"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Soldiers, lamp oil, and faith

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St John the Evangelist Edmonton, (Psalm 78:18, 1 Thess 14:13-18, Matt 25:1-13 wise/foolish bridesmaids)

This is the rough draft of tomorrow’s sermon…it needs three pages of material cut, but the main idea is there.

Pray. Today we gather as the Body of Christ, and worship, with a moment of remembrance for the cost of violence to all those who are touched by it, but particularly for soldiers. I served for just over 20 years in uniform as a soldier.  Part of my ongoing ministry is to bring this image of the soldier forward, and to use a soldier’s perspective to talk about our shared faith, for much of what I understand about faith I learned when I was in uniform (and not when studying theology, which is sad but true for my experience). Now, I acknowledge up front that this perspective may be outright offensive to some, particularly if you’re a strong follower of the Anabaptist tradition of non-violence. My prayer today is that you will listen to a bit about the way of the soldier, because it has aspects that can teach us about our faith.

Two years ago I talked about Christ’s encounters with the Centurion, and Peter’s later encounter with Cornelius, another Centurion. These soldiers were held up as examples of real faith, Jesus noting in particular, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” If your perspective on soldiers is negative, it’s instructive to consider Christ’s attitude.

This is not to say that we as the Body of Christ celebrate the things that soldiers are called to do, by virtue of their willingness to serve. Jesus provides us with a nonviolent alternative, the way of the peacemaker, but I am a pragmatic Christian and I acknowledge that in a broken world like this, we will not see the end of violence until the promised remaking of all of creation. This is as Jesus told us it would be, and that we would continue to hear of wars and rumours of wars until his coming again (Mark 13:7). This is an important reality to keep in mind, because falling into the trap of believing that we can make this world the place Christ told us it would become, through our own efforts and sweat has far more to do with the thoughts of liberal humanism than anything a Christian should profess. That said, our individual calls, our vocations in Christ are a call to continue that working out of the world here in the reality of wars and rumours of wars. We are each individually called to make a difference, some large, some small, but that is what God calls each of us to in our individual vocations in Christ.

This is an important aspect of understanding the place of the soldier in the world. Christians are called to vocations in the military – at least that’s what happened to me, and Christ’s words about that Centurion suggest that faith is not something that is burned out of a person when they put on a uniform. I would suggest quite the contrary is true, because soldiers by their service, get to see both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer throughout the globe. Something that most of us will never get the chance to encounter. Christ did not reject those soldiers because of what they did, and neither should we.

But we live in this place of tension about the use of violence in our broken world, and how we quickly opt for violence as a way to solve our problems. This is not only the violence of artillery and air power, those are just the most immediately apparent forms. Rather it is about the violence that we are willing to do on a daily basis through the economy, through our own lifestyles. I’m not going to get political, but it is interesting to look at the ongoing conflict between government and First Nations communities over the routing of pipelines. We’re happy to say they have the right to traditional use of the land, but it is interesting what happens when our economic needs clash with that traditional use of the land.

Now how do we encounter that conflict in the church? I received a call one day from a friend, a pastor in an old parish, one of those rare prairie stone churches. His parish had World War I memorials on the walls, in fact, two of the wooden crosses that had been erected on Vimy Ridge by the soldiers right after the battle had been brought home and installed in this church. A rare and unique piece of Canadian history. The local regimental association had called him and asked if they could hold a memorial service including a re-dedication of these memorials. My friend, who had been raised in the Mennonite tradition, called me because he was in conflict. His question, “How can I be party to the glorification of war through a church service?” He thought he had no choice at that point but to refuse the request.

That discussion was one of the things that convinced me that a part of my continuing ministry is to teach about soldiers, because in spite of all the war movies we’ve watched, and war video games we may have played, or the number of Sergeant Rock comics you read as a child (like me), you can’t understand the way of the soldier until you’ve lived it. The soldier is a member of a separate culture, with its own ethos, traditions and history…much of which is a mystery to those observing from the outside. A classic example of this came up recently about Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the Argyle who was shot as he stood watch over the tomb of the unknown soldier. The Hamilton Spectator published an article that was originally titled, Cpl Cirillo, Was Not a Hero…and changed to Cpl Cirillo, an Accidental Hero, after the public outcry. I’ve spoken about this before, and written blog entries about it, because the word ‘hero’ is not one you are likely to hear a soldier ever use. I was taught that heroes are the ones who, through the desire to be recognized take risks that put their comrades at risk. A hero, for a soldier, is someone that you stay far away from. The greatest compliment that can be paid a soldier is to say that they did their duty – so a title like, Cpl Nathan Cirillo, He Did His Duty, is something a soldier would understand.

Now, back to my friend in the parish. He called because he was torn between his role in a welcoming church, and his inability to in anyway endorse something he saw as contrary to Christ’s teachings. This was roughly my response: If there is anyone who really understands why Christ speaks so strongly against violence, it is the soldier. While we can sit and have lengthy theological debates about the call of the Christian, sitting in a warm room sipping craft beer, it is the soldier who crouches in a ditch in some far-away land bandaging his friend who has just lost a leg to an IED. Soldiers, more than anyone, understand the true cost of violence because they pay that cost in blood. They are the ones who come home with the wounds that never heal – something like 25% of our Afghanistan veterans experienced a psychological injury. To a room full of soldiers, you can preach a convicted anti-war homily, because they understand why war should be avoided at all costs. Don’t fall into the trap of criticizing them for their choice to serve, because it ultimately isn’t the soldier who decides it’s time to head to that far-away land, but rather the civilian leaders of our nation. The purpose of a memorial service isn’t to glorify war, something that the warrior never does, but rather to remember friends that never returned home, families that are missing sons and daughters, fathers and mother, and to ask forgiveness for having survived when better people died.

I think I still hadn’t convinced him when I offered, almost in passing, a closing comment: Will you be the one to deny a group of soldiers access to the gospel? That is too often the result of our safe musings, that we look down our noses on the people who decided to risk it all for something they believed in. My friend held the service, and preached an anti-war sermon out of that deep Anabaptist tradition (and wasn’t tarred and feathered by the soldiers in attendance).

Soldiers serve under what is known as the unlimited liability of service. This means that a soldier accepts death as a possible outcome of carrying out orders. This unlimited liability exists nowhere else in our society. There are others who regularly expose themselves to great risk on our behalf – police, fire fighter, medical staff, but only the soldier has taken an oath to die if the country requires it. Soldiers operate without any of the protections available to everyone else in the country: there is no workers’ compensation, no employment standards act, no labour code, no occupational health and safety act…soldiers cannot use the civilian health care system unless referred into it by the military (who pays for the treatment). Following the path of the soldier is one of sacrifice and self-denial, and those attributes in particular, are the things that taught me what it was to be a person of faith. If I really believe that what I really believe is real, than I need to be prepared to lose everything for the sake of the Gospel – just like a soldier on active duty is prepared to lose their life for the sake of honour.

This is something we don’t clearly grasp in western society, and I think this is because we have so much bounty around us, that most of us have never experienced what it is to be without. When my daughter was younger, she refused to eat something she didn’t like. I laughed and said – you know when you’ve been in the field for weeks, hungry all the time, even a pork chop covered in sand is like a banquet feast. She looked at me like I was nuts.

I’ve used this before, but it’s worth repeating. In his essay, “Why I’m not a Pacifist”, CS Lewis – himself a combat veteran of the First World War – wrote this about the life of the soldier: “All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service. Like sickness, it threatens pain and death. Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst and hunger. Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule. Like exile, it separates you from all you love. Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions. It threatens every temporal evil – every evil except dishonour and final perdition, and those who bear it like it no better than you would like it.”

Now, I’ll tell you what the way of the soldier says to me in my present life of ease, and what I’ve come to understand are the true meaning behind LCol John McCrae’s words, “to you from failing hands we throw the torch”. The soldier calls to each of us – I am willing to die for what I believe, how about you? That torch thrown to us is not a call for us to be soldiers, but a call for us to continue to stand for the values that those soldiers were willing to die for. That is, a call for us to enter a life of service to others, regardless of the cost to us. What is God calling you to do to serve others?

A few weeks ago we sang a contemporary piece at the 915 service called “God Arise”, that had this refrain, So come and stand in the gap for the Lord of Hosts. Standing in the gap is something that soldiers understand.

In his book “The Blue Cascade”, US Army officer Mike Scotti writes about his struggles with PTSD after two combat tours in the Middle East. He describes in particular the orders of his Battalion Commander as they are preparing to enter a major city on their advance. This was a mechanized battle, and the key in mechanized warfare is speed. The commander said in his orders, if we meet heavy resistance in the city, B Company will deploy from the order of march to engage the treat and be expended. Scotti comments at that point that they all knew what that meant, B Company, all 150 or so of them – all sons, fathers, husbands – were to sacrifice themselves in order that the rest of the unit could succeed at their mission. That’s what standing in the gap means to a soldier. That example is meant to be an uncomfortable one to hear, and it immediately makes me ask: if those soldiers are willing to stand in the gap for their friends, what is my vocational call from God calling me to do?

Or, if those soldiers are willing to expend their lives in what may or may not, ultimately be a noble cause…how much more willing should I be to give of myself in the here and now. To be even more blunt: how seriously do I take Christ’s call to carry the Word forward in the world? How willing am I to risk being ostracized and mocked for being the person that Christ calls me to be? How much am I willing to risk to be called a disciple of Christ?

If you haven’t seen the video of the shooting in the Centre Block of our Parliament, you should watch it for this reason. Watch what all the security people are doing – first they’re cautiously advancing making use of cover and concealment. When the first shot is fired, the Globe & Mail reporter with the camera dives for the floor, and all you can see is marble. When he comes out from behind the pillar, all those cautious security agents are now running toward the sound of the gunfire. That’s commitment in spades, and it again says to me, what commitment are you willing to show because of your faith?

Another example from that day was government lawyer Barbara Winters. She had just passed the National War Memorial when she heard shots. She turned and ran back to the memorial because she thought someone might need her help. When she arrived she helped with first aid and with comforting Cpl Cirillo while he died. Along with a few others who had stopped to assist, the rest of the people we standing around taking pictures or shooting video. Barbara Winters understands what service to her fellow humans means, and her example also calls to me – what are you prepared to do to bring that glass of cool water to someone in need? Unfortunately, for much of the first world, our contribution ends with the posting of outrage on Facebook or SnapChat.

In this regard, you can see why the term hero is not one that a soldier would ever pick to describe someone like Nathan Cirillo. What sets Cirillo apart was his choice to stand in the gap that day, to put aside everything else in his life, and to just stand in a symbolic position of guard. It’s his choice in life that sets him apart, and not the manner of his death, that defines the idea of service and sacrifice behind Cirillo’s position on guard duty. Look at the statement he made through his choice in life to stand in the gap. This image of service and sacrifice is why I say the soldier has much to teach us who strive to follow a life of service to the Lord. How is it that God is calling you to serve and to sacrifice?

There is another call on the Christian in the world, and that is the call to identify evil when we encounter it. We are one of the last groups remaining in the first world that maintains some idea of evil as a concept, as the general society has abandoned that label as being too nasty and exclusive. The church as a corporate body has done much the same, as we don’t want to appear judging. In a discussion last week with one of my Muslim co-workers, she commented that the message of the Imans across Canada has been a call for Muslims to reject the evil way of ISIS, the Islamic State. I was shocked to hear her use that word, evil, and it reminded me of my obligation to stand against evil, and part of the way we do that as Christians is by naming it when we see it.

As much as we want to attribute acts of violence to mental illness, or drug use, or a poor childhood and feel compassion toward the perpetrator, that does not change the reality that such acts are acts of evil – perhaps not always the acts of an evil person, but we have to be live to that possibility as well. Shooting an unarmed soldier is evil, as is running someone down in a parking lot. Killing Christians because they refuse to convert, and then killing fellow Muslims because they’re either not the right type of Islam, or because they don’t embrace you particular brand of fundamentalism, is an evil act. And it’s important in this naming of the demon to observe that ISIS, in its roll through the Middle East, is killing far more Muslims than Christians. This is an attack on faith, and we need to be clear when we call it what it really is. All of our genial ways don’t change the reality that there are people in the world who would see us dead, for no reason other than who we are. Our willingness to use other, softer names, gives that evil a place where it may grow. G. K. Chesterson said, “Unless a man becomes the enemy of an evil, he will not even become its slave but rather its champion.” This is one of the things we’re effectively post-graduate specialists in – naming evil – and we do not favours by shirking our duty.

We’ve seen some witness to this recently, in the story of Jian Ghomeshi. I read an article written by one of his collegues, a journalist and music critic by the name of Carl Wilson. Wilson admits that he suspected all along that there was something untoward going on, as he heard the rumours and had friends talk about experiences…but he did nothing because of the benefits he gained from the relationship like continued invitations on to the show, Q. What’s fascinating about Wilson’s confession is he compares it to the Catholic church’s cover up of sexual abuse which he looked on in disbelief – how could they have let it go on for so long? He now realizes that his silence has placed him in the exact situation that he had previously criticized, and that he too was complicit in the toleration of evil. Chesterton again: unless you become the enemy of evil, you will not only become its slave, but also its champion.

Part of our call to service, is this call to identify evil when we encounter it, to leave no doubt that this thing is something that should be opposed. Now, our modern mind will quickly respond, but what if we’re wrong. I read this recently on a blog on faith: ‘faith is on some level the courage to risk being wrong.’ Faith is a call to action, and action has with it risks. Sometimes you’ll be wrong, sometimes you’ll cause more harm than good, but that should not drive us to inaction. Inaction is not the place that God calls each of us, but this is the primary challenge we face in the safe, western church. Faith is never brought into being unless it is through action of some form.

This is another aspect of the soldier’s life that resonates with being a person of faith – soldiers are always people of action. I can recall being taught that leadership would sometimes require that I make quick decisions, based on limited knowledge, and that sometimes I would be very wrong. What was important was a timely decision because remaining inactive was far, far worse. We’re called to the same sort of action, and remaining inactive and comfortable is not the place for a Christian to rest.
This call to action in the face of evil came clear for the Croatian Christian theologian Miroslav Volf, when he considered the question of how he could love his Serbian Orthodox Christian neighbour after the ethnic cleaning and murder perpetrated on his community by the Serbian community. He realized that if he could not answer that question, all of his life’s work would fall apart. He arrived at an understanding of his call as a Christian, described by NT Wright this way:

Whether we are dealing with international relations or one-on-one experiences, evil must be named and confronted. There must be no sliding around it, no attempt (whether for the sake of comfort, or a quick fix) to pretend it wasn’t so bad after all. Only when that has been done, when both evil and the evildoer have been identified as what and who they are, can there be a second move toward ‘embrace’: the embrace of the wound-ed and the wound-er. NT Wright extends this to talk about the reconciliation that occurred through Desmond Tutu’s South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission: where both guerillas and white security forces confess publically about their awful deeds. It is only through that pain that there may be some possibility of renewed community.

Our Gospel reading today brings us the parable of the wise and unwise bridesmaids – 5 bring no extra oil, while the wise bring oil. When the bridegroom’s late arrival is announced the foolish bridesmaids ask the wise to share, and are rebuked. As they go off to find a late-night oil merchant, the wedding banquet begins and they are locked outside…unrecognizable to the master. It seems like a harsh parable, but should sound no harsher than the following two – the talents and the sheep and the goats. What strikes us as harsh is the failure to share…what seems like a failure to love they neighbour.

This is not what is at work here. First note is that this is a parable, not a factual story – it is meant to illustrate certain things, and you have to be cautious reading into the parable things it was not intended to address. This is a parable about what the kingdom of heaven will be like on Christ’s return, parables about the end of it all. The ten bridesmaids are already called into the kingdom, they’ve all been invited to the party at the end of time, but find that the call itself is not enough. Some attribute the oil in the parable to good works, as in you have to store up good works (oil), to gain admittance to the kingdom. That view is too transactional for my liking, and turns us into good deed accountants, trying to only do the things that will bring us maximum credit when we know the accounts book died with Jesus on the cross. I think the oil has far more to do with faith and preparedness – attested to by the concluding sentence in the discourse, watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. You’ve been invited to a wedding banquet, but you have a specific job to do, which is to light the way for the bridegroom. Lighting the way requires preparedness to anticipate the things that might happen along the way. What if the bridegroom’s arrival is greatly delayed?

If we expect the judgement day to come in a year, or ten years’ time, might we live differently? Some thought that it would come in their lifetime after Christ’s death, and when it didn’t people began to wonder. How long should we wait for this bridegroom anyway? Some other people began to say, I bet there isn’t any bridegroom, and this was just cooked up by the church to give themselves power. Others began to say, now that we know we’re saved, it means we can do whatever we want. Still others said, because of this great delay, I’ll worry about faith when I get closer to the end of the journey. In all these people are exercising their free will to choose how they will respond to the call to the kingdom. In the parable, Jesus cautions us again to be on watch, and to be prepared for His unexpected arrival at the banquet hall.

Are you prepared for, as Eugene Peterson terms it, ‘a long obedience in the same direction?’ The call to faith is a call to service, to action and to obedience. It’s a call to act boldly, accepting that you will go wrong sometimes, but that you can always rely on the mercy of God to wipe that slate clean again. In the bridesmaid’s parable, I’m left with the impression that the foolish five didn’t really give much thought to what might happen in the hours between departing home and the coming of the bridegroom. They just went along with what was happening, while the others thought about how to best prepare for what is ahead. Are you the kind of believer that just goes along with things, because it’s easier that way? Or are you always thinking ahead, trying your best to do God’s will in the here and now and being prepared for what might come next? Is your faith one of sitting with folded hands and waiting, or is it a faith in action?

Faith, in this parable, is a faith that demands action. I mentioned earlier something I had read about faith being a willingness to risk being wrong, and faith in action has to risk being wrong because the alternative, inaction, is to proceed to the wedding banquet without the extra oil required to keep the lamp going through the night.

Now we come full circle, and back to the topic of the soldier’s way – a soldier is always prepared for the worst, always trained for every situation that can be anticipated. A soldier knows that her life depends on being prepared…which means knowing how to do your job in the dark, with one hand, while someone is shooting at you. The soldier’s life in peace is nothing but training for that future event, as the US Navy SEALs like to say, sweat today prevents blood tomorrow. If a soldier works so hard to be prepared for that unknown future, why do we Christians not also prepare that intently? Could it be that the soldier takes the urgency of her preparation more seriously than we do? Amen.


Written by sameo416

November 8, 2014 at 6:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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