Tag Archives: agnostic

The Journey of a Christian Agnostic: Remembering 18 Years of Priestly Ministry

“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re presen163017_10150113444907059_3944470_nt 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.” Andrew Greeley in The Beggar Girl of St Germain

Eighteen years ago, on a warm and sultry night in Libertytown Maryland I was ordained as a Priest. I had been graduated from seminary in 1992 and been ordained as a minister in an Evangelical Protestant church in 1991 and served as a chaplain in the Army National Guard and Reserve as well as civilian hospital ministry, but in the course of my studies and subsequent study I came to a more Anglican and Catholic understanding of life and ministry.

Since that time the world has changed and I have changed. Back then I lived my life with a fair amount of certitude, hubris and arrogance, a trait that many, maybe even most young ministers regardless of their denomination or religion often fall into, and unfortunately many who seek to climb the ecclesiastical ladder to power, influence and sometimes fortune never forsake. At one time I believed that church and church leaders should not be questioned, until I found that they like many others were just as prone to cruelty, injustice and desire for power and authority as anyone I knew in the secular world.

After encountering this lack of care, cruelty and and injustice, both in the church and among some senior military chaplains my eyes were opened. I should have known better because just before I left the active duty Army to go to seminary I was told by my brigade executive officer “Steve, you think that the Medical department is too political, cutthroat and vicious, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.”

Unfortunately he was right, not only the Chaplain Corps, but many churches and denominations. I know far too many ministers and other ordained clergy who have been crushed by the burdens placed on them by their faith groups as well as various chaplain ministries, military and civilian. When I was in seminary I was shocked by the number of “former ministers” that I encountered, many who had real, earned academic theological degrees, as well as a wealth of pastoral experience, but the common thing that must shared was being abused, abandoned and sometimes even persecuted by their faith communities, often for the most trivial of reasons.

While I do not have any regrets about following the call to ministry and the priestly vocation, and would do it again, I do not recommend it to most people, it is an incredibly difficult life .

Since that night in 1996 my life has experienced twists and turns that I could never have imagined. Like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead wrote in his song “Truckin’” 
“what a long strange trip it’s been.” That being said most of my time as a priest has been spent serving in some capacity on active duty as a military chaplain, first in the Army, but since 1999 in the Navy.

After Iraq, my life changed, afflicted with severe PTSD and what also might be considered “moral injury” I collapsed, psychologically, physically and spiritually. For all practical purposes I was an agnostic, praying that God just might still exist. When faith, seemingly miraculously returned it ended the hubris and certitude. I became much more willing to ask questions, express my doubts and publicly disagree with the church that I was first ordained as a priest. That got me thrown out of that church, as my bishop accused me of being “too liberal,” and thankfully I am now in a faith community where I am a good fit.

Faith has returned, at least part of the time and to be honest I still doubt, and that is not a bad thing. Andrew Greeley, speaking as Bishop Blackie Ryan in the novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain wrote: “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 still serve as a priest and Navy Chaplain. I am happy and like Father Jean-Claude in Andrew Greeley’s novel I believe and do not believe at the same time. I have the honor of serving a small chapel for our students at the Joint Forces Staff College as well as teaching ethics, military history and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride. I also find a great deal of meaning in writing on this website, something that was begun out of the anguish of what I was going through after Iraq. In this website I serve people that I may never meet, and when they write, share their own stories and seek and encourage me it renews my faith and hope. As Andrew Greeley said: “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish. And it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.”

My politics and views on many social issues have changed significantly since I was ordained, they are significantly more liberal and I think better grounded in the grace and love of God than they were before. As far as the people I encounter, both in the chapel setting, at the Staff College and among people I meet in town I find that I am much more comfortable listening to and being there for others, especially struggling clergy and others who find church not a place of solace, but a place of fear where they are neither cared for or accepted, the outcasts. Thus I feel strongly that eery encounter, especially sacramental ones are times to show care for others. As Andrew Greeley wrote in his final Bishop Blackie novel The Archbishop Goes to Andalusia:

“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.” 

That was something that I experienced this weekend with a visitor to my chapel. That makes it all worth it, despite that I believe and do not believe at the same time and I will live with this tension and trust that the Jesus the Christ, God who took on the fullness of humanity for the life of the world will somehow understand.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts: Thoughts on the Occasion of 17th Anniversary of Being Ordained a Priest

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“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Earl Weaver

It is hard to believe that it has been 17 years since I was ordained to the Priesthood. A lot has happened since then, much struggle and difficulty but also many blessings, which I think far outweigh the struggles.

