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Justice and Life as an Exercise in Exceptions: Faith in the Age of Trump

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The English Mathematician and founder of Process Philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” 

I find much truth in Whitehead’s words. Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed.

Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, as a Christian, I have faith in a God I cannot see or prove. I have faith in a God who Scripture and Tradition clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed based on the trumped up charges of corrupt and fearful religious leaders aided by fearful politicians. For me this is part of being a theologian of the Cross in a post-Auschwitz world.

Jürgen Moltmann, a German theologian who wrote the book The Crucified God answered a question about believing in God after Auschwitz:

“A shattering expression of the theologia crucis which is suggested in the rabbinic theology of God’s humiliation of himself is to be found in Night, a book written by E. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz:

The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment for a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…’

Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn men to indifference.

(Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, p 273-274)

In answer to the question “How can we believe in God after Auschwitz he responded:

“In whom can we believe after Auschwitz if not God?

Likewise, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim noted:

If we abandoned our faith in God after Auschwitz, we would give Hitler a posthumous victory.

And as long as we know that the ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’ and the ‘Our Father’ prayers were prayed in Auschwitz, we must not give up our faith in God.”

Thus, while I believe, I have a problem with Christians or members of other religions try to use the police power of state to enforce their beliefs on others. In this belief I am much like the great Virginia Baptist leader, John Leland who was a driving force behind the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights who 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.”

When it comes to God, I believe, but my doubts are all too real. Frankly I cringe when I hear religious people speaking with absolute certitude about things that they ultimately cannot prove, and that includes the concept of justice, which cannot always be measured in absolutes.

Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

“I don’t know how to communicate this, or even if it is possible. But the question of justice has concerned me greatly of late. And I say to any creature who may be listening, there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”

I have found and learned to accept that life as we know it “is an exercise in exceptions.”  We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with people who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that wish to impose on others.

True believers frequently wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith. They espouse doctrines that are unprovable and then build complex doctrinal systems to prove them, systems that then which must be defended, sometimes to the death. Eric Hoffer wrote:

A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Henri Nouwen, the Priest who wrote the classic book on pastoral care, The Wounded Healer, and many other works wrote:

Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” 

No one can be competent in God, I certainly am not. I am sure that even well meaning people who claim to be are hopelessly deluded, and those that those that use their alleged competence in God to prop up evil are far worse, they are evil men masquerading as good.

Those men and women that speak of absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” The Bible is not a rule book, but a story of imperfect people trying to understand and live an experience with a being that they, like us, can only imagine and often misunderstand.

Sadly too many people, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, and others apply their own misconceptions and prejudices to their scriptures and use them as a weapon of temporal and divine judgement on all who they oppose. However, as history, life and even our scriptures testify, that none of us can absolutely claim to know the absolutes of God. As Captain Picard noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” 

It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided. If instead of reason we appeal to emotion, hatred, prejudice or vengeance and clothe them in the language of righteousness, what we call justice can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct, no matter what our motivation.

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith or ideology to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. It is happening again.

When such people gain power, especially when the do so supporting a leader who is they tend to expand that power into the realm of theocratic absolutism and despotism. As Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead: 

“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.”

It is happening, all around the world, and it could easily happen here. Our founders realized how easily it could happen, they warned about it; but they are dead, and neither Trump or his followers give a damn about them or the Constitution that they crafted. In fact, his followers are for more dangerous thanTrump, because they will outlast him by a generation, or more, always waiting for the chance to grab power by any means possible.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Padre Steve+

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Celebrating 20 Years as a Miscreant Priest 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. July 7th 1996, it really is hard to believe that it has been that long, and this year it kind of snuck up on me. I had pretty much forgotten until I noticed an old friend from Camp LeJeune was wishing me well on it. If you are reading this Ray, thank you. 

Since Being ordained I have served in a lot of places as an Army and now Navy Chaplain, and I have served some of the most wonderful people ever, and in turn they have done more for me than I can ever imagine or repay. One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand is that the true joy in the priestly ministry is people, all kinds of people, regardless of who they are or what they believe. 

