Tag Archives: christmas

“Christmas Day Will Always be, Just as long as We have We” Everything I Know Really About Christmas comes from Peanuts and the Grinch

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am a Priest, and I am actually a pretty learned theologian as well as a historian. I am probably a better historian than theologian, in fact on of my Deans at the Joint Forces Staff College said that I was “a historian masquerading as a chaplain, not that there is anything wrong with that.” But the fact is that as learned as I am of the theology of the Incarnation and how important that is to real Christian theology. The Incarnation not about creating some kind of Christian theocracy in order to usher in the Kingdom of God, instead it is about a God that chooses to become fully human, to be born of a woman, and to endure the death of a criminal, despised and rejected by the types of people that theocracy minded “Christian leaders” emulate in thought, word, and deed.

With that being said I will not bore you with an essay citing historical references, Scripture, or quotations of theologians, pastors, and historians much more learned, and for that matter probably better Christians than me. So, please, if you feel the need to criticize my theology, feel free, but please, have the decency to arrange to do that over a beer or your favorite tasty beverage later, don’t ruin your Christmas or mine to do that, there are plenty of other days to do just that take a deep breath whether you are a Christian Fundamentalist, a Traditionalist Catholic, a militant Atheist, or whatever.

But here’s the deal. The truth is when all is said and done I learned ever that I need to know about Christmas from Merry Christmas Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss.

To me it is fascinating because Schulz, who brought us Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the whole Peanuts Gang for half a century was a Christian who battled depression and faith, yet his classic animated cartoon of Christmas which was released in 1965 has probably reached more people with the Christmas message than any great preacher of the past century or more.

The decision to include the speech by Linus was controversial, because of the expressly religious implications, by Schulz insisted that it be reatained.

I saw it for the first time when it was released in 1965, and now 53 years later it retains its freshness and innocence.

 Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone, who knows what Christmas is all about?!

Linus: Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Lights please?

And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Likewise, I think that Dr. Seuss, who was Jewish, may very well have done the same in his story about the Grinch.

I think of the last part of the Grinch and think about these words:

Welcome, Christmas, bring your cheer. Cheer to all Whos far and near. Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp. Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we. Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart, and hand in hand.

I know, kind of simplistic and ecumenical. But I have learned so much about Christmas and the Incarnation from others, of course many are Christians, but I have also learned from Jews, Muslims, and others. So for all of my friends and readers I simply repeat the words of Dr Seuss. Welcome Christmas, bring your cheer… Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we…

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, film, life, Religion

Joyeux Noël, Christmas Eve 2018: History and Memory, the Stubborn Humanity Within Us

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I rewatched the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) which is one of my Christmas traditions. When I watch it I cannot stop. I don’t look at my social media, I don’t tweet. Although it recounts an incident that occurred over a century ago, I am drawn to it out of a feeling of camaraderie, and a hope that people of good will can, and maybe will someday put and end to the scourge of war. I guess one reason I have to put down everything else is that I cry through most of the film.

I do not think that  end of war will happen anytime soon, for as Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote some fifty years before this incident, “for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.” 

But I dare not, even in the age of a madman in the White House and warmongering dictators and despots wreaking havoc on the world, give up the hope of peace. I tend to watch it before or after reading Stanley Weintraub’s book: Silent Night: the Story Of the World War One Christmas Truce. 

It was a book that I refused to read until after I returned from Iraq in 2008. Of course as a military historian I knew of the Christmas Truce, but it was something that I tried to keep a distance from after September 11th, 2001. After my experience of Christmas on the Iraq – Syrian Border In 2007 I could no longer ignore it.

Weintraub Wrote:

Christmas 1914 evokes the stubborn humanity within us, and suggests an unrealized potential to burst its seams and rewrite a century.

I say that my time in Iraq did that to me. I cannot forget the Masses that I celebrated on the border and my time with Americans, Iraqi Soldiers, and local Bedouin during those days.

In the film, one of the main characters is the Chaplain of the Scottish battalion played by Gary Lewis tells a Lieutenant:

“Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves. Maybe just to be together, maybe just to forget the war.” 

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

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

From Clipboard

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

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

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

Christmas Day December 1914 World War One

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This really wasn’t surprising, after all for in the years leading up to the war many school children, especially in France and Germany had been propagandized. Churches and ministers cooperated in the carnage.

