Category Archives: Pastoral Care

Reflections on Holy Week 2018

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who follow this blog and people who know me know how much I have struggled with faith since returning from Iraq ten years ago, especially during Holy Week. Truthfully it has been one of the most difficult times of the Church year for me, but over the past year I have rediscovered faith, yes I still doubt but I believe a lot more than I have for quite a long time.

Holy Week is over but the Easter Season has just begun. Likewise it will be about another week before I get some real time off after pretty much working every day for the past two weeks. That being said though tired and a bit emotionally worn down from it especially with the sudden death of our Army Deputy Base Commander on Monday night which led to a very full day on Tuesday which also was my 58th birthday, a funeral on Wednesday for one of our long time Catholic parishioners who like my father was a retired Chief Petty Officer who died of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, our Ecumenical Good Friday service, various medical appointments, and Chaplain duty supervisor tasks culminating in our oceanfront Easter Sunrise Service at the First Landing monument at Fort Story and ministry afterwards.

Tomorrow will be full getting ready for the memorial service for our Deputy Commander which takes place Tuesday. Wednesday is filled with meetings, Thursday I begin working with children of our German NATO contingent to get them ready for their confirmation in May. I’ll conclude the week with medical appointments for my Sleep Apnea and checking to see how my C-Pap machine is doing.

But all of that being said I emerged from Holy Week doing a lot better than I thought. For the first time in years sensing a certain amount of joy in my faith, a reaffirmation of my priestly vocation; and this despite all injustices I see and threats of war, especially in the threat that I feel that the President poses to the country and the world. Despite the sadness of my Deputy Commander and friend’s death I was comforted by the Orthodox Prayers that I had the opportunity to pray over his body in one last time with him. Part of those prayers from the Trisagion service was a reminder of the promise of Easter in between the reading of the Passion Gospels on Palm Sunday and Good Friday:

“O God of spirits and of all flesh, You trampled upon death and abolished the power of the devil, giving life to Your world. Give rest to the soul of Your departed servant in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away…”

As I studied for my Good Friday and Easter Sunrise services I was drawn back to the writings of the German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann and the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth.

One of thing Moltmann wrote really struck me in regard to Good Friday. I finished that sermon quoting and then discussing it for a few minutes:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

Two quotes, one from Moltmann and the other by Barth really stayed with me for the Sunrise service. Moltmann wrote: “In the cross of Christ God is taking man dead-seriously so that he may open up for him the happy freedom of Easter. God takes upon himself the pain of negation and the God forsakenness of judgement to reconcile himself with his enemies and to give the godless fellowship with himself,” as did these words of Barth:

“What happened on that day (of Easter) became, was and remained the centre around which everything else moves. For everything lasts its time, but the love of God – which was at work and was expressed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – lasts forever. Because this event took place, there is no reason to despair, and even when we read the newspaper with all its confusing and frightening news, there is every reason to hope.”

For the first time in years I could truly exclaim the Easter Alleluia, that Christ is Risen.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

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.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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As the 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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“Is that Truly the Path of the Lord” A Reflection on Faith, Calling, and the Christmas Truce in the Age of Trump

palmerFriends of Padre Steve’s World

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

I again watched that film tonight. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within this country.

I was reminded of that last night and today as the President received the worship of his most vocally Christian cabinet members and the Vice President as they celebrated the passage of a tax cut bill that end up harming many more people than it will help, even as he edges closer to a devastating war with North Korea, a war that besides being more deadly than in since the World Wars will bring many unexpected and unintended consequences, none good, but I digress…

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact until very recently they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

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

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of the President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me as opposed to . I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years, unless as I expect a major war breaks out with North Korea, and maybe Iran too.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. This Sunday, Christmas Eve I will preach at my chapel’s Protestant service. Likewise as I wrote last week I had the honor of conducting the Christmas service for the German contingent of the NATO headquarters here.

533506_10151366982457059_868388211_nI expect that in the coming year I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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An Unexpected Encounter in a Bar: a Divine or a Chance Meeting?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’ve been in the military almost 36 1/2 Years and a chaplain for about 25 1/2 of them. I remember when I was in the Texas Army National Guard, our State Chaplain, Colonel John Price pulled me aside and gave me some of the best advice any chaplain has ever given me. He told me that in his experience that chaplains who were not afraid to sit at the bar at the officer’s club or go to other bars often had the opportunity to care for people who would never darken the door of a church or chapel. Over the years I have found that to be true all too often.