I find that over the years I have matured. As a young Priest my goal was to be a great apologist for the faith using theology and history to drive home the points that I wanted to make, often in quite bombastic terms. A dear friend, an Army Chaplain who was once my enlisted Chaplain Assistant in the Army said that I was like a Catholic “Rush Limbaugh.” At the time I wore the moniker with pride, but over the years I see that no mater how sincere my faith, beliefs and arguments were that they were often more a reflection of my own insecurity and need to show that I and my former church were as valid and relevant as the Roman Catholics, Orthodox or Anglicans and certainly much more than Protestants not in Apostolic succession.

Looking back all these years later I have to admit that was quite arrogant. It is from what I understand a common failing in young Priests, Ministers or Rabbis as well as Navy Ensigns, and Army, Marine Corps and Air Force Second Lieutenants. But sometimes, not always in some cases, age and experience sometimes kick the hell out of arrogance and make you a better minister or military officer.

Since I have been through various renditions of the “young minister” or “young officer” phase of life, and each time had my arrogant tendencies exposed and learned that I knew a whole lost less than I thought that I knew. I guess that Earl Weaver was right, it is “what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

My faith journey since being ordained as a Priest has been full of ups and downs. I figure that between deployments, field exercises, underway periods aboard ship, schools and geographic bachelor assignments, not including the numerous overnights as a hospital chaplain while stationed at home that since July of 1996 I have spent about ten of those 17 years apart from my wife Judy. Next month I return home to Virginia to be with her and take a teaching assignment at the Joint Forces Staff College and with any luck and God willing I will spent the next three years with her and our dogs, Molly and Minnie while teaching, writing and serving as the Chaplain at the small chapel that is part of the Staff College. As my Iraqi friends say “Inshallah.”

Likewise my faith journey has been fascinating when I look back on it. Back in the early days I had an absolute certainty about my beliefs. Those beliefs would be shaken by experiences at war and in my former church. Those experiences were the bombs that blew up my theological playground and I really haven’t been the same since and for that I am actually glad.

The experiences of being used and abused by several bishops of my former church made me wary in a way that I had not been before about those in authority. Coincidentally those men are no longer part of that church having used it for their own gain and through their machinations ruined many lives and destroyed many parishes. Those men at various times forbid me from contact with their diocesan priests, banned me from writing and one finally told me to leave the church. They were not good examples and none are associated with that Church now. Thankfully there are many people, clergy and laity alike in my former church who are doing great things and attempting to put the pieces back together of what the men that mistreated me, and others like them did to that church.

The result of being asked to leave was being received into an an Old Catholic Denomination with a very similar ministry model and ethos to the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands. I am blessed for nearly the past three years to be a Priest in the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. It is where I need to be and a church that embodies what I have come to believe.

Over time my ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) went from a monarchical monstrosity to a belief that true Apostolic authority is not just a matter of having a correct or valid apostolic succession but also is bound up in the whole people of God, that consensus, collegiality and charity are of the essence in our relationships as Christians as well as our witness to the world. The prayer of Jesus that his people “may be one” is part of my daily life and personal prayer.

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Back in May of 2011 I wrote: “I think a lot of this is simply that many of us clergy types become so invested in “defending” what we believe that we forget that the call of Jesus is to care for those that are the least, the lost and the lonely. Without getting preachy it seems to me that Jesus preferred to be with such people and often castigated the clergy of his day for doing exactly what we do.  The whole “woe to you Scribes and Pharisees…” passage should send chills up any minister’s spine because we are often no different than them.”

Likewise my experiences in war and my return from Iraq with a severe case of chronic PTSD also shook the core of my faith. For almost two years I have to admit that for all practical purposes that I was an Agnostic who was praying that God was still around. It took some time before faith returned and when it did it was different. It was questioning, not absolutist and much more willing to be accepting of those different than me and willing to show grace to those whose faith, lifestyle or beliefs that I would have treated much more judgmentally or harshly as new Priest.

One of the authors that helped my through the most difficult of times was the late Father Andrew Greeley whose Bishop Blackie Ryan novels I began reading in Iraq and were about the only spiritual reading that I had during the darkest, most difficult at painful days of my life. One thing that Greeley said which was something that I have come to believe was:  “I don’t think Jesus was an exclusivist. He said, and we believe, that He is the unique representation of God in the world. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way God can work.” (The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World Edited by Bob Abernathy) 

Such an understanding has impacted my ministry as a Priest and Navy Chaplain since my return from Iraq. I have come to believe that the high pressure manner in which many American Christians market their faith under the misnomer of “evangelism” is doing more damage than good and is actually something that the early Church would not have recognized. Greeley put it well:

“People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good — Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice.”

But apart from that I rediscovered my humanity during those dark days and it is something that helps me when I encounter people who are suffering, in crisis, ostracized or struggling and questioning God and their faith. I have learned through my own struggle and despair that simply being preached at told that I didn’t have enough faith, to pray more, read my Bible more or give more money to the church (the latter is quite a popular American way of getting God’s favor) actually drove me away from the grace of God and made me resentful of those that preached at me.

As such I have changed my ministry model. Jesus was about town and hobnobbing with all the wrong kinds of people, often offending both the religious establishment and his own disciples. As a Priest I began to realize while deployed on a Guided Missile Cruiser and in Iraq that I was too protective, much like the post Apostolic era Christians of the Eucharist, which is at the center of my faith. I realize now that Jesus both actively shared bread and wine with those considered to be “unclean” or sinners and never turned away those who sought his presence.

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I also realize that anything I do as a Priest, be as simple as an encounter with a person in a hallway or parting lot, with friends at a ball game or bar, at the bedside of a dying man or woman, sitting with the family of a young man one woman that has taken their life, holding a stillborn baby with a grieving mother, administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Baptism or the Eucharist that what matters is being being authentic and showing the love of God to people.

One of the most powerful things that I remember reading from Greeley was in his final Bishop Blackie Ryan novel. In it Bishop Blackie notes:

“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.”  (Andrew Greeley: The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

Seventeen years. It doesn’t seem that long. I assume that I still have much to learn.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Honest Questions About God and Blue Moons

Tonight I walked my little dog Molly to the beach under the light of the Blue Moon. It was a beautiful night, the first without rain or clouds that we have had in the past month. As I walked with her, in the quiet with the noise of the surf in the background I was taken aback by the peace. It was nice to be able to take the time to walk with her and take in all that there was to see, hear and then feel as I felt the cool sand on my feet as we walked to the surf. I needed it.

The past couple of days I have been battling what I think is a combination summer cold and allergic reaction to the vast amount of mold spores in the air due to the very warm and wet weather the past month. I went to bed and woke up with sinus headaches the past three days and this morning had a bit of vertigo. So when I went to work I got in with  one of our doctors. Thankfully I don’t have any ear infection yet and don’t need any antibiotics. However he prescribed a couple of meds to help me with the congestion and told me to use my nasal wash solution.  I have also had my fill of politics this week, it seems that as hard as I try to avoid it the whole political game gets thrown in my face. So tonight I have only had the MLB baseball channel on and tried to avoid news and political commentary of any kind.

While I was waiting for my prescription this afternoon a young Marine Sergeant came in the waiting area and sat down across from me. There were a few others in the area but it was not crowded. At the time I was reading a book from my Kindle on my I-phone and as I glanced up he greeted me. I returned the greeting and out of the blue he asked:

“Do you ever have problems with God?”

I love being around Marines and Sailors because unlike a lot of others young Marines and Sailors, especially those that have been to war are likely to ask hard questions to clergy. There is little pretense among them, something that cannot be said for many clergymen or

I was wearing my service khakis with ribbons and of course being a Christian chaplain I have a gold cross on my left collar and my rank on my right. There is no question in this Marine’s mind that I am a clergyman. I also know that he expects me to be honest with him. I also know that he will know if I am attempting to bullshit him. Marines and Sailors who have been to war have a keen eye for bullshit.

I immediately put down the I-phone and looked at him. I paused acknowledged the question and said:

“To be honest yes, a lot of them.”

He said “I do too” paused for and asked “how do you deal with them?”

I smiled and told him that it was a long story, but gave him the nutshell of how after Iraq I had experienced a crisis in faith and was for all practical purposes an agnostic struggling to believe.

He then asked how I came to believe again. I briefly recounted the story that I refer to as my “Christmas miracle” (See Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle  https://padresteve.com/2009/12/24/padre-steve’s-christmas-miracle/ ) and said that I still sometimes have lots of doubts and questions.

He replied “So do I. I guess that’s why they call it faith.”

About that time his number was called and I gave him my card. He thanked me for listening and went to get his prescription.

I know that some believers are troubled when I express the real fact that I have doubts. But I have found that there are a lot of people like this young Marine Sergeant who just want Priests, pastors, chaplains or Rabbis to simple be honest when it comes to doubt and faith. The Marine Sergeant understood more about faith than a lot of ministers that I know.

It is not about how certain we are but instead about how certain God is in his great love for us that he allows us to doubt.

Admittedly I still struggle. But I still believe, sometimes against all rationality. The great Russian playwright Fyodor Dostoyevsky said something that I can only echo in its depth. “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

I guess that is big part of why I am here.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Faith and Life: A Meditation for those that Doubt

Padre Steve gets a little advice from Molly

I am coming up on three years since I returned from Iraq and experienced my crisis in faith and belief that for nearly two years left me as a practical agnostic.  During that time when it was hard for me to even believe that God existed and if he did exist even cared about me or others I was forced to wrestle with faith and belief from the perspective of a doubter.  This was not comfortable from me because from an early age I had a real faith in God and in Jesus. Likewise I have always been one that tried to think through the implications of faith and belief but because I am a historian and theologian tended to look at things from the perspective of a historian or theologian trying to convince others of the truth using Scriptures, the Creeds, the Councils and what great theologians and Church leaders taught to convince people of that.  I was rather good at the art of polemics which I think was one of the reasons some of my seminary classmates asked me why I was in seminary and not in law school. That was not a compliment in my seminary.

Now I do not want to discredit the importance of history and theology or the roles of historians and theologians in the church.  Far from it, I still rely on that knowledge and seek to understand both better. In fact for me faith and life is connected with both and since coming back I have worked to better integrate these subjects into my spiritual life so that they are not simply something that I do but a part of who I am.

That being said as I dug my way out of my PTSD and anxiety ridden life, I felt alienated from God and God’s people.  In fact I felt abandoned by them I struggled to believe again. It seems to be my experience that Christians especially clergy seem to treat doubters and those in spiritual as if they are radioactive.  The only ones that seemed to understand were those going through similar trials and the first person who asked me how I was doing with God was not a pastor, chaplain or bishop but a psychotherapist. It was that therapist who made it one of his goals to help me be able to reconnect with God and was not threatened by the anger, frustration and alienation that I felt from God and the Church.

Eventually faith began to return but it was in the simple performance of the Sacrament of the Sick and Dying in the hospital that I worked where faith began to return.  I have written about that in a number of articles linked here so I will not rehash those details.

A Sea of Contradictions: My Life and Faith since returning from Iraq

Faith Journey’s: Why I am Still a Christian

God in the Empty Places…Padre Steve Remembers the Beginnings of Padre Steve’s World

Doubt and Faith: My Crisis in Faith and Why I am Still a Christian an Advent Meditation

Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

The Church Maintained in Love: Maintaining Integrity and Preserving Relationships When Asked to Leave a Church

However there is a quote that I used to lead off one article that I will mention from the German Pastor, Theologian and Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.”

Since I know that there are pastors, chaplains and other Christians out there who are experiencing a crisis in faith I just want to say that you are not alone and that there is life after the abyss.  I have faith again in God, working on that faith with God’s people and I believe again but I also doubt and have questions.

Faith and belief for me now is more in caring for God’s people and trying not cause further alienation to people who already struggle with faith, life, depression, anxiety and those that are often marginalized by the Church to include those not of the Christian faith, men and women that have experienced the trauma of war or crimes committed against them, abuse of all kinds as well as people of more “liberal” political beliefs and Gays and Lesbians.  Somehow I think the community of faith is enriched by those on the fringe of the “Christian” world and that God still cares even when Christians don’t.

Please know that while I am still in the process of recovering faith and reordering my spiritual life to make it less rote and more authentic that I believe that God cares for everyone. One of my favorite scriptural passages 2nd Corinthians 5:18 is included in the Lake George Benediction which I will close this article with:

“As you leave this place always remember the Gospel: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself counting men’s sins not against them. God loves you, God is not mad at you and God will never leave you or forsake you. May Almighty God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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