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“When You Are Lost, You are Not Alone” Doubt and Faith in Lent

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was a convoluted day. It was Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Baseball’s Spring Training. It was also a tremendously busy day at work that included multiple meetings, conducting the Ecumenical Ash Wednesday liturgy, the usual program, administrative, personnel, and facility management issues. Likewise because it was Valentine’s Day I didn’t want to screw it up. Since I usually find a way to screw up birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day and other assorted holidays involving marriage it was a bit stressful. Thankfully I did pretty well regarding Valentine’s Day, I started by trying to suck up in the days before Valentine’s Day doing little things to build up some extra points in case I screwed up on the actual day, and for once I didn’t totally screw the pooch, in fact I did rather well, but I digress…

Of course if I had wanted to be an ass I could have celebrated Ashentine’s Day, that is the rare day when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day enabling asshat spouses, fiancee’s, or partners to tell their beloved that they can’t take them out for a fancy dinner because of the fasting rules prescribed by the Church on Ash Wednesday. This confluence doesn’t happen often, the last time it did was seventy-tree or seventy-four years ago, so cheapskates and other turds don’t get the opportunity to do this often, and the fact that I even thought of it means that while I may be a complete turd at times that I would never tell Judy: “Sorry, I can’t take you out or give you anything for Valentine’s Day because it’s Ash Wednesday and I don’t want to lead you to hell.” I value my life too much. That being said I can imagine that there are some people who will do exactly that, not because they really are trying to observe the true meaning of Lent, but because they are cheap asshats who look for ways out of doing something nice for their partner using the cover of religion to do it. But again I digress as I so often do…

The truth is that a decade after returning from Iraq I still struggle with faith and belief, and doubt is always a part of my life and Lent has never really been a good time for me. In the early years of this blog I masked my struggle with humor about trying to make getting through Lent focusing more on the outward displays of faith and the actions of prayer, abstinence, and fasting than really wrestling with why the penitential aspects of Lent are important; far from being onerous they help us remember our shared humanity; especially with the least, the lost, and the lonely.

That being said I do still have faith, more than I have had for quite a few years and when it came time to schedule an Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at my Chapel to compliment our Roman Catholic Mass which was scheduled for the evening I decided to lead it. I am glad that I did.

Since I was not serving at this chapel last year I had no idea how many people might show up or what the composition would be. Since I’m in an odd situation being an Old Catholic Priest, in a sense occupying a line between Roman Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism I never know exactly what to expect in such a situation. Thankfully I have been able to build bridges with our Catholic and Protestant communities in the ten months that I have served here and I had members of both congregations at the service. Again not knowing what to expect I used the liturgy from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, with a couple of more Anglo-Catholic modifications in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which I used in my previous denomination because it kind of splits the difference between Protestants and Catholics.

I do love celebrating the Eucharist and conducting the liturgy and it’s funny that after almost 22 years since I was ordained as a Priest I am beginning to acquire a taste for Ash Wednesday and Lent. This is especially true when I read the Biblical passages from the Lectionary associated with them, especially those of Ash Wednesday which include Isaiah 58: 1-12; Second Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, and 16-21. When I read them, especially the passage from Isaiah I am continually amazed at how they speak to the state of American Christianity in the age of Trump. I’m going to try to avoid politics for tonight but I could see Isaiah preaching them today almost any church in America, especially the great Evangelical and Charismatic megachurches, and television ministries whose leaders have abandoned all pretense of being “Biblical” as they prostrate themselves before the President in pursuit of raw political power masked in an extremely thin veneer of religion.

In my sermon I did not hammer home on that but I did spend a lot of time with the Isaiah passage without being overtly political; which in my position that would have been less than wise. Sometimes it’s better to let the scriptures speak for themselves.

