Tag Archives: doubt

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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Doubt, Faith and Realism: Doubting Thomas

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Yesterday I celebrated Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Easter its a number of m students and their families at our Staff College Chapel. I have to say that I love what do, I never will regret following the call that I first felt aboard the USS Frederick (LST-1184) back in 1978 to become a Navy Chaplain.

Of course was with everything in my life it has not been easy, and to quote Jerry Garcia I have to admit “what a long strange trip it’s been.” Bug my friends I digress…

That being said, today was a specially day. I was able to celebrate Eucharist with some very nice people and today the Gospel lesson, from the final chapter of John centered on the story of St. Thomas, or he is better know among most people today, “Doubting Thomas.”

The interesting thing is that unlike most “true believers” today Thomas was not rejected by the other disciples as they testified to the resurrection, nor by Jesus himself. Thomas you see was a realist who wanted proof. Thomas wanted to put his hand in the wounds of Jesus, the same Jesus who he knew was crucified and dead. As a realist, Thomas know that dead is dead and unless as he told the other disciples, unless he could put his hand in the wounds of Jesus he would not believe.

Personally, I admire that, more than most people could imagine. Faith is faith, it is not about having to absolutely know, but is about trust, about belief even when you cannot prove it, otherwise it would not be faith. That is why when I see those who have to prove that the absolute certitude that they call “faith” is “absolute truth” I realize that they have totally missed the point of the Gospel.

Having gone through a period of almost two years where as a priest and chaplain I was for all practical purposes an agnostic hoping that God existed I understand this. In fact I have to admit that even today I doubt as much as I believe. I totally understand Thomas, and in fact not only understand, but feel a special kinship with this much maligned follower of Jesus.

Truthfully I think that doubt is a very good thing, it keeps us honest, it keeps us from becoming pious, arrogant, religious assholes who think that they know it all.

Truthfully, I don’t know it all. In fact, as the late Earl Weaver said, “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” At least that seems to be the case for Thomas and the other disciples because what happened with Jesus and the resurrection blew their minds, it was not anything that they could fathom.

Perhaps Thomas, having not been one of the first witnesses to the resurrection was actually more circumspect and a bit more like us than the disciples who first saw Jesus following his crucifixion and resurrection. I would actually saw more honest, for in fact Thomas was a realist who refused to believe unless he had some kind of physical evidence. That my friends I appreciate more than I ever did, because even though Thomas saw Jesus, talked with him and had Jesus show him his wounds, Thomas only believed when he saw and touched those wounds. I cannot condemn nor can I question the faith of the man who is most identified with doubt.

Doubt is not bad. As the late Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain: 

“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” 

That my friends is faith. That is Easter, if we knew it absolutely it would not be faith and that would be against everything proclaimed by those that first followed Jesus. In fact if we claim with absolute certitude that we know everything needed to be right with God and that we know exactly what God desires, we are probably liars, or at the minimum sadly deluded. As the late Father Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

I think this is something that Thomas and the other disciples came to understand. All of them had their moments of faith, and certainly their times of unbelief, even after the resurrection. Maybe that is why Jesus told Thomas “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  

Thomas was a realist. Even though the other disciples testified to Jesus being alive, Thomas knew that dead, was dead. He knew that Jesus had died on that cross and that it would take more than words to make him believe that Jesus was alive.

Faith is not about certitude as much as the apologists and propagandists of any faith may say, faith always has to have an element of doubt, otherwise it cannot legitimately be called faith. In fact sincere faith admits that it could be wrong, and as the Paul the Apostle said “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile….”

Personally, I find nothing wrong with that. For me that is honest faith, that is Easter faith.

So, have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

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