Sunday, May 21, 2017

Paul in Athens: Sharing The Gospel In A Pluralistic Age


Preached Sunday, 21 May, the Sixth Sunday of Easter at St. Margarets of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON


Texts for this Sunday Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 68:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21


Want to stay true to the faith you were brought up in?   That’s fine.  Want to convert to another world religion?  Go ahead.  Perhaps one of the new religions might suit your needs?  Perhaps you have heard about some guru with some teaching that everyone is talking about, or some new book on spirituality that everyone is talking about, or maybe some teaching about guardian angels?  Go for it.  Or, maybe you think all this spirituality is just a bunch of nonsense, and you want to dedicate yourself to science and reason, because they are the most sensible way of explaining the world.  Hey, that’s your right.  Just don’t go pushing your faith down other people s throats.  Try to get along with other people.

This description of the religious landscape could just as easily describe our own time as it describes the time of the Apostle Paul.  The world that we see in our first lesson, from Acts 17, is like our own world in that it is pluralistic.  Pluralistic in this context simply means multiple faiths and beliefs living side by side, offering a kind of marketplace that believers could search to find the belief that best suited them.   The Book of Acts has numerous examples of conversions, of which Paul (formerly known as Saul) is the most well known, but there are others, including the Ethiopian eunuch or the Roman officer Cornelius and his family.  These are believers who were attracted to Judaism, but then become followers of Jesus when they hear the gospel.   


Some of you may have friends and family members who have converted because they have found another faith to be convincing and satisfying.  I can think of an Anglican friend who became an Orthodox priest, or a young man raised in the United Church who is now a Muslim imam.  You may also know someone who has converted in order to marry their loved one.  Many people seem to have no problem in combining bits and pieces of different faiths and spiritualities, like the Christians I have met who also believe in reincarnation or the healing power of crystals. Then of course there are those who reject religion as being irrational, and then ironically profess to be atheists with a kind of religious fervor.  


People make these sorts of choices because of the basic human need for meaning, for a belief or a worldview that makes sense of the world, which calms our fears and which helps us decide how to act.   It helps that we live in a country that protects our freedom to believe and to choose between beliefs.  Many in the world don’t have that luxury, and thus the many Christians who are now fleeing the Middle East, or the young Russians who are being jailed for disrespecting the Orthodox Church which is now the same as disrespecting Russia and Putin.   I think it is safe to say that most Canadians value our tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.  Most of us, I think, don’t care what other Canadians wear on their heads, we just care what’s in their hearts.

At the same time, we need to be honest that pluralism poses a challenge for us as Christians.   For those of us of a certain vintage, that challenge may be our sense of unease that the Christian country we grew up in has faded away along with that prayers and bible readings in public school or laws against Sunday shopping are gone.  That feeling is understandable but I think we need to guard against nostalgia, because I am not really convinced that there ever was a truly Christian Canada.  Sometimes it’s easy to think we see religion when what we really see is culture and force of habit.  However, for those of us who are clear that we are followers of Jesus and faithful believers, the real challenge of pluralism is about messaging.  How can we faithfully proclaim the gospel message to others without offending them or suggesting that their faith isn’t real or isn’t good enough?  I can tell you that this is a real problem for my employer, the Canadian Armed Forces chaplaincy.  We used to be a Christian organization, and now we are a multifaith organization, serving military members that range from Sikhs and Baptists to Mormons and atheists.   It can be a challenge for our chaplains who come from more conservative Christian churches.  It can be a challenge for us, too, as we go from St. Margaret’s to our workplaces, circles of friends, and extended families.


The story of Paul in Athens gives us a model of how we as Christians can act and speak in a pluralistic society.  We can draw several lessons from how Paul shares his faith with the Athenians, and the first lesson is to know the culture you’re in.   Athens was a centre of philosophy and learning in the ancient world, a crossroads where peoples and beliefs would come together and compete with one another.  It was a marketplace of beliefs.   Luke (the likely author of Acts) tells us that “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new (17:21).  That description sounds a little tongue and cheek to me, as if the Athenians are swayed by whatever trendy belief or idea comes into town.  It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


The second lesson we can draw from Paul is to meet people where they are. Earlier in this chapter, we are told that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), but in his opening words he hides his distress and even uses humour, by seeming to compliment the Athenians on how they have covered their bases by even acknowledging an “unknown God”.   Normally we think of Paul from his letters as being dour and earnest and self-aggrandizing, but it’s hard for me not to imagine him smiling as he says these words.   Paul then goes on to tell the Christian story, but in a way that an audience familiar with Greek philosophy would understand.  God is a creator, the first mover who can do all things, who doesn’t need any praise or tribute from humans, who isn’t confined to any one temple of space, and who is a truth that can be searched for.


Notice that while Paul often uses references to the Hebrew scriptures when talking to his fellow Jews, here he doesn’t.  He describes God in such a way that Greek philosophers could agree with, and even quotes “some of your own poets”.  In other words, Paul is acting like a good guest, getting to know the Greek’s culture and speaking to them in a way they can understand.  However, Paul isn’t afraid to draw sharp differences between Greek belief and his faith.   You Greeks, he says, think of God like the Xfiles, like a truth that is out there somewhere, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him”, whereas for Paul God’s truth can be found very specifically in one person, Jesus, “a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). 


It takes nerve to be specific.  Paul was probably doing ok with his high-brow Greek audience until he said that the truth of God could be found in one person who died and rose again.  Elsewhere Paul acknowledged that this message of Christ, the cross and resurrection was “foolishness” to the educated Greeks (1 Cor 1:23).  It can seem just as foolish today, in a world with so many choices and things to believe in, to say that we as Christians have found God’s truth in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s son, whom God raised from the dead as a sign of hope for all people but, my friends, if we don’t believe that, then why are we here?


If Paul looked for ways to relate his message to the Greeks of his day, then I think we need to look for ways to relate to our own culture today.  Very briefly, I have some suggestions as to how we might do that effectively.  First, I think we need to acknowledge that we do live in a culture of spiritual and religious choice, which means that we can’t condemn and criticize people for making the wrong choice.  That would only come across as disrespectful, hostile and judgemental, which is exactly why so many people dislike Christians today.  Instead, I think we need to use today’s Gospel reading from John as a resource.   


John’s gospel reminds us that God is not a distant, abstract deity like the Greeks believed in.  John tells us that God wants to be with us, not because (as Paul tells the Greeks) he needs anything from us, but out of love:  ‘those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them’ (John 14:21).  The gift of the Spirit’s presence in today’s Gospel is a sign that God will keep his promise, made in John 3:16, that God loves the world and is determined to save it.  It is the promise of God not to abandon us, a sign of his love and compassion for those who created.


There are so many ways in which this message can be heard in our age of choice and uncertainty.  Think of how many people fear the end of the world, either through war or environmental and ecological collapse.  Some scientists say that we may only have a hundred years left on this planet.  Others see a dark future where a wealthy few will keep their boot on the poor many.   The rise of racial hatred and violence between religions fills many with despair.   Some people say that this is a time like the end of the Roman Empire, and that is certainly true in the sense that we can no longer count on the Christian church to have a place of honour and respect in society.  Let that nostalgia go, and focus on the power of the gospel in this dark time.  We can tell the story of a God who created the world and gave us life out of his great goodness, who needs nothing from us but who wants to be in relation with us.  We have a God who cares passionately for the poor, who gives everyone the right to respect and dignity because they are made in his image, who has promised that in the death and resurrection of his son he will stand with us and fight against the darkness of sin and death, and who will certainly win that fight.  This is our story.  Have faith in it, live it out, and trust that god will give you the wisdom and opportunity to share it with those who need to hear it.

MP+


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Generations In Uniform: The Rise Of An Hereditary Military Caste



Lt. Col. Shawn McKinstry of the Canadian Army Reserve shows a picture of his great-grandfather with his regiment from the First World War.  Photo credit here.


My  father, like his father before him, was a soldier, as were my two older brothers. My earliest memories are of life on an army base in West Germany.  Even after dad aged out and fitfully pursued a second career as a high school teacher, there were his army mementoes around the house as well as the books of military history that he pursued voraciously.  When my brothers visited, there were stories of army life in the air, which burnished their heroic auras to my young eyes.  No surprise, then, that I should want to "go for a soldier" as a young man.


Sociologists use the term "professional inheritance" to describe the influence of parents on their children's career choices.   Whether its the law, the clergy, the factory or mine, or the military, there is "an increased probability of a child entering his or her parent's career field".   Amy Schafer, a scholar with the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), makes professional inheritance the focus of her recent study, Generations of War: The Rise of the Warrior Caste and the All-Volunteer Force.   Her study of data from a variety of sources notes that having a family member with militarys service, particularly a parent (and thus usually a father) is a strong predictor for a person to join te military.  US Army data from the year 2015 shows that 36 percent of recruits had a father who had served (6 percent had a mother who had served) and a stunning 60 percent of general officers surveyed in 2007 had children in service.


The implications of Schafer's survey can be outlined broadly as follows:


1) As the generations of veterans who were conscripted into the military (Korea and Vietnam) fade away, the total number of veterans as a percentage of US society declines correspondingly.
2) With the end of the draft after the Vietnam War, the rise of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) has meant that fewer and fewer Americans have any contact with the active-duty military.
3) This "familiarity gap" has been exacerbated as the US military was reduced in size after the Cold War, and as military bases were closed.  Today only .4 percent of the US population serves in the active duty military, while many of the military bases are concentrated in the US South.
4) As military service becomes more and more multigenerational, it becomes more homogenous.  Over half of recruits now come from one region, the south.  Multigenerational service, particularly in the primarily white officer corps, limits the growth of diversity in the military.
5) While military children may take better to military life and may be more resilient, multi-generational service has the adverse effect of reducing the overall  recruiting pool and limits the growth of diversity in the military.
6) A military that is slowly evolving into a "warrior caste" becomes increasingly isolated from the democratic society that it serves, meaning that fewer and fewer Americans know anyone in uniform, while voters and legislators become increasingly ignorant of issues surrounding the use of military force.  Conversely, while the military is revered and largely trusted by the American population, unlike other organs of government, the lack of civic connection to the military poses risks to the stability and endurance of democracy.


As always, I try to translate this article into the Canadian context, though I am far less qualified than Schafer to do that well.


Canada's population in 2016 was in excess of 35 million, while the Canadian Armed Forces numbers approximately 68,000 Regular Force and 28,000 Reserve Force members, for a total of approx. 96,000.  The CAF is thus a miniscule percentage of the total national population, even though the CAF and the civilian personnel of the Department of National Defence together make up Canada's largest single public sector employer.  The CAF Regular Force is primarily concentrated on a few bases, only a few of which are near or in large population centres, with the Navy being a significant exception (based in Halifax and Victoria).   The CAF is primarily white, and recruited from smaller communities, particularly from Atlantic Canada.  The Reserve Force is distributed more evenly through urban centres.  The CAF has worked hard to recruit a more diverse military, but has had difficulty meetings its goals.  Persistent budget cuts, pay freezes, limited training opportunities and many antiquated base facilities all work against the goal of making the CAF a career of choice for many young Canadians.


There is no data that I am aware of to suggest that military service in Canada is as multi-generational as it is in the US, though given the dynamics I have outlined above, I would not be surprised that it is similar.   Speaking purely anecdotally, roughly one in four of my colleagues have family members with military service, and some have children in the CAF.   Several past Chiefs of the Defence Staff, Canada's ranking military officer, have or have had children in uniform.  So one can assume that a Canadian generational dynamic that is roughly equivalent to the US is in play.


Whether there is the same civil-military familiarity gulf in Canada as there is in the US, and whether it matters as much, is debateable.   Canada is not a military superpower.   Our citizenry feels good about seeing military personnel hauling sandbags to help flood victims, but not so good about seeing them fight, kill, and even die.  While there was considerable national pride over the Afghanistan deployment, there was little argument when a casualty-adverse Conservative government ended the combat mission, and then ended the training mission.  Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror, did not fit into a national narrative (however unrealistic) of Canadian soldiers as peacekeepers.   The current Liberal government has clearly signalled that defence spending is not a high priority, and there has been little public complaint over the fact that Canada lags in the bottom half of NATO countries in terms of percentage of GDP spent on defence.  Not since the end of the Cold War has any Canadian government convincingly argued for a large military or for its role on the world stage.


In summary, the same multigenerational trends in military service that Shafer observes in the US may well apply in Canada, though the data deserves closer examination.   The political and social stakes in Canada are less important because our military, frankly, is far less important to the national identity.  Nevertheless, Canadian citizens, like their US neighbours, should ask whether they can afford to entrust their military to an hereditary warrior class.  









