Tag Archives: christmas miracle

Faith’s Journey: A Progressive Christian Navy Chaplain Looks at the Journey to Wholeness

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June 27th 2013: After the events of this week including the Supreme Court decision declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional I decided to re-publish an article that was one of the most important that I ever published. Not so much because of the what I think was so earth shattering regarding the content but because of what happened after its publication. At the point in time that I wrote it I was pushing the envelope with my former denomination, but figured that in light of all the controversies and schisms in that church at the time that whatever I wrote would not result in any problems. But I was wrong. I received a call the next day from my bishop telling me that I needed to find a new home because I was “too liberal.”

It was actually quite fascinating, I was able to gain a new church home which was much more progressive, welcoming and catholic, being of the Old Catholic tradition. For me that phone call was just a few months later deposed for attempting to create yet another schism in the church. I think it is even more interesting because some of my friends still in that church think that he used this article as a reason to get rid of me in order to keep me from exposing his scheme. I don’t know if that it the case or not, but my friends believe it to be a distinct possibility. That being said one of my long time priest friends revealed his plot to the other bishops and the bishop who forced me  was deposed. Irony is fascinating. Since that time my former church is regaining its footing and doing better and for my friends in it I am glad for even if I have differences in theology, faith or beliefs with people who I consider to be friends, they are still friends and I wish them well.  

So anyway, for those that are fairly new followers on this site here is the article that in a sense served as a declaration of independence and station on the road to wholeness and integrity. 

Peace, Padre Steve+

Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian (Originally published 22 September 2010)

There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

I know what it feels like to be marginalized after I came back from Iraq because many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians.  I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the war, despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar province.  The fact that not a clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith before I went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth didn’t seem to matter because a political agenda was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.

Yesterday I wrote about Chaplains that experience a crisis of faith after coming home from a combat deployment.  For me there is nothing more symbolic of the lack of soul left in many Christians and Christian Churches in how they treat those that have served faithfully. Those Chaplains that have served  God, Church and Country and come back spiritually wondering what happened, not knowing what to believe and feeling abandoned by God and cast off by the Church and the military simply because we have a hard time with the so called “orthodoxy” of some Christians.

I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic.  That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that it sucks like a Hoover and I know that I am not alone in my feelings.  I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us.

Let’s talk about spiritual despair. Did you know that in the past couple of years that two Army Chaplains and one Navy Chaplain have committed suicide? These were men of faith who had served in peace and war at least one that had served at the Battle of Hue City as a Marine before becoming a Priest and Chaplain.  Another Army Chaplain that had served in Iraq as a minister of a conservative Charismatic and Evangelical Christian denomination became a Wiccan and was excoriated by Christians.  I don’t know his faith journey but I have to believe that part was his experience in Iraq and experience on his return. I don’t know about you but those are all signs of spiritual despair and feeling cut off from their faith community and even God, his or her self.

I am still a Christian. I believe in the God of Scripture, the Creeds and the Councils. At the same time that belief is not as rigid as it once was. I used to consider those that didn’t believe like I did in relation to Scripture, the Creeds and Councils not to be Christians.  I cannot say that now. I am much more to have the Grace and Mercy of God be my default position and let other things fall out where they may.  My practice of my faith has changed. When I came back from Iraq I attempted, as it were without success to keep my faith structure and practice the same as it was before I deployed to Iraq.  Within six months of Iraq I could no longer pray the Daily Office with any kind of faithfulness and by Lent 2009 give up the practice for Lent hoping to recover some authenticity to my faith. The authenticity has returned and after about a hear and a half I am seeking a way to reincorporate what had been a very important part of my daily practice of faith into my life without feeling like I am a phony in doing so.

I went through a period of absolute spiritual despair even leaving a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 to walk home in the dark, alone, looking at the sky and asking God if he even existed.  A year later after my life had completely fallen apart I experienced what I call my “Christmas miracle” where I was called to our Emergency Room to provide the “last rites” to a retired Navy doctor and active Episcopalian when I was the duty Chaplain.  As I prayed the last prayer of commendation and removed my oil covered fingers from the man’s forehead he breathed his last. His wife told me that he was waiting to be anointed before he died.  The young doctor, a Psychology Resident doing his ER rotation who called me to the ER would die a couple of months later of natural causes in his living room not long after we had taken the “fat boy” program PT test together.

From that moment the paradigm shifted.  Faith began to return and I began to experience the presence of God again, not is the same was as before Iraq but one that was more relational, grace filled and informal.  I will likely begin praying the Daily Office again in the near future but I will approach it from a different point of view.  I will no longer use it simply to fulfill my priestly vows and obligations but rather as a way to re-experience and if need be re-imagine God.  Now before the heresy hunters think that I am re-imagining God is some unbiblical manner they are wrong. I want to re-imagine God as he has been revealed to his people both in Scripture, Tradition and in the life of his, or her people today.

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How have I changed? I believe again. I am no longer an agnostic hoping and praying that God just might be there. My faith has become much more deeply rooted and grounded in the “Crucified God” and my faith in the “theology of the Cross.”  It is no longer connected to my politics and I refute any political ideology that attempts to use the Christian faith and the faith of well meaning Christians for purposes that Jesus himself would have condemned.  I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of his followers attempting to be the favorites of any political party or ideological system. In fact if I recall he really had pretty harsh words for his fellow Jews who were all wrapped around the axels with that kind of stuff. Jesus seems to befriend and hang around with those that are not connected to the religious, political or economic elites. In fact he seemed to reserve his harshest words for such people.  Jesus seemed to have a pretty good relationship with those marginalized and rejected by the religious folks of his day. He welcome sinners and tax collectors to his table and praised the faith of gentile Roman officers and stopped the super-religious folks from stoning an adulterous woman.

This is the Jesus that I follow and the Jesus that I believe is present in body, soul and spirit in the Eucharist.  I believe like Hans Kung and others that this table belongs to the baptized community of faith and not to an exclusive Priestly class who dictate who can come to the table.  It is not the exclusive property of any denomination or Church organization especially those that most loudly state this to be the case.

Now if saying this makes me a heretic then a heretic I will be. It is better to be a heretic in the eyes of Pharisees than to be one that denies justice to the persecuted people of God.  I guess that makes this moderate a liberal and to some an unbeliever.  Yet I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I believe in the Jesus that defied religious systems to offer the grace of God to the people that those systems rejected and the Jesus that was far more critical of “believers’ than those rejected as unbelievers.  I guess that is why I can accept women as ministers or even Priests, accept homosexuals as Christian brothers and sisters, and see Christ and the grace and love of God in people that are not “Christians” even the Muslims in Iraq that treated me with respect and even if they had an “Aryan” view of Jesus still showed a greater reverence for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary than many that claim Jesus for themselves.

Why? You ask. Very simply I once was lost but now am found.  I thought that I knew it all before, now I know that I don’t know it all and that God is the God of surprises, just look in Scripture.  I doubt at times. I know that there are many answers that elude me and I cannot answer just by citing or using Scripture out of its historic, cultural and linguistic context.  I believe in the God that did not reject me when I didn’t know if he even existed.

Why am I still a Christian when I have so many problems with how many Christians practice the faith? Because I believe and not because will not I tow anyone’s party line be they liberals or conservatives. I believe in spite of my unbelief in a fellowship of those who as a result of war and trauma have trouble believing those that won’t race the cold realities of this life. I believe because many times it was those marginalized by others, especially those marginalized by the “faithful” showed me the love of God when the “faithful” for pure or impure motives, or even because they didn’t know what to do allowed me to sink into despair and isolation. So in the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther I say “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, philosophy, Religion

Epiphanies: PTSD, Life, Leadership, Lawrence of Arabia and the Gospel

I have been going through a process lately in preparation for some treatment of my chronic insomnia, nightmares and other PTSD symptoms which has caused me to have to be very deliberate and reflective in examining the various parts of the often tattered tapestry of my life.

Part of this has involved my experiences in military, religious and civilian institutional settings and how those experiences have helped shaped me as a Priest as well as a Naval Officer. Today was one of those days where a convergence of thoughts came together in a number of encounters juxtaposed with some reading of B.H. Liddell Hart’s book about T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

While I was waiting for my doctor late this afternoon I was reading the book on my Kindle and as he came into the waiting room I had just finished marking this passage.

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

Somehow this little passage in a book that I am about halfway through reading and which I have already made numerous other annotations really struck me as profound. It encapsulated close to 20 years of experience as a military chaplain and over 30 years in the military as well as civilian professional work, and it struck me especially in regard to my experiences both in Iraq and after my return. Before, during and after my time in Iraq I had come to see Lawrence as a kindred spirit, someone that thought outside the box and went to places that no one else wanted to go. My job in Iraq to me to those places that few Americans and almost no other chaplains went or had the chance to experience with Iraqi Arabs and the Bedouin.

Those that read my posts regularly know that the impetus for my writing came about during my time in Iraq around Christmas of 2007 in the western Iraqi Al Anbar Province while on the Syrian border. At that time I wrote a short article for my former denomination’s website and a little more than a year after my return to the United States  I began this site I modified that article and published it here under the title of God in the Empty Places. It was a catharsis for me because I going though a tremendously ark period of my life where I had for all practical purposes become an Agnostic struggling to believe in God again. It was published a couple of months after I walked out of a church on Christmas Eve 2008 and walked an hour home in the dark and cold of that night.

During the interregnum of returning from Iraq and now I experienced a number of additional traumatic life events, both personal and professional. Following my assignment to my current post where I supervise a number of chaplains, pastoral counselors and support personnel I made it my goal in life not to let things that happened to me at the hands of some senior chaplains happen to others, especially those struggling with life, health, spiritual or emotional issues.

I have been asked by a number of people in the past couple of weeks, how in light of things that could leave me embittered and cynical could I embody grace to others. I admit that I still hurt and have issues of anger and some bitterness towards some people who I thought used me and betrayed me both in my old denomination as well as some senior chaplains. That is a given, though I try to live in a state of forgiveness toward them there are times that I do get upset the things that happened during that time. It is something that I deal with and I don’t always do well. I have my bad moments in which that grace doesn’t come out well,  but my path to healing has involved a conscious effort to see the good in people and to embody something different than I experienced.

A couple of people made the comment as we discussed these experiences as well as their own that “you do the Gospel it by living it.” I think that is what Jesus did, he taught yes and he did miracles, but the biggest miracles were those that he did when he rocked the religious-political establishment of his day by hanging out and caring for the people it despised. In fact Jesus surmised the entire law in two commandments, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. The prophet Malachi noted what God required “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Those two passages have been tremendously important as faith returned after what I refer to as Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle faith began to return in a way that I never expected.

So the past few weeks have served as an epiphany to me about wisdom can evade leaders whose “eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success…” My eyes are opening in more ways to the bigness of God, the grace of God, the love of God and the mercy of God. My ambition is simply to care for the people that God allows me to care for and show that grace, love and mercy to those who some would attempt to destroy because they themselves have become prisoners of the institutions and their offices and ambitions.  I have resolved in daily life to do all I can to avoid becoming a prisoner of my office or ambitions and simply to be real. One of the senior leaders of the hospital that I work noted that he saw me as not just as the senior chaplain but a “real person.” I can live with that.

Well that is enough for tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, iraq,afghanistan, Tour in Iraq

Sometimes between Life and Death a Baseball often Matters as much as a Prayer

I have had a number of patients in my ICUs who have been avid baseball fans.  Likewise there are a number of physicians and nurses who are avid fans of the game, or sometimes certain teams.  Like me they were members of the Church of Baseball.  Some even attend my parish, Harbor Park.  It is funny how in the intersection of life and death that baseball finds a place more than any other sport.  Baseball has a quality and nuance that is different from most other sports, save perhaps golf.  Baseball is not bound by the constraints of time.  It has an eternal quality that somehow transcends life and death and one can see that in the stories that we tell in film in novels, histories and our own narratives.

There is a scene in The Babe Ruth Story where a critically ill child asks the Babe to hit a home run for him.  The Babe then went out and hit two.  Later in the movie when the Babe is dying of cancer he is given a Miraculous Medal.  The film was rushed to completion before Ruth died and the scene at Yankee Stadium was filmed shortly before a game and Ruth came from his death bed to be there.

In Field of Dreams the spirits of the 1919 White Sox who were forced out of baseball in the Blacksox scandal.  The Pride of the Yankees deals with the life of Lou Gehrig, baseballs original Iron Man and his battle with ALS.  His speech at Yankee Stadium when he retired from the game is classic.  It is a reflection on life well lived and thanksgiving for what he experienced.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t have considered it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrows? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeeper and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something. When you have a father and mother work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know. I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.” – July 4, 1939 at Yankee Stadium on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

These are intersections of life and death.  In the ICUs I have a surprising amount of dealings with baseball.  In one ICU I had a lady that was very sick with chronic and apparently terminal heart disease.  She was a delightful woman with a wonderful husband.  I had met them and while she had struggled she looked like she was on the uptick. She was delightful to spend time with and in those pastoral conversations when I had the overnight duty we found that we shared a common passion, baseball.

We agreed that the Biblical writer’s description of heaven was inaccurate being that they were unaware of the Deity’s love of baseball. We agreed that heaven had to have not streets of gold, but the most amazing turf and most immaculate infield which one could imagine and foul lines that went into infinity. She and her husband were watching the Nationals and Astros play deep into the night but the following day she took a bad turn for the worse.

I saw her that day we visited again and she was struggling. I prayed and anointed her at her request.  And I asked her if she would like a baseball. Her eyes lit up and she nodded “yes.”  So I promised that I would get one from the stadium last night.  The game at Harbor Park was rained out that night so I went home and got a ball that I had received after throwing out the first pitch at a Kinston Indians game.  I inscribed it to her and took it to her room the next day. She was pretty heavily sedated and her sister was with her.  I spent some time with her sister to let her know that I had the baseball for her.  We then went to the bedside where I let the lady know that I had her baseball. She opened her eyes and I put the ball in her hand.  Her hand gripped it tight and I blessed her.

The lady did get better and about 8 months later following my “Christmas miracle” I was walking past the Medical Center Pharmacy and I heard a familiar voice. It was the lady’s husband and she sat beside him looking very well. It turned out that they had been able to correct the worst part of her condition through a catheterization after she had gotten out of the ICU. New medications were also helping but she was most thankful of my little visits to her and the gift of the baseball.

Her husband talked of how the ball seldom left her hand during her ICU stay.  As we visited they both told me how much what I did in the ICU meant to them, the prayer, anointing of the sick and the baseball.  She told me that the ball, an official Carolina League ball was now on her mantle.  We chatted some more and talked about all the prayer that had been made on her behalf as well as the hard work of the ICU and Cardiology teams to keep her alive and help her recover.  I mentioned that it was likely that the whole companies of baseball “saints” in heaven were praying for her as well and we all had a great laugh.  I had to leave and go to a call but we exchanged hugs and blessings.

Sometimes the miracle is not in the prayer but in the things that touch us and mean much to us. For this lady, her husband and I that was baseball.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, christian life, faith, film, movies, Pastoral Care, philosophy, Religion

The Evolving Faith of a Miscreant Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and Blessings

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq

Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian

There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

I know what it feels like to be marginalized. After I came back from Iraq many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians.  I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the Iraq war. This despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar Province. After I returned no clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith.  Actually, I have to amend that, as my friends Greg and David, both priests of my former denomination afflicted with PTSD, TBI and Moral Injury from their Iraq service were fellow travelers in this journey. What was happening to me as a result of serving didn’t seem to matter to most other clergy, because their political agenda in the midst of a contentious Presidential election was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.

Yesterday I wrote about Chaplains that experience a crisis of faith after coming home from a combat deployment.  For me there is nothing more symbolic of the lack of soul left in many Christians and Christian Churches in how they treat those that have served faithfully. Those Chaplains that have served  God, Church and Country and come back spiritually wondering what happened, not knowing what to believe and feeling abandoned by God and cast off by the Church and the military simply because we have a hard time with the so called “orthodoxy” of some Christians.

I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic.  That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that this kind of life “sucks like a Hoover” and I know that I am not alone in my feelings.  I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us.

Let me talk about spiritual despair.

Did you know that in the past couple of years that two Army Chaplains and one Navy Chaplain have committed suicide? These were men of faith who had served in peace and war at least one that had served at the Battle of Hue City as a Marine before becoming a Priest and Chaplain.  Another Army Chaplain that had served in Iraq as a minister of a conservative Charismatic and Evangelical Christian denomination became a Wiccan and was excoriated by Christians.  I don’t know his faith journey but I have to believe that part was his experience in Iraq and experience on his return. I don’t know about you but those are all signs of spiritual despair and feeling cut off from their faith community and even God, his or her self.

I am still a Christian. I believe in the God of Scripture, the Creeds and the Councils. At the same time that belief is not as rigid as it once was. I used to consider those that didn’t believe like I did in relation to Scripture, the Creeds and Councils not to be Christians.  I cannot say that now. I am much more to have the Grace and Mercy of God be my default position and let other things fall out where they may. I have to say now that my faith is much more Anglican because I try to find balance in the Anglican Triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition instead of Scripture and Tradition alone.

My practice of my faith has changed. When I came back from Iraq I attempted, as it were without success to keep my faith structure and practice the same as it was before I deployed to Iraq.  Within six months of Iraq I could no longer pray the Daily Office with any kind of faithfulness and by Lent 2009 give up the practice for Lent hoping to recover some authenticity to my faith. The authenticity has returned and after about a year and a half I am seeking a way to reincorporate what had been a very important part of my daily practice of faith into my life without feeling like I am a phony in doing so.

I went through a period of absolute spiritual despair even leaving a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 to walk home in the dark, alone, looking at the sky and asking God if he even existed.  A year later after my life had completely fallen apart I experienced what I call my “Christmas miracle” where I was called to our Emergency Room to provide the “last rites” to a retired Navy doctor and active Episcopalian when I was the duty Chaplain.  As I prayed the last prayer of commendation and removed my oil covered fingers from the man’s forehead he breathed his last. His wife told me that he was waiting to be anointed before he died.  The young doctor, a Psychology Resident doing his ER rotation who called me to the ER would die a couple of months later of natural causes in his living room not long after we had taken the “fat boy” program PT test together.

From that moment the paradigm shifted.  Faith began to return and I began to experience the presence of God again, not is the same was as before Iraq but one that was more relational, grace filled and informal.  I will likely begin praying the Daily Office again in the near future but I will approach it from a different point of view.  I will no longer use it simply to fulfill my priestly vows and obligations but rather as a way to re-experience and if need be re-imagine God.  Now before the heresy hunters think that I am re-imagining God is some unbiblical manner they are wrong. I want to re-imagine God as he has been revealed to his people both in Scripture, Tradition and in the life of his, or her people today.

How have I changed? I believe again. I am no longer an agnostic hoping and praying that God just might be there. My faith has become much more deeply rooted and grounded in the “Crucified God” and my faith in the “theology of the Cross.”  My faith is no longer a slave to my politics and I refute any political ideology that attempts to use the Christian faith and the faith of well meaning Christians for purposes that Jesus himself would have condemned.

I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of his followers attempting to be the favorites of any political party or ideological system. In fact if I recall he really had pretty harsh words for his fellow Jews who were all wrapped around the axels with that kind of stuff. Jesus seemed to befriend and hang around with those that were not connected to the religious, political or economic elites of his time. In fact he seemed to reserve his harshest words for such people and he reached out to the outcasts.  Jesus seemed to have a pretty good relationship with those marginalized and rejected by the religious folks of his day. He welcome sinners and tax collectors to his table and praised the faith of gentile Roman officers and stopped the super-religious folks from stoning an adulterous woman.

This is the Jesus that I follow and the Jesus that I believe is present in body, soul and spirit in the Eucharist.  I believe like Hans Kung and others that this table belongs to the baptized community of faith and not to an exclusive Priestly class who dictate who can come to the table.  It is not the exclusive property of any denomination or Church organization especially those that most loudly state this to be the case.

Now if saying this makes me a heretic then a heretic I will be. It is better to be a heretic in the eyes of Pharisees than to be one that denies justice to the persecuted people of God.  I guess that makes this moderate a true liberal and to some an unbeliever.  Yet I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Rahab, Diana, Esther, Mary, Martha and Mary, Pricilla and the Woman at the Well. I believe in the Jesus that defied religious systems to offer the grace of God to the people that those systems rejected and the Jesus that was far more critical of “believers’ than those rejected as unbelievers.

I guess that is why I can accept women as ministers, Priests or Bishops. It is why I can accept homosexuals as Christian brothers and sisters, and see Christ and the grace and love of God in people that are not “Christians.” That includes the Muslims in Iraq that treated me with respect and even if they had an “Aryan” view of Jesus, but still showed a greater reverence for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary than many that claim Jesus for themselves in this country.

Why have I come to these beliefs, you might ask. The answer is simple.  I once was lost but now am found.  I thought that I knew it all. Now I know that I don’t know it all and that God is a God of surprises.

I have faith, but I doubt. I know that there are many answers that elude me and I cannot answer just by citing or using Scripture out of its historic, cultural and linguistic context.  I believe in the God who did not reject me when I didn’t know if he even existed.

Why am I still a Christian when I have so many problems with how many Christians practice the faith?

That is more complex. I believe again, and because  of that will not I tow anyone’s party line. I believe in spite of my unbelief. I believe in a fellowship of those whose lives have been changed by war and trauma.  I believe now because many times it was those marginalized by the “faithful” showed me the love of God when the “faithful” for pure or impure motives did not and in doing so abandoned me as they abandon so many others.

So, if I am to be a heretic, if I am to be considered less than a believer, I will quote the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther. To my critics and those that refuse to understand, I say “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Back in Commission: Padre Steve’s Long Journey Back

Padre Steve is Back in Commission

Today I know that I am back fully in commission.  I have been feeling this for a while and have seen some extraordinary progress since my “Christmas Miracle” and even since Lent began.  Like an old battleship worn out by service and damaged in battle was for the better part of two years doing my best to stay afloat and survive after my return from Iraq.  During that time if something could go wrong with me it seemed like it did, physical, psychological and spiritual…such is PTSD and all the other stuff that one can return home from war with.  For those that are new to this website or just happened to stumble by I have a lot of stuff on that ordeal posted here.

I have felt good since Christmas and with the exception of being knocked down by a kidney stone for almost a month have been doing pretty good for the most part.  I have been very careful to make sure that I am not just entering a manic period but have been really to be careful so I don’t build myself up to crash later.  Since I have crashed hard a number of times at points during the aforementioned ordeal when I thought that I was doing better I am really conservative about such comments.

USS West Virginia in the 1930s

Personally I am lucky and blessed that I have good people at work who have kind of protected me from myself over the past year as it when apparent to them that I was going down.  In a sense I was like a damaged ship pulled out of action in order not only to be patched up but fully overhauled.  I was damaged and not a lot of my systems were working right.

Now of course even a ship that has been fully overhauled and even modernized to make it equal to new ships is immune from problems, after all there is only so much you can do with an older platform.  I am living proof of that fact; there are things that while better than they were are not up to the original design specs.  At the same time despite everything I am in remarkable health and my physical, emotional and spiritual life is coming back together faster than I thought it would even after the Kidney stone ordeal.

Damage to the West Virginia

I had a yearly physical health assessment last week and all of my numbers were those of a 30 year old so I guess fifty is the new thirty. Yesterday I weighed in and was found to be within the DOD body fat maximum which combined with a high score on my Physical Readiness Test (PRT) or what common is called a PT test.  It is funny, the numbers that I have to make on this at age 50 in the Navy are not much less than then what I was required to do as 21 year old in Army ROTC or 23 year old Army Second Lieutenant then was 68 push-ups, now 65, then 69 sit ups, now 85.  Then I needed a run time of about 12 minutes and 30 seconds for a two mile run to get the maximum points.  Now at age 50 I need slightly less than 10 minutes to get the maximum score on a mile and a half run.  Today I did 90 sit-ups, 61 push-ups and my run time was about 12:15 (converted from a Life Fitness bike.)  I did the bike because of the low number of people running the “early bird” session and because I still have occasional ankle and knee problems.  I need completion to do really well on the run as it motivates me better than running alone or with a small number of people. I came one push-up short of an overall outstanding on the test so I have something to shoot for next time.

USS California 1945 after her rebuild

This will be enough to take me off of the “fat boy program” which I so ignobly entered last fall after my summer crash. Back then I was put on the “Fitness Enhancement Program” where I had weekly weigh ins and taping for body fat and a program called “Shipshape” which is about healthy living.  That was humbling and for me even humiliating because that has not happened to me in 28 years in the military and I pride myself in being in great shape, in fact the EOD techs that I was assigned with asked my assistant “what kind of steroids I was using” because of how I ran and how well that I did on the PRT.   Now I am not where I want to be on any of this yet, I think I have farther to go.  So I am working to keep my life in balance and take a lot better care of myself; especially in diet and exercise although I still have problems sleeping.  Part of what I learned over the past 5 months is that I have to be consistently consistent if I am to get the weigh off, lose body fat and both get back in shape and then keep it off.  I am not where I want to be yet but know that I am not going back to the way that I exercised self care prior to this as I never want to be in that situation ever again. My plan is to continue to lose about 2 to 3 pounds a month and take off about 4 inches from around my waist by late September or early October. I think this is totally doable doing what I am doing now and I plan on continuing to do it.

USS West Virginia 1944 after the rebuild

So anyway going back to the old battleship metaphor I have been thinking about that a lot. I wrote an article a while back titled “The Battleships of Pearl Harbor.”  Of course as almost anyone who has seen the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” knows that the attack on Pearl Harbor was pretty bad.  If you had the misfortune of watching “Pearl Harbor” sorry it does not do the story justice.  Anyway, I digress. The point is that there were two battleships in particular that were heavily damaged and sunk, The USS California and USS West Virginia. Both were salvaged, refloated and sailed to the West coast where they were not only repaired but modernized with the latest in air and surface search radar, fire control systems, formidable anti-aircraft batteries and large anti-torpedo bulges that increased their survivability.  When rebuilt they resembled the fast modern battleships of the South Dakota class. The two ships spent a long time in the yards but the price was worth it. At the Battle of Surigo Strait the West Virginia and California led the battleships of the US 7th Fleet in annihilating the Japanese Southern Force led by Admiral Nishimura and a follow up force of heavy cruisers. In the battle the two ships sank the Japanese Battleships Fuso and Yamashiro and most of their escorts with the exception of one destroyer the Shigure.  Later they participated in every major operation leading to the defeat of Imperial Japan.

Today I feel like the West Virginia or California. I am older than most of the people that I work with by a large margin, I came back damaged from Iraq and was not able to do half the things that I was capable of doing before Iraq.  Now I am out of the yards and have passed my builders trials and in action again and this my friends really makes me happy.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, philosophy, PTSD, US Navy