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“We’ve Got Some Difficult Days Ahead…” The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at 50 Years

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Fifty years ago today a bullet killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while he was in Memphis supporting Sanitation Workers who were being subjected to unsafe working conditions without the same rights, protections, pay, or benefits of white Sanitation workers. As always there were threats on King’s life and he knew that he was a target. The night before his assassination Dr. King spoke at Mason Temple the international headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the largest historically Black denomination in the United States.

That speech is now known as the “I have been to the mountaintop” speech. Dr. King had flown into Memphis earlier in the day, on a flight delayed by a bomb threat. King like many Civil Rights leaders of his day lived under the constant threat of physical violence, intimidation and assassination. After the heady days of the great march in Washington and the I Have a Dream speech and the award of the Nobel Prize his positions on social and economic justice and his opposition to the Vietnam War had made him a pariah of sorts, even in the Black community. He had place himself in the gunsights of his opponents as he pressed on in spite of the opposition.

Life was precious to him, but he like many others understood that it could be cut short at any moment for simply speaking the truth about racial discrimination, prejudice and violence. King himself had been accosted at different times and spent time in jail for “breaking” laws that enforced and enabled institutions and individuals to discriminate against Blacks with no consequences whatsoever. He was called a radical, a Communist and anti-American by those that opposed any changes to the status quo. He knew that his life was always in danger.

In that speech Dr. King seemed to understand the threat but he was determined to go on and to do God’s will. Dr. King understood that the Christian faith required more than intellectual assent to a doctrine. He understood the words of the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

At Mason Temple Dr King proclaimed:

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats…or talk about the threats that were out… What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. but it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over.and I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I am happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I am not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of The Lord.”

It was April 4th 1968. The United States was divided by the Vietnam War and numerous social crises. President Lyndon Johnson had just done the unthinkable, he had announced that he was withdrawing from his reelection bid. In many places despite the integration of the Armed Forces, Baseball, the repeal of many Jim Crow laws and the passage of the 1964 Voter’s Rights Act African Americans still felt the sting of individual and institutional racial prejudice. In Vietnam the effects of the Tet Offensive still lingered even as American cities burned.

His speech at Mason Temple was almost prophetic in its message. The words of the thirty-nine year old Baptist Preacher from Atlanta echoed through the sanctuary of the church to the applause of those present even as a heavy spring thunderstorm rocked the city.

The following evening, King with a number of other Civil Rights leaders including Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young were at the Lorraine Motel, where King often stayed. King was standing on the balcony outside of his room, Room 306 when at 6:01 PM he was cut down and mortally wounded by a single shot fired from a Remington 760 rifle. The bullet struck him in the right cheek, traveled down his spine and severed his jugular vein and several major arteries before it came to rest in his shoulder. He still had a heartbeat when the ambulance arrived and on his arrival at St Joseph’s Hospital. Efforts to revive him by opening his chest and attempting cardiac massage were unsuccessful and at 7:05 PM Dr King was pronounced dead.

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Witnesses reported a man named James Earl Ray fleeing the area after the shooting. The Remington rifle and a pair of binoculars with Ray’s fingerprints were found at the scene. Ray was apprehended at London’s Heathrow Airport two months later. Ray was tried and convicted of Dr King’s murder. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison and died in 1998. During the trial Ray recanted his confession, implicated an unknown man named “Raul” who he had supposedly met in Montreal as being involved and said that “he personally did not kill” Dr King hinting at a conspiracy. Ray plead guilty to avoid the death penalty.

Other theories were postulated about the murder and Lloyd Jowers who owned a restaurant across from the Lorraine Motel claimed in a 1993 interview that the US Government and the Mafia were complicit in the killing, that Ray was a scapegoat and that Memphis Police Lieutenant Earl Clark was the shooter.

Jowers’ story is disputed but it was believed by King’s widow Coretta Scott King.  She filed a wrongful death lawsuit in which a jury found that Jowers and others including government agencies were guilty of the plot to kill Dr King on December 8th 1998. Though Jowers’ story was contradicted by much of his own testimony during the trial the results have caused a divide in who experts believe killed Dr King. As for the King family they reconciled with Ray before his death.

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Regardless of who killed Dr King the result was a shock to much of the nation and in many places riots broke out despite the pleadings of most Civil Rights leaders to continue in Dr King’s path of non-violence.

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Senator Robert F Kennedy, then running for the Democratic Party nomination for President learned of Dr King’s shooting just before flying to Indianapolis for a campaign rally. On his arrival he learned of Dr King’s death. Warned by police that he could be in danger he made an impromptu speech from the back of a flat bed truck. The speech was short, under 5 minutes but its message is applicable even today.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some — some very sad news for all of you — Could you lower those signs, please? — I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.”

Two months later Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan after winning the California Primary.

The loss of Dr King and later Senator Kennedy was profound. So tonight take the time to remember and pray that we all will be able to go to the mountain and see the promised land where in a more perfect Union we will heal the wounds that so divide our country.

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Today the rights that Dr. King and so many others fought for dating back to the days of Frederick Douglass are being rolled back at the local, state and Federal level. The administration of President Trump and Republican led statehouses have been working overtime to silence dissent, discredit opposition, and through unjust laws and policies upend the civil rights not only of Blacks, but other people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, and Muslims.

Dr. King noted the night before he was slain that “we’ve got some difficult days ahead” but as he told his staff in January 1968 “Hope is the final refusal to give up.”

Peace

Padre Stave+

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I had a Comrade: Farewell LTC John Penree

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today marks a solemn occasion at our base. We will be saying our farewell at a memorial service for our Army Deputy Commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Penree. He passed away late last Monday night. He was beloved by many and had served our country in the New York Army National Guard and the United States Army for 42 years.

He will receive full military honors in the ceremony which is a collaboration between the Army and the Navy. His wife Patty and his six children will be in attendance along with a number of high ranking officers and other dignitaries. I only knew and worked with him for a year but came to love him and consider him a friend. We had worked together the Saturday before he died at a ceremony marking opening day for the Little League the meets on our base. Not long before that we had enjoyed a day working and playing with the German contingent from NATO and their families. He was a good man and a good comrade in arms. In the words of the old German military funeral march Ich hatt’ ein Kameraden “Ich hatt’ ein Kameraden, Einen bessern findest du nit…” I had a comrade, you will find none better.

Today I will include that thought in my meditation at the service and will,close the service with the words of Lieutenant Colonel John McRea, a Canadian Soldier, physician, and poet in the First World War. His poem, In Flanders Fields is a classic and it speaks to soldiers as few poems can:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

    Between the crosses, row on row,

  That mark our place; and in the sky

  The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.   Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

  Loved and were loved, and now we lie

      In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

  The torch; be yours to hold it high.

  If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

      In Flanders fields.

I will leave you with that and ask you to pray for John, his family, and those that he leaves behind.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Hoping for a Good Friday…

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Christian hope does not promise successful days to the rich and the strong, but resurrection and life to those who must exist in the shadows of death. Success is no name of God. Righteousness is.”

The past couple of weeks have been very trying, emotionally exhausting, yet spiritually have been good for me. It has been a difficult Holy Week, a week when I lived under the shadows of death. For 18 of the 19 years I had spent in the Navy as a Chaplain I had successfully been able to avoid assignment as a base chaplain of any kind. The last time I had such a duty was back in 1996-1998 in Germany and Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania when I was still in the Army. The assignment I have now as a base chaplain places me in a situation when I confront situations every day where death lurks, and not in the same way as when I was deployed and under enemy fire.

It is Holy Week and in addition to all of the normal observances of the Christian faith I have had to deal with a number of chapel issues involving people, contracts, and other day to day issues, as well as a funeral, and the unexpected death of our Army Deputy Commander who I also consider a friend. It has been exhausting.

Tomorrow I will conduct a Good Friday Liturgy, engage in some planning for the memorial service that will take place for my friend, and prepare myself for the Easter Sunrise service even as I do my regular duties, get in what I hope will be a long run, and get some long needed medical tests. Thankfully I have a new provider who has ordered them and noted that he was in disbelief that my previous providers had never ordered them over the past 6 years.

So I am hoping that despite all that I will have to do that Good Friday will be good from a different point of view, that being not too crazy or tragic. Thankfully, unlike past years, despite everything I am in much better shape emotionally and spiritually to deal with what comes and I do believe that in addition to being Good Friday that it will be a good Friday.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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“We Have to Show the World That Not All of Us are Like Him…” Resistance or Acquiescence?

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Major General Henning Von Tresckow 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I wasn’t planning on writing anything new until sometime next week, but after President Trump’s off the cuff decision to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un and the speech that he gave in Pennsylvania on Saturday night I must share a couple of thoughts.

Last night (Saturday) I watched the movie Valkyrie which is about the July 20th 1944 attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, and tonight the movie Conspiracy which is about the bureaucratic workings of the decision to eradicate the Jews from earth by the Nazis in the decision now known as The Final Solution. 

It is interesting the the British actor Kenneth Branagh stars in both. In Valkyrie he plays Major General Henning von Tresckow, a key member of the the anti-Hitler movement; and in Conspiracy he plays SS General Reinhardt Heydrich who helped engineer the Final Solution against the Jews.

In the past few days I have thought of the words of Von Tresckow, Heydrich, and General Ludwig Beck, another of the conspirators who attempted to kill Hitler and lost his life in the process.

Heydrich was the ultimate opportunist, who had he not been assassinated two months after the Wansee Conference might well have been a participant in the anti-Hitler conspiracy; not because of any ethical or ideological purity, but for the sake of his own power and survival. Heydrich was not an ideologue but a pragmatist, and many historians think that he would have joined a movement against Hitler in order to preserve his ideal of Germany. In Valkyrie Branagh played Major General Henning von Tresckow who was a Christian and opponent of the Hitler regime. Branagh played both parts very well, and was believable.

Ever the pragmatist Heydrich told a young SS Major at the Wansee Conference: “Politics is a nasty game. I think soldiering requires the discipline to do the unthinkable and politics requires the skill to get someone else to do the unthinkable for you.” Sadly I have to admit that he was correct. Since I have served in the military for nearly 37 years I can understand the comment, thankfully I have never been a politician so I cannot imagine having the skill to do the unthinkable for me.

That being said I have taken to hear the words of General Ludwig Beck who resigned from his position as the head of the German Army in 1938 over the planned invasion of Czechoslovakia and lost his life in the attempt to overthrow Hitler:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

Von Tresckow would note in words that I would hope that Americans would heed today in terms of the current President: “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”

The question is: Will Americans simply roll over and do the unthinkable or will they decide to show the world that we are not like him?

That is the question. How we answer it is another matter.

Until tomorrow and my third installment of the six part series on Dan Sickles,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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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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