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“Don’t Try to be Like Me, I didn’t Always Get it Right” Rest In Peace Billy Graham

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

No matter how one viewed him Billy Graham was both a legend, a remarkable man, and a truly historic figure in terms of the Evangelical Christianity that he popularized more than any other preacher before or after him. His legacy will be debated for years and I think that it is very possible that in death he will become larger than he was in life; mostly because those who attempted to follow him were poor imitations or politically motivated hucksters that Graham himself would later have nothing to do with.

Though many knew him as “America’s Pastor” he only briefly served as the pastor of a small church before he became an evangelist, a role for which he was particularly suited, he was the entire package. Graham was young, good looking, and could communicate a simple evangelical message with conviction, passion, and grace in a way that few evangelists before or since have been able to do. He was also incredibly adept in understanding the potential of television and the broadcasting of his message world wide.

When I was a kid his crusades were a staple of television. I had an aunt in Stockon California who when she wasn’t watching Lawrence Welk she was watching Billy Graham crusades. Whenever we visited her viewing habits didn’t change, no wonder my uncle Ted spent so much time in at his favorite local bar, but I digress…

That being said, even when I was eleven or twelve years old Reverend Graham’s crusades were amazing to watch. First was the fact that despite the simplicity of his message he was exceptionally talented in delivering it. To see thousands of people responding to his call for conversion or rededication to Christ as George Beverly Shea led choirs singing the invitational hymn Just as I Am was a thing of rare beauty when it comes to evangelical crusades and altar calls. Billy Graham was a master of manipulating emotions to bring people down the aisle, and I do not mean anything malicious by that.

Graham’s message was simple in its traditional evangelical message. All have sinned, and that means all of us; Christ died to save sinners; repent, believe, and confess Jesus as your savior. The message was not new, it had been preached by Christians in a variety of forms and in many cultural variations for about 1900 years before Graham ever began his first crusade, but Graham’s were much more of the simplistic fundamentalist evangelicalism that has been part of the American landscape since the Second Great Awakening. It had been a staple of Fundamentalist revival preachers for decades before Graham but unlike the hellfire and brimstone message of previous preachers like Billy Sunday Graham focused on the love of God, and unlike so many his sincerity in preaching that message came through whether in person or on television.

His message was grounded in the theology of Pre-millennial Dispensationalism of Irish Anglican Priest John Darby which found its way to North America where it was popularized by American C.I. Schofield. The message was simple and based on the belief the the return of Christ to judge the world was imminent: accept Christ and avoid the wrath to come.

His message was no different than thousands of other preachers like him, but he was better at it and understood the role of media, particularly television in spreading the message. Likewise while he encouraged Christians to become more politically active in the 1950s and 1960s though when Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalist preachers formed a political movement that became the current Christian Right he warned against it. In 1981 he said:

“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

He had learned the hard way, while he was a gifted evangelist, he was not a prophet and in the first two decades of his career, Graham, the North Carolina Democrat allowed himself to become captive to Republican Presidents. He compared Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and said that Richard Nixon was “the most able and best trained man for the job in American history.”

To his credit Graham did not seek the friendship or companionship of Presidents, except for Nixon, but every President after John F. Kennedy regardless of Party sought Graham’s counsel, advice and spiritual support. That being said the low mark of his career and ministry was when tapes of him and Richard Nixon emerged in 2002 in which while they agreed with their support of Israel, disparaged American Jews and their supposed control of the media, to which Graham added the Jews support for pornography. When that came to light Graham apologized and tried to put his remarks in context of those of President Nixon but his retractions for that was well as his remarked in a letter to Nixon to “bomb the dikes” in order to flood North Vietnam irregardless of civilian casualties demonstrated a ruthlessness in support of American military power being used against civilians damaged his credibility for many people.

In terms of civil rights and race relations Graham desegregated his crusades, even personally taking down the ropes that separated whites and blacks at one location. He told one audience in Mississippi that “there was no room for segregation at the foot of the Cross.” He supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a degree but when Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham Alabama and wrote his classic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Graham told reporters that King should “put the brakes on a little bit.” His unwillingness to take risks in supporting civil rights later in life was something that would also damage his reputation among Christians and non-Christians alike.