Wednesday, May 10, 2017

No, Mr. President, There Isn't A Religious Freedom Problem In The Military


US Army chaplain visits a simulated casualty during a training exercise.


My Twitter feed lit up a bit recently when this story aired on CNN, regarding comments by US President Donald Trump that US service personnel in a military hospital were denied religious items.
What was remarkable about the social media reaction is that several US military people I follow commented on how the chaplains they knew would fulfil a response for religious items before the person asking could finish the sentence.    My own experience is similar.  The military chaplains I know are eager to provide not only bibles and rosaries but also korans and prayer mats.  Part of the training that we conduct at the Canadian Armed Forces Chaplain School focuses exactly on this kind of work as part of the chaplain's duty to defend the rights and support the needs of believers of all faiths.


Possibly, as the CNN article noted, President Trump was referring to confusion that arose at a US military hospital when proselytization triggered a temporary ban on religions items.   It is regrettable that the President seems to have misunderstood this situation.  Chaplain training, at least in the CAF, focuses on the need for chaplains to meet people where they are and to respect their beliefs, however diverse they may be.  Proselytization, trying to aggressively convince another person to adopt one's faith (what Christians can evangelization) is strictly forbidden.   A conversation may lead to a request for a chaplain to say more about what the belief, but that is an entirely different matter.


Another US veteran I follow commented on Twitter that he couldn't imagine a worse situation than being helpless in a hospital bed as a chaplain or other religious person used that opportunity to proselytize.  I would agree wholeheartedly.  It reminded me of a scene in the old (2005) US series on FX, Over There, about the Iraq war, in which one of the characters is immobilized in a hospital bed while an unctuous chaplain in dress uniform, gold crosses glinting, a bible held in his hand, enters the room.   No, that's now how it's done.  A smile and a question, "How's today going?", is a better way to start.

Monday, May 8, 2017

War And Remembrance: Notes Towards A Taxonomy Of Contemporary War Literature





For a long time it was TGWOT - The Global War on Terror, the term for the US led conflict that officially began on September 11, 2001, though one could argue that it began with the USS Cole attack in 2000, the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, or the Khobar towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, or maybe even the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 or ... well, you get the picture.

At some point, the operations fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Iraq (again) and now apparently Syria, began to be lumped into a single term, one that conjures up the titles of classic science fiction novels by the likes of Harlan Ellison:  The Forever War.  That term may have been coined by the US journalist Dexter Filkins, who used it for the title of his indispensable 2008 book based on his assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan

The Forever War is primarily an American war, though at different times and places it has also caught up America's friends and allies, including Canada in Kandahar, Great Britain in Basra and Helmand, Germany in Kundiz, and the Kurds in Raqqa.   However, the Forever War is now part of the American experience, longer than any single conflict in US history, and it is not surprising that after a generation of conflict, American writers and poets of note, most of them military or recent veterans, are now emerging.  However, one could argue that these writers have less of a shared context with their civilian readers than at any other time in US history.   America's all volunteer military, its power augmented formidably by technology, has fought and still fights a war that scarcely touches the home front.

The challenge of communicating across this civil-military disconnect unites many of the authors discussed by Adin Dobkin in his recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, "The Never-Ending Book of War".   Some of these writers - Phil Klay, Brian Castner, and Eric Fair, have been previously reviewed on this blog.  

In thinking through Dobkin's review of recent war writing,  the EngLit student in me got to wondering how I would survey the disparate voices of the Forever War.  What literary modes do they work in?  What traditions, genres, and literary predecessors do they draw on?  Dobkin rightly notes the starting point, memory, in his opening paragraph.

"The necessity of a long memory runs throughout our conception of war.  Just consider the phrase,"never forget". 

The phrase "never forget" points to a powerful moral imperative in this mode of history, a dual belief that this history should not be forgotten, and that it not be repeated.  Writers like Castner would rightly have their fallen and wounded comrades remembered, while writers like Fair would not have their country fall back into the moral shame of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

As Dobkin notes, since modern wars do not cause "societal shocks" on the homefront, the writers and publishers of these wars have to fight headwinds of incomprehension, alienation, and indifference, as Klay's characters do upon their return home in the short stories of his book Redeployment.  Other writers, as Dobkin notes, fight the moral obfuscation of language as political change in the Trump era resurrects ideas such as enhanced interrogation/torture.  For some of the current military writers, as they admit to Dobkin, it is discouraging to see that the "Never Again" moral and protest function of war literature, a tradition going back at least far as Eric Remarque and Robert Graves, has little apparent efficacy.  As Eric Fair tells Dobkin, "we're right back to where we started, and in fact, might be headed somewhere far worse".

In the rest of this essay, I propose a few gradations of analysis, or pigeonholes, to enhance Dobkin's summary.   Perhaps its the EngLit student in me who finds taxonomies helpful in refining Dobkin's core idea of remembrance by proposing the following categories, and if nothing else it allows me to locate contemporary war writers more easily in my mental landscape.

Remembrance as Epic -  this classification would be writers working in what we might call the encomiastic tradition, in which heroism and pride win out over anti-heroism and irony within a narrative that follows a relatively uncomplicated moral trajectory, what Dobkin calls "clear-cut good versus evil".  While we see this mode in history used in accounts of recent wars, most notably in Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation (1998) or Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy (2002-2013), today's writers live and work under the shadow of post-modernity, with its scepticism and suspicious, mordant humour.  Thus The Greatest Generation gives way to Generation Kill, in which careerist officers and petty NCOs are almost as much of an adversary to the protagonists as are the enemy.   Some works of military journalism fall at times into the epic mode, such as Fifteen Days, Christie Blatchford's account of the Canadian Army in Kandahar or Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer's account of the life and death of NFLer turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, though the later part of Krakauer's book falls into irony as he dissects the tragic circumstances of Tillman's death.  Surely the reluctance of many authors to identify with the Epic mode has to do with the moral ambiguity ad even moral taint of wars like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  As Tom McDermott, an Australian army officer and scholar has noted, that war, fought without a clear causus belli or UN Declaration has a morally "malignant" quality, so that the participants look back with, "if not a sense of shame, at least an absence of pride".

