Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Military Picture of the Week

This is a great picture, both for the intense quality of the soldier's face, and the backdrop. I also like it because it shows one of those lovely peculiarities of the British army, the hackle or plume worn by certain regiments. Not only is it distinctive, as you can see here, it helps camouflage you when hiding against a cloudy sky. :) MP+

Soldiers from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh (1 R WELSH) have been taking part in Exercise Askari Thunder in Kenya. At Turaco Farm, near Nanyuki Showground Camp, the soldiers prepared their kit and equipment prior to the final training exercise, which will bring all their training in Kenya into play as they exercise various scenarios as a battlegroup. Pictured: Fusilier Scott Bennett on exercise in Kenya with Fire Support Group 2, 1 R WELSH [Picture: Sergeant Ian Forsyth, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Faces of the Fallen for April 2011

Here are the images and names of those NATO service men and women killed or died of wounds received in Afghanistan, whom we have remembered in prayer at Christ the King Chapel over the last few weeks. The military world is a small one: one British member of our congregation here trained with Capt. Head, who is listed below.

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them.

Sgt. Jose M. Caraballo Pietri, 32, of Yauco, Puerto Rico, died April 10 in Badghis province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 84th Field Artillery Regiment, 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Baumholder, Germany.

Sgt. Vorasack T. Xaysana, 30, of Westminster, Colo., died April 10 in Kirkuk, Iraq, of injuries sustained April 9 in a non-combat related incident. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, Fort Hood, Texas.

Staff Sgt. Jeremy D. Smith, 26, of Arlington, Texas, died April 6 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, Marine Forces Reserve, based out of Houston, Texas.

Sgt. Scott H. Burgess, 32, of Franklin, Texas.

Sgt. Michael S. Lammerts, 26, of Tonawanda, N.Y.

Burgess and Lammerts were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 84th Field Artillery Regiment, 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Baumholder, Germany. They died April 4 of wounds suffered from small arms fire in Faryab province, Afghanistan.

Spc. Brent M. Maher, 31, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, died April 11 in Paktia province, Afghanistan, of injuries sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment, Iowa National Guard, Shenandoah, Iowa.

Pvt. Brandon T. Pickering, 21, of Fort Thomas, Ky., died April 10 in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire and a rocket propelled grenade in Wardak province, Afghanistan, April 8. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Polk, La.

Captain Lisa Head, 30, of Huddersfield, UK, from 321 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Squadron, 11 EOD Regiment RLC, died on 19 April 2011, in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Birmingham, of wounds received in Afghanistan.

Pfc. John F. Kihm, 19, of Philadelphia, Pa., died April 19 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.

Notable Quotable: Thomas Carlyle on the Lost Tidings of Our Souls

The following quote is from the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present, which I confess I haven't read, but now want to. I gleaned this quote from a novel I just finished, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Marry Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. My wife Kay urged me to read this book, and I'm glad I did. It is one of those rare books that makes you want to read other books that would otherwise seem too daunting or fusty to seek out. I won't say more about the novel, except that it's a moving and artful meditation on how reading creates communities that sustain people in believable and profound ways.

Here's Carlyle:

Does it ever give thee pause, that men used to have a soul - not by hearsay alone, or as a figure of speech; but as a truth that they knew, and acted upon! Verily it was another world then ... but yet it is a pity we have lost the tidings of our souls ... we shall have to go in search of them again, or worse in all ways shall befall us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Friendly, Compassionate, Life-Giving, Hated": A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Preached 10 April, 2011 at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB

Lectionary Year A, Readings for Lent 5: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

I'm writing out this sermon on Thursday after giving it off the cuff last Sunday, which isn't really advisable, but there you go. I suspect it sounded better off the cuff than it reads here, prosey and lifeless, but again, there you go. MP+

Since many of you will leave the village for Easter Sunday, today, the last Sunday of Lent, offers a wonderful foretaste of Easter Sunday. The story of Jesus' raising of Lazarus has to be one of the most loved stories of the gospels, and combined the equally beloved story of the dry bones brought to life in Ezekiel. Both of these stories point to the triumph of life over death which is at the heart of Easter and of the Christian faith. However, for us to fully understand that story and to be able to grasp the hope behind what can otherwise seem like merely a lovely story, we need to reflect on the nature of the One who offers that hope to us.