Over the years I have come to value that more than anything else. For me this is not about any kind of ecclesiastical power or desire for advancement. I do not desire to be a bishop, nor for that matter be in charge of anything. I prefer just to serve and care as I can, be with real people, and try as I might to show people God’s love by being real and caring for them. Now that doesn’t mean that I always do it well, I can be so stupid and insensitive sometimes, even when I am not trying to be. Judy tells me that it is because the male hormone causes brain damage. I won’t argue. 


Over the past twenty years I’ve have times of extreme faith, actually bordering on pious certitude bordering on arrogance. But I have also had doubts, very real doubts. In fact for almost two years after my tour in Iraq I can honestly say that at best I was an agnostic just praying that God existed. Eventually faith returned, and it has to be called faith, because it is not based on how much I think I know, but how little I do know. St. Anselm of Canterbury, the great Scholastic theologian described his task as “faith seeking understanding.” I used to think that way, but I don’t think that understanding the great mystery that is God is really possible, and that’s not a bad thing. I have faith in Jesus the Christ, I believe, and as one of the men Jesus encounters exclaimed, “I believe, help my unbelief.” 


I guess that is all part of the journey. When I look back at all of my time as a priest was my high point, it was my time in Iraq. In the midst of all chaos that I felt closest to God, even when I was struggling. As T.E. Lawrence wrote, “We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of the wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for…”  It was the richest time of my life, but also the most disappointing, personally and professionally. I found like Lawrence, that most people really don’t care about the Iraqis, and that most of my fellow clergy really didn’t care about me. No wonder Lawrence said, “the fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths.” 

But all of that aside, despite everything, I have rediscovered faith, life, and joy in ministry. So at twenty years I am good, and hopefully I’ve got at last twenty more good years to serve God and the people of God, wherever they are and no matter what their faith or lack of faith is, and interestingly enough my idea of ministry has broadened. So I don’t think that the form of my future ministry will be in the traditional parish setting. That too is okay as I am still fond of the sweep of open places, and the ideas, often inexpressible and vaporous are still there to be fought for. 

So until tomorrow, have a great day, and as the wonderful and grace filled conclusion off the rite of penance says, “pray for me a sinner.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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Living the Nightmares: PTSD and Iraq Six Years Later

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

Last week I woke up screaming thanks to some nightmare brought to me in high definition by PTSD. It woke Judy and both of the dogs up and well, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. Unfortunately this happens more often than I would like it to. When I was stationed away from home in North Carolina it was only Molly my faithfully dog who was disturbed by this, now I wake up Judy and our younger Papillon Minnie, or Minnie Scule as is her full name.

This afternoon I read a story of a Marine veteran who lost his battle with PTSD, taking his own life. I see a lot of these stories and each one makes me wonder what s going on and gives me pause when I think just how bad I was doing not too long ago.

It is hard for me to believe that nearly six years after I returned from Iraq that I still have a lot of trouble sleeping, though less trouble than a couple of years ago and that my nightmares associated with war still return with more regularity than I would like. Likewise it is hard for me to believe how much my life is impacted by this. I still experience a fair amount of hyper-vigilance, crowds of people are difficult and the craziness of traffic on the local freeways causes me a fair amount of distress.

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Despite that I am doing a lot better than I was even a year or so ago when I was still struggling a lot more than I am now and let’s say 4 years ago when there were times I wondered why I was still alive. Of course the time from 2008-2010 was probably the worst time of my life when it seemed that everything that I had believed in had melted away. I didn’t know if God existed, I felt abandoned by my former Church and even by many peers. The only thing that kept me going was a deep sense of call and vocation as a Priest and Chaplain, even though I was for all practical purposes an agnostic who was praying that maybe God still might exist.

Those who have been with me on this blog over the years know how central that struggle has been. I have written about it many times.

Though I am doing much better than I was I still have my times of doubt, times of fear and times of absolute panic. I do what I can to manage but once in a while something will trigger a response. The biggest problem still is sleep and vivid dreams and nightmares. Once I finish the course I am in I am going to get back into therapy a couple of times a month. Thankfully my new job after I complete the school will be more academic with a small chapel where I serve the Students of the Joint Forces Staff College.

