Tag Archives: advent

Hope In Hell: Dr. Kurt Reuber and the Madonna Of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is almost Christmas and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. 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, but now I am not so sure. So, in the age of Donald Trump, I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

k_reuberl

As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

pg-34-stalingrad-2-getty

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

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

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

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

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

drkrop

As the 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.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, History, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

“I Can Live With It” An Advent Meditation

2004weihnachtsbrief-2

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Gospel according to Saint Mark records the story of a man that brought his son to Jesus the Christ to be cured of a deadly disease. In desperation the man cries out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.”

I understand that impassioned cry, and I can live with it.

That being said, for a lot of people, including me, the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible.  For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.

Before Iraq, Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season, but that was before I came home from Iraq. After Iraq, the seasons of Advent and Christmas became almost unbearable as I struggled to believe in anything, including God.

I have faith again, but I still struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.

Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow death from Alzheimer’s disease, I have struggled with faith.  Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers.  Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me.  About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park.  For some reason the lush green diamond is one of the few places that comfort me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of most Christian denominations. I am sure that this can be the case with non-Christian clerics as well, but I cannot say that with any deal of authority.

For some Christian ministers and priests the seasons of Advent and Christmas can be difficult. For those of us who are ordained and view ministry or Priesthood as a sacred vocation this can difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a special kind of hell this time of year because we are not supposed to suffer a crisis in faith, for any reason.

I believe that for many people, a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with faith is disconcerting.  I know many ministers who for a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith. Sometimes this involved great personal losses such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage or being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing any number of other major traumatic events.  All of these men and women are good people. But when they experienced a crisis, instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless failures, and and abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.

When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason.  As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with such situations. They made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better.

While I saw this happen to others I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof” and when it occurred I was stunned. I didn’t expect what happened nor its effect on me.

When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My wartime accomplishments went unrecognized by most of my peers in the Chaplain Corps on my return home and I found no place of comfort.

As I crashed no one asked about my faith until I met my first shrink. It was after the initial crash that my commanding officers, Captain, now Admiral, Frank Morneau and Tom Sitsch both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling and both were more understanding than the vast majority of chaplain, ministers, or Christian lay people that I knew. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  I could only say, “not to other chaplains.” Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th 2014, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.

On the professional side I felt tremendously isolated from much of the clergy of my former church, and many chaplains. This is something that I still feel to some extent today, although there are some chaplains who I can be completely honest with, sadly, like me, they have also experienced major faith crisis and have struggled with the same kind of abandonment and betrayal that I have felt. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me for both my former church and chaplain corps.

In the midst of the crisis I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” Those questions showed me that the people who asked them cared.

There were many times between 2008 and 2010 that I knew that I had no faith.  People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me.  Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful, and while faith has returned, some of the of them still are.

That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I have noted in other posts, a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space. This makes Advent and Christmas difficult.

Why I remain a Christian is sometimes hard to figure.  I am certainly not a Christian because of the church, what is called Christendom, or the actions of supposed Christians who want to use the police power of government to subjugate others. At the same time like the German priest and theologian Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” Nor am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has all of the answers to all of lives issues. After coming home from Iraq I know that it is not so. I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers. That may sound like heresy to some, but I can live with it.

I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets.  Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things and in spite of my own doubts.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, and in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.

One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel remains a prayer for me this year.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, those who feel abandoned by God, or by family and friends, I pray that all of us will experience joy this season. So I do pray that the Day Spring will come and cheer, all of us with his advent here.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, PTSD

Advent & the “War” on Christmas

677

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I often talk about my struggles with doubt and faith, but in regard to faith, the season of Advent has become even more important to me than it ever was before. In fact, amid all the yearly histrionics and propaganda of the Christian Right and their Fox News Channel cheerleaders who scream about “the war on Christmas” I find Advent to be a powerful antidote.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, in a sense the opening day of a new season of faith, as much as the Opening Day is to baseball. Advent is a season of new beginnings, of hope looking forward and looking back. It is a season of intense realism. It is a season where the people of God look forward to their deliverance even as they remember the time when God entered into humanity.  It was not simply entering the human condition as a divine and powerful being inflicting his will upon people but deciding to become subject to the same conditions know by humanity. As Paul the Apostle, wrote about him: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5b-8) 

In the incarnation Jesus Christ shows his love and solidarity with people, humanity, the creation, reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” 

That simple fact is why Christ came. Christ did not come to found a government or even for that matter a religion. He did not come to exemplify “Christian” virtues or to condemn people that religious people condemned as sinners. He came simply to save and redeem the world and people like us from themselves.

The meaning of the incarnation, and the hope of the season of Advent is that God loves people. Yes, even the people that the supposed Christian culture warriors despise.

