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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (Andrew Greeley: The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Reflections on Ministry as Navy Chaplain: The Guiding Principles of the Chaplain Corps

I have served as a chaplain in the Army and then the Navy since 1992. In fact I was appointed as a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard around late September of 1992 following my seminary graduation and after 11 years of service in the Army.

I grew up in a Navy family and I am grateful for that. We lived in many places and my parents ensured that church was a part of our life growing up. They had grown up as Methodists but because of our military lifestyle which involved frequent moves our church experience was much broader that people who grew up in the same town or the same faith tradition. I attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and church in a variety of churches. Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, as well as Navy Chapels. I felt called to the Navy Chaplain ministry as early as my senior year in high school while on a Navy Junior ROTC cruise on the USS Frederick, LST-1184. That was deferred for about 20 years and twenty-three years after feeling that call I celebrated my first Eucharist underway on Easter Sunday 2001 aboard the Frederick, the very ship that I felt that call in 1978.

In my own pre-ministry life in college and the Army I was part of Conservative Baptist, United Presbyterian, PCA Presbyterian, charismatic churches and Army Chapels. I attended seminary in schools that were not of my denomination.

I was ordained in a non-denominational Evangelical Christian Church and my theological journey in a Southern Baptist Seminary led me in a Anglican and Catholic direction. That led in 1996 to my ordination first as a Deacon then Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Eventually after a faith crisis following my time in Iraq which I came home from with a severe case of PTSD I was for all practical purposes an Agnostic struggling to believe in God. It was a most difficult time but eventually faith returned. However that faith was more progressive on social and political issues and more inclusive of others and within months I told by my bishop that I was “too liberal” and needed to leave the church.  That was just over two years ago. It came just a couple of months after I had lost my father to Alzheimer’s Disease and was just about to transfer to a new duty station. I was fortunate to find a home with a church of the Old Catholic tradition, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. (http://apostoliccatholicorthodox.org ) That was a blessing because though a small denomination it held to the beliefs that helped make me a Priest and Chaplain.

Navy and Army Chaplains had significant influence in my life and most came from Christian denominations other than whatever I was in at various points in my life. As first an Army Chaplain in 1992 and now since 1999 a Navy Chaplain I have tried to embody that care and love that was shown to me, both to military personnel, their families, retirees and veterans as well as my fellow Chaplains.  Many of these men and women regardless of their denomination or theological views are often isolated from their own denominations and have to deal with all of the stresses of military life while taking on the burdens of those that they serve.

I find the Guiding Principles of the Chaplain Corps to be something that I think set the Navy Chaplaincy from other types of ministry. They expound upon the motto of Cooperation without Compromise that lies at the core of the Navy Chaplain ministry. They are something that even before I was a Navy Chaplain that I could say that I believed and wanted to embody in my military career as well as in ministry.

Navy Chaplains – Called To Serve

We are religious leaders and naval officers.

We are faithful to our calling as chaplains and strive to grow in our faith.

We have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and will faithfully discharge our duties.

We respect the dignity of those we serve.

We seek to understand cultural and religious values that differ from our own.

We believe the right to exercise our faith is best protected when we protect the rights of all to worship or not worship as they choose.

We work together to meet religious needs.

We are called to serve our people, the Naval Service and each other.

We hold sacred the trust placed in us.

We Are Navy Chaplains

With that said I will sign off for the night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Church Maintained in Love: Thoughts on Life a Year after Being Asked to Leave a Church

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right….” Martin Luther

It has been a year since I was asked to leave my former church.  While I choose not to rehash the events of that time now I feel a need to reflect on where I am now as a Priest and Christian living in a tumultuous time in our nation and in the world.

In the past year I have rediscovered a passion for ministry especially to and speaking out for those that are marginalized by much of the church.  Since I understand to some degree what it is to have been marginalized by the church for voicing positions that as Luther said that are “neither safe, nor politic, nor popular” but because my conscience tells me that it is right.

I am still a Christian, even though some have questioned that, after I left that church some called me an “apostate.”  Yet 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.

