Tag Archives: dr doyle young

The Winner Takes it All: American Christian Greed

Do you remember that there was a time when Conservative Christian Politicians and preachers actually supported working people and the poor? There was a period where this was true, but with the economic affluence and the political influence that we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War we have left those days far behind.

I mean really, there was a time when preachers were not just lobbying for tax cuts for the rich in the name of the “Prosperity Gospel” or and extolling the wealthy “job creators” over the people who actually produce or serve products. Late last night I had an interaction on Facebook that was discouraging, wealthy preachers defended the most opulent and extravagant excesses of mega-church pastors. It was disheartening, especially one attacked a man who I went to war with, and who since has endured more trying medical issues than most of us will experience in our lives when he challenged the Episcopal Priest. What I read broke my heart.

Big-church-620x412

My Church History professor at Southwestern Baptist seminary back in 1988 and 1989 Christian attitudes then that is even more appropriate today. He noted that a:

“reason that many Christians are not servants is more honest: it is that we just don’t want to be servants. We live today in a “winner” society. We value the winners, whether it be in sports, business, or wars….The American Dream is success, climbing to the top of the ladder, making it, winning…. In most metro areas, on most weekends, you can go to a conference in some church where a person (for a fee) will tell you how God wants you rich….This obsession with success, money, and power is the American dream carried to its logical conclusion. It is middle-class Americanism, pure and simple. It is more motivated by greed, selfishness, and pride than by Christ. And in the churches, we have bought it. We want to be “at the top”,” not “at the bottom.”…..We coat our Americanism with a thin veneer of Christianity in an attempt to make it more palatable, but God will not have it. Let’s call this version of the American Dream what it is: selfishness, self-righteousness, and sin.” (Young, Doyle L New Life for Your Church Baker Book House, Grand Rapids Michigan 1989 pp.55-56)

I heard Dr. Young speak about this in class. I was a young Army officer, who had just left active duty to go to seminary. We were in the process of a financial meltdown brought about by the Texas oil bust of the late 1980s and my wife’s illness. We were learning what it was like to be poor. We lost almost everything but ourselves and our dogs during that time. We went to churches where the opulence was over the top, where the pastor drove a Porsche, and not a bottom end or used one. We struggled through seminary and made it, with me working two jobs and being in the National Guard. Most of the time we wondered where the money to get the next meal, tank of gas, prescription medicine, tuition payment or books. When I called the TBN prayer line just for prayer during the darkest days I was told be a “prayer warrior” that “it was obvious that I was not in God’s will because otherwise God would be blessing me.” That angered me and hardened my resolve to get through seminary. There were a good number of people who helped us, some because they felt that god wanted them to help us, others just because they  were compassionate souls. This made me very sensitive to social justice and wary of those who get rich off of God’s people.

It wasn’t always this way.

William Jennings Bryan was one of the most influential politicians of his era. He served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, he was a Senator and three time Presidential Candidate. He was also a very conservative Fundamentalist Christian perhaps most famous, or perhaps infamous now as one of the prosecuting attorneys at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. In fact I can find that Bryan’s handling of that case played to the basest religious and social hatred of his day and though “defending” “Biblical” ideas ended up making Christians look but small minded, intolerant and hateful. The movie Inherit the Wind, though a fictional account of that trial show how decent Christians can become consumed with hatred in the name of righteousness, little different than other “sincere believers” that are willing to kill in the name of God.

Whether one agrees on certain points of religious doctrine regarding the creation of the earth or the manner of how God created the earth that he espoused one has to admit that of pre-Great Depression politicians he was quite amazing. This was especially true in how he saw through the Godlessness of unbridled Capitalism.  He saw how workers by were devalued by those who saw them as nothing more than a way to increase their wealth. As an American and a Christian look at the body of work and life of a man. Though I find much fault in Bryan and his supporters in the Scopes Trial, I do not throw out the good things that he did and got right.

I think the apex of Bryan’s political thought is encapsulated in his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, what is now called the Cross of Gold Speech.

When one looks at it now it really is timeless. Bryan saw through the charade that was being played out by politicians and the big money Wall Street types that they represented with great verve. It was a speech that one might have heard come from a prophet in the Old Testament.