In the 1980s he said that AIDS was the judgement of God, a comment that he quickly walked back. Later he realized his mistakes in being too close to Presidents and avoided Washington and the White House. That did not keep him from befriending or caring for Presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barak Obama.

To his credit Graham could admit his mistakes with a display of humility that is lacking in most big time preachers and evangelists. When Jonathan Merritt asked Graham how people could be more like him Graham responded: “First, I’d say, don’t try to be like me, because I didn’t always get it right.”

Likewise, in 2007 when he was asked why he never supported or was affiliated with the Moral Majority or other Right Wing Christian Evangelical political groups he said:

“I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or the superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”

I only wish that those who pretend to be the leaders of the Christian Right today, including Graham’s son Franklin and daughter Annie would be wise enough to heed his advice.

I could go on and try to evaluate the other parts of his life and ministry both positive and negative, and those debates could could go in for decades.

As for me, I always found Reverend Graham to be a genuine, yet flawed man. Whether one agreed with his theology, style of ministry, or positions on different issues he wasn’t a fake. He was exactly who he was, he believed the message that he preached. He was neither a prophet or theologian, and he approached the political world with a certain naivety that unscrupulous politicians like Richard Nixon exploited.

Charles Templeton who traveled with Graham and frequently roomed with him in various crusades eventually parted ways with Graham and became an agnostic. Templeton, who died in 2001 was asked about Graham and said something that resonates with how I feel about him and his influence:

“I disagree with him profoundly on his view of Christianity and think that much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile nonsense. But there is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust. And I miss him.”

Honestly, I don’t think there will be another like him, certainly among those who have tried to emulate him or take up his mantle in the now hyper-political world of American Evangelicalism. Graham learned lessons in dealing in the political world that those who have followed him, including his son Franklin have ignored, and when American Evangelicalism crumbles under the weight of political, social, and financial malfeasance and painfully shallow theology it will be their fault.

Later in life Graham moderated some of his views on salvation. When asked by John Meacham in 2006 whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, Graham said:

“Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

As I reflect on his passing I think that he will understand the implications of eternity more than any of us will and whether I agreed with him or not I will miss him and wish that his son and other Evangelicals would take heed and learn from his experiences rather than to keep digging the Church into the abyss.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Epiphanies

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I preached at my chapel. The message was one that had it not been for a snow event that closed our base would have been delivered last week. Now if it was up to me I would have simply moved along to this week’s lectionary readings, but my soon to be deputy command chaplain who I had the opportunity to promote to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and administer the oath of office to is not nearly the liturgical fanatic that I am so we stayed with the readings for the Epiphany. Truthfully I would have done this weeks readings because I am such a slut for liturgical correctness but since the bulletins were already done and it meant a lot to my young Padawan. Actually he’s not that young but he is a good deal younger than me but I digress.

In the Christian tradition the Epiphany commemorates the revelation of Jesus the Christ to the gentiles, usually represented by three Magi, or wise men, actually astrologers from somewhere in Persia. Now I personally would like to think of them being three Wise Guys from East Jersey and name them Guido, Fredo, and Giuseppe bringing who were bringing gifts of gold, non-sequentially numbered $100s, and untraceable bonds, but I digress…

Following a star they came to Jerusalem where they went to see the corrupt, corpulent, and paranoid King Herod to ask him about the whereabouts of the Messiah.

Now Herod, there’s a character for you. He was a gentile appointed by the Roman Senate to run Judea. By some accounts converted to Judaism without really embracing the moral tenets or beliefs of the religion, but he did his best to placate his religious base by building a splendid temple while building massive palaces, stables, and a state of the art seaport at Caesarea to enrich himself and his Roman overlords and because he wasn’t afraid to tax his people unmercifully he never went bankrupt.