As far as my daily spiritual life and relationships I am still sorting things out.  When I returned fromIraqI went through an intense time of spiritual despair during the depths of depression, anxiety, grief and abandonment related to my time inIraqand my battle with the injury of PTSD.  That period left me even wondering if God existed, for all practical purposes I was an agnostic.  While faith has returned there are still many things that I struggle with and as I wrestle with this I know that part of this has nothing to do with faith but to my basic personality and personality type. I am a Myers Briggs INTJ.  This means that I am basically logical, distant and more at home dealing with theory, imagining things as they could be and solving problems rather than “staying in the lines.”  It also means that I can appear cold or or standoffish even when I am not trying to do so. If you want to see a classic INTJ watch House MD.  Likewise I need much solitude and not always the most sociable person on the planet.  In the past year I have not moved much closer than I was last year to figuring how I do the spiritual disciplines and relationships. Last fall  I did try and liked the Celtic Daily Prayer when I tried it. Perhaps I should actually go out and buy a copy and really give it a try. So after a year I am searching for a spiritual method or practice that will work for me and I will probably seek out a qualified spiritual director to help me in this process.

But not all has been difficult.  My faith in some ways, especially the theological, ethical and philosophical aspects of it is much more connected to how I live.  These aspects of my faith also inform the way that I live and relate to this world. I am Catholic and I am happy to be a priest of the Apostolic Orthodox Catholic Church which an expression of the Old Catholic Church. I am most fortunate to be part of that small but loving church. My theological and philosophic ethos is much more ecumenical and democratic than it was in the past. I remember when I tended toward a more triumphant and monarchical view of church.

I believe that the Church is a community centered on Jesus and bound together by our baptism, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of All.  I believe in this community that there are many expressions of that faith.  We maintain the faith that comes passed to us in the Gospel “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19 NLT).

The Jesus that I follow and that I believe in is present in body, soul and spirit in the Eucharist which is one of the most profound expressions of we are connected to the Trinity as individuals and as a faith community.  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.

Likewise as I have written before I do not like ecclesiastical bullies that use faith as a bludgeon to enforce their religious on others using the power of government to do so.  As such I have found much consolation and inspiration in the life and work of the German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer wrote:

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

I guess I find comfort in that because I know that I am a flawed human being.  However I gain inspiration from this statement because it makes me remember that no matter how I feel about someone that God loves them. It reminds me that love of God extends to them even if I oppose or have no respect for them, or loathe their actions against the least the lost and the lonely, those on the margins of society. Since I have had plenty of opportunity to criticize such people in recent months I need to temper my opposition to what I find repulsive in their attitudes, behavior and actions against the weak, poor and powerless in society and remember that God loves them and desires their redemption as well.  It also allows me to hear friends when they point out that my criticisms of such people might be over the top. Those were things that got me thrown out of my former church a year ago, pretty amazing actually.

So it has been an interesting year but I am somewhat conflicted.  I look forward to what is ahead because I know that in spite of all the injustice, turmoil, hatred and division that exists in our nation and the world that there is a God who loves us as we are.  At the same time I  fear the things I see occurring here and around the world.  The thing that I fear the most is evil and injustice promoted under the guise of religion, be it Moslem, Christian or Jewish. The same is true of the practical atheism of economic Darwinism practiced by government, multi-national corporations and financial institutions.  Likewise the inhuman actions of those in any nation who use the power of government violence and oppression or the terrorism promoted by political and religious radicals regardless of their ideology worries me immensely.  Those things scare me but at the same time to motivate me to speak out as men like Bonhoeffer have done in the past regardless of where it leads.

Pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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I Just Want to Thank Everyone that made this Night Necessary

I think that Yogi Berra said it the best when thanking people inSt. Louis when the city decided to honor him when the Yankees came into town in 1947.  He meant to say “I just want to thank everyone that made this night possible” but it came out “I just want to thank everyone that made this night necessary.”

Last night I was promoted to the rank of Commander in the United States Navy.  I’ve been in the military 30 years and this is the first rank that I have not held twice since March 1987.  Since March 1st 1987 I served as an Army Captain and Major and then took a reduction in rank to enter the Navy serve as a Navy Lieutenant and Lieutenant Commander.

Swearing the Oath of Office

It was a special night. The management of the Norfolk Tides was happy to indulge my desire to do the oath behind home plate and throw out the first pitch.  Dave Rosenfield the General Manager approved it early in the season and his staff led by the Director of Community Relations, Heather McKeating made it happen and Linda Waisanen the Box Office Manager helped get the tickets for my guests in the same section.  It was good to see and talk with some of my friends from the Tides that I haven’t seen for a while, pitchers Chris Tillman and Chris George and catcher Adam Donachie.   Of course there were also my friends Elliott, Chip and Audrey the Ushers, concessionaires and members of the Tide Watchers Booster club.

RP1 Nelson Lebron, me and Judy

I had the honor of having my old commanding officer from Marine Security Force Battalion, Colonel Mike Paulovich USMC (Retired) come down from Washington DC to administer the Oath of Office.  Likewise I had my wife Judy, who has seen me through my entire career and endured many separations due to deployments, field exercises and schools at my side.  For those that have not served in the military the stress that our spouses go through is tremendous and many marriages do not survive.  There is a reason that around many military bases you will see bumper stickers that say “Navy wife, the toughest job in the military” or Marine or Army wife.  I was also honored to have my former assistant from EOD Group Two RP1 Nelson Lebron there. Nelson and I went to Iraq together and he is an amazing Sailor and I count him as a close friend.  He was my trusted body guard and I would go to war with him again any day of the week.  Judy and Nelson switched out my shoulder boards before I took the oath.

I also had some very special friends in attendance at the game, people that I really wanted to be there; LCDR Greg Ostrander USN (Retired), Randy and Sandy Smith, Jerry Channell, Denise Denise Özdemir and Karen Johnson and their significant others.  There were some people that because of military duty or other commitments that could not make it, however I know they were there in spirit due to the notes, messages and phone calls.

With Advisers in Iraq

One problem of living on the opposite coast from your family is that it is difficult to have them with you on occasions like this.  My mom, my brother and his family in California could not be here but hopefully if I make Captain in a few years or when I retire they will be able to come.  My dad passed away the day after the selection list was announced in June of 2010 but I know that he was here in spirit.

Me and RP1 Nelson Lebron in Iraq, there is no better body guard

There are people that were there for me at many points in my career that helped “make this day necessary.”  The late Master Sergeant Harry Zilkan from the UCLA ROTC detachment and Sergeant First Class Harry Ball who broke me down and built me up during my ROTC pre-commissioning “Advanced Camp at Fort Lewis in 1982 were early influences.  SFC Ball a crusty Special Forces type with a lot of Vietnam tours had me blubbering “I got nowhere else to go” like Lewis Gossett Jr. did to Richard Gere in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Lawson my ROTC advisor at UCLA was also helpful during those two formative years.  First Sergeant Jim Koenig at 557th Medical Company taught me a lot about enlisted leadership and helped mentor me as a young Lieutenant while Colonel Donald A. Johnson the commander of the 68th Medical Group showed me how to get the most out of people and the importance of knowing the details of an operation without getting in the way of people doing the mission.  Master Sergeant (Retired) Cynthia Carter was my Platoon Sergeant at 557th and went through a lot of deep waters with me there.  She was at my promotion to Captain at Fort Sam Houston in 1987.  I am still in contact with a good number of my soldiers from the 557th and each of them was helpful in my career.

LTC Ike Adams and me 1987

When I started down the road to becoming a chaplain back in 1987, Lieutenant Colonel Ike Adams, my Executive Officer at the Academy Brigade, Academy of Health Sciences was very important in helping me down that road. He is now a professor at Asbury College in Wilmore Kentucky.  Chaplain, Major Wayne Lura (USA Retired) gave me advice that has kept me out of trouble talking to me about the pitfalls of ministry and chaplaincy even before I even went to seminary.  Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Rich Whaley saved my ass a number of times at the Army Chaplain school during the Basic and Advanced courses.  I have stayed in contact with Rich, who I believe is one of the finest chaplains that I have ever met and he now is the Endorsing Agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints working with LDS Chaplains in both the Military and other Federal Chaplain programs.  Chaplain, Colonel John Price was an Episcopal Priest and the State Chaplain for the Texas Army National Guard and taught me a lot about how to be there for people, especially leaders going through difficult times.  Chaplain, Colonel Paul Howe who I served with in Germany during the Bosnia Operation helped me as a young mobilized Army Reserve Major learn to be a good supervisory Chaplain and look out for the junior chaplains and assistants under my care. He also taught me something important about caring for the sacramental needs of a diverse Christian community.

