Category Archives: spirituality

Faith, Doubt, and the Little Things: Thoughts at the End of a Long but Good Week


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a long, tiring, yet very good week. For those who have followed me on this blog for so long, I want to say thank you. I left my last assignment broken, dispirited, struggling with my faith and calling, but as a result of a series of events regarding my retirement, my faith has been renewed and my sense of calling and joy to serve as a Priest restored. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience doubts, or question doctrine, or even wonder about the existence of God. I wish that I can say that that wasn’t the case, but the fact is that all of us, believers or unbelievers alike live in what the German Pastor, theologian, resistier and martyr to Adolf Hitler said:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  

Whether we believe or don’t believe; are fixed in our religious doctrine or non-religious ideology, or doubt as I so frequently do, the fact is that we live in the uncomfortable middle. Truthfully, we come from a beginning that we can only only make ultimately unprovable theological or scientific theories of origins; and move to an end, that while it certainly will happen, either in apocalyptic fury, or where either we ourselves will destroy most of the life of the planet, save the Cockroaches, or the Sun goes supernova and consumes the Earth and the rest of our pitiful solar system, unless the dreams of Gene Roddenberry come true. Truthfully, I have learned in my almost sixty years of earthly existence to be okay with that. Others religious and non-believers alike aren’t okay with that, simply because they require certitude.

The seeds of this idea were planted over 25 years ago during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency, at Parkland Memorial Hospital confronted me about my “illusion of control” after a case conference. He was frustrated with me, and for him it was a throw away comment, but is penetrated the armored belt that I had surrounded my heart, soul, and intellect with for years, even before I became an Army officer in 1983.

I mentioned a lot of the week last night. I have felt a renewal of faith and call; a joy in ministry and caring for people that I haven’t experienced since my time in Iraq, which was quite literally, “the best of times and the worst of times. At the same time, while I believe, I doubt. As Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain: 

“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re present but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe …. Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don’t believe but I know.”

The words reflected what I was going through. I believed, but I didn’t. Of course that would not only continue as my tour in Iraq progressed but got worse after I returned from Iraq. However, I discovered, much to my surprise that I was not alone. That there were a number of other very good, caring Chaplains, Priests and ministers going through similar doubts, fears and pain.

The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:

“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”

The words were and still remain an epiphany to me. Belief and unbelief co-existing simultaneously, yet in a way strangely congruent with the testimony of scripture, the anguished words of a man whose son was possessed by an evil spirit confessing to Jesus: “I believe, help my unbelief.” Maybe that is why in the Liturgy of the Eucharist we proclaim the mystery of faith, or as it is translated from Latin into German Geheimnis des Glaubens. That mystery, is that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. That really is the mystery of what Christians call faith

We can be reasonably certain from non-Christian sources like the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman Letter to Trajan, written by Pliny the Younger, that there was a man name Jesus who was crucified by the Romans, and whose followers believed that he had died, been buried, had risen from the dead. Likewise, It was the testimony of those early believers in Scripture and non-canonical writings, that he would come again. Pliny described them as model citizens whose only fault, was that they would not burn incense and proclaim that Caesar was Lord, and sought the advice of Emperor Trajan on what to do with them. Before and after that many gave their lives peacefully as martyrs for this crucified man named Jesus.

That is why as strongly, or as doubtfully we believe as Christians, what we believe is based upon faith, mixed with fact, which until those words become reality, cannot be proven. Which is why some priests, like the fictional Jean Paul in Greeley’s novel and me “ both believe and not believe at the same time.”

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but in this season of Lent where Christians are called to draw near to God in order to be transformed by God’s love, and share it with others through their lives and actions, not just words, platitudes, and certitudes, but being humble servants of others we come to experience a renewal of life which can only be described as mysterious.