In the next few week there will be much written and said about Jesus. Much of it will not actually deal with Jesus or the people that he came to save but instead about the worldly power and influence of those who seek the profits of being “prophets.” Some of them will talk fervently about the “War on Christmas” as if somehow God and Christ are so small that they need government-sponsored displays in the public square in order to be real, relevant or for that matter important. What a small God they must have.

Somehow the message of Advent, the coming of Jesus is contradictory to the message of the for profit prophets. Certainly the early Christians had no government backing of any kind. These early Christians simply lived life and showed God’s love to their neighbors, often at the cost of their lives and paradoxically the message was not crushed, but spread and to be neutralized had to be coopted by Constantine. It was only when the leaders of the church became co-executors of government power that the message of reconciliation became a bludgeon to be used against those who did not agree with the theology of the clerics beholden to the Empire.

The Christ of the Season of Advent, the one who came and who promises to come again is not captive to the capricious message of the for profit prophets and their political and media allies. I would dare say that God is much bigger than them or those that they believe will somehow end the Christian faith as we know it. But then maybe the Christian faith “as we know it” is more a reflection of our culturally conditioned need for physical, economic and political power over others than it is of Jesus.

All I know is that the simplicity of the message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” is more powerful than any political-religious alliance.

The time of waiting in expectation during advent also helps us to focus on Jesus’ words to  “Love God with all your heart and love our neighbors as ourselves.” It also calls to mid the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah, who asked “what does the Lord require of thee? To love show justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Advent stands in stark contrast to the politically charged consumerism of the War on Christmas.  I think that the message that God loves the real world is worth repeating in such an environment. In fact I think that because the message of God’s great love for those deemed “repulsive” by so many supposedly “conservative Christians” is so amazing that it must be proclaimed. As distasteful as it is to the “for profit prophets” of our time, it is not only worth repeating, but actually believing and being acting upon.

It is a good reason for me to during this season of Advent to look forward to our celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation, the coming of the God who “emptied himself” and took “the form of a slave” in order to save his people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Religion

Belief & Unbelief in Advent

2004weihnachtsbrief-2

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I mentioned on Sunday that I would be writing about faith and doubt during the season of Advent and Christmas.  Gospel according to Saint Mark records the story of a man that brought his son to Jesus the Christ to be cured of a deadly disease. In desperation the man cries out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.”

I understand that impassioned cry.

That being said, for a lot of people, including me, the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible.  For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.

Before Iraq, Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season, but that was before I came home from Iraq. After Iraq, the seasons of Advent and Christmas became almost unbearable as I struggled to believe in anything, including God.

I have faith again, but I still struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.

Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow death from Alzheimer’s disease, I have struggled with faith.  Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers.  Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me.  About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park.  For some reason the lush green diamond is one of the few places that comfort me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of most Christian denominations. I am sure that this can be the case with non-Christian clerics as well, but I cannot say that with any deal of authority.

For some Christian ministers and priests the seasons of Advent and Christmas can be difficult. For those of us who are ordained and view ministry or Priesthood as a sacred vocation this can difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a special kind of hell this time of year because we are not supposed to suffer a crisis in faith, for any reason.

I believe that for many people, a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with faith is disconcerting.  I know many ministers who for a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith. Sometimes this involved great personal losses such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage or being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing any number of other major traumatic events.  All of these men and women are good people. But when they experienced a crisis, instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless failures, and and abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.

When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason.  As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with such situations. They made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better.

While I saw this happen to others I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof” and when it occurred I was stunned. I didn’t expect what happened nor its effect on me.

When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My wartime accomplishments went unrecognized by most of my peers in the Chaplain Corps on my return home and I found no place of comfort.

As I crashed no one asked about my faith until I met my first shrink. It was after the initial crash that my commanding officers, Captain, now Admiral, Frank Morneau and Tom Sitsch both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling and both were more understanding than the vast majority of chaplain, ministers, or Christian lay people that I knew. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  I could only say, “not to other chaplains.” Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th 2014, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.

On the professional side I felt tremendously isolated from much of the clergy of my former church, and many chaplains. This is something that I still feel to some extent today, although there are some chaplains who I can be completely honest with, sadly, like me, they have also experienced major faith crisis and have struggled with the same kind of abandonment and betrayal that I have felt. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me for both my former church and chaplain corps.

In the midst of the crisis I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” Those questions showed me that the people who asked them cared.

There were many times between 2008 and 2010 that I knew that I had no faith.  People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me.  Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful, and while faith has returned, some of the of them still are.

That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I noted last week a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space. This makes Advent and Christmas difficult.

