Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief.
A new liturgical year is upon us and with the season of Advent Christians look forward to the “Advent” of Christ both in looking forward to the consummation of all things in him as well as inviting him back into our lives as we remember his Incarnation, as the Creed says “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
At the same time for a lot of people the season of Advent and Christmas are incredibly difficult and times where faith, already difficult becomes nearly impossible. For many the season is not a time of joy but depression, sadness and despair. I know feeling well, for it has been the reality that I have lived with since returning from Iraq.
Before Iraq, Advent and Christmas were times of wonder and mystery and I really found it difficult to understand how anyone could be depressed during the season. Until I came home from Iraq. Now while I have faith again I struggle to find the same wonder and mystery of the season that I once experienced. I think that the last time I was truly joyful at Christmas and during Advent was in Iraq, celebrating the message of hope among our advisors up and down the Iraqi-Syrian border. I think the most special moment was serving Eucharist to an Iraqi Christian interpreter who had not received the Eucharist in years that Christmas Eve of 2007 at COP South. Somehow in that God forsaken land God seemed closer than any place I have been since.
Since I returned from Iraq my life has been a series of ups and major downs. In dealing with PTSD, anxiety, depression and chronic insomnia as well as my dad’s painfully slow death from Alzheimer’s Disease, I have struggled with faith. Prayer became difficult at best and as I dealt with different things in life I knew that I didn’t have any easy answers. Going to church was painful. Chaplain conferences even more so, except being with others who struggled like me. About the only place that I could find solace was at a baseball park. For some reason the lush green diamond comforts me.
I find that the issue of doubt is not uncommon for a lot of people, including ministers of all faiths. For those of us who are ordained and view our ministry or our Priesthood as a sacred vocation this is difficult to deal with. Ministers and others who suffer a crisis in faith, depression or despair endure a hell because it is not supposed to happen to us. I do believe that for many people a religious leader who has doubts and struggles with his or her faith is disconcerting. I can remember a myriad of situations where pastors due to a myriad of reasons experienced a crisis in faith many of which involved great personal loss such as the loss of a child, a failed marriage, being let go or fired by a church, or experiencing a major traumatic event. These were good people and quite often instead of being enfolded by a caring community of faith they were treated as faithless, failed and worthless, often abandoned or excluded from their faith community as if they were criminals.
When I was younger I used to look askance at pastors who had given up, lost their faith, or abandoned the ministry for whatever reason. As a young seminary student and later young chaplain I had a hard time with this, it made no sense to me and I was somewhat judgmental until I started to get to know a decent number of “broken” ministers from various faith traditions that a lot more went into their decision than simply not being tough enough to hang in there until things got better. At the same time I never thought it would happen to me. I thought I was “bulletproof,” that it could never happen to me. And it did and I was stunned.
When I came back from Iraq I came home to find that my office had been packed up and many mementos lost, it took months to find most and there are still important documents that have never been recovered. My accomplishments went unrecognized on my return home. As I crashed no one asked about my faith until Elmer the shrink did when he met me. Later my Commodores, first Frank Morneau when he found out about my condition and Tom Sitsch when he took command of EOD Group 2 both asked me about my faith. I told them that I was struggling. Commodore Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?” Sadly I had no idea how much Commodore Sitsch was going through as he ended his life on January 6th of this year, suffering the effects of untreated PTSD and TBI.
On the professional side I felt isolated from much of the clergy of my former church and many chaplains, something that I still feel to some extent today. I was angry then because I felt that I deserved better, because I had done all that was asked of me and more for both church and chaplain corps. The Chaplains that I knew cared all worked in different commands and were not immediately available and I was ashamed to go ask them for help.
I appreciated simple questions like “How are you doing with the Big Guy?” or “Where does a Chaplain go to for help?” It showed me that people cared. When I went to the medical center I dealt with many difficult situations and was haunted by my dad’s deterioration, the latter which I still deal with today. To have a close family member mock my vocation, service and person and provoke me into rages was equally taxing. Likewise the absolute hatred and divsion in the American political debate tore my heart out. I felt like, and in some ways still feel like we are heading down a path to being “Weimar America.”
There were many times that I knew that I had no faith. People would ask me to pray and it was all that I could do to do to pray and hoped that God would hear me. Even the things that I found comforting, the Mass, the Liturgy and the Daily Office were painful, and they often still are.
That being said, I am still a Christian, or maybe as I noted last week a Follower of Jesus, since the Christian “brand” is so badly tarnished by the politically minded, hateful, power seeking, media whores that populate the airwaves and cyber-space.
Why I am is sometimes hard to figure. I am not a Christian because of the Church, though I love the Church, church bodies have often has been for me a sourse of pain and rejection. I am not a Christian because of what is called “Christian.” Nor can I ignore the injustice, violence and oppression wrought by those who called themsleves Christian throughout history, including that wrought by current Christian leaders. Slavery, the subjectation and conquest of who peoples to take their land and resources and wars of agression blessed by “Christian” leaders are all part of history.
At the same time much progress has come through the work, faith and actions of Christians and the Church. Despite all of the warts and the many sins and crimes committed by Christians, even genocide, I can like Hans Kung “I can feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.” (Kung, Hans Why I am Still a Christian Abingdon Press, Nashville 1987 p. 36)
Neither am I a Christian because I think that the Christian faith has “all” of the answers.
In fact after coming through Iraq and returning home I know that it is not so.
I have to be painfully honest and say that neither the Church nor Christians have all the answers, and those who think that they do, and claim that in the name of God or Jesus, are fundamentally deceived, and that I would not follow them across the street.
I now understand what my Church History Professor, Dr Doyle Young said in class that “all of people’s deepest needs are not religious.” Likewise I certainly not a Christian because I think that Christians are somehow better or more spiritual than others. In fact I find the crass materialism and self centered “What can God to for me?” theology and way of life to be deeply offensive.
People get sick, young children die, innocents are subjected to trauma even from their parents or siblings. Good people endure unspeakable trials while sometimes it seems that evil people get away with murder. I can’t chealk it all up to a naive “it’s God’s will” kind of theology. I don’t presume to know God’s will and I can’t be satisfied with pat answers like I see given in so many allegedly Christian publications, sermons and media outlets. Praying doesn’t always make things better. I remain a Christian in spite of these things. I still believe that God cares in spite of everything else, in spite of my own doubts, fears and failures.
I still believe, Lord help me in my unbelief.
One of the verses of the Advent hymn O’ Come O’ Come Emmanuel is a prayer for me this year.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
So now, for those that like me struggle with faith, feel abandoned by God, family and friends. For those who have experienced the crisis of faith or even a loss of faith I pray that all of us will experience joy this season.
I’m sure that I will have some ups and downs, I certainly don’t think that I am over all that I am still going through. However I know that I am not alone to face my demons and pray that by opening up that others who are going through similar experiences will find hope. O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer, our spirits by Thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.