So that is it for the night and I hope that no matter what you believe that you experience joy, love, and even come to revel in the mystery that we call life and faith, and share that love, human, and or divine with others. After all, a smile, a friendly greeting, an expression of care from a friend or stranger, looking into someone’s eyes with care and concern, may be the only good thing that a person living a lonely, sad, and anxiety filled life, might experience that day. As my one of my football coaches in high school, Duke Pasquini told me “it’s the little things that count.” 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?” Spirituality and Faith in the Trump Era


Father Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short thought tonight at the close of Ash Wednesday, or actually deep into the night after Ash Wednesday. Yesterday was a wonderful day, in which I began to really experience a certain joy in faith, of course as always tempered by reason, and the ministry of caring for a diverse workforce. It was probably the busiest and most meaningful Ash Wednesday I have ever experienced in close to 28 years of Chaplain ministry, which include two years where I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic hoping that God still existed after my return from Iraq, followed by another decade of of doubt, depression, and despondency regarding life, and ministry.

However, since November of last year when I was assigned to my final active duty post, that faith has began to return, as well as a renewal of my calling as a Priest and Chaplain. Likewise, Ash Wednesday became a joyous rather than an onerous observance. I was busy all day with walking about caring for people, conducting the first Ash Wednesday service in over a decade at the shipyard and being out and about responding to people who for whatever reason could not attend the service by still wanted to receive the sign of the cross marked in ash upon their foreheads. It was a day of wonderful surprises as instead of saddling people with strict dietary regulations and fretting over what they were going to have to give up I asked them to really experience God’s love by simply accepting the proposition that God loved them, accepted them, and wanted them to do the same to others.

Of course I followed the liturgy for the day, and read the designated scriptures. I did not hammer the points from the Biblical readings home as hard as I once might have been tempted to do. Nor did I try to use my position to convince people to see things my way, as I admitted, I don’t pretend to give God religious instruction, and instead decided to let the Scriptures do the preaching themselves, instead of me since they were so contrary to our materialistic American culture, and the last time I did so a parishioner attempted to have me charged and tried by Court Martial, I didn’t need to hammer home points but let the Holy Spirit of God do his or her job; with the exception of Jesus I do not ascribe gender to the Trinity. My purpose was to invite people to renewing their faith in Jesus through the confession of their sins without condemning them, and in addition make sure than whenever they come to me in whatever capacity, that I greet them and care for them with love and personal care.  I am reminded of the words of Bishop Blackie in The Archbishop Goes to Andalusia, the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.

In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77) Honestly, I think that should be the place of the Priest  in every encounter, even those that are not sacramental. It should be an everyday part of our lives. That being said there are times that a Priest, Minister, Rabbi, Imam, or other clergy person can be beaten down by life, and even by the leaders of the institutions that they serve. I such cases it is often hard to smile or be compassionate to others because we, at that point are empty vessels, at best hoping and praying that we will again find meaning and joy in our vocations, or succumbing to the pain of rejection and evil committed by clerical leaders in the name of God.

Instead of preaching for people to obey rules, I asked them to consider showing love and care to the poor, the lost, the weak, and the lonely, and not be an ass about it by acting arrogant and brag publicly about their allegedly superior spiritual position. I noted, with quite a bit of honesty that when it came to being a Priest, Chaplain, and Husband I have barely stayed at the Mendoza Line, which is basically hitting for a batting average of about .200. This might keep me in the game due to certain skills, but it will not get me to the hall of fame.

In light of that I hardly have the right to preach to people about how they should live their lives, and follow rules that I struggle with; but instead encourage them to seek God’s love, to be honest about their lives, their strengths, and weaknesses; their successes, and failures, and then allow God to work in and through them as instruments of God’s grace and love.

When I was going through my most difficult times of doubt after Iraq it was Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that kept a spark of hope and faith alive in my life. In his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain, Bishop Blackie noted “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” I can say truthfully that I know what that is like.

More recently we have discovered the latest BBC series based on G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries. Now that I have seen the series and am watching it a second time, with the addition of previously unaired episodes on Netflix, I am becoming interested in reading Chesterton’s novels, but I digress.

Today was another exceptionally busy day of ministry beginning with an employee who decided to decided to trust me with his marital and spiritual issues based on my Klingon Valentine’s Day article, which I sent out through our Public Affairs Officer to all hands note in a truncated form. He appreciated my openness, and willingness to share my failings as a husband, Priest, and human being in a way that most ministers won’t. It was a long session and I believe that we have built a relationship that will either help save his marriage, or set the stage for a divorce with a soft landing. Sometimes, and sadly, because of how embittered relationship can become, that is the most Christian thing that will happen. I hope we can work to bring reconciliation to this couple. However, I cannot predict what will happen, but promised that I would walk with them through this terrible time.

But just before the appointment I was called because one of our civilian administrative assistants died unexpectedly before work this morning. She was beloved, and what some people don’t realize, that in places like the Naval Shipyard, our civilian employees are like family to each other. They work with each other for decades, it’s not like the active duty military where we transfer every few years. In the case of the shipyard, which is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, many employees have family connections going back generations to it. So I spent about half of my day with those employees doing grief counseling, and since I hung around to get to know people I ended up answering other people’s questions about faith, religion, and church history. It was wonderful. I didn’t push anything on them, and explained the differences in what different Christian denominations believe without condemning any of them. Of course that is a significant part of my spiritual “Long Strange Trip.” Because of that I am willing to appreciate the differences of different denominations, even as I am able to explain how they differ with other Christian denominations, without condemning them.

So it was a wonderful day, but it was exhausting, as at my heart I am an introvert who chooses to push my boundaries and at work function as an extrovert. Of course that means that when I come home I often withdraw into my emotional bucket in order to regenerated so I can do the next day. By the way that is a Star Trek Deep Space Nice reference. Google it if you must, but for practical purposes I am an emotional changeling, like DS 9’s Chief of Security, Odo, after so long I have to revert to my emotional introvert gelatinous state in order to regenerate at function in the military and the church. That is an odd comparison, but it is the best I can do.

But, where was I?

Oh that’s right, Ash Wednesday ministry; ministry the day following, Father Brown, and Bishop Blackie Ryan, are my inspiration. It is true that they are fictional characters, but the men who wrote their stories were not, they were very real, and their fictional characters have helped me continue to believe, Even when the Bible didn’t,  and likewise brought  a reality and joy to ministry that I didn’t know; even when I knew it all. But, as the late MLB Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles manager, Earl Weaver noted “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” That is quite true of my spiritual life.

Likewise, there are people who use the Bible as a weapon, in order to justify their misdeeds and hatred for others. It can be a terrible thing. In one of the Father Brown mysteries, Chesterton, writing as his character Father Brown, wrote:

“Sir Arthur St. Clare, as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him…. Of course, he read the Old Testament rather than the New. Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted—lust, tyranny, treason. Oh, I dare say he was honest, as you call it. But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?”

The problem is, that people of every faith tend to use select parts of their Holy Scriptures as weapons against people who they deem unworthy of the love of God. They are honest people, but as Father Brown noted: But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty?” Sadly, that is all too true of too much of the Christian Church, as well as the clergy of other religions.

Until tomorrow, Peace

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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Intellectual, Political, and Theological Integrity in the Time of the Iowa Caucuses, the State of the Union, and Ideological Conformity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a quick note for today as it will be an eventful week; the Iowa Caucuses on Monday, the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and the acquittal without an actual trial with witnesses or new evidence on Wednesday, or Thursday at the lastest.

Since the first will be disputed because of irregularities, hacking, and political manipulation in the caucuses which will sow discord in the Democratic Party; the second, the State of the Union which will be President Trump’s preludes to his acquittal by the Senate; and the last a charade which will destroy the checks and balances intended by our Founders, and solidify an authoritarian government, led by the Executive Branch regardless of who is President or which party they represent. The guardrails that secured our republic and its Constitution have been damaged beyond repair. Humanity, the one constant in recorded history will see to that.

So what I am going to to do, at least until I retire from the military is post articles that the discerning reader will understand are due to prudence over propaganda, and enlightening people by sometimes indirect means that to bludgeon my way through issues. This is because while I am a liberal, progressive, or whatever label you want to put on me I am a historian and a realist.

I will be bold when I need to be, but it may be through the lives and words of others, people who living or dead I support and admire. Sometimes it will be my own words, but sadly, my words and wisdom often pale to those who have often paid with their lives for their opposition to the status quo. Truthfully, being a former conservative who now is a bit further to the left than the center left., but certainly not an extremist in any way. My pragmatism and study of history prevents that, as does my Oath of Office to the Constitution which rises beyond political party or religious denomination’s beliefs.

That might confuse true believers and ideologues regardless of their place on the political and ideological chasm. Thus my posts will reflect my position on the political and theological left, without    compromise, but while doing my best to maintain intellectual, theological, political, and historical integrity. So you can expect more articles from history, with appropriate political or theological commentary thrown in as needed. Likewise, though I am a Democrat I will try to refrain from intra-Party fratricide because of the broader issues at hand. The political fight among Democrats must not become a Democratic version of the Trump Cult where one candidate is not to be criticized or their lives, records, and actions submitted to scrutiny. I refuse to exchange one version of tyranny for another.

I will now quote from one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead uttered by Jean Luc Picard:

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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It Will Happen Again: The Holocaust and Trump’s “Christian” Supporters


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Robert Heinlein wrote:

“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”

Today I received a forwarded email from a well known Jewish friend who represents the religious rights of many, mostly Christians in the military. It was one of the most despicable Anti-Semitic, racist, and Nazi-like screeds that I have read in a long time. He gets hundreds like it daily. It used the language of Joseph Goebbels and other Nazis referring to his “Jewish looks,” other blatantly racist and religious comments that might appear in Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer, nearly pornographic. Whoever wrote the email also included some very disturbing theocratic Christian views and referred to my friend as a Christ Killer and member of the Tribe, both terms used widely among the Nazis.

The historian Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

The sad thing is that many of the most active Anti-Semites are Christians, or people who label themselves as Christians, who often echo the words and Tweets of President Trump and many of his conservative Christian supporters. Such people people beat their chest and loudly proclaim their support for the State of Israel, but such support is only to usher in Armageddon, the annihilation of two thirds of living Jews, and the conversion of the survivors to Christianity. It is a theology of genocide. It is a theology that has allowed Christians since the time of Constantine to use the police power of the state and its military organizations to exterminate Jews, or any sect that opposes them to commit great acts of systematic murder in the name of Jesus.

It is no wonder to me that a man like my friend who actually stands for the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the actual beliefs of the Founders who did not create a “Christian nation,”  is targeted by such people.  The great Virginia Baptist, John Leland, who was in large part responsible for the Bill of Rights, and the religious liberty clause of the First Amendment wrote:

“Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.”

My friend is constantly threatened by supposed Christians, who are no doubt more nationalist and members of the Trump Cult than they are Christians, as were the German Christians, the official Christianity of Naziism.

But the Nazis weren’t the only ones to have such visions of religious superiority aided by the police power of the state.

Gary North, one of the most eloquent expositors of the Christian Dominionist movement and a long time adviser to Ron and Rand Paul and other conservative Christian politicians wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.

That is not a criticism of the President, he is an opportunist who understands the insatiable needs of his supporters better than they do. The President really doesn’t believe a word of Christian doctrine, or exhibit one iota of Christian morality or ethics, as a businessman he just realizes an easy mark, a gullible customer, willing to believe whatever he says because he tickles their ears with what they want to hear. He is being what he is, while they are denying their faith and God, while at the same time aiding and abetting the persecution of American Jews.

It is late, I am tired, but believe me, the Anti-Semitism of the Holocaust was not an abnormality, but an ever present reality, even and maybe especially in the United States and Europe because we so easily forget and believe the lies of Holocaust deniers. Oh, I forget to mention, as Yehuda Bauer did. so well, that these people not only despise Jews, they are equal opportunity haters, willing to exterminate anyone who does not agree with them, including Christians. Please don’t blame the President for a more than a millennium of Anti-Semitism and alleged hatred and persecution of supposed heretics by Christians who wield the sword of the state in one hand and their particular versions of the Bible in the other. He’s just shrewd enough of a con-man to scam religious con-men.  If the stakes weren’t freedom and life itself I would think it amusing. But hopefully they will turn on each other before they can destroy the ever expanding idea of liberty that our flawed founders believed in.

So, until tomorrow, I wish you the best,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Joyeux Noel: the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the Personal Reflections of an Old Chaplain

palmer

Friends 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

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 now Impeached President called upon and received the fealty and obedience of his Imperial Court Clergy, and the ever faithful cult of conservative and Evangelical Christians while pledging to destroy his enemies. In such a time I cannot

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 twelve 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 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 China, and 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. Two years ago I hosted the NATO contingent at my former chapel, and had the honor of preaching an Advent message in German.

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I expect that in the final months of my service before I retire in August of 2020, 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. Those people remind me of the hate filled nationalist British Bishop.

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. Likewise I will do what I can to be a vessel of God’s love to all that I serve, many of whom have not seen a chaplain of any kind in their work areas for over a decade.

I am watching that film again tonight, and praying for the peace that it hopes will become real. It is hard to stop the tears as I watch it.

So until tomorrow,

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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A Day to Disconnect: Friends, Family History, and a Walk up a Mountain and Through the Forest

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I kind of disconnected from most American media today to spend time with our German friends in the countryside of Hessen; to visit the county seat, Weilburg, that my wife’s father’s family left in the 1700s to go to the Volga region of Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great before coming to the United States after the failed 1905 revolution as the Russian Government had continually reneged on its promises to the German settlers, who had been basically sold a bill of good by unscrupulous agents acting in the name of the Russian government.

I pride myself on being informed and trying the best I can to write about life, history, faith, religion and politics, with a keen eye. But there are times for one’s sanity that we have to take a break. The world and its problems will more than likely be here tomorrow, and to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we were not here at the beginning of creation, we won’t be here when it ends, we live in the uncomfortable middle.

With that in mind is important to take a break once in a while.

Following breakfast and our visit to Weilburg we had lunch with our friend Gottfried before visiting a Kloster just down the road. We got home about 2:30 PM or so and after a while I decided to make my annual pilgrimage up the highest mountain in the area and visit to old Jewish Cemetery which has been preserved with care by the town following the Holocaust. There is a memorial on the city hall to the Jews of the town who were sent East, at least one survived and she was invited to dedicate the memorial on the city hall in 1991. The gravestones at the cemetery date to the 1800s and early 1900s.

I ended up doing a power walk up, down, and around the mountain before ending up back at our friends after a two hour walk of just over eight miles, for a day long total of about ten and a half miles.

Then we went out with Gottfried’s wife Hannelore to an Italian Restaurant, and upon our return Gottfried to me to to meet some of his friends in the next town over. On our return we talked and watched TV together before heading up to bed, where I am writing this. Tomorrow will be a full day. We will take a two hour train ride to Fulda, visit there for a few hours then return home. That should be an interesting trip. I have been to Fulda a number of times, Judy never has. It was a key city in Cold War planning, and the old city and Cathedral are magnificent. My first trip there was a tour of the old inter-German Border between West and East Germany in 1984. I made a couple of other trips related to our potential mission to fight the Soviets if they attacked, and then after the Wall fell I visited the old city and Cathedral in late 1996. The fact that we are taking the train and not having to drive is very nice, since we will be driving Sunday to see friends near Karlsruhe on the Rhein River.

It is interesting that although I have kept myself apprised of the latest events in the United States I have disconnected enough to keep my sanity, even when occasionally checking my Twitter feed and Facebook page. The walk up the mountain and through the forest was good for me, it was not only a good workout but put me in touch with nature and history. John Muir said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” 

That happened to me today.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, life, Loose thoughts and musings, spirituality