Monthly Archives: November 2012

A Place of Peace: Where My Iraq Meets the Atlantic

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Where Iraq Meets the Atlantic

I have talked about things bring me peace amidst the struggles of life in recent days and in one post I briefly mentioned that while running on the beach in Emerald Isle it was the place where in that moment “Iraq met the Atlantic.”

It has been nearly 5 years since I left Iraq in February of 2008 but there are times that it feels like I have never left and times when I would like to be back there. I have always loved the ocean and the desert. For some reason the vast expanses of barren desert and the untamed ocean draw me to them like nothing else.

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I have struggled with a lot over the past 5 years. However as I mentioned recently it seems that things are coming together in ways that I have never could have fathomed even a few months ago. On Wednesday I needed to take a day off to reflect and gather my thoughts after a particularly cathartic sequence of events. One of the things that I did that day was to rest, but then to run along the beach where I live.

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I mentioned to a couple of people that it was like Iraq met the Atlantic and they didn’t understand, until I showed the pictures. I guess though that the juxtaposition of the Western Desert of Iraq, sometimes known as the Syrian Desert and the Atlantic Ocean would seem strange to most people, unless they have experienced both in their stark beauty.

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I ran about seven and a half miles Wednesday along the beach and it was breathtaking. The deep blue skies and seas met with the desert tan of the sands of the beach. There were few people out that day so the beach was nearly deserted and I was alone with nature and God. It has been many years since I felt that depth of peace in my soul that I felt on Wednesday.

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I really can’t explain it and most people will probably never understand and I have learned that such a lack of understanding is okay. There is a big part of me that is still in the Iraqi desert and will always be there. There in the land of Abraham, amid the barren deserts, the rich valley of the Euphrates river valley, the battered cities and town of war torn Al Anbar Province many of my hopes and dreams still live. When I ran along the beach that day it was like I had returned, but instead of being traumatic it was peaceful.

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I pray for the people of Iraq, especially those in Al Anbar Province and the Iraqi military. I pray that they will know peace and that their country, so long victimized by tyrants, devastated by war and torn by terrorism and civil-religious strife will be a place of blessing.

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As T.E. Lawrence wrote about 85 years ago: “We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.” 

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Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Horizons, Tapestries and the Possibilities of Different Futures

Captain Picard: I sincerely hope that this is the last time that I find myself here. 

Q: You just don’t get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did. 

Captain Picard: When I realized the paradox. 

Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence. 

Yesterday I wrote about epiphanies that were occurring in my personal, spiritual and professional life. As I mentioned yesterday they were brought about during a rather cathartic session with my Doctor regarding my PTSD. I think that it was a breakthrough type session because so many new horizons seemed to open at once. Last night it was hard to put it all into words or to sort things out. So after I published that article I went to bed and was subjected to the most intense night of dreams that I have ever experienced and that is saying a lot because my dreams are often frighteningly real. They are like super high definition to begin with because my brain goes into warp drive when my eyes are closed, but last night even more so.

It was like past present and multiple futures intersecting around the them of roads taken, roads not taken and the possibility of different roads home. They spanned my life and many dealt with my time in Iraq while others seemed a blend of many experiences. It was positively surreal. So much so that when the alarm rang I was absolutely exhausted having not slept the previous night because I had left all of my sleep medicines in my gym bag that I had taken to work. So I made a direct call to my Commanding Officer to let him know what was going on and that I needed to take a personal day to rest and reflect on the flood of spiritual, emotional and existential things that I had experienced in the past day. If I had to give an example of what last night was like, it was like the final episode of the Star Trek Next Generation series as Captain Picard kept switching between different realities of past, present and future while being relentlessly grilled by the being simply known as “Q”.

So this morning I rested, spent time with my dog Molly, pretty much avoided the computer and television and then went out and ran about 7.5 miles on the beach. The weather was wonderful and the tide conditions were such that the nearly deserted beach was optimal for running. As I ran the brilliant blue of the sky, the calm waves of the deep blue Atlantic lapping upon the tan sands of the beach. It was as if I was running where the sands of the Western Iraqi Desert met the Atlantic. I was at peace and the images of the previous night began to make sense.

They were about roads, paths, possibilities and the journey to home, wherever or whatever that it is. They were a juxtaposition of past, present and future and variations of each. People, places, images and actions blended together in ways that were at times comforting and other times terrifying. But they were all about possibilities new and unimaginable and as Q told Picard “charting the unknown possibilities of existence” and not being trapped in the past that we cannot change, that even if we could would make us less than we are now.