To make a long story short, Herod wanted the Magi to tell him where Jesus might be. After Herod secured their promise to do so the Magi went on their way and made their visit to Mary, Joseph, and the now nearly two year old Jesus.

Now I know that a two year old Jesus plays hell with our beautiful nativity displays. My goodness a two year old Jesus would be in the terrible twos and we all have seen how that works out when important guests come over, but again I digress…

So after delivering their gifts to Jesus the Magi got word, supposedly in a dream, but maybe from an informer of some kind that Herod wanted to kill Jesus, so they hauled ass out of Judea. Herod got pissed off and according to the Christian tradition had his goons kill all the male toddlers in Bethlehem since he didn’t have a Twitter account. Meanwhile Joseph and Mary took Jesus off to Egypt to sojourn as refugees for a couple of years, but again I digress, there are far better Bible scholars and theologians who can do much better with the material than me so I am going to leave the Biblical account and Christian tradition for them to explain.

So, today I am writing less about the Epiphany, than the epiphanies that many of us experience in our spiritual or life journeys. Epiphanies surprise us, they come when we are neither looking for them or expecting them.

I have had my own epiphanies at various times in my life, some spiritual and well, some less than spiritual; but they were all important. One of the most important was what I discovered when I was serving in Iraq; that in war truth is one of the first casualties. Since then my eyes have been opened to many other things and my life has changed, in the long run for the better, but not without much difficulty and turmoil dealing with chronic PTSD, TBI, moral injury and all of their excruciating consequences, but I am doing better now for the most part and what I have learned has become invaluable in my spiritual journey.

The German Lutheran theologian Juergen Moltmann discussed his personal epiphany in his book The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life:

“The friend standing next to me at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: `My God, where are you?’ And the question `Why am I not dead too?’ has haunted me ever since. Why are you alive? What gives your life meaning? Life is good, but to be a survivor is hard. One has to bear the weight of grief. It was probably in that night that my theology began, for I came from a secular family and knew nothing of faith. The people who escaped probably all saw their survival not just as a gift but as a charge too.”

Moltmann was a teenager and not yet eligible for military service and like thousands of others of his generation was enlisted as a Flakhilfer a conscript that manned anti-aircraft batteries in order to free up soldiers for duties at the front. In that capacity he experienced war, death, and eventually was taken prisoner when the allies overran Germany. He spent a number of years in a British POW Camp in Scotland where he came to faith.

There are times that I wonder why I am alive and others, including friends and men that I served with are not. I wonder what happened if the rocket that passed over my head in Baghdad had just Jharel a slightly lower trajectory, if allies of the crooked Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel who we confronted at Al Waleed had opened fire in the new Iraqi commander’s office, or if the fire that our helicopter took over Ramadi had been more accurate. I wonder about all of those things and more. Like Moltmann I now find my experiences to be both a gift and a charge to keep.

T. E. Lawrence wrote:

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success…”

That is what getting one’s eyes opened by war will do to you.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Merry Christmas from a Wounded Healer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We had a special Christmas this year with friends who can be best described as a relatively eclectic group. We hosted dinner as is our custom and it really turned out well, and I do have to say that emotionally and spiritually I am in in a better place than was not too long ago.

So today, especially for my new readers I want to recount a bit of that journey.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”  Since coming home from Iraq in 2008 my faith has undergone a profound change. This is a part of my story that I share with you.

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That war changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.” Sadly Captain Sitsch, struggling with his own PTSD and other life crises took his life in 2014, but I think that he understood me better than most Chaplains or clergy.

That the crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.” For those not familiar with that book it is the sense that God has withdrawn his presence from you which you must go through to experience true union with God.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, for they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.  When I watch the classic film about the 1914 Christmas Truce, Joyeaux Noel I very much understand the priest who is being relieved of his duties by his bishop who he tells “I belong here, with those in pain who have lost their faith.” 

In the fall of 2008 was losing my battle with PTSD during that time I was clinically  depressed, terribly anxious, angry, and in despair I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass because I could not get through it. If a bar had been open anywhere within walking distance I would have poured myself into it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care, my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 70-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support. Likewise I was largely absent from home which was not a good thing for my marriage.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas of 2009 I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain. It was as if his faith

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“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.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: 

https://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. That being said over past couple of weeks or so my crazy nightmares and night terrors have come back with a vengeance, last night I threw myself out of bed in the midst of a particularly violent nightmare but it hasn’t soured my mood, my hip still hurts a bit but like unlike the last couple of times I neither broke my nose, sustained a concussion, nor bruised by jaw and sprained my neck.; that my friends is an improvement.

I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt, especially the men and women that call themselves Conservative Evangelical Christians who seem to me to have sacrificed any pretense of faith in Christ in the pursuit of raw political power by supporting a man who is as much of a Christian as the Medici Popes. So I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

So today this wounded healer celebrated Christmas at home, hosting friends after having preached at Christmas services for American and German military communities. It was a healing experience for me and helped to increase my faith. I know: faith versus reason. I get that, but as reasonable and logical as I try to be I do find the mystery of faith to be something that attracts me to Jesus the Christ.

So this evening, this Christmas night, I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on my posts.

You are appreciated as some are lengthy and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. Likewise there are times that my own biases show through in what I write, and I know that a decent number of people who subscribe to this site and comment don’t always agree with me. I appreciate that and thank you for continuing to follow what I write.

Likewise, if you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Christmas Eve 2017: Light, Life, and Love in Hell, Kurt Reuber and the Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is late on Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. This morning I preached in my Chapel from the Christmas story in the Gospel of St. Luke, the same passage I preached on a week or so ago with the German NATO contingent. The story of the incarnation, of God coming in the weakness of a tiny baby who would grow up and be crucified not far from where he was born is of profound importance for my faith, because it is not a pie in the sky promise of prosperity and power, but God who can be present in midst of the human made hell of war.

In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen. In December of 2016 after the election of Donald Trump I began to hedge my bets, but a year later I do believe that it can, and very well may happen again. So in such a world I must try to find hope wherever I can find it, especially as I seen the pattern of a descent into authoritarianism which has been so much a part of 20th Century European history developing in the United States. I worry about that because I can see nothing good coming of it, and notice friends, including Christian clergy openly advocating against the safeguards, the checks and balances put forth in our Constitution and laws to ensure that the President has unchecked power; and that means the power to plunge the nation into war.

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.

k_reuberl

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 and 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.

pg-34-stalingrad-2-getty

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.”

drkrop

As the brutal 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. )

prisoner's madonna

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.

I praying for an end to war and likewise that the United States will not fall victim to a lawless authoritarian leader who seems intent on stoking the fires of more wars.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Midsummer Night Dreaming: The MLB All Star Game 2017

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Saul Steinberg wrote:  “Baseball is an allegorical play about America, a poetic, complex, and subtle play of courage, fear, good luck, mistakes, patience about fate, and sober self-esteem.” 

I think that it is something we need more of today. Those that have followed my writing on this site for any length of time know that perhaps more than any other thing on earth that the game of Baseball is an important part of my life and spirituality.

Baseball, unlike most sports is very much a game with a calendar that is almost liturgical in its make up. It is also a game where those who “have gone before” are as much a part of the present as a part of history. It is a game that people like me ascribe an almost mystical or religious significance.

I have grown up with baseball. My dad ingrained it in me, my mom came to my little league games when my dad was in Vietnam and even my paternal grandmother had a baseball game on whenever one was on.

I like to say that God speaks to me through baseball, and I do think that I am right about this, much more so than Scripture which I never know if I am interpreting correctly, especially because so many learned people tell me that I’m a heretic. So I guess I have to let God speak to me in other ways, like baseball.

The All Star Game is part of my “Church Calendar.” it is a moment in the summer where the game and I pause. I pause to reflect on life and remember so many things about the specific All Star Games, my dad and life.

I fell in love with the All Star Game in 1970, the game that Pete Rose ended in extra innings when he ran over Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse to win the game for the National League. Likewise I remember the 1999 All Star Game at Fenway Park when Ted Williams was honored and the All Century Team was named. I found it interesting that Pete Rose, arguably the best hitter in the history of the game who was banned from baseball for life by A. Bartlett Giamatti for betting on the game was included on that team. I agreed with the selection then and in light of the fact that so many other men of sometimes questionable morals and character are in the Hall of Fame think that the ban on Rose should be lifted and that he be voted into the Hall of Fame.

The All Star Game is a celebration of the game, its history and players, not just the ones playing in the current year. I am interested in this game in some ways because I have seen quite a few players at some level of their minor league careers in the South Atlantic, Carolina, Southern, Eastern, International or Pacific Coast Leagues. For me it is really cool to see men that I watched when they were in the minors now playing in the All Star Game. For those that don’t follow the minor leagues it provides a certain amount of perspective because most players in the minors never make the majors and even many of those who do don’t stay there. It is a hard life and for most the money is not that great, thus I do not begrudge the salaries that they make when they get to the majors. It takes a tremendous amount of talent, hard work, determination and sometimes luck to make it in the majors, to stay there and to become an All Star. Those that do it consistently year after year are amazing.

For 14 years MLB determined that the game would decide home field advantage for the World Series. This year it went back to an exhibition game, but unlike the NBA, NFL, or NHL, the game was well played and the players were playing to win, diving catches, running hard, playing hard even as they had fun.

I appreciate their work, because in my calling and career as a Priest, Chaplain and military officer I am a journeyman. I’ve been around a long time, in a sense been up and down in the majors and minors in a number of different positions. I have had some good seasons so to speak, but I have also had plenty of bad ones and spent a lot of time in the military and church versions of the minor leagues. I think it gives me a manner of perspective when appreciating the hard work and excellence needed to be an All Star. If I was ever to be honored in such a way I would have to say something like John Kruk said back in 1993 when he was elected to the All Star Team “It’s amazing that fans want to see me play. What is our society coming to?” I kind of understand that. I have done some preaching at our chapel the past couple of weeks and I have been told that my sermons were some of the best they have ever heard. Honestly I don’t think I’m that good, but I do appreciate the comments. It’s kind of nice to hear it and I know that they mean it, but honestly, I worked hard to prepare having not really preached for years, and swung for the fence on both Sundays.  Luckily for me managed to hit the metaphorical ball, I could have just as easily struck out and looked like an idiot.

I enjoyed last night’s game. There was a lot of great pitching and defense, which is something that sets this game apart from the other major sport all-star games in this country. Last night the game went into extra innings and the American League won by a score of 2-1 on a lead off home run in the top of the 10th by Seattle Mariner’s Second Basema Robinson Cano against the Chicago Cubs closer Wade Davis. Andrew Miller of the Indians came into get the save backed up by excellent defensive plays by Justin Upton and Jose Lindor. It is what baseball is all about. 

Maybe one day I’ll get to attend one of these games in person. But until them I’ll enjoy them just the same, because for me, nothing bad accrues from baseball in any manner of delivery.

So until tomorrow, have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Pastor Robert Jeffress and the Imperial Evangelical Church of Trump


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Well it is Sunday and I’ll be the guest preacher in my Protestant chapel service at the base as I did last week. Since then I’ve been thinking over the week about what it means to be an American Christian at this point in our history. Frankly, based on the words of the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, Robert Jeffress, I must not be one because according to him Christian critics of Presdent Trump are “irrelevant to Christians.” That may be so and even if it is than I will continue to speak out against the idolatry of Pastor Jeffress and the other proponents of an imperial evangelicalism that is little more than an American version of the German Christian movement that went all in for Adolf Hitler. Pastor Jeffress would be an ideal candidate for the office of Reichs Bishop when President Trump proclaims Evangelical Christianity as the State Church. 

As for me I say the hell with those who want to establish the bastardized evangelicalism that we know today as the official state sanctioned version of Christianity. For those who don’t think that is likely or possible you are wrong. The words and actions of the President, the Vice President, a number of cabinet members, and many members of Congress all point to this. But worst of all men like Jeffress and most of the leading popular evangelical pastors and evangelists in the county are working toward that end and the day that it finally happens is coming sooner than you think. A minority of Christians who are better at making former Christians, agnostics, and atheists than disciples of Jesus want nothing more than to gain political power and are willing to use the most base and unchristian President in recent memory as their vehicle to temporal power. 

Barry Goldwater, the scion of the modern Conservative movement warned us about them over thirty years ago in the Senate chambers when he said: “The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent.” After he left the Senate he told John Dean: 

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

Sadly, Goldwater was right. Jeffress and others want no more than to use the power that they have with President Trump to rule with an iron fist that is no different than that of the Taliban, and no no different than the inquisition. 

Likewise the late Senator Mark Hatfield, an Evangelical Christian himself noted:

“As a Christian, there is no other part of the New Right ideology that concerns me more than its self-serving misuse of religious faith. What is at stake here is the very integrity of biblical truth. The New Right, in many cases, is doing nothing less than placing a heretical claim on Christian faith that distorts, confuses, and destroys the opportunity for a biblical understanding of Jesus Christ and of his gospel for millions of people.”  

It is time for people who actually believe in the sacred principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, the Four Freedoms, and the I Have a Dream speech to stand. It does not matter if you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, agnostic, atheist, or Free Thinker, or for that matter anything except being an American that cherishes liberty for all. 

The late George Truett, a great Southern Baptist pastor, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and also the pastor of Jeffress’s Fist Baptist Church of Dallas until 1944, wrote something that anyone with any sense and understanding of history and church-state relations should take note of:

“Constantine, the Emperor, saw something in the religion of Christ’s people which awakened his interest, and now we see him uniting religion to the state and marching up the marble steps of the Emperor’s palace, with the church robed in purple. Thus and there was begun the most baneful misalliance that ever fettered and cursed a suffering world…. When … Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars…. The long blighting record of the medieval ages is simply the working out of that idea.”

President Trump has recognized the same thing and with the help of the vast majority of American Evangelicals he is doing the same thing as Constantine and men like Robert Jeffress are to vain and power hungry to understand that they are sealing the doom of the Christian faith in the United States. That is why I will not stop writing, not stop speaking, and not stop fighting. I may be to use the words of Jeffress an insignificant and irrelevant gnat to him and the President but I’ll be damned if I let men like them use Jesus as a vehicle for tyranny. I’ll be damned when I let a political preacher like Jeffress stand on the same platform as the President and use it to condemn fellow Christians. as his very own church choir debates a hymn entitled Make America Great Again, a song which is a hymn of praise not to Jesus but to the nationalistic jingoism of President Trump. His predecessor in the pulpit of First Baptist, George Truett would be dismayed by the actions of the man who now holds that pulpit. 

Likewise our nation’s founders would be dismayed but not surprised to see this going on. Many wrote about the danger of it and did their best to build up a wall of separation, but that wall is being dismantled before our very eyes. When it is gone we will all regret it, and yes by all I even include the Evangelical Christians who now worship at the altar of Robert Jeffress and Donald Trump. 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Trump’s Hatchet Men: Christian Pastors Who Should Know Better

Trump_Signs_Religious_Liberty_Order_1200x675_936791107605

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a brief thought to start out the week. Since the beginning of the Trump Campaign his most vocal supporters other that the Alt-Right crowd and people like Roger Stone have been Christian pastors. This really bothered me all weekend so I need to get it off my chest early so I can go on to better things.

To me this has been one of the most perplexing things of the past two years. I wonder how men and women who castigated Democrats, and even some moderate Republicans with epithets often too vile to print ended up supporting a man who exhibits no trace at all of a genuine Christian faith. How they not only support but defend a man whose life if nothing else epitomizes everything that Jesus preached against, even threatening the wrath of God on Trump’s opponents.

I am not alone. Conservative columnist Erick Erickson, who is a Christian by the way noted in a column last week:

“Watergate may have turned Charles Colson from hatchet man to pastor, but defense of President Trump is turning a lot of pastors into hatchet men. Few people come away from Trump’s orbit without compromising their characters.”

Admittedly some of Trump’s big time clerical supports had little in the way of character to begin with, fleecing their flocks and often being caught doing so by law enforcement, some like Jim Bakker even going to jail. However, it is scary that quite a few who even if you disagreed with their politics, theology, or social views, still showed a modicum of Christian character have thrown it away to defend the indefensible. These hatchet men are truly dangerous because they poison the souls of their flocks and in the process demean the entirety of the Gospel message of reconciliation and peace.

But this is nothing new. Ever since Constantine various clerics and preachers have cozied up to rulers in order to gain temporal power for their part of the church. These American preachers today do not believe in the equality of human beings, they delight in condemning people, and frequently use the legislative process to impinge upon or limit the rights of others. Although they said they loved the Constitution when Barak Obama was in office their actions show that they despise it as well as the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Their attitudes towards the heart of American democracy are much like the Southern planters and slaveowners. One of them, George Fitzhugh of Virginia wrote in 1850:

“We must combat the doctrines of natural liberty and human equality, and the social contract as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776. Under the spell of Locke and the Enlightenment, Jefferson and other misguided patriots ruined the splendid political edifice they erected by espousing dangerous abstractions – the crazy notions of liberty and equality that they wrote into the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights. No wonder the abolitionists loved to quote the Declaration of Independence! Its precepts are wholly at war with slavery and equally at war with all government, all subordination, all order. It is full if mendacity and error. Consider its verbose, newborn, false and unmeaning preamble…. There is, finally, no such thing as inalienable rights. Life and liberty are not inalienable…. Jefferson in sum, was the architect of ruin, the inaugurator of anarchy. As his Declaration of Independence Stands, it deserves the appropriate epithets which Major Lee somewhere applies to the thought of Mr. Jefferson, it is “exuberantly false, and absurdly fallacious.”

Southern preachers condemned opponents of slavery in the abolition movement, including fellow evangelicals as “atheists, infidels, communists, free-lovers, Bible-haters, and anti-Christian levelers.”  Like the Southern preachers of the ante-bellum era the political pastors of today stand against the weak, the outcast, the poor, and the alien. Instead of standing for the weak, these preachers lead their congregations to despise them as they accommodate themselves to the service of the powerful represented by President Trump. Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed it up well when wrote about the “German Christians” who followed Hitler:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

The sad thing is that the so-called Christianity of our day is not far removed from that of the ante-bellum South or that of Nazi Germany. It worships power and riches and the only rights that it desires to protect are its own. Led by the hatchet men in the pulpits this church have soiled themselves with a stain that they will never shed, and they will stand condemned even more than the man that they support, because unlike him, they know better, or at least they should. 

Conservative scion Barry Goldwater warned us about them in 1994: 

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

But Goldwater also knew that the leaders of the Christian Right who now are solidly behind Trump were easily manipulated by the hard right. In 1981 he told an interviewer:

“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Donald Trump is manipulating the hell out of them, speaking to their deepest fears and promising them that they will be the ones that come out on top in his America. He has cultivated that by signing executive orders designed to cater to their every desire in exchange for their fealty which they readily give him. He is a nearly cult like messiah figure to many of them and their preachers bask in the favor he shows them without thinking twice about the true cost both to their faith, and the freedom of all people in the United States. 

Charles Morgan Jr., a lawyer in Birmingham Alabama wrote after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by Ku Klux Klansmen who claimed to be Christians and by the Christian preachers who over the course of decades had given them sanction:

“It is not by great acts but by small failures that freedom dies. . . . Justice and liberty die quietly, because men first learn to ignore injustice and then no longer recognize it.”

He was right, as was Bonhoeffer.  So anyway, that’s a hell of a way to start the week.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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