Remembrance as Mimesis - this classification could also be described as the documentary mode of remembrance, in which the writer works to capture a sense of "this is what it was like" for the reader, who is often a civilian to whom the military ethos and war are compelling but foreign.   To borrow two terms from the literary scholar Northrop Frye, we can subdivide this mode into the High Mimetic and Low Mimetic modes.  The High Mimetic mode is something akin to Shakespearean tragedy, in that it shows us admirable but flawed figures struggling against an often inescapable feat.  The EOD operatives in Brian Castner's works, or journalist David Finkel's portrayal of the doomed soldiers climbing into their fragile Humvees for another patrol in bomb-infested Baghdad.  In this mode of memory, the writer can both offer tribute to comrades for their heroism, while also fully acknowledging their ordinary and flawed natures, as well as the terrible ambiguity of the wars to which they offer themselves.   In contrast, the Low Mimetic mode is marked both by graphic realism and a sense of pathos, of a profound sympathy.  In this mode, the subjects are more victims than heroes, and memory is tempered by sorrow and outrage.  In war literature, the templates for this mode include well-known First World War figures such as Wilfrid Owen, particularly his poems "Anthem for Dead Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est".   The two perplexed heroes of Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds (2012) are good examples of the low mimetic, as are their real-world counterparts, struggling with injury, suicide, and reintegration to civilian life in David Finkel's sequel, Thank You For Your Service.

Remembrance as Comedy and Satire - in this category the primary mode is irony.  Unlike Shakespearean comedies which include strong characters and some positive new social order being established at the conclusion, the voice of this mode of remembrance in war literature is one of mocking laughter.   Well known examples of military comedy and satire include Robert Grave's Goodbye to All That, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, and Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy.   The antiheroes of military comedy and satire are often junior in rank, profoundly alienated from military culture, fully aware of the incompetence of their peers and superiors, but generally helpless to do anything about it.   A classic contemporary example would be David Abram's Fobbit (2012).   Examples of military parody, or snark, abound in social media circles frequented by military types, as is seen in this well known blog.  Satire is directed more outwards, towards the society which largely ignores its complicity in wars and its responsibility to those who fight in them, while uttering banalities such as "thank you for your service".   A classic example of contemporary military satire is Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2012), recently made as a film directed by Ang Lee (2016).

Remembrance As Soul Work - there is something therapeutic about the act of writing.  The literary critic Andrew Brink once described literature as "symbolic repair", a kind of healing by which the act of literary creation helps balance or ease a loss or grief.  A rich PhD thesis or book of interviews with the Forever War generation of writers still needs to be written, perhaps noting how many of them took advantage of MFA programs or other kinds of educational opportunities as ways of easing their transition back into civilian life while processing their wartime experience in a healthy manner.  The work of Phil Klay and Brian Castner would certainly bear examination from this point of view.  in some cases, literature and memoir works in a penitential mode, as the author works through both the effects of moral injury and their complicity in the immoral or shadow side of these wars.  A particularly good example of the penitential mode would be Eric Fair's Consequence, describing how he ended up as an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  One senses that atonement in Fair's writing does not depend upon a transaction with the reader.  Rather, the reader, implicated in acts done in the national cause, must uneasily reflect on his or her own complicity.

Remembrance as Art - this is perhaps the most challenging aspect to war literature of any generation.  What distinguishes a soldier's memoir or a journalist's account of war from that of a poet or novelist?   What are the standards by which we can assess the craft of war literature from the content?   This has always been a contentious subject in literary criticism.  The great poet W.B. Yeats, a master of poetry, wrote in 1936 that "passive suffering is not a theme for poetry", yet he was surely wrong when he dismissed Wilfrid Owen's war poetry as "blood and dirt and sucked sugar stick".  What gives Owen his power and his claim on memory is surely that the power and even sweetness of his verse conveys the horror of the subject.  Consider Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth", which captures the sound of battle in its first stanza, but then gives way to this graceful couplet which evokes the grief of a whole society:

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Prose writers like Klay, Power and Castner offer many examples of well worked prose, the result of long hours and revisions.   Some memoirs have a highly poetic quality to their prose; Benjamin Busch`s Dust to Dust (2012) is a particularly strong example.  However, poetry per se invites our attention both for the quality of the craft and whatever hard-earned truths the poet has brought back from war.   Randy Brown's 2015 collection, Welcome to FOB Haiku, is a series of near-virtuoso uses of the haiku form, but also draws on classical English forms such as the sonnet, as well as free verse.   Brown moves easily between modes, from low-mimetic comedy

You'd think the poo pond
would attract more mortar rounds,
but they can't hit sh...

to an Owenesque closing couplet that evokes the gulf of experience between civilian and veteran:

they do not grasp our names our found
on medals and on stones
and on the lips of friends who've seen
what sacrifice has been

Brian Turner's 2005 collection of poems, Here Bullet, based on his experience in Iraq, has a different quality than Brown's often colloquial tone, more formal and perhaps more introspective.   Turner's work is beautiful and haunting, and shows, as Dobkin notes in his essay, how war literature can create strains of empathy which complicate and even overcome the enemy's Otherness.   In Turner's ''In the Leuopold Scope'', a rifleman is suddenly connected with an Iraqi woman on a distant rooftop, hanging laundry.  In the soldier poet's mind, that woman becomes a muse channeling the countless war dead through her billowing clothing, creating a powerful sense that the soldier is an interloper, complicit in an eternal tragedy.

She waits for them to lean forward
into the breeze, for the wind's breath
to return the bodies they once had,
women with breasts swollen by milk,
men with shepherd-thin bodies, children
running hard into the horizon's curving lens.

Conclusion
This survey has been partial at best.   I confess that I am woefully ignorant of war literature written by women veterans, whose experience of the Forever War included many combat and support roles.   Likewise there are no voices of African-American or Hispanic war writers.   There is a whole realm of literature from veterans of NATO armed forces that also played their part in the Forever War.  The UK's Patrick Hennessey (Junior Officer's Reading Club, 2009) is one example.  I would love to discover soldier writers and poets from Canada, Germany, and Denmark, to name just three of many allied countries.

Adin Dobkin has done us a great service by guiding us through an emerging and important body of work.  I hope that my own modest refinements make a further contribution in understanding the shape, variety and importance of contemporary war literature.

MP+





Monday, May 1, 2017

Diet, Fitness and Military Readiness: Connecting the Dots

Last week was an example of how two different news stories , while not directly connected, can nevertheless invite, even scream for, side by side comparison.

The first was this 26 April podcast from Freakonomics entitled "There’s A War On Sugar. Is It Justified?".  The podcast surveys the evolution of schools of thought on the increase in obesity rates, Type 2 Diabetes, and other related health issues. The podcast looks at how sugars the criteria used by scientists to determine if a substance is addictive, and also considers arguments how sugar came to be found in almost all commercial foods.  It then looks at the question of whether sugar should, or even should, be regulated in the way that, say, alcohol and tobacco are regulated.

As one of the experts on the podcast noted, regulation of sugar is problematic for many reasons:

It’s a difficult question, because sugar is safe when it’s used in moderation. But the problem is that most people are unaware of how much sugar they’re consuming. Also, if the data suggests that the sugar is producing addictive-like changes in the brain, then we’re talking about something very different. Because if you’re no longer be able to have full volitional control over your decision to eat or not eat the sugar, then that becomes a different type of discussion.


CAF personnel involved in emergency flood operations: one reason why soldiers need to be fit.

Next, consider this podcast of an interview with US Army Lieutenant General (retd) Mark Hertling on the connection between physical fitness and national security.

General Hertling has a degree in physiology, was a physical education instructor at West Point, and went on to be commander of the US Army in Europe before being appointed to a presidential panel on health and fitness.

In the podcast, he notes that today only 23% of US youth meet the physical standards necessary for service in the US military.  The remaining 77% are ineligible for various physical defects including lack of fitness and obesity.   Compare that rate of eligibility to the situation in 1917, as the US Army was gearing up for World War One, when 75% of US youth were physically fit to serve.

For leaders such as Gen. Hertling, these numbers are important because they determine the size of the recruit pool that allows militaries to maintain itself at a good state of operational readiness.  As a former commander of mine said, readiness is like the Alamo - the more men you have on the walls, the better off you are.

Gen. Hertling first noticed declines in the fitness of recruits around the year 2009, though he notes that a health crisis had been underway since the 1990s because of societal issues, among which he includes increase in divorce rates, changes in eating habits, amount and type of food served by the fast foot fast food industry, increase in obesity levels.  At the same time, changes and cuts to the public education system meant that mandatory PE classes were being cut by many states, at the same time  as leisure activities for children and young people became more sedentary.

The Army's basic training system thus had only ten weeks of physical training to compensate for this health crisis, , without physically damaging the recruits or driving them out of the military.  While the military made changes to its training, making time for more sleep and better nutrition, Hertling notes that society as a while has to make these changes by improving diet, giving opportunities for kids in K-12 to have physical activity in schools, reinforce this in families. As a footnote, I would love to hear what the General would say about Republican plans to roll back school nutrition standards set during the Obama era.

You might think that in a more technological era, physical fitness would be less important than cognitive abilities and education, but as Gen. Hertling notes, mental stamina is connected to physical stamina.  The nature of recent warfare, he said, is more continuous and more psychologically demanding than in previous conflicts, where soldiers might have periods out of the line and combat had a start/stop quality.  In contemporary warfare, the threat environment can be near constant.  In such conditions, fear is a stressor that can wear the body down as much as physical exertion, and thus physical fitness will be even more central to resilience and battlefield victory.

From a Canadian perspective, there is some evidence that our children and young people are less obese and more fit than are young Americans.  Even so, the Canadian Armed Forces has faced criticism in recent years for relaxing its entry fitness standards for recruits.  The base where I currently work is a dedicated training base, and recently I heard the commander speak about how many of the personnel here for months long training courses resent the cost of their compulsory meal plans.  His reason for not allowing an opt-out option was the high likelihood that trainees would then make poor food choices to save money, thus impairing their ability to train to course standards.

Clearly health, nutrition and fitness are and should be high importance concerns for all senior military leaders.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Journey To Emmaus: A Sermon For The Third Sunday of Easter

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 30 April, 2017.  

Readings for this Sunday:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4,12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-19; Luke 24:13-35

 

 

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24: 15-16)

 

As disciples go, they weren’t the well known ones, like John and Peter.   In fact, one of them stays nameless through the whole story.  The other, Cleopas, is only ever mentioned once in all the gospels, here in Luke 24, though a Cleophas does crop up in John, and may be the same person.  So this isn’t a story about the star disciples, the A-Team.  This is a story about plodding everyday people, just the ordinary faithful, like you and me.   This is a story about the church.

 

We are never told why the two disciples left Jerusalem to spend half a day walking to Emmaus.  It would have been half a day, most likely, for the distance isn’t short.  Seven miles, says Luke, or somewhere between 10 to 12 kilometres.    Not an inconsiderable trip, really.  According to the website Biblewalks, the site believed to be Emmaus today lies in foothills on the edge of the Plain of Judea  so we can imagine that the two disciples were walking uphill towards the end of their journey, and were probably feeling the journey in their bones and muscles.   But Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the physical aspect of the walk.

 

What we do know is that disciples are tired and sore in their souls.   When the risen Jesus meets them and asks them what they were discussing, Luke says that “They stood still, looking sad” (24:17).  When they finally speak, it is to tell a tragic story of how Jesus, “a prophet mighty in deed”, was killed.   They tell the gospel as if it had no good news, as if their faith and hope in Jesus (“we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” 24:21) had been buried with him on Good Friday.   No wonder that they travel seems to be aimless.

 

One of the things that always seems curious about this story is why the two disciples at first fail to recognize Jesus.  Perhaps grief and despair cloud their eyes.  Like Mary who is weeping at the tomb and who first thinks that Jesus must be the gardener (John 20:15), it’s as if the two disciples can’t imagine any alternative to Jesus being dead.  And why should they?   Nothing in their experience had prepared them for this possibility.  Despite veiled hints from Jesus that he might rise, the disciples lived in a world where the dead stayed dead.   Easter had not yet been invented.

 

Of course we know better, we church people.   Unlike the disciples, we know that the story of Jesus does not end tragically on Good Friday.    Right?  “Christ is risen!” we say in our liturgy.  “The Lord is Risen indeed.  Alleluia!”    But how does that work out in our lives?  Does Easter really challenge us to live differently in the weeks and months that follow.  We say that we are a resurrection people, and that has a nice ring to it, but I wonder sometimes.   

