Habs or the Canucks were the best team, and you could all find a temporary unity in pitying those of us who are Leafs fans. Those sorts of divisions are mostly harmless and good fun, part of human nature. Quite normal, really. But wouldn’t it be odd if one group of Sens fans turned to another group and said “You aren’t real Sens fans, we are”. Or odder still if second NHL team formed calling itself the Ottawa Senators, saying that they were the true Senators and not the original Senators. That would be odd indeed, but isn’t that what happens so often in religion?

If you ever go to Galt, in south west Ontario, and you find yourself in the old part of town, by the banks of the Grand River, you’ll notice two magnificent Victorian stone churches. One is Knox’s Galt Presbyterian Church, off South Square, which has a six storey steeple that can be seen for many miles. Across the square by the river, several stone’s throws away, stands another old stone church, called Central Presbyterian Church. You might ask yourself, why did a small Ontario town need two huge Presinbyterian churches as attractive as they might be? The answer has to do with a series of controversies and divisions in the Presbyterian church in the 1800s. But not to pick on Presbyterians, mind you. If you drove east from Galt along the 401 and came to Hoskin Avenue in downtown Toronto, you would find yourself looking at two Anglican seminaries across the street from one another. Why, you might ask yourself why Victorian Toronto felt it needed two Anglican seminaries. A facetious answer would be that there wasn’t money to build a third. A more serious answer would be that there seems to be something in our DNA, some part of our as yet unredeemed human nature, that leads us to division rather than to unity.

Last Sunday we looked at the opening of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian church, and we talked about the idea of how Paul stressed that they had been called by Christ to be saints or holy ones. But as we continue with First Corinthians today, we hear in the very next lines that this church is a long way from its calling. Paul has learned from members of this congregation, “Chloe’s people”, that they Corinthian church are divided and quarrelling. The source of their division appears to be that people have formed groups attaching themselves to those who baptized them, and so little quasi-denominations have started to form. Some Corinthians are Paul Christians, others are Cephas (Peter) Christians, Appollos Christians, and some are Christ Christians. Paul has no patience or time for these groups, even for those who identify themselves with him. He thanks God that he only baptized a few of the Corinthians (1:14-15) to make the point that baptism has nothing to do with the minister who baptized them, and everything to do with the name of the One, Christ, in whom they were baptized. It is in that name that Paul appeals to these divided Christians: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose (1 Cor 1:10).

The question I want to ask today is why is unity so important to Paul, and perhaps a more important question, why is (or perhaps just is) unity important to you? Perhaps the question depends in part on what we define “unity” to be. In Paul’s day, as the first generations of Christians were coalescing into what we call the church, there were divisions between followers of Jesus who were from Jewish backgrounds, and who were to some extent were still Jewish in many ways, and those who were from Gentiles. Some of the debates we hear in Acts and in Paul’s other letters are about whether Jewish customs should be binding on Gentile believers. There would also be divisions in geography, in language, in social status (from slave to Roman citizen), wealth, and gender. While these divisions were real and could not be wished away, repeatedly in his letters we see Paul saying that they pale in comparison to the new identity that they have been given as followers of Jesus Christ. A central theme of Paul’s theology is that Christ died for everyone, without discrimination, to make what is in effect a new human race, the race that God intended at creation. Anyone who looks backwards and who wants to identify themselves according to the old identities is in Paul’s view refusing the gift of the new identity Christ has given them. When Paul says ironically in our lesson “Has Christ been divided?” (1:13), the answer implied is “No, he hasn’t been divided, and neither should you be?”.

So what about you? How important is Christian unity to you? I’m very much aware that the people who come to this chapel come from a variety of backgrounds and have been formed by various traditions, including Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostal. Two thousand years after Paul, we take it as a given that the Christian identity is complex, like a large tree with any branches. Christian history is a history of argument and division, like the now-forgotten divisions which led to the two Presbyterian churches in Galt. Truth be told, most of us are probably grateful that different churches, traditions, and ways of being Christian exist. I recall a conversation here after coffee last week where we discussed our various experiences visiting churches of other denominations over the years. Some of those experiences were comfortable, and some were so far out of our comfort zone that we couldn’t worship because it was so alien and uncomfortable to us. Culture, tradition and even personality (such as Meyers Briggs types) have a greater say in what churches we attend than we probably care to admit, but going back to Paul, if he were here today he would say that our purpose as Christians is to worship the God who created and saved us, and if our divisions impair our worship, then we have a problem.

