Tag Archives: ordination

Church, Faith, Tolerance and Reconcilliation

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“Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” Paul Tillich

My friends, I write this because of something that happened to me a couple of days ago. It was an incident that upset me greatly because it ended up in the fracturing of a relationship by a friend who evidently could not tolerate where I was in my life as a priest and Christian. I discovered again the reality of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.”

My experience of the Church is profoundly influenced by my life in the nether world of the military culture. My world view is shaped by a blending of various Christian traditions, mutual support and collaboration among believers of often radically different points of view. Because of the love, care and mentoring of people from a blend of different traditions I came to know God and survived a tumultuous childhood with many moves.

As a historian I have been blessed to study church history from the early Church Fathers to the present. As I look to church history I find inspiration in many parts of the Christian tradition. In fact rather being threatened by them I have become appreciative of their distinctiveness. I think that there is a beauty in liturgy and stability in the councils and creeds of the Church. At the same time the prophetic voice of evangelical preaching shapes me, especially the message of freedom and tolerance embodied in the lives and sacrifice of men like John Leland, the American Baptist who helped pioneer the concept of Freedom of Religion established in the Constitution of the United States, of William Wilberforce who labored to end slavery in England and, Martin Luther King Jr. who led the Civil Rights movement.

Likewise that prophetic message of the faith is demonstrated in the ministry, writing and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries Martin Niemoller and Jesuit priest Father Rupert Meyer. All three resisted and preached against the evils of Nazism. In a more contemporary setting I am inspired by Bishop Desmond Tutu who helped topple apartheid in South Africa.

Women like Teresa of Avila and St Catherine show me that women have a legitimate place of ministry and leadership in the Church. I am convinced through my study of Church history, theology and a deep belief in the power of the Holy Spirit that women can and should serve as Priests and Bishops in the church.

My theology has shaped by the writings of Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Jurgen Moltmann, Andrew Greeley, and Henry Nouwen. I’ve been challenged by St Francis of Assissi, John Wesley and Martin Luther. I am especially inspired by Pope John XXIII whose vision brought about the Second Vatican Council and I am inspired by Pope Francis.

I pray that Christians can live in peace with one another and those who do not share our faith. I pray that we can find ways to overcome the often very legitimate hurts, grievances and divisions of our 2000 year history. At the same time I pray that we can repent from our own wrongs and work to heal the many wounds created by Christians who abused power, privilege and even those who oppressed others, waged war and killed in the name of Jesus.

I do not believe that neither triumphalism nor authoritarianism has a place in in a healthy understanding of the church and how we live. I am suspicious of any clergy who seek power in a church or political setting. I profoundly reject any argument that requires the subjection of one Church with its tradition to any other Church. In fact I think that the arrogance and intolerance of Christians to others is a large part of why people are leaving the church in droves and that the fastest growing “religious group” is the “nones” or those with no religious preference. Andrew Greeley said something that we should take to heart:

“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.”

I grew up in and have lived my life in a very open and ecumenical environment. I have lost any trace denominational parochialism and competition that I might have had if I had become a pastor of a civilian parish instead of a chaplain. It is interesting that the pastor that first ordained me in the evangelical tradition and the bishop that ordained me as a priest both did so with the intent that I serve as a chaplain. Whether it was the recognition of a gifting for the work or the fact that they didn’t want me messing up their civilian operations by asking hard questions I will never know.

I believe that my environment and the men and women who have helped shape my life have been a stronger influence in the way I think about ecumenical relations and ministry than my actual theology or ecclesiology. Whether they were Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals or even those considered by many to be outside the faith including Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Mormons and even complete non-believers all have contributed to my life and faith.

I have grown weary of refighting theological debates that have divided the church for a thousand years. Since what we know of theology including our Scriptures and Creeds are based on faith and not science I see no reason to continue to battle.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should put our brains in neutral but rather we must wrestle with how to integrate our faith with science, philosophy and reason, otherwise we will become irrelevant. In that sense I identify with Saint Anslem of Canterbury who wrote about a faith seeking understanding and Erasmus of Rotterdam who very well understood the importance of both faith and reason. In that sense I am very much at home with the Anglian triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to approaching faith.

