"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

In whom do I place my hope (Trump, Clinton, Jesus or close air support)?

with 4 comments

First draft, very long, but many threads of complicated thoughts interacting.  I’ll leave this as the published version, even while I will have to cut about 2 pages from the delivered version.

Remembrance Sunday 13 November 2016, SJE Edmonton ©2016

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, Ps 144, Matthew 10:16-19

Pray.  Two momentous things to engage today, our international day of remembering all those who served and suffered because of warfare, and a day to reflect on the US election.  Those topics may seem disparate, but I’ve found some surprising common ground – you will know I’m usually preaching this day, and that I use my 20 years as a soldier to speak about faith in the context of service and sacrifice.  One of the facets of the soldier is little tolerance for weasel words and deception…there is something about the interaction of bullet and bone and blood which leaves the soldier impatient for those who are unwilling to mediate the truth.  That aspect of my military formation carries forward logically into my prophetic ministry in this community, for the role of the prophets has always been as God’s truth teller.  I’m also well aware of the long tradition in reformed denominations of preaching with the bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.  So here is the intersection between the faith of a soldier, and the newspaper.

One of the aspects of the entire election experience that has left me somewhat dismayed is how many people who profess faith in Jesus Christ have moved into the space where they consider the apocalypse has begun.  It may very well have begun, but that is not the proper place for the focus of a believer.  I’ll loop back to the reading from Ecclesiastes several times today, but one could easily add another line to the preacher’s words, “For everything there is a season, a time to elect a progressive, and a time to elect a misogynist.”

In spite of there being a time under the sun for everything, including for war and peace, this is not the proper dwelling place for the Christian.  Why?  Well, in spite of the huge influence which secular political systems have over our daily lives, we are not actually citizens of this nation, but a nation of believers.  When you read 1 Peter 2 concerning submission to the lawful authority it is clear why we are called into that role: “13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[b] whether it be to the emperor[c] as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people… Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”  What is particularly fascinating about that passage is the reason why Peter directs submission to the secular authority is because this will serve as an illustration of God’s kingdom – by honouring everyone we silence the ignorance of foolish people.  When that is added with the command to love as the Father loves, it is pretty clear that we no longer have as an option the demonization of people whose political or personal lives are offensive to us.  As soon as we make an attempt to claim the moral high ground, we open ourselves to the risk of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector…I thank you God that I am not like that sinner over there, that tax collector…I tithe 10% of everything and keep the feasts.  And which one was righteous in God’s eyes?

This is a particular facet of our post-modern discourse, manifested specifically through the medium of social media.  There is a line of reasoning around the idea of ‘white privilege’ which automatically means that the voice of any white person is discounted because of their privilege and power within the culture.  They are literally discounted even before they type a word, merely because of the race into which they were born.  I will rebuke this gently, but very firmly, as not being a safe place for a Christian to dwell.  I’m not going to pull this apart because there are larger things to look at today, but if you are one who follows that line of reasoning, it is a good time to get back into Scripture and look for God’s perspective on any thought which marginalizes any group of people, white, black, yellow or red.  At this point I’m usually rebuked as speaking from a place of white privilege.  I may look white, but I’m not.  So listen when I say that as an indigenous Christian whose family heritage was stripped away because of the racism of mostly white, protestant settlers…if there is anyone who has reasonable cause to point a finger of condemnation at white men and women, it is someone in my shoes…and yet I don’t.  Why not?  Because I repented of that line of thought years ago, and Christ washed me clean with His blood, so it is no longer about blame, but all about reconciliation.

We are called by Christ to be about different things, and this does not include demonizing people who have different opinions than those we hold dearly.  It is a truly perplexing time in this post-modern era.  Post-modernity at once proclaims that words only have the meaning that we assign, and any attempt to define truth is really just an effort to hold power over another person.  So in an era where there is supposed to be no absolute truth, we find that people are even more highly polarized than in past history – a polarization that is paradoxically the result of even more strongly held absolute beliefs in an era when there is supposed to be no absolute left.  I will return to this thought in a moment, for it is a hallmark of the irrationality of this age, something made plain through the election campaign.

This leads into a second aspect that is even more concerning, and that is the number of evangelical supporters in the US who endorsed Trump for election.  Quite apart from racial lines, the one thing that marked a majority of supporters was their declaration of evangelical beliefs.  This included the support of a number of evangelical leaders including Franklin Graham.  The evangelical movement in the US has long since moved into a place of seeking secular power through the political system, but this has been nowhere clearer than in this recent election. Consider this quotation from an interview earlier this year where Trump was asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness, “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.…I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.”

I’m not going to single out Trump for that attitude, because there are lots of notional Christians in our communities who follow a similar ethic.  That is, I am basically a good person who sometimes makes mistakes, but I can fix those mistakes through my own wisdom, and have no need of asking for God’s forgiveness.  Without pulling a punch, that’s nothing short of heretical.  I don’t have to strike an argument why, as I can just quote Paul, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1)  So how is it that a religious movement that should know better ends up endorsing someone like Trump?

Christianity Today published an article recently on the election, and identified that there is a new sort of prosperity gospel going on, one that focuses on maintaining certain political systems at any cost. And so it is less distasteful to endorse a candidate like Trump, who is expected to fill the Supreme Court with conservative judges, to bring in laws that will reassert order and prosperity, particularly for the Christian.  This new prosperity gospel says that we must do everything we can to protect the Christian worldview, even if that includes voting for a distasteful candidate who at least is on the right side of the political spectrum. Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress illuminated this thinking by saying, “We need a strong leader and a problem-solver, hence many Christians are open to a more secular candidate.”[1] What the election has particularly highlighted in the evangelical movement is how secular it has become in its quest for relevance and continued power within the political establishment.

This is in many ways just the extension of a pattern of thought that has been growing in the Western world ever since the Enlightenment. It is a thought which tells us that unless we work to bring about God’s new Jerusalem on earth, it will never happen.  So we shift the onus for the reconciliation of all creation from it’s proper place with the Lord, onto our laps.  And we do so within a framework that sounds Christian enough that we can do so believing we occupy the high moral ground.  We believe that we are righteous, when what we are in reality is idolatrous.  This is manifest in a number of ways:

  • The war on terror, described by George Bush Jr as a time to ‘take off the gloves’ and to wage unlimited war on those who seek your destruction. This is a thought pattern which was continued unchecked through subsequent US administrations.[2]  Taking off the gloves also meant the moral limits on warfare were removed, which is why we can now carry out drone strikes on enemies of the state even if it involves killing their entire extended family.  This also meant torture was legitimized along with the end of due process in justice.
  • A misunderstanding of the nature of sin. We are all sinful people through and through, and that will not be changed by trying really hard, or finding the right social legislation, or electing the right leader.  It will only come through our submission and surrender to Jesus Christ, which only happens once we admit we are dead to the world so that we can live in Christ.
  • Jesus himself has been transformed from a God of power and might into a mascot for our belief that we are the ultimate force in creation, supporting our desires for the maintenance of a particular social-political, cultural or racial identity.
  • Finally, instead of a leader who washes the feet of his followers, what we are seeking is a leader who manifests the best attributes of the culture…narcissism, greed and deceit in the unrestrained pursuit or power. If only we could get the right things done we could remake the world into the New Jerusalem…and so we strive to find the right political system or leader or law that will bring about this utopia.[3]