You will have noticed that thanks to Nicole and Sheldon our music today is live and in the informal genre of praise hymns. Any pastor that even though the bible tells us to offer hymns of praise to God, nothing can divide a congregation quite like music can. I heard a story this week about a church (Soul Survivor in Watford, England) where music had created a toxic environment. They did a lot of live praise music, but people in the congregation had their favourite bands and musicians, and wouldn’t come on Sundays when their favourites weren’t playing. The pastor, no doubt thinking of Paul and the Corinthians, decided that if music was dividing the church, then the music would stop until they got over their divisions. That experience led one member, Matt Redmon, to write a song, “The Heart of Worship”, that has become a classic in the new church music movement. The chrus of the song goes like this:

I'm coming back to the heart of worship,
And it's all about You,
It's all about You, Jesus
I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it
When it's all about You,
It's all about You, Jesus

This is also the message of Paul to the Corinthians and to us, that when we become too fond of what’s comfortable, what’s normal, then we start to put our divisions ahead of God, when really it should be “all about You, Jesus”.

Today in our chapel we’ve done something a little unusual. We’ve been a little more informal, we’ve heard and sung some different music. I hope it was a blessing to you. Next week is an Anglican Eucharist, which is more the norm for this place. Where we go in the future depends on the talents we have and where the Spirit takes us. The Canadian Forces Chaplaincy has given its protestant chapels the green light to experiment more and be more open to different kinds of worship. Wherever it is we go here at Christ the King, and wherever you go in the rest of the churchgoing lives, may it be true to the gift of new identity that Christ has given you, and may it be all about You, Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tom Long on Narrative vs Episodic Preaching

I have a lot of time for Tom Long as a guide to the art of preaching. I heard him at a clergy day some years back and his wisdom really impressed me.

In this clip from Working Preacher, he talks about the dangers of assuming that an ADHD culture can still understand narrative preaching, and offers some advice accordingly.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hearing the Call of God: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB 16 January 2010

Lections for Proper 2 Year A: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Text: "To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints" (1 Corinthians 1:2)

Today’s sermon continues some ideas on how we hear the voice of God that I preached on last Sunday. Since church was cancelled due to snow on Sunday, you never got to hear that sermon, unless you went to my blog (see the URL in the bulletin) and read it. (Thank you if you did, thank you even more if you shared the link with someone else, a nice example of internet-enabled evangelism!).

This Sunday I want to talk about a specific way that we hear the voice of God in terms of the “calling”. I’m thinking about the word “calling” because of the way that St. Paul beats us over the head with the word in our second lesson. In the first nine lines of 1 Corinthians I count the word “called” three times. Paul seems to be using “called” to mean “chosen” or “set apart for something”. Likewise in today’s gospel from John, when we hear Jesus say to Simon that “you are to be called Cephas (Peter)”, we get the sense that our Lord is doing something more profound than giving a nickname. Jesus seems to using “called” to suggest that this new name of “Peter” stands for a new life and role that he has in mind for Simon.

Because of scripture passages such as these, when we in what a friend of mine likes to call “churchland” hear the world “calling”, we think that it only applies to bible characters and religious professionals. None of us would aspire to be another Simon Peter, and when we hear Paul talking to “the church of God in Corinth … called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2) I suspect we doubt that we could be considered saints like the Corinthians. After all, weren’t the early Christians brave and persecuted martyrs who had faith even when they were thrown to the lions? Well, some of them were certainly brave, but the Corinthians certainly had their faults, and yet Paul said they were “called to be saints”. Today I want to suggest that when we think of a “calling”, we need to get past the idea that it only applies to religious professionals, such as padres. I want to ask, would it change the way we see ourselves as Christians if we all felt that we had callings from God to be, as Paul puts it, “saints”?

