"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Remembrance Sermon 2017

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Equitas Society held a press conference on 9 November about pensions and soldier suicides.

an addendum comment on lump sum vs lifetime pensions from my experience:

The pre-Veterans Charter (2006) Pension Act disabled soldier was entitled to a life-time indexed disability pension. The NVC brought in lump-sum payments, which means soldiers injured in the same way, in the same war, receive different benefits. The benefits are dramatically different in terms of the pension amount. My “low” impairment of just over 30%, assuming I live to 80, will pay me more than twice the lump sum that Maj (ret’d) Campbell received as a double amputee.

As a guy that worked with WCB lump sum payments and the actuarial calculation behind those sum, I have to say there is only one reason to switch to lump sum payments – to limit liability for the insurer. That’s the reason almost all WCBs in Canada transitioned to lump sums.

Actuarial calculations assume a lower lump sum based on ‘future value of money’ giving you an equivalent pay out as a lifetime pension. Only problem is you have to live off the lump sum while you’re investing it. The net impact is less dollars to the disabled, and the complete transfer of risk to the wounded soldier. If your investments tank, there’s no recalculation or top up, you carry all the risk.

I was challenged on my assertion that child welfare services unjustly pull Indigenous kids from homes at a much higher rate than settler children. The numbers are plain that this is factual. The argument was many of them were justified. That may be true, but it’s also correct that the colonial system continues to impose unreasonable standards on Indigenous parents that settler parents are not expected to meet. A good recent paper on the phenomena: “Turning a new page: cultural safety, critical creative literary interventions, truth and reconciliation, and the crisis of child welfare” My point was to ask people to be open to having their ‘comfortable dispensations’ challenged, as lots of our assumptions about the world are incorrect and need to be revised.


Remembrance Sunday, 12 November 2017, SJE Micah 4:1-4; Matthew 24:1-14; Psalm 2

We are pausing for a moment today as a community of faith to consider those who have suffered the violence of conflict and warfare.  Our national day of Remembrance is specifically focused on the memory of soldiers, but as Christians our call is broader as we are to intercede for the entire suffering of the creation.  I usually preach on this day at St John’s, partly because of twenty years of service as a soldier in Canada’s air force (not a chaplain), but also because of my own life-long engagement with the intersection between faith and violence and the cost of that violence.  Through the grace of God and this community, I’ve also been progressively working through the impact of military service on my life, as I seek God’s grace in that question of how violence shaped me.  These remembrance sermons are never easy to deliver, because it involves me opening parts of my life I would rather not deal with, and the evocation of memories that are more comfortable when forgotten.

What I will not do is to attempt to give you absolute answers to some challenging questions…some Christians believe quite strongly that being a person of faith is entirely incompatible with being a soldier or a peace officer. All I can tell you is how much of my faith was formed in the crucible of military service…sure I’ve done a bunch of schooling and learned lots of fancy terms and theology, but the actual day-to-day hard work of being a Christian in a sometimes hostile world and of being a priest…well, that I learned through my formation as a soldier.  In particular, my time in uniform left me with a visceral theology of suffering, in fact, it is what keeps me going as a person who still bears the chronic pain and permanent disability of military injuries. This experience of service, like for first responders or police, reflects that those encounters often leave enduring marks on the person. For me it is in the experience of chronic pain, for others it is suffering that continues long after the guns have fallen silent.

This past month I’ve read two books by soldiers who continue to struggle with PTSD. One is Romeo Dallaire’s book, Waiting for First Light. The title is a powerful image for a soldier – first light is the most likely time for an attack, but it is also a sign that you have survived to see the dawn of another day. For Dallaire, he still lives very much in tension and each day is a struggle to survive. The second book is a bit closer to home, Among the Walking Wounded: Soldiers, Survival and PTSD by Colonel John Conrad. John and I went through undergraduate training together in the military college system. These accounts of suffering are compounded by the ever-present parallel account of how little support those soldiers have received from the organization that should be devoted to their health: Veterans Affairs and the Government of Canada.

It was announced just a month ago that finally, Veterans Affairs is going to begin tracking soldier suicides that occur after release from the military. It is thought that 130 veterans of Afghanistan have committed suicide. And now, years after the end of the combat mission, we’re going to start tracking soldier suicides so we can keep accurate statistics. Thanks to the Globe and Mail for highlighting these hidden war dead for the last few years, in its continuing series titled, “The Unremembered”. This turnabout by the military and the government was after insisting for years (as recently as 2011) that there was no increased rate of suicide among soldiers returning from deployment.[1]

The week leading up to this national act of remembrance is always a rough one for me. It’s a reflective time for soldiers, because we think about our experiences, our friends and coworkers who did not come home, and wonder why we were the lucky ones…even while many bear continued psychological wounds from their service. The reality of today’s military is that our soldiers face exceptional stresses as they encounter situations of immense ethical ambiguity: asymmetric warfare, genocide and child soldiers. It reflects an increasingly broken world, and in spite of our great knowledge and wisdom, we are more in need of Christ’s salvation than ever before – we simply cannot get it right.

We hear Jesus foretelling of the end times, this time after his disciples observe how grand and immense the temple complex was and wonder why Jesus does not share their amazement. In fact he turns their impressed attitude around by telling them that every stone would be displaced in the time to come. This is a powerful message for us to receive and particularly to be paid attention to whenever we begin to marvel at the signs of this age. As another person proclaims, look at this culture, look at all we’ve achieved, Jesus again points us to himself by saying, not one stone will remain upon another. This is a powerful and prophetic caution against the idolatry which appears to be the natural resting place for our hearts, to presume that our works will be what saves the world.

That caution is important as we consider Micah’s message, for sometimes the church has fallen into the trap of believing that we will be able to bring about the transformation of weapons of war into farm implements through our work. If we could spread the Gospel far enough, peace would break out everywhere! But, that’s the same trap of idolatry as standing in awe of the Temple. It is good to remember that the church has been highly complicit in horrors throughout human past, the sexual abuse scandals and the Residential Schools are only the most recent for us in Canada. An apology for the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was issued earlier this year.[2] I could go on. The physical church is composed of frail humans and apart from the mystical reality that links us to each other and Christ, the reality of humans in the equation means we will likely mess things up eventually. In fact, the only thing we hear clearly from Jesus in this discourse is his charge to be sober, level-headed, clear-thinking and warming loving.[3]

This is one of the reasons I’m not surprised when the social structures designed to protect people instead turn into structures which harm. We like to think we’ve left the Residential Schools saga behind us, except seizure of Indigenous children by the state is still commonplace.[4] It’s not called a Residential School anymore, but the impact is the same, children removed from their families. We remove one unjust structure and it is invariably replaced by another in a different form, almost as if we can’t avoid repeating the same mistakes again.

Jesus goes on in the discourse to provide a list of warnings for what will be coming. We are to watch out for tricks, to not be terrified at the noise and news of wars, to not be surprised when we are arrested, killed and hated by the nations because of devotion to His name. We are to beware of false prophets who arise to lead many astray, and the rise of lawlessness which will cause the love of many to grow cold. Our call is to stick with it to the end, to endure and to keep watch. We need to be particularly cautious because those false teachers will invariably come from within the church, and will come with the self-assuredness that they are the only true Christians left. This is another of those warning signs to us, that as soon as we start to feel like we’re the only real Christian left in the world, we are starting down that path of idolatry. That path characterised by placing as first importance not care for others, but the assertion that only this person, only this false prophet, retains a grasp of the true faith and what is truly essential to that faith. That false message will be compelling and attractive, and may very well be backed up with signs and wonders.

By contrast, the way of Jesus Christ is the way of the suffering servant, the man of sorrows who gives all, for all, with no expectation of anything in return except condemnation. If we are looking for a path to follow in confusing times, this is it. This is strongly contrary to the message of this world which shouts to us that unless we do it ourselves, we will end up slipping behind and losing what little we have. It is an important perspective to remember in this season of remembrance because the church has not always been a safe place for soldiers, who sometimes experience rejection or condemnation because of our conclusion that they had engaged in an immoral and anti-Christ activity. That is never the call of Christ, and to slip into a place of judgement which places some outside the umbrella of Christ’s redeeming act is exactly what we are being cautioned against doing. Such judgement displaces Jesus, and instead places us on the judge’s seat determining who is and who is not permitted to be holy.

This is not to say that we should slip into the equally dangerous terrain of aligning the church with the state in support of the military. We are called to stand outside the power structures to call everyone to a different way of being, but that way of being has at its core love, which means never working to exclude any person as being unworthy of the love of Christ and never assuming that we can fix things through our advocacy. Bishop NT Wright sets out that we have lost our way as a radical community of alternative action, and instead become a place of good advice instead of good news:

In many churches, the good news has subtly changed into good advice: Here’s how to live, they say. Here’s how to pray. Here are techniques for helping you become a better Christian, a better person, a better wife or husband. And in particular, here’s how to make sure you’re on the right track for what happens after death. Take this advice: say this prayer and you’ll be saved. You won’t go to hell; you’ll go to heaven. Here’s how to do it.  This is advice, not news.

What sort of faith is it that can answer a soldier’s need for peace and forgiveness? The same sort of faith that allows me to continue daily while living with physical pain. It is a faith that promises the inversion of all there is, as it is converted into the perfect creation. It is a faith that says the one path to true rebirth necessarily leads through death – which is why the world can only be saved by Christ once it has necessarily died.

Christ does not come to fix the universal folly of this world by using the tools of this world: as if by rewriting our mission and vision statements we could somehow change the fundamental nature of the human heart! Instead, Christ comes to save the world by allowing it to first fall into its death, and then bringing about the resurrection which can only take place from the place of the dead. This is perhaps the church’s greatest misdirection in the first world, is that we believe by being better organized, or having just the right fundraising campaign, or adopting business principles to guide our operations is the path to finally, finally get it right after all our failures. What that guarantees is that we will continue to pretend that we are really alive, which is the place we are most comfortable. Salvation does not come when you finally get your act together; instead it becomes possible when you accept that the only path to resurrection is when you can admit that you are fully and truly dead.

The reason the Body of Christ acts with charity and love is not because those things are going to gradually fix the world, but because we are called to love all even in the midst of tribulations, of wars and rumours of wars. We do not do it because we have faith in the ability of humanity to get it right this time, when we know that history paints a different picture. This is something else that our remembrance day should remind us of in stark terms, for there has never been a time of peace for all. While we of the first world are terrified at the thought of a possible mass shooting, we forget that at any given time there are large portions of the world are living that as a daily reality. If the church believes that anything else – politics, spirituality, exemplary moral behaviour – is able to save the world, it becomes just another false prophet that points the way away from Christ.

But we fall into the trap of externalizing non-holiness constantly as a corporate church, as we point the finger away from ourselves to identify external sources of sin. The Anglican Church of Canada released a study package on money last year. You probably won’t see it as a teaching resource here, because the package is all about those who perpetuate the cycles of financial oppression. There is no irony intended in the package’s failure to point the figure back out of the page at the reader – because it is nearly impossible to be a first-world consumer and not to perpetuate financial oppression somewhere. And the package lets you off the hook by externalizing the person it is speaking of as the 3rd person, not the 1st person holding the document and reading it, invariably in a warm house on a safe street with no hunger or illness to content with. An example I’ve used previously is the ‘blood cobalt’ used in all of our smart phones and electronics. The blind spot is in our easy externalization of sin, to someone who is apart from us personally, and apart from our community.

So the question for we Christians as we engage in an act of national remembrance is not so much prayer for ‘those soldiers’ or ‘those war dead’ or for ‘the enemy’ or for ‘those who have suffered’, but prayer for ourselves for transformation so that we can stop being participants in a world that is predicated on violence, so that we can stop being agents of violence ourselves. The second caution in national remembrance is to not fall into the trap of externalizing that violence to a distant land, or a distant war, for that same violence is taking place right now, right here, in broken relationships, in destructive business relationships, in encounters with others who are created in God’s image where we seek not to see Christ, but instead to use power to get what it is we want from that person.

I’ll close with an ecumenical confession written by Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf as to our true allegiance as Christians – to Christ alone by His blood:

“You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

One in Christ.  All of churches of Jesus Christ, scattered in diverse cultures, have been redeemed for God by the blood of the Lamb to form one multicultural community of faith. The “blood” that binds them as brothers and sisters is more precious than the “blood,” the language, the customs, political allegiances, or economic interests that may separate them.

We reject the false doctrine, as though a church should place allegiance to the culture it inhabits and the nation to which it belongs above the commitment to brothers and sisters from other cultures and nations, servants of the one Jesus Christ, their common Lord, and members of God’s new community.[5]

Amen

[1] https://sameo416.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/soldiers-give-up-their-rights-so-they-can-risk-their-lives/ You can find the 2011 expert report through the link on that page.

[2] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/pope-apologises-church-role-rwanda-genocide-170320132113667.html

[3] Bruner, Matthew Commentary, p. 475

[4] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/cfs-seizes-a-manitoba-newborn-a-day-first-nations-advocate-says-1.3211451

[5] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 53-4.

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Written by sameo416

November 11, 2017 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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