Tag Archives: hospital ministry

Living the Nightmares: PTSD and Iraq Six Years Later

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“Only happy people have nightmares, from overeating. For those who live a nightmare reality, sleep is a black hole, lost in time, like death.”  Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier

Last week I woke up screaming thanks to some nightmare brought to me in high definition by PTSD. It woke Judy and both of the dogs up and well, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. Unfortunately this happens more often than I would like it to. When I was stationed away from home in North Carolina it was only Molly my faithfully dog who was disturbed by this, now I wake up Judy and our younger Papillon Minnie, or Minnie Scule as is her full name.

This afternoon I read a story of a Marine veteran who lost his battle with PTSD, taking his own life. I see a lot of these stories and each one makes me wonder what s going on and gives me pause when I think just how bad I was doing not too long ago.

It is hard for me to believe that nearly six years after I returned from Iraq that I still have a lot of trouble sleeping, though less trouble than a couple of years ago and that my nightmares associated with war still return with more regularity than I would like. Likewise it is hard for me to believe how much my life is impacted by this. I still experience a fair amount of hyper-vigilance, crowds of people are difficult and the craziness of traffic on the local freeways causes me a fair amount of distress.

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Despite that I am doing a lot better than I was even a year or so ago when I was still struggling a lot more than I am now and let’s say 4 years ago when there were times I wondered why I was still alive. Of course the time from 2008-2010 was probably the worst time of my life when it seemed that everything that I had believed in had melted away. I didn’t know if God existed, I felt abandoned by my former Church and even by many peers. The only thing that kept me going was a deep sense of call and vocation as a Priest and Chaplain, even though I was for all practical purposes an agnostic who was praying that maybe God still might exist.

Those who have been with me on this blog over the years know how central that struggle has been. I have written about it many times.

Though I am doing much better than I was I still have my times of doubt, times of fear and times of absolute panic. I do what I can to manage but once in a while something will trigger a response. The biggest problem still is sleep and vivid dreams and nightmares. Once I finish the course I am in I am going to get back into therapy a couple of times a month. Thankfully my new job after I complete the school will be more academic with a small chapel where I serve the Students of the Joint Forces Staff College.

Physically I am doing much better, in terms of overall health and physical fitness. I am playing softball again and my PT regimen is much better. Spiritually I can say that being active in having a Chapel where I celebrate Eucharist in a small setting has been good for me. Having to preach again from the lectionary readings is a good thing. Likewise getting a break from five years of hospital ministry, dealing with death, suffering and psychological issues is good. After Iraq I threw myself into the most difficult areas of hospital ministry, the critical care Intensive Care Units hoping that such work would help bring me out of my own issues. Unfortunately, it made it more difficult.

Being at home again is good. I just wish that my nightmares would not cause distress to the rest of my little family. However, it is nice when after they look at me like I am nuts one or both dogs come to me and help calm me down.

I quoted Guy Sajer, the author of the classic book The Forgotten Soldier. If anyone wants to understand something about what war does to a person and see PTSD in non-clinical terms I think it is possibly the best book to read.

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Since I have gone to war and experienced fear on a daily basis out in the hinterlands of Al Anbar Province with small groups of American Marines and Soldiers and Iraqi troops I understand a bit of what Sajer writes. My war was different, out with advisors on small Iraqi basis, traveling in dangerous areas far from any big American units, occasionally being shot at and seeing the devastation of war in that unfortunate country,  though my experience of war pales in comparison with what Sager describes.

That being said I do understand in ways that I never did before. Sajer makes a comment which I think is incredibly appropriate for those that read of war without having ever experienced it. too often is the case in the United States and Western Europe where very few ever put on a uniform and even fewer experience war. Sager wrote:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual.

One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the events in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace; only an idiot could be really disturbed by a question of salary. 

One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

This weekend I will visit the Gettysburg Battlefield as part of a staff ride. I have been there a good number of times but not since I returned from Iraq. Thus in a sense it will take on new meaning, especially when I walk those hallowed fields of battle where so many died and so many more were maimed in our own terrible Civil War.