When we broaden our thinking beyond churchland, I think we would agree that lots of people, and not just religious professionals, have callings. Anything which is more than just a job, anything which requires loyalty and perhaps some degree of self-sacrifice, is often called a calling. Thus teachers, firefighters and professional soldiers, for example, might be said to have callings because they are set apart by their unique talents, devotion to duty, and the value they bring to society. Another important aspect to the calling is that it comes from within, that there is some voice or some desire that compels a person towards a certain profession. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines calling as “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career”. The “urge” or compulsion that is part of a calling is important because callings are not easy things to follow. There has to be an element of satisfaction, a kind of pleasure and fulfillment, that allows a person to keep pursuing a calling. Thus a young man may take a series of demeaning and tedious jobs in order to work at becoming an artist. A recruit may have to endure harsh and exhausting training in order to prove herself as a soldier. This element of satisfaction explains the spiritual dimension of the calling. The writer Frederick Buechner captures this idea well when he writes that a vocation or calling is “the place where your deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest need”.

So if we agree that lots of people – teachers, soldiers, firefighters, artists – can have callings, can we also say that lots of Christians can have callings, rather than just a few religious professionals? After all, at the beginning of his letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul says that they ALL have callings, and that calling is to be a saint. Paul writes “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”. That’s a pretty strong way to start a letter, when you consider that Paul could have started off by saying “to the Christians in Corinth, a great bunch of folks” or “to that little church with the big heart and the family feel”. No, these people are “called to be saints”. The word “saints” is a translation of a Greek word, “hagios”, meaning “holy ones”. And, since Paul goes on to say that the Corinthians are “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and since we too “call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (after all, our chapel is named “Christ the King”), that must mean that we, too, are called to be saints or holy ones. So how does that work for you, hearing that you too are “called to be a saints and holy ones”?

Well, if you feel that you aren’t good enough to be a “saint” or a “holy one” because you’re a bad person or because you’re not a religious professional or whatever, sorry, you don’t get a choice. God has “called” you to be a saint, just as he called the Corinthians, and you know, the Corinthians were a pretty messed up bunch. We’ll be hearing more readings from 1 Corinthians at church in the next few weeks, which will reveal that this early bunch of saints argued over theology and church life, and had ahead of the poor in their church life, and had some pretty dodgy ideas about sexual practice. Some saints! Paul knows all about these faults, but as he writes in the opening of his letter, God is both faithful and generous. He has given his people the gift of his Son (“for in every way you have been enriched by him, in speech and knowledge of every kind”) and he will continue to support his people and “strengthen [them] to the end” so that on the day of judgement “[they] may be blameless”. Paul’s challenge to the Corinthian church is for them to realize that they have all been given these gifts, to end their divisions and to live up to the calling that God has given them.

The thing about callings is that they find us. Something puts that urge, what Buechner calls that place of “deepest gladness”, and that urge persists until we find the place where our joy and the world’s need are met. Or, as a priest I knew once said, “when you have an itch, you have to scratch it”. What Paul reminds us, I think, is that God has given us all these callings. Before we thought of God, or made a decision to follow him, he called us to be his people. We may not think we are worthy of God’s call, we may not think of ourselves as saints or holy ones, but it’s in God’s power to make us into saints and holy ones. John in our gospel reading this morning realized that when he looked at Jesus and said “Look, here is the Lamb of God”. John realized that Jesus would be the one who would save us, take away our sins, and make us holy. So in a culture which values individual choice above all, and even in a Christianity which often talks about making a decision to choose Christ as our personal Saviour, there is the startling, and hopefully liberating, fact that God chose us and called us first. Our choice is really only how we respond to that urge.