Physically I am doing much better, in terms of overall health and physical fitness. I am playing softball again and my PT regimen is much better. Spiritually I can say that being active in having a Chapel where I celebrate Eucharist in a small setting has been good for me. Having to preach again from the lectionary readings is a good thing. Likewise getting a break from five years of hospital ministry, dealing with death, suffering and psychological issues is good. After Iraq I threw myself into the most difficult areas of hospital ministry, the critical care Intensive Care Units hoping that such work would help bring me out of my own issues. Unfortunately, it made it more difficult.

Being at home again is good. I just wish that my nightmares would not cause distress to the rest of my little family. However, it is nice when after they look at me like I am nuts one or both dogs come to me and help calm me down.

I quoted Guy Sajer, the author of the classic book The Forgotten Soldier. If anyone wants to understand something about what war does to a person and see PTSD in non-clinical terms I think it is possibly the best book to read.

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Since I have gone to war and experienced fear on a daily basis out in the hinterlands of Al Anbar Province with small groups of American Marines and Soldiers and Iraqi troops I understand a bit of what Sajer writes. My war was different, out with advisors on small Iraqi basis, traveling in dangerous areas far from any big American units, occasionally being shot at and seeing the devastation of war in that unfortunate country,  though my experience of war pales in comparison with what Sager describes.

That being said I do understand in ways that I never did before. Sajer makes a comment which I think is incredibly appropriate for those that read of war without having ever experienced it. too often is the case in the United States and Western Europe where very few ever put on a uniform and even fewer experience war. Sager wrote:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual.

One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary. 

One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

This weekend I will visit the Gettysburg Battlefield as part of a staff ride. I have been there a good number of times but not since I returned from Iraq. Thus in a sense it will take on new meaning, especially when I walk those hallowed fields of battle where so many died and so many more were maimed in our own terrible Civil War.

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That being said I wonder if the solution to my nightmares is to go back to Iraq someday like so many WWII, Korea and Vietnam veterans have done to the places that they served. That has to remain in the future, but hopefully I will get the chance and maybe by then Iraq will at last be at peace.

Tonight I will attempt to sleep and hopefully what dreams I have, though they be high definition will at least not be nightmares that disturb Judy or the dogs.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD

Muddling Through PTSD Recovery: A Chaplain’s Story of Return from War

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“Captain, you do need time. You cannot achieve complete recovery so quickly. And it’s perfectly normal after what you’ve been through, to spend a great deal of time trying to find yourself again” Counselor Troi to Captain Picard in Star Trek the Next Generation after his encounter with the Borg.

Coming home from war can be harder than going. At least it was for me. I have always been a hard charger. When I was at war in Iraq I was at the top of my game but when I came back I was broken. I experienced things there that changed me forever and it has taken a long time to find myself again.

I came home with chronic, severe PTSD, anxiety and depression. I suffer severe Tinnitus and pathetic speech comprehension. The ringing in my ears is non-stop and in any kind of group setting or conference I struggle to understand what is going on even though my hearing loss measured in decibels is minimal. The loss is neurological and when tested I measured in the third percentile of people, meaning that 97% of people understand speech better than me.

I still suffer from chronic insomnia, vivid nightmares and night terrors. I still struggle with agoraphobia, hyper-vigilance and occasional road rage. Thankfully none of them are as bad as they used to be but they are ever present. I have had my ups and downs with prescription medications that were used by my doctors to manage my PTSD symptoms and sleep disorders.  For a while drank too much just to help me make it through the nights. I am told that this is common for many who return from war.

When I came home I felt abandoned, especially by church leaders and many chaplains, many who I had thought were my friends. That is understandable as I was radioactive.  My faith had collapsed and for two years I was an agnostic desperately hoping to find God. As such I have a certain bond with those that struggle with God or even those that do not believe. This makes a lot of religious people uncomfortable, especially ministers. I think the reason for this is that is scares the hell out of people to think that they too might have a crisis of faith because they too have doubts. 

