Tag Archives: andrew Greeley

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


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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


Father Brown

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, where was I?

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

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

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

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

Until tomorrow, Peace

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

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A First Communion Mass, Two Parties, a Royal Wedding, and a Death amid the Noise of Fans and Dehumidifiers

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The late Father Andrew Greeley wrote these words in his mystery 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.”

Those are words that I hope that I reflect in my life and yesterday was one that I thought of those words a lot.

Saturday was one of the busiest Saturdays that I have ever experienced. It was a good day but after the week that I have had dealing with the damage inside our hows and the noise of fans and dehumidifiers, it was almost too much for me. Yesterday morning I celebrated Mass for the first communion of two of the children of our German NATO contingent with a German priest at one of my chapels at Fort Story.

The service was in German and while the German priest preached I was the celebrant for the Mass. It was the first Mass that I have done in German in over a decade but it was like riding a bicycle, I was able to go right back into it, so much is committed to memory that with a couple moments when I experienced some angst it went very well. It was very special for me because I was asked to do the preparation for the boys by the parents over the past two months. During that time I have really come to love and appreciate them. It was a very special time and a blessing with over a hundred people, Germans and Americans in attendance.

When I was done with that Judy and I had to run home to change and prepare for the afternoon, two parties for good friends that conflicted. I took Judy to one while I went to the other. The party Judy attended was for a close friend of her who is retiring from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Virginia Beach, while I went to the college graduation party for a friend and Navy Veteran in Portsmouth.

Eventually I went back to pick up Judy and spend a bit of time at that party, after which we went home and pretty much collapsed. That being said while there I found out that my cousin Jeanette’s husband Ron had died. She lives in the Pacific Northwest so I called and left a message on her voice mail. She called me back and we had a good talk but still it was a sad time as she tries to sort through her memories.

After that I went through various emails and messages and the took the time to watch Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel. It was an amazing sermon and very inspirational. I recommend it.

Anyway. It was a long but good day. Being an introvert I was on people overload but that does not detract from all the blessings of the day. The fact is that ministry and life take many forms and I would be amiss not to recognize the grace and love of God in all the people I was with today, but also the joy in being called to love.

Those who have followed this blog as well as my close friends know the struggle I have had with faith over the past decade, including the years I spent as a practical agnostic who hope almost beyond hope that God was still around. His words of the real meaning of the Gospel, that of God’s love were remarkable when compared to the words of men like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress. As I thought about today and watched Bishop Curry’s sermon I was filled with hope and I thought of Greeley’s words of a fictional candidate for the papacy in his novel White Smoke

“So many of our lay people believe that ours is a Church of rules, that being Catholic consists of keeping rules. They do not find an institution which is like that very appealing. Nor should they.

In fact, we are a Church of love. Our message from the Lord himself even today is the message that God is Love and that we are those who are trying, however badly, to reflect that love in the world. I find that in my own city that notion astonishes many people. How we came to misrepresent that which we should be preaching above all else is perhaps the subject for many doctoral dissertations.

More important for us today, however, is the reaffirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.”

In a way that sums up my Saturday. I may struggle, I may doubt, but I am learning to once again live by faith and love, girded by hope. I believe, help me in my unbelief.

I wish you all a good night or day and hope and pray that the Fire of love for others and God may ignite our hearts and minds to become more like Jesus, especially in the way we treat others. As Saint Francis of Assisi once noted: “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.

This morning both Judy and I are exhausted. Servpro came out and took readings and it appears that by tomorrow the fans and dehumidifiers will be removed which will allow the next steps In restoring the house to begin.

So until the next time,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Howling at the Moon and Ministry at the End of a Long Military Career

Crash-Davis

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The past few days I have been quietly reflecting on ministry as I get ready to transition out of my current assignment at the Staff College to be the senior base chaplain at one of the bases nearby. Fortunately I will be able to continue conducting the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the college but the transition to being a base chaplain for the second time in my career, the first some twenty years ago when I was in the Army, has caused me to ponder the form ministry again and why I am here. It also has made me think of my long career and my transition from being a rising star, to a old and bit sore veteran who still has something to give, I’ve been in the military now for almost 36 years, not much left to prove but some left to give.  A younger friend and chaplain once said I reminded him of Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Bull Durham, Crash Davis. I like the analogy, as Crash said: “I have been known on occasion to howl at the moon.”

I like hard questions and hard cases. My life has been quite interesting and that includes my faith journey as a Christian and human being. It is funny that in my life I have as I have grown older begun to appreciate those that do not believe and to rather distrust those who proclaim their religious faith with absolute certitude, especially when hard questions are asked.

