"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for July 2017

A Sermon for Pentecost 5 – 9 July 2017

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St Paul’s Edmonton, 9 July 2017:  Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30; Romans 7:15-25, Pentecost 5

Pray.  The central idea I’ll discuss today is the Gospel contrast between the wisdom of the Father, the Lord Almighty and the wisdom of this world. This is one of the areas where believers (and non-believers for that matter) struggle with our faith. In fact, if you spend much time reading theology or commentaries on the Bible, you may have noticed that there is a lot of ink spilled trying to debate the question of why certain things have been written the way they were – rather than just accepting the text as presented and trying to figure out the more important question: what does that text mean to us today?

This passage begins after a section of teaching to the crowd concerning John the Baptist.  Jesus then laments the state of the world by speaking of children in the marketplace: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” The image of the children who fail to entice the others to either mourn or dance, parallel the two ministries of John and Jesus – one who called to repentance and grief and the other who called to a time of rejoicing.  However, in spite of these two different ways, the world rejects them both: In response to John’s ministry of denial the world concludes he must be possessed; and in response to Jesus’ message of the coming of the kingdom, the world concludes He was a glutton and a drunkard. Godly wisdom versus earthly wisdom.

People of faith know this to be true: it doesn’t matter how God is presented to the world, the wise reject that appeal while we foolish embrace it. Even within our lives of faith we constantly run into this dichotomy – Paul affirms this in Romans when stating, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells in me…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Paul identifies that this earthly wisdom in conflict with Godly wisdom is very much alive and active in each of our lives.

The call of Christ is that we each give up our lives: death to sin and rebirth in Christ.  Our minds, very much conditioned by the wisdom of this world, respond…maybe it would be alright if I died a little bit, but not too much.  Compared to the wisdom of this world, God offers us his own inverse wisdom, a left-handed wisdom (Robert Capon) – a wisdom that requires we turn all of our carefully crafted lives upside down to follow the radical path of Christ.  That inverse wisdom is no place clearer than in the cross of Christ; where might and power do not save the world, but only meekness and death.  Inverse wisdom.

This wisdom contrast is again proclaimed a bit further on in the gospel.  Jesus switches to a prayer of thanks that begins with this: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”  As someone who has spent over 10 years of my adult life in some form of higher education, this can be a challenging thing to hear! Yet this is what we are called to as Christians, because it is only in the innocence of a small child that we can truly see the gift that God offers to each of us. Young children understand – When people are dancing, it is time to dance.  When people are mourning, it is time to mourn.

This inverse wisdom of God confronts the wisdom of the world, and that is nowhere more true than in our need for security.  The world’s wisdom demands that we build careful frameworks in order to secure a certain future which we cannot predict.  The wisdom of this world bombards us with a message of scarcity and anxiety – which contrasts strongly with God’s message of abundance for all.  We are told many times per day that we need to grab on to all that we can or we won’t get our fair share. (cf Walter Bruggemann, The Litany of Scarcity) This quest for security was presented in Luke’s Gospel (Ch 12) in the parable of the rich farmer.  He has a great harvest and builds new barns for all his goods, so he can retire and take it easy.  As he sits back in his Laz-y-boy recliner with his feet up – do you recall what happened next? // God arrives and makes one of those incredibly difficult pronouncements: ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’  The wisdom of the world versus the inverse wisdom of God.

What this inverse wisdom of God asks us to give up is the lie that we can control our destiny and our lives.  Certainly we can influence things, by eating well, exercising, practicing stress management…but none of us know the day when we or our family members will die or be involved in a horrible accident.  This leaves us with a choice – the way of God’s inverse wisdom, and the child’s approach to life knowing that the new day will bring the sun, breakfast and a new set of adventures // or the wisdom of this world which tells us to worry endlessly to compass ourselves with anxiety and to work to maintain our safety.

Jesus moves on to next talk about taking up the yoke of Christ.  A yoke is a beam that is used with animals or people in order that they may bear a load, or pull a plough. Seeking such security by our own efforts and the sweat of our own brow is to accept onto our shoulders the yoke of the world’s uncertainty.  Following the way of the world’s wisdom is to bind ourselves to worry and anxiety.

Now, just to step back a moment, this message of not taking on ourselves the yoke of the world does not mean that we never plan, or think about danger, or take steps to mitigate possible dangers.  It does not mean we stop wearing seat belts, or installing smoke detectors, or asking our children to let us know where they are.  What it means is that we pass back to God the things we were never able to control in the first place, and refuse to take upon us the yoke of this world.

Christ’s request is that we take up the additional burden of Christ, an easy yoke and a light burden.  The Greek word used here for burden refers either to the loading up of a ship or a beast of burden, or figuratively to overburden someone with spiritual anxiety or an obligation to ceremony (Strong’s G5412).  There is no doubt Christ is discussing an additional burden to be taken on with his yoke, but the burden is a light one – which is what we’ll talk about in our home stretch.

Consider the promise of rest which proceeds that request to take up the yoke of Christ.  The Greek used there, “I will give you rest”, means to permit someone to cease from a labour in order to recover and regain strength.  It is interesting that many times when I hear this passage explained, it is suggested that Christ’s promise is to remove from us all of our earthly burdens.  That is not what is promised – the passage does not say I will remove from you the yoke of your burdens. Rather Jesus asks us to take on an additional yoke, his yoke, and he will give us rest for our souls. The reason carrying Christ’s yoke is a light burden, even while it demands of us that we die to sin to be reborn into Christ, is because of the way that Christ offers us that burden.  This is what makes this another narrative of God’s grace, even when we are in the midst of a road of suffering.

In 1993 I participated in the Nijmegen Marches in the area around Arnhem and Nijmegen in the Netherlands.  These marches have special significance for the Allied forces from WW II as this area was the site of the ill-fated operation “Market Garden” documented in the file “A Bridge Too Far”. The march is 4 days long, totals 160 km and military teams march in full military kit with 15 kg packs – what we used to call ‘fighting order’.  It requires a lot of physical stamina and mental focus – the final day I completed the marches with a stress fracture in my right foot..  Each day begins well before sunrise, and involves about 8 hours of fairly rapid walking through the humid heat of the day.

What does this have to do with our passage on rest?  Well, the image of what I have related concerning our burdens and Christ’s role reminds me of my experience in Nijmegan.  We would march for 13 or so kilometres and then come into a British rest area where we could bandage feet, fill canteens and eat slices of melon.  The first thing one did on entering the rest area was to drop our heavy packs and remove our boots…which was heavenly.  But, after a rest stop of 20 or so minutes, it was time to lace up your boots, shoulder the weight of your pack and head off for another 13 kilometres.

This is very much how I read this passage containing Christ’s words to us.  There is no promise that our burdens will be removed from us, but only that we will be given rest.  So we enter this rest stop in our life, are refreshed by Jesus, and then step out with the original burden along with Christ’s added yoke.  The next 13 km are still ours to push through in sweat, pain and perseverance under our burden but knowing that there is refreshment available for us. That truth has only been confirmed for me in the years since that marching, as I now bear the daily burden of chronic pain that ended my military career and continues to limit me. The one constant that keeps me going is that yoke of Christ, which brings meaning into the midst of my suffering.

I acknowledge that this is a difficult interpretation. We would much rather be healed in a blinding flash of light. But more often than not God does not free us from the burden of the long journeys of our lives, those 3-day roads we are called to walk.  What Jesus promises us is relief along the way, much as Elijah was given bread and water part way through his 40-day journey, so he would be strong enough to continue walking into the wilderness (1 Kings 19:7).  The Christian who suffers from serious disease or has horrific family problems such as abuse or addiction will not always be instantly freed from these burdens through faith or prayer.  A person who has lost a spouse or child suddenly, tragically and too young, will not mysteriously have everything restored – those burdens will be with them for the rest of their lives.  What they will have is renewal and support to guide, comfort and strengthen them in their suffering. Sometimes those burdens are ours to bear throughout our 3-day road, but it is the yoke of Christ transforms the burden.

How does Christ offer us God’s grace through this?  Here are four aspects that offer us true grace.  First, God favours the weak over the wise, arrogant or self-assured.  The place that God brings his greatest blessings upon us is not when we have completed an intense bible study, or an act of charity, but when we are brought into the full reality of our weakness and when we drop to our knees and call out, ‘I cannot take anymore, O Lord!’  Second, as Jesus proclaims, He is the true knower of God and has opened that previously closed path to all of us. Third, Jesus offers us rest for the burdens we carry, and a yoke that will continue to grant us that rest.  Finally, the reason we find that yoke easy is because we are not left alone to bear our life’s burdens, for Jesus continues to walk along with us, and continues to bring us the rest we so dearly need.