In another episode of Next Generation called Tapestry, Picard has a death experience where he is confronted by Q and regretting decisions that he made which helped cause his death Q offered him a chance to go back and make it different. When Picard found that the Picard that played it safe was not a person that he would want to be he confronted Q.

LT. j.g. Picard: You having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?

Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain? 

Lt. j.g. Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who I am!

Q: Au contraire. He’s the person you wanted to be: one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who was less like me… The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away team on Milika III to save the Ambassador; or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe – and he never, ever, got noticed by anyone.

It is funny that those two episodes of Star Trek TNG came up a number of times this week with different people. I think what I am discovering is that life is a limitless set of possibilities and that our past, as tangled and messy as it may be at time is part of a tapestry that is who we are but not what we can become. As Picard noted to Counselor Troy after his resuscitation:  There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.

Past, present and future. Dreams and reality, hopes and fears, things real and things imagined. A future unexplored and hopeful so long as we are willing appreciate our past without being trapped by it, to live in the present and imagine the future that we have yet to chart.

But to do this we have to be willing to take the risks, be authentic and realize the possibilities that God in his love and grace imagines for our future.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Epiphanies: PTSD, Life, Leadership, Lawrence of Arabia and the Gospel

I have been going through a process lately in preparation for some treatment of my chronic insomnia, nightmares and other PTSD symptoms which has caused me to have to be very deliberate and reflective in examining the various parts of the often tattered tapestry of my life.

Part of this has involved my experiences in military, religious and civilian institutional settings and how those experiences have helped shaped me as a Priest as well as a Naval Officer. Today was one of those days where a convergence of thoughts came together in a number of encounters juxtaposed with some reading of B.H. Liddell Hart’s book about T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

While I was waiting for my doctor late this afternoon I was reading the book on my Kindle and as he came into the waiting room I had just finished marking this passage.

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

Somehow this little passage in a book that I am about halfway through reading and which I have already made numerous other annotations really struck me as profound. It encapsulated close to 20 years of experience as a military chaplain and over 30 years in the military as well as civilian professional work, and it struck me especially in regard to my experiences both in Iraq and after my return. Before, during and after my time in Iraq I had come to see Lawrence as a kindred spirit, someone that thought outside the box and went to places that no one else wanted to go. My job in Iraq to me to those places that few Americans and almost no other chaplains went or had the chance to experience with Iraqi Arabs and the Bedouin.

Those that read my posts regularly know that the impetus for my writing came about during my time in Iraq around Christmas of 2007 in the western Iraqi Al Anbar Province while on the Syrian border. At that time I wrote a short article for my former denomination’s website and a little more than a year after my return to the United States  I began this site I modified that article and published it here under the title of God in the Empty Places. It was a catharsis for me because I going though a tremendously ark period of my life where I had for all practical purposes become an Agnostic struggling to believe in God again. It was published a couple of months after I walked out of a church on Christmas Eve 2008 and walked an hour home in the dark and cold of that night.

During the interregnum of returning from Iraq and now I experienced a number of additional traumatic life events, both personal and professional. Following my assignment to my current post where I supervise a number of chaplains, pastoral counselors and support personnel I made it my goal in life not to let things that happened to me at the hands of some senior chaplains happen to others, especially those struggling with life, health, spiritual or emotional issues.

I have been asked by a number of people in the past couple of weeks, how in light of things that could leave me embittered and cynical could I embody grace to others. I admit that I still hurt and have issues of anger and some bitterness towards some people who I thought used me and betrayed me both in my old denomination as well as some senior chaplains. That is a given, though I try to live in a state of forgiveness toward them there are times that I do get upset the things that happened during that time. It is something that I deal with and I don’t always do well. I have my bad moments in which that grace doesn’t come out well,  but my path to healing has involved a conscious effort to see the good in people and to embody something different than I experienced.

A couple of people made the comment as we discussed these experiences as well as their own that “you do the Gospel it by living it.” I think that is what Jesus did, he taught yes and he did miracles, but the biggest miracles were those that he did when he rocked the religious-political establishment of his day by hanging out and caring for the people it despised. In fact Jesus surmised the entire law in two commandments, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. The prophet Malachi noted what God required “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Those two passages have been tremendously important as faith returned after what I refer to as Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle faith began to return in a way that I never expected.

So the past few weeks have served as an epiphany to me about wisdom can evade leaders whose “eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success…” My eyes are opening in more ways to the bigness of God, the grace of God, the love of God and the mercy of God. My ambition is simply to care for the people that God allows me to care for and show that grace, love and mercy to those who some would attempt to destroy because they themselves have become prisoners of the institutions and their offices and ambitions.  I have resolved in daily life to do all I can to avoid becoming a prisoner of my office or ambitions and simply to be real. One of the senior leaders of the hospital that I work noted that he saw me as not just as the senior chaplain but a “real person.” I can live with that.

Well that is enough for tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Departure to Infamy: The Kido Butai Sails for Pearl Harbor

Early in the morning on November 26th 1941 the ships of the Japanese Carrier Strike Force, the Kido Butai under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo weighed anchor from Tankan Bay in the northern Kurile Islands of Japan. The plan was top secret and very few Japanese officers knew of the target. Many officers presumed that war was immanent but most assumed the target would be the Philippines or other targets in Southeast Asia.

IJN Akagi

It was an attack that was designed to be pre-emptive in nature. The plan was to deal the United States Navy such a crushing blow that the Japanese could complete their Asian conquests before it could recover. It was a plan of great risk that doomed Japan to horror never before imagined when the United States dropped Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than four years later. By then the bulk of the Imperial Navy   would lay at the bottom of the Pacific and millions of people killed.

Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto 

The Japanese, even Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind the plan assumed that it entailed great risks. A simulation of the plan conducted in early September by the senior officers of the Combined Fleet and the Kido Butai calculated that two of Japan’s precious aircraft carriers could be lost in the operation. But despite the opposition and reservations of key officers, including the Kido Butai commander, Admiral Nagumo Yamamoto pressed forward.

Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo

The Kido Butai was the most powerful carrier strike group assembled up to that time. Comprised of six aircraft carriers, the massive flagship Akagi, and the Kaga, the fast 18,000 ton Soryu and Hiryu and the most modern Shokaku and Zuikaku. The carrier embarked over 400 aircraft, of which over 350 were to be used in the two aerial assault waves. Most of the pilots and aircrew were experienced, many with combat experience in China. The carriers were escorted by the old but fast and modernized battleships Kirishima and Hiei, the new heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma, the light cruiser Abukuma, the new Kagero Class destroyers, Urakaze, Isokaze, Tanikaze, Hamakaze, Kagero and Shiranuhi,the Asashio classdestroyers Arare and Kasumi.Two additional destroyers the Fubuki class Sazanami and Ushiowere assigned to neutralize the American base on Midway Island. The submarines I-19, I-21and I-23 and 8 oilers were assigned to the force. Five additional submarines the I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22 and I-24 each embarked a Type-A midget submarine.

Pearl Harbor during the Attack

On December 7th the force delivered a devastating blow to the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, however no American aircraft carriers were present. It would go on for the next several months on a rampage across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However their success would be short lived. Within a year Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu had been sunk at Midway by the carriers not present. Hiei and Kirishima were lost at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and over the course of the war every ship of the attack force was lost. Shokaku was torpedoed and sunk at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and Zuikaku, Chikuma and Abukuma were lost at Leyte Gulf, most of the destroyers and submarines were lost in various engagements. However three destroyers, Isokaze, Hamakaze and Kasumi accompanied the great Battleship Yamato on her suicide mission at Okinawa and were sunk on April 7th 1945. The heavy cruiser Tone was sunk at her moorings at Kure during air strikes by the US 3rd Fleet on July 24th 1945. All of the submarines were lost during the war, however I-19 sank the USS Wasp CV-7 and USS O’Brien DD-415 while damaging the USS North Carolina BB-55 on September 15th 1942 off Guadalcanal. Only the destroyer Ushio survived the war and was broken up for scrap in 1948.

IJN Zuikaku sinking at the Battle of Cape Engano (Leyte Gulf)

Among the leaders of the Japanese strike force, Admiral Yamamoto was killed on April 18th 1943 when his aircraft was shot down at Buin. Nagumo died at Saipan on July 6th 1944.  Most of the sailors who took part in the attack would be dead by the end of the war.

Few present at Tankan Bay on that fateful November morning could have expected the triumph and tragedy ahead. However Yamamoto was probably more of a realist than many in the Japanese government and military leadership when he told Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” Yamamoto was eerily prophetic and those that counsel pre-emptive war need to never forget his words or the results of his decisions.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Juxtaposition of Contradictions: Thanksgiving, Black Friday and the Bangladesh Clothing Factory Fire

The Clothing factory Fire that Killed over 100 People in Bangladesh (NBC News Photo)

The past weekend was a juxtaposition of contradictions for me. On a personal level it was one of the best Thanksgivings that Judy and I have ever had together. We enjoyed a simple home cooked meal together, relaxed during the day with our two dogs Molly and Minnie and then saw the James Bond film Skyfall that night. We avoided the big stores and shopping for the most part except things that we needed. It was nice. We were able to spend time with each other and friends on both Friday and Saturday and enjoy each other.

All that being said it was kind of strange because in our time of relaxing and enjoying a manner of solitude and peace there were things that I noticed or thought about that struck me odd. Thanksgiving is quite possibly the only uniquely American holiday that binds us together as people and families. It can be religious but it doesn’t have to be because being thankful is something that is not unique to religious people. With that being said it seems to me that the holiday is being crushed by the gross materialism and consumerism of “Black Friday” which now begins early Thursday evening.

As I thought about this there was news of a fire in a clothing factory in Bangladesh, so far at least 109 people are known dead. The factory made clothing for a good number of American retailers, clothing that at one time before retailers outsourced the jobs was made in America. The reason that the jobs were outsourced was for their profit margins. I live in eastern North Carolina, which at one time was a center of the American textile industry. That industry has been decimated over the past couple of decades. Empty factories and businesses that used to employ Americans making goods that other Americans bought have been shuttered.

The retailers and Wall Street say that it is because that American made goods were uncompetitive because American workers were paid too much and because of government regulations, particularly regulations involving safety and the environment. So they closed their American operations and moved them to China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where there are few if any regulations, were workers are often slave labor or indentured servants and were neither worker safety or the environment is a concern.

It struck me because a couple of weeks ago I needed some socks. So I went to the Marine Corps Exchange on Camp LeJeune. They have numerous supposedly American brands, all the big ones. As I looked through the socks I started noticing that in almost every case they were made in China, except some by Dockers which were made in Pakistan. And this was in a military exchange where even much of the official Marine Corps logo clothing and goods are made in China. So I decided to look at where my clothes were made. In about 5 minutes of sorting I found nothing made in the USA, only a few t-shirts said that the were made of American components but assembled in Honduras. Other clothes, China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Swaziland, Indonesia and Macau.

Electronics, household goods and many other common things that we purchase are little different, many if not most are now made overseas by people that are often slave laborers. So as I watched retailers crushing the one really American family holiday selling goods from everywhere but America I was appalled. When I saw the report of the 109 people killed in the Bangladeshi factory I felt a sense of revulsion about the crass inhumanity of Black Friday and American consumerism.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911

As a historian and a priest I look back at events like the Triangle Shirtwaist of 1911 where 146 workers died and wonder how it is that we can allow ourselves to support economic policies that do the same thing to people in other countries that were common here little more than a century ago. It is like we are engaged in an orgy of buying while people are dying to subsidize the bargains that we get.

So I don’t really know how to feel. I am thankful for the many blessings that I enjoy but I am very torn when I see what is going on, especially when I see the same corporations that profit by these policies squeezing their workers more every day.

So I am going to be more careful to try to not just “buy American.” But I am also going to do what I can to modify my own buying habits within the limits of the current situation. I am also going speak out about the terrible injustices of the outsourcing that has gutted the industrial strength of our country and also allows the practical enslavement of entire peoples by despotic governments propped up by “American” owned companies.

For me this is not simply an American issue, it is a human rights issue and it is the Christian thing to do. As Pope Leo XII wrote in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) in 1891: “If we turn not to things external and material, the first thing of all to secure is to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making. It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies…”

There is much more to write on this but not tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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padresteve:

In light of current leadership scandals involving senior military leaders a look back at Eisenhower and Marshall… Peace, Padre Steve+

Originally posted on Padre Steve's World...Musings of a Passionately Progressive Moderate:

Great military leaders are the products of the militaries in which they serve.  This begins in their early career and includes their education, training, assignments as well as the men that they serve under in their formative years.  They are shaped by the character, doctrine and organization of the military that they serve and are products of the times that they live and serve. Even the difference of a few years can make a major difference in the career path and development of a leader.  Such was the case with two of the great figures of the US Army in World War Two Generals of the Army George Marshall and Dwight David Eisenhower.

George Marshall

The careers of Marshall and Eisenhower prior to the Second World War were somewhat similar but also included major differences that would shape them for their roles in the war.  Marshall was commissioned 13 years…

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Rejecting the “God” of Black Friday

Yes my friends it is that most holy of occasions in American life, the annual celebration of Black Friday where others sane an rational people allow themselves to unleash their animal passions on the floors of our greatest retailers and on the internet.  We have observed the high holy day of Black Friday where Americans of all races and religious persuasions observe a day of sacrifice to the God of consumerism often spending days in preparation carefully hoarding their treasures in hopes of scoring the best deals at the nation’s leading retailers.

Today I can say that I have not even spent a penny on this Black Friday, not even online. I just can’t get into the whole mass psychology marketed by the retailers.  The thought of waiting hours just beat other people to buy some gadget made by salve laborers in China or some other despotic country is frightening. When one realizes that the retailers that cater to our greed not only profit off of slave labor, but also pay their workers low wages, offer few if any benefits for working obscene and often unpredictable hours to maximize their profits one has to wonder about the morality of it all.

In the good news of the day, our local news reports that no one has yet been shot, knifed or trampled to death in any of our local retailers. However I can imagine that customer number 201 in line for the 200 available the $199 HDTVs Wal-Mart or other retailers with a limited numbers of Black Friday “door buster” specials is feeling homicidal or suicidal or possibly both about now.

But I hear that in some places the holiday has been celebrated with much more aplomb than our sleepy city.  I have read about shootings inside and outside of different retailers, incidents where shoppers had to be tasered by police, pepper sprayed by store security officers or even better pepper strayed each other. In one location a lady ran someone down in a mall parking lot, distracted driving appears to be the case. I guess she got a text from another retailer with an unannounced special across town. There is a case where a man kept people in line by pulling out a gun, at least someone is keeping order. I can only image how fun that was for them as they wrestled for all of those really “hot” deals.

I do think that this celebration says something about us now, while many people around the world would be willing to die for a decent meal or freedom of speech we are willing to harm our neighbors because they might be the fist to get the latest gadget for a few dollars less than us.  It seems perverted don’t you think? I can’t imagine Jesus or Thomas Jefferson approving such behavior but it is part and parcel of the culture that we are very much a part of and participate in and that means Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street types and everyone in between because whether we like to admit it we like our stuff and we want it for the best possible price, not that there is anything wrong with that…especially if you are a follower of Ayn Rand’s banal philosophy.

But when we let the urges for stuff overcome our common sense and any sense of decency, decorum or love of our neighbor then maybe we have lost our way.

I guess the fact that after Iraq I am claustrophobic and get panicky in big crowds in enclosed areas now makes me less inclined even to try to go to a major retailer today.  Maybe that makes it easy for me to say these things with relative impunity since the thought of going out in such crowds petrifies me. I certainly am not trying to be judgmental but when I see people doing harm to each other to obtain things that are more than luxuries for most of the world I think that we need to just step back and look at ourselves.

I mean really….We have massive long term unemployment, our country is financially and politically broken, we are facing a “Fiscal Cliff,”  we have troops at war in Afghanistan while the rest of the Middle East is about to go up in flames and bring us even more heartache. So with all that going on we have people fighting each other and some people actually doing physical harm to others for gadgets made in China or Third World countries by what amounts to slave labor.

Even worse we have people in all levels of corporate America that promote this culture and make their living off of the people that are committing crimes to get a deal.  I think that says something about us and that troubles me.  But then I guess I don’t have enough faith in the God of Black Friday.

But why should I have faith in that God? The “God” of Black Friday caters to the darkest nature of self-centered greed and mocks the God who on the real Black Friday, offered himself for the life of the world. The “God” of this Black Friday is the no-God of Ayn Rand and her disciples who despise the crucified God in thought, word and deed.

I wonder what Jesus would do if he stumbled into a Christian book store on Black Friday and found people fighting over a special on WWJD junk or the latest greatest “study Bible” featuring the notes of some prosperity preacher. I don’t think that he would be very happy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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