Tag Archives: faith and life

Faith and Doubt on a Sunday Afternoon

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“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.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

Many off my readers as well as people I deal with on a regular basis struggle with faith and doubt. Today I was reading a column in the New York Times that brought up a very interesting article called Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins  by T.M. Luhrmann, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/opinion/sunday/t-m-luhrmann-where-reason-ends-and-faith-begins.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-top-span-region&region=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region a professor at Stanford. It talked about the point in different where individuals make a decision of what they chose to believe because it is reasonable and what they chose to believe by faith. I also read an article by Bishop Gene Robinson called Hope When the World’s Gone off the Rails  http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/27/hope-when-the-world-s-gone-off-the-rails.html Both were excellent articles because they deal with a reality that many religious people don’t want to deal with. Something that I have struggled with most of my life, but especially after I returned from Iraq in 2008.

When I returned from Iraq in 2008 I was a mess. I had gone to Iraq thinking that I had the answers to about anything and that I was invincible. I felt that with years of experience in the military and in trauma departments of major trauma centers that I was immune to the effects of war and trauma. Likewise I had spent years studying theology, pastoral care and ethics as well as military history, theory and practice. I had studied PTSD and Combat Stress and had worked with Marines that were dealing with it. If there was anyone who could go to Iraq and come back “normal” it had to be me.

Of course as anyone who knows me or reads this website regularly knows I came back from Iraq different. I collapsed in the midst of PTSD induced depression, anxiety and a loss of faith. For nearly two years I was a practical agnostic.
During those dark days, particularly the times where I was working in the ICU and Pediatric ICU at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth attempting to have enough faith to help others in crisis, be they patients at the brink of death or families walking through that dark valley even though I did not have any faith to even believe that God existed.

It was during those dark days that the writings of Father Andrew Greeley, mainly his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that provided me with one of the few places of spiritual solace and hope that I found. Baseball happened to be the other.
During those dark times when prayer seemed futile and the scriptures seemed dry and dead I found some measure of life and hope in the remarkable lives of the people that inhabited the pages of the Bishop Blackie Ryan novels. Through them I learned that doubt and faith could co-exist and that there was a mystery to faith in Jesus that defied doctrinal suppositions as well as cultural, political and sociological prejudices.

I did learn something else, something that makes many people uncomfortable and that took me a long time to accept. That was that doubt and faith could co-exist and as I read Greeley’s stories I began to see scripture in a new light, especially the stories of men and women that we venerate for their faith who doubted and even when they believed often disputed God. The Old Testament is full of their stories and there are even some in the New Testament. Greeley wrote that is was possible for a priest to lose their faith “no more often than a couple of times a day.”

Thus I find it hard to deal with preachers and others who are so full of certitude that they are full of shit, no matter what their faith tradition. God is too big for that.

I rediscovered faith and life as I anointed that man in our emergency room in December 2009. To my surprise faith returned. I believe again but I also doubt, at least a couple of times a day, it keeps me humble. And for that I’m grateful.

Peace and have a wonderful rest of your weekend,

Padre Steve+

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Faith and Doubt on a Friday During Lent

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William James wrote that “Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.”

Many religious people, be they Christians, Jews, Moslems or others equate their faith in what cannot be seen or proven to be a certainty. But faith, even as understood by someone like the Apostle Paul was something that was not provable in this life. In fact Paul is bold enough to proclaim that if Christians are not correct concerning their faith in the risen Christ that they are to be pitied among men.

Faith in something, even God is not proof. In fact faith can never be asserted to be fact until the final consummation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic Creation and Fall Temptation, Two Biblical Studies wisely noted that:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”

Bonhoeffer’s words show a wisdom often lacking in young theologians. No matter how firmly we believe the words of Scripture or the Creeds they are at their heart statements of faith, not fact. They may be true, and I believe them to be. That being said we cannot prove them  and simply making circular arguments about their truth does not make them true. Thus I always find that I am amazed when I see some Christians insist that what they believe is “absolute truth” even when they have no “proof” of its truth outside of their statements of faith. Such is the trap of circular logic. Bonhoeffer quite correctly noted that “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”

I have learned to appreciate the struggle of faith. I believe, but I seek understanding. That being said I know that whatever I know, I only know in part, as Paul said I see “through a glass darkly,” but one day I shall see “face to face.”

Those that equate faith with certitude do so at their own peril, and often are willing to sacrifice others to ensure that their belief remains unquestioned.

The great American Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

“Certitude leads to violence. This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one. The easy application is to ideologies, dogmatists, and bullies–people who think that their rightness justifies them in imposing on anyone who does not happen to subscribe to their particular ideology, dogma or notion of turf. If the conviction of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them!”

The fact is that there is nothing wrong with doubt. There is nothing wrong with struggle. In fact it is shown in the lives of those that we consider “saints” throughout both the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Faith without doubt and faith without struggle is not faith, it is idolatry. Bonhoeffer expressed this well when he said “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.”

In fact absolute certitude masquerading as faith in the life of the faithful often leads to great violence and evil. One only has to look at what happened on September 11th 2001 to see the results of such violent certitude.

As for me I have faith, but at the same time I doubt. Sometimes doubts outweigh faith and at other times faith outweighs doubt. That being said I find comfort in the scriptures where Paul honestly and openly writes of his conflicts and doubts. Henri Nouwen had it right when he said:

“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.”

That is the real fact of the matter. It is something that Christians more interested in truth rather than protecting their social position have believed for decades have died to proclaim.

None of us, no matter how learned we are, or how certain we believe, really know much about God. And that my friends is certain.

Peace

Padre Steve

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Faith’s Journey: A Progressive Christian Navy Chaplain Looks at the Journey to Wholeness

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June 27th 2013: After the events of this week including the Supreme Court decision declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional I decided to re-publish an article that was one of the most important that I ever published. Not so much because of the what I think was so earth shattering regarding the content but because of what happened after its publication. At the point in time that I wrote it I was pushing the envelope with my former denomination, but figured that in light of all the controversies and schisms in that church at the time that whatever I wrote would not result in any problems. But I was wrong. I received a call the next day from my bishop telling me that I needed to find a new home because I was “too liberal.”

It was actually quite fascinating, I was able to gain a new church home which was much more progressive, welcoming and catholic, being of the Old Catholic tradition. For me that phone call was just a few months later deposed for attempting to create yet another schism in the church. I think it is even more interesting because some of my friends still in that church think that he used this article as a reason to get rid of me in order to keep me from exposing his scheme. I don’t know if that it the case or not, but my friends believe it to be a distinct possibility. That being said one of my long time priest friends revealed his plot to the other bishops and the bishop who forced me  was deposed. Irony is fascinating. Since that time my former church is regaining its footing and doing better and for my friends in it I am glad for even if I have differences in theology, faith or beliefs with people who I consider to be friends, they are still friends and I wish them well.  

So anyway, for those that are fairly new followers on this site here is the article that in a sense served as a declaration of independence and station on the road to wholeness and integrity. 

Peace, Padre Steve+

Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian (Originally published 22 September 2010)

There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

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

Yesterday I wrote about Chaplains that experience a crisis of faith after coming home from a combat deployment.  For me there is nothing more symbolic of the lack of soul left in many Christians and Christian Churches in how they treat those that have served faithfully. Those Chaplains that have served  God, Church and Country and come back spiritually wondering what happened, not knowing what to believe and feeling abandoned by God and cast off by the Church and the military simply because we have a hard time with the so called “orthodoxy” of some Christians.

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

Let’s talk about spiritual despair. Did you know that in the past couple of years that two Army Chaplains and one Navy Chaplain have committed suicide? These were men of faith who had served in peace and war at least one that had served at the Battle of Hue City as a Marine before becoming a Priest and Chaplain.  Another Army Chaplain that had served in Iraq as a minister of a conservative Charismatic and Evangelical Christian denomination became a Wiccan and was excoriated by Christians.  I don’t know his faith journey but I have to believe that part was his experience in Iraq and experience on his return. I don’t know about you but those are all signs of spiritual despair and feeling cut off from their faith community and even God, his or her self.

I am still a Christian. I believe in the God of Scripture, the Creeds and the Councils. At the same time that belief is not as rigid as it once was. I used to consider those that didn’t believe like I did in relation to Scripture, the Creeds and Councils not to be Christians.  I cannot say that now. I am much more to have the Grace and Mercy of God be my default position and let other things fall out where they may.  My practice of my faith has changed. When I came back from Iraq I attempted, as it were without success to keep my faith structure and practice the same as it was before I deployed to Iraq.  Within six months of Iraq I could no longer pray the Daily Office with any kind of faithfulness and by Lent 2009 give up the practice for Lent hoping to recover some authenticity to my faith. The authenticity has returned and after about a hear and a half I am seeking a way to reincorporate what had been a very important part of my daily practice of faith into my life without feeling like I am a phony in doing so.

I went through a period of absolute spiritual despair even leaving a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 to walk home in the dark, alone, looking at the sky and asking God if he even existed.  A year later after my life had completely fallen apart I experienced what I call my “Christmas miracle” where I was called to our Emergency Room to provide the “last rites” to a retired Navy doctor and active Episcopalian when I was the duty Chaplain.  As I prayed the last prayer of commendation and removed my oil covered fingers from the man’s forehead he breathed his last. His wife told me that he was waiting to be anointed before he died.  The young doctor, a Psychology Resident doing his ER rotation who called me to the ER would die a couple of months later of natural causes in his living room not long after we had taken the “fat boy” program PT test together.

From that moment the paradigm shifted.  Faith began to return and I began to experience the presence of God again, not is the same was as before Iraq but one that was more relational, grace filled and informal.  I will likely begin praying the Daily Office again in the near future but I will approach it from a different point of view.  I will no longer use it simply to fulfill my priestly vows and obligations but rather as a way to re-experience and if need be re-imagine God.  Now before the heresy hunters think that I am re-imagining God is some unbiblical manner they are wrong. I want to re-imagine God as he has been revealed to his people both in Scripture, Tradition and in the life of his, or her people today.

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How have I changed? I believe again. I am no longer an agnostic hoping and praying that God just might be there. My faith has become much more deeply rooted and grounded in the “Crucified God” and my faith in the “theology of the Cross.”  It is no longer connected to my politics and I refute any political ideology that attempts to use the Christian faith and the faith of well meaning Christians for purposes that Jesus himself would have condemned.  I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of his followers attempting to be the favorites of any political party or ideological system. In fact if I recall he really had pretty harsh words for his fellow Jews who were all wrapped around the axels with that kind of stuff. Jesus seems to befriend and hang around with those that are not connected to the religious, political or economic elites. In fact he seemed to reserve his harshest words for such people.  Jesus seemed to have a pretty good relationship with those marginalized and rejected by the religious folks of his day. He welcome sinners and tax collectors to his table and praised the faith of gentile Roman officers and stopped the super-religious folks from stoning an adulterous woman.

This is the Jesus that I follow and the Jesus that I believe is present in body, soul and spirit in the Eucharist.  I believe like Hans Kung and others that this table belongs to the baptized community of faith and not to an exclusive Priestly class who dictate who can come to the table.  It is not the exclusive property of any denomination or Church organization especially those that most loudly state this to be the case.

Now if saying this makes me a heretic then a heretic I will be. It is better to be a heretic in the eyes of Pharisees than to be one that denies justice to the persecuted people of God.  I guess that makes this moderate a liberal and to some an unbeliever.  Yet I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I believe in the Jesus that defied religious systems to offer the grace of God to the people that those systems rejected and the Jesus that was far more critical of “believers’ than those rejected as unbelievers.  I guess that is why I can accept women as ministers or even Priests, accept homosexuals as Christian brothers and sisters, and see Christ and the grace and love of God in people that are not “Christians” even the Muslims in Iraq that treated me with respect and even if they had an “Aryan” view of Jesus still showed a greater reverence for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary than many that claim Jesus for themselves.

Why? You ask. Very simply I once was lost but now am found.  I thought that I knew it all before, now I know that I don’t know it all and that God is the God of surprises, just look in Scripture.  I doubt at times. I know that there are many answers that elude me and I cannot answer just by citing or using Scripture out of its historic, cultural and linguistic context.  I believe in the God that did not reject me when I didn’t know if he even existed.

Why am I still a Christian when I have so many problems with how many Christians practice the faith? Because I believe and not because will not I tow anyone’s party line be they liberals or conservatives. I believe in spite of my unbelief in a fellowship of those who as a result of war and trauma have trouble believing those that won’t race the cold realities of this life. I believe because many times it was those marginalized by others, especially those marginalized by the “faithful” showed me the love of God when the “faithful” for pure or impure motives, or even because they didn’t know what to do allowed me to sink into despair and isolation. So in the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther I say “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Quiet Alleluia: Padre Steve Celebrates Easter 2011

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”  — Henri J.M. Nouwen

Those readers and friends that have walked with me over the past two years on this site as well as those that walked with me before I ever put pen to my thoughts know how much I have struggled with God and faith since my return from Iraq. Easter has been difficult during that time as was Christmas.  My journey has been marked by many doubts. Today was different. Today we observed a quiet Easter out at the Island Hermitage marked by solitude and community.

The day was quiet and uneventful. I have been writing of late on the Easter story as told by Longinus the Centurion who Church tradition accords the honor of being the Centurion who remarked at the foot of the cross “truly this man was the son of God.”  The Centurions of the Bible have always been models for me as a Christian because they were career military men who served a far flung empire and at in least one part of their careers served in an unpopular occupation of a subjugated land with a proud and unbroken populace.  In their case it was Judea of the First Century and mine was Iraq. The story of Longinus as he is known to Church tradition is one that has fascinated me, a gentile officer of an occupying army discovers God at the scene of a brutal execution which he himself supervised. The story has helped me as I imagined what it must have been like for a Roman Centurion serving in a troubled land ruled by a cabal of corrupt politicians representing Rome, the family of Herod and the powerful institution of the Jewish Temple leadership composed of the High Priest, the ruling Sanhedrin and various religious parties. Likewise the lad featured an undying insurgency dedicated to overthrowing the Romans and what some considered the corrupt administration of the High Priest who they believed to be a collaborator with the Roman occupiers. These were the Zealots.  I was fascinated by the story and the story led me to a deeper appreciation of the Easter story.

We had contemplated going to Camp LeJeune to Mass at the Base Chapel. My friend Father Jose is a wonderful pastor and serves as the base Catholic Chaplain. While it would have been nice to see him celebrate the liturgy it meant that we would do so as strangers in a large community of faith.  Judy and I still both struggle with large gatherings especially where we know very few people and decided that we would celebrate Eucharist together. We were joined in this by my land lady Sharon.  It was a quiet but joyful expression of faith and community where each of us has at times suffered under sometimes cold and unfeeling Church institutions and leaders.

I used the story of Longinus as my homily telling the story in story form rather than as a theological treatise or sermon.  After the homily we confessed the faith of the Nicene Creed, prayed for the church and the world especially the outcast and persecuted and celebrated the Eucharist around my small pine dining room table, which is actually in my living room which doubles a my bedroom. The Island Hermitage is not a mansion.

Later in the day Judy and I would take our little dog Molly on a walk through a park not far from here. The park is a woodland and wetland area on the Bogue Sound side of the island. To walk in those peaceful woods hearing, seeing and listening to the sights and sounds of nature was wonderful. Molly especially loved it as she hunted for some of the deer that she had seen a few days before while walking near the hermitage.  Following that we drove the 2 ½ miles to lands end with Molly’s ears and fur flapping in the breeze as she stood on Judy’s lap with her head and shoulders hanging out the door.  The evening was also quiet as I finished the Easter installment of the Longinus story and Judy made a number of bracelets from her seemingly unending supply of bracelet stuff.

About an hour ago I took Molly on a walk to do her nightly constitutional and as we walked in the dark I looked up into the clear night sky to see thousands of stars.  In 2008 I walked home from church on Christmas Eve looking up into the cold winter night sky wondering if God even existed.  Tonight I looked at the sky and uttered a simple thank you for the resurrection. I know that I believe again. The belief that became real again in 2009 during my “Christmas Miracle” while on duty at the Naval Medical Center is now a quiet and real part of my life and ministry, especially to those who have lost their faith or struggle with faith. It is a quiet alleluia that is now a part of my life again. It is not the same as what I had before and certainly some critics including some in my old denomination have labeled me a liberal, a heretic and even an apostate mostly because I do not agree with their political agenda or narrow and often undemocratic understanding of the Gospel and its social ramifications.  I suppose that should bother me but it no longer does. My skin has become more resistant to such critics and while such criticism from people that I counted as friends still stings in general I am much more resilient to it, obviously the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of this miscreant priest.

Yet I remain a Christian and an Old Catholic and treasure the gift that God has given us in Christ.  The ministry that I have now is different but it is founded upon that faith that people like Longinus discovered that first Easter and I can only say “I believe alleluia!”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Faith and Life: A Meditation for those that Doubt

Padre Steve gets a little advice from Molly

I am coming up on three years since I returned from Iraq and experienced my crisis in faith and belief that for nearly two years left me as a practical agnostic.  During that time when it was hard for me to even believe that God existed and if he did exist even cared about me or others I was forced to wrestle with faith and belief from the perspective of a doubter.  This was not comfortable from me because from an early age I had a real faith in God and in Jesus. Likewise I have always been one that tried to think through the implications of faith and belief but because I am a historian and theologian tended to look at things from the perspective of a historian or theologian trying to convince others of the truth using Scriptures, the Creeds, the Councils and what great theologians and Church leaders taught to convince people of that.  I was rather good at the art of polemics which I think was one of the reasons some of my seminary classmates asked me why I was in seminary and not in law school. That was not a compliment in my seminary.

Now I do not want to discredit the importance of history and theology or the roles of historians and theologians in the church.  Far from it, I still rely on that knowledge and seek to understand both better. In fact for me faith and life is connected with both and since coming back I have worked to better integrate these subjects into my spiritual life so that they are not simply something that I do but a part of who I am.

That being said as I dug my way out of my PTSD and anxiety ridden life, I felt alienated from God and God’s people.  In fact I felt abandoned by them I struggled to believe again. It seems to be my experience that Christians especially clergy seem to treat doubters and those in spiritual as if they are radioactive.  The only ones that seemed to understand were those going through similar trials and the first person who asked me how I was doing with God was not a pastor, chaplain or bishop but a psychotherapist. It was that therapist who made it one of his goals to help me be able to reconnect with God and was not threatened by the anger, frustration and alienation that I felt from God and the Church.

Eventually faith began to return but it was in the simple performance of the Sacrament of the Sick and Dying in the hospital that I worked where faith began to return.  I have written about that in a number of articles linked here so I will not rehash those details.

A Sea of Contradictions: My Life and Faith since returning from Iraq

Faith Journey’s: Why I am Still a Christian

God in the Empty Places…Padre Steve Remembers the Beginnings of Padre Steve’s World

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

Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

The Church Maintained in Love: Maintaining Integrity and Preserving Relationships When Asked to Leave a Church

However there is a quote that I used to lead off one article that I will mention from the German Pastor, Theologian and Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.”

Since I know that there are pastors, chaplains and other Christians out there who are experiencing a crisis in faith I just want to say that you are not alone and that there is life after the abyss.  I have faith again in God, working on that faith with God’s people and I believe again but I also doubt and have questions.

Faith and belief for me now is more in caring for God’s people and trying not cause further alienation to people who already struggle with faith, life, depression, anxiety and those that are often marginalized by the Church to include those not of the Christian faith, men and women that have experienced the trauma of war or crimes committed against them, abuse of all kinds as well as people of more “liberal” political beliefs and Gays and Lesbians.  Somehow I think the community of faith is enriched by those on the fringe of the “Christian” world and that God still cares even when Christians don’t.

Please know that while I am still in the process of recovering faith and reordering my spiritual life to make it less rote and more authentic that I believe that God cares for everyone. One of my favorite scriptural passages 2nd Corinthians 5:18 is included in the Lake George Benediction which I will close this article with:

“As you leave this place always remember the Gospel: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself counting men’s sins not against them. God loves you, God is not mad at you and God will never leave you or forsake you. May Almighty God bless you, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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