Monthly Archives: December 2015

May We All Have a Vision: New Year 2016

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is New Year’s Eve and in some parts of the world it is already 2016, it is amazing how time flies. After the year that was 2015 with its seeming unending cycle of violence, hate, war and destruction is over. I hope that 2016 is different, we certainly could use a break, but the forces of history and nature are sometimes greater than our hopes, but I can always hope.

Many people will see in the New Year singing Auld Lang Syne. I suppose that as Judy and I pop the Champagne and toast tonight when we watch the Ball descend in Times Square on our television, safe from all the drunk drivers that we may as well. Not that we will be isolated, we will go out earlier and see our friends at Gordon Biersch around dinner time and get out before the crowds get going and the place gets too loud and crazy for our tastes.

But my favorite song for the New Year is Abba’s Happy New Year.  Like Auld Lang Syne it is a melancholy song of the end of one year’s hopes, dreams and expectations and hopes and dreams for the New Year. I think one of the lines that I like, one which I think calls on us to actually do more than hope, but to act on hope, is “May we all have a vision…” A vision requires that we begin to imagine a better future, in a sense it is to dream, as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

To fulfill that dream and vision we must live, work, dream and imagine that things can be better, and as Dr. King said, Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…

The song, Happy New Year ends with this verse, May we all have our hopes, our will to try, If we don’t we might as well lay down and die, You and I

Here is wishing you the best New Year possible, and I for one will not lay down and die.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Rearview Mirror of 2015: Religion, Politics, and Terrorism

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and depending who you are or where you live it could have been one, the other or both. For me it has been one of those, not that there is anything wrong with that, and truthfully as rough as it has been at times, I cannot discount the importance of these events in my life. Back in October I wrote an article that kind of sums up how important each of these threads is in my life, Tapestry: The Importance of Just One Thread.

The year was difficult, but we have made it through, and all of the threads of this year are now part of the tapestry of our lives. I am still dealing with PTSD, chronic insomnia and trimmings, but on the whole doing better than I was a year ago. We lost our wonderful dog Molly, a dog who more than once save my life in the years after Iraq, but that being said, the ghost of Molly is still around and doing some of the same things that she did when I was at my lowest, if you want you can read about that here, Ghost Dog Central. Though we lost Molly we still have Minnie Scule who was joined by Izzy Bella, our now one year old Papillion. They are both great dogs, totally different in personality, and Izzy is a lot like Molly in temperament and personality.

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The same day we lost Molly, my wife Judy found out that she had an abnormal pap-smear and was diagnosed with Endometrial Cancer. She went through surgery and a long post-surgical recovery, but her doctor says she is now cancer free, though she gets regular checkups to make sure that it does not come back.

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On a lighter side we also made our second trip to the real Oktoberfest in Munich, and a side trip to Salzburg, Austria where we discovered that the hills really might be alive, but I digress… I was also able to see some groups as musical artists from my bucket list. I saw a combined Chicago and Earth Wind and Fire concert as well as the legendary Boz Skaggs.

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But 2015 was eventful, in a very dark way….

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Terrorism of a number of varieties seemed to dominate much of the year. In January there were the Charlie Hebdo attacks made by radical Islamists in Paris, Je Suis Charlie: An Attack on Freedom, Do Not Give in to Fear: #Je Suis Charlie. If that attack had been all it would have been enough, but terrorism, mostly committed in the name of God, or racist ideology seemed to be everywhere. Of course there were the continued attacks of Islamist militants in sub-Saharan Africa, in places like Nigeria, Kenya, and Mali. The Horn of Africa, including Somalia and the Sudan; and North Africa, in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and Egypt. Those attacks, and incidents are too numerous to be listed, but sadly in the west, or the industrialized areas of Asia, no one seems to take note of them. Truthfully, the only thing the west and countries like China care about in Africa are the natural resources, dead Africans don’t seem matter as long as we get our resources.

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But there were terrorist attacks in the United States as well. There was a murder of three young Muslim UNC students in Chapel Hill North Carolina A Time to Stand Against Hate; a clash between incendiary Muslim and anti-Muslim groups in Garland Texas, Hate vs. Hate: A Clash in Garland. 

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The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest AME church in the South. Nine people died in a hate crime shooting on June 17, 2015.

 

Of course the massacre of the pastor and other members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina, by a young White Supremacist named Dylann Storm Roof Call it Terrorism: Massacre at Emmanuel AME, When Ideology Kills Kindness: Dylann Roof at Emmanuel AME.

