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“Is that Truly the Path of the Lord” A Reflection on Faith, Calling, and the Christmas Truce in the Age of Trump

palmerFriends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film tonight. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within this country.

I was reminded of that last night and today as the President received the worship of his most vocally Christian cabinet members and the Vice President as they celebrated the passage of a tax cut bill that end up harming many more people than it will help, even as he edges closer to a devastating war with North Korea, a war that besides being more deadly than in since the World Wars will bring many unexpected and unintended consequences, none good, but I digress…

The Bishop who relieved Father Palmer went on to preach a sermon to newly arrived troops.

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact until very recently they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left Iraq the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie. While I cannot prove it I do believe, and have heard from others who used to work at the Chief of Chaplains office that I have been shunned and punished by past and present leaders of the Chaplain Corps because of my witness in being open about my struggles with faith and PTSD. A can recount a number of incidents that would be of circumstantial evidence, but I digress. That being said I am much better off for that experience than I would be had it not occurred.

It has been ten years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many. Unlike a few years ago they now occupy the seat of political power as sycophants of the President, offering no prophetic voice but speaking the words of death covered in the veneer of the Christian faith.

As for me as opposed to . I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance that summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, more often than not, though at the same time I doubt. Though I believe I think I still consider myself to be a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t and I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it helps me understand those who no longer believe, those that struggle, and those who raised as Christians have left the faith.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years, unless as I expect a major war breaks out with North Korea, and maybe Iran too.

However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home. This Sunday, Christmas Eve I will preach at my chapel’s Protestant service. Likewise as I wrote last week I had the honor of conducting the Christmas service for the German contingent of the NATO headquarters here.

533506_10151366982457059_868388211_nI expect that in the coming year I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel as well as the leaders of the so called “Conservative Evangelicals” who support a President who says “Merry Christmas” even as he defecates on all who believe in the God who became incarnate as a helpless babe in a manger and who died on a cross.  In fact I saw a mocking meme of Trump saying “Merry Christmas” as he holds a bigger than life Bible to his chest from a very conservative evangelical friend on Facebook, it was blasphemous.

The French mystic Simone Weil said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” I think that sums up the President and his ardent Evangelical supporters. I don’t think they would recognize Christ if he walked among them and would have been among those shouting “Crucify him!” but of course I could be wrong in some individual cases.

So, this Christmas, like the theologian Paul Tillich I have come to believe  that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words I am going to be faithful to the Crucified Christ and remain a complete pain in the ass to them until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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The Glory of Solitude


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am writing late after a long but good day at a meet up for owners of Papillon dogs. Saturdays are usually my time to be alone and spend time with Judy and our dogs doing as little as possible. I use them to recharge. I’m getting a lot more social interaction this weekend and that is not a bad thing, but every so often I take the time to break away to spend a bit of time alone, usually with my dogs Izzy and Pierre sitting on my lap. Both happen to be quite sensitive and know when having them there is therapeutic for me.

Since Thursday when I walked the Antietam battlefield I have been musing on the value of solitude and the importance that it has in my life. Paul Tillich wrote: “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.”

I am a natural introvert, a thinker, and soldier, who has found his vocation as a priest, and scholar. I think had I been born 800 years ago that I could have easily been a scholastic warrior monk. Thus I live in a world that is foreign to many people. I value community, friendship, and the camaraderie found in some parts of the military. I have learned over the years to mix rather well in social settings, I stay very busy, and I am bombarded with many issues on a daily basis at work as well as by having to know what is going on in the nation and world because of what I do.

I also know what I need, in the words of Elwood Blues, to “live, thrive, and survive,” and one of those things is solitude, which at means for me, venturing from the busyness and chaos of life, and of being inundated by an often toxic stew of nonstop information which dulls the senses. I have to have times of solitude in order to survive, but for much of my life I tried to fill those times alone by doing other doing things, even good things like praying the Daily Office or reading scripture, rather than actually being alone with myself.

Being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. Loneliness, usually denotes a sense of, pain, abandonment, and often friendlessness, or even being unloved or unlovable. People can be terribly lonely even in a room full of people. There have been times in life, especially in my journey since returning from Iraq in 2008 that I felt the pain and despair of loneliness even when surrounded by people. I also know what it is like to have people who I believed were friends abandon me. But that has nothing to do with being alone or knowing the richness of solitude.

Everyday try to disconnect from people, social media, and other distractions in order to be alone with my thoughts. This can be dangerous as because in solitude we are quite often faced not by the chaos of what is outside of us, but the chaos, and the unresolved conflicts within us. Being alone and seeking solitude is so disquieting at times that many people want to flee from it, because the outer chaos can be used as a shield to mask us from the disquiet within. Thus it takes a certain amount of discipline to remain in solitude, especially in those times when our own demons of fear, anxiety, disappointment, failure, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulses seek to overwhelm us.

Yesterday I wrote about my 17 mile walk through the Antietam battlefield and I think that was one of the most rich times of solitude that I have had in a long time because it was much longer than what I usually get. It was punctuated with a chat with an 88 year old resident of the area who was coming up the trail from the Burnside Bridge with his fishing pole in hand. It was an interesting encounter because during the first 11 miles or so of the walk I had come across very few people and most of them seemed to be in a hurry. But that seems to be the case almost everywhere.

But this gentleman was fascinating, and though I was intent on getting to the bridge, I knew that I had to remain. I listened as he told me about some the the changes in the area since he was a child, homes and barns that no longer existed except as ruins, the people who lived in them, and how as a child he would fish or hunt along the creek. When he found out that I was a in the military and also a historian he lit up. He told me about his and his son’s military experiences, and then he told me about his visit as a child to Gettysburg in 1938 on the occasion of the dedication of the Peace Monument. He described the elderly veterans of North and South, as well as seeing President Franklin Roosevelt deliver his speech on that day. Of course I have read about that event, and seen pictures and newsreel footage of it, but I had never talked to an eyewitness, and he may be the only eyewitness that I will ever meet. My solitude was was enriched. I was reminded of the words of C. S. Lewis who observed, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” As we parted, he walking back toward the new Burnside Bridge and me heading to the site where Burnside’s regiments threw themselves across the old bridge in the face of murderous Confederate fire, he said, “I hope to see you next year,” and I told him I hope so too, and yes I meant it. I then continued my walk all the while contemplating what happened on the battlefield, imagining what it had to be like for those soldiers, and also contemplating my own life. It was liberating.

Solitude is important for many reasons, but it is especially important for leaders at any level, or those who care for others. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a historian as well as devotee of the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was a wise man and he wrote “It is in your power to withdraw yourself whenever you desire. Perfect tranquility within consists in the good ordering of the mind, the realm of your own.” Yes it is possible to withdraw and to seek solitude, but it is also hard, yet necessary. General Mattis noted:

 “Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting.  We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.  You have some external stimulus, then you go back to your experience, your education, and you see what needs to be done.”

Solitude is a good thing. It is often, at least for me, an uncomfortable time as I wrestle with my inner demons, but in those times of inner struggle I often discover truths about myself as well as the world around me, sometimes coming in the form of old men who enter my solitude and enrich my life. The two, solitude and companionship on the journey are import, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

I hope that this makes some sense as I don’t often write articles like this, but as I thought about it today I realized that I ought to write about it, if for nothing else than not writing about the Devil’s Triangle of any of the various crises facing all of us. Sometimes it is important to step away for a time in order to know what to do.

Have a great day and until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Howling at the Moon and Ministry at the End of a Long Military Career

Crash-Davis

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

The past few days I have been quietly reflecting on ministry as I get ready to transition out of my current assignment at the Staff College to be the senior base chaplain at one of the bases nearby. Fortunately I will be able to continue conducting the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the college but the transition to being a base chaplain for the second time in my career, the first some twenty years ago when I was in the Army, has caused me to ponder the form ministry again and why I am here. It also has made me think of my long career and my transition from being a rising star, to a old and bit sore veteran who still has something to give, I’ve been in the military now for almost 36 years, not much left to prove but some left to give.  A younger friend and chaplain once said I reminded him of Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Bull Durham, Crash Davis. I like the analogy, as Crash said: “I have been known on occasion to howl at the moon.”

I like hard questions and hard cases. My life has been quite interesting and that includes my faith journey as a Christian and human being. It is funny that in my life I have as I have grown older begun to appreciate those that do not believe and to rather distrust those who proclaim their religious faith with absolute certitude, especially when hard questions are asked.

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

I get “trolled” a lot and I find it amusing when trolls come by to condemn my “heresy.” When they do I realize that most of them must have some kind of psychological need to be right. I say this because for all of their certitude I sense a deep fear that they might be wrong. I think that is why they must do this.

I think that the quote by the late theologian is quite appropriate to me and the ministry that I find myself. I think it is a ministry pattern quite similar to Jesus in his dealings with the people during his earthly incarnate ministry.

Jesus was always hanging out with the outcasts, whether they be Jewish tax collectors collaborating with the Romans, lepers and other “unclean” types, Gentiles including the hated Roman occupiers, Samaritans and most dangerously, scandalous women. He seemed to reach out to these outcasts while often going out of his way to upset the religious establishment and the “true believers” of his day.

There is even one instance where a Centurion whose servant he healed was most likely involved in a homosexual relationship, based on the writer of the Gospel of Matthew’s use of the Greek word “Pais” which connotes a homosexual servant, instead of the more common “Doulos.” That account is the only time in the New Testament where that distinction is made, and Pais is used throughout Greek literature of the time to denote a homosexual slave or “house boy” relationship. Jesus was so successful at offending the profoundly orthodox of his day that his enemies made sure that they had him killed.

I think that what has brought me to this point is a combination of things but most importantly what happened to me in and after my tour in Iraq. Before I went to Iraq I was certain of about everything that I believed and was quite good at what we theologians and pastors call “apologetics.” My old Chaplain Assistant in the Army, who now recently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps called me a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh” back in 1997, and he meant it quite affectionately.

I was so good at it that I was silenced by a former Archbishop in my former church and banned from publishing for about 7 years after writing two articles for a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review.

The funny thing is that he, and a number of my closest friends from that denomination are either Roman Catholic priests or priests in the Anglican Ordinariate which came into communion with Rome a couple of years back. Ironically while being “too Catholic” was the reason I was forbidden to write it was because I questioned certain traditions and beliefs of the Church including that I believed that there was a role for women in the ordained ministry, that gays and lesbians could be “saved” and that not all Moslems were bad that got me thrown out in 2010.

However when I returned from Iraq in the midst of a full blown emotional, spiritual and physical collapse from PTSD that certitude disappeared. It took a while before I was able to rediscover faith and life and when I did it wasn’t the same. There was much more mystery to faith as well as reason. I came out of that period with much more empathy for those that either struggle with or reject faith. Thus I tend to hang out at bars and ball games more than church activities or socials, which I find absolutely tedious. I also have little use for clergy than in dysfunctional and broken systems that are rapidly being left behind. I am not speaking about belief here, but rather structure and methodology.

I think that if there is anything that God will judge the American versions of the Christian church is our absolute need for temporal power in the political, economic and social realms and the propagation of religious empires that only enrich the clergy which doing nothing for the least, the lost and the lonely. The fact that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States is “none” or “no preference” is proof of that and that the vast amounts of money needed to sustain these narcissistic religious empires, the mega-churches and “Christian” television industry will be their undoing.  That along with their lack of care for anyone but themselves. Jesus said that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, not the size of their religious empire or temporal power.

The interesting thing is that today I have friends and colleagues that span the theological spectrum. Many of these men even if they do not agree with what I believe trust me to love and care for them, even when those most like them in terms of belief or doctrine, both religious and political treat them like crap. Likewise I attract a lot of people who at one time were either in ministry or preparing for it who were wounded in the process and gave up, even to the point of doubting God’s love and even existence. It is kind of a nice feeling to be there for people because they do not have to agree with me for me to be there for them.

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

In my ministry as a military chaplain working in combat units, critical care hospital settings, and teaching, I have found that there are many hurting people, people who like me question their faith and even long held beliefs.