Now, I will stop for a moment to make it clear that this is not a condemnation of Trump or an endorsement of Clinton.  What this presents to us is a lens through which we see illuminated the results of a centuries-long process of drift away from God.  American philosopher of history Russell Kirk, in his work the “Roots of American Order” set out that America as a nation was created in the tension between four historic city-states: from Jerusalem came it’s moral categories, from Athens came its philosophical categories, from Rome came it’s law, from London came its culture.  What has happened with the removal of the idea of morality, tied to some absolute framework of values, is the realm of the moral has been cut lose from its anchor, and allowed to drift across the sea of post-modernism.  If we are placing our hope in the secular rulers and systems, we have lost the central focus of the follower of Christ who told us repeatedly that when we live as Christians we will not be welcomed by the world, but rather reviled.  So, when our political leanings try to move us into a place where the government reflects our beliefs, we need to be reminded that this is not the natural place for a Christian to dwell.  “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Now, lest we fall into the trap of post-modern triumphalism about our own nation of Canada, recognize that our values are not so distant from those I’ve been speaking about.  The major difference today is that much of our polarization is cloaked in Canadian gentile politeness.  I would argue we are as polarized, we’re just better at hiding it.  Turning to the topic of remembrance, the place I see this clearly is in the treatment of our soldiers.

Last year at this time I referenced a Globe and Mail investigation where they had found 54, then 59 suicides of soldiers after serving in Afghanistan.  In the last few weeks they have updated their investigation to 70 suicides.  The reason this required an investigation is because the Canadian Forces is still not tracking the health outcomes of people after release, and quite frankly are continuing to mislabel the deaths of those still in uniform.  The Globe and Mail came up with that number by nationally searching obituaries for deaths of retired and serving military members, and then contacting the families directly to find out what was the actual cause of death.  This is the hallmark of a broken system, a system more concerned with riding itself of distractions than actually dealing with wounded warriors with compassion and care.  The Globe and Mail has collected the stories of 31 military families whose loved ones took their lives after military service.  The article describes the results this way, “Together their stories paint a disturbing picture of delayed care, ineffective medical treatment and insufficient mental-health support.  The 31 accounts are the most comprehensive public record of Canada’s Afghanistan war veterans lost to suicide – unwitting monuments to a system that is failing too many vulnerable soldiers and veterans.” Corporal Tony Reed, who died by suicide in December 2012 told his mother, “I cannot go to sleep, Mom, because as soon as I close my eyes that’s what I see, okay?  People being blown up.  Little kids with grenades.  The blood.  You can’t imagine the blood that I’ve seen over there.”  While our new government has started addressing this, a plan won’t be ready until the fall of 2017.  Until then, unrecognized suicides from military service will continue because there are inadequate supports and tracking of those soldiers after release.  As a personal footnote, I’m a client of Veterans Affairs because I am a disabled veteran – with 36% impairment resulting from chronic pain.  I last spoke to my case manager in person in 2009, and I’m not suffering from a serious psychological illness.  In fact, if I did want to speak to a case manager, I would have to call through the Veteran’s Affairs call centre, justify why I wanted to speak with him, and then wait for him to return my call.

Romeo Dallaire has just published a new book, where he recounts his struggles with PTSD that continue to this day, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD. First light is a significant image for a soldier.  First light brings the hope of dawn, and a confirmation that you survived the night.  First light also brings the likely time of attack.  Macleans wrote a powerful article on Dallaire’s new book where he argues that the covenant between soldiers and the state is broken.  Before you feel smug about the state of our nation versus that of the Americans, listen to Dallaire’s words:

There needs to be a new covenant between the military and the nation, Dallaire argues, in part because of his belief that PTSD is not just a physical or psychological injury, but a moral wound.

He tells a story in his memoir. After hearing of a massacre in a village, Dallaire sends a patrol, Canadian soldiers as it turns out. They find a rape site, a ditch full of dozens of mutilated women and girls, most but not all dead. Later, Dallaire sums up the situation with his 26 international contingent commanders: there are no medical supplies; the dying are too injured to be moved and there is no means of transport anyway; the risk of HIV infection is very high. What orders would they issue: do what you can, or move on? Only three countries—Ghana, Holland and Canada—say to intervene. But the Canadian patrol leader never gives that order, because he never has time. His soldiers—“young men, just 19, 20, 21”—have already broken ranks, and are in the ditch trying to provide what comfort is possible.

