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Easter and the Outcasts: For Many the Season is Painful

barmherzigkeit

Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit” (Mercy)

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

It is now Holy or Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum. Mid-way through Holy Week and I am doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media. Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many Christians Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of the season. People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and loneliness. For some this loneliness can transition to a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because so many people suffering people often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or another type of trauma that devastates them. Others find that they are rejected by the communities of faith that they had been part of all of their lives because of divorce or because of their sexual preference. However, no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Many pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people to the message of Easter. I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself. It is not so bad this year for me but I can remember coming home from Iraq and going through an extended period of time where I felt absolutely alone and no longer sensed the presence of God. I have to say that as a Priest and Chaplain that experience was one of the most frightening of my life.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out. I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.

Call me a heretic but I do not believe that now. That line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life. However it is absolutely stupid advice to give people who are severely traumatized, clinically depressed, and suicidal or who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives. This is especially true for those abused by parents or clergy. That kind of wound does damage to the victim’s very concept and understanding of God which can last a lifetime, and in some churches leads to continued re-victimization as the victims are blamed for their plight.

Thus I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or any other psychological reason. The numbers of people victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures is mind numbing. Likewise we don’t even bother to count the vast numbers of people in our churches who have lost children or other loved ones, experienced some kind of physical trauma related to accidents, had near death experiences or combat deal with the wounds of war. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage makes it nearly impossible for people to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach. To some God is at best a detached and uncaring being who allowed them to be hurt, and those that serve him in positions of authority are willing accomplices and are no safe.

My experience of coming home from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening. I was in such bad shape that I left Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 before it started and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed. My isolation from other Christians and the church community and despair that I experienced showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with by care givers. Nor is it to be papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up by “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always express how they feel cut off and even abandoned by God. It is also something that I experienced, thus for me it is not an academic exercise. It is not simply depression that people are dealing with, but despair of life itself. Sometimes it seems that death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life. It is if they never are able to leave the “God-forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb. For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach for the person experiencing this pain to reach out but it is also difficult for those who care enough to reach out to them. I can say that I was not easy to deal with and because of my distrust it was hard to believe that anyone cared, even when they did. However the people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage helped get me through the worst of this. I’m sure that some who had to deal with me in that condition got burned out as I was not easy to deal with. Some chose not walk with me as I began to go down this road in early 2008 and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains. In some ways I don’t blame them. However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday. He is the battered and abandoned victim on that day, a day when all hope appears to be gone. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote something quite profound:

“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.” 

Scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But this can be hard to do, we don’t like dealing with suffering. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian. Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with walking with and holding on to those who suffer the absence of God. It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Holy Week and the Outcasts

Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit”

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

Holy Week is here and on my way home from work and a visit with my shrink I was doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media.  Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many of the people Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomena is one of the more tragic aspects of the season.  People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness which sometimes becomes a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because people suffering through this often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or the experience of trauma that devastates them but no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are now outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Likewise there are many pastors and priests who are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do to the message of Easter.  I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself when one no longer senses the presence of God and feels alone against the world, especially in church.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out.  I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.  Call me a heretic but that line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life but absolutely stupid advice for people who are severely traumatized or clinically depressed and suicidal who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives.  For those abused by parents or clergy this is I think an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. The numbers of people have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat is mind numbing. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible for them to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience came from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening so much so that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.  My isolation from Christian community and sense of despair during that time showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with or papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up in the ivory theological towers by theologians and “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that that feel cut off and even abandoned by God.  It is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life.  It is if they never are able to leave the “God forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb.   For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach out to people in this situation.  I have to admit in my case that it was only people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage that helped get me through the worst of this.  However I’m sure that my condition burned some people out.  There were some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down this road and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them.  However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday.

Yet scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said  We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian.  Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with those who suffer the absence of God.  It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Alleluia Christ is Risen!

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28:1-10

It is Easter at last and Christians around the world sing the triumphant message “alleluia Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!”  Just as the first disciples walked with Jesus we too have walked with Jesus through the penitential season of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday where we remembered that “we are but dust and to dust we shall return.” With each thing that we abstained from or added to our spiritual discipline we in a small way were reminded that we are to “deny ourselves, take up our Cross and follow.”  In Holy week we experienced the nearly schizophrenic emotions of triumph and tragedy of Palm or Passion Sunday, the solemnity that comes on Holy or Maundy Thursday as we recall the institution of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper and the humility of Jesus as he takes on the mantle of a lowly servant and washes the feet of his disciples.  Leaving that we enter into the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday and see how even his friends betrayed or abandoned him with only a thief on an adjacent cross and the officer in charge of the crucifixion realizing just who was on that middle cross.  We wait overnight Friday and through Saturday in the uncomfortable middle between the crucifixion and resurrection that so often mirrors events in our own life where we sometimes experience what we feel to be forsaken by family, friends, church and sometimes even God.  Yet in the pre-dawn darkness of that first Easter morning we like the disciples awake to find that something has happened, that the stone is rolled away, the tomb is empty and Jesus is raised from the dead crushing sin death and hell.  We are greeted by Jesus who tells us not to be afraid but to go and tell others what has happened.  He greets us on the road to Emmaus and breaks bread with us even as we tell him about the tragedy of his death and then our eyes are opened.  Jesus is the victor and in his death burial and resurrection we have the forgiveness of sins.  The event is also eschatological in that it opens the door for him to return in glory and for him to be revealed in his people For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;  “for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:20-21

Likewise it is in this series of inseparable events that Christ establishes our redemption by the forgiveness of sins “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8.

It is a universe changing event whereby Christ sets his people free and destroys the power of his enemies. Karl Barth wrote: “Look once again to Jesus Christ in his death upon the cross.  Look and try to understand that what he did and suffered he did and suffered for you, for me, for us all.  He carried our sin, our captivity and our suffering, and did not carry it in vain.  He carried it away.  He acted as the captain of us all.  He broke through the ranks of our enemies.  He has already won the battle, our battle.  All we have to do is to follow him, to be victorious with him.  Through him, in him we are saved.  Our sin no longer has any power over us.  Our prison door is open…when he, the Son of God, sets us free, we are truly free.” This is the redemption that the world awaits, not a redemption that is to be hoarded by believers but a redemption that extends beyond the present redemption for all people, especially those who believe and the people of God are to toil and struggle for this “For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” 1 Timothy 4:10

The Cross and Resurrection are to be a new and purifying wind in the world and the people of God are to be the vehicle for this wind empowered by the Holy Spirit of God.  It is not simply about mastering the art of dying as Socrates did but experiencing resurrection.  Christ did not merely die but he overcame the last enemy which is death itself. (1 Corinthians 15:26)  The power of this is not to be taken lightly in its possibilities for real change for as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “If a few people really believed that and acted on it in their daily lives, a great deal would be changed. To live in the light of the Resurrection—that is what Easter means.”

While we live in the reality of the light of the Resurrection we simultaneously live under the shadow of the Cross of Christ as well as the cross that we are obliged by God to carry in our own lives. In the duality and unity of the Cross and Resurrection we have hope and in that hope we are not to be overwhelmed by events in the world that we cannot control.  Nor are we to be consumed by false “gospels” presented by various ideologues of the right and the left who may identify themselves as “Christian” but place their ideologies, social, political, national and economic over the Gospel itself.  Ideologues who quote scripture to buttress their arguments so that their ideology and the “Gospel” are one in the same much as Satan did during the temptation of Jesus to provide a veneer of Christianity to ideologies that are often opposed to the message of the Gospel. Such an idea is much like the message on German soldier’s belt buckles in the Second World War proclaimed “Gott Mit Uns” even as their nation made war on the world and executed an evil ideology of death upon the Jews and others unfortunate enough to be considered the enemies of the Nazi Party.

It is the ideologues who now endanger the Church and Gospel itself for many choose to remain inside the walls of the church and attempt to turn it into a tool of their ideology and in doing so these ideologues measure and evaluate “others only from the standpoint of whether they are supporters of this ideology, or whether they might become such, or whether they might at least be useful to it even without their consent, or whether they must be fought as its enemies. Its glory has already become for him the solution not only to the personal problem of his own life but to each and all of the problems of the world.” But the Cross and resurrection cry out “NO!” to such ideas even when they are drenched with so called “Biblical” support.

The Cross and the Resurrection bring us to life and promise that Christ who died and was raised will come again and in doing so will complete the redemption of the world for which he suffered and died. It is the real world for which God cares for enough to live suffer and die to save, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently wrote “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

It is God’s unfathomable love that Easter proclaims as victorious and allows us will all people to cry out “Alleluia Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed!”

Peace and Happy Easter

Padre Steve+

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