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Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart

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This is second part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the second of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. The first part is linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

“There is a twilight zone in our hearts that we ourselves cannot see. Even when we know quite a lot about ourselves-our gifts and weaknesses, our ambitions and aspirations, our motives and our drives-large parts of ourselves remain in the shadow of consciousness. This is a very good thing. We will always remain partially hidden to ourselves. Other people, especially those who love us, can often see our twilight zones better than we ourselves can. The way we are seen and understood by others is different from the way we see and understand ourselves. We will never fully know the significance of our presence in the lives of our friends. That’s a grace, a grace that calls us not only to humility, but to a deep trust in those who love us. It is the twilight zones of our hearts where true friendships are born.”Henri J. M. Nouwen

Dear Chaplain

The next section of our discussion is about the “minefields” that we so often encounter as Chaplains and to some degree as Ministers, Priests or Rabbis or other religious leaders. As I noted in the first section I am dividing these “minefields” into three major areas; the personal, the behavioral and the professional.

This section is about the “personal” minefields which I call the “Minefields of the Heart.” I call it this because it seems from the Christian and Jewish Scriptures the heart is the figurative locus of what we are, good and bad alike as human beings.

Of course there is always some spillage between the areas personal, behavior and professional areas and our behaviors and professional relationships are certainly influenced by the things that we hide deep in our hearts. As human beings we may try to compartmentalize our life to keep things apart such as keeping our personal life separate from our professional life, or hide behaviors from our friends, families, peers or co-workers; but the cold hard fact is whether we are aware of it or not each area impacts the other. If we are not aware of this fact, if we have little self awareness, if we have self awareness but try to live our lives with the illusion that we can separate our lives into neat little boxes we will most undoubtedly hurt ourselves, and as spiritual leaders harm those that come to us.

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There is a scene of the last episode of Star Trek the Next Generation entitled “All Good Things” that comes to mind.  In it the being known simply as “Q” helps Captain Picard discover how his actions influence human history.

Q: You just don’t get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.

Capt. Picard: When I realized the paradox.

Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

You may wonder where I am going with this but it has to do with the personal minefields, those that exist inside of us, those that lurk beneath the surface which if we are unaware wreak havoc on everything else that we do. In the episode of Star Trek that I am referring to Captain Picard is allowed by Q to see the effects of his actions and to see how limited his thinking was.  The challenge for us is chaplains are to be aware of what Nouwen calls “the twilight zone in our hearts” and how what is at the depth of our heart impacts everything else that we do.

Too often though, mostly because of our own personal limitations and serious lack of real theological and pastoral formation involving self reflection and exploration we fail to see them. Like an uncharted minefield we are unaware of them until we either discover their existence through accident and “blow ourselves and others up” or until we listen to those that can see those twilight zones, those minefields better than we ourselves. Of course the latter, especially when it comes from those who love us, care for us and have our best at heart is the preferable method to learn about these things.

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However, that being said part of this can be done through reading. A lot of us simply read “how to” type books when it comes to ministry. We seek direct easy answers in how to run our programs be it in the church, in a para-church ministry or in the chaplaincy. Believe me there are plenty of those kinds of books out there, not only that but a plethora of “self help” books that tell us the “three things we must know” the “five whatever’s to success” or the Seven Habits of Highly Defective People.” The sad thing is, even when these books contain nuggets of truth, they serve it like fast food and reduce it to the lowest common denominator. In a sense, even the most well intentioned of these “how to” or “self help” books promote a reductionist view of faith, spirituality, psychology and in some cases ethics and doctrine.

Reading is important, especially the hard stuff, philosophy, history, moral theology, but also things that you might not expect science fiction for example. In addition classic literature from antiquity and from non-western traditions also sheds light on those personal minefields. Heck we can even find truth in television and film, note my continued references to Star Trek. I find that God can speak to us in many ways.

As Christians we may also find lessons, insights and inspiration from the Bible that can be quite helpful. Unfortunately most of us have so many theological filters in place that we often miss the very things that would be most helpful to us. They can serve as blinders that keep us from sensing what the Spirit of God is trying to teach us. Our church, denominational or theological traditions as well as our hermeneutical methods often cloud our minds to what God is trying so hard to say. It was a problem that the religious establishment of his time had with Jesus, and often with the various prophets that preceded him whose stories we read about in the Old Testament.

