Tag Archives: loss of faith

“When You Are Lost, You are Not Alone” Doubt and Faith in Lent

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was a convoluted day. It was Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Baseball’s Spring Training. It was also a tremendously busy day at work that included multiple meetings, conducting the Ecumenical Ash Wednesday liturgy, the usual program, administrative, personnel, and facility management issues. Likewise because it was Valentine’s Day I didn’t want to screw it up. Since I usually find a way to screw up birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day and other assorted holidays involving marriage it was a bit stressful. Thankfully I did pretty well regarding Valentine’s Day, I started by trying to suck up in the days before Valentine’s Day doing little things to build up some extra points in case I screwed up on the actual day, and for once I didn’t totally screw the pooch, in fact I did rather well, but I digress…

Of course if I had wanted to be an ass I could have celebrated Ashentine’s Day, that is the rare day when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day enabling asshat spouses, fiancee’s, or partners to tell their beloved that they can’t take them out for a fancy dinner because of the fasting rules prescribed by the Church on Ash Wednesday. This confluence doesn’t happen often, the last time it did was seventy-tree or seventy-four years ago, so cheapskates and other turds don’t get the opportunity to do this often, and the fact that I even thought of it means that while I may be a complete turd at times that I would never tell Judy: “Sorry, I can’t take you out or give you anything for Valentine’s Day because it’s Ash Wednesday and I don’t want to lead you to hell.” I value my life too much. That being said I can imagine that there are some people who will do exactly that, not because they really are trying to observe the true meaning of Lent, but because they are cheap asshats who look for ways out of doing something nice for their partner using the cover of religion to do it. But again I digress as I so often do…

The truth is that a decade after returning from Iraq I still struggle with faith and belief, and doubt is always a part of my life and Lent has never really been a good time for me. In the early years of this blog I masked my struggle with humor about trying to make getting through Lent focusing more on the outward displays of faith and the actions of prayer, abstinence, and fasting than really wrestling with why the penitential aspects of Lent are important; far from being onerous they help us remember our shared humanity; especially with the least, the lost, and the lonely.

That being said I do still have faith, more than I have had for quite a few years and when it came time to schedule an Ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at my Chapel to compliment our Roman Catholic Mass which was scheduled for the evening I decided to lead it. I am glad that I did.

Since I was not serving at this chapel last year I had no idea how many people might show up or what the composition would be. Since I’m in an odd situation being an Old Catholic Priest, in a sense occupying a line between Roman Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism I never know exactly what to expect in such a situation. Thankfully I have been able to build bridges with our Catholic and Protestant communities in the ten months that I have served here and I had members of both congregations at the service. Again not knowing what to expect I used the liturgy from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, with a couple of more Anglo-Catholic modifications in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which I used in my previous denomination because it kind of splits the difference between Protestants and Catholics.

I do love celebrating the Eucharist and conducting the liturgy and it’s funny that after almost 22 years since I was ordained as a Priest I am beginning to acquire a taste for Ash Wednesday and Lent. This is especially true when I read the Biblical passages from the Lectionary associated with them, especially those of Ash Wednesday which include Isaiah 58: 1-12; Second Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, and 16-21. When I read them, especially the passage from Isaiah I am continually amazed at how they speak to the state of American Christianity in the age of Trump. I’m going to try to avoid politics for tonight but I could see Isaiah preaching them today almost any church in America, especially the great Evangelical and Charismatic megachurches, and television ministries whose leaders have abandoned all pretense of being “Biblical” as they prostrate themselves before the President in pursuit of raw political power masked in an extremely thin veneer of religion.

In my sermon I did not hammer home on that but I did spend a lot of time with the Isaiah passage without being overtly political; which in my position that would have been less than wise. Sometimes it’s better to let the scriptures speak for themselves.

