Daily Archives: December 24, 2009

Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle

Merry Christmas!

I do not throw the word miracle around lightly.  In fact I generally get irritated when I hear people calling things miracles that are no such thing such as giving God credit for the screw ups or successes of people.  I heard of a case recently where someone’s loved one had a preliminary test that showed possible cancer. Of course the person was upset and asked people to pray.  A second confirmation test was done and it turned out that the first was a “false positive.”  False positive tests are a part of the whole medical package, people and machines make mistakes.  The person sent an e-mail out to announce that the test had been a false positive and then proceeded to say that it had to be God healing the relative in question, not a mistake.  I think that to makes such a claim actually cheapens the term “miracle” and does God a disservice.  God at least to my understanding does pretty well on his or her own.   It is like in baseball where an infielder commits an obvious error that is glaring and the official scorer scores the play as a hit.  Now I rejoice that this person’s loved one did not have cancer, but the fact was that they never had cancer to begin with and thus to call the event a miracle is rather silly.  The same is true when a medical team works their ass off to save someone from death, does everything right and makes the save only to have people give all the credit to God.  Once again I have no doubt that God can be involved but to simply write off the efforts of dedicated people is to do a disservice to God.  I think that God is okay with people that he or she created getting credit where credit is due.

Miracles are rare and not everything is a miracle.  So when I say that I am experiencing a miracle I am certainly not doing so just to make me look deserving or extra spiritual.  Anyone who knows me knows that such a claim would be fraudulent.   I think that miracles related to one’s spiritual and psychological condition are rare and since there is no lab test to prove that you are all better that they are difficult to quantify.  When I hear people talk about being completely “healed” in such matters I am a wait and see kind of person, as Ronald Reagan once said: “Trust but verify,” especially in regard to anything to do with me, simply because I don’t want to look like an ass or by my claims make God look stupid when they do not pan out.

The past couple of years have been the hardest of my life.  I have talked about the effects of PTSD, issues with my father’s Alzheimer’s disease, my own sense of alienation and isolation, anxiety, depression and the crisis of faith that I experienced quiet a few times so I will not rehash them in this essay.  The reality is that they are a reality that I have had to try to come to grips with.  For most of this time I have existed in a world where everything hurt and I struggled to believe.  Imagine having to pray for people when you are wondering if God even exists at times.  To put it mildly it sucks.   That has been my world, despite my expertise at what I do and the pent up knowledge that exists in the gray matter mounted in my bald brain housing group it has been a struggle to keep going.

While PTSD, anxiety and depression are major issues I think the thing that made them worse was how alone I felt and how it seemed that God had abandoned me.  I think that was actually more frightening than the nightmares, insomnia, fear and everything else associated with my experience in and return from Iraq.  I believe, at least from my experience that a crisis of faith and feeling alienated and abandoned by God is one of the most frightening and dehabilitating things that can happen to a Priest or any other minister.  In fact I am pretty sure that when you ask ministers who have left the ministry that somewhere in their experience is a crisis of faith. That might be hidden by other circumstances but I’m pretty sure that it is there.

Christmas in Iraq…The Last Time I Felt the Presence of God…until Now

The past 22 months since returning from Iraq have been a terrible ordeal in an emotional and spiritual sense, however something has begun to happen and I cannot place my finger on it but somehow I am beginning to feel touched buy the grace of God again.  It actually began quite unexpectedly.  I came home from a disastrous trip to visit my parents in November completely wiped out and depressed.  It seemed that I had crashed yet again and I expected that this Christmas would be no different than that of last year where I left Mass before it began and walked for an hour in the dark and cold wondering where God had gone.  So when things started to happen, beginning ironically with the experience of performing the last rites for a patient in our ER and experiencing a number of other situations where I again felt part of something bigger than me I was surprised.  Lo, even astonished at events that I couldn’t explain were happening as well as the fact that people care for me, all kinds of people, co-workers, friends from baseball, friends from Gordon Biersch and friends from church.  I think that is where I began to realize that God might just care and maybe that there was hope for me again that maybe what I did mattered.

Today was a busy day as I walked about the medical center.  I saw the work of my physician, nurse, corpsmen and technicians of various sorts as they fought to save the lives of people.  I spent time with our staff as they worked to stabilize a very sick child for transport to another hospital in a last ditch attempt to save the child’s life as the child’s mother looked on.  I watched our ER team assisted by one of our anesthesiologists from the ICU work to save the life of an elderly man and get him to the ICU.  I saw surgeons and neurologists evaluating and working with a fairly young man who is in dire straits.  For all of these folks Christmas Eve and Christmas day are days that they are “in the fight.” They are days where the miracle is real, but not evidenced to all.  I am amazed by the skill, dedication and care of all of these folks who are attempting to ensure that Christmas does not end badly for others, both the patients in their charge as well as their family members.

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.

Now I know that I still have some hurdles in regard to my PTSD and that I am still not a “full up round” spiritually, but I have hope again. I am not the same Christian or Priest that I was before Iraq.  I have changed in a lot of ways, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  I know I have a long way to go, but for the first time in this see that I might actually get there.

I guess that is the miracle. Last year I dreaded the very thought of Christmas and this year I look forward to the Advent of Jesus, the Christ.  That in the middle of life and death, experiencing pain, alimentation and all that I have described that something has touched my life and I have hope again.  Tonight the Abbess is singing at her 5 PM Mass while I attend the 6 PM Mass over at Saint James Episcopal on my way home from work.  When we get home we will have dinner together, open presents, watch Molly open her presents and probably if I have my way watch funny Christmas movies and specials as we spend the night together.

I pray that you will experience some measure of grace this Christmas, or whatever you celebrate.  I do pray that God will protect us all and that we will be able to experience together the grace, mercy and peace of God.

Merry Christmas my friends, thank you for being there for me this year.

As Tiny Tim said at the end of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: “May God bless us all.”


Padre Steve+


Filed under faith, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion

Padre Steve’s Meditation on the Nativity

“Actually, Lucy, my trouble is Christmas. I just don’t understand it. Instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down.” Charlie Brown in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

When Christmas comes and you struggle with faith, see little hope and even despair of life, even the thought of Christmas coming can make the season even more difficult.  I know, I have gone through this since my return from Iraq.  Christmas 2008 was so frightful due to PTSD symptoms, insomnia, anxiety, depression and a crisis in faith that I could see little to hope in.  It was so difficult that before Mass began at the Abbess’s parish that I couldn’t stay.  I walked home in the cold and dark, not directly home but the long way looking up at the heavens and wondering if God was even there.  For the first time in my life I could really relate to Charlie Brown.  That as I have mentioned before was actually a terrifying thought.  Even in the darkest of times in seminary I never lost hope and always felt something special at Christmas.  In Iraq in 2007 I felt an incredible closeness to God as I traveled about to my advisers along the Iraqi-Syrian border having the chance to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Eucharist and spend time with our guys and distributing toys, school supplies and cold weather clothing to Bedouin families who invited us in for Ch’ai tea and food.  But in 2008 faith was dry and hope, well hope was something that I prayed for as I walked home that Christmas Eve.

This year has been one of ups and downs but I have noticed that I have been feeling better the past few weeks.  Yes I still have problems sleeping but I am actually trying to get to bed earlier but I still have my struggles with faith and God but unlike last year I am looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation.  The message of “Emmanuel, God with Us” is something that I find resonating again.  Maybe it was in that moment a couple of weeks back where I was on call and ended up having the blessing of doing an anointing, or “last rites” of a retired Navy doctor who had done his internship at my hospital and having the experience of having him breathe his last as I completed the rites.  There was something miraculous about that man, his life and faith that allowed the Deity Herself to somehow let me be on call and respond with exactly what he desired in his final moments on this earth.  Maybe it was running into a lady who had spent two months in our ICU earlier in the year.  At numerous times her condition was so critical that it appeared that she would die. However she spotted me is I was filling my cup of water and ice in the hospital food court and pulled me aside.  She was doing great and thanked me for being there for her.  Then there were other times where I was able to get outside of my problems and be part of other people’s lives, many times those who are critically ill like Sadie Harrell who on her death bed took the time to bless those around her, give directions to her family and before asking for more pain medications telling me that it was time to pray.   I could give the accounts of numerous people, staff and patients at our hospital as well as people at church, friends that I have known for years and people that I have gotten to know through this website and Facebook as well as my friends at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish and Gordon Biersch.

Some of those have been through responses of people to what I write on this website.  A few days ago I heard from the son of my ROTC training NCO Master Sergeant Harry Zilkan who passed away a few years back.  I talked about Sergeant “Z” in my post “Remembering the Veterans in my Life.”  I was honored to hear from him and hear how much he appreciated what I said about his dad.  When I started this site back in February I saw it as an outlet for me, and that it has been, at the same time I find that there are people very much like me who have walked in similar shoes who have been blessed by what I write.  This is actually quite humbling.

Like I said this year has been different. I still have a hard time with prayer though extemporaneous prayer on the behalf of others is becoming relatively normal again even if I still have not been able to resume my regular prayers of the Daily Office which died during Lent because they had become rote and were more of a duty than a part of life.  I had never expected that, but I think I will use the Nativity to begin again.

This has been a year of transition as I have struggled with a crisis of faith, the seeming absence of God, PTSD, anger, depression and anxiety the condition of my father with his Alzheimer’s disease and problems dealing with my mother.  Likewise, I find that the feeling of being vulnerable, weak and the pain of having to deal with all of those emotions for the first time that I can remember is not where I want to be, but does give me empathy for those who have lived with these feelings for years.  In a sense I have began to be part of that community.  At the same time despite all of this that faith is returning and I can sense hope again.  Even the Scriptures for the season and the songs and carols are touching me again.  The sense of tradition in the liturgy at church has been good for me since beginning to attend Saint James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth.  I am finally beginning to hope again.

For me this comes in “the fullness of time” at least my time. The scripture from Galatians comes to mind. This is part of the Sunday liturgy for the Sunday after Christmas this year:

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’ 7So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.* Galatians 4:4-7 NRSV

I once again feel the message of deliverance spoken of by the prophet Zephaniah:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more. Zephaniah 3:14-15

Tonight I will be at Saint James even as the Abbess sings at the 5 PM Mass at her parish.  I am looking forward to the Mass tonight.

I do pray that whatever you are doing tonight and regardless of whether you are a Christian or not that you will know joy, peace and the presence of God this season.  I think of the Jewish physicians at the Medical Center who are covering today and tomorrow to allow their Christian colleagues to attend services and be with their families.  God bless you guys, you’re the best!

As I said yesterday, Merry Christmas or whatever you do.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, PTSD, Religion