Why I remain a Christian is sometimes hard to figure.  I am certainly not a Christian because of the church, what is called Christendom, or the actions of supposed Christians who want to use the police power of government to subjugate others. At the same time like the German priest and theologian Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” Nor am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has all of the answers to all of lives issues. After coming home from Iraq I know that it is not so. I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers. That may sound like heresy to some, but I can live with it.

I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets.  Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things and in spite of my own doubts.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, and in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.

One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel is a prayer for me this year.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

 So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, those who feel abandoned by God, or by family and friends, I pray that all of us will experience joy this season. So I do pray that the Day Spring will come and cheer, all of us with his advent here.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, Tour in Iraq

Advent 2015

AdventWreath

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today was first Sunday of Advent, which is the beginning of the liturgical year in the Christian church. Advent and Christmas have always been my favorite part of the liturgical year, I tend to find them mysterious, yet comforting and hope filled. The past couple of years Advent has been kind of an odd time for me. I have a small chapel at the Staff College but from the end of November to the beginning of January we are out of session, and the largest course that we offer has no students here. Thus with no congregation I do not do services.

I will be sharing some of my journey and my struggles over the coming weeks. Since Iraq, Advent and Christmas are not the same. I believe, but I don’t. I struggle, but still keep faith. I can understand why people struggle with depression during the season. I hope that what I from my heart and experience will encourage others who like me wonder just what the hell is going on sometimes.

So, until the next time.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under christian life, faith

An Advent of Doubt, Faith and Struggles

Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.

A new liturgical year is upon us and with the season of Advent Christians look forward to the “Advent” of Christ both in looking forward to the consummation of all things in him as well as inviting him back into our lives as we remember his Incarnation, as the Creed says “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

At the same time for a lot of people the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible.  For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.

Before Iraq,  Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season.  Until I came home from Iraq. Now while I have faith again I struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.

Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow death from Alzheimer’s Disease, I have struggled with faith.  Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers.  Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me.  About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park.  For some reason the lush green diamond comforts me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of all faiths. For those of us who are ordained and view our ministry or our Priesthood as a sacred vocation this is difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a hell because it is not supposed to happen to us. I do believe that for many people a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with his or her faith is disconcerting.  I can remember a myriad of situations where pastors due to a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith many of which involved great personal loss such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage, being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing a major traumatic event.  These were good people and quite often instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless, failed and worthless, often abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.

When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason.  As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with this, it made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better.  At the same time I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof,” that it could never happen to me. And it did and I was stunned.

When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My accomplishments went unrecognized on my return home.  As I crashed no one asked about my faith until Elmer the shrink did when he met me.  Later my Commodores, first Frank Morneau when he found out about my condition and Tom Sitsch when he took command of EOD Group 2 both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th of this year, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.

On the professional side I felt isolated from much of the clergy of my former church and many chaplains, something that I still feel to some extent today. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me and more for both church and chaplain corps.  The Chaplains that I knew cared all worked in different commands and were not immediately available and I was ashamed to go ask them for help.

I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” It showed me that people cared.  When I went to the medical center I dealt with many difficult situations and was haunted by my dad’s deterioration, the latter which I still deal with today.  To have a close family member mock my vocation, service and person and provoke me into rages was equally taxing.  Likewise the absolute hatred and divsion in the American political debate tore my heart out.  I felt like, and in some ways still feel like we are heading down a path to being “Weimar America.”

There were many times that I knew that I had no faith.  People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me.  Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful, and they often still are.

That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I noted last week a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space.

Why I am is  sometimes hard to figure.  I am not a Christian because of the Church, though I love the Church, church bodies have often has been for me a sourse of pain and rejection.  I am not a Christian because of what is called “Christian.” Nor can I ignore the injustice, violence and oppression wrought by those who called themsleves Christian throughout history, including that wrought by current Christian leaders.  Slavery, the subjectation and conquest of who peoples to take their land and resources and wars of agression blessed by “Christian” leaders are all part of history.

At the same time much progress has come through the work, faith and actions of Christians and the Church. Despite all of the warts and the many sins and crimes committed by Christians, even genocide, I can like Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” (Kung, Hans Why I am Still a Christian Abingdon Press, Nashville 1987 p. 36)

Neither am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has “all” of the answers.

In fact after coming through Iraq and returning home I know that it is not so.

I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers, and those who think that they do, and claim that in the name of God or Jesus, are fundamentally deceived, and that I would not follow them across the street.

I now understand what my Church History Professor, Dr Doyle Young said in class that “all of people’s deepest needs are not religious.”  Likewise I certainly not a Christian because I think that Christians are somehow better or more spiritual than others.  In fact I find the crass materialism and self centered “What can God to for me?” theology and way of life to be deeply offensive.

People get sick, young children die, innocents are subjected to trauma even from their parents or siblings.  Good people endure unspeakable trials while sometimes it seems that evil people get away with murder.  I can’t chealk it all up to a naive “it’s God’s will” kind of theology.  I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets.  Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.