The first person who asked me about how I was doing spiritually was not anyone from my church or a chaplain, but rather my first shrink, Elmer Maggard. When faith returned around Christmas 2009 it was different and so was I. I tried to express it and began to write about it. For my openness I got in trouble with my old denomination and asked to leave because I was “too liberal.” Thankfully a bishop from the Episcopal Church who knew me recommend that I seek out Bishop Diana Dale of the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. Thanks to that I have a loving new denomination and since we do not have a local parish of the ACOC I have found  St James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth Virginia as a place of refuge. It is the historically African American parish in the area and I love the people there. They helped me when I was in my deepest times of struggle. 

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My struggle was really hard on my wife Judy. Before I deployed I was the strong one. Afterward my contribution to our marriage was minimal and I was often a complete ass. I was in survival mode and and barely making it. I couldn’t reach out to her, I was collapsing on myself and she felt it as rejection. Our marriage suffered terribly and both of us thought that it might not survive. But over the past 18 months or so it has been getting better. I can share with her again and she has become a source of added strength. We enjoy being together again and we recently celebrated our 30th anniversary with many of the friends who helped us make it through the hard times. 

In time I gathered a support network. There are some Chaplains that I can be absolutely honest with, as well as my Command Master Chief, Ed Moreno. Likewise I have friends outside the military, including people I have known for years who still, despite all my flaws care for me. I have found other places of refuge where I have relationships with people, one is Harbor Park, home of the Norfolk Tides Baseball team, another was Grainger Stadium, former home of the Kinston Indians. I have a couple of places as well that are like my real life version of the TV show Cheers

Baseball brings me a great deal of peace, especially when I can go to the ballpark. When I was in dire straits the management of the Tides allowed me to go wander Harbor Park during the off season, just to take it in.  Running on the beach is something that I have come to cherish here in North Carolina, I will miss the easy access that I have here when I return home to Virginia in two weeks. 

Writing on my blog has been good therapy. As an introvert I process information by taking things in. Being constantly around people wears me out. I am good at what I do but it takes a great deal of effort to do it. 

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My unflappable little dog Molly has been a life saver, she insisted on coming to stay with me about halfway through my tour. She helped me recover my humanity and her presence gave me something outside of me to care for and because of that I ended up seeking out people again instead of holing up in my apartment.

My spiritual life still has its ups and downs and I discovered that I am far from perfect, and I hate that sometimes. However, that being said I do feel more connected with God, people and at peace despite my ongoing struggles.

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Picard breaking down

It has not been an easy road, but it has been worth it. I find it interesting that the Star Trek the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager series help me process many of my feelings, thoughts and emotions. I quoted part of a Next Generation episode at the beginning of this article, one where Captain Picard is recovering from the trauma of being abducted by the Borg. I find the episode compelling on many levels. Part of that episode deals with Picard trying to figure out his life again. After a tumultuous visit with his family he and his older brother engage in a fight, during which he breaks down. Picard’s brother realizing the importance of what was happening said to him “So – my brother is a human being after all. This is going to be with you a long time, Jean-Luc. A long time. You have to learn to live with it…”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, Tour in Iraq

Faith’s Journey: A Progressive Christian Navy Chaplain Looks at the Journey to Wholeness

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June 27th 2013: After the events of this week including the Supreme Court decision declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional I decided to re-publish an article that was one of the most important that I ever published. Not so much because of the what I think was so earth shattering regarding the content but because of what happened after its publication. At the point in time that I wrote it I was pushing the envelope with my former denomination, but figured that in light of all the controversies and schisms in that church at the time that whatever I wrote would not result in any problems. But I was wrong. I received a call the next day from my bishop telling me that I needed to find a new home because I was “too liberal.”

It was actually quite fascinating, I was able to gain a new church home which was much more progressive, welcoming and catholic, being of the Old Catholic tradition. For me that phone call was just a few months later deposed for attempting to create yet another schism in the church. I think it is even more interesting because some of my friends still in that church think that he used this article as a reason to get rid of me in order to keep me from exposing his scheme. I don’t know if that it the case or not, but my friends believe it to be a distinct possibility. That being said one of my long time priest friends revealed his plot to the other bishops and the bishop who forced me  was deposed. Irony is fascinating. Since that time my former church is regaining its footing and doing better and for my friends in it I am glad for even if I have differences in theology, faith or beliefs with people who I consider to be friends, they are still friends and I wish them well.  

