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“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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An Easter Thought for those Who Struggle

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am just wishing you a happy Easter, whatever that may mean to you. Now I know that many of my readers are not Christians, or struggle with faith and belief. I do too. I am all too much like the disciples of Jesus who could not believe the message of the resurrection on that first Easter morning. Even so this morning I will add my alleluia to the cry “He is risen!” 

Easter can be a difficult time for those that struggle with faith and for those that do so struggle, life can be more like Good Friday and the joy that many celebrate on Easter can be hard to find, W.H. Auden said it well:

“Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.” 

For all too many people, including me after Iraq faith is a struggle. I’m doing better right now, but I still struggle. I know the theology, I believe, yet I struggle. The actions of many who call themselves Christians, the hatred shown by many Christian leaders for others, and the way my Christian fore bearers throughout history have acted out of hate and the need to dominate others in the name of Jesus troubles me and gives me pause.  At times I wonder if anything that the Church proclaims can be true because its witness and its hostility to others is so contrary to that of Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi well summed up my feelings when he remarked: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” 

I think I understand what Easter means, according to my often painfully inadequate faith, it is the triumph of life over death that only comes only through the experience of Good Friday, the emptiness of what we now call Holy Saturday, and the shock of the resurrection.  One of my favorite theologians, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote:

“In the cross of Christ God is taking man dead-seriously so that he may open up for him the happy freedom of Easter. God takes upon himself the pain of negation and the God forsakenness of judgement to reconcile himself with his enemies and to give the godless fellowship with himself.”

God shares our pain. But for those that struggle and those walking through their own personal versions of Good Friday, Easter often seems like it will never come. I can understand that.

So for all my readers where ever you are and whatever you are going through, be it joy or sorrow, love or loss, even suffering or death; I wish you the best this Easter and I do pray that one day we will all understand what all this means. Until then, for me it will mean opening my life, my inadequate faith, my friendship, and my door to all who I encounter.  That will be my “Alleluia.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Paralyzed by Doubt

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Just another short thought as I continue to read, reflect and recharge this week. I am all too certain of my doubts and fears, and I do try to be honest about them. That being said, over the years I try not to let them rule me, or keep me from living life. I think that it is possible to live a life that understands the connection between faith, doubt, hope, and love; life that is full of meaning and purpose. Yes, even in the most times of abject depression, despair, and when it seems that I am looking into the abyss, it is always the most important to continue to move forward, and to live.

In the Star Trek the next Generation the character Q chastises Captain Picard when Picard complains about the loss of some of his crew in the first encounter with the Borg, “If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.”

I have had a number of people at various times in my life tell me that I should quit, pack up my bags and go back to some supposed place of safety were doubt, danger and risk are minimized. But what kind of life is that? Just because danger, rejection, and even failure and defeat are possible; why quit?

When I go through weeks like last week I am reminded that I cannot quit, and that I cannot allow doubt, even legitimate doubt in myself and what I believe about God, or my experiences with others, to paralyze me, to keep me from moving forward.

Paul Coelho wrote, “You must be careful never to allow doubt to paralyze you. Always take the decisions you need to take, even if you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing. You’ll never go wrong if, when you make a decision, you keep in mind an old German proverb: ‘The devil is in the detail.’ Remember that proverb and you’ll always be able to turn a wrong decision into a right one.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Frantic Fanatics

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Like yesterday just a short post that comes out of my reflections following for what was for me, a difficult Holy Week. As I was sorting through my own issues, and trying to make sense of what I was going through I remembered a saying by a Spanish (Basque) philosopher named Miguel de Unamuno who lived in the late 1800s and during the Spanish Civil War, he noted that “Faith which does not doubt is dead faith,” and in that moment my mind was flooded with the examples of so many characters in the Bible, as well as those who have shaped what Christians believe for two millennia.

In turbulent times like those in which we live, many people seek some kind of religious certitude, and grasp for some kind of orthodox that they can cling. This is a universal condition which can be found in the lives of people of all religions. The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote something that I think is a good point of reflection to close today’s thought, “Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.” That is demonstrated daily by people who need to suppress, discriminate against, and even kill those whose existence threatens their certitude.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Uncomfortable but Necessary

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am going to take a few days to read and recharge, and just put up some short thoughts or re-post older articles. It is a good thing, as I mentioned that last week was difficult, but I think that like many difficult things that it was probably necessary for me to go through. I guess in a way, my Christian faith, my faith in Jesus the Christ is like that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky who noted that his “hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

So anyway, have a good day and enjoy living.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Essential Elements of Faith: Doubt, Brokenness and Hope

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Paul Coelho wrote, “None of us can know what tomorrow will hold, because each day has its good and its bad moments.”

So, a short note on this Easter Tuesday, and thankfully I did survive Easter and even Easter Monday. It was admittedly quite a difficult week. I for the first time that I can remember actually dreaded Easter, and as it and my birthday, which fell on Easter drew closer I felt as if I was hurtling toward the abyss. It has been a few years since I felt that bad, and every passing day I was reminded of haunting doubts, of abandonment, of painful events from the past. The worst day was Easter Sunday morning, when I felt like Charlie Brown, standing alone on the pitcher’s mound in the pouring rain, and yes it was raining, and I was alone in the chapel.

Thankfully, that moment passed, and even though the rain continued to fall, my mood was cheered by Judy, and our dogs, my brother and my mom, as well as our friends, local ones, and those around the world who wished me very kind thoughts, words, prayers, and love for my birthday.

I feel a lot better than I did on Easter morning, and I seem to be getting back to my normal self; not that I will ever stand accused of being normal, but normal for me.

As far as Easter, and faith, and doubt, I am no longer hurtling toward the abyss, but I am pretty much back to my normal continuum of faith and doubt, and yes hope for a better day and tomorrow. I don’t think that I ever will return to an easy faith, I think that Paul Tillich got it right when he said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” That seems to be borne out in scripture, Saint Thomas, Jeremiah the prophet, and even Saint Paul all seem to have struggled with that existential question, as well as the struggle if feeling abandoned, and having known the pain of defeat. Likewise, the French Christian mystic Simone Weil noted in her book Grace and Gravity, “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.”

But without pain, without doubt, without defeat, we can never experience the exhilaration of victory, we can never know love. As Paul Coelho wrote in his novel Manuscript Found in Accra, “I am here to tell you that there are people who have never been defeated. They are the ones who never fought. They managed to avoid scars, humiliations, feelings of helplessness, as well as those moments when even warriors doubt the existence of God.’’

As far as my struggles with faith, calling, and my priestly vocation, I’ll have to continue to deal with them on a daily basis; of this, I am sure, because as Coelho noted, “What was broken will never be the same again.” That my friends is true, but it does not rule out the fact that in life, what was broken can by transformed and be made better than it was in the first place, and I guess that is why we hope, and why Easter only comes after the anguish of Good Friday and the fearful solitude of Holy Saturday. Otherwise it would have no meaning.

I think that in a way, what I experienced last week, allows me to take God more seriously, less frivolously, and allows me to empathize with those who struggle, who feel the pain of defeat and failure, and to be there for them, as much as others are for me.

So, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Faith, Doubt & Sacramental Encounters

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The late Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his mystery novel The Archbishop in Andalusia, “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.” 

I firmly believe that, and this week I had the opportunity to be present at one of thos sacramental encounters.

People who know me well, and people who have read what I have written on this site for the past six or so years know that I struggle with faith, belief, and doubt. I am a priest, and have been so for nearly twenty years, but faith for me is a constant struggle, and as such, I pray that in my seasons of doubt, and occasional unbelief that I won’t screw things up for others.

Over the past two years my academic duties have been more a part of my life than my priestly duties because of the nature of my assignment at the Staff College. I have a chapel, but attendance is always sparse and if I get more than five people in attendance it feels like a mega-church. I also do some counseling as well as care for students or those on our staff and faculty who need pastoral care, but the bulk of my duties are teaching and writing. This has been good as I spent the five previous years in hospital ministry and before that ten of twelve years doing operational duties and the other two in base chapels and congregations.

My current duties are refreshing, and despite my struggles with faith I attempt to be sensitive to what is going on around me, and the people who I come into contact with. This has been one of those kinds of weeks. We had a friend get ploughed over by an inattentive driver who cut across two lanes of traffic to strike my friend on his Harley. My friend was not at fault but is busted up pretty badly. His recovery will take six months to a year. Judy and I were visiting him on Thursday night and when we were going out on the elevator, it stopped and an older lady with two large bags asked if the elevator was going down. I said yes, held the door and had her come in. Since she was taking bags out I asked if she had family there and if she was going to be taking them home.

She looked up and told me that her husband was dying and had just days to live. I asked if I could carry her bags to her car and she told us what was going on. Her husband, a 30-year Navy veteran, who she had been married to for 46 years, was taken ill just a week prior after coming home from work. She took him to the hospital and after exploratory surgery they were informed that he had cancer throughout his body and just days to live, nothing could be done. It came as a shock as he had not missed a day of work for over ten years, and the illness was the first sign that he was sick.

We walked her to her car and I carried her bags and told her that I was a Navy chaplain. I have few words to describe what happened next. When I said that she was moved to tears, but they were not tears of sadness, she said that God must have meant for us to be on the same elevator. I wonder about such encounter, often, if not most of the time, I believe that what happens to us is not directed by God; but rather chance encounters that we are left to do the best we can in; but I was not going to argue. I realized that many military veterans and their families, especially older ones, are often more appreciative of chaplains than civilian clergy; so I offered to do anything that I could. I took a battered business card from my wallet, scribbled by cell phone number on the back and gave it to her, inviting her to call me any time. Judy and I left her as she went home to clean up and await the arrival of her children before she went back to the hospital.

That night she and her husband weighed on my mind and late last night she called me and asked if I could come by the hospital Saturday or Sunday. I told her that I would be there this morning. I again thought of her and her husband and what I would need, and tried to get some fitful hours of sleep. I got up, and went to the office to pick up my prayer book and hospital stole, made sure I had oil to anoint him and then drove the twenty-miles back across town from the base to the hospital, where I arrived at ten a.m. I knocked, and she greeted me, a social worker from the hospital palliative care was there, as was her son. She greeted me with a hug and introduced me and let me know that her husband had passed away not long before. He lay in the bed and she invited me to sit with her by him.

She then told me of his passing, how she saw the room filled with angels and a golden hue, she asked God to wait to allow her son and his brother to arrive. He hung on and shortly after they arrived she could see and feel the angels taking her husband to heaven. She then spoke of their life, and relationship and all the hopes, dreams and joys that they had experienced over the years, and how she had always been jealous that he had kept his youthful looks while she had obviously aged. She asked if I would pray and then I did so, commending his soul to God. I was reminded of Greeley’s words “We are born with two incurable diseases, life, from which we die, and hope, which says maybe death isn’t the end.” The encounter re-impressed those words on me. We all die, but we live in hope that death is not the end.

After a while longer I left and went to visit my friend who is being discharged today, though he will need several more surgeries over the coming weeks an months. We are going to do all that we can for him and his wife to help take up some of the burden, because they, like so many of our friends from the bar at Gordon Biersch are closer to us than any church people that we have known here; and they have been there for us when we needed them.

So now we are about ready to go to a birthday party for another friend. All part of the cycle of life, and perhaps the cycle of God’s grace, love, and presence, even in those times that we do not believe.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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