Daily Archives: September 15, 2010

A Sea of Contradictions: My Life and Faith since returning from Iraq

Dinner with my Friend, Major General Sabah in Ramadi

“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.But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Since I returned from Iraq I have grown weary of Christians that have all the answers and are more interested in promoting their agenda than actually listening or caring for those wounded in spirit from various forms of trauma including war. Since I returned from Iraq and going through what amounted to a crisis in faith, belief and experience of what I felt to be abandonment by God and many Christians.  I have elected to travel down a path that has been of great benefit but has been filled with difficulty and pain as I both walked through the psychological, spiritual and physical effects of my time in Iraq and, the moral injuries that I incurred and the practical ways that these crisis’ have had on my life and relationships.

On Monday at work we had some of our pastoral care residents presented their research projects which they had worked on during their residency year.  All were well done but one struck me because of its subject and home much I could relate to it.  The subject was “Writing our Way Home” and dealt with how the use of poetry and narrative could help some combat veterans make sense of their world and deal with the trauma that they have experienced.  After Iraq I began to write, initially because it was therapeutic and helped me to begin to start sorting out what was going on with me. It also helped me, especially when I went public on this site about my experience to get outside of my normally severely introverted self. As I began to write regularly it became a part of my life as I struggled to deal with PTSD as well as  spiritual and emotional crises following my tour in Iraq, alienation on my return as well as various family crisis’s.

The understanding that resonated with me was that our stories, the good and the bad, what we believe to be true and what really is true about ourselves and our experiences is all part of who we are. This is something that I experienced in my own pastoral care residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in the 1990s when my supervisor challenged be to stop living in the past and begin to imagine a future that was not a prisoner of my past disappointments and failures.  That was a watershed experience for me and as I began to sort through all of the crap that I was dealing with in CPE and family of origins issues I began to realize that I did not need to live my life in a constant repetition of the past.  Now that realization did not always find a place in my life but in a gradual process I began to escape that past and begin to live in the moment with an eye to the future.

Of course Iraq changed that to some degree, in fact to a large degree. What I experienced there and upon my return to the States shook many of my beliefs about the world, faith and life. The images of American Marines wounded by IED attacks, wounded children and destruction of vast areas of cities, towns and villages coupled with having HUMMVs and Helicopters that I traveled on shot at and having rockets fly over my head changed me, especially when I saw how the war was being covered by both the liberal and conservative media which bore little resemblance to my first hand observations. Even worse was the feeling of being isolated and abandoned when I returned home.  I experienced a crisis in faith that left me a practical agnostic even as I desperately prayed for God to show up.  In fact it was psychotherapist that was the first person to even address my spiritual life after I returned.

When Elmer Maggard asked me: “How are you and the big guy?” I could only say “I don’t know I don’t even know if he exists.”  For a priest and chaplain that was a harrowing admission.  I had entered a world of darkness that I did not believe was possible. I would struggle for another year and a half until during Advent of 2009 things began to change and I began to sense the presence of a loving God again.  My faith began to return but I have to say it is not the same as before I went to Iraq.  I still struggle though most of the time I cannot say that I am a practical agnostic as I do have faith and faith which can be considered orthodox but perhaps more negotiable.

You may ask what I mean by this so I will briefly explain.  First I admit that I do not have the answers that I used to think that I had. Likewise I am a lot more apt to say “I don’t know” or “I struggle with that too” when people tell me of their experiences when struggling with faith or even the existence of God.  I refuse to pass judgment on someone’s faith journey or even if they question God’s existence because I have been there and it is not a comfortable place to live.  I am far more willing to walk with someone thorough that valley of doubt or unbelief because I lived in that valley for over a year. As far as who I frame my world, I am far less likely to pin something as “God’s will” or “an attack of the Devil” than I am to recognize that as human beings that we live in a fallen state and that sometimes things just happen. To quote a popular say “Shit Happens.”  In the middle of this I think the real miracle is that God can give us the grace to go through the most difficult times even when we have no faith at all.  I don’t think that is at all heretical because the experience of Jesus on Good Friday and the scriptural accounts as well as the testimony of 2000 years of Christians tells me that this is true. The miracle in my mind is not being “delivered” from crisis or unbelief but through the grace of God making it though the crisis and return to faith, even if that faith takes a different form.

