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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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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+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Pastoral Care

Faith and Doubt: A Reflection on Christmas

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

There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Not that that is in any way a bad thing as difficult as it is.

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this 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.  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 for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed 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 ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something 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 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“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. No this was different, 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 in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin 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, but even then 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 grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

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 because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three 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.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try 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, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning 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.”

In the past year I have still had my times of struggle but have also found others that have gone through similar times.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good. I am fortunate. I was talking with my Bishop recently in regard to the struggle that I have had in recovering the disciplines of the spiritual life. Thankfully she does understand and was encouraging. I guess that is why now when I have more compassion for someone when they tell me that they “lost their faith” especially those that have been changed by their experience of war or other trauma. I don’t necessarily have all the answers for them because I am quite obviously still figuring it out myself. However as I found sometimes it is not the person with the answers but simply the person that takes time to listen and care that is more important to a person when they struggle, especially for those that before the traumatic event had been strong believers.

I’ll write a bit more about Christmas and faith but not tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, Pastoral Care, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Steve+

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Introduction to “I Believe please Help Me Believe: The Apostle’s Creed for those Who Struggle with Faith”

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

This is the first of a series of essays on the topic of doubt and faith related to the Apostle’s Creed.  There was a time in my life that faith in God, for me the Christian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit was something that I pretty much took for granted until I had my own crisis of faith when I returned from Iraq in 2008.  It was that crisis where for all practical purposes I was an agnostic trying to believe while feeling abandoned by God and many of his people.  That crisis has etched a permanent scar in my soul which has led to some fairly major changes in my life but even more so forced me to actually enter what Saint John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

I will not tell of how my great spiritual disciplines helped me get through this 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.  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 for my own condition grew worse, so much so that my clinical duties had to be curtailed 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 ward assignments.  On one of the on call nights not long before Christmas I received a call to the ER where I was called to give the last rites to a retired Navy Medical Doctor who was a true Saint, faithful to God, his Church and the community where for years he had dedicated much of his practice to the poorest members of the community to include prisoners in the Portsmouth City Jail. He breathed his last as I prayed this prayer following the anointing of the sick:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;

In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;

In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;

In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.

May your rest be this day in peace,

and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.

Something 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 following an incredibly busy day full of life and death situations and ministry which amazed me:

“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. No this was different, 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 in seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin 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, but even then 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 grappling with suffering and death that one has to add the abandonment of the outcast to the equation.

It is from this perspective that I will look at an ancient document that for many Christians is their Baptismal statement of faith or Creed.  ‘Credo in unum Deum’ “I Believe in God” is no longer for me simply a theological proposition which I both ascent to and defend, but rather an experience of God born out of pain, despair, anxiety, doubt, unbelief and abandonment finding almost no Christians willing to walk through the darkness with me, including clergy. It was if I was radioactive, many people had “answers” but none understood the questions and until my therapist Dr. Elmer Maggard asked me “how I was with the big guy?” and Commodore Tom Sitsch asked me “Where does a Chaplain go for help?”

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 because I felt that if someone didn’t speak out then others like me wouldn’t seek help. In the nearly three 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.  Included were military chaplains also experiencing life and faith crisis. Most said that I was the first Chaplain or minister that they had met or read who said that he struggled with faith, belief and didn’t know if God existed.  In each of those encounters there was a glimmer of hope for me and I think for them, for the first time we had people that we could be open with.  Co-workers and others said that I was “real” and I certainly do not boast of that because it was painful to try 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, sometimes in unusual circumstances and locations with them even if it meant facing my own pain and doubt. I was learning 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.”

My journey through the words of the Apostle’s Creed will be less of a doctrinal exposition than a pastoral narrative of rediscovering faith. It is my hope and prayer that this feeble and imperfect attempt to experience the Apostle’s Creed will be of help to people.  People like me that have experienced the terrible effects of a crisis of faith that leads a person into despair of even to the point of life itself and all that is good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me?

Before a Convoy

The past week or so I have had to go back and revisit my Iraq experience. Part of this is due to work, we have had seminars on the spiritual and moral affects of trauma, the challenge of forgiveness and most recently discussing best spiritual care practices for those who suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The training has been excellent but has kicked up a lot of stuff in me.  Added to this have been reports out of Afghanistan about more casualties in particular of a helicopter that crashed that killed 9 Americans, the Taliban claim credit for downing the aircraft but the circumstances are not fully known.

One of many helicopter flights, this a daylight flight in a Marine CH-46

The course last week on the spiritual and moral affect of trauma and the challenge of forgiveness brought up issues from Iraq but not upsetting.  In fact the seminar taught by Dr. Robert Grant author of The Way of the Wound was helpful to me in sorting out what I have been going through for the past couple of years.  The training this week is also good, good information but for me it is more unsettling because it deals with images, videos of convoys, burning vehicles and other things like that.  The convoy images coupled with the news of the helicopter crash actually had me pretty shaken as I spent a large amount of time in small convoys with small groups of Americans and Iraqis in pretty dangerous areas of Al Anbar Province stretching from Fallujah to the Syrian border as well as a couple of hundred hours in the air, usually at night in various Marine and Army helicopters as well as the MV-22 Osprey.  During those experiences we took fire a couple of times and had a few experiences on some of our flights that were a bit sporty.  So for a while I was lost in my own stuff but was able to pull out in not too long of time.

Convoy stopped near Al Qaim

Some of our discussions revolved around how trauma and war can impact a person’s image and relationship with God, whatever that may be.  The focus was on us as pastoral care givers caring for those in our charge.  Once again this really good information for me as I will be dealing with a lot of PTSD and TBI cases are Camp LeJeune.  But there was one thing that got me.  I came back from Iraq as most of my readers know in pretty bad shape dealing with PTSD and issues of abandonment feeling disconnected with the Navy and my church.  Part of that was what amounted to be a loss of faith so severe that I was for all practical purposes an agnostic for almost two years because I couldn’t make sense of anything to do with God, I felt God forsaken it was to use the image of St. John of the Cross, my Dark Night of the Soul.  I am doing better now and feel like my faith has returned to some degree, certainly not like it was before but while I have doubts I am okay with that part of the journey now.

Christmas Eve not far from Syria

I know a number of military Chaplains from the Navy and Army that have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan in some sort of faith crisis many suffering from PTSD or TBI.  I am actually wondering how many are out there.  I know that I am not alone, but I need to know if others are going through this experience too.  It was for me a desperate feeling to be the Chaplain, Priest, Pastor and spiritual care giver when I was struggling having no answers and only questions, when people asked me about God and I didn’t even know if God existed.  This is the unspoken cry of at least some and possibly quite a few Chaplains and other ministers who have experienced trauma and moral injury.  One thing my incoming CO at my old unit asked me was “where does the Chaplain go for help?”  At that point I said that I didn’t know.  The sad thing is that I know many chaplains and ministers that have a basic lack of trust in their fellow clergy and do not feel safe confiding in them because they feel that they will be judged, not listened to or blown off.

A different war with the Bedouin in the western desert of Iraq about 5 km from Syria.

When I was diagnosed with PTSD in the summer of 2008 I made it my goal to grow through this and hopefully as I go through this to be there for others. Part of my recovery came through sharing experiences, the good and the bad on this site.  Elmer the Shrink asked me back when I started this if I thought that it would be helpful to me in my recovery, but he also asked if I was okay in opening up about this topic.  Since I didn’t see many people writing about this from the perspective of being a “wounded healer” I told him that I thought that I had to do it.  The experience has been terribly painful but at the same time I think that it has been worth it because as a Priest and Chaplain I think now more than ever in my weakness I can be with people in their difficult times without trying to “fix” them.

Colonel David Abramowitz with me and RP2 Nelson Lebron after presenting me with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Nelson the Joint Service Commendation Medal for our service with our advisors and Iraqis in Al Anbar with the Iraq Assistance Group. After this we both dealt with abandonment and other issues on our return home.

So who is there for “damaged” Chaplains? Who takes care of us? I was lucky or maybe blessed. I had Dr Chris Rogan ask me if I was okay. I had Elmer the Shrink do a lot of the hard work with me. At Naval Medical Center Portsmouth I had a Command Chaplain that was wise enough to protect me while I went through the deepest and darkest valley of my life.   As I recovered he challenged much like a Baseball Manager would challenge a pitcher who had been very successful on other clubs coming off the disabled list to regain his self confidence and ability to get back on the mound with a winning attitude. Not every Chaplain gets what I got and I am blessed.  I still have work to do and I need to recognize my limits, much as a pitcher who has recovered from Tommy John surgery makes adjustments.

So this is my question:  Are there others other there like me?  Are there other Chaplains experiencing such feelings after Iraq or Afghanistan? I’d really like to know because I believe that in what might be termed “a fellowship of the forsaken” that we can rediscover faith, belief and hope again and in doing so be there for others.

If you want please let me know if this encourages you or feel free to comment. Prayer is still hard for me but I promise that if someone asks that I will pray and to the best of my ability be available for them as others were for me because I don’t want any Chaplain to experience the abandonment that I felt went I returned from Iraq having felt that it was the pinnacle of my military career. To those Chaplains I just want to say that you are not alone.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

Faith, Hope and Identity a Mid-Lent Meditation

“If it is hope that maintains and upholds faith and keeps it moving on, if it is hope that draws the believer into the life of love, then it will also be hope that is the mobilizing and driving force of faith’s thinking, of its knowledge of, and reflections on, human nature, history and society. Faith hopes in order to know what it believes. Hence all its knowledge will be an anticipatory, fragmentary knowledge forming a prelude to the promised future, and as such is committed to hope.” Jürgen Moltmann- Theology of Hope

When someone goes through a spiritual crisis or loss of faith it is a chilling time.  Even when you are trying to believe there is always a time that you really take stock of exactly what you believe and why.  Without regurgitating the crisis in my life and faith that came after my return from Iraq and near physical, emotional and spiritual collapse that came with my PTSD I wanted to just take a few paragraphs to meditate on the grace, mercy and love of God that is a central theme of the Gospel.

I have talked about the miracle that embraced me during the season of Advent and Christmas.  I call it my “Christmas miracle” because the year prior I had spent Christmas Eve walking in the dark and cold wondering if God even existed even as most of the Christian world was celebrating the Incarnation of Christ the Lord.  Since that time my faith has continued to be renewed and restored and with the exception of battling Adolf Von Grosse Schmertzen my very painful and very big Kidney Stone have come to feel like my old self for the first time since Iraq.

As I have entered Lent it has been a time of renewal.  Part of that renewal has been being able to believe again and as the Psalmist says, “be still and know that I am God.” This has been a refreshing time as I have continued to experience God’s grace as well as grown in my faith which is founded on the Anglican Triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  That actually has helped me as I have experienced some measure of healing and recovery from what I experienced.

My time in Iraq was meaningful and I loved my Marines, Soldiers and other advisers as well as our Iraqi allies.  When I came back I felt alone and a lot of that came as my church had endured a series of scandals and splits and even before Iraq I had been thrashed by some of the people at the center of the storm who have all since left the church for other places that they can afflict.  Coming home to that was disillusioning, as isolation that I felt from many in the chaplain community.  I have found that my experience is not uncommon and that others have had similar experiences upon their return from Iraq.

For me this meant a period of almost two years where it seemed that God himself had disappeared from my life.  I struggled to even pray.  That is no longer the case, I seem to be on the rebound and God is real again.  So things have changed, I think that my faith has matured in some ways, I don’t need to go argue points of doctrine that saints, theologians and philosophers much smarter than me have legitimate disagreements about for centuries.  Nor do I need to push my views on people in my church or anywhere else as if I had the latest and last word from the Almighty.  I used to seek approval and want to have input on denominational theological or liturgical committees and I would write in the hope that my “brilliance” would be recognized and that my opinion would be sought after. When I write something now it is because I believe it and to stimulate interest and discussion and occasionally to answer or critique those who use faith as a weapon to bludgeon or intimidate those that they are against.  I do not expect to change anyone’s mind and since I have no position where I can enforce my beliefs on anyone else (nor would I want to thank you) my thoughts are simply that.  I hope that they edify and encourage and if someone has a “wow I could have had a V-8 moment” reading something that I write I’m okay with that.

Hans Kung once said: “Time and again we see leaders and members of religions incite aggression, fanaticism, hate, and xenophobia – even inspire and legitimate violent and bloody conflicts.” I guess to some this will sound “liberal” but I came back different from Iraq and I have seen too many people suffer from those that would use religion as a weapon to control others. In Iraq I had Iraqi officers; including Generals tell me that they did not trust their Islamic clergy Sunni or Shi’a because they by their words and actions had caused so much suffering during the insurgency that followed the US invasion of Iraq.  Unfortunately I am seeing the same kind of attitude that the Iraqi officers describe grow exponentially in this country, especially among the farthest right of the religious right. The use faith and religion to enforce their particular understanding of the Bible on people who are not Christians is troubling and something that our often very secular and not very Christian “Enlightenment” thinker founders understood. Some now declare anyone who doesn’t agree with them 100% as enemies not only of them, but of God and often over things that are not even Biblical like economics, gun control, taxes and a host of other conservative political issues. Now there are those on the far left that do the same thing but most do not use the Christian faith as justification for their intolerance of opposing views.  Somehow while I don’t think God sees things that way that the extremes see them I know that the Al Qaida Iraq, the Taliban and other groups think much in the same way.   However, such speech is protected and even if disagree with it would not support attempting to silence those who hold beliefs that I disagree with be they religious or political. Debate, dialogue and even disagreement on issues are important in both the Church and society in order that we don’t become a tyranny of the right or left, religious or secular.

As such my faith has grown in that I have no agenda other than to care for the people that God allows me to have contact with.  I’m certainly not perfect at this and at times my default setting of being an ass can re-emerge but I know that Christ is working in my life again.  I have emerged from what Saint John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.”  My faith is in God and in Christ crucified who in the words of St Paul who said “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:19 NRSV) I like what Chrysostom says about this passage: “For had it been His pleasure to require an account of the things we had transgressed in, we should all have perished….” The fact that God has condescended to reach out to his creation in this manner is evidenced also in 1 John 2:1-2 where the Apostle writes: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for[the sins of the whole world.” For me this Lent is about reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins in an age where so many are drawing lines in the sand and preparing for war, be it religious, social or ideological.

So anyway, it has become more important to me after having gone to war and seeing its effects on people as well as having looked into the abyss of hopelessness to be an advocate for reconciliation, peace and hope for the future especially in my own country where the anger, division and even hatred between the political and religious right and the political, religious and secular left seems to rise to new heights every day.

My identity is not in a political leader, party or ideology, it is in Christ crucified. My optimism is based on him and the creation that he reconciles unto himself and I cannot give up hope or be silent about God’s love and reconciliation .  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.”

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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