Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Sermon for Sunday, 22 July, 2007

A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Grace and St. George’s at St. Ansgar’s Lutheran Church, 22 July, 2007

Jesus Visits Martha and MaryNow as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Luke 10:38-42

I had the pleasure of preaching this at St. Ansgar's Lutheran Church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) last Sunday. This is the second year that our parishes (St. Ansgar's and Grace/St. George's) have gotten together for worship in the summer in the spirit of the Waterloo Declaration.

One of the great pleasures of summertime is visiting friends, and what better way is there to visit with friends than to eat with them? I am sure that the reason we Anglicans are back with you today is because of the wonderful ice cream you treated us to after the service last year! Today I want to talk about our gospel lesson and what it says about hospitality, our relationships to one another, and our relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ. Our gospel confronts us with the question, do put God first in our lives, or do we put ourselves first?

The other night friends dropped over for desert, which we enjoyed in the warm breeze on our deck. Our friends had brought their trademark ice-cream bar desert with carmel sauce, much to the delight of my teenage daughter. We offered a jello with fresh strawberries that my wife Kay and I had picked at Heemans last month. And of course, coffee. We had a wonderful evening, and our friends insisted we keep the ice cream (no argument from my daughter) while we insisted they take the remaining strawberries (only a token argument on our friends' part). Part of the pleasure of this exchange was the knowledge of how the care that went into the preparation of the food. Would the visit have gone as well if our friend hadn't worked in her kitchen, if we hadn't made the trip out to Heemans and spent an hour in the field, if I hadn't tidied the deck and put out extra chairs, and if my daughter hadn't set the table? We might have sat around for two hours over an empty table and chatted, but the visit would have been lacking in warmth and hospitality.

Today's gospel, the visit of Jesus to the home of Martha and Mary, is often understood as a lesson urging us to be less busy and more quiet. The church has traditionally talked about business and quietness in terms of the Active Life, our normal lives in the world, and the Contemplative Life, which is chosen by monastics or by laypeople who chose to go on retreats or who try and find quiet times of prayer and meditation. Mary, who choses to spend time at Jesus' feet listening to his teaching, is often said to exemplify the Contemplative Life, while poor Martha who resents working alone in the kitchen, is said to embody the Active Life. This kind of reading ends with a simple moral, that we spend more quiet time in our prayer lives, like Mary, and less time with the matters of the world, like Martha.

The only problem with such a reading, I fear, is that it doesn't work, especially in churches. As I'm sure that Pastor Elina would agree with me, a successful church needs its Marthas. Our Marthas cater funeral lunches and organize choir practices and prepare bulletins and tend the church building and cook outreach dinners and do a hundred other things that allows a church's ministry to continue. Indeed, being a Martha is a valid ministry for many Christians. Without these people we pastors, who usually make very poor Marthas, would flounder. We depend on Marthas to make things happen and keep us organized.

By the same token, if my family and our guests had not acted as Marthas the other night, we would have had a pretty thin time of it. We might have gathered around an empty table for prayer and bible study, and no doubt the Holy Spirit would have come into our midst, but there would have been something lacking in our welcome and in our friendship. As you Lutherans know very well, God invented coffee and baking to get people to come to bible studies.

If we look at the first line of today's gospel I think we see it's theme stated quite clearly: "a woman named Martha welcomed [Jesus] into her home" (Lk 10:35). The word "welcome" is an important one in scripture, especially in Luke. You might remember that two weeks ago, we heard in Luke's gospel how Jesus sent out the seventy, and told them "Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you" (Lk 10:8). In such places and in such moments, Jesus tells his followers, "the kingdom of God has come near" (Lk 10:11). So clearly welcoming another person and caring for their needs is part of our relationship both to one another and to God. Many of our parishioners at Grace and St. George's learned the truth of this when we participated in the Out of the Cold meal program at St. John the Evangelist's church in London. So clearly we can't fault Martha for busying herself to welcome the Master.

Neither, I think, can we fault Mary, "who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying" (Lk 10:39), despite what her sister might say. What's interesting about this passage is not the description of what Jesus was saying (indeed, Luke does not report a single word of Jesus' teaching) but rather Luke's description of how Mary listens to it. As others have noted, Mary's posture is submissive in the best sense of the word, putting Jesus and his teaching above all else going on around her. Again, if we look back to Luke 10, Mary embodies the kind of faithful obedience that Jesus tells the seventy to look for. Jesus' instructions "say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you'" (Lk 10:9). Jesus knows that the kingdom of heaven can only come near when there are ears that want to hear and hearts that want to be changed. Hospitality, making someone welcome in the Lord’s name, thus come to stand for an openness to God's word and a willingness to place one's self entirely under the direction of God.

Meanwhile, we can imagine Martha banging her pots and stomping around in the kitchen, as angry cooks do, until she finally loses it to storm out and confront Jesus. Luke describers her as being "distracted by her many tasks". What does this mean? I know by some experience that when my wife is cooking she does not welcome being distracted. Typically she is concentrating on juggling three or four things at once so everything can finish cooking together. When I come in to the kitchen and say something inconsequential to distract her, she does not take it kindly! Somehow I don't think this is the kind of distraction that is bothering Martha. Martha lacks the submission to Christ, both physical and spiritual, that her sister is showing.

Have you ever heard the expression, "It's all about me?" Look at Martha's words to Jesus and you'll see that attitude on display. Look at how often she uses the first person pronoun: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself ? Tell her then to help me" (Lk 10:40). Martha's words reveal her basic self-centeredness. She may call Jesus Lord but clearly her plans and her place in the house are more important than finding out what Jesus' plans and her place in his kingdom might be. There is a place for the first-person in prayer, but it should always be balanced with an awareness of God, as in the beloved prayer of St. Francis, “make me a channel of your peace”.

When our Lectionary works, it can work very well. Take a minute to think back to our second reading, from Colossians. What does Colossians say about this visitor who has come to dwell under the humble roof of Martha and Mary? St. Paul says this:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Col 1:15-20)

This is truly a portrait of Christ as the Alpha and Omega. How can Mary, or how can any of us, put ourselves first and still call ourselves followers of He who has “first place in everything” (Luke 10:18). And when we try, as best we can, to understand this incredible cosmic power that has come together as a human visitor, we have to wonder in gratitude at how gently he corrects Martha and opens her eyes to her “Me First” attitude.

“There is need of only one thing”, Jesus says. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." What does Jesus mean by this? Let me return to St. Paul to answer this question. In Colossians Paul writes that Jesus has come to “reconcile all things” and “make peace” by rescuing us “ who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col 1:21). There are all sorts of “evil deeds” and some of them seem quite innocuous. Martha, angrily banging pots and pans in the kitchen, is a warning to all of us who put our own importance and our own just deserts ahead of what we owe to God. Jesus’ words to Martha are an act of reconciliation, drawing Martha out of her hostility and drawing her into the peace and presence of God.

We in our ordinary churches and in our humble homes are incredibly privileged to share these spaces with Jesus Christ, the Lord of Creation. He who has “first place in everything”, comes under our roofs, graciously wishing to know us and dwell with us. How will we know him and welcome him? It is not a question of praying more and working less. A church whose members wear out their knees in prayer but never bothers with hospitality and fellowship would be sadly lacking in its relationship with God because we would never experience God in life as it is meant to be lived, including laughter, friendship and rich deserts! At the same time, a church that delighted in social events, but whose members never bothered with prayer and bible study, also fails because it would be like a body without a head, never knowing the one in whose name it gathers. There is a time or us to be Marthas, and a time for us to be Marys, but always, always, we must ask ourselves, do we invite our Lord Jesus Christ to have first place in everything we do? May we always be churches that put God first, may we always be churches were our Lord is “pleased to dwell”.


©Michael Peterson+ 2007

A Sermon for Sunday, July 15th, 2007

A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Grace and St. George’s, 15 July, 2007

The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
(Luke 10:25-37)

I love preaching on the parable of the Good Samaritan, though as with any well-beloved text, it can be hard to approach it with fresh eyes, or to find ways for it to be heard with fresh ears. I owe two of the illustrations in this sermon to one of the great preachers, Thomas G. Long.

Have you ever heard of Wesley Autrey? He is a fifty-year old construction worker in New York City. One day this January of this year, he was on a subway platform with his two young daughters when a man beside him had a seizure and fell onto the tracks. Down the tracks were the lights of a train coming into the station. As Autrey said later, “I had to make a split decision”. So Wesley Autrey jumped down, and covered the man’s body, pressing him down into a one-foot trough between the tracks. Five cars passed over them, with so little clearance that the train left grease on Autrey’s knit cap. Neither man was injured, though the man with the seizure was taken to hospital and Autrey visited him there before going to work.

People like Wesley Autrey don’t come along everyday, but when they do, the question is always asked of them, why would take such risks to help a stranger?. When Autrey was asked this question, he told the media, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.” Autrey may not think he’s a hero, but I think that most of us would say that he is one.

Forget about jumping in front of subway trains for a moment. The fact is that many of us do far less when the risks are far less. Why is it that more people don’t give blood, when the only cost is some discomfort and an hour or less of our time? Why don’t more people take the time and spend the money to learn CPR or First Aid? Why don’t more people stop to help a stranded motorist? Would young people give time for community service if the school system did not require it of them? The phenomenon of altruism, helping another person when there is no advantage or reward at stake, is such that psychologists have devoted considerable effort to try and understand it. It’s interesting that these psychologists often use the word “samaritanism” interchangeable with “altruism”, and their results show that Good Samaritans can be as rare today as they were when Jesus first told this parable two thousand years ago.

In 1973 two psychologists did a famous study involving theological students at Princeton Seminary. Some students were asked to go to another building to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Some students were told they had lots of time, others were told that they had to hurry between buildings. What the students did not know what that the study’s organizers had arranged for a man to lie in their path, not moving except for some coughs and groans.

How do you think these future ministers did in putting these words of Jesus into action? As you might expect, it depended on how much time the students had. The ones who had time to spare were more likely to stop and help, but those who had little time were far less likely to help. One student even stepped over the man’s body on his way to give his talk on the Good Samaritan. The organizers of the study concluded that people are far less likely to help others when there is a cost to them and they have to make a sacrifice. Other studies, done in airports on or on trains, also show what we might expect, that not everyone has it in them to be a Good Samaritan, even when it requires far less heroism than was showed by Wesley Autrey.

Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan for the benefit of a man who wants to live a godly and pious life. This man knows that God wants him to love his neighbour as much as he loves himself, but he only has one question. What exactly does that word neighbour mean? Are there exceptions? The parable gives a clear answer. If a Samaritan, whose people had no love for Jews and vice versa, could help a Jew from Jerusalem when the Jew’s own holy men would not, then there are no exceptions. Everyone is a neighbour. Anyone in need is a neighbour. Jesus ends the parable by telling the man to put it into practice. “Go and do likewise”.

The preacher Tom Long offers us some helpful advice on how to hear this familiar story with new ears. He notes that this parable is often understood as a moral example. Jesus talks about the Samaritan, and says “He cared for someone in need; I want you to imitate him. Go and do likewise." There are two problems with this approach. First, as we saw with Wesley Autrey, being a Good Samaritan is hard, which is why there are so few of them. Second, if Jesus was just giving a moral example about being helpful to strangers, why did he put all the Samaritan stuff in there? Why are the first two men pillars of the Jewish community, while the man who actually helps is a despised foreigner? As Long reminds us, the story is rather like a Christian pastor and a policeman ignoring an injured person, while a person from Al Qaeda stops and helps.

Clearly Jesus is making the point that our religious beliefs and practices do not automatically make us better people. A case in point came to my mind after Jeremy Robson and I (both history geeks) were talking about Ontario’s black communities that were founded by refugees from the underground railway. As you know, one of these communities was Wilberforce, near Clandeboye, an area known for its staunch Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. As you know, these communities had no love for one another in the 1800s, but one thing they had in common was a dislike of these black refugees. Jeremy was telling me that the whites were worried about their property values and required their new black neighbours to plant gardens and erect picket fences, with the unexpected result that the black homes often looked better than those of whites.

Clearly this example of religous people behaving badly, and others one could think of (religious sanction of killing of Tutsis in Rwanda, pro-apartheid preachers in South Africa, some white churches during the Civil Rights era in the US) show that Good Samaritanism goes against our grain as human beings. Our innate weakness, our human sin, prevents us from simply taking a moral example to heart. Tom Long points out that the story of the Good Samaritan is told BY the ultimate Good Samaritan. Jesus, himself an outcast, despised by those who should know better. Jesus knows how wounded we are by sin and by our hostility to God, and by taking us into his crucified arms, he restores us.

Some psychologists think that we are most likely to be altruistic, to be generous, when people are generous to us. In other words, being a good samaritan is not something we can pull out of ourselves by sheer moral willpower, but rather it comes from some kindness that we have ourselves received. As Christians we understand this idea because we have received the ultimate kindness of Christ’s love to us. Jesus does not ask that we be good, he merely asks us to receive his goodness and let it flow through us to our neighbour.

When I think of Christians who show this in action I think of people like Mother Theresa, but I also think of those who I can more readily understand and pattern myself on. I think of my friend Nancy, who teaches ESL to Moslem immigrants in her London neighbourhood. Now Nancy is a bible-quoting evangelical, and some Anglicans might call her a fundamentalist, but Nancy does not try to convert the women she teaches. She just helps them because she knows that they are her neighbours. I think of the different churches who run the meal program at St. John the Evangelist in London, or my fellow board members and the volunteers at the Ailsa Craig Food Bank, and I thank God that they know who their neighbours are. So let us thank God that we do not have to choose who are neighbours are, because Jesus did not choose who he would die for. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, to the end that all who believed in him might not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Let me finish today with these beautiful words of prayer from Tom Long:

O God,
When we are honest about ourselves, we know that we do not choose in our own strength to do what is right. We talk a good game about right and wrong, but we do not have the wisdom or the power in ourselves to be righteous. We lie helpless on the side of the road, and even our best moral instincts pass us by on the other side. Come to us, O God, come to us again in Jesus Christ. Lift us out of our brokenness and take us to the place of healing. Prone to wander, Lord, we feel it, prone to leave the God we love; Here's my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above. Amen.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Sevastapol Skirmish - A Wargames Report

Saturday, July 21st we had another go at the Troops, Weapons and Tactics (TW&T) skirmish rules by Too Fat Lardies. I acted as referee, and chose a Russian Front battle as I had long wanted to use my 20mm Soviet Naval Infantry. I've had these for years, but never actually gamed with them. Soviet naval infantry were not Marines as the US and the UK know them, but were mostly guys taken off sunk or underused ships and given infantry weapons. Wargamers like them because they wore distinctive black sailors uniforms and stand out amid the drab Soviet hordes.

The scenario was as follows, and since I know very little I know about the battle of Sevastapol (1941-42) was mostly made up. A Red Army blocking force at Perikop has been overrun, and a German reconaissance platoon has been rushed south to seize a key ridge overlooking the northern suburbs of the port, where the Soviets are digging in. The German troops are good veterans. Their OC is Leutnant Holle, a young replacement officer (Big Man 2) with two good sergeants (Big Men 3). Because the Germans are stretched to the limit, their vehicles are prone to breakdown. German order of battle: 2 rifle sections each with light machine gun, one in an armoured Sdkfz 251/1 halftrack, the other in an Opel truck. Supporting them is a Panzer II light tank. A third section in a captured Russian truck has broken down and was left behind, in hopes that it would catch up soon. Holle's orders are to take the hill if possible, and at least contain the Russians and identify their composition and position until his division can catch up and launch a hasty attack before nightfall. James and Scott took the Germans.

The Russians are inexperienced green infantry who were doing basic training in the naval training school two weeks earlier, before being hastily formed into an infantry battalion. Their platoon commander, Leytenant Tatarin, had been teaching a torpedo course at the Fleet School before being assigned to this unit; fortunately he had commanded a patrol boat in the Finnish war, and has fought ashore in landing parties. He is a Class Three Big Man. He has two 11 man infantry sections, armed only with bolt-action rifles (sadly no LMGs available) and a few Molotov cocktails. His only heavy weapon is a three man Maxim heavy machine gun team. Tatarin's orders are to seize and hold the hill if possible; once he's on the hill he's to send a runner back to the start line, where a heavy KV2 tank has been tasked to secure the hill. Lorenzo and Patrick took the Russians.

Here are the Russian blinds (in TW&T blinds are either units that the enemy has not yet spotted or they can be dummy units to confuse the enemy) advancing northwards on a broad front.

The Germans in contrast pushed straight up the road.

The ridge had the effect of screening the two sides from one another, and made the opening moves quite simple. The Russians moved quickly, benefitting from good die rolls, and were able to push one section and their heavy machine gun onto the ridge.

Lt. Holle pushed his PzII tank forward aggressively, dismounting first section from its halftrack while the Panzer's autocannon and turrent-mounted machine gun raked the woods above and caused leaves and foliage to fly. Screams could be heard where the green sailors clumsily tried to take cover. However, answering rounds caught the German first section as they dismounted from their halftrack and caused some confusion before their sergeant got them shooting back uphill. Some brave sailors also lobbed Molotov cocktails, bottles of flaming spirits, towards the German tank and halftrack, persuading them to keep their distance.

On the hill, Lt. Tatarin crouched beneath a hail of German lead and falling branches as he tried to keep his young ratings motivated to stay in the fight. He looked around desperately for his runner to send for the promised armour support, but he could not get the attention of the boy hiding behind a stout trunk. Looking downhill Tatarin could see a second German section moving through an orchard to take up flanking positions. It was not looking good.

The German first section was reaching the hill when it received a nasty surprise. With a loud "Urrah", Yefreitor Federov led the second section section of naval infantry down the hill, bayonets glinting on the ends of their Moisin Nagants rifles. A bitter melee ensued, as the German NCO held his men firm to fight back with grenades and machine pistols. After a short and bitter fight, the sailors were pushed back and over the hill.

On top of this reverse for the Soviets, the weight of German fire soon became too much for the depleted first section of sailors, who were being mauled by the autocannon and MG of the PZII, as well as by fire from the German infantry in the orchard. After incurring six wounds (in TW&T wounds represent loss of cohesion rather than actual injuries), the green ratings broke and fled for the rear.

The Russian players still had some hope when a new Soviet blind appeared on the German table edge. I have given Barry, who had arrived after the start, a squad of Red Army soldiers who had survived the overrun battle of the last few days, and had been dicing for their arrival. They were good troops, but their section leader's job as he saw it was to get his men back to Sevastapol and maybe escape on a ship, so it wasn't a given that Barry would help the sailors. Still, the blind drew the attention of the small recon section led by Lt. Holle, who approached carefully on their motorbikes. Barry's men came off their blind and opened up, dropping the lead rider and persuading Holle to seek shelter in the orchard with his second section. The Germans were rolling for the return of their third infantry section, but without luck. Feeling pressured from behind by the Red infantry, James/Holle now gave the command for his troops to consolidate on the objective.

In the last stages of the fight, the German infantry advanced on the left only to run into the sailors who were regrouping from the first melee. Both sides went at it again, and a vicious battle raged for several minutes before the Germans were wiped out, with heavy loss to the Russians. The Panzer II driven by Scott (Panzer Boy) Cameron pushed forward all the way to the Maxim gun, which was now down to one crewman. An overrun threatened.

At this point one of our favourite cards, Heroic Commander, came up for the Russians, allowing the player to make an "insanely heroic action" with his CO, to be judged by the referee's discretion. Lorenzo did a splendid move, having Tatarin grab a Molotov cocktail and rush forward to smash it on the deck of the Panzer, which had no infantry support. Unfortunately the dice were not so heroic, and the cocktail fizzled out. Within seconds, the Panzer's autocannon and MG responded, annihilating Tatarin and the remaining Maxim gunner. A few sailors would trickle back to their lines, hoping they could stop the fascist beasts the next time.

A bit after 11pm we deciced to call it a German victory. With half a sqaud remaining, the Russians could not hold the hill or oppose the German armour, and Barry's Red Army section was not inclined to self-sacrificial heroism to help thje sailors. Lt. Holle would chastise his third section when they showed up after their long smoke break, but he could signal battalion that the objective was held and the German artillery observer could come forward.

I had learned that the Too Fat Lardies card-based approach requires the referee to manage the cards very carefully, lest some element's card is left out of play and so the player never gets to use that element. I'll be extra-organized next time. Ideally, one should parcel out the cards for each element to the players and make them responsible for giving the cards to the referee as their elements come into action. The players seemed to enjoy themselves. It was tough for both sides - the promise of reinforcements (the German third section on their captured truck, the Soviet KV2 tank skulking in the woods behind) seemed to put psychological pressure on the players, giving them the feeling that they had to do more with less, which is probably the best way to have to fight and win a wargame.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Polikarpov Down! - A Wargame Report

Saturday, July 14th was an agreeably silly evening in the wargames basement of James (CinC Hotlead ) Manto's Townhouse of Solitude. Dan Hutter offered one of his trademark shoot-em up games, using one of his typically simply, vicious, homebrew rules. James and my daugher Anna took the Finns, while Lorenzo "Weirdo" Gionet, Barry "Bolshevik" Holden and I took the Russkies.

There are strange things done, 'neath the Arctic Sun,
By the soldiers of the Kremlin;
With frosty toe, and ice-jammed gun,
They fight and die for Stalin.
The northern lights have seen many a strange sight,
But the strangest they ever did see,
Was far from the Volga, on Lake Ladoga,
When a crashed plane made men fight. (With apologies to Robert Service)

The scenario: Comrade Pilot Yuri Nator (blame Dan), a Hero of the Soviet Union and nephew of Air Marshall Puttputtski, a friend of Stalin, was flying his Polikarpov scout plane over Finnish lines on the northen edge of Lake Ladoga to take pictures of enemy positions prior to a new Russian offensive. Yuri was a little nervous, as he'd used the squadron's only camera to take some pictures of Naughty Nadia on his last leave to St. Petersburg, but hopefully there would still be room on the film for some pictures of tedious Finnish trenchlines. Suddenly a snow storm closed in as Yuri's engine lost power. He headed south for home, only to crash land on the frozen lake between the lines, knocking himself cold in the crash.

Unfortunately for Yuri, a Finnish messenger with his pack reindeer watched the crash and made his way back to HQ to report.

The Finnish commander, who had watched the pesky Polikarpov observing his positions before the snow came in, ordered his men to go out onto the ice and recover the camera. Possibly there would be valuable intelligence to be gained. Meanwhile, the Soviet CO, reminded by his Commissar that Comrade Pilot Yuri was a protege of Comrade Stalin, dispatched all available troops and two light tanks. Thus, a reinforced Finnish and Soviet platoon converged on the downed plane. Who would be first?

Under Dan's rules, the Finns were faster and better shots, which was pretty much in accord with the Red Army's abysmal performance in Finland. The Reds had more troops, and two light T-26 tanks. Variable visibility as the snowstorm raged meant that the near-complete lack of cover on the frozen lake would be slightly offset. Both sides also drew several cards (another Dan Hutter feature), allowing good things to happen when we needed them. Here's the scene from the Russian lines as the lead elements converged on the plane.

The Finns took advantage of the island on the right to set up a light machine gun team, while on second island to the left (not showin in picture) they set up an anti-tank rifle and rifle team to cover their troops approaching the plane. The Reds had nothing for it but to use their numbers to rush forward. Here you can see a mortar team (inexplicably among the fastest troops in the Red force that day) and a rifle section heading for the plane.

At this point the Reds got lucky and played their best card. One of Comrade Yuri's wingman, circling above in the snow, saw a break in the cloud and passed over the crash site, strafing the line of Finnish troops approaching the plane. Caught by surprise, the Finns had no time to take cover and two riflemen fell to the hail of bullets. Looking past the plane towards the south, the Finns saw more Russians shaking themselves out into skirmish line. A firefight now began at the edges of visibility. The Soviet mortar dropped a bomb a hundred yards behind the Finns, opening a hole in the ice, visible in the picture below, and another precious Finnish rifleman fell.

Grimly the Finns set to work, knowing that they had only minutes. The commmand group and the surviving members of the rifle team took shelter behind the fuselage of the plane while the sergeant and a trooper smashed Yuri's canopy with their rifle butts. Comrade Pilot Yuri stirred as glass fell onto him, dreaming of Svetlana from Minsk.

Major Boris Badinov, the Red CO, cursed as he watched the Finns climb onto the wing and urged his men to keep firing. One of the capitalist lackeys was shot off the plane, but the next second disaster struck. The Finnish LMG team on the island to the right opened up, annihilating Badinov, his Commissar, and 2IC, leaving only the Soviet standard bearer standing with a light wound.

It's not clear if the Soviets stopped in dismay or stopped to cheer as their CO and hated Commissar fell to the gory ice, but the delay allowed the Finns to pull Yuri and his precious camera from the cockpit. "Not now, Svetlana, I'm too tired", Yuri groaned. With a loud "Urrah" the Soviet scout section raced forward and reached the plane, but a fusilade from the Finnish CO's submachine gun kept their heads down and prevented them from preventing Yuri's extraction.

It was looking as if the Finns might get away with it. The Soviet tanks had proved much slower than Comrade Lorenzo and I had expected, and we had stupidly put our own LMG team with them in a little sleigh trailer (bad frostbite meant they had trouble walking) so our own LMG was out of action for most of the game. To make matters worse, the Finns retaliated for our airstrike by playing cards of their own, and patches of thin ice suddenly appeared, delaying our armour support.

"We've got the flyboy, let's get the hell out of Dodgesinki!" shouted the Finnish CO. The Finns withdrew, dragging Yuri, whose head bumped repeately on the frozen lake ice. From the treeline to the left, their comrades opened up a covering fire, dropping several of the Soviets who hastened up to the plane to support the comrade scouts. Meanwhile, one of the T26s opened up, raking the island to the right with MG fire and urging the Finns there to retire as well.

"After them, they're getting away with the Comrade Aviator!" shouted the Deputy Commissar, Ivan Notgoodinov. Perhaps it was his promise of vodka that allowed the surviving Russians to follow the Finns towards their treeline. Russian shooting was surprisingly good, dropping several of the Finns lugging Yuri. "Why don't we just shoot the Red swine?" one of them asked, but the Finnish CO urged them on.

Meanwhile the Finnish AT rifle opened up and hit the lead T26, whose armour barely held. However the crew was mightily distracted as rivets flew around their compartment, and did nothig mor of note in the fight. After hitting with the ATR my daughter Anna tried her hand with the mortar, rolling two on 2d6, which was what she needed to hit. The round fell in the middle of the Red LMG team that had disembarked from their sleigh and hobbled forward on their frostbitten feet. We then discovered that because of the blowing snow Anna was several inches out of range, but as she had traveled the farthest (from Nanaimo, BC) to play and as a "2" on 2d6 should never be wasted, we allowed the hit and the LMG team were all wounded and out of the fight. Note to self - in future give Anna the support weapons.

At this point, poor Yuri finally woke up. He lifted his head, murmuring in a weak voice, "Svetlana, darlink, would you put the samovar on, there's a ninotchka?" The Finnish sergeant hauling on one his legs looked back at this, and Yuri wondered why he was looking into a sweaty, hairy face, when a stray Moisin Nagant round entered the back of Yuri's skull and he expired heroically. The Finnish sergeant shrugged, grabbed the camera, abandoned the pilot's corpse and ran like hell for the treeline.

At 11pm, that made for a neat ending to the game. The Finns had suffered terrible casualties, but they had recovered the camera, even if denied the chance to interrogate Yuri. The Russian offensive would be delayed until the weather cleared and another photorecon mission could be launched, but at least Stalin would have a show funeral of a heroic aviator to put on the front page of Pravda. Back at the aerodrome, Yuri's CO took the news philosophically. "Knowing that git, he probably left the lens cap on anyway."

A Finnish victory, but everyone had fun, as is the course with Dan's games. And the best part of it was that Anna and I got to wear silly hats, another trademark of Dan's games.

There are strange things done, 'neath the Arctic Sun,
By the Reds sent out by the Kremlin;
With frosty toe, and ice-jammed gun,
They fight and die for Stalin.
The northern lights have seen many a strange sight,
But the strangest they ever did see,
Was far from the Volga, on Lake Ladoga,
When a crashed plane made men fight. (With apologies to Robert Service)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Victor Davis Hanson's A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Pelopennesian War (New York: Random House, 2005).

I first ran across Victor Davis Hanson while at a friend's place, channel-surfing his gazillion TV stations. A quiet-voiced but intense academic was reading from a book on a war that occurred almost 2500 years ago, and it sounded absolutely fascinating.

Perhaps the attraction of the Pelopennesian War is that it pitted two such dissimilar opponents against one another in a protracted and terrible war. In the popular imagination (or at least, in my imagination) the Spartans have the terrible appeal of fascism - a disciplined and single-minded barracks state - while the Athenians represent the best of what became, well, us - democracy, culture, philosophy - the whole package of Western values at its nascence. And there is the terrible, almost Sophoclean tragedy of these two cultures gutting each other, when it wasn't so long before, in the Persian War, that they stood side by side. Well, that's the appeal as I understand it. I had tried to read Thucydides' classic The Pelopennesian War some years ago, but lost heart in its labyrinth of minor intrigues and soon gave up. So Hanson is my first substantial guide to this conflict.

If you wanted a chronological account of the war, Hanson is probably not your best bet. His approach is to cover his subject through a number of themes explaining the "hows" of the war (as per the subtitle, "How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War".) Hence we move from "Fear" (why the Spartans decided to fight the Athenians) to Fire (the first Spartan attempts to destroy Athenian agriculture) to Plague (the consequences of disease that ravaged Athens after Pericles pulled the local population into the city to avoid the Spartan land army), through a variety of other subjects, including the transition from traditional hoplite (heavily armoured infantry following strict rules of formalized combat) warfare to a more modern-looking assymetrical style of warfare featuring terror and attrition, and the final phases of escalating naval warfare. These themes are arrayed chronologically, but perhaps not in enough detail to satisfy someone wanting a "this then that" coverage of the conflict.

I found much to like about Hanson as an historian. You gotta love a writer who can illustrate a discussion of how hard it was for Greek armies to uproot and destroy olive trees (the main crop of ancient Greece) with his own account of trying to cut down walnut and plum trees on his own farm in California. Hanson has walked the battlefields with a military historian's eye, so his insights into tactics and strategies are useful and welcome. Likewise as a classicist he can enlist contemporary sources to bring life to his narrative. A good example, and one of my favourite passages, is this description of the tireme, the warship of ancient Greece:

"A terror to enemies" and "a joy to her friends", Xenophon wrote of an oared ship in ramming mode, the chief method of attack. The swish of an oar, the rhothion, of a rapidly advancing tireme was famous. Both the sound and the look added to the drama, and presaged something terrible to come. Thucydides emphasized "the fear of the swishing" (phobos rhothiou) which only compounded the scary sight of a tireme bearing down. Tiremes, like later full-masted men-of-war, were beautiful and occasionally noisy vessels, and they captured contemporaries' imaginations in ways most other workmanlike warships, from Roman galleys to ironclads, did not. With a length six or seven times its width and massive ram, the sleek tireme in one sense was simply a floating spear." (pp. 239-240).

Fortunately this isn't just a military fan/historian geeking out on some cool piece of ancient kit (as we wargamers are prone to do). Besides interesting technical comments on the instability and relative unseaworthiness of these vessels, VDH is acutely aware of the human conditons on these ships: the rowers in the lowest bank of oars enduring "Sweat, thirst, blisters, exhaustion, urine, and feces - all this was in addition to the billows of the sea and the iron of the enemy" (238). His accounts of the collisions of hundreds of these vessels and the subsequent killing and drowning of thousands of men is sobering reading, but what really fascinates me is the motivation that led yet more thousands of Athenians to replace the lost crews and maintain the struggle in the final years of the war. In 406BC the Athenians rebuilt their fleet almost from scratch, one of the largest armadas in Greek history, manned by wealthy citizens and slaves who had been promised their freedom. As VDH puts it, "how Athens after the plague, Sicily, and continued attrition in the Ionian War could project such naval forces near the end of the third decade of the war staggers the imagination" (281). This fleet broke the Spartan-led Peloponnesian fleet at Arginusae, a fleet whose rowers were being paid by Persian gold whereas the Athenians were fighting for an ideology that put "old and young, slave and free, poor and wealthy on tiremes" (280).

In the end, the ideology of the war is for me the most fascinating and least explained aspect of this book. What would it have been like on an Athenian tireme where wealthy landholders and slaves were rowing and fighting together? What besides pride and self-preservation motivated the Athenians to keep fighting, and to try so hard to export their worldview to the rest of the ancient world? VDH touches on this issue in his chapter on sieges when he explains that a siege often forced factions in a city, democrats vs. oligarchs, to take sides and often fight their own battles within the walls, but as the focus of the book is on the how of the war, the why is not explained as well. I'm sure other books explain the whys better, and Hanson's biography is extensive if anyone wants to pursue this subject.

A democratic empire that tried to export its vision of the world, and which relied on its powerful navy, wealth, technology and culture. A conflict where asymmetrical warfare, guerilla tactics, terror and wildly swaying public opinion worked to negate military advantage. A mood of increasing brutality where civilians and captives were killed in the name of national security and revenge. These echoes may well sound familiar to we in the West in the early 21st century. Hanson doesn't push the comparison too far, and indeed in his personal blog he has some clear opinions on why the West needs to aggressively pursue its battle against Jihadism. But VDH is very clear that war, once pursued as an option, can seldom be contained or anticipated. His final paragraphs are memorable:

"The young men of Athens, on the eve of the initial Spartan invasion or during the debate about Sicily, are always eager for war, inasmuch as they have had no experience with it. In contrast, "the older men of the city", the more experienced, always are reluctant to invade, and thus often strive to give the enemy some way out during tough negotiations that otherwise might leave war as the only alternative. Thucydidean war can have utility and solve problems, and it often follows a grim logic of sorts; but once it starts, it may well last twenty-seven years over the entire Greek world rather than an anticipated thiry days in Attica and kill thousands at its end who were not born at its beginning." (313-314)

As I read these last paragraphs I thought of Seymour Hersh's recent pieces in the New Yorker on how the Bush administration is planning its next war against Iran; certainly the continuation of the Iraq War this long bears out the relevance of this echo from the past. Finally, as a soldier I am grateful for VDH's attention to the many dead soldiers and sailors of that war whose deeds are not recorded in Thucydides and who continue only as names in fragments of stone, who were "asked to settle through violence what words alone cannot. Remember them, for the Peloponnesian War was theirs alone" (314).

Mad Padre+

Summer Book Blogging Project

The Rev'd Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon's blog Titus ONE Nine ran a wonderful post recently describing a summer "Blog a Book" reading and blogging project. The project comes from Chuck Colson's BreakPoint - the description of the project is here and the list of recommended books by friends of BreakPoint is here. It just so happens that MadPadre found a copy of Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt in the public library the other day and that will be my own blogging project for the summer. Once I get caught up with two other book reviews, I'll start reading and blogging and I hope for a comment or two as I go along.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Sermon for Canada Day

Sunday fell on July 1st this year, Canada Day. Every church signboard around here had a "God Bless Canada" message or expressed a similar patriotic sentiment. While the Revised Common Lectionary used Luke 9:51-62 as the text, I felt the need to say something about the national holiday, though something of Luke creeps in. Perhaps the sermon betrays my sympathy for the Lutheran practice of banning national flags from the sanctuary; at the very least, I hope it resists the trap of falling into folk/volk religion (God Bless Our Land). I didn't get any comment at all on this one from the parishioners, the usual small group, mostly elderly, who form the summer congregation here.

A Sermon for Canada Day
Grace and St. George’s, 1 July, 2007

Some of you may be fans of the TV show "Little Mosque on the Prairie". If you don’t know it, the show is set in a small prairie town where a group of Islamic Canadians start a mosque in the basement of the local Anglican Church. The show is a comedy, but it says some important things about how our country has changed. By showing us how the two the two groups, the Islamic immigrants and the town’s Anglo-Canadian residents, overcome their prejudices to live together, the show challenges our perceptions and stereotypes. The premise of a mosque renting the basement of a church also asks us to think about how different religions relate to one another in our multicultural and multi-faith country.

Today the Lord’s Day and Canada Day coincide, and I hope you’ll find it appropriate, therefore, if I use this homily to offer some reflections on the day. As we rightly take time in our worship today to thank God for this country of Canada, it’s also good for us to ask ourselves some questions. How we might be called to think of ourselves as Canadians AND as Christians? Are the two one and the same, or are there times when our faith, our love of God, might take precedence over our nationality, our love of country? Do we live in a Christian nation, and is it right to want Canada to be a Christian nation?

Whatever we might say in answer to these questions, I think we can start by saying that we are blessed to live here. Yes, the taxes are high, our governments never seem to do enough for us, and not everything works as well as it should. However, when we consider what we do have, our complaints seem to dwindle in size to mere grumbles. We are blessed with a richness of resources. We are blessed to live in peace with our neighbour. Our standard of living is high. We have more schooling, more health care, safer cities, longer life expectancies and more opportunities than billions of people enjoy around the globe.

In my work with the Army Reserve I sometimes talk to soldiers returning from unpleasant places, and they always say how grateful they are to be home. One soldier, newly home from Sierra Leone in Africa, spoke for them all when he said to me, "My tour was a real eye opener for what we take for granted here in Canada". Of course, being Canadian, he didn’t tell me this in a bragging way, but in the quiet, matter of fact way that most Canadians use when we speak about our country. At sporting events we don’t sing the national anthem loudly (sometimes not at all) but I am sure that everyone in a crowd, whether they sing O Canada or not, would agree that Canada as a country is blessed.

Was it just luck that we happened to be born in this place at this time in history or was there some purpose to it? If God has truly blessed us, as I think he has, what does he expect of us in return? How does God want us to use these blessings? Does God want Canada to be a Christian country?

When you got your bulletin this morning, you also got a Canada Day bookmark which is a very kind gift from our Member of Parliament, the Rt. Hon. Bev Shipley. I notice on the bookmark that Mr. Shipley talks about the "Scriptural Foundation on which our country was founded". I’m not sure I understand exactly what he means by "scriptural foundation", but I think he means that Canada was once a Christian country, and our laws were based on Jewish and Christian values, such as the Ten Commandments. Even if we can’t precisely define the scriptural foundations of Canada, people seem to have a sense that our Canada is losing its identity as a Christian country, whether it be the withdrawal of prayer from public schools or recent changes to our marriage laws. The question is, how should Christians react to these changes?
One response is to try and lobby our politicians to stop or reverse these changes. For example, I occasionally get calls from Christian groups that want my help to protect the traditional legal definition of marriage between a man and a woman. As they see it, the government was wrong to allow same-sex marriage and it is the right of churches in a democracy to argue for a return to Christian values.

When I get these calls, however, something holds me back from saying yes, sign me up for your lobby campaign, and my reluctance has nothing to do with my views on marriage. What holds me back is the Moslems in the basement. Let’s pretend that we had a mosque in the basement of our church (and while we’re at it, let’s pretend that we have a basement). If I want laws that are friendly to Christians, don’t the Moslems in the basement have a right to ask for laws that are friendly to their faith? Whose children get to pray in school? What about other religions, or atheists? Where are their rights in all of this?

If we look back in history, we find that in the first three centuries of the church, Christians had no interest in passing laws that were Christian-friendly. For much of its history the official religion of the Roman Empire was not Christian, and often the Empire was hostile to Christians. Instead of lobbying for pro-Christian laws, Christians had the much more difficult job of being faithful to Christ in their families, in their workplaces, and in their churches. They wanted their friends and neighbours to become Christian, but they did it by persuasion and by making their lives wholesome and positive examples of God’s goodness. They lived by Jesus’ command to his disciples to be "salt and light": "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:13-16).
It’s harder to be good Christians when it’s all up to us, without any help from laws or governments. The same is true of the disciples in today’s gospel. After a village has ignored Jesus, the disciples want Jesus to "command fire to come down from heaven and consume them" (Luke 9:54), but they are disappointed. Luke tersely says that Jesus "rebuked them". We don’t know what exactly Jesus said to them, but my guess is he might have gone like this. "My message is one of love", Jesus might have told them. "If I enforce that message with fire from heaven, how can it still be a message of love?" Instead of enforcing the kingdom of God with force, Jesus trusts in the power or words of love. "Go and proclaim the kingdom of God", Jesus tells the disciples. Jesus asks the same of us.

One of the blessings of Canada is precisely our virtue of tolerance. Tolerance is the glue that holds our country together, that allows us to work and live with Canadians of other faiths, or of no faiths. We can’t call down fire on one another when we disagree – that way led to Rwanda and Bosnia. We always need to work and strive and pray for a country where the immigrants are welcomed and encouraged to bring the best of who they are, understanding that their new identities as Canadians include the responsibility of tolerance. Hatred and prejudice is not welcome in their luggage, and it should be shunned by we who welcome them.

As Christians in Canada, our culture of tolerance to all races and religions poses problems that the first Christian settlers and founders could not have envisioned. It seems clear to me that we can’t call ourselves a Christian country any more. Your grandchildren will go to school and work with the sons and daughters from around the world. Our challenge, in our families, in our churches, and in our Sunday Schools, is to teach our children to be Christians and Canadians. They will need to learn the Bible, learn to pray, and learn to live as Christians so that they in their turn can go and proclaim the kingdom of God with love and gentleness, but with a firm conviction in the faith of their baptism.

By loving God and loving one another, sharing the good things that God has given to our country, we can all live in gratitude for our blessings. We are truly blessed to live in Canada – may we always want to share those blessings, so that our country is salt and light to the world. Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

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