Tag Archives: crisis of faith

“When You Are Lost, You are Not Alone” Doubt and Faith in Lent

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was a convoluted day. It was Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Baseball’s Spring Training. It was also a tremendously busy day at work that included multiple meetings, conducting the Ecumenical Ash Wednesday liturgy, the usual program, administrative, personnel, and facility management issues. Likewise because it was Valentine’s Day I didn’t want to screw it up. Since I usually find a way to screw up birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day and other assorted holidays involving marriage it was a bit stressful. Thankfully I did pretty well regarding Valentine’s Day, I started by trying to suck up in the days before Valentine’s Day doing little things to build up some extra points in case I screwed up on the actual day, and for once I didn’t totally screw the pooch, in fact I did rather well, but I digress…

Of course if I had wanted to be an ass I could have celebrated Ashentine’s Day, that is the rare day when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day enabling asshat spouses, fiancee’s, or partners to tell their beloved that they can’t take them out for a fancy dinner because of the fasting rules prescribed by the Church on Ash Wednesday. This confluence doesn’t happen often, the last time it did was seventy-tree or seventy-four years ago, so cheapskates and other turds don’t get the opportunity to do this often, and the fact that I even thought of it means that while I may be a complete turd at times that I would never tell Judy: “Sorry, I can’t take you out or give you anything for Valentine’s Day because it’s Ash Wednesday and I don’t want to lead you to hell.” I value my life too much. That being said I can imagine that there are some people who will do exactly that, not because they really are trying to observe the true meaning of Lent, but because they are cheap asshats who look for ways out of doing something nice for their partner using the cover of religion to do it. But again I digress as I so often do…

The truth is that a decade after returning from Iraq I still struggle with faith and belief, and doubt is always a part of my life and Lent has never really been a good time for me. In the early years of this blog I masked my struggle with humor about trying to make getting through Lent focusing more on the outward displays of faith and the actions of prayer, abstinence, and fasting than really wrestling with why the penitential aspects of Lent are important; far from being onerous they help us remember our shared humanity; especially with the least, the lost, and the lonely.

That being said I do still have faith, more than I have had for quite a few years and when it came time to schedule an Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at my Chapel to compliment our Roman Catholic Mass which was scheduled for the evening I decided to lead it. I am glad that I did.

Since I was not serving at this chapel last year I had no idea how many people might show up or what the composition would be. Since I’m in an odd situation being an Old Catholic Priest, in a sense occupying a line between Roman Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism I never know exactly what to expect in such a situation. Thankfully I have been able to build bridges with our Catholic and Protestant communities in the ten months that I have served here and I had members of both congregations at the service. Again not knowing what to expect I used the liturgy from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, with a couple of more Anglo-Catholic modifications in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which I used in my previous denomination because it kind of splits the difference between Protestants and Catholics.

I do love celebrating the Eucharist and conducting the liturgy and it’s funny that after almost 22 years since I was ordained as a Priest I am beginning to acquire a taste for Ash Wednesday and Lent. This is especially true when I read the Biblical passages from the Lectionary associated with them, especially those of Ash Wednesday which include Isaiah 58: 1-12; Second Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, and 16-21. When I read them, especially the passage from Isaiah I am continually amazed at how they speak to the state of American Christianity in the age of Trump. I’m going to try to avoid politics for tonight but I could see Isaiah preaching them today almost any church in America, especially the great Evangelical and Charismatic megachurches, and television ministries whose leaders have abandoned all pretense of being “Biblical” as they prostrate themselves before the President in pursuit of raw political power masked in an extremely thin veneer of religion.

In my sermon I did not hammer home on that but I did spend a lot of time with the Isaiah passage without being overtly political; which in my position that would have been less than wise. Sometimes it’s better to let the scriptures speak for themselves.

I also talked about doubt, something that many people, including Christians of all persuasions struggle with but few ministers really honor as a measure of faith. I used my own struggle with faith and doubt after Iraq. I struggled and I still struggle with faith, I believe but sometimes I don’t, and I am certainly not someone who thinks that he has the Christian life down, in fact sometimes my witness; my temper, my language, and so much more about me do not reflect Jesus. I am not okay with that, but it is the truth. Since Spring Training began today I let the congregation know that I am a Mendoza Line Christian, meaning that I have a Christian life batting average of about .200, just enough to say in the game.

Doubt is usually ignored, and most of the Christians who I know who struggle with doubt are afraid to talk about it in church, you tend to lose friends by expressing doubts or struggles in most churches. To me it is no wonder that the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States are those people with no religious preference and those who have either fled the church or those outside who look at the Church and find nothing redeeming in it. Sadly, most of these people actually like or admire Jesus, some even believing that he is the Son of God, but who are so disgusted by the actions of Christians that they have walked away. As Pedro Cerrano in Major League said: “Ah, Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.” 

As I finished my sermon I decided to read the words of the homily given by Father Flynn played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Doubt. The film is powerful, set in 1964 and I won’t do spoilers to tell you what happens in it and how it ends, you’ll need to watch it yourself. But I will share the words of Father Flynn’s sermon because they are so symbolic of our time when so many people struggle with faith. His words which compare the collective experience of people whose world has been shattered versus those whose struggles are invisible to most people. I know what that is like and because of my own struggles I have come to be able to read the unspoken angst, fear, doubt, and weariness of the lonely.

“Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation? Despair? Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow being was your Despair. It was a public experience. It was awful, but we were in it together. How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity?

‘No one knows I’m sick.’

‘No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend.’

‘No one knows I’ve done something wrong.’

Imagine the isolation. Now you see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people, and on the other side: you.

I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. And only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail…and being of a nautical discipline…turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in. And for the next twenty nights, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. And as the days rolled on, and the sailor wasted away, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost… and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations – had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once… and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. And I want to say to you: doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

So as Lent begins I encourage those who struggle and doubt to realize that there are a lot more people like then they realize; and for those who are not struggling not to look down on the lonely, not to be afraid that doubt is contagious, but instead to do the little things that remind people that they are not alone.

Likewise it is important to realize that some of the people who outwardly appear the most sanctimonious, the most sure of their beliefs, and the most rigid in their opposition to others also struggle, and that their display of certitude masks their own doubts and their own aloneness.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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The Long & Winding Road of a Radioactive Priest

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The late 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.”

Those who have followed my writings for some time know how much that means for me, and how in spite of all of my struggles with faith and doubt it matters as I continue my own walk, as well as try to be there for those who like me struggle at this time of year. Since I have a lot of new readers since I last shared this I figured I would attempt to share those thoughts again.

In February 2009, about eight months after psychological physical and spiritual collapse due to the effects of PTSD and in the midst of my struggle I began to write about my experiences on this site. My psychologist at the time had suggested that I go public with my struggles using my writing as a means to do so. It was something that I had contemplated for some time. I was a mess and struggling many days to even get to work. I was depressed much of the time, continually on edge, still suffered from nightmares, night terrors, flashbacks and sometimes an angry rage which swept over me when I felt threatened. I avoided big crowds, was afraid to even go to church and I had a hard time trusting anyone. In that time I would listen to the Beatle’s song “The Long and Winding Road” which in some ways became a prayer for me.

The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door

The wild and windy night
That the rain washed away
Has left a pool of tears
Crying for the day
Why leave me standing here?
Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried
Anyway you’ll never know

The many ways I’ve tried

And still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here
Lead me to your door

But still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t keep me waiting here
Lead me to your door

The Long And Winding Road lyrics: Songwriters: Mccartney, Paul; Lennon, John. © SONY BEATLES LTD; SONY/ATV TUNES LLC

So I began to write and find some solace even as I struggled with even the existence of God. One thing that I found was that there were really very few people, especially ministers secure enough to enter into a healing relationship with me. I felt isolated among my peers especially those from my own church. Since I have detailed that journey to include a restoration of faith in God in December 2009 about two years after my struggle began I won’t go into great detail in this article. All I knew is that it seemed that most Priests and other ministers either didn’t know how to walk with me, were afraid to walk with me and were most certainly uncomfortable with a colleague, especially one with my experience dealing with the pain psychological and spiritual effects of PTSD including being from all practical purposes an agnostic. As one psychotherapist labeled it I was “radioactive.”

Eventually some in the leadership of my former denomination which I had served faithfully as a priest for 14 years asked me to leave the church because I had become “I had changed since coming back from Iraq” and “had become too liberal.”I had known this was coming for some time and had been making preparations for it but the timing of the notice from my former Bishop came as a surprise.