So how do we respond to God’s calling? As I suggested earlier, once we dispel our notions that a calling is something that only religious professionals get, then we can start to think seriously about this question. We don’t have to be preachers or ministers. We can all have callings. We are all called to be God’s people, to be his holy ones. We don’t have to worry about finding it within ourselves to be saints because that is God’s gift in his Son. God has given us the resources sufficient for the task he has called us to, starting with our baptism, and will continue to strengthen us with his love and with his faithfulness. How we live out our lives as God’s holy ones is as individual as each one of us here. The preacher Barbara Taylor Brown once said something to the effect that God doesn’t care if you are a missionary or if you work in a gas station, as long as you live in the knowledge that you are God’s person. Beyond the basics of loving God, loving our neighbour, and using our God given talents, I would say that be we be God’s person is up to each of us. It may mean being a farmer or soldier, a parent or grandparent, a son or daughter, or a friend. Whoever and wherever we are, we can take comfort in the knowledge that God loves us, forgives us, strengthens us and that we aren’t alone. We are called, like the Corinthians, “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ”. That fellowship includes all the others that God has called over the ages, including you and me, just regular folks, “called to be saints”. Praise God.

The the Call of God: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Friday, January 14, 2011

I don't like being told something can't be done!": Four Wounded Warriors Head for the North Pole

What should four British soldiers, recovering from serious wounds and loss of limbs from combat in Afghanistan, do next? Why, go to the North Pole, of course. That's the challenge that these four men have set for themselves. Chosen from a hundred applicants, and assisted by a guide and two expedition leaders, they intend to be the first disabled people to make it to the Pole unsupported.

From the UK MOD story, the four are:

* Officer Captain Guy Disney - lost his lower leg during Operation PANTHER'S CLAW in Afghanistan in 2009 when his Spartan armoured vehicle came under heavy fire in an ambush and a rocket-propelled grenade pierced the hull. Private Robbie Laws from The Mercian Regiment was killed in the same incident.

• Paratrooper Captain Martin Hewitt - lost the use of his right arm after being shot during a gun battle with the enemy in Afghanistan in 2007.

• Sergeant Steve Young of the Welsh Guards - was caught in an IED blast whilst travelling in a Mastiff armoured personnel carrier during Operation PANTHER'S CLAW in Afghanistan in 2009. He sustained a fractured vertebra, among other injuries, and was warned he might not walk again.

• Paratrooper Private Jaco van Gass - had his left arm amputated at the elbow in 2009 following a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Afghanistan.

Private Jaco van Gass pulls his sledge across the snow during Arctic training
[Picture: Copyright Walking With The Wounded 2011]

Reading about these four, who will be traversing ice, snow, vertical cliffs and open water in temperatures as low as -50C, makes me feel somewhat better about running in an Alberta winter.

Read the whole story here.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A New Look at Canadian Naval History

The 8 December issue of the Canadian Forces newspaper The Maple Leaf featured a piece on "Convoy", a four part documentary telling the story of the Battle of the Atlantic in World War Two. Using live actors and recreations, veteran interviews, historians' commentary and archival footage, this series offers a significant and well-told look this campaign, with a lot of attention on Canada's important role in it. I've managed to see the first episode and thought it was excellent.

Actors portray Second World War sailors in "Convoy".

Military chapels in Canada still observe Battle of the Atlantic Sunday the first Sunday of May every year, and military chaplains will find plenty of footage, images, and material to include in their services on this occasion.

Convoy won the first prize in the historical category at the 21st Annual Military Film Festival in Braciano, Italy. It can be viewed online at the History Channel website here.

Notable Quotable: George Sumner on Interfaith Dialogue

The Rev. Canon Dr. George Sumner is principal of Wycliffe College, my seminary alma mater, and a very fine theologian. These words appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Insight, the college publication, and are apropos of some recent posts here on relations between Christians and other faiths. MP+

The word "dialogue" has come, in the religious realm, to refer to a blending of religious claims in which talk as personal empathy overwhelms truth, and a pluralistic model of relations between the religions comes to prevail. But Hegel would remind us that the silouhette of our individuality comes clearest against the background of dialogue. This is something that other religions too want to affirm - a devout Muslim or Sikh has no interest in compromising the distinctness of their walk or their claims either. In fact dialogue is best throught of as the engagement by which a tradition challenges and is challenged by, learns from and teaches, its neighbours; in so doing it seeks to display the truth of its claims, not least in a charitable understanding of its neighbour.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Either We Live Together Or We Die Together": In Egypt, Hope for Religious Harmony

I saw this story last week and have been delayed in posting it, but I think it makes a hopeful counterbalance to the news from Pakistan about the assasination of Salman Taseer by an Islamist radical. News from Egypt suggests that religious tolerance and courage exists in the Arab world, a fact we may sometimes lose sight of in talk of Moslem extremism.

Several media outlets reported that after the New Years Day bomb attack on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt, numerous Muslims turned out on the Coptic Christmas celebrations of 6 January to act as human shields for their Christian neighbours. As one Egyptian woman was quoted as saying, "I know it might not be safe, yet it's either we live together, or we die together, we are all Egyptians."

Muslims protect and greet Orthodox Christians leaving the church where Saturday's bomb blast took place in Alexandria, January 6, 2011, after the Coptic Christmas mass. Egypt tightened security around churches on Thursday, the eve of Coptic Christmas, after a New Year's Day bombing killed up to 23 and sparked angry protests by Christians demanding more protection from Muslim militants. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Several prominent Egyptians, including journalists, actors, and two sons of President Hosni Mubarak leant their support to the Coptic community. Read more coverage in the Washington Post here.

"A leader personified": A WW2 Icon Passes

Anyone who saw the HBO series Band of Brothers, based on the book by historian Stephen Ambrose, will remember the US parachute officer Richard "Dick" Winters, played by actor Damian Lewis. Winters led E for Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, from the D-Day landing in June 1944 to the end of the war in Germany. Thanks to Ambrose and the HBO series, Winters became one of the best-known soldiers of World War Two, remarkable for his courageous leadership and modest demeanour. Winters died this week in his native Pennsylvania at age 91.

Richard "Dick" Winters in 1945. An intensely private man, he said that historian Stephen Ambrose "changed my life forever."

The LA Times obituary is here and the NPR one is here. HT to my mad nephew Tom for this.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Britain's New Forces Sweetheart Named

Vera Lynn left some pretty big high-heeled shoes to fill but apparently Richard Rhodes is the man to fill them.

Rhodes, who goes by the stage name of Cookie Monstar, is the first drag queen to have earned the title of "Forces Sweetheart" for entertaining British troops. Given what I've seen at Suffield of squaddie humour and the love of British troops for a good laugh, I can't say I'm shocked, surprised, or disillusioned. As my brother the Mad Colonel observed, it's quite the contrast from the Don't Ask, Don't Tell attitude.

Read more here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hearing the Voice of the God who Speaks. A Sermon for Sunday Jan 9th, The Baptism of Our Lord

I had this sermon ready to go today for Christ the King Chapel at CFB Suffield, but a storm system came through SE Alberta yesterday and service was cancelled, so this is the only place it's being preached. MP+

A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 9 January, 2011
Lectionary Year A. Lections: Isa 42:1-9, Ps 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matt 3:13-17

5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations (Isa 42:5-6)

Two stories to start with. The first is about a cartoon I saw in the New Yorker magazine recently which shows two men, both dressed in white robes, standing on a cloud. Both are looking at their cell phones. One is saying to the other “I only get two bars. What about you?”. I like the cartoon because it begs the question, who are these guys trying to call from heaven? Who are they expecting to call? The cartoon says a lot about our constant dependency on our technology to keep us connected and in control, and it says a lot about our willingness to listen to the voices that matter most to us.

The second is from Saturday’s National Post, quoting a professor who has some ideas about the iPod, that little device that allows people to carry their tunes anywhere they go. The professor, Michael Bull, thinks that the real reason for the popularity of devices like the iPod is that they save people from having to think. “A lot of people don’t like to be alone with their thoughts. The best way to avoid that is to listen to music”.