So anyway, for those that are fairly new followers on this site here is the article that in a sense served as a declaration of independence and station on the road to wholeness and integrity. 

Peace, Padre Steve+

Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian (Originally published 22 September 2010)

There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

I know what it feels like to be marginalized after I came back from Iraq because many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians.  I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the war, despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar province.  The fact that not a clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith before I went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth didn’t seem to matter because a political agenda was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.

Yesterday I wrote about Chaplains that experience a crisis of faith after coming home from a combat deployment.  For me there is nothing more symbolic of the lack of soul left in many Christians and Christian Churches in how they treat those that have served faithfully. Those Chaplains that have served  God, Church and Country and come back spiritually wondering what happened, not knowing what to believe and feeling abandoned by God and cast off by the Church and the military simply because we have a hard time with the so called “orthodoxy” of some Christians.

I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic.  That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that it sucks like a Hoover and I know that I am not alone in my feelings.  I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us.

Let’s talk about spiritual despair. Did you know that in the past couple of years that two Army Chaplains and one Navy Chaplain have committed suicide? These were men of faith who had served in peace and war at least one that had served at the Battle of Hue City as a Marine before becoming a Priest and Chaplain.  Another Army Chaplain that had served in Iraq as a minister of a conservative Charismatic and Evangelical Christian denomination became a Wiccan and was excoriated by Christians.  I don’t know his faith journey but I have to believe that part was his experience in Iraq and experience on his return. I don’t know about you but those are all signs of spiritual despair and feeling cut off from their faith community and even God, his or her self.

I am still a Christian. I believe in the God of Scripture, the Creeds and the Councils. At the same time that belief is not as rigid as it once was. I used to consider those that didn’t believe like I did in relation to Scripture, the Creeds and Councils not to be Christians.  I cannot say that now. I am much more to have the Grace and Mercy of God be my default position and let other things fall out where they may.  My practice of my faith has changed. When I came back from Iraq I attempted, as it were without success to keep my faith structure and practice the same as it was before I deployed to Iraq.  Within six months of Iraq I could no longer pray the Daily Office with any kind of faithfulness and by Lent 2009 give up the practice for Lent hoping to recover some authenticity to my faith. The authenticity has returned and after about a hear and a half I am seeking a way to reincorporate what had been a very important part of my daily practice of faith into my life without feeling like I am a phony in doing so.

I went through a period of absolute spiritual despair even leaving a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 to walk home in the dark, alone, looking at the sky and asking God if he even existed.  A year later after my life had completely fallen apart I experienced what I call my “Christmas miracle” where I was called to our Emergency Room to provide the “last rites” to a retired Navy doctor and active Episcopalian when I was the duty Chaplain.  As I prayed the last prayer of commendation and removed my oil covered fingers from the man’s forehead he breathed his last. His wife told me that he was waiting to be anointed before he died.  The young doctor, a Psychology Resident doing his ER rotation who called me to the ER would die a couple of months later of natural causes in his living room not long after we had taken the “fat boy” program PT test together.

From that moment the paradigm shifted.  Faith began to return and I began to experience the presence of God again, not is the same was as before Iraq but one that was more relational, grace filled and informal.  I will likely begin praying the Daily Office again in the near future but I will approach it from a different point of view.  I will no longer use it simply to fulfill my priestly vows and obligations but rather as a way to re-experience and if need be re-imagine God.  Now before the heresy hunters think that I am re-imagining God is some unbiblical manner they are wrong. I want to re-imagine God as he has been revealed to his people both in Scripture, Tradition and in the life of his, or her people today.