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

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

Unfortunately I have met and heard men preach the same message against those they hate, a message that twists the words of Jesus in a diabolical way to justify the worst acts of nations and peoples. In the year 2018 wars rage around the world. Some are conducted by well organized professional militaries but many by militias, paramilitary and terrorists groups. In some cases the brutality and inhumanity exhibited makes the industrialized carnage of the First World War seem sane. Even now preachers of various religions, including Christians, Moslems and Jews advocate the harshest treatment of the enemies of their peoples all in “the name of God.”

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Eleven short years ago I was traveling up and down the western border of Iraq with Syria. I was visiting our Marines that were advising the Iraqi Army and Border Forces, conducting Christmas services for them and also visiting Iraqi soldiers as well as civilians. In a couple of instances Iraqi and Jordanian Christians working as interpreters came to the Eucharist services, for one it had been years since he had received the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion. While out and about visiting Iraqis we were hosted by Iraqi troops and well as Bedouin tribesmen and their families. The warmth and hospitality and faith of these wonderful people was amazing.

T.E. Lawrence wrote that the Bedouin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God.” 

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I think that for me that Christmas week was the one that will remain with me more than any and despite being in a war zone, it for me was a time of peace on earth and good will toward men. Some people cannot imagine how a career military officer could feel that way. In the movie the French company commander is confronted by his father after the truce, and after the military postal censors had reported the many incidents of fraternization with the enemy to the various high commands in France, Germany, and Great Britain.

The Country? What does it know of what we suffer here? Of what we do without complaints? Let me tell you, I felt closer to the Germans than to those who cry “Kill the Krauts!” before their stuffed turkey…  no, you’re just not living the same war as me. Or as those on the other side.”  

Weintraub wrote:

“To many, the end of the war and the failure of the peace would validate the Christmas cease-fire as the only meaningful episode in the apocalypse. It belied the bellicose slogans and suggested that the men fighting and often dying were, as usual, proxies for governments and issues that had little to do with their everyday lives. A candle lit in the darkness of Flanders, the truce flickered briefly and survives only in memoirs, letters, song, drama and story.”

During World War One there were men who retained their conscience and tried to mitigate the effects of the war and suffering. Likewise there were those who could not let go of their hate. One such Soldier was Adolf Hitler, whose story is recounted in Weintraub’s book:

Although he was out of the line in reserve, discussion arose about crossing into Niemandsland to share Christmas with the British. He refused. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” Hitler argued. “Have you no German sense of honor left at all?” More than patriotic scruples were involved. Although a baptized Catholic, he rejected every vestige of religious observance while his unit marked the day in the cellar of the Messines monastery to which they had retired on the 23rd. “Adi” was distinctly odd. He received no mail or parcels, never spoke of family or friends, neither smoked nor drank, and often brooded alone in his dugout. In the ruins open to the sky, Corporal Frobenius, a Lutheran theology student also decorated with the Iron Cross, read the Christmas gospel to a joint congregation of Catholics and Protestants, but not to Corporal Hitler.

Hitler’s Nihilism, racist nationalism, and unrepentant rejection of his religious heritage while gaining the support of the most religious Christians in the Reich would be part  of his life until he took it in his Berlin Bunker In 1945, and it would be shared by all too many men since the First World War until the present.

I will not be one of them.

Maybe someday we will begin to understand, until then, like so many others in so many wars before, I am still dreaming of home.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, film, History, Military, movies, Political Commentary, world war one

Hope In Hell: Dr. Kurt Reuber and the Madonna Of Stalingrad

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is almost Christmas and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen, but now I am not so sure. So, in the age of Donald Trump, I must try to find hope wherever I can find it.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

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As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

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However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“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.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

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As the siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

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Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

Praying for an end to war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, History, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

”For Hate is Strong and Mocks the Song Of Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men” Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Christmas 2018


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I could be writing about the travails being inflicted on the country and the world by President Donald Trump, but I do enough of that. Christmas is coming and even when I don’t explicitly write about Teump, the message of the season stands against him and against all that he stands.

Looking at the news of the week; the resignation on principle by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria to the Turks, Russia, as ISIS, the crashing stock markets, and the completely preventable partial government shutdown brought about President Trump and his most fanatical followers, it is easy to despair. Frankly, there are many times that I do, and Inhave to remember how people before us went through great trials and tribulations.

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words of hope on Christmas Day, 1863:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Christmas is coming and I feel that Longfellow’s words are as pertinent today as when he first penned them. The thought of what is to come in the next few years, in the United States and in many other liberal democracies bodes ill for our future as authoritarian and often xenophobic leaders rise to power. The world that we grew up is is passing away, and what comes in its place, a dystopian world where hope will be a rare commodity beckons.

Longfellow’s words became the heart of the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me.

The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. It began as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son Charles, a Lieutenant in the Union Army at the Battle of New Hope Church, and the death of his wife in a fire two years before. Longfellow had much to despair about, but he maintained a faith in God, as well as the founding principles of the United States.

His words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds rip human beings apart coupled with the tragic inability of Christendom, especially American Conservative Evangelicalism to even come close to the message of Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today, in fact it seems to be the most real as we deal with war, hatred, terrorism, killing in the name of God, and political fratricide.

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.”

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The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The song has been recorded many times by many artists. I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.

 

 

As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers, led by the American President rage as we go into another, and even more perilous year with the possibility of nuclear war more probably than not, people still look for hope.

Longfellow, who lost so much in a short time in the midst of a terrible Civil War, reminds us that in such times, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

In a time like this when the world led by the American President seems to be hurtling into the abyss, it is important to remember Longfellow’s words and the message of Christ and the Incarnation. The child born as an outcast in a manger would die as a criminal, crucified by an occupying power with the full support of the leaders of the occupied country. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Yes, the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail, but it in the age of Trump it will certainly involve much travail. As for the travail, it is just beginning.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, civil war, faith, Foreign Policy, History, middle east, music, Political Commentary

Merry Christmas from a Wounded Healer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We had a special Christmas this year with friends who can be best described as a relatively eclectic group. We hosted dinner as is our custom and it really turned out well, and I do have to say that emotionally and spiritually I am in in a better place than was not too long ago.

So today, especially for my new readers I want to recount a bit of that journey.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”  Since coming home from Iraq in 2008 my faith has undergone a profound change. This is a part of my story that I share with you.

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

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

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

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

My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.” Sadly Captain Sitsch, struggling with his own PTSD and other life crises took his life in 2014, but I think that he understood me better than most Chaplains or clergy.

That the crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.” For those not familiar with that book it is the sense that God has withdrawn his presence from you which you must go through to experience true union with God.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, for they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.  When I watch the classic film about the 1914 Christmas Truce, Joyeaux Noel I very much understand the priest who is being relieved of his duties by his bishop who he tells “I belong here, with those in pain who have lost their faith.” 

In the fall of 2008 was losing my battle with PTSD during that time I was clinically  depressed, terribly anxious, angry, and in despair I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass because I could not get through it. If a bar had been open anywhere within walking distance I would have poured myself into it.

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

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 70-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support. Likewise I was largely absent from home which was not a good thing for my marriage.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas of 2009 I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain. It was as if his faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php

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

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

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

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. That being said over past couple of weeks or so my crazy nightmares and night terrors have come back with a vengeance, last night I threw myself out of bed in the midst of a particularly violent nightmare but it hasn’t soured my mood, my hip still hurts a bit but like unlike the last couple of times I neither broke my nose, sustained a concussion, nor bruised by jaw and sprained my neck.; that my friends is an improvement.

I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt, especially the men and women that call themselves Conservative Evangelical Christians who seem to me to have sacrificed any pretense of faith in Christ in the pursuit of raw political power by supporting a man who is as much of a Christian as the Medici Popes. So I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

So today this wounded healer celebrated Christmas at home, hosting friends after having preached at Christmas services for American and German military communities. It was a healing experience for me and helped to increase my faith. I know: faith versus reason. I get that, but as reasonable and logical as I try to be I do find the mystery of faith to be something that attracts me to Jesus the Christ.

So this evening, this Christmas night, I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on my posts.

You are appreciated as some are lengthy and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. Likewise there are times that my own biases show through in what I write, and I know that a decent number of people who subscribe to this site and comment don’t always agree with me. I appreciate that and thank you for continuing to follow what I write.

Likewise, if you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, ministry, Political Commentary, Tour in Iraq

Christmas Eve 2017: Light, Life, and Love in Hell, Kurt Reuber and the Madonna of Stalingrad

Bundeswehr zeigt "Stalingrad"-Ausstellung

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is late on Christmas Eve and I am reflecting about the true meaning of Christmas in a world where hope seems to be dying before our eyes. This morning I preached in my Chapel from the Christmas story in the Gospel of St. Luke, the same passage I preached on a week or so ago with the German NATO contingent. The story of the incarnation, of God coming in the weakness of a tiny baby who would grow up and be crucified not far from where he was born is of profound importance for my faith, because it is not a pie in the sky promise of prosperity and power, but God who can be present in midst of the human made hell of war.

In such an environment I reflect on men who lived in a human made hell, a hell made by hate filled ideologues who launched the world into its bloodiest war, and I wonder, could it happen again? A decade ago I would have said it never could again happen. In December of 2016 after the election of Donald Trump I began to hedge my bets, but a year later I do believe that it can, and very well may happen again. So in such a world I must try to find hope wherever I can find it, especially as I seen the pattern of a descent into authoritarianism which has been so much a part of 20th Century European history developing in the United States. I worry about that because I can see nothing good coming of it, and notice friends, including Christian clergy openly advocating against the safeguards, the checks and balances put forth in our Constitution and laws to ensure that the President has unchecked power; and that means the power to plunge the nation into war.

I think most of my readers know that I am a career military officer and have served in peace and war as a chaplain. That service includes a tour in Iraq, a war, which by almost any standard would have been considered unjust and illegal, yet I served there, and came back a changed man. As such the stories of those who served in war, especially those who serve in hopeless battles, and even in evil causes during Christmas have a special place in my heart. One of those men was a German pastor and medical doctor named Kurt Reuber.

k_reuberl

As I said, Reuber was a theologian, pastor and medical doctor, likewise he was an accomplished artist and used that medium to convey his own faith, and doubts. He was a friend of Albert Schweitzer and in 1939 he was conscripted to serve as a physician in the Germany Army. By November 1942 he was a seasoned military physician serving with the 16th Panzer Division, part of the German 6th Army, which had been fighting in the hell of Stalingrad. When his division along with most of 6th Army was surrounded by the Soviets, cut off from most supply and without real hope of relief, he like other physicians continued to serve the soldiers committed to his care.

pg-34-stalingrad-2-getty

However, unlike most physicians, the care Reuber offered care included spiritual matters, as he sought to help his soldiers deal with the hopelessness of their situation. As Reuber reflected on the desperation of the German soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket. He wrote to his family.

“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.”

The picture was drawn on the back of a captured Soviet map and when he finished it he displayed it in his bunker, which became something of a shrine. Reuber wrote:

“When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall…The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love…Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.”

drkrop

As the brutal siege continued men came to the bunker for both medical care and spiritual solace.  On Christmas Eve Reuber found himself treating a number of men wounded by bombs outside the bunker. Another soldier lay dying, just minutes before the soldier had been in the bunker singing the Christmas hymn O Du Froehliche.  Reuber wrote:

“I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of Champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor’s bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: ‘I’ll finish the carol with first. O du Frohliche!” A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere.”

On January 9th 1943 with all hope of escape or reinforcement gone Reuber gave the picture to the battalion commander as the officer was too ill to carry on and was one of the last soldiers to be evacuated from the pocket. Reuber’s commander carried the Madonna out of the pocket and returned it delivered it to Reuber’s family, preserving it for all.

Reuber was taken prisoner and survived the harrowing winter march to the Yelabuga prison camp. In late 1943 Reuber wrote his Christmas Letter to a German Wife and Mother – Advent 1943. It was a spiritual reflection but also a reflection on the hope for life after the war, when the Nazi regime would be defeated, and Germany given a new birth.

Reuber wrote:

“The concatenation of guilt and fate has opened our eyes wide to the guilt. You know, perhaps we will be grateful at the end of our present difficult path yet once again that we will be granted true salvation and liberation of the individual and the nation by apparent disappointment of our “anticipation of Advent”, by all of the suffering of last year’s as well as this year’s Christmas. According to ancient tradition, the Advent season is simultaneously the season of self-reflection. So at the very end, facing ruin, in death’s grip – what a revaluation of values has taken place in us! We thus want to use this period of waiting as inner preparation for a meaningful new existence and enterprise in our family, in our vocation, in the nation. The Christmas light of joy is already shining in the midst of our Advent path of death as a celebration of the birth of a new age in which – as hard as it may also be – we want to prove ourselves worthy of the newly given life.”  (Erich Wiegand in Kurt Reuber, Pastor, Physician, Painter, Evangelischer Medienverb. Kassel 2004. )

prisoner's madonna

Reuber did not live to see that day. He died of Typhus on January 20th 1944, not long after writing this and just a few weeks after painting another portrait of the Madonna, this one entitled The Prisoner’s Madonna. He was not alone, of the approximately 95,000 German POWs taken at Stalingrad only about 6,000 returned home.

His paintings survived the war and his family gave The Madonna of Stalingrad to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin after it was restored as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. Copies are also displayed in Coventry Cathedral and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. A copy of The Prisoner’s Madonna is now displayed at the Church of the Resurrection in Kassel.

I have a print of the Madonna of Stalingrad in my office. It has become one of the most meaningful pictures I have since I returned from Iraq in 2008. To me they are symbols of God’s presence when God seems entirely absent.

I praying for an end to war and likewise that the United States will not fall victim to a lawless authoritarian leader who seems intent on stoking the fires of more wars.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, History, Military, ministry, nazi germany, Pastoral Care, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

A Haunting Hope: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

There are some songs at Christmas that despite their relative newness as compared to ancient carols seem to strike a chord that resonates deep in the hearts of people. I think that in our day that some speak louder than others.

One of those songs, at least for me, and probably many others is the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The music was written by Ralph Blane and the lyrics by Hugh Martin for the musical Meet Me in St Louis and first performed by Judy Garland in that film. In the movie Garland’s character sings the song to her younger sister after their father announces plans to move from their home of St Louis to New York for a job.

The lyrics for the musical were changed because Garland’s director Vincent Minnelli and co-star Tom Drake felt that Martin’s original lyrics which began with “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it could be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past” were too depressing. The lyrics were changed to “let your heart be light, Next year all our troubles will be out of sight” in response to their request. The words sung in the musical by Judy Garland have a haunting but very real feel for people who face uncertainty at Christmas, as such they were very meaningful to the US military personnel who heard them at the front in the Second World War.

As originally produced they reflect a hope for a better future as opposed to a carefree present. As such they are probably much more appropriate to our current time than in the mid-1950s when Frank Sinatra recorded a modified version of the song for his album A Jolly Christmas.

Sinatra asked Martin to “jolly up” the line “we’ll have to muddle through somehow” and Martin changed it to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

When Frank Sinatra recorded the song in 1957 it too became a hit and the focus on present happiness rather than a hope for a better future fit the times in which it was recorded. Sinatra’s version also notes that “faithful friends gather near to us once more” instead of “will be near to us once more.”

The song was re-written by Martin a number of times including a “Christian”version which included the words “if the Lord allows” instead of “if the fates allow.” Though I am a Christian I think that change was kind of lame, but then if there are a few dollars to be made off religious people who otherwise won’t listen to a song why not?

The song is one is one of the most recorded Christmas songs ever written and can be heard being sung by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Rod Steward, the Carpenters, Kelly Clarkson, John Denver with the Muppets, the Pretenders, Olivia Newton John, Kenny Loggins, and even Twisted Sister.

The song as recorded by Judy Garland is actually my favorite, though I also love the Sinatra version. Somehow “muddling through somehow” seems to be more appropriate in my experience.

So enjoy these versions of a song that has touched the hearts of hundreds of millions of people since it was first recorded. May it be an inspiration in these uncertain times of a hope for a better future. Maybe that makes it a better Advent song and since until about evening on the 24th it is still the fourth Sunday of Advent that might actually work.

For me it is kind of a sad song, but at the same time it is mixed with hope…and I always try to live in hope.

Here’s to muddling through somehow…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, film, music