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That being said I wonder if the solution to my nightmares is to go back to Iraq someday like so many WWII, Korea and Vietnam veterans have done to the places that they served. That has to remain in the future, but hopefully I will get the chance and maybe by then Iraq will at last be at peace.

Tonight I will attempt to sleep and hopefully what dreams I have, though they be high definition will at least not be nightmares that disturb Judy or the dogs.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD

Bringing Faith to the Faithless and Doubt to the Faithful

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I like hard questions and hard cases. My life has been quite interesting and that includes my faith journey as a Christian and human being. It is funny that in my life I have as I have grown older begun to appreciate those that do not believe and to rather distrust those who proclaim their religious faith with absolute certitude, especially when hard questions are asked.  Paul Tillich once said “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” 

I think that the quote by the late theologian is quite appropriate to me and the ministry that I find myself. I think it is a ministry pattern quite similar to Jesus in his dealings with the people during his earthly incarnate ministry. He was always hanging out with the outcasts, whether they be Jewish tax collectors collaborating with the Romans, lepers and other “unclean” types, Gentiles including the hated Roman occupiers, Samaritans and most dangerously and scandalously women. He seemed to reach out to these outcasts while often going out of his way to upset the religious establishment and the “true believers” of his day. He was actually quite successful at this, so successful that his enemies made sure that they had him killed.

I think that what has brought me to this point is a combination of things but most importantly what happened to me in and after my tour in Iraq. Before I went to Iraq I was certain of about everything that I believed and was quite good at what we theologians and pastors call “apologetics.” My old Chaplain Assistant in the Army, who now recently serves as a Chaplain and was recently selected for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel called me a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh” back in 1997 and he meant it quite affectionately.  I was so good at it that I was silenced by a former Archbishop in my former church and banned from publishing for about 7 years. The funny thing is that he, and a number of my closest friends from that denomination are either Roman Catholic priests or priests in the Anglican Ordinariate which came into communion with Rome a couple of years back. Ironically while being “too Catholic” was the reason I was forbidden to write it was because I questioned certain traditions and beliefs of the Church including that I believed that there was a role for women in the ordained ministry, that gays and lesbians could be “saved” and that not all Moslems were bad that got me thrown out in 2010.

However when I returned from Iraq in the midst of a full blown emotional, spiritual and physical collapse from PTSD that certitude disappeared. It took a while before I was able to rediscover faith and life and when I did it wasn’t the same. There was much more mystery to faith as well as reason. I came out of that period with much more empathy for those that either struggle with or reject faith. Thus I tend to hang out at bars and ball games more than church activities or socials, which I find absolutely tedious. I also have little use for clergy than in dysfunctional and broken systems that are rapidly being left behind. I am not speaking about belief here, but rather structure and methodology.

I think that if there is anything that God will judge the American versions of the Christian church is our absolute need for temporal power in the political, economic and social realms and the propagation of religious empires that only enrich the clergy which doing nothing for the least, the lost and the lonely. The fact that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States is is “none” or “no preference” is proof of that and that the vast amounts of money needed to sustain these narcissistic religious empires, the mega-churches and “Christian” television industry will be their undoing.  That along with their lack of care for anyone but themselves. Jesus said that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, not the size of their religious empire or temporal power.

The interesting thing is that today I have friends and colleagues that span the theological spectrum. Many of these men even if they do not agree with what I believe trust me to love and care for them, even when those most like them in terms of belief or doctrine, both religious and political treat them like crap. Likewise I attract a lot of people who at one time were either in ministry or preparing for it who were wounded in the process and gave up, even to the point of doubting God’s love and even existence. It is kind of a nice feeling to be there for people because they do not have to agree with me for me to be there for them.

