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Coronavirus and the Unthinkable: The Coming Need for Combat Mass Casually Triage

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We live in a vastly different world than we lived in just a few weeks ago. The President persists in repeating the mantra that nobody saw the novel Coronavirus coming, when in fact there were such creditable reports coming from China that even the Texas based H.E.B. Grocery chain began to prepare for it in January. The interesting fact is that we’re simply paying attention to unclassified, publicly available reports about it, and not the classified information being provided to the President by U.S. Intelligence agencies in January and February; information the President either paid no attention to or willingly ignored. Thus, unlike the people of H.E.B., the Federal government made no preparations for the coming pandemic. No wonder he persists in saying that no one saw it coming, it lets him off the hook, a victim of his own willful ignorance.

Because of this civilian hospitals are without enough room, ICU beds, isolation rooms, effective medications, respiratory ventilators, and Personal Protective Equipment, all known by the acronym PPE. Part of this is because we run a profit based medical system. ICUs are very expensive to maintain, if a hospital maintains a large surge capacity, it loses money.

They are not your general purpose hospital rooms; the really well equipped ones have  individual rooms, often equipped with negative pressure so infections cannot get into the rest of the ICU from being infected when the door is opened. they have to be staffed by highly trained physicians: Since most people in ICUs are dependent on some form of respiratory support, the Attending Physicians are usually Pulmonologists, or to put it simply, doctors who deal with the complexities of the human respiratory system. Depending on the patient they work with Cardiologists who deal with the heart, Neuro-surgeons, and Neurologists, who deal with the Brain and Central Nervous System; Cardio-thoracic surgeons, Gastroenterologists, Cancer Specialists, Rheumatologists, Renal Specialists, Trauma Surgeons, Burn Specialists, ENTs, Entomologists, Virologists, Radiologists, and host of other speciality disciplines. The nurses are not your ordinary nurses. They are RNs with certifications in critical care, cardiology. Neurology, and like the doctors a host of other disciplines, many have Masters and Doctorates, and nurses generally are assigned to work with one or two patients, where on a general medical or surgical ward that ratio might be one for every seven or eight patients. Then there are the respiratory therapist who run and maintain the ventilators and other breathing machines, the X-Ray techs, the phlebotomists, the lab techs, as well as LPNs, Nurse’s Aides, and Medical techs, and unit clerks who do the unglamorous work in the ICU. In really well equipped Medical Centers there are portable X-Rays, CT scanners, and Dialysis machines in the ICU. This doesn’t count the highly complex ICU beds, Cardiac monitors, IV pumps, and so much else to make them work. Let’s not mention the Chaplains, Social Workers and others who work with the patients, families, and treatment team in caring for each patient. I have spent a number of years as an ICU chaplain in major medical centers that are also teaching hospitals. I have seen my fair share of suffering and death, as well as the heroics of ICU staff members.

In normal times there are just enough ICU units and beds to treat those that require them, as well as all the equipment and personnel to keep them going. But many smaller hospitals lack this capacity, they are dependent on major medical centers, and local specialists and practices to supply what they need. The fact is that this pandemic has revealed just how unprepared we were for it.

This places doctors in a terrible conundrum. These physicians, nurses, and techs are devoted to saving lives, and most of the time the work heroically to saves the lives of men and women with multiple morbidity factors, or what some of us called “medical disaster areas,” because they were so sick that even heroics could not keep them alive. Statistically most Americans will spend a month or more of their final year alive in an ICU, when palliative care would be more human. ICUs are incredible, but too many people, influenced by television medical dramas believe that they are miracle centers, when they are not. As modern Americans we have forgotten the lessons of our ancestors, we no longer value life enough to make our dying loved ones comfortable, surround them with love, remember their lives, and let them to tell their stories and say goodbye. Instead we try to keep people alive without considering the pain and suffering that the treatments of their maladies cause  them, We have institutionalized death, and made very caring strangers responsible for the deaths of our loved ones, in sterile, mechanical, and unfamiliar places. I have seen too many of these deaths and remember so many of them. That my friends is just in normal times. These are not normal times.

Since we failed to prepare for it in the eight or so weeks that we had a chance to prepare for it, the novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has infected over 600,000 people worldwide and killed over 30,000, is now straining even the most prepared healthcare systems to the brink. Despite the quality of our care, our government, medical systems, businesses, and population were completely unprepared for this, except for those like H.E.B. and me who began to follow it early.

This pandemic is in the process of making providers have to upend normal triage. In normal times we treat the sickest and most likely to die first, those serious but not in a life and death battle second, and those healthiest and likely to survive their injuries or infections last. I remember on one horrible night back in 1994 at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, our ICUs we’re slammed and I was the on call chaplain for the entire 900 bed hospital. All six trauma bays were full, with people suffering gunshot wounds, burns, and injuries from motor vehicle crashes. The same was tru in our Medical ER where all three critical rooms were occupied, with two in the process of full code from contaminated crack cocaine overdoses. As I made my rounds in the ER, preparing myself to be with doctors as they got ready to tell family members that their loved ones were dead, a young man, on an overflow bed, being monitored every 20-30 minutes, with a flesh wound cause by a small caliber weapon in his thigh pulled me aside. He pleaded with me. “You’re the Chaplain, I’ve been shot, get me treated!” I told the young man, “I’ll be glad to do so if you want me to tell the doctors that are trying to keep people from dying that you need to be seen before the man with the gunshot wound in the head that just died, or the woman with massive crush injuries from a car crash who is trying to die, or the man with 70% of his body burned Who is unlikely to live, or any of the others we are trying to keep from dying, for you? You are stable and being monitored, you’ll get treated and walk out of here by tomorrow. So who do you choose?”  The young man was stunned by my bluntness. He then stammered out, “someone just died and others might?” I nodded my head and said, ”what do you want me to tell the doctors?” My words must have struck a nerve and revealed that he still had a conscience. He replied, “No sir, help them and pray for me, I’m sorry.” I said, “getting shot isn’t normal,  and it is scary, but I will pray for you and these doctors will take care of you.” He simply thanked me and grasped my hand. I said a brief prayer for him and moved on in a night that would have me deal with eight deaths, and doing my best to care for the dead, their loved ones, and our staff.

In the Coronavirus era, the young man might be treated first and the dying placed on an overflow bed in the ER. This is not about choosing what life matters more, but the hard fact that no matter how hard we try we cannot save the lives of some people regardless of how many resources we employ.

I learned these hard facts as a Medical Service Corps Officer in Germany at the height of the Cold War. In a NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) mass casualty event, or even an overwhelming conventional mass casualty event the triage of casualties is upended. In normal times we try to treat the most seriously injured or ill first. But in an environment where the ill or injured are infected by a biological agent that we cannot treat, or a chemical agent that will kill them anyway, or enough radiation exposure to kill them, or we are completely overwhelmed with casualties, we provide palliative care to the dying or most likely to die while minimizing their pain and suffering. instead we concentrate on saving the lives of those who have the best chance of living. As long as we have the resources and personnel we aggressively try to save the lives of people infected by Coronavirus, but if we don’t we need to issue “do not resuscitate“ or DNR orders in order to protect medical providers and to ensure that we save the maximum number of people regardless of their status in society.