I had begun to voice opinions, especially on social and political issues that rankled some, maybe many in my former church. Since only a few friends from that church remain in contact with me I presume that I rankled more than I did not. There were times during the early part of 2010 that my wife would ask me after reading something that I had published if I was trying to get thrown out. I wasn’t trying to but I was at the point where I knew that I had to be honest and transparent about my struggle as well as how my beliefs had changed a result of war and of PTSD. I was diplomatic and tried to say what I had to say without getting too controversial. That began to change in the summer of 2010 and reached its head on September 23rd when I published Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian. https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/faith-journey%E2%80%99s-why-i-am-still-a-christian/

I actually did not intend for the article to be too controversial, but looking back I can see how it was interpreted that way. It was for all practical purposes a declaration of independence and a severe criticism of the lack of care that I had felt from the church that I had served for most of my ministerial career. In a sense it was my “Here I stand, I can do no other moment.” 

My goal since faith began to return was to be available to those that feel cut off from God and the Church, to walk with people in the midst of struggle, pain and despair, especially fellow ministers and chaplains. I don’t have all the answers, in fact I know very few, except that I know that God can use the pain, alienation, struggle and despair that I went through then, as well as the struggles that I still have in the lives of others like me that are willing to walk that lonely path to reconciliation with God and humanity.

It has been a long, winding and often lonely road but I have found solace, community and faith as I have travelled it. Those that I have met along the way have become my brothers and sisters on the journey. And that my friends makes it all worth it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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A Pause on a Monday Night to Reflect and Give Thanks

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Well it has been a busy few days travel, doing a wedding for a dear couple that I have worked with for almost 5 years and a busy time at work. On top of everything I have the duty pager tonight, so far an uneventful night despite a couple of somewhat sporty events during the day.  I am also adjusting to the fact that I will be transferring to my new assignment in two months. I have enjoyed my current assignment but the geographic separation from my wife Judy with only sporadic visits home for the past three years has been wearying. It will be good to be back with her. Our time together gets better every time I go home. That is a good thing because for a time after Iraq and my assignments in Naval Medical Centers that she wondered if our marriage would survive. Life for her with the man dealing with the PTSD “Mad Cow” was a bitch at times.

I have a lot to be thankful for in the non-cyberspace world, friends, family, dogs, as well as vocation, calling and career that I love doing. All of that makes a big difference.

So tonight instead of writing anything too serious I want to pause for a moment and thank all of those that subscribe to Padre Steve’s World as well as others that follow me and the site through Facebook or Twitter. There are thousands or millions of other sites to browse around on in cyber space, not to mention  books and film and other forms of learning, information and entertainment. I am just happy that a decent number of people read what I write and quite a few send me notes or leave comments that mean a lot to me, especially when I see how something that I wrote or that I have shared from my experience has touched their lives in some way. That is actually humbling and I am most grateful.

Now I know that some of what I write appeals to a wide variety of people and that some people may be interested or not interested in a given topic. I figure that some variety is the spice of life. Likewise I know that thinking and rational people will not always agree with me, heck there are some times that I don’t even agree with me, it’s that whole PTSD “mad Cow” deal.

When I was going through my darkest times after Iraq dealing with PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia, night terrors and nightmares it was a rather desperate time in my life. There were times that I wondered if I was able to be of help to anyone when it seemed that I couldn’t even help myself. I was unprepared for this, before I went to Iraq I was arrogant enough to think that I was untouchable and would never be affected by any form of combat stress, much less full blown PTSD.

Tonight I was watching an episode of season seven of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, called Afterimage. It is about the successor to Jadzia Dax who was killed at the end of season six. The new character “Ezri Dax” is a young counselor who ended up with the Dax symbiont by accident and out of necessity, without the years of training and selection process normal to her planet and race. Unprepared for this she struggles to find herself. After a confrontation with a a man that she is counseling she goes to Captain Sisko and confesses her inadequacy and offering her resignation. Sisko asked her “why” and she replied “Because I can’t do my job. Garak was right. How can I help other people when I can’t even help myself?”

One of my favorite fictional Priests is Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H. In one episode where he has hit the wall he remarks: “It doesn’t matter whether you feel useful or not when you’re moving from one disaster to another. The trick, I guess, is to just keep moving.”

I felt that way so many times after Iraq and the years that followed. Over the years things have gotten better with therapy, medication, some spiritual care and the support of colleagues where I have worked. This blog has been a big part of that journey as I rediscovered who I am and what I am becoming as a human being in relationship with God and the people of God, regardless of their spiritual beliefs or non-spiritual beliefs, their political beliefs, their lifestyle or even really important things like if the a Dodgers’ or Yankee’s fan. Since I am a fan of the Giants and Orioles this is more important than you can imagine.

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So to my long time readers thank you for persevering. To my new readers, subscribers and those that follow me on Facebook or Twitter, welcome to my little world.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

PS Tomorrow I will be looking at the serious situation developing in all seriousness in Syria.

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Faith and Doubt

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Those who believe that they believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish in mind, without uncertainty, without an element of despair even in thie consolation, believe only in the God idea, not God himself.” Miguel de Unanumo

The idea of God, any God is a wonderful idea. In fact when I read about the numbers of people in the United States who when polled say they they “believe in God,” or “believe the Bible” or claim to be Christian when answering poll questions I am always amazed. I say this because I am beginning to believe that what is being affirmed is not a belief in God, which presupposes all of the problems inherent in any real relationship.

If we truly believe in a personal God, or to use the Evangelical terminology to have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” such relationship cannot be reduced to mere intellectual assent or even fervent belief in impersonal dogma or fanatical orthodoxy.

Relationships are inherently messy. They involve risk and vulnerability and they evolve over time. That includes the relationship of the believer to God. The Christian and Jewish scriptures are full of the accounts of people, reckoned according to the various authors of scripture to be been found faithful or righteous by God. Doubts, faith, disappointment and anguish are shown to go both ways in the relationship of God to his people, individually and collectively. The Bible is actually quite an earthy book when it comes to these relationships. Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Jeremiah, Job, David, Peter, Paul and so many others and even God himself according to Scripture are shown to deal with disappointment, doubt and anguish in their relationships with one another.

Likewise there are numerous instances in the Old Testament of God’s stated disappointment and anger with his people, and even regret for delivering them from Egypt and other oppressors. The fact that Moses more than once has to talk God out of destroying the Israelites in the wilderness is evidence enough. But add to this the various times of national apostasy where God is claimed to have given Israel over to her enemies as punishment for rejecting him. Then consider the story of the prophet Hosea who is told to marry a harlot as a symbol of how God feels about his people and you get the point. If we as Christians believe our own Scriptures it is apparent that they record an often volatile relationship between God and his people. They record the story of a God who doubts and often regrets his own choices. I don’t think that I have heard anyone preach on that lately. Maybe God is admitting in this that he too makes mistakes and has doubts but in the end his love and grace prevail over his anger and wrath. I think that should give us some hope and consolation.

Some of the great Christian writers and thinkers echo this. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Paul Tillich correctly noted that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” I think that it is a pity that so many Christians as well as other religious people regard doubt as a sin, weakness or failing, when in fact the entire narrative of God’s people found in the Bible testifies that it is both normal and quite often an element of faith’s triumph.

This has been the case in my own life. I can safely say in my life that when I was a younger Priest and more cocksure about things I would write often fiery polemics mostly condemning the errors of others. I had studied scripture, the Church Fathers, knew the Creeds and Councils, historical and systematic theology, philosophy and was well schooled in history, including Church History. I was even published in a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review. I wrote with a bombastic certitude and since the church that I had been ordained in was going through its own theological conflicts, conflicts which eventually tore that church apart, I was willing to turn my guns on others in the church in defense of the institution.

When I eventually went through my own crisis of faith resulting from my time in Iraq and struggle with PTSD I found that the certitude with which I could enunciate my faith was not enough. As I went through that valley of dark despair in which I could safely say that I wasn’t even sure of the existence of God for nearly two years, years where working as a critical care chaplain in ICUs and dealt with death every day I had to re-discover faith. In my sea of doubt I had to be present with other people, all walking through their own “valley of the shadow of death.”

It was in that time that faith returned and when it did it was not the bombastic faith of one who fervently believed the dogmas of the faith but as one who had experienced the grace of God in that dark valley. Looking back I can see the wisdom of God to allow me this experience. I believe that my previous faith, the faith of a man consumed with such certainty that I felt compelled to attack or counterattack those that did not believe correctly was a compensation for my own doubts. I think that Reinhold Niebuhr made an accurate assessment of that kind of faith when he wrote that frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but doubt.”

I have come to believe that faith is incomplete unless there is a corresponding doubt, because absolute faith is not really faith at all because it can only be faith in an idea, not in a relationship. In fact the late American Existential Psychologist Rollo May noted that the “relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. Relationships be they with people or the Divine are dynamic or they are dead. There is a give an take in any relationship. The accounts in the Christian and Jewish scriptures attest to this time after time.

As I wrote in my previous essay Belief and Unbeliefthat some people substitute an absolute belief in an ‘orthodoxy’ of some movement…and cling to it with unbridled fanaticism,” as a substitute for their lack of belief in either themselves or the God that they cannot see. While this is seen most often among religious people non-believers as well can become fanatical in their commitment to other “orthodoxies” especially political and economic theories that they believe will usher in a new order. Communism, Fascism, Socialism and Capitalism are examples of such ideologies which when embraced with the fervor and certitude of a religious movement rapidly become intolerant of dissent and persecute those who disagree.

Doubt and faith. Belief and unbelief. Eric Hoffer wrote that it is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.” I think that is equally amazing how much doubt is necessary to make real faith possible.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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If I Wasn’t Already a Christian I Wouldn’t Be

blm121011

In the movie Major League, the Cuban ballplayer Pedro Cerrano commented to a Christian teammate “I like Jesus very much, but he no help with curve ball.”

I like Jesus a lot. In fact I believe in Jesus and am completely orthodox in the basics of the historic Christian faith. Now I did go through a crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq that left me for all intents and purposes an agnostic struggling to believe. When faith returned in the Emergency Room at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center to this day I believe that it was a miracle.

However, since that evening in December 2009 I have found that despite Jesus, that some American Christians can be among the most hateful, intolerant, narrow minded and vicious people on the planet. In light of the very real fact that people are fleeing the Church in ever increasing number and that the fastest growing segment of the religious population in the United States is “the Nones” or those that have no religious preference you would think that Church leaders and for that matter those that call themselves Christian would take a bit of time to reflect on what is going on.

The great evangelist Dwight L Moody once said “Out of 100 men, one will read the Bible, the other 99 will read the Christian.” I do believe that is true. The earliest Christians, men and women that followed Jesus when there was no earthly benefit to doing so attracted people to their faith and their Savior because their lives exemplified love, care and humanity quite unlike many of their persecutors. William Blake, the 18th Century English poet would say “The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.”

However I have to say that if I was to be looking for Jesus by the recent experiences that I have had with people that call themselves “Christians” I would never consider becoming a Christian. Now I am a Christian and I do not plan on leaving the faith but I have to agree with Mahatma Gandhi that “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

This yesterday I received an e-mail from a woman upset with an article I wrote about the death of the Reverend David Wilkerson a couple of years ago. I was polite and even apologetic but in two subsequent e-mails she persisted and finally sent me an e-mail stating: “You are an arrogant pompous hypocrite a classic wolf in sheep’s clothing. Call yourself Padre tells it all. Now get thee behind me Satan. In Jesus name.”

I have for the most part stopped taking such attacks personally. Yes there are some times that they hurt or anger me, but in light of them I can understand why so many people hold Christianity, the Church and Christians in such low esteem. This particular person was so ignorant about what she was talking about and me that I could hardly take her comments seriously or be hurt by them. What scares me is how widespread this type of attitude is in some church communities and the effects that it has on so many people and our society as a whole. In light of this and so many other interactions I have had with “Christians” that I am tempted to agree with Mark Twain who said: “If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be—a Christian.” Since I have written about these encounters many times I will not go into detail here other than to say that they make me tired and simply restate that if I wasn’t already a Christian I wouldn’t be.

The late Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador wrote: “I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God,who loves us and who wants to save us.”

That is the kind of Christian that I want to be. I will strive to love people and tell the truth, and if need be confront injustice against any of God’s people. Hopefully in doing so I will be a witness that helps call people back to the love of God shown in Christ.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Holy Week and the Outcasts

Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit”

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

Holy Week is here and on my way home from work and a visit with my shrink I was doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media.  Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many of the people Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomena is one of the more tragic aspects of the season.  People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness which sometimes becomes a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because people suffering through this often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or the experience of trauma that devastates them but no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are now outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Likewise there are many pastors and priests who are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do to the message of Easter.  I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself when one no longer senses the presence of God and feels alone against the world, especially in church.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out.  I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.  Call me a heretic but that line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life but absolutely stupid advice for people who are severely traumatized or clinically depressed and suicidal who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives.  For those abused by parents or clergy this is I think an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. The numbers of people have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat is mind numbing. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible for them to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience came from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening so much so that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.  My isolation from Christian community and sense of despair during that time showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with or papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up in the ivory theological towers by theologians and “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that that feel cut off and even abandoned by God.  It is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life.  It is if they never are able to leave the “God forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb.   For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach out to people in this situation.  I have to admit in my case that it was only people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage that helped get me through the worst of this.  However I’m sure that my condition burned some people out.  There were some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down this road and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them.  However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday.

Yet scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said  We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian.  Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with those who suffer the absence of God.  It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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