I am just going to quote a couple of pertinent sections from the speech to trigger your thoughts, for you will not hear this in the vast majority of conservative Christian churches of all denominations which have been infected with the so called “Prosperity Gospel.”  These churches have thrown their support behind ideas that are nothing more than unvarnished, crude materialism of the worst kind. In fact I believe that it is nothing more than the “baptism” of such thought by Christians are among the biggest reasons for the exodus of people from the churches and the rise of the “Nones,” or those with no religious preference.

Bryan said:

“We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.” 

His words are striking in their directness and honesty. They are not only Christian but they are deeply American. He called his Party, which had been as bad as the Republicans during the age of the unregulated Robber Barons who used the Gold Standard to manipulate the markets and eliminate silver as currency to their benefit to be different:

“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”

He talked about two ideas of government and economics:

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”

He concluded his speech with this statement.

“Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

When I hear the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who extol the virtue of Capital over labor and the worship of wealth as the highest good I wish that there would be some that would remember that the people who actually make things, grow things, fix things and maintain things are not just human capital, but people.

That’s enough for today. Expect some more on this and similar topics soon.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under christian life, economics and financial policy, faith, History, Political Commentary, Religion

Martin Luther and My Theological Formation: An Old Catholic Priest talks about Luther’s Influence on his Life

The Luther Rose: When they stand under the Cross Christian Hearts turn to Roses

“Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes.” Martin Luther

When a young Priest and Theology Professor at the University of  Wittenberg named Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg it changed the course of Western as well as Church history.  He also changed mine.

Martin Luther was the first of a series of theologians that helped make me what I am now. When my Church History professor Dr. Doyle Young and Systematic Theology professor Dr. David Kirkpatrick introduced me to Luther’s writings and his “Theology of the Cross it was earth shaking.  It was his Theology of the Cross brought me to an incarnational understanding of the Christian faith because it is only through the Cross that we come to know God in a truly Christian sense of understanding.  For Luther the Cross was central to understanding the humanity’s relationship to the Trinity, and stands against Calvin whose understanding of God’s will and predestination from before time began tends minimize the Cross, for Calvin it is a mechanism but for Luther it is the most profound and personal revelation of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. The incarnational and Trinitarian found in the Theology of the Cross also opened for me essential nature of the Eucharist to the Christian faith and which helping bring me to a catholic understanding of the faith.

The relational aspects of the Theology of the Cross were personalized in the Three Solas; Sola fides by faith alone, Sola Gratia by grace alone and Sola Scriptura by scripture alone. These became the hallmarks of the Reformation and without getting into the weeds to dissect all the ramifications for the Church and the world impact the way that many Christians practice and express their faith to the current day.

The Catholic in me tends to discount Sola Scriptura because Luther himself was such an imperfect practitioner of this. I find that the Anglican and Old Catholic triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason is a more Biblical way of understanding what we can understand of God as well as in bearing witness of the self revelation of God in Christ in our world than is Sola Scriptura.

The Reformation which began when Luther posted his “theses” on the door of the Schlosskirche broke the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on Europe brought about many changes. It was the watershed moment when western church unity was fractured forever. As the years passed this increasingly fractured and diverse church in the west and helped end the primacy of the Church over the State.  The Reformation was also essential to the future Enlightenment as educational institutions, philosophers, historians and scientists gained the freedom to operate free from the all pervasive reach of the Church.

In the beginning when he walked up to the Schlosskirche to post his theses Luther intended nothing more than reforming and curtailing abuses in the Catholic Church and how the Church saw grace, faith and scripture.  Instead he changed the course of history in ways that most modern people, especially conservative Christians fail to comprehend today.  If they did they would not be embracing such heresy as the Dominion movement and it’s Seven MountainsTheology.

I did a lot of study on the Lutheran Reformation in and after seminary. In 1996 while stationed in Germany as a mobilized Army Reserve Chaplain had the privilege of organizing a series of Reformation tours to Wittenberg, Worms and Heidelberg.  We went to Wittenberg on Reformation day where we attended the Reformationstag service at the Schlosskirche.   I led a walking tour of the town that day.  One of the parishioners from the chapel asked me if I had been toWittenberg before because I seemed like I knew every place in the town.  I had to tell her that I had not been there in person but because of my study had imagined it so many times that I knew every place by heart.  When we went to Worms where Luther on trial before Charles V was told to recant his writings it as the same, except that in Worms the town hall where the Imperial Diet met was destroyed long ago.  However a stone in the pavement marks the spot where Luther concluding his defense before the Emperor Charles V and the assembled Princes and prelates with these immortal words:

“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” It is legend that Luther said the words “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!”  These words were probably only added later by someone else to make the story more interesting as they do not appear in the council notes.  Not that Luther would have objected.  The film version is linked here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0tk_EvWXQQ&feature=player_embedded

Likewise Luther’s debate with Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburgcolloquy regarding points of doctrine was significant for me. It was held that they might unify their separate reform movements. They agreed on all points except the Eucharist where Luther enunciated a very catholic understanding of the “Real Presence.”  Zwingli argued it to be a symbolic memorial though he conceded that it might have some spiritual component.   Luther would not budge and to each of Zwingli’s arguments pulled back the tablecloth to reveal the words “This is my body, this is my blood” which he had carved on the table.  They departed without achieving unity, something that has plagued Protestants to this day and when Zwingli was killed in battle when leading the militia from Zurich to fight the approaching Catholic Army.  When Luther heard about the Zwingli’s death he commented Zwingli drew his sword. Therefore he has received the reward that Christ spoke of, ‘All who take the sword will perish by the sword’ [Matt. 26:52]. If God has saved him, he has done so above and beyond the rule.” (Table Talk #1451) When I visitedMarburg with my friend Gottfried in 1997 I stood in the room where the men met and standing at that table I imagined Luther arguing with Zwingli.

Martin Luther helped begin the journey to the Priest that I am now. Others similar to Luther, the Catholic theologian and reformer in his own right Father Hans Kung who was able to do what Luther couldn’t do, make a case for Luther’s theology as part of catholic theology.  Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann has brought Luther’s theology to the modern world and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who showed me an example of how to live out the incarnational message of theTheology of the Cross in a world gone mad.  Kung’s book On Being a Christian, Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and The Crucified God have being influential in my theological formation. Bonhoeffer’s contribution was how that theology is important in standing up to oppression in all forms, his writings including The Cost o Discipleship, Ethics Creation Fall and Temptation, Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison.  All of these men helped me in my transition following seminary to a moderate Anglo-Catholic to an Old Catholic faith that places a high place to Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and Reason in interpreting and living out the faith.

Of course there are others that have influenced me, the early Church Fathers, Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, Henri Nouwen, Father Andrew Greely  and Bernard Häring to name but a few.  But even so I have always had a special place in my heart for Luther even with all of his flaws which were many.  Luther was earthy, spoke his mind often in a direct and coarse way and had no problem with having fun or good beer.  I relate to him a lot and am in his debt because he helped me become who I am today.

Peace

Padre Steve+


2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, History, Religion

Reforming the Church Today Part One: By their Budgets Ye Shall know Them

John Tetzel shook down Germans for Indulgences….Have we learned anything from history?

This is the first in a series of essays on reforming the Church today that will appear on this website

It seems that Christians and especially ministers of all traditions forget the lessons of history.  The church in the United States is at a critical point in history and is fast losing its credibility due to the arrogance and excess of many churches as well as individual clergy in matters related to personal behavior, financial accountability as well as accountability before the law concerning clergy that who have committed grievous crimes against children and others.  Likewise there is the nearly incestuous relationship between many ministers and those holding political and or economic power in which quite often one cannot tell where the “gospel” ends and the politics begin.  This exists in many churches large and small and spans the denominational spectrum not being the sole property of any particular body.  There is also the matter of accountability in which it seems that many churches, ministries and ministers practice a “do as I say, not as I do” lifestyle holding their subordinate clergy as well as parishioners to a higher standard than they practice themselves.

The United States has always had a strong Christian heritage that has impacted its faith as well as its national life.  This is not of itself a bad thing as one looks at how churches and Christian leaders have made an impact that goes beyond them and is beneficial to the nation as a whole.  Some of these achievements include the pressure put on James Madison by Virginia Baptists to ensure a guarantee of religious freedom in the Bill of Rights, the abolition of slavery the ending of child labor, the Civil Rights movement as well as numerous charitable and public interest oriented ministries to care for society’s most disadvantaged citizens as well as the aliens that have lived among us.  At the same time there were many Christians, churches and ministers that supported slavery, an established state religion, segregation and many other issues.  That being said churches and individual ministers have made a huge contribution to American life and community that cannot be easily dismissed despite the many problems, controversies, and scandals that have surrounded churches of almost all denominations since the founding of the United States.  Religious liberty as well as Christian churches and religion in general has traditionally been seen as a positive rather than a negative aspect of the United States going back to Alexis de Tocqueville in his comments on American democracy.

Clergy have enjoyed a special status in American life that exists in large part due the Bill of Rights and the Jeffersonian understanding of an “eternal wall of separation” between church and state.   This is because clergy were seen as fair arbiters because they were not an appendage of the state as were the clergy of most European states that had established state religion.  Thus the “clericalism” of Europe which was seen as a danger by our Founding Fathers was not a major issue. Yes some of the founders recognized a potential danger but that did not stop Congress from treating clergy and churches favorably in the early years of the republic and worked to ensure that no church became a “State church.”  Over the years since the founding of the United States clergy of many denominations have made many positive contributions to our Nation in both their pastoral and prophetic roles.  At the same time over the years some clergy have attempted to use their status and privileges as an entry into the elite parts of society, especially in the political, government policy and financial realms.

The point to be short is that many clergy in the United States, especially those in influential pulpits and ministries have forgotten the dangers of “clericalism” and the abuses of clerics who use their office as clergy to gain political, financial and personal power.  Jesus told his disciples that they had to be servants and not seek wealth, status or position something that was echoed by the New Testament writers as well as many of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

By their budgets ye shall know them….I saw the report of the Reverend Robert Schuler of the “Crystal Cathedral” megachurch which declared bankruptcy last week being $43 Million dollars in debt and embroiled in struggles about Schuler’s successor call for his parishioners to give more money.  He asked “tithers to double tithe” and those that do not tithe to “start tithing.” He talked about what the church has given to them and earned their support. I found this to be a rather pompous plea from a man who has had the ear of Presidents and leaders in the political and business world.  The fact is that Southern California has been terribly hard hit by the economic downturn and recession and that obviously includes many of his parishioners both those that worship at the Cathedral as well as those who what Schuler’s “Hour of Power” show.  The Chrystal Cathedral now has to live “month to month on $2 Million dollars a month” and has cut back staff, curtailed programs and sold property to try to make ends meet. I’m sorry but when you live off of other people’s money you should never build a ministry requiring millions of dollars on the presumption that if you get it wrong that the faithful givers should have to bail you out.  I saw this at a local level a few years back and it all but destroyed the local church and the denomination that church belonged.  I wonder how many more megachurches built on piles of debt are facing what is happening at the Chrystal Cathedral.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Other churches at denominational and local levels have often become embroiled in banking scandals that tarnished the reputation of those churches, their leaders and disillusioned their membership often causing mass defections to other churches or leave the organized church all together.  The Roman Catholic Church had to deal with a major scandal involving the Vatican Bank in the 1970s and 1980s and have recently had other allegations of another potential banking scandal involving the Vatican have surfaced.

