"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for June 2014

No Peace, Many Swords (Matthew 10)

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Pray. Introduction. It’s been almost a year since I last preached at St John’s. I have to say that for a re-introduction to the art and science of preaching, today’s Gospel would not have been my first choice. I’ve titled this sermon “No Peace, Many Swords”.  Excuse my rustiness…

One of the ways we escape from challenging teachings is to either skip the challenging bits, or to overly spiritualize what is being said. As bible interpretation instruction up front, your first reading of a passage of Scripture should always be the literal. Assume Jesus meant exactly what he said, unless the passage signals clearly that it is a parable or something else. Jesus has just finished (through chapter 9) a series of miraculous healings, the calling of the last disciple, Matthew, ending with his lament that the harvest is ready, but the labourers are few. What follows (chapter 11) is John the Baptist asking the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” In the middle comes chapter 10, which is a private discourse between Jesus and the disciples about what is going to happen to them as they begin the work to which they have been called. This is known as the ‘missionary discourse’, and it sets out in unflinching detail exactly what you are to expect if (and this is a big if on our behalf) you are willing to carry that mission forward into those fields ready for the harvest.

We’re missing the first part of chapter 10 that really sets the tone for this somewhat disembodied reading that begins with ‘a disciple is not above the teacher’. As one commentator noted, if Jesus was tweeting this entire 10th chapter the message could be summed up as this, “Dear disciples, the crap is about to hit the fan. FYI, you have been warned. ❤ xoxo JC” (pulpit fiction, Pent +2A)

Jesus calls the disciples to him and begins by giving them truly awesome power and authority…dominion over unclean spirits, the ability to heal every disease and every affliction. He tells them, take no money, carry no bag, only one tunic, sandals and staff, take food when offered, stay with the worthy, and shake off the dust of their sandals for the unwelcoming. What was their reward for hard work? Flogging, court appearances, dragging …brother delivering brother to death, the father his child, and children their parents …and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake before you’re killed in truly nasty ways, Amen.

This is a brutally honest text written directly to the community of believers written directly to all of us who call ourselves Christian. The message of the text is not what you might call an advertisement for following Jesus. In fact, if you look at much of the modern church’s effort to convince people that they need to follow Jesus, a literally life and death decision, it takes the form of the same sorts of advertisements that we see for new cars, or for a new cell phone. Follow Jesus, and your life will be great! Unlimited bandwidth, and free cloud storage! This comes clearly in what we usually call the prosperity gospel: follow God and he will richly bless you. This is a lie of this world.

The sad fact of the modern and post-modern eras, and throughout our history, is that the church has found it easier to act as if the church’s main job was selling the sweetness of moral and spiritual achievement and superiority, rather than proclaiming Jesus’ passion and death. Jesus, as he told us repeatedly, did not come to save winners and the living, but rather those who know that they are losers, and know that they are dead to sin. The point of our time here, learning about our faith, is not to convince us that we all have achieved good grades in the school of salvation but rather to convict us that the only gifts this world can offer us are despair and death.

The lesson today is really all about fear introduced at verse 26, Have no fear of them (them being those who stand against you), for all things will be revealed in God’s good time. discourse on fear is capped by this statement at verse 28: Do not fear those who kill the body; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul. Jesus had already reviewed who would be killing the body during their ministry – they would be scorned, tortured and killed for the sake of that ministry. Jesus’ answer to that fear is not to say if you follow me you won’t suffer – rather you should be comforted by greater fear of the consequences of not following me. It is an interesting statement from a saviour whose persona is often represented as entirely mild mannered and easy to get along with. Follow me, and don’t fear those who deliver you to death, because the alternative is far worse. Really? This is what I mean about taking Jesus literal at his word, for one of the ways that these sorts of sayings are dealt with is to spiritualize the statement, to blunt the harshness of the saying to make it more palatable to us. Instead we need to grasp Christ’s words in the fullness of their brutal honesty.

I’m an emergency responder in my day job, and I just provided a safety and security training session for some new hires. For the first time in my training spiel I added in the topic of response to an active shooter in the workplace. This really troubled me – have we come to this point? What came to me out of that reflection is that our main motivation to act is to minimize fear. No one knows the days of their lives, yet we strive to keep ourselves as safe as we can. There are things we should do – like smoke detectors, wearing seatbelts, eating right. But other things are done only to give us the impression of control. Do you know that every time there’s a mass shooting event in the United States firearms sales spike up? The anti-firearms media attributes that to Americans concerned about losing their right to bear arms will be taken away. I think it more likely that the news of death reminds us of how dangerous life can be, so we opt for safety through superior firepower. I suspect the same thing would happen here in Canada if we had easier access to firearms. How do you react when you hear about a violent home invasion in Edmonton? Do you think first that you are not to fear those who kill the body…or do you think it’s finally time to get new locks and an alarm system?

Next comes another couplet of thoughts: those who acknowledge Jesus before others, will in turn be acknowledged before God in heaven; those who deny Jesus here will in turn be denied by him before the Father in heaven. This is one of those phrases that we love to quickly turn into a merit-based measure of performance…so that the more acknowledging we do, the more gold stars we accumulate in heaven. Of course, this is not at all what Jesus is getting at – this is a gift of grace from God, if we are true to Jesus, what we know is he will be true to us. What does it mean to acknowledge Jesus in our modern lives? It means not fearing ridicule from co-workers when they ask what you were doing on Sunday. It means being willing to state in a group of friends that there is another way of looking at the world – one that places love as the first option. It doesn’t mean you have to spend three days per month handing out tracts on Jasper Ave, although you can do that if you wish, but it does mean a willingness to explain to others why your approach to issues may be just a bit different. I’m not an evangelist in my workplace, but all my coworkers know I’m a person of faith, and sometimes in discussions I get asked for a Christian perspective on the subject under discussion. It’s amazing what starts to happen when you are seen as a person of faith (and I’ve used that approach with some pretty rough crowds).

Now comes the rough stuff: Jesus says directly that he has not come to bring peace to the world, but rather a sword. This phrase has been used by Christians throughout history to justify all sorts of violence in the name of the Lord. There’s a singular message: being a person of faith is a fundamentally divisive act and will set you against the world. The world ultimately kills the Son of God, so we should not be surprised when we get some push back from that same world for daring to live a Gospel life. The ancient church wrestled with the demand to burn incense to the Emperor as a god, and concluded that you could not be a Christian and burn incense to Caesar. We have the exact same demand on us today, except now we are asked to burn incense for all sorts of modern false gods – prosperity, money, the modern church of the environment, and so on. How often do we succeed at refusing to burn that incense in our private lives, in our work lives? Quickly following this is a series of examples about what that coming sword of Christ means in practical terms to families: men set against their fathers, a daughter against her mother, your biggest foes will be those you are related to. You may have firsthand knowledge of this in your personal faith journey, when push comes to shove, do you opt to satisfy family, or to follow Jesus? Pastor Lance Pape commented on this text that, “Jesus is no champion of family values. He has kingdom values, and these are often not the same thing.” The clear message coming through Christ’s words is to ask, where is it that your heart dwells? Do you opt for your family over discipleship?

When I was attending military college there was a quotation from Admiral Nelson above the building where I took classes: “Duty is the great business of a sea officer. All private considerations must give way to it, regardless of how painful it may be.” Based on today’s Gospel, I can re-write that quote for a Christian: “Following Jesus is the great business of a Christian. All private considerations must give way to him, regardless of how painful it may be.”

The closing teaching: whoever does not take up the cross and follow Jesus is not worthy. This has been used to justify all sorts of reasons to stay in corrosive situations: a spouse in an abusive relationship; the bearing of a disease with courage…well, that’s just your cross. St Paul is instructive when he talks about the thorn in his side, Paul never refers to that thorn as his ‘cross to bear’ when he easily could claim that. The reason is this cross is nothing about bearing a burden, rather it is all about accepting the way of Christ in your life. The cross is not a burden, but rather an instrument of death: death of self, death of ambition, death of anything that distracts us from the truth of Jesus…it is only in acknowledging that we are lost that we may be found, and only in dying that we find true life.

Jesus outlines for the disciples and for us the cost of choosing to follow him, and does so with his characteristic telling of the truth. How much will it cost? Everything. The coming of the Kingdom demands a radical reaction from us. As one commentator puts it, “The rebellion of the world against God expressed itself in the murder of the Son of God; the community that stands by the Son of God must be prepared to be the object of some hostility.” (Beasley Murray, Commentary on Mark 13, 51 paraphrased)

In fact the call of the Christian is not only to boldly live under the adversity the world focuses on them, but also to fully live into the call of Christ. That means not only being willing to love God more than your own family, it also means loving God more than your own life. The big challenge that we face, is that we love life far too much to easily give up on it, and so we grasp at what is before us today, when it is the eternal promise of tomorrow that is our rightful focus. The call of our Lord is not a call to prosperity, or a call to survival, and especially not a call to power in this world. If this isn’t the good news of Christ, then what is? The simple answer is love. The love of a father who sends his only son and the love of a Son who is prepared to die to put an end to death forevermore. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

———————————————————

Immediately on the heels of this statement about fearing God, comes an assurance. The cheapest food sold in the market was the lowly sparrow, and Jesus notes that all of creation, including the sparrow, operates under the lordship of God. If God cares so much for these lowly creatures, how much more must he care for you? This is an important truth that counters one of the mantras that comes across frequently in parts of the modern environmental movement – that humans are, at best, an unnecessary burden on the planet, and at worst, a disease that should be eliminated. There is this idea in the environmental movement that humanity is somehow on the same value plane as everything else in the creation, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all animals.” As Ingrid Newkirk once famously said. This text counters that directly – for part of our comfort in this message of fear, is that while we should fear God, that fear is informed by knowing that that same God values each of us infinitely. That message is not intended to justify our destructive abuse of the creation, for our task is to tend and care for the creation, but it does clearly establish where we sit in God’s understanding of the natural order.

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Written by sameo416

June 21, 2014 at 8:36 pm

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Reorganization – Why Is it Everyone New has to Reorganize?

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“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organising, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.” – Charlton Ogburn, Jr., Harpers Magazine (usually misattributed to Petronius)

Written by sameo416

June 11, 2014 at 3:03 pm

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The call of the Soldier

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I’ve written about this many times previously – the particular motivation of the soldier and how different the attitude is from what most people might think. Specifically with respect to awards for bravery, most soldiers I have met are quite self-depreciating and even seem embarassed by the attention. The most common response I’ve seen many times is something like, “I was doing my duty. Anyone else would have done the same.”

That attitude is one that transcends time, as I’ve read it again and again in historic accounts. My great uncle, who won the Military Medal for valour in the Scheldt campaign…said it was not him, but rather, ‘the boys’ who were the real heroes. David Currie, who won the Victoria Cross in the Normandy campaign, said the thanks had to go to his men.

So when a local person wants to rename a roadway, “Hero’s Way”, the soldiers are somewhat dismissive. We don’t train to be heroes, we train to do our job so we don’t let our buddies down when things get tough. This is one reason why crimes involving trust are dealt with so quickly and harshly in military units. How can you trust someone with your life, if you can’t trust them with your bank card (or your wife)?

I was just reading this neat book on the experiences of a UK ATO (ammunition technical officer) working as a bomb specialist in Iraq (Eight Lives Down, Chris Hunter). There was a time I seriously considered following that career route. He offers this prayer, which he titles the ‘bomb tech prayer’:

If fate is against me, and I’m killed,
so be it, but make it quick and painless.
If I’m wounded, don’t let me be crippled.
But above all, don’t let me f–k up the task.

That rings so true to my experience as a soldier.

Written by sameo416

June 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm

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Mass Shooting Events and the Media

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One of the things that has been identified as a positive reinforcer for people who lean toward the action of mass shootings is the knowledge that they will be immortalized in the media. For a loner who is feeling marginalized, the idea that they will suddenly become like J-Lo, would appear as an attractive option.

This article by law student Devon Black suggests that the media needs to own up to this activity, and to voluntarily stop the media frenzy that follows the shooter in such cases. I have to agree.  She comments on the Sun Media network’s decision to not publish the killer’s name.  I don’t listen to the Sun network as I find them too far over the top on most issues, but this is a very interesting piece of leadership on their behalf.

But screenshots of a murderer’s Facebook page won’t explain his murders. That’s not news — it’s just a voyeuristic glimpse into the pathetic rationalizations of a person who wanted to achieve greatness by cutting other lives short.

There’s no doubt that media shape our understandings of these horrors. Many of us, if pressed, could call to mind the names of the killers at Columbine, or that of the man responsible for the École Polytechnique massacre. But can we remember the names of the victims?

It’s not enough, in the aftermath of violence, to simply tread the paths laid down by those who walked before us. Journalists should think carefully about what they write, audiences about what they read.

When we focus in on the perpetrator of a crime, we fall into the trap he has set. The crime becomes about his actions, his motivations, his choices. He is given the spotlight he so desperately craved, while his victims are relegated to members of the supporting cast.

Engaging in this kind of coverage is a choice — and it’s not the only choice we have.

We’re lucky, in Canada, that mass homicides are rare. All the same, we know they occur — and news organizations should be prepared. We should have thoughtful policies and procedures developed well in advance to guide the newsroom decisions that must be made in the heat of the moment.

When tragedies happen, we have the choice in whose stories we decide to tell. If we so choose, we can tell the stories of the killers: the contemptible justifications they gave for their actions, their pitiful personal histories, the despicable decisions they made. We can tell the stories that might cause another tragedy.

We can also choose to tell the stories of the victims. We can tell the stories of the Moncton RCMP officers who showed up to do their jobs, putting their bodies in the line of fire between a man on a rampage and the citizens those officers chose to protect. We can tell the stories of the family and friends who now have to grieve the loss of loved ones taken too soon. We can tell the stories of the communities that rally together to support each other, long after the shooting has stopped.  [emphasis mine]

Dave Grossman (author, “On Killing” and “On Combat”) states directly that the act of publishing the killer’s name is a direct reinforcement to others of similar ilk. He suggests that after such an act the killer’s identity be purged from the public memory, and that this would act as a disincentive to such killers – knowing that their act of public violence will result, not in them being immortalized in word, book and song (cf the Boomtown Rat’s hit: “I don’t like Mondays“), but effectively ceasing to exist.

Ms Black also highlights the disturbing counterpoint to the focus on the killer – the victims disappear into the mind of a person who chose to effect evil in the world rather than good.

Our fascination with the mind of the killer is invariably focused on trying to understand the why, and to receive confirmation that only a sick person could do something so horrific.  Unfortunately, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, there is a certain banality to evil.  The demon you hope to see turns out to look a lot like the man you live next door to.  That thought leaves us totally terrified, and fearful for our safety.  Our search for absolute certainty that we are safe, feeds into the media storm that attempts to draw out every little bit of the killer’s mind.  It leads to things like the demonization of firearms owners, who become just an adjunct to the mass killer.

This contribution from the National Posts’ Chris Shelly was also refreshing – maybe it is time to move beyond the same rhetoric.

Grossman also points out that first person shooter RPGs are ideally suited for conditioning people to become mass shooters in his book, “Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill”.  This is a very controversial point, given the wide popularity of RPGs – it is easy to say, “If that’s true why aren’t we seeing more of these incidents?”  The answer is, we are seeing more of these incidents.  The reason there isn’t an epidemic, I believe, is because our societal norms are still powerful enough that the vast majority of people would never think to do violence to another human.  From the summary of his book:

In Paducah, Kentucky, Michael Carneal, a fourteen-year-old boy who stole a gun from a neighbor’s house, brought it to school and fired eight shots at a student prayer group as they were breaking up. Prior to stealing this weapon, he had never shot an actual handgun before. Of the eight shots he fired, he had eight hits on eight different kids. Five were head shots, the other three upper torso. The result was three dead, one paralyzed for life. The FBI says that the average, experienced, qualified law enforcement officer, in the average shoot-out, at an average range of seven yards, hits with less than one bullet in five. How does a child acquire such killing ability. What would lead him to go out and commit such a horrific act?

There is perhaps no bigger or more important issue in America at present than youth violence. Jonesboro, Arkansas; Paducah, Kentucky; Pearl, Mississippi; Stamps, Arkansas; Conyers, Georgia; and of course, Littleton, Colorado. We know them all too well, and for all the wrong reasons: kids, some as young as eleven years old, taking up arms and, with deadly, frightening accuracy, murdering anyone in their paths. What is going on? According to the authors of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, there is blame to be laid right at the feet of the makers of violent video games (called “murder trainers” by one expert), the TV networks, and the Hollywood movie studios–the people responsible for the fact that children often witness literally hundreds of violent images a day.

Authors Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano offer incontrovertible evidence, much of it based on recent major scientific studies and empirical research, that movies, TV, and video games are not just conditioning children to be violent–and unaware of the consequences of that violence–but are teaching the very mechanics of killing. Their book is a much-needed call to action for every parent, teacher, and citizen to help our children and stop the wave of killing and violence gripping America’s youth. And, most important, it is a blueprint for us all on how that can be achieved.

One of the compelling aspects of Grossman’s analysis is his discussion of the early video game, Duck Hunt.  The US Army started seeing recruits coming in who had never handled a weapon before, but could quickly become very proficient shooters.  When this was investigated, they discovered the new recruits had all been playing Duck Hunt.  It was found to be so effective that the US Army contracted for a militarized version of the game for use as a small-arms trainer.  More importantly, the video game helped to develop something that the military has to train into new soldiers – the ability to shoot instinctively to remove the morality tests in place for most citizens.

Read that last sentence again.  The goal of military weapons training is to teach the soldier how to fire instinctively, without engaging the moral analysis around the act of taking another’s life.  The way this is done is through repeated sessions of conditioning – firing on drop-target ranges, for example.  The target pops up, you fire, and it drops back down.  It’s the same sort of process carried out in those first-person RPGs.

Lest I be accused of being old-fashioned with respect to video games, let me say that I really enjoy all sorts of video games including the earlier versions of shooter games (like Ghost Squad).  After reading Grossman’s books on the subject, I was convinced that the possible harm to be caused by modern first-person RPG shooting games far outweighed any benefits, and decided they would not have a place in my home.  I also don’t see a problem with fantasy RPGs, as they provide enough separation from the real world.

It’s unfortunate that the discussion in these cases quickly polarizes around the subject of firearms control, and not around the deeper cultural issues that may have contributed.

Written by sameo416

June 10, 2014 at 11:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Veteran’s Benefits

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The question of veteran’s benefits and the Conservative government’s treatment of veterans have been heavy in the news this past week.  The CBC featured this as a discussion topic in their Sunday evening panel discussion.

Now I hear that the government has allocated $4M for advertising to promote the work of Veteran’s Affairs.  This pales in comparison to the image of the Veteran’s Affairs minister (Julian Fantino) quickly walking away from the spouse of a veteran suffering under the weight of PTSD.   The spouse, Jenifer Migneault, was attempting to speak with the minister about receiving support for her husband.

I have to say as a veteran, and a client of Veteran’s Affairs, that this $4M for advertising, and the almost complete disinterest of Fantino, are outrageous.

These continue in the same tone as Fantino’s comments last year about how he has spent time ‘in the trenches’ and understood the burden of soldiers.  I have the utmost respect for those who answer the high calling of the police service, but to suggest that police and soldiers are in the same bin is simply wrong.

I’ve written about this frequently in the past.  The present police practice of calling the population ‘civilians’ and how wrong that is – given Peel’s principles of policing, that of police-citizens who are selected as civilian constables.  The police are to be civilians, policing civilians.  Soldiers, by contrast, undertake the unlimited liability of service, which means accepting that they may be asked to die in pursuit of the mission.  While the police face risk, they have the ability to refuse duty, are represented by police unions, and return home to their families each evening.  There is, in fact, a huge danger in the police thinking of themselves as somehow not being part of the civilian population, as this permits all sorts of abuse to be justified.  The idea that the police are not citizen civilians is a modern creation, and mostly an American creation (reflecting the militarization of the police).

For Fantino to place himself in the same bin as those returning from combat patrolling in Afghanistan is ignorant and offensive.

OK, back to the $4M.  Here’s my personal story.

I’m a disability pensioner, something that came from my military service.  It wasn’t a wound in a theatre of operation.  Rather my injury came from the mundane part of military life, as most military injuries do.  My experience of Veteran’s Affairs is that they are an organization that seeks to minimize payments as much as is possible.  There is love for the use of rigid rules.  Here’s my examples:

1.  One of the treatments I find most helpful for my condition is intermuscular stimulation (IMS).  When my condition flares up, what keeps me off of heavy doses of narcotics is IMS.  IMS treatments cost $80 versus $50 for a standard physical therapy treatment.  VAC refuses to pay the added $30 per treatment because there is not rationale for the use of IMS alone (aside from my physician’s prescription), and no reason to provide for  a higher payment.

I have a work medical plan which pays the difference, but were I a vet with an inability to work, and no health care plan, that $30 per treatment might mean I couldn’t use the one thing that really brings relief from chronic pain.

I’ve appealed these decisions in the past, and I’ve given up as the progress is predictable and denial is always the result.

2.  I also receive benefits under the veterans independence program (VIP)  which pays for grass cutting of my back yard (which I find too challenging to do) and to wash my second floor windows.  This used to be a submit receipts for reimbursement system, which means that each dollar was repaid.  This year, VAC changed this to a lump sum system.

The problem is that VAC set the dollar amount based on what I claimed last year.  Problem with this is that last year I never had my windows done.  So the lump sum amount is deficient as compared to the entitlement, and there is no provision to allow for review of the amount, or for increase based on changes in the cost of services.

Again, for me this is an annoyance, because I can afford to pay the extra amount.  I’m able to work full-time in a job that pays well.  Many of my peers are not in a similar circumstance.

3.  VACs drug list.  I’ve used older narcotics for years (15 now) for my disability.  These cause me huge side effects, but I had little option until recently.  The new drugs Tramacet/Tramadol were approved for use in Canada a few years ago.  I find that Tramacet provides excellent pain control with only about 10% of the side effects I find with other narcotics.

The problem – VAC’s approved drug list does not include Tramacet.  Using the drug of choice means I have to pay for this myself (and through a separate drug plan).

4. My best non-drug treatment is massage therapy.  I’ve found over the past 15 years that the best way to minimize drug use is by regular massage therapy.  VAC caps these treatments at about 18 per year, while I use 24.  My insurance pays for the balance.

The part that bothers me is my massage therapist is only compensated $65 per treatment when her current rate is $85 per treatment.  She keeps VAC clients on her case load because she feels it to be her civic duty.  Many of her peers refuse to treat vets because it requires them to provide cut-rate services.

I also know, from her comments, that VAC is frequently slow with payment.

These are all small things in the big scheme of my life, and I have other insurance that covers almost all the costs.  The burden on small business people like my therapist is troubling.

To hear that the government is spending $4M on advertising to convince the public that VAC is really doing a good job is outrageous.  If that reflects the Conservative view of veterans, it’s no wonder that Fantino can act with great disregard toward veterans…for a political party that has always courted the military, and represented themselves as the best political friend of the military, this is very disappointing.

This Wednesday, June 4, there is a protest on Parliament Hill to support veterans.  I agree with Senator Dallaire, that after supporting 10 years of combat mission, now is not the time to start chopping support for the most seriously injured veterans (“Veterans cost too much”)  There is a moral and ethical obligation on the state to stand with those who stood for Canadian values in a far away land.

Written by sameo416

June 1, 2014 at 8:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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