I also talked about doubt, something that many people, including Christians of all persuasions struggle with but few ministers really honor as a measure of faith. I used my own struggle with faith and doubt after Iraq. I struggled and I still struggle with faith, I believe but sometimes I don’t, and I am certainly not someone who thinks that he has the Christian life down, in fact sometimes my witness; my temper, my language, and so much more about me do not reflect Jesus. I am not okay with that, but it is the truth. Since Spring Training began today I let the congregation know that I am a Mendoza Line Christian, meaning that I have a Christian life batting average of about .200, just enough to say in the game.

Doubt is usually ignored, and most of the Christians who I know who struggle with doubt are afraid to talk about it in church, you tend to lose friends by expressing doubts or struggles in most churches. To me it is no wonder that the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States are those people with no religious preference and those who have either fled the church or those outside who look at the Church and find nothing redeeming in it. Sadly, most of these people actually like or admire Jesus, some even believing that he is the Son of God, but who are so disgusted by the actions of Christians that they have walked away. As Pedro Cerrano in Major League said: “Ah, Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.” 

As I finished my sermon I decided to read the words of the homily given by Father Flynn played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Doubt. The film is powerful, set in 1964 and I won’t do spoilers to tell you what happens in it and how it ends, you’ll need to watch it yourself. But I will share the words of Father Flynn’s sermon because they are so symbolic of our time when so many people struggle with faith. His words which compare the collective experience of people whose world has been shattered versus those whose struggles are invisible to most people. I know what that is like and because of my own struggles I have come to be able to read the unspoken angst, fear, doubt, and weariness of the lonely.

“Last year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation? Despair? Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow being was your Despair. It was a public experience. It was awful, but we were in it together. How much worse is it then for the lone man, the lone woman, stricken by a private calamity?

‘No one knows I’m sick.’

‘No one knows I’ve lost my last real friend.’

‘No one knows I’ve done something wrong.’

Imagine the isolation. Now you see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people, and on the other side: you.

I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. And only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail…and being of a nautical discipline…turned his eyes to the Heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home, and exhausted, fell asleep. Clouds rolled in. And for the next twenty nights, he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain. And as the days rolled on, and the sailor wasted away, he began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home? Or was he horribly lost… and doomed to a terrible death? No way to know. The message of the constellations – had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once… and now had to hold on to it without further reassurance? There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe. And I want to say to you: doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

So as Lent begins I encourage those who struggle and doubt to realize that there are a lot more people like then they realize; and for those who are not struggling not to look down on the lonely, not to be afraid that doubt is contagious, but instead to do the little things that remind people that they are not alone.

Likewise it is important to realize that some of the people who outwardly appear the most sanctimonious, the most sure of their beliefs, and the most rigid in their opposition to others also struggle, and that their display of certitude masks their own doubts and their own aloneness.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Faith’s Journey: A Progressive Christian Navy Chaplain Looks at the Journey to Wholeness

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June 27th 2013: After the events of this week including the Supreme Court decision declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional I decided to re-publish an article that was one of the most important that I ever published. Not so much because of the what I think was so earth shattering regarding the content but because of what happened after its publication. At the point in time that I wrote it I was pushing the envelope with my former denomination, but figured that in light of all the controversies and schisms in that church at the time that whatever I wrote would not result in any problems. But I was wrong. I received a call the next day from my bishop telling me that I needed to find a new home because I was “too liberal.”

It was actually quite fascinating, I was able to gain a new church home which was much more progressive, welcoming and catholic, being of the Old Catholic tradition. For me that phone call was just a few months later deposed for attempting to create yet another schism in the church. I think it is even more interesting because some of my friends still in that church think that he used this article as a reason to get rid of me in order to keep me from exposing his scheme. I don’t know if that it the case or not, but my friends believe it to be a distinct possibility. That being said one of my long time priest friends revealed his plot to the other bishops and the bishop who forced me  was deposed. Irony is fascinating. Since that time my former church is regaining its footing and doing better and for my friends in it I am glad for even if I have differences in theology, faith or beliefs with people who I consider to be friends, they are still friends and I wish them well.  

So anyway, for those that are fairly new followers on this site here is the article that in a sense served as a declaration of independence and station on the road to wholeness and integrity. 