I struggle with faith and belief. After Iraq I spent two years as a practical agnostic. As Andrew Greeley wrote: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

I am an Old Catholic and believe that inter-communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith. I like to think that I embody what the early Anglicans referred to as the via media and that somehow my life and ministry has been about building bridges at the intersections of faith with a wide diversity of people.

When I have tried to embrace traditionalism or choose to fight theological battles I have ended up tired, bitter and at enmity with other Christians. In a sense when I tried those paths I found that they didn’t work for me. I discovered that I was not being true to who God had created and guided my life, education and experience. I feel like T. E. Lawrence who wrote:

“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….”

My favorite theological debates have been with other chaplains over pints of good beer in German Gasthausen or Irish pubs. Those were good times, we argued but we also laughed and always left as friends and brothers. I believe since we are human that none of us will ever fully comprehend all of God or his or her truth. I believe that the Holy Spirit, God’s gracious gift to her people will guide us into all Truth. For me my faith has become more about relationships and reconciliation than in being right.

As far as those who disagree with me that is their right, or your right if you disagree. I don’t expect agreement and I am okay with differences and even if I disagree with an individual or how another religious denominations polity, theology, beliefs or practices those are their rights. In fact I am sure that those that believe things that I don’t are at least as sincere as me and that those beliefs are important to them. I just ask that people don’t try to use them to force their faith or belief on others, be it in churches or by attempting to use the power of government to coerce others into their belief systems.

To my friend who broke contact with me when I refused to debate his argument that I should submit myself to his Church and tradition, the door is open for reconciliation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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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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It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts: Thoughts on the Occasion of 17th Anniversary of Being Ordained a Priest

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“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Earl Weaver

It is hard to believe that it has been 17 years since I was ordained to the Priesthood. A lot has happened since then, much struggle and difficulty but also many blessings, which I think far outweigh the struggles.

I find that over the years I have matured. As a young Priest my goal was to be a great apologist for the faith using theology and history to drive home the points that I wanted to make, often in quite bombastic terms. A dear friend, an Army Chaplain who was once my enlisted Chaplain Assistant in the Army said that I was like a Catholic “Rush Limbaugh.” At the time I wore the moniker with pride, but over the years I see that no mater how sincere my faith, beliefs and arguments were that they were often more a reflection of my own insecurity and need to show that I and my former church were as valid and relevant as the Roman Catholics, Orthodox or Anglicans and certainly much more than Protestants not in Apostolic succession.

Looking back all these years later I have to admit that was quite arrogant. It is from what I understand a common failing in young Priests, Ministers or Rabbis as well as Navy Ensigns, and Army, Marine Corps and Air Force Second Lieutenants. But sometimes, not always in some cases, age and experience sometimes kick the hell out of arrogance and make you a better minister or military officer.

Since I have been through various renditions of the “young minister” or “young officer” phase of life, and each time had my arrogant tendencies exposed and learned that I knew a whole lost less than I thought that I knew. I guess that Earl Weaver was right, it is “what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

My faith journey since being ordained as a Priest has been full of ups and downs. I figure that between deployments, field exercises, underway periods aboard ship, schools and geographic bachelor assignments, not including the numerous overnights as a hospital chaplain while stationed at home that since July of 1996 I have spent about ten of those 17 years apart from my wife Judy. Next month I return home to Virginia to be with her and take a teaching assignment at the Joint Forces Staff College and with any luck and God willing I will spent the next three years with her and our dogs, Molly and Minnie while teaching, writing and serving as the Chaplain at the small chapel that is part of the Staff College. As my Iraqi friends say “Inshallah.”

Likewise my faith journey has been fascinating when I look back on it. Back in the early days I had an absolute certainty about my beliefs. Those beliefs would be shaken by experiences at war and in my former church. Those experiences were the bombs that blew up my theological playground and I really haven’t been the same since and for that I am actually glad.

The experiences of being used and abused by several bishops of my former church made me wary in a way that I had not been before about those in authority. Coincidentally those men are no longer part of that church having used it for their own gain and through their machinations ruined many lives and destroyed many parishes. Those men at various times forbid me from contact with their diocesan priests, banned me from writing and one finally told me to leave the church. They were not good examples and none are associated with that Church now. Thankfully there are many people, clergy and laity alike in my former church who are doing great things and attempting to put the pieces back together of what the men that mistreated me, and others like them did to that church.

The result of being asked to leave was being received into an an Old Catholic Denomination with a very similar ministry model and ethos to the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands. I am blessed for nearly the past three years to be a Priest in the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. It is where I need to be and a church that embodies what I have come to believe.

Over time my ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) went from a monarchical monstrosity to a belief that true Apostolic authority is not just a matter of having a correct or valid apostolic succession but also is bound up in the whole people of God, that consensus, collegiality and charity are of the essence in our relationships as Christians as well as our witness to the world. The prayer of Jesus that his people “may be one” is part of my daily life and personal prayer.

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Back in May of 2011 I wrote: “I think a lot of this is simply that many of us clergy types become so invested in “defending” what we believe that we forget that the call of Jesus is to care for those that are the least, the lost and the lonely. Without getting preachy it seems to me that Jesus preferred to be with such people and often castigated the clergy of his day for doing exactly what we do.  The whole “woe to you Scribes and Pharisees…” passage should send chills up any minister’s spine because we are often no different than them.”

Likewise my experiences in war and my return from Iraq with a severe case of chronic PTSD also shook the core of my faith. For almost two years I have to admit that for all practical purposes that I was an Agnostic who was praying that God was still around. It took some time before faith returned and when it did it was different. It was questioning, not absolutist and much more willing to be accepting of those different than me and willing to show grace to those whose faith, lifestyle or beliefs that I would have treated much more judgmentally or harshly as new Priest.

One of the authors that helped my through the most difficult of times was the late Father Andrew Greeley whose Bishop Blackie Ryan novels I began reading in Iraq and were about the only spiritual reading that I had during the darkest, most difficult at painful days of my life. One thing that Greeley said which was something that I have come to believe was:  “I don’t think Jesus was an exclusivist. He said, and we believe, that He is the unique representation of God in the world. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way God can work.” (The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World Edited by Bob Abernathy) 

Such an understanding has impacted my ministry as a Priest and Navy Chaplain since my return from Iraq. I have come to believe that the high pressure manner in which many American Christians market their faith under the misnomer of “evangelism” is doing more damage than good and is actually something that the early Church would not have recognized. Greeley put it well:

“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.”

But apart from that I rediscovered my humanity during those dark days and it is something that helps me when I encounter people who are suffering, in crisis, ostracized or struggling and questioning God and their faith. I have learned through my own struggle and despair that simply being preached at told that I didn’t have enough faith, to pray more, read my Bible more or give more money to the church (the latter is quite a popular American way of getting God’s favor) actually drove me away from the grace of God and made me resentful of those that preached at me.

As such I have changed my ministry model. Jesus was about town and hobnobbing with all the wrong kinds of people, often offending both the religious establishment and his own disciples. As a Priest I began to realize while deployed on a Guided Missile Cruiser and in Iraq that I was too protective, much like the post Apostolic era Christians of the Eucharist, which is at the center of my faith. I realize now that Jesus both actively shared bread and wine with those considered to be “unclean” or sinners and never turned away those who sought his presence.

barmherzigkeit

I also realize that anything I do as a Priest, be as simple as an encounter with a person in a hallway or parting lot, with friends at a ball game or bar, at the bedside of a dying man or woman, sitting with the family of a young man one woman that has taken their life, holding a stillborn baby with a grieving mother, administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Baptism or the Eucharist that what matters is being being authentic and showing the love of God to people.

One of the most powerful things that I remember reading from Greeley was in his final Bishop Blackie Ryan novel. In it Bishop Blackie notes:

“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (Andrew Greeley: The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

Seventeen years. It doesn’t seem that long. I assume that I still have much to learn.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Sweet 16: Celebrating 16 Years Since My Ordination as a Priest

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

It was a quiet celebration of Eucharist with Judy this afternoon at my dinner table. I was wearing a stole that Judy made which has been with me around the world and which I wore throughout my time in Iraq. The chalice was a very simple one that I got in Germany when I was stationed there in 1996-1997. The other elements that I used, the paten and crucifix were those that I used in Iraq, as was the lectionary that the readings came from, which has a cover that Judy made for my travels.

Our dog Molly was at my feet and our Papillon puppy Minnie decided that she needed to stay in Judy’s arms for the duration of the liturgy. This is nothing new, our dogs have pretty much been there any time that we have had a home Eucharist. Frieda, our Wire Hair Dachshund I’m sure was a lapsed Bavarian Catholic who if she attended was passed out. Greta our red smooth hair Dachshund would always be with us, but usually would be asleep next to Judy. Molly just likes to be with daddy and this was Minnie’s first Mass. Minnie made us laugh when she tried to get into the chalice as I gave it to Judy, but thankfully she did not succeed.

My service as a priest has been exclusively as a military Chaplain, first in the Army and since 1999 in the Navy. I have not yet had to opportunity to serve in a civilian parish though I have on occasion assisted fellow priests at their parishes. My current assignment is a hospital and most of my duties are related to patient care or staff support. Thus when I am home in Virginia I attend St. James Episcopal Church in Portsmouth where I first started attending while serving at the Naval Medical Center in the midst of my crisis of faith. I love that little parish which has its roots in the former slaves and freedmen of the city.  Down here at the Island Hermitage I have not found that place where I feel at home so on weekends that I am here I typically will do the daily office and Eucharist at home.

So my parish is wherever I serve as a chaplain but in a sense my readers are an extended part of my parish. Father Andrew Greeley wrote:

“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 get notes from people on this site quite often who have experienced the pain of spiritual abuse, trauma from various sources and who have experienced a crisis in faith or lost their faith. I hear from others that have been ostracized by their churches for various reasons. They write in response to articles that I have written about my own crisis of faith following my time in Iraq and struggle with the demons of PTSD. It was a time where I felt abandoned by God and the church. I found that churches can be painful places as often as they become places of healing. Having been asked to leave the denomination that ordained me in September 2010 as I began to recover faith after spending nearly two years struggling I understand that pain. But I agree with Jurgen Moltmann who said of his experiences in World War II and its aftermath “Christ’s own ‘God-forsaken-ness’ on the cross showed me where God is present where God had been present in those nights of deaths in the fire storms in Hamburg and where God would be present in my future whatever may come.”

Today was nice. We spent time together and after the scripture readings and before the Eucharist we simply talked about the journey and how different things are now than when I was ordained. The world has changed and so have we. War does that.

I have been thinking a lot this week about this and how blessed I am to be a priest and chaplain. I am blessed by people who taught me, mentored me and cared for me throughout my journey. I am blessed to still be able to serve God’s people and my church even as I serve those that serve this country in the military.  I try to remember as Andrew Greeley wrote in one of his Bishop Blackie Ryan mysteries that:

“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

This week I was humbled when one of my old shipmates from my time on the USS Hue City posted a comment on my Facebook page about the impact that I had made in his life about 10 years ago.  The week was supposed to be a bit relaxing but I spent a good amount of it dealing with the tragic suicide of one of our Corpsmen who worked at one of our hospital clinics.  I will continue to be working with that situation this week and would appreciate your prayers.

We also had our tankless water heating system go out and have been shuttling in to the base to take showers at the hospital locker room. Hopefully the maintenance man has the new component tomorrow. As it is I will be going in to work very early to PT and shower before my first meeting and what promises to be a very busy day as we prepare a memorial service and care for our shipmates.

Judy came to North Carolina this week and leaves tomorrow. Molly as usual will remain with me and Minnie after a wonderful week of growing up is going back to Virginia with Judy.  It has been, excepting the oppressive heat, humidity and lack of hot water for showers been an enjoyable time together. We were able to have dinner last night with our friends from Kinston, Jerry, Toni and Cara in New Bern.

Since tomorrow will be a very early start I will close.

Anyway, grace and peace,

Padre Steve+

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On the Anniversary of my 16th Year of Ordination to the Diaconate

“So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

“My brother, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely…” From the Ordination of a Deacon, 1979 Book of Common Prayer

In the more liturgical churches, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox the first major order of ordination is to the Diaconate, or to be a Deacon. In other denomination men and women are appointed as deacons but not ordained. In the non-Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican there is a wide variety of service done by deacons and deaconesses everything from being the ruling board of a local church to serving in various ministries of service within the church.

I was ordained as a Deacon 16 years ago tonight on hot, humid and stormy night in Maryland. I was one of six men ordained that night as Deacons, all of who were bound for the Priesthood. I was already an ordained minister in an Evangelical Protestant Church and was serving as a civilian hospital chaplain and as a Major in the Army Reserve Chaplain Corps. I had began a spiritual pilgrimage to an Anglo-Catholic way of life in seminary while attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas.

The office of Deacon or Deaconess in the Orthodox, Anglican and Old Catholic traditions is different from the other major orders, the Presbyter (Priest) and Episcopate (Bishop). It is and always has been about the ministry to service, assisting the Bishop and Priests with the care of the poor, sick, weak and lonely as well as preaching the Gospel. It was established in the 6th Chapter of the Book of Acts when the Apostles, harried by the widows of non-Jewish members of the church who felt that they were being ignored. The Apostles laid hands on 7 men, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Paraemus and Nicholas. Paul in 1 Timothy 3 gives criteria for the kind of person to be ordained as deacons and Pliny the Younger in his Letter to Trajan specifically mentions women serving as deacon who he calls deaconesses.

In the west the office of deacon languished for nearly a millennia being used only as a stop on the way to a man being ordained as a Priest. It remained very active in the Christian East and some Orthodox Churches retained the office of Deaconess. The office experienced a revival in the West during the 20th Century with both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches revitalized the office and returned to early tradition in appointing men to be permanent as well as transitional Deacons. The Second Vatican Council noted that Deacons should be “Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: ‘Let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all'” Lumen gentium, n. 29 cf. Ad Phil., 5,2, ed. Funk, I, p. 300)

Deacons can preach, baptize assist at celebration of the Eucharist, give communion and in the Catholic and Anglican traditions celebrate a marriage. Deacons are allowed to marry, unless they are transitional Deacons in the Roman Catholic church who are being prepared for ordination to the Priesthood.

For those ordained as transitional Deacons, those who eventually are ordained as Priests, and in some cases those who later are consecrated as Bishops, they are not to lose that call to be servants of God’s people. This sadly is not always the case.  It is all too easy for a cleric to become more concerned with his or her position in the hierarchy and the place of the Church in society over serving those that come to the Church broken, wounded and needy, especially in need of care and love, those rejected by the affluent and abused by supposed Christians.

Fr Rupert Mayer SJ

For me the ordination to the Diaconate was important. It stressed to me that ordination was not simply about preaching or ruling in the Church. Of course I knew that but the fact that charge committed to Deacons is first service of the weak, the poor, the sick and the lonely. It has been a while since I re-read the Ordination Liturgy. It is a compelling reminder in a world where the poor, the sick, the weak and the lonely are continually abused and ignored by the rich, the entitled, the powerful and the criminal elements or even governments, that the Christian, particularly those men and women ordained to the Diaconate must be servants first, not rulers or worldly power brokers. Father Rupert Mayer SJ of Munich who was imprisoned for speaking out against the Nazis through much of the Hitlerite rule was a leading champion of Munich’s poor during the Weimar Hyper-Inflation and during the Great Depression. A former Army Chaplain in the First World War who was wounded at the front losing a leg he said: “If out of the ten who ask for alms there are nine who are not in need of them, and if through fear of that happening, I refuse my help to one really needy person, this would cause me immense suffering. I would rather give to all ten and thus avoid the danger of being lacking in charity.”

When I was in High School and College there was a song that was popular in contemporary Christian music. It was called Make Me a Servant by a lady named Kelly Willard who sang with Maranatha! Music.  The words are fitting for all Christians who are called by Jesus to be “servants of all” but especially for all who are ordained or have ever been ordained as Deacons.

Make me a servant, Humble and meek

Lord let me lift up those who are weak, And may the prayers of my heart always be

Make me a servant, Make me a servant, Make me a servant today…

I certainly don’t always live up to this high calling, but it is something that I try to do. It is simple, but so hard, but of all things what the followers of Jesus are called to do. Today has been a day of reflection even as I cared for some people going through terrible times. I do pray that my life will be more reflective of God’s grace in my dealings with all people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Church of Love: Reflections on the celebration of my 15th Anniversary of Ordination

Christmas in Iraq 2007

It is hard to believe that I am a Priest and that I have been one now for the past 15 years. I held ordination in a two different Evangelical churches dating back to 1989 and had served as a Chaplain in civilian hospitals as well as the Army National Guard and Reserve before I was ordained as a Priest by Bishop Phillip Zampino of the Charismatic Episcopal Church Diocese for the Mid-Atlantic on July 7th 1996. It was what I thought was the culmination of my journey to the Catholic faith since the Charismatic Episcopal Church in that area considered itself very much on the Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic leaning side of that denomination.

My journey to a sacramental and catholic faith had began as a child when Navy Chaplain who was a Roman Catholic priest was instrumental in helping me continue to believe when a Methodist Sunday School teacher told me that my dad, then serving at An Loc Vietnam was a “baby killer.” I really do still trace my vocation as a Priest to that man even though my journey on the way to this faith was rather circuitous.  That journey continued all thorough my life as an Evangelical Christian and was intellectually cemented in at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where in my Church History and Systematic Theology courses I became convinced of many Catholic teachings. It took another four years after graduation leave the Evangelical movement to the CEC and had I not gone there I would have likely ended up in the Episcopal Church or one of the more Catholic leaning continuing Anglican churches or somewhere in the Old Catholic movement.  What took me to the CEC was the recommendation of an Anglican friend who thought it would be a good fit.

I was ordained on the evening of July 7th 1996. The ordination date was actually advanced several months because of my impending mobilization to support Operation Joint Endeavor, the Bosnia peacemaking mission.  We arrived the night prior to my ordination and I had a talk with Bishop Zampino talking about the “new phase of ministry” that I was entering. He reminded me that the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Ordination) was not was not about a change of ministry but something different. In Catholic theology ordination is very different from most of Protestantism where there is little difference in the estate of the ordained minister and lay people.  In Sacramental theology when a person is ordained to the Priesthood there is an ontological change brought about by the Holy Spirit. Once a person has been ordained they are spiritually changed, which is the origin of the saying, “Once a priest, always a priest.” The Priest can be dispensed of his or her obligations as a priest and in the case of grave misconduct or heresy even forbidden to act as a priest; but they remain priests forever.

The Bishop’s words reinforced something that I already understood from my theological education and formation but had not been put as bluntly with such effect by any of my professors or the Priests that mentored me.  When I was ordained that Sunday evening it was on the feast of Saint Willibald of Eichstadt, a Celtic Benedictine missionary born in England who settled in the small Bavarian town of Eichstadt.  He remained as the Bishop of that small diocese for 40 years and is buried in the picturesque cathedral located in the city. His brother Wunibald was also a missionary and Abbott in Heidenheim and their sister Walburga governed the female community at the same abbey. I was ordained in the evening which also meant it was July 8th in Germany, the feast day of another Celtic missionary Saint Killian the martyr bishop of Würzburg. It so happened that my first assignment as a Priest would be in Würzburg just a few weeks later.  I feel a close connection to each of these Saints as the date of my baptism was that of the Feast of Saint Wunibald, December 18th.

My life since ordination has been rather interesting or as Jerry Garcia put it a “long strange trip.” I have travelled the world as a Navy Chaplain and been able to care for God’s people in many diverse and often dangerous places. To be a priest in the Navy, be a person Roman, Anglican, Orthodox or Old Catholic is an adventure, to celebrate Eucharist, to baptize and to administer the Sacrament of Penance as well as the Sacrament of Healing or as it used to be called Unction in often dangerous places is for me the pinnacle of the priestly ministry.  Many of my friends of other branches of the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox traditions echo that sentiment. To proclaim the Gospel to men and women in harm’s way and to care for those of other traditions that are given to our care, providing what we can and helping them the best we can while respecting them and their beliefs.

For me the path has not always been easy and I think that most Priests can echo that. In my 14 years as Priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church I ran afoul of some rather autocratic Bishops all of whom are no longer in that Church.  I was banned from writing for a number of years because of my published essays which were considered “too Catholic.” During that time Bishop Zampino even suggested that I explore the Roman Catholic priesthood.  I looked into it in a number of dioceses but never went beyond exploring possibilities. Bishops were polite but less than interested in a married Priest from a Church that was considered valid but illicit.

So despite being banned from writing and even banned from contact with civilian Priests in the state where I was stationed by another Bishop who is now a Roman Catholic layman I remained in the church. During this time I became more disconnected and disenchanted with the church.  When I returned from Iraq I was in a full blown spiritual crisis brought about by PTSD.  My conditioned worsened to the point that for nearly two years I was a practical agnostic.  Faith returned in December of 2009 when administering the last rites to a dying man on the Emergency Room of the Medical Center where I was serving as a Chaplain.

But the faith was different and I no longer fit in the Church though I tried. Despite this my writings, which I had started as part of my therapy became too much for my church and even though faith had returned it was not welcome.  I was asked to leave and thankfully was received by the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a North American expression of the Old Catholic faith. Since my ordination was valid I was simply received into the Church.

I am very blessed to be able to serve as a Priest and care for the people that God brings into my life. It is now 15 years since that night when Bishop Zampino laid his hands upon me and ordained me into this life. Despite some to the twists, turns and even disappointments I am fortunate as my faith is real again and I can see the good in people and experience the Grace of God in my daily life.  It really is miraculous.  I have a joy again that allows me to pass through the painful and sometimes lonely times that I still occasionally experience.

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

I have found that this is more than true. My belief now is that the church must be a church of love.  In another book Greeley has a fictional papal contender named Luis Emilio Cardinal Menendez y Garcia makes a speech which the end of which I find particularly inspiring. While it speaks of the Roman Catholic Church I think that it speaks to most churches and reflects how people see us:

“So many of our lay people believe that ours is a Church of rules, that being Catholic consists of keeping rules. They do not find an institution which is like that very appealing. Nor should they.

In fact, we are a Church of love. Our message from the Lord himself even today is the message that God is Love and that we are those who are trying, however badly, to reflect that love in the world. I find that in my own city that notion astonishes many people. How we came to misrepresent that which we should be preaching above all else is perhaps the subject for many doctoral dissertations.

More important for us today, however, is the reaffirmation that we exist to preach a God of love, we try to be people of love, and we want our church to be, insofar as we poor humans can make it, a Church of radiant love.

Does such a Church have a future? How could it not?”

Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.”

I hope that I do that as imperfect as I am and as earthy as I tend to be.

On the anniversary of my ordination I ask you to pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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