I still believe, Lord help me in my unbelief.

One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel is a prayer for me this year.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, feel abandoned by God, family and friends.  For those who have experienced the crisis of faith or even a loss of faith I pray that all of us will experience joy this season.

I’m sure that I will have some ups and downs, I certainly don’t think that I am over all that I am still going through.  However I know that I am not alone to face my demons and pray that by opening up that others who are going through similar experiences will find hope.  O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer, our spirits by Thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Religion, Tour in Iraq

Advent 2013: God Loves the Real World

2004weihnachtsbrief-2

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

(From O Come O Come Emmanuel) 

Introduction: This is an article that I wrote last year. I have updated with this introduction and made a few edits for this year for a couple of reasons. One reason is that I think that it is worth the read for those unfamiliar with the season and what it means. Secondly I see the observance of Advent as a way to actually discover something spiritual and eternal that can help us in the real world today, not just in the by and by, but today, in how we treat our neighbors and care for others. 

In a sense this very traditional observance can be counter-cultural in amid the usual din of the shopping orgy that began on Thanksgiving and will end as retailers squeeze out the last profits on Christmas Eve. The observance of Advent is also an antidote to the politically charged “the war on Christmas” emanating from certain Christian “conservatives” and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Newscorp empire. The sad thing is that for all of their alleged “defense” of Christmas most of these culture warriors and their media allies have reduced the mystery of God’s great love at Christmas to a religious holiday so covered in consumerism that it is hard to find that tiny babe in the manger of Bethlehem. Finally, I write this in the hopes that discover the joy as we wait in the anticipation of the the message of the angel who said “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy….”

I think that each Sunday of the Advent Season I will write a short reflection on the various aspects of hope, expectation and love that is the heart of the season.

Today is the fist Sunday of what we in the liturgical Christian world know as the season of Advent.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, in a sense the opening day of a new season of faith, as much as the Opening Day is in Baseball. It is a season of new beginnings, of hope looking forward and looking back. It is a season of intense realism. It is a season where the people of God look forward to their deliverance even as they remember the time when God entered into humanity.  It was not simply entering the human condition as a divine and powerful being inflicting his will upon people but deciding to become subject to the same conditions know by humanity. As Paul the Apostle, wrote about him: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5b-8) 

In the incarnation Jesus Christ shows his love and solidarity with people, humanity, the creation, reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” 

That simple fact is why Christ came.

He didn’t come to found a government or even for that matter a religion. He did not come to exemplify “Christian” virtues or to condemn people that religious people condemned as sinners. He came simply to save and redeem the world and people like us from themselves.

The meaning of the incarnation, and the hope of the season of Advent is that God loves people. Yes, even the people that the Christian culture warriors despise.

In the next few week there will be much written and said about Jesus. Much of it will not actually deal with Jesus or the people that he came to save but instead about the worldly power and influence of those who seek the profits of being “prophets.” Some of them will talk fervently about the “War on Christmas” as if somehow God and Christ are so small that they need government sponsored displays in the public square in order to be real, relevant or or for that matter important. What a small God they must have.

Somehow the message of Advent, the coming of Jesus is contradictory to the message of the for profit prophets. Certainly the early Christians had no government backing of any kind. They simply lived the life and showed God’s love to their neighbors, often at the cost of their lives and paradoxically the message was not crushed, but spread and overcame an empire. It was only when they became co-executors of government power that the message of reconciliation became a bludgeon to be used against those who did not agree with the theology of the clerics beholden to the Empire.

The Christ of the Season of Advent, the one who came and who promises to come again is not captive to the capricious message of the for profit prophets and their political and media allies. I would dare say that God is much bigger than them or those that they believe will somehow end the Christian faith as we know it. But then maybe the Christian faith “as we know it” is more a reflection of us and our culturally conditioned need for physical, economic and political power over others than it is of Jesus.Nativity-extr

All I know is that the simplicity of the message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” is more powerful than any political-religious alliance.

The time of waiting in expectation during advent also helps us to focus on Jesus’ words to  “Love God with all your heart and love our neighbors as ourselves.” It also calls to mid the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah, who asked “what does the Lord require of thee? To love show justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Advent stands in stark contrast to the politically charged consumerism of the War on Christmas.  I think that the message that God loves the real world is worth repeating in such an environment. In fact I think that because the message of God’s great love for those deemed “repulsive” by so many supposedly “conservative Christians” is so amazing that it must be proclaimed. As distasteful as it is to the “for profit prophets” of our time that it is not only worth repeating, but actually believing and acting upon.

It is a good reason for me to during this season of Advent to look forward to our celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation, the coming of the God who “emptied himself” and took “the form of a slave” in order to save his people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion