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Reflections on Holy Week 2018

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who follow this blog and people who know me know how much I have struggled with faith since returning from Iraq ten years ago, especially during Holy Week. Truthfully it has been one of the most difficult times of the Church year for me, but over the past year I have rediscovered faith, yes I still doubt but I believe a lot more than I have for quite a long time.

Holy Week is over but the Easter Season has just begun. Likewise it will be about another week before I get some real time off after pretty much working every day for the past two weeks. That being said though tired and a bit emotionally worn down from it especially with the sudden death of our Army Deputy Base Commander on Monday night which led to a very full day on Tuesday which also was my 58th birthday, a funeral on Wednesday for one of our long time Catholic parishioners who like my father was a retired Chief Petty Officer who died of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, our Ecumenical Good Friday service, various medical appointments, and Chaplain duty supervisor tasks culminating in our oceanfront Easter Sunrise Service at the First Landing monument at Fort Story and ministry afterwards.

Tomorrow will be full getting ready for the memorial service for our Deputy Commander which takes place Tuesday. Wednesday is filled with meetings, Thursday I begin working with children of our German NATO contingent to get them ready for their confirmation in May. I’ll conclude the week with medical appointments for my Sleep Apnea and checking to see how my C-Pap machine is doing.

But all of that being said I emerged from Holy Week doing a lot better than I thought. For the first time in years sensing a certain amount of joy in my faith, a reaffirmation of my priestly vocation; and this despite all injustices I see and threats of war, especially in the threat that I feel that the President poses to the country and the world. Despite the sadness of my Deputy Commander and friend’s death I was comforted by the Orthodox Prayers that I had the opportunity to pray over his body in one last time with him. Part of those prayers from the Trisagion service was a reminder of the promise of Easter in between the reading of the Passion Gospels on Palm Sunday and Good Friday:

“O God of spirits and of all flesh, You trampled upon death and abolished the power of the devil, giving life to Your world. Give rest to the soul of Your departed servant in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away…”

As I studied for my Good Friday and Easter Sunrise services I was drawn back to the writings of the German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann and the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth.

One of thing Moltmann wrote really struck me in regard to Good Friday. I finished that sermon quoting and then discussing it for a few minutes:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

Two quotes, one from Moltmann and the other by Barth really stayed with me for the Sunrise service. 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,” as did these words of Barth:

“What happened on that day (of Easter) became, was and remained the centre around which everything else moves. For everything lasts its time, but the love of God – which was at work and was expressed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – lasts forever. Because this event took place, there is no reason to despair, and even when we read the newspaper with all its confusing and frightening news, there is every reason to hope.”

For the first time in years I could truly exclaim the Easter Alleluia, that Christ is Risen.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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