Sunday, December 29, 2013

God's New Normal: A Sermon For The First Sunday After Christmas

Preached at St. Columba's Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario, Sunday, Dec 29, 2013

Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A:    Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.  (Isaiah 62:7)


At this time of year, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I think there are several emotions that tug us in different directions.   


One emotion, born out of weariness, is a sense of gratitude that Christmas, with all of its obligations and business, is done with.   Finally we can say goodbye to all the preparing and baking, all the visiting and special occasions.  We are free to breathe a sigh of relief, and get back to normal.


But at the same time, we don’t want things to be normal.  For that second emotion that tugs at us, isn’t it a kind of sadness?   Do we not, in our hearts, regret that Christmas is done with for another year?   Christmas is peace, joy, warmth, and a sense that the world is somehow specially blessed.   As we prepare to box up the Nativity scene and creche for another year, we can’t help but feel that the world would be a better place if we could only hold on to the Christmas spirit.


We want normal if normal is less busy and less frantic, but we don’t want normal if normal is the world as we know it.   Normal is worrying about how we are going to provide for our families, wondering how long we can put up with the boss at work, or despairing about all those resumes we send out into the silence.   Normal is the absence of a loved one taken from us, a grief that never quite loses its edge.  Normal is the news that never seems to get better -- another car bombing, another refugee camp, another drunk driver leaving a trail of carnage.  If these things are what passes for  normal, who would ever want or need normal?


If we allow ourselves to buy into Christmas as our culture understands the holiday, then it can only ever be, at the most, a brief break from the dreariness and sadness of normal.   Once the guests leave, once the obligations are fulfilled, once the food is eaten and gone, it’s back to normal.   Once the presents lose their novelty, it’s back to normal.   Once the decorations are put away, it’s back to normal.  Christmas, if we think of it as parties and presents and food and drink, has no power to change the normal of the world.  


Fortunately, this empty holiday is not the Christmas we have celebrated.   The church’s Christmas is about God delivering on the promises he has made to his people.   Christmas is about God being true to his word.  Christmas is about God telling us, “I have been with you, I am with you, and I’m not finished with you”.


In our first reading, we heard the prophet Isaiah speak about all that God has done for his people because of God’s great love and mercy.   “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Isaiah 62:7).


When Isaiah wrote this prophecy, normal didn’t look that great to the people of Israel.  Normal was Temple in ruins, Jerusalem conquered, the people made slaves in Babylon.   Normal looked hopeless, and here was Isaiah reminding the people of the God hadn’t abandoned them.  God was faithful to the promises he had made long ago to Abraham.   

God had led them out of Egypt, God have given them Moses who led them to the promised land.  God would send a Messiah to save his people.   


In our second lesson we heard more about the faithfulness of God.   We heard about how God has kept his promises to his people, “the descendants of Abraham”.  The author of Hebrews reminds us who exactly that baby in the manger is.  He is one like us, our brother and sister because he shares our humanity, but he is unlike us because he is perfect, so that he can save us.  This child is the one who gathers us to him, who stands before the throne of God, and says “Here am I and the children whom God has given me”.  


These lessons remind us of what is normal.   God’s faithfulness to his people is normal.   God’s mercy is normal.  God’s love for his people is normal.   God’s determination to save his people is normal.  God’s promise to be with us in the form of his son, Emmanuel, is normal.   The son’s power to save us from sin and death is normal.  


In the days and weeks after Christmas, we go back into the world, to things we know too well.   There will be tyrants and warlords who bomb their own people, just as Herod unleashed death and violence on his people.  Mothers will mourn and weep, just as Rachel did.   Innocent people will flee their homes and become refugees, just as the Holy Family did.  These things have happened before, they happen now, and they will happen again, but they are not normal.  This is not the how God designed the world.  This is not what God wishes for his creation.


We, the church, are called to be God’s new normal for the world.  We are called to live in the promises of God, and in the presence of his Son and of his Holy Spirit.  We are called to show the love of Jesus to the world.  We are called to love, to forgive, to welcome, and to live in the name of Jesus.   We are called to live in the promise of Christmas as God’s promise to save and renew his creation.  


So let’s go forth into the new year trusting in these things.  Let’s not regret the passing of Christmas as something fragile and all too brief.  Let’s not mistake the presence of sin and death in the world as normal. Instead, let’s rejoice that Christmas is a sign, a first installment, of God’s love and power, God’s new normal for the word.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Chaplain's Christmas in Italy, 1943

A very merry Christmas to all of you.

Not a lot to say of late, as graduate school has taken up much of my attention and time this fall, and I haven't blogged much because I feel tired and not  especially interesting at the end of each day.   Kay and I are healthy in body and spirits, and enjoying our time here in Kitchener-Waterloo.   At this time of year my thoughts are especially with those of my friends in the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplaincy who are far from home, especially Padre Rob Parker on HMCS Toronto somewhere far warmer than here, and Padre Kevin Olive in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Be well, guys.


Speaking of chaplains, in my spare time this Christmas I am reading a chaplain's memoirs, always a fascinating genre to me.   Israel Yost was a young Lutheran serving a parish in Pennsylvanian when the US entered World War Two, and he soon volunteered to serve.  He was assigned to the 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which happened to be one of the most famous and decorated US Army units of the war.  The 100th Bn was made up primarily of Japanese Americans from Hawaii and the Mainland, many of whom had family in the internment camps established after Pearl Harbour.   It served in Italy and later in France.   Here's Yost's account of Christmas, 1943, shortly before the 100th began it's part in the battle of Monte Cassino, as a small Christmas gift to you.

"During the day some of the medics got together in the chaplain's tent to practice carols.  Others got tin snips and cut tree ornaments out of tin cans from the mess tents: by twisting a long strip with the inside shiny surface exposed, glittering icicles were formed.  Two evergreens were decorated with these and sparkling starts and red berries picked locally.  One volunteer disappeared for several hours and returned with a wooden cross he had painted white; he planted it in a place of honour in front of one of the trees.

When it got dark, the carollers, after singing first at the officers' party, made the rounds of all the companies.  In front of one tent their singing was drowned out at first by the loud noise of a card game in progress under the canvas.  Then a voice sounded from inside the pyramidal (tent).  "Shh, you hear that?  The chaplain has some men outside singing Christmas carols."  In the silence that followed, "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" rang out."  

It was getting late when the singers reached the last tent.  As the final carol died away on the cold winter's night, the tent flap was flung back and out came a sleepy, half-dressed mess sergeant.  "You men ought to have something for your Christmas spirit," he muttered.  He ushered the group into his mess tent and made hot cocoa for everyone.

… On Christmas Day two services were held, attended by 225.  I also attended the all-musical worship at the regiment and conducted a Lutheran communion service for the 1st Battalion at the request of the unit's chaplain.  One of the companies invited me to their Christmas dinner: turkey, stuffing, rice, a fresh vegetable, wine, oranges, walnuts, and a freshly baked cake with icing and nuts on top."  

Israel A.S. Yost, Combat Chaplain: The Personal Story of the World War II Chaplain of the Japanese American 100th Battalion, (Honlulu: U of Hawaii Press, 2006), pp. 100-101.

In his memoirs, despite his modesty, Yost emerges as a faithful hard-working pastor who put his men and ministry far ahead of himself.   Even though he knew nothing of Hawaii or of Japanese culture when he joined the 100th, he appears to have been a valued member of the unit.  He had a long life of ministry and service after the war, and died in 2000 at age 84.  Chaplains' schools do good work in preparing people for military ministry, but books like this one should appear more often on their reading lists.

Blessings to you all this holidays, and in the year to come, may you know God's peace and presence..


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Where Will He Dwell? A Sermon For The Second Sunday of Advent

I had the opportunity to preach today at St. George's of Forest Hill, Kitchener, the church where I was a theological student ten years ago.  They were kind and supportive to me then, and it was a pleasure to see them again, even if they didn't believe it when I told them they hadn't aged a day.  MP+

Lections for Advent 2:  Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7,18-19; Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12


On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)

The prophet Isaiah foretells a day of rescue.   On this day, as Isaiah describes it, God will remake the world.   On this day, life will come from dead things.   The poor and oppressed will finally know justice.  The wicked will be punished.  Pain and destruction will be banished from the world.   

Who will make this day possible?  Isaiah tells us that one will be sent by God to do these things.   This person will come with God’s power and justice.   He will come as a righteous judge and as a peacemaker.  People from all over the world will come to him, and the place where he live “shall be glorious”.

“His dwelling shall be glorious”.  We who know this story, we the church, hear the words of Isaiah, we hear these words echoed again by John the Baptist, and we know that the one coming from God to do these things is Jesus, the Christ.   

We look to Jesus as our Messiah.  We believe that he will rescue us from a world were inequality and injustice are everywhere.  We hope and pray that he will rescue us from ourselves and from the things we know we are capable of.  We hear the words of John the Baptist, calling the self-righteous of his day a “brood of vipers”, and we know that our piety and our fine religious traditions alone will not save us.  So we look to Jesus, the Saviour who is to come, and we ask, where can we find him? 

Where will we find this place, this dwelling that shall be glorious?  How can we get there?

Is this glorious dwelling place here, in our churches that we decorate with such care and devotion for the Advent season?  Is his dwelling in the wreath and in the candles lit week by week?  Is it in the royal blue of the season’s paraments and vestments, or in the splendour of their white counterparts that come out for Christmas Eve?  Is his glorious dwelling place in the candlelit reverence of a Carols and Lessons service?   Perhaps, in our churches, we catch a glimpse of his glorious dwelling, but only glimpses.  Advent says not yet.  Not here.

Perhaps this glorious dwelling place is in our homes?   In the Advent carol “People look east” we are told “Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table”, for “love the guest is on the way”.  In our homes we may find the blessings of hospitality and joyful reunions, and we may practice Advent devotions that prepare us for the Messiah.   Perhaps, in our homes, we may catch glimpses of his glorious dwelling, but only glimpses.   Advent says not yet.  Not here. 

The truth is that his glorious dwelling place is much bigger than we can imagine.   The Messiah foretold by Isaiah and John the Baptist will make his dwelling in all places.   He won’t just be found in the beauty of worship.  He wants to dwell with those who are estranged from church and worship, and with those who ignore him.  He won’t just be found in the laughter of festive homes and family gatherings. He wants to dwell in homes that are dark with grief and loss, where there is no light or laughter.   He wants to dwell with each and everyone of us, for as another John, the Evangelist, says in the first words of his gospel, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

As I understand it, the message of Advent is that God is coming to make his glorious dwelling here, with each one of us, in our hearts.   If we understand the dwelling place in this way, then we can understand why John the Baptist tells us to repent.  He’s not just trying to make us feel sombre and sorry at a time when we think we should be feeling joyful.  He’s telling us to make room in our hearts for God, to create a space where God’s son can truly make a home with us.  We need to throw out all the spiritual junk, all the selfishness and distraction, so we are truly ready for the one who is to come.

So where will the Messiah’s dwelling be?   He will dwell with those who joyfully and prayerfully await his return.  He dwell will with those who have scarcely the energy or the hope to believe any further.  He will camp stubbornly at the doors of those who do not believe, waiting for just the slightest invitation to come inside.  He will be in homes and churches bright with light and warmth and celebration.  He will be in homes darkened with sadness and loss, where laughter has not been heard for a long time. He will be on the streets, and prison cells, in workplaces and barracks. He will dwell in places where once there was only violence, and poverty and hatred.   He will be in all these places, and they will become glorious, for the one who comes is the Messiah, Christ the Lord, the God who dwells among us.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Spitfire 944, War and Remembrance

Hello all.

Where have I been?  It's a long and tedious story.  Suffice it to say that I've been fighting through my first semester of graduate school and it's gotten the better of me.   There is some stuff in older posts about why I'm in graduate school at the Canadian Forces Chaplaincy's grace and the taxpayer's generosity.   It's a good go, but it's a busy life.

However, I think I should be blogging again.  It's a good way for me to engage with the world, and with the many wonderful people who follow this blog.  If you're still checking in here and reading this, thank you all for your patience.


My brother the Mad Colonel sent me this link to short film called "Spitfire 944", made by William Lorton, the great nephew of Jim ("Doc") Savage, a flight surgeon with a US photo reconnaissance unit based in England in World War Two  The Doc took a lot of home movies which Lorton inherited, and one of the films he was intrigued by footage of a Spitfire making a wheels-up emergency landing on a grassy field, followed by scenes of a somewhat shaken young man being offered a cigarette by his mates while standing beside the crashed Spitfire.

You can see the whole story by watching the short video here.  If you are interested in military and aviation history, there's lots of good stuff here.   Even if you're not that interested, watch the reaction of the old gentleman, John Blyth, at about the ten minute mark, as he watches his younger self crashing that plane.  It's a beautiful testament to the power of memory and how history is sometimes built out of seemingly random scraps and fragments connecting our older and younger selves.   The next time I talk to a veteran, I'll be more aware of what vivid memories might lurk behind those old eyes.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Shrine For Illegal Immigrants

In one of my classes this fall, we've been reading Thomas Tweed's book Our Lady Of The Exile, a study of the shrine to the Virgin in Miami, Florida, that has been venerated by the Cuban exile community there for decades.  Tweed's book is a modern classic of the anthropological side of Religious Studies, a synthesis of interviews with clergy and visitors to the shrine conducted over several years and situated in a a detailed study of how this place of workshop fits into orthodox and syncretistic faith practices of the Cuban-American community.  Like many of the readings we've done in this class, it has served as a case study of how religion has a seemingly infinite ability to work at and reinvent itself at the local level.

Today on NPR I heard a story about another shrine, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, set up in 2010 in honour of St. Toribio, who is considered to be the patron saint of immigrants.  You can hear the 10 minute segment at the first part of segment C at this page.  Father Toribio Romo Gonsalez was a Mexican Roman Catholic priest who was murdered in 1928 and has since been venerated by Mexican immigrants to the United States who credit him with miraculous appearances to those crossing the desert.  In 2007 the Oklahoma State Legislature passed Bill 1804, which made it a crime to hire, give rides to, or even shelter illegal immigrants.  The shrine was created by parishioners at St. Peter and St. Paul parish in Tulsa as a response to this law.  A statue of Fr. Toribio was brought from Guadalupe, Mexico, in a manner very similar to how Tweed describes the transport of the image of Our Lady from Cuba to Miami.  Drug smugglers have been known to hide narcotics in statues to bring them across the border, but Santo Toribio made it across the border without any problems.

Many people now come to the shrine to pray and talk to Santo Toribio, pray for help with family members seeking their papers or hoping to avoid deportation, and in 2010, two years after the shrine came to Tulsa, two provisions in Bill 1804 were struck down by a court of appeal.

Whether you interested in how religion works and adapts to local conditions and needs, or are a person of faith, it's a lovely example of how faith and hope can gently work against the grain of a harsh legal and political culture.



