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Advent 2013: God Loves the Real World

2004weihnachtsbrief-2

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

(From O Come O Come Emmanuel) 

Introduction: This is an article that I wrote last year. I have updated with this introduction and made a few edits for this year for a couple of reasons. One reason is that I think that it is worth the read for those unfamiliar with the season and what it means. Secondly I see the observance of Advent as a way to actually discover something spiritual and eternal that can help us in the real world today, not just in the by and by, but today, in how we treat our neighbors and care for others. 

In a sense this very traditional observance can be counter-cultural in amid the usual din of the shopping orgy that began on Thanksgiving and will end as retailers squeeze out the last profits on Christmas Eve. The observance of Advent is also an antidote to the politically charged “the war on Christmas” emanating from certain Christian “conservatives” and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and Newscorp empire. The sad thing is that for all of their alleged “defense” of Christmas most of these culture warriors and their media allies have reduced the mystery of God’s great love at Christmas to a religious holiday so covered in consumerism that it is hard to find that tiny babe in the manger of Bethlehem. Finally, I write this in the hopes that discover the joy as we wait in the anticipation of the the message of the angel who said “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy….”

I think that each Sunday of the Advent Season I will write a short reflection on the various aspects of hope, expectation and love that is the heart of the season.

Today is the fist Sunday of what we in the liturgical Christian world know as the season of Advent.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, in a sense the opening day of a new season of faith, as much as the Opening Day is in Baseball. It is a season of new beginnings, of hope looking forward and looking back. It is a season of intense realism. It is a season where the people of God look forward to their deliverance even as they remember the time when God entered into humanity.  It was not simply entering the human condition as a divine and powerful being inflicting his will upon people but deciding to become subject to the same conditions know by humanity. As Paul the Apostle, wrote about him: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5b-8) 

In the incarnation Jesus Christ shows his love and solidarity with people, humanity, the creation, reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer 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.” 

That simple fact is why Christ came.

He didn’t come to found a government or even for that matter a religion. He did not come to exemplify “Christian” virtues or to condemn people that religious people condemned as sinners. He came simply to save and redeem the world and people like us from themselves.

The meaning of the incarnation, and the hope of the season of Advent is that God loves people. Yes, even the people that the Christian culture warriors despise.

In the next few week there will be much written and said about Jesus. Much of it will not actually deal with Jesus or the people that he came to save but instead about the worldly power and influence of those who seek the profits of being “prophets.” Some of them will talk fervently about the “War on Christmas” as if somehow God and Christ are so small that they need government sponsored displays in the public square in order to be real, relevant or or for that matter important. What a small God they must have.

Somehow the message of Advent, the coming of Jesus is contradictory to the message of the for profit prophets. Certainly the early Christians had no government backing of any kind. They simply lived the life and showed God’s love to their neighbors, often at the cost of their lives and paradoxically the message was not crushed, but spread and overcame an empire. It was only when they became co-executors of government power that the message of reconciliation became a bludgeon to be used against those who did not agree with the theology of the clerics beholden to the Empire.

The Christ of the Season of Advent, the one who came and who promises to come again is not captive to the capricious message of the for profit prophets and their political and media allies. I would dare say that God is much bigger than them or those that they believe will somehow end the Christian faith as we know it. But then maybe the Christian faith “as we know it” is more a reflection of us and our culturally conditioned need for physical, economic and political power over others than it is of Jesus.Nativity-extr

All I know is that the simplicity of the message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” is more powerful than any political-religious alliance.

The time of waiting in expectation during advent also helps us to focus on Jesus’ words to  “Love God with all your heart and love our neighbors as ourselves.” It also calls to mid the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah, who asked “what does the Lord require of thee? To love show justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Advent stands in stark contrast to the politically charged consumerism of the War on Christmas.  I think that the message that God loves the real world is worth repeating in such an environment. In fact I think that because the message of God’s great love for those deemed “repulsive” by so many supposedly “conservative Christians” is so amazing that it must be proclaimed. As distasteful as it is to the “for profit prophets” of our time that it is not only worth repeating, but actually believing and acting upon.

It is a good reason for me to during this season of Advent to look forward to our celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation, the coming of the God who “emptied himself” and took “the form of a slave” in order to save his people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Post Election Meditation: God Loves the Real World

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: God Loves the Real World…

The election of 2012 is now pretty much in the rear-view mirror and for my new readers I am re-posting an older article that pretty much says how I view the world as a Priest and Navy Chaplain. I think that it may help people that don’t know me, or only know me from a few articles dealing with the election, especially the role of churches and church leaders in the election get a little bit of insight into who I am before the race to 2016 begins.

I think in the wake of such a divisive election it is imperative that people who call themselves “Christian” begin to re-look at the Gospel and our relationship to those that we see as different than us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor, theologian and martyr grew up in a world where a large part of the church had surrendered any sense of Christian witness in favor of political partisanship, with many supporting the incipient Nazi movement and many becoming willing helpers of some of the worst crimes recorded in human history. In doing so they lost most of a generation to war and following that saw the exodus of many young people from the church, a decline that the church in Germany has never recovered or reversed.

Bonhoeffer was killed a few days before the liberation of the Flossenburg concentration camp where he was held. Bonhoeffer understood something that many of his generation to understand and that many American Christians likewise fail to get. It is a little something that goes to the heart of the Gospel, not the trumped up and politicized message of preachers more interested in their temporal power than people.

Bonhoeffer 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.”

I think one of the greatest joys that I have as a Priest is when people tell me that they like me because I am “real.”  It’s not so much that they think I am a great preacher, which I am not or that I have all the answers especially because my answer to many questions that I am asked is “I don’t know.”  In fact what those that like me say what they like about me is that I am approachable and care enough to give them the time of day and listen to them.

My psychological and spiritual collapse following my tour in Iraq caused me to see why who live in the real world appreciate pastors, Priests or Rabbis that are real.  There were very few people, especially ministers that in the years following my return that I felt that cared about me enough to share what I was going through with them.  In fact I found that many were not interested or simply did not want to deal with a “bruised reed.”  I think that when a minister, Priest or Rabbi expresses doubt or is in crisis be it a long term physical illness that will not be healed, a deep depression that causes them despair or a spiritual crisis that causes them to question their faith that the tendency among most ministers is to run away as if they were radioactive or that it was catching.

In fact I have heard this for years as friends or pastors that I met in their crisis expressed the pain of being ostracized by other ministers or their denominations or local churches.  Likewise I have also all too often seen churches and pastors ignore or ostracize people simply because they are not easily “fixed” or those that are considered “problems” because they ask uncomfortable questions or point out inconsistency or injustice in the church.  Then there are the times where the Church mistreats, abuses and uses people without any real care for them as people treating them as numbers or even more crass “tithing units.” Finally there are the times that the Church covers up the crimes of its ministers against the weak including sexual abuse and pedophilia and when found out blames the victims or protect the criminals from the justice of the state using Canon Law to subvert the justice system.  Such actions are not unique to the Roman Catholic Church that most often stands accused but can be found in almost any church or denomination.

I think a lot of this is simply that many of us clergy types become so invested in “defending” what we believe that we forget that the call of Jesus is to care for those that are the least, the lost and the lonely. Without getting preachy it seems to me that Jesus preferred to be with such people and often castigated the clergy of his day for doing exactly what we do.  The whole “woe to you Scribes and Pharisees…” passage should send chills up any minister’s spine because we are often no different than them.

Likewise when we refuse serve people that come to us because of denominational differences or because they are not Christians or someone of our faith tradition and then refuse to help them find someone that can we do a disservice to them and to God.  Since have served nearly my entire time in ministry in some form of the chaplaincy I deal with this often. I represent a small religious tradition which is Catholic but not Roman and very ecumenical, thus I am in a distinct minority.  I know man who serves as a Priest in a small communion that has many similar beliefs to my former church who told me that he loved being his denomination because when he was a Chaplain “he did not have to worship with Protestants or give them communion.” On the other hand a friend that is a Roman Catholic priest was removed from ministry by a bishop known as an “enforcer.” Unlike the criminals that many bishops shuffle around this priest was removed for his ecumenical stance as co-pastor of a mixed Catholic and Episcopal parish. And Christians act puzzled when confronted with a mass exodus of young people from the church.

One of the men that serve as a model for me is the late German Redemptorist Priest Bernard Häring. Häring was drafted as a medic by the German Wehrmacht at the beginning of the Second World War and taken out of the parish.  In his service as a medic he never forgot that he was a priest and performed his duties as a priest to non-Catholics in his units even celebrating the Eucharist with them.  He also took the time to serve and care for civilians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and French in the areas that he served.  One story that he told was when he told his Protestant Soldiers that their official pastor would be coming for service that they told him “There really is no reason to make any changes for us because you are ‘one of us.’” (Bernard Häring “Priesthood Imperiled: A Critical Examination of Ministry in the Catholic Church” Triumph Books Ligouri, MO 1996 p.9)  Häring was transparent about exactly what he was, a Roman Catholic Priest whether he dealt with Protestant or Orthodox Christians and because he was “one of us” they accepted him and made him their pastor even without becoming Catholic themselves. A Polish parish that he served as a prisoner of war sought to make him their pastor following the war despite him being a member of the Army that brutally subjugated their country.  After the war he continued with that same spirit and I have sought to emulate that spirit in my Priestly ministry.

I definitely am not perfect but I try to listen and care for those in my charge regardless of their faith or lack thereof.  I just hope that in my imperfect attempts to care that people see that God loves them. My trust is in the simple message that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

As Bonhoeffer said “God loves the real world.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Faith for those that Struggle with Faith

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” 
― Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

I’m taking a few minutes tonight even while watching primary returns and political punditry from Michigan and Arizona to muse a bit on faith during Lent.  I’ll post my analysis of tonight’s results tomorrow.

I have found over the past couple of years that there are many people that grew up in some kind of Christian home that for a host of reasons are struggling with faith, God and  the church. It is something that I find interesting from more than a theoretical premise because I went through a period after returning from Iraq where I struggled and could best be described as an agnostic struggling to recover faith.  Faith for me is still a work in progress, I can fully relate to father of the child Jesus healing in Mark 9:24 saying “I believe help my unbelief” and Thomas who after the Resurrection that he would not believe without being able to put his hands in the wounds of Christ.  Saint Anselm of Canterbury talked about faith seeking understanding and I think that is the mark of theological honesty.  I believe but seek understanding but even if I don’t understand I can have faith even if it is imperfect and plagued with doubts as well as frustration about things I see done in the church and in the name of Jesus.

When people come to me and admit their struggles I simply try to listen and let them be honest about their doubts and to know that even if they struggle that God still cares about them. I think that people, at least from what I hear are tired of the lack of honesty that characterizes much of what is being sold as Christianity in America.  What they struggle with is that “faith” marketed  by the health, wealth and political power preachers, pundits and politicians that make up the Unholy Trinity of American religious life.

Lent is one of those times of reflection where hopefully those that call on the name of Jesus can deepen faith or in the case of many that struggle, return to faith.  I really believe that honesty with God, each other and the world is one of the keys to faith and for those of us that struggle absolutely vital.

Part of that honesty to recover faith is to realize that God does love the real and very imperfect world that we live in. God loves wounded, doubting and imperfect people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German pastor, theologian and martyr said it this way “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.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Let’s Share a Pint for Auld Lang Syne: Padre Steve Remembers 2010

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
and surely I’ll buy mine !
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Second verse of Auld Lang Syne

Happy New Year from Padre Steve

In his book A Tale of two Cities Charles Dickens wrote “that it was the best of times and the worst of times” and I think that for many people the year 2010 matched that description quite well. I know for me it has been a year marked by the recovery of faith and personal achievement muddled with failure and loss, life and death, opportunity and disappointment.  It has been a year of personal growth but not without pain, it has been a year where I began to feel joy again but also the pain of loss with the passing of my dad.  It was a year of transition as I left the church that I had served for 14 years as a Priest and a change of duty assignments with a promotion.  It has been better than the past few years but not without its difficulties. It has been the best of times and the worst of times.

It has been the same for many people that I know, friends and family have had similar experiences this year and for many of them 2010 has been exceptionally painful and fraught with tragedy, suffering and great loss.  Having shared these times with friends I know that there is little that can be said except to sit quietly with them.  Having experienced such times since returning from Iraq I know that it was the people that were there for me that didn’t have the answers that were the most helpful.

2010 was difficult for many around the world due to war, economic crisis and natural disasters.  Close to home over 700 American and other NATO troops were killed fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the war there will certainly continue with casualties likely to rise as the intensity of combat increases. For those that return with injuries that affect them in body, soul and spirit the war does not go away simply because they have returned home.  The past for those of us that have experienced war tends to always remain in the present and cloud our vision of the future.

The English poet Thomas Hood penned this poignant verse which I think encompasses what many have gone through in 2010 but with the hope that 2011 will be kinder to all of us.

And ye, who have met with Adversity’s blast,
And been bow’d to the earth by its fury;
To whom the Twelve Months, that have recently pass’d
Were as harsh as a prejudiced jury –
Still, fill to the Future! and join in our chime,
The regrets of remembrance to cozen,
And having obtained a New Trial of Time,
Shout in hopes of a kindlier dozen.

The passing of the Old Year and beginning of the New Year always is a time of reflection for me looking back as well as looking forward. For those that have experienced a loss in the past year the time can be filled with pain because the hole left in our lives by the loss is not filled. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “Creation Fall and Temptation” something that means much to me and which I often paraphrase when conducting the funeral or memorial service for a young person.  It is a quote born of wisdom and which recognizes the loss and holds it dear.

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

The marking of the New Year and remembrance of the old with our friends and families is important, something that binds us together in ways that are both personal and spiritual.  While for many the coming of the New Year is marked by drunken revelry I think that it is best spent quietly with friends and family if at all possible.  I remember New Year’s Eve of 2008 in Iraq when I celebrated it quietly with Father Jose Bautista after returning from my two week journey to the Syrian Border. We celebrated quietly watching movies and drinking non-alcoholic beer, they only kind that we were allowed to drink.

I found then that the New Year is a time to be human as God intends us to be living in the real world because it is God that wants us to, caring for each other and not avoiding life, but living in its joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, love and loss.  As Bonhoeffer wrote: “I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”

To live in the moment with those that we love in the real world and to know that God loves the real world, both the good and the bad, not our idea of an ideal human, but real people just as they are. God loves this real world not an ideal world of our imaginations, but the real world. This world and humanity that we are often tempted to shrink back from with pain and hostility is the real world.  It is imperfect and often unjust, but it is the world that we are called to live in that is for God the ground of unfathomable love.

2010 was a difficult year and for me the best of times and the worst of times but it is what it is and maybe 2011 while certain to have its share of sorrow will be better for all of us.  I think some of what I feel can be summed up in the song Happy New Year by Abba.  The song is somewhat melancholy but it is real.

No more champagne and the fireworks are through

Here we are me and you feeling lost and feeling blue

It’s the end of the party and the morning seems so grey

So unlike yesterday now’s the time for us to say…

Happy new year, Happy new year May we all have a vision now and then

Of a world where every neighbor is a friend

Happy new year, Happy new year may we all have our hopes, our will to try

If we don’t we might as well lay down and die

You and I

Sometimes I see how the brave new world arrives

And I see how it thrives in the ashes of our lives

Oh yes, man is a fool and he thinks he’ll be okay

Dragging on, feet of clay never knowing he’s astray

Keeps on going anyway…

Happy New Year, Happy New Year may we all have a vision now and then

Of a world where every neighbor is a friend

Happy new year, Happy new year may we all have our hopes, our will to try

If we don’t we might as well lay down and die

You and I

Seems to me now that the dreams we had before

Are all dead, nothing more than confetti on the floor

It’s the end of a decade in another ten years time

Who can say what we’ll find what lies waiting down the line

In the end of eighty-nine…

Happy new year, Happy new year may we all have a vision now and then

Of a world where every neighbor is a friend

Happy new year, Happy new year may we all have our hopes, our will to try

If we don’t we might as well lay down and die

You and I

Abba Happy New Year Video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcLMH8pwusw

As I look to the New Year and remember the old I do pray that 2011 will be better for everyone those here are home and those in harm’s way in combat zones.  As someone once said:  “Here’s a toast to the future, A toast to the past, and a toast to our friends, far and near. May the future be pleasant; The past a bright dream; May our friends remain faithful and dear.”


Peace

Padre Steve+

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