Adjectives are words we use to describe known quantities, or at least, what we think we know about someone or something. If you can't think of any adjectives to describe anything other than the physical appearance of a person, then that person is a stranger to you. Adjectives are what friendships (or enmities for that matter) are based on. The same is true with our faith. One of the roles of theology is to try and find appropriate adjectives for God. We are in relationship with a God who wants to be known, and it is because of God's will to be known, what theologians call God's self-revealing, that we have adjectives to describe God.

I want to focus on four adjectives to describe God as given to us by today's gospel lesson: Friendly, Compassionate, Life-Giving and Hated.

Jesus in today's gospel reading is "friendly". I don't mean friendly in the banal sense of a guy you might have a chat with at the pub, but in the deepest, most meaningful sense of friendship as suggested by the Greek word for companiably (rather than erotic) love: agape. An agape friend is someone you turn to in deepest need, someone you know will be there for you. True friendship requires empathy, commitment and self-giving. Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that "he whom you love (Lazarus) is ill" and John goes on to say that Jesus "loved" these three from Bethany (Jn 11:3,5). The bond of friendship between God and humanity is a central theme of John's gospel. Jesus says during his farewell discourse in the upper room that he no longer calls his disciples servants, but rather calls them friends (Jn 15:12-15). This revelation, that God sets aside his majesty and glory to call us friends, is why the word gospel means "good news", because all the barriers between us and God are set aside in the friendship of Christ.

Jesus is also "compassionate", which is an outworking of his friendship. In the Lazarus story we see that compassion displayed in that one line which is often featured in the bible trivia question, what is the shortest line in scripture? ("Jesus began to weep" or "Jesus wept" John 11:35). Compassion is bound up in another great Johannine theme of Jesus as the good shepherd, which is a metaphor for God's saving friendship. After the healing of the blind man, Jesus tells his disciples that he is the good shepherd, whose sheep know his voice. The response of Lazarus to Jesus' voice - "Lazarus, come out!" (Jn 11:43)- is a vision of the shepherd in action, saving one of his own from death through the life-giving and compassion-filled voice of the shepherd. Compassion is also part of the Johnannine idea of the shepherd, for Jesus says the shepherd voluntarily lays down his life for his sheep (Jn 10), which is a foretelling of another saying from his Final Discourse, that there is no greater love than "to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn 15:13). Jesus knows that his compassion carries a cost, for Jesus knows that this miracle will bring greater suspicion and targeting from his enemies (Jn 11:45-53), but that is a cost that Jesus is clear-eyed about.

Jesus is "life-giving". As I said, today's lessons are a wonderful forestaste of the joy of Easter, both the raising of Lazarus and the raising of the dry bones as seen by Ezekiel. These stories point to the creative force and energy that is God. In Ezekiel it is the breath or ruach in Hebrew that gives the dry bones life, an echoing of the breath of God which gives life to humans in Genesis. That same breath proceeds from Jesus' mouth in the form of a voice, calling Lazarus from the grave, and it all points to the same generative power, the same implacable hostility to death, that comes from God and which will raise the Son on Easter morning. But as I said, these stories will remain lovely fantasies unless we are willing to claim them as part of our faith, opening ourselves to God's determination to combat death wherever it is found. For some of us death can come in the midst of life, whether it is a divorce, a death, a diagnosis, or loss of job and career. In all of these moments death seems to overwhelm life, even flooding our will to love, but as Christians we need to hold fast at such moments to the "life giving" quality of our God. if Jesus can bring Lararus from the tomb, he can accomplish smaller but no less powerful moments of resurrection and life restoration in our own lives, if we are willing to hear his call and walk out of the tomb, whether it that tomb for us is despair or self-pity or loneliness and darkness.