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Video Games And War Crimes

Longtime readers of this on-again, off-again blog will know that video games and ethics are an interest of mine.  By way of disclosure, I confess that I own a PlayStation, am a terrible FPS (first person shooter) player as I oak reflexes and spatial reasoning, but occasionally like games where I can shoot zombies and hostile space aliens.

Yesterday the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called on the video game industry not to create content that allows players to choose actions which would, in real life, violate internationally agrees laws of armed conflict.  As Michael Peck notes for Foreign Policy,   "The ICRC is suggesting that as in real life, these games should include virtual consequences for people's actions and decisions.  Gamers should be rewarded for respecting the law of armed conflict and there should be virtual penalties for serious violations of the law of armed conflict, in other words war crimes."   The proposal would deny the players the ability to use torture or abuse non-combatants, as some games permit.

It's an interesting proposal, and heartening to see at least one game studio cooperating with the ICRC, but as Peck notes, it's unlikely that other game companies will fall in line. The Red Cross' focus on military-themed games such as the Call of Duty series may lead one to wonder whether crime-themed games such as the urban-mayhem Grand Theft Auto, are just as morally suspect?

Peck concludes his article on a sceptical note, arguing that it is not the province of video games to teach ethics.  One can imagine a game that is specifically designed to teach ethics, such as simulation that challenges players to make hard choices while, say, running an NGO in a disaster zone, but that is not the sort of game Peck describes.   Popular video games, he notes, are about winning, not ethics.   "When Grand Theft Auto V penalizes players who behave violently with a crackdown by the cops, does it lead to more ethical behaviour, or just inspire players to find more clever ways of killing and robbing?"

I wish the ICRC luck with their project, and for those readers who have children who play these games, I think that would be a great dinner table conversation topic.  For educators, the ICRC website's resources on this issue are terrific.  I would also suggest that parents learn the rating system for games, and be vigilant about what gets played in the family home.   For my part, I'll keep the mayhem focused on hostile aliens who want to take over the earth.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Sermon For Remembrance Day Sunday

 Preached at Grace Bible Chapel, Sunday, November 10, 2013


I was invited to preach by Pastor Steve Brown, who went to college with my chaplain friend Howard Rittenhouse.  I thank Steve and his congregation for their warm welcome.  MP+


I am very thankful for the invitation to come and be with you today, and I bring greetings from my fellow chaplains in the Canadian Armed Forces.   We are always grateful for the many congregations across Canada that are interested in and support our ministry.  As I said to Pastor Steve in our email correspondence, my wife Kay and I know this area well from our time when I was the Anglican priest in Ilderton and Denfield,and it’s a pleasure to come back.


As we approach Remembrance Day each year, I think it’s important that we to ask ourselves, what exactly are we remembering, and why are we remembering?  If the poppies that we pin to our clothes are to have any meaning other than as fashion accessories, I think we have to ask ourselves these questions.  Because memory works best when we recall specific things, let me start with three scenes, three vignettes of remembrance.


At some time during World War One, the son of the minister of Grace Anglican Church in Ilderton enlisted and went to serve in France.   He never came home, and his name was engraved on a brass stand that holds the large prayer book or missal for the minister’s use.  That book stand  is still there on the altar at Grace Church today.   Reverend Shore served Grace Church and the people of Ilderton as minister well into the 1920s.   Many years later, as I stood in his place and led worship there each Sunday, I would see his son’s name on that brass stand and I would sometimes think about my predecessor.  Did it comfort Reverend Shore to know that his son was remembered in this way?  Did he ever wonder if his son, and all those boys who never returned to the peaceful fields of Middlesex County, had died for anything good?   Were his prayers and his ministry a source of comfort to him, or did he wrestle with God?   I don’t know the answers to these questions.  All I know is that it was important to Reverend Shore and his congregation that they remember this boy, even if, a century later, they are all just names in the past to us.


A few years ago, when I served in Alberta, I  became friends with Tom, a young officer, who like many young soldiers is heavily tattooed.  On one of his arms there is an elaborate tattoo showing the names of two soldiers under his command in Afghanistan, who were both killed there  When I first met Tom I could tell he was angry.   He had had a rough deployment where he had lost men, his marriage had failed while he was overseas, and he clearly had some issues with the army.   Over time, I am happy to say, he worked things out, he is now happily remarried, and has a promising future, but I know that war changed him.   I know that this Remembrance Day Tom, like every one of our Afghanistan veterans, will be thinking of friends who never came home.  Tomorrow, he and his comrades will take their places at cenotaphs and memorials across Canada, like the generations of veterans before them, and they will remember their friends.  The papers and TV news shows may show the faces of the 158 young Canadians who died in Afghanistan, and we will do our best to remember them, even if they are just a sad blur of young men and women who died far too early.


For my colleagues who are military chaplains, called to serve those who serve, Remembrance Day is also challenging for us.   We know these soldiers, we are friends to them, we understand them as few others do.   While we try to be spiritual guides and leaders to them, we know that many of them profess other faiths, or none at all, and yet in some way we are shepherds to them.   Because we as their chaplains train with soldiers, share their hardships, and walk with them, we respect their dedication and professionalism.  Because we too leave our families and loved ones for long periods, we know the cost that soldiers’ families have to pay.   Sometimes we have had to bury them, or sit beside their shattered bodies in hospital.  Often we witness the damage to their minds and souls, and see the cost of that damage to them and to their loved ones, and we grieve for them.   I know chaplains who have paid a price for being so close to such suffering, and I know that tomorrow they too will struggle with their own thoughts and emotions as they remember.


At this time of year I think a lot about my military friends, soldiers and chaplains, and about the names we all remember.   On today, the Sunday before Remembrance Day, what should I preach about?  What should I say?  You and Pastor Steve have invited me hear, I presume, to hear me connect our Christian faith with the subject of Remembrance Day.   How does one connect God with the subject of war and destruction.  What does the name of God mean when spoken together with the names of young men and women who died too soon?  What comfort can the name of God offer to those who remember the names of the dead and wounded?


The first thing I would say is that all of us, as Canadians and as Christians, wear two hats on a day like this.  The Canadian bit is fairly straightforward. As Canadians, I think we all feel sorrow and pride.   We feel sorrow because of the lives that were taken or ruined in places like Passchendaele, or Normandy, or Kandahar.  We mourn the waste of it all, but we take some pride in what our veterans did.  We remember the sense of Canadian identity that was reinforced in the trenches of Flanders.  We remember the people of Holland we saved from tyranny and starvation.    We think of how South Korea is a modern, prosperous country because Canadians were helped defend it.  We are thankful that our veterans earned us the freedom to wear a red poppy, or even a white one, or none at all.   Lately I spend a lot of time on a university campus, wear I see young Canadians of all races and faiths wearing the red poppy, and that makes me proud to be Canadian.


As Canadians who are also Christians, however, I think that Remembrance Day is not so straightforward.   We are a distinct people, called to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and to share his gospel with the world in our words and in our actions.   Yes, there is violence and conflict in the Old Testament, and many Christians find this part of the bible to be difficult, but there are also Old Testament voices such as the prophet Hosea, who tells us that God desires “steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6), or Micah who looks forward to when God brings in an era of peace (Micah 4.3).  In the preaching and parables of Jesus we find a consistent message of love and peace, including the famous verse from  Matthew, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).   For the early church, non-violent resistance was the only response to the power of Rome.  It was only when Christianity was the faith of both rulers and ruled that Christians began to struggle with how we could make war on neighbours that Jesus had called us to love.  For most Christians throughout the ages, there has been some idea of justifiable war, such as wars of self-defense or wars to stop aggression.  Other Christians, however, such as the Amish and some Mennonites, felt strongly that they were called by God to lives of non-violence.   Both views are respectable parts of the Christian tradition.  Both views live in tension with one another.