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I am sure that others who are not Christians can say similar things about their faith, traditions and holy books. I remember an Iraqi General who I met who took the time to show me his well worn and read Arabic-English Bible. He was a Moslem, but he said that he learned so much from it because it was different than what was in the Koran and he meant no disrespect of his own faith by saying that. He had opened his mind to truth that others turn a blind eye to.

Some of the personal issues that prove to be deadly include what we don’t know about ourselves, usually dating back to childhood, how were raised, how we see God, if we perceive ourselves to be worthy of God’s love or worthy of the love and respect of others.  Those attitudes, especially those created as a result of negative relationships or even physical, emotional or sexual abuse, abandonment and rejection are powerful. Many of us like to pretend that we have gotten past those things but few of us actually do. Unfortunately there is a tendency for those issues to raise their heads in often very ugly ways as we minister as Chaplains.

For example: Let us say that we are distrustful of authority because of having an abuse parent, that we fear that no matter how well we do that there is always someone waiting to take us down. Let us say that we had previous experiences in the church, at work or maybe in prior military service where we were mistreated by those in authority.

I have found that if that condition is not dealt with that in a hierarchical organization such as the Chaplain Corps and the military that it is almost always fatal to the ability of the chaplain to minister in the organization. That is because the military is based on trust, our lives and mission depend on it. We have to trust the chain of command, we have to trust those that serve alongside of us and we have to trust our subordinates. There may be times when the chain of command fails and things don’t go right. There are toxic leaders and there are also toxic chaplains, one has to be aware that they are out there, know how to deal with them or survive under their command but one cannot presume that everyone is like that, trust is essential.

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I find it interesting that Jesus commended the faith of the Roman Centurion when instead of asking Jesus to come to his house and heal his servant simply said “But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”Matthew 8: 8b-9 Jesus told the people around that “he had not seen such faith in all of Israel.” Jesus saw the virtue of the Centurion, a virtue that many of his own people were lacking.

That is just one of a myriad of personal issues that can trip up a Chaplain in the military. The fact is that issues of the heart those things that we don’t like to admit are true about us, things that we are unaware about or in outright denial about in our lives are the things that go to the “heart” of who we are.

As fa as the minefields of my heart, they too are many. However the one that gets me time and time again is my passion for justice and my visceral reaction to those that I believe are bullies. That comes from my childhood. As a Navy brat I was always the new kid in town, and being that I was kind of the short, shy and introverted kid I was also kind of a nerd, or geek. I was not gifted with speed or great athletic abilities and it took me a while to find my academic prowess. That meant that I often didn’t fit in and though I was generally well liked that I would on occasion be bullied and I learned to defend myself, not very well at times but well enough to as the Klingons say “to die an honorable death.”

Jeremiah the prophet, who admittedly was most certainly clinically depressed if you look at his writings did note that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 Depressed or not Jeremiah did seem to understand that what he and many writers of scripture call “the heart” is hard to understand, especially when it is our own.

Thus I go back to Nouwen’s comment about the “twilight zone of the heart” that we cannot see. That it is why as Chaplains we have to develop relationships with people who can help us see what is in the twilight zone of our hearts and lovingly come alongside of us, not just as colleagues but as friends.

Those people may be clergy or other chaplains, but then they may not be. Perhaps they are senior enlisted personnel, long time friends, teachers, spiritual directors, counselors or our God forbid our spouses, I jest about the latter because my wife can see things about things about me that I cannot see, she is incredibly wise.

The minefields that exist in our hearts are so varied, so diverse and so treacherous. They have the potential to affect so many other parts of our lives. Thus for us as chaplains if we are not careful they can be destructive not only to us, but to those that we serve as well as those that we presume to love.

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When I look back at my career and I am honest about it, I can say without a doubt that most of the things that hurt me were a direct reflection of the minefields that were already present in my heart. When things that happened that I felt were unjust or threatening I reacted and quite often my reactions caused problems greater than what I was reacting to. All they needed was something to set them off. What I have come to understand is even though I have had a very successful and that I am now a Senior Officer that what lies in my heart can still blow me up and that I need to always be careful of those minefields that exist in the twilight zone of my heart.

Lao Tzu said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

That is the key, those things that emanate from the deepest recesses of our hearts are full of minefields and we need to guard our hearts and minds in this ministry that we are privileged to have as military chaplains.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under christian life, faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, philosophy, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

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Note: This is a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in  both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. It will be the first of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy.