moralssquad

How have I changed? I believe again. I am no longer an agnostic hoping and praying that God just might be there. My faith has become much more deeply rooted and grounded in the “Crucified God” and my faith in the “theology of the Cross.”  It is no longer connected to my politics and I refute any political ideology that attempts to use the Christian faith and the faith of well meaning Christians for purposes that Jesus himself would have condemned.  I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of his followers attempting to be the favorites of any political party or ideological system. In fact if I recall he really had pretty harsh words for his fellow Jews who were all wrapped around the axels with that kind of stuff. Jesus seems to befriend and hang around with those that are not connected to the religious, political or economic elites. In fact he seemed to reserve his harshest words for such people.  Jesus seemed to have a pretty good relationship with those marginalized and rejected by the religious folks of his day. He welcome sinners and tax collectors to his table and praised the faith of gentile Roman officers and stopped the super-religious folks from stoning an adulterous woman.

This is the Jesus that I follow and the Jesus that I believe is present in body, soul and spirit in the Eucharist.  I believe like Hans Kung and others that this table belongs to the baptized community of faith and not to an exclusive Priestly class who dictate who can come to the table.  It is not the exclusive property of any denomination or Church organization especially those that most loudly state this to be the case.

Now if saying this makes me a heretic then a heretic I will be. It is better to be a heretic in the eyes of Pharisees than to be one that denies justice to the persecuted people of God.  I guess that makes this moderate a liberal and to some an unbeliever.  Yet I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I believe in the Jesus that defied religious systems to offer the grace of God to the people that those systems rejected and the Jesus that was far more critical of “believers’ than those rejected as unbelievers.  I guess that is why I can accept women as ministers or even Priests, accept homosexuals as Christian brothers and sisters, and see Christ and the grace and love of God in people that are not “Christians” even the Muslims in Iraq that treated me with respect and even if they had an “Aryan” view of Jesus still showed a greater reverence for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary than many that claim Jesus for themselves.

Why? You ask. Very simply I once was lost but now am found.  I thought that I knew it all before, now I know that I don’t know it all and that God is the God of surprises, just look in Scripture.  I doubt at times. I know that there are many answers that elude me and I cannot answer just by citing or using Scripture out of its historic, cultural and linguistic context.  I believe in the God that did not reject me when I didn’t know if he even existed.

Why am I still a Christian when I have so many problems with how many Christians practice the faith? Because I believe and not because will not I tow anyone’s party line be they liberals or conservatives. I believe in spite of my unbelief in a fellowship of those who as a result of war and trauma have trouble believing those that won’t race the cold realities of this life. I believe because many times it was those marginalized by others, especially those marginalized by the “faithful” showed me the love of God when the “faithful” for pure or impure motives, or even because they didn’t know what to do allowed me to sink into despair and isolation. So in the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther I say “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Reaching the Lost Christian Generation

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

Over the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about encounters that I have had with Christians of various denominations who have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith due to some kind of trauma in their lives.  These people are the unseen, unheard and ignored part of our religious landscape.  In theUnited Stateswe have a very vibrant religious culture which finds its way into much of everyday life.  In fact listening to most of our Presidential candidates you would think that most are in fact Evangelical Christian preachers.

The fact is that despite the popularity of the mega-church and pop-psychology driven church world directed by “pastors” that function more as CEOs, motivational speakers and authors that churches are losing adherents at an increasing rate.  Many of those that are being lost are those that have suffered silently doing everything that is supposed to fulfill a Christian and make them healthy, wealthy and popular get left in the dust because they don’t “get better.”  I call them the “Lost Christian Generation.” There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

For the wounded the church itself becomes their little acre of Hell on earth.  Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of life.  Those that at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness.   But most remain in the church for years living in pain thinking that they must be doing something wrong, that maybe they have angered God or that God has abandoned them.  In fact I would challenge my readers that attend church to take a look around the pews and see that person sitting alone, maybe staring into space, maybe with an expression of deep sadness on their face even as people talk and laugh around them.  The problem is most of us have very little situational awareness and don’t see them and of we do feel uncomfortable or inadequate so we leave them hoping that maybe they’ll get their act together or just go away.