That is the kind of army Canada has, says Dallaire, because that’s the kind of nation Canada has evolved into. We have an army that, precisely because it “carries our moral norms into immoral situations,” will be sensitive to the shock and trauma presented by those sorts of conflicts. “There’s been a breaking of the bond between the nation and its military,” he says. In recent years, “we have practically had to beg for the help we need.” If Canada is going to send its armed forces to help the world’s vulnerable, and Dallaire fervently believes it should, “we need a new cradle-to-grave agreement” that Canada will take care of these soldiers, who have suffered injuries on Canadians’ behalf, right up to veterans’ retirement homes. And suicides should be numbered among the war dead.[4]

So how did we end up here, in spite of the commandment to love God and to love our neighbours as we do ourselves?  I think the German philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche summed it up perfectly in his parable titled ‘Madman’.  This is the story usually misquoted by Christians and others from which comes the line, “God is dead”.  Rather than an assertion that God is dead, what the madman in the tale proclaims is that we have killed God, and so cut ourselves free from any moral moorings:

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.[5]

When we proclaim in our homes, our businesses and our institutions of learning that there is no truth except that which we make ourselves, and when we believe that salvation rests in the hands of humankind, and when we spend our time trying to find who is best to blame for the confusion and strife, and when we believe that words have no meaning except that which we wish then to have, we should not be surprised that the result of all this empowerment is the death of God.  Without that anchor for our souls, we instead are tossed on the waves and billows of cultural relativity.[6]

An appropriate place to end this reflection is with the story of a soldier, and a Christian, who died after an attack in Afghanistan.  The narrative places us back in right relationship with the Almighty, because regardless of what might happen to our physical bodies (death, torture, persecution, disease) we are members of a transcendent yet imminent kingdom into which we will be welcomed.

The story of US Army soldier Jonathan (as told by Ravi Zacharias):

His friend returned from a February 2008 transportation security mission to hear that another convoy mission in Afghanistan had been hit with an IED, a convoy that included his good friend Jonathan.  He also learns that his friend was badly injured in that attack, and was near to death.  He obtains permission to leave his unit to visit his friend (mbo: because of course the first freedom surrendered when you put on the uniform is freedom of movement).

He enters the hospital to find his friend, missing both legs, lying on a hospital bed covered with bandages.  Tubes coming out of other tubes leading to God knows where.  I walked over to him biting my lip to hold the tears back, Johnathan looked up at him and smiled and said, “You should see the other guy.” (mbo: because humour is one of the ties that binds people together in combat).

As he was coughing and having trouble breathing, I stayed with him for about 10 or 15 minutes.  It was clear that he was near death from blood loss and fatigue, so I asked that God would receive his humble servant, and that Jonathan might spend an eternity in God’s presence.  Jonathan was a part of the kingdom of God, long before I was.  As I prayed Jonathan suddenly stopped, looked up towards the ceiling, as if shocked into life while observing the heavens.  Jonathan’s greatest gift to me was his last words of life which have become a cornerstone for the love of Jesus Christ that has enveloped my heart.  He looked up and said, “Wow…wow, it just looks exactly the way they always told me it would.”  A smile stretched across Jonathan’s face and he was gone.

Amen



Sources and things that started the musing several weeks back:


 THE MADMAN—-Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?” God is dead, we have killed him.


Ravi Zacharias: “We now learn to listen with our eyes and think with our feelings. . . . We are meant to see through the eye, with the conscience; when we start seeing with the eye devoid of the conscience, all kinds of belief can invade your imagination.”

As has happened numerous times since I started listening to Ravi’s daily podcasts, I owe a debt of thanks to him for providing direction to the starting of some of the thought paths I’ve followed in this sermon. In this case it was a three-part series titled, “The loss of truth” (for the reflection on moral frameworks) and a four-part series titled “A deliverer is born” (for the story of Jonathan the US soldier).

A deliverer is born: http://ca.rzim.org/just-thinking-broadcasts/a-deliverer-is-born-part-4-of-4-2/

The loss of truth: http://ca.rzim.org/just-thinking-broadcasts/the-loss-of-truth-part-1-of-4-2/

 

William Blake:

This life’s dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye.

 

American philosopher of history, Russell Kirk in “The Roots of American Order”.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) Parable of the Madman

http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/nietzsche-madman.asp

Robert Lewis Fossett’s commentary, “The Madman’s Time has Come”

http://www.rlfossett.com/entries/2016/10/11/the-madmans-time-has-come

On the new suicide numbers for the Canadian Forces (Globe and Mail investigation):

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/investigations/number-of-soldiers-vets-who-died-by-suicide-after-afghanistan-on-rise/article32673192/

A review of Dr Antoon Leednaar’s 2013 book, “Suicide Among the Armed Forces”, https://www.suicideinfo.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Military-Suicide-Book-Review.pdf

Review of Romeo Dallaire’s new book, “Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD”:

http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/inside-romeo-dallaires-brutally-revealing-new-memoir/

Donald Trump on asking God for forgiveness:

http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-on-god-i-dont-like-to-have-to-ask-for-forgiveness-2016-1

http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/

 


Fire, Malcolm Guite

 

He cannot stop these memories of fire

Crackling and flashing in his head.

Not just in fevered dreams; the fires break

Into the light of day. He burns with shame,

But still he screams and shakes, because the dead,

Are burning too and screaming out his name.

 

They told him his condition had a name,

But words can’t quench the memory of fire,

Nor can they ever resurrect the dead.

They told him it was ‘all inside his head’,

That post-traumatic stress need cause no shame.

The army gave him time for a short break.

 

But that’s what he’s afraid of. He will break

And break forever; lose his life and name,

Shake like a child who’s sickening with shame,

He who had been ‘courageous under fire’

Who always stemmed the panic, kept his head.

And now all night he wishes he were dead

 

And cannot die. Instead he sees the dead

In all their last contortions. Bodies break

Under his wheels, a child’s severed head

Amidst the rubble seems to call his name

Over the clattering of rifle fire,

Stuttering guns that shake with him in shame.

 

He’s left his family. ‘Oh its a shame’,

The neighbours said, ‘That marriage was long dead-

-You cant live with a man whose shouting ‘Fire!’

All night like that.- His kids needed a break

And in the end she had to change her Name.’

‘They’ll never fix what’s wrong inside his Head.’

 

‘Some people seem to cope and get ahead,

The army makes them better men, a shame

He couldn’t cope.’ Now he has lost his name

And his address. He only knows the dead.

He sleeps on benches but they come and break

His sleep. They keep him under constant fire.

 

And come November, when they name the dead,

He waits in silence for his heart to break

And every poppy burns with hopeless fire.



[1] Michael Horton, “The Theology of Donald Trump”, Christianity Today, March 16, 2016.

[2] This comes from BGen Dr. Stephen Xenakis, Omar Khadr’s military psychiatrist, when asked at a public talk about what it was that allowed the US to fall into so much immoral activity (Abu Ghraib prison, waterboarding, Gitmo etc).

[3] Derived from the Christianity Today article.

[4] http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/inside-romeo-dallaires-brutally-revealing-new-memoir/

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) Parable of the Madman

http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/nietzsche-madman.asp

[6] https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/331

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Written by sameo416

November 11, 2016 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Matthew,

    I have just read through the draft of your sermon, and I am so thankful for it. I will read through it again (probably several times) and pray for you as you edit it. May the Lord continue to be your strength help and light as you serve Him.

    In the fellowship of Him whom we serve and love,

    Anna Mae >

    annamaegibson

    November 11, 2016 at 5:23 pm

  2. Matt,

    Once again I celebrate your willingness to accept God’s prompting in articulating our call to Him in whom we trust. Thank you so much. There is much here to treasure and contemplate and I deeply appreciate your posting all this for our full benefit.

    Your brother in Christ,

    Mark

    Mark Peppler

    November 12, 2016 at 9:17 am


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