I also talked about doubt, something that many people, including Christians of all persuasions struggle with but few ministers really honor as a measure of faith. I used my own struggle with faith and doubt after Iraq. I struggled and I still struggle with faith, I believe but sometimes I don’t, and I am certainly not someone who thinks that he has the Christian life down, in fact sometimes my witness; my temper, my language, and so much more about me do not reflect Jesus. I am not okay with that, but it is the truth. Since Spring Training began today I let the congregation know that I am a Mendoza Line Christian, meaning that I have a Christian life batting average of about .200, just enough to say in the game.

Doubt is usually ignored, and most of the Christians who I know who struggle with doubt are afraid to talk about it in church, you tend to lose friends by expressing doubts or struggles in most churches. To me it is no wonder that the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States are those people with no religious preference and those who have either fled the church or those outside who look at the Church and find nothing redeeming in it. Sadly, most of these people actually like or admire Jesus, some even believing that he is the Son of God, but who are so disgusted by the actions of Christians that they have walked away. As Pedro Cerrano in Major League said: “Ah, Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.” 

As I finished my sermon I decided to read the words of the homily given by Father Flynn played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Doubt. The film is powerful, set in 1964 and I won’t do spoilers to tell you what happens in it and how it ends, you’ll need to watch it yourself. But I will share the words of Father Flynn’s sermon because they are so symbolic of our time when so many people struggle with faith. His words which compare the collective experience of people whose world has been shattered versus those whose struggles are invisible to most people. I know what that is like and because of my own struggles I have come to be able to read the unspoken angst, fear, doubt, and weariness of the lonely.

“Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation? Despair? Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow being was your Despair. It was a public experience. It was awful, but we were in it together. How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity?

‘No one knows I’m sick.’

‘No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend.’

‘No one knows I’ve done something wrong.’

Imagine the isolation. Now you see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people, and on the other side: you.

I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. And only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail…and being of a nautical discipline…turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in. And for the next twenty nights, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. And as the days rolled on, and the sailor wasted away, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost… and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations – had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once… and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. And I want to say to you: doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

So as Lent begins I encourage those who struggle and doubt to realize that there are a lot more people like then they realize; and for those who are not struggling not to look down on the lonely, not to be afraid that doubt is contagious, but instead to do the little things that remind people that they are not alone.

Likewise it is important to realize that some of the people who outwardly appear the most sanctimonious, the most sure of their beliefs, and the most rigid in their opposition to others also struggle, and that their display of certitude masks their own doubts and their own aloneness.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Ash Wednesday 2017

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which thankfully is far shorter than baseball season, even though it will drag on into the second week of the season, but such is life, and Lent.

Lent is an ancient season of the church, going back to around the Council of Nicea, 325 CE. It is celebrated, though better said “observed” by a majority of Christians, though some evangelical Protestants do little to recognize it. The season is better observed than celebrated as it is a season of penitence.

Lent is technically 40 days long, though it is really 46 days long, but the Sundays don’t count. Call it fuzzy calendar math done to match Biblical accounts of the 40 days of the great flood and Noah’s Ark, the 40 years spent by the Israelites doing laps around Mount Sinai, and the 40 days spent by Jesus in the desert being tempted by Satan, but the forty days actually span 46 calendar days.

It begins today, which is Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy, or Maundy Thursday, which begins the Easter Triduum. It is marked by times of fasting, and abstinence, as well as personal reflection, penance, charity, and renewed focus on our spiritual lives.

That being said, I don’t do Lent well. It is a time that I struggle, and since I returned from Iraq a period in which I have experienced some of my deepest depression and crisis. I thoroughly dislike the season and not because of its profound theological and spiritual significance and benefit. On the contrary, I believe that everything that is a part of Lent, the fasting, abstinences, prayer, reflection, penance, and works of charity is good; they can help keep us grounded in the world and our community.

That being said, I still thoroughly dislike the season because I struggle so much emotionally during it, probably because Lent usually falls not long after the anniversary of my return from Iraq. So my dislike for Lent, and my struggle during it is more coincidental than it is actually based on any real objections to it.

That being said once Lent begins I cannot wait for it to end. I still do my best to observe the fasting and abstinence, and over the past few years I have really worked on being a better person, and to attempt to fulfill the commands that Jesus said surmised the law, to love God and love my neighbor. The first one of those is hard because there are times during Lent that more than any time of the year I struggle with the very existence of God. The second, to love my neighbor is less of a struggle, though some people really push my limits. Likewise, over the past year if I say I will pray for someone I tend to do it, and if they are in need I try my best to help in some tangible way.

So today I will be conducting my last Ash Wednesday service during my assignment at the Staff College. This will be a somewhat bittersweet as I found my assignment there to be the most fulfilling of all of mine since I served in Iraq, without all the emotional baggage and struggles with PTSD, TBI, and the associated symptoms of them, the depression, anxiety, night terrors, insomnia, fear of crowds, and thoughts of death. Thankfully, I am doing better, and have managed to get through he past couple of weeks after the ninth anniversary of my return from Iraq without crashing, though a few times I felt the shadow of depression casting its pall over me. Thankfully, as of yet, I haven’t crashed, and hope not to, although I know that I will breath a deep sigh of relief once we get past Easter.

But going back to Lent, if it is to have the kind of impact it should, in our lives it cannot simply be our struggle with God, it also has to encompass a commitment to those around us and to our world. That means doing more than talking, doing more than praying, but actively participating in the lives of others, even those with whom we have adversarial relationships. As Hans Kung noted: “In the last resort, a love of God without love of humanity is no love at all.”

So anyway, I wish the best for all of you today, and if you observe Lent, I pray and trust that it will be beneficial to your life, and to those you know. Likewise, I ask you to pray for me, a sinner.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Ash Wednesday 2016

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a shot note to start this Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is the traditional beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian tradition. Lent is a season of penitence, and if one is doing it right a season of examining their lives, and seeking to do better with the help of the grace of God. Some of the traditions during the season of Lent include going without meat on Fridays and if you are more strict on Wednesdays too, and doing other acts of penitence and contrition. However, that being said, to some I am not a very good Christian, and they may be right for I know that do not claim to have a lock on the mind of God.

Sadly, I have never been very good at observing the season of Lent, at least as far as the external rituals are concerned. My own sorry observance of them does not mean that they are without value, but having tried and tried to observe them and only being more miserable for my efforts, I have simply decided to do my best and let the chips fall where they may so far as the grace of God is concerned. I figure that if God is petty enough to punish me for eating a hamburger on a Friday during Lent that God’s grace really doesn’t matter. So I don’t worry about it. If I am wrong and God really is willing to send me to Hell for something like that, then the rest of my life doesn’t matter that much.

So, that being said I will conduct an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service for our students and faculty at the staff college today, and when I go home I will have a beer or two as I figure out just what I will eat. It might be soup, or a salad, possibly pasta, and may or may not include some kind mom meat. It will not be extravagant, and like today I will probably hand some money to a panhandler figuring as C.S. Lewis did that I would probably just buy a beer for myself with it anyway if I didn’t give it to someone willing to subject themselves to the ridicule and abuse of people that make a good living and for whom five or ten dollars doesn’t matter that much. However, having once been in the place where five, ten, or twenty dollars paid for a tank of gas, a prescription, or a sack of groceries, and having been the recipient of the goodness of people, I have a hard time sitting in judgement over people who struggle. I figure that if they are swindling me then they will have to deal with God about that.

Anyway. today is Ash Wednesday and I hope that Christians will use the day as a time of reflection and a time to renew their faith and trust in the grace, mercy, and love of God, rather than a time to look down their noses at, reject, and condemn other people desperately in need of the grace, mercy and love of God.

