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A Few Thoughts about Life on My 59th Birthday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was my 59th Birthday and I plan on sharing a few bits of wisdom among the events of the day. The great Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.”

I think that is a good birthday thought. I came across it last nigh before bed and I think that it describes the way that I want to live my life.

My day began with a visit to my doctor to see what is going on with my left hip. On Sunday night when in a deep sleep and not having any of my violent dreams my left hip exploded in pain. I had been previously diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees, but I had never been bothered by pain in the left hip. Yesterday I had an appointment scheduled with a doctor different than my primary care manager who called in sick, so I saw my own PCM today, got new x-rays to compare to the last ones, and some medications. They said it would take a couple of days for radiology to read the reports so I won’t know what is going on for a few days. I wonder if the osteoarthritis has gotten worse. It hurts like hell trying to get up and down and walking, stairs are a bitch, even laying down hurts. At least the pharmacy wasn’t crowded and not too stressful. For that I am thankful because usually that pharmacy is so crowed, cramped and slow that I leave with a severe anxiety attack, and yes this particular reaction goes back to a particular incident in Iraq.

Even with that today has been a good day. After the medical appointment I went out with Judy to breakfast, and then did a little shopping with her. Then we went home and hung out with out Papillon babies. I got a call from my mom and brother, those were both nice, and today, in spite of all the turmoil in the country and around the world my soul is at peace. Since being told by my Commanding Officer and Regional Chaplain to take care of all my medical issues and prepare for retirement my blood pressure has gone back down to my normal, 114/68, instead of spiking to 160/100 as was the case just a few weeks ago.

I have received hundreds of well wishes and greetings for my birthday on Facebook, and so far I have made a personal response to each one, though I know that I have more to answer. I’ve had them from the United States and Canada, the U.K., The Netherlands and Germany, Australia and South Korea. I have known some of the people for 50 years or more. Honestly, I think that is the only reason that I stay on Facebook. Every one of them means something to me that is special, and some of us cannot agree on anything anymore in the current political environment but I cannot help but to remember each one with love and appreciation. You see, I don’t have to agree with someone’s politics, ideology, or religious beliefs to still love and appreciate them. At times I haven’t done well in this, but honestly it is my baseline. Some of the most meaningful exchanges today were with friends who we have had it out and disagreed in a most uncourteous manner to each other. That is when you know you have a friend.

I guess that the late Bob Marley was right“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” Likewise when it comes to friendship I cannot help but to remember the quote of General William Tecumseh Sherman about Ulysses Grant. “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” That’s my kind of friend.

Later in the evening we went out and did our usual things. Since Judy will be getting her left knee replaced on April 12th she went to her group of friends to work on her ceramic projects and she dropped me off at Gordon Biersch, where I continued to answer all the well wishes from friends, had some dinner, talked Baseball with the early crowed, soccer with a couple of young guys later, and then spent some time with an active duty service member from a local base who I have started getting to know over the past couple of weeks. He was in Iraq before me and was there during some of the worst of the action. He saw a lot worse than I did and both of us struggle with PTSD and sleep issues. Judy came and got me and we hung out until closing, talking with friends and each other.

It was a good day. We’ll find a time to actually celebrate my birthday in the next week or too, no rush.

But when you start pushing 60 years old memories of the past, worries about the future and visions of mortality begin to intrude on life, that is why I think that what I quoted from Marcus Aurelius is so spot on. The same is true of the German Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann who observed:

“As time goes on we become old, the future contracts, the past expands…But by future we don’t just mean the years ahead; we always mean as well the plenitude of possibilities which challenge our creativity…In confrontation with the future we can become young if we accept the future’s challenges.”

We went to bed late, spent some good time with our three Papillons and then passed out. We spent most of the morning getting our cars serviced and the afternoon with her doing some artwork as I perused the news. We continue to work hard to prepare for her surgery and dealing with what the sports medicine doctor will recommend next week for my right knee. I am doing my best to keep up the physical therapy to at the minimum strengthen myself.

I found out this afternoon that one of my high school friends passed away last week. I just noticed the obituary. He was a good man, a father, pastor, and football coach. I had the opportunity to serve with one of his nephews on the USS HUE CITY. He made a difference in a lot of lives.