As a Christian who wears a uniform, I have obviously made a choice as to where I stand in this debate.   I do think there are times when soldiers are necessary, just as police are necessary, and I do think there are times when both soldiers and police alike are called to use violence.   But do I think that it soldiers and armies please God?   No, I don’t.  I would never encourage a soldier to think that he or she was a Christian warrior.    In 1914, when Reverend Shore’s son left Ilderton to go to war, he and his generation were told that they were fighting for God, King and country.   The generation of German youth who fought against them were also told the same thing, and wore belt buckles stamped with the words “Got Mit Uns”, meaning “God Is With Us”.   The Christian countries of Europe butchered their children for four years in the name of God, and created the conditions for the Second World War a generation later.   Even today there are those who wage war in God’s name.  As a young soldier asked me after Afghanistan, “The Taliban were told that God was on their side, so I didn’t want my chaplain praying for victory as well.   I don’t think God is on anyone’s side.”


As Christians, the one thing we can agree on with our non-Christian friends is that evil exists.   We have a specific word for evil, that we call sin, and war by its nature is sinful.   There are very few wars that could not have been prevented by wiser and cooler heads.  Reverend Shore’s son and his generation need not have died in France - if you read Max Hasting’s new book on World War One, Catastrophe, it is amazing and infuriating to learn how many bad and stupid decisions led to the start of that war.   War creates conditions for sin - for anger and hatred, for rape and theft, for the murder of prisoners and civilians, for human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing and genocide, from the past to the present.  Furthermore, we know that God hates sin and has promised, in Romans 8 and Revelation 21, that God’s work to rescue and perfect the world is not yet complete.  When that work is finished, war and death will be defeated.  So I don’t see how any Christian can argue that God approves of war


As Christians, I think we can also agree that while war is sinful, sin also exists in the world we live in, and because we live in the world, there are also times when we have to fight, however reluctantly.    The World War Two generation is sometimes called the greatest generation because they resisted the great evil of Hitler and the Nazis.   I referred earlier to the Liberation of Holland as a great moment of Canadian pride, and that would not have happened if Hitler had not been defeated, at great cost.   There are other moments in history where evil has not been resisted so forcefully.   In Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, for example, we sent too few soldiers to do too little, and so a great many people suffered and died without being rescued the way we rescued the Dutch in 1945.   The few Canadians that went to Rwanda and Bosnia as peacekeepers, where there was no peace to keep, often came home haunted and broken by their experiences of evil.    Many of our soldiers came home from Afghanistan suffering in mind and spirit, injuries that we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Unlike the World War Two generation, the Afghanistan vets didn’t have a clear victory.  They came home wondering if any good came from the suffering that they saw there, or from the suffering they saw by the things they themselves had to do in combat.   So our soldiers and veterans have spiritual needs that may need more than just a poppy or a yellow ribbon.  They need to be reminded of God’s love, they may need God’s forgiveness for the terrible things they may have been required to do in wartime.  Here are three things we can do to support them.


The first is that we can continue to pray for peace.   Here I mean something more than a simple bedtime prayer.  Praying for peace means caring about the world and world politics.  It means following the news and digging into the news.  It means asking hard questions to our elected leaders about what role Canada is playing in the world, and whether they are concerned about just about trade and profit, or about justice, about war crimes, about refugees?  And always, as we pray for peace, we need to pray that God will be at work in world affairs, bringing good out of evil, for as Paul tells us, the world, all of creation is groaning for its rescue in Christ (Rom 8:24).


The second thing we can do is pray for our soldiers.   Here I mean something that’s harder than just thinking of them as heroes.   Our soldiers are complicated, ordinary, frail and sinful human beings.  They are just like us, except that they are sometimes called on to do terrible things.  So really pray for them.   Pray that that they get the strength they need to fight well, and for the wisdom they need to see and do the right thing.   Pray for those who have seen combat, that they receive the healing and even the forgiveness they need if they have had to fight and to take life.   Pray for their families, for strong marriages and loving spouses.  Pray for those soldiers who do not yet know God.   Pray for our politicians who have responsibility for our Armed Forces and for our veterans.  Ask your politicians what they are doing for our veterans in the way of pensions, education, benefits, and job retraining.


Finally, the third thing we can do is pray for ourselves.  As human beings we are subject to all the sins which cause war - vengeance, anger, prejudice, fear of the other, unthinking and shallow patriotism.   Pray for the courage to reach out to others, for the strength to forgive and for the courage to do the hard work of love that Christ calls us to.  Let’s thank God that we live in a rich and peaceful place, untouched by war.  Let’s pray for a spirit of generosity and love to share what we have, the example of Canada, with others.  In the complicated and dangerous world of the future, let’s pray for courage and wisdom to do the right things.  And let us pray that tomorrow, and every day thereafter, we may always remember, and never forget.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday Theology

C.S. Lewis once said something to the effect that for every new book one reads, one should then read an old one, and that if one had a choice between a new book and an old one, then one should choose the old one.  In his introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, Lewis urged this advice especially on readers of theology.   "Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself."

I have been very fortunate to learn about a small Christian reading group that meets regularly here at Laurier and joined them just as they embarked on a very old writer, the eastern patristic St. Basil the Great.  The group is reading a set of Basil's homilies collected and translated by Sister Nonna Vera Harrison as On The Human Condition.  This an excerpt from our reading of this Wednesday, Basil's "Homily Explaining That God Is Not The Cause Of Evil", in which he addresses the question of why God permits us to do evil things.

"But why did we not have sinlessness in our structure, one may ask, so that the will to sin would not exist in us?  Because indeed it is not when your household slaves are in bonds that you consider them well disposed, but when you see them willingly fulfil your wishes.  Accordingly, God does not love what is constrained but what is accomplished out of virtue.  And virtue comes into being out of free choice and not out of constraint.  But free choice depends on what is up to us.  And what is up to us is self-determined.   Accordingly, the one who finds fault with the Creator for not fashioning us by nature sinless is no different from one who prefers the nonrational nature to the rational, and what lacks motion and impulse to what has free choice and activity.  If indeed these points are a digression, it was necessary to say them, lest falling into an abyss of arguments, you remain deprived of the things you most desire and also deprived of God.  Therefore, let us stop correcting the Wise One.  Let us stop seeking what is better than the things that come from him.  For if indeed the detailed principles which he has planned escape us, let this belief be present in your souls, namely that nothing evil comes into being from the Good One."

Often when one reads an old book, particularly one from antiquity, there is a sense of shock with the unfamiliar.  The metaphor about "household slaves" may seem jarring and unpleasant, both because we disapprove of slavery and because we are uncomfortable with our own positioning in the metaphor, the implication that we should be slaves who willingly please our master, God.  Likewise, the overlay of the Reformation might make one suspicious of the idea that we should use our free choice to do virtuous things,  as being a species of works righteousness.   There are other passages in this homily that might give offence, such as his claim that through earthquakes and wars God "provides salvation to all, through particular punishments".   Such thoughts are indeed very alien from our own, and may make us want to toss Basil aside and find a newer book, one more agreeable to us.  Certainly that was my initial thought.

But setting aside for a moment the problem of how one explains earthquakes and other harmful things or removes God from their causation, isn't Basil offering us in the above paragraph exactly what liberalism teaches us to value so highly, namely human agency?  And if God truly gives us the gift of agency and reason, then does not that not put a fearful responsibility on us as to how we should use these gifts?   This line of thought might explain natural disasters like earthquakes, but it does force us to think about how natural disasters both expose human sin and call us to virtuous response.   The Chinese artist Weiwei, who has created moving exhibitions critiquing the government of China for covering up the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren killed when an earthquake flattened their cheap, substandard block housing, would probably agree with Basil on this last point.

Military Picture Of The Week


This gorgeous picture of a U.S. Civil War monument was taken by Chris Mackowski, one of the young historians who contribute to the blog Emerging Civil War.  This statue is in the town of Allegany, New York, where Chris teaches.  Chris writes that "I see these statues everywhere (a New England statue manufacturer was responsible for most of them), but maybe because they seem so common, we forget to really see them. That’s my challenge this fall: in the midst of the riot of autumn color, I want to see these statues and remember the men they honour."

As a bonus picture, click here to see a 19th century image of the same statue and some Union Army veterans posing in front of it.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Maria Semple Hates Canadians (But Sweden Doesn't)

 This nice lady is Maria Semple.   She looks so sweet and kind, it's a pity she hates Canadians.

Well, not her, exactly, but the namesake  character in her novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (of which, more below) , does.  Bernadette is an architect who has gone with her software engineer husband and daughter to Seattle.  She has some mental health issues and lives as a recluse, emaiing her errands and diatribes to a personal assistant in India.  Here she unload on Canadians while writing to her Indian aide.

 "… there's always this one guy who answers the phone, 'Washington Athletic Club, how may I direct your call?'

And he always says it in this friendly, flat … Canadian way.  One of the main reasons I don't like leaving the house is because I might find myself face-to-face with a Canadian.  Seattle is crawling with them.  You probably think, U.S./Canada, they're interchangeable because they're both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obsess white people.  Well, Manjula, you couldn't be more mistaken.

Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass - anything and everything - the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say.  Canadians are none of that.  The way you might fear a cow sitting down in the middle of the street during rush hour, that's how I fear Canadians.  To Canadians, everyone is equal.  Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night.   Frank Gehry s no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD.  John Candy is no funner than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him.  No wonder the only Canadians anyone's ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out.  Anyone with talent who stayed would be flattened under the avalanche of equality.  The thing Canadians don't understand is that some people are extraordinary and should be treated as such." 

Well, that was funny, and it certainly plays on a certain Canadian stereotype.

Perhaps to avoid such outbursts from other Americans, fictitious or otherwise, there is a proposal being floated by Canadian journalist Diane Francis to combine our two companies.   Because Francis is a business writer, it may make sense to her to see the union of the two nations as nothing more than a a corporate merger.   Those of us who think of countries as being something more than corporations (which may sound quaint in the era of globalization) will likely differ.  Besides, I don't think conservative Americans would welcome twelve new states that would almost certainly vote Democratic. 

 Fortunately there are some Americans who are grateful that Canada is still the true north strong and free.   Writing early in the US government shutdown, US military blogger Tom Ricks is grateful that he still has access to military news thanks to the Canadian Department of National Defence (and as a bonus he gets to practice his French, too). 

Tom Ricks isn't are only fan, either.  Everyonee here in the Great White North did a fist-pump over breakfast this morning when we learned that some nice people in Sweden like Canadian author Alice Munro.  So take that, Bernadette.

Finally, and here's the book review part of this post, I really liked Maria Semple's novel and strongly recommend it.   She has a terrific satiric voice, and with her sharp eye and steady aim she riddles upper-middle class selfishness and liberal pretensions.   It is also a wonderful remaining of what was once in the 18th century called the epistolary novel, in that it does not use dialogue, but rather a succession of emails, diary entries, police reports and other forms of communication to carry the plot and let the characters speak for themselves.  It's a great book, and I'm reasonably sure that Ms. Semple doesn't really hate Canadians.  Who could?



Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Seen On The Morning Run

Last weekend here in SW Ontario was unusually wet, but the sun has come out the last few days for some glorious fall mornings.  Here was the view yesterday morning on one of the trails I frequent.

Image 3

On Monday I went out earlier, on a different trail, in the predawn darkness.   I'm listening to music on my headphones, and thinking "Hmmm, these woods are rather creepy in the dark", when I hear what sounds like a large animal moving in the undergrowth beside me.  I look to my left.

"Good morning!"  It is a young woman, two thirds my height and half my weight, powering past me on the trail.  I won't say that I screamed like a girl, but I did let out a variation of the Lord's name.   "Sorry", she said cheerily as she disappeared up the trail at twice my speed and half my age.   So much for the big tough army guy.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Deliver Us From … Hypocrisy: The US Senate Chaplain Speaks Truth To Power

He's a clergyman who looks sharp in a bow tie.  He's a retired Rear Admiral US Navy chaplain with an impressive CV.   He's a Seventh Day Adventist preacher who describes himself as being "liberal on some [issues] and conservative on others".  Each morning, recently, he berates 100 lawmakers in the US Senate for being a bunch of doofuses.

If that makes you curious about Barry C. Black, the US Senate chaplain, you can read a NYT profile of him and his work here and video excerpts of his prayers during the current US government shutdown here.

Given what I'm reading about the intransigence and foolishness going on in Washington DC, I'm thinking that Chaplain Black may be the last best hope of the USA.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Friday Theology - David Martin

For one of my grad courses this fall, I am being introduced to the work of David Martin, a sociologist associated with the London School of Economics, and an Anglican priest, who has made a long and distinguished career thinking about topics such as secularization.   

This paragraph, from Martin's On Secularization: Towards A Revised General Theory (Ashgate 2006)  jumped off the page at me today as a remarkably succinct description of what can happen to Protestantism when it divests itself of its traditional ritual expressions of the holy and reserves holiness to what Martin calls "heartwork".  I also like it because of the metaphor of the road roundabout, of which Kitchener-Waterloo traffic planners appear quite enamoured.

"In spite of this necessary retention of institutional and conceptual boundaries, evangelicalism incurs a cost on account of the ease with which the heartwork can be taken to imply that there is no need for efficacious ritual and institutional mediation.  Ritual and mediation are all too easily dismissed as mere mumbo jumbo and priestcraft: that is the sentiment or sediment deposited by a receding Protestantism.  Christianity comes to be popularly received as no more than neighbourliness or decent personal attitudes and well-meaning sentiment.  Decency is the eminently natural virtue and in political terms it has to provide the agreed point of reference for moral consensus.  It offers the working version of faith in the political sphere.  The reason is that a public institution, like a road roundabout, requires a decent law-abiding citizenry, not Christianity."

I'm thinking I might make Friday theology a regular feature of this rather irregular blog.

Military Picture Of The Week

 In continuing this rather irregular feature of a fitfully published blog, I chose this picture because I think priests and tanks look funny together, and I challenge you to prove me wrong on that one.

This photo was taken at the Russian Arms Expo last month in the Urals, as covered in a recent feature published here on Foreign Policy.  The FP commentary wondered what these chaps were doing hanging out in the tank park - I'm guessing they may be Russian Army chaplains, but I'll defer to someone with more knowledge on that score.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Soldiers And Their Lovable (And Costly) Robots

A few days ago I noticed a piece by Katy Waldman on about how soldiers may be developing excessively close attachments to the robots, according to a professor who is doing research into "human/robot interrelations".

"She interviewed 23 explosive ordnance personnel—22 men and one women—who worked with robot sidekicks, looking at how they imagined the bots in relation to themselves. She found that some troops anthropomorphized their machines, assigning them names (at times painting them on), genders, and even personalities. And while the soldiers denied that affection for the bots colored their combat strategy, they reported feeling sad and angry when the equipment was destroyed."

The irony, as Waldman notes, is that militaries are developing robots for purposes such as ordnance and explosive demolition to spare human soldiers from engaging in this risky tasks; "if troops care too much about the bots to put them in danger, that hesitance could compromise outcomes in the field."

However, yesterday the New York Times reported that while the US Air Force has done well in acquiring killer (if not lovable) robots, the Army has not had the same success in acquiring funding for so called Autonomous Ground Vehicles.   There have been some advances, such as the Legged Squad Support System, a vehicle the size of a cow that can carry 400 pounds of equipment.  Watch this video and you can easily imagine soldiers becoming emotionally attached to this device.  However, budget reductions, and the ongoing cost of supporting human soldiers damaged in the wars of the last decade, may well mean that the peaceful (or terrifying) future of killer robots predicted here by John Arquilla may not happen anytime soon.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Remembering Dag Hammarskjold

There are days this school term where I have the chance to worship in the Lutheran seminary chapel and yesterday, Sept 18, our prayers remembered the life and death of Dag Hammarskojold, the second Secretary General of the UN, who served from 1953 until his death in 1961.


Last week it was reported that the US National Security Agency might have information on the circumstances surrounding Hammarskold's death in a mysterious air crash in Rhodesia (now Zambia), thus fuelling the mystique around this figure, who seems legendary and effective in comparison to more recent successors.   Today the UN appears sadly irrelevant as a force for peace in the world, even if the UN of Hammarskold's day is more mythic than real, akin to JFK's Camelot.

What I didn't know until I worshipped with my Lutheran friends yesterday was that DH was also a man of faith, and recorded in his thoughts in a journal, published posthumously, which he called Markings.  I have only had a chance to read some brief excerpts of his writing, but was impressed by his careful and persistent thinking about the need for humility as the key to a life well lived.  Here's an example.

“Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It *is*--is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything. It is in this sense that humility is absolute self-effacement.

To be nothing in the self-effacement of humility, yet, for the sake of the task, to embody its whole weight and importance in your earing, as the one who has been called to undertake it. To give to people, works, poetry, art, what the self can contribute, and to take, simply and freely, what belongs to it by reason of its identity. Praise and blame, the winds of success and adversity, blow over such a life without leaving a trace or upsetting its balance.” 
― Dag HammarskjöldMarkings

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seen On The Morning Run

One great way to get to know a new place is through running.   For the last two months I've been exploring my neighbourhood since we moved to Kitchener-Waterloo.   Some runs have been less fruitful than others.  There was the disastrous morning I discovered that the route I had plotted to take me home from a trail head led me through a busy industrial park with no sidewalks.  

Most runs have been less stressful and have allowed me to reacquaint myself with a part of Canada that is so different from the prairie that has been my home for the last three years.

Here was the view a few days ago, on a fairly hot and humid morning along the Grand River.  Views like this make the occasional steep hill along the trail worthwhile.

Here's a selfie taken after that run, in which the only military thing about me is the T shirt.   The long hippy hair and goatee are decidedly non-regulation, but since the closest Regular Army unit is two hours away and my place of duty is at a civilian university, it can stay for now.   Sadly, I have just made an appointment for 1 October to get a new military identity card, so I will have to address this deplorable grooming standard soon.   But not too soon.



Monday, September 16, 2013

Toy Soldiers In Politics And In The Arts

Hello everyone, I'm back to blogging after a month and a half of packing, moving, unpacking, and getting used to a new place.   More about that, in so far as any of it might be interesting, later.

As a brief aside, I am composing this post on my new MacBook Air, which I bought at back to school prices and with a student discount, which is a nice deal if you can get it at fifty years age.   I'm using a Mac app called Mars Edit, from the wonderfully named publisher Red Sweater.  I am still figuring it out, but it is intuitive and much easier to use than trying to use Google's Blogger tools in my browser.  At $30 it's not cheap, and a casual blogger might not need it, but if you are a Mac person, you may wish to check it out.

My other blog is predicated on the idea that toy soldiers are interesting and fun to play with, but not everyone agrees with that premise.  In contexts other than the war-games table, toy soldiers can be political, and even sinister.  In this image from the Foreign Policy website, they are used in Santiago in front of the Presidential Palace to mark the 40th anniversary, on Sept 11, of the military coup in Chile.

As thoughtful war gamers know, there is something both seductive and pathetic about toy soldiers.  They offer us fantasies of command and control unknown to real battlefield commanders, but their vulnerability to badly conceived attacks and the price they pay for our failures on the gaming table hints at horrors that our gaming would keep at a safe remove.  That (as I understand it) is the point made by art critic Dave Hickey in his preface to a book of disturbing photographs of toy soldiers by David Levintha, of which you can see some here:

"As described by art critic Dave Hickey in his foreword to War Games (the soon-to-be published book featuring Levinthal's full body of toy-soldier work), Levinthal's art is "a kid's solution to an adult dilemma." Levinthal, Hickey writes, has "combined the aggression of battle, the visual aggression of photography, and the built-in cultural aggression of 'serious' art to create a lethal cocktail -- a body of objects that are admirable, affecting, beautiful, and not comfortable at all."  

But Levinthal's work is more than just arranging toys in play-fighting poses -- or merely an imitation of war. As Hickey keenly notes, Levinthal's photographs contain an "intimate appeal of toy soldiers and the fantasy of omniscience they bestow. First, toy soldiers are all very much the same, they all wear uniforms, and they are just where they are. They represent a species not a class. They have no dreams, no interiority or individuality, and Levinthal never tries to infer that they do." 





Saturday, August 3, 2013

Seen On The Morning Run

A short four km run this morning from the door of the Fort Garry Hotel in downtown Winnipeg took me through the Forks area, across the Assiniboine and Red rivers briefly into the old Ste. Boniface neighbourhood, and then back. Running early in the morning after a fabulous feast of East Indian food probably wasn't the smartest idea ever.

Part of a sculpture garden in The Forks - spider on a stick?

I wasn't able to make out the identity of this building (please help me out if you know Winnipeg) but I liked it.

The RC Cathedral in Ste. Boniface.

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Location:Winnipeg, MB

Friday, August 2, 2013

Seen On The Morning Run

While running in the Lakeview Drive neighbourhood of Regina, SK, this morning, I noticed this iron sculpture, a weathervane with three Canada geese, gracing a lawn. Quite lovely.

While on the subject of running, I have to say that I have been wearing these Nike Free Run 5.0sfor about a month now, and enjoying the feeling of being closer to the road. In retrospect, I'm grateful to whomever stole the two pairs of Asic shoes I had airing on my front porch. Dude, you must have been pretty desperate to want those old stinkers, and you gave me an excuse to try this more minimalist style of shoe. And I have to say, that bright colour doesn't look too bad, either.

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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Last Day Of Work And On The Road

This relaxed looking fellow celebrated his final day of duty at CFB Suffield last Wednesday, July 24th, posing beside his Officers' Mess departing gift. It should hook nicely onto that shiny new red Kia SOUL (what else would a chaplain drive?) in the background. Just kidding, the 25pdr stayed behind, but I did get a nice framed print.
The final few days in Medicine Hat were a flurry of work as we got ready for the movers, who arrived on Monday to begin packing. For me the nerve wracking bit was getting my miniature collection - boxes of soldiers, models, and bits and pieces that clearly mystified the young Filipino guys who packed us. For Kay it was selecting the plants that she would take with her. The weekend before the packers arrived, we moved three unhappy kitties to their temporary home, the Calgary Cat Clinic, prior to their air adventure to join us in Ontario on the 10th. The three hour drive from Medicine Hat to Calgary with a chorus of unhappy, mutinous felines was enough to convince us that trying to drive the 3000 kilometres to Ontario with them would have been a disaster.

Here's the same car yesterday, packed with Kay's plants. Our personal possessions, such as they are, will go on the roof rack. Several friends have already commented on the portable grow-op, but if the guy from Breaking Bad can hide in plain view, I figure so can we. Who would ever suspect a mild manned chaplain and his lovely wife?

Our final view of our lovely old house in Medicine Hat. We were privileged to have three good years here.

So today we're on the road, and I'm writing this from Swift Current, Saskatchewan (200 kilometres down, 2800ish to go). Tonight we are guests of Curt (of Analogue Hobbies fame and his lovely bride Sarah. Looking forward to that very much. Thanks to all our social media friends for the good wishes for travelling mercies!
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Sunday, July 21, 2013

On Distractions And "The One Thing" : A Sermon

This sermon is my last at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield. My three years as Base Chaplain and Chapel Life Director end next Wednesday. It's been a blessing to have this ministry of Word and Sacrament. Sometimes a military chaplain can become so involved in field or administrative work that we forget we are priests and ministers. Indeed, some of us no doubt seek out military ministry to get away from the daily grind of charge or parish, but in that grind is our vocation, whether we want or, sometimes, don't. So as I told +Peter, my Bishop, I am thankful that my three years here reminded me almost weekly that first and foremost I am a priest of the church.

Preached Sunday, 21 July, Christ the King Chapel, Crown Village of Ralston, AB. Lections For The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost (C): Genesis 18:20-23, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10: 38 - 42

"Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing." (Luke 10:41)

I sometimes wonder if, had I been born several decades later, if I would have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, as so many young people are today. I often find it difficult to concentrate on just one task for an extended period of time, and find my attention splintering as my mind flits from one thing to another. I get bored with a task quickly, and find myself working, often ineffectually, on several projects at once. I couldn't say if this condition is be aide of some deficiency or chemical imbalance in my brain that might be treatable, or if is simply because I live an increasingly complex world with a surfeit of distractions. Since I have been fairly high-functioning and achieving for most of my life, I suspect it is the latter.

Technology and psychology writers have suggested that there is a link between our devices, such as smart phones, and brain processes that work like addiction. Take something as simple as checking your smart phone or tablet for new messages. Every time you check and find a new email or tweet or text, your brain's pleasure centre is activated and dopamine, the chemical associated with curiosity and reward, is released, leaving you craving the next reward of a new email, and thus driving you back to your phone every five minutes. Certainly this has been my experience of technology, and my observations of people using technology in public places seems to suggest that I'm not alone.

Seeing as I am composing this sermon on my iPad, I am not going off on an anti-technological screed. I'm a fan of technology. Technology enables us to be more produce more, to communicate more, and to learn more, which can all be worthy goals. However, technology leaves us susceptible to a narrative that our culture wants us to buy into. That narrative convinces us that we need to multitask, to do and produce more with less, to want more and to fill our waking moments with work and pleasure. The price of living according to that narrative is the splintered self, our identities pulled between a host of different priorities and demands.

What I am calling the "splintering" of the self into shards of attention and focus is a condition that is hostile to spiritual well being. The great religious traditions use words like balance, centring and presence to describe a healthy spiritual state. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the scriptures often point us to the need to be intentional about focusing on God's presence and on our relationship to the divine. Psalm 46:10 famously says "Be still and know that I am God", the psalmist reminding us that stillness, our setting aside of our worries and fears in a worrisome world, is necessary if we want God to be our "refuge and strength" (Ps 46:1).

In her commentary on today's gospel reading from Luke 12, Elizabeth Johnson observes that the Greek word used in Luke 12:40 to describe Martha, periespato, is often translated as "distracted" but it has the sense of being "pulled in all directions". Commentators and preachers talking about Martha and Mary often get mired in discussions of gender and women's work. As Johnson reminds us, the story isn't about whether Mary is right or wrong to take the non-traditional posture of a male disciple listening to Jesus, or whether Martha's tradition al role of service and hospitality is less valuable. Instead, she suggests, Martha's state of being pulled apart and distracted by her work and her sister's choice leave her resentful and unable, as host, to be fully present for the guest under her roof (compare her role as hostess to that of Abraham as host in our first reading from Genesis).

In his response to Martha, Jesus mysteriously says that "there is need of on,y one thing". I think Johnson is right that we can read this statement not as Jesus' rebuke of Martha, but as his invitation to her. "The one thing needed is for Martha to receive the gracious presence of Jesus, to listen to his words, to know that she is valued not for what she does or how well she does it, but for who she is as a child of God."
In our gospel reading from last Sunday, the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10, we heard of one man who chose the one thing, who chose to be fully present to the divine by being fully present for another. The Samaritan's care for the other is not only remarkable for his generosity and sympathy, but also for his selflessness. We don't know what busy errand the Samaritan was en route to, but whatever it was, he set it aside long enough to be fully present in service to another. The men who didn't stop, the Priest and the Levite, may well have decided that their business in Jericho was so pressing and so important that they had no time to stop. I have sometimes heard it said of the Priest and the Levite that they didn't stop on religious grounds, for fear of contaminating themselves with blood and becoming ritually impure, but what if it was as simple as they felt they were too busy, too distracted by their self importance?

The famous Darley and Batson experiment (1973) created an artificial sense of busyness and a sense of hurry in seminary students, and then observed their willingness to help a stranger slumped on the ground. The researchers found that a sense of "hurriness" in their subjects contributed to their unwillingness to help the stranger, even when one of the tasks the subjects were rushing to complete was a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan! Had the researchers known the Greek term, they might have substituted Luke's perispateo for "hurriness".

As I write this, I am very much aware that I could be doing a dozen other pressing things related to a relocation and winding down a busy job. I confess my thoughts are much distracted by these pressures, and I certainly feel that right now I am a poster child for perispateo. The only solution that I know of is to focus on "the one thing", on Jesus and his word that I will share with others tomorrow, and on my relationship with the other, wherever I meet them. I know that for me and you, life will continue at its crazy pace. Technology will continue to be a blessing and a curse as we continue to live and work at that pace. We will continue to feel perispateo, pulled in many directions, like Martha. The only way that allow us to manage, to escape being pulled deeper and deeper into the cycle of our distractions and its call to selfishness, will be for us to also find moments like Mary, to be still and sit with Jesus, and remind ourselves of the one thing, of our call to love him and our neighbour.
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Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Month After The Alberta Floods

Just over a month ago southern Alberta experienced unseasonably heavy rains which caused significant flooding from the Rocky Mountains through Calgary as far east as Medicine Hat, where I currently live. It was a tense time, but one in which the Canadian Armed Forces distinguished itself in a series of rapidly mounted rescue and engineering operations. A brief description of those operations, and some photos of flooded Medicine Hat, can be found here.

Today the city is back to normal and gearing up for its annual Rodeo Week. Kay and I were downtown today for another summer highlight, the Chili Cookoff, and wandered around downtown on a hot day under clear skies. It was quite a different mood from a month ago, when the city felt like it was under siege. I took some photos at the time but haven't had time to post them until now.

This was the scene in front of City Hall on Saturday, June 22. The flood had already hit Calgary and South Saskatchewan River was expected to crest on Sunday.

Looking north from the Finlay Bridge at the South Saskatchewan River, which was already higher than I'd ever seen it.

By early Sunday, June 23, the SSkR was over its banks and rising. Here's the same view of the now aptly named River Road in front of City Hall that morning.

From the middle of the Finlay Bridge that morning, showing significant amounts of debris racing down the river.

And looking east from the Findlay Bridge at the CP Rail Bridge, where, it was said, the railway had left cars parked on it to add weight and stability.

By Saturday night the CFB Suffield was working closely with the City of Medicine Hat, coordinating whatever material and personnel resources we had that the City could use. Our engineering and logistics personnel were working hard that day, and were also preparing to support a battlgroup from the Army's First Brigade, which was making the six hour road move south from Edmonton to arrive in our area Sunday. Kay and I had one of our young engineering officers over to dinner that evening, as the poor fellow had been working all day, and then I accompanied him to the City's emergency command facility to hang out and see things first hand. I will never forget being in the City war room and seeing a map which showed the worst case scenario, which assumed that the SSk River would crest at over 6000 cubic metres per second. Accprding to that map, every berm, levy and defence the city was building would be overwhelmed, tens of thousand would lose their homes and businesses, and the city would have been wrecked. As it was, ten thousand residents in low lying areas were under orders to evacuate. It was very sobering, and as I drove home that night I was grateful that Kay and I lived on high ground, out of any possible flood zone.

I recall that Sunday as being a fairly surreal day. After taking pictures on my morning run down by the bridges (the RiverGawk Run, as I called it) I drove to the base and marvelled at how strange it was to cross the bridge on the Trans Canada Highway, with the water just metres from the bridge bottom and still rising. During our chapel worship we prayed, quite earnestly, for our communities. After church I stopped in at the command center we had set up at the Base, but things were quiet there, as the battlegroup from Edmonton was on the ground and had taken over primary liason with the city. There was nothing more we could do but help them, and wait to see how high the river would crest, which was expected in the small hours of Monday morning. By 4pm that afternoon there was talk that every bridge across the SSk River would be closed, including the Trans Canada Highway, so not wanting to be cut off, I headed home. As it turned out, the TCH was never closed, though the two older road bridges in Medicine Hat, a city divided by the river, were closed that afternoon and remained closed for several days.

Sunday evening I learned that my friend Padre Howard, the chaplain to the 3rd Battalion, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, was across the river with his unit in a high school, and would be going out that night to sandbag. Since the TCH was open, I crossed over to visit, and not wanting to show up empty-handed, I stopped first at the only Tim Horton's coffee shop left open to get a dozen large "double double" (two cream, two sugar), or as the troops say, "NATO standard" coffees. I was very pleased when the Timmies manager gave them and a bag of cookies to me at no charge. For my non-Canadian readers, this sort of thing, plus delicious, addictive coffee, is why Timmies is a Canadian icon.

The author and Padre Howard Rittenhouse (left) enjoying their TH coffee.

At 9pm I stowed away on a bus with Howard and thirty odd soldiers from the Patricia's HQ company, crossing a now-closed bridge and heading into the heart of the flood zone, in a part of Medicine Hat called "The Flats". Much of the hard work had already been done. Rows of interlocked wire cylinders, called Hesco, had already been placed along streets and were being filled with dirt and gravel by front end loaders. The science and engineering behind this was obviously carefully thought out, and it was heartbreaking to see how the planners had decided that some parts of the neighbourhood could be defended this way, and others sacrificed. The Flats were mostly dark, with power and gas cut off, and police watching as the last evacuees left. One fellow, who had retured to get his vintage motorcycle, called out his thanks as he left, even though his house was on the wrong side of the Hesco defences. That was pretty moving. For the rest of the night, like typical grunts in a bigger battle, we wandered the neighbourhood, sometimes getting lost, filling and stacking sandbags according to a larger plan that we didn't really understand. The troops I was with had been working for almost two days straight with only a few hours sleep, and were uncertain if they would get their leave in a few days, as 3 PPCLI had block leave for the summer scheduled soon. Nevertheless they were cheerful and hard working, and all had stories to tell of how locals had fed them and been kind to them in many ways. It was inspiring.

The story has a happy ending. The flood crested early Monday at around 5300 cu metres p/s, well below the doomsday scenario. Some homes and businesses were damaged, but it was widely agreed that the city had gotten off lucky, compared to towns further west like High River, which was devastated. The troops all went home by Wednesday and got their leave, and we at the Base went back to business as usual. Last week Kay and I were driving in the Flats and saw many homes with dumpsters out front, full of wet carpet and drywall, so clearly a lot of folks were affected, but it could have been much worse. For a few days the City pulled together, rich and poor alike, and some of the heroes wore uniforms. It was a high note to finish my three years here with. The following Sunday, in the Base Chapel, we gave thanks for prayers answered.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Canadian Army Goes Back To The Future

This photograph of a group of junior officers relaxing was taken sometime around 1960. You can tell they belong to the Canadian Army because of the cap badges, if you know what you're looking for. The fellow in beret second from right, who just happens to be my father, wears the cap badge of the Royal Canadian Regiment, while the fellow seated far left is a Royal Canadian Dragoon (I can't make out the other cap badges). You can tell they are junior officers because four of them visibly wear three pips on their shoulders showing that they are captains, reflecting the evolution of our military from the British Army.

Today Canadian Army officers wear the American-style bars that we adopted in 1968, but earlier this month it was announced that we are going back to the future. As my brother the Mad Colonel put it, it's "Not quite back to brown uniforms, boots and puttees but getting there". These changes were announced by the Rt. Hon. Peter McKay in early July before he finished his tenure as Minister of National Defence. The commander of the Canadian Army, General Devlin, has said this:

“The restoration of these features is a significant step in the restoration of the Canadian Army’s traditions,” said Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, Commander of the Canadian Army. “Symbols and traditions establish links to soldiers’ heritage, and are important. It is very significant that our non-commissioned members have the prospect of being able to bear the same ranks as their forbearers, and our officers will proudly wear the same insignia worn by Canadians who fought in the First and Second World Wars and Korea.”

This somewhat oversized graphic shows the rank insignia that Army officers will adopt. Non-commissioned members will keep their rank but in some cases will return to old rank titles such as Sapper, Bombardier, Fusilier or Guardsman rather than Private, depending on their regiment.

Since I have spent the last three years working with British Army personnel at CFB Suffield, I am familiar with British army insignia and know things like how a Major's crown is smaller than a Warrant Officer's crown. My colleagues without this experience will struggle at first. While I respect General Devlin's desire to honour our heritage, I do find it slightly ironic that no one currently wearing officer's rank in the Canadian Army is old enough to wearing the British-style rank of my father's day. That generation has either passed on or is in retirement. It's also curious that, as Colonel Ian Hope wrote of his time leading Task Force Orion in Afghanistan in 2006, our interoperability in theatre in the last decade has been with the US Army, so that culturally we are more like them now than we are like the Brits. American and Canadian soldiers can currently look at each other and understand the rank insignia, but there will be some Yanks scratching their heads in future theatres until they figure out our "new" ranks.

Fortunately for me, this is all above my pay grade and it won't matter in the short term as I am shortly taking off the uniform for two years while a soldier-student, so it's back to school before it's back to the future. In two years from now, I'll be putting on a new-style army combat uniform with (possibly, depending on the time it takes to phase this in), three captain's pips and maybe a major's crown to look forward to one day. For army chaplains, though, a vexing question presents itself. The combat uniform slip-on (the piece of fabric worn on the chest of the combat or everyday uniform to show rank and trade) only has room for three captain's pips, which is why British army padres of captain's rank wear crosses on their collars and the word "Padre" as part of their name tag. With the current Canadian slip-on for army padres, there is enough room for both the rank bars and the cross (or crescent or torah scroll). What will Canadian army padres of captain's rank wear when we go back to the future? Black puttees, perhaps?

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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