Finally, Jesus is "hated". As I mentioned above, the cost of raising Lazarus from the dead is sealing the resolve of his enemies who "from that day on ... planned to put him to death" (Jn 11:53). This also is a greater Johnannine theme, the fact that the Light of the World is not recognized by all in the world. John sets this theme up in his first chapter (Jn 1:10-13) and often returns to it, as in the story of the blind man from last Sunday, whose return to sight and recognition of Jesus as God contrats with the Pharisees who have sight and cannot see Jesus for who he is. This theme is not to underscore the villainy and sinfulness of those who do not recognize Jesus, but rather I think the determination of God and the depth of the love of God to fight for us no matter the cost. As I said a few Sundays back, John 3:16 does not seem like a sometimes overused religious cliche if we translate it as "For God so loved the God hating world that he gave his only son ....". For us as followers of Jesus there is a cost that comes from standing for light and life in the world, because there are many forces in the world that prefer darkness and death. To identify one's self as a Christian, particularly in the military but in the secular world around the military, is to accept some of the hatred that falls on our Lord. We will not be popular, we will be jeered at as hypocrites, as mindless fundamentalists, as intolerant legalists, or whatever. Our challenge is to be hated while still trying to show the other three qualities of Jesus - friendship, compassion, life - to the world. Jesus told us to be light and salt for the world. It's a big job, and it's not always easy.

Today we stand with Jesus at the end of Lent. We've heard the great miracle stories of John through Lent. Next Sunday we return to Matthew's gospel and the entry into Jerusalem, leading up to the passion and death on the cross. The demands, highs and lows of Holy Week are ahead of us. But today there is a respite, for you will remember my saying that just after the raising of Lazarus, John shows us a domestic vignette of friends eating together, as Jesus returns to Bethany and takes a meal with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus ((Jn 12:2). It's at a meal that the qualities of friendship - listening, laughing, empathisizing, loving - are practised and the bonds of friendship are strengthened. We now turn in our service to a meal with Jesus, the Eucharist, so let us approach the table knowing that we are his friends, loved and given love by Him, and may that meal strengthen us for the road ahead.

The Gamification of Jihad

I've posted here in past about the relationship between video games, youth culture and the recruiting and training practices of western militaries. Here's an interesting story from the Foreign Policy website about how radical Islamist groups are borrowing from the same culture, using the forums and online communities surrounding certain games to entice recruits, build loyalty among followers, and blur the line between video games and violence. MP+

The counterterrorism community has spent years trying to determine why so many people are engaged in online jihadi communities in such a meaningful way. After all, the life of an online administrator for a hard-line Islamist forum is not as exciting as one might expect. You don't get paid, and you spend most of your time posting links and videos, commenting on other people's links and videos, and then commenting on other people's comments. So why do people like Abumubarak spend weeks and months and years of their time doing it? Explanations from scholars have ranged from the inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam to the psychology of terrorists.

But no one seems to have noticed that the fervor of online jihadists is actually quite similar to the fervor of any other online group. The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping people like Abumubarak clicking and posting away -- and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become "gamified," a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition.

Gamification started out as a corporate buzzword, meaning any attempt to ensure brand loyalty and engagement through applying gaming principles. It doesn't mean turning something into a game, but rather allowing users to gain status-based awards and reputation, earn meaningful badges, compete with others, use avatars, and trade in a virtual currency. If you've used frequent-flier miles, earned stars with your coffee purchase at Starbucks, or checked in on Foursquare, you've had a gamified experience.

Read the whole story here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Combat Underwear for Marines: But Is It Slimming?

You've gotta love this as a product slogan: "Protection for your privates, both literally and figuratively". That from BCB International, which has just produced some 120,000 pairs of ballistic boxer shorts for the USMC, says Stars and Stripes.

These ballistic boxer shorts are meant to protect troops from debris and flame from a blast.
Felicia White/Stars and Stripes

Curiously I came across this story after reading a piece in the March 28th issue of The New Yorker Magazine about Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx, a high-end fashion girdle (sorry! it's now called shapewear, I believe) for men and women. "Blakely, who recently turned forty and is a size 6, with long blond hair and bright-white teeth, believes that there is no figure problem—saddlebags, upper-arm jiggle, stomach rolls—that can’t be solved with a little judiciously placed Lycra. Her first big idea, in 1998, was to chop the feet off a pair of control-top panty hose so that she could get a svelte, seamless look under white slacks without stockings poking out of her sandals. The resulting product has sold nine million pairs since October of 2000, when Blakely started Spanx."