Dear Chaplain,

“Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” Francis of Assisi 

I thank you for writing me about the questions that you have concerning ministry as a Navy Chaplain. They are incredibly good questions and I since you first asked me two days ago I have given them much thought before responding. I find that if I take the time to mull over such questions it is much more beneficial than simply spitting out whatever comes to mind first because if I don’t get the questions right my advice however good might be wrong. Of course even well thought out advice can be wrong in a given circumstance so you must contextualize the advice and adapt it to your own circumstances at any given time.

As a prologue to the actual questions that you ask I want to point you back to the words of St Francis. I think that they are they key to success in any ministry, but especially the chaplaincy.

As chaplains we are called by our churches or religious bodies to serve in an organization that is essentially secular. Our ordinations come from our churches or religious bodies and we are to be faithful to them. However our commissions as officers come from the President and this creates a dialectical tension that is hard to resolve for some. You will hear people talk about managing the “right and left side of our collars.” That of course is the fact that we wear our military rank on the right collar and the Cross that we wear as Christians or in the case of our Jewish, Islamic or Buddhist colleagues the Tablets of David, the Crescent or the Wheel of Life on the left.

Some attempt to seek a balance between the rank and the religious symbol. That is a bad model because but what typically happens is that chaplains become fall to one side or the other. By that I mean that they either place the military side higher and forget their call or minimize the military side and find that they have no voice in the system. I have seen many chaplains who have in their attempt to fit in with the military forgotten their call as ministers. On the other hand I have seen a number place such an emphasis on their own religious traditions and their perceived rights as ministers that they neglect the vast majority of the people that they are assigned to care for as chaplains. Both options are bad because ultimately we fail to serve those that we are called and given the privilege to serve.

A few years back I saw the travesty of trying to “balance” the two sides of the collar. From my observation those who tried this always end up becoming so military that they end up losing their faith distinctions or they never adapt to the military and even if they do “good ministry” they end up frustrated, are seen as an outsiders and have relatively short careers.

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As such I went back to Christian theology to find a model of ministry and that is in the hypostatic union of Jesus the Christ. By our understanding as Christians Jesus is both fully God and fully Human, not half and half, or any other percentage, but 100% God and 100% human. The fact is that as Navy Chaplains we are 100% ministers of our own faith group and 100% Naval Officer. As such we need to be the best we can at both and cannot allow ourselves to settle for anything less. If we attempt to “balance” we will fail in being ministers or being officers.

The military is not the church, as such  In the United States our service in such a capacity is not a right, it is a privilege. The right is not ours, it is right of the people that we serve to have the Constitutional right under the First Amendment to their “Free Exercise” of religion. As chaplains we facilitate the religious rights and freedoms of those who wear the same uniform that we wear, whether they of our faith, another faith or even of no faith. This is not about being “politically correct” but rather being faithful to two callings, both of which must be valid and respected in order for us to do what we are called to do as Navy Chaplains and there is always a tension in this. If you take a look at the chaplains that have trouble it is most often because believe that their right to free exercise is greater than the people that they are called to serve or that they lack a sufficient understanding of their call as Ministers, Priests, Rabbis or Imams. That is why Francis’ words are so important.

I think that many ministers, not just chaplains have a terrible understanding of our calling and vocation. To many the ministry is simply a job, their ordination and theological education the necessary prerequisites to perform the task. It is an attitude that I noted in seminary back in the late 1980s and early 1990s and have continued to observe over time. In seminary I had fellow students tell me that they were just thier to get a more advanced degree to help them get a bigger and better paying church. I had others friends disparage their theological education. I had one friend tell me that our degree was “only good for 5 years.” Obviously he was only thinking about the “how too classes” and not the courses that are really important to theological and pastroral formation.

But such is the state of theological education in this country. The fact is that most churches, seminaries or religious bodies do a pretty bad job at pastoral formation. We do a great job on teaching people how to manage churches, direct programs, teach doctrine, evangelize, run media empires or even become social and political activists, but a terrible job at actual pastoral formation and the latter is actually the most important task. Formation is primarily about relationships and relationships are what the Gospel is all about, beginning with the relationship of God to humanity and all of creation.

That may sound like I chased the proverbial rabbit but the attitude has a decided impact on the chaplain ministry. What happens is that this simply becomes a job and “skill sets” take priority over our calling and our service to those who were are called to serve during the time that we are allowed to serve in the Navy. We must never lose sight of who we are called to be as ministers, including the vows the we took when we were ordained as well as the oath that we swore as Naval Officers.

All that being said back to your questions. You asked first about the minefields that you might encounter as a chaplain. In a sense I have described some of them, they are very often related to who we are on the inside. It is as Lao Tzu said: “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”

The minefields that you asked are varied but most are related to what I have already described. They are often directly related to our own understanding of ourselves, our calling and our relationship to those that we are called to serve.

But to get into some detail on real, perceived and potential “minefields” you might encounter let me break them into several categories.

The first is the personal. As I stated before we have to know ourselves. This takes time and many people remain oblivious to who they are and what they are about, sometimes for most of their lives. Where this comes into play as a chaplain is that if we do not understand who we are and what we are about we will fail either in regard to our ministerial calling, our military vocation or our familial or ecclesiastical relationships.

The second is behavior. This is directly related to our personal behaviors and as we were told back during my early times as a new Army Chaplain. Most chaplains who self destruct tend to do so through SAM. Sex, alcohol or money. At any given time there are anywhere between half a dozen and dozen chaplains of all services serving time in Leavenworth or a regional Brig most having been convicted of charges involving SAM.

The third is professional. This is the nuts and bolts of what you will face as a Navy Chaplain. This includes your service to your crew, relationships with the chain of command and your fellow chaplains, your peers, your superiors and eventually those that you supervise as well as your Religious Programs Specialists or Chaplain Assistants. Likewise it includes your continuing relationships with your endorser and church that ordained you.

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I will continue the discussion of these three areas in the next couple of days. After those topics are address I will discuss the particularities of promotion and assignments in the Chaplain Corps. Since my experience includes 17 1/2 years  in the Army and 14 1/2 years in the Navy including service as a junior chaplain in both as well as service as a Field Grade Officer in the Army and now as a Senior Officer in the Navy Chaplain Corps my perspectives will be quite unique.

Thank you for your patience in reading through this as well as for asking your questions.  They have forced me to think about this subject in new ways and write in down my thoughts down ways that I never have before. Yes I have set down with and discussed these ideas and concepts with various chaplains but have never written them down in a systematic format until now. I do appreciate you giving me the chance to do this. It means a lot.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts after Springing Forward: A Symposia, Time with Family and Miscellaneous Thoughts

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Sprung forward

Last night most of us that observe Daylight Savings Time “sprang forward” losing an our of sleep but gaining added daylight with which to enjoy life. As usual I was “one of us” and though it was my last night home following a week at a Navy Medicine Chaplain Training Symposia, which happened to be where my wife is, I did get some sleep.

The week was interesting because for the past two and a half years I have been stationed in Camp LeJeune North Carolina while my wife has been in Virginia Beach Virginia. So the week was kind of like one of those weird make up baseball games where the visiting team, which I was got to be the home time, or more fitting the home team playing as the visiting team.

A Symposia

The training was well worth it and featured speakers from both the Pastoral Care and Psychological disciplines who spoke on how Chaplains work as part of the interdisciplinary team in health care, mental health and other aspects of caring for wounded warriors. One thing that was nice to see that the Navy Hospital that I serve at is on the cutting edge of much of what was discussed and that what the speakers discussed was not really news to me. Most of that is because I work with a wonderful team of Physicians, Chaplains, Mental Health Professionals and Pastoral Counselors who are not threatened by each other and who work together for the good of those that we serve. We are not perfect, we are all still learning; I guess that is why they call it “practicing” medicine but we are constantly moving forward. For me it was nice to see just how far along we are compared to other military, VA and civilian health care and mental health care services.

Family

The week also allowed me to spend time with Judy and both of our dogs. For those that have not experienced military life, it is not only deployments where you are apart but quite often due to health, family or professional concerns military personnel are forced to serve in locations away from their families, sometimes after deployments and injury that affect their family relationships.

Like many, if not most returning veterans, especially those suffering from PTSD or TBI injuries our relationship suffered and there were times that we wondered if our marriage would survive. I can say now that despite the fact that we are still apart that we are enjoying our life together again. Our times together, mostly limited to long weekend or unusual situations like the past week are becoming sweet again, times that we both look forward to whenever they are possible. It will be about two and a half weeks before we are together again when I take a bit of leave in conjunction with the Easter Holiday to celebrate my birthday with her.

While we were together we were able to spend a lot of time together and saw the new film The Great and Powerful Oz and take Judy to her first hockey game watching the Norfolk Admirals defeat the Hershey Bears by a score of 4-1 in an American Hockey League game at Norfolk’s Scope Arena. The sad thing was there were no fights in the hockey game and I missed the bench cleaning brawl between Canada and Mexico in the World Baseball Classic.

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Miscellaneous Thoughts on Krazy Karzai, North Korea Nukes, Sequester, a Papal Conclave, NASCAR and the World Baseball Classic

Kim and Karzai

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I have been watching with mixed feelings as I have caught bits and pieces of the news. First in my mind has been the continued nutty rantings of Hamid Karzai, President and First Buffoon of Afghanistan. I wonder how long before someone in his own government does away with him.

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Then there was Kim Jun Number One and his new nuclear threats against the US and South Korea mixed in with a You-Tube video combining nuclear explosions going off to the tune of We are the World. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hK8zQIsMmnk But who can blame him for wanting to destroy us after spend a weekend with Dennis Rodman?

Seaquest-ration 

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Amid this the continued Sequester nonsense continues to amaze me. First of all because I thought the series Seaquest DSV was positive stupid but especially when I realize that if it happens that I won’t be getting much time off. This is because my civilian Pastoral Counselors will not be able to keep their place in our on call chaplain duty rotation. The limitations on hours that they can work, overtime and comp time will keep them from doing this, not to  mention that we will have to do what we can to make up for the 32 hours per pay period that they cannot work. If it happens as planned it looks like I will have the after hours and weekend duty pager 15-16 days a month and still work 5 days a week. The same will be true for my other Navy Chaplain. Yes sequester will be a pain in the ass. I challenge anyone in the civilian world to work 50 plus hours a week and be on call 24 hours a day 15-16 days a month dealing with life and death issues on a base heavily impacted by the war with suicides, murders, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. So if you are one of those “I hate the government types” please don’t tell me how overpaid I am, or for that matter anyone else dealing with this working for the Federal Government. If you think that then you can blow it out your ass. With all due respect.

Papal Conclave

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The Cardinals arrive

Of course I have written about the upcoming Conclave to elect the next Pope in Rome so I won’t say much more about it now except to say that if elected I will turn down the job, I have such a hard time keeping white uniforms clean. My money is on one the the old European guys dressed in red to be elected as the next Pope.

NASCAR

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Then there are sports. Living in North Carolina is starting to wear me down. I am getting interested in NASCAR and am now doing strange things like read about the technical specs of the cars and the types of tracks. I think that part of this is because I think that Danica Patrick is hot, something that I can’t say about any of the men racing the other cars.

Baseball

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I have also gotten a chance to follow more baseball this week with Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic going on. What is nice is finally to have baseball on TV again. Tonight I am watching Puerto Rico play the Dominican Republic following the victory of the United States over Canada in their elimination game. The really cool thing about the game I am watching now is to see how much energy the fans of the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans bring to the game. It makes it a joy to watch.

Site Notes 

I have done some updates to a number of the pages on this site and added pages titled Baseball and Life, Shipmates Veterans and Friends and TLC Book Tour Reviews as well as the addition of several new links. 

Coming this Week

This week, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise I expect to do some baseball writing, and write about the Conclave and the new Pope. whoever he may be. Tomorrow I will publish a book review for TLC Book Tours on Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani’s memoir Beyond the Possible about Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. Of course I will also write about other events as they break or others as I inspired.

Have a great week.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Reflections on Ministry as Navy Chaplain: The Guiding Principles of the Chaplain Corps

I have served as a chaplain in the Army and then the Navy since 1992. In fact I was appointed as a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard around late September of 1992 following my seminary graduation and after 11 years of service in the Army.

I grew up in a Navy family and I am grateful for that. We lived in many places and my parents ensured that church was a part of our life growing up. They had grown up as Methodists but because of our military lifestyle which involved frequent moves our church experience was much broader that people who grew up in the same town or the same faith tradition. I attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and church in a variety of churches. Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, as well as Navy Chapels. I felt called to the Navy Chaplain ministry as early as my senior year in high school while on a Navy Junior ROTC cruise on the USS Frederick, LST-1184. That was deferred for about 20 years and twenty-three years after feeling that call I celebrated my first Eucharist underway on Easter Sunday 2001 aboard the Frederick, the very ship that I felt that call in 1978.

In my own pre-ministry life in college and the Army I was part of Conservative Baptist, United Presbyterian, PCA Presbyterian, charismatic churches and Army Chapels. I attended seminary in schools that were not of my denomination.

I was ordained in a non-denominational Evangelical Christian Church and my theological journey in a Southern Baptist Seminary led me in a Anglican and Catholic direction. That led in 1996 to my ordination first as a Deacon then Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. Eventually after a faith crisis following my time in Iraq which I came home from with a severe case of PTSD I was for all practical purposes an Agnostic struggling to believe in God. It was a most difficult time but eventually faith returned. However that faith was more progressive on social and political issues and more inclusive of others and within months I told by my bishop that I was “too liberal” and needed to leave the church.  That was just over two years ago. It came just a couple of months after I had lost my father to Alzheimer’s Disease and was just about to transfer to a new duty station. I was fortunate to find a home with a church of the Old Catholic tradition, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. (http://apostoliccatholicorthodox.org ) That was a blessing because though a small denomination it held to the beliefs that helped make me a Priest and Chaplain.

Navy and Army Chaplains had significant influence in my life and most came from Christian denominations other than whatever I was in at various points in my life. As first an Army Chaplain in 1992 and now since 1999 a Navy Chaplain I have tried to embody that care and love that was shown to me, both to military personnel, their families, retirees and veterans as well as my fellow Chaplains.  Many of these men and women regardless of their denomination or theological views are often isolated from their own denominations and have to deal with all of the stresses of military life while taking on the burdens of those that they serve.

I find the Guiding Principles of the Chaplain Corps to be something that I think set the Navy Chaplaincy from other types of ministry. They expound upon the motto of Cooperation without Compromise that lies at the core of the Navy Chaplain ministry. They are something that even before I was a Navy Chaplain that I could say that I believed and wanted to embody in my military career as well as in ministry.

Navy Chaplains – Called To Serve

We are religious leaders and naval officers.

We are faithful to our calling as chaplains and strive to grow in our faith.

We have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and will faithfully discharge our duties.

We respect the dignity of those we serve.

We seek to understand cultural and religious values that differ from our own.

We believe the right to exercise our faith is best protected when we protect the rights of all to worship or not worship as they choose.

We work together to meet religious needs.

We are called to serve our people, the Naval Service and each other.

We hold sacred the trust placed in us.

We Are Navy Chaplains

With that said I will sign off for the night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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PT and Bumping into Old Friends at Camp Swampy and Getting Carded at Applebee’s

The Main Gate at Camp Swampy

One nickname that Camp LeJeune North Carolina bears is “Camp Swampy.” This is because of the marsh like conditions of some of the base, the normally abundant rainfall and the propensity of said rainfall to accumulate wherever it falls. It is somewhat like the Tidewater, a polite name for “swamp” is in Virginia, only with more rain and in the spring and summer the humidity, mosquitoes and other vermin that love the conditions.  However, because it is a Marine Corps base one can find people doing PT at any time of the day or night in a variety of forms.  Of course the Marines at Camp LeJeune PT in any weather and Chaplains assigned here, even those with the Navy are kind of expected to do the same. Of course each Chaplain does so within his or her physical constraints. Despite being 50 years old I am still in pretty good shape and have the psychological need to try to keep up with people 20 to 30 years my junior so when I do my PT I am serious about it.  In fact when I was stationed with Navy EOD I did so well on the physical readiness test that an EOD tech asked my assistant Nelson Lebron “what kind of ‘roids is the Chaplain on?”  I found this funny since I don’t do this but I can tell you at the age of 50 and being subject to all sorts of minor bumps, dings and nagging injuries I can understand why some professional athletes would use substances such as HGH, but like the rest of the Navy-Marine Corps team I survive on “Vitamin M” or as it is commonly known to laypersons as 800 mg Motrin.

My normal or abnormal regimen is to do what I call “distance interval training.” Interval training usually entails combining some kind of cardio with exercises that work various muscle groups interspersed throughout. I first did interval type training in high school football practice, back then we called them “grass drills” where we ran in place and whenever the coach blew his whistle we would drop for pushups, sit-ups, flutter kicks or any other exercise that could put us on the ground.  I saw a variation with the Marines early in my Navy career that entailed sprinting and then dropping for whatever kind of punishment the leader determined.  Back then I preferred to run long distances up to 20 miles in training for half-marathons and marathons.

However a series of nagging overuse injuries took me down to 5-8 miles a run before I went to Iraq. In Iraq I picked up a few more injuries and it took me a while to recover so after I was assigned to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I built my runs back up to 3-5 miles but I didn’t find that this was working for me anymore. So I went back to something that I hadn’t done since high school, interval training but I didn’t want to give up running.  I devised a plan that works for me and what I need it to accomplish.  I am now adding the P90X fitness program to fit in on alternate days.

Now I run about 3 miles but every 100-200 yards I drop for a set of 15-25 pushups get up and then do one of 5 different sets of abdominal exercises, 15-30 regular crunches, 40 oblique’s, 15-20 crunches with legs up at a 90 degree angle, 60-100 bicycle crunches and 50-100 flutter kicks with sets of pushups between each of them.

With Paul Rumery in Sicily, he has the hair

It has taken me a while to get settled at Camp LeJeune and begin to plan safe routes to run this and I am just getting back into the groove. Today I went out at lunch amid threatening rain. About a third of the way into the workout the rain came down and I continued to run, the rain was actually quite refreshing and by the two third point of the run I was soaked, my orange Baltimore Orioles t-shirt and gray running shorts must have weighed 5-6 pounds.  As I got up from a set of crunches I wiped off my sunglasses, no I didn’t need them I just like to look cool and as I wiped them off on my previously mentioned soaked Orioles t-shirt I started to run and a car pulled alongside where I was running, the window rolled down and I heard a familiar voice, LCDR Paul Rumery, the Chaplain who had relieved me on USS Hue City in 2003 and who had taken me to dinner the last time I was in Sicily with EOD called out “Hey Steve wild man I knew that it had to be you!” I pulled up and went over to the car, we had a brief talk. Paul had a brand new Chaplain with him who he told that I was a “wild man.” Paul let me know that he didn’t know that I was aboard Camp LeJeune and said that we needed to get together.  It was good to see him and I hope that we do get together soon. I picked up the run again and took it back in to the hospital where my now squishy running shoes and waterlogged clothing dripped of my mud stained body. A Marine Staff Sergeant came up to me and said that I had leaves on the back of my head. I laughed, said “I’m not surprised” and commented “if it ain’t raining we ain’t training.” The Staff Sergeant asked about my workout and was suitably impressed. I then ran into a Corpsman who had been assigned with me at 3rd Battalion 8th Marines back in 2000-2001.  He and I talked for a while. It’s funny what a small world it is when you are stationed in a place like Camp LeJeune.

After work I stopped by the local Applebee’s for a beer and a burger and I was carded by the server. I thanked the server who told me that they and to card anyone that looked under 30 and when he saw my ID and age he was surprised. I must say that since there are so many Marines and Sailors here it is not uncommon to be carded and since I don’t dress my age I can see why I get carded. I must say that it appeals to my vanity.  I guess part of this must be due to good genes as well. Whatever it is I will take it.

Tomorrow I will drive up to Virginia as I have a specialty appointment and assessment to figure out what might be causing my auditory processing disorder.  I haven’t understood speech well since returning from Iraq and the additional Tinnitus is at times deafening.  Hopefully they will figure it out and find something that will make it better.

So anyway, until tomorrow….

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Rumbles in the Old Litter-box: Manifestations of Stress When One Loses a Parent and dealings with the Social Security Administration

I am back in my home town of Mudville aka Stockton California for the funeral of my dad.  I have mentioned the conflicting feelings that have been going on in me since I got the word on Tuesday of selection to promotion and Wednesday of the death of my dad.

I really thought that I would be prepared for his death since he has not been him for the last couple of years becoming really noticeable after I returned from Iraq in February 2008.  The last year and a half especially he has been less than a shadow of his former self barely existing in a nursing home.  Now I would be one that knows a lot about death and grief no matter how well that you think that you have prepared yourself it is like getting kicked in the nuts when it happens. In addition

I made my trip out yesterday, it was smooth and uneventful though quite pricey and have been out and about most of the day working on funeral service issues, particularly ensuring that everything was set for the Memorial Service on Sunday, correcting the obituary and coordinating with the Navy Chaplain that will perform the service and the Military Honors program coordinator  to make sure everything was fine.

I wanted to get info from the Social Security Administration people but their automated system is less than helpful…bad on you Social Security Administration.  Anyway I called the freaking number. At first I thought that I was in luck as the automated service told me that it would be “less than a minute wait” until I spoke to an agent. I was overjoyed, a real person in under a minute certainly the Deity Herself was smiling on me.  The it went to hell…the automated service told me that it was going to ask me six questions, the same six that the real person was going to ask me. It then informed me with great glee how this was in compliance with the Federal Government mandate on reducing paperwork, greenhouse emissions, save the trees, whales and generally safeguard humanity and make sure that earth is inhabitable for at least the next 59 minutes.  That announcement took at least 45 seconds, or so it seemed and then the painfully cheerful automated attendant with an overwhelming sense of self which you would not think that the automated attendant should have started “her” interrogation.  What pissed me off was this computerized and digitally enhanced kept calling itself “Me” and “I.” But I digress. “She” informed me to enter the social security number or say it, so I said it and the automated attendant revealed that she was either hard of hearing, did not understand simple English or just plain stupid. I guess it’s one of those Federal initiatives to hire incompetent automated help.  “She” asked me if the number, which “she” repeated to me was correct, I said no and she did not understand the word no. After a series of failed attempts to communicate with this incompetent but full of it automated attendant I gave up. I asked for a real person. I said the word “attendant” which “she” misunderstood, then “operator” which was also misunderstood and even “get me a f***ing real person.” which was likewise misunderstood by “her.”  I was wondering what the hell, she asks questions that the real person is going to ask anyway and like a cheerful pit bull from cyber hell won’t let me talk to a real person.  The old company commander in me was showing up as I wonder WTF was going on, about that time I was delivered by the call of the Petty Officer that is the military honors coordinator for the area and I hung up on  the overly cheerful automated attendant with an overblown ego and bad hearing.  I will take my mother to the local Social Security Administration Office on Monday morning to deal with this with a flesh and blood human being unless they too have been replaced by holographic images of fake people or wild flesh eating zombies.  Certainly the later would be easier to deal with.

In the midst of this I found that the old litter box was acting up. One of the physical  manifestations of stress is a rumbling litter-box and this morning my old litter-box was certainly rumbling. I delayed my run by about an hour and a half hoping that said rumbling had passed and it appeared that it had. So I put on my running shorts, my orange Norfolk Tides t-shirt and my gray with exceptionally bright orange trim and soles Nike running shoes.  The weather was great, about 60 degrees with clouds and a nice breeze. I felt great and looked to do about six miles until at the 2.2 mile point on on the outbound leg making great time the litter box began to rumble.  I knew that this was not good for unless I wanted to impose on a stranger’s lawn there was no place to go. So I turned around, locked down the sphincter and increased speed to get back to my parents home before sphincter failure set in, which I think would be something like what happens when the Starship Enterprise loses the warp containment field in her engineering plant.   The Deity Herself was smiling on me today my friends as I made excellent time on that back half of the run and with nary a second to spare made it to the head attached to the room that I am staying in.  Stress is such a beautiful thing but thank God for strong sphincters.

So anyway, hopefully things will settle down. My plans are to help my mom with the paperwork and the Social Security People as well as track down my dad’s insurance polices for her and get those paid out to her, or at least start that process.  The memorial service will be at the De Young Shoreline Chapel in Stockton California on Sunday at 1 PM. CAPT Gerald Seely, CHC USN will be the officiant and there will be military honors to include the presentation of our Nations’ colors by either a Navy Chief or Officer, the playing of taps and three rifle volleys from a ceremonial firing squad. I was informed that the the Stockton Police have been notified so they will not think that it is a drive by, Stockton being the home of the ceremonial drive by shooting.

So anyway, I want to hank everyone for their thoughts and prayers and encouragement over the past few days.  I will keep you informed and respond either, by e-mail or Facebook to you if you have or will contact me. I have a lot to catch up on in thanking people and I cannot tell you just how much that your support means and how many times that I have felt tears in my eyes as I have read your kind words.  Those that have called me have been tremendous blessing as have my colleagues at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and the Navy Chief of Chaplain’s Office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under alzheimer's disease