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So, I guess that is why I stay in the game, I still love it, and why when I go to my new assignment I will do my best to care for all who come to me for any kind of guidance, respecting who they are and what they believe, while mentoring the junior chaplains who I will supervise so that they blossom as minsters of their faith groups, and chaplains to our diverse community. More than likely this will be my last assignment before I retire, and for me the job is not about me or any promotion, it is helping the next generation, because they are the future.  They must increase, and in the military sense I must decrease, I mean for God’s sake, 39 or 40 years of military service should be enough for me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Christmas Eve 2016: I Belong with Those in Pain and Those who have Lost Their Faith

palmer

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is Christmas Eve on this holiest of occasions I am posting an updated version of something that I have posted before because for me it means even more today than it has in the past few years.

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” In the post-truth Trump era I feel my services will still be needed when those who believed in him discover just how badly they have been betrayed.

I again watched that film Wednesday. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

 

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

I have served that type of Bishop before, not anymore, but I have, and I have little tolerance for those of high office in the Church or anywhere else use their office not to serve the Prince of Peace, but the gods of war and greed.

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within a country. In the Trump era the powerful preachers are doing exactly that, and I will not condone their actions or remain silent. This is not about politics it is about the perversion of the Christian faith by those who should know better.

 

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

It has been nine years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.

As for me, I thought that I was in a better place a few years ago, but then I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I have gotten back to a sense of normal, call it a “new normal,” it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance, I had one nightmare so realistic that I flew off the bed into a bookcase and broke my nose a few months back. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and I don’t, and yet I still believe.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.

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Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power, and vote into office men that mock the very faith that they say they believe.  That kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” 

Thus, like Paul Tillich I have come to believe that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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Essential Elements of Faith: Doubt, Brokenness and Hope

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Paul Coelho wrote, “None of us can know what tomorrow will hold, because each day has its good and its bad moments.”

So, a short note on this Easter Tuesday, and thankfully I did survive Easter and even Easter Monday. It was admittedly quite a difficult week. I for the first time that I can remember actually dreaded Easter, and as it and my birthday, which fell on Easter drew closer I felt as if I was hurtling toward the abyss. It has been a few years since I felt that bad, and every passing day I was reminded of haunting doubts, of abandonment, of painful events from the past. The worst day was Easter Sunday morning, when I felt like Charlie Brown, standing alone on the pitcher’s mound in the pouring rain, and yes it was raining, and I was alone in the chapel.

Thankfully, that moment passed, and even though the rain continued to fall, my mood was cheered by Judy, and our dogs, my brother and my mom, as well as our friends, local ones, and those around the world who wished me very kind thoughts, words, prayers, and love for my birthday.

I feel a lot better than I did on Easter morning, and I seem to be getting back to my normal self; not that I will ever stand accused of being normal, but normal for me.

As far as Easter, and faith, and doubt, I am no longer hurtling toward the abyss, but I am pretty much back to my normal continuum of faith and doubt, and yes hope for a better day and tomorrow. I don’t think that I ever will return to an easy faith, I think that Paul Tillich got it right when he said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” That seems to be borne out in scripture, Saint Thomas, Jeremiah the prophet, and even Saint Paul all seem to have struggled with that existential question, as well as the struggle if feeling abandoned, and having known the pain of defeat. Likewise, the French Christian mystic Simone Weil noted in her book Grace and Gravity, “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.”

But without pain, without doubt, without defeat, we can never experience the exhilaration of victory, we can never know love. As Paul Coelho wrote in his novel Manuscript Found in Accra, “I am here to tell you that there are people who have never been defeated. They are the ones who never fought. They managed to avoid scars, humiliations, feelings of helplessness, as well as those moments when even warriors doubt the existence of God.’’

As far as my struggles with faith, calling, and my priestly vocation, I’ll have to continue to deal with them on a daily basis; of this, I am sure, because as Coelho noted, “What was broken will never be the same again.” That my friends is true, but it does not rule out the fact that in life, what was broken can by transformed and be made better than it was in the first place, and I guess that is why we hope, and why Easter only comes after the anguish of Good Friday and the fearful solitude of Holy Saturday. Otherwise it would have no meaning.

I think that in a way, what I experienced last week, allows me to take God more seriously, less frivolously, and allows me to empathize with those who struggle, who feel the pain of defeat and failure, and to be there for them, as much as others are for me.

So, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Staying in the Game

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I like hard questions and hard cases. My life has been quite interesting and that includes my faith journey as a Christian and human being. It is funny that in my life I have as I have grown older begun to appreciate those that do not believe and to rather distrust those who proclaim their religious faith with absolute certitude, especially when hard questions are asked. As I get older I realize just how precious the freedom to ask questions, to seek answers and to confront the faithful really is.

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

I get “trolled” a lot and I find it amusing when trolls come by to condemn my “heresy.” When they do I realize that most of them must have some kind of psychological need to be right. I say this because for all of their certitude I sense a deep fear that they might be wrong. I think that is why they must do this.

I think that the quote by the late theologian is quite appropriate to me and the ministry that I find myself. I think it is a ministry pattern quite similar to Jesus in his dealings with the people during his earthly incarnate ministry.

Jesus was always hanging out with the outcasts, whether they be Jewish tax collectors collaborating with the Romans, lepers and other “unclean” types, Gentiles including the hated Roman occupiers, Samaritans and most dangerously, scandalous women. He seemed to reach out to these outcasts while often going out of his way to upset the religious establishment and the “true believers” of his day.

There is even one instance where a Centurion whose servant he healed was most likely involved in a homosexual relationship, based on the writer of the Gospel of Matthew’s use of the Greek word “Pais” which connotes a homosexual servant, instead of the more common “Doulos.” That account is the only time in the New Testament where that distinction is made, and Pais is used throughout Greek literature of the time to denote a homosexual slave or “house boy” relationship. Jesus was so successful at offending the profoundly orthodox of his day that his enemies made sure that they had him killed.

I think that what has brought me to this point is a combination of things but most importantly what happened to me in and after my tour in Iraq. Before I went to Iraq I was certain of about everything that I believed and was quite good at what we theologians and pastors call “apologetics.” My old Chaplain Assistant in the Army, who now recently serves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps called me a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh” back in 1997, and he meant it quite affectionately.

I was so good at it that I was silenced by a former Archbishop in my former church and banned from publishing for about 7 years after writing two articles for a very conservative Roman Catholic journal, the New Oxford Review.

The funny thing is that he, and a number of my closest friends from that denomination are either Roman Catholic priests or priests in the Anglican Ordinariate which came into communion with Rome a couple of years back. Ironically while being “too Catholic” was the reason I was forbidden to write it was because I questioned certain traditions and beliefs of the Church including that I believed that there was a role for women in the ordained ministry, that gays and lesbians could be “saved” and that not all Muslims were bad that got me thrown out in 2010.

However when I returned from Iraq in the midst of a full blown emotional, spiritual and physical collapse from PTSD that certitude disappeared. It took a while before I was able to rediscover faith and life and when I did it wasn’t the same. There was much more mystery to faith as well as reason. I came out of that period with much more empathy for those that either struggle with or reject faith. Thus I tend to hang out at bars and ball games more than church activities or socials, which I find absolutely tedious. I also have little use for clergy than in dysfunctional and broken systems that are rapidly being left behind. I am not speaking about belief here, but rather structure and methodology.

I think that if there is anything that God will judge the American versions of the Christian church is our absolute need for temporal power in the political, economic and social realms and the propagation of religious empires that only enrich the clergy which doing nothing for the least, the lost and the lonely. The fact that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States is “none” or “no preference” is proof of that and that the vast amounts of money needed to sustain these narcissistic religious empires, the mega-churches and “Christian” television industry will be their undoing.  That along with their lack of care for anyone but themselves. Jesus said that his disciples would be known by their love for one another, not the size of their religious empire or temporal power.

The interesting thing is that today I have friends and colleagues that span the theological spectrum. Many of these men even if they do not agree with what I believe trust me to love and care for them, even when those most like them in terms of belief or doctrine, both religious and political treat them like crap. Likewise I attract a lot of people who at one time were either in ministry or preparing for it who were wounded in the process and gave up, even to the point of doubting God’s love and even existence. It is kind of a nice feeling to be there for people because they do not have to agree with me for me to be there for them.

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

In my ministry as a military and a critical care hospital chaplain, I have found that there are many hurting people, people who like me question their faith and even long held beliefs.

I guess that is why I stay in the game.

Peace

Padre Steve

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Joyeux Noël: I Belong Here with those in Pain Who have Lost Their Faith

 

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As a veteran who served in the badlands of Al Anbar Province during Christmas of 2007 I can relate to Father Palmer, the British priest and chaplain in the film Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) when he makes the comment “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

I again watched that film last night. The film is the story of the amazing and exceptional Christmas Truce of 1914. It is a film that each time I see it that I discover something new, more powerful than the last time I viewed it. It reminds me of serving in Iraq, at Christmas from my perspective as a Chaplain, and thereby giving voice to those who serve now, as well as those who served God’s people in hellish places before me. It reminds me of how much I hate war, and how much I often hate the clergy who are all too often, bloodthirsty cheerleaders for war.

 

As a Chaplain I am drawn to the actions of the British Padre in the film, who during the truce conducts a Mass for all the soldiers, British, French and German in no-man’s land, who goes about caring for the soldiers both the living and the dead. His actions are contrasted with his Bishop who comes to relieve him of his duties and to urge on the replacement soldiers to better kill the Germans.

As the Chaplain begins to provide the last Rites to a dying soldier the Bishop walks in, in full purple cassock frock coat and hat and the chaplain looks up and kisses his ring.

As the chaplain looks at his clerical superior there is a silence and the Bishop looks sternly at the priest and addresses him:

“You’re being sent back to your parish in Scotland. I’ve brought you your marching orders.”

Stunned the Priest replies: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.”

The Bishop then sternly lectures the Priest: “I am very disappointed you know. When you requested permission to accompany the recruits from your parish I personally vouched for you. But then when I heard what happened I prayed for you.”

The Priest humbly and respectfully yet with conviction responds to his superior: “I sincerely believe that our Lord Jesus Christ guided me in what was the most important Mass of my life. I tried to be true to his trust and carry his message to all, whoever they may be.”

The Bishop seems a bit taken aback but then blames the Chaplain for what will next happen to the Soldiers that he has served with in the trenches: “Those men who listened to you on Christmas Eve will very soon bitterly regret it; because in a few days time their regiment is to be disbanded by the order of His Majesty the King. Where will those poor boys end up on the front line now? And what will their families think?”

They are interrupted when a soldier walks in to let the Bishop know that the new soldiers are ready for his sermon. After acknowledging the messenger the Bishop continues: “They’re waiting for me to preach a sermon to those who are replacing those who went astray with you.” He gets ready to depart and continues: “May our Lord Jesus Christ guide your steps back to the straight and narrow path.”

The Priest looks at him and asks: “Is that truly the path of our Lord?”

The Bishop looks at the Priest and asks what I think is the most troubling question: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

With that the Bishop leaves and goes on to preach. The words of the sermon are from a 1915 sermon preached by an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Abbey. They reflect the poisonous aspects of many religious leaders on all sides of the Great War, but also many religious leaders of various faiths even today, sadly I have to say Christian leaders are among the worst when it comes to inciting violence against those that they perceive as enemies of the Church, their nation or in some cases their political faction within a country.

 

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

The sermon is chilling and had it not been edited by the director would have contained the remark actually said by the real Bishop that the Germans “crucified babies on Christmas.” Of course that was typical of the propaganda of the time and similar to things that religious leaders of all faiths use to demonize their opponents and stir up violence in the name of their God.

When the Bishop leaves the Priest finishes his ministration to the wounded while listening to the words of the Bishop who is preaching not far away in the trenches. He meditates upon his simple cross, takes it off, kisses it hand hangs it upon a tripod where a container of water hangs.

