Tag Archives: sexual abuse

Easter and the Outcasts: For Many the Season is Painful

barmherzigkeit

Sieger Köder
“Barmherzigkeit” (Mercy)

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” Henri Nouwen

It is now Holy or Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum. Mid-way through Holy Week and I am doing some thinking about Christians that have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith. I meet them all the time and read their stories on blogs, books and social media. Of course I run across more now because I have gone through such a crisis and have written about it and through that had my story publicized. As a result I am contacted by people who have suffered trauma, especially related to PTSD as well as those that care for such people.

For many Christians Holy Week and Easter can be particularly painful. Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of the season. People who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and loneliness. For some this loneliness can transition to a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.

I say this because so many people suffering people often go unnoticed or are ignored in church. Their loss could be that of a spouse or child, the loss of something else significant or another type of trauma that devastates them. Others find that they are rejected by the communities of faith that they had been part of all of their lives because of divorce or because of their sexual preference. However, no matter the cause of the suffering many people discover that they are outcasts in the place where they should be cared about more than anywhere else.

Many pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people to the message of Easter. I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself. It is not so bad this year for me but I can remember coming home from Iraq and going through an extended period of time where I felt absolutely alone and no longer sensed the presence of God. I have to say that as a Priest and Chaplain that experience was one of the most frightening of my life.

Years ago I believed that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out. I believed then that somehow with a bit of counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.

Call me a heretic but I do not believe that now. That line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life. However it is absolutely stupid advice to give people who are severely traumatized, clinically depressed, and suicidal or who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives. This is especially true for those abused by parents or clergy. That kind of wound does damage to the victim’s very concept and understanding of God which can last a lifetime, and in some churches leads to continued re-victimization as the victims are blamed for their plight.

Thus I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or any other psychological reason. The numbers of people victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures is mind numbing. Likewise we don’t even bother to count the vast numbers of people in our churches who have lost children or other loved ones, experienced some kind of physical trauma related to accidents, had near death experiences or combat deal with the wounds of war. They are all over the place and many go unnoticed in the church.

Sometimes the damage makes it nearly impossible for people to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach. To some God is at best a detached and uncaring being who allowed them to be hurt, and those that serve him in positions of authority are willing accomplices and are no safe.

My experience of coming home from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening. I was in such bad shape that I left Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 before it started and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed. My isolation from other Christians and the church community and despair that I experienced showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with by care givers. Nor is it to be papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up by “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Those that I have talked to and read about who have suffered a crisis or loss of faith almost always express how they feel cut off and even abandoned by God. It is also something that I experienced, thus for me it is not an academic exercise. It is not simply depression that people are dealing with, but despair of life itself. Sometimes it seems that death or just going to sleep is preferable to living. This overwhelming despair impacts almost all of life. It is if they never are able to leave the “God-forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb. For some the pain is so much that suicide becomes an option and the belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them. I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach for the person experiencing this pain to reach out but it is also difficult for those who care enough to reach out to them. I can say that I was not easy to deal with and because of my distrust it was hard to believe that anyone cared, even when they did. However the people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage helped get me through the worst of this. I’m sure that some who had to deal with me in that condition got burned out as I was not easy to deal with. Some chose not walk with me as I began to go down this road in early 2008 and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains. In some ways I don’t blame them. However it is telling that the first person that asked me about my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my first therapist.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with but is something that we need to face especially during Holy Week. The Cross necessitates this, Jesus was considered “God-Forsaken” and that is what is so perplexing about Good Friday. He is the battered and abandoned victim on that day, a day when all hope appears to be gone. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote something quite profound:

“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” 

Scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But this can be hard to do, we don’t like dealing with suffering. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian. Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with walking with and holding on to those who suffer the absence of God. It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we walk with Jesus this Holy Week that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion

A Weekend of Old Navy Movies: Mister Roberts, The Caine Mutiny and In Harm’s Way

Well I have the duty pager for the hospital this weekend so I have been hanging out at the Island Hermitage with my dog Molly watching classic Navy movies.

Friday night I watched the classic film Mister Roberts. Yesterday I watched In Harm’s Way and The Caine Mutiny.

All three films are fictional and because of that I find them great for understanding the complexity of Navy life and leadership.  Mister Roberts and the Caine Mutiny the films deal with the complexities of life and leadership on small and rather insignificant ships while In Harm’s Way deals with more senior officers and their lives. All three deal with subjects that are uncomfortable because they still exist not just in the Navy but throughout the military. Thus all three offer insights into toxic leaders, poor morale, discipline, mental illness, alcoholism and subjects such as sexual assault and suicide.

Mister Roberts stared Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon and William Powell. It is set on the USS Reluctant a Light Cargo Ship in the backwaters of the Pacific in the closing months of the Second World War. Released in 1955 the film was based on the 1946 novel of the same name by Thomas Heggen.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/323485/Mister-Roberts-Movie-Clip-Up-All-Night.html

Cagney plays a despotic former Merchant Marine Captain, LCDR Morton an officer of the type that the Navy did not want portrayed on film then, and still doesn’t today.  He is petty, self serving and rules as a tyrant in order to secure his promotion to Commander. His prize possession is a palm tree which was awarded to the ship for handling the most cargo which he believes will be his ticket to promotion. Lemon plays the ship’s Laundry and Morale Officer Ensign Frank Pulver who creatively finds ways of avoiding work. He is so successful that Captain Morton doesn’t know who he is despite having been on the ship 14 months. Pulver provides amusement and aggravation to Henry Fonda plays the ship’s Cargo Officer LTJG Doug Roberts. Roberts is liked by the crew and always in conflict with hs captain.  He is desperate to be transferred off the Reluctant and serve on a ship on the front lines. He fears that the war will pass him by and sends in letter after letter to get transferred to a fighting ship only to have Morton send them on without recommending approval.

Roberts is caught in the position of many young leaders where they are torn between their duty and their loyalty to their crew.  Eventually he  William Powell in his last film plays ship’s Medical Officer, the wise sage whose advice and counsel is invaluable to Roberts.  Eventually Roberts gets off the ship because the crew forges a request for transfer along with a forged recommendation from the Captain. When he leaves the ship the crew presents him with their “Medal” the “Order of the Palm.” He is transferred to a destroyer and is killed in action. His final letter to Ensign Pulver tells of his appreciation for the crew and comes along with a letter from a friend of Pulver’s on board the destroyer Roberts was transferred telling of Roberts being killed when the ship was hit by a kamikaze.

In the letter Roberts expresses that he finally understood the enemy faced by those in rear areas and all of those that cannot see why they matter or know their place in a war.  The challenge of leaders to understand “that the unseen enemy of this war is the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and, therefore, a terrible sort of suicide.”  He finally after having seen combat that those that he served with on the Reluctant “Right now I’m looking at something that’s hanging over my desk. A preposterous hunk of brass attached to the most bilious piece of ribbon I’ve ever seen. I’d rather have it than the Congressional Medal of Honor. It tells me what I’ll always be proudest of: That at a time in the world when courage counted most I lived among 62 brave men.” 

The Caine Mutiny adapted from the novel written by Herman Wouk deals with a another ship where leadership challenges abound. The Captain of the ship, LCDR Queeg played by Humphrey Bogart is plagued by doubt, fear and paranoia.  A Regular Navy Officer on with a wardroom of reservists he comes to the ship battered from two years in the Atlantic. He is also plagued by his Communications Officer, LT Tom Keefer played by Fred MacMurray who spends the time not writing a novel in spreading poison about his ship, the Navy and his commanding officers. Queeg begs for their support and understanding.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/413561/Caine-Mutiny-The-Movie-Clip-Like-A-Family.html

However Keefer is so successful at undermining Queeg that in the midst of a typhoon the Executive Officer, LT Steve Maryk played by Van Johnson takes command and relieves Queeg on the bridge supported by the Officer of the deck Ensign Willie Keith.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtqf0CCVUek

Maryk is tried and acquitted at court marital but his defense attorney, LT Barney Greenwald played by Jose Ferrer has to destroy Queeg on the witness stand to do it.  During the trial Keefer is called as a witness for the prosecution lies on the stand to avoid incriminating himself while damaging the case of his friend Maryk. At the end Greenwald confronts Kiefer at a party and provides the leadership lesson for a wardroom which abandoned their sick captain long before the mutiny occurred.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKeISsYKROI

[Greenwald staggers into the Caine crew’s party, inebriated] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Well, well, well! The officers of the Caine in happy celebration! 

Lt. Steve Maryk: What are you, Barney, kind of tight? 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Sure. I got a guilty conscience. I defended you, Steve, because I found the wrong man was on trial. 

[pours himself a glass of wine] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: So, I torpedoed Queeg for you. I had to torpedo him. And I feel sick about it. 

[drinks wine] 

Lt. Steve Maryk: Okay, Barney, take it easy. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: You know something… When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no, we knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did! And a lot of other guys. Tough, sharp guys who didn’t crack up like Queeg. 

Ensign Willie Keith: But no matter what, Captain Queeg endangered the ship and the lives of the men. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: He didn’t endanger anybody’s life, you did, all of you! You’re a fine bunch of officers. 

Lt. JG H. Paynter Jr.: You said yourself he cracked. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: I’m glad you brought that up, Mr. Paynter, because that’s a very pretty point. You know, I left out one detail in the court martial. It wouldn’t have helped our case any. 

[to Maryk] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Tell me, Steve, after the Yellowstain business, Queeg came to you guys for help and you turned him down, didn’t you? 

Lt. Steve Maryk: [hesitant] Yes, we did. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: [to Paynter] You didn’t approve of his conduct as an officer. He wasn’t worthy of your loyalty. So you turned on him. You ragged him. You made up songs about him. If you’d given Queeg the loyalty he needed, do you suppose the whole issue would have come up in the typhoon? 

[to Maryk] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: You’re an honest man, Steve, I’m asking you. You think it would’ve been necessary for you to take over? 

Lt. Steve Maryk: [hesitant] It probably wouldn’t have been necessary. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: [muttering slightly] Yeah. 

Ensign Willie Keith: If that’s true, then we were guilty. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Ah, you’re learning, Willie! You’re learning that you don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job or you’re no good! Well, the case is over. You’re all safe. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. 

[long pause; strides toward Keefer] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: And now we come to the man who should’ve stood trial. The Caine’s favorite author. The Shakespeare whose testimony nearly sunk us all. Tell ’em, Keefer! 

Lieutenant Tom Keefer: [stiff and overcome with guilt] No, you go ahead. You’re telling it better. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: You ought to read his testimony. He never even heard of Captain Queeg! 

Lt. Steve Maryk: Let’s forget it, Barney! 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: Queeg was sick, he couldn’t help himself. But you, you’re *real* healthy. Only you didn’t have one tenth the guts that he had. 

Lieutenant Tom Keefer: Except I never fooled myself, Mr. Greenwald. 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: I’m gonna drink a toast to you, Mr. Keefer. 

[pours wine in a glass] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: From the beginning you hated the Navy. And then you thought up this whole idea. And you managed to keep your skirts nice, and starched, and clean, even in the court martial. Steve Maryk will always be remembered as a mutineer. But you, you’ll publish your novel, you’ll make a million bucks, you’ll marry a big movie star, and for the rest of your life you’ll live with your conscience, if you have any. Now here’s to the *real* author of “The Caine Mutiny.” Here’s to you, Mr. Keefer. 

[splashes wine in Keefer’s face] 

Lt. Barney Greenwald: If you wanna do anything about it, I’ll be outside. I’m a lot drunker than you are, so it’ll be a fair fight. 

In Harm’s Way was filmed a decade after the Caine Mutiny and Mister Roberts. Starring John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Burgess Meredith and Tom Tryon it was a epic that was panned by critics as having a shallow plot. It involved the intersecting lives of a number of officers during the war with John Wayne playing Rear Admiral “Rock” Torrey. Although the plot is relatively shallow the film brings up several very serious subjects that are faced by leaders even today.  The topics of alcoholism, sexual assault and suicide are touched upon through the character played by Kirk Douglas, Captain Paul Eddington.  Eddington is plagued by alcoholism and a failed marriage that ended when his wife was killed while with an Army Air Corps Officer on the morning of the Peal Harbor attack.  Sentenced to a backwater assignment he is called to be Torrey’s Chief of Staff.  In that position he ends up raping a nurse played by Jill Howarth that happens to be the fiancee of Torrey’s son. She then commits suicide. When Eddington discovers that she is dead he sets off on a suicide mission to find the Japanese fleet.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/348030/In-Harm-s-Way-Movie-Clip-The-Navy-s-Never-Wrong.html

The questions raised in the film are not answered, there is no Barney Greenwald to point out the moral of the story.  John Wayne plays a flawed hero surrounded by characters of that are all in some way dealing with their own personal demons. However the questions are those that have been faced by military leaders for generations.  How does a leader deal with men and women in failing marriages? How does one deal with those that simply are advancing their own careers? How does a leader deal with key staff that are dealing with alcoholism? How does one prevent sexual assault in a combat area and prevent suicide?  The truth is that we still deal with all of these questions and none of us or any military in the world has solved any of them.  Perhaps Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz sums up the situation that we still face “Well, we all know the Navy’s never wrong. But in this case, it was a little weak on bein’ right.”

Taken as a whole the three films all are valuable for today’s naval leader as well as military leaders in general. The I do learn something new every time that I watch them and all challenge me to be a better leader.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under film, leadership, Military, movies, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Say it Ain’t so Joe… Joe Paterno Fired in Heinous Sexual Abuse Scandal involving Coach Jerry Sandusky

Joe Paterno (Getty Images)

“Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good”

“I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case, I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief….With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had done more.” Joe Paterno

I was genuinely shocked when I heard at the allegations that rocked State College Pennsylvania Sunday.  Long time Penn State Defensive Coordinator, Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on multiple child sexual abuse charges.  The arrest came years after the first accusations which date back to 1994 but were most egregiously displayed when a graduate assistant told Paterno of Sandusky raping a child in the shower.  The charges are heinous involving the forcible sodomy of at least nine young boys by Sandusky.  One of the victim’s mothers even reported the crime against her son to the local police in 1998 and the police heard on a tapped phone Sandusky tell the woman “I understand. I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness. I know I won’t get it from you. I wish I were dead.”

Paterno may have followed the letter of the law by telling the Athletic Director about the incident, but his failure to do more while not technically criminal made him complicit in the rape of more victims bySandusky.  However one has to wonder why not a soul acted to stopSanduskyin the act when they observed the rapes being committed or reported any of the incidents to the police.  I can’t figure out what any of them were thinking.

The inaction of McQueary, Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley and University Vice President Gary Schultz to take action when they had credible evidence of a friend and former colleague committing sexual assault against children in their own department’s showers.  This fact alone is shocking as no one went running to stop the act when they saw it or followed up after reporting it to their immediate superior.  No one took the initiative to immediately call the police, any police.   Instead knowing thatSanduskyconducted in such a manner they allowed themselves to be associated with him and his charity nine years until he was arrested.  Curley and Schultz have been charged in regard to their involvement in the cover up.

While they followed the letter of Pennsylvania’s ambiguous sexual assault reporting law they sacrificed their personal honor and everything that Coach Paterno and the institution had publicly espoused throughout his career.  They risked the lives of more children at the hands of a serial sexual abuser who had nearly unlimited access to children through his well thought of charity.  It was inexcusable and unconscionable dereliction of duty.

What happened to move a bureaucracy to protect a criminal rather than do anything to stop him?  What led a coach who had the motto “to serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care” to pass the buck and not follow up.  Hat happened to a coach who said “Success without honor is an unseasoned dish; it will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good” to surrender his honor by not ensuring that the charges were fully investigated?

I sincerely cannot imagine the process of bureaucratic indifference that allowed a serial child rapist to remain a well respected public citizen.  I cannot imagine a leader as Joe Paterno to not act in real time to stop this from happening.  But he did.  For a few hours it seemed that despite this he would be allowed to remain as head coach by announcing that he would retire at the end of the season and then going off to run a practice as if football was all that mattered. It was as if he did not understand how serious this was.  But just a few minutes ago it was announced that the University Board of Trustees had fired the legendary coach along with University President Graham Spanier.  It had to be done. Paterno should have resigned immediately upon the announcement of the Grand Jury investigation.

But why did it take so long? The Grand Jury had this for three years and it didn’t come out until after he passed Grambling State University Coach Eddie Robinson with 409 wins.

Joe Paterno and those around him could have prevented this nearly a decade ago. But for whatever reason a man that many saw as an icon of integrity had that legacy destroyed in a nearly cataclysmic fashion.  Now there are students protesting the firing and police are gathering in riot gear. I think that says a lot about our values.  To some saving a football icon is more important than what the legend allowed to happen on his watch. It seems that to some football matters more than honor or morality.

Say it ain’t so Joe, say it ain’t so….

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under football, sports and life

Reaching the Lost Christian Generation

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” Jürgen Moltmann

Over the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about encounters that I have had with Christians of various denominations who have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith due to some kind of trauma in their lives.  These people are the unseen, unheard and ignored part of our religious landscape.  In theUnited Stateswe have a very vibrant religious culture which finds its way into much of everyday life.  In fact listening to most of our Presidential candidates you would think that most are in fact Evangelical Christian preachers.

The fact is that despite the popularity of the mega-church and pop-psychology driven church world directed by “pastors” that function more as CEOs, motivational speakers and authors that churches are losing adherents at an increasing rate.  Many of those that are being lost are those that have suffered silently doing everything that is supposed to fulfill a Christian and make them healthy, wealthy and popular get left in the dust because they don’t “get better.”  I call them the “Lost Christian Generation.” There are many times that I totally empathize with author Anne Rice in saying that she has left Christianity yet still has faith in Christ.  For Rice it was the lack of love shown by the institutional church for people that are marginalized and treated as if they were unredeemable by often well meaning Christians.

For the wounded the church itself becomes their little acre of Hell on earth.  Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomenon is one of the more tragic aspects of life.  Those that at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness.   But most remain in the church for years living in pain thinking that they must be doing something wrong, that maybe they have angered God or that God has abandoned them.  In fact I would challenge my readers that attend church to take a look around the pews and see that person sitting alone, maybe staring into space, maybe with an expression of deep sadness on their face even as people talk and laugh around them.  The problem is most of us have very little situational awareness and don’t see them and of we do feel uncomfortable or inadequate so we leave them hoping that maybe they’ll get their act together or just go away.

I know what it feels like to be marginalized after I came back fromIraqbecause many of my Christian friends seemed, at least in my view to be tied to the absolute hogwash that spews from talk radio hosts and allegedly “Christian” politicians.  I remember having some Christians question my patriotism and even my faith because I disagreed with them regarding certain aspects of the war, despite the fact that I had been on the ground in harm’s way serving with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar province.  The fact that not a clergyman, civilian or military, took time to care for me when I was in a major PTSD meltdown and crisis of faith before I went to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth didn’t seem to matter because a political agenda was given primacy over the simple truths and hard demands of the Gospel.

I went through a period after Iraq where feeling abandoned and isolated from those of a like faith that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic.  That was a really difficult time in my life and if you think that anything sucks try to be a Chaplain when you no longer know if God exists and the only person asking how you are doing with “the Big Guy” is your therapist. I can say without a doubt that it sucks and I know that I am not alone in my feelings.  I have met others whose experience is similar to mine but those that are struggling right now, caught between our faith and the feeling of being abandoned by God and his people because our experience of seeing the human suffering caused by war has shaken us.  That experience changed me enough that my former church told me to leave because I had become “too liberal.”

This “God Forsakenness” sometimes leads those people that are part of the “lost Christian generation” to believe that death appears more comforting than life in the present. For such people, they live “Good Friday” everyday feeling that they are truly God Forsaken.   I write this because I really believe that these often very sensitive and wonderful people are either ignored or not even seen by most of their fellow church members. Likewise I believe that many if not most pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do.   I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself when one no longer senses the presence of God and feels alone against the world, especially in church.

Many times the crisis of faith is caused by prolonged depression, PTSD or other trauma often involving family members, clergy or other trusted authority figures in their lives.  Sometimes the trauma is due to a physical injury, perhaps a near death experience due to an illness, combat or accident and can be neurological as in the case of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI not something that routine counseling either psychological or pastoral or an anti-depressant medication will correct.  In my case it was PTSD and chronic pain and insomnia which overwhelmed me and along with a crisis of faith triggered such hopelessness that I barely held on for almost two years.

I remember when I first started dealing with this in others while in seminary that I was of the mind that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out.  I believed then that somehow with counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.  Call me a heretic but that line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life but absolutely stupid advice for people who are severely traumatized or clinically depressed and suicidal who no longer perceive the presence of God in their lives.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. So many people like this have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat that it is mind numbing.  The fact that I went through a period for the nearly two years where I was pretty much an agnostic praying to believe again because of my PTSD injury incurred in Iraq that felt hopelessly isolated for the first year after my return until I finally reconnected with others and began to feel safe again gives me just a bit of an idea at what these people are going through.  My isolation from Christian community and sense of despair during that time showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with or papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up in the ivory theological towers by theologians and “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience was due to from my time in Iraq and the trauma of my return.  That time was absolutely frightening.  Church was no longer a comfort and my long established spiritual practices no longer brought peace or a feeling of communion with God. It was so bad that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.

For those clergy this is an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.  It becomes worse when church institutions deny or ignore their claims which has been an unfortunate occurrence in many Roman Catholic dioceses around the world, particularly in Europe and North America where new revelations of clerical abuse seem to show up with alarming frequency.

The feeling that people who go through a crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that they feel God feel cut off and even abandoned by God.  This is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when thoughts of death or just going to sleep are much preferable to living.  This overwhelming despair impacts their relationships especially with their family and frequently will destroy families as the spouse grows weary and loses hope seeing their loved one get better.  It is if they never are able to leave the “God forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb.   For some the pain is so much the last and previously unthinkable alternative of suicide becomes the only course of action that they think will help.  Such thoughts are not simply narcissism as some would believe but from the “logical” belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them.  I have seen this too many times to count.

It is hard to reach out to people in this situation.  I have to admit in my case that it was only people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage that helped get me through the worst of this.  However I’m sure that my condition burned some people out.  There are some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them at the same time the first person that asked me how my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my therapist.  When I reported to my current duty station I was shocked to find Chaplains who were willing to come alongside of me, even when they didn’t have the answers and remain with me.

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with.  It is seldom dealt with in many seminaries or Bible schools because it is not comfortable or something that you can “grow your church” with.  But the reality is there are more people going to church praying for an answer who no one reaches out to; in fact they are often invisible amid the busyness of program oriented ministry.

I do not think that it is enough simply to tell them that “God won’t give you more than you can bear” or quote other scriptures when they have been pushed beyond the “red line” and are breaking down.  They want to believe that scriptural principle but no longer believe because God is no longer real to them.

Yet scripture plainly teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian.  Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with those who suffer the absence of God.  It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

We have to be honest and not turn a blind eye to the transgressions of Christians over the centuries.  We cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries of those that are living their own dark night of the soul or have given in to despair.

I do pray that as we celebrate the joy of the Resurrection that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”  It is not easy as those who walked with me can testify but in doing so there is the chance that such action will prevent tragedy and maybe, just maybe give hope to this “Lost Christian Generation” that may allow them to return.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Yes God Really does Love the Real World

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I think one of the greatest joys that I have as a Priest is when people tell me that they like me because I am “real.”  It’s not so much that they think I am a great preacher, which I am not or that I have all the answers especially because my answer to many questions that I am asked is “I don’t know.”  In fact what those that like me say what they like about me is that I am approachable and care enough to give them the time of day and listen to them.

My psychological and spiritual collapse following my tour in Iraq caused me to see why who live in the real world appreciate pastors, Priests or Rabbis that are real.  There were very few people, especially ministers that in the years following my return that I felt that cared about me enough to share what I was going through with them.  In fact I found that many were not interested or simply did not want to deal with a “bruised reed.”  I think that when a minister, Priest or Rabbi expresses doubt or is in crisis be it a long term physical illness that will not be healed, a deep depression that causes them despair or a spiritual crisis that causes them to question their faith that the tendency among most ministers is to run away as if they were radioactive or that it was catching.

In fact I have heard this for years as friends or pastors that I met in their crisis expressed the pain of being ostracized by other ministers or their denominations or local churches.  Likewise I have also all too often seen churches and pastors ignore or ostracize people simply because they are not easily “fixed” or those that are considered “problems” because they ask uncomfortable questions or point out inconsistency or injustice in the church.  Then there are the times where the Church mistreats, abuses and uses people without any real care for them as people treating them as numbers or even more crass “tithing units.” Finally there are the times that the Church covers up the crimes of its ministers against the weak including sexual abuse and pedophilia and when found out blames the victims or protect the criminals from the justice of the state using Canon Law to subvert the justice system.  Such actions are not unique to the Roman Catholic Church that most often stands accused but can be found in almost any church or denomination.

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

Likewise when we refuse serve people that come to us because of denominational differences or because they are not Christians or someone of our faith tradition and then refuse to help them find someone that can we do a disservice to them and to God.  Since have served nearly my entire time in ministry in some form of the chaplaincy I deal with this often. I represent a small religious tradition which is Catholic but not Roman and very ecumenical, thus I am in a distinct minority.  I know man who serves as a Priest in a small communion that has many similar beliefs to my church who told me that he loved being his denomination because when he was a Chaplain “he did not have to worship with Protestants or give them communion.”

One of the men that serve as a model for me is the late German Redemptorist Priest Bernard Häring. Häring was drafted as a medic by the German Wehrmacht at the beginning of the Second World War and taken out of the parish.  In his service as a medic he never forgot that he was a priest and performed his duties as a priest to non-Catholics in his units even celebrating the Eucharist with them.  He also took the time to serve and care for civilians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and French in the areas that he served.  One story that he told was when he told his Protestant Soldiers that their official pastor would be coming for service that they told him “There really is no reason to make any changes for us because you are ‘one of us.’” (Bernard Häring “Priesthood Imperiled: A Critical Examination of Ministry in the Catholic Church” Triumph Books Ligouri, MO 1996 p.9)  Häring was transparent about exactly what he was, a Roman Catholic Priest whether he dealt with Protestant or Orthodox Christians and because he was “one of us” they accepted him and made him their pastor even without becoming Catholic themselves. A Polish parish that he served as a prisoner of war sought to make him their pastor following the war despite him being a member of the Army that brutally subjugated their country.  After the war he continued with that same spirit and I have sought to emulate that spirit in my Priestly ministry.

I definitely am not perfect but I try to listen and care for those in my charge regardless of their faith or lack thereof.  I just hope that in my imperfect attempts to care that people see that God loves them. My trust is in the simple message that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

As Bonhoeffer said “God loves the real world.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Marriage Killers: The Pitter Patter of Little Annoyances

I performed a marriage ceremony yesterday for a wonderful couple out on the beach near “First Landing” memorial and historic Cape Henry lighthouse on Fort Story, or what is now part of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story.  It was a wonderful time despite having my pristine bald head sunburned and looking like a tomato by the end of the ceremony and pictures. I should have worn my Giants cap up to the beginning of the actual ceremony or slapped on some sunscreen before I went out but no I couldn’t do any such thing.  But anyway I digress.

In my years as a Priest and a Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy I have done a lot of pre-marriage, marriage and post marriage counseling.  In that time I have come to realize that of the 50% or so of marriages that end up in divorce that most are not due to the “big things” like adultery or abuse. Instead it is the pitter patter of little annoyances and an inability to communicate or be emotionally intimate with one another that are the leading causes of why so many marriages fail.  Now admittedly in the context of things the “big things” like adultery and abuse are nearly impossible for a marriage to recover from because they are betrayals of trust and safety with the people that we have chosen to be vulnerable with and commit ourselves to, hopefully for life.

Now I really don’t think that most people enter into marriage be it a religious or civil marriage go into it with the expectation or hope that it will fail.  Instead I am want to believe that the vast majority of people that enter into marriage want it to work but really have no clue of what they are getting into.  The marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer is quite rightly marriage is “not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately…” in other words with due prudence, preparation and discernment.

One thing that I always tell the young male sailors and Marines that I have counseled when they are hot to trot and madly in lust is to remind them of the seal on the flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The flag shows a woman, “Virtus” or Virtue dressed as an Amazon standing over a man with her foot on him and a spear thrust down beside him.  I tell them that it is symbolic of the divorce laws here in the Old Dominion.  But anyway I digress.

Virginia Divorce Laws as portrayed of the State Flag

The big things are most difficult to survive in the short term; however it is the constant beating of the little things, those annoyances that married couples experience from each other that kill marriages just as dead as the big things even though it usually takes longer for this to happen.  A friend of my mother’s dropped her divorce papers on her unwitting and clueless husband on their 50th wedding anniversary which I must confess earns her a high score for both technical merit and artistic achievement.  Of course most people don’t wait that long to do this and the papers are filled with stories about couples that file for divorce citing “irreconcilable differences.”  What are these differences?  Well I’m glad that you asked that question but if you are married or were married I am surprised that you have to ask. It is the little things, annoying habits, nervous ticks, crumbs left on the counter, underwear draped on the banister, clothing strewn around the house, spending habits on hobbies deemed unnecessary by one spouse or another, personality differences maybe one is an introvert and one an extrovert or similarities that are so close that one or the other realize that what they find annoying in their spouse is just like what they do leading to a rather unique form of self loathing.   Likewise there are the spouse’s friends and friendships that date back well before the couple met that one or the other spouse finds bothersome or feels threatened by and then there of course are the things that couples don’t communicate about, the things that are allowed to build up until they explode like a volcano or even a massive pimple.  For some reason and I don’t know why it seems that a nearly universal occurrence in marriage is that couples cannot communicate their needs and desires and are woefully unable to bear any criticism from their spouse.  For some reason, I don’t know maybe fear of rejection by their spouse if they own up to their needs or put voice to their criticism will instead let things build up until the discontent reaches such a level that it can no longer be held in and they erupt.  Of course the damage done by the eruption of pure and unabated negative energy the explosion causes such damage that it is about as repairable as the battle cruiser HMS Hood or perhaps the battleship USS Arizona.   The only difference is that the damaged and explosive build up takes a lot more time in these types of situations.

You see since the Abbess of the Abbey Normal and I have been married for almost 27 years we now understand this.  Not that is it always fun as certainly the two of us have done enough annoying things to each other over the course of the years to throw each other under the bus on innumerable occasions and sometimes our love has been tested but somehow we choose to remain committed to one another sometimes in spite of our better sensibilities.  However we do love each other and somehow in spite of the many often idiot things that I have done to include my sometimes brazen insensitivity we stay together.  It is like the Bible says; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.  I think that the endurance thing doesn’t get enough play but still as for the Abbess anyone who can endure me for almost 27 years has a lot to brag about as I am not always the most sensitive person in the world, after all I am a Meyers-Briggs INTJ which basically means that my baseline is pretty much on the anti-social side of life. I guess that love does endure all things.  Our marriage is one where love somehow finds a way to triumph especially in spite of me. As I said to the Abbess once when watching an early episode of the TV show House …”House is like me without Jesus” and she said “Honey, House is you with Jesus.”

So the sometimes good and sometimes not so good padre is for couples that might be looking for love in all the wrong places and looking for love in too many faces to take some time before they tie the know and as the Book of Common Prayer Marriage Rite says to not to enter it marriage is not to be enter into it unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and even might a say deliberately with all due discernment, preparation, counsel and even dare I say….say it say it, okay I must I must with trepidation fear and trembling and not give way to a surge of testosterone or hormones.  After all, this isn’t a movie it is real life and the failure to take simple stuff like this into account will certainly make things a lot more complicated and possibly painful later on and by the way for my more spiritual or religious readers, just because you guys think that the lust that you have for each other is God’s will because it makes you feel good, you can take those feelings and your checkbook to the divorce attorney who will certainly try his best to make all the bad feelings go away as fast as your bank account will let him.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Struggling with Faith and God at Easter

“God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.” 
Jürgen Moltmann

Easter Sunday is past and we are now in the Easter Season I was thinking today on encounters that I have had with Christians of various denominations who have suffered a crisis in faith or loss of faith due to some kind of trauma in their lives which gets worse at Easter.  For these people the time in which their churches celebrate Christ’s resurrection becomes their own little acre of Hell on earth.  Having known plenty of these people I can say that this phenomena is one of the more tragic aspects of the season when people who at one time felt the presence of God in their life only sense emptiness and aloneness which sometimes becomes a feeling of hopelessness where even death appears more comforting than life in the present.  I write this because I really believe that these often very sensitive and wonderful people are either ignored or not even seen by most of their fellow church members and that many if not most pastors and priests are either unaware of them, uncomfortable around them or irritated by them because they don’t respond like “normal” people do to the message of Easter.  I have found from my own experience returning from Iraq that Easter despite the message of resurrection and hope often triggers a despair of life itself when one no longer senses the presence of God and feels alone against the world, especially in church.

Many times the crisis of faith is caused by prolonged depression, PTSD or other trauma often involving family members, clergy or other trusted authority figures in their lives.  Sometimes the trauma is due to a physical injury, perhaps a near death experience due to an illness, combat or accident and can be neurological as in the case of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI not something that routine counseling either psychological or pastoral or an anti-depressant medication will correct.  In my case it was PTSD and chronic pain and insomnia which overwhelmed me and along with a crisis of faith triggered such hopelessness that I barely held on for almost two years.

I remember when I first started dealing with this in others while in seminary that I was of the mind that if someone was in the midst of a crisis in faith if they read the Bible more, prayed more and made sure that they were in church that things would work out.  I believed then that somehow with counseling, the right concept of God and involvement in church activities that God would “heal” them.  Call me a heretic but that line of thinking is nice for people experiencing a minor bump in their life but absolutely stupid advice for people who are severely traumatized or clinically depressed and suicidal who no longer percieve the presence of God in their lives.

I cannot condemn those who have lost their faith or are wavering in their faith due to trauma, abuse or other psychological reason. So many people like this have been victimized by family, teachers, clergy other authority figures or physical trauma related to accidents, near death experiences or combat that it is mind numbing.  The fact that I went through a period for the nearly two years where I was pretty much an agnostic praying to believe again because of my PTSD injury incurred in Iraq that felt hopelessly isolated for the first year after my return until I finally reconnected with others and began to feel safe again gives me just a bit of an idea at what these people are going through.  My isolation from Christian community and sense of despair during that time showed me that such a loss of faith is not to be trifled with or papered over with the pretty wallpaper or neat sets of “principles” drawn up in the ivory theological towers by theologians and “pastors” who refuse to deal with the reality of the consequences of a fallen world and their impact on real people.

Sometimes the damage wrought on people makes it nearly impossible to comprehend a God who both cares about them and who is safe to approach.  My experience came from Iraq and the trauma of my return and were absolutely frightening so much so that I left a Christmas Eve Mass in 2008 and walked through the dark wondering if God even existed.  Now with help and the deliberate action of my boss and co-workers to protect me as I recovered, received therapy and recover were key factors to being able to step back from the abyss. For those abused by parents or clergy this is I think an even deeper wound one in which the very concept and understanding of God becomes skewed in the minds and hearts of the victims.

The feeling that people who go through this crisis or loss of faith almost always mention to me is that God no longer speaks to them.  The feel cut off and even abandoned by God and it is not simply depression that they are dealing with but despair of life itself when death or just going to sleep is preferable to living.  This overwhelming despair impacts their relationships especially with their family and frequently will destroy families as the spouse grows weary and loses hope seeing their loved one get better.  It is if they never are able to leave the “God forsakenness” of Good Friday and cannot climb out of the tomb.   For some the pain is so much the last and previously unthinkable alternative of suicide becomes the only course of action that they think will help.  Such thoughts are not simply narcissism as some would believe but from the “logical” belief that their family, friends and loved ones would be better off without them.  I have seen this too many times to count. 

It is hard to reach out to people in this situation.  I have to admit in my case that it was only people who chose to remain with me and walk with me through the ordeal in spite of my frequent crashes, depression, anger and even rage that helped get me through the worst of this.  However I’m sure that my condition burned some people out.  There are some that would not walk with me as I first began to go down and the sad thing is that many were ministers and fellow chaplains.  In some ways I don’t blame them at the same time the first person that asked me how my spiritual life “or how I was with the Big Guy” was my therapist.  When I reported to my current duty station I was shocked to find Chaplains who were willing to come alongside of me, even when they didn’t have the answers and remain with me. 

The topic of a loss of faith or the reality of feeling God forsaken is had to deal with.  It is seldom dealt with in many seminaries or Bible schools because it is not comfortable or something that you can “grow your church” with.  But the reality is there are more people going to church praying for an answer who no one reaches out to, in fact they are often invisible amid the busyness of program oriented ministry. 

It is my prayer that this post will help people be able to reach out to those crushed under burdens that they can no longer bear.  It is not enough simply to tell them that “God won’t give you more than you can bear” when they have been beyond the “red line” longer than one can imagine.  They want to believe that scriptural principle but no longer believe because God is no longer real to them. 

Yet scripture plain teaches that we are to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said      “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  It is our willingness to be with people in their suffering that is one of the true marks of the Christian.  Being with someone in triumph is far easier than with those who suffer the absence of God.  It is presence and love not sermons that people who have lost their faith need as Bonhoeffer so eloquently said “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.”

I do pray that as we celebrate the joy of the Resurrection that we will not forget those who despair of live and feel as if they are “God-forsaken.”  It is not easy as those who walked with me can testify but in doing so there is the chance that such action will prevent tragedy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

So anyway, my best to everyone and please be safe….

Padre Steve+

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