Tag Archives: hans kung

Faith and Politics

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The American patriot Samuel Adams once remarked: “If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”

My friends, that time has arrived. As I wrote a few days ago, Patriotism is distinctly different than nationalism and the President, the Vice President, and many of their most strident followers, especially so-called “conservative Christians” are not patriots but nationalists who in their stridency would co-opt God into their battle with their political opponents. The German Catholic theologian of the Second Vatican Council, and student of Martin Luther, Hans Kung wrote words that are quite applicable today: “Religion often is misused for purely power-political goals, including war.”

Really, what else could motivate Trump’s followers on the Christian Right to not only defend him but in doing so toss their belief in the Crucified God to the curb for the crass cause of gaining political power?

Somehow the old motto of the Wehrmacht and the Imperial German Army before seems to suit them Gott mit Uns or God is with us. Sadly, while a Christian who believes in the incarnation of Christ as a man, born of a woman may take comfort in the belief that God shares our humanity, the concept of Gott mit Uns is the understanding of nationalism and imperialism bent on the domination of other people and other countries is foreign to the ministry of Jesus and the early leaders of the church. Sadly, in our day, the Imperial Church has found a new savior, President Donald Trump and unless one is taking a knee for the National Anthem, one better be ready to bow their knee to this President or face the wrath of both the State and God, at least say the self-anointed prophets and priests like Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham, who demand that people, even non-Christians follow their lead and obey the President.

Despite the best attempts of the Imperial Church beginning with the Emperor Constantine who cemented the alliance of the Church and Empire to secure his kingdom, and for that matter every empire that followed, has been resisted by people of conscience. The fact is that this Imperial Church concept is not only foreign to the Gospel but also to the founders of our country who resisted every attempt to to impose a state sponsored religion on the people. But neither do the most strident supporters of the President on the Christian seem to think that is important. Likewise these “disciples” neither think of the future of generations to come and their responsibility for perpetuating the Christian faith. Instead they sell their birthright for an illusion of political power that will fade as quickly as the grass in winter.

Future Christians as well as non-Christians who care about this world will look at them and wonder how they could support a man so opposed in almost every conceivable way to the faith of Jesus the Christ. The same Jesus who became incarnate, was born of a woman, who hung out and ministered to the very people who the current “faithful” despise. This is the Jesus who suffered under the scourging of Roman soldiers, was abandoned by his own people, died on a cross as a criminal, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. According to scripture he rose again from the dead bearing all the marks of his humanity, including his scars.

This is what Martin Luther called “the theology of the Cross” and one cannot understand the Christian faith, and I do say faith, without at least trying to comprehend, for it flies in the face of those who desire an earthly kingdom where alleged Christians dominate the government in the perpetually vain attempt to establish the kingdom of Christ on the earth. The best modern exponent of the theology of the Cross, German Lutheran theologian Juergen Moltmann wrote:

“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.”

Why do I say this today? Well actually I began this article a couple of days ago with a different concept in mind, but I basically had writers block. But meditating on it as I walked today I was reminded of just why I stand so strongly against what the President has been doing and how the allegedly Christian Right has sold its soul to him. I cannot look at scripture, profess my belief in Jesus and reconcile that belief with a sham Gospel that despises the poor and values earthly power and prosperity.

Sadly today I had a Facebook follower, a man who I do not know, but who is a Byzantine Catholic Priest tell me that he would no longer follow me because of my “constant anti-Trump rants.” That didn’t bother me at all. I don’t know the man and everything I see that he posts, including his pictures shows me that his faith is more concerned with power, both ecclesiastical and political than the theology of the Cross.

So when you read my criticisms of the President, please know that much of my political beliefs are formed by my faith, a faith that I struggle with on a daily basis since my deployment to Iraq in 2007-2008. For me this is important, because though I believe I still doubt. But there is something that I don’t doubt and that are the words of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, and the First Amendment and that means that I cannot abide a President who flaunts all of these things and supposed Christians who sell their souls to defend him. I just can’t go there. I heartily agree with John Leland, the Virginia Baptist pastor who fought to ensure religious liberty for all when his fellow Virginian Anglicans tried to establish a state church after the colonies has secured their independence from England. Leland worked with James Madison to craft the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment which both President Trump and his Christian supporters seem to want to destroy.

We are in a terrible time of testing. The German pastor, theologian, and martyr during the Nazi Era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

Your Actions Speak so Loud… A Meditation on Faith and Life


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Back when I was in high school sophomore I made a dumb decision to try to play football. I should have stayed with baseball, but football was cool, and despite the fact that I was too small the be competitive as a lineman and too slow and unskilled to be a good running back, receiver, or defensive back, and not strong enough to be a solid linebacker I went out for our sophomore team. I showed up for ever practice but I really didn’t have the instincts needed to play the game, and no-matter how much I showed up for practice I didn’t get to play until our line coach, Duke Pasquini, nailed me. 

When I complained that he wasn’t playing me after we lost a big game by an embarrassing score he told me “Steve, your actions speak so loud I can’t hear a word you are saying.” That infuriated me so I yelled and him and he said “I can’t hear you.” Eventually after a minute or so of this back and forth his words sunk in. I went out to practice that day mad as hell, and in a pass rush drill I got around a player who I had never beat before and tackled the coach. As we got up he said “now I can hear you.” Now I still wasn’t very good, but I did get a few plays in during each of our last three games and even got in on a couple of tackles. After the season we had our team banquet where to my surprise our coaches and players named me the most inspirational player. That is usually an honor reserved to people who are dying or injured who inspire others by overcoming or enduring their hardships. Honestly, in my case I think it was because I was so bad and untalented that nobody thought I would even make the team, and that they were surprised I didn’t give up and that I learned to do more than show up expecting that showing up would be enough to get me into the game. That year I learned that my heart, soul, mind, and body had to be into the game. That was something that Coach Pasquini taught me, and it is something that I have done my best to apply to the rest of my life, including my spiritual life.

When I was attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 1980s and early 1990s I began a journey to the catholic faith. One of my favorite theologians and authors was Hans Kung, one of the great theologians to come out of the Vatican II era. Kung once wrote something that really was at the heart of what Coach Pasquini t me. Kung wrote: “In the last resort, a love of God without love of humanity is no love at all.” 

I have found that there are many people who profess a love of God but who hate humanity. They despise their neighbors, crush the poor, and strive to ensure that they are as powerful politically, socially, and economically as they can be. They show up at church, they say all the right prayers, and hold the doctrines of their denominations as tight as a boa constrictor would hold its prey and as perfectly as an elite Soviet era figure skate could do a triple axel double toe loop combination, but they hate their neighbors. 

Of course they would never admit to that, but their actions speak louder than their words. Sadly, the Jesus they profess to believe in would not be welcome in their circles. He hung out with the wrong crowds, including women, gentiles, sinners, and tax collectors, he preached about them in the synagogue, and he even got angry once in a while to the point of flipping the tables of the money changers at the entrance of the Temple. When a rich young man asked him what he needed to do to get to heaven, Jesus asked him what about the commandments. The man said that he had followed them his whole life. Jesus then told him that he needed to give all his stuff away to the poor and follow him. The man was sad, because he, like the majority of American Christians liked his stuff better than the risk of following Jesus. 

Every day I learn more of what it is to be an incarnational Christian, I that I try to let God’s love for others influence how I treat them. Honestly, I don’t do it as well as I should. I’m basically a Mendoza Line Christian trying to stay in the game, but that makes me work harder. 

So until tomorrow, may we all try to let our actions speak louder than our preaching. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under faith, Pastoral Care, philosophy, Religion

Ash Wednesday 2017

cross-ash-wednesday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which thankfully is far shorter than baseball season, even though it will drag on into the second week of the season, but such is life, and Lent.

Lent is an ancient season of the church, going back to around the Council of Nicea, 325 CE. It is celebrated, though better said “observed” by a majority of Christians, though some evangelical Protestants do little to recognize it. The season is better observed than celebrated as it is a season of penitence.

Lent is technically 40 days long, though it is really 46 days long, but the Sundays don’t count. Call it fuzzy calendar math done to match Biblical accounts of the 40 days of the great flood and Noah’s Ark, the 40 years spent by the Israelites doing laps around Mount Sinai, and the 40 days spent by Jesus in the desert being tempted by Satan, but the forty days actually span 46 calendar days.

It begins today, which is Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy, or Maundy Thursday, which begins the Easter Triduum. It is marked by times of fasting, and abstinence, as well as personal reflection, penance, charity, and renewed focus on our spiritual lives.

That being said, I don’t do Lent well. It is a time that I struggle, and since I returned from Iraq a period in which I have experienced some of my deepest depression and crisis. I thoroughly dislike the season and not because of its profound theological and spiritual significance and benefit. On the contrary, I believe that everything that is a part of Lent, the fasting, abstinences, prayer, reflection, penance, and works of charity is good; they can help keep us grounded in the world and our community.

That being said, I still thoroughly dislike the season because I struggle so much emotionally during it, probably because Lent usually falls not long after the anniversary of my return from Iraq. So my dislike for Lent, and my struggle during it is more coincidental than it is actually based on any real objections to it.

That being said once Lent begins I cannot wait for it to end. I still do my best to observe the fasting and abstinence, and over the past few years I have really worked on being a better person, and to attempt to fulfill the commands that Jesus said surmised the law, to love God and love my neighbor. The first one of those is hard because there are times during Lent that more than any time of the year I struggle with the very existence of God. The second, to love my neighbor is less of a struggle, though some people really push my limits. Likewise, over the past year if I say I will pray for someone I tend to do it, and if they are in need I try my best to help in some tangible way.

So today I will be conducting my last Ash Wednesday service during my assignment at the Staff College. This will be a somewhat bittersweet as I found my assignment there to be the most fulfilling of all of mine since I served in Iraq, without all the emotional baggage and struggles with PTSD, TBI, and the associated symptoms of them, the depression, anxiety, night terrors, insomnia, fear of crowds, and thoughts of death. Thankfully, I am doing better, and have managed to get through he past couple of weeks after the ninth anniversary of my return from Iraq without crashing, though a few times I felt the shadow of depression casting its pall over me. Thankfully, as of yet, I haven’t crashed, and hope not to, although I know that I will breath a deep sigh of relief once we get past Easter.

But going back to Lent, if it is to have the kind of impact it should, in our lives it cannot simply be our struggle with God, it also has to encompass a commitment to those around us and to our world. That means doing more than talking, doing more than praying, but actively participating in the lives of others, even those with whom we have adversarial relationships. As Hans Kung noted: “In the last resort, a love of God without love of humanity is no love at all.”

So anyway, I wish the best for all of you today, and if you observe Lent, I pray and trust that it will be beneficial to your life, and to those you know. Likewise, I ask you to pray for me, a sinner.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

1 Comment

Filed under christian life, faith, PTSD, Religion

“I Can Live With It” An Advent Meditation

2004weihnachtsbrief-2

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Gospel according to Saint Mark records the story of a man that brought his son to Jesus the Christ to be cured of a deadly disease. In desperation the man cries out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.”

I understand that impassioned cry, and I can live with it.

That being said, for a lot of people, including me, 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. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.

Before Iraq, 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, but that was before I came home from Iraq. After Iraq, the seasons of Advent and Christmas became almost unbearable as I struggled to believe in anything, including God.

I have faith again, but I still struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.

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 death from Alzheimer’s disease, 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 is one of the few places that comfort me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of most Christian denominations. I am sure that this can be the case with non-Christian clerics as well, but I cannot say that with any deal of authority.

For some Christian ministers and priests the seasons of Advent and Christmas can be difficult. For those of us who are ordained and view ministry or Priesthood as a sacred vocation this can difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a special kind of hell this time of year because we are not supposed to suffer a crisis in faith, for any reason.

I believe that for many people, a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with faith is disconcerting.  I know many ministers who for a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith. Sometimes this involved great personal losses such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage or being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing any number of other major traumatic events.  All of these men and women are good people. But when they experienced a crisis, instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless failures, and and 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 such situations. They 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.

While I saw this happen to others I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof” and when it occurred I was stunned. I didn’t expect what happened nor its effect on me.

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 wartime accomplishments went unrecognized by most of my peers in the Chaplain Corps on my return home and I found no place of comfort.

As I crashed no one asked about my faith until I met my first shrink. It was after the initial crash that my commanding officers, Captain, now Admiral, Frank Morneau and Tom Sitsch both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling and both were more understanding than the vast majority of chaplain, ministers, or Christian lay people that I knew. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  I could only say, “not to other chaplains.” Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th 2014, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.

On the professional side I felt tremendously isolated from much of the clergy of my former church, and many chaplains. This is something that I still feel to some extent today, although there are some chaplains who I can be completely honest with, sadly, like me, they have also experienced major faith crisis and have struggled with the same kind of abandonment and betrayal that I have felt. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me for both my former church and chaplain corps.

In the midst of the crisis I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” Those questions showed me that the people who asked them cared.

There were many times between 2008 and 2010 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, and while faith has returned, some of the of them still are.

That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I have noted in other posts, a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space. This makes Advent and Christmas difficult.

Why I remain a Christian is sometimes hard to figure.  I am certainly not a Christian because of the church, what is called Christendom, or the actions of supposed Christians who want to use the police power of government to subjugate others. At the same time like the German priest and theologian 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.” Nor am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has all of the answers to all of lives issues. After coming home from Iraq I know that it is not so. I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers. That may sound like heresy to some, but I can live with it.

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 and in spite of my own doubts.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, and in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.

One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel remains a prayer for me this year.

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.

So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, those who feel abandoned by God, or by family and friends, I pray that all of us will experience joy this season. So I do pray that the Day Spring will come and cheer, all of us with his advent here.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, PTSD

Stuck in the Middle: A Lenten Meditation

galaxy_universe-normal1

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “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” 

I have had a number of instances recently where I have brushed off some rather rude comments of Fundamentalist Christians on both my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I am always amazed with the certitude of how they judge those with whom they disagree. Such certitude mystifies me because it is usually based on some form of circular logic about the Bible, an example being “the Bible is true because God said it is, and God said it in the Bible, thus it is true. It is a fallacious argument, but one that is very commonly held in Fundamentalist Christian circles but also in other religions and sometimes even in Atheism. What is funny, for the most intensely fundamentalist people is the amount they have to choose to disbelieve in order to believe in what they say. Eric Hoffer noted: “It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.”

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where this topic is explored. A scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim. As Hoffer wrote: “We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.”

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “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.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion. They were and are true believers.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a special investigator who turned an investigation into a witch hunt on the Enterprise. Picard told Worf, who had initially been taken in by the investigator:

“But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay.”

And that is true.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under Loose thoughts and musings

Belief & Unbelief in Advent

2004weihnachtsbrief-2

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I mentioned on Sunday that I would be writing about faith and doubt during the season of Advent and Christmas.  Gospel according to Saint Mark records the story of a man that brought his son to Jesus the Christ to be cured of a deadly disease. In desperation the man cries out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.”

I understand that impassioned cry.

That being said, for a lot of people, including me, 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. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.

Before Iraq, 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, but that was before I came home from Iraq. After Iraq, the seasons of Advent and Christmas became almost unbearable as I struggled to believe in anything, including God.

I have faith again, but I still struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.

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 death from Alzheimer’s disease, 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 is one of the few places that comfort me.

I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of most Christian denominations. I am sure that this can be the case with non-Christian clerics as well, but I cannot say that with any deal of authority.

For some Christian ministers and priests the seasons of Advent and Christmas can be difficult. For those of us who are ordained and view ministry or Priesthood as a sacred vocation this can difficult to deal with.  Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a special kind of hell this time of year because we are not supposed to suffer a crisis in faith, for any reason.

I believe that for many people, a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with faith is disconcerting.  I know many ministers who for a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith. Sometimes this involved great personal losses such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage or being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing any number of other major traumatic events.  All of these men and women are good people. But when they experienced a crisis, instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless failures, and and 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 such situations. They 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.

While I saw this happen to others I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof” and when it occurred I was stunned. I didn’t expect what happened nor its effect on me.

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 wartime accomplishments went unrecognized by most of my peers in the Chaplain Corps on my return home and I found no place of comfort.

As I crashed no one asked about my faith until I met my first shrink. It was after the initial crash that my commanding officers, Captain, now Admiral, Frank Morneau and Tom Sitsch both asked me about my faith.  I told them that I was struggling and both were more understanding than the vast majority of chaplain, ministers, or Christian lay people that I knew. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”  I could only say, “not to other chaplains.” Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th 2014, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.

On the professional side I felt tremendously isolated from much of the clergy of my former church, and many chaplains. This is something that I still feel to some extent today, although there are some chaplains who I can be completely honest with, sadly, like me, they have also experienced major faith crisis and have struggled with the same kind of abandonment and betrayal that I have felt. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me for both my former church and chaplain corps.

In the midst of the crisis I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” Those questions showed me that the people who asked them cared.

There were many times between 2008 and 2010 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, and while faith has returned, some of the of them still are.

That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I noted last week a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space. This makes Advent and Christmas difficult.

Why I remain a Christian is sometimes hard to figure.  I am certainly not a Christian because of the church, what is called Christendom, or the actions of supposed Christians who want to use the police power of government to subjugate others. At the same time like the German priest and theologian 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.” Nor am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has all of the answers to all of lives issues. After coming home from Iraq I know that it is not so. I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers. That may sound like heresy to some, but I can live with it.

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 and in spite of my own doubts.  I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, and in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.

One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel is a prayer for me this year.

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.

 So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, those who feel abandoned by God, or by family and friends, I pray that all of us will experience joy this season. So I do pray that the Day Spring will come and cheer, all of us with his advent here.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, Tour in Iraq

My Faith: A Journey and Mission

IMG_0230

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today I am writing because a couple of days ago I celebrated the nineteenth anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. Likewise, I have a lot of new readers and subscribers to the site, as well as a lot of Twitter followers who maybe see the title of the page and wonder want I am about. So this is kind of an introduction to me and my faith journey, kind of how I view life. Paul Tillich once said, “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” Truthfully I have in large part adopted that as a model for life and faith as a rather miscreant priest, in large part because so many Christians, especially clergy seem too busy prattling on about programs, policies, politics and seem not to understand that most people, just want a listening ear, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“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.”

My experience of the Church is profoundly influenced by my life in the nether world of the military culture. My world view is shaped by a blending of various Christian traditions, mutual support and collaboration among believers of often radically different points of view. Because of the love, care and mentoring of people from a blend of different traditions I came to know God and survived a tumultuous childhood with many moves.

As a historian I have been blessed to study church history from the early Church Fathers to the present. As I look to church history I find inspiration in many parts of the Christian tradition. In fact rather being threatened by them I have become appreciative of their distinctiveness. I think that there is a beauty in liturgy and stability in the councils and creeds of the Church. At the same time the prophetic voice of evangelical preaching shapes me, especially the message of freedom and tolerance embodied in the lives and sacrifice of men like John Leland, the American Baptist who helped pioneer the concept of Freedom of Religion established in the Constitution of the United States, of William Wilberforce who labored to end slavery in England and, Martin Luther King Jr. who led the Civil Rights movement.

Likewise that prophetic message of the faith is demonstrated in the ministry, writing and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries Martin Niemoller and Jesuit priest Father Rupert Meyer. All three resisted and preached against the evils of Nazism. In a more contemporary setting I am inspired by Bishop Desmond Tutu who helped topple apartheid in South Africa.

Women like Teresa of Avila and St Catherine show me that women have a legitimate place of ministry and leadership in the Church. I am convinced through my study of Church history, theology and a deep belief in the power of the Holy Spirit that women can and should serve as Priests and Bishops in the church.

My theology has shaped by the writings of Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Jurgen Moltmann, Andrew Greeley, and Henry Nouwen. I’ve been challenged by St Francis of Assissi, John Wesley and Martin Luther. I am especially inspired by Pope John XXIII whose vision brought about the Second Vatican Council and I am inspired by Pope Francis.

I pray that Christians can live in peace with one another and those who do not share our faith. I pray that we can find ways to overcome the often very legitimate hurts, grievances and divisions of our 2000 year history. At the same time I pray that we can repent from our own wrongs and work to heal the many wounds created by Christians who abused power, privilege and even those who oppressed others, waged war and killed in the name of Jesus.

I do not believe that neither triumphalism nor authoritarianism has a place in in a healthy understanding of the church and how we live. I am suspicious of any clergy who seek power in a church or political setting. I profoundly reject any argument that requires the subjection of one Church with its tradition to any other Church. In fact I think that the arrogance and intolerance of Christians to others is a large part of why people are leaving the church in droves and that the fastest growing “religious group” is the “nones” or those with no religious preference. Andrew Greeley said something that we should take to heart:

“People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good — Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice.”

I grew up in and have lived my life in a very open and ecumenical environment. I have lost any trace denominational parochialism and competition that I might have had if I had become a pastor of a civilian parish instead of a chaplain. It is interesting that the pastor that first ordained me in the evangelical tradition and the bishop that ordained me as a priest both did so with the intent that I serve as a chaplain. Whether it was the recognition of a gifting for the work or the fact that they didn’t want me messing up their civilian operations by asking hard questions I will never know.

I believe that my environment and the men and women who have helped shape my life have been a stronger influence in the way I think about ecumenical relations and ministry than my actual theology or ecclesiology. Whether they were Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals or even those considered by many to be outside the faith including Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Mormons and even complete non-believers all have contributed to my life and faith.

I have grown weary of refighting theological debates that have divided the church for a thousand years. Since what we know of theology including our Scriptures and Creeds are based on faith and not science I see no reason to continue to battle.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should put our brains in neutral but rather we must wrestle with how to integrate our faith with science, philosophy and reason, otherwise we will become irrelevant. In that sense I identify with Saint Anselm of Canterbury who wrote about a faith seeking understanding and Erasmus of Rotterdam who very well understood the importance of both faith and reason. In that sense I am very much at home with the Anglican triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to approaching faith.

I struggle with faith and belief. After Iraq I spent two years as a practical agnostic. As Andrew Greeley wrote: “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”

I am an Old Catholic and believe that inter-communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith. I like to think that I embody what the early Anglicans referred to as the via media and that somehow my life and ministry has been about building bridges at the intersections of faith with a wide diversity of people.

When I have tried to embrace traditionalism or choose to fight theological battles I have ended up tired, bitter and at enmity with other Christians. In a sense when I tried those paths I found that they didn’t work for me. I discovered that I was not being true to who God had created and guided my life, education and experience. I feel like T. E. Lawrence who wrote:

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

My favorite theological debates have been with other chaplains over pints of good beer in German Gasthausen or Irish pubs. Those were good times, we argued but we also laughed and always left as friends and brothers. I believe since we are human that none of us will ever fully comprehend all of God or his or her truth. I believe that the Holy Spirit, God’s gracious gift to her people will guide us into all Truth. For me my faith has become more about relationships and reconciliation than in being right.

As far as those who disagree with me that is their right, or your right, if that is the case. I don’t expect agreement and I am okay with differences and even if I disagree with an individual or how another religious denominations polity, theology, beliefs or practices those are their rights. In fact I am sure that those that believe things that I don’t are at least as sincere as me and that those beliefs are important to them. I just ask that people don’t try to use them to force their faith or belief on others, be it in churches or by attempting to use the power of government to coerce others into their belief systems.

Have a great night,

Peace

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under christian life, ethics, faith, Religion