Friday, June 29, 2007

From My Workbench: German Anti-Tank Gun Minis

For those who don't understand my hobby/obsession, I play miniature wargames with similarly eccentric friends. The hobby combines the fun of little boys playing with Army Men, the craft of painting and model railroading, and the challenge of chess. Also, it keeps me off the streets.

Just finished these models - they are German World War Two anti-tank guns (PAK 40s), as used in the latter part of the war. The manufacturer is Battlefront, the people behind the popular Flames of War (FOW) miniatures and rules. Like all FOW figures, these are 15mm, the smallest figure scale I'm comfortable with. While they are small figures, they are relatively affordable and still paint well. I got these as part of my "Normandy Project", focusing on 3rd Canadian Division and their primary opponents for the first few days of the Normandy campaign, the German 12th SS (HitlerJugend) Panzer Division. These fellows are designed to give the German defences some ability to withstand the more plentiful Allied tanks.

These shots shows some of the camoflague details that make the SS sexy with a lot of wargamers, and shows the detail on this figures. There are more posted on the Guild miniatures forum.

Some day soon I hope to post a battle report on the first action of these young fanatics - I'm torn because I like my results here but I'll want the Canadians to do well.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Sermon for a Country Cemetery Decoration Day

Decoration days are a custom that I only discovered after coming to rural Middlesex County as a pastor. Medway Cemetery is about 15 km north of London, Ontario. The cemetery board takes turns asking local clergy to speak.

After getting the invitation I came across Joseph Bottum's excellent essay
"Death and Politics" in the June/July issue of First Things and stole some of his ideas. I'm always aware of our tendency to fall into ancestor worship at these sorts of gatherings, and I hope Bottum saved me from that trap.

The cemetery is small and beautiful, well-shaded and with two sounds bounded by a creek. Bless them, the organizers had a sound system so I could be heard by a long semi-circle of folks in lawnchairs.

A Talk for the Medway Cemetery Decoration Day
24 June, 2007

In my three years here as a pastor I’ve been asked to attend several cemetery services and decoration days, and of course we have our own in my parish of St. George’s every July. I confess however that I didn’t know much about this cemetery before George Nixon invited me to come, but I’ve learned something about the importance of these places. I know that many of you who come to these services have two or more generations of family and ancestors laid to rest here. In cemeteries throughout this part of the county I’ve seen the same names – names like Robson, Hodgins, O’Neil, and Telfer – names of the living, names of the dead. I’ve met folks who no longer live here but who come back to these services because, like you, they have roots here.

I have to say that I envy people like you who have roots. Some of who know me may have heard me say that I grew up in an army family, so we moved frequently when I was a kid. Even after he left the army my dad was never that interested in putting down roots for very long. Perhaps my father didn’t need roots because he was the son of immigrants, but as for myself, I’ve always envied folks who could come to places like this and say "These are my people, this is my place".

One of the things that puzzles me about our world today is that fewer and fewer people seem to need roots. People don’t seem to need community like our ancestors did. Clubs, service groups, even bowling leagues are in decline as people choose alternate friendships and groups on the internet. One of the things that fascinates me is the growing popularity of "green funerals" where there is no service, no marked grave, nothing to show that a person ever was. It leaves one to wonder, if people can vanish without a trace, how will we know who they were, what they did, and what they stood for? If a society can forget the generations that went before us, how will we know what values those past generations stood for, and what we owe to them?
The people who are buried in cemeteries such as this were not famous or celebrities, but we know something of who they were and we know what they stood for. We know that they believed in hard work, that they carved farms out of the bush and broke the land and built towns. We know that they believed in families. They cared for their aged parents and grandparents and laid them to rest. All too often they laid they had to bury their own children. They carved the names of parents and children on these stones because they were worth remembering, and they set aside plots for the end of their own days. When they in their turn were laid to rest, the passed on their farms and businesses to their children, along with their love and wisdom. They gave us land to tend, and they gave us their graves to tend.

Tending these graves and these cemeteries is not just a job for a few members of a board. It’s a responsibility that we all share. Tending a grave and caring for a cemetery is a very real way of saying that we take seriously the values and responsibilities that we inherit from those who have gone before us. The cemetery is one of the glues that holds a society together. It reminds us of what we have been given from the past, and what we will have to pass on one day.