Peace, Padre Steve+

Faith Journeys: Why I am Still a Christian (Originally published 22 September 2010)

There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

I know what it feels like to be marginalized after I came back from Iraq because many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians.  I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the war, despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar province.  The fact that not a clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith before I went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth didn’t seem to matter because a political agenda was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.

Yesterday I wrote about Chaplains that experience a crisis of faith after coming home from a combat deployment.  For me there is nothing more symbolic of the lack of soul left in many Christians and Christian Churches in how they treat those that have served faithfully. Those Chaplains that have served  God, Church and Country and come back spiritually wondering what happened, not knowing what to believe and feeling abandoned by God and cast off by the Church and the military simply because we have a hard time with the so called “orthodoxy” of some Christians.

I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic.  That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that it sucks like a Hoover and I know that I am not alone in my feelings.  I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us.

Let’s talk about spiritual despair. Did you know that in the past couple of years that two Army Chaplains and one Navy Chaplain have committed suicide? These were men of faith who had served in peace and war at least one that had served at the Battle of Hue City as a Marine before becoming a Priest and Chaplain.  Another Army Chaplain that had served in Iraq as a minister of a conservative Charismatic and Evangelical Christian denomination became a Wiccan and was excoriated by Christians.  I don’t know his faith journey but I have to believe that part was his experience in Iraq and experience on his return. I don’t know about you but those are all signs of spiritual despair and feeling cut off from their faith community and even God, his or her self.

I am still a Christian. I believe in the God of Scripture, the Creeds and the Councils. At the same time that belief is not as rigid as it once was. I used to consider those that didn’t believe like I did in relation to Scripture, the Creeds and Councils not to be Christians.  I cannot say that now. I am much more to have the Grace and Mercy of God be my default position and let other things fall out where they may.  My practice of my faith has changed. When I came back from Iraq I attempted, as it were without success to keep my faith structure and practice the same as it was before I deployed to Iraq.  Within six months of Iraq I could no longer pray the Daily Office with any kind of faithfulness and by Lent 2009 give up the practice for Lent hoping to recover some authenticity to my faith. The authenticity has returned and after about a hear and a half I am seeking a way to reincorporate what had been a very important part of my daily practice of faith into my life without feeling like I am a phony in doing so.

I went through a period of absolute spiritual despair even leaving a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 to walk home in the dark, alone, looking at the sky and asking God if he even existed.  A year later after my life had completely fallen apart I experienced what I call my “Christmas miracle” where I was called to our Emergency Room to provide the “last rites” to a retired Navy doctor and active Episcopalian when I was the duty Chaplain.  As I prayed the last prayer of commendation and removed my oil covered fingers from the man’s forehead he breathed his last. His wife told me that he was waiting to be anointed before he died.  The young doctor, a Psychology Resident doing his ER rotation who called me to the ER would die a couple of months later of natural causes in his living room not long after we had taken the “fat boy” program PT test together.

From that moment the paradigm shifted.  Faith began to return and I began to experience the presence of God again, not is the same was as before Iraq but one that was more relational, grace filled and informal.  I will likely begin praying the Daily Office again in the near future but I will approach it from a different point of view.  I will no longer use it simply to fulfill my priestly vows and obligations but rather as a way to re-experience and if need be re-imagine God.  Now before the heresy hunters think that I am re-imagining God is some unbiblical manner they are wrong. I want to re-imagine God as he has been revealed to his people both in Scripture, Tradition and in the life of his, or her people today.

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How have I changed? I believe again. I am no longer an agnostic hoping and praying that God just might be there. My faith has become much more deeply rooted and grounded in the “Crucified God” and my faith in the “theology of the Cross.”  It is no longer connected to my politics and I refute any political ideology that attempts to use the Christian faith and the faith of well meaning Christians for purposes that Jesus himself would have condemned.  I don’t think Jesus was a big fan of his followers attempting to be the favorites of any political party or ideological system. In fact if I recall he really had pretty harsh words for his fellow Jews who were all wrapped around the axels with that kind of stuff. Jesus seems to befriend and hang around with those that are not connected to the religious, political or economic elites. In fact he seemed to reserve his harshest words for such people.  Jesus seemed to have a pretty good relationship with those marginalized and rejected by the religious folks of his day. He welcome sinners and tax collectors to his table and praised the faith of gentile Roman officers and stopped the super-religious folks from stoning an adulterous woman.

This is the Jesus that I follow and the Jesus that I believe is present in body, soul and spirit in the Eucharist.  I believe like Hans Kung and others that this table belongs to the baptized community of faith and not to an exclusive Priestly class who dictate who can come to the table.  It is not the exclusive property of any denomination or Church organization especially those that most loudly state this to be the case.

Now if saying this makes me a heretic then a heretic I will be. It is better to be a heretic in the eyes of Pharisees than to be one that denies justice to the persecuted people of God.  I guess that makes this moderate a liberal and to some an unbeliever.  Yet I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I believe in the Jesus that defied religious systems to offer the grace of God to the people that those systems rejected and the Jesus that was far more critical of “believers’ than those rejected as unbelievers.  I guess that is why I can accept women as ministers or even Priests, accept homosexuals as Christian brothers and sisters, and see Christ and the grace and love of God in people that are not “Christians” even the Muslims in Iraq that treated me with respect and even if they had an “Aryan” view of Jesus still showed a greater reverence for Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary than many that claim Jesus for themselves.

Why? You ask. Very simply I once was lost but now am found.  I thought that I knew it all before, now I know that I don’t know it all and that God is the God of surprises, just look in Scripture.  I doubt at times. I know that there are many answers that elude me and I cannot answer just by citing or using Scripture out of its historic, cultural and linguistic context.  I believe in the God that did not reject me when I didn’t know if he even existed.

Why am I still a Christian when I have so many problems with how many Christians practice the faith? Because I believe and not because will not I tow anyone’s party line be they liberals or conservatives. I believe in spite of my unbelief in a fellowship of those who as a result of war and trauma have trouble believing those that won’t race the cold realities of this life. I believe because many times it was those marginalized by others, especially those marginalized by the “faithful” showed me the love of God when the “faithful” for pure or impure motives, or even because they didn’t know what to do allowed me to sink into despair and isolation. So in the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther I say “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Epiphanies: PTSD, Life, Leadership, Lawrence of Arabia and the Gospel

I have been going through a process lately in preparation for some treatment of my chronic insomnia, nightmares and other PTSD symptoms which has caused me to have to be very deliberate and reflective in examining the various parts of the often tattered tapestry of my life.

Part of this has involved my experiences in military, religious and civilian institutional settings and how those experiences have helped shaped me as a Priest as well as a Naval Officer. Today was one of those days where a convergence of thoughts came together in a number of encounters juxtaposed with some reading of B.H. Liddell Hart’s book about T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

While I was waiting for my doctor late this afternoon I was reading the book on my Kindle and as he came into the waiting room I had just finished marking this passage.

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

Somehow this little passage in a book that I am about halfway through reading and which I have already made numerous other annotations really struck me as profound. It encapsulated close to 20 years of experience as a military chaplain and over 30 years in the military as well as civilian professional work, and it struck me especially in regard to my experiences both in Iraq and after my return. Before, during and after my time in Iraq I had come to see Lawrence as a kindred spirit, someone that thought outside the box and went to places that no one else wanted to go. My job in Iraq to me to those places that few Americans and almost no other chaplains went or had the chance to experience with Iraqi Arabs and the Bedouin.

Those that read my posts regularly know that the impetus for my writing came about during my time in Iraq around Christmas of 2007 in the western Iraqi Al Anbar Province while on the Syrian border. At that time I wrote a short article for my former denomination’s website and a little more than a year after my return to the United States  I began this site I modified that article and published it here under the title of God in the Empty Places. It was a catharsis for me because I going though a tremendously ark period of my life where I had for all practical purposes become an Agnostic struggling to believe in God again. It was published a couple of months after I walked out of a church on Christmas Eve 2008 and walked an hour home in the dark and cold of that night.

During the interregnum of returning from Iraq and now I experienced a number of additional traumatic life events, both personal and professional. Following my assignment to my current post where I supervise a number of chaplains, pastoral counselors and support personnel I made it my goal in life not to let things that happened to me at the hands of some senior chaplains happen to others, especially those struggling with life, health, spiritual or emotional issues.

I have been asked by a number of people in the past couple of weeks, how in light of things that could leave me embittered and cynical could I embody grace to others. I admit that I still hurt and have issues of anger and some bitterness towards some people who I thought used me and betrayed me both in my old denomination as well as some senior chaplains. That is a given, though I try to live in a state of forgiveness toward them there are times that I do get upset the things that happened during that time. It is something that I deal with and I don’t always do well. I have my bad moments in which that grace doesn’t come out well,  but my path to healing has involved a conscious effort to see the good in people and to embody something different than I experienced.

A couple of people made the comment as we discussed these experiences as well as their own that “you do the Gospel it by living it.” I think that is what Jesus did, he taught yes and he did miracles, but the biggest miracles were those that he did when he rocked the religious-political establishment of his day by hanging out and caring for the people it despised. In fact Jesus surmised the entire law in two commandments, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. The prophet Malachi noted what God required “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Those two passages have been tremendously important as faith returned after what I refer to as Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle faith began to return in a way that I never expected.

So the past few weeks have served as an epiphany to me about wisdom can evade leaders whose “eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success…” My eyes are opening in more ways to the bigness of God, the grace of God, the love of God and the mercy of God. My ambition is simply to care for the people that God allows me to care for and show that grace, love and mercy to those who some would attempt to destroy because they themselves have become prisoners of the institutions and their offices and ambitions.  I have resolved in daily life to do all I can to avoid becoming a prisoner of my office or ambitions and simply to be real. One of the senior leaders of the hospital that I work noted that he saw me as not just as the senior chaplain but a “real person.” I can live with that.

Well that is enough for tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Holy Week and the Outcasts

Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Faith and Doubt: A Reflection on Christmas

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Not that that is in any way a bad thing as difficult as it is.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this as 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.  I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing 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 Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed 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 ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something 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 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“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. No this was different, 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 Jürgen 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 in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin 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, but even then 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 grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

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 because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three 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.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try 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, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning 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.”

In the past year I have still had my times of struggle but have also found others that have gone through similar times.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good. I am fortunate. I was talking with my Bishop recently in regard to the struggle that I have had in recovering the disciplines of the spiritual life. Thankfully she does understand and was encouraging. I guess that is why now when I have more compassion for someone when they tell me that they “lost their faith” especially those that have been changed by their experience of war or other trauma. I don’t necessarily have all the answers for them because I am quite obviously still figuring it out myself. However as I found sometimes it is not the person with the answers but simply the person that takes time to listen and care that is more important to a person when they struggle, especially for those that before the traumatic event had been strong believers.

I’ll write a bit more about Christmas and faith but not tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Tapestry of Life: How PTSD and Combat Stress is a Part of Who and What We Are

I have been dealing with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress over 3 ½ years.  In that time I have had my struggles going ranging from falling into the abyss to a measure of recovery and occasional relapses.  It has been a difficult time which has stretched me in ways that I never dreamed and given me perspective on what it is to live, to have faith and to experience life in ways that I could not have imagined before I deployed toIraq.

Within a few weeks of beginning therapy I was asked by my therapist what I wanted to do with my experience.  I really didn’t know, I was in the midst of a complete emotional breakdown and crisis of faith.  When my therapist asked me “well Padre how are you with the Big Guy” I could only answer “I don’t know if God exists anymore or if he does if he cares about me.”  My therapist was the first person that asked me about my spiritual life after I returned.  No clergy of any kind asked that question.  I guess that they assumed quite wrongly that I hadn’t really changed.  There is a tendency among clergy to ignore the obvious when a colleague begins to fall apart.