I want to emphasize that last point as it is the real nexus of the grace in this promise.  As a contrasting example, consider the physicians treating a gravely ill person.  They come and examine, offer their medical wisdom, prescribe treatments and interventions, make honest mistakes, and then leave at the end of their shift to return to their homes, their families and their own lives while the gravely ill person continues to bear their burden of sickness.  The radical difference in this invitation from Christ is that he not only offers us that rest, but remains with us and in fact invites us into his-self…for he is the physical and spiritual embodiment of that rest.  Jesus is not a rest-dispenser who provides measured doses of rest when we request, but the companion who invites us into his own and through that grants us the help we need continuously.  Jesus provides us a hiding place within himself that resolves both our burdens and our sin.  The final crucial difference between the rest of Christ and the world’s rest is that we have to seek out rest in this world whereas Christ pursues us and invites us into his rest even as we sometimes flee from his presence.  Christ does not wait until we meet some absolute conditions of membership, but asks that we come to him heavily laden and in need of rest, and promises relief and the continuing relief of his light burden and easy yoke. The reason carrying Christ’s yoke is a light burden – even while it demands of us that we die to sin to be reborn into Christ – is because of the way that burden is offered to us by Christ.  This is what makes this another narrative of God’s grace, even when we are in the midst of a three-day road of suffering.

Now, what we seek most often is the relief from our burdens: that is, the wisdom of this world tells us that true relief comes only if the burden is eliminated.  This is not God’s promise.  Christ does not promise us a removal of burden and a path to an earthly paradise where we will neither sweat nor labour anymore.  He does not, with a wave of His hand, convert this world of sorrows into a place of endless joy and delight.  All that waits for the final remaking of the world that comes with Christ’s glorious return. (as the Lutherans sing in their Eucharist, ‘grace our table with your presence and give us a foretaste of the feast to come’) a foretaste is what we receive in this world.  What Christ does demonstrate through his own life, is that our burdens can be light even while the associated suffering is heavy.  Accepting the yoke of Christ onto ourselves converts the heavy burden to the light; and provides us a perspective on our suffering that allows us to receive Christ as companion even as we struggle in the midst of that three-day road.  (ack here material drawn from articles “The Invitation”; “When the Burden is Light”; and “Anxiety and Despair” from the ebook “Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard” ed. Charles Moore, 2007 available at: http://data.plough.com/ebooks/Provocations.pdf)

Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4, summarizes this truth beautifully: 2 Cor 4:16-18 “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

That which we do not see, is the yoke of Christ and his companionship and support as we travel through our journey and “outwardly waste away”, while the yoke of Christ allows us to be inwardly “renewed day by day”.  Accept upon yourselves Christ’s yoke, and he will bring you rest, and will continue to bring you rest for your weary souls, for Christ’s burden is easy and his yoke is light. And that is truly good news!  Let us pray.

Father in heaven! Draw our hearts to you so that our longing may be where our treasure is supposed to be. Turn our minds and our thoughts to where our citizenship is – in your kingdom, so that when you finally call us away from here our leave-taking may not be a painful separation but a joyful union with you. We do not know the time and the place, perhaps a long road still lies before us, and when strength is taken away from us, when exhaustion fogs our eyes so that we peer out as into a dark night, and restless desires stir within us, wild, impatient longings, and the heart groans in fearful anticipation of what is coming, oh Lord God, fix in our hearts the conviction that also while we are living, we belong to you.  Amen. (Kierkegaard)

Rough and unused materials…

The Litany of Scarcity, http://therivardreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/the_liturgy_of_abundance.pdf

You may not know that I’m a person who lives with chronic pain, the result of an injury to my lower back that ended my military career.  One of the truths I’ve learned in the past ten years living with that pain is that the burden is very much defined by how I perceive it.  When I focus on the pain, and on the unfairness of that condition, and how it has limited me, the burden grows, quickly and considerably.  When I focus on living into each moment of each day in Christ, it is surprising how the burden becomes lighter and easier to bear.  I am certainly not a sterling example of how to bring this into reality, as I fall to my humanity more times than I would like to admit even to myself; however, it is an illustration of what Christ offers to all of us.

The other aspect of this dancing/mourning duality reflects the two ways that God deals with us.  The Gospel, the true freedom of Christ, the limitless joy that exists in a life lived in obedience to God’s will, these are all occasions of dancing.  There are also times of what Matthew Henry termed God’s, “calamitous, afflicting providences” which, while they occur, have been set beneath the joy of Christ and God’s grace and mercy.  This is challenging language, as it impacts directly upon our nature to seek only comfort and certainty, to build our storehouses well for the day we may sit back and enjoy the bounty that we have created.

The problem with that image of the self-filled barns is not only that it places our ability to obtain security above that of God’s providence.  But also that it involves the idolatry of stuff, and the lie that things of this world can bring us salvation…they can perhaps bring us comfort of a sort for a short time, but ultimately all things of this world will pass away so that comfort too will pass.  Only God’s providence provides a lasting source of certainty and sure security.  Again, this is the inverse wisdom of God.

