It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts: Thoughts on the Occasion of 17th Anniversary of Being Ordained a Priest

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“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Earl Weaver

It is hard to believe that it has been 17 years since I was ordained to the Priesthood. A lot has happened since then, much struggle and difficulty but also many blessings, which I think far outweigh the struggles.

I find that over the years I have matured. As a young Priest my goal was to be a great apologist for the faith using theology and history to drive home the points that I wanted to make, often in quite bombastic terms. A dear friend, an Army Chaplain who was once my enlisted Chaplain Assistant in the Army said that I was like a Catholic “Rush Limbaugh.” At the time I wore the moniker with pride, but over the years I see that no mater how sincere my faith, beliefs and arguments were that they were often more a reflection of my own insecurity and need to show that I and my former church were as valid and relevant as the Roman Catholics, Orthodox or Anglicans and certainly much more than Protestants not in Apostolic succession.

Looking back all these years later I have to admit that was quite arrogant. It is from what I understand a common failing in young Priests, Ministers or Rabbis as well as Navy Ensigns, and Army, Marine Corps and Air Force Second Lieutenants. But sometimes, not always in some cases, age and experience sometimes kick the hell out of arrogance and make you a better minister or military officer.

Since I have been through various renditions of the “young minister” or “young officer” phase of life, and each time had my arrogant tendencies exposed and learned that I knew a whole lost less than I thought that I knew. I guess that Earl Weaver was right, it is “what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

My faith journey since being ordained as a Priest has been full of ups and downs. I figure that between deployments, field exercises, underway periods aboard ship, schools and geographic bachelor assignments, not including the numerous overnights as a hospital chaplain while stationed at home that since July of 1996 I have spent about ten of those 17 years apart from my wife Judy. Next month I return home to Virginia to be with her and take a teaching assignment at the Joint Forces Staff College and with any luck and God willing I will spent the next three years with her and our dogs, Molly and Minnie while teaching, writing and serving as the Chaplain at the small chapel that is part of the Staff College. As my Iraqi friends say “Inshallah.”

Likewise my faith journey has been fascinating when I look back on it. Back in the early days I had an absolute certainty about my beliefs. Those beliefs would be shaken by experiences at war and in my former church. Those experiences were the bombs that blew up my theological playground and I really haven’t been the same since and for that I am actually glad.

The experiences of being used and abused by several bishops of my former church made me wary in a way that I had not been before about those in authority. Coincidentally those men are no longer part of that church having used it for their own gain and through their machinations ruined many lives and destroyed many parishes. Those men at various times forbid me from contact with their diocesan priests, banned me from writing and one finally told me to leave the church. They were not good examples and none are associated with that Church now. Thankfully there are many people, clergy and laity alike in my former church who are doing great things and attempting to put the pieces back together of what the men that mistreated me, and others like them did to that church.

The result of being asked to leave was being received into an an Old Catholic Denomination with a very similar ministry model and ethos to the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands. I am blessed for nearly the past three years to be a Priest in the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. It is where I need to be and a church that embodies what I have come to believe.

Over time my ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) went from a monarchical monstrosity to a belief that true Apostolic authority is not just a matter of having a correct or valid apostolic succession but also is bound up in the whole people of God, that consensus, collegiality and charity are of the essence in our relationships as Christians as well as our witness to the world. The prayer of Jesus that his people “may be one” is part of my daily life and personal prayer.

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Back in May of 2011 I wrote: “I think a lot of this is simply that many of us clergy types become so invested in “defending” what we believe that we forget that the call of Jesus is to care for those that are the least, the lost and the lonely. Without getting preachy it seems to me that Jesus preferred to be with such people and often castigated the clergy of his day for doing exactly what we do.  The whole “woe to you Scribes and Pharisees…” passage should send chills up any minister’s spine because we are often no different than them.”

Likewise my experiences in war and my return from Iraq with a severe case of chronic PTSD also shook the core of my faith. For almost two years I have to admit that for all practical purposes that I was an Agnostic who was praying that God was still around. It took some time before faith returned and when it did it was different. It was questioning, not absolutist and much more willing to be accepting of those different than me and willing to show grace to those whose faith, lifestyle or beliefs that I would have treated much more judgmentally or harshly as new Priest.

One of the authors that helped my through the most difficult of times was the late Father Andrew Greeley whose Bishop Blackie Ryan novels I began reading in Iraq and were about the only spiritual reading that I had during the darkest, most difficult at painful days of my life. One thing that Greeley said which was something that I have come to believe was:  “I don’t think Jesus was an exclusivist. He said, and we believe, that He is the unique representation of God in the world. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way God can work.” (The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World Edited by Bob Abernathy) 

Such an understanding has impacted my ministry as a Priest and Navy Chaplain since my return from Iraq. I have come to believe that the high pressure manner in which many American Christians market their faith under the misnomer of “evangelism” is doing more damage than good and is actually something that the early Church would not have recognized. Greeley put it well:

“People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good — Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice.”

But apart from that I rediscovered my humanity during those dark days and it is something that helps me when I encounter people who are suffering, in crisis, ostracized or struggling and questioning God and their faith. I have learned through my own struggle and despair that simply being preached at told that I didn’t have enough faith, to pray more, read my Bible more or give more money to the church (the latter is quite a popular American way of getting God’s favor) actually drove me away from the grace of God and made me resentful of those that preached at me.

As such I have changed my ministry model. Jesus was about town and hobnobbing with all the wrong kinds of people, often offending both the religious establishment and his own disciples. As a Priest I began to realize while deployed on a Guided Missile Cruiser and in Iraq that I was too protective, much like the post Apostolic era Christians of the Eucharist, which is at the center of my faith. I realize now that Jesus both actively shared bread and wine with those considered to be “unclean” or sinners and never turned away those who sought his presence.

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I also realize that anything I do as a Priest, be as simple as an encounter with a person in a hallway or parting lot, with friends at a ball game or bar, at the bedside of a dying man or woman, sitting with the family of a young man one woman that has taken their life, holding a stillborn baby with a grieving mother, administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Baptism or the Eucharist that what matters is being being authentic and showing the love of God to people.

One of the most powerful things that I remember reading from Greeley was in his final Bishop Blackie Ryan novel. In it Bishop Blackie notes:

“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.”  (Andrew Greeley: The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

Seventeen years. It doesn’t seem that long. I assume that I still have much to learn.

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Military, Pastoral Care

5 responses to “It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts: Thoughts on the Occasion of 17th Anniversary of Being Ordained a Priest

  1. folake majin

    Thanks Padre for your daily thought provoking blogs, I have only felt the need to comment twice and this is my first to u.
    I agree that while Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the hypocritical and legalistic religious bigots of his day,he welcomed and loved sinners ! Jesus came to save lost mankind and only those who realise this are in his will! He says he is the way the truth and the life and no one is saved apart from him! Unfortunately this is the unpalatable truth for many who want to live independent of God or who want to seem politically correct!
    We see the core of Jesus’ message in the parable of the prodigal son and his selfrighteous elder brother.Both loved by their father but both so out of his will! The prodigal son after reckless, lustful,sinful living, repents and realises his loss and need of dependence on his father! The elder son on the other hand is proud ,selfrighteous,highly opinionated, legalistic ,unforgiving .bitter and vengeful. He proves he never knew nor had the heart of his father! He did things his way!
    This is why I disagree with your quote from Bob Abenathy. Its simply put arrogance! Preaching ‘goody goody’ love and good works without repentance from sin is not the total message of Christ Jesus.Jesus indeed was and is a friend of sinners but he said and still says ‘sin no more’
    As for those judgemental ones you say persecuted and hurt you from your old church Padre forgive them and pray for them to have the heart of Jesus.
    Peace!

    • folake majin

      Ok

    • padresteve

      Dear Folake,

      I had no idea that someone as famous as you follows my writings and I am blessed that you find them worth reading and even thought provoking.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I do want to point out that you may have missed the nuance in Fr Greeley’s quote in the book that Bob Abernathy edited. If you are not well acquainted with his writings you might assume that he was somehow reducing the importance of Jesus. That is not the case and if he was still alive I am sure that he would say just that. The real theological aspect of John 14:6 which you paraphrase is that “no one come to the Father but through Me” (Jesus). The passage of course comes during the discourse between Jesus and his disciples during the last supper.

      In context with his claims to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” the passage is not about salvation so much as it is his claims to being one with the Father and therefore equal with God. In other words it is more about his relationship to the Father and that it was impossible to know the Father except through him. Almost all of the early church commentators interpret the passage in this manner in light of the fact that various people were either claiming Jesus to be something like the Moslem understanding of Jesus being a prophet but not God, or that Jesus was did not have a human nature, that his humanness was an illusion. They understood that Jesus was making the same kind of claim that he made when he used the term I AM to describe himself, invoking the ire and wrath of the Jewish leaders who attempted to stone him for “making himself equal with God.”

      Saying that Jesus or God is not exclusivist as Fr Greeley did is to admit that God is free to act and deal with his creation and humanity as he sees fit and that none of us but God ultimately knows the hearts of people or how they will respond to Christ.

      I believe that God, due to what he did in the life, death and resurrection of Christ has brought salvation to the world, how that is accomplished in the lives of individual human beings is something that even the Apostles struggled with both while Jesus was with them physically and after his ascension. The fact is that ultimately only God knows people’s hearts and as Paul said “we now see through a glass darkly but then we shall see face to face.”

      That is the context of the passage and the quote, not any sort of politically correct understanding, but one that in humility leaves all judgement to God and believes first and foremost in the grace, love and mercy of God which is shown in the sacrifice of Christ for the “life of the world.” As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians “In Christ was reconciling the world to himself counting men’s sins not against them.”

      Thank you so much for writing as well as your patience in this rather long reply. I certainly respect and honor your faith and also that you took time to write me about your concerns and for allowing me hopefully to answer them.

      Many blessings to you and I do really like your fashions.

      Peace

      Padre Steve+

    • padresteve

      Folake

      One other thing and I do thank you for mentioning it. I have forgiven each of those for,we bishops. That being said their actions were part of what brought me to where I am today. They hurt a lot of people. As for me their misdeeds actually produced something good in my life. Unfortunately I know far too many people including brothers and sisters in my former church’s African national churches who were hurt badly and have not fully recovered from the actions of these men. For me it is no longer about un forgiveness but rather in pointing out that God can even use hurtful people for our ultimate benefit.

      Peace and blessings

      Steve+

      • folake majin

        Padre,
        Much Thanks for taking time to reply and also for checking me out and appreciating the works of my hands.
        ‘God is free to act and deal with his creation and humanity as he sees fit and that none of us but God ultimately knows the hearts of people or how they will respond to Christ.’Very true,so true!
        Our response to Christ is the core of our salvation!
        Warmest regard to your beloved Judy and your faithful dog!
        Peace!!!!!!!

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