The scene is chilling for a number of reasons. First is the obvious, the actions of a religious leader to denigrate the efforts of some to bring the Gospel of Peace into the abyss of Hell of earth and then to incite others to violence dehumanizing the enemy forces. The second and possibly even more troubling is to suggest that those who do not support dehumanizing and exterminating the enemy are not suitable to remain in the house of the Lord. Since I have had people, some in person and others on social media say similar things to what the Bishop asks Palmer the scene hits close to home.

When I left Iraq in February 2008 I felt that I was abandoning those committed to my spiritual care, but my time was up. Because of it I missed going with some of my advisors to Basra with the 1st Iraqi Division to retake that city from insurgents. It was only a bit over a month after I had celebrated what I consider to be my most important Masses of my life at COP South and COP North on December 23rd as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In fact they were really the last masses that I felt the mystery and awe of the love of God that I used to so much feel.

When I left the new incoming senior Chaplain refused to take my replacement leaving our advisers without dedicated support. He then slandered me behind my back because what I was doing was not how he would do things and because I and my relief were under someone else’s operational control. It is funny how word gets back to you when people talk behind your back. Thankfully he is now retired from the Navy and I feel for any ministers of his denomination under his “spiritual” care. So I cannot forget those days and every time I think about them, especially around Christmas I am somewhat melancholy and why I can relate so much to Father Palmer in the movie.

It has been eight years since those Christmas Masses and they still feel like yesterday. In the intervening years my life has been different. Just a year later I was walking home from church where my wife was to sing in the choir during the Christmas vigil mass. I couldn’t handle the crowds, the noise, and I felt so far away from God. That night I walked home in the dark looking up into the sky asking God if he still was there. If there had been a bar on the way home I would have stopped by and poured myself in.

Since Iraq I have dealt with severe and chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety and insomnia were coupled with a two year period where due to my struggles I lost faith, was for all practical purposes an agnostic. I felt abandoned by God, but even more so and maybe more importantly by my former church and most other Chaplains. It was like being radioactive, there was and is a stigma for Chaplains that admits to PTSD and go through a faith crisis, especially from other Chaplains and Clergy. It was just before Christmas in late 2009 that faith began to return in what I call my Christmas Miracle. But be sure, let no one tell you differently, no Soldier, Sailor, Marine or Airman who has suffered the trauma of war and admitted to PTSD does not feel the stigma that goes with it, and sadly, despite the best efforts of many there is a stigma.

Now that faith is different and I have become much more skeptical of the motivations of religious leaders, especially those that demonize and dehumanize those that do not believe like them or fully support their cause or agenda. Unfortunately there are far too many men and women who will use religion to do that, far too many.

As for me, I thought that I was in a better place a year ago. I had the floor kicked from out from under me in the summer of 2014 and it has been a hard fight and while I am beginning to get back to some sense of normal it is a day to day thing. I still suffer the effects of the PTSD, especially the insomnia, nightmares and the nightmares which came back with a vengeance last summer. I also still have the anxiety in crowded places and bad traffic, but working with my new therapist I am coming up with some effective coping mechanisms. As for faith, I do believe again, though at the same time I doubt. I would have to consider myself a Christian Agnostic who echoes the cry of the man who cried out to Jesus, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” I believe and yet, I don’t.

Like the Priest in Joyeux Noel I know that my place is with those who are “in pain, and who have lost their faith.” For me this may no longer be on the battlefield as I will retire from the Navy in a few years. However, that being said I will strive to be there for those that struggle with faith and believe, especially those who struggle because of what they saw and experienced during war and when they returned home.

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Likewise I expect that I will do my best to speak truth to those in power and those whose faithfulness is more a product of their comfort with the God that they create in their own mind rather than the Crucified God wise death on the Cross s a scandal. For many Christians the scandal of the cross is too easy to avoid by surrounding ourselves with pet theologies that appeal to our pride, prejudice and power. The kind of malevolent power represented by the bishop in Joyeux Noel. Thus I take a measure of comfort in the words of Simone Weil who said “He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” 

Thus, like Paul Tillich I have come to believe that “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  In other words to become a complete pain in the ass until the day that I die.

Praying for Peace this Christmas,

Padre Steve+

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