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The Truth of Faith and Wisdom of Doubt

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“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”  St Thomas Aquinas 

I am always amazed at Christians, of any denomination or people of other religions rush to proclaim belief as absolute dogma, even when it is contradicted by science and new learning. I think that such attitudes are based more on fear that somehow God is not big enough to withstand scrutiny and that if God cannot withstand scrutiny that what they believe is threatened.

Somehow I do not think that God in his wisdom determined that our faith as Christians was to remain unscrutinized and frozen in the time and culture of the ancient near east. I think that was part of St Thomas’ attraction to Aristotelian philosophy. For his day Thomas was a modern thinker, and from reading his works I cannot imagine him being afraid of any advance in science, nor being afraid to hold Christian, or Catholic dogma up to the lens of scientific scrutiny.    

I guess that is why I am not afraid of science, scientific advances, archeological or literary discoveries that shed new light on what we as Christians believe. Somehow I think that God is bigger than any paradigm that I or for that matter that we as human beings can describe or imagine. 

I am convinced that we have been given the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils as steps to understanding the revelation of God in Christ. That being said I cannot imagine that God has stopped revealing himself to people in various ways over the 2000 years of the Church, or that his spirt has not given men and women insight into both the Divine and human aspects of faith and life, to include the physical, the spiritual and the intellectual. 

When I look up at the sky on a clear night and see the multitude of stars and planets I cannot help but imagine that God is far bigger and more mysterious than any of us can explain in any number of volumes of theology or Biblical commentary. Nor do I believe that any one person, or for that matter any church as a certain point in time knows all truth. I know that doesn’t sound like a safe way to do “faith” but when was faith, or attempting to follow God in faith ever safe or belief completely certain? That is not the case with those that followed God whose accounts are in recorded in the canonized books of the Christian Bible, much less stories recorded the non-canonical books not included in the Bible or the writings of Jewish and early Christian writers that recorded the history and lives of the faithful as well as interpreted the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  

In fact I believe that God allows us to navigate an often unsafe universe as we live and evolve as his people and that in our walk, in our faith, in our search for truth that God does not mind allowing us to get a bloody nose sometimes. That doesn’t mean that God does not love us, but like the people that we read about in our Scriptures, that none of us knows all truth and all of us are capable of misreading the mind of God. I am reminded of a quote from Star Trek the Next Generation where the being known as “Q” chastises Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise after their initial encounter with the Borg: “If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you oughtta go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross; but it’s not for the timid.” I think in his great mercy God also allows us to get a bloody nose once in a while as we attempt to navigate this life of faith.

Doubt and faith are inexorably linked, faith without doubt is not faith. Faith and belief always has to be held up under the scrutiny of the new knowledge that is acquired as human being explore the universe and human condition with instruments undreamed of by the writers of Scripture or those who came after them. I think that is what St Thomas meant when he wrote the passage that I quoted at the beginning of this little article. I think that is a key to having a living faith, not that we know everything now or even are sure that we have interpreted what has been handed to us by tens of generations of the faithful. I think when we approach God we must do so with the utmost of humility knowing that we can never fully understand all of God, the human condition or the universe. 

St Anselm of Canterbury prayed “My God, I pray that I may so know you and love you that I may rejoice in you. And if I may not do so fully in this life let me go steadily on to the day when I come to that fullness…” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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The Painful Lessons of Looking in the Mirror of Social Media

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I had an encounter this last weekend on a leading social media site. It was not pleasant and I waited for a couple of days to think, pray and meditate on what happen in the encounter before I decided to write about it.

It occurred on a page which is pretty popular and deals with military issues and the man that runs that page I enjoy very much. He frequently brings up very pertinent issues dealing with military issues, strategy and tactics, foreign policy and national security policy as well as social aspects of current military life.

I got involved in an debate, probably not the best thing to do because the debate had already degenerated into a pretty vicious cesspool of recriminations between pro and anti-gay rights supporters. The subject was the actions of the Officers Wives Club at Fort Bragg North Carolina to initially reject the entry of the lesbian wife of a female Army Lieutenant Colonel for membership, the subsequent court battle and the wives club’s grudging issuance of a “guest pass” to the woman.

What got me to comment was the absolutely venomous tenor of the gay rights opponents, their often obscene comments about the lesbian couple and how many self identified as Christians or supporting Christian values. It wasn’t a matter of agreeing or disagreeing about policy and interpretation of law or even the validity or sincerity of their beliefs, it was the shameful way that they demonized and dehumanized the people involved as well as those that pointed out an opposing viewpoint.

I hesitated at first but then having seen such how such clubs deal with those different from their majority of their members I wrote this comment:

“in my experience of 30 years commissioned I have found many Officers Wives Clubs to be a cesspool of gossip and self-righteousness covered with a veneer of respectableness covering up their own vanity. Most often they are the domain of white women, who do not work and historically have shunned male spouses of female officers, wives that are working professionals whose identity is not built around their husband’s achievements as well as minorities, the physically disabled or wives of officers who spent years as enlisted men. The treatment of the Lesbian wife is another chapter in officially sanctioned discrimination. Chaplain wives organizations are similar, except you can toss in the stigma of not being a Evangelical or Conservative Protestant. Wives of Chaplains that don’t fit that mould are marginalized, be they Mainline Protestants, Jews or Mormons and of course wives whose faith is different then their husband, such as a Protestant Chaplain with a Catholic wife. My view, if they want to be a private membership that excludes those that they don’t think fit in, then meet off base…”

I don’t think that my comments were off base. They actually seem to describe the history of these organizations fairly well. However, my post attracted the ire of a relatively recent Army retiree and stupidly I shot back with a flippant comment. He had already been heavily engaged in the debate and the fact that I was a Chaplain gave him all that he needed to begin tThat comment was ill advised. A Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel friend of mine noted that I shouldn’t wrestle a pig. I ignored his advice as well of the advice Judy also tried to warn me off.

My flippant comment elucidated an attack from the man that went well beyond dealing with policy, law or even faith, it became a personal attack. To him my arguments did not matter, it was a matter of not only attempting to defeat what I said but to discredit and destroy me in the process. When I attempted to build bridges to dialogue and invite him to actually get to know me, he attacked more vehemently and personally making accusations about me, my character and my beliefs. Instead of debating any of my defenses of my position, theological or constitutional he dismissed them. His characterizations and comments that were so off base and wrong that anyone who either knows me personally or reads this site regularly would know that they were absolutely false.

But the attacks wounded me and left me incredibly angry. But that was not a bad thing. They caused me they think back to a time early in my ministry when I did similar things to those whose doctrine, beliefs or practices that I believed were wrong. I was very good at it. My Chaplain Assistant who is now a relatively senior Army Chaplain used to call me a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh,” even though I was not a Roman Catholic. A very conservative and reactionary Roman Catholic journal called The New Oxford Review published two of my articles back in 1998 and 1999, which ended up getting me banned from publishing for years by my the second ranking bishop of my former church. I was accused of being “too Catholic” and the irony was that he left that church well before I was forced to leave becoming Roman Catholic and writing similar articles to mine for a major Catholic apologetics online website.

So as I said I was good at this. With precise logic I could devastate others. The man that attacked me was much like me. I was seeing my old self in a mirror and it was not a sight that I enjoyed and it tempered my remarks to the man that I made in my defense.

It seems to me that those that argue most strenuously and personally are not necessarily bad people. They are consumed with zeal. Jesus had to deal with such people during his earthly ministry and every time he left them perplexed. I am not that good at this point in doing that. I simply gave up and told my attacker to “pound sand.” Jesus was much better at ending debates like this one than me.

I felt like George Costanza of Seinfeld trying to get the last word. Not very Jesus like, but revealing to me. Revealing to the point that I was reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words that “nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent in ourselves.” It is a hard lesson to learn and it seems that I have to learn it more times than I like. In a sense it was like looking in the mirror but seeing me more than a decade ago.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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On the Anniversary of my 16th Year of Ordination to the Diaconate

“So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

“My brother, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely…” From the Ordination of a Deacon, 1979 Book of Common Prayer

In the more liturgical churches, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox the first major order of ordination is to the Diaconate, or to be a Deacon. In other denomination men and women are appointed as deacons but not ordained. In the non-Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican there is a wide variety of service done by deacons and deaconesses everything from being the ruling board of a local church to serving in various ministries of service within the church.

I was ordained as a Deacon 16 years ago tonight on hot, humid and stormy night in Maryland. I was one of six men ordained that night as Deacons, all of who were bound for the Priesthood. I was already an ordained minister in an Evangelical Protestant Church and was serving as a civilian hospital chaplain and as a Major in the Army Reserve Chaplain Corps. I had began a spiritual pilgrimage to an Anglo-Catholic way of life in seminary while attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas.

The office of Deacon or Deaconess in the Orthodox, Anglican and Old Catholic traditions is different from the other major orders, the Presbyter (Priest) and Episcopate (Bishop). It is and always has been about the ministry to service, assisting the Bishop and Priests with the care of the poor, sick, weak and lonely as well as preaching the Gospel. It was established in the 6th Chapter of the Book of Acts when the Apostles, harried by the widows of non-Jewish members of the church who felt that they were being ignored. The Apostles laid hands on 7 men, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Paraemus and Nicholas. Paul in 1 Timothy 3 gives criteria for the kind of person to be ordained as deacons and Pliny the Younger in his Letter to Trajan specifically mentions women serving as deacon who he calls deaconesses.

In the west the office of deacon languished for nearly a millennia being used only as a stop on the way to a man being ordained as a Priest. It remained very active in the Christian East and some Orthodox Churches retained the office of Deaconess. The office experienced a revival in the West during the 20th Century with both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches revitalized the office and returned to early tradition in appointing men to be permanent as well as transitional Deacons. The Second Vatican Council noted that Deacons should be “Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: ‘Let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all'” Lumen gentium, n. 29 cf. Ad Phil., 5,2, ed. Funk, I, p. 300)

Deacons can preach, baptize assist at celebration of the Eucharist, give communion and in the Catholic and Anglican traditions celebrate a marriage. Deacons are allowed to marry, unless they are transitional Deacons in the Roman Catholic church who are being prepared for ordination to the Priesthood.

For those ordained as transitional Deacons, those who eventually are ordained as Priests, and in some cases those who later are consecrated as Bishops, they are not to lose that call to be servants of God’s people. This sadly is not always the case.  It is all too easy for a cleric to become more concerned with his or her position in the hierarchy and the place of the Church in society over serving those that come to the Church broken, wounded and needy, especially in need of care and love, those rejected by the affluent and abused by supposed Christians.

Fr Rupert Mayer SJ

For me the ordination to the Diaconate was important. It stressed to me that ordination was not simply about preaching or ruling in the Church. Of course I knew that but the fact that charge committed to Deacons is first service of the weak, the poor, the sick and the lonely. It has been a while since I re-read the Ordination Liturgy. It is a compelling reminder in a world where the poor, the sick, the weak and the lonely are continually abused and ignored by the rich, the entitled, the powerful and the criminal elements or even governments, that the Christian, particularly those men and women ordained to the Diaconate must be servants first, not rulers or worldly power brokers. Father Rupert Mayer SJ of Munich who was imprisoned for speaking out against the Nazis through much of the Hitlerite rule was a leading champion of Munich’s poor during the Weimar Hyper-Inflation and during the Great Depression. A former Army Chaplain in the First World War who was wounded at the front losing a leg he said: “If out of the ten who ask for alms there are nine who are not in need of them, and if through fear of that happening, I refuse my help to one really needy person, this would cause me immense suffering. I would rather give to all ten and thus avoid the danger of being lacking in charity.”

When I was in High School and College there was a song that was popular in contemporary Christian music. It was called Make Me a Servant by a lady named Kelly Willard who sang with Maranatha! Music.  The words are fitting for all Christians who are called by Jesus to be “servants of all” but especially for all who are ordained or have ever been ordained as Deacons.

Make me a servant, Humble and meek

Lord let me lift up those who are weak, And may the prayers of my heart always be

Make me a servant, Make me a servant, Make me a servant today…

I certainly don’t always live up to this high calling, but it is something that I try to do. It is simple, but so hard, but of all things what the followers of Jesus are called to do. Today has been a day of reflection even as I cared for some people going through terrible times. I do pray that my life will be more reflective of God’s grace in my dealings with all people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Evolving Faith of a Miscreant Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and Blessings

Padre Steve+

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