Tag Archives: dark night of the soul

The Evolving Faith of a Miscreant Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and Blessings

Padre Steve+

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

The Unexplained and Tragic Death of David Wilkerson

The Reverend David Wilkerson 1931-2011

Renowned Pentecostal  preacher David Wilkerson was killed in an automobile accident in East Texas about 1PM yesterday.  Wilkerson was one of the more influential preachers of his era preaching a message of God’s love, God’s judgment and rigorous personal holiness. Unlike many of his contemporaries who embraced the “word of faith” and “prosperity gospel” message Wilkerson condemned that message without denying the fact that God still does miracles and answers prayers.  Likewise there was never any scandal associated with him or his ministry financial, sexual or otherwise.  He proclaimed many “prophetic” words concerning judgment upon the church and the world as the time of Jesus’ second coming approached. Whether one agreed with his prophecies or interpretation of the Biblical texts concerning the second coming or not one did not question the reality of his faith or his belief in the message that he preached.  In fact one can see even in his more extravagant prophecies a tone similar to that of the Old Testament prophets especially Jeremiah.

The heart of Wilkerson’s outreach was to people that much of the church had ignored or condemned, gang members, criminals, drug abusers and other young people who lived on the margins of society. One cannot deny his impact on those that he ministered to as well as those that he influenced.  Many young people who became Christians in the 1960s and 1970s, especially those that were considered “hippies” found his message attractive and many have talked of his influence in their lives and ministries.  In fact back in 1975 I remember reading his famous book The Cross and the Switchblade and actually being inspired by it.

When I heard that Reverend Wilkerson had died in a car crash I looked up the articles on the news and was surprised to see that he evidently swerved into an oncoming logging truck and was not wearing a seat belt.  I really found this strange.  Of course there are a number of reasons that this could have transpired he could have become distracted while driving, tried to avoid a small animal in the road, been startled by something or even experienced a sudden medical problem that caused him to lose control of the car.  Looking at the pictures on a local Texas television station of the car which is unrecognizable as to its make and model it is no wonder that he did not survive the crash. His wife was probably saved by her seat belt, she is recovering in hospital and I join with their family, friends, co-workers and those that he ministered to for her complete recovery.

As I searched for information on the crash I came across an article that included his last daily blog post which was posted in the hours before his death. As I read it I sensed a man struggling with faith and God a man who seems to have been enduring his own “Dark Night of the Soul.”  The article was entitled When All Means Fail http://davidwilkersontoday.blogspot.com/2011/04/when-all-means-fail.html and it is thought provoking especially when read in the light of the circumstances of his death. I repost it here because it appears to me to show a man struggling with burdens that are overwhelming. Please know as someone who has struggled greatly with faith that I seek in no way to cast any dispersion upon the life, ministry, character or godliness of David Wilkerson.  I do not know what he was facing but it was something incredibly painful that caused him in this post and many of his recent posts on his blog site and ministry web site to wrestle with God.  As a minster I know that many things that we write or preach about deal with the things that we are dealing with ourselves. Sometimes it seems that we are preaching as much to ourselves as to the people that God has entrusted to us.  Of course we are not alone even Paul the Apostle demonstrated such a struggle in the Letter to the Romans.

Wilkerson posted:

“To believe when all means fail is exceedingly pleasing to God and is most acceptable. Jesus said to Thomas, “You have believed because you have seen, but blessed are those that do believe and have not seen” (John 20:29).

Blessed are those who believe when there is no evidence of an answer to prayer—who trust beyond hope when all means have failed.

Someone has come to the place of hopelessness—the end of hope—the end of all means. A loved one is facing death and doctors give no hope. Death seems inevitable. Hope is gone. The miracle prayed for is not happening.

That is when Satan’s hordes come to attack your mind with fear, anger, overwhelming questions: “Where is your God now? You prayed until you had no tears left. You fasted. You stood on promises. You trusted.”

Blasphemous thoughts will be injected into your mind: “Prayer failed. Faith failed. Don’t quit on God—just do not trust him anymore. It doesn’t pay!”

Even questioning God’s existence will be injected into your mind. These have been the devices of Satan for centuries. Some of the godliest men and women who ever lived were under such demonic attacks.

To those going through the valley and shadow of death, hear this word: Weeping will last through some dark, awful nights—and in that darkness you will soon hear the Father whisper, “I am with you. I cannot tell you why right now, but one day it will all make sense. You will see it was all part of my plan. It was no accident. It was no failure on your part. Hold fast. Let me embrace you in your hour of pain.”

Beloved, God has never failed to act but in goodness and love. When all means fail—his love prevails. Hold fast to your faith. Stand fast in his Word. There is no other hope in this world.”

If this were the only time that he wrote such deep and troubling words and if the circumstances of his death were different I would not have given the article a second thought.  But because of the circumstances I decided to keep reading. I read every blog post dating back to February and the topics of hopelessness, failure and struggle are present in almost every article.  They can be found here: http://davidwilkersontoday.blogspot.com/ and here http://www.worldchallenge.org/view/devotions

As I read these articles I felt the pain of a man who has been a weeping prophet and the mould of Jeremiah.  Jeremiah comes to my mind as his writings show a man that struggled with faith and was probably suffering from profound and deep depression and I get the same sense from Wilkerson’s writings.  Wilkerson’s prophetic words, be they true or not are not the words of a man who is angry and lashing out at the society around him.  They are, even dating back to the 1980s the words of a man who preaches out of a heart of sadness and concern for those people, nations and leaders that he believes are coming under the judgment of God.  I have seen some lash out and condemn Wilkerson as a false prophet because of the nature of his words but I cannot and will not do so even though I disagree with underlying premises of his eschatology.  Wilkerson cannot be compared to those that have made their living simply “studying Bible prophecy” and making money off of it or many of the other supposed modern day “prophets” who seem to believe that all they say is as inspired as the Scriptures themselves.  Wilkerson’s struggles which are so apparent in his writings show a personal humility and introspection lacking in the vast bulk of the self proclaimed prophets and Bible prophecy experts.

His writings of the past few months show a man concerned with not failing God and struggling with physical, spiritual or emotional pain of some kind. While the writings are almost always directed to the encouragement of God’s people there is also the sense that he was preaching to himself as much as anyone else.  I think that and preacher who is honest will admit that this is the case and it is not a mark of failure or lack of faith or character for this to be the case.  Likewise it is not hypocritical.

I don’t know what happened on that East Texas Highway yesterday. I don’t know if something happened to cause David Wilkerson to lose control of his vehicle or if in a moment of despair that he steered his vehicle into the oncoming truck. It doesn’t matter really because he is now with the Lord and he leaves the legacy of many changed lives and of faithfulness even while he struggled with things that we cannot fathom.  Perhaps we will know what happened someday but not today and it really doesn’t matter except if it was the latter and Wilkerson committed “suicide by car” it shows us that no-one, even famous preachers that we place on pedestals is immune from struggle, pain or doubt even while they struggle to believe.

We remember his life and ministry and we pray for his family. We trust his soul to God.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Note: I have closed comments to this article things seem to be getting repetitive.  I may reopen them if the situation warrants me doing so. Thank you to all that contributed even those that disagree with my speculation or even those that said bad things about me!

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Religion