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Then terror returned, in the space of two weeks a Russian airliner was downed by a bomb most likely planted by sympathizers of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or DAESH Can You Live with It? War, ISIL & a Downed Airliner; an attack by DAESH in Beirut Lebanon which killed 43 people, and then a massacre that stunned the world in Paris, Terror in Paris, The Lamps are Going Out: Paris & the End of the Illusion of Peace. The latter seems to have spurred the west into doing more to fight DAESH and it appears that the war that DAESH has desired with the west is now an accomplished fact.

An SUV with its windows shot out that police suspect was the getaway vehicle from at the scene of a shooting in San Bernardino, California is shown in this aerial photo December 2, 2015. Gunmen opened fire on a holiday party on Wednesday at a social services agency in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people and wounding 17 others, then fled the scene, triggering an intense manhunt and a shootoutout with police, authorities said. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1WX2P

But this terror came to the United States not long after when a DAESH inspired couple massacred people gathered for a holiday party in San Bernardino and the chilling thing was that they were the co-workers of the man, True Believers & Terrorism. I ended up reflecting on all of these attacks in a number of articles, including Power Hungry Religionists Will Inherit the Wind, Faith & Terror, and Accessories to Murder: The Propagandists who Inspire Terror.

These attacks caused me to write a number of articles about racism, propaganda, ideology, politics, mass movements and genocide. I think this article Dehumanization & Genocide helps to bring a certain historical perspective to these subjects, as does this one, Civilization Is Tissue Thin: Holocaust & Genocide as Warning. I also decided to frame some of the current fear of terrorism and the hateful invective being hurled at many American Muslims through the lens of Star Trek in these articles, Your Fear Will Destroy You and The Belief in a Devil. Another article which brought chills to me as I wrote is was just how easy it seems for some people to rationalize genocide, Just Following Orders: The Rationalization of Genocide and for ordinary people to take part in them Vast and Heinous Crimes: Ordinary Men & War Crimes.

Religion did not only inspire terror in 2015, but it was more closely than ever a part of American politics, and not necessarily for the good. As such I spent a lot of time on the intersection of church and state issues. This was especially true when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the Obegfell v. Hodges decision and much of the Christian Right including prominent Republican presidential candidates went haywire. There were times that their reaction reminded me of the great film Inherit the Wind.

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Supporters of same-sex marriages gather outside the US Supreme Court waiting for its decision on April 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. The US Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to wed -- a potentially historic decision that could see same-sex marriage recognized nationwide. AFP PHOTO / MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Since I firmly believe in religious liberty, and the separation of Church and State I wrote a number of articles dealing with that subject, including these, Religious Liberty or Tyranny?, this, Religion & State: The Less Mixed the Better and one about one of my heroes, the Virginia Baptist, John Leland, Exploding the Myth of Christian America. That crossed into some political commentary in this article Strike Down the Sinners: The Politics of the Christian Right.

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Since much of the focus on religious liberty in 2015 revolved around the recalcitrant county clerk of Rowan County Kentucky, Kim Davis, and her political allies to deny legal rights to gay couples to marry I ended up writing a good number of articles during that political circus. If you want to read those just put her name in the search box. But as the dust cleared I wrote an article about a man who though he was a Christian, did not allow religious propaganda and hate to trump his sworn duty. The article about the late Dr. C. Everett Koop should be required reading for those who take an oath to uphold the Constitution, even when it conflicts with their religious beliefs, Separate Ideology & Religion from Sworn Duty: The Legacy of Dr. C. Everett Koop.

Political commentary based on historical analysis has become more important to me, and I try to shy away from the more bombastic and partisan that I see and instead focus on rational comparisons that can help us understand events, and hopefully do better than our ancestors. One of these articles compares the political implosion of the Democratic and Whig Parties in the 1850s and what is currently transpiring in the Republican Party, a party that I belonged to for 36 years before leaving it in 2008. When Political Parties Implode: The Battle over the Lecompton Constitution and its Relevance Today. Unlike some on both sides of the political chasm, I do not see what is happening as good, and I wrote this article to emphasize the importance of reason in political debate, Reason, the Salvation of Freedom. Interestingly enough, well before Donald Trump became the frontrunner in the GOP presidential campaign I wrote this little article, with a great cultural reference to a Bloom County comic strip published over 20 years ago, There Comes a Time… A Bloom County Reality Check.

Finally, a lot of what I wrote on the site was intensely personal and dealt with my battle with PTSD, my struggles with faith and belief, as well as my continued religious, social, and political transformation. These included My Faith: A Journey and Mission, but I think that one of the better articles I did about this process is It Fitted In: A Personal Reflection on Propaganda. I also wrote a number of articles for Memorial Day and Veterans Day which reflected my thoughts regarding my own military service and some social and political commentary related to who we as a nation deal with veterans and go to war, one of those was done just before Veterans Day, They Thanked Us Kindly: Reflections on Veteran’s Day 2015. My journey also brought new insights as I studied iconic Civil War heroes from the battle of Gettysburg, some of those articles included Tragic Heroes of Little Round Top,

I wrote a number of articles dealing with depression, suicide, PTSD and other issues that veterans and others struggle, I think this article sums up how I think we should treat those who struggle, Try to Understand: The Kindest, Noblest, & Best Thing You Will Ever Do. I also tried to bring attention to the continued crisis of veteran suicides in The Uncounted Cost of War: Veteran Suicides. I wrote about PTSD and the things that never seem to go away after war in this article, There Will be Nightmares: PTSD & Memories of War.

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Of course there was more, police shootings, the Syrian refugee crisis, and too much more to cover today. But be assured I will continue to write and do my best to present all of these events the best I can in the light of history. I may end up sounding like Spencer Tracy’s characters in Inherit the Wind and Judgement at Nuremberg, but what I can I say?

I am continuing to learn through all of the evil being perpetrated by so many, is that  the perpetrators have no ability to empathize with people. It is the one defining characteristic that they all share. Captain Gustave Gilbert, In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” I find that more true every day.

Well, just one more day until we usher in 2016, and I do hope it will be better for everyone. By the way, a friend was able to get me a site over that the Daily Kos where I do some writing, and also post modified versions of what I write here as the mood hits me. The link to my blog there is, http://www.dailykos.com/blog/Padresteve

Have a great day and hopefully a Happy New Year.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Same Mistakes?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am wrapping up the year and reflecting on a number of things, thinking about how much history can teach us about our own time, should we just pay attention to it. I have been continuing to do research and work on my Gettysburg and Civil War text, and that continues to lead me to pure gold in the pursuit for truth, historical truth that is as relevant today as it was when it happened over a century and a half ago.

Sadly, the same issues that dominated America in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s and later following Reconstruction still dominate so much of our social, political and religious debate. Whether it is the voting franchise which many on the political right seek to restrict, the rights of women, blacks and other minorities, immigrants and the LGBT community, to any semblance of political, economic equality or social justice very little has changed. Not only that there are some political, media and religious leaders who argue for the unabashed imperialism of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.

As it was then, much of this can be laid squarely at the feet of Evangelical Protestant and other conservative Christian leaders. A century and a half ago men who claimed to be Christian leaders led the efforts to support slavery, discriminate against women, persecute gays and promote imperialistic policies that would have embarrassed the founders of the United States. After the defeat of the Confederacy most of the same people used the same theology to disenfranchise and discriminate against African Americans through Jim Crow laws, as well as discriminate against minorities, women and gays all the while claiming to be the victims of persecution.

Before the Civil War many Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and theologians, not only Southerners, but men like “Princeton’s venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge – supported the institution of slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously.”  This leaves a troubling question over those who claim to oppose other issues on supposedly Biblical grounds. Conservative Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath asks, “Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over another issue?”

The question is will we learn from history or make the same mistakes all over again? That is something to ask ourselves as we leave 2015 behind and begin 2016, a year that promises to be tumultuous and eventful, but which the history of is yet to be written. That my friends is important, and why all of us must be engaged.

I thank all of those who subscribe to this site, as well as those who follow my writings through Twitter or Facebook. The fact that so many people are doing this humbles me, and to repeat what Yogi Berra said, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humility.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Present Never Looks as Good…

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Friends at Padre Steve’s World

I tend to become somewhat reflective as the New Year approaches. I am reminded of Peter Benchley, who wrote, “The past always seems better when you look back on it than it did at the time. And the present never looks as good as it will in the future.” Likewise, St Augustine of Hippo once asked “How can the past and future be, when the past no longer is, and the future is not yet?”

Augustine’s question is interesting, but I think that his question is flawed. I think that the past lives in the present much more than we would like to think and that our future, though unwritten can unfold in a multitude of ways and possibilities.

Many of us live in the past as if it were today. We, individually and collectively, as individuals and nations live in the past and look to it much more fondly than when it was our present. I think that historian Will Durant possibly said it the best: “The past is not dead. Indeed, it is often not even past.”

As a historian myself I value the past and seek answers and wisdom from it to use in the present because what we do in the present does, for better or worse defines our future. Confucius said “study the past if you would define the future.” He was quite wise, he said to study the past did not say to live in it.

That is something that I have been learning for close to 20 years now when my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, using a Star Trek Next Generation metaphor from the episode A Matter of Time. In the episode a shadowy visitor claiming to be from the future refuses to help claiming that if he were to help that his “history – would unfold in a way other than it already has.”

Finally Picard is forced to make a decision and confronts the visitor, who turns out to be a thief from the past using time travel to collect technology to enrich himself. Picard responds:

“A person’s life, their future, hinges on each of a thousand choices. Living is making choices! Now, you ask me to believe that if I make a choice other than the one that appears in your history books, then your past will be irrevocably altered. Well… you know, Professor, perhaps I don’t give a damn about your past, because your past is my future, and as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t been written yet!”

It was in telling me that my future did not have to be my past that opened a door of life and faith that I had never experienced before and which showed me that life was to be boldly lived in the present. While it meant a lot then, it means more now for the past according to William Shakespeare “is prologue.”

We cannot help being influenced by the past. We should indeed learn from it, but we cannot remain in it or try to return to it. Kierkegaard said that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Since I am a Christian, at least by profession, my faith in that future is in the God who is eternal, the God of love. Victor Hugo in Les Miserables said “Love is the only future God offers.” That is the future that I want to envision.

Living is making choices and the future hinges on thousands of them. Many of these choices we make automatically without thought simply because we have always done them that way, or because that is how it was done in the past. However, if we want to break the cycle, if we want to live in and envision that future of the God of love then we have to live in the present though the past lives in us.

T.S. Elliot penned this verse:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Reflections on Christmas & War

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Yesterday I posted an essay about a German physician and pastor who drew the picture The Madonna of Stalingrad, and the day before one about the Christmas Truce of 1914 and the movie Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas). As I have mention before, I get very reflective around Christmas, in large part due to my experiences in Iraq. While I am certainly happy this year, I am, as I still tend to be a bit melancholy. My time in Iraq changed me, T.E. Lawrence; the immortal Lawrence of Arabia wrote to a friend, “You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.” I often feel that way.

As I said, when I returned from Iraq I was a changed man and while proud of my service I am haunted by my experiences. One cannot go to war, see its devastation, see the wounded and dead, as well as the innocents traumatized by it. One cannot get shot at, or be in enclosed rooms, meeting with people that might be friends, or might be enemies, and while everyone else is armed, you are not.

Likewise my homecoming was more difficult than I could have imagined. I never felt so cut off from my country, my society, my church, or even other chaplains. My experience is not uncommon among those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or for that matter those who have served in almost any modern war. Erich Maria Remarque in his classic All Quite on the Western Front wrote:

“I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world.”

My first Christmas at home was so difficult that at a Christmas Eve mass I handed my wife the car keys and walked home in the dark and cold. Had there been a bar on the way home I would have walked in and poured myself into a bottle.

That being said I would not trade my experience for anything. The experience of PTSD and other war related afflictions has been a blessing as well as a curse. They have changed my world view and made me much more emphatic to the suffering and afflictions of others, as well when they are abused, mistreated, terrorized and discriminated against. These experiences along with my training as a historian, theologian, and hospital chaplain clinician before and after my tour have given me a lot bigger perspective than I had before, especially at Christmas.

But I live with all of the memories. Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier, “Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.” General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of many Civil War battles including Gettysburg wrote to his wife after the war “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

As difficult as things have been and as much as I wonder what will happen next, at Christmas I pray for peace, but too many people, some even in this country seem to live for the bloodlust of war.

But amid such unholy thoughts one can hope and pray for peace at Christmas, I guess that is a reason I love the song Happy Christmas, I have put Melissa Etheridge’s version here.

As my Iraqi friends are prone to say, Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing…

Yes, God willing,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Light, Life, Love: The Madonna of Stalingrad

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

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As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

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Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Joyeux Noël: I Belong Here with those in Pain Who have Lost Their Faith

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film last night. The film 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. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

 

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, 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.

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.

 

“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.

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. In fact they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers 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 eight years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with 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, but even more so and maybe more importantly by 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 thought that I was in a better place a year ago. I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance last summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.

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Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” 

Thus, 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.”  In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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