In my darkest times my only spiritual readings were Father Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries which I began reading in Iraq to help me get through the nights in between missions in Iraq and through the nights when I returned from them.  In one of those books, the last of the series entitled “The Archbishop goes to Andalusia” the miscreant Auxiliary Bishop to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago goes to Seville Spain.  In the novel Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

That is something that I try to do now on a regular basis. Sure most of my sacramental encounters as a hospital chaplain do not occur during the liturgy, but often in the life and death moments and times of deep discouragement felt by the wounded, ill and injured. In that ministry I have found that there are many hurting people, people who like me question their faith and even long held beliefs.

On my way home from taking my little dog Molly home from a visit to the vet this afternoon I heard the old song by Nazareth called Love Hurts. The song always gets me. It is one of those “real” songs from the 1960s and 1970s that nails how life can be sometimes.

Love hurts, love scars
Love wounds and mars
In any heart not tough
Nor strong enough
To take a lot of pain
To take a lot of pain
And love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain
Love hurts

I’m young and I know
But even so, I know a thing or two
I have learned from you
I’ve really learned a lot
I’ve really learned a lot
And love is like a stove
Burns you when it’s hot
Love hurts

Some fools rave of happiness
Of blissfulness, togetherness
Some fools fool themselves, I guess
But they’re not fooling me
I know it isn’t true
I know it isn’t true
Love is just a lie
Made to make you blue
Love hurts

In 1977 a Christian singer, Erick Nelson included that song on an album called The Misfit and used it to lead into another song of his called He Gave Me Love. The album which he did as a duet with a lady named Michelle Pillar was always and still is one of my favorite albums. It was and still is one of the few works of “contemporary Christian music” to really deal with the hard questions of faith, including hurt, doubt and betrayal and the cost of following Jesus with any measure of authenticity. The song, the lyrics of which I include here are quite remarkable, because they talk about those themes.

When I was down, they wouldn’t stay
When I was hurt, they turned away
But Jesus called me and I must obey
He gave me love

You see, His friends all let Him down
And when He healed everyone around
All He got was a thorny crown
Because of love

Because of love for you
Because of life and truth
Because of love for you
Come take his love

Sometimes they laugh and are unkind
And others smile and say I’ve lost my mind
But all I know is what I find
And I find, He gave me love…

Love does hurt, and well deciding to love can bring a lot of pain, but I do think that it is worth it. Well, that is all for tonight. Until tomorrow.

Blessings and Peace

Padre Steve+

Love Hurts lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, HOUSE OF BRYANT PUBLICATIONS

HE GAVE ME LOVE Words and Music by Erick Nelson 1977 Maranatha! Music All rights reserved.

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

Clergy Burnout and Suicide: A Growing Problem

Father Mulcahy: What an ordeal. 72 hours straight. I’m prayed out – absolutely prayed out.
Hawkeye: Don’t forget, Father, God was on six days straight.
Father Mulcahy: He was a lot younger then
.

It doesn’t matter whether you feel useful or not when you’re moving from one disaster to another. The trick, I guess, is to just keep moving. Father Mulcahy, William Christopher M*A*S*H

Note: This is a modification and update to an article that I wrote last summer based on the death of the Reverend David Wilkerson and his writings of the past few months.

A while back I read an article in the New York Times ( the link is here:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?_r=1&hp&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1280746899-Fj4AG+SysGvlJ/xdTT+ZZg ) about the large number of civilian clergy experiencing burnout, discouragement, disillusionment to the point that they end up developing chronic physical illnesses, psychological or psychiatric conditions, experience marriage or family difficulties or are so beaten down that they leave the ministry entirely.   Many clergy now suffer from high rates of obesity, hypertension and depression more so than most Americans. In the last decade, the use of antidepressants by clergy has risen and their life expectancy has fallen. Job satisfaction is down and many clergy would leave the ministry if they felt that they could. The issue cuts across denominational and even religious lines and is not bound by the depth of faith or the fervency of the minister in his or her pursuit of “doing good ministry” in whatever venue they are in.  It also impacts those of all sides of the theological spectrum from fundamentalists and Pentecostals to progressives or in old time parlance “liberals” and everything in between. The pressure is incredible. I should know I have been in ministry over 20 years mostly as a Priest and Chaplain serving in the military and in hospital critical care environments.

Likewise there have been articles about ministers and pastors that commit suicide one of the more prominent about a North Carolina pastor who committed suicide in 2009 published in the USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-10-28-pastor_suicides_N.htm

Actually I am not surprised by the studies or the conclusions of the article or the situation described in the USA Today article.  This came to mind this week with the death of David Wilkerson which I suggest could have been suicide based on the struggle with faith and perceived failure shown in his recent blog posts, his and his family’s ordeal of cancer and the circumstances of the wreck in which he died. I suggested this as a possibility as well the other possibilities of inattentive driving or sudden medical impairment. https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-unexplained-and-tragic-death-of-david-wilkerson/ Of course I have been blasted by a number of people for even daring to suggest such a thing and I really hope that it was not suicide but if it was his death serves as a reminder of loneliness and even frailty of great pastors who go through long periods of darkness.  If his death was other than suicide we still have to look realistically at the incredible spiritual and emotional pain that he was in over the past few months. Of course I meant no offense to those that condemned me for suggesting this but the reactions drew me back to the unrealistic expectations that many people place on those that serve in ministry and I would hate to be their pastor.  The expectation is that we are somehow closer to God and don’t experience doubts, temptations or even depression and despair. The more popular and beloved the minster the taller the pedestal that people place them on in fashioning them as their idol.  Most don’t ask for this and resist it even though some embrace it and become spiritual train wrecks because of their narcissistic behavior.

When I was in seminary back in the late 1980s and early 1990s the school that I attended was filled with pastors either those in ministry or those recovering from nasty church splits, or being fired for often trivial reasons. These were by and large good men, I say men because the Southern Baptist Convention then and now has few women in parish ministry.  Many of the men that I knew were broken; they had come back to school as a way to see if there was some way to find a safe place of ministry.  In the last years of seminary and the year prior to entering my clinical pastoral education residency I worked for a nationwide ministry and was assigned the task of assisting clergy that came to us for help or counsel.  One of the interesting things to note was that during this time the average longevity of a Southern Baptist pastor in his church was a dismal 18 months. Later I had a friend in another Baptist denomination accept a call to a church that had been through 33 pastors in 30 years.  He thought that he would be the exception, less than 8 months later a time that he and his new wife were harassed, abused and hounded by the congregation he quit. He ended up in my denomination as he was moving in a more liturgical and sacramental way of life and is now in the process of becoming a married Roman Catholic priest.

When I left the active duty Army to go to seminary I was under the impression that most clergy were relatively satisfied with life but the men that I met in seminary and those that I dealt with later showed me that all was not well for many good men and women doing their best to serve Christ and the people of God committed to their charge.  I never will forget men saying to me that they struggled with depression, alcoholism, sexual addiction, were being divorced by their wives or considering either leaving the ministry or changing the type of ministry that they served or even their denominational home.  Nearly all reported the stress that they experienced in their ministry, the unmanageable tasks of trying to compete for numbers, and in many churches it is all about numbers, see Chuck Colson’s book “The Body” cater to the nearly insatiable “needs” of parishioners who demanded more time, and investment in programs to keep them in the church, pressures resulting from the financial costs of trying to manage building programs, special ministries and programs and an every growing desire for more excitement and “thrills” in the church program.  Add to this the unrealistic expectation of parishioners, local and denominational leaders and the constant upbraiding to be more like Reverend so and so on television or the guy that wrote the latest book on church growth, spiritual warfare or whatever as the list goes on ad infinitum. Add to this the intrusiveness brought about by cell phones, texting, the internet which place clergy in a place where they have no place to go when they need a rest because there is always one more need to satisfy many of  which cannot be satisfied. One minister of a well-known Mega-Church when confronted by Colson about not preaching on more controversial moral topics told Colson that “they pay me to get them in the door and keep them coming.”

