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“Is that Truly the Path of the Lord” A Reflection on Faith, Calling, and the Christmas Truce in the Age of Trump

palmerFriends of Padre Steve’s World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was reminded of that last night and today as the President received the worship of his most vocally Christian cabinet members and the Vice President as they celebrated the passage of a tax cut bill that end up harming many more people than it will help, even as he edges closer to a devastating war with North Korea, a war that besides being more deadly than in since the World Wars will bring many unexpected and unintended consequences, none good, but I digress…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. This Sunday, Christmas Eve I will preach at my chapel’s Protestant service. Likewise as I wrote last week I had the honor of conducting the Christmas service for the German contingent of the NATO headquarters here.

533506_10151366982457059_868388211_nI expect that in the coming year I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous.

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

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Silent Night: A Song Can Overcome War and Violence

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It will soon be Christmas and I am going to focus on that, particularly musical expressions as well as meditations about my own faith journey as well as the experience of soldiers during the holidays.

In the midst of everything happening in Washington D.C. and the potential crises that could plunge the world into war in the coming months it still is important to focus on the holidays. Since I am a Christian I share about Christmas without any shame, even as I respect and honor other people’s traditions and expressions of faith.

So here is a post about the song Silent Night. 

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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. Last Friday I did that again for the members of the German NATO contingent at my chapel.

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 Sunday and 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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Christmas Eve 2016: I Belong with Those in Pain and Those who have Lost Their Faith

palmer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is Christmas Eve on this holiest of occasions I am posting an updated version of something that I have posted before because for me it means even more today than it has in the past few years.

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” In the post-truth Trump era I feel my services will still be needed when those who believed in him discover just how badly they have been betrayed.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have served that type of Bishop before, not anymore, but I have, and I have little tolerance for those of high office in the Church or anywhere else use their office not to serve the Prince of Peace, but the gods of war and greed.

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. In the Trump era the powerful preachers are doing exactly that, and I will not condone their actions or remain silent. This is not about politics it is about the perversion of the Christian faith by those who should know better.

 

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

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

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

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

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

When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

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

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

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.

As for me, I thought that I was in a better place a few years ago, but then I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I have gotten back to a sense of normal, call it a “new normal,” it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance, I had one nightmare so realistic that I flew off the bed into a bookcase and broke my nose a few months back. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and I don’t, and yet I still believe.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.

533506_10151366982457059_868388211_n

 

Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power, and vote into office men that mock the very faith that they say they believe.  That kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” 

Thus, 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.” In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, History, Military, Political Commentary

Joyeux Noël: I Belong Here with those in Pain Who have Lost Their Faith

 

palmer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

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

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

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.

As for me, I thought that I was in a better place a year ago. I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance last summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.

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Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” 

Thus, 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.”  In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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I Want to Believe this Easter

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“Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” Alfred North Whitehead 

Sometimes Holy Week can be a downer and I can understand why people who doubt, or who have been abused by Christians, either in the church or as outsiders find this to be so. I am a Christian, a priest, a Navy Chaplain. By all estimates I should be on the “inside” so to speak, but in the current religious and political climate I am an outsider. My crime to the “true believers” is that I question their certitude, and I reject the hateful ideas of an American Christian theocracy preached by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the Christian Right.

As for me, this year, Holy Week has been a bit of a downer. I believe, but I don’t. For a while I wondered if it was my post-Iraq agnosticism returning, but after spending some time meditating and thinking on it I realized that was not the case. I do still believe, or at least I want to, but my doubt and unbelief now mainly comes from of my experience with Christians, not so much God.

Truthfully I wonder. I wonder if God is the God whose Son reconciled the world to himself, how those that claim to be his most devout followers seem more intent preaching a message of alienation and rejection rather than reconciliation. I wonder how people who claim to be the disciples of the Prince of Peace seem far more intent on conducting a jihad like culture war than the message of peace and reconciliation. I wonder how such people who claim to be God’s elect and anointed can so maltreat the very people who Jesus would have gone out of his way to care for, and in fact died and rose again in order to save. But I am not alone in this.

Rachel Held Evans wrote in a CNN religion blog yesterday:

“This is the tragic irony of the culture wars: The casualties tend to be the very people Jesus went out of his way to serve: the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the people ostracized and deemed “sinners” by the religious elite. And when the world sees Christians hurting rather than helping such people in the name of political gain, our testimony is profoundly diminished.” 

I fully understand what she is saying. Personally I am tired of the abuse of people who in the name of their culture warrior political Christian elite must resort to the most loathsome methods to demonize people who do not agree with them, including me. Sadly, in addition to people who don’t know me from Adam who do this I have experienced it from so called “Christian” friends. If it wan’t for people, including conservative Christians who have stood by me through thick and thin, even when they disagree with me, I probably would just chuck Christianity and the church.

But I cannot do that if I believe in the message of Jesus. I cannot do that if I actually even somewhat believe message of Jesus. A message that reaches out even to the same people who seem to loath me and others like me with a hate stronger than life itself.

When when a person like me struggles to believe in the first place, and at the same time is rejected by those who loudly proclaim to be the disciples of Jesus it does get old. Way too old.

Since it is Holy Week and I am struggling I have decided to not get involved with any discussions this week with the supposed followers of Jesus on any social media that denigrate those who Jesus died to save. If I am to preserve any sort of faith I have to do this.

Sadly, that can and does include things not even connected with the actual Christian faith, mostly the politics of the supposedly “Christian Right.”  A couple of days ago I dared to state the truth that a certain Republican Presidential candidate espoused the same theocratic views as his Christian Dominionist preacher father. That got me attacked by a number of so called Christians including one whose Facebook avatar picture was a soldier wearing a death’s head mask with a pistol pointed directly at me. That man called me a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I told that man that I had a feeling that I knew what he would do if he actually met me. I picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to revealing attitudes of the heart.

Personally, between the rejection and abuse I have experienced from Christians that I thought were friends, as well as those who are no better than hateful trolls on social media I am pretty much done with all things remotely considered Christian by most Americans today. I find it no wonder that people are fleeing the church, and have no doubts as to why why every poll and trend shows that people increasingly want nothing to do with the those that call themselves Christian or the church.

But I stay, and the the only reason I remain now I think is that I believe in the Jesus of Good Friday, the Jesus who is rejected by all the theologians of glory and Christian Dominionists, the crucified God. I believe in the Jesus whose death was considered a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. If I am to believe this is the Jesus that I have to believe in, not the God of the “theologians of glory” or the Dominionists who seek to establish their kingdom on earth with a thin veneer of faith. It as as Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“The God of freedom, the true God, is… not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus”

Theologian Paul Tillich, who served as a U.S. Army Chaplain wrote “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  

In light of my belief in the scandal of the Cross, something that certainly is offensive to those that seek the power and glory of God even if it means trampling those that Jesus most identified, is a mission that I can subscribe.  Most of the people I deal with are those marginalized and rejected by the Christian pharisees, or what I call the “Christian Taliban.”  Personally I am tired of being associated with people who treat the poor, the alien, the different, the sinful and the afflicted as less than human, or less than worthy of God’s love and grace.  I am tired of being associated with people who claim to be pro-life so long as it only applies to life in the womb, who have no problem blessing war without end and the merciless killing of innocents abroad. I am tired of people who scream “let them die” at Presidential debates referring of course to the the poor and uninsured being the voice of Christianity in this county. People who have so discredited themselves and the faith as to make no one want to have anything to do with Jesus.

In the movie Joyeux Noel a priest and chaplain serving with a Scottish regiment during the Christmas truce of 1914 tells the Bishop who is sending him home: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Of course the bishop is a man who heartily subscribes to a war without mercy, just as so  many who call themselves Christians do today. When the priest questioned the bishop about being relieved of his duties, the bishop, in a manner similar to what I have experienced tells the priest: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

I have experienced such comments too much. So regardless of the cost, even the cost to myself I will chose to believe and serve the Crucified God, the God who is not the God of the theocrats of the “Christian” right, but the Crucified God who stands against them. The God who in humility and weakness  proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world and who stands against those who fraudulent attempt to establish their kingdoms in his name. People that often do so upon the bodies of those that they kill, and the lives of those that they despise. If this means that I am not suitable to “remain in the house of the Lord” than I would rather be an outcast on my own Golgotha this Holy Week than in that house.

Frankly, I don’t know what this Holy Week will bring for me. I am struggling. I want to believe, but sometimes I get so discouraged as one of those wounded by such people that I need to create some safe space if I am to find some solace.

I am opposed to the conservative Christian “Culture Wars” that so many of my friends and others have, and sadly still embrace. I see the “”Culture Wars” as antithetical to the Gospel. I see them as vain attempts to establish a state religion, an American Theocracy that would crush and destroy any that dare oppose it.

That being said I want to remain open to any who seek God. Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

My journey this Holy Week is one of hope. I do want to believe. Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.”

That is my journey this week, a journey from my own Golgotha to the Easter Alleluia. To do so I cannot give up hope. I probably won’t do very well at it,this week or any other, but that is my journey.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but somehow, it does make sense to me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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I Belong Here With Those in Pain and Who Have Lost Their Faith

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Christmas Eve at COP South 2007, the Most Important Mass of My Life

“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)

In the next day or two, certainly by Christmas I will again watch 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. I will also be writing about Christmas from my perspective as a combat veteran and giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me.

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

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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” 

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.”

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. In fact they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

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

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

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.

As for me, I thought that I was in a better place a year ago. I had the floor kicked from out from under me this summer and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance this summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” 

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy out of my current billet teaching at the Joint Forces Staff College in a couple of years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.

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Joyeux Noel Christmas Eve

Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” 

Thus, 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.”  In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Christmas at the Front 2013: A Look at Christmas Now and in Military History

German Bundeswehr army soldiers decorate a fir tree imported from Germany for Christmas eve in the army camp in Kunduz

German Bundeswehr Soldiers decorating for Christmas in Afghanistan 

Today as on so many Christmas Days in days gone by military personnel serve on the front lines in wars far away from home. Today American and NATO troops engage a resourceful and determined enemy in Afghanistan. American Marines are working to safeguard the lives of Americans in South Sudan while French troops are intervening in Mali and the Central African Republic to attempt to prevent genocide. In many corners of the globe others stand watch on land, at sea and in the air. Unfortunately on this Christmas wars continue and most likely will until the end of time as we know it.

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It is easy to understand the verse penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day after the death of his wife and wounding of his son in the US Civil War:

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I have done my time in Iraq at Christmas on the Syrian-Iraqi Border in 2007 with our Marine advisors and their Iraqis.  That was the most memorable Christmas and the most important Christmas Masses that I ever celebrated. Since returning home have thought often of those that remain in harm’s way as well as those soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, American and from other nations that have spent Christmas on the front lines. Some of these events are absolutely serious while others display some of the “light” moments that occur even in the most terrible of manmade tragedies.

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Christmas 1776 at Trenton

In American history we can look back to 1776, of course we could go back further but 1776 just sounds better. On Christmas of 1776 George Washington took his Continental Army across the Delaware to attack the British garrison at Trenton. Actually it was a bunch of hung over Hessians who after Christmas dinner on the 24th failed to post a guard which enabled them to be surprised,  but it was an American victory.

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In 1777 Washington and his Army had a rather miserable Christmas at Valley Forge where they spent the winter freezing their asses off and getting drilled into a proper military force by Baron Von Steuben.

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The Eggnog Riot

While not a battle in the true sense of the word the Cadets at West Point wrote their own Christmas legend in the Eggnog Riot of 1826 when the Cadets in a bit of holiday revelry had a bit too much Eggnog and a fair amount of Whiskey and behaved in a manner frowned upon by the Academy administration. Needless to say that many of the Cadets spent the Christmas chapel services in a hung over state with a fair number eventually being tossed from the Academy for their trouble.

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The Battle of Lake Okeechobee

In 1837 the U.S. Army was defeated at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee by the Seminole Nation, not a Merry Christmas at all.  In 1862 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other across the Rappahannock River after the Battle of Fredericksburg while to the south in Hilton Head South Carolina 40,000 people watched Union troops play baseball some uttering the cry of many later baseball fans “Damn Yankees.”

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Blue and Grey Christmas Baseball

In 1864 the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other again in the miserable trenches of Petersburg while General William Tecumseh Sherman enjoyed Christmas in Savannah Georgia after cutting a swath of destruction from Atlanta to the sea. He presented the city to Lincoln who simply said “nice, but I really wanted Richmond.”

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Napoleon had something to celebrate on December 25th 1801 after surviving an assassination attempt on Christmas Eve and 1809 he was celebrating his divorce from Empress Josephine which had occurred on the 21st of December.

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The Christmas Truce 

In 1914 “Christmas Truce” began between British and German troops and threatened to undo all the hard work of those that made the First World War possible.  Thereafter the High Commands of both sides ensured that such frivolity never happened again. The movie Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) does a wonderful job in bringing home the miraculous truce.

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General and Montgomery and his Staff, winter 1942

World War II brought much suffering. In 1941 after Pearl Harbor the Japanese forced the surrender of Hong Kong and its British garrison while two days later the Soviets launched their counterattack at Moscow against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. In Libya the British were retaking Benghazi from the Afrika Corps after a brutal series of tank battles in Operation Crusader.  A year later the Americans were clearing Guadalcanal of the Japanese. General Montgomery’s 8th Army was pursuing Rommel’s Afrika Korps into Tunisia as American and British forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower were slogging their way into Tunisia against tough German resistant.  In Russia the Red Army was engaged in a climactic battle against the encircled German 6th Army at Stalingrad. At Stalingrad a German Physician named Kurt Reuber painted the famed Madonna of Stalingrad.

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Kurt Reuber’s Madona of Stalingrad

The drawing which was taken out of Stalingrad by one of the last German officers to be evacuated now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Reuber drew another in 1943 while in a Soviet POW campbefore his death from Typhus in early 1944. Reuber wrote to his wife of painting in Stalingrad:

“I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.”

“The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St.John: light, life, and love. What more can I add? I wanted to suggest these three things in the homely and common vision of a mother with her child and the security that they represent.”

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Christmas Concert at Guadalcanal 

In 1943 the Marines were battling the Japanese at New Britain while the Red Army was involved in another major winter offensive against the Wehrmacht. In 1944 Christmas found the Russians advancing in Hungary.

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Bastogne Christmas 

In December 1944 the Americans were engaged in a desperate battle with the Germans in the Ardennes now known as The Battle of the Bulge. On Christmas day the leading German unit, the 2nd Panzer Division ran out of gas 4 miles from the Meuse River and was destroyed by the American 2nd Armored Division.

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As that was occurring the embattled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne was relieved by General George Patton’s 3rd Army. Patton had his Chaplain pen this Christmas prayer:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.”

In the Philippines Douglas MacArthur’s forces were fighting hard to liberate Leyte, Samar and Luzon from the Japanese. At sea US and Allied naval forces fought off determined attacks by Kamikazes.

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USO Christmas Show in WWII

During the war the USO sponsored many entertainers who went to combat zones to perform Christmas shows, among them was Bob Hope.

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Bob Hope Christmas Show on USS Ticonderoga CVA-14 off Vietnam 

In the years following the Second World War Christmas was celebrated while armies continued to engage in combat to the death. Christmas of 1950 was celebrated in Korea as the last American forces were withdrawn from the North following the Chinese intervention which the 1st Marine Division chewed up numerous Red Chinese divisions while fighting its way out of the Chosin Reservoir.

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Bob Hope with 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam

In 1953 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu celebrated Christmas in primitive fashion unaware that Vietnamese General Giap was already marshaling his forces to cut them off and then destroy them shortly after Easter of 1954.   In 1964 the U.S. committed itself to the war in Vietnam and for the next 9 years American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen battled the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong with Marines fighting the North at Khe Sanh during Christmas of 1967. A hallmark of that war would be Bob Hope whose televised Christmas specials from that country helped bring the emotion of Christmas at the front back to those at home.

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In the years after Vietnam American troops would spend Christmas in the Desert of Saudi Arabia preparing for Operation Desert Storm in 1990, in Somalia the following year and in the Balkans. After September 11th 2001 U.S. Forces spent their first of at least 12 Christmas’s in Afghanistan. From 2003 thru 2011 US and coalition partner troops spent 8 years in Iraq, that was my war.

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Christmas with Bedouin on Christmas Eve (above) and Christmas games at COP North Al Anbar Province Iraq 2007 (Below)

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Christmas Services at COP South Al Anbar Province, Iraq 2007

Today Americans and our Allies serve around the world far away from home fighting the war against Al Qaeda and its confederates and some may die on this most Holy of Days while for others it will be their last Christmas.

Please keep them and all who serve now as well as those that served in the past, those that remain and those that have died in your prayers.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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