It does make me wonder if Sarah Blakely had a chance to bid on the ballistic underwear contract, though in my limited experience the US Marines achieve their svelte look without the aid of shapewear. Perhaps though other services could look at her product, for example the Armoured Corps (Spanx for tanx!).

Faith in the Wasteland

The caption for this picture reads: "Jikou Yoshida, a Buddhist nun, prays in a tsunami-devastated area of Minamisanriku, on April 12." It's from a photo-essay on the aftermath of the tsunami entitled Japan's Chernobyl. Looking at this image, I was reminded of the verse from last Sunday's First Lesson for Lent 5A, "He said to me, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.'" (Ezekiel 37:3). MP+

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Wet and Holy Send Off for Afghanistan

While looking on the US Marine Corps website for something else, I noticed this picture, part of the coverage of a USMC Advisory Team working with troops from the Republic of Georgia preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. It's an interesting picture of a chaplain in action. I'm guessing the padre is an Orthodox priest, using a holy water sprinkler to send a blessing downrange. Judging from the looks of some of the troopies, he's on target. MP+

4/8/2011 By Gunnery Sgt. Alexis R. Mulero

A chaplain from the Republic of Georgia's 33rd Light Infantry Battalion anointed more than 800 Georgian soldiers at the conclussion of the battalion's deployment ceremony at Vaziani Training Area, yesterday. The 33rd LIB recently concluded a six-month training package in preparation for their upcoming deployment to the Helmand Providence, Afghanistan in support of Georgia Deployment Program - International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Read more coverage here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"He Tried Everything": A Marine Loses HIs Long Fight With Suicide

A very sad story which I noticed in the US Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Here's an excerpt from the Houston Chronicle. Sometimes a soldier, or for that matter, anyone, struggling with suicide can do everything right and it's not enough. It is a reminder that caregivers, families and friends need to do all they can for the majority who can be brought back from the edge. MP+

War casualty on the home front
A poster boy for suicide prevention, Houstonian becomes another statistic
April 9, 2011, 7:15AM

Marine veteran Clay Hunt had a tattoo on his arm that quoted Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien: "Not all those who wander are lost."

"I think he was a lot more philosophical about life than a lot of us are, but trying to search for some inner peace and the meaning of life, what was the most important thing," said his father, Stacy Hunt.

His son's quest ended last week when he took his own life at his Sugar Land apartment.

The 28-year-old had narrowly escaped death in Iraq four years ago, when a sniper's bullet missed his head by inches. But he wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt over the deaths of four friends in his platoon who weren't so lucky.

"Two were lost in Iraq, and the other two were killed in Afghanistan," said his mother, Susan Selke. "When that last one in Afghanistan went down, it just undid him."

In many ways, Hunt's death is all too familiar: the haunted veteran consumed by a war he can't stop fighting.

Suicides among Texans younger than 35 who served in the military jumped from 47 in 2006 to 66 in 2009 — an increase of 40 percent, according to state records.

The problem seems increasingly intractable. Efforts by the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to stop the alarming rise in military suicides nationwide through training and screening have had limited success.

'He tried everything'
Hunt's suicide was baffling to friends and family, but not because he hid his struggle or failed to get help. It baffled them because he faced it, head-on, leading from the front like any good Marine.

Read the whole story here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

US Military Chaplaincy Adjusts to End of Don't Ask Don't Tell

The ending of the US military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and it's official welcoming of openly gay members, will require adjustment of attitudes at all levels, including of chaplains. A friend of mind passed on this story from the Huffington Post religion section on how US chaplains are being trained to accomodate the new policy, which I'll quote from after this brief comment.

It has been my limited experience of US military chaplains that they are excellent and fearless pastors to men and women in uniform, but can be theologically more conservative than their mainstream Canadian counterparts. No doubt those US 1chaplains who do not accept same-sex unions as divinely intended ways of relating are weighing their options. I do find encouraging the article's mention that, so far, only one chaplain has left the US military over this issue. Military chaplaincy poses challenges to strongly-held beliefs: how does one serve those who do not hold the same sexual ethic, theology, or even the same faith? It will be a time of testing and discernment for my US colleagues, and my prayers are with them. MP+

Chaplains Offered Exit Plan As Gay Training Starts

By Adelle M. Banks

Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Army has started training chaplains on the repeal of the ban on openly gay military members, saying those who are unable to follow the forthcoming policy can seek a voluntary departure.

