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Christmas 2007 in Anbar: My Last Mass to Love…

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“It’s my last mass, my last mass to love…”

It’s funny how a slight twisting of the lyrics of a classic Disco song can blend with one’s wartime experience, instead of my last dance, it was my last mass, to love….

I was in Iraq in December 2007 on an 11 day expedition to American advisors to Iraqi Army and Border units in Al Anbar Province toward the end of my tour in Iraq. The mission was to provide chaplain support and spiritual succor to the American soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and civilians, as well as the Iraqi and other Arab interpreters and contractors serving in incredibly isolated parts of the province near the Syrian border.

For me it was one of the last magical times in my life. I was exhausted and already suffering from insomnia and nightmares caused by PTSD that I was unaware of having, but while I was there that didn’t matter, in fact if I would have been allowed to extend in Iraq back then I would have. It was my life and the men and women that I served mattered more to me than anything. It still does…

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COP South

After a number of visits with other elements we traveled out to a small base near the Syrian border called COP South. It was the location of two teams of advisors, one which supported elements of the Second Border Brigade and one which supported the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Iraqi Army Division. We were not strangers to either team. Following the vista there we made our way to COP North, also along the Syrian border to do the same for two other advisor teams, one supporting a different Border unit and and the 2nd battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Division.

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With the Bedouin on the Border, I’m the bald guy without the helmet. 

These outposts were terribly isolated. The men who served there served in incredibly austere conditions where danger lurked just beyond the sand berms that were the boundaries between them and the Islamist extremists of Al Qaeda Iraq and their supporters. The berms were not much comfort to anyone on either of the two most west most COPs in theater. Just to the west was Syria, a haven and support to the Al Qaeda Iraq insurgents and their supporters. All around were Iraqi Sunnis who many only recently had changed their allegiance to support the Americans against the largely foreign AQI forces.

The men that I served were not a typical congregation that you would find in the states. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Catholics, non-denominational types, Latter Day Saints and even a few Iraqi Christians, some who had not received Eucharist from any priest for years gathered for mass at COP South and COP North that Christmas of 2007. Iraqi Moslems wished us well. Peace on earth in the midst of war.

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At Border Fort Five on the Syrian Border

As I mentioned I was exhausted. We had been on the road, flying and in small convoys of just a few vehicles since we arrived in theater, I was also on my last legs. I had stood with and stayed with the wounded, I had seen the destruction wrought on Iraqi facilities and people by both sides. All that mattered was to get out with the men and women who had no other formal spiritual support. I would have stayed another year to provide that support, but I knew that would not happen.

When they were done and we headed back to Ta’Qaddum, the base that we operated from I realized that the support we had provided was the high point of my military Chaplain career as well as my priesthood. Instead of my “last dance” as Dona Summer’s song said, it was my “last mass” to love.

Since then things have not been the same for me. I have talked and written about this before on this site, but those masses with those small groups of Americans and Iraqis meant more to me than any I have ever celebrated, especially those after my return from Iraq in 2008. For me, the magic and mystery have disappeared. I struggle with faith and belief even as I chose to believe in spite of my doubts.

There are times I wonder if it would have been better to have been killed by a rocket, an IED, an ambush or to have been shot down in Iraq, rather than to have to deal with this seemingly endless crisis of faith and to inflict my shit on those that I love. But then such is life and such is war.

Honestly I have to say that I believe again, but I am not sure why. I have to say that while I believe my doubts encompass me.

Christmas will never be the same for me. Yes, I have celebrated man masses since I returned, but to quote the Barry Manilow song, I’m “trying to get the feeling again” and sadly, despite my efforts I don’t think that will ever happen. If it does I will rejoice. If it doesn’t I will persevere just hoping and praying that feelings and facts matter less than faith and doing the best that I can.

Anyway. I am tired and just hoping that this Christmas will be different and that maybe I will get that feeling again, if not now, maybe someday….

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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An Advent of Doubt, Faith and Struggles

Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.

A new liturgical year is upon us and with the season of Advent Christians look forward to the “Advent” of Christ both in looking forward to the consummation of all things in him as well as inviting him back into our lives as we remember his Incarnation, as the Creed says “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

At the same time for a lot of people the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible.  For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.

Before Iraq,  Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season.  Until I came home from Iraq. Now while I have faith again I struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.

Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow death from Alzheimer’s Disease, I have struggled with faith.  Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers.  Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me.  About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park.  For some reason the lush green diamond comforts me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of all faiths. For those of us who are ordained and view our ministry or our Priesthood as a sacred vocation this is difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a hell because it is not supposed to happen to us. I do believe that for many people a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with his or her faith is disconcerting.  I can remember a myriad of situations where pastors due to a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith many of which involved great personal loss such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage, being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing a major traumatic event.  These were good people and quite often instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless, failed and worthless, often abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.

When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason.  As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with this, it made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better.  At the same time I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof,” that it could never happen to me. And it did and I was stunned.

When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My accomplishments went unrecognized on my return home.  As I crashed no one asked about my faith until Elmer the shrink did when he met me.  Later my Commodores, first Frank Morneau when he found out about my condition and Tom Sitsch when he took command of EOD Group 2 both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th of this year, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.

On the professional side I felt isolated from much of the clergy of my former church and many chaplains, something that I still feel to some extent today. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me and more for both church and chaplain corps.  The Chaplains that I knew cared all worked in different commands and were not immediately available and I was ashamed to go ask them for help.

I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” It showed me that people cared.  When I went to the medical center I dealt with many difficult situations and was haunted by my dad’s deterioration, the latter which I still deal with today.  To have a close family member mock my vocation, service and person and provoke me into rages was equally taxing.  Likewise the absolute hatred and divsion in the American political debate tore my heart out.  I felt like, and in some ways still feel like we are heading down a path to being “Weimar America.”

There were many times that I knew that I had no faith.  People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me.  Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful, and they often still are.

That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I noted last week a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space.

Why I am is  sometimes hard to figure.  I am not a Christian because of the Church, though I love the Church, church bodies have often has been for me a sourse of pain and rejection.  I am not a Christian because of what is called “Christian.” Nor can I ignore the injustice, violence and oppression wrought by those who called themsleves Christian throughout history, including that wrought by current Christian leaders.  Slavery, the subjectation and conquest of who peoples to take their land and resources and wars of agression blessed by “Christian” leaders are all part of history.

At the same time much progress has come through the work, faith and actions of Christians and the Church. Despite all of the warts and the many sins and crimes committed by Christians, even genocide, I can like Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” (Kung, Hans Why I am Still a Christian Abingdon Press, Nashville 1987 p. 36)

Neither am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has “all” of the answers.

In fact after coming through Iraq and returning home I know that it is not so.

I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers, and those who think that they do, and claim that in the name of God or Jesus, are fundamentally deceived, and that I would not follow them across the street.

I now understand what my Church History Professor, Dr Doyle Young said in class that “all of people’s deepest needs are not religious.”  Likewise I certainly not a Christian because I think that Christians are somehow better or more spiritual than others.  In fact I find the crass materialism and self centered “What can God to for me?” theology and way of life to be deeply offensive.

People get sick, young children die, innocents are subjected to trauma even from their parents or siblings.  Good people endure unspeakable trials while sometimes it seems that evil people get away with murder.  I can’t chealk it all up to a naive “it’s God’s will” kind of theology.  I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets.  Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.

I still believe, Lord help me in my unbelief.

One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel is a prayer for me this year.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, feel abandoned by God, family and friends.  For those who have experienced the crisis of faith or even a loss of faith I pray that all of us will experience joy this season.

I’m sure that I will have some ups and downs, I certainly don’t think that I am over all that I am still going through.  However I know that I am not alone to face my demons and pray that by opening up that others who are going through similar experiences will find hope.  O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer, our spirits by Thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

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“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

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My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.”

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.

I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care,  my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 80-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain.

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a  faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

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In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt. I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

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So today this wounded healer will celebrate a special Christmas at home. My wife and I will celebrate a Mass, enjoy a Christmas dinner with our dogs, Molly and Minnie. Depending on how she feels we will either go out to a movie or watch one at home.

I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on these posts. You are appreciated, some are lengthly and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. If you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Where I Belong: Padre Steve and the Christmas Truce

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Christmas 2007 COP South, Al Anbar Province Iraq

“I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Father Palmer, the Chaplain in Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)

Last night I again watched the film classic Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) which 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.

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre 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.

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Father Palmer Tending the Wounded

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 a country.

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The Bishop Leads His “Service” 

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“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.

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Christmas Eve 2007 with the Bedouin 

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. When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisors 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.

It has been six years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. 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, 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.  

As for me I am in a better place now. I still suffer some of the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but I do believe again. Like the Priest in the movie I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” Like 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.” 

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Silent Night: The Hymn that Transcends Language Culture and Ideology

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Stille Nacht Autograph in the Hand of Joseph Mohr

In 1816 a young Austrian Catholic Priest in a small parish near Salzburg penned the lyrics to a hymn that even in the midst of war can bind people together. Father Joseph Mohr after moving to another parish in Oberndorf took those lyrics to Franz Gruber a nearby schoolmaster and organist. Mohr asked Gruber to put the words to music, specifically with a guitar accompaniment. Together the performed the song at Oberndorf’s parish church’s Vigil Mass on December 24th 1818.

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There are a number of fanciful apocryphal stories about why the song was written and performed on the guitar, including one about the bellows of the church organ having been eaten by mice, but these are akin to sensationalist tabloid journalism. The simple truth is that Mohr sought out Gruber to arrange the song for guitar to be sung by two people accompanied by a choir for that Christmas Vigil Mass.

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht 

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund
, Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

 The song rapidly grew in popularity and spread quickly in Europe. A traveling Austrian singing group, the Rainer family performed it in front of Austrian Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I.

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They also gave its first American performance in New York outside the famed Trinity Church in 1839. I continued to grow in popularity and was translated into many languages, now numbering about 140.

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The American Episcopalian Bishop John Freeman Young translated it into English in 1863. It is his version that is most used today in English speaking lands today. A website called the Silent Night Web http://silentnight.web.za has 227 versions of the song in 142 languages on its site.

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Silent Night 

Silent night, Holy night

 All is calm, all is bright

‘Round yon virgin , mother and child

Holy infant so, tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, Holy night
Shepherds quake, at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly, hosts sing Hallelujah.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born.

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

Father Mohr refused to profit from his song and donated his proceeds to care for the elderly and educate children in the parishes and towns he served. He died in 1848.

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I find that the song will bring me to tears fast than almost any song. It is one that I have sung in English, German and French. In my travels as a military Chaplain have used on every Christmas Eucharist celebration that I have done, including at two lonely COPS in Iraq, COP South and COP North on the Syrian Border in Al Anbar Province. Likewise I have celebrated joint ecumenical Christmas services with German military chaplains and civilian clergy.

It is a simple and humble song. It is performed the world over by the great and small, the famous and the unknown. It is a song that in two world wars has stopped the violence as opposing soldiers paused to sing it together each in their own language. This happened during the Christmas Truce truce of 1914 as well as in 1944 along the Western Front during the Battle of the Bulge.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbGZ7T5EHpQ

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On Tuesday as people gather for Christmas Eve and Wednesday when they gather for Christmas Day services the song will be sung around the world. In lands where war rages the song will be sung. It is my hope that someday that war will be no more and the tiny child spoken of in this humble hymn will understand the incredible grace of the message spoken by the Angels as recorded in Luke’s Gospel:  “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased.” (American Standard Version)

Peace

Padre Steve+

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That War Would Cease: The Christmas Truce of 1914

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“Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves.” Chaplain Palmer Joyeux Noël

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The war was supposed to be over by Christmas, or so the planners had said. Instead after a series of massive battles that produced unprecedented number of casualties the war settled into a stalemate. As the sides exhausted themselves in a series of meeting engagements throwing the flower of their idealistic youth into the great maw of the front to be torn apart by massed artillery and machine gun fire the planners sought new ways to find military victory.

In December 1914 with neither side having the ability to force the issue and casualties already running over a million dead and wounded the armies dug in. Massive trench networks were constructed in the mud of France and Belgium as the artillery continued its impersonal work of destroying men, machines and the homeland of millions of civilians.

From Clipboard

Despite the stalemate the high commands of the various nations continued to through their troops into meaningless attacks to gain a few yards of their opponent’s trench networks. The attackers always suffered the worst as they went “over the top” and were cut down by well sited machine guns and networks of defensive redoubts.

As Christmas neared individual parties of British and German troops began to fraternize exchanging gifts and attempting despite the wishes of their commanders to maintain an attitude of live and let live. On Christmas Eve German troops began to decorate their trenches with Christmas trees and lights, carols were sung and Christmas greetings exchanged as the local truces became widespread and soldiers met in no man’s land to talk and give each other gifts of cigarettes, alcohol, food and souvenirs.  In some places the sides helped each other collect and bury their dead and some Chaplains even led Christmas services in which men of both sides worshipped.

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The truce would not last as the high commands of each side issued strict orders against them and within days had moved the units that they believed most “infected” by the Christmas spirit to other locations and replaced them with units inculcated with the message of the inhumanity of their enemy. Such messages often included the religious understanding of this being a “holy war” against enemies of God and humanity. It is funny that though Moslems are frequently demonized for committing Jihad that Christians have a terrible record when it comes to finding theological reasons to kill those that they believe, even other Christians to be the enemy.

Christmas Day December 1914 World War One

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-MGfNsgB3A

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This really wasn’t surprising, after all for in the years leading up to the war many school children, especially in France and Germany had been propagandized. Churches and ministers cooperated in the carnage. In the movie Joyeux Noel the British Padre who had cooperated in the Christmas truce is relieved by his Bishop and sent home. The Bishop then preaches to the newly arrived soldiers, those replacing the men who had found peace for a moment. The sermon is not a work of fiction, it is actually part of a sermon that actually was given in Westminster Abbey in 1915. It was a sentiment that fit the mood of the high command who sought to minimize the danger of peace without victory. It was a sermon, the likes of which were preached by ministers, preachers, priests and bishops throughout that terrible war. It is a sermon that many preachers, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu even today mimic with terrible consequences.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMPxjUE40iw

“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.”

Unfortunately I have met and heard men preach the same message against those they hate, a message that twists the words of Jesus in a diabolical way to justify the worst acts of nations and peoples. In the year 2013 wars rage around the world. Some are conducted by well organized professional militaries but many by militias, paramilitary and terrorists groups. In some cases the brutality and inhumanity exhibited makes the industrialized carnage of the First World War seem sane. Even now preachers of various religions, including Christians, Moslems and Jews advocate the harshest treatment of the enemies of their peoples all in “the name of God.”

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Six years ago I was traveling up and down the western border of Iraq with Syria. I was visiting our Marines that were advising the Iraqi Army and Border Forces, conducting Christmas services for them and also visiting Iraqi soldiers as well as civilians. In a couple of instances Iraqi and Jordanian Christians working as interpreters came to the Eucharist services, for one it had been years since he had received the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion. While out and about visiting Iraqis we were hosted by Iraqi troops and well as Bedouin tribesmen and their families. The warmth and hospitality and faith of these wonderful people was amazing.  T.E. Lawrence wrote that the Bedouin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God.” 

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I think that for me that Christmas week was the one that will remain with me more than any and despite being in a war zone, it for me was a time of peace on earth and good will toward men.

Maybe someday we will begin to understand.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, film, History, iraq,afghanistan, Religion, Tour in Iraq

All I want for Christmas is Christmas and Our Country Back not another Political Debate

I don’t know about you but apart from the bad political theater I wish that it was like December 2012 so I could celebrate Christmas in peace, except that if it were I would miss a full baseball season.  I mean really all of our politicians seem to come from the same shallow and insipid gene pool, it’s like political inbreeding on a grand scale, even the outsiders are insiders and the insiders are so out there that it makes one want do the Linda Blair 360 or be sent back to the Dilithium mines on Rura Penthe.  Regardless the show is about the quality of an atrocious reality TV show and I’m already tired of it. The sad thing is this reality TV cast is trying to become President of the the United States and they are sucking the life out of everyone listening and stomping all over the Christmas season.  But there are just over two months before Spring Training begins so I think I can outlast them.

I feel that the political campaign season is infringing on the the great capitalistic venture that we have made Christmas but I don’t feel very that holiday spirit this year.

Now please know it is not a matter of faith or lack thereof I just don’t feel very christmassy this year.  The sad thing is I really do like Christmas and not just the part about Jesus which thankfully I still treasure.  I feel like Charlie Brown this year only instead of just the commercialization of Christmas I feel that the politicians, pundits and preachers are doing their best to make it less merry. I mean the whole lot of them. Religious and secular Atheist and God Fearing alike they seem to have turned Christmas into a political battleground that even makes the commercialization of the holiday look positively benign.

Amid all the business and the incessant drone of the politicians, pundits and preachers who have managed by their ineptitude and unwillingness to work together for the nation I still hope to find something to celebrate.  I think I will but it won’t be from any of those that are killing the season.  Frankly I am offended that political hacks have pushed the opening primaries to nearly the first of the year turning a time that used to be somewhat reflective into a self destructive and bitter political season.  We have budget and tax impasses in Congress and a bitter primary campaign that is and will trample both Hanukah and Christmas and probably even ruin the Winter Solstice for the Pagans.  There is something unholy and vile about what is happening this year, there has been no pause for reflection by our leaders, no attempts at reconciliation and certainly no good will on Capitol Hill.

Frankly I find the whole political and social atmosphere this year to be repugnant and I have nothing against Pugs. People popping pepper spray on the faces of competing shoppers on the high Holy Day of Black Friday, people walking over a dying man to continue shopping in a Target.  That is bad enough but really we do have a choice about when we start our primary season. This year had not a tiny shred of common sense prevailed had a primary or Caucus on December 27th.  Instead the first are a mere three weeks from today.

I just wonder why the rush and why the political hacks and their backers have insisted on moving everything forward on the calendar.  But then I answer myself. The fact is that they cannot help it.  They have to be the center of attention for as long as possible. Dragging the primary campaign season forward means that the rest of us have to pay attention to them. They have created the perfect poisonous self licking ice creme cone.  Power and money feed the bold narcissism of everyone in the beast of the belly of the machine. They cannot get enough.

However our politicians pundits and woebegone preachers, that unholy trinity that afflicts our nation have forgotten that old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  We have become so familiar with all of the Candidates to include the President that many people can no longer stand any of them.  All the polls say that, they may support a candidate but this is no love fest between any candidate and the voters.

What I would like to see the next two weeks is for the whole bunch of our leaders, pundits and preachers to chill out, go out to a dud ranch in Montana and have a two week holiday party, get drunk, smoke some dope have a few good natured bar fights, watch football games together, sing around the campfire.  Hell maybe they can sleep together and do all the things that they tell us that we shouldn’t do, put pictures of Pelosi in bed with Eric Cantor on Facebook and You Tube and get it all out of their systems.  No debates just joyous holiday debauchery and when they come back rested refreshed and with some much incriminating information on themselves that they will all have to be good in order not to create a total meltdown of their exalted position in life and maybe start working for the rest of us.  Some would say that they all should go pray together but they wouldn’t get past the issue of who gets to be in charge. Maybe a few hearty souls of faith will pray during that time for something other than their reelection.

But in the mean time all I want for Christmas this year is Christmas. The truly sad think is that Christmas meant more when I was in Iraq.  That I do miss,  celebrating the holy mysteries of the Eucharist on Christmas Eve, Day and night with tiny groups of Americans and even a few Iraqi Christian interpreters. For me and other Christians a time where we try to take a portion of the year to remember the Advent of Jesus, that tiny manger where in our tradition God became incarnate in a baby who was called Emanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the World.  The one who comes humbly not with the swagger or polish of our modern politicians, pundits and preachers who like to use him as a campaign prop  or show segment.

Yes my Christmas will have Jesus at the center but I do plan to have some of there less relies Christmas cheer. Time with Judy and our Dog Molly, friends in the area on contact with those that we have known for the years.  I will remember and celebrate the humbly first nativity, I will reflect on the Second Coming and the times that he comes to us in the little daily things of life. The things that happen because we live in what Bonhoeffer called “the uncomfortable middle.”

I am really offended by the political hacks that have driven us to this point.  But God loves them too so I reckon that I best pray for them and that as not sarcasm.  .

I feel better already.  Thanks be to God.

Peace

Padre Steve

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