Category Archives: Pastoral Care

Churches that Ignore: The Mega-Church and the Least, the Lost and the Lonely

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“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to be that sick.”

The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”

The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  My philosophy of religion professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”

Unfortunately my old pastor, and many more like had stopped doing Christian theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue of the lack of care confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.

Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care. Having attended a number of these churches, and worked for a prominent television evangelist I can sadly report seeing this first hand many times.

Sometimes this problem it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church.  In that church the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.

No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is primarily a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care, although sadly there are Catholic priests who do not see themselves as care givers.

The “by design” issue is more far more troubling as the focus of the church is growth, sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.  Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Courses dealing with Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History which offer timeless lessons for pastors.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.

With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.  Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.
The home groups or cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time in San Antonio that is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a clinical social worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.

Most home groups are not that fortunate.  There are unhealthy groups which are led by people who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Others who do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God. Often this is because sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or that their problems don’t match up with their church theology.

My wife and I know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.

I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.

Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house Christian counseling programs or refer members to Christian counseling services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.
The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?

Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint John of the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?

Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular people who populate their pews, by their books and give to their ministry, even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.

James’s “right strawy epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Pastoral Care

The Closet of Anxieties and Maybe a Good Night Sleep: Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

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Not much to write tonight. I thought of re-posting an older article but I figured instead just a few words.

Last night I didn’t sleep well, and then my older dog Molly woke me up an hour early and remained restless. When I got to work I felt anxious for no real reason as life is pretty good for me. Perhaps the anxiety was the fact that I went to get back in therapy for PTSD and insomnia and the visit, which was an intake visit caused me to have to re-visit a lot of memories from Iraq.

Likewise I think that much of what I am feeling has a direct like to Iraq. Whenever bad things happen there I get upset and anxious. I left so much of myself in that country and I have been even more concerned and even upset about what is going on in Iraq the past few weeks, especially this week.

When I got to work this morning I was replying to a text message and saw my hand trembling. When I am anxious it feels like there is an electrical current running through my body. I find the experience to be distinctly disturbing. I worry so much about Iraq, the Iraqis that I served alongside and get angry about the terrible cost borne by the Iraqi people and the U.S. and coalition forces who fought and sacrificed their after the ill-advised and stupid decision of the Bush Administration to attack Iraq. That administration sowed the wind and now we and the Iraqis are reaping the whirlwind. It is a massive human tragedy and I cannot shake the memories of my time there, likewise I so wish that there was something that I could do to help other than pray. When I think about my time in Iraq I feel much like T.E. Lawrence who wrote:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

Today was also a day where I did a lot of counseling with staff members at the college. Those events triggered ideas about doing an article on the experiences of my friends that are Christians but happen to be gay. For those that have never met a gay Christian, or rather don’t think that you know any this might not be something you want to read when I get around to doing it. 

I did the invocation at the 239th Birthday celebration for the U.S. Army at the Staff College. That was kind of cool because I spent the first 17 1/2 years of my military life in the Army before I transferred with a reduction in rank to the Navy in 1999.

This afternoon I got together with my old assistant who kept me safe in many sporty situations in Iraq. He has since retired from the Navy and the visit was awesome.

Tomorrow, Judy and I will be attending the Elton John Concert so I don’t know if I will put anything up tomorrow. If I do it will probably be the re-run that I almost ran tonight.

Since I have an early dental follow up appointment I will sign off for the night, unless something emerges out of my closet of anxieties to interrupt.

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Anyway, have a good night my friends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Loose thoughts and musings, Pastoral Care, PTSD

Frightened by Christians

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“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Mahatma Gandhi

I expect that this article might make some people uncomfortable but it is something that I need to write.

I am a Christian. I am a Priest and I am a Navy Chaplain. But for the most part I am afraid of Christians. There are many reasons for this. Some are more general in the way I see Christians treat others; their own wounded as well as non-believers, the political machinations of pastors and “Christian” special interest groups masquerading as ministries.

But most of why I am afraid is because what I have experienced at the hand of many Christians, some of whom I had counted as friends many of whom are pastors, priests or chaplains. To experience rejection or being shamed by people that you thought were friends is very hard, especially when that at one time you trusted them implicitly to care for you. However to be rejected by those that you trusted “in the name of God, ” or rather because you violated supposedly “correct” doctrinal beliefs about God is frightening.

It seems to me that with many Christians and churches that the “unconditional” love of God that they proclaim not really unconditional. It is totally conditional on believing what they believe or behaving in the way they think that you should.

For those that do not know me or my story I am a career military officer with over 30 years of service between the Army and Navy. I have been a chaplain since 1992 and served in the National Guard, Army Reserve, Active Duty Army and the Navy. I am a trained hospital chaplain; I have a great academic background. I went to Iraq in 2007 and came home with a terrible case of severe chronic PTSD. I still suffer from some anxiety, depression and plenty of insomnia. I find mental health care hard to get in my new assignment and I realize how woefully unprepared that our medical system, military, VA and civilian is to care for that vast numbers of veterans like me.

After Iraq I suffered a collapse of my faith and for close to two years was a practical agnostic. Only my deep sense of call and vocation kept me going and there were times that I wondered if I would be better off dead.

When faith returned through what I call my Christmas miracle it was different. I totally relate to author Anne Rice who said:

“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

I have always questioned a lot but after my crisis of faith I began to see through the bullshit. I began to not only question things my former church taught, but openly stated my convictions about how we treat others as Christians, the equality of people in general and tolerance for those different than us including gays and Moslems who for some Christians are rather low on the scale of those that God might love.

After Iraq I was sickened by the crass politicization of conservative American Christianity and many of its leaders. Men and women who advocate war without end, be it real wars against “enemies” of American, or promote a culture war even against other Christians that they do not like or agree with. Of course this is all done in “Jesus name.”

Likewise I question the opulence and materialism of the church. I question the nearly cult like focus and near worship accorded to the Pastor-CEOs of the megachurches and the television preachers and teachers. I wonder in amazement about how many of these leaders live like royalty and have devoted followers who despite repeated scandals treat them as the voice of God.

Along with the that I question the preference of many American Christian leaders for the rich and their disdain for the poor, the alien and the outcasts among us. I don’t know where where they get it.

All of that got me thrown out of a church that I had served 14 years a priest and chaplain back in 2010. I thought I had a lot of friends in that church. I still have some that keep in contact with me but after my dismissal most abandoned me. That hurts worse than anything.

In fact when I came home from Iraq in crisis and falling apart the first person who asked about how I was doing with God was not clergy. It was my first shrink. I was asked by a commanding officer after Iraq “where does a chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other chaplains.”  The sad thing is that man who did care about me suffered untreated terrible PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury and committed suicide earlier this year.

I have had a few experiences this week that have opened that wound again and reminded me of why I am afraid of many that call themselves Christians. I had a friend comment on some coarse language I used in a rant on a social media site, the friend noted a certain word that I used was used to silence others.

I replied that he was wrong, that the ultimate way to silence others was to invoke God and shame them. That is the ultimate trump card because no one is bigger than God.

The good thing is that when he realized why I had said the word and realized what he said had further wounded me and understood a bit of what I was going through he was quite gracious, sympathetic and apologetic. He is still a friend and he means a lot to me. Thankfully there was not another broken relationship.

But my friend’s initial comment made me realize how many of us as Christians, even well meaning people, focus on outward behaviors, words or actions of others without understanding what they are going through. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”

I am thankful that I have a number of friends including a good number of Christians from various backgrounds who have stood by me even if they disagree with my theology, politics or favorite baseball team.

That being said with the exception of such
people who have been with me through thick and thin I am almost terrified of being around Christians. Church in most cases is a frightening place for me, and the sad fact is that if I were not already a Christian there is little in American Christianity that would ever cause me to be interested in Jesus.  I can totally understand why churches are hemorrhaging members, especially young people and why the fastest growing religious preference in our society is “none” for I too am in some sense an outcast.

As Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) said in the movie Major League: “I Like Jesus very much, but he no help with curveball.”

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, Political Commentary, PTSD

Easter and the Outcasts: For Many the Season is Painful

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Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit” (Mercy)

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

It is now Holy or Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum. Mid-way through Holy Week and I am doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media. Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many Christians Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of the season. People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and loneliness. For some this loneliness can transition to a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because so many people suffering people often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or another type of trauma that devastates them. Others find that they are rejected by the communities of faith that they had been part of all of their lives because of divorce or because of their sexual preference. However, no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Many pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people to the message of Easter. I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself. It is not so bad this year for me but I can remember coming home from Iraq and going through an extended period of time where I felt absolutely alone and no longer sensed the presence of God. I have to say that as a Priest and Chaplain that experience was one of the most frightening of my life.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out. I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.

Call me a heretic but I do not believe that now. That line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life. However it is absolutely stupid advice to give people who are severely traumatized, clinically depressed, and suicidal or who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives. This is especially true for those abused by parents or clergy. That kind of wound does damage to the victim’s very concept and understanding of God which can last a lifetime, and in some churches leads to continued re-victimization as the victims are blamed for their plight.

Thus I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or any other psychological reason. The numbers of people victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures is mind numbing. Likewise we don’t even bother to count the vast numbers of people in our churches who have lost children or other loved ones, experienced some kind of physical trauma related to accidents, had near death experiences or combat deal with the wounds of war. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage makes it nearly impossible for people to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach. To some God is at best a detached and uncaring being who allowed them to be hurt, and those that serve him in positions of authority are willing accomplices and are no safe.

My experience of coming home from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening. I was in such bad shape that I left Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 before it started and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed. My isolation from other Christians and the church community and despair that I experienced showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with by care givers. Nor is it to be papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up by “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always express how they feel cut off and even abandoned by God. It is also something that I experienced, thus for me it is not an academic exercise. It is not simply depression that people are dealing with, but despair of life itself. Sometimes it seems that death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life. It is if they never are able to leave the “God-forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb. For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach for the person experiencing this pain to reach out but it is also difficult for those who care enough to reach out to them. I can say that I was not easy to deal with and because of my distrust it was hard to believe that anyone cared, even when they did. However the people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage helped get me through the worst of this. I’m sure that some who had to deal with me in that condition got burned out as I was not easy to deal with. Some chose not walk with me as I began to go down this road in early 2008 and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains. In some ways I don’t blame them. However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday. He is the battered and abandoned victim on that day, a day when all hope appears to be gone. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote something quite profound:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But this can be hard to do, we don’t like dealing with suffering. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian. Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with walking with and holding on to those who suffer the absence of God. It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Sweet Dreams: The Desire of Those that Return Traumatized by War

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Sweet dreams are made of this

Who am I to disagree?

I travel the world and the seven seas

Everybody’s looking for something… (Sweet Dreams- Eurythmics) 

The night before last Judy woke me up as I was screaming. For her it was very real, her husband was screaming in his sleep. For me, I do remember her waking me, and I remember parts of the ream. I was being attacked in a small space and somehow it related to my time in Iraq. Unfortunately it was not an isolated occurrence. It is

My dreams are strange, parts are logical, other parts disjointed and disturbing, while other parts are frightening. My dreams and nightmares, the two are frequently indistinguishable have increased in intensity since I returned from Iraq in 2008. Sleep at best is fitful. Some nights I get a few hours of decent sleep, but most nights that is not the case.

The night before last the dreams, or as they might better be described as nightmares dealt with Iraq. They were not logical, parts of my tour blended into others but in my dreams, in my subconscious I was back in Iraq, with people familiar and unfamiliar. When Judy woke me I was screaming a a woman dressed in a hajib. The last place I encountered women dressed in such apparel I was at the border crossing between Iraq and Syria at Al Waleed.

Actually I don’t know why that incident and memory triggered my nightmare. At Waleed the scariest thing occurred when I was in a meeting where the senior Iraqi Officer and senior American officer. They had to confront and relieve of his duties the Iraqi senior logistics officer who had been selling coalition and Iraqi military fuel to the insurgents who were killing Americans and Iraqis in great numbers. No women were at that meeting, but many were at the crossing point. However, I was at the meeting and was the only unarmed man in a room which resembled a Mafia meeting more than anything I hand been trained to do or experienced before that time.