Army Chaplain School 1990 with Chaplain Bill Blackie (L) and Rich Whaley (Center)

There also was my congregation at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania, where I served from 1997-1998.  My Commanding Officer, Colonel Tom Allmon, his family and my Parish Council including the late Major General Frank Smoker USAF/PAAirNG, Colonel Ray Hawthorne, USA Retired, the late Major Scotty Jenkes (USAF Retired), CWO4 Herman Bolt, (USA Retired), and Sergeant Bill Ward, and my assistant SSG, now Army Chaplain, Major Steve Cantrell were all instrumental in my success there while General Smoker, Colonel Hawthorne and Colonel Allmon wrote letters to help get me into the Navy.

When I came into the Navy I was helped by Captain John Kaul CHC USN, who served as my Division and MEF Chaplain at Camp LeJeune. He became a model for my Chaplain ministry and has been a great encouragement over the years.  Captain Fred Elkin CHC USN, was my first detailer and set me up for success by sending me to the Second Marine Division figuring that my Army background would help me there.  Fred and I later served at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. Captain, Chaplain Deborah McGuire, CHC USN, was great to work with at the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command.  Captain Mike Langston the II MEF Forward Chaplain who I served with in Iraq set me up for success there and Captain Jesse Tate CHC USN was really good in helping me get through the toughest time of my life after I returned to Iraq and was assigned to Portsmouth.  My fellow Chaplains there, Commander Jeff Seiler, Commander Derek Ross, Commander Kevin Anderson, Lieutenant Albert Cross, Fr. Fred Elkin and Chaplain, Captain Jerry Shields USN (Retired) were amazing in helping me get through that painful time.  Then there is my current staff, Lieutenant Shauna Sanders, Captain, Chaplain Vince Arnold, USN (Retired) and Chaplain, Lieutenant Commander Duke Quarles USN (Retired).  I have had a number of great assistants and Religious Program specialists during my time as a chaplain.  Of course there have been others who have along the way been there for me to give advice, encouragement and assistance that are too numerous to name.

USS HUE CITY Boarding Party

My commanding officers that I have served with in Marine Corps and Navy units have been awesome including Marine Lieutenant Colonel T. D. Anderson, Colonel Louis Rachel,Major General Richard Lake, Colonel Mike Paulovich and Colonel Dan Rogers.  Sergeant Major Kim Davis USMC was an outstanding Sergeant Major to work with, the grandson of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, the first African American General in the U.S. Army, he taught me much in caring for Marines and gave me really helpful advice a number of times.  Captain Rick Hoffman my first skipper on the USS HUE CITY and his Command Master Chief, CMDCM Mark Dubiel were awesome to work for with as are my current Commanding Officer at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune Captain Dan Zinder, MC USN and my current Command Master Chief CMDCM Terry Prince.  Command Master Chief Gerry Pierce, (USN Retired) has been like family since we served together on HUE CITY.

Soul Vikes

Then there are my fellow officers in the Navy, Army and Marine Corps, my shipmates from the HUE CITY and the Sailors, Soldiers and Marines too numerous to mention that have been part of my life for the last 30 years.  Likewise my teachers and professors, LCDR Jim Breedlove and Senior Chief John Ness from the Edison High Navy Junior ROTC program, Gloria Nomura, Coach Duke Pasquini, Dr. Delmar McComb at San Joaquin Delta College, Dr Helmut Heussler at California State University Northridge, Dr. Doyle Young and Doug Dickens at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Dr. Steve Ivy at Parkland Memorial Hospital. All of these men and women were amazing in my education and formation as an academic and Priest.

Last but certainly not least are those friends that have been there for me for years going back to my “Soul Vikes” from Edison High School and Stockton Junior High. Those that I went to Army ROTC at UCLA, and those that I have served with over the years in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps as well as seminary classmates, and my colleagues in the clergy from my old church and the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church where I serve today.  Thank you Bishop Diana Dale, and my old friends Fr Greg Schluter from the Navy and the Charismatic Episcopal Church, Major Marty Grossman who I have known since my first day on active duty, Dr. Rick Herrera, Gary Vassar and Becky Munoz-Smith who were with me at UCLA and so many more friends, shipmates and comrades that I cannot name them all.

Finally there are my readers on this site that have encouraged me with their comments since I started this site in February 2009.

If as Hillary Clinton said it takes a village, I have good sized town that has stood by my side over the years and I am blessed.

Again I just want to thank everyone that made this night necessary.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Church of Love: Reflections on the celebration of my 15th Anniversary of Ordination

Christmas in Iraq 2007

It is hard to believe that I am a Priest and that I have been one now for the past 15 years. I held ordination in a two different Evangelical churches dating back to 1989 and had served as a Chaplain in civilian hospitals as well as the Army National Guard and Reserve before I was ordained as a Priest by Bishop Phillip Zampino of the Charismatic Episcopal Church Diocese for the Mid-Atlantic on July 7th 1996. It was what I thought was the culmination of my journey to the Catholic faith since the Charismatic Episcopal Church in that area considered itself very much on the Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic leaning side of that denomination.

My journey to a sacramental and catholic faith had began as a child when Navy Chaplain who was a Roman Catholic priest was instrumental in helping me continue to believe when a Methodist Sunday School teacher told me that my dad, then serving at An Loc Vietnam was a “baby killer.” I really do still trace my vocation as a Priest to that man even though my journey on the way to this faith was rather circuitous.  That journey continued all thorough my life as an Evangelical Christian and was intellectually cemented in at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where in my Church History and Systematic Theology courses I became convinced of many Catholic teachings. It took another four years after graduation leave the Evangelical movement to the CEC and had I not gone there I would have likely ended up in the Episcopal Church or one of the more Catholic leaning continuing Anglican churches or somewhere in the Old Catholic movement.  What took me to the CEC was the recommendation of an Anglican friend who thought it would be a good fit.

I was ordained on the evening of July 7th 1996. The ordination date was actually advanced several months because of my impending mobilization to support Operation Joint Endeavor, the Bosnia peacemaking mission.  We arrived the night prior to my ordination and I had a talk with Bishop Zampino talking about the “new phase of ministry” that I was entering. He reminded me that the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Ordination) was not was not about a change of ministry but something different. In Catholic theology ordination is very different from most of Protestantism where there is little difference in the estate of the ordained minister and lay people.  In Sacramental theology when a person is ordained to the Priesthood there is an ontological change brought about by the Holy Spirit. Once a person has been ordained they are spiritually changed, which is the origin of the saying, “Once a priest, always a priest.” The Priest can be dispensed of his or her obligations as a priest and in the case of grave misconduct or heresy even forbidden to act as a priest; but they remain priests forever.

The Bishop’s words reinforced something that I already understood from my theological education and formation but had not been put as bluntly with such effect by any of my professors or the Priests that mentored me.  When I was ordained that Sunday evening it was on the feast of Saint Willibald of Eichstadt, a Celtic Benedictine missionary born in England who settled in the small Bavarian town of Eichstadt.  He remained as the Bishop of that small diocese for 40 years and is buried in the picturesque cathedral located in the city. His brother Wunibald was also a missionary and Abbott in Heidenheim and their sister Walburga governed the female community at the same abbey. I was ordained in the evening which also meant it was July 8th in Germany, the feast day of another Celtic missionary Saint Killian the martyr bishop of Würzburg. It so happened that my first assignment as a Priest would be in Würzburg just a few weeks later.  I feel a close connection to each of these Saints as the date of my baptism was that of the Feast of Saint Wunibald, December 18th.

My life since ordination has been rather interesting or as Jerry Garcia put it a “long strange trip.” I have travelled the world as a Navy Chaplain and been able to care for God’s people in many diverse and often dangerous places. To be a priest in the Navy, be a person Roman, Anglican, Orthodox or Old Catholic is an adventure, to celebrate Eucharist, to baptize and to administer the Sacrament of Penance as well as the Sacrament of Healing or as it used to be called Unction in often dangerous places is for me the pinnacle of the priestly ministry.  Many of my friends of other branches of the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox traditions echo that sentiment. To proclaim the Gospel to men and women in harm’s way and to care for those of other traditions that are given to our care, providing what we can and helping them the best we can while respecting them and their beliefs.

For me the path has not always been easy and I think that most Priests can echo that. In my 14 years as Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church I ran afoul of some rather autocratic Bishops all of whom are no longer in that Church.  I was banned from writing for a number of years because of my published essays which were considered “too Catholic.” During that time Bishop Zampino even suggested that I explore the Roman Catholic priesthood.  I looked into it in a number of dioceses but never went beyond exploring possibilities. Bishops were polite but less than interested in a married Priest from a Church that was considered valid but illicit.

So despite being banned from writing and even banned from contact with civilian Priests in the state where I was stationed by another Bishop who is now a Roman Catholic layman I remained in the church. During this time I became more disconnected and disenchanted with the church.  When I returned from Iraq I was in a full blown spiritual crisis brought about by PTSD.  My conditioned worsened to the point that for nearly two years I was a practical agnostic.  Faith returned in December of 2009 when administering the last rites to a dying man on the Emergency Room of the Medical Center where I was serving as a Chaplain.

But the faith was different and I no longer fit in the Church though I tried. Despite this my writings, which I had started as part of my therapy became too much for my church and even though faith had returned it was not welcome.  I was asked to leave and thankfully was received by the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a North American expression of the Old Catholic faith. Since my ordination was valid I was simply received into the Church.

I am very blessed to be able to serve as a Priest and care for the people that God brings into my life. It is now 15 years since that night when Bishop Zampino laid his hands upon me and ordained me into this life. Despite some to the twists, turns and even disappointments I am fortunate as my faith is real again and I can see the good in people and experience the Grace of God in my daily life.  It really is miraculous.  I have a joy again that allows me to pass through the painful and sometimes lonely times that I still occasionally experience.

In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned.  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)

I have found that this is more than true. My belief now is that the church must be a church of love.  In another book Greeley has a fictional papal contender named Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia makes a speech which the end of which I find particularly inspiring. While it speaks of the Roman Catholic Church I think that it speaks to most churches and reflects how people see us:

“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.

Does such a Church have a future? How could it not?”

Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.”

I hope that I do that as imperfect as I am and as earthy as I tend to be.

On the anniversary of my ordination I ask you to pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Evolving Faith of a Miscreant Priest

“Practically speaking, your religion is the story you tell about your life.” Andrew A Greeley 

Three years ago I had an emotional physical and spiritual breakdown as the life and faith that I had known for many years came apart at the seams as I was overcome with the full blown effects of PTSD a bit over four months after my return from Iraq.  I should have seen the collapse coming as a vainly struggled to maintain control of my emotions, thoughts and faith.  Nothing made sense as I drifted in and out of flashbacks, night terrors and sunk into depression isolated from my faith community which by and large did not understand and other clergy who didn’t seem to care enough to listen.

I tried; I maintained the discipline of praying the Daily Office and reading the Scriptures, I tried to attend church but it was too much. Church with all the people and crowded noisy space with lots of light and sound was too much. I was hyper-vigilant and didn’t feel safe in crowds except at the ballpark where somehow the sight of that magical diamond brought me peace.

June 16th 2008 was the day that the wheels came off. The nightmares, night terrors and flashbacks came together with fires in the Great Dismal Swamp which shrouded the Tidewater in a thick brown haze which looked and smelled like Iraq and a seminar on battlefield trauma.  At the end of the day when the seminar was over my unit Medical Officer looked at me and said “Chaplain are you okay?” I replied in a broken voice “no, I’m not.” I briefly explained what I was going through and he asked if I was safe to go home. When I assured him that I thought that I could make it to the next day he agreed to let me leave and saw me the next morning. After his evaluation he set me up to see a Psychologist at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Deployment Health Center.

Looking back he made the right choice. I was very apprehensive as I had never been to a shrink before though I had referred many service members and their families to shrinks when I knew that I was in over my head.  I was lucky because I got Dr. Elmer Maggard from Hazard County Kentucky. I soon developed a rapport with him because I knew that he was real. What convinced me was when he asked me “Well there Padre how are you doing with the Big Guy?” I hadn’t expected that question because no ministers, Priests or chaplains had ever broached the subject.  I was falling apart and when I brought things up to ministerial colleagues about what I was going through including my assessment of my spiritual life I was ignored.  It was like I was radioactive.  I simply told Elmer that “I didn’t even know if the Big Guy even cared about me or existed anymore.”  He didn’t flinch and he walked with me through the darkness until and after what I call my “Christmas Miracle” in December of 2009.

During that painful and lonely time where I was for all intents an agnostic struggling with faith and even the existence of God it seemed that contact with the Divine was sporadic at best and either came through baseball or the Fr. Andrew Greeley Bishop Blackie Ryan murder mysteries. I had started reading them in Iraq because I was somewhat familiar with Greeley’s writing although I had never read any of the Blackie Ryan series. The first book that I read was The Bishop Goes to the University and others rapidly followed as I rummaged through the giveaway paperbacks in the small MWR library at Al Taqaddum in between missions to the hinterland of Al Anbar Province.

It was the grace and love of God in those books that even in the worst of times gave me a fragment of hope as my life collapsed.  I found in Bishop Blackie a kindred though fictional spirit who embodied what I thought the Priesthood should be.  In those books I came to understand that the grace of God along with the practical expressions of compassion, mercy and love were much more compelling than pounding people into submission with my rather rich knowledge of theology, philosophy and Church history. I also found that they were necessary for me to be healed.

My recovery of faith came unexpectedly much like how it happens to the characters in the Bishop Blackie mysteries.  It came in the middle of giving the last rites to a patient in our Emergency Department at Portsmouth.  The man a physician was a veritable saint whose life and faith had touched his community for over 50 years.  As I prayed the commendation prayers at the close of the rite following the anointing he breathed his last and it was almost if the cloud of unbelief melted away and the realization that God indeed was a God of love and that Jesus was actually to quote the Gospel exactly what his opponents called him “a friend of sinners.” In that moment it was if I had been reborn.

Now since then my faith has been evolving, not that I have surrendered the faith proclaimed in the Gospel or the Creeds but in the way that faith works itself out in relationship to others.  I have to say that it hasn’t been easy and I still have times where I doubt but not like when I was falling apart. I think that the doubt is there to remind me not to become arrogant or exude a toxic triumphalism in my faith or proclamation.  I read something that Greeley wrote which perfectly expressed my understanding of Christian witness going back to the persecuted Catholic Church of the Roman Empire.  “People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good-Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice” or as Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” It is amazing the diverse people, many hurt and wounded by war, abuse or even the Church and its ministers wander into my life at work and here on Padre Steve’s World. It doesn’t matter if they are conservative or liberal, Christian or not they tell me that “you’re different” and “I know that you will listen to me.” These people have become my parish. Greeley said it well “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.” 

I used this site to work through many of the things that I struggled with during the process and eventually that ran me afoul of my former Church, the Charismatic Episcopal Church which through my Bishop asked me to leave in September 2010 because I was “too liberal.”  I knew that it had been coming for some time and had been making preparations and had been working with the local Episcopal diocese but the transition to that church could not be accomplished for at least a year and a half.

I was referred to my present Church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church an Old Catholic denomination by the Episcopal Church which once again seemed to be a miracle. Though small the Church embodies the faithfulness to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith with an inclusiveness and love of God for people that was exactly what I had become during my “dark night of the soul” and rebirth.  There are still things that I am working out both in the personal aspects of my faith and how it works itself out in life.

But I do have faith again; faith in Jesus the Christ and the Triune God reveled in Scripture, Tradition and Reason and in the lives of the faithful.  This belief is that God is love and is present and active in the world.  This love of God is seen in the Sacraments, the Eucharist and in the lives of those dear to us, our families, friends, neighbors and those that we seem to randomly encounter.  It is shown in the care of people who will sit with us in our pain and doubt, listen, care and lovingly put their arms around us or hold our hand.  It is shown in the faith that others show to us when others are willing to cast us aside, those that see the potential of God’s creation in each of us in a rediscovered love that God is there.

Yes my faith is still evolving but I think that is what Paul meant when he said “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:10-12)

Peace and Blessings

Padre Steve+

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