Let me end by speaking about one more thing that cemeteries remind us of. Why is it as children that we were frightened of these places, especially at night? Why are some adults still afraid of cemeteries, even of peaceful beautiful places like this one? They are frightened, I think, because these places remind us that we are not immune to death. Perhaps one of the attractions of those anonymous "green" funerals that I mentioned earlier is that they leave nothing behind to scare us. We don’t like to dwell on death, which is why we’ve moved from the family bedroom and the front parlour to the hospital and the funeral home, and done our best to banish it from view. Come to a place like this, however, and you can’t look around without being reminded that we are not immortal, that we, too, have an end to our days. As the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer reminds us, "in the midst of life, we are in death".

Our ancestors knew this, but they did not despair and they did not deny this reality. Our ancestors had hope. They created these churchyards as a sign of hope and comfort. See this place and remember it, they seem to say, because God sees it and God will remember it. The cemetery is a reminder that God knows everything, including the names and the resting places of those who have gone before us, and he will not forget them. As the Psalm says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Ps 116:15). Our ancestors knew that the resurrection of Jesus was not a random event, but it was only the first resurrection. Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that "For as in Adam all die, thus also in Christ all shall be made alive (1 Cor 15:22). The cemetery is not only a place of rest, but it’s a place of expectation, a kind of waiting room for those who trust that God will open these graves and waken these dead, and they, being faithful, will have nothing to fear from God’s judgement.

The word "gospel" is from a Greek word meaning "good news". For gospel people who have inherited the faith of our fathers (and of our mothers), the cemetery is a place of good news. The cemetery tells us that we need not fear death, because nothing can separate us from the love of God. The cemetery reminds us that the ordinary names on these tombstones -- names that are well-known to us and faded names of people known only to God -- are written in God’s book of life, and these people will be called to take their place in heaven on the last day. That was the hope that sustained our ancestors in their last days, and like all other good things from the past that they have given us, they pass this hope on to us. May we who gather here today share and live that hope, showing that hope to a world that, having no hope, wants to forget death.

Sermon for Sunday, June 24th

From the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) gospel for Sunday, 24 June.

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost C
Grace and St. George’s, June 24, 2007

The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:38-39)

Why did Jesus cross the lake? To get to the other side, of course. And it wasn’t an easy business. To properly understand today’s gospel, we need to remind ourselves of what Jesus went through to get to the other shore:

One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ (Luke 8:22-25)

So today’s gospel really begins with a long and dangerous journey across open water in a small boat, a journey no sailor would take lightly. Even for Jesus, who had power over "the winds and the water", this was not a simple boat trip, because he was going somewhere no Jew would normally go. The people on the far side were gentiles, non-Jews and therefore people to be avoided. Even the name of the place, "country of the Gerasenes", simply means "land of the foreigners". For Jesus to cross over to foreign parts was like a western film where the hero saddles up and crosses the Rio Grande into Mexico, or heads out into Indian country. In the films, these scenes tell us that the hero is set on something serious, and probably dangerous. Clearly Jesus is set on something serious to go through a storm to get to the badlands. So why did Jesus cross the lake? Because he knew that an outcast on the other side needed him.

Years ago the software company I worked for brought its staff down to Los Angeles for a big conference. The reward was a trip out to Universal Studios, which they’d rented for a late-night party after the tourists had gone home. Free rides, free bars, free cigars – we were to be pampered. We boarded air-conditioned buses and climbed up into the dark Hollywood hills. From my window I noticed fires lit under one overpass, and in the light of the flames I could see dozens of people milling about. Is that a movie shoot? I asked the person beside me, who knew LA better than I did. No, he said, those are just homeless people. They live out here.

I remember thinking, what would happen if our bus broke down here, if our two groups were somehow forced together. Us, prosperous salesmen in our khaki dockers, golf shirts, leather loafers and cellphones, and them, the shadow people, burning trash in oil drums. How would we see each other? What would we say to each other? Would we be safe? It was a frightening thought.

The people on the far shore who knew the possessed man were clearly frightened of him. They had tried everything – arresting him, locking him up, even putting him in chains, but it was never enough. Perhaps it was easier having him out in the wilds, among the graves where the dead would not complain. We no longer think in terms of demonic possession, but the homeless, the mentally ill and unstable, they are still frightening. We prefer to keep them out of sight and out of mind whenever possible. When we do see them, our instinct is to kind of mentally cross ourselves and say "there but for the grace of God go I".

Perhaps the most frightening thing about the possessed man is not the demons but the simply and sinister mention that he was "a man of the city who had demons" (Lk 8:27). A "man of the city" means that this guys wasn’t always a naked madman living amongst the dead. Once he was a member of society, maybe with a house and wife and kids and a job. Once he was, well, once he was like one of us. But then the demons came.

