Tag Archives: suffering

Some Thoughts on Poverty and Suffering on a Friday Night

This is one of those emotional and drifting posts I do apologize that it is not one of my more witty, pithy or more well researched posts, but it is what it is.

I have become much more cognizant of the plight of the poor and suffering in the course of my adult life. Over the past few weeks and months, probably due to the nastiness of the election campaign and some of the things said about the poor and the less fortunate  have caused me to notice the poor around me as well as others that suffer in mind, body or spirit.  I have met some of the poor and even the homeless in my area. The ones that I have met all work, but don’t have enough income to pay for a place to live and live in their cars. I remember working in the projects of San Antonio and with the homeless in the Dallas Fort Worth area in the late 1980s. I remember the crush of humanity in the emergency room waiting area at Parkland Memorial Hospital while doing my residency there. I am drawn to the plight of the people who I met that were victimized by war, violence and oppression in the Middle East and the Balkans. The sight of refugees in camps in the middle of the desert wanted by no nation still gets to me. The sight of children that have been wounded by terrorists, insurgents and supposedly friendly fire made a deep impression on me.

Some comes from my own experience of poverty and often not knowing where the next rent payment, tank of gas or meal would come from after I left the Army in 1988. I understand what it is to be uninsured, to work hard, have a better education, training and experience than people that I worked for and to be treated as if my work and value as a person was of no significance as opposed to their personal or corporate bottom line. I have experienced the humiliation of having to ask for help between jobs, and believe me until you have not employment and have to work 2-3 jobs to have a place to live while going to school to hopefully achieve your dreams all the while dealing with the illness of a family member as you pursue your calling and vocation you may never understand.

When we were in the second year of seminary we were losing our home, our cars and being bombarded by calls from often hateful and uncaring bill collectors. At that time I felt that I had sacrificed everything and come up short, a failure facing the end of my dream I called a prayer line. The house we lived in was in a dangerous neighborhood, old and dilapidated only a couple of gas space heaters worked during on of the coldest winters the Dallas area had seen in decades. With the temperature of -8 degrees outside and with ice forming on the inside of the house windows and the landlord refusing to make repairs to the heating we huddled in our bedroom with our two dachshunds. I just wanted to have someone care, maybe offer a word of encouragement.  Instead I was told by the lady on the other end of the line that “I must not be in God’s will because if if I was he would be blessing me.” I was also asked if I wanted to donate to that ministry.

Somehow I don’t think that is the answer that Jesus would have given.

Eventually I did get through seminary and did pay off every bill instead of declaring bankruptcy. When I got my first hospital chaplain job after my residency it was a a full time contractor that made less than staff chaplains at the hospital and had no medical coverage. It is really hard to believe now that I was caring for people in that hospital’s ER and had no medical coverage myself. Of course when I was mobilized as an Army Reservist to go to support the Bosnia operation my contract was ended.

I guess when I hear politicians, pundits and politically minded preachers more guided by the principles of Ayn Rand than the Bible, or the Christian tradition it bothers me. When I see the Social Justice tradition of the Church, that referred to by Pope John Paul II as the “preferential option for the poor” mocked openly by leading political and religious figures I get upset. When I hear someone at a Presidential Primary debate yell “let them die” in regard to someone with a serious illness and no insurance or ability to pay I get concerned. We I see poverty and suffering in my own community, few social services and limited employment or educational opportunities it troubles me. I do what I can but it really isn’t enough.

I try now to listen to suffering people knowing that I cannot fix much of anything.  I guess that one of the biggest issues that I see is that when people are down and out that a lot of people treat them very disrespectfully and never take time to either get to know them or understand their situation. Instead it seems that as a society we tend to want to lecture people about all the ways that they have failed, how they have screwed up their lives and how they are lucky that we either give to some charity to help them or to blame them for being a burden on society.

Like I said, this is all emotion and meandering thoughts brought on my some recent experiences with people that have triggered painful memories of what it was to be in similar situations and memories of other peoples suffering in this country and overseas.

So since I am so emotional right now I will simply close with a prayer to close the night.

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.” From the Book of Common Prayer

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, philosophy, Political Commentary

Alleluia! Memories of Easter…Past and Present

easter-2002-on-hue-cityEaster aboard USS Hue City CG-66 off the Horn of Africa 2002

I find Easter to be an interesting time.  I tend to get reflective and while I do joyfully say “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” I also tend to be somewhat subdued.  By nature I am reflective person, I like to watch, observe and think.  I am not into big Easter productions and extravaganzas. I prefer much more simple expressions of the Risen Lord.  I think that Jesus would go along with me on this as he spent that first Easter walking with friends, who failed to recognize him, and then breaking bread, he celebrated the first Eucharist after the Resurrection at Emmaus.

For me my most memorable Easters have been connected with my life in the military.  They have almost always been simple affairs, and most involving the liturgy somehow.  I think the first Easter that I remember was at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines, it was seeing the Chaplains in their Summer White uniforms that still stands out to me today.  I remember a Easter Sunrise service at Naval Station Long Beach and looking in wonder at two “mothballed” carriers of World War II vintage, the USS Boxer and USS Princeton moored near the site of the service on the waterfront.  When my dad was in Vietnam and we had been made unwelcome in a civilian church, we attended Mass at the Quonset hut that served as the Chapel on the little Naval Communications station.  In my senior year of high school I made a cruise on Navy ships to and from Pearl Harbor Hawaii.  During the week at Pearl I made the trip to the Arizona Memorial on Easter Sunday.  For some reason that experience reverberated as loud as any church service I have ever attended.  When I was a young Army Officer running from God and hiding in the Chapel, the Deity Herself patently used the events of Holy Week to “rend my heart” so to speak.  I left the Good Friday Tenebrea service praying that Easter would come.  Our good Lutheran Chaplain, Lee Rittenbach had driven home the reality of Jesus’ death so well that I really started to understand what the disciples went through.  When Easter came I learned to say “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”

After that I went through kind of a spiritual desert as far as Easter was concerned.  In seminary I was attending mega-churches which did nothing with Holy week, and made a big evangelical production of Easter, complete with overly loud and insipidly shallow “worship” music and laborious preaching.  I have to say that these big productions were more of an ordeal than a celebration for me.  During seminary we were going through sickness, financial disaster, loss of our home, cars and struggling to survive working multiple jobs while being a full time student.  How we got through seminary I will never understand, other than that the Deity herself provided for us through a lot of wonderful people.  The “happy talk” at church, the prosperity Gospel, focus on signs and wonders seemed to reflect almost a gnostic other worldly view of life that I did not see in the Scriptures.

Academically and from a theological point of view Easter began to rally take shape for me.  Reading the Church Fathers as well reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Emil Brunner’s The Scandal of Christianity, Alister McGrath’s The Mystery of the Cross, Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian and Jurgen Moltman’s The Crucified God brought me to greater understanding of the connectedness of Easter to the Incarnation and the Passion.  One of my professors, a kindly gentleman named Yandall Woodfin, made a comment in his Philosophy of Religion class:  “We do not do Christian Theology without coming to grips with the reality of suffering and death.”  That comment was at first offensive to me because my mega-church pastors all focused on the Resurrection.  Death to them seemed to be a bother. One pastor said in a sermon how he did not do visits to the sick.  When asked by someone how sick they had to be for him to see them, he stated “You don’t want to be that sick.”

However, what Dr. Woodfin said planted a seed in me.  This went from an academic question, to daily reality during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland hospital.  Doing various Holy Week services there, in the midst of the amazing amount of pain, suffering and death in that gargantuan Medical Center brought into focus and made real what Dr. Woodfin said.  At Parkland there was no avoiding death or suffering, and what Dr. Woodfin said was right.  We don’t begin to do Christian theology until we we deal with suffering and death.  Easter and the Resurrection don’t happen without the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus.  Easter disconnected from the reality of suffering and death is nothing more than a “happy thought” or escape that avoids the the great Mystery of Faith: Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.

After Parkland my understanding of Easter grew as I was immersed in the liturgy, began to observe the liturgical year, and occasionally “clandestinely” attend Anglican churches during Christmas and Easter. During this time Judy became Roman Catholic, something that accelerated what was already going on in me.  During my formation process and following my ordination to first the Deaconate and then the Priesthood, the understanding deepened as I saw how the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. As an Army Reserve chaplain serving on active duty I experienced the life of a parish pastor at a small base in central Pennsylvania.  There I saw how the how the liturgical year and life are so intimately connect.  In life and death, in sorrow and joy, in good times and bad, the Holy Spirit touched people.

Easter became even more part of my life when I became a Navy Chaplain and left the Army in the “rear view mirror.”  Here I began to see how wonderful Easter is when you do not have all the “smells and bells” “praise teams” or great music or facilities.  It goes back to simplicity.  On Easter Sunday 2001, I was on the USS Frederick, LST 1184 with my Marines going from Korea back to Okinawa.  It was on Frederick 23 years before that I had first felt the call to be a Navy Chaplain during the trip to Pearl Harbor.  In 2002 I was deployed on USS Hue City CG-66 at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. Off the Horn of Africa we had both sunrise services as well as a morning Eucharist on our flight deck. While with the Marine Security Forces I spent an Easter celebrating Eucharist on the fence-line adjoining Communist Cuba.  I now have come back to critical care hospital ministry in my ICUs.  Here we live Good Friday