It was an interesting experience. I was one of three Americans in the room along with an interpreter. There were Iraqi officers and soldiers, most believed to be allies, but also the man who was playing both sides of the street and others that might or might have not been his confederates. The really scary thing that I remember to this day was the accused officer’s appeal to me as the Chaplain, Priest and Imam. It was the first time in my life where someone who was doing something so wrong appealed to me as a representative of God to defend him. I felt soiled, dirty and dishonored. How could a man involved in criminal activity appeal to an representative of God to defend his actions?

I did my best to to deflect the conversation back to the Iraqi Commander and his American, but to this day the incident haunts me. I am disturbed by how the man appealed to me as a representative of God to vouch for his malfeasance. That still frightens me because of how often I see religious people from every tradition and faith appeal to any representative of God to justify their misdeeds. It almost felt like I was a new Priest stuck in the middle of a meeting of Mafia types, each appealing to me as the representative of God. It makes me distrust all who would do the same to this day.

Sweet dreams would be so nice. A full night sleep without being woken up screaming would be incredible. Unfortunately it seems that my brain has been re-wired by PTSD. I know that there are studies that suggest that PTSD is both a psychological as well as physical condition, the physical being the changes wrought in the brain of the afflicted.

How often I long for a good night sleep. Unfortunately no matter what I do I do not think that I will ever enjoy sweet dreams again. That is something that I wold never want to contemplate, but six years after returning from Iraq I see little reason to thing that things will change. Nonetheless I will do my best.

Maybe the upcoming baseball season will help soothe my demons and allow me to sleep again.

At least I can hope…can’t I?

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

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“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

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My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.”

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.

I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care,  my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 80-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain.

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a  faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

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In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt. I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

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So today this wounded healer will celebrate a special Christmas at home. My wife and I will celebrate a Mass, enjoy a Christmas dinner with our dogs, Molly and Minnie. Depending on how she feels we will either go out to a movie or watch one at home.

I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on these posts. You are appreciated, some are lengthly and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. If you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Where I Belong: Padre Steve and the Christmas Truce

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Christmas 2007 COP South, Al Anbar Province Iraq

“I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Father Palmer, the Chaplain in Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)

Last night I again watched the film classic Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) which is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it.

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead.  His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

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Father Palmer Tending the Wounded

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within a country.

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The Bishop Leads His “Service” 

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“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.”  Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

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Christmas Eve 2007 with the Bedouin 

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisors without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care.  So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

It has been six years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Severe and Chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy.  It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.  

As for me I am in a better place now. I still suffer some of the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but I do believe again. Like the Priest in the movie I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” Like Paul Tillich I have come to believe that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” 

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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The Season of Hope: Advent and PTSD

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“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.” Jürgen Moltmann

Advent and Christmas are my favorite times of the Church year. But that being said I don’t see them in isolation from the rest of the Church year, especially Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. In fact they cannot be divorced from them. However for me the mystery of the incarnation and the season of waiting in hope is incredibly important in a world that mystery is unappreciated and waiting is an annoyance.

The beginning of Advent stands in stark contrast to the false God of Black Friday. Black Friday is marked by a materialistic rush for all that satiates our desires. Waiting takes a back seat to the throngs of shoppers lined up for a mad rush at retail outlets.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea I am not against business making profits or people saving money. However that being said the stark contrast between the crass materialism exhibited by our consumerist culture that is blessed by many Christian Conservatives and the message of Advent and Christmas.

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The starkness between the two really became apparent to me when I returned from Iraq in 2008 suffering from severe and chronic PTSD. It  something that still plagues me though not to the extent that it did for a long time. During that terrible time hope was hard to come by. In the midst of the madness I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic just praying that God still existed. Only my deep sense of calling as a Priest and Chaplain kept me going as I served in the ICUs of a major medical center working with people facing death and their families.

On Christmas Eve of 2008 I was doing so bad that I handed my wife the keys to our car at the Christmas Eve Mass where she was singing in the choir and walked home in the dark and cold. If there had been a bar within a few blocks I would have walked in and poured myself out. I understood the depth of hopelessness that Dante wrote about.

But a year later I experienced what I call my “Christmas miracle” while administering the last rites to a dying patient in our emergency room. It was a miracle and for the first time since Iraq I felt the mystery and wonder of Advent and the Incarnation.

Faith returned, albeit different. In place of the certitude that marked my previous faith I was now open to new possibilities as well as being okay with doubt. I rediscovered, or maybe better put discovered the importance of being human, something that the Gospel makes so clear when it comes to the humanity of Jesus. Jürgen Moltmann wrote of the incarnation:

“God became man that dehumanized men might become true men. We become true men in the community of the incarnate, the suffering and loving, the human God.” 

In a sense I was born again in that emergency room that Advent night. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Advent creates people, new people.” That I agree with.

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However there are some that profess to have a direct line to God who neither understand faith, life or humanity. On a Veteran’s day broadcast of The Believe’s Voice of Victory two of them made some incredibly ignorant comments about PTSD. Kenneth Copeland the host of the program a long time prosperity Gospel charlatan and huckster and the faux historian David Barton made the comments that real Bible believing Christians could not get PTSD. Copeland stated:

“Any of you suffering from PTSD right now, you listen to me. You get rid of that right now. You don’t take drugs to get rid of it, it doesn’t take psychology; that promise right there [in the Bible] will get rid of it.

But truthfully there is no promise in the Bible that says that you get rid of PTSD or any other neurological condition. The fact is that many Fundamentalist Christians believe that such conditions are a product of the sin of the individual. Something that they take from Douglas Adams’ “Nouthetic” or “biblical” counseling. Adams’ who believes that mental illness, including PTSD is not a “sickness” but due to the “sinfulness” of the afflicted person. This really is not much different than what Scientology preaches but it finds a home in many Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christian circles.

Barton added to Copeland’s ignorance showing that he is not only an ignorant pseudo historian but a danger to any person suffering from PTSD. Barton said:

“What we’re talking about, getting rid of the PTSD, guys who have been through battle, they need to understand that soldier’s promise, you come back guiltless before God and the nation…You’re on an elevated platform up here, you’re a hero, you’re put in the faith hall of fame if you take this [Bible],…We used to in the pulpit understand the difference between a just war and an unjust war. And there’s a biblical difference, and when you do it God’s way, not only are you guiltless for having done that, you’re esteemed.”

To cut to the chase these men believe that if you are a soldier suffering from PTSD it must be your sin causing it. Likewise if you are Barton you believe that if you kill in the name of Jesus it is not a sin, you are a hero of the faith. That sounds a lot like Al Qaeda’s understanding of killing in the name of Allah, and some people get mad at me when I call men like Barton “Christian Taliban.” But if the shoe fits they can eat it.

Barton, Copeland and their fellow travelers embody the worst of modern Evangelicalism and their type of Christianity is why young people in particular are leaving the church and not coming back. They are anti-science, anti-reason, anti-history and dare I say, Anti-Christ. Reducing the Bible to a technical manual they strip the mystery of faith and life out of the scriptures. Their certitude flows from a combination of arrogance and ignorance. Devoid of compassion, and love, consumed by the lust for power they are dangerous. Armed with money and air time they spread ignorance and hatred of others not like them and call it “the Gospel.”

Like Black Friday they too stand in stark contrast to the message of the Gospel proclaimed during Advent and Christmas as well as the week of the Passion.

For me, still suffering from PTSD I find great comfort and hope in the message of the season of Advent. It was during Advent that my faith and life returned.

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Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” Gal 4:4-5

Now I look forward to the coming of Jesus, but on a daily basis, in the life I live in the real world where people like me struggle. It is the world that Jesus

I look forward to this time of hope and patient expectation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Living the Nightmares: PTSD and Iraq Six Years Later

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“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”  Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier

Last week I woke up screaming thanks to some nightmare brought to me in high definition by PTSD. It woke Judy and both of the dogs up and well, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. Unfortunately this happens more often than I would like it to. When I was stationed away from home in North Carolina it was only Molly my faithfully dog who was disturbed by this, now I wake up Judy and our younger Papillon Minnie, or Minnie Scule as is her full name.

This afternoon I read a story of a Marine veteran who lost his battle with PTSD, taking his own life. I see a lot of these stories and each one makes me wonder what s going on and gives me pause when I think just how bad I was doing not too long ago.

It is hard for me to believe that nearly six years after I returned from Iraq that I still have a lot of trouble sleeping, though less trouble than a couple of years ago and that my nightmares associated with war still return with more regularity than I would like. Likewise it is hard for me to believe how much my life is impacted by this. I still experience a fair amount of hyper-vigilance, crowds of people are difficult and the craziness of traffic on the local freeways causes me a fair amount of distress.

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Despite that I am doing a lot better than I was even a year or so ago when I was still struggling a lot more than I am now and let’s say 4 years ago when there were times I wondered why I was still alive. Of course the time from 2008-2010 was probably the worst time of my life when it seemed that everything that I had believed in had melted away. I didn’t know if God existed, I felt abandoned by my former Church and even by many peers. The only thing that kept me going was a deep sense of call and vocation as a Priest and Chaplain, even though I was for all practical purposes an agnostic who was praying that maybe God still might exist.

Those who have been with me on this blog over the years know how central that struggle has been. I have written about it many times.

Though I am doing much better than I was I still have my times of doubt, times of fear and times of absolute panic. I do what I can to manage but once in a while something will trigger a response. The biggest problem still is sleep and vivid dreams and nightmares. Once I finish the course I am in I am going to get back into therapy a couple of times a month. Thankfully my new job after I complete the school will be more academic with a small chapel where I serve the Students of the Joint Forces Staff College.

Physically I am doing much better, in terms of overall health and physical fitness. I am playing softball again and my PT regimen is much better. Spiritually I can say that being active in having a Chapel where I celebrate Eucharist in a small setting has been good for me. Having to preach again from the lectionary readings is a good thing. Likewise getting a break from five years of hospital ministry, dealing with death, suffering and psychological issues is good. After Iraq I threw myself into the most difficult areas of hospital ministry, the critical care Intensive Care Units hoping that such work would help bring me out of my own issues. Unfortunately, it made it more difficult.

Being at home again is good. I just wish that my nightmares would not cause distress to the rest of my little family. However, it is nice when after they look at me like I am nuts one or both dogs come to me and help calm me down.

I quoted Guy Sajer, the author of the classic book The Forgotten Soldier. If anyone wants to understand something about what war does to a person and see PTSD in non-clinical terms I think it is possibly the best book to read.

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Since I have gone to war and experienced fear on a daily basis out in the hinterlands of Al Anbar Province with small groups of American Marines and Soldiers and Iraqi troops I understand a bit of what Sajer writes. My war was different, out with advisors on small Iraqi basis, traveling in dangerous areas far from any big American units, occasionally being shot at and seeing the devastation of war in that unfortunate country,  though my experience of war pales in comparison with what Sager describes.

That being said I do understand in ways that I never did before. Sajer makes a comment which I think is incredibly appropriate for those that read of war without having ever experienced it. too often is the case in the United States and Western Europe where very few ever put on a uniform and even fewer experience war. Sager wrote:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual.

One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary. 

One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

This weekend I will visit the Gettysburg Battlefield as part of a staff ride. I have been there a good number of times but not since I returned from Iraq. Thus in a sense it will take on new meaning, especially when I walk those hallowed fields of battle where so many died and so many more were maimed in our own terrible Civil War.

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That being said I wonder if the solution to my nightmares is to go back to Iraq someday like so many WWII, Korea and Vietnam veterans have done to the places that they served. That has to remain in the future, but hopefully I will get the chance and maybe by then Iraq will at last be at peace.

Tonight I will attempt to sleep and hopefully what dreams I have, though they be high definition will at least not be nightmares that disturb Judy or the dogs.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part IV: The Minefields of the Flesh, Sex, Alcohol and Money

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This is fourth part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the third of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. The first three parts are linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart 

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part Three: The Minefields of the Soul: Power and Arrogance

Dear Chaplain

It has been about a week since my last letter concerning the minefields that so easily ensnare those in the various Military Chaplain ministries. This section of my letter to you will be of the more practical type of advice and less philosophical and theological than the first several installments even though at the heart these observations are both theological and philosophical.

I chose the title of this section carefully because I do think that the way a number of New Testament writers deal with the subject of sin, calling it “the flesh” as opposed to “the spirit” is appropriate to the topic.

I think that people of my generation and earlier had a very high view of clergy. We didn’t think that they could do much wrong. Of course we all knew that they did but we didn’t like to talk about it, even productions such as Elmer Gantry did little to dissuade us from our beliefs that Ministers, Priests and Rabbis were somehow morally and certainly spiritually better than us. Even Hollywood maintained the myth, movies like The Bells of St Mary’s showed the essential goodness of the parish priest, while The Fighting 69th in which Pat O’Brien played the legendary Father Duffy, a man both streetwise and holy became the quintessential Chaplain of his generation.

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In fact the prayer that he prays in the movie is one that I have echoed in my career as a Chaplain and I am sure that many others have as well.

“Almighty God, in Thine infinite mercy grant me, thy servant, the wisdom to guide my young flock through the trials of war. Oh, Father, they’re so young. So young and they know so little of life and nothing at all of that terrible and bloody altar towards which they move, carrying so eagerly the bright sacrifice of their youth. Their need will be great, O Lord, and I am weak. Therefore, I beseech thee through Thy Son, Christ, our Lord, grant me the strength to keep them steadfast in the faith, in decency and courage to the glory of God, their country, and their regiment in the bad times to come. And if in battle you see fit to gather them to your protecting arms, thy will be done, but let them die like men, valiant and unafraid.”

Of course there is Father Mulcahy of the movie and television series M*A*S*H. I actually liked the portrayal of him by William Christopher in the series better than the movie, perhaps because he became more than a bit player, but like many real life chaplains of every denomination an integral part of the life of his unit. His struggles are the same that many of us who serve as chaplains. In one episode he says to Hawkeye “For some time now, I’ve been comparing the disparity of our callings – Doctor versus priest. You fellows are always able to see the end result of your work. I mean, you know immediately if you’ve been successful. For me, the results are far less tangible. Sometimes… most of the time… I honestly don’t know whether I’m doing any good or not.” 

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The film and television portrayals of chaplains such as Father Duffy and Father Mulcahy are inspiring, as are the examples of so many good men and women who have served as military chaplains. Some of these even gave their lives in combat so others might live, or placed themselves in harms way to be the the visible representation of God’s presence in places that God himself seems to have abandoned.

That being said there are minefields that exist which even the most noble, caring  and committed Chaplains can fall victim. They primarily lie in the real of Sex, Alcohol and Money, what we referred to as “SAM” when I was an Army Chaplain. Those are general categories to which unfortunately we need to discuss, illicit drugs, disobeying lawful orders and simple rudeness. I will save the issues of disobeying lawful orders and simple rudeness for part five, or Part V as they say in Roman numerals.

At any given time there are between a half a dozen and dozen military chaplains serving time at either Leavenworth or one of the regional Brigs. Others end up in trouble, are disciplined and then discharged from the the service often after devastating the lives of those that they served with. Those numbers are not included in the numbers incarcerated.

You wouldn’t think that sex would be a big issue being that we are supposed to be better at keeping our zippers up than others, but this is not always the case. I can cite from personal knowledge case after case where chaplains that I have known from across the denominational spectrum conservatives and liberals alike. Those actions have included heterosexual and homosexual relationships, inside and outside their units and sometimes involved the spouses of their unit members or parishioners.

For some this is due to the isolation that many Chaplains experience, be they married or single. Some are sexual predators, loathsome and evil animals masquerading as good, while others in moments of weakness succumb to temptation. I have had to go into a number of billets where the chaplain just before me had been relieved of their duties for sexual misconduct. Regardless of the reason the real fact of the matter is that when a chaplain is relieved and disciplined for their sexual misconduct their actions radiate out and damage the ministry and reputations of Chaplains who are completely innocent of wrong doing. This is much like how the actions of disgraced televangelists, pastors of large churches and Bishops or Priests implicated in pedophile or other sexual crimes cause problems for others in similar positions who again are without reproach. In every case where I have had to go into such a situation the onus has been on me to help heal the wounds and rebuild the credibility of the Chaplain Corps. This is true for every Chaplain who has to take a job where his or her predecessor was a criminal.

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A Navy Chaplain being taken to the Brig after being convicted at Court Martial for sexual crimes (Marine Corps Times Photo)

Sexuality can be one of the greatest minefields that a military chaplain has to navigate, but there are others less visible that also trip men and women up.

The second major area is alcohol. I know a number of chaplains who have become alcoholics. I like to drink good craft beer, but I do know my limits now and am very careful about my consumption of alcohol. When I first came back from Iraq that was not the case. I did drink too much, mainly because I was in the process of coming apart with severe and chronic PTSD. I almost ended up in a bar fight one night and I am thankful that I never ended up in an accident or involved in any other alcohol related incident. There were times at various conferences that I would sit around and drink late into the night at the hotel with other chaplains going through similar problems as I was going through. For us it was safer than going to our superiors either in our churches or the chaplain corps.

That being said I have seen other Chaplains succumb to alcoholism and know one who in dealing with his own demons from service in Vietnam committed suicide while on active duty. Alcohol is also related to many of the incidents regarding sex, so even if it was not the primary issue it was a factor. I also know a number of chaplains who are involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and fight the battle of sobriety on a daily basis.

Related to alcohol are drugs. This is a relatively new phenomena and in most cases is related to prescription medicines, especially pain killers and anti-psychotics prescribed to treat the wounds of war, injuries and things like PTSD and TBI. Once again these are easy to become addicted to and chaplains are much like others when dealing with chronic pain, PTSD or TBI. Recently I saw something that I never thought I would see and that was a chaplain who tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in Marijuana. I figure that if there is one there probably are more that are using, many who battled addictions before their faith conversions and call to the ministry but when placed under the stress of this ministry go back to old friends.

The last component of SAM is money. I think this is a more difficult area in the Army than the Navy because in the Navy chaplains are not allowed to deal with the Religious Offering Fund, where in the Army a Chaplain at every installation is the Religious Offering Fund Manager. It is said by some that “money is the root of all evil” but I am not sure if that is exactly true in this case. I think that money and the power it brings sometimes reveals the inner character of a man more than anything. The great televangelist scandals of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the continuing saga of corruption at the Vatican Bank and the all too frequent revelations of ministers of all faiths misusing church finances are legend. When I had to manage a relative small installation chapel fund I lived in terror of making an innocent mistake, and thankfully I had an outstanding Chaplain Assistant and Parish Council to work with and maintained close contact with the fund manager at our higher headquarters.

Another issue dealing with money is what we are paid when in a travel status. I know that there are Chaplains who play fast and loose with this and I know people in the travel and disbursing offices who tell me about the actions of chaplains that they have to deal with who are not playing straight with the system. In my case I don’t make claims that I cannot substantiate even if it costs me money. I would rather be absolutely honest on a travel claim and lose money that claim something that I may or may not be entitled to that might cause scandal and bring disrepute to God, my church or the Chaplain Corps.

Money is a great temptation and more than one military Chaplain has fallen to it.

The sad thing about all of this is that most of our religious traditions deal explicitly with all of these matters as do our various Service Regulations and Defense Department Instructions. They are not rocket surgery but they are the downfall of far too many chaplains, many of whom actually came into the ministry and chaplaincy with good motives. Once again I lay a lot of this at the feet of our churches and theological schools which for decades have stressed how to run a church program over any real pastoral or theological formation process.

I am lucky. I have made mistakes but I have had numerous chaplains in both the Army and the Navy help me to see the blind spots and teach me about these things. They span the denominational, theological and even political spectrum. Conservatives, liberals, men and women, Protestants, Catholics, Later Day Saints, Jews and even a Moslem.

I could easily have gone into detail about the specific incidents where I knew the people involved or had to deal with them or follow in their footsteps. Some have made the national media, but somehow to do so would be unseemly, after all I do not work for the National Enquirer or for that matter the Navy or Army Times. That being said the Chaplain Corps of the various services all have by percentage among the highest incidences of misconduct of any officer branch or community and this has been a constant since I began my military career in 1981.

That should be a warning. If you know something is wrong don’t do it. If you are unsure about something ask someone. If you need help get it before your actions destroy the lives of those you serve and bring disrepute to your office, your religious body, the Chaplain Corps of your military service and yes even God. After all God does tend to get the blame for all of the actions of those in his service so be careful, guard your heart and mind and for God sakes keep your zipper up and all appearances thereof.

Until the next installment,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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