 

We may not be sad or grieving like the disciples but we may be tired, complacent, or just not really convinced that Jesus is present with us. Last Thursday I sat in on a meeting of local clergy, and could see how tired they were.   Holy Week was finished for another year, and now it was time to line up other clergy to cover for the Sundays when they would be on holiday this summer.   And who can blame them?  Easter was a slog for them, and still the work’s not over.  We’re all busy.  Parishes are busy preparing for their spring dinners and yard sales and perhaps planning the Vacation Bible Camp before everyone goes away for the summer.   Think about the meaning of Easter?  Well yeah, that would be good, if there wasn’t so much to do! 

 

The Emmaus story reminds us that the risen Christ walks with us, accompanies us on our journeys, even when our eyes are too distracted or tired to see him.   This gospel reading opens our eyes to his presence with us.  In this part of the sermon I want to consider how this shows us how the risen Christ is with us, in our church and in our lives, and how that can bring us joy and hope in our life as the church.   Let me be more specific.  By “with us”, I don’t necessarily mean with us in spirit, our living in our hearts.  I mean right here,  right now, in the flesh, in this place, in our homes and workplaces, in our lives, with us, listening to us, talking and walking with us.

 

First, the easy one.   Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it” (24:30) and in the next verse Luke tells us that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”.   As Anglicans, we are often invited to see this moment as an account of what happens for us, Sunday by Sunday, in the eucharist, and it is true that in that moment we come together as a family and as a people, united by the gift of Jesus to us in his body and blood, forgiven our sins and invited to live with him in new life.   I think the challenge here for us is to never get blasé about the eucharist or to think of it as that thing we do.   It is the moment when we see Christ in a real and powerful way.  But what about other times when we gather for a meal, whether around the family table or in a busy mall food court.  Could our prayers of grace and thanksgiving be more heartfelt, even ore like conversations,  knowing he is with us?  And what about those who go hungry?    Surely Jesus is present in the sharing of bread as well.

 

Second, the disciples say that their hearts were “burning” as they spoke to us and “while he was opening the scriptures to us” (Lk 24:32).   The disciples begin to sense the presence of Jesus when he corrects their tragic vision of his death by giving them an impromptu bible story that covers all of scripture as it then existed, “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (23:44).  I take this as a reminder that Christ is fully present in the church’s reading of scripture and in the story of creation and rescue from slavery, sin and death that scripture tells.   This is why our Eucharistic prayers all tell a summary of the bible story, to remind us that Christ is the point of that story.  Everytime someone goes to the lectern to read a listen, everytime we stand to hear the gospel, every time we gather for bible study or in our own devotional time, Jesus is with us.  “The Word is very near you” says John’s gospel.   Jesus as the word made flesh is present with us, real, in our scripture.

  

Besides these two fairly obvious situations, I think the Emmaus story reminds us, in ways that are both exciting and unsettling, that we are always in the presence of the risen Christ.  Paul writes in Philippians 4 that “The Lord is near”.  In fact, he can come and stand in our midst whenever he likes, at coffee and at corporation meetings, in our youth group and our conversations in the parking lot.  

 

When we greet each other during the Peace and say “God’s peace be with you”, that greeting is meaningful precisely because Christ is with his church as the one who brings peace and forgiveness and who reconciles us one to another.  When we are sad and despairing as the disciples are at the start of the Emmaus story, the risen Christ is with us.  When we greet one another, he comes to us.  When we are vexed and gossipy or sullen about something in the life of the church, the risen Christ is with us.  When we are waiting in hospital, worrying about our children, stewing over finances, the risen Christ is with us.   It’s ale worth remembering that when we are cross, catty, or irritated with others, the risen Christ is present with us.  Our goal is a Christian community should be to speak to others in a way that is appropriate and suitable for the company we keep, the risen Christ.

 

This Sunday, as we leave this church and return to our daily lives, our risen lord goes with us all.   My prayer is that our eyes are not blinded to his presence by whatever challenges us or fatigues us.  May our spiritual fatigue give way with hearts that burn with joy, as we remember that our Lord cared so much for us that he rose from the grave to walk with us, encourage us, and rescue us.  May our lives, and the life of this church, always be centered by the risen Christ who stands and walks in our midst.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Miitary Writers On The Value Of Fiction

I just noticed this slightly dated (14 Feb 2017) on the Modern War Institute of West Point website about a panel of writers speaking on the value of writing fiction.


The panel included one writer I have reviewed on this blog, Phil Klay, author of Redeployment, a book of short stories, as well as Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood, a book on his experience with the US Army in Iraq, and August Cole, author of Ghost Fleet, a speculative look at a near-future war between the US and China.


The panelists spoke to an audience of West Point cadets about the value of fiction as a way of processing experience and even developing a "radical empathy" for others and other points of view.


I remain hopeful that we will see a similar event with Canadian soldiers turned writers, perhaps at Royal Military College, in the not too distant future, but these writers have yet to emerge.


MP+






Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More Religions To Be Recognized In US Military

This piece in the Religion News Service received some modest attention among the US national security (NatSec) people I follow on Twitter.


The US Department of Defence has "announced a near doubling of its list of recognized religions. It will now formally recognize humanism and other minority faiths among members of the armed forces."


The list now encompasses humanism and Asatru, a religion which focuses on the Norse gods of the Viking era.   This announcement means that "servicemen and women who are adherents of small faith groups are now guaranteed the same rights, privileges and protections granted to their peers who are members of larger faith groups."




Asatru/Viking symbol




This announcement does not necessarily mean that chaplains associated with these faiths will follow, at least not in the near future, but it does open the door to that possibility.   In the Canadian context which I am familiar with, a faith group must have structures which allow for the recognition and accountability of persons who can perform the general functions, such as counselling, expected of a chaplain, and who have a religious organization to which they are accountable.  Not all faith groups produce clergy or clergy equivalents in the way that, say, Christianity, Judaism and Islam do. 


That being said,   I have Canadian chaplain colleagues who have served with Dutch humanist chaplains and found them professional, dedicated and caring, which is perhaps all that many military personnel want of a chaplain.


MP+


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book review: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Somme: Into The Breach

A small addition to my modest resume of military writing.  This book review on a 2016 book on the First World War's  Battle of the Somme was published yesterday in The Strategy Bridge, an online journal.  I was very happy to have my piece selected by The Bridge.