"The Chaplains Corps' First Amendment freedoms and its duty to care for all will not change," reads a slide in the PowerPoint presentation, released to Religion News Service Thursday (March 24). "Soldiers will continue to respect and serve with others who may hold different views and beliefs."

Critics familiar with the Army presentation, however, say the military is essentially telling chaplains who are theologically conservative that they are not welcome.

"U.S. Army now warning chaplains: If you don't like the homosexual agenda, get out!" reads a headline on the website of Mass Resistance, an anti-gay group based in Waltham, Mass.

President Obama signed a law repealing Don't Ask/Don't Tell last December, but the new policy will not take effect until 60 days after Obama and military leaders are assured that it will not harm military readiness.

Read the whole piece here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Faces of the Fallen, Afghanistan April 2011

Sunday by Sunday as I prepare the prayer list at Christ the King Chapel here at CFB Suffield, I add the names of military members killed overseas in the last few weeks, as their names are made public. I get these names from various sources, usually the UK MOD and US Pentagon news services, but often they are just names to me. This week I got to wondering what they looked like, and so here are some of the faces of those killed in Afghanistan or subsequently died of wounds these last few weeks.

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them. MP+

Staff Sgt. Jason A. Rogers,USA, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, died in Afghanistan on April 7 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province.

Major Matthew Collins, UK, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, Killed Afghanistan 23 March 2011

Lance Sergeant Mark Burgan, UK, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, Killed Afghanistan 23 March 2011

1st Lt. Robert F. Welch III, USA, 201st Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, killed Afghanistan 3 April.

Colour Sergeant Alan Cameron, UK, 1st Battalion Scots Guards, died on 31 March 2011 as a result of wounds he received in Afghanistan on 13 April 2010.

Spc. Keith T. Buzinski, USA, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, died Afghanistan 7 April.

"It was one of the hardest things I've done"

Here's an inspiring running story, continuing today's British Army theme. The soldier mentioned in this story is a PTI (Physical Training Instructor), equivalent to PARI (Physical and Recreational Instructors) a onetime corps in the Canadian Forces now disbanded and replaced by civilians. He's 39, which is old for a unit like the Paras. I see British PTIs leading PT at the gym here at Suffield and they are impressively fit. So with the example of LCpl Fisher in mind, I'm off to the gym! MP+

Lance Corporal Robert Fisher is serving with 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment
[Picture: Sergeant Alison Baskerville RLC, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011

Lance Corporal Robert Fisher, aged 39, from Chorley, who is serving with 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment in Shahzad, ran around the base twenty-six times. He said:

"I've always wanted to run a marathon carrying a GPMG while wearing body armour. I thought it would be something different."

It took Lance Corporal Fisher just over seven hours to complete the gruelling run:

"It was one of the hardest things I've done," he admitted. "The marathons I've done in the past carrying weight have been tough, but this was a lot harder. I was hoping to do it in under six hours, but I started cramping up around the nineteen-mile [31km] point.

"For the last six miles [10km], it was mind over matter. For me, it's worth the pain, it's worth the fatigue. I've raised over £1,200 for two charities."

Read the whole piece here.

One Airman's Guardian Angel

An English friend of mine in the village of Ralston pointed me to this story about a colleague she served with when she was in the Royal Air Force. Some might say that soldiers are a superstitious bunch, eager to take medallions and bible even if they aren't strictly speaking believers, but that is something soldiers have done for ages. Even if the charm in this story deserves some credit, its owner, Flt. Lt. Booth, is an extraordinary young man, and a reminder to army types, who love to mock the supposedly cushy air force, that our comrades in blue can be just as brave. MP

Flight Lt. Adam Booth

A hero airman believes a “golden angel” lucky charm has helped him to cheat death TWENTY times in Afghanistan.

RAF Flight Lieutenant Adam Booth, 30, ­survived a bullet which hit him in an arm, ­another which flew ­between his legs, 16 ­grenade attacks and his vehicle being blown up – twice.

Despite the arm injury he scorned the chance to be airlifted to hospital and stayed on the battlefield to help to rescue 22 wounded soldiers – 15 of them ­critically injured.

And dad-of-two Adam says it’s all thanks to that lucky charm that he is still alive.

Read the whole story here.

"We have very strict rules of engagement": Canadian Fighter Jets Over Libya

This piece by the Globe and Mail is the best coverage I've seen yet of the conditions Canadian fighter crews are working in over Libya, and also discusses the constraints of their rules of engagement. For civilian readers, Rules of Engagement or ROEs specify the circumstances under which deadly force can be used other than basic self defence.

Lt.Col Menard on the flight line in Sicily, 21 March. CF photo.

Also noteworthy is the aircrews' CO's description of being under anti-aircraft fire for the first time: "it’s a significant event in your life when for the first time, you’re shot at. ... It’s performance-enhancing stress". So even steeely-eyed fighter jocks are human.

Read the whole piece here.

In related news, the G&M's federal election coverage also reported today that "In an important revelation, the Liberals now intend not only to scrap the F-35 fighter program, but to defer replacing the aging fleet of CF-18s until 'it is necessary.'"

There has been no discssion in the media about Canada's CF-18s not being adequate for the task in Libya. Given that Libya's air force and air defences are mostly destroyed, our aircraft are probably superior to the task. However, it is this blog's opinion that the Liberals are ignoring yet more evidence that unexpected commitments of Canada's military will continue into the future, whether we have modern equipment or not, and so their defence platform is disappointing.

Military Picture of the Week

The penguins make the picture, I think. The ship is HMS Scott, the Royal Navy's ocean survey vessel.

Gentoo penguins look on during HMS Scott's visit to Port Lockroy, Antarctica. [Picture: POA(Phot) Ray Jones, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Remain in Light: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Lent 4 Year A
RCL Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.

Today we have heard a feast of scripture. The designers of the Revised Common Lectionary have asked us to think about light which God's son brings to the world, a central theme in John's Gospel, and so they've chosen our second reading from Ephesians which talks about what it means to live as God's people of light in the world. Because today's reading from John comes just before Jesus talks about himself as the good shepherd, that Johannine theme is also underscored by the Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel, which describes the choosing of the shepherd David to be Israel's king, as well as Psalm 23 with it's famous declaration that the Lord is my shepherd. The poor preacher, placed between these wonderful and dense texts, runs the risk of starving like the proverbial donkey between two bales of hay, not sure which one to sample.

However, there is also another text that presses on us this Sunday, I think, and that is the text of current events. The theologian Karl Barth once said that the preacher should work with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, meaning I think that our faith needs to equip us for the world we live in. For us as members of a military chapel, we have perhaps a closer link to the conflict zones of the world than do most civilian churches. Some of you have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, and others of you have endured the absence of husbands as they served in those places. As a military chapel, we have, I think you will agree, a ministry to pray for the members of our armed forces overseas, for their safety and for their good work. I say good work because we believe, however vaguely or inarticulately it may be said by our leaders, that our militaries can do good in the world. Surely that is the reason why Canadian and British aircrew are flying over Libya as we speak, to do some good in that country? And so we pray for them and that God may bring good out of these conflicts.

As part of our prayer ministry here, I have been including each Sunday the names of NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Today our prayer list is a long one and includes ten names: a Canadian, three Britons, and seven Americans. To those ten we can add at least seven others: a 27 year old Swedish UN worker named Joakim Dungel, a 53 year old pilot in the Norwegian air force named Lt Col Siri Skare, a 43 year old Romanian political officer with the UN named Filaret Mocto and four security guards from Nepal. According to the BBC News, these seven were killed Friday in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif when a mob overran the UN compound where they worked. Other reports say that at least four Afghans were killed in the incident. These killings are linked, some say, to the burning of a Koran by an American pastor in Florida on 20 March. One Afghan protestor in Mazar-e Sharif told Reuters that "We are very upset that the devil America burned the Holy Koran. We call for the punishment of those who dishonored our Holy Koran." The church where the Koran was burned, Dove Outreach Centre in Gainesville, Florida, was they same one which had threatened to burn the Koran last year on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Pastor Wayne Sapp, who led the burning on March 2, told the media that he did not feel responsible for the UN deaths

It is probably impossible to prove conclusively that the actions of Sapp and his followers in Florida caused the deaths of the seven UN workers in Afghanistan, although circumstantially it looks like the protest which started the incident was about the Koran burning. We should know enough about Islam by now to know that many Moslems react violently when their holy symbols are treated disrespectfully or desecrated. Our leaders in the West can protest with all sincerity that our war is against terrorism, and not against Islam, but there is a religious component to this war. There are Jihadist elements who believe that killing and dying for their faith is holy and just, but they do not speak for all Moslems. So when people who self-identify as Christians, like Terry Jones, the founder of the Dove Outreach Centre in Gainesville, preaches that "Islam is of the Devil" (the title of his book), then it becomes harder to distinguish between the voices of religious intolerance on either side of the conflict, and the conflict itself becomes even more intractable. More people die. More people at put at risk: Western soldiers, UN staff, and aid workers, Christians in Moselm countries and ordinary people on the street in those countries caught up in the bombings and killings. Terry Jones and his followers say they are resisting Islamic terrorism, but when their actions look and feel like hatred and ignorance, they don't look much different from the people they are supposedly resisting. There is less light, more darkness, more hatred.

For thoughtful Christians, and especially for Christians who worship in a military chapel, the issue and the times are troubling and confusing. We want to be tolerant and fair minded, and we know that our allies, including the Afghan government and most of its people, are Moslem. We resist any attempt to make this a religious war, because whatever our personal beliefs we fight for countries whose citizens are of many or of no faiths. As Christians, we want to be people of peace, like the prince we serve and the Jesus we follow, and we are troubled when stories like the Koran burning make our unchurched, non-religious neighbours all the more convinced that religion merely breeds hatred and intolerance. Where do we stand in times such as these?

We heard in Ephesians that "For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true." (Eph 5:8-8) Christianity thinks in terms of light and darkness. Jesus in the gospels is all about light. Think how many times the word "blind" occurs in today's gospel, and how against all that darkness is opposed to that one, triumphant statement by Jesus that "I am the light of the world" (John 9:5). Light and dark are opposites that they can lead to a binary thinking among Christians, a triumphalist belief that we have the light and everyone else is in darkness. That is the thinking of the Pharisees in John 9, who refuse to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. They don't burn Korans, but they can throw people out of their churches, as they do with the man given his sight by Jesus. They can't accept the miracle and they can't accept that Jesus is from God. Becuase of their pride and their arrogance, Jesus tells them that despite their sight, they are blind with sin. That sin, I believe, is the same kind of spiritual blindness we see in times like this, when some banish and punish and bomb and kill others who do not believe the same as we do. That sort of thinking does not remain in ligt but strays into darkness.

Please note that I am not advocating now for the tolerance that comes from multiculturalism, or for a belief, as one churchwoman once told me, that religions of the world were like different coloured raincoats, all useful when it rained. Note that in our gospel reading that Jesus says "I am the light of the world" and later he tells the once blind man that he is the Son of Man, that "the one speaking with you is he". As Christians we join with the cured man in saying "Lord, I believe". We are given the gift of light to see and acknowledge the Christ, the Son of God, but that gift does not mean that we should curse the darkness. Ephesians 5 calls us to a life where, in God's light, accountable to God and to one another, we should live as God intends us to live. When it was first written, Ephesians spoke to a small number of Christians who lived in a pagan society that did not share its beliefs and even persecuted them for it. The Ephesian Christians were reminded that they were given the gift of life through a Christ who had found them, as Jesus finds the man in John 9 after he is cast out of the synagogue. Ephesians begins with a wonderful passage reminding us that we are part of God's adopted family, given light not because we deserved it, but because God didn't want us to live in the light, not in the dark.

On March 20th a small group of Christians showed the world the light of a burning book. I believe that action was misguided because it demonstrated hatred and fear of the dark rather than faith that the light of Christ would win out in the end. It's results, to use a word from our Ephesians reading, were cleary unfruitful, as it contributed to death and stoked anger and hatred. It is for God to judge and for God to punish, and not for us. God's work of light is ongoing. The witness of the Christian church throughout the world continues. God's work of seeking out the lost and isolated continues. God continues to adopt new members into his family. Jesus is the light of the world and he calls his people to live in that light, even to be that light with him. My friends, let us remain in light. Amen.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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