Paul Tillich once said “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” 

I get “trolled” a lot and I find it amusing when trolls come by to condemn my “heresy.” When they do I realize that most of them must have some kind of psychological need to be right. I say this because for all of their certitude I sense a deep fear that they might be wrong. I think that is why they must do this.

I think that the quote by the late theologian is quite appropriate to me and the ministry that I find myself. I think it is a ministry pattern quite similar to Jesus in his dealings with the people during his earthly incarnate ministry.

Jesus was always hanging out with the outcasts, whether they be Jewish tax collectors collaborating with the Romans, lepers and other “unclean” types, Gentiles including the hated Roman occupiers, Samaritans and most dangerously, scandalous women. He seemed to reach out to these outcasts while often going out of his way to upset the religious establishment and the “true believers” of his day.

There is even one instance where a Centurion whose servant he healed was most likely involved in a homosexual relationship, based on the writer of the Gospel of Matthew’s use of the Greek word “Pais” which connotes a homosexual servant, instead of the more common “Doulos.” That account is the only time in the New Testament where that distinction is made, and Pais is used throughout Greek literature of the time to denote a homosexual slave or “house boy” relationship. Jesus was so successful at offending the profoundly orthodox of his day that his enemies made sure that they had him killed.

I think that what has brought me to this point is a combination of things but most importantly what happened to me in and after my tour in Iraq. Before I went to Iraq I was certain of about everything that I believed and was quite good at what we theologians and pastors call “apologetics.” My old Chaplain Assistant in the Army, who now recently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps called me a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh” back in 1997, and he meant it quite affectionately.

I was so good at it that I was silenced by a former Archbishop in my former church and banned from publishing for about 7 years after writing two articles for a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review.

The funny thing is that he, and a number of my closest friends from that denomination are either Roman Catholic priests or priests in the Anglican Ordinariate which came into communion with Rome a couple of years back. Ironically while being “too Catholic” was the reason I was forbidden to write it was because I questioned certain traditions and beliefs of the Church including that I believed that there was a role for women in the ordained ministry, that gays and lesbians could be “saved” and that not all Moslems were bad that got me thrown out in 2010.

However when I returned from Iraq in the midst of a full blown emotional, spiritual and physical collapse from PTSD that certitude disappeared. It took a while before I was able to rediscover faith and life and when I did it wasn’t the same. There was much more mystery to faith as well as reason. I came out of that period with much more empathy for those that either struggle with or reject faith. Thus I tend to hang out at bars and ball games more than church activities or socials, which I find absolutely tedious. I also have little use for clergy than in dysfunctional and broken systems that are rapidly being left behind. I am not speaking about belief here, but rather structure and methodology.

I think that if there is anything that God will judge the American versions of the Christian church is our absolute need for temporal power in the political, economic and social realms and the propagation of religious empires that only enrich the clergy which doing nothing for the least, the lost and the lonely. The fact that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States is “none” or “no preference” is proof of that and that the vast amounts of money needed to sustain these narcissistic religious empires, the mega-churches and “Christian” television industry will be their undoing.  That along with their lack of care for anyone but themselves. Jesus said that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, not the size of their religious empire or temporal power.

The interesting thing is that today I have friends and colleagues that span the theological spectrum. Many of these men even if they do not agree with what I believe trust me to love and care for them, even when those most like them in terms of belief or doctrine, both religious and political treat them like crap. Likewise I attract a lot of people who at one time were either in ministry or preparing for it who were wounded in the process and gave up, even to the point of doubting God’s love and even existence. It is kind of a nice feeling to be there for people because they do not have to agree with me for me to be there for them.

In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading in Iraq to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned from them.  In one of those books, the last of the series entitled “The Archbishop goes to Andalusia” the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.  In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

In my ministry as a military chaplain working in combat units, critical care hospital settings, and teaching, I have found that there are many hurting people, people who like me question their faith and even long held beliefs.

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So, I guess that is why I stay in the game, I still love it, and why when I go to my new assignment I will do my best to care for all who come to me for any kind of guidance, respecting who they are and what they believe, while mentoring the junior chaplains who I will supervise so that they blossom as minsters of their faith groups, and chaplains to our diverse community. More than likely this will be my last assignment before I retire, and for me the job is not about me or any promotion, it is helping the next generation, because they are the future.  They must increase, and in the military sense I must decrease, I mean for God’s sake, 39 or 40 years of military service should be enough for me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Staying in the Game

IMG_0230

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I like hard questions and hard cases. My life has been quite interesting and that includes my faith journey as a Christian and human being. It is funny that in my life I have as I have grown older begun to appreciate those that do not believe and to rather distrust those who proclaim their religious faith with absolute certitude, especially when hard questions are asked. As I get older I realize just how precious the freedom to ask questions, to seek answers and to confront the faithful really is.

Paul Tillich once said “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” 

I get “trolled” a lot and I find it amusing when trolls come by to condemn my “heresy.” When they do I realize that most of them must have some kind of psychological need to be right. I say this because for all of their certitude I sense a deep fear that they might be wrong. I think that is why they must do this.

I think that the quote by the late theologian is quite appropriate to me and the ministry that I find myself. I think it is a ministry pattern quite similar to Jesus in his dealings with the people during his earthly incarnate ministry.

Jesus was always hanging out with the outcasts, whether they be Jewish tax collectors collaborating with the Romans, lepers and other “unclean” types, Gentiles including the hated Roman occupiers, Samaritans and most dangerously, scandalous women. He seemed to reach out to these outcasts while often going out of his way to upset the religious establishment and the “true believers” of his day.

There is even one instance where a Centurion whose servant he healed was most likely involved in a homosexual relationship, based on the writer of the Gospel of Matthew’s use of the Greek word “Pais” which connotes a homosexual servant, instead of the more common “Doulos.” That account is the only time in the New Testament where that distinction is made, and Pais is used throughout Greek literature of the time to denote a homosexual slave or “house boy” relationship. Jesus was so successful at offending the profoundly orthodox of his day that his enemies made sure that they had him killed.

I think that what has brought me to this point is a combination of things but most importantly what happened to me in and after my tour in Iraq. Before I went to Iraq I was certain of about everything that I believed and was quite good at what we theologians and pastors call “apologetics.” My old Chaplain Assistant in the Army, who now recently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps called me a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh” back in 1997, and he meant it quite affectionately.

I was so good at it that I was silenced by a former Archbishop in my former church and banned from publishing for about 7 years after writing two articles for a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review.

The funny thing is that he, and a number of my closest friends from that denomination are either Roman Catholic priests or priests in the Anglican Ordinariate which came into communion with Rome a couple of years back. Ironically while being “too Catholic” was the reason I was forbidden to write it was because I questioned certain traditions and beliefs of the Church including that I believed that there was a role for women in the ordained ministry, that gays and lesbians could be “saved” and that not all Muslims were bad that got me thrown out in 2010.

However when I returned from Iraq in the midst of a full blown emotional, spiritual and physical collapse from PTSD that certitude disappeared. It took a while before I was able to rediscover faith and life and when I did it wasn’t the same. There was much more mystery to faith as well as reason. I came out of that period with much more empathy for those that either struggle with or reject faith. Thus I tend to hang out at bars and ball games more than church activities or socials, which I find absolutely tedious. I also have little use for clergy than in dysfunctional and broken systems that are rapidly being left behind. I am not speaking about belief here, but rather structure and methodology.

I think that if there is anything that God will judge the American versions of the Christian church is our absolute need for temporal power in the political, economic and social realms and the propagation of religious empires that only enrich the clergy which doing nothing for the least, the lost and the lonely. The fact that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States is “none” or “no preference” is proof of that and that the vast amounts of money needed to sustain these narcissistic religious empires, the mega-churches and “Christian” television industry will be their undoing.  That along with their lack of care for anyone but themselves. Jesus said that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, not the size of their religious empire or temporal power.

The interesting thing is that today I have friends and colleagues that span the theological spectrum. Many of these men even if they do not agree with what I believe trust me to love and care for them, even when those most like them in terms of belief or doctrine, both religious and political treat them like crap. Likewise I attract a lot of people who at one time were either in ministry or preparing for it who were wounded in the process and gave up, even to the point of doubting God’s love and even existence. It is kind of a nice feeling to be there for people because they do not have to agree with me for me to be there for them.

In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading in Iraq to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned from them.  In one of those books, the last of the series entitled “The Archbishop goes to Andalusia” the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.  In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

In my ministry as a military and a critical care hospital chaplain, I have found that there are many hurting people, people who like me question their faith and even long held beliefs.

I guess that is why I stay in the game.

Peace

Padre Steve

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Faith, Doubt & Sacramental Encounters

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The late Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his mystery novel The Archbishop in 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.” 

I firmly believe that, and this week I had the opportunity to be present at one of thos sacramental encounters.

People who know me well, and people who have read what I have written on this site for the past six or so years know that I struggle with faith, belief, and doubt. I am a priest, and have been so for nearly twenty years, but faith for me is a constant struggle, and as such, I pray that in my seasons of doubt, and occasional unbelief that I won’t screw things up for others.

Over the past two years my academic duties have been more a part of my life than my priestly duties because of the nature of my assignment at the Staff College. I have a chapel, but attendance is always sparse and if I get more than five people in attendance it feels like a mega-church. I also do some counseling as well as care for students or those on our staff and faculty who need pastoral care, but the bulk of my duties are teaching and writing. This has been good as I spent the five previous years in hospital ministry and before that ten of twelve years doing operational duties and the other two in base chapels and congregations.

My current duties are refreshing, and despite my struggles with faith I attempt to be sensitive to what is going on around me, and the people who I come into contact with. This has been one of those kinds of weeks. We had a friend get ploughed over by an inattentive driver who cut across two lanes of traffic to strike my friend on his Harley. My friend was not at fault but is busted up pretty badly. His recovery will take six months to a year. Judy and I were visiting him on Thursday night and when we were going out on the elevator, it stopped and an older lady with two large bags asked if the elevator was going down. I said yes, held the door and had her come in. Since she was taking bags out I asked if she had family there and if she was going to be taking them home.

She looked up and told me that her husband was dying and had just days to live. I asked if I could carry her bags to her car and she told us what was going on. Her husband, a 30-year Navy veteran, who she had been married to for 46 years, was taken ill just a week prior after coming home from work. She took him to the hospital and after exploratory surgery they were informed that he had cancer throughout his body and just days to live, nothing could be done. It came as a shock as he had not missed a day of work for over ten years, and the illness was the first sign that he was sick.

We walked her to her car and I carried her bags and told her that I was a Navy chaplain. I have few words to describe what happened next. When I said that she was moved to tears, but they were not tears of sadness, she said that God must have meant for us to be on the same elevator. I wonder about such encounter, often, if not most of the time, I believe that what happens to us is not directed by God; but rather chance encounters that we are left to do the best we can in; but I was not going to argue. I realized that many military veterans and their families, especially older ones, are often more appreciative of chaplains than civilian clergy; so I offered to do anything that I could. I took a battered business card from my wallet, scribbled by cell phone number on the back and gave it to her, inviting her to call me any time. Judy and I left her as she went home to clean up and await the arrival of her children before she went back to the hospital.

That night she and her husband weighed on my mind and late last night she called me and asked if I could come by the hospital Saturday or Sunday. I told her that I would be there this morning. I again thought of her and her husband and what I would need, and tried to get some fitful hours of sleep. I got up, and went to the office to pick up my prayer book and hospital stole, made sure I had oil to anoint him and then drove the twenty-miles back across town from the base to the hospital, where I arrived at ten a.m. I knocked, and she greeted me, a social worker from the hospital palliative care was there, as was her son. She greeted me with a hug and introduced me and let me know that her husband had passed away not long before. He lay in the bed and she invited me to sit with her by him.

She then told me of his passing, how she saw the room filled with angels and a golden hue, she asked God to wait to allow her son and his brother to arrive. He hung on and shortly after they arrived she could see and feel the angels taking her husband to heaven. She then spoke of their life, and relationship and all the hopes, dreams and joys that they had experienced over the years, and how she had always been jealous that he had kept his youthful looks while she had obviously aged. She asked if I would pray and then I did so, commending his soul to God. I was reminded of Greeley’s words “We are born with two incurable diseases, life, from which we die, and hope, which says maybe death isn’t the end.” The encounter re-impressed those words on me. We all die, but we live in hope that death is not the end.

After a while longer I left and went to visit my friend who is being discharged today, though he will need several more surgeries over the coming weeks an months. We are going to do all that we can for him and his wife to help take up some of the burden, because they, like so many of our friends from the bar at Gordon Biersch are closer to us than any church people that we have known here; and they have been there for us when we needed them.

So now we are about ready to go to a birthday party for another friend. All part of the cycle of life, and perhaps the cycle of God’s grace, love, and presence, even in those times that we do not believe.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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God’s Will?

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The late Father Andrew Greeley wrote, “We are born with two incurable diseases, life, from which we die, and hope, which says maybe death isn’t the end.”

With Judy recovering from her surgery and things looking much more positive than a few weeks ago I have been doing some reflecting. One thing that really impressed me was how Judy handled this from beginning to end. She was concerned and worried much of the time, of course, when you get diagnosed with Cancer you should be worried, because you never know what course the disease will take, and what might even happen during surgery or subsequent treatments. I know people who thought that they were on the way to recovery who died unexpectedly due to an adverse reaction to chemotherapy.

That being said Judy never asked “why me?” nor did she attribute this to “God’s will” or try to rationalize it by saying that “God was testing her faith” or any of this other quasi-providential but really fatalistic bullshit. Her reaction to this mirrored much of what I believed when I returned from Iraq when there were times that I easily could have been injured, wounded or even killed in incidents that were all too similar to others who were injured, killed or wounded. Of course here I am referring to visible physical wounds, not the Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury that has so messed with my mind. Like Judy I never asked “why me?’ of attributed what happened to me to being “God’s will” or the “providence of God.”

I tend to agree with Confederate Colonel William Oates whose 15th Alabama fought so bravely and unsuccessfully against Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Little Round Top on July 2nd 1863 at Gettysburg. After the war, Oates, who was a Christian, reflected about God’s role in the battle and noted that he believed that God, “endowed men with the power of acting for themselves and with responsibility for their acts. When we went to war it was a matter of business, of difference of opinion among men about their temporal affairs. God had nothing to do with it. He never diverted a bullet from one man, or caused it to hit another, nor directed who should fall or who should escape, nor how the battle should terminate. If I believed in such intervention of Providence I would be a fatalist….”

I apply that to all of life, I do not believe that God intentionally afflicts people with disease, or directs events so they are killed. I don’t believe that it is God’s will for people to suffer from terrible diseases or directs bullets, speeding cars or other things which kill young men and women, children or other innocents.

I know that from the beginning of time that people have attributed things that they cannot endure to God, the Devil, or in some cultures gods and devils, or even to attribute such things as God’s punishment for the “sins” of individuals and even their descendants. I know that helps some people, sometimes I think even some of the writers of scripture to frame suffering; as a whole people need to credit or blame someone for terrible things that happen.

I cringe when I hear people say that they are suffering because it is God’s will, or that God is testing them, or I see something that a terrible natural disaster that kills thousands of people is an “act of God.” To be truthful I cannot believe that God is so cruel and capricious to be in that kind of business, and if indeed God is really that way I would rather be an atheist than go to seek a heaven ruled by such a being. And yes, I know that as a Christian that this puts me in a minority. I simply believe that as Jesus so wisely noted that “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike,” in other words that it is called life, or the human condition, and all of us have to deal with it. To be somewhat crude I believe that shit happens and we have to deal with it.

I cannot imagine a God who wills, plans, and condones genocide, slavery,Infanticide, wars of aggression waged in his name, and every imaginable form of suffering known to humanity. I cannot image a God who so so earnestly believe inflicts such grievous suffering on his children. If we were to apply the standards of justice that we apply to human fathers who abuse or kill their children to God we would do ourselves good and we would probably lock him away for consecutive life terms, but our human need for explaining this prevents us from asking hard questions to the God that we claim to believe. Mark Twain wrote: “The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that, yet those best minds warmly justify these crimes, condone them, excuse them, and indignantly refuse to regard them as crimes at all, when he commits them. Your country and mine is an interesting one, but there is nothing there that is half so interesting as the human mind.”

That being said I do live in hope, which is a part of my faith, a faith which is in things that I cannot understand nor can I prove. In this I do believe that God somehow gives people, even people that religious people call “non-believers” a grace to deal with tragedy, illness, suffering and death. I have to believe that because I have often seen non-Christians endure suffering and tragedy with a grace that many Christians, intent on finding a biblical or theological reason for such events do not display. When I think of this I am reminded of Jesus’s remarks about the Centurion who asked him to heal his servant and when Jesus offers to come tells Jesus that he is not worthy for Jesus to come under his roof, but to only speak the word and his servant should be healed (Matthew 8:5-13). The interesting thing about the passage is that the word used for servant is a Greek word for servant which only occurs once in the New Testament, the word Pais. In ancient Greek literature the term denotes a homosexual relationship, that of a man with his houseboy. In other words, Jesus healed a Roman, gentile, pagan Centurion’s homosexual lover, and had the nerve to say that he had “not seen such faith in Israel.” Since the writer of Matthew used the word Pais instead of the word doulos for servant it had to be deliberate and he had to know what he was doing, but I digress…

While I do not believe that God directs or permits death and suffering, I do believe that God is not absent in suffering that people endure, that God “Emmanuel” is with us, all of us; that God suffers with us, for that is the message of Jesus, the crucified one. I also believe that God who is with us, weeps with us as well as rejoices with us. That may not be a good answer for some who want to prove that God is behind everything, nor for those who do not believe in God at all.

I’m sure that some will consider what I wrote today as blasphemy, but then I have to agree with Mark Twain who wrote, “Blasphemy? No, it is not blasphemy. If God is as vast as that, he is above blasphemy; if He is as little as that, He is beneath it.”

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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