Do you have to believe in demons to accept or understand this story? Well, it depends on what sort of demons you believe in. Perhaps not the supernatural kind like the ones from the Exorcist films, and not demons with names like Legion. But how about the kind from the farmhouse and the suburb and the office, the demons with names like Casino and Internet Pornography, or Depression or Eating Disorder. Those are pretty familiar demons. You probably know someone who had a good life until the demons came along and took it away, leaving a person you barely recognize anymore.

A friend called me last week to talk about his sister, an alcoholic who is so ill that she’s been caught drinking suntan lotion or tearing open those little packets of handi-wipes to suck on the wet tissue. She’s lost her nursing job, lost all interest in her appearance and hygeine, and hides from her family, who despair of her. As my friend told me, "I can see my family at her funeral, walking away from her grave. And then he asked me what words of comfort I might have for him.

Frankly I’m not sure I served my friend very well, because any words of comfort I tried to dredge up seemed pretty small in comparison with the size of his despair and his sister’s problem. But over the last week, as I’ve lived with today’s gospel, it seems obvious to me that my friend’s sister is like the possessed man, a lost person living in the land of dead, possessed by her demons. So I guess I would tell my friend this.

I would tell him that the Saviour who crossed an open lake in a tiny boat, who broke every rule to go to the badlands because he was interested in one outcast, and so that same Saviour is going to be just as interested in his sister. I would tell him that the Saviour who had the power to still the storm is a Saviour to be reckoned with. I would tell him that even the devils of hell knew they were beaten by this Saviour and gave up without a fight. And I would tell my friend that this Saviour has the power to help his sister, and to help all of us with our own addictions.

These are big things to say, big promises to make, and they make us uneasy. It’s tempting for us to walk away from them. But I would note that there are people in the story who are also frightened by it. Why do the people want Jesus to leave? It has more to do than their lost income because of all those lost pigs. I think Jesus himself frightens them, because they can’t accept that one man can do such things. To believe that Jesus can have this sort of power is just too challenging, and so they ask him to leave. I think that when we balk at the promises of our faith, when we doubt that "at the name of Jesus every knee will bow", then we run the risk of being like the people in this story. We don’t know how or when Jesus will help someone like my friend’s sister, but we must never stop praying in faith that he will help such people, that nothing and no one is beyond the power of God to help them.

Finally, there is the possessed man himself. He wants to travel with Jesus but he is told to stay and tell everyone who Jesus is and what Jesus did for him. It couldn’t have been an easy assignment. He was healed, back in his right frame of mind, but he had to live with all those people who used to be scared of him. We don’t know what became of him, but we perhaps we can see a bit of ourselves in him. Perhaps you and I were once healed or made clean by Jesus, and now have the chance to tell people that good news, even if it makes them uncomfortable, even if it’s not fashionable to be a Christian in some circles. But this story reminds us that Jesus doesn’t want us to be silent. And if we were once healed or restored by God in some way, how can we not want the same for all others, even the ones who frighten or disturb us, the ones we prefer to ignore.

Jesus wants all of us, you and I and my friend’s sister and the shadow-people under bridges and up in the hills. He has the power to call us together and restore us all, and maybe he will do so, one day when we stop saying "There but for the grace of God go I" and we say instead "Here, by the grace of God, are we all". Amen.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

What I'm Reading - Jane Hamilton's Disobedience

Some years back a relative mailed me a copy of this book, thinking that the content about American Civil War reenacting would be of interest to me. Actually I cringe a bit wondering how my family perceived me during that enthusiasm, and the reenacting content was incidental to my enjoyment of the book. Hamilton is a lovely, graceful writer, able to dig into the mundane details of everyday life and unearth some of our deepest longings, the emotions that we can barely articulate to ourselves.

The narrator, Henry, a teenager on the brink of going to college, by virtue that he is the only one in his family with computer savvy, discovers that his mother is having an affair. This knowledge obsesses him, threatening his sense of his family as a place of refuge and integrity. The title can thus be taken as referring to his mother's disobedience against Henry's rather stern code of who she should be for him and for her family, Henry's disbedience in violating his mother's secrets and walling himself off from her, or to the idea, from the first three lines of Milton's Paradise Lost ("Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought Death into the World) of the disobedience of human sin which forces us from our Edens. OK, that last thought may be a stretch - I blame those English degrees.

The most haunting character for me was the father, who (of course) at the end we learn knew more about his wife's affair than his son suspected, and who remains faithful to her and to his own idealism and optimism. He may be, as Henry calls him, "the patron saint of cuckolds" but as Henry closes his narration he admits that he stands in awe of a goodness that he can scarcely believe in.

I hope to come back to this author again.

Jane Hamilton's website:

Blog Archive