This afternoon I went with Judy to our favorite German restaurant, the Bier Garden. We had been working around the house most of the day and the weather was cold a dreary, cloudy with rain and temperatures in the high 30s. When we got there there were only two seats available at the end of the bar and I asked the young man sitting next to them if they were free. He said yes and we sat down. The Army-Navy game was on the televisions and I was settling in to watch the game when the young man struck up a conversation with me. He had obviously had too much to drink and he was struggling to stay awake.

That being said he seemed lonely and depressed, so as I watched the game I occasionally engaged him in conversation and listened to what he was saying. Then he passed out and the bartender woke him up and cut him off. That is when I really got concerned for him. I asked if he was okay, if he needed help and if he was local. He said that he was from California and stationed on board one of the many ships based in our area. He also said that he had walked to the restaurant. So we continued to talk and as we did I could see that he was crying. So I let him talk. He had been in the navy less than a year and he was on his first ship and away from his family for the first time. He was depressed and struggling and I realized that for whatever reason I needed to be there for this kid.

I introduced myself and let him know that I was a chaplain, but even more than importantly that I was a fellow sailor, a shipmate who cared for him. I’m not going to go into details of the conversation but I asked him what ship he was stationed aboard and took the time to encourage him, care for him, and even more importantly decided to find out how he was going to get back to his ship. He told me that he planned on walking back to it, which I realized that since he had had a couple too many drinks, was tired, and it was both dark, cold and beginning to snow that I couldn’t let that happened. I asked him to call his ship and have someone come and get him, but he was hesitant. However he did have a card from his ship that would help him with a cab ride, so I asked the bartender to call a cab. I stayed with the young sailor encouraging him the best that I could for the next half hour and then stood with him waiting for the cab to come outside the restaurant where we continued to talk until the cab came. I talked with the cab driver and found that his company didn’t have the agreement with the Navy to honor it, so I paid the driver more than twice the fare to get him back to his ship.

During our time together I listened a lot and I shared a lot of life experience, I also gave him my business card so he could look me up. But the one thing that I kept letting him know was that he was a sailor, that he was one of my shipmates, and that he wears the same uniform that I do, and that he matters to me. Truthfully that is not bullshit, it’s what I have been taught by every decent non-commissioned officer, Petty Officer, Chief, or commissioned officer in my career. You care for the sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen that come into your life no matter what their rank or situation. It’s who we are, and why after all these year I still serve.

While we were standing outside waiting for his cab we were talking about the weather and how cold it was and at that point I pointed out that I was wearing short pants, as I don’t go to long pants until the high temperature is under 40 degrees. He looked down and exclaimed: “Chaps, you,re crazy sir!” I told him that he was right.

My hope is that this young man will remember the crazy chaplain who stood with him in cold weather, wind, rain and snow in short pants who helped him get back to his ship, and that when he has attained any kind of rank that he will take care of other sailors in the same way.

Some might say that the encounter was an act of God or simply a coincidence and I could argue for either point of view. But that being, whichever it was, I know that I couldn’t have done any other. I wanted him to get back to his ship safely and I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his chain of command.

He asked me questions about God and church and I encouraged him to seek out his chaplain or to contact me and so I hope that our encounter will help in get through his hard times and to succeed in life.

But that is why I am here. I’m going to finish my career in the next few years, this young man is just getting started. He is part of the future and no matter how young I still look, act, and behave, my time in the Navy and military is coming to an end. Whether that is in two and a half, three and a half, or four and a half years, with somewhere between 39 and 42 years of combined service between the Army and Navy, I am closer to the end of my career than this young man.

So I encourage all of my readers to look out for those young men and women who come into your lives.

So until tomorrow and whatever unexpected encounters come our way I wish you the best,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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What I Signed Up For: Reflections on “What I Signed Up For”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I enlisted in the Army National Guard about the same time I entered the Army ROTC program at UCLA in August 1981. When I enlisted I did so knowing that if I successfully got through all of my training that I would not only put myself in harms way, but be responsible for the life of the soldiers who served under my command. Back then there was much to worry about. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, the Middle East was in turmoil following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, while it appeared that the United States and the Soviet Union were on the precipice of a war which could destroy the world.

Once I was commissioned and stationed in Germany, all of my training, and all of our war plans had my house in the middle of a war that had it happened would have resulted in seventy to ninety percent casualties for my unit. In fact, I had signed up to die should a war break out. Thirty-six later, having been to war, I still know my duty as a military officer should a war like that which was imagined when I first enlisted and was commissioned should occur, I must be ready to die. The fact that I am already goofed up from PTSD and moral injury is irrelevant, I have to be ready to go to war and accept my fate.

That being said, my wife Judy didn’t sign up for that. So when I see and hear about politicians who dodged the draft like our current President tell a grieving widow of a Green Beret that he signed up for that, I get annoyed. It was a cruel thing for him to say, even if he meant well.

The fact is that I have been present at far too many death notifications, both military and civilian. Honestly there are very few good words one can say at such times and I have known, and I myself have totally screwed up when trying to go further than simply expressing my condolences and offering my help. Once a leader enters into the realm of trying to justify or soften the death of a military member it usually does not go well, especially when they are emotionally disconnected and cannot deal with the human cost of war, suffering and death, as seems to be the case with President Trump when he made a condolence call to the widow of Army Sergeant LaDavid Johnson. That call, the response of Mrs. Johnson, Sergeant Johnson’s mother, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, and the President’s lashing out at their criticism had ignited a firestorm that I wish had never occurred. It also points to the danger when anyone attempts to comfort loved ones who died in war, particularly when so few people have had to deal with the anguish of war.

When people like this make notifications or condolence calls as was the case here, their emotional disconnect often leads to painfully awkward and sometime very damaging experiences for the person on the receiving end of the call. While the young Green Beret volunteered for such duty he most certainly understood the risks, but that is not the point. I signed up knowing the risks and took many extra ones by volunteering for dangerous assignments, usually only telling Judy after the fact, but then a lot of us are that way, but like it or not the fact that we know what we signed up for is but cold comfort to a grieving widow. That is not what they want to hear, their husbands may have known what they were signing up for and maybe even pushed the danger envelope, but telling the grieving widow that does nothing to mitigate their loss. When offering condolences the best advice is just to try to be there emotionally with the person, to listen to their grief, to express sympathy, and to offer to be there to help; or if you are the President to make a solemn promise to ensure they get what they need and to get to the bottom of what caused the death of their loved one.

Honestly, since he didn’t comment or even issue the press release that was written for him, I believe that he made this call in order to control the political damage done by his previous inaction. Likewise, I don’t think that the President meant to come across as uncaring, or unfeeling to Mrs. Johnson, and when he was criticized he did what he always does, he lashes out. That is who he is, that is what he is and sadly I don’t think that he has the capacity to learn from his mistakes or to change. I don’t think that he truly has the capacity to enter into the emotional world of what military personnel in harms way deal with or what their families experience.

But like I said at the beginning of this, when a President who dodged the draft and avoided military service makes a comment like what Mr. Trump did, it adds context to what was said. I can understand why Mrs. Johnson would take it as an insult to her husband’s service. In the context of Mr. Trump it is not hard to understand why people would be outraged. He compared avoiding sexually transmitted diseases to what combat veterans went through, demeaned the service of a legitimate war hero, Senator John McCain, called military personnel who suffer from PTSD “weak”, and who before his election disparaged those who have fought our wars as losers. He is a man who has said that he “loves war” but who avoided military service at all costs.

I found this whole event discouraging from a personal perspective because while I do not believe that the President meant to to be disrespectful to Mrs. Johnson, she did take it that way, as would many widows. His response of going on the attack after being criticized was worthy of condemnation. I have served under six Presidents including President Trump and I cannot imagine Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama responding to the grief of a widow in such an overtly self defensive, calculating, and politically expedient act in terms of shoring up his base as did President Trump.

I also what will happen when the President either through accident or intent stumbles into a war on the Korean Peninsula or the Persian Gulf that kills many more Americans in a shorter time than in the Korean War or World War Two. I am reminded of the words of General John Buford played by Sam Elliott:

“We will charge valiantly… and be butchered valiantly! And afterwards, men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chests and say what a brave charge it was.

I know what I signed up for up for. Judy and I talk about these things and after knowing me for almost forty years she understands me better than anyone. We were talking about the possibility of war a couple of weeks ago and she asked “will you resign or retire?” I said that I couldn’t because my place would to be with the troops. She said. “I knew that.” That doesn’t mean that she would take someone who said “he knew what he signed up for” better than Sergeant Johnson’s wife. In time she might be able to deal with that, but not in the immediate aftermath from someone who avoided war, suffering, and danger at every opportunity.

I hope that she never has to deal with that, but we live in an unpredictable world and have a very unpredictable and unstable man leading our nation.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Loose thoughts and musings, Military, Pastoral Care

Shitty Days and Mondays…

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For tonight nothing about politics or history, or for that matter even baseball. The late Karen Carpenter sang that Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down. Well Monday was a thoroughly shitty day for me at work and it just happened to be raining.

iIn fact, Monday was emotionally one of the worst days I have gone through in a long time. I won’t go into any detail here as I was able to deal with the immediate issues at hand, but some of what I was dealing with but part of this goes back to my return from Iraq in 2008. I came back from Iraq afflicted with severe and chronic PTSD which still effects me, but also something called Moral Injury which was caused by what happened to me when I returned from Iraq, injury that whether intention in some cases, or unintentional in most cases, left me in a place where I I have a hard time trusting, or believing that senior Navy Chaplains or other leaders have my best interests at heart. Truthfully, I have been hung out to dry by too many of them since then to trust or believe anything that they say.

There have been great exceptions, men and women who did look after me. I was fortunate with the leaders I had at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, including now Rear Admiral David Lane, and my leadership and academic colleagues at the Joint Forces Staff College. But despite their wonderful support, I find that too many of my senior Navy Chaplain Corps leaders as well as a few line officers (but none of the line officers that I am currently serving with) embody everything that is wrong in the U.S. Military. I cannot go into any detail in public or name any names as much as I would like to, but if I did I would be crushed and vilified. So I won’t, at least until I retire, whenever that may be. Then I will “go Smedley” like Marine Corps General and two time Medal of Honor winner, Major General Smedley Butler who wrote the book War is a Racket and fought against a growing Fascist movement in the United States in the 1930s. But until I retire I can’t do that.

Anyway, I am doing much better today than I was doing Monday, and I am great full for my staff who because of what happened to my predecessor under a different commander and executive officer are very protective of me. Their loyalty and care for me, a very broken and imperfect leader encourages me to do all that I can to support them, but also not to give up. If there is one reason that I remain on active duty after 36 plus years in the Army and Navy, it is my determination to work hard for them and for so many others who serve our country with such good hearts. In a world where men and women like them get screwed by the system every day I cannot retire, as much as it would make my life easier in some ways.

So, this post went totally off the track that I had when I began it so I will write about my original topic tomorrow.

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy

Ghosted by a Former Band of Brothers


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I read an article yesterday by a pastor who experienced a phenomenon known as ghosting. This is where people who once were friends, maybe even close friends suddenly disappear from your life by silently shunning you. When I read his experiences I could relate and the article brought back painful memories of when it happened to me and for the first time I am going to really open up about what happened to me. I have to do it because I have held in the rejection for years, mostly because the people involved never gave me a chance to deal with them in person about what they did. But that is the dishonorable and cowardly thing about ghosting; it leaves people with wounds that they are unable to address, and it causes them to be more distrustful of others, as well as more guarded and careful about entering into new relationships. 

When supposed Christian friends do it to people they often leave the church and never come back. 

In the past I have mentioned what happened to me after Iraq and in the aftermath of being thrown out of a church I had served as a Priest for 14 years in rather oblique ways; ways that allowed people an easy out. But today I really feel the need to open up about it and mention some of the people by their first names. I won’t mention their last names because I don’t want people who don’t know them, or are their current friends to write them off. But I need to mention the first names just in case any of them end up reading this they will recognize themselves and perhaps have an attack of conscience whether they want to have anything to do with me or not. I figure that doing this will remove any ambiguity about who I mean and not allow them any wiggle room to think that maybe they did nothing wrong. If I really wanted to be a jerk I would share their last names, but that’s not my intention, I just want them to think of the consequences of their actions, especially since most are still in some for of ministry. 

Some people may wonder why this and why now? That is a good question. Some people might think I’m being petty or harsh, and maybe even unforgiving by writing this, but truthfully it’s the only way for the truth to be told and maybe for them to wake up and realize that relationships matter. 

In the 14 years I spent as a Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church I built what I thought were lifelong friendships with many of our fellow chaplains. We enjoyed our times together, frequently talked by phone or corresponded in other ways, sharing our faith, our struggles, discussing theology, ministry, and the military. We called ourselves a band of brothers. 

My closest friend was a Priest named Bill. We entered the church and were ordained about the same time and for years I considered him my closest friend and confidant. There were others in that early group, Ken, Jeff, Jon, Greg, John, Phil, Bob, Steve, as well as others, including Stu, and David, but we were kind of the core. Over the years others came along, and some for whatever reason went their separate ways but even then, most of us tried to keep in contact. 

For me that began to change after I returned from Iraq. I have to admit that I had changed in the course of my time there but I never thought I would be ghosted by so many of them in the aftermath of Iraq and after I was told to leave the church in 2010. Even when I left, most said that we would still be friends and stay in contact. Maybe I expected too much by thinking that the visits, correspondence, and phone calls would continue. Maybe I expected too much by thinking that they would be there for me when I needed them, after all we claimed to be a band of brothers. But words are cheap, simply saying that you are a band of brothers doesn’t mean that you are. 

Within two years of my departure I discovered that phone calls and emails went unreturned, and even though I lived and worked just a few miles from Bill and Ken for three years while I was stationed at Camp LeJeune without Judy, I almost never saw them. I’d ask if we could meet but be told that they were too busy. I haven’t heard from either since I came back to Norfolk in August 2013. Others simply never returned my calls, one of which surprised and saddened me more than most. Thanks Jeff. 

Of the others a couple remain as Facebook friends but I seldom have any meaningful contact with them. Of all of them, only David, a fellow Iraq vet who has gone through similar PTSD issues and much worse physical issues remains in regular contact. We had a wonderful talk Friday night. He’s just finished his first year in medical school and is dealing with a teenage son who is in a lot of trouble. David is a rare soul and I love him, we can talk about anything, share anything, and be absolutely transparent with each other. Of the band of brothers, he is still my brother. 

The most hurtful losses were Bill and Jeff who simply disappeared from my life, and Stu who I had known longer than any of them. Stu had left the church to become a Roman Catholic Priest but he had nothing but condemnation for my announcement of my departure. I haven’t heard from him since he blasted me and called me disloyal to the bishop who threw me out after defending myself on my blog. By the way, speaking of loyalty the Bishop got himself thrown out for going behind the back of his fellow bishops by trying to abscond with all the military chaplains to another denomination. 

I do miss them and I hope that they will read this article if nothing else so they don’t do what they did to me to anyone else. Likewise, while what they did hurts I would not turn any of them away if they wanted to get back together. Although I am still hurt and angry I cannot hate them, and I only wish the best for them. But I think what they did was shameful and I hope that they never do it to anyone else.

On a different level what they did is not uncommon in the church. Christians tend to be the worst advertisement for Christ and after watching the antics of Christians since I returned from Iraq I don’t plan to darken the door of a church when I retire from the Navy Chaplain Corps. I find my less than religious friends to be far more reliable and caring than most of the Christians that I know. 

Now I am certainly not indicting all Christians in this post, or all Priests, chaplains, or ministers. There are many who would never do such a thing, but I don’t know a lot of them. 

So anyway, I know I am not alone. This form of silent shunning and shaming is all too common and not just in the church, but I would say that the damage inflicted by Christians is worse than others. Today I took the opportunity to publicly let these men how badly they wounded me because none of them gave me the opportunity in private. If people think that is inappropriate for me to do then fine, I’ll live with it but now I can finally let it go because after years of holding it in I have at last said my peace and I’m done with it. 

As difficult as the article was to read, and this to write, it has brought me closer to closure and hopefully maybe will open up a chance for reconciliation if any of them desire. That however is up to them. 

I would love to discuss the subject over a beer with any of those involved, but today I needed to finally let it out. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, Religion, remembering friends