Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I mentioned on Sunday that I would be writing about faith and doubt during the season of Advent and Christmas. Gospel according to Saint Mark records the story of a man that brought his son to Jesus the Christ to be cured of a deadly disease. In desperation the man cries out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.”
I understand that impassioned cry.
That being said, for a lot of people, including me, the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible. For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.
Before Iraq, Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season, but that was before I came home from Iraq. After Iraq, the seasons of Advent and Christmas became almost unbearable as I struggled to believe in anything, including God.
I have faith again, but I still struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.
Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow death from Alzheimer’s disease, I have struggled with faith. Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers. Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me. About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park. For some reason the lush green diamond is one of the few places that comfort me.
I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of most Christian denominations. I am sure that this can be the case with non-Christian clerics as well, but I cannot say that with any deal of authority.
For some Christian ministers and priests the seasons of Advent and Christmas can be difficult. For those of us who are ordained and view ministry or Priesthood as a sacred vocation this can difficult to deal with. Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a special kind of hell this time of year because we are not supposed to suffer a crisis in faith, for any reason.
I believe that for many people, a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with faith is disconcerting. I know many ministers who for a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith. Sometimes this involved great personal losses such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage or being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing any number of other major traumatic events. All of these men and women are good people. But when they experienced a crisis, instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless failures, and and abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.
When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason. As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with such situations. They made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better.
While I saw this happen to others I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof” and when it occurred I was stunned. I didn’t expect what happened nor its effect on me.
When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My wartime accomplishments went unrecognized by most of my peers in the Chaplain Corps on my return home and I found no place of comfort.
As I crashed no one asked about my faith until I met my first shrink. It was after the initial crash that my commanding officers, Captain, now Admiral, Frank Morneau and Tom Sitsch both asked me about my faith. I told them that I was struggling and both were more understanding than the vast majority of chaplain, ministers, or Christian lay people that I knew. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?” I could only say, “not to other chaplains.” Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th 2014, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.
On the professional side I felt tremendously isolated from much of the clergy of my former church, and many chaplains. This is something that I still feel to some extent today, although there are some chaplains who I can be completely honest with, sadly, like me, they have also experienced major faith crisis and have struggled with the same kind of abandonment and betrayal that I have felt. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me for both my former church and chaplain corps.
In the midst of the crisis I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” Those questions showed me that the people who asked them cared.
There were many times between 2008 and 2010 that I knew that I had no faith. People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me. Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful, and while faith has returned, some of the of them still are.
That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I noted last week a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space. This makes Advent and Christmas difficult.
Why I remain a Christian is sometimes hard to figure. I am certainly not a Christian because of the church, what is called Christendom, or the actions of supposed Christians who want to use the police power of government to subjugate others. At the same time like the German priest and theologian Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” Nor am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has all of the answers to all of lives issues. After coming home from Iraq I know that it is not so. I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers. That may sound like heresy to some, but I can live with it.
I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets. Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things and in spite of my own doubts. I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, and in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.
One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel is a prayer for me this year.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, those who feel abandoned by God, or by family and friends, I pray that all of us will experience joy this season. So I do pray that the Day Spring will come and cheer, all of us with his advent here.