Maybe according to some of my more legalisticly observant readers I am not much of a Christian, and for some I am not a Christian at all. God knows that I have been told by quite a few people that I am going to Hell, and most of them are not joking. But, even so, despite how badly I observe Lent, despite what a sorry example I am to some people, I still believe that this season can be of value. I may not observe all the legalism that some do during this season, but I do try to scrutinize my life, and how I treat others, even if I do eat an occasional hamburger on days when I am supposed to go without meat, or without an alcoholic beverage, but as my favorite heretic Martin Luther once said,“It is better to think of church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church.” 

So have a wonderful day, and do the season of Lent as best as you can and as benefits others the most, even of some people condemn your for not doing it perfectly.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Lent is Here Again…Oh Joy…

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Lent is my least favorite season of the Church year. Try as I might, despite the catholic ethos that I acquired as a student in  a Southern Baptist Seminary, Clinical Pastoral Education and the military chaplaincy I have a hard time with it.

I think that part of the reason is I don’t think that I need to set aside a season of the year to acknowledge what a colossal screw up I am. Like George Constanza in Seinfeld I don’t need God, my mother or anyone else to remind me of my shortcomings. They are ever before me.

Despite that for years I tried to be the most observant observer of the outward traditions of the season. If we were to fast from meat on Fridays I would do it on Wednesdays too. As someone who came to the catholic side of life later in life I felt that I needed to out do those who had grown up that way. As a priest in a conservative Episcopal denomination with aspirations of eventually making the transition to Rome I did all that I could to take up the internal spiritual disciplines as well as the external forms of Catholicism. I did so good at it that I was banned from publishing by the Archbishop who headed our denomination’s communications department. The irony is that he is now a Priest in the Anglican Ordinate that is in communion with Rome. Go figure.

But that all came apart during and after my time in Iraq. Beset with chronic PTSD and moral injury faith itself became problematic. For all intents and purposes I existed as an agnostic who prayed that God still existed for nearly two years after I returned from Iraq. For me that fact that I returned to faith in any form was a miracle and when it did return I was told to find a new church home because now instead of being either too “Catholic” or “a Wounded Warrior Priest” I was now “too liberal.”

I would like to say that I am over it but obviously I am not, but I digress…

So this year Lent is again upon us. Tonight was Fat Tuesday, so I had a big burger, fries and a couple of beers for dinner at Gordon Biersch. Afterward I  picked up some fresh Krispy Kreme hot glazed donuts on the way home and washed them down with another beer. For those of you that don’t know there is little better than beer and hot fresh donuts. I discovered that in my darkest hours after Iraq. I think I even have a post that I wrote back in 2009 called Beer and Donuts. I’m not going to look for it now and give you the link but you can put “Beer and Donuts” in the search box on the home page and I am sure you will find it.

In my journey I am coming to realize that holiness is not simply a matter of out Phariseeing the Pharisees, or matters of external observance. I am coming to believe that Jesus really nailed it when he said that to fulfill the law was to love God and love your neighbor.

So my Lenten observance will be of two aspects. For the first time since 2010 I am going to give up something physical, the hamburger.I am going to go without a hamburger of any kind until Easter. When I break my Lenten fast it will be with a hamburger, or should I say a very non-Kosher cheeseburger.

That may not seem like much, but please hear me out. For those that  not know me when I eat a hamburger it is not simply to ingest something fast and filling, it is a ritual that is almost spiritual in its own right. You see I don’t eat crappy burgers. I eat fresh burgers of the best quality, cooked medium or medium rare. I prefer a toasted bun, fresh crisp lettuce, tomatoes and red onions and either Swiss or Gruyère cheese. I then need at least two to four ounces of dill pickles, a side of mayo, catchup and at least a half bottle of yellow mustard. It is a nearly religious ritual for me to enjoy a burger in this manner.  After all a eating a hamburger should be a spiritual experience.

Bh6mIhqCAAMTni9.jpg_largeThe Last Burger before Easter

As far as the spiritual dimension I am going to try to be a bit more conscious of my prayer life, more importantly my prayer for others who are in distress. I figure that God will take care of my needs and that when I pray it would be better that I concern myself with people who are in real danger, real need, real distress. Those who are the least, the lost and the lonely. Likewise I will endeavor to be more positive in all of my interactions. I am going to try to take the words of the immortal Sergeant Oddball (Donald Sutherland) of Kelly’s Heroes seriously.

“Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves? Why don’t you dig how beautiful it is out here? Why don’t you say something righteous and hopeful for a change?”

Tomorrow I will celebrate a simple Ash Wednesday liturgy at our small chapel and the scripture readings will come out of Matthew Chapter Six where Jesus begins “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

With that I will take my “Mario Mendoza Line ” self off line and begin working on yet another Gettysburg article.

Peace and blessings

Padre Steve+

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Ash Wednesday and the Beginning of a Radical and Happy Lent

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“Accustom yourself continually to make many acts of love, for they enkindle and melt the soul.”  Teresa of Avila 

Well my friends today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is, for those unfamiliar with the custom is a penitential season in the days leading up to Easter in which Christians, through prayer, fasting and abstinence seek to prepare themselves for Holy Week and Easter. It really is a time of great value if its observance is not done simply out of legalism or even the need to show ones personal holiness as somehow more important than the relationships that one has with both God and one’s neighbor.

If you have read my articles on this site dealing with Ash Wednesday and Lent you will note that Lent is a season that I have struggled with throughout my life, even my life as a Priest. I did not grow up in the catholic tradition, Roman, Orthodox or Anglican. I came to a catholic understanding of faith in a Southern Baptist Seminary and my journey took years and when I finally came over to the “catholic” side of the line in 1995 and 1996 I attempted for a number of years to be more individualistically pious in my observance of the Lenten season and tradition than others.

That did not work well. Instead of finding a depth of meaning and transformation Lent became a burden. I observed it and did my best but without much joy. When I returned from Iraq in 2008, my faith shaken, and emotionally broken my Lenten observance was so painful that mid-way through it I abandoned it. The following year I declared that I was not going to do Lent in the way that I had done in the past, but even in this I struggled. That was not unexpected because by then I was for all intents and purposes an agnostic struggling to believe and praying that God might be real. The only thing that kept me going at times was the belief that my vocation as a Priest mattered, no matter how I felt.

The past few years Lent has been a struggle. I have worked to make it both meaningful and joyful. When I think of the irony that I was attempting to work to experience God’s grace I can now laugh.

This year Lent started out differently. Over the past number of months my life, including my spirituality has been coming back into focus and much more free and integrated than it was in the past.

Today I was part of our hospital Chapel ecumenical Ash Wednesday service. Our small chapel was full, with more people standing than sitting. Working with my two colleagues, a Southern Baptist Pastoral Counselor and an American Baptist Chaplain we served those who came, Catholics and various expressions of Protestants. My colleagues did most of the work for the service. I simply approved their work and though about what I was going to say and do as the primary celebrant during the service.

Our Old Testament reading out of Isaiah Chapter 58 actually set the tone for me because it has been something that has been zinging my spirit ever since my seminary days and early days as a Priest. In the passage Isaiah was speaking to a very religious people who seemed to take great pride in their external demonstrations of righteousness but whose hearts were far from God and the people that God had placed around them. Isaiah wrote:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Likewise Jesus warned his disciples about the dangers of religious hypocrisy in the Gospel reading which was from Matthew Chapter Six. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” He then went on to warn them about how to pray and how to fast. In each case he was very much against public displays that would serve to show off an individual’s religious superiority. Instead he talked about prayer being in secret and fasting that did not attract the attention of others. That is actually quite a revolutionary idea if you take a look at the practices of many who call themselves Christian, or for that matter religious people of any religion.

Jesus seemed to “get off” so to speak in confounding the severely religious people of his day. He hung out with, care for, fed, healed and loved people that the people who were more concerned with outward religious displays actually despised. I think that Jesus actually understood the real meaning of Lent than we do. Yes, Jesus prayed, he fasted, actually for 40 days in the wilderness once and was tempted by the Devil who offered food, protection from harm if he jumped off the pinnacle of the Temple and even the whole world, if Jesus would only worship him. Of course Jesus withstood the temptation, but it was real and if we actually take the humanity of Jesus seriously it was a real temptation that actually threatened to destroy the eternal relationship that Jesus had with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

So there is a value in spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, but they are not the be all and end all of the Christian faith. Instead, they are important but unless they actually are part of a change in our hearts that turns them from us to God and maybe even more importantly the real people that we meet, especially the least, the lost and the lonely.

However according to the Barna Group, which surveys Christians and their attitudes it seems that American Christians don’t seem to get the message. Barna commented:

“The vast majority of (secularists) don’t need to hear the Good News. They have been exposed to Christianity in an astonishing number of ways, and that’s exactly why they’re rejecting it. They react negatively to our ‘swagger’, how we go about things, and the sense of self-importance we project.” They quote one outsider as saying: “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”

Over the past few years I have gotten to the point that I have a hard time simply giving money to causes, ministries and churches but really have a hard time passing up the homeless, the hurting and the despondent people that I see every day.

I just wonder what it would be if people that call themselves Christians would during Lent, instead of giving up chocolate or going meatless on certain days would instead do something kind for a person that can do nothing for them, especially people who may or may not be Christians. I’m sorry but that seemed to be what Jesus did more often than not.

Can you imagine what the practical result of over one billion Christians doing one act of kindness a day to someone that can’t pay them back, that they don’t know, that may even to them seem to be of a class, religion or lifestyle that they do not approve? What if instead of giving billions of dollars to the money pits of self indulgent Christian ministries and churches they simply paid someone’s rent, bought a meal, or a tank of gas for someone in need, took someone to the doctor, or helped someone find a job?  What if instead of giving up something that for practical purposes is meaningless for 40 days, like our favorite food or drink seek out opportunities to do something as simple as walking up to the homeless person on the side of the road who has the “please help” sign and look them in the eye, ask them what they need and then do something to help them?

And let me preach. When we were down and out and losing almost every earthly possession we had when I was in seminary there were regular people who did those practical acts of kindness and mercy that helped us through terrible times. People bought us gas, let us borrow or gave us cars, paid for doctors visits, food and even tuition.  Of course I was working my ass off in two or more jobs at any given time, going to school full time and serving in the National Guard as we attempted to recover from the debacle we had experienced while still moving forward. Thus I approach this with a great deal of gratitude and empathy.

I think that this is a radical idea. Not original by any means, but certainly radical.

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And then there is one other thing, what we do should be done with a happy heart, not with a gloomy one. Saint Teresa of Avila once said “God save us from gloomy saints!”

Have a happy Lent.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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It’s the Apocalypse: A Papal Resignation, North Korean Nukes, LA Shooter, SOTU, the SOTU Response, the SOTU Response Response and Fat Tuesday

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“I do love America. And LA is a very short commute to America its like half an hour on the plane.” Craig Ferguson

What a crazy couple of days and I don’t know about you but my head is spinning like Linda Blair’s in the Exorcist. It almost felt like a Zombie Apocalypse was upon us. Then I remembered that Zombies are not real. However, it was a crazy couple of days in America and Los Angeles.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away then Pope Benedict XVI up and quit. Shortly thereafter the Vatican was struck by lightening twice. Coincidence….I think not.

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But that wan’t all, just before I went to bed Kim Jong Un number one son, the North Korean version of an inbred mountain man exploded a nuclear bomb and promised more. Not to be outdone the disgruntled former LA Cop bent on revenge got into another firefight and is now preempting the State of the Union Address which I wasn’t going to watch because I get tired of people giving the President the clap between every sentence. Now because there is murder and mayhem on live television I have to watch whether I want to or not because it is going to be a split screen like the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. I am a sucker for drama.

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And to think, that all of this was happening on or just before the day that people set aside to sin boldly before entering a 40 day period of fasting and abstinence for a reason that they have forgotten. Well, I haven’t forgotten the reason for the fasting and abstinence  but I did have a big hamburger and a few beers to tide me over until Easter. Well I don’t plan on doing hamburgers on Fridays during Lent, it is a sacrifice and since I generally don’t eat anything that swims in its own toilet seafood is out which reduces me to eating bean burritos on Fridays during Lent.

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Pope John Luc I?

So tonight with all of this going on we are waiting on a Papal election conclave which will begin in March. My money is on a long shot outsider for the post, Bono who I predict will take the name Pope Meatloaf I or perhaps Sir Patrick Stewart who I would think would be Pope John Luc I if elected. I actually think that a Pope John Luc the First would be a great move and cause the Papacy to boldly go where no Pope has gone before.

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Normally that would be enough drama for a week. A Pope resigning his office only happens on an average only once every 390 years, so that is news. But then the wily North Koreans explode another nuclear bomb shortly after launching an inter-continental ballistic missile against the opposition of everyone in the world including China and Iran and I say “that too is news.” I do think that Kim Jong Un number one has a case of missile envy but still, the thought of him having fingering the nuclear button is frightening. In fact thinking of Kim fingering anything is frightening.

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And speaking of frightening, a disgruntled former LA cop and Naval Reserve officer has been on a revenge motivated killing spree in which he has killed 4 people and wounded 2 more, none of whom were involved in his firing from LAPD. Say what you want about him but Khan went after Captain Kirk for his revenge in Star Trek II. Sure he killed innocents, but his goal was Kirk. Thankfully after a shootout today it looks like the shooter has been killed and the danger is averted, but for a time it was a surreal throwback to the split screen O.J. Simpson chase which coincided with the NBA Championship Game 5 between the Knicks and Rockets. For a moment tonight CNN and MSNBC had the split screen thing going. It made me proud. Where but in America could this happen? That is why we are such a great country.

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Tonight is also the State of the Union Address, the annual speech where the incumbent President gives his vision for the next year in the life of the Republic. It is punctuated by the applause of his partisan supporters and icy cold glares and stares of his opponents. This is the case regardless of who is in office and the only time the deadly partisanship is broken is during the photo ops before and after the ceremony as the President enters and exits the Well of the House. I even saw Eric Cantor kiss Sheila Jackson Lee, now that is bipartisanship at its best.

It has also become a tradition for the out of power party to have a leader make a speech after the SOTU address. Usually, regardless of the party doing this the man or woman that makes the speech looks like Kenneth the Paige on 30 Rock speaking outside a Motel 6 conference room. Most pundits and politicians see this as a thankless job. Tonight the Republican Party is sending out Senator Marco Rubio to make this speech in order let him peak early so that someone like Herman Cain can sabotage his candidacy in 2016.

But that is not enough. Three years ago the Tea Party put out a response to the Republican response in order to show America just how united they are in destroying each other. In 2011 it was Michelle Bachmann, in 2012 it was Herman Cain and this year it will be Senator Rand Paul who is supposed to be speaking in favor of the great sequester working to ensure a Democrat sweep in 2014 and a Hillary Clinton Presidency in 2016.

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Fat Tuesday

And all of this on Fat Tuesday, when people all over the country are drinking to excess and partying hard so they can have something to seriously repent about tomorrow and feel bad about until Easter. Now am rather tame. I went out, ate a big hamburger, drank a couple of beers with my friends and had two chocolate chip cookies. Then I came home to Molly my now blind dog, got her to chase some deer and wrote this little article while watching the SOTU address.

Tomorrow I will help lead our Ash Wednesday Service in our little Chapel. Hopefully in the process I will be a Priest that in his humanness and brokenness helps people experience the love, grace and reconciliation of God in Christ on the day that marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Grace in Freedom: Lent 2011

“Grace is the beauty of form under the influence of freedom.” Johann Friedrich Von Schiller

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

My readers who have been with me the past couple of years know that Lent is probably, no wait definitely my least favorite part of the liturgical year. I think it is because the way that I saw it in the past. The problem was that I saw a long list of things not to do, or too do and that Lent was more about getting things “right” in terms of obligations, fasting, prayer, penance and trying to survive 40 days until Easter liberated me from the torture.

The last couple of years I have tried to make light of Lent writing about how to survive the season in rather humorous ways, or rather cynical ways as I struggled with PTSD, depression, abandonment and a loss of faith that for all practical purposes left me an agnostic. It was the only way that I knew how to deal with it because before Iraq my Lenten observances prior to Iraq, while genuine were torturous because I had missed the reason for the season. This year is different because my life is starting to come back into focus and faith after a long absence has returned.

This year I begin Lent in a new church. My readers know that last year I was tossed out of my old church by a corrupt bishop who later got destroyed his ministry and lost his office because of his own duplicitous nature and hubris. The charge was that I was too “liberal” and that I would be better I found a home with the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, North American Old Catholic. I also was transferred to be the head of the Pastoral Care Department of a very busy Naval Hospital on a Marine Corps Base. Both the changes in church as well as the change in duty assignment have helped me.  I am more at peace and find work rewarding. I find that I am at peace in the ACOC a church where my Catholic faith and more “liberal” views are in sync and where I am not looking over my shoulder wondering if I will be censured or silenced as I had been in my previous church on a number of occasions.

While I still struggle with PTSD the effects are not as pronounced as they were even six months ago.  I made my first trip by air since my father died last June. Since returning from Iraq air travel, crowds, noise and light have often sent me into a complete panic and what I would describe as a PTSD “meltdown.”  While I still experienced some anxiety during the travel I was able to deal with it and had no panic induced meltdowns.  That was a major milestone for me and a sign that I am getting better.

So this year Lent and Ash Wednesday was different than either before Iraq when I was trying to faithfully observe the rituals but missed the bigger point and the time after Iraq where Lent made little sense because I didn’t even know if I believed in God.  This year my celebration of Lent, and I use the word celebrate rather than observe is grounded in the love, grace and mercy of God. Something clicked this year and I think it was in really understanding the words found in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, the 5th Chapter verses 17 through 21.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:17-21 NRSV emphasis mine)

What I have discovered in this is something that has changed is that middle part “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

That has become liberating because I think I finally get what really means. It is about a God who of his own accord loves his creation; he loves real people in a real world including me.  Lent like all of the Gospel is about reconciliation between God, humanity and creation. Likewise it is also about reconciliation and forgiveness between people and even nations. It is about the Prince of Peace and less about external ritual.

I’m not saying that there is no value in observing spiritual disciplines such as fasting, abstinence or additional prayers or good works, but if they don’t lead us into a deeper relationship with God and help bring us into right relationship with others they really are worth nothing. I think that Jesus when talking about those that made sure that everyone saw the external aspects of their faith, or to better put it how holy they were, hit the nail on the head. In fact it was the Gospel lesson today in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” It is faith and the grace of God in Christ Jesus that is the only antidote to the sin that keeps us from living fully reconciled to God and our neighbor and for that matter the only things that can bring us to joy not trying to impress people with our piety.

I will be observing some of the Lenten disciplines this year but with a far different attitude and expectation in the past. I will seek to live the reconciled life both with God and those that I in relationship with and those that I come across. I realize that it is okay to be me and that I can be real and don’t have to try to be someone or something that I am not. It is to live in grace and freedom in right relationship to God, people and his creation. This Lent I will endeavor to live in that grace and freedom seeking to live the reconciled life.

God bless you during this Lenten Season.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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