The pastor of our age must become a teacher, preacher, counselor, evangelist, financer, program director, personnel manager, marketing executive and most of all be able to reinvent himself at a whim in order to remain relevant and in tune with the current “move of God.”  Those that don’t keep pace with whatever the latest “move of God” (read marketing ploy) is finds that they are out of a job faster than a Mob hit-man with bad aim. It is a recipe for disaster, not only for clergy and their families but for congregation when their pastors experience burn out, marital problems or divorce or those become compromised sex, alcohol or money problems and then suffer the consequences.  The congregations suffer because many parishioners lose faith in God, the church or ministers because the person that they had made their idol failed.

The pressures are immense and not just for married or single Protestant pastors but for Catholic Priests, Jewish Rabbis and even Moslem Imam’s all under some kind of unreasonable pressure.  It does not matter of it is trying to balance the competing theological factions present in their faith tradition from fundamentalists to progressives and everything in between, trying to meet unattainable goals set by congregational or denominational leaders or just to attempt to be all things to all people just to survive it is amazing that that any survive at all.  This is not the life of clergy even a generation ago, a generation that reported high job satisfaction, good health and congregations that would if possible strive to serve their pastor as much as he served them.

The world has changed and clergy are not doing well.  When a big name pastor, evangelist or leader of a church or denomination screws up perfectly the good men and women serving in ministry that don’t do those things are lumped in with those that commit various crimes or ethically challenged behavior.

In my chosen vocation within the vocation of being a priest and minister, that of a military Chaplain the pressures of service often exceed those that our civilian counterparts face. In a time where we have been at war almost 10 years with many chaplains making multiple deployments to the various combat zones the pressures are immense. The pressures on chaplains, their families as well as the men and women that they serve are unparalleled in civilian ministry, which as I describe above is no picnic, unless perchance you serve the fabulously well to do.

While I do not know statistics on Chaplains and burnout I can assure you that it is a concern of mine based on some of the men and women that I have met who have suffered spiritual crisis, depression, failed marriages, become embroiled in extramarital affairs or engaged in behaviors that were detrimental to their physical, spiritual and psychological health.  I have even known some that committed suicide.

In my service, the Navy we have battled shortages of Chaplains and the increasing demands necessitated by the war.  Likewise Chaplains in the Navy and Air Force face personnel cuts or elimination of billets due to cuts in their services personnel and more cuts are coming, at least to the billets that at one time offered chaplains the chance to recover from deployments and still serve God’s people. Most of the billet cuts are in shore commands, the places that at one time were the places that one could serve and recuperate after having done multiple operational tours.  As the force gets smaller and mission requirements increase these chaplains are deployed more often to combat zones and stress and family separation take their toll of chaplains.  Chaplains serving at bases and hospitals now serve large numbers of men and women traumatized by war and their families but have seen their own numbers shrink.  I work in a major medical center like all of the chaplains that serve in similar billets are caring for our wounded (in body, mind or spirit) warriors, their families those deploying or returning from deployment, are subject to deployment during our shore tours as Individual Augments to the operating forces all while dealing with life and death on a daily basis. In my last posting at a major Naval Medical Center it was not uncommon for me to come home from work at 5:30 PM after going to work at 6 AM the previous day, nearly 36 hours on duty in which time I was often involved in multiple crisis situations, baptizing dying babies, to people being removed from life support and care of patients their families and our staff in every imaginable setting. In my current assignment it is not uncommon to be called in as I was in the middle of the night on Wednesday to ministry to a dying patient and his family.  This is not uncommon for those of us that serve in health care ministry. What I described for me is typical of many Chaplains of all our military services serving in health care institutions.  It requires a tremendous sense of discipline to manage all of these competing demands and maintain ones physical, emotional and spiritual balance.

In fact when I came to my first Naval Medical Center assignment assignment I was suffering from PTSD from my tour in Iraq. I was in an emotional and spiritual nosedive and in trying to meet the demands of the job I did not take care of me and I fell apart physically, spiritually and emotionally.  It took a year and a half to begin to recover and I am now moving forward on all counts but I know others don’t recover. I was fortunate, my boss knew well enough to shield me and let me recover and get the help that I needed to do so. I did not come out of the experienced unscathed as my old denomination asked me to leave because I had become “too liberal.” Nonetheless it was not and is not easy to recover and I still have work that I need to do sleep is problematic and I am still in therapy and on medication and my longsuffering wife has to deal with this.  I was recently interviewed by our local paper in Jacksonville North Carolina about my struggles. http://www.jdnews.com/articles/cmdr-89433-stephen-military.html

Add to this the pressure to perform and get promoted to stay in the military chaplain ministry.  Chaplains like all officers have to get promoted to stay in the military.  The promotion rate from the Captain/Navy Lieutenant rank to Major / Lieutenant Commander has been consistently in the 50-60% range for those being looked at the first time.  This basically means that 40-50% will not be retained on active duty long enough to qualify for retirement unless they had prior active service before becoming a Chaplain. Even if they have this the stigma of not being selected is something that is incredibly hard on chaplains just as it is for other officers.  Non-selection is considered failure even for those that have great ministries and are awesome ministers. Sometimes failure to select has nothing to do with how well you care for God’s people but simply comes down to numbers. When a military service contracts as all of our Armed Services did following Vietnam, the Cold War and today as personnel numbers are cut the respective Chaplain Corps or Services take their share of the cuts and this often means that men and women worthy of promotion are not selected and are eventually let go.  I have been fortunate during the cutbacks following the Cold War I was selected for Major in the Army Reserve and though I reduced in rank in 1999 to enter the Navy was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and recently selected for Commander and I am very grateful for the opportunity of both increased responsibility as well as the chance to care for God’s people in the Navy and Marine Corps.  Not everyone gets that chance.

Being a minister is no easy way of life if you are seeking to love and serve God and God’s people. Burnout, discouragement and depression are not uncommon.  Health problems for many are increasing and at younger ages. Many no longer have safe places that they can go for counsel and care because doing so might hurt their ministry.  I have seen much of this, good men and women doing their best to serve God and God’s people broken, depressed and sometimes addicted to behaviors that ultimately are destructive to their lives, families, congregations and ministries.

It is my opinion that while those that take on military ministry sort of ask for this because we know going in that we may be deployed to combat zones or separated from family for extended periods of time when we sign up. However many on the civilian side have no idea of the pressures that they will face and the tasks that will become theirs when they begin to work at a parish.  It is a tough life and I am not surprised to see so many broken, discouraged and disillusioned ministers just trying to survive instead of thriving in the field that God called them to serve.  I am blessed. Despite the hard work, separations from my wife and family and even the PTSD that I came back from Iraq with I am doing well. I get to serve people in a community that I love and in which I was born into.  I get to do what I believed that I am called to do in a venue that I am very comfortable in serving.  No everyone is so lucky or blessed. As Lou Gehrig said “I am the luckiest man alive.”

Please pray for your ministers and support them. Give them grace to serve knowing that they will not always make the right decisions, preach the best sermons or compete with the minister with the “hot hand” and latest “word from God” down the street or on television.  Ministers are certainly not perfect, some of us are pretty earthy. Don’t impose the culture of corporate America into the local church.  The vast majority of clergy really do care about the people that they serve even when they make mistakes and screw up. Give them the grace that you wish that your boss would give to you.  Of course there are exceptions, men and women with few people skills, with their own agendas and even with their own dark-side which shows up in how they abuse God’s people. However these people are the exception.  Don’t let the foibles or crimes of such people lead you to turn you back on good men and women that make mistakes common with the rest of humanity.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, healthcare, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion

The Long Good Friday

Lent is over and today is Good Friday and I have the duty at the Medical Center that I work at.  Yesterday I celebrated a Maundy Thursday Liturgy here, and today we had our Good Friday service.  Since I am a Priest, but in a more Anglo-Catholic type church, I get to do the “Protestant” services.  Both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were very meaningful to me this year.  It is the first time in a long time that I have had chapel responsibilities during Holy Week and good for me to be able to share in those sacramental acts. I make sure that like Bishop Blackie Ryan, that I look at the person receiving the sacrament and give them a smile.  It may be one of the few good things that happens to them during the day or week.

In my previous posts about surviving Lent I noted how that I was going to try to be happy.  I altered a few things to do this and found that instead of being an ordeal like past years that this Lent was not too bad.  In fact with the exception of stuff that was PTSD related this was a pretty good Lent.  I actually think that I had some spiritual growth.  Kind of way cool that the Deity Herself would give that grace to me this year.

Getting back to today, Good Friday.  For some people Good Friday is simply another day, even for those that observe it.  It comes and goes, just a speed bump on the way to Easter so we can all get happy.  But those for those who live in my world, that of the Intensive Care Unit and Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Good Friday is a year round event.

How is that so?  Well since you asked, let me tell you.  Here we live in the constant shadow of life and death.  We have flesh and blood people who suffer.  People who find out suddenly that they have an illness that will kill them. They are people who face their own mortality in what often is a long and painful ordeal.  Sometimes they face this alone and even if they have friends and family present may still feel very much alone.  In fact, they may even feel God Forsaken.  The cry of Jesus uttered from the Cross can be their own.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”   For some this is an incredible burden, the pain which is not simple physical, but spiritual and emotional as well.   Here at our medical center, and thousands of others, we live at the intersection of life, death and eternal life.

Today has been a busy day already, multiple calls and visits with people going through various ordeals, both patients and staff. We have a number of people on our wards who may be with Jesus by Easter Sunday. Many I have gotten to know over multiple stays here.

There are those also who spend this Good Friday like Jesus’ mother, and the others gathered with her at the foot of the Cross. These are the families and friends who can do nothing more than watch and pray, comforting their loved one and each other.  There are those who patiently and lovingly care for people, the doctors, nurses, Corpsmen and technicians all hours of the day.  There are some who think that medical professionals have an easy life.  Some may, but those that I know do not.  They are in a combat zone without the bullets knowing that every day that they come in to work that there is a good possibility of dealing with death, and certainly with the pain and suffering of those who feel forsaken.

Among the crisis there was the homecoming of a number of our Corpsmen returning from Iraq. There are babies being born and people getting well.

At the same time there is joy.  There are those rays of hope where somehow beyond all expectation someone recovers. There are the patients who despite their suffering constantly look out for other patients and the staff.  They have overcome by reaching out to care for others, and they radiate joy.    There is also joy in seeing someone have a “good Christian death.”  You know, the kind like the movies, where the dying person knows it is there time, gathers the family and friends around and gives them his or her blessing, shares stories, laughter and tears at the same time and when everyone is done, the Priest says a prayer, maybe the person is anointed, the Our Father is said and the person passes to the next world.

Today in the Good Friday Liturgy I had a short homily.  And it focused on this understanding that God is with us.  That God who entered time and space in the Incarnation is with us in life and in death.  Good Friday is they way that God puts flesh to the words of the  23rd Psalm, “even though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.”  Jesus enduring this death, is not a God who is distant or uncaring.  He knows what it is to not only feel, but to be God Forsaken.  The Cross is that portal by which we know God, the portal by which we come to know the mystery of the Trinity, the place where a simple Roman Officer, a Centurion gets what almost no one else gets. “Surely, this is the Son of God.”

Here at the hospital I will walk the halls, and spend my time in my ICUs, watching and waiting throughout the night.  For many here, this Good Friday will not end tonight, but Easter will come.

Well I have eaten my pea soup and bread, taken my short break and time to get back out on the floor. Pray for all who labor tonight in hospitals, those who care for the sick and dying, those who deliver babies, those who maintain vigils in ICUs and await crisis in Emergency Rooms.

On Monday I’ll be doing the memorial service for a young 4th year medical student who was killed in a motorbike accident this week.  He was just weeks from graduating and entering our Surgical internship program.  He was a good officer and promising physician.  Pray for me a sinner.

Peace, Steve+

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