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I Don’t Have the Answers but You Might as Well Live: Thoughts on Suicide

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is a hard article to write because it takes me back to points in my life after my return from Iraq that all I wanted to do was die and even had plans of how I would kill myself. The worst period was between 2010 and 2013 when I was stationed away from my wife Judy on an unaccompanied assignment at Camp LeJeune North Carolina. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to subject my dog Molly to me not coming home, she helped save my life, as did thoughts of Judy and the friends I had at a local bar who cared for me during that time.

It wasn’t my faith or for that matter most of the people I knew in the Chaplain Corps or my former Church that kept me from it, it was a dog, my wife, and regular guys that I ate and drank with regularly: Mike and New York Mike, Walt, Eddie, Felicia, Bill, “Judge Ito”, Billy, and other regulars at Rucker Johns in Emerald Isle made sure that I lived. So did friends at Granger Stadium in Kinston North Carolina where I would drive an hour to and back to watch minor league baseball games two or three times a week: Toni and Jerry, Anne, Cara, and Negro League Hall of Fame player Carl Long. Sadly, New York Mike, Judge Ito, Walt, Cara, and Carl have all passed away since I came back to Virginia.

During those dark times I had friends including men and women that I had served with in the military or their family members kill themselves. I can visualize their faces as I write this. They ranged in age from barely twenty years old to nearly sixty, all at different stages of life and their career. Quite a few were combat vets of multiple deployments and in one case both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars. They were real heroes but they defeat the figurative demons within them. I also have had a great grandfather and great uncle who afflicted with terminal cancer killed themselves.

I still struggle with the effects of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Moral Injury. I still suffer from depression and anxiety, thankfully not nearly as bad as it used to be. I still avoid most crowded places unless they are very familiar to me. I am still hyper-vigilant and on guard. I plot escape routes or have memorized what I as an unarmed person would do to neutralize a threat in a public place because I don’t plan on going down without a fight or let innocent people get killed.  I also suffer from frequent flashbacks and terrible nightmares and night terrors. I threw myself off the bed in the middle of one again Thursday night. Thankfully I didn’t get a concussion or break my nose leading to emergency room visits like happened in 2014 and 2016.

Suicide is something I try not even to think about because it takes me back to very bad times that I don’t want to experience again. At the same time when I have to deal with suicides at work or read about high profile suicides, such as those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade I feel all of the anguish that I went through during the worst times, but without any desire to kill myself, I think that is a good thing.

At the same time when I deal with or hear about a suicide my mind starts playing the them song from M*A*S*H; Suicide is Painless, which was written for the movie by the fourteen year old son of director Robert Altman. Altman wanted the song for a specific scene in the film and he wanted it to be named Suicide is Painless, he also wanted it to be the stupidest song ever written. He couldn’t wrap himself around that and his son wrote it in about 15 minutes. It’s a strange song for me. I grew up with the movie and the TV show and I started my career as a commissioned office as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army. The song was the official song of the Army Medical Department and the instrumental version was played at every graduation or function that we had. Two decades later in the trauma hall of a Navy Trauma platoon in Iraq I felt like Father Mulcahy

I have a deep sense of empathy for those who suffer from deep depression and feel that sense of hopelessness, abandonment, and god-forsakenness that often lead to suicide. When I see people who complete a suicide condemned as weak, selfish, or even worse as deserving of God’s wrath and judgment I do get angry, especially when the accusers are Christians. I believe than nobody is outside the mercy and love of God, even those who commit suicide. At the same time it is hard for me to know what to say anymore without sounding trite because I know how deeply someone has to be hurting to consider suicide, and words cannot go there, there is a profound hollowness to them. The last verse of Suicide is Painless note something that I feel when dealing with a suicide situation because I just don’t have the answers:

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
Is it to be or not to be
And I replied oh why ask me…

That being said I do believe that help can be found and that even in the midst of struggle people can get help and find meaning in life, and I want them to find whatever they need to help them live, thrive, and survive. I don’t believe that life is without struggle, many of my personal heroes dealt with terrible depression at various times of their lives. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Gouverneur Warren, and T.E. Lawrence among them.

As opposed to the thought that suicide is painless, I think that the great American poet and satirist Dorothy Parker said it well, suicide is not painless, she wrote:

“Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.”

So please, if you or someone that you know are struggling with issues in life that are so bad that suicide has become an option, please reach out and get help. Getting help is worth it, I know, I wouldn’t still be here without it. As Seneca said: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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What Have We Done? Moral Injury and Our Unending Wars

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is not every day that one reads about himself in a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent and author. I did that this week. Back in 2014 I was interviewed by David Wood for his book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. After the interview I kept going with life struggling with the daily effects of PTSD, TBI, and Moral Injury in my life. The book came out in late 2016 or early 2017 but I didn’t know that it had until Sunday when I read some comments by Army Chaplains in a Facebook Group that I am fortunate to be a member.

When I found out the book had been published I immediately purchased it on Amazon Kindle and will get a hard cover copy as well. Of course I search for my name and went to the chapter in which David told my story. It was very good, so I began reading the book from the beginning. David is an exceptional writer and having spent many years in combat zones and embedded in American combat units at war he has earned his stripes, and what he writes is so vivid and real that to me it brought back too many memories, painful memories of the war and what I experienced when I came home flooded me. I again recalled the words of the great Union General and hero of Little Round Top, Gouverneur Warren that he wrote his wife in 1867:

“I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.”

It was not reading my story that got me, it was reading the stories of Marines, soldiers, and other Chaplains that got me. I knew that I wasn’t alone. I have seen carnage. I have been shot at, and I have been in danger many times, always unarmed; that I would do again. In fact in my FITREP debrief from my commanding officer and executive officer both noted that where I stood out the most was in crisis situations dealing with death and trauma. Truthfully, that is how I am wired and it has always been that way. Sadly my current billet, which will certainly unless everything goes to shit will be the one that I will retire from is more suited to men or women who do well in the bureaucracy and management. Outside of crises and trauma situations I do best teaching and writing, but I digress…

David’s book triggered memories. I had to make a note not to read it before bedtime because on Sunday night when I finished the second chapter I took my sleep meds, put on my CPAP, and had my therapy puppy Izzy snuggled around my head. I closed my eyes and the flashbacks began. When I finally went to sleep the nightmares began. They have not ended. The Alsatian German Soldier, Guy Sajer wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:

“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”

While I write about my private war with PTSD and Moral Injury I say little or nothing about it now to superiors, in fact after serving with me for over a year my Commander didn’t know how I struggle. I admitted it to him during the debrief and he was surprised. I guess that is a good thing because since “coming out” with PTSD in 2009 having already dealt with it for a year discovered that I had become one of the untouchables. Though I was selected for promotion to Commander in 2010 I was shunted off into billets that made me noncompetitive for promotion to Captain. I realized that in 2011 when the newly promoted deputy Chief of Chaplains treated me as if I was a nonentity when she made her tour of the commands at the base I was then serving. In 2014 when the Washington Times published an article on their front page about my story it went completely unacknowledged by the Chief of Chaplains office in Washington DC. I didn’t even get a call from a staff member asking if I was okay.

I can understand how Gouverneur Warren felt when he was cast off at the end of the Civil War, but then I also remember how a Comcast seasoned EOD Master Chief Petty Officer told me that “you can admit and get help for PTSD but you will never again get assigned to the billets that get you promoted.” He was right and truthfully I am okay with that, I can say that I am happy where I am now, not to say that if given the chance I wouldn’t hesitate to go in harms way again. My nightmares this week seem to lead me to believe that that may happen before I retire from the military, but again I digress…

I highly recommend David’s book to you. It is probably the best account of the war and its unintended consequences that I have ever read. Please read it if you really care about those of us who have been to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or to go back further Vietnam have experienced. When you are done with it you too may ask What have we done?

Until tomorrow,

Peace

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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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