For me the act of writing both about my experience as well as through fiction or history has been therapeutic and forced me out of my comfort zone.  When I began this site and began to tell my story my friend Elmer the Shrink he asked me if I was really sure that I wanted to open up and become vulnerable as I shared the truth as I believed it to be.  I said that I needed to as I thought people needed to know the reality of what many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were going through.  He told me that what I was doing was risky but let me make the call. 600 posts later, not all of course dealing with what I and other veterans have gone through I can say that it was the right decision.

Our presenter on Monday gave us a few minutes to write something and for me this came quite easily as I was struck by a section of her presentation about how contradictory our life experiences can be. I began to write about those contradictions and will share a bit of that here.

I am a man of faith, a Christian and Priest. I believe but I also doubt and question, in fact there are some times that I feel somewhat agnostic even after the events of last December when faith began to return.  I am much more prone to give the benefit of the doubt to people especially those who struggle with life, faith and even the existence of God. I figure that God is big enough to handle doubt and unbelief while still loving and caring for the person experiencing doubt or unbelief or whose beliefs that may not fit the definition of Christian orthodoxy.

I am a passionate person who is an introvert in an extroverted world both in ministry and the military. I am an intuitive “out of the box” thinker and sometimes rebel.  Yet in spite of this I willingly volunteer to serve the church and the military.  It is interesting because both institutions prize loyalty to the institution, obedience and staying within the lines of prescribed beliefs and traditions.  I believe yet question, I find cause to not agree with what all of my political party or the other political party espouse to the chagrin of the faithful in both parties.

I have learned that there is a healthy tension in this type of life. I do not for the most part follow those that insist that to be a Christian that I must do this and that even though I fully subscribe to the Creeds, the first 7 Ecumenical Councils an Anglican understanding of the Christian faith. Nor do I think that to be to be a “American patriot” that I should vote a certain way, belong to a particular party or follow the agenda of any political party as if it others believe the agenda to be brought down from the mountain by Moses himself.  I have had people on occasion to criticize me for this.  However I cannot allow any political ideology to hold my faith captive, nor can I cast aside the essence of the Christian faith even when I doubt.

One of the things that I find concerning is how it seems to me that many supposedly “conservative” Christians have almost made what I think is a deal with the devil in terms of their political involvement. I think that they are sacrificing a long term witness to short term expedient political alliances with people, particularly “conservative” political talk show host and pundit Glenn Beck that have an antithetical and antagonistic views of historic Christianity.   My concern is more about the faith and witness of the Church than an alliance with someone that appeals to our more base nationalistic ideas than the faith itself.

I have discovered that for the most part I can comfortably live in this tension, in fact I do not think that I was to fall completely to one side or the other be it in faith, social responsibility or politics that my life would be as full as it is, or as some might be thinking now as “full of it as I am.” Whatever… The fact is that I think that as a Christian and as an American that it is okay to live life in balance and with a health appreciation of creative tension.

I have begun to emerge from the darkness of my post Iraq experience and I know that I am still wounded. I know that I still struggle but I now am beginning to see this as a gift.  My faith is not the same as it was, I am not satisfied with simplistic answers or the party lines of people that only care about their agenda especially when they decide that their agenda is God’s will, even if it has nothing to do with the Gospel. I know that sounds kind of snarky to some but I really want to be an authentic Christian not some caricature that is more a picture of the American perversion of the faith than anything found in Scripture or the 2000 year history of the Church.

I believe but I struggle. I will listen to other points of view, including those of people that are not Christian. In fact I found that my Iraqi Muslim friends were much easier to dialogue with and have deep and respectful theological discussions with than many American Evangelicals.  For me that was a watershed moment.

But anyway, this post was not meant to be a treatise on anything but is for me more of a reflection of a dialogue that has been going on in me since my return.  The thing is I know other Chaplains that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan who have experienced the same feelings that I have been working through but do not have a safe place in their churches to heal, and are afforded little time to do self care.  I am concerned for our caregivers that care of veterans like me.  I wonder how many can be real in their faith community without having people run away from them as if they were radioactive, a feeling that many veterans and other trauma victims experience when they attempt to tell their story.

I just hope that I will be able to be there for others who are wounded and suffering as a result of what they experienced in war.

That is all for tonight.  Blessings and peace my friends,

Padre Steve+

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