In a combat environment, which I hate to say we are now in, a soldier with an otherwise treatable wound who has been exposed to a biological or chemical agent, is given palliative care. Likewise, you cannot run a full code on a person infected with Coronavirus because you risk infecting the treatment team, and other patients in the adjoining beds. That may sound heartless, but it is the most humane course of action. At the rate of expansion of COVID 19, more and more doctors and hospitals will be forced to make this choice.  Chaplains and nurses can care for the dying, so long as they use appropriate personal protective equipment in order to not become infected and pose a risk to others. No one likes this, but if resources and personnel cannot handle the numbers of those infected, then such measures are necessary, and I do not say this lightly. I have been through two pandemics, and combat. I value all life, but there are times when care has to be rationed. That is something I know from history, as well as my education and training. Every life might be sacred, but you cannot save everyone, and whether we like it or not, everybody dies.

That is what we are rapidly approaching now. In the past two days the number of deaths from novel Coronavirus-19 have doubled from 1,000 to 2,000. Since 8 March we have gone from 516 confirmed cases and 21 deaths to 123,750 infections and 2,227 deaths. That my friends is in 20 days. The rate of infection is increasing exponentially as the nation, led by a President who will not lead or take responsibility for his actions and that of his administration, desperately tries to contain it. The state governors who speak out asking for help for their citizens are demonized by the President and his cult like followers.  This isn’t about politics, it is about life and preserving it.

Mark my words, with a week hospitals in many major urban centers, and the understaffed, underfunded, hospitals throughout America’s Red State heartland will be having to make these terrible decisions about who lives and who dies. Sadly, the trail of guilt can be traced not just to Trump and his administration, but to leaders in both political parties, who refused to speak the truth when it was most needed.

I refuse to be one of them. I will speak truth to those in power as long as I can and provide my pastoral care to those who most need it, and I will not reject anyone, Christians, other believers, or those who struggle with belief or reject the entire concept of a Supreme Being. For me all that matters is that they are flesh and blood human beings in need of empathy and care, regardless of their beliefs.

So, that being said, I wish you peace, health, and the blessing of not having to make such decisions, unless you have to speak for a loved one who cannot speak for themselves.

We are in a war against an unseen enemy as well as others who want to destroy us. More often than not the President sides with those who want to destroy all of us regardless of party, race, religion, or ideology. Like it or not we are now dealing with a combat situation and  everything we knew before is  obsolete.

I have been preaching this for years, but because I deal with combat induced PTSD and other issues I have been sidelined by the Navy Chaplain Corps. But I won’t stop preaching to truth to power and caring for everyone in my care. Twenty-four years ago when I was ordained as a Priest in my former church, the Archdeacon made a prophecy that like Saint Stephen I would accept martyrdom joyfully.

Mind you, I am not one to take such utterances literally, and want to live as long and and happily as I can. Nor do I seek martyrdom be abuse I believe that God, whoever he or she may be is not a fan of such actions. That being said,  I want everyone I know to live through this and produce antibodies in their blood cells that will help others live. Likewise I will speak as long as I live against political, business, financial, military, or religious leaders who would use this crisis to consolidate and expand their powers at the expense of all over us, regardless of our race, ethnicity, religion, political or ideological beliefs may be.

But I am tired, so until tomorrow, please be careful out there.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Faith, Doubt, and the Little Things: Thoughts at the End of a Long but Good Week


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a long, tiring, yet very good week. For those who have followed me on this blog for so long, I want to say thank you. I left my last assignment broken, dispirited, struggling with my faith and calling, but as a result of a series of events regarding my retirement, my faith has been renewed and my sense of calling and joy to serve as a Priest restored. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience doubts, or question doctrine, or even wonder about the existence of God. I wish that I can say that that wasn’t the case, but the fact is that all of us, believers or unbelievers alike live in what the German Pastor, theologian, resistier and martyr to Adolf Hitler said:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  

Whether we believe or don’t believe; are fixed in our religious doctrine or non-religious ideology, or doubt as I so frequently do, the fact is that we live in the uncomfortable middle. Truthfully, we come from a beginning that we can only only make ultimately unprovable theological or scientific theories of origins; and move to an end, that while it certainly will happen, either in apocalyptic fury, or where either we ourselves will destroy most of the life of the planet, save the Cockroaches, or the Sun goes supernova and consumes the Earth and the rest of our pitiful solar system, unless the dreams of Gene Roddenberry come true. Truthfully, I have learned in my almost sixty years of earthly existence to be okay with that. Others religious and non-believers alike aren’t okay with that, simply because they require certitude.

The seeds of this idea were planted over 25 years ago during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency, at Parkland Memorial Hospital confronted me about my “illusion of control” after a case conference. He was frustrated with me, and for him it was a throw away comment, but is penetrated the armored belt that I had surrounded my heart, soul, and intellect with for years, even before I became an Army officer in 1983.

I mentioned a lot of the week last night. I have felt a renewal of faith and call; a joy in ministry and caring for people that I haven’t experienced since my time in Iraq, which was quite literally, “the best of times and the worst of times. At the same time, while I believe, I doubt. As Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain: 

“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re present but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe …. Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don’t believe but I know.”

The words reflected what I was going through. I believed, but I didn’t. Of course that would not only continue as my tour in Iraq progressed but got worse after I returned from Iraq. However, I discovered, much to my surprise that I was not alone. That there were a number of other very good, caring Chaplains, Priests and ministers going through similar doubts, fears and pain.

The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:

“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.”

The words were and still remain an epiphany to me. Belief and unbelief co-existing simultaneously, yet in a way strangely congruent with the testimony of scripture, the anguished words of a man whose son was possessed by an evil spirit confessing to Jesus: “I believe, help my unbelief.” Maybe that is why in the Liturgy of the Eucharist we proclaim the mystery of faith, or as it is translated from Latin into German Geheimnis des Glaubens. That mystery, is that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. That really is the mystery of what Christians call faith

We can be reasonably certain from non-Christian sources like the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman Letter to Trajan, written by Pliny the Younger, that there was a man name Jesus who was crucified by the Romans, and whose followers believed that he had died, been buried, had risen from the dead. Likewise, It was the testimony of those early believers in Scripture and non-canonical writings, that he would come again. Pliny described them as model citizens whose only fault, was that they would not burn incense and proclaim that Caesar was Lord, and sought the advice of Emperor Trajan on what to do with them. Before and after that many gave their lives peacefully as martyrs for this crucified man named Jesus.

That is why as strongly, or as doubtfully we believe as Christians, what we believe is based upon faith, mixed with fact, which until those words become reality, cannot be proven. Which is why some priests, like the fictional Jean Paul in Greeley’s novel and me “ both believe and not believe at the same time.”

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but in this season of Lent where Christians are called to draw near to God in order to be transformed by God’s love, and share it with others through their lives and actions, not just words, platitudes, and certitudes, but being humble servants of others we come to experience a renewal of life which can only be described as mysterious.

So that is it for the night and I hope that no matter what you believe that you experience joy, love, and even come to revel in the mystery that we call life and faith, and share that love, human, and or divine with others. After all, a smile, a friendly greeting, an expression of care from a friend or stranger, looking into someone’s eyes with care and concern, may be the only good thing that a person living a lonely, sad, and anxiety filled life, might experience that day. As my one of my football coaches in high school, Duke Pasquini told me “it’s the little things that count.” 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Not to Be Alone: Why Gay Marriage Matters

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been thinking about the profound legal and moral implications of the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equity, the Obergfell v. Hodges case. One of those impacts in in a very simple and human concern, the ability of people to be with their loved ones during medical crisis or when they are dying. I saw the profound implications of not having this right when I was a young chaplain doing my hospital residency at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas 1993 and 1994. This is the story of those two encounters and how they changed me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

marriage equality

For me it is still hard to comprehend, a young chaplain; two relatively young men dying of AIDS, two partners, two families and two radically different experiences of humanity, faith, religion and authentic loving relationships.

I was still a relatively inexperienced minister and chaplain back when I was doing my Pastoral Care residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas Texas back in 1993 and 1994. Yes I had graduated from seminary. Yes I had a bit of chaplain experience as an Army National Guard chaplain and as a counselor at a major evangelical Christian ministry, and yes I had experience in dealing with AIDS as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army.

Despite that, I was so ill prepared to deal with the massively different treatment of people dying from AIDS from their families. Families that in some cases shared the same Christian faith as me. I think that is one of the things that young ministers struggle with when they enter the nether world between life and death, mortality and immortality, faith and unbelief in the real world. When I was in seminary the senior pastor of the mega-church that I attended told a story about being approached by a family member of someone who was very sick and in hospital. The person wanted him to visit them while they were a patient. He had been their pastor for years. When they ask him if he would come, he refused. He recounted that the “parishioner asked just how sick he would have to be to get a hospital visit?” The pastor told us his response. He laughed and said “you don’t want to be that sick.” The congregation laughed and I was devastated.

The pastor was a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation, a friend of John Wimber, Rick Joyner and others who helped to pave the way to the heartless, unfeeling, political “Christianity” and “Dominion theology” that is in vogue with the Tea Party and Religious Right today. When I questioned him about his comments later he told me that thought that pastoral care of those in his congregation, especially in regard to hospital visits was “below his office as an apostle, that others had that responsibility.” The thing that disturbed me the most was that he had ordained me as an Evangelical minister in that church to be a chaplain barely two years before this. I had respected him and now I felt a tremendous sense of emptiness when I left his office.

So when I began my pastoral care residency at Parkland I found that I had a lot to learn about the real world of religious faith, religious hypocrisy and religious hatred and intolerance.

Early in my residency I dealt with a number of AIDS cases. I wrote about one of those cases last night, although that was not really early in my residency, it was closer to the end of it. There were two cases besides that one that made such deep impressions on me that I can never forget them. Both involved young, white, homosexual men dying of the complications from full blown AIDS. Both came from very “Evangelical Christian” families (both were Southern Baptist) and both were being grieved by what we called then, their “significant others” as well as their biological families. But that was where the similarities ended.

The first case was in the second month of my residency, when I was the chaplain for the Medical ICU, before the Pastoral Care Director wisely moved me to the Trauma and Surgery department. A patient came to us, a man, about my age, a successful architect with many friends who was experiencing pneumonia brought about by his immunodeficiency brought about by HIV.

When he arrived he was still able to communicate and he had many of his friends as well as his significant other visiting him. They loved him and he loved them. There was a sense of community and if I dare say real family as they visited. In those first few days I got to know him and these people, most of who were homosexual but not all. There were a number of women there, who I am sure had the patient, who was a remarkably handsome man, been a heterosexual, would have loved to have been his wife.

My encounter with him, before his condition worsened to the point that he had to go on a ventilator and was sedated was transforming. He grew up in the church, knew that he was homosexual, attempted to live with it and finally came out as gay, and was disowned by his family. Despite this he became a highly successful architect, had many friends, was active in charitable works, and still maintained his faith in Jesus. I came to appreciate him, the man who for was for all purposes his spouse and his friends.

However, when his condition deteriorated his estranged family, the people who had disowned him, rushed to his “rescue.” In good Christian form they brought their pastor who though their son was unconscious proceeded to preach at him regarding his need to “repent” and “to come back to Jesus.” The family also took advantage of the law. They were his biological family and next of kin. They banned the man’s partner and friends from his room as he lay dying.

The family’s pastor preached at the dying man and glared at the people closest to him while he was present.  I was appalled by his, and their behavior. While they isolated their son from those closest to him and allowed their pastor to condemn him as he died, I remained with his partner and friends. I prayed with them, I cried with them, I embraced them. When the family left I went with them to be with this young man’s mortal body. We prayed and after the nurses prepared his body and the doctors completed their final notes, I walked with them as we took his body on that long trip from the ninth floor to basement, where the morgue awaited. I still cry when I think of this encounter, of how supposedly Christian people would not only keep their son, who they had rejected and condemned from those who loved him the most as he lay dying.

A couple of months later I was in my element as the Trauma and Surgery Department Chaplain, but I still had on call duty where I was responsible for crisis situations anywhere in the house. One of those wild nights I got a call from the nursing staff of Nine South, the Medical Step Down unit where the lady that I wrote about last night had passed away, but that was still in the future.

This time there was another young white man, another partner, another family. This young man was not in the ICU fighting for his life, he was passing away in the quiet solitude of his room with his mother and father, his partner and his friends at his side. Like the other young man he was a man of faith. He loved Jesus, he loved his family and he loved his partner.

He was from the area west of Dallas, the area between Fort Worth and Abilene. His mom and dad were ranchers, dad was wearing his cowboy hat, a plaid shirt, classic western Levi’s jeans and cowboy boots. His mom was wearing a simple dress. Both were thing, tanned and their faces lined by the sun and weather and from being out on the range with their cattle. The young man who was with them, the dying man’s partner was casually dressed but though he was from the same area was not a rancher.

I spent time with all of them. The contrast between the “Christian” parents and pastor of the first young man could have not been more profound. Like the architect’s parents, they were Christians. In fact they were Southern Baptists who attended a small country church in the town that they lived. By any sense of the word they could be described as “Fundamentalist” Christians, but unlike so many fundamentalists they focused on loving God and loving people, even people that so many Christians reject out of hand.

I arrived as the patient was breathing his last. I remained with him, his parents, partner and friends as he passed away, and when his parents asked I offered a prayer commending his soul to God. As I did this his partner was in a state of near collapse, exclaiming “I have no one now, I am alone!” His grief was overwhelming, he had no legal status, in the eyes of the law he meant nothing, though the man that he loved had just died. My heart was rent, and I held on to him.

As I did, the patient’s father came alongside of us. The father said to the young man “You are not alone, you are our son now, we love you.” When this dear man said this we all were in tears, as I am right now. I stayed with all of these dear people as the nursing staff prepared the young man’s body to go to the morgue. At some point the parents escorted their son’s now widowed partner out of the hospital. Mom and dad walked on either side of him as they left the ward. If there was anyone couple on this either who were true Christians, it was this dear couple. As we parted I could not hold back the tears, and the father of the deceased gave me a hug and thanked me for being with them and honoring his son.

I remained with the nursing staff and the internal medicine resident as they complete their duties and took the young man’s body to the morgue. After that I went back to the emergency room where some of the nursing staff, including a RN who at one time had been an Assemblies of God pastor, but was now an avowed atheist who loved to torment chaplains, except me, comforted me in my grief. It is funny that an atheist would be comforting the chaplain after such an event, but then if I do believe in God, why can’t I believe that anyone cannot share in the grief of others and of comfort and care.

It was a story that I could only share with my pastoral care residency supervisor, in our residency group and with my wife Judy, as I knew if I shared my experience at church that at best I would only be humored, and most probably be ostracized. In fact I had to keep that story pretty much under wraps until 2010 when was told to leave the church which had ordained me a priest, for among other things speaking out for the rights of Gays, Lesbians and the LGBTQ community. By then I had met and served with far too many Gays who were far better Christians than most of the Christians who condemned them not to do so.

But, in a way it was a step to freedom because I realized that what I had been taught for so long was so horribly at odds with the message of Jesus.

Two deaths, two men, two partners, two families, two experiences of God’s grace, two experiences of a common humanity and the experience of one very flawed, but no longer confused chaplain…

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“You Don’t Want to Be That Sick” Pastors Who Ignore

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Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to be that sick.”

The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”

The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  My philosophy of religion professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”

Unfortunately my old pastor, and many more like had stopped doing Christian theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue of the lack of care confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.

Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care. Having attended a number of these churches, and worked for a prominent television evangelist I can sadly report seeing this first hand many times.

Sometimes this problem it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church.  In that church the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.

No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is primarily a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care, although sadly there are Catholic priests who do not see themselves as care givers.

The “by design” issue is more far more troubling as the focus of the church is growth, sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.  Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Courses dealing with Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History which offer timeless lessons for pastors.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.

With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.  Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.

The home groups or cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time in San Antonio that is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a clinical social worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.

Most home groups are not that fortunate.  There are unhealthy groups which are led by people who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Others who do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God. Often this is because sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or that their problems don’t match up with their church theology.

My wife and I know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.

I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.

Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house Christian counseling programs or refer members to Christian counseling services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.
The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?

Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint John of the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?

Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular people who populate their pews, by their books and give to their ministry, even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.

James’s “right strawy epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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AIDS, Death, Cold Religion and Simple Christian Love

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have to admit I never know what will get me going and what will trigger memories of different events in the past. The situation with the Ebola outbreak flooded me with memories, memories of my experiences as a hospital chaplain and as a medical personnel officer dealing with those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. I have shared those over the last two nights. So tonight I will finish that story line with two very different experiences with dying AIDS patients from my Clinical residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Tomorrow I will be posting a newly written except from a chapter of my Gettysburg text dealing with emancipation and the contributions of African American soldiers in the Civil War.

Peace

Padre Steve+

For me it is still hard to comprehend, a young chaplain; two relatively young men dying of AIDS, two partners, two families and two radically different experiences of humanity, faith, religion and authentic loving relationships.

I was still a relatively inexperienced minister and chaplain back when I was doing my Pastoral Care residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas Texas back in 1993 and 1994. Yes I had graduated from seminary. Yes I had a bit of chaplain experience as an Army National Guard chaplain and as a counselor at a major evangelical Christian ministry, and yes I had experience in dealing with AIDS as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army.

Despite that, I was so ill prepared to deal with the massively different treatment of people dying from AIDS from their families. Families that in some cases shared the same Christian faith as me. I think that is one of the things that young ministers struggle with when they enter the nether world between life and death, mortality and immortality, faith and unbelief in the real world. When I was in seminary the senior pastor of the mega-church that I attended told a story about being approached by a family member of someone who was very sick and in hospital. The person wanted him to visit them while they were a patient. He had been their pastor for years. When they ask him if he would come, he refused. He recounted that the “parishioner asked just how sick he would have to be to get a hospital visit?” The pastor told us his response. He laughed and said “you don’t want to be that sick.” The congregation laughed and I was devastated.

The pastor was a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation, a friend of John Wimber, Rick Joyner and others who helped to pave the way to the heartless, unfeeling, political “Christianity” and “Dominion theology” that is in vogue with the Tea Party and Religious Right today. When I questioned him about his comments later he told me that thought that pastoral care of those in his congregation, especially in regard to hospital visits was “below his office as an apostle, that others had that responsibility.” The thing that disturbed me the most was that he had ordained me as an Evangelical minister in that church to be a chaplain barely two years before this. I had respected him and now I felt a tremendous sense of emptiness when I left his office.

So when I began my pastoral care residency at Parkland I found that I had a lot to learn about the real world of religious faith, religious hypocrisy and religious hatred and intolerance.

Early in my residency I dealt with a number of AIDS cases. I wrote about one of those cases last night, although that was not really early in my residency, it was closer to the end of it. There were two cases besides that one that made such deep impressions on me that I can never forget them. Both involved young, white, homosexual men dying of the complications from full blown AIDS. Both came from very “Evangelical Christian” families (both were Southern Baptist) and both were being grieved by what we called then, their “significant others” as well as their biological families. But that was where the similarities ended.

The first case was in the second month of my residency, when I was the chaplain for the Medical ICU, before the Pastoral Care Director wisely moved me to the Trauma and Surgery department. A patient came to us, a man, about my age, a successful architect with many friends who was experiencing pneumonia brought about by his immunodeficiency brought about by HIV.

When he arrived he was still able to communicate and he had many of his friends as well as his significant other visiting him. They loved him and he loved them. There was a sense of community and if I dare say real family as they visited. In those first few days I got to know him and these people, most of who were homosexual but not all. There were a number of women there, who I am sure had the patient, who was a remarkably handsome man, been a heterosexual, would have loved to have been his wife.

My encounter with him, before his condition worsened to the point that he had to go on a ventilator and was sedated was transforming. He grew up in the church, knew that he was homosexual, attempted to live with it and finally came out as gay, and was disowned by his family. Despite this he became a highly successful architect, had many friends, was active in charitable works, and still maintained his faith in Jesus. I came to appreciate him, the man who for was for all purposes his spouse and his friends.

However, when his condition deteriorated his estranged family, the people who had disowned him, rushed to his “rescue.” In good Christian form they brought their pastor who though their son was unconscious proceeded to preach at him regarding his need to “repent” and “to come back to Jesus.” The family also took advantage of the law. They were his biological family and next of kin. They banned the man’s partner and friends from his room as he lay dying.

The family’s  pastor preached at the dying man and glared at the people closest to him while he was present.  I was appalled by his, and their behavior. While they isolated their son from those closest to him and allowed their pastor to condemn him as he died, I remained with his partner and friends. I prayed with them, I cried with them, I embraced them. When the family left I went with them to be with this young man’s mortal body. We prayed and after the nurses prepared his body and the doctors completed their final notes, I walked with them as we took his body on that long trip from the ninth floor to basement, where the morgue awaited. I still cry when I think of this encounter, of how supposedly Christian people would not only keep their son, who they had rejected and condemned from those who loved him the most as he lay dying.

A couple of months later I was in my element as the Trauma and Surgery Department Chaplain, but I still had on call duty where I was responsible for crisis situations anywhere in the house. One of those wild nights I got a call from the nursing staff of Nine South, the Medical Step Down unit where the lady that I wrote about last night had passed away, but that was still in the future.

This time there was another young white man, another partner, another family. This young man was not in the ICU fighting for his life, he was passing away in the quiet solitude of his room with his mother and father, his partner and his friends at his side. Like the other young man he was a man of faith. He loved Jesus, he loved his family and he loved his partner.

He was from the area west of Dallas, the area between Fort Worth and Abilene. His mom and dad were ranchers, dad was wearing his cowboy hat, a plaid shirt, classic western Levi’s jeans and cowboy boots. His mom was wearing a simple dress. Both were thing, tanned and their faces lined by the sun and weather and from being out on the range with their cattle. The young man who was with them, the dying man’s partner was casually dressed but though he was from the same area was not a rancher.

I spent time with all of them. The contrast between the “Christian” parents and pastor of the first young ma could have not been more profound. Like the architect’s parents, they were Christians. In fact they were Southern Baptists who attended a small country church in the town that they lived. By any sense of the word they could be described as “Fundamentalist” Christians, but unlike so many fundamentalists they focused on loving God and loving people, even people that so many Christians reject out of hand.

I arrived as the patient was breathing his last. I remained with him, his parents, partner and friends as he passed away, and when his parents asked I offered a prayer commending his soul to God. As I did this his partner was in a state of near collapse, exclaiming “I have no one now, I am alone!” His grief was overwhelming, he had no legal status, in the eyes of the law he meant nothing, though the man that he loved had just died. My heart was rent, and I held on to him.

As I did, the patient’s father came alongside of us. The father said to the young man “You are not alone, you are our son now, we love you.” When this dear man said this we all were in tears, as I am right now. I stayed with all of these dear people as the nursing staff prepared the young man’s body to go to the morgue. At some point the parents escorted their son’s now widowed partner out of the hospital. Mom and dad walked on either side of him as they left the ward. If there was anyone couple on this either who were true Christians, it was this dear couple. As we parted I could not hold back the tears, and the father of the deceased gave me a hug and thanked me for being with them and honoring his son.

I remained with the nursing staff and the internal medicine resident as they complete their duties and took the young man’s body to the morgue. After that I went back to the emergency room where some of the nursing staff, including a RN who at one time had been an Assemblies of God pastor, but was now an avowed atheist who loved to torment chaplains, except me, comforted me in my grief. It is funny that an atheist would be comforting the chaplain after such an event, but then if I do believe in God, why can’t I believe that anyone cannot share in the grief of others and of comfort and care.

It was a story that I could only share with my pastoral care residency supervisor, in our residency group and with my wife Judy, as I knew if I shared my experience at church that at best I would only be humored, and most probably be ostracized.

But, in a way it was a step to freedom because I realized that what I had been taught for so long was so horribly at odds with the message of Jesus.

Two deaths, two men, two partners, two families, two experiences of God’s grace, two experiences of a common humanity and the experience of one very flawed, but no longer confused chaplain…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Enduring Mystery of an Encounter with an AIDS Patient

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Last night I wrote about my early experience dealing with AIDS while serving as an Army Medical Service Corps personnel officer in 1987. In the 1990s that experience changed as I began to deal with men and women who were dying of the effects of full blown AIDS while serving as a hospital chaplain. The experiences of being with those men and women, and in some cases with their families, or loved ones was another chapter in my acceptance of Gays as well as other people marginalized and abandoned by my fellow Christians.

This is an account of one of those encounters at Parkland Hospital in Dallas where I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education residency, it is not about the politics of AIDS, instead it is about humanity, connection, faith, mystery and things that I cannot explain. Those who know me or have followed my writings on this site know my struggles with faith and God, belief and unbelief.

Even today thinking about this encounter brings tears to my eyes and makes me wonder about faith, life, reason and mystery. Frankly, it is something that I cannot explain, nor do I care to. I am content to live with the mystery of something that I cannot explain, but then at the same time, I am not.

As Anais Nin wrote: “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

Sometimes death comes unannounced but other times it sounds a warning.  Most of the time we think of such warnings as what our body is saying to us, maybe someone is having chest pains or that we know of a terminal condition which is getting worse and the doctors say that there is nothing else that they can do.  Other times it appears that some people almost have a sixth sense about their impending death and leave notes or say “goodbye” to loved ones in a different way than they would normally do.

When I see or hear about the sixth sense kind of incident I find that I am intrigued.  As a student of history I have read countless accounts where soldiers know that they will not survive a particular battle and leave things or messages for their friends to give to loved ones.

There have been times when I have had a sixth sense about what was going to happen to someone and the feeling is like you are watching something unfold in slow motion but can do nothing to stop it.

This story is a bit different and took place during an overnight as the “on call” chaplain at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency. Parkland is a rather large, at the time of my residency a 940 bed county hospital and Level One Trauma center.  The “on call” chaplain after normal hours was the only chaplain in the hospital to cover all emergencies in the house.  Usually I stationed myself in the ER area as that was the “hottest” place for ministry at any given time.  I would always take a spin around our 9 ICUs sometime in the evening to make sure that nothing was brewing; but unless something was going bad on one of them would always end up back in the ER.

One night I had just finished with a situation involving a violent death in the ER when about Nine PM I got a page from “9 South” our General Medicine Step-Down ward. This was a ward that not much usually happened on, in fact as a critical care and trauma type I considered it and other wards like it as a bit boring as nothing much usually happened there.

The nurse that I talked to when I returned the page told me that I needed to come up right away. She said that she had a patient who was convinced that she was going to die that night.  Intrigued, I told the nurse, that I would be right up and made my way up to the ward.

I got to the ward about 9:15 PM and met the nurse who further explained the situation to me while I reviewed the chart.  The nurse was an RN who had come to the United States from India and she was obviously unnerved by what was going on. She told me about the patient, I reviewed the chart as is my normal procedure and then went in to visit the lady. There was nothing in the chart to indicate any problems, in fact she was listed as improving enough to go home the next day, discharge orders were already in the chart.

The lady was in her mid-30s and she was HIV positive. She was married, and her husband who was also HIV positive and in a more advanced stage of the disease had been discharged from the hospital the day before. She had come in for a few day stay as she had been spiking a fever but that was under control, and she had no other medical issues. She was not at the point of having any of the major opportunistic infections or diseases associated with full blown AIDS, her T-Cell count was good.  Clinically she was stable and expected to do well for a number of years to come.

But despite all the good numbers, stable condition and good prognosis the woman was convinced that she was going to die, this very evening.

Just after the evening shift change the patient had told the nurse that “the Lord was going to take her home tonight.”  This troubled the nurse as it would any normal rational person, so she called the duty Internal Medicine resident physician to come and speak with the lady. The resident could not convince here that she was going to be okay and that she told both of them that she was going to die that evening and “go home and be with Jesus.”

Now for those who have never lived in the south “going home” is not like leaving the office at the end of the day.  Elvis “went home” wherever that was (see “Men in Black”) and if you are talking with someone raised in the South and they start talking about “going home” you better stop and clarify to make sure that they are going home to watch the Braves on television and drink a beer, or if they are planning on dying.

I had a grandmother who told me from the time that I was 5 years old that she was either “going home” or “wasn’t going to be around much longer.” Of course she was convinced that she was going to die, and once I stirred up a hornet’s nest when after she told me that “she wast going to be around much longer  So I asked her “where are you moving to?” Granny was not impressed and gave me an earful. Granny lived to be almost 90 years old when she finally “went home”  when I was 40 after giving me 35 years worth of warning, but I digress…

Now patently I am of the mind that if the numbers say that you will live I believe the numbers.  I’m a baseball guy, God speaks to me through baseball and I play the percentages. It is the rational thing to do, which means that while I believe that God can intervene in situations I don’t bet on that happening. I read the chart. I talk to the nursing staff, and I talk with the physicians.

After talking with the resident and nurse I was convinced that this lady would walk out of the hospital in the morning and probably outlive her husband. Then I met the lady.

I walked into her room. She was sitting up in bed with her Bible open beside her on her mattress. She appeared to be very calm and there was a peaceful sense about her.  She was from Jamaica and very polite and when I introduced myself to her she greeted me warmly with the accent characteristic of that island nation.

“So you are the pastor?” she asked.

I replied that I was the Chaplain and that the nurse and doctor had asked me to spend some time with her.

She then said “Ah yes, they do not believe me because I told them that Jesus told me that he will take me home tonight.”

So I asked her what she believed was going on with her. She then described to me what had occurred that evening to make her think that she was going to die. “You see pastor, the doctors say that I will go to my house tomorrow but I will not.”

She paused and even more curious I nodded for her to go on and said “really? Tell me more.”

She continued “Pastor you see this evening Jesus came to me, he visit me and tell me that I will go and be with him tonight.”

Now I have to admit that I was skeptical. However, she was not acting emotional or even bothered about what she just said. Normally I might ask for a psychiatric consult, but she seemed to be completely rational, and her chart made no mention of any mental illness or psychological issues.

I was fascinated and asked her to tell me more. She then went on a fairly long recitation of her faith journey from the time that she was a young girl. She told me how she frequently would sense God’s presence and hear his voice at different points in her life. She told me how she had gotten HIV from her husband, who had been a drug abuser and how much it meant for her to be right with others and God.

So I asked her about the specifics of “why she thought that she would die tonight?”

Calmly she explained. “The doctors tell me that I will be well and go home tomorrow. They tell me that I am in good condition and that I will live a long time, but that does not matter to me because Jesus told me today that he will take me home to be with him….tonight.” 

The word tonight was said with a confidence that stunned me. She talked as if this was a regular every day occurrence and her face was radiant.  She continued “I love Jesus and know that he will not lie to me so I know that I will be with him tonight.”

Her faith was touching and powerful in its simplicity and the amount of trust that she showed even to a message that she believed to be from Jesus that was completely different than the news of the doctors. After our conversation, which lasted about 30 minutes involved me probing her faith, asking what she understood about her condition and talking about her family. It seemed to me that our visit was a time for her to tie up the loose ends of her life and that I was the person that she was taking the time to share them with.

As we closed she asked me if I would pray with her and give her a blessing which I did.  She thanked me, reached out and asked for a hug. She embraced me weakly and then let go, and she thanked me again.  I was moved by this, still not convinced that Jesus would take her home. I didn’t she was going to die but there was a certain finality in her words and actions that gave me a bit of doubt about the facts and numbers that I trusted in.

When I left her room, I charted my visit, wrapped things up with the resident and the nurse and went back down to ER where more carnage was waiting, shootings, motor vehicle accidents and drug overdoses.

About 2:30 AM my pager went off. It was the nurse’s station on Nine South. I returned the call and the nurse that I had talked with earlier was on the line.

She was nearly frantic and said: “Chaplain, please come quick, I went in to check her vitals and she is dead!”  I put on my best calm voice and said “Who is dead?” 

The nurse nearly in a panic said “The lady that said that God was going to take her home, she died!”  I looked up from the Trauma ER nurses’ station and realized that there was nothing immediate and told the nurse  “Okay I’ll be right up” and went up to the ward as quickly as I could.

When I got to the ward to find the nurse pacing anxiously outside the door of the patient’s room.  I asked if the nurse if she was okay, meaning her and not the now deceased patient. The poor nurse replied that she was upset by the death because the lady should not be dead. She was frightened and that she didn’t understand how the patient could calmly know that she was going to die.  Now the nurse was not a southerner unless it was the south part of the Indian subcontinent.  She was relatively new to Texas and the American South she was not as attuned to some of the religious and cultural aspects of either the South or some of the Caribbean islands, where the lady had come.

After helping the nurse calm down I met the resident who was in the room looking perplexed, when I walked in he said “This women shouldn’t be dead.” 

I couldn’t think of much else to say so I just said to him “sometimes it’s just someone’s time even if the numbers don’t say so.” 

He said: “Yeah, I know, but this was really freaky because she told me that she was going to die tonight and she did.”

I did concur with this young doctor that what had happened was a bit on the unusual side but that we couldn’t discount what she believed especially since she had been correct. As the resident went to finish up paperwork I looked at the woman. It looked like she had simply fallen asleep. Her Bible was on her lap and opened to the book of Revelation, the 21st chapter. Although I cannot be sure exactly what she was reading can only imagine that it was this verse “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3b-5 NRSV)

This dear woman had passed away, gone home looking forward to a place where whatever tears or sorrows she had experienced would be wiped away. I closed her Bible, gently placed her hands together over it and prayed a prayer of commendation before pulling the bed sheet over her face and body.

On leaving the room I spent a bit more time with the nurse who was beginning to gather herself after this unusual death.  A couple of hours later I would escort the body of this woman to our morgue accompanied by the nurse and a LVN.

If you have never made the walk to a morgue it is always the longest walk you will ever make. At Parkland it seemed that no matter where you were coming from the walk took forever as it is a massive facility, and in the wee hours of the morning while most of the world sleeps, that walk is an eternity.

As we rode the elevator down to the basement where the morgue was located we continued to talk a bit more. When we got to the basement and commenced the walk down the long and empty corridor to the morgue we did so in silence. I unlocked the door and then the door to the walk in refrigerator, which could hold up to eight adult bodies on cold stainless steel gurneys at any given time. Dimly lit and damp the morgue has a truly macabre ambiance which is magnified by the sight of bodies of the deceased wrapped in body bags and covered by white sheets.

Once I had admitted the body and locked the door to the morgue the two nurses left to head back to the 9th floor. I took the chart and other paperwork up to our office where our decedent affairs clerk would complete the death certificate. The daytime duty chaplain would have the responsibility of discharging the woman’s body after an autopsy was conducted and a funeral home came to take her body to her final resting place.

I thought how unusual this case was as I sat for a while in the office. I had heard of similar things but had never seen something like this before where the person in question made such a claim and was right defying the numbers that said she would walk out of the hospital. After a the rest of the evening, or rather the early morning was relatively uneventful and my shift came to an end as the rest of the staff came in for the day. I briefed the chaplain who was taking the pager, did my debriefing with my fellow Pastoral Care residents and went home, wondering what had happened.

Physicist Max Planck who originated Quantum Theory said: “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

It is a mystery, so I guess I should leave it there…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Churches that Ignore: The Mega-Church and the Least, the Lost and the Lonely

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“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)

Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to be that sick.”

The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”

The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  My philosophy of religion professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”

Unfortunately my old pastor, and many more like had stopped doing Christian theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue of the lack of care confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.

Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care. Having attended a number of these churches, and worked for a prominent television evangelist I can sadly report seeing this first hand many times.

Sometimes this problem it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church.  In that church the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.

No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is primarily a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care, although sadly there are Catholic priests who do not see themselves as care givers.

The “by design” issue is more far more troubling as the focus of the church is growth, sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.  Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Courses dealing with Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History which offer timeless lessons for pastors.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.

With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.  Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.
The home groups or cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time in San Antonio that is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a clinical social worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.

Most home groups are not that fortunate.  There are unhealthy groups which are led by people who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Others who do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God. Often this is because sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or that their problems don’t match up with their church theology.

My wife and I know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.

I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.

Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house Christian counseling programs or refer members to Christian counseling services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.
The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?

Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint John of the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?

Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular people who populate their pews, by their books and give to their ministry, even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.

James’s “right strawy epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Persistence: My Motto

Persistence by Calvin Coolidge

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. 

Talent will not;  Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. 

Genius will not;  Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. 

Education will not; The world is full of educated derelicts. 

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved  and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

If there is anything that I find is true about me it is that I am a persistent person. The motto on the family crest is the French word Esseyez, or in English, “try.” Somehow I can see the chieftain of the clan lining everyone up behind William Wallace, who by the way was executed on this day in 1300 inspiring his troops saying, “just try for once.” My parents used to say “quitters never win and winners never quit.”  I have been inspired by great naval Captains like John Paul Jones who when asked if he had surrendered replied “I have not yet begun to fight” and James Lawrence who when mortally wounded gave his crew the order “Don’t give up the ship.” I am inspired by the words of the legendary manager of the Baltimore Orioles Earl Weaver who said “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I love this poem by Calvin Coolidge. In fact I have a small framed copy of it presented by my residency director at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1994 on my desk today.

I have never been the smartest, fastest, strongest, talented or educated dog in the pack.    I just work hard and don’t quit. I love the journeyman that one finds in baseball. I admire the utility player who can play a lot of different positions, plug holes and fit in well on the team. The same for the pitchers pitchers that pitch in middle relief or are the 5th starter in the rotation. I like the guys that gut it out and hang around long after others have written them off.

I have been having to go through and recount the really significant parts of my life as I get ready for the EMDR and Biofeedback therapy for my PTSD. It has been really amazing to see a couple of threads that are prominent in the tapestry of my life and without which I would not be me. The things that keep coming up again and again are a dogged persistence to succeed and unwillingness to quit and profound dislike of bullies.

My Clinical Pastoral Education residency which followed a brutal seminary process was one of the most pivotal parts of my life. My CPE Supervisor was a man named Steve Ivy. CPE is one of the best training in that anyone working with people in churches, hospitals or the military can have. For me it helped me see areas that I was blind to in my life. It helped me become a better listener and more accepting of others. But even more it helped me, and still helps me integrate me theology and philosophy into life.  Dr Ivy made a comment that was one of the most instrumental in my life since I heard it. That is that I can write my future that I do not have to be condemned to perpetually repeating the past or being stuck in place or being a victim of circumstances or others. It was a revelation of a positive humanity and the grace of God.

But even before that I was a fighter. In seminary when everything that one could imagine to go wrong did and pastors, and people at ministries told me that I should reconsider my call or quit. In the fall of 1989 when everything had gone to complete shit in our lives, Judy was sick, we had lost our home, cars and were living in a horrible house in a horrible neighborhood of Fort Worth, I was working two jobs and was in the National Guard, was a full time student and it looked like my time in seminary was over and that I had failed I called a TV ministry prayer line. I told my story to the prayer partner who told me that I couldn’t be called to ministry because if I was “God would be blessing me.” Somehow that hit me wrong. I just couldn’t imagine Jesus telling anyone that, nor could I reconcile it with Scripture or Church History.

I got mad and kept working despite everything going to hell managed to hang in long enough for things to work out. I didn’t do it all myself because a lot of people came alongside when they saw that I was in this for the long haul and would not quit. I graduated from seminary in 1992 with a 3.5 or 3.7 GPA, I can’t remember which and am not looking at a transcript while working more than full time and being in the National Guard. I worked my ass off and between good people and the grace of God made it through.

That continued after seminary when I was a late addition to the residency program at Parkland, when I got my first hospital chaplain job and when I was rebuffed by a senior chaplain in the Army Chief of Chaplains to return to active duty as a very young Army Reserve Major in 1997. He told me that I wasn’t good enough to bring back.

But despite that things continued to work out. I was helped along the way by great people. I had opportunities that opened up which gave me great experience and provided for my family. This culminated when I was selected for active duty in the Navy and resigned my Army commission to go in the Navy Chaplain Corps at a lower rank in February 1999.

There have been hard times in the Navy especially after my return from Iraq. I went through an emotional and spiritual crisis that I never imagined was possible, but I  I didn’t quit. I am an average guy who worked hard and got a lot of help along the way. But had I quit at any point I wouldn’t be where I am now and there were plenty of opportunities when I was ready to give up but held on just long enough to make it through.

Calvin Coolidge was so right. I am not the most talented person that I know in my field. I am not a genius and though I have a good education there are plenty of other people that know a lot more than me. However, I am persistent. I gain inspiration every day when I look on my desk and read that poem. I am thankful for grace of God and the people that God put in my life and who helped me during the tough times. I hope that I can always be the kind of person that helps people through their tough times and inspires them to keep trying, to keep working and never to quit and then pass that along to others.

The past few weeks have been a blessing because I have had to look back at my life and remember what got me to this point. Some of the memories have been difficult to think about because they were so difficult but at the end of the day I can count myself blessed.

Have a great night and don’t give up your dreams and always stay in the fight.

Peace and Blessings!

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Pastoral Care, philosophy

I Think I Feel a Sermon Coming On: Padre Steve Looks at the Corporate Church Leadership Model and Finds it Wanting

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’7He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.” John 21: 15-17

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18.10

Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to b e that sick.”

The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”  The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  The words of my Philosophy of Religion Professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian Theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”  This pastor had stopped doing Christian Theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.  Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care.  Those that posit themselves as “Apostles” are the worst examples because of the spiritual superiority that they presume they have over those that follow them.

Sometimes it is the intentional adopting of the secular model and sometimes it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church where a lack of priests forces the closure of small parishes and expansion of large ones.  Here the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.

No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is simply a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care, although there are many parishes where Priests apart from doing the basic sacramental functions avoid caring for the parishioners.

The other is more troubling issue especially in Evangelical, Charismatic and Dominionist type churches is the focus of the church is on numerical growth and market share, financial growth sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.

Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Course such as Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.  With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.

Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.  The cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time inSan Antoniothat is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a Clinical Social Worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.  Most home groups are not that fortunate.

While some good home or cell group leaders are fit to lead and care there are many unhealthy leaders that are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Those that do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God.

Frankly most churches of the corporate leadership model don’t want the hurting people.  They get in the way of the “successful Christian life” that they market.  To many of these leaders sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or suffer from problems don’t match up with their church theology.  The leader’s attitude usually filters down to the rank and file and the people in the most need of spiritual care are cast aside.

We know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.  Another thing some churches do is to either add a “Christian Counseling” program or refer members to “Christian Counseling” services instead of doing pastoral care.  In a sense it is the outsourcing of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.  I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.  Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house “Christian Counseling” programs or refer members to “Christian Counseling” services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely. The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?  Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint Johnof the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?  Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular Joe’s and Jane’s who populate their pews and buy all their spiritual wares even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.  James’s “right strawly epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

My sermon is over and I do hope that there will be more “amen’s” than calls for burning me as a heretic.

Peace, Steve+

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A Sea of Contradictions: My Life and Faith since returning from Iraq

Dinner with my Friend, Major General Sabah in Ramadi

“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.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Since I returned from Iraq I have grown weary of Christians that have all the answers and are more interested in promoting their agenda than actually listening or caring for those wounded in spirit from various forms of trauma including war. Since I returned from Iraq and going through what amounted to a crisis in faith, belief and experience of what I felt to be abandonment by God and many Christians.  I have elected to travel down a path that has been of great benefit but has been filled with difficulty and pain as I both walked through the psychological, spiritual and physical effects of my time in Iraq and, the moral injuries that I incurred and the practical ways that these crisis’ have had on my life and relationships.

On Monday at work we had some of our pastoral care residents presented their research projects which they had worked on during their residency year.  All were well done but one struck me because of its subject and home much I could relate to it.  The subject was “Writing our Way Home” and dealt with how the use of poetry and narrative could help some combat veterans make sense of their world and deal with the trauma that they have experienced.  After Iraq I began to write, initially because it was therapeutic and helped me to begin to start sorting out what was going on with me. It also helped me, especially when I went public on this site about my experience to get outside of my normally severely introverted self. As I began to write regularly it became a part of my life as I struggled to deal with PTSD as well as  spiritual and emotional crises following my tour in Iraq, alienation on my return as well as various family crisis’s.

The understanding that resonated with me was that our stories, the good and the bad, what we believe to be true and what really is true about ourselves and our experiences is all part of who we are. This is something that I experienced in my own pastoral care residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in the 1990s when my supervisor challenged be to stop living in the past and begin to imagine a future that was not a prisoner of my past disappointments and failures.  That was a watershed experience for me and as I began to sort through all of the crap that I was dealing with in CPE and family of origins issues I began to realize that I did not need to live my life in a constant repetition of the past.  Now that realization did not always find a place in my life but in a gradual process I began to escape that past and begin to live in the moment with an eye to the future.

Of course Iraq changed that to some degree, in fact to a large degree. What I experienced there and upon my return to the States shook many of my beliefs about the world, faith and life. The images of American Marines wounded by IED attacks, wounded children and destruction of vast areas of cities, towns and villages coupled with having HUMMVs and Helicopters that I traveled on shot at and having rockets fly over my head changed me, especially when I saw how the war was being covered by both the liberal and conservative media which bore little resemblance to my first hand observations. Even worse was the feeling of being isolated and abandoned when I returned home.  I experienced a crisis in faith that left me a practical agnostic even as I desperately prayed for God to show up.  In fact it was psychotherapist that was the first person to even address my spiritual life after I returned.

When Elmer Maggard asked me: “How are you and the big guy?” I could only say “I don’t know I don’t even know if he exists.”  For a priest and chaplain that was a harrowing admission.  I had entered a world of darkness that I did not believe was possible. I would struggle for another year and a half until during Advent of 2009 things began to change and I began to sense the presence of a loving God again.  My faith began to return but I have to say it is not the same as before I went to Iraq.  I still struggle though most of the time I cannot say that I am a practical agnostic as I do have faith and faith which can be considered orthodox but perhaps more negotiable.

You may ask what I mean by this so I will briefly explain.  First I admit that I do not have the answers that I used to think that I had. Likewise I am a lot more apt to say “I don’t know” or “I struggle with that too” when people tell me of their experiences when struggling with faith or even the existence of God.  I refuse to pass judgment on someone’s faith journey or even if they question God’s existence because I have been there and it is not a comfortable place to live.  I am far more willing to walk with someone thorough that valley of doubt or unbelief because I lived in that valley for over a year. As far as who I frame my world, I am far less likely to pin something as “God’s will” or “an attack of the Devil” than I am to recognize that as human beings that we live in a fallen state and that sometimes things just happen. To quote a popular say “Shit Happens.”  In the middle of this I think the real miracle is that God can give us the grace to go through the most difficult times even when we have no faith at all.  I don’t think that is at all heretical because the experience of Jesus on Good Friday and the scriptural accounts as well as the testimony of 2000 years of Christians tells me that this is true. The miracle in my mind is not being “delivered” from crisis or unbelief but through the grace of God making it though the crisis and return to faith, even if that faith takes a different form.

For me the act of writing both about my experience as well as through fiction or history has been therapeutic and forced me out of my comfort zone.  When I began this site and began to tell my story my friend Elmer the Shrink he asked me if I was really sure that I wanted to open up and become vulnerable as I shared the truth as I believed it to be.  I said that I needed to as I thought people needed to know the reality of what many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were going through.  He told me that what I was doing was risky but let me make the call. 600 posts later, not all of course dealing with what I and other veterans have gone through I can say that it was the right decision.

Our presenter on Monday gave us a few minutes to write something and for me this came quite easily as I was struck by a section of her presentation about how contradictory our life experiences can be. I began to write about those contradictions and will share a bit of that here.

I am a man of faith, a Christian and Priest. I believe but I also doubt and question, in fact there are some times that I feel somewhat agnostic even after the events of last December when faith began to return.  I am much more prone to give the benefit of the doubt to people especially those who struggle with life, faith and even the existence of God. I figure that God is big enough to handle doubt and unbelief while still loving and caring for the person experiencing doubt or unbelief or whose beliefs that may not fit the definition of Christian orthodoxy.

I am a passionate person who is an introvert in an extroverted world both in ministry and the military. I am an intuitive “out of the box” thinker and sometimes rebel.  Yet in spite of this I willingly volunteer to serve the church and the military.  It is interesting because both institutions prize loyalty to the institution, obedience and staying within the lines of prescribed beliefs and traditions.  I believe yet question, I find cause to not agree with what all of my political party or the other political party espouse to the chagrin of the faithful in both parties.

I have learned that there is a healthy tension in this type of life. I do not for the most part follow those that insist that to be a Christian that I must do this and that even though I fully subscribe to the Creeds, the first 7 Ecumenical Councils an Anglican understanding of the Christian faith. Nor do I think that to be to be a “American patriot” that I should vote a certain way, belong to a particular party or follow the agenda of any political party as if it others believe the agenda to be brought down from the mountain by Moses himself.  I have had people on occasion to criticize me for this.  However I cannot allow any political ideology to hold my faith captive, nor can I cast aside the essence of the Christian faith even when I doubt.

One of the things that I find concerning is how it seems to me that many supposedly “conservative” Christians have almost made what I think is a deal with the devil in terms of their political involvement. I think that they are sacrificing a long term witness to short term expedient political alliances with people, particularly “conservative” political talk show host and pundit Glenn Beck that have an antithetical and antagonistic views of historic Christianity.   My concern is more about the faith and witness of the Church than an alliance with someone that appeals to our more base nationalistic ideas than the faith itself.

I have discovered that for the most part I can comfortably live in this tension, in fact I do not think that I was to fall completely to one side or the other be it in faith, social responsibility or politics that my life would be as full as it is, or as some might be thinking now as “full of it as I am.” Whatever… The fact is that I think that as a Christian and as an American that it is okay to live life in balance and with a health appreciation of creative tension.

I have begun to emerge from the darkness of my post Iraq experience and I know that I am still wounded. I know that I still struggle but I now am beginning to see this as a gift.  My faith is not the same as it was, I am not satisfied with simplistic answers or the party lines of people that only care about their agenda especially when they decide that their agenda is God’s will, even if it has nothing to do with the Gospel. I know that sounds kind of snarky to some but I really want to be an authentic Christian not some caricature that is more a picture of the American perversion of the faith than anything found in Scripture or the 2000 year history of the Church.

I believe but I struggle. I will listen to other points of view, including those of people that are not Christian. In fact I found that my Iraqi Muslim friends were much easier to dialogue with and have deep and respectful theological discussions with than many American Evangelicals.  For me that was a watershed moment.

But anyway, this post was not meant to be a treatise on anything but is for me more of a reflection of a dialogue that has been going on in me since my return.  The thing is I know other Chaplains that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan who have experienced the same feelings that I have been working through but do not have a safe place in their churches to heal, and are afforded little time to do self care.  I am concerned for our caregivers that care of veterans like me.  I wonder how many can be real in their faith community without having people run away from them as if they were radioactive, a feeling that many veterans and other trauma victims experience when they attempt to tell their story.

I just hope that I will be able to be there for others who are wounded and suffering as a result of what they experienced in war.

That is all for tonight.  Blessings and peace my friends,

Padre Steve+

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