By their budgets ye shall know them….I worked for a fairly reputable Television ministry while I was a seminary student. The common plea of these types of ministries is that they “are on a mission from God” well, maybe that is a Blues Brother’s paraphrase but you get my drift. Most are not part of any denominational structure and have little oversight and presume that since someone might watch them that they are entitled to financial support. They do not ask their audience for actual input into their “mission” strategy, they just ask for their audience’s money to do with as they “and as the Lord would have them to do” with it. This of course is not the sole property of television ministries but it occurs in many churches as well.  If someone questions the church and its financial accountability they are accused of “being unfaithful,” “not hearing God,” or being “disobedient to God’s will or to the church.”  Since many churches and ministries suffer a terrible lack of accountability and oversight these abuses are more widespread than we would want to believe. Sometimes it takes personal experience to see this but when one sees it up close and in person the blinders can be removed. In regard to television ministries in particular the amount of money required to keep their programs on the air is beyond exorbitant. It comes often from those that are barely surviving financially even in “good times” and the most desperate of people “believing in God for a miracle” in response to obediently shelling out of their meager incomes to ministries in response to persuasive pleas by ministers that should know better. The motivation, love and obedience of these often wonderful people is exploited in order to support air programs that have little impact on the world despite the boastings of these ministers that they are “fulfilling the great commission.” One has to ask if this is the case why there is so little to be seen in our society as a result of all the money poured into these pricy ministries.

By their budgets ye shall know them….If money was the only thing it would be a manageable problem…. Oh but wait money and power is the root of the problem as the problem extends to lifestyles of ministers and other church leaders which are hardly supported by the demands of the Gospel. It is not uncommon at all to see clergy living off of the offerings of their parishioners live opulent lifestyles and when times get tough demand more money from their flocks rather than amending their own behaviors.  Instead of accountability, repentance and a change in behavior there is a demand for obedience from their flock and if the flock objects they are the ones that are vilified.  This again cuts across denominational lines and includes Protestants and Catholics, those in parish as well as those in parachurch, television and radio ministries. In my old church those clergy who could not meet their tithe for whatever reason were told that they were being “disobedient to their vows” which instead of vows to the Church in regard to orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy were narrowed down to if you were paying your tithe on time. I remember one Bishop who left the church to go elsewhere told the assembled priests in his diocese that the tithe was the “essential test of obedience, and what bound us together.” Families and parishioners of parishes were described by another Bishop as “tithing units” not people and when I was in the reserves contemplating a mission parish start up was told that in order to be “successful” the church needed at least “x-number of tithing units.” Doctrine or even other forms of public witness were secondary to paying the tithe.  That church had many major financial scandals that are well documented elsewhere so I won’t go into detail about them.

By their budgets ye shall know them…. If churches spend more money on the salaries of their pastors than they do on outreach to the poor or missions something is severely out of order, one cannot imagine the Apostles of those Ante-Nicene Fathers who suffered poverty and persecution advocating for what amounts to be an “Imperial” church even those that advocated a firm hierarchy in regard to faith and belief.  When leaders of a church, especially a small church get together and dine in luxury on the monies donated by their often impoverished flocks it shows a tacit denial of the Gospel and lack of respect or care for the people of God.

By their budgets ye shall know them….When church building programs and plant maintenance are extravagant and require massive amounts of money to sustain without demanding more from their parishioners than something is out of kilter.  When chandeliers cost more than a mission budget for the poor something is wrong.  My Church History professor from who I appropriated the “by their budgets ye shall know them” line used to say that “God is going to get us for our stained glass windows when we neglect the poor.”  I love good church architecture including stained glass windows but it is presumptive on God the people of God for churches, ministries and ministers to demand monies when they have failed to play and manage effective especially when in spite of economic indicators they spend like drunken sailors and expect others to pick up the tab while crying crocodile tears about how “God’s plans will be thwarted” if their ministry fails.

By their budgets ye shall know them….Back prior to the Protestant Reformation in Europe there was a large amount of discontent which focused on the arrogance, opulence and financial demands of the Catholic Church.  In fact much of Dr. Martin Luther’s protest in the 95 Thesis dealt with the manner in which the Church used a practice called indulgences and the selling of “relics” to fund the construction of St Peters Basilica in Rome.  In people gave because they believed men like John Tetzel who preached in regard to indulgences “a penny into the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.”  Of course there was the manner that the Church also used its power to reward or punish rulers which was also part of the problem but the complaint of many reformers was often directly related to the Churches’ financial as well as political abuses of its members and nations to buttress its position in Europe.  Unfortunately I do not think that we have learned this lesson and that Churches and ministries in the United States are losing membership and the trend is that people are opting for individual expressions of faith rather than become a part of institutions that they feel are out of touch with real people.  I believe that if things do not change there will be a mass exodus from many churches and religious institutions because of the odious nature of the financial dealings and pressure put on people to support questionable programs and lavish lifestyles.

By their budgets ye shall know them….There are honest and hard working ministers and churches that emphasize ministry and care for people as part of the Gospel message.  Many are foreign missionaries that eke out support while working full time in “tentmaker” professions in order to fund their missions without unduly burdening those that support them.  I know many people like this and for them whether they be working in foreign missions or caring for the poor at home live the Gospel in word and deed and nothing in this essay should be construed to be against such people or their missions.  I may disagree with someone’s theology but when I see them demonstrate humility and the love of God in all that they do I can only commend them.

You see my friends and readers my experience leads me to believe that people are still searching for authentic faith and spirituality and have not necessarily given up on orthodox Christian beliefs.  The problem is they are finding little of substance in many churches and other religious institutions. Novelist and write Anne Rice recently did this, leaving “Christianity” but not Christ and I fully understand her reasoning for doing so.

Martin Luther and the 95 Thesis: What if the Church had listened to him rather than branding him as a heretic and criminal?

Some will say that by writing this that I am “causing division in the Church” or the more pious “causing division in the body of Christ.”  However that is a red herring argument that attempts to divert attention from the real problem. If the Church and I mean across denominations not any particular body fails to reform itself it will fall on its own and fall hard and in the process harm the faith of many people. Churches which have to defend the indefensible to “retain unity” are those that are in schism from Christ, not those that raise issues that the society at large recognizes but church and religious leaders seem incapable of admitting. The Church must reform and a big part of that in the United States involves how we deal with wealth. By their budgets ye shall know them.

This essay will be continued as I move to the next segment which will be about the incestuous relationship between many ministers and those of the political and financial elites.  I’m sure that I will come up with a catch title for that essay but need to ruminate some more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, History, Pastoral Care, philosophy, Religion

Holy or Maundy Thursday….Pausing to Reflect on Communion

Today is Holy or Maundy Thursday, a day where many Churches and Christians take the time within their theological traditions to reflect upon in their worship, the institution of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.  Today for me is always special, though the past couple years I was not doing well do to PTSD and other stuff.  This year is different in the sense that I have began to recover that sense of mystery and awe that comes in this celebration.

I grew up in kind of an eclectic faith tradition as a Navy brat. My family was Methodist and I was baptized in my parents and grandparents home church, Southside Methodist Church in Huntington West Virginia.  However living on the West coast we went to Navy Chapels or local civilian churches of various denominations.  During my dad’s time in Vietnam it was a Roman Catholic Navy chaplain who showed us the love of God when many civilian churches made military families unwelcome.  I owe my vocation and faith to that man who took care of our Protestant family.  I remember attending the Holy Thursday Mass at the little Naval Communication station in 1971. There was a sense of mystery and holiness in that service that stayed with me.  When I was in high school I went to a Conservative Baptist church where communion was not observed in the same manner but the Pastor, Reverend Ron Lundy made it special. There was a sense of holiness and thankfulness that I have seldom seen in Evangelical churches since.

When I went to seminary I was attending a non-denominational evangelical/charismatic church.  It was a good church but little emphasis was placed on communion and apart from Easter Sunday no attention was paid to Holy Week. However as a seminary student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1988-1992 before the great purge of moderates I had a number of professors, but in particular my Church History professor Dr Doyle Young took the time to look at how the major traditions within the Christian faith viewed the Eucharist or Holy Communion.   I was acquainted with most in a fairly rudimentary manner Dr Young brought out the really important theological aspects of each in the context of how each view came about.  I always had a sort of Reformed or Presbyterian view of Holy Communion in that unlike most of my Baptist and Evangelical friends I really believed that there was a “spiritual” presence of Christ in communion as opposed to it being a symbolic memorial.  That changed as I was taught the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the Eucharist but was nailed down as we studied Martin Luther, his understanding of the Eucharist and the discussion between Luther and Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy.  It was Luther’s argument from Scripture “This is my Body, this is my Blood” with which he responded to every argument posed by Zwingli that convinced me of the reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist in more than just a spiritual manner.  I could not ignore Scripture and that was the watershed in bringing me to an Anglican or Anglo-Catholic understanding of faith and the Eucharist.

My purpose here is not to argue for my theological view but rather to encourage Christians to take advantage of the communion that we have with Jesus and through him with the Father and the Spirit as well as the communion that we share with each other.  Though I may believe my understanding of the Eucharist fits best with Scripture and the earliest teaching of the Church I will not use this to attack those who have different viewpoints.  Instead regardless of the theological perspective I hope that my readers will be able to renew their faith tonight as we celebrate this holy evening where Jesus met with his disciples before he was betrayed a Luke the Evangelist wrote:

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it* until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Luke 22:14-20

And Paul to the Corinthians

“ For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for* you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

And Saint John’s comments in the Gospel bearing his name:

“This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:50-51

It is important that no matter whether we view this as a Sacrament or a symbolic memorial that we take this feast of God’s love for us seriously for he comes to us in Word, Sacrament in this moment where we take the time to spend with him and his people as we prepare to celebrate the “Mystery of Faith” “Christ has Died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.”

My prayer is that we all find God’s peace and life during this Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday as we walk with Jesus and his disciples through that tumultuous time.  Lent is ended, our seasonal penitence is done so let us take the time to pause remember and reflect of the remarkable depth of God’s love for us in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” As Martin Luther said “For here in the sacrament [Communion] you receive from Christ’s lips the forgiveness of sins, which contains and conveys God’s grace and Spirit with all his gifts, protection, defense, and power against death and the devil and all evils” (The Large Catechism — p. 98).

Another feature of Holy Thursday is the enactment by the clergy of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. This is important in a world where power and fame is sought after over service to one another, even in churches.  The call of Christ is that we are to be servants of all.

In a world wracked by so much division including Christians who cannot agree on exactly what is going on when we come to the Altar or to the Communion table it is imperative that Christians even given their longstanding differences regarding this would be good to acknowledge their dependence upon God and one another.  If while acknowledging our differences we can at least share in the love and communion of God in Christ even if our individual churches will not share communion with one another. After all in the end it really is about the Lord and his relationship with his people and their relationship with each other and the world that he came to save.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under christian life, faith, philosophy, Religion

Doubt and Faith: My Crisis in Faith and Why I am Still a Christian an Advent Meditation

Note to my readers. This is an older article that I wrote back in December 2009, when after nearly two years of struggle with the effects of PTSD, depression, anxiety, loss and a crisis of faith that made me for all practical purposes an agnostic. I think it is timely now, not because of what is currently going on in my life but rather because of the stories I hear from those that struggle with faith at Christmas. Peace, Padre Steve+

Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.

A new liturgical year is upon us and with the season of Advent Christians look forward to the “Advent” of Christ both in looking forward to the consummation of all things in him as well as inviting him back into our lives as we remember his Incarnation, as the Creed says “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

At the same time for a lot of people the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible.  For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair.

For me Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season.  Until I came home from Iraq…

While I believe the Scriptures and the Creed this I have to admit that for the last 22 months since returning from Iraq I have doubted, been depressed and at times felt like God had abandoned me.  Things were so difficult last year that I went to the Christmas Eve Mass with the Abbess and was crashing so hard that I had to leave. I walked through the night for over an hour until I got home, a walk that is a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes from the church.  It was probably the lowest point of my life as a Priest, chaplain and Christian.

Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow degeneration with Alzheimer’s disease to the point that he no longer recognized me on my last visit, I have struggled with faith.  Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers.  Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me.  About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park.  For some reason the lush green diamond comforts me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of all faiths. For those of us who are ordained and view our ministry or our Priesthood as a sacred vocation this is difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a hell because it is not supposed to happen to us. I do believe that for many people a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with his or her faith is disconcerting.  I can remember a myriad of situations where pastors due to a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith many of which involved great personal loss such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage, being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing a major traumatic event.  These were good people and quite often instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless, failed and worthless, often abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.

When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason.  As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with this, it made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better.  At the same time I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof,” that it could never happen to me. And it did and I was stunned.

When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My accomplishments went unrecognized on my return home.  As I crashed no one asked about my faith until Elmer the shrink did when he met me.  Later my Commodores, first Frank Morneau when he found out about my condition and Bob Sitsch when he took command of EOD Group 2 both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  On the professional side I felt isolated from much of my church and many chaplains.  I was angry because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me and more.  The Chaplains that I knew cared all worked in different commands and were not immediately available and I was ashamed to go ask them for help.

I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” It showed me that people cared.  When I went to the medical center I dealt with many difficult situations and was haunted by my dad’s deterioration, the latter which I still deal with today.  To have a close family member mock my vocation, service and person and provoke me into rages was equally taxing.  Likewise the absolute hatred and divsion in the American political debate tore my heart out.  I felt like, and in some ways still feel like we are heading down a path to being “Weimar America.”

There were many times that I knew that I had no faith.  People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me.  Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful.

This Christmas and Advent is better than last.  I am finding meaning again.  The little Episcopal Church that I attend helps me in this.  It is much like the churches that I grew up in.  The hymns and the liturgy are comforting.  I am beginning to rediscover faith.  A week and a half ago I was paged stat or our ER where an elderly man was dying.  He was 91 years old and had suffered a heart attack at his family home not far from the hospital.  He has served as a Navy Officer and later Navy doctor and had done his internship at our medical center in the 1940s.

I sprinted to the ER and when I got to his room was introduced to his wife.  She asked if I would pray and then asked if I was Episcopal.  I said I was a Priest in an Episcopal denomination and she asked if I could give her husband, a life-long Episcopalian the last rites.  The man was obviously in his last moments of life.  I performed the Rite and when I finished he passed away.  My hand was on his brow when he breathed his last and his body began to lose its warmth.  One of the Doctors said it was like he had waited until I got there.  The man died with his family, was at home in the house his father built and had eaten what he said was the best “stew of his life” before he passed out.  He died at the hospital he trained at and loved with his family at his side and received the last rites of the Church.  I left the ER after a wonderful chat with his wife, who reflected on his life and how blessed that he was to go out like this.  I left the ER knowing that I had been part of something miraculous.  My eyes were opened and for one of the few times in the past 22 months I felt the presence of God again.

I am still a Christian.  Why is sometimes hard to figure.  I am not a Christian because of the my Church, though I love the Church, it often has been for me a sourse of pain and rejection.  I am not a Christian because of what is called “Christian” nor can I ignore the injustice, violence and oppression wrought by those who called themsleves Christian throughout history.  Slavery, the subjectation and conquest of who peoples to take their land and resources and wars of agression blessed by “Christian” leaders are all part of history.  At the same time much progress has come through the work, faith and actions of Christians and the Church. Despite all of the warts I can like Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” (Kung, Hans Why I am Still a Christian Abingdon Press, Nashville 1987 p. 36)

Neither am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has “all” of the answers.  In fact coming through Iraq I understand what my Church History Professor, Dr Doyle Young said “all of people’s deepest needs are not religious.”  Nor am I a Christian because I think that Christians are somehow better or more spiritual than others.  In fact I find the crass materialism and self centered “What can God to for me?” theology and way of life to be deeply offensive.  People get sick, young children die, innocents are subjected to trauma even from their parents or siblings.  Good people endure unspeakable trials while sometimes it seems that evil people get away with murder.  I can’t chealk it all up to a naive “it’s God’s will” kind of theology.  I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets.  Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, in spite of my own doubts, fears and failure.  I still believe, Lord help me in my unbelief.

I look forward to Christmas this year. I look forward to the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.  We sang the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” at Church Sunday.  It was what I needed to hear.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

For those that like me struggle with faith, feel abandoned by God, family and friends.  For those who have experienced the crisis of faith or even a loss of faith I pray that all of us will experience joy this season.  I’m sure that I will have some ups and downs, I certainly don’t think that I am over all that I am still going through.  However I know that I am not alone to face my demons and pray that by opening up that others who are going through similar experiences will find hope.  O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer, our spirits by Thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

17 Comments

Filed under Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion