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Look for the Liberal Label: My Journey to the Left

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A couple of days ago I received a comment on my Political Commentary tab from an old baseball player who played with the Detroit Tigers in the 1960s. He made some comments that I took to heart as he noted some of the apparent contradictions in my actions, words, and beliefs over the years. He said that I was about as “liberal” as Ricard Nixon. Sadly what he commented on had not been updated since 2009 so I was still in the initial stages of my transformation from being a lifelong Republican to a progressive (liberal) realist in Wonderland.

I am definitely a liberal or progressive now, though I think that I am pretty moderate all things considered, and no I don’t think that my views are particularly Nixonian, though when it comes to foreign policy dealing with the Soviet Union and china he was pretty sharp, his record in Vietnam was quite the opposite.

However my views are probably more like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, or John F. Kennedy. Of course saying that means that I will certainly contradict myself at times and that is part of life. That being said that while I was a Republican for 32 years of my life (1976-2008) I have been on an ever more progressive trajectory since 2008 and somewhere along the path from conservatism, to moderation, to progressivism I got labeled.

I got labeled with the “L” Word. no, not the Lesbian one, the other less socially acceptable one, the Liberal label…and to tell the truth though I consider myself a moderate in terms of my progressiveness I actually fall on the Liberal side of most parts of the political and religious spectrum; both in domestic and foreign policy.

It actually surprised me when I figured out that I had become a liberal. To tell the truth I don’t know how it happened. I cheered the demise of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis and even Al Gore. I listened to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity as much as I could. During his first term and early in his second I was defending “W” against what I thought were unfair assaults from the left.

But a funny thing happened between 2004 and now. It was a place called Iraq, where I began to question the unquestionable questions of conservative orthodoxy in a number of forums. I became a moderate and a passionate one at that, although truthfully I am probably better described as one of those nasty liberals.

I think being a moderate or a liberal, for those who really are moderates or liberals, is really a tricky thing. Back when I was in seminary during the pre-Fundamentalist takeover of Southwestern Baptist Seminary I remember hearing a big name Fundamentalist preacher say that “middle of the road moderates were only good to be run over.”  One of my professors who would be a casualty of the takeover of the seminary said that for many in the Southern Baptist Convention of the time that “Liberal means anyone to the left of me.”

Now I do have to confess, unlike a lot of people when they get older and become more conservative I have become more “liberal” in the way I do life. I am more accepting of people different than me. The late great manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver noted: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” That is a fact.

Because of that I am more willing to accept things that back in the days when I knew everything that I would attack without exception. When I worked up the guts to openly state that I questioned political conservative orthodoxy almost eight years ago I got thrown out of the church that I was first ordained as a priest.  That was less about matters of actual Christian doctrine than political orthodoxy masked in religious language. But despite that experience I still believed that I was somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum but I was obviously wrong. In fact today what I considered based on my more traditional Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy beliefs was no longer moderate but radically liberal and progressive, especially on social and economic issues.

So let me without equivocation in this age of Trump state:

I think that racism is still alive and well and that Jim Crow lives, thus the job of the Civil Rights movement is not done. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” has not been fulfilled and it is in danger.

I think that gays and lesbians should have the same right to marriage and civil rights that heterosexuals have and that those constitutional rights should not be abridged based on the religious beliefs of their opponents.

I think that the bankers and the Wall Street people who practically destroyed the economy back in late 2008 should be in jail and I think that neither Congress, the Obama administration, and especially the Trump administration have done or will do enough to prevent the next economic implosion.

I think that multinational corporations that enjoy the benefits of all this country offers and that the taxpayers provide should pay their fair share of taxes instead of being allowed to make their money here and shelter it offshore. Sadly, because of the Trump tax reforms they will be able to do more of this.

I think that the environment matters and that we should do all that we can to protect it. Unfortunately the Trump administration, the GOP dominated congress, and their Evangelical Christian sycophants are doing their damnedest to promote the destruction of the environment.

I believe that the poor, minorities, the elderly and others with no power need the help and protection of the government from predatory businesses, banks and others that would seek to impoverish them even more.

I think that there is a place for strong organized labor to protect the rights of people who either produce the goods or provide the services that make others rich and this nation prosperous.

I think that the leaders of the Bush administration who took us to war in Iraq are war criminals and would have hung at Nuremberg if Justice Robert Jackson had had them in the dock. Likewise I think that the opposition of the GOP and the Trump administration to the International Criminal Court (ICC), other international organizations, and to our partners and allies around the world and cooperation with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes beginning with Putin’s Russia is damnable.

 

I think that Fox News lies when it calls itself “fair and balanced” and that much of what it airs is nothing more than political propaganda designed to help its political allies and keep people riled up against that black man in the White House.

I think that the crass social Darwinism of the followers of Ayn Rand is evil, needs to be called what it is  and condemned by those who call themselves Christians.

Likewise, speaking of Christians I think that many American Christians have sold their faith to political hacks that call themselves pastors or religious leaders while pocketing the money of their followers laughing all the way to the bank. This is especially true of their relationship to President Trump.

Finally as a Christian I don’t think that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and in that I am backed by the Founders and their Christian allies like Virginia Baptist leader John Leland. I think that we as a society have a responsibility to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.

So while I am moderate in the way that I do life, I am certainly a liberal, a progressive, and a realist.  I am okay with people that disagree with me because it is a free country but that being said I won’t be bullied.

So where did I go left?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, culture, faith, Foreign Policy, History, LGBT issues, News and current events, Political Commentary

Chasing Rabbits in Pursuit of Truth

bugs-bunny-whats-up-doc

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been thinking about new articles write and you will see some in the next few days. I have been very busy this weekend working on my Gettysburg text and the usual weekend activities. Even so, I have found that in the Gettysburg text and other things that I have been working on I have been often engaged in the very productive activity of chasing rabbits in pursuit of truth.

Some would say that this is a bad thing but I would choose to disagree. I think that we miss a lot by not chasing rabbits, especially those that lead us to truth, knowledge and wisdom that we would otherwise never come to know.

I think that I learned the value of chasing rabbits from my Professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary back in 1991-1992, Dr. Tom Urrey. Dr. Urrey was a fascinating character, a brilliant mind, gifted teacher and someone who never lost his sense of being able to connect theology with life. I had him for a year of New Testament survey courses. The first semester was devoted to the Gospels and the Book of Acts, and the second semester to the remainder of the New Testament.

One thing about Dr. Urrey was that he tended to go off script and chase rabbits, and we students were very good at encouraging this behavior by the questions that we raised. As such we did not even finish the Gospel of Matthew the first semester, and only made it through Romans, First Corinthians and a bit of Second Corinthians the second semester. However, I do not feel that I missed much because what Dr Urrey did do was to lead us to truth by chasing rabbits, truth that we would never had seen had he insisted on driving us through the text at ludicrous speed. (please note the gratuitous Mel Brooks Spaceballs reference)

Now you have to understand something about me. Back then such behavior was frustrating to me because I had the misconception from my time in the that in order to learn something you had to ram your way through it no matter what the cost. Now a quarter century later, I really appreciate what Dr. Urrey allowed us to do in class by enabling him to chase rabbits, and for that I am forever grateful.

For me now it is important, be it in teaching, writing, or research to follow the rabbit wherever he may lead. In doing so I find that I am discovering knowledge that I would have never before attained had I stayed between the lines. I know that by following the rabbit regarding the subject matter in my Gettysburg texts that I have been led to so much new knowledge about contemporary subjects only tangentially related to the Battle of Gettysburg or the Civil War.

Some of this you will see when I put out a major revision to something that I have written and posted here before, especially in my work on Gettysburg and the Civil War. Of course I do this with other subjects as well, but since so much of my time over the past two years has been devoted to Gettysburg and the Civil War era it is those subjects have captivated me and brought me so much more understanding, not just of them in isolation, but for what is going on today.

Now over the coming week I plan on publishing some new material here, some of it relating to the ongoing implosion of the politically minded Christian Right and their political allies related to the Duggar family and their cover up of the admitted criminal activity of their son Josh. I have been spending some time on thinking how to approach that subject, especially because for me truth matters too much to jump the gun and get things wrong in the process.

Apart from that subject we will see where chasing the rabbit leads me. So until tomorrow, I wish you a good evening and pleasant dreams.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Filed under civil war, History, philosophy, Teaching and education

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

themiddle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

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

Lakewood-Church-1024x768-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey of Healing

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

Christmas is a special time for me, it always has been but in spite of that there were times that I took the faith element for granted. I believed and my faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was unquestioned. I knew the Scriptures, the Creeds and the Councils and I felt that my faith in a sense was untouchable. I was sure of it, in fact almost cocksure or arrogant about it. That came out in published writings in a very conservative Catholic monthly, the New Oxford Review back in 2000-2001.

For me the elements of my faith were very much intellectual. I could see other points of view but if I disagreed with them enough I would engage them with the purpose of defeating them. Of course this usually went to theological methods, history and hermeneutics. As far as those that lost their faith it was something that I had difficulty comprehending. Not that I was unsympathetic or uncaring of them or their plight, but I didn’t see how it could happen to me.

But that was before Iraq. That was before PTSD, moral injury and my own crisis of faith when I returned from the Iraq War in 2008.  That changed me as war has changed so many others before. Guy Sager wrote of his return from war in his classic The Forgotten Soldier:

“In the train, rolling through the sunny French countryside, my head knocked against the wooden back of the seat. Other people, who seemed to belong to a different world, were laughing. I couldn’t laugh and couldn’t forget.” 

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My return instigated a crisis of faith, I felt like I still belonged in Iraq and home seemed like a foreign land.  In the crisis I was for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe and feeling abandoned by God and many of his people, especially clergy.  Commodore Tom Sitsch at EOD Group Two, a veteran of much combat asked me “where does a Chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other Chaplains or clergy.”

That crisis etched a permanent scar in my soul which led to some fairly major changes in my life.  It forced me to enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines and intellect helped me get through the crisis, as they did not. I found it hard to pray or believe in anything for nearly two years as I struggled with abandonment. I felt that God, the Church and the Navy had abandoned me.  The only thing that kept me going was my profound sense of vocation as a Priest and Chaplain and commitment to others who were suffering.

I was losing my battle with PTSD during that time, depressed, anxious and despairing I threw myself into my work among the critically ill ICU patients and those that cared for them.  Christmas Eve of 2008 was spent in despair as I wandered through the darkness on a cold night after leaving Mass because I could not get through it.

Though I found a community and camaraderie among those that I worked with and tried to provide spiritual care,  my own condition grew worse.  I was so bad enough that my clinical duties had to be curtailed over my objections in September of 2009.

I still stood the overnight duty and filled in for others as needed, but for a number of months I had no clinical assignments.  That meant that others in our minimally staffed department had to fill in for me. I am sure that they resented that, especially because before this I often worked 80-90 hours a week mostly in our ICUs and the staff of the ICUs now expected that kind of intensive ministry and support.

But in my desperation I was greeted with a surprise. On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER to provide the last rites to an elderly retired Navy Medical Doctor.  The man was a saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community. For years he dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community, delivering babies for women with no insurance and caring for prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail.  He breathed his last as I prayed this prayed the prayer of commendation following the anointing and something strange happened. I felt the presence of God for the first time since Christmas of 2007 in Iraq. It is too this day hard to explain.

Something miraculous happened that night and by Christmas Eve I realized that something was happening to me. As I wrote in Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle on Christmas Eve of 2009:

“Mid afternoon I was walking down the hall and I experienced a wave of emotion flood over me, and unlike the majority of emotions that I have felt in the past couple of years this was different.  It was a feeling of grace and I guess the presence of God.  I went up and talked with Elmer the shrink about what I was feeling and the experience was awesome, I was in tears as I shared, not the tears of sadness, but of grace.  I am beginning to re-experience the grace of God, something that has been so long absent that I did not expect it, at least right now.  I didn’t do anything differently; I certainly was not working extra hard to pray more, get more spiritual or pack my brain full of Bible verses.  I was too far gone to do those things.  It was all I could do many mornings just to get out of bed and come to work.”

Since that time I have continued to recover faith and belief. I cannot say that it is the same kind of faith that I had before Iraq. This was a different kind of faith.  It was faith born of the terrible emptiness and pain of abandonment and despair, a faith that is not content with easy answers and not afraid to ask questions.  It is a faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified one who’s image we see hanging from the crucifix and adorning icons of the Crucifixion. It is as Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:

“The Symbol of the Crucifix in church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing in to the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God”

My Philosophy of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told us in class that until we had “dealt with the reality of suffering and death we were not doing Christian theology.” At the time the words were offensive to me, but by the time I had graduated and also done a year of Clinical Pastoral Education they became a part of my experience. However that did not prepare me for the darkness that I lived in from February of 2008 until that Christmas Eve of 2009.  I would say that in addition to Dr Woodfin’s understanding of grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

The “I Believe in God” of the Creed is no longer for me simply a theological proposition to defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment. During my crisis I found almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. The only clergy willing to were those who were walking the same path of the outcast with me, suffering from PTSD, TBI and other unseen wounds of war. It was if I was radioactive. Many people had “answers” for me, but none sought to understood my questions until my first  therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?”

When I finally collapsed in the summer of 2008 and met with Dr. Maggard I made a conscious decision that I would not hide what I was going through.  I felt that if someone didn’t speak out that others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly six years since I returned from Iraq I have encountered many people, men and women, current and former military personnel and families of veterans who came to me either in person or through this website. It led to me being interviewed in a newspaper and being featured on the Real Warriors website http://www.realwarriors.net , a program run by the Department of Defense to help reduce the stigma of getting help for PTSD which features the stories of military personnel suffering from it. My story can be found here: http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles.php

I have had a number of military chaplains come to me also experiencing a  faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or who admitted that he struggled with faith and the existence of God.  For a minister to be open about such struggles is dangerous. When my faith returned and was different I was asked to leave my former denomination because I was now “too liberal.”

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In each of those encounters with those suffering there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them.  It was as if for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real.” I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to be transparent with people while in the depths of doubt and despair while hoping that somehow God would touch them with some measure of grace when I found it hard to believe.  I guess it was the fact that I was willing to walk with them in their crisis and let them be honest even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I learned something about being what Henri Nouwen called a wounded healer.  Nouwen wrote:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

I do still struggle with the continued effects of War and PTSD, but I am in a much better place. I also struggle with faith at times when I look at the actions of those who profess to believe but treat others with contempt. I can understand the quote from the Gospel “I believe, help my unbelief.”

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So today this wounded healer will celebrate a special Christmas at home. My wife and I will celebrate a Mass, enjoy a Christmas dinner with our dogs, Molly and Minnie. Depending on how she feels we will either go out to a movie or watch one at home.

I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who like or comment on these posts. You are appreciated, some are lengthly and you choose to take your time to read them and often share them. If you are walking the path of the outcast feel free to drop me a line here or on my Facebook page. My wish for you and for all is a Christmas of peace, reconciliation and love.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, ministry, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq

Christian Dominionism and the Shutdown: Barry Goldwater and Robert Jackson Warned Us

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“[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.” — Justice Robert H Jackson, American Communications Assn. v. Douds, 339 US 382, 438; 70 SCt. 674, 704 (1950)

Well we are in day two of the government shutdown of 2013 with no end in sight. Sadly I have to say that the groups most responsible for this on the Tea Party and Republican Party side of the house are Evangelical Christians and ultra-conservative Catholics. The Evangelical are held in the thrall of Christian Dominionism, or Recontructionism while the conservative Catholics long for the days when their church owned the governments of Europe.

If the shutdown was about pragmatic budgetary considerations I might give the authors of the shutdown some consideration. However, it is not and their leaders have either said it openly or all but said this to be the case.

I am a Christian and a Priest in a small Old Catholic denomination. I am a graduate of a premier Evangelical Protestant Seminary where I came to appreciate and revere religious liberty. What I am going to write today may offend some but it has to be said. I believe that the cause of religious liberty, and for that matter the liberty of the Christian Church to be faithful to its call and unencumbered by unseemly political alliances is in danger due to the actions of people that in many cases honestly believe that they are defending religious liberty. Justice Robert Jackson prosecuted the major Nazi War criminals at Nuremberg and was able to view the results of what happened when churches that entered into such alliances.

I back in my days as a more “conservative” Evangelical Christian I attended and unlike conservative Christian TV icon and former governor of Arkansas actually graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas. This was in the days just prior to the Fundamentalist takeover of the seminary and the denomination. It was at Southwestern that I gained a distinct appreciation of and love for the concept of the separation of church and state and the importance of the rights, both civil and religious of non-believers, members of minority religions and others not in the religious majority, or those without power, be it religious, social or economic.

I look at what is going on today, just two days after the shutdown and it appears to me that the most vitriolic bunch pushing the Republican Party and their hapless, soulless and clueless Speaker of the House John Boehner into this are the Tea-vangelicals led by the like of SenatorTed Cruz, whose father Rafael Cruz is a prominent Dominionist pastor who has long been part of the movement to establish what amounts to a Christian Theocracy in the United States.

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However, whether people realize it or not we were warned by no less than conservative icon Barry Goldwater about such people.

Yes, I said it. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was not a fan of the influence of preachers and religious zealots. In fact he warned us about them in very clear words.

My liberal and conservative friends both might be dismayed by this but Barry Goldwater, the man who inspired Ronald Reagan to run for President and who was the conservative bulwark for many years in Washington DC warned us of what would happen when the Religious Right took over the Republican Party. Goldwater said of the types of people that currently dominate the conservative movement, if it can be still called that:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” November, 1994, in John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience.

Billy Graham, a saint if there ever was one and a man who used his faith to build bridges even while being unabashedly evangelical warned back in 1981 about the current crop of religious conservatives and stand in sharp contrast to the words and actions of Franklin:

 “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” Parade Magazine February 1, 1981, from Albert J Menendez and Edd Doerr, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom

What we are seeing today is the expressed manifestation of religious bigotry operating under the guise of defending religious freedom. Likewise it is little different (except in the religion involved) to the Wahhabi Taliban or the the Saudi Arabian state, the Shi’te Hezbollah government in Lebanon or the Mullah’s of Iran.

This ultra-religious intransigence of the Tea-vangelicals is being shown in its ugliness by the brazen acts of Evangelical political and religious leaders during this shutdown. And they wonder why more and more people want nothing to do with the faith that they espouse. If there is any way to lose religious freedom it is to follow this attempt to marry the Christian faith with the American government is not only short sighted but does great damage to the faith and our American liberties.

A host of influential of Evangelical leaders, politicians and even Roman Catholic Bishops have said what they believe religious liberty means to them and it has little in common with the understanding of our founders. It has nothing to do with limited government nor religious liberty. It is the imperial religion of Constantine, dressed up a bit to keep up with the times.  It is simply an attempt by these leaders to use the apparatus of the government to support themselves and to establish their specific religion as a state religion with the full legal means to subjugate non-believers or others who do not agree with them.

The whole debate over the Affordable Health Care Act in the shutdown is a red herring. The actual goal is to achieve a merger of church and state with the Dominionists leading it and dominating what they call the “Seven Mountains” of culture and society. Attempting to delegitimatize President Obama through the shutdown and the debt limit is only a tactic in a larger strategy to achieve “dominion” over the United States and the world.

George Truett, the great Southern Baptist Pastor who served as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote in his book Baptists and Religious Liberty in 1920 about the decidedly negative effect of when the Church became the State religion:

“Constantine, the Emperor, saw something in the religion of Christ’s people which awakened his interest, and now we see him uniting religion to the state and marching up the marble steps of the Emperor’s palace, with the church robed in purple. Thus and there was begun the most baneful misalliance that ever fettered and cursed a suffering world…. When … Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars…. The long blighting record of the medieval ages is simply the working out of that idea.”

The late Senator Mark Hatfield a strongly committed Evangelical Christian before it became popular in Washington made this comment concerning those that are now driving this spurious debate:

“As a Christian, there is no other part of the New Right ideology that concerns me more than its self-serving misuse of religious faith. What is at stake here is the very integrity of biblical truth. The New Right, in many cases, is doing nothing less than placing a heretical claim on Christian faith that distorts, confuses, and destroys the opportunity for a biblical understanding of Jesus Christ and of his gospel for millions of people.”  quoted in the pamphlet “Christian Reconstruction: God’s Glorious Millennium?” by Paul Thibodeau

The core of the current campaign in the shutdown is the imposition of Christian Dominionism onto the rest of the country. It may reference the Gospel and even certain Christian moral understandings even as it mocks other just as “Biblical” Christian teachings.

Back in 1981 Barry Goldwater said on the Senate Floor “The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent.” 

The leaders of this shutdown movement and their supporters are almost all self-proclaimed Evangelical Christians who represent gerrymandered congressional districts in which they only have to worry about being considered not extreme enough.

Like it or not Goldwater was right about this crowd. They will drive their churches and their political party into the abyss. The fractures in my former party, the Republican Party are becoming more and apparent and neither the Dominionist Preachers, or their allied politicians and pundits can see the end state of their party and for what they think they are fighting.

But then none are so blind as those who will not see. Please do not say that you were not warned.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Where did I Go Left?

 

Somewhere along the path from conservatism to moderation I got labeled.

I got labeled with the “L” Word. no, not the Lesbian one, the other less socially acceptable one, the Liberal label…and to tell the truth though I consider myself a moderate I actually fall on the Liberal side of the political and religious spectrum.

It actually surprised me when I figured it out. To tell the truth I don’t know how it happened. I cheered the demise of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis and even Al Gore. I listened to Rush as much as I could. Not even 8 years ago I was defending “W” against what I thought were unfair assaults from the left. I enjoyed liberal bashing. It was fun.

But a funny thing happened between 2004 and now, I think it was a place called Iraq, where I began to question the unquestionable questions of conservative orthodoxy in a number of forums. I became a moderate and a passionate one at that, although truthfully I am probably better described as one of those nasty liberals.

I think being a moderate, for those who really are moderates, is really a tricky thing. Back when I was in seminary during the pre-Fundamentalist takeover of Southwestern Baptist Seminary I remember hearing a big name Fundamentalist preacher say that “middle of the road moderates were only good to be run over.”  One of my professors who would be a casualty of the takeover of the seminary said that for many in the Southern Baptist Convention of the time that “Liberal means anyone to the left of me.”

Now I do have to confess, unlike a lot of people when they get older and become more conservative I have become more “liberal” in that I am more accepting of people different than me. I am also more willing to tolerate things that back when I knew everything I would attack without exception. When I worked up the guts to openly state that I questioned political conservative orthodoxy almost four years ago I got thrown out of the church that I was ordained. But despite that I still believed that I was somewhere in the middle of the spectrum but I was obviously wrong. My mom even thought so and she used to think I was a right win germ but I guess today I am a pretty liberal moderate.

I think that racism is still alive and well and that Jim Crow lives, thus the job of the Civil Rights movement is not done.

I think that gays and lesbians should have the same right to marriage and civil rights that heterosexuals have.

I think that the bankers and the Wall Street people who practically destroyed the economy back in late 2008 should be in jail.

I think that multinational corporations that enjoy the benefits of all this country offers and that the taxpayers provide should pay their fair share of taxes instead of being allowed to make their money here and shelter it offshore.

I think that the environment matters and that we should do all that we can to protect it.

I believe that the poor, minorities, the elderly and others with no power need the help and protection of the government from predatory businesses, banks and others that would seek to impoverish them even more.

I think that there is a place for strong organized labor to protect the rights of people who either produce the goods or provide the services that make others rich and this nation prosperous.

I think that the leaders of the Bush administration who took us to war in Iraq are war criminals and would have hung at Nuremberg if Justice Robert Jackson had had them in the dock.

I think that we need to take a hard look at our foreign policy and as Ulysses S Grant told us:

“As the United States is the freest of all nations, so, too, its people sympathize with all people struggling for liberty and self-government; but while so sympathizing it is due to our honor that we should abstain from enforcing our views upon unwilling nations and from taking an interested part, without invitation, in the quarrels between different nations or between governments and their subjects. Our course should always be in conformity with strict justice and law, international and local.”

I think that Fox News lies when it calls itself “fair and balanced” and that much of what it airs is nothing more than political propaganda designed to help its political allies and keep people riled up against that black man in the White House.

I think that the crass social Darwinism of the followers of Ayn Rand is evil, needs to be called what it is  and condemned by those who call themselves Christians.

Likewise, speaking of Christians I think that many American Christians have sold their faith to political hacks that call themselves pastors or religious leaders while pocketing the money of their followers laughing all the way to the bank.

Finally as a Christian I don’t think that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I think that we as a society have a responsibility to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.

I think that makes me a liberal who still wants to be a moderate. I am okay with people that disagree with me because it is a free country but I won’t be bullied.

Where did I go left?

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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