I know what it feels like to be marginalized after I came back fromIraqbecause many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians.  I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the war, despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar province.  The fact that not a clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith before I went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth didn’t seem to matter because a political agenda was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.

I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic.  That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that it sucks and I know that I am not alone in my feelings.  I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us.  That experience changed me enough that my former church told me to leave because I had become “too liberal.”

This “God Forsakenness” sometimes leads those people that are part of the “lost Christian generation” to believe that death appears more comforting than life in the present. For such people, they live “Good Friday” everyday feeling that they are truly God Forsaken.   I write this because I really believe that these often very sensitive and wonderful people are either ignored or not even seen by most of their fellow church members. Likewise I believe that many if not most pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do.   I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself when one no longer senses the presence of God and feels alone against the world, especially in church.

Many times the crisis of faith is caused by prolonged depression, PTSD or other trauma often involving family members, clergy or other trusted authority figures in their lives.  Sometimes the trauma is due to a physical injury, perhaps a near death experience due to an illness, combat or accident and can be neurological as in the case of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI not something that routine counseling either psychological or pastoral or an anti-depressant medication will correct.  In my case it was PTSD and chronic pain and insomnia which overwhelmed me and along with a crisis of faith triggered such hopelessness that I barely held on for almost two years.

I remember when I first started dealing with this in others while in seminary that I was of the mind that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out.  I believed then that somehow with counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.  Call me a heretic but that line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life but absolutely stupid advice for people who are severely traumatized or clinically depressed and suicidal who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. So many people like this have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat that it is mind numbing.  The fact that I went through a period for the nearly two years where I was pretty much an agnostic praying to believe again because of my PTSD injury incurred in Iraq that felt hopelessly isolated for the first year after my return until I finally reconnected with others and began to feel safe again gives me just a bit of an idea at what these people are going through.  My isolation from Christian community and sense of despair during that time showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with or papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up in the ivory theological towers by theologians and “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience was due to from my time in Iraq and the trauma of my return.  That time was absolutely frightening.  Church was no longer a comfort and my long established spiritual practices no longer brought peace or a feeling of communion with God. It was so bad that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.

For those clergy this is an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.  It becomes worse when church institutions deny or ignore their claims which has been an unfortunate occurrence in many Roman Catholic dioceses around the world, particularly in Europe and North America where new revelations of clerical abuse seem to show up with alarming frequency.

The feeling that people who go through a crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that they feel God feel cut off and even abandoned by God.  This is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when thoughts of death or just going to sleep are much preferable to living.  This overwhelming despair impacts their relationships especially with their family and frequently will destroy families as the spouse grows weary and loses hope seeing their loved one get better.  It is if they never are able to leave the “God forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb.   For some the pain is so much the last and previously unthinkable alternative of suicide becomes the only course of action that they think will help.  Such thoughts are not simply narcissism as some would believe but from the “logical” belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them.  I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach out to people in this situation.  I have to admit in my case that it was only people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage that helped get me through the worst of this.  However I’m sure that my condition burned some people out.  There are some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them at the same time the first person that asked me how my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my therapist.  When I reported to my current duty station I was shocked to find Chaplains who were willing to come alongside of me, even when they didn’t have the answers and remain with me.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with.  It is seldom dealt with in many seminaries or Bible schools because it is not comfortable or something that you can “grow your church” with.  But the reality is there are more people going to church praying for an answer who no one reaches out to; in fact they are often invisible amid the busyness of program oriented ministry.

I do not think that it is enough simply to tell them that “God won’t give you more than you can bear” or quote other scriptures when they have been pushed beyond the “red line” and are breaking down.  They want to believe that scriptural principle but no longer believe because God is no longer real to them.

Yet scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian.  Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with those who suffer the absence of God.  It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

We have to be honest and not turn a blind eye to the transgressions of Christians over the centuries.  We cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries of those that are living their own dark night of the soul or have given in to despair.

I do pray that as we celebrate the joy of the Resurrection that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”  It is not easy as those who walked with me can testify but in doing so there is the chance that such action will prevent tragedy and maybe, just maybe give hope to this “Lost Christian Generation” that may allow them to return.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion