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

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Post Easter Thoughts on Christian Right Paranoia

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Easter was weird for me this year. While I rediscovered the joy of celebrating Eucharist thanks to three Lebanese Christian officers who were in our last class at the Staff College, I struggled. I mentioned last week that it wasn’t my post-Iraq agnosticism, but rather a reaction to the power hungry preachers, politicians and pundits of the Christian Right.

These are people who though they hold most of the levers of power in the Republican Party, have a stranglehold on over half of the state legislatures and state houses as well as have the majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate live in a paranoid dream world. It is a cloud-cookoo-land were they honestly continue to spread the lie that they are the only group that it is legal to discriminate against. It is a world where they pass laws to discriminate against groups of people that they hate and then say that they are being discriminated against.

The positively Orwellian attitude, words and actions of these people are responsible for the rapid decline of people who call themselves Christians and the rapid expansion of people who no longer believe. The reason is born out by the polls of the Barna Group, Pew Religion Research and many other polls. They all agree. It is not Jesus that people reject, it is his most ardent followers, who are now described as Hypocritical, anti-homosexual, insincere, sheltered and too political.

Another Barna poll recorded that young people were leaving the church because “Christians demonize everything outside of the church,” that “God seems missing from my experience of church,” that “Christians are too confident they know all the answers and that churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in,” that “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and “church is like a country club, only for insiders,” and finally that young people are unable to ask their “most pressing life questions in church,” that they have “significant intellectual doubts about their faith,” and that the church “does not help with depression or other emotional problems.”

Despite these self-inflicted wounds the Christian Right and their allies blame everyone else for the demise of the Christian church in the United States. Instead of making a genuine attempt to witness of the grace, love and mercy of Jesus embodied in the message of reconciliation so wonderfully stated in Second Corinthians chapter five:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” 

Note that in this there is no command to judge or take political control over the world, it is a message of reconciliation seldom practiced by Christians now or sadly throughout much of history, especially after the Church became the Imperial Church under Constantine.

The words of the Christian Right and their allies, especially regrading homosexuals have reached such a point of ridiculousness that it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Cries by Mike Huckabee that “It won’t stop until there are no more churches, until there are no more people who are spreading the Gospel, and I’m talking now about the unabridged, unapologetic Gospel that is really God’s truth.” 

Others repeatedly invoke the specter of Nazi Germany, persecution of Christians and even concentration camps and martyrdom, even though they are the ones passing the laws and using the government to legislate against homosexuals. But they say that they are the victims of homosexual hatred and liberal intolerance.

To me it is reminiscent of the scare tactics used by the Souther proponents of secession and slavery in the months leading to the Civil War. Henry Benning of Georgia told the Virginia Secession conference:

“I fear that the day is not distant when the Cotton States, as they are called, will be the only slave States. When that time comes, the time will have arrived when the North will have the power to amend the Constitution, and say that slavery shall be abolished, and if the master refuses to yield to this policy, he shall doubtless be hung for his disobedience…we will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth; and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination. That is the fate which Abolition will bring upon the white race…But that is not all of the Abolition war. We will be completely exterminated, and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks…”

The message of the Christian Right and their allies is laden with similar statements, not about blacks, at least openly, but mostly in regard to Gays and the LGBT community.  None of these words or actions can be in the slightest construed with an authentic Christian message. Robert Henlein wrote:

“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”

This is what Conservative American Christians of the Christian Right, especially the leaders who subscribe to Christian Dominionism are doing every day. That my friends is why the church in the United States is dying and why people are fleeing it in record numbers, and why non-believers want nothing to do with it. It is why I struggle. 

But there is an antidote to this, a message that wonderfully contradicts everything that the Christian Right and their allies stand for, and that is a message of love.

In his last Bishop Blackie Ryan novel, the late Father Andrew Greeley used the example of a fictional Spanish Cardinal to his people. It is the message that needs to be preached here and now in this country:

“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?”

Greeley wrote more than fiction, he was a socialist and a historian. He noted something about a time when Christians were actually the subject of real persecution before Constantine:

“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 now the problem is more than high pressure evangelism, it is the high pressure political machine that the Christian Right is an integral part. That my friends is what is destroying the witness of the church, not gay rights or same-sex marriage. It isn’t the liberals, or the media, it is a woefully short-sighted belief that Christians must subdue those who they disagree with and disapprove of and that they must work to use the law of the state to establish their view as law, and enforce that law on others.  Eric Hoffer noted that:

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” 

The Christian Right has found multiple devils to demonize: gays, women, liberals and anyone else they want to make the enemy of their God. As Hoffer said: “religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and non-believers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.”

I thought about this subject over the past week in the context of my own struggle and the series of articles that I wrote about the Roman Centurion during Holy Week. Despite my own struggle I realize it is better to struggle with faith than to subscribe to the absolute falsehood and heresy of the hatred and judgment used by the Christian Right and their allies.

Anyway, I am tired and need to take a break.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Heresy, Love, and Faith: My Journey

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

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

I find it amusing when trolls come by to condemn my “heresy” and I realize that most have some kind of psychological need to be right, as well as a deep fear, despite their certitude, that they might be wrong, that causes them to do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is something that I try to do now on a regular basis. Sure most of my sacramental encounters as a hospital chaplain do not occur during the liturgy, but often in the life and death moments and times of deep discouragement felt by the wounded, ill and injured. In that ministry I have found that there are many hurting people, people who like me question their faith and even long held beliefs.

I like the old song by Nazareth called Love Hurts. The song always gets me. It is one of those “real” songs from the 1960s and 1970s that nails how life can be sometimes.

Love hurts, love scars
Love wounds and mars
In any heart not tough
Nor strong enough
To take a lot of pain
To take a lot of pain
And love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain
Love hurts

I’m young and I know
But even so, I know a thing or two
I have learned from you
I’ve really learned a lot
I’ve really learned a lot
And love is like a stove
Burns you when it’s hot
Love hurts

Some fools rave of happiness
Of blissfulness, togetherness
Some fools fool themselves, I guess
But they’re not fooling me
I know it isn’t true
I know it isn’t true
Love is just a lie
Made to make you blue
Love hurts

Love does hurt, and well deciding to love can bring a lot of pain, but I do think that it is worth it. Well, that is all for tonight. Until tomorrow.

Blessings and Peace

Padre Steve+

Love Hurts lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, HOUSE OF BRYANT PUBLICATIONS

 

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Faith and Doubt on a Sunday Afternoon

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“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

Many off my readers as well as people I deal with on a regular basis struggle with faith and doubt. Today I was reading a column in the New York Times that brought up a very interesting article called Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins  by T.M. Luhrmann, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/t-m-luhrmann-where-reason-ends-and-faith-begins.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-top-span-region&region=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region a professor at Stanford. It talked about the point in different where individuals make a decision of what they chose to believe because it is reasonable and what they chose to believe by faith. I also read an article by Bishop Gene Robinson called Hope When the World’s Gone off the Rails  http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/27/hope-when-the-world-s-gone-off-the-rails.html Both were excellent articles because they deal with a reality that many religious people don’t want to deal with. Something that I have struggled with most of my life, but especially after I returned from Iraq in 2008.

When I returned from Iraq in 2008 I was a mess. I had gone to Iraq thinking that I had the answers to about anything and that I was invincible. I felt that with years of experience in the military and in trauma departments of major trauma centers that I was immune to the effects of war and trauma. Likewise I had spent years studying theology, pastoral care and ethics as well as military history, theory and practice. I had studied PTSD and Combat Stress and had worked with Marines that were dealing with it. If there was anyone who could go to Iraq and come back “normal” it had to be me.

Of course as anyone who knows me or reads this website regularly knows I came back from Iraq different. I collapsed in the midst of PTSD induced depression, anxiety and a loss of faith. For nearly two years I was a practical agnostic.
During those dark days, particularly the times where I was working in the ICU and Pediatric ICU at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth attempting to have enough faith to help others in crisis, be they patients at the brink of death or families walking through that dark valley even though I did not have any faith to even believe that God existed.

It was during those dark days that the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, mainly his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that provided me with one of the few places of spiritual solace and hope that I found. Baseball happened to be the other.
During those dark times when prayer seemed futile and the scriptures seemed dry and dead I found some measure of life and hope in the remarkable lives of the people that inhabited the pages of the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels. Through them I learned that doubt and faith could co-exist and that there was a mystery to faith in Jesus that defied doctrinal suppositions as well as cultural, political and sociological prejudices.

I did learn something else, something that makes many people uncomfortable and that took me a long time to accept. That was that doubt and faith could co-exist and as I read Greeley’s stories I began to see scripture in a new light, especially the stories of men and women that we venerate for their faith who doubted and even when they believed often disputed God. The Old Testament is full of their stories and there are even some in the New Testament. Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.”

Thus I find it hard to deal with preachers and others who are so full of certitude that they are full of shit, no matter what their faith tradition. God is too big for that.

I rediscovered faith and life as I anointed that man in our emergency room in December 2009. To my surprise faith returned. I believe again but I also doubt, at least a couple of times a day, it keeps me humble. And for that I’m grateful.

Peace and have a wonderful rest of your weekend,

Padre Steve+

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

“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re presen163017_10150113444907059_3944470_nt but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe …. Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don’t believe but I know.” Andrew Greeley in The Beggar Girl of St Germain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith has returned, at least part of the time and to be honest I still doubt, and that is not a bad thing. Andrew Greeley, speaking as Bishop Blackie Ryan in the novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain wrote: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Believe and Not to Believe, that is the Challenge

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“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

When I returned from Iraq in 2008 I was a mess. I had gone to Iraq thinking that I had the answers to about anything and that I was invincible. I felt that with years of experience in the military and in trauma departments of major trauma centers that I was immune to the effects of war and trauma. Likewise I had spent years studying theology, pastoral care and ethics as well as military history, theory and practice. I had studied PTSD and Combat Stress and had worked with Marines that were dealing with it. If there was anyone who could go to Iraq and come back “normal” it had to be me.
Of course as anyone who knows me or reads this website regularly knows I came back from Iraq different. I collapsed in the midst of PTSD induced depression, anxiety and a loss of faith. For nearly two years I was a practical agnostic. What I had believed with absolute certitude before the experience of war was gone.

During that time, particularly when I was working in the ICU and Pediatric ICU at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. I attempted to have enough faith to help others during their crisis, be they patients at the brink of death or families walking through that dark valley and our staff. It was difficult because at the time I did not have any faith to even believe that God existed.

It was during those dark days that the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, mainly his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that provided me with one of the few places of spiritual solace and hope that I found. Baseball happened to be the other.
During those dark times when prayer seemed futile and the scriptures seemed dry and dead I found some measure of life and hope in the remarkable lives of the people that inhabited the pages of the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels. Through them I learned that doubt and faith could co-exist and that there was a mystery to faith in Jesus that defied the absolute doctrinal statements as well the as cultural, political and sociological prejudices that I had grown up with.

I did learn something else, something that makes many people uncomfortable and that took me a long time to accept. That was that doubt and faith could co-exist. As I read Greeley’s stories I began to see scripture in a new light. I discovered that the stories of the men and women that we venerate for their faith were more remarkable because of the doubt and unbelief that are documented in scripture. Some even disputed God and are still considered faithful. The Bible is full of these stories.

So when I hear of religious leaders who proclaim all that they say and allegedly believe as absolute truth I know that they are trying too hard. In essence they made their beliefs an idol that keeps them from facing the reality of the world and the reality of their own hearts. It such cases faith becomes fanaticism. It interjects a sense of self righteousness into all relationships and leads to the worst forms of pride, prejudice and hatred of anything that does not fit in their narrow understanding.

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

It took losing my faith to rediscover it and life as I anointed a man in our emergency room in December 2009. I call that my Christmas Miracle. Faith returned to to me, much to my surprise and I believe again. But I also doubt, at least a couple of times a day. And for that I’m grateful. It keeps me humble and has broken down the wall that had insulated me. and I am alive again.

That also gives me a certain joy and appreciation in ministry. Greeley wrote in his last Bishop Blackie mystery:

“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 guess that is how I approach ministry now, even outside the church or chapel. As a chaplain many of the people I serve may never darken the door of a church, they like me struggle with faith, belief and unbelief.

Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.” That describes me pretty well.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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