Don’t think from these two stories that I am a self-righteous and puritanical despiser of technology. As a matter of fact I own a cell phone and an ipod and they are both large parts of my life, partly by necessity and partly by choice. My job requires me to be connected by cell phone and email almost constantly, but I also carry an iphone by choice and I love it its various applications. I also love choosing the music that surrounds me and motivates me, especially when running. But occasionally, when I do find myself alone with my thoughts, I sometimes wonder what price I’m paying. As a priest and, more importantly, as a Christian, I wonder how can my thoughts and my ears be open to the thoughts and voice of God if I surround myself with this bubble of technology?

I’m led to ask this question because today in the life of the church is called the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, but based on our readings today we could also call if Voice of God Sunday. All of our readings show us God speaking, either directly as in the earthshaking voice of Psalm 29 the voice from heaven that proclaims Jesus as “my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17), on indirectly through the preaching of God’s servants such as Peter, as described in Acts 10. All these readings serve to remind us that our faith is dynamic, because our God speaks. Our relationship with God is intended to be conversational. We speak to God through prayer, through worship, and through our private thoughts and meditations, and God speaks to us.

God speaks to us. Doesn’t he? I wonder, do we really believe that? Well, we might believe it, but I suspect that most of us would be reticent to say publically that God has said anything specific to us. After all, hearing voices and having visions are recognized symptoms of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Movies like Agnes of God and TV shows like House point to the medical and scientific scepticism, and even hostility, towards religious experience. In a CBC radio interview aired last Friday with Dr. Mark Vonnegut, son of the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, he recounted his own history of mental illness which in his youth sometimes took the form of religious thoughts. As he said, “the fine line between spirituality and mental illness may be just that, a fine line”.

I certainly don’t wish to discount science. As a student pastor, I met a young man who said he heard voices and was convinced he was under demonic attack. While I believed that he believed what he said, I also knew that he was the age when schizophrenia commonly manifests itself in males. It would have been irresponsible of me not to have urged him and his family to seek medical help, while at the same time supporting him spiritually. At the same time, I think that what science and medicine fail to recognize about faith is that God’s speech is not just a matter of personal, subjective experience. Rather, God speaks and has spoken to us as his people, as the church in its many forms, and it as God’s people, the church, where we hear the word of God most clearly and in such as way as it gives us strength and hope to live our lives as individuals and families.

God speaks. That claim is basic to our faith. The theologian Richard Jensen says that God talks. We see that in Genesis, where, however we understand the creation story, the basic point is that God’s word creates life. We heard an echo of Genesis in our first lesson, from Isaiah, which reminds us that God “spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people who walk upon it” (Isa 42:1-9). Then God “talks himself into a body” in Jesus, which is among other things the story of Christmas. If you in church on Christmas Eve you may have heard the gospel reading from John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Then God speaks to us, which we hear primarily through the Bible, and he speaks to us words of life, words of love, words of hope, and we call these grace-filled words the gospel.

What is it that we want to hear? I suspect that for most people, perhaps all people, what we want to hear is simple. We want to hear that we aren’t alone. We want to hear that we don’t have to be afraid. We want to hear that we are loved. Pretty simple, and pretty fundamental needs. Perhaps it is these needs that drive us to text, to twitter, to email, to download, so many of us so busy with our gadgets.

Now consider how God speaks to us through the various parts of the Christmas story which the church heard through these last six weeks of Advent and of Christmas. We heard that we aren’t alone. We heard that through the prophet Isaiah (Is 7:10-16), and again in Matthew (Mtt 1:18-25), that the saviour God would send would be “Immanuel”, meaning “God is with us”. We heard that we don’t have to be afraid. On Christmas Eve we heard the angels tell the shepherds “Do not be afraid. For see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people”. That promise to the shepherds, among the poorest of people in Jesus’ time, huddled in the darkness and cold, is a first instalment of the prophet Isaiah’s words, also heard on Christmas Eve, that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa 9:2). Finally, we want to know that we are loved. Today we heard God’s word in Isaiah to us, his people, that “I have taken you by the hand and kept you” (Isa 42:1-9). That personal claim of love and support that God makes on us is echoed in the story of the baptism of Jesus, a baptism that we share, and where the same words “This is my child, with whom I am well pleased” are given to each of us. Doctrinally we can say that baptism is many things, but what is baptism if it is not an enactment of God’s love for us that claims us, names us, and saves us?

God speaks. God is telling you that you are not alone, that you don’t have to be afraid, and that you are loved. God’s words of grace are words of liberation. Like Isaiah promising sight to the blind and freedom to the captives, these words have the power to call us out of whatever guilt, whatever isolation, whatever bitterness our lives may have become trapped us in. God’s words call us out into the light, into relationship with Him and with one another. God speaks. The question is, will you hear?

As I said above, God speaks to us collectively, through the church. This is one of the reasons why we worship collectively, to hear the word of God read and preached. Even if you can’t attend every service through Advent and Christmas, this is one of the times when the word of God in scripture and story can be heard and understood most clearly during the church year, even if you’re not a biblical scholar or theologian. But really, the best place to hear God is in the space that you make in your life for his voice. And that’s why I find that cartoon of the two guys in heaven looking at their cell phones and only getting two bars to be so funny, because I think spiritual reception is really up to us rather than to the strength of some celestial network.

God speaks. Hearing his voice is up to us. Over the centuries our faith has developed some methods in which we can hear God's voice. Besides worship, there is meditation which can often be linked to bible or some other kind of devotional reading (often called lectio divina), quiet time, retreats, spiritual direction, or seeking the counsel and conversation of mature Christians. Choosing which method to try may depend upon a person's schedule, temperament, and access to other Christians, whether as part of a church or a small group. But certainly we can all start by taking time to reduce our dependence on the other voices around us and the technology that brings them to us, and then working on our own spiritual receptivity. One of the psalms advises us to "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10). What the psalmist is talking about, I think, is intentional listening, slowing down and focusing on the presence of God. Sister Madonna Buder puts it this way: "To listen with distraction is to remain empty. To listen with inner stillness is to be filled with peace and wisdom" (from her book, The Grace to Race, p. 242).

God speaks, He speaks words of grace and freedom. He tells you that you are not alone, that you need not be afraid, and that you are loved. But you won't hear these words, and you won't allow them to take you root in your life, unless you listen for them. To go back to Michael Bull, the iPod professor, if we aren't willing to be alone with our thoughts, then we will never hear God's thoughts.


Friday, January 7, 2011

"None of Us Feel Safe": The Dangerous World of Pakistan's Christians

I confess I had never heard of Salman Taseer before his assasination recently, but I as I read more about him I realize that Christianity lost a brave and generous friend in the late Governor of Punjab.

It's widely known that Taseer was murdered by his bodyguard for speaking out against Pakistan's repressive blasphemy laws and for the violence that has silenced many moderate Muslims in that country. What is less widely known, I suspect, is that Taseer risked his life to advocate for a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who is sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam.

Salmaan Taseer meets with Aasia Bibi after she was sentenced to hang for blasphemy in Punjab province, where Taseer was governor until his assassination on Wednesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

There is nothing particularly special about Bibi. She is not an activist, a religious leader, or a political figure. According to the BBC News, she are her family are the only Christians in her village, and the blasphemy charges arose after a dispute with neighbours over access to water. This "illiterate farm worker from rural Punjab" now has the unwelcome celebrity of being "the first woman sentenced to hang under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law" and she may not even live until her execution date.

According to the BBC, there is a developing pattern of targetted murder of people accused of blasphemy, with 34 being killed since 1984. Even Pakistan's Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, himself a Christian, has been threatened and since Taseer's death, he would be wise to take these threats seriously. At least he and Taseer had some hope of bodyguards and security. Poor families, such as Aasia Bibi's, now live in hiding and fear of their radical Muslim neighbours.

As a Christian charity worker connected with Bibi is quoted as saying in The Guardian, "Taseer died for the Christians and now we are feeling broke and scared. If they can kill the governor of Punjab then who am I?"

Since 2011, the West had spent hundreds of its soldiers' lives and billions of dollars on Pakistan and Afghanistan in the name of security. At the same time, as the current government instability in Pakistan shows, the West had been demanding fiscal accountability and responsibility of the Pakistani government. One wonders when, or even if, western leaders will also demand accountability for the safety and human rights of religious minorities in these countries. A great western leader of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once championed the "Four Freedoms" of speech, or worship, from want, and from fear. One of the great questions of the 21st century will be whether these freedoms are globally applicable and worth championing by those who currently enjoy them.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What I'm Reading: The Grace to Race, Sister Madonna Buder

The Grace to Race: The Wisdom and Inspiration of the 80-Year-Old World Champion Triathlete Known as the Iron Nun Sister Madonna Buder with Karin Evans. New York: Simon & Schuster 2010

I first heard about Sister Madonna Buder when she was profiled as one of Running World Magazine's 2007 Heroes of Running. However, if I was part of the triathlon community, I'm sure I would have known about this legendary figure long before.

Marie Dorothy Buder first took her vows as a Roman Catholic nun when she was 23 years old in 1953. The first part of her memoir offers a profound description of her struggling with her call to a life that would cut her off from the world and from many of the life options open to a beautiful and accomplished young woman from a prosperous family. After her vows she worked as an educator and social worker in the rigidly structured world of her order, but in mid life two things changed.

First, she took advantage of reforms in Catholic religious communities and in the 1980s joined a less structured order, the Sisters for Christian Community, which gave her greater freedom of travel and time. Second, at the age of 48, while attending a workshop on spirituality, she followed the advice of a priest who advocated running as a means to physical, mental and spiritual health. Within a few years she had qualified for the Boston Marathon and from there she became involved in the then-burgeoning sport of triathlon.

Buder's account of how she became a record-setting triathlete is full of humour, wisdom, and awareness that this was a continuation of God's calling in her life. She writes, "I found peace in the realization that if God gives you a talent, He expects you to ue it. You don't need to apologize for His gifts, only for neglecting to use them. You are honouring your Creator by making use of them. Not to do so would insult His generosity. This realization gave me the courage to keep going. My drive has always been to answer the call and let God do the rest" (p. 106).

When you read this sometimes funny, often harrowing account of injuries, accidents, and frequent trips to the brink of physical collapse, you realize that this book really is an account of stepping out in faith. Buder frequently attributes her success to God's help, often in the form of "angels", bystanders, fellow athletes and race officials who gave her a helping hand or encouragement when she couldn't rely on herself to finish. Often, too, it is Buder who is the one exhorting and encouraging those around her. Passages such as this one, from the Simon and Schuster website, show her belief in God sending these "angels" as an explanation for her success. Often too Buder describes her work, though not in so many words, as an evangelist to the running community, one whose faith, prayerfulness and determination are an inspiration to those around her.

For athletes, even those who are not believers, Buder has a lot of wisdom to offer. For example, as a struggling and aspiring runner, I'm obsessed with numbers, such as time, pace, distance, and total kms run. For people like me, she writes "I feel that being focsed on making up a certain number of miles can turn me into a robot". Instead, she counsels "Don't waste time training for training's sake; incorporate the workout into your daily life; make it joyful" (111-112). Examples of her practice include making up haikus based on sights and thoughts encountered during the run and turning them into mantras to accompany the rhythmn and pace of the run, or using the time to pray intensely and repeatedly, either in intercession or using a fixed prayer such as the rosary. More important than any one technique is her joyous and firm conviction that despite injury and setback, there is purpose, opportunity, and satisfaction in the journeys of life and faith.

I would recommend Buder for those who, like myself, reached middle age before they really decided to challenge themselves. For athletes much more accomplished than myself, she also has wise words about balance, so that one is not "enslaved by the very process you feel gives you freedom" (240). The final pages of her book list Buder's maxims for sport and for life that I will copy and keep close to hand for years to come.

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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