Tag Archives: despair

Musings after a Rain Out: No Time to Hate…Too Much to Lose

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“Those disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory, sometimes, but they never get good will, which would be of more use to them.” Benjamin Franklin

I was planning to go to a baseball game tonight, but as Nuke Laloosh said in Bull Durham “A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.” Tonight it rained and gave me a chance to muse a bit since I am immersed in writing another chapter of my Gettysburg tome.

I was really looking forward to the game, the Norfolk Tides, my home team, the AAA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles was to play the Durham Bulls at Harbor Park. I hope I can get a game in over the next couple of days, but it looks like the rainy and stormy weather might continue the next couple of nights.

I have been thinking…

Over the past decade or so we have become a very contentious and contemptuous society. Transfixed by the cable news cycle and addicted to the hate being spewed by the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and dare I say Preachers we have drank the chalice of the bile of bitterness dry and plead for more.

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Amazingly enough our pleas for more mirth are answered by the politicians, pundits and preachers who offer it to us asking us to give them “just three hours a day” an amount of time I dare say that most cannot give to their loved ones or to their God.

So we charge our glasses with yet another round of mirth, and plunge into the abyss of hatred necessitated by those that we give those hours to. If they’re not for us they’re against us they say even though “they” are our neighbors and often our friends or families. Somehow that doesn’t work for me.

I cannot imagine those that risked their lives to found this country ever dreamed that this day would come but I think that they understood human nature all too well.  Benjamin Franklin wryly noted “Who is wise? He that learns from everyone. Who is powerful? He that governs his passions. Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody.” 

I think that old Ben Franklin accurately sums up our current problem. We refuse to learn from each other believing the lie that only those that we agree with have anything of value to say.  We refuse to govern our passions and allow them to run roughshod over our better instincts, and we are incredibly discontent as a people. Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in this predicament?

Although I cannot say that my data is scientific I can say from what I hear wherever I go is that the constant flow of acrimony is wearing them down, but maybe that is what the Unholy Trinity wants.  I guess that they have figured out that if you beat people down enough they will simply give in to despair and they will have their way, after all the only use must of us are to them are as pawns which they sacrifice when the need suits them.

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I think that is why I am so leery of the politicians, pundits and preachers that use fear, hatred and covetousness to promote their agenda.  The dirty secret that the Unholy Trinity wants people to drink from their cup of bitterness.  But they don’t tell those that drink from that cup and join them, is that as soon as they become inconvenient they become disposable.  My “social conservative” Christian friends will learn the hard lesson of this just as conservative Christians who initially supported the Nazi Party in Hitler’s Germany discovered.  Once they no longer need your vote you become disposable, that is simply a fact. The realization of this will will be a hard lesson for Evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics and others who thought that were indispensable to the conservative movement. The sad thing is that the only indispensable things are money, those who donate it and a reliable media mouthpiece.

Speaking of votes….who really needs them? Our votes are now so much chaff because those that seek them are actually more interested in serving the needs of the special interests, lobbyists and corporations that provide the big bucks to their campaigns, and their friends on the Supreme Court.  I cannot believe for one moment that this is what our founders envisioned but we can’t see it.  But others do as one German journalist wrote:

“The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite…. One can no longer depend on politics in America. The reliance of Congress members on donations from the rich has become too great. Nor will there be any revolutionary storming of the Bastille in America. Popular anger may boil over, but the elites have succeeded in both controlling the masses and channeling their passions.”

Some conservatatives would like to think that the Tea Party would be a force of change. It certainly has energy but while many Tea Party members believe that they are revolutionary, they are simply being used, and will be discarded when they become inconvenient. The Koch brothers and other big money operatives and their reliable mouthpiece of News Corp, its subsidiaries and the host of “talkers” will ensure it.

Those groups are promoting hatred and fear, but I don’t think that we solve our problems by giving into the hatred in which our culture is now drowning thanks to our business-media-religion complex.

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A couple of years ago I read Buck O’Neil’s America and the wonderful human being and baseball great always counseled against allowing hate to consume your life.  I was struck by this today:

“It makes no sense, Hate.

It’s just fear. All it is.

Fear something different.

Something’s gonna get taken from you,

Stolen from you.

Find yourself lost.”

Buck was called to testify in Congress about the Negro League Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame not long after the Congressional inquisition concerning the use of steroids. After his testimony was done the 94 year old great realized that there was something else that he wanted to say but could not remember. While waiting for his car in the Senate office building he saw a television which I can imagine was filled with the news of the day.  He stopped began to talk what it would be like if instead of the virulent hatred, the television was showing the great catch by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series.

O’Neil mused:

“If Willie Mays was up there

People would stop making laws.

They would stop running.

They would stop arguing about

Big things

Little things.

No Democrat or Republican,

No black or white

No North or South.

Everybody just stop,

Watch the TV,

Watch Willie Mays make that catch.

That’s baseball man.”

willie mays famous catch

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUK9lG-7HTc

For the most part I have stopped watching the news. I do read a good amount but I will not allow myself to be turned into an unthinking drone of the Unholy Trinity and their endless attack on all that made this country good. Instead I watch baseball, read, write and even pray on occasion. I think that is one of the reasons that I so love baseball.

Sometimes when I despair about the country and the acrimony that is beginning to define who we are I remember this quote from Field of Dreams: 

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

Maybe that is the answer, and hopefully tomorrow or Friday the weather will clear enough to see a ball game.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Faith and Doubt: A Reflection on Christmas

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

There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Not that that is in any way a bad thing as difficult as it is.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this 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.  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 for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed 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 ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something 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 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“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. No this was different, 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 in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin 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, but even then 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 grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

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 because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three 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.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try 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, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning 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.”

In the past year I have still had my times of struggle but have also found others that have gone through similar times.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good. I am fortunate. I was talking with my Bishop recently in regard to the struggle that I have had in recovering the disciplines of the spiritual life. Thankfully she does understand and was encouraging. I guess that is why now when I have more compassion for someone when they tell me that they “lost their faith” especially those that have been changed by their experience of war or other trauma. I don’t necessarily have all the answers for them because I am quite obviously still figuring it out myself. However as I found sometimes it is not the person with the answers but simply the person that takes time to listen and care that is more important to a person when they struggle, especially for those that before the traumatic event had been strong believers.

I’ll write a bit more about Christmas and faith but not tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Reaching the Lost Christian Generation

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

Over the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about encounters that I have had with Christians of various denominations who have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith due to some kind of trauma in their lives.  These people are the unseen, unheard and ignored part of our religious landscape.  In theUnited Stateswe have a very vibrant religious culture which finds its way into much of everyday life.  In fact listening to most of our Presidential candidates you would think that most are in fact Evangelical Christian preachers.

The fact is that despite the popularity of the mega-church and pop-psychology driven church world directed by “pastors” that function more as CEOs, motivational speakers and authors that churches are losing adherents at an increasing rate.  Many of those that are being lost are those that have suffered silently doing everything that is supposed to fulfill a Christian and make them healthy, wealthy and popular get left in the dust because they don’t “get better.”  I call them the “Lost Christian Generation.” There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

For the wounded the church itself becomes their little acre of Hell on earth.  Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of life.  Those that at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness.   But most remain in the church for years living in pain thinking that they must be doing something wrong, that maybe they have angered God or that God has abandoned them.  In fact I would challenge my readers that attend church to take a look around the pews and see that person sitting alone, maybe staring into space, maybe with an expression of deep sadness on their face even as people talk and laugh around them.  The problem is most of us have very little situational awareness and don’t see them and of we do feel uncomfortable or inadequate so we leave them hoping that maybe they’ll get their act together or just go away.

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

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

This “God Forsakenness” sometimes leads those people that are part of the “lost Christian generation” to believe that death appears more comforting than life in the present. For such people, they live “Good Friday” everyday feeling that they are truly God Forsaken.   I write this because I really believe that these often very sensitive and wonderful people are either ignored or not even seen by most of their fellow church members. Likewise I believe that many if not most pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do.   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.

Many times the crisis of faith is caused by prolonged depression, PTSD or other trauma often involving family members, clergy or other trusted authority figures in their lives.  Sometimes the trauma is due to a physical injury, perhaps a near death experience due to an illness, combat or accident and can be neurological as in the case of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI not something that routine counseling either psychological or pastoral or an anti-depressant medication will correct.  In my case it was PTSD and chronic pain and insomnia which overwhelmed me and along with a crisis of faith triggered such hopelessness that I barely held on for almost two years.

I remember when I first started dealing with this in others while in seminary that I was of the mind 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 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.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. So many people like this have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat that it is mind numbing.  The fact that I went through a period for the nearly two years where I was pretty much an agnostic praying to believe again because of my PTSD injury incurred in Iraq that felt hopelessly isolated for the first year after my return until I finally reconnected with others and began to feel safe again gives me just a bit of an idea at what these people are going through.  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.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience was due to from my time in Iraq and the trauma of my return.  That time was absolutely frightening.  Church was no longer a comfort and my long established spiritual practices no longer brought peace or a feeling of communion with God. It was so bad that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.

For those clergy this is an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.  It becomes worse when church institutions deny or ignore their claims which has been an unfortunate occurrence in many Roman Catholic dioceses around the world, particularly in Europe and North America where new revelations of clerical abuse seem to show up with alarming frequency.

The feeling that people who go through a crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that they feel God feel cut off and even abandoned by God.  This is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when thoughts of death or just going to sleep are much preferable to living.  This overwhelming despair impacts their relationships especially with their family and frequently will destroy families as the spouse grows weary and loses hope seeing their loved one get better.  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 the last and previously unthinkable alternative of suicide becomes the only course of action that they think will help.  Such thoughts are not simply narcissism as some would believe but from the “logical” 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 are some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them at the same time the first person that asked me how my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my therapist.  When I reported to my current duty station I was shocked to find Chaplains who were willing to come alongside of me, even when they didn’t have the answers and remain with me.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with.  It is seldom dealt with in many seminaries or Bible schools because it is not comfortable or something that you can “grow your church” with.  But the reality is there are more people going to church praying for an answer who no one reaches out to; in fact they are often invisible amid the busyness of program oriented ministry.

I do not think that it is enough simply to tell them that “God won’t give you more than you can bear” or quote other scriptures when they have been pushed beyond the “red line” and are breaking down.  They want to believe that scriptural principle but no longer believe because God is no longer real to them.

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.”

We have to be honest and not turn a blind eye to the transgressions of Christians over the centuries.  We cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries of those that are living their own dark night of the soul or have given in to despair.

I do pray that as we celebrate the joy of the Resurrection that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”  It is not easy as those who walked with me can testify but in doing so there is the chance that such action will prevent tragedy and maybe, just maybe give hope to this “Lost Christian Generation” that may allow them to return.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

No time to Hate….Too much to Lose

“Those disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory, sometimes, but they never get good will, which would be of more use to them.” Benjamin Franklin

Over the past decade or so we have become a very contentious and contemptuous society. Transfixed by the cable news cycle and addicted to the hate being spewed by the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and dare I say Preachers we have drank the chalice of the bile of bitterness dry and plead for more.

Amazingly enough our pleas for more mirth are answered by the politicians, pundits and preachers who offer it to us asking us to give them “just three hours a day” an amount of time I dare say that most cannot give to their loved ones or to their God.

So we charge our glasses with yet another round and plunge into the abyss of hatred necessitated by those that we give those hours to. If they’re not for us they’re against us they say even though “they” are our neighbors and often our friends or families.

I cannot imagine those that risked their lives to found this country ever dreamed that this day would come but I think that they understood human nature all too well.  Benjamin Franklin wryly noted “Who is wise? He that learns from everyone. Who is powerful? He that governs his passions. Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody.” 

I think that old Ben Franklin accurately sums up our problem. We refuse to learn from each other believing the lie that only those that we agree with have anything of value to say.  We refuse to govern our passions and allow them to run roughshod over our better instincts and we are incredibly discontent as a people. Is it any wonder that we find ourselves in this predicament?

Although I cannot say that my data is scientific I can say from what I hear wherever I go is that the constant flow of acrimony is wearing them down, but maybe that is what the Unholy Trinity wants.  I guess that they have figured out that if you beat people down enough they will simply give in to despair and they will have their way, after all the only use we are to them are as pawns which they sacrifice when the need suits them.

I think that is why I am so leery of politicians, pundits and preachers becoming allies to promote their agenda.  The dirty secret that the Unholy Trinity doesn’t tell those that drink from their cup of bitterness is that as soon as they become inconvenient they become disposable.  My “social conservative” Christian friends will learn the hard lesson of this just as conservative Christians who initially supported the Nazi Party in Hitler’s Germanydiscovered.  Once they no longer need your vote you become disposable, that is simply a fact and it will be a hard lesson for Evangelicals and others who thought that were indispensable to the conservative movement. No the only things indispensable are money and a media mouthpiece.

Speaking of votes….who really them? Our votes are now so much chaff because those that seek them are actually more interested in serving the needs of the special interests, lobbyists and corporations that provide the big bucks to their campaigns.  In act once the so called “Super-Congress” which by the way is nowhere in the Constitution found gets into the act they will count even less because most of what this Star Chamber will do will be done in private and shrouded in secrecy.  I cannot believe for one moment that this is what our founders envisioned but we can’t see it.  But others do as one German journalist wrote:

“The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite…. One can no longer depend on politics in America. The reliance of Congress members on donations from the rich has become too great. Nor will there be any revolutionary storming of the Bastille in America. Popular anger may boil over, but the elites have succeeded in both controlling the masses and channeling their passions.”

Some would like to think that the Tea Party would be a force of change. It certainly has energy but while the vast bulk of Tea Party members believe that they are revolutionary they will only be allowed a short leash by the Koch brothers and News Corp, especially the social conservatives.

I don’t think that we solve our problems by giving into the hatred in which our culture is now drowning.

I have been reading Buck O’Neil’s America and the wonderful human being and baseball great always counseled against allowing hate to consume your life.  I was struck by this today:

“It makes no sense, Hate.

It’s just fear. All it is.

Fear something different.

Something’s gonna get taken from you,

Stolen from you.

Find yourself lost.”

Buck was called to testify in Congress about theNegroLeagueBaseballMuseumand Hall of Fame not long after the Congressional inquisition concerning the use of steroids. After his testimony was done the 94 year old great realized that there was something else that he wanted to say but could not remember. While waiting for his car in the Senate office building he saw a television which I can imagine was filled with the news of the day.  He stopped and said that if the television had been showing the great catch by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series.

“If Willie Mays was up there

People would stop making laws.

They would stop running.

They would stop arguing about

Big things

Little things.

No Democrat or Republican,

No black or white

No North or South.

Everybody just stop,

Watch the TV,

Watch Willie Mays make that catch.

That’s baseball man.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUK9lG-7HTc

For the most part I have stopped watching the news. I do read a good amount but I will not allow myself to be turned into an unthinking drone of the Unholy Trinity and their endless attack on all that made this country good. Instead I watch baseball, read, write and even pray on occasion.

Walt Whitman said “I see great things in baseball.  It’s our game – the American game.  It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism.  Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set.  Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.”

Maybe that is the answer.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Introduction to “I Believe please Help Me Believe: The Apostle’s Creed for those Who Struggle with Faith”

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

This is the first of a series of essays on the topic of doubt and faith related to the Apostle’s Creed.  There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this 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.  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 for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed 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 ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something 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 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“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. No this was different, 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 in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin 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, but even then 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 grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

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 because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three 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.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try 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, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning 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.”

My journey through the words of the Apostle’s Creed will be less of a doctrinal exposition than a pastoral narrative of rediscovering faith. It is my hope and prayer that this feeble and imperfect attempt to experience the Apostle’s Creed will be of help to people.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Struggling with Faith and God at Easter

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

Easter Sunday is past and we are now in the Easter Season I was thinking today on encounters that I have had with Christians of various denominations who have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith due to some kind of trauma in their lives which gets worse at Easter.  For these people the time in which their churches celebrate Christ’s resurrection becomes their own little acre of Hell on earth.  Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomena is one of the more tragic aspects of the season when 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 write this because I really believe that these often very sensitive and wonderful people are either ignored or not even seen by most of their fellow church members and that many if not most pastors and priests 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.

Many times the crisis of faith is caused by prolonged depression, PTSD or other trauma often involving family members, clergy or other trusted authority figures in their lives.  Sometimes the trauma is due to a physical injury, perhaps a near death experience due to an illness, combat or accident and can be neurological as in the case of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI not something that routine counseling either psychological or pastoral or an anti-depressant medication will correct.  In my case it was PTSD and chronic pain and insomnia which overwhelmed me and along with a crisis of faith triggered such hopelessness that I barely held on for almost two years.

I remember when I first started dealing with this in others while in seminary that I was of the mind 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 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 percieve the presence of God in their lives.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. So many people like this have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat that it is mind numbing.  The fact that I went through a period for the nearly two years where I was pretty much an agnostic praying to believe again because of my PTSD injury incurred in Iraq that felt hopelessly isolated for the first year after my return until I finally reconnected with others and began to feel safe again gives me just a bit of an idea at what these people are going through.  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.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible 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.  Now with help and the deliberate action of my boss and co-workers to protect me as I recovered, received therapy and recover were key factors to being able to step back from the abyss. 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.

The feeling that people who go through this crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that God no longer speaks to them.  The feel cut off and even abandoned by God and 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 their relationships especially with their family and frequently will destroy families as the spouse grows weary and loses hope seeing their loved one get better.  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 the last and previously unthinkable alternative of suicide becomes the only course of action that they think will help.  Such thoughts are not simply narcissism as some would believe but from the “logical” 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 are some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them at the same time the first person that asked me how my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my therapist.  When I reported to my current duty station I was shocked to find Chaplains who were willing to come alongside of me, even when they didn’t have the answers and remain with me. 

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with.  It is seldom dealt with in many seminaries or Bible schools because it is not comfortable or something that you can “grow your church” with.  But the reality is there are more people going to church praying for an answer who no one reaches out to, in fact they are often invisible amid the busyness of program oriented ministry. 

It is my prayer that this post will help people be able to reach out to those crushed under burdens that they can no longer bear.  It is not enough simply to tell them that “God won’t give you more than you can bear” when they have been beyond the “red line” longer than one can imagine.  They want to believe that scriptural principle but no longer believe because God is no longer real to them. 

Yet scripture plain 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 celebrate the joy of the Resurrection that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”  It is not easy as those who walked with me can testify but in doing so there is the chance that such action will prevent tragedy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

So anyway, my best to everyone and please be safe….

Padre Steve+

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