It kind of put a damper on the day but then I remembered a quote from the film Star Trek Generations, in which Captain Picard tells Commander Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

Today is a new day and the future still awaits, By this time next year, Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise, I will be retired from the Navy and hopefully teaching college history, and humanities in the civilian world, hopefully I’ll be sporting the beard I practiced growing on our last Germany trip.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“Remember Thou Art Mortal”the Death Of a Friend and a Cold Look at My Own Mortality

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I had retired Navy friend die over the weekend. He was a Chief Warrant Officer with about 30 years of service when he retired not long before their marriage. None of us knew it then but he probably had the stage four Brain Cancer that was diagnosed not long after their marriage. He stayed active and when he retired he was still in peak physical shape. He did a lot of sea time, mainly on cruisers and destroyers, and deployed with Naval Special Warfare Teams to various combat zones.

He was younger than me and in May of 2017 I had the honor of performing the marriage of Dan and his wife in the presence of their children at their home. He passed away Saturday and I found out last night. I didn’t sleep well, it is hard to believe that Dan Trevino is dead.

His death reminded me of my mortality, that and an extensive pre-retirement physical form on which I have to list everything that is wrong with me now or I have ever been treated for over the course of my career. I have to explain any yes answers and since there is not enough room on the form I am having to type it out on Microsoft Word and attach it. I think that I am about seventy to seventy-five percent complete, but I found today will waiting in the hospital pharmacy that I do need my foot high 2000 or so page medical record. I also have to dig up my old Army Medical records, and am waiting for more from the Navy and a civilian doctor that the Navy sent me out to in Camp LeJeune. There is nothing like having a friend that you admired who was younger and in better shape die and going through all of these forms, and I haven’t yet started with the Veterans Administration, but once I am done with this, that is my next priority.

I spent most of today at the Naval Medical Center. I had a follow up appointment from my left knee, which I had arthroscopic surgery on about six weeks ago. It is progressing, it still hurts some and though much stronger than it was, it still occasionally catches, but it is doing better than the right knee which I will have my follow up for after failed Platelet Rich Plasma treatments and injections of a gel into the knee, which I have completed but don’t seem to be working. I also had to see the dermatologist who treated me for a pre-cancerous condition on my face. That is gone, but in it’s place I now have some kind of bacterial infection that has caused a rash on my face and will require three months of creams and antibiotics to treat, as well as a telephone consult with my sleep doctor. This is a pain but it beats the heck out of being dead.

So back to work tomorrow, more physical therapy, and more medical appointments on the docket, and more digging through the records to complete this part of my medical requirements. All this even as I start the job search for after the Navy.

But also in thinking about this I am deciding to make this time an opportunity for growth. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.”

I am going to use my days open up the windows of my soul to the sun, and in the process hopefully grow wiser and more loving. As the great Roman soldier-philosopher said:

“Life is short. Do not forget about the most important things in our life, living for other people and doing good for them.”

We should do well to remember our fallen friends like Dan and while remembering our mortality, also remember that no matter what our infirmities, and how long our past, we still have a future. As a Christian, in spite of my many doubts I believe this. The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“As time goes on we become old, the future contracts, the past expands…But by future we don’t just mean the years ahead; we always mean as well the plenitude of possibilities which challenge our creativity…In confrontation with the future we can become young if we accept the future’s challenges.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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”For Hate is Strong and Mocks the Song Of Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men” Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Christmas 2018


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I could be writing about the travails being inflicted on the country and the world by President Donald Trump, but I do enough of that. Christmas is coming and even when I don’t explicitly write about Teump, the message of the season stands against him and against all that he stands.

Looking at the news of the week; the resignation on principle by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria to the Turks, Russia, as ISIS, the crashing stock markets, and the completely preventable partial government shutdown brought about President Trump and his most fanatical followers, it is easy to despair. Frankly, there are many times that I do, and Inhave to remember how people before us went through great trials and tribulations.

The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned these words of hope on Christmas Day, 1863:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Christmas is coming and I feel that Longfellow’s words are as pertinent today as when he first penned them. The thought of what is to come in the next few years, in the United States and in many other liberal democracies bodes ill for our future as authoritarian and often xenophobic leaders rise to power. The world that we grew up is is passing away, and what comes in its place, a dystopian world where hope will be a rare commodity beckons.

Longfellow’s words became the heart of the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me.

The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. It began as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son Charles, a Lieutenant in the Union Army at the Battle of New Hope Church, and the death of his wife in a fire two years before. Longfellow had much to despair about, but he maintained a faith in God, as well as the founding principles of the United States.

His words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds rip human beings apart coupled with the tragic inability of Christendom, especially American Conservative Evangelicalism to even come close to the message of Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today, in fact it seems to be the most real as we deal with war, hatred, terrorism, killing in the name of God, and political fratricide.

And in despair I bowed my head

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

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The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The song has been recorded many times by many artists. I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.

 

 

As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers, led by the American President rage as we go into another, and even more perilous year with the possibility of nuclear war more probably than not, people still look for hope.

Longfellow, who lost so much in a short time in the midst of a terrible Civil War, reminds us that in such times, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

In a time like this when the world led by the American President seems to be hurtling into the abyss, it is important to remember Longfellow’s words and the message of Christ and the Incarnation. The child born as an outcast in a manger would die as a criminal, crucified by an occupying power with the full support of the leaders of the occupied country. As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“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.” 

Yes, the wrong shall fail, and the right prevail, but it in the age of Trump it will certainly involve much travail. As for the travail, it is just beginning.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Justice and Life as an Exercise in Exceptions: Faith in the Age of Trump

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The English Mathematician and founder of Process Philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” 

I find much truth in Whitehead’s words. Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed.

Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, as a Christian, I have faith in a God I cannot see or prove. I have faith in a God who Scripture and Tradition clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed based on the trumped up charges of corrupt and fearful religious leaders aided by fearful politicians. For me this is part of being a theologian of the Cross in a post-Auschwitz world.

Jürgen Moltmann, a German theologian who wrote the book The Crucified God answered a question about believing in God after Auschwitz:

“A shattering expression of the theologia crucis which is suggested in the rabbinic theology of God’s humiliation of himself is to be found in Night, a book written by E. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz:

The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment for a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…’

Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn men to indifference.

(Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, p 273-274)

In answer to the question “How can we believe in God after Auschwitz he responded:

“In whom can we believe after Auschwitz if not God?

Likewise, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim noted:

If we abandoned our faith in God after Auschwitz, we would give Hitler a posthumous victory.

And as long as we know that the ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’ and the ‘Our Father’ prayers were prayed in Auschwitz, we must not give up our faith in God.”

Thus, while I believe, I have a problem with Christians or members of other religions try to use the police power of state to enforce their beliefs on others. In this belief I am much like the great Virginia Baptist leader, John Leland who was a driving force behind the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights who wrote:

“Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.”

When it comes to God, I believe, but my doubts are all too real. Frankly I cringe when I hear religious people speaking with absolute certitude about things that they ultimately cannot prove, and that includes the concept of justice, which cannot always be measured in absolutes.

Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

“I don’t know how to communicate this, or even if it is possible. But the question of justice has concerned me greatly of late. And I say to any creature who may be listening, there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”

I have found and learned to accept that life as we know it “is an exercise in exceptions.”  We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with people who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that wish to impose on others.

True believers frequently wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith. They espouse doctrines that are unprovable and then build complex doctrinal systems to prove them, systems that then which must be defended, sometimes to the death. 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.”

Henri Nouwen, the Priest who wrote the classic book on pastoral care, The Wounded Healer, and many other works 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.” 

No one can be competent in God, I certainly am not. I am sure that even well meaning people who claim to be are hopelessly deluded, and those that those that use their alleged competence in God to prop up evil are far worse, they are evil men masquerading as good.

Those men and women that speak of absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” The Bible is not a rule book, but a story of imperfect people trying to understand and live an experience with a being that they, like us, can only imagine and often misunderstand.

Sadly too many people, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, and others apply their own misconceptions and prejudices to their scriptures and use them as a weapon of temporal and divine judgement on all who they oppose. However, as history, life and even our scriptures testify, that none of us can absolutely claim to know the absolutes of God. As Captain Picard noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” 

It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided. If instead of reason we appeal to emotion, hatred, prejudice or vengeance and clothe them in the language of righteousness, what we call justice can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct, no matter what our motivation.

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith or ideology to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. It is happening again.

When such people gain power, especially when the do so supporting a leader who is they tend to expand that power into the realm of theocratic absolutism and despotism. As Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead: 

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”

It is happening, all around the world, and it could easily happen here. Our founders realized how easily it could happen, they warned about it; but they are dead, and neither Trump or his followers give a damn about them or the Constitution that they crafted. In fact, his followers are for more dangerous thanTrump, because they will outlast him by a generation, or more, always waiting for the chance to grab power by any means possible.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

Padre Steve+

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Reflections on Holy Week 2018

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who follow this blog and people who know me know how much I have struggled with faith since returning from Iraq ten years ago, especially during Holy Week. Truthfully it has been one of the most difficult times of the Church year for me, but over the past year I have rediscovered faith, yes I still doubt but I believe a lot more than I have for quite a long time.

Holy Week is over but the Easter Season has just begun. Likewise it will be about another week before I get some real time off after pretty much working every day for the past two weeks. That being said though tired and a bit emotionally worn down from it especially with the sudden death of our Army Deputy Base Commander on Monday night which led to a very full day on Tuesday which also was my 58th birthday, a funeral on Wednesday for one of our long time Catholic parishioners who like my father was a retired Chief Petty Officer who died of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, our Ecumenical Good Friday service, various medical appointments, and Chaplain duty supervisor tasks culminating in our oceanfront Easter Sunrise Service at the First Landing monument at Fort Story and ministry afterwards.

Tomorrow will be full getting ready for the memorial service for our Deputy Commander which takes place Tuesday. Wednesday is filled with meetings, Thursday I begin working with children of our German NATO contingent to get them ready for their confirmation in May. I’ll conclude the week with medical appointments for my Sleep Apnea and checking to see how my C-Pap machine is doing.

But all of that being said I emerged from Holy Week doing a lot better than I thought. For the first time in years sensing a certain amount of joy in my faith, a reaffirmation of my priestly vocation; and this despite all injustices I see and threats of war, especially in the threat that I feel that the President poses to the country and the world. Despite the sadness of my Deputy Commander and friend’s death I was comforted by the Orthodox Prayers that I had the opportunity to pray over his body in one last time with him. Part of those prayers from the Trisagion service was a reminder of the promise of Easter in between the reading of the Passion Gospels on Palm Sunday and Good Friday:

“O God of spirits and of all flesh, You trampled upon death and abolished the power of the devil, giving life to Your world. Give rest to the soul of Your departed servant in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away…”

As I studied for my Good Friday and Easter Sunrise services I was drawn back to the writings of the German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann and the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth.

One of thing Moltmann wrote really struck me in regard to Good Friday. I finished that sermon quoting and then discussing it for a few minutes:

“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.”

Two quotes, one from Moltmann and the other by Barth really stayed with me for the Sunrise service. Moltmann wrote: “In the cross of Christ God is taking man dead-seriously so that he may open up for him the happy freedom of Easter. God takes upon himself the pain of negation and the God forsakenness of judgement to reconcile himself with his enemies and to give the godless fellowship with himself,” as did these words of Barth:

“What happened on that day (of Easter) became, was and remained the centre around which everything else moves. For everything lasts its time, but the love of God – which was at work and was expressed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – lasts forever. Because this event took place, there is no reason to despair, and even when we read the newspaper with all its confusing and frightening news, there is every reason to hope.”

For the first time in years I could truly exclaim the Easter Alleluia, that Christ is Risen.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Soldiers, Politics, and Empty Tombs: The Strange Experience of Longinus the Centurion

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who follow my writings know that I struggle with faith. Since my return from Iraq in 2008 I have found a certain kinship with soldiers who have been assigned the unthankful and trying tasks of dealing with occupation duties or fighting insurgencies. 

In the case of the story of Easter it is all too common that writers, theologians and others focus on the story of Jesus and his disciples, or conversely, if they explore anyone else, they focus on the Jewish religious leaders of the time. 

After Iraq I had a harder time relating to Jesus and his followers, or the religious leaders of Jerusalem. That being said, coming home from Iraq, struggling to believe, I find a tremendous affinity with the officers of the Roman Legions serving in Judea and Samaria in the 1st Century A.D. 

This is the final chapter of a series that I wrote several years ago about the Roman Centurion known as Longinus, who according to tradition, was at the cross when Jesus was crucified. I have tried to weave other characters from the Gospel narratives, including the Centurion whose “beloved servant” was healed by Jesus an account mentioned in both Matthew and Luke, where the Greek word for servant “Pais” is only found in these accounts and is different from the word commonly used in the New Testament “Doulos.” The difference leads to some interesting and potentially powerful understandings about the people that Jesus interacted during his earthly ministry.

The reason I am doing this is because I believe that many Christians cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be the Roman occupiers of Judea in a time where they were hated and deep divisions, religious, cultural and political complicated the lives of Roman officers like the Centurion known as Longinus.

I do hope that you enjoyed the series and that it and the Gospel narratives challenged you whether you are a Christian or not. I know from my time in Iraq serving with our advisors to the Iraqi forces that what the Roman officers dealt with was more difficult than any of us could imagine, unless you have been a soldier or officer of an occupying power, which I have been.

By the way, at the point this article posts I will be preaching at the Easter Sunrise Service at my base proclaiming the triumph of life over death and the universal love of God for all people. As the German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Believing in the resurrection does not just mean assenting to a dogma and noting a historical fact. It means participating in this creative act of God’s … Resurrection is not a consoling opium, soothing us with the promise of a better world in the hereafter. It is the energy for a rebirth of this life. The hope doesn’t point to another world. It is focused on the redemption of this one.”

Peace and Happy Easter…

Padre Steve+

The pounding on his door awakened Longinus before he expected on this day after the Jewish Passover. He was hoping perhaps beyond hope that the worst was over and that in a few days he could take his soldiers back to the confines of Caesarea and away from the troubled city of Jerusalem. He was tired of this duty and longed for service with a real Legion with real Roman soldiers.

The pounding continued and the weary centurion wiped the sleep from his eyes, rolled out of his bed and went to the door of his quarters in Fortress Antonia. He opened the door to find his Optimo, or second in command Decius standing there, his fist ready to continue pounding, with a look of near panic on his face.

Startled, Longinus asked the young officer to come into his quarters and take a seat at his table. They like the other officers had seen events that they could barely explain over the past week, and some of those events had troubled Longinus in a manner in which he was not accustomed to, or prepared for.

Longinus took a wineskin and poured the contents into two cups. He asked Decius what was so urgent and frightening that he had to be at his quarters well before the duty day began. The young man took off his helmet to reveal a crop of blondish brown hair common to the Tyrol in the northern part of Italy.

The young officer took the cup of wine and downed it in one motion. Longinus, pureed and another as the young Tyrolean told an almost unbelievable story. Wiping his brow and taking a drink from the cup he explained that there was trouble at the tomb of the itinerant preacher named Jesus.

Longinus listened to his report:

The two guards from Longinus’s unit who had relieved the previous watch at the tomb had evidently fallen asleep. While they were asleep there had been a break in. The soldiers claimed that they had been overcome when some kind of “angelic being” descended in front of them. They reported that some of the women who had been at the execution site previously had been near the tomb. They said that when they awakened the body of this Jesus was no longer in the tomb.

The story seemed preposterous, but Longinus could not believe that his soldiers had fallen asleep on duty, as such an act could be punished by a death sentence. Adding to the confusion was a report that two of the preacher’s “disciples” had reportedly entered the tomb and claimed that the body was gone as had some of the women that had been there at the crucifixion.

Longinus took a drink from his cup of wine and thought for a moment. He had to admit that the story was unbelievable, but yet in light of the strangeness of the man and the events surrounding his execution Longinus, was no longer surprised at anything. Longinus looked at his young executive officer and said:

“Optimo, there has to be a logical explanation for what happened, and we need to find the truth. I do not like to think that our soldiers were asleep on duty, and I don’t think that the High Priest would not attempt to use this against us. Please have the soldiers and the Sergeant of the Guard report to me.”

Longinus had Decius bring the two soldiers to him along with the Sergeant of the Guard to explain what had happened.

The two soldiers, one a Samaritan and the other a Greek had good reputations in the unit. Neither had given him cause for concern and the terrified expression on their faces as they explained what happened at the tomb gave Longinus reason to believe them. Yes, it was possible that they were lying but Longinus believed their story because in spite of his threats they stuck to it. He threatened them with death if they had fallen asleep and were lying. When that did not produce results he promised a light punishment if they only told the truth, but despite his efforts to get them to testify to something rational they stuck with this outrageous story.

Longinus was not much of a believer in miracles angels or any sort of magic hocus-pocus purveyed by seers, magicians or fortunetellers. He did not believe in the state “gods” of Rome and likewise had little respect for the Jewish God, not so much because he understood the theology of the Jews, or even might believe in some sort of all-powerful being, but because he was disgusted by their use of their god for their political purposes.

All that being said, Longinus was inclined to believe his solders. When his friend Flavius had told him about his servant being healed by the Jesus fellow he found it hard to accept. That being the case here he was now beginning to believe this outlandish story. It was preposterous, but he could not accept the alternative. To disbelieve his men would mean that there was a serious breakdown of discipline by two outstanding soldiers. Longinus had some soldiers that he wouldn’t believe for an Athenian minute if they told him such a tale, but he believed these men. The terror on their face as they told the story led Longinus to believe that they had to be telling the truth as improbable as it was.

Longinus again thought of his words as the darkness enfolded the city and the earth quaked preacher hung dying on the cross on that evil hill just two days before. He dismissed the soldiers and as they left he prepared himself to tell the scheming governor they latest “good news.” If only Rome had let these people stew in their own mess. Longinus shook his head as he wondered about the wisdom of attempting to police such fouled up lands.

After he washed and put on his uniform, Longinus went to Pilate’s headquarters where he and the other Centurions, including his friend Flavius participated in a meeting with Pilate and his staff, the Jewish High Priest and his representatives and two of Herod’s people.

The meeting reminded Longinus  of a meeting of criminals. The High Priest and his representatives were livid at the report he delivered and demanded that Pilate take immediate action to solve their problem. Herod’s henchmen voiced their displeasure regarding the lapse of the Roman soldiers that allowed this to happen.

Longinus spoke up for his men and said that as improbable as the story was, that he believed his men. That only made the non-Romans angrier and they began not only calling for punishing the soldiers, but Longinus as well. Longinus thought that they were engaging Pilate in yet another histrionic episode in order to force Pilate to do their bidding, if not today, in the future.

The High Priest and Herod’s men insisted that Longinus’ soldiers had to have fallen asleep and or that they had conspired with the preacher’s followers to remove the body from the tomb. This angered Longinus to the point that he interrupted their ranting to defend his men’s honor. Pilate finally ordered Longinus and the High Priest to be silent. He asked the non-Romans to step outside while he conferred with Longinus and the other Centurions. The High Priest objected, but decided not to press the point and left the room.

Pilate explained his dilemma. He was afraid that if he sent the High Priest away by supporting his soldiers that there would be a revolt in the streets. He had seen the tumult on the streets by the supporters of the High Priest when he tried to release the “King of the Jews” and felt that this would be worse for security. He advised the Centurions that while he had no reason to doubt them or their men that he had to placate the High Priest and Herod in order to avoid chaos, chaos that could lose him his job if he wasn’t careful. Likewise he did not feel that he had the military manpower in the city to handle a full-fledged revolt and that he would have to call for reinforcements from the Legions based in Syria. Pilate was loath to do as this as it would get back to the Emperor, and the Emperor did not take kindly to governors who could not manage their provinces.

Longinus thought back to the day of the execution. Pilate had agreed to place a guard at the tomb at the urging of the High Council. Longinus had argued against placing any soldiers at the tomb as he felt that since the “King of the Jews” was the problem of the Jews and since man that he had called the so called  “son of God” was dead that Rome’s obligation was over. Let the Jews handle their own problems.

The whole thing reeked of politics and Longinus did not like it, but on Friday Pilate had overruled him. Then Pilate explained that Roman soldiers needed to guard the tomb because the High Priest insisted that Jesus’ followers would attempt to steal the body and then claim that he this Jesus had been raised from the dead. That insisted the High Priest would lead a revolt against the Jewish council and eventually Rome itself.

Another actor who added to the Judean witches’ cauldron was the Herod Antipas, the corpulent and corrupt “King” of Judea. If Longinus detested Pilate and the Jewish High Priest he hated Herod and all that he stood for even more. The presence of Herod made Longinus wonder why Roman lives and treasure were spent to solve the problems of this God-forsaken land; a land that Longinus believed would still be trouble two millennia from now if the world lasted that long.

Longinus believed that as long as Rome allowed the High Council and Herod to rule the region by proxy that the troubles would never end. He believed that it was only a matter of time before these people, mobilized by the passion of the Zealots would revolt as they had against the Seleucids nearly 200 years before. He knew if that happened that Rome would mobilize more the  enough legions to crush the revolt, and when they were done would not leave as much as a house standing. Longinus hated this occupation and all that it stood for, especially when he saw a good and innocent man like this Jesus fellow killed for no good reason other than the politics of it all. It sickened him.

When Pilate was done explaining his decision to Longinus and the other Centurions Pilate called the quite irate non-Romans back into the proceedings. He told the High Priest and Herod’s men that he would discipline the soldiers involved. He also explained that he would assist them in finding just what parties removed the body from the tomb. In the mean time he would suppress any stories coming from the soldiers about this supposed “resurrection” of this Jesus character from the dead.

The High Priest and Herod’s men agreed that this would suffice and thanked Pilate for his time and effort. Longinus and the other Centurions quietly seethed as this took place. When the non-Roman parties had left Pilate, knowing how his officers hated his decision called them to him. He told the officers that no action would be taken against the men and that he would not actively assist the Jews in trying to find the perpetrators of the event. He had in fact deceived the High Priest and Herod’s men.

Pilate then let the officers know that they and their units would remain in Jerusalem for another week to allow the multitude of pilgrims to leave the city. Once the Jewish festivities were over and the people had departed, they would return to Caesarea. Longinus thought about it and for a brief moment he admired Pilate’s duplicity. Pilate the consummate politician had again found a way to defuse the situation, deceive the local leaders and protect his soldiers, and as much as Longinus and the other Centurions despised the deal it was better than trying to deal with a full fledged rebellion with so few troops available in Jerusalem.

Longinus left with the others and met Decius and Flavius when he stepped into the court of the fortress. He was very unhappy with the deal that Pilate made with the High Priest and Herod even though he understood the reality of the politics behind it. Longinus felt that he had dishonored his soldiers and the unit for the sake of political expediency. He felt ashamed of the Empire for what Pilate had done in cooperating with these people from beginning to end during this affair. He would not forget.

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When Longinus returned to his quarters he again looked at his blood stained lance and thought about the man who was put to such an ignominious death for such putrid reasons. Surely something had to be different about him and there had to be some purpose to this injustice. Longinus again mused quietly, “truly this was the Son of God…”

Whatever that meant…

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Merry Christmas from a Wounded Healer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We had a special Christmas this year with friends who can be best described as a relatively eclectic group. We hosted dinner as is our custom and it really turned out well, and I do have to say that emotionally and spiritually I am in in a better place than was not too long ago.

So today, especially for my new readers I want to recount a bit of that journey.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.”  Since coming home from Iraq in 2008 my faith has undergone a profound change. This is a part of my story that I share with you.

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That war changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.” Sadly Captain Sitsch, struggling with his own PTSD and other life crises took his life in 2014, but I think that he understood me better than most Chaplains or clergy.

That the crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.” For those not familiar with that book it is the sense that God has withdrawn his presence from you which you must go through to experience true union with God.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, for they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.  When I watch the classic film about the 1914 Christmas Truce, Joyeaux Noel I very much understand the priest who is being relieved of his duties by his bishop who he tells “I belong here, with those in pain who have lost their faith.” 

In the fall of 2008 was losing my battle with PTSD during that time I was clinically  depressed, terribly anxious, angry, and in despair I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass because I could not get through it. If a bar had been open anywhere within walking distance I would have poured myself into it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care, my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 70-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support. Likewise I was largely absent from home which was not a good thing for my marriage.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas of 2009 I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain. It was as if his faith

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: 

https://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. That being said over past couple of weeks or so my crazy nightmares and night terrors have come back with a vengeance, last night I threw myself out of bed in the midst of a particularly violent nightmare but it hasn’t soured my mood, my hip still hurts a bit but like unlike the last couple of times I neither broke my nose, sustained a concussion, nor bruised by jaw and sprained my neck.; that my friends is an improvement.

I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt, especially the men and women that call themselves Conservative Evangelical Christians who seem to me to have sacrificed any pretense of faith in Christ in the pursuit of raw political power by supporting a man who is as much of a Christian as the Medici Popes. So I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

So today this wounded healer celebrated Christmas at home, hosting friends after having preached at Christmas services for American and German military communities. It was a healing experience for me and helped to increase my faith. I know: faith versus reason. I get that, but as reasonable and logical as I try to be I do find the mystery of faith to be something that attracts me to Jesus the Christ.

So this evening, this Christmas night, I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on my posts.

You are appreciated as some are lengthy and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. Likewise there are times that my own biases show through in what I write, and I know that a decent number of people who subscribe to this site and comment don’t always agree with me. I appreciate that and thank you for continuing to follow what I write.

Likewise, if you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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