One of my past commanding officers, had just spent six months in Haiti as the commander of the United Nations force working there.  He told the story of a life-changing encounter.  The city of Port-au-Prince is built on the side of the mountain with the wealthy homes high on the hill, and the destitute living in shacks in the shantytown in the valley below.  Poor so poor with that we likely cannot even conceive it here in Canada.  Most of the city’s sewers are open so, literally, the sewage flows down the hill into the valley.  Not a pretty picture.  On this day Don Matthews was in the valley and came across a man standing in the ditch.  The man was up to his waist in sewage and was shovelling the ditch clean.  Unimaginable.   Don stopped and asked him what he was doing.  The man answered through his translator-I’m working so my children can have a better life.  I am working so my children can have a better life.  Imagine, a man up to his waist in sewage speaking of a better life for his children.  I’m not going to attempt to spiritualize that image, except to say, behold the inverse wisdom of God at work.

“Laughing With”  Regina Spektor

No one laughs at God in a hospital, No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God, When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor

No one laughs at God, When the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one’s laughing at God, When it’s gotten real late
And their kid’s not back from the party yet

No one laughs at God, When their airplane start to uncontrollably shake
No one’s laughing at God, When they see the one they love, hand in hand with someone else, And they hope that they’re mistaken

No one laughs at God, When the cops knock on their door
And they say we got some bad news, sir
No one’s laughing at God, When there’s a famine or fire or flood

But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us
And they get so red in the head you think they’re ‘bout to choke
God can be funny, When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious

No one laughs at God in a hospital, No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God, When they’ve lost all they’ve got
And they don’t know what for

No one laughs at God on the day they realize
That the last sight they’ll ever see is a pair of hateful eyes
No one’s laughing at God when they’re saying their goodbyes
But God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us, And they get so red in the head you think they’re ‘bout to choke
God can be funny, When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious

No one laughs at God in a hospital, No one laughs at God in a war
No one laughs at God in a hospital, No one laughs at God in a war
No one laughing at God in hospital, No one’s laughing at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God when they’re starving or freezing or so very poor

No one’s laughing at God
No one’s laughing at God
No one’s laughing at God
We’re all laughing with God


Written by sameo416

July 8, 2017 at 2:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Omar Khadr

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A friend provided me with an article from the National Observer, discussing the question what if Omar Khadr was not guilty. Since about 2012 I’ve had my perspective transformed, mostly through interactions with the King’s University where my daughter was a student. King’s took on the Khadr case as a social justice advocacy at great risk to the institution, because they saw a holy calling in advocating for “the other”, as Omar had been designated by successive Canadian governments.

As a soldier, my first reaction to the case was visceral and violent, and reflects what many Canadians are saying now. He was a terrorist, why would we afford him any special consideration. Since early 2012 as I’ve followed the case, there are things which have troubled me deeply as both a soldier and a Christian. My attitude shift is reflected in two prior blog posts. My first where I was starting to realize that branding Omar as ‘the other’ was something I had preached against related to other people, and I was caught in my own worlds and re-convicted that my visceral reaction had been inconsistent with what I was teaching to others. Physician, heal thyself!

I do understand the military perspective, and feel it myself. When you have had friends killed by the actions of the enemy (as I have), it is challenging to see the enemy as human. That, I would argue, is the call of anyone who is a person of faith, or even a secular humanist.

Discussing the other in My first post

Discussing a talk by Omar’s military psychiatrist that was convicting in Second post

The case is exceptionally complex and involves national and international legal provisions that are beyond understanding except for experts. If you are truly interested in engaging the facts of the case (as you should before pontificating on the subject publicly) there is a lot of reading to do, and all of it will be morally and ethically challenging. There’s also the reality that our Supreme Court has found in Omar’s favour several times.

I just recalled being interviewed about the work of some of the King’s faculty with Omar, but never read the article until just now.

“What I particularly value about Arlette in our community is her witness to gospel imperatives,” adds Rev. Matthew Oliver. “Whether you agree with the particular focus of her work with Omar or not, she presents a compelling icon of a Christian struggling to make a gospel-centred witness in the world.” 

That article is interesting – I was at the Diocesan synod when Arlette spoke, and she did get a standing ovation from most people. Several of the people at my table refused to stand, and said they could not support advocacy for a ‘terrorist’. What was really fascinating was several of those people were also advocates for performing same-sex marriages in our denomination. So a clear example of what I was outlining in the first blog post (above) about “the other”. It is clear that we are often guilty of welcoming some others, and condemning others dependent on our personal like or dislike of the person or the situation. That is normally called hypocrisy (If you argue the love of Christ welcomes all, as my table-mates did that day; but then condemn Omar Khadr as unworthy of advocacy or basic human rights…I would suggest that’s a dictionary definition of hypocrisy. The knife of acceptance in love cuts both ways, and resists attempts to apply human limits).

In response to a question I wrote the following, which I think briefly outlines where I’m sitting on the question today.

The whole Omar case is a mess of unlawful actions by governments. I’m friends with one of his support team and have met Dennis Edny and been at one of his presentations…and I hosted the US Army psychiatrist who treated Omar when he was here for a presentation. All to say I have a different perspective than the loudest Canadian voices (including most of my old military friends who are outraged). He also attended my daughter’s university for the last year (King’s University).

It’s pretty clear to me that the US altered the reporting, and the best evidence is the original after-action report from the company commander who was there. The photos are pretty clear that Omar was buried, and I would guess that was probably consistent with the effects of either an airstrike or use of artillery (light infantry would likely not be using weapons that would produce rubble adequate to bury someone). He also had a wound in his leg (from the air strikes) that made him unable to stand. The best he could have done was thrown the grenade kneeling. As someone who has thrown grenades, it is hard standing and requires you use your whole body – can’t imagine doing that kneeling. So the article is quite accurate in stating that if this had come into a real court, there is no way he would have been found guilty.

Also note the lack of all forensic evidence. The grenade fragments that killed the US soldier could have positively confirmed what type of grenade it was.

Omar’s psychiatrist commented that the assault on the compound was completely incompetently done which I would be inclined to agree with. A handful of people inside, and 100 soldiers with air support assaulted the compound for 4 hours? That sounds not like an effective assault, so the US had some reason to alter the facts.

Worst of all was the US declaration that all combatants in Afghanistan were legally ‘unlawful non-combatants’. They did that specifically to strip Geneva Convention protection from prisoners, and to allow them to criminally charge prisoners under military law. That was done retroactively so the US could torture and prosecute people at Gitmo. It is all highly unlawful and would not stand up in any real court. That’s the reason Omar has won 3 times at the Supreme Court of Canada, in spite of the Canadian government fighting him with all it’s ability. The US also denied him medical care in Gitmo, which has only been resolved in the last year or so in Canada (he’s had surgery to both his shoulder and his eye).

As a soldier, the US actions in that declaration are really troubling. I knew that my troops and I would always be afforded good treatment under the law of war – no torture, medical care, adequate protection and food and shelter. That law is designed to take a fundamentally inhumane activity and put in place basic guarantees. By suspending that law (which is a highly questionable action), the US stripped their opponents of what international law says are fundamental rights, even for irregular soldiers (although the Taliban was arguably an organized fighting force, closer to a military than civilians). That is a fundamental attack on the rights of a soldier, and I would argue transformed the war on terror into a fundamentally immoral activity. (Omar’s psychiatrist suggested this all started with George W Bush’s ‘the gloves are off’ speech, as he authorized the use of unlimited force which is never, never done in a first world military).

Another victim in this is the wife of the US soldier who was killed. She has been led to believe her husband was ‘murdered’ by Kadhr by her own government as a political tool. (although how a soldier can be murdered in combat is equally confusing and another example of the US twisting international law).

Final point. Although Omar was 15 at the time (one year older than the UN guidelines for child soldiers), he was a child soldier and a Canadian citizen. Both should have afforded him special protection. The actions of both Canadian governments involved tell me that Canadian citizenship is no guarantee of protection if the government decides you are undeserving. Giving a citizen up to be tortured by a foreign nation is evil – as happened with Maher Arar – and is a pretty clear example of institutional racism. It’s not surprising to me as it reflects the Canadian government’s treatment of indigenous citizens for the last 500 years or so. They are fighting court cases today to limit social services funding for indigenous children in spite of being found to be a discriminatory practice by the federal human rights tribunal, and that’s just one of many examples. There are something like 3 times the number of indigenous children in the care of the state today than were ever in the Residential School system. Canada is sometimes not a safe place to be depending on your racial identity!

Other reality – if Omar had gone through the court case for damages, it is likely the government would have been ordered to pay a much larger settlement. What price is 10 years of torture worth?

Stephen Harper posted a commentary today about how he feels for the family of the US medic. Sigh. Maher Arar tweeted yesterday that the clearest manifestation of white supremacy is when the US invades a country and labels all the opposition as ‘terrorists’. It permits all sorts of immoral activities.

A really good interview with Dennis Edny on CBC Ideas where he talks about the last 15 years. He is a man of rare moral character.


Written by sameo416

July 8, 2017 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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