In fact it is really a cultural problem.  Often the advice to someone dealing with trauma and the experience of grief which often compounds traumatic experience is to “forget about it” or “put it behind you and move forward.”  Some therapists and pastors seem to have burying the experience, reliving it time and time again until you are numb or simply try to expunge it from memory as their goal.

The problem with all of these “methods” is that they label the person who has been traumatized and the complex grief that they experience as a result of the trauma as ill, damaged or broken.  But it the opposite is true, people that have experienced trauma especially in a combat zone are simply having a normal reaction to experiences that are not normal.

We adapt to war and the experience becomes part of who we are.  It is a survival tool that humans have had ever since the first skirmishes between primitive tribes.  However primitives actually have an advantage over the modern human.  They went to war to defend their families and homes.  The warriors would be sent out with fanfare, religious ceremonies and ritual. When they returned they would be brought back into the tribe, new warriors who had distinguished themselves would be noted, sometimes marked in some physical manner.  Rituals marked the re-entry of the warriors and they would be reincorporated into the community. Some societies would incorporate rituals for individuals to do as they re-entered the community. Their stories would become part of the tribe’s oral tradition and passed down to successive generations.

Today’s modern American warrior doesn’t go to war with his neighbors.  These warriors go to war with men and women that come from many parts of the country, US territories or immigrants and when they leave service they often return to neighbors, friends and families that care about them but do not understand them or their experience. The reactions that they developed in combat and their response to perceived threats are considered dangerous or abnormal.  People tell them that they need to go back to what they were before the war experience but they can’t because they have been changed by their experiences.

We live in a culture of denial. All too often it seems that society simply wants the traumatized and grieving veteran just be quiet, see a shrink, go to a PTSD group and “get well.”  Many times churches and religious institutions treat the problem as some kind of spiritual shortcoming.  Many Christian veterans come home and find that they are shunned because they have doubts or because they don’t “get better” after people pray for them.  I was reading a faux news article which was more like an infomercial for a CD that promotes a method as “Be still and know….”  It was developed by a reserve Army Chaplain and Christian therapist. It is designed to make it all go away.  Do the method right and you get better, God heals you and you live happily ever after until something breaks the cycle of denial and you crash.  I do believe that God heals but I don’t believe that God makes everything magically go away like it never happened.  Such a belief is not supported in Scripture, the testimony of the early Church or for that matter most of the Christian tradition.

This week I was being filmed for a Department of Defense program called The Real Warriors Campaign   http://www.realwarriors.net/which is designed to de-stigmatize Combat Stress injuries including PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.  They picked up the article that was written about me in the Jacksonville Daily News in April of this year and asked if I would be willing to participate.   http://www.enctoday.com/articles/cmdr-89433-jdn-stephen-military.html

It was a hard week for me. I went to a functioned hosted by our hospital Wardroom at the base Officer’s Club Saturday night and while I enjoyed myself I hit sensory overload. When I got hope I was pretty edgy and to add to the situation we had some Marine helicopters flying in the area I live that night. As I tried to calm down I realized that I was going to be interviewed Tuesday and the thought scared the shit out of me.  Yes I had agreed to do it and yes I thought I needed to do it but my heavily introverted and relatively anti-social personality type now seasoned with reactivated PTSD symptoms couldn’t handle it.  I couldn’t sleep and had the firstIraqrelated dreams I have had in many months. I did not even open the front door of my place on Sunday.  I couldn’t sleep Sunday night and got permission of my boss to get some assistance.  Since I couldn’t get a no-notice appointment with my current psychiatrist I called my first therapist and he was helpful. I went to a ball game and that helped calm me down.  I was still anxious but functional.

The two days of filming went pretty well for me, although I know with the possible exception of “COPS” there is no such thing as reality television.  This was not “reality television” but the goal was to try to show how I live life, work and relate to people after deployment.  The crew was really good and handled things professionally but even so it was packaged and things had to be have lighting, have different camera angles and required me to repeat things sometimes because of the privacy issues of patients in the hospital.  But it is what it is.  By the end of the two days I was pretty wiped out and simply rested last night.

However on Monday night before the interview I had an epiphany.  That simple illumination came from an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called Tapestry I won’t ruin it for you but the final segment of the episode is linked here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZeGzaJiP6g&feature=related

The epiphany was very simple.  All of our life, the good, the bad, the enjoyable and even the traumatic are part of a rich tapestry.  Those painful threads, the ones that we cause ourselves or the ones that are the result of trauma, grief and loss are part of who we are as human beings.  If we try to remove them we damage the tapestry and if we try or are persuaded by those that deny the reality of pain and suffering to remove the really painful and deep hurts, those which are the most tightly wound into the fabric of our lives, especially for the combat veteran we risk long lasting damage to our very soul.

The challenge is not to be “healed” or to compartmentalize the trauma and put it in some deep closet in our brain.  Nor is it to deny the trauma or for that matter keep trying to relive the trauma so that we are desensitized to the pain.  The real challenge is to allow our experiences of war, grief, loss and trauma to have their place in our lives knowing that without them we are not who we are.

I’m not saying that I have any real answer to what all of us that experience combat stress injuries deal with.  All I know is that I just want to be real and there are risks in opening up to people and reaching out to get help.  At the same time it is important to find a way to get help so we can adapt to our new reality.

As for me I went through some terrible times that still affect me.  Yes I went through a period of profound spiritual crisis and even a loss of faith and when I began to recover faith people that had been okay with me being broken ended up asking me to leave my church because the faith that I have now didn’t fit the narrow box that defined that church.

All that being said I am glad that my therapists or my supervisors allowed me and continue to allow me to work through the issues that still impact me and my ability to function in society, deal with others and even effect my marriage.  I wish every combat vet and survivor of trauma had that support.  I just hope that I can be worthy of the trust that they have place in me and that I will care for those entrusted to me with the same care and compassion that I was and am being shown.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, star trek, Tour in Iraq

The Evolving Faith of a Miscreant Priest

“Practically speaking, your religion is the story you tell about your life.” Andrew A Greeley 

Three years ago I had an emotional physical and spiritual breakdown as the life and faith that I had known for many years came apart at the seams as I was overcome with the full blown effects of PTSD a bit over four months after my return from Iraq.  I should have seen the collapse coming as a vainly struggled to maintain control of my emotions, thoughts and faith.  Nothing made sense as I drifted in and out of flashbacks, night terrors and sunk into depression isolated from my faith community which by and large did not understand and other clergy who didn’t seem to care enough to listen.

I tried; I maintained the discipline of praying the Daily Office and reading the Scriptures, I tried to attend church but it was too much. Church with all the people and crowded noisy space with lots of light and sound was too much. I was hyper-vigilant and didn’t feel safe in crowds except at the ballpark where somehow the sight of that magical diamond brought me peace.

June 16th 2008 was the day that the wheels came off. The nightmares, night terrors and flashbacks came together with fires in the Great Dismal Swamp which shrouded the Tidewater in a thick brown haze which looked and smelled like Iraq and a seminar on battlefield trauma.  At the end of the day when the seminar was over my unit Medical Officer looked at me and said “Chaplain are you okay?” I replied in a broken voice “no, I’m not.” I briefly explained what I was going through and he asked if I was safe to go home. When I assured him that I thought that I could make it to the next day he agreed to let me leave and saw me the next morning. After his evaluation he set me up to see a Psychologist at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Deployment Health Center.

Looking back he made the right choice. I was very apprehensive as I had never been to a shrink before though I had referred many service members and their families to shrinks when I knew that I was in over my head.  I was lucky because I got Dr. Elmer Maggard from Hazard County Kentucky. I soon developed a rapport with him because I knew that he was real. What convinced me was when he asked me “Well there Padre how are you doing with the Big Guy?” I hadn’t expected that question because no ministers, Priests or chaplains had ever broached the subject.  I was falling apart and when I brought things up to ministerial colleagues about what I was going through including my assessment of my spiritual life I was ignored.  It was like I was radioactive.  I simply told Elmer that “I didn’t even know if the Big Guy even cared about me or existed anymore.”  He didn’t flinch and he walked with me through the darkness until and after what I call my “Christmas Miracle” in December of 2009.

During that painful and lonely time where I was for all intents an agnostic struggling with faith and even the existence of God it seemed that contact with the Divine was sporadic at best and either came through baseball or the Fr. Andrew Greeley Bishop Blackie Ryan murder mysteries. I had started reading them in Iraq because I was somewhat familiar with Greeley’s writing although I had never read any of the Blackie Ryan series. The first book that I read was The Bishop Goes to the University and others rapidly followed as I rummaged through the giveaway paperbacks in the small MWR library at Al Taqaddum in between missions to the hinterland of Al Anbar Province.

It was the grace and love of God in those books that even in the worst of times gave me a fragment of hope as my life collapsed.  I found in Bishop Blackie a kindred though fictional spirit who embodied what I thought the Priesthood should be.  In those books I came to understand that the grace of God along with the practical expressions of compassion, mercy and love were much more compelling than pounding people into submission with my rather rich knowledge of theology, philosophy and Church history. I also found that they were necessary for me to be healed.

My recovery of faith came unexpectedly much like how it happens to the characters in the Bishop Blackie mysteries.  It came in the middle of giving the last rites to a patient in our Emergency Department at Portsmouth.  The man a physician was a veritable saint whose life and faith had touched his community for over 50 years.  As I prayed the commendation prayers at the close of the rite following the anointing he breathed his last and it was almost if the cloud of unbelief melted away and the realization that God indeed was a God of love and that Jesus was actually to quote the Gospel exactly what his opponents called him “a friend of sinners.” In that moment it was if I had been reborn.

Now since then my faith has been evolving, not that I have surrendered the faith proclaimed in the Gospel or the Creeds but in the way that faith works itself out in relationship to others.  I have to say that it hasn’t been easy and I still have times where I doubt but not like when I was falling apart. I think that the doubt is there to remind me not to become arrogant or exude a toxic triumphalism in my faith or proclamation.  I read something that Greeley wrote which perfectly expressed my understanding of Christian witness going back to the persecuted Catholic Church of the Roman Empire.  “People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good-Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice” or as Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” It is amazing the diverse people, many hurt and wounded by war, abuse or even the Church and its ministers wander into my life at work and here on Padre Steve’s World. It doesn’t matter if they are conservative or liberal, Christian or not they tell me that “you’re different” and “I know that you will listen to me.” These people have become my parish. Greeley said it well “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish. And it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.” 

I used this site to work through many of the things that I struggled with during the process and eventually that ran me afoul of my former Church, the Charismatic Episcopal Church which through my Bishop asked me to leave in September 2010 because I was “too liberal.”  I knew that it had been coming for some time and had been making preparations and had been working with the local Episcopal diocese but the transition to that church could not be accomplished for at least a year and a half.

I was referred to my present Church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church an Old Catholic denomination by the Episcopal Church which once again seemed to be a miracle. Though small the Church embodies the faithfulness to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith with an inclusiveness and love of God for people that was exactly what I had become during my “dark night of the soul” and rebirth.  There are still things that I am working out both in the personal aspects of my faith and how it works itself out in life.

But I do have faith again; faith in Jesus the Christ and the Triune God reveled in Scripture, Tradition and Reason and in the lives of the faithful.  This belief is that God is love and is present and active in the world.  This love of God is seen in the Sacraments, the Eucharist and in the lives of those dear to us, our families, friends, neighbors and those that we seem to randomly encounter.  It is shown in the care of people who will sit with us in our pain and doubt, listen, care and lovingly put their arms around us or hold our hand.  It is shown in the faith that others show to us when others are willing to cast us aside, those that see the potential of God’s creation in each of us in a rediscovered love that God is there.

Yes my faith is still evolving but I think that is what Paul meant when he said “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil. 3:10-12)

Peace and Blessings

Padre Steve+

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