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Pastors That Embody The Gospel and Don’t Use it as a Weapon: Thoughts from My Friend Fr. Kenneth Tanner


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is the latest Facebook post of my friend Father Kenneth Tanner,  Pastor and Priest at Holy Redeemer Church in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Before this he was on Staff and wrote for “Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.” His blog is located at https://medium.com/@kennethtanner 

As for me after doing some work around the house, I went out to watch Maddy playing in her little wading pool and slipped, causing me to do the splits, land hard on my right knee, and further aggravate my right hip. I have my bilateral knee injections on Monday and will have to bring up this, and the number of times I have had my knee or ankle go out, and my increasing number of falls. Since I had my VA evaluation Tuesday I have to send them an update. I think I will go back to using a cane, because it is really getting old. So I am going to go back to editing “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory!”

Please have a good and safe day and read Fr. Kenneth’s Essay on being a pastor in a time like this. He is refreshingly honest and pretty much sums up why I will not be a Church pastor or fight the politics of institutional Chaplain ministry when I retire from the Navy in less than 100 days. But we do need pastors like him.

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

Father Kenneth’s essay follows…

 

Those who follow my social media know that the vast majority of my stories and images are about Jesus—his authentic humanity and his vulnerable divinity, how his unique person is our salvation and the salvation of the world. I’m astonished by and obsessed with Christ.

This same Jesus, who embodies the law and the prophets, who became one of us—a frail human who’s not immune to hunger, thirst, pain, and death—in order to liberate captives and set the oppressed free.

Those who bear the name and work of Jesus as they lead the church are not allowed to remain silent about the illnesses effecting their societies. We are held accountable for silence and inaction.

Our nation’s war on drugs and on terror has slowly eroded civil liberties and presents us with a crisis about personal freedoms, police powers, incarceration, and so on, and black Americans have shouldered the cross of what’s wrong.

Jesus came to set prisoners free—actual prisoners.

Justice systems are corrupt, are punitive rather than restorative, and America is not immune.

The gospel seeks to upend all of that with a profound trust in the ability of humans to heal—to be forgiven and to forgive—a trust that’s not shared by our nation’s “survival of the fittest” mentality.

Jesus stands with the poor, the refugee, the prisoner—not the ideal poor, or employable refugees, or model prisoners but the kinds we find in the real world, just as they are in all their inconvenience—and he expects us to lift up their cause.

What’s happened lately is that the political Left and the political Right define a lot of what the gospel urgently calls us to embody and to do as “political,” as supporting the ends of political movements, figures, or parties.

For the Left, if you believe that pre-born children have the right to life, for but one instance, then you must be a Republican or a supporter of the President.

No, you are simply applying to our public life together ideas of humanity, creation, and personhood taught in the Scriptures.

For the Right, if you want immigrants and refugees welcomed and treated with dignity, for but one instance, then you must be a Democrat or a supporter of their leaders.

No, you are simply listening to the law and prophets of Israel and applying to our public life together their relentless and ubiquitous warnings about God’s wrath toward any people who do not welcome and care for strangers and sojourners.

Salvation is not only about life after death but about this world, about our time and place in this world, and God is often waiting for Spirit-empowered humans to bring the kind of salvation he intends for the world by living the gospel.

So while I do not speak out about most things that concern me—I would never stop speaking right now if I did that—I do speak out loudly when I feel compelled before God to do so (as in this week’s meme about Breonna Taylor and our society’s collective responsibility for her).

It is a high wire act and something like a personal siege to be the leader of a spiritual community in this moment.

I don’t know any pastor who’s not disheartened, burned out, and ready to quit. They won’t tell you about it, but I will.

I preached Jesus Christ to the folks at Holy Redeemer for 15 years but like every other church in this town (and around the country), our congregations are divided between those who want everyone to wear masks at church all the time or they won’t attend and those you don’t want to wear a mask at all so they won’t attend, some who think the pandemic is a hoax and others who think it’s real, along with so many other silly binaries that divide us, driven by a media and a political class that thrives on our separation.

It rips me up. Day and night. I/we won’t be one of them by the grace of God but a tidal wave of pastoral resignations and church closings is coming.

I *thought* we were all centered in Jesus Christ. I thought we were different at HR. It’s a MAJOR gut punch. I don’t even hear from families we served for more than a decade. Not a phone call, not a text, not a peep, even though we reach out consistently.

Then I read something from Eugene Peterson, in his “Eat This Book,” about 1982 and economic and racial tensions that were present and how disappointed he was, after 20 years of preaching, to see his congregation as divided as the world.

He started reading Galatians and the Corinthian letters and realized that Paul had the same troubles with his congregations in the first century, divided over truly dumb stuff.

It’s a human problem.

Eugene realized he was not a failure.

And he decided to double down on Jesus Christ.

And that’s how The Message was born.

I decided months ago to double down on Jesus, too. And my joy in preaching and leading has returned, even though far fewer people hear my sermons. They feel like some of the best of my life and some folks are hearing them. And that’s OK with me. It really is.

When I do address matters of public concern I address them not as a person with political interests but as one called to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That means that sometimes I sound like a “liberal” and sometimes I sound like a “conservative.”

And therefore a lot of times I am misunderstood by most everyone for all of the reasons I just laid out. And that’s OK with me, too. It really is.

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Theirs is the Highest and Purest Democracy: Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn’s Eulogy at Iwo Jima

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,,

This is an article I wrote for our workforce at the Naval Shipyard where I am honored to serve at as the Chaplain. I officially retire on August 1st but have been selected to remain in a retired and retained status until the end of the year, due to the COVID19 Pandemic. The shipyard which employs over 13,000 sailors, Navy civilians, and contractors is a key strategic asset for the country. It did not have an assigned chaplain for over a decade until due to medical issues which delayed my voluntary retirement last year, evolved into mistakes in how the retirements branch calculated my date for statutory retirement left me “homeless” so to speak as my relief was already in place.

So, the Naval region decided to put me at the shipyard where unlike my last assignment I was given a mission totally suited to me and how I do ministry, in which I have tremendous support, and made me far busier and gain fully employed. I am really happy to serve in such a diverse place in which about we have members of many religious , as well Atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers, from about every race and ethic group found in America. My job is to care for them, not convert them. It is also to inspire and encourage by my example. Since it is hard to get to know people who work multiple shifts 24/7 in person I mix inspirational messages which I work hard to craft to hopefully be able to reach all members of the workforce, not simply Christians. My basic thought is if they either wear the uniform of the country, or have sworn an oath to the Constitution, they have every right for me to care about all of them, without cramming My faith, religion in general, or the Bible down their throats. In fact that is the mission of a Chaplain, Chaplains are only employed by the government to protect people’s Constitutional right of “free exercise of religion, without violating the establishment clause.” I care for their spiritual, emotional, and a host of other concerns, and when I unable to perform the service or sacrament they need to help them find someone who can, while letting them know that I will do all I can to support them. I do my best to follow up later to ensure that they are getting the assistance they need, be it religious or secular, and if need be there to advocate for them.

The assignment at the shipyard has revived my faith and calling, which had taken a severe beating at my last assignment. Had I retired from there I would have probably retired bitter and angry. Instead, I have in a sense been reborn. Despite the danger of COVID19, the daily inane babbling of the malignantly narcissistic and sociopathic President, and all we are terrible things we are doing dealing with, I know I am where I am supposed to be, and I am doing what I am bound by both duty and love to do. I am happy and truly blessed. As Lou Gehrig said “I am the luckiest man alive”

But I digress…

This is my Memorial Day message To them, and also to you  for our COVID19 era. It involves a Navy Chaplain, and Rabbi, who served with the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima. Though I never met him, I would have loved to work with him, because he demonstrated what I think are the highest virtues of a Chaplain. His sermon has burned an imprint on my heart. I hope that it finds a home in your heart too. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+ 

Theirs is the Highest and Purest Democracy: Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn’s Eulogy at the Dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. 

Memorial Day is one of the most solemn days in our national calendar. It is a true holiday, for by observing it we take the time to remember, reflect, and hold the lives of those who gave the last full measure of devotion of duty to our country as holy. It is as sacred as an secular holiday can be.

As such I want to share the words of Navy Chaplain and Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, who served with the 5th Marine Division at Iwo Jima. Rabbi Gittelsohn was the son of a Rabbi from Cleveland, Ohio. He was a pacifist before the war, but believing it to be a just war he volunteered to serve as a Navy Chaplain with the Marine Corps and was assigned to the 5thMarine Division.

With the Division he landed at Iwo Jima, taking part in every day of the operation, ministering to the wounded and dying regardless of their faith, and helping the Navy Corpsmen and Doctors in the gruesome task of saving lives. During the battle over 26,000 Marines and Sailors serving alongside them were killed or wounded. Even before the battle was over, Admiral Chester Nimitz uttered the immortal words “Among the Americans who served… uncommon valor was a common virtue.” When the battle was over, the Marines recovered their dead from temporary graves and made a proper cemetery.

The Division’s Senior Protestant Chaplain, Warren Cuthriel, ordered Gittelsohn to lead an ecumenical memorial service and dedication of the cemetery. Sadly, reflecting the prejudices of the day, many Protestant and Catholic Chaplains objected to a Rabbi leading a service at a cemetery where mostly Christian Marines and Sailors were interred. Others objected to any ecumenical service no-matter who led it. Gittelsohn decided not to add fuel to the fire, so with Chaplain Cuthriel’s permission, he attended the main service and then conducted a separate service for the fallen Jewish personnel. After the service Chaplain Cuthriel obtained a copy of it and forwarded it to more receptive members of the chain of command. It spread like wildfire when it got to the United States. Pastors read it in their churches, newspapers printed it in its entirety, and radio commentators repeated it. Eventually it was read into the Congressional record.

The words invoke the ideals of an America and a Constitution that we all swear to support and defend. The sermon has a feeling like that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and looked forward to a time when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would preach that one day people would be judged by the “content of their character.” Rabbi Gittelsohn’s words were revolutionary for their day, and ours alike. But they call us to aspire to all be better Americans. So this weekend we remember all of our fallen, from the Revolution until today, who died to preserve freedom and defend our nation. Their sacred task has been passed to us, as Lincoln noted at Gettysburg: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Gittelsohn remained active in ministry and an advocate for civil rights until his death in 1995. His service and dedication as a Navy and Marine Corps Chaplain challenge me to be a better servant of God, our shipyard family, and country as we face our current crisis.

Here is his sermon.

This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the individual who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now an individual who was destined to be a great prophet to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.

It is not easy to do so. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because men who lie here beneath us, had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.”

No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our division who are not here have already done. All that we can even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that, by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it be the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.

We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and [privates], [Blacks] and whites, rich and poor…together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews…together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

 Anyone among us the living who fails to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against another or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of all races alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.

 To one thing more do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America’s fighting, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation’s struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here; we will not do that. We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia—in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died.

When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those eyes that are turned backward not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this, too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man. We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers—will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.

When the final cross has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen: We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again people seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come—we promise—the birth of a new freedom for all humanity everywhere. And let us say…Amen 

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A New Thread in the Tapestry of My Life: Serving People in the Age of COVID-19


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It is interesting to think about life, what has transpired, and what might have been if only…

Like anyone I wonder about all of the “what ifs” and “might have been” parts of my life. Of course there are many, going back to things that I could not control, such as the choices that my parents made regarding their lives, career, family, and home. Then there are my own choices, choices that I made, some for better, and some maybe for worse. Then there were the choices of men and women in my life and career that impacted my life and the decisions that I made, again for better or worse.

Some of my dreams, and nightmares too, involve those decisions, particularly the ones that I could not control; but then there were those decisions, particularly regarding my military career choices, that come back to haunt my dreams. Those can be troubling; the things that I volunteered to do and the costs of those to Judy as a result of those decisions. Many of those decisions, particularly my decisions to volunteer for certain deployments and operations have come at a great cost to both of us, the struggle with the effects of PTSD even ten years after my return from Iraq is still very real.

But then I am reminded that none of us have a crystal ball that allows us to see what the result of our decisions will be; none of us are God, or some other omniscient being. We make our decisions based on what we know, and what we think might be the outcome of our decisions.

If only my knees hadn’t been too badly injured and slow to recover I would have been out of the Navy, probably teaching history (now online) at the college level while relegating my calling as a priest to the background. But after that I  couldn’t retire, but due to a administrative error in calculating my statutory retirement date as I expected in April. I am now scheduled to retire in August, but with Coronavirus there is even uncertainty about that, and frankly I couldn’t care less, because I would rather serve and be in the thick of the fight than sitting on my ass or doing something that provides for me and Judy, but does not help in the time of crisis.

Between last spring when I first put in my voluntary retirement  paperwork working in the most miserable tour of all my time in the military, and doubting my call as a Priest, something miraculous happened. The screwed up knees and administrative mistakes ended up renewing my call and ministry among people I would never have expected to be serving. But even with that I never expected that I would still be serving on active duty at the age of 60, providing needed and valued ministry to people of all faiths, including atheists, in the midst of the novel Coronavirus 19 pandemic that is infecting some of them, or infecting and killing their family members, friends, or others that they know. Of course I take all of the guidance seriously to protect those I serve as well as Judy and me, but a new thread has been woven into the tapestry of my life. I felt the renewed call not long after I arrived, but this has solidified it.

I love the television series Star Trek the Next Generation. One of my favorite episodes is called Tapestry. In the episode Captain Picard is killed. He is then met by the being known as Q, played by John De Lancie for a do-over, a second chance to reverse a choice that he made as a young officer.

On Q’s promise that his choice will not alter history Picard takes the chance and he ends up regretting it. In his second chance to avoid the incident that allowed him to be killed he alienates himself from his friends, and turns him in to a different person, unwilling to take chances and doomed to insignificance. When he returns to his new present he finds himself alive but a different person. Instead of a starship captain is a nondescript lieutenant junior grade doing a job that he hates as an assistant astrophysics officer.

tapestry2

Distraught Picard complains to Q:

Picard: You having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?

Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?

Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who I am!

Q: Au contraire. He’s the person you wanted to be: one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who was less like me… The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away team on Milika III to save the Ambassador; or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe – and he never, ever, got noticed by anyone.

It is a fascinating exchange and one that when I wonder about the choices that I have made that I think about; because when all is said and done, my life, like all of ours is a tapestry. On reflection Picard tells Counselor Troi, “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.”

I think that I can agree with that. All the things in my life, the good things and the bad, as well as the paths not taken have all been a part of the tapestry of my life. I would not be who I am without them; and that I cannot comprehend. I would rather be the flawed me that is me, than the perfect me that never existed. Thus, all of those threads of my tapestry are in a sense, precious and even holy.

I’ll keep all of them, but of all I will remember this thread, as well as my combat tours, and life and death in ICUs and ERs the most. Suddenly at the age of 60 life has begun again. As the late great Sid Caesar once said:

“A great NOW will be a great WAS! A bad NOW will always be a bad WAS, and all you can hope for is a Great GONNA BE!”

As old as I am and as long as I have served, my future is yet to be written, and the tapestry of my life continues, even as new threads are woven into it. Every experience in my life has helped make me the person that I am. A friend of mine from my high school years sent me an email after I explained the experiences behind my writings, and noted “maybe all of that prepared you for such a time as this.” It was an affirmation by someone who doesn’t always share my political, social, or interpretation of the Christian faith that I am doing what I need to be, in such a time as this.

Value the tapestry of your life, and always find something good to life for and work towards.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Joyeux Noel: the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the Personal Reflections of an Old Chaplain

palmer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film tonight. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within this country.

I was reminded of that last night and today as the now Impeached President called upon and received the fealty and obedience of his Imperial Court Clergy, and the ever faithful cult of conservative and Evangelical Christians while pledging to destroy his enemies. In such a time I cannot

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact until very recently they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

It has been twelve years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of the President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years, unless as I expect a major war breaks out with North Korea, and maybe China, and Iran too.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. Two years ago I hosted the NATO contingent at my former chapel, and had the honor of preaching an Advent message in German.

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I expect that in the final months of my service before I retire in August of 2020, I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous. Those people remind me of the hate filled nationalist British Bishop.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die. Likewise I will do what I can to be a vessel of God’s love to all that I serve, many of whom have not seen a chaplain of any kind in their work areas for over a decade.

I am watching that film again tonight, and praying for the peace that it hopes will become real. It is hard to stop the tears as I watch it.

So until tomorrow,

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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All Good Things: My Decision to Retiree from the Military

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the Star Trek Film Generations Captain Jean Luc Picard told Commander William Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

Today was like any other Saturday for me except that I made the decision to put in my retirement papers from the Navy. Lord willing about this time next year I will be “piped ashore” in a retirement ceremony.

When that day comes it will be the end of a thirty-eight year military career in which I have served as an enlisted man, then an officer. I have served in the active duty Army, the Army Reserve, and California, Texas, and Virginia Army National Guard. Then in February of 1999 after 17 1/2 years in the Army I declared free agency so to speak and joined the Navy.  On February 8th I was a Major in the Army Reserve and on the 9th I was taking the oath of office as a Navy Lieutenant. My wife and my paternal grandmother were there when I took the oath in a humble, and now abandoned Naval Reserve Center in Huntington West Virginia.

So now, some 19 years and 8 months later I have made the decision to put in my retirement papers. For me it is a time for reflecting and realizing that it is the right time to do this. The last number of months in my assignment have been difficult and brought me little joy. I have sought to serve my congregations and to mentor, help, and protect the personnel assigned to me.

I have grown weary of the frustrations of dealing with a moribund bureaucracy, decaying facilities with no money to fix them, the prospect of losing most of my experienced enlisted personnel with no experienced personnel coming in, and dealing with Protestant and Catholic congregations that try my very soul. When one of my Protestant parishioners attempted to have me tried by court martial because he disagreed with my sermon content and then wrote a lying letter to my commander forcing an investigation in which I had to spend money on a lawyer to defend myself I crossed the Rubicon. I knew that I was going to retire at the end of my current tour.

Then this week I hit the culminating point when the faith group leader of my Catholic congregation and my new contract Priest raised such a ruckus and problems for my enlisted personnel and one of my Chaplains that I had to intervene despite being on leave and in the middle of massive work on my house. I spent Friday evening texting that lay leader and it only made me more upset. I realized that no matter what I did that had done to keep them going in the absence of a priest and how I fought for them that they had no loyalty of concern for me or my personnel. Gratefulness to others is not a virtue for most American Christians today, I knew that but learned it again.

This morning I read a Navy Message announcing a Selective Early Retirement Board for Captains and Commanders. I am in the zone and if chosen to be retired I would have little lead time to plan my retirement and do all the things that I would need to do medically, administratively, and personally to retire and have a decent chance of landing on me feet. Honestly, I would have rather spent the last year in a combat zone in Iraq like I did in 2007 and 2008 than deal with the bullshit that I have been dealing with lately.

I know that did the best that I could and I can say that the team of chaplains and Religious Program Specialists whose work I help direct and support are some of the finest people I have ever served with. Their honesty and likewise their care for me has been about the only thing that got me through. Honestly, I am so grateful for them and I treasure them all, just as I have so many of my other soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and civilians employed by the military for the last thirty-seven years.

I am at peace, and I am going to spent the time leading up to my retirement to cherish every moment. Now I know that my situation at work is not going to change but I am going to cherish the moments with the people that I care for and do my best to serve without getting to stressed out because I know now that I my future is only beginning. “Second star to the right and straight on till morning.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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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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“Tho’ all the world betray thee” The Minstrel Boy

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The Minstrel Boy (Thomas Moore)

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death ye will find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betray thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring his proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free
They shall never sound in slavery!”

The Minstrel Boy will return we pray
When we hear the news we all will cheer it,
The minstrel boy will return one day,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.
Then may he play on his harp in peace,
In a world such as heaven intended,
For all the bitterness of man must cease,
And ev’ry battle must be ended.

(Last verse anonymous Civil War)

Seven years ago I was in the process of returning home from Iraq spending my last couple of days in country before flying out to Kuwait and then the United States. I was already in a rather melancholy state knowing that the Chaplain incoming higher headquarters had turned off my relief for Al Anbar Province after I had paved the way for him with all of the teams of advisors that I had worked with during my time serving them. My relief a personal friend was diverted to the Army advisors with a different Iraqi Division in the north of the country. I felt that the incoming senior chaplain had betrayed and abandoned the men that I worked so hard to care for. Later I heard that he had disregarded my heavily detailed after action reports and told at least one senior chaplain that he “had heard that I was out there but didn’t know if I had done anything.”

It was at that point that I realized that you could do your job and sacrifice yourself to complete a mission only to have someone with their own agenda do what they could to discredit you.  I felt betrayed and still do. I was asked by my therapist about this and frankly, though I have tried to forgive the feelings always come back.

Where the senior Chaplain that I worked for did all that he could to support my team’s mission and see that we were properly recognized at Multi-National Corps Iraq in Baghdad his successor dismissed our work. It was the first time in my Navy career that I had experienced that.  I think it was the fact that I worked for a non-traditional billet working for an Army led joint command outside the normal Navy-Marine Corps chain was a big part of this. Inter-service rivalries and the distain of those bound by conventional thinking are not new and those that have done such non-conventional work have frequently been treated in a similar manner.

I think that is why the line in the song “Tho’ all the world betray thee” means so much to me and w.a big reason why the song touches me in the way it does. It is a song of men changed by war.

Looking back there are some songs which are particularly meaningful to me after my time in Iraq that send a chill up my spine when I hear them. One of these is the patriotic Irish song The Minstrel Boy written by Thomas Moore while a student in honor of friends killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  The song was very popular among soldiers of Irish descent in the American Civil War as well as soldiers fighting in Irish Regiments in World War One and World War Two.

The song is powerful when you hear it for it speaks of the reality of war, war that changes those, even those that return home are not unchanged by it.  It speaks of the sacrifices required by those that go to war and even the effects on the community, the loss of young people.  The final verse added by an anonymous author during the American Civil War in a sense is a prayer, a prayer of return as well as reconciliation. It has been recorded a number of times including an instrumental during the film Blackhawk Down. Another rendition is in the telvision mini-series Rough Riders about the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill and one in the movie Gettysburg as Father Corby blesses the Irish Brigade.

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My life has been changed and faith challenged. When I went to Iraq I still maintained a sense of idealism.   After Iraq and having to deal with PTSD and a psychological, spiritual and physical breakdown as well as a profound sense of abandonment by some senior chaplains, my former church and even God I am a different person. My faith which had been shattered to the point of being a practical agnostic for nearly two years has returned and even now seven years later I struggle with belief, unbelief and faith in general, but I don’t think that is a bad thing. If we are not changed by what God allows or by what life brings I don’t think that we grow. As a Priest I wonder if I could work in the environment that I work without having gone through what I did.

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I see many of the “minstrel boys” and girls of our era and having also been to war and come back changed the last lines of the final verse is a prayer that I echo. One of the versions that I particularly like is the one sung in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode “The Wounded.” While it is only the first verse it deals with the lives of two officers whose lives are forever changed by war. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJudJ9S579A

This is dedicated to all those who have served who have gone through the pain of war and return until war shall be no more.

Peace

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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Long Days, Lost Wallets and a Long Layover…Ministry Included

10151918_10152444030142059_7871957421917905974_nWell my friends it is after Nine PM Eastern Time and I am still enroute to Houston after leaving my home at Six AM. This means that I have been traveling for over 15 hours and since I still have about three hours before I get to Houston and maybe more before I lay my head down on my pillow that this qualifies as a long day.

Things went well enough at first until I got to what I thought was my one layover at Baltimore Washington International Airport and discovered that I did not have my wallet. Long story short after about an hour of searching, phone calls and consternation it looked like my travel to an important conference with my church and fellow denomination clergy and chaplains was not going to happen. I went to the Southwest Airlines gate agent who put my information in the computer and found that my missing wallet had been turned in to the gate agent in Norfolk. Armed with that information I called the Staff College and the industrious young man got me back to Norfolk to my wallet and connected me with flights to get me to Houston late tonight.  While in Baltimore some nice lady who overheard my near panicked conversation with people at the Staff College gave me $20 to eat. Since beer is technically bread since it is made from grain that was lunch.

To let you know I do not do airports or aircraft well. Today, even with all the craziness I am still in one peace. I attribute this to prayer and pilsner, though technically I was drinking lagers at almost every stop. I figure when it come to dealing with airports I can deal with panic mode because of the crowds by going crazy, not a good option, drugging myself with anti-anxiety meds which don’t taste good or drink beer which does taste good. Once I had my wallet back I also got food, comfort food instead of healthy food, which I will go back to tomorrow. Of course with over three hours to go before I get to Houston I have switched to lots of water since I tend not to do sodas very often.

While at the Johnny Rivers Grill and Market in Orlando Airport I had some pulled pork BBQ, it was okay, as well as a couple of beers and while there had a young man in a delay situation for another flight sit next to me at the bar. He was a Staff Sergeant in the National Guard who was being called home early from vacation to drill. He was leaving his family in Orlando. He has spent several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and was telling me that he still has not been able to re-set after his last deployment because in addition to his civilian commitments his Guard unit continues to push him and all of its personnel hard, without much thanks and with no support to soldiers or families. It was a similar conversation that I had with a senior Marine Corps Officer recently. The important thing for this soldier who has served his country for 15 years as a citizen soldier was that I cared to listen to him and understood.

I didn’t do much talking, mentioned that I had been to Iraq, had PTSD and had been an agnostic for a couple of years and he was grateful just for someone to listen. The sad thing is there are far to few people, especially leaders who will take the time to do that. The fact is we have to stand by our guys, they have put themselves on the line time and time again, we as leaders owe them. But the truth is as my Marine friend noted is that since 2001 the attitude is that you owe the military.

When I was training to be a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard, Colonel John Price, an Episcopal Priest told me that his best ministry happened in officer’s clubs and bars, being available to people who would never darken the door of a church, come to a chapel service or would be too proud to come to the office.  Father Price was right. Jesus didn’t cloister himself, he was out with people. Most religious people didn’t care much for it but he drew people to him because he was where they were.

We as Chaplains as well as leaders must change our culture or we will destroy the men and women entrusted to us by the nation and in the process destroy our armed forces. Without the people the machines don’t matter that much.

So anyway, not much longer until I will board this flight. So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

 

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