While the Canadian Corps had a minor part in the latter phases of the Somme campaign, 1 July was a black day for Newfoundland, and thus my decision to start the review with the Canadian Armed Forces' centenary commemoration of Beaumont Hamel last year.   Sometimes military and national memory concerns itself with tragedy as much as with victory.   The sacrifices of the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont-Hamel were as real and noteworthy as were those of the Canadians at Vimy, even if the latter is hailed today as a source of national pride.  The Somme is a fearful reminder to military planners and leaders of the terrible price that others must pay for their mistakes.


MP+

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Meditation For Good Friday

This was part of a series of dramatic monologues that people in my parish were asked to come up with for the Stations of the Cross yesterday.   Each Station was presented by a voice of someone who was present there, and was followed by a meditation and a prayer.  This was mine, and there were many that were much much better.

 

Second Station  Jesus Takes Up His Cross

 

John 19:13-17

 

 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

 

 

My name is Pollo.   Sergeant in the tenth century, second cohort, Third Legion.   Twenty years service, marched clear across the empire and back three times in that.   Seen a thing or two, I can tell you.

 

I remember because it was Passover, lots of strangers in Jerusalem, things were on edge and the high mucky mucks in the Palace wanted extra security.  So me and my lads drew extra duty, out in the crowds, watching things and then when they arrested that fellow, Jesus, well, it was all a mess, wasn’t it?

 

I had trouble with the new recruits, cuz they was all nervous, with the crowds shouting and all.   And Pilate, him mucking around being indecisive, and asking the crowd what they wanted, this Jesus or Barabbas. I wouldn’t have done it that way, no sir.  I would have had me lads wade into the crowd, swords out, settle them down, show em Rome was boss, that’s my style.  Anyway, that was above my pay grade, wasn’t it.

 

So it was decided, like, and Centurion Quintus, he brings this Jesus over to me, and says, Pollo, here’s your man, get him up the hill smart like, and I saluted and said yes sir, like you does.  Now I could see that Pilate’s guard had roughed him up bad, which was a problem for me, since he still had a way to walk and him being all messed up, well that was my problem now. Wasn’t fair,  was it?    So I says, Right, sunny Jim, there’s your lumber, get hauling.  It wasn’t the whole cross, see, just the beam that they nailed the arms to, the poles were fixed in the ground.  Our lads what did the crucifying, they were pros, they could get twenty men raised up high in a morning and still have time for dice and wine.  

 

Now normally, they’re all Boo hoo, I have a wife and child, have mercy but this Jesus was quiet, just stood there, quiet, like a lamb, which was odd, so I looks at him, and I thinks, hang on, he’s that same bloke what I saw on the donkey, a week ago, when he came into the city, the crowds all adoring and welcoming him, like.  That wasn’t half strange, seeing how they all turned on him, and what was more, he didn’t look like a king, but he looked, I dunno, special, like.  Different, y’know?  I says to him, Well, your highness, where’s your people now?  Not much of a king, are you? And I meant it as a joke, like, but it came out all sad, sympathetic, like, and he just looked at me, then he turned to his cross, like he had his duty, same as me.

 

I could see him trying to lift the wood like a good un, but he was right played out and finding it hard going.  Normally I’d give a fellow a taste of the whip, or have the lads tickle him with spears to get him going, but none of us wanted to do that.  Now me, I’m a simple soldier, can’t explain it, but it just seemed, well, wrong.  Even Glavus, my youngest soldier, he was even wanting to help this man, can you believe it?  Back in ranks, i shouted, and I could see I had to something, and quick.  We had to get him up the hill and onto his cross, because those were our orders, weren’t they?  We was following orders …

 

 

John 19:13-17

 

 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

 

 

Meditation

 

For the Romans, the cross was part of a system of brutality and discipline that made their empire work.  The men who ran the empire, like the soldier Pollo, had their orders and they did their duty.  

 

Two thousand years later, the world still works that way.  Some men made nerve gas and put in bombs, other men loaded the bombs onto planes, and other men dropped those bombs on a village because they had their orders. Then as now, rebellions have to be crushed, power has to be reestablished, kings must protect themselves.

 

How does Good Friday challenge these earthly systems of power.  By lifting the cross to his shoulders and taking it on himself, what does Jesus say about how God’s power works?  As Christians, and as the Church, how does Jesus teach us how to live in a world of earthly power?

 

Prayer

 

Gracious God, thank you for your son and for his willingness to lift the cross on our behalf.   Teach us how we as your people can also embrace the cross, and show the world how your love and grace are the source of your power. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Remembering Canada's Army Chaplains at Vimy Ridge


This week, starting on Sunday, marks the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, when the Canadian  Corps, fighting together, achieved a significant victory on the Western Front during World War One.  Vimy is often regarded as part of Canada's coming of age as a post-colonial country, as this backgrounder in the New York Times explains.

Canadian historian Duff Crerar, an authority on Canadian chaplains in the Great War, has been regaling his friends with stories of how our padre ancestors supported the Vimy battle.  I have collected his emails and images below and am happy to present them.  MP+

Preparing for the Battle - 1

The First Canadian Division moved into its pre-Vimy quarters around the old Chateau of Ecoivres in mid-March. In the upstairs hall rested a large model of Vimy Ridge, which officers and men came through to study. In the garden was a billet filled up with tall racks of bunk beds, packing in almost 1500 men, with a high platform at one end, from which Canon Scott gave nightly lectures after the band played a brief concert. To keep morale up, he encouraged written questions to be handed up to him which he would try to answer in an uplifting way. The first night everyone had a good laugh at Scott’s expense when the note was read aloud without previewing or censorship: “When do you think this God dam war will be over, eh?” On April 4 the news came the America had joined the Allies, which partially answered the question that stumped him a few nights before.


Canon F.R. Scott, the senior chaplain with the First Division, wades through mud with some of his troops.   In his mid fifties, Scott was an old man in the trenches, and was famous for enduring hardship to be with the troops.

In the daytime, as Scott moved back and forth visiting trenches and headquarters, he often donned a private’s uniform, but still was easily identified by his white hair and clerical collar. All around him he noted the stacks of ammunition accumulating, pitying the horses which dragged heavy loads until some died of exhaustion. At night the road to Arriane Dump and the narrow plank road connecting it with the St. Eloi road was crowded with trucks, wagons, limbers, horses and men crowding each other in the blackout and often forcing each other off into the deep mud on either side. Through the tumult and furious cursing in the darkness the Senior Chaplain would make his way, joking that the horses and mules, at least, could not understand the profanity directed at them.
With permission of a local family, Scott fixed up a private shrine with canvas over the windows, which he dubbed “St. George’s Chapel”. Each morning at 0800 he celebrated Holy Communion, with the troops standing in and around the altar. Underneath a shell-battered crossroads named Maison Blanche, a large cavern sheltered one of the battalions in reserve, where Scott would drop in to hold services. Scott was famous for breaking up gambling when he encountered it, but one night men of the 16th, holding hot cards, promised to come if he let them finish their hand. After announcing that he would hold the service until the game was over, almost everyone there joined the service.
Behind the hamlet of Anzin the heavy guns and howitzers occasionally let loose, carefully seeking out their future targets, and startling bystanders not aware of their well-camouflaged hideouts. But enemy fire could still strike the best-concealed by chance. Canadian Railway troops died when a German shell hit their billets. Scott buried eleven of them on the hillside.




Chaplains of the 4th Division, Canadian Expeditionary Force, France 1917

Preparing for the Battle -2

From the Report of Major A.M. Gordon, Sr. Chaplain, 4th Canadian Division dated 17 March, 1917

All Unit commanders except for one have welcomed regular worship parades in 4th Division. During the trench raids in preparation for the main attack all his chaplains have been either in battalion Headquarters or Advanced Dressing Stations. Other chaplains maintained Chaplain Service coffee stalls where hot drinks were dished out to the men going forward or coming out of action. During the raid on 15 March, Chaplain George Farquhar served at the Regimental Aid Post with the Medical Officer, at the request of both the battalion commander and the M.O.
24 March, 1917: Sr. Chaplain Gordon to Acting Adjutant and Quartermaster General, Canadian Corps, requesting sites for Chaplain Service Coffee Stalls directly on the routes to be taken by the troops of 4. Canadian Division during the Vimy Attack, in areas relatively safe from shelling.
4 Division dispositions of Chaplains for Vimy Ridge Battle (Report by Major the Rev. A.M. Gordon, 4 Div. Sr. Chaplain)
  • 3 Protestant chaplains at the RAPs, 1 Protestant at the Advanced Dressing Station on the Arras Road, 2 Roman Catholic chaplains at relay point for ambulances and stretcher bearers, Two Protestant chaplains at the Main Dressing Station # 11 Canadian Field Ambulance, with two Roman Catholic chaplains alternating duty there for round the clock coverage. One Protestant chaplain will cover the #12 Field Ambulance, while one will serve as spare for coffee stall, burial party and battalion coverage. Gordon leaves his most junior chaplain in the office and goes forward to supervise and assist in the 4th Divisional front line area.
Chaplains in action

The Chaplains of the 2nd Division left extensive reports which can be matched with contemporary trench maps and aerial photographs to demonstrate how they followed the attacking troops, setting up aid posts and working with casualties in captured dugouts and trenches. D.E. Robertson’s report begins with jumping off with the second wave of attackers, accompanying medical officers and others setting up advanced posts on the far side of Thelus. From 1400 onwards Robertson and a Medical sergeant operated an advanced aid post in a dugout in Bois Carre, which treated men coming in from many battalions, and many wounded Germans as well. Robertson scrounged rations and a German camp stove and was able to provide hot and cold drinks to the wounded and the stretcher bearers. He stayed on in the dugout through the next few days “During all the time, I tried to speak a word of comfort or offer a prayer with the wounded. I took the names of home folks, and any messages they wished me to send. This meant writing scores of letters. Near Bois Carre I established a  cemetery primarily for the 4th battalion, It has been recognized by the Graves  Registration Commission. I buried twenty six men belong to the 14 and 31st Battalions, and of the Trench Mortar Battery. On the night of the 12th we moved back to the old German front line. “ The return was complicated by he and eight others taking turns bringing back a wounded German they had found in the bottom of a trench, nearly frozen The mud was so deep that it took several hours to get the man under shelter. Looking back, he noted that every soldier he had personally greeted the night before the attack had either been killed or had passed by him, smiling but wounded, going the other way after the battle.


Aerial photo of the Vimy battlefield, showing some of the trench systems.  Bois Carre, where Padre Roberton worked in a Regimental Aid Post and later buried some of the dead of the attack, is the dark square on the right middle.

George Wood, following Canon Scott’s directions, followed the 4th Battalion up Elbe Trench with the quartermaster to set up a coffee stall and food stand for the troops on the day of the attack. By the time of the attack he claimed all 800 men had been distributed a “pint of steaming hot coffee”. At 04.25 he went forward with the Battalion Headquarters and stretcher bearers, unhit by stray German shelling, though a direct hit killed the Adjutant and several other officers just ahead of him. Also killed was the Artillery Liaison officer for the 27th battalion, and while the medical officer remained behind to tend the wounded, Wood and the unit commander reached a dugout in Rocade Trench, where the forward Headquarters was to be located. The dugout was already too crowded with wounded, so the signallers and the commander moved on while Wood, with his scissors, gauze and iodine tried to tend the fifteen wounded men who had crawled into dugout. Two men who had been shot in the lung and groin he hastily bundled off to the rear on stretchers carried by German prisoners.
About two hours later Wood caught up with the medical officer and bearers in an aid post between the German second and third lines known as Bastion Tunnel. Here the air circulation was so poor that candles would not stay lit. the next morning he jointed Robertson at the Bois Carre aid post.
Remaining in the line, Wood and two companies of his battalion supported the 8th and 9th Battalion attacks on Farbus, and Arleux. He moved his aid post into Arleux, marvelling at how little damage had been done to the buildings, early in the battle. Three weeks later when he returned, it had been obliterated by the fighting.
During a lull in the shelling one night, Robertson left the Bois Carre dugout and tried to go over the freezing ground looking for wounded who might die of exposure. “I felt glad to think that all the wounded had mostly gotten in, for I found none anywhere. In one case I thought I had come on one, for half way down the entrance of a partially caved in German dugout, I saw a man sitting, his head bowed, and hands folded, and by his side a prayer book. I got no answer when I called, so I crawled down, for I felt sure he was still praying. He must have died so a little time before. He was a little German. Peace be to him”.



Bois-Carre Commonwealth Cemetery today.   It is the resting place for 232 Canadians killed at Vimy.  Bodies are still being discovered and identified today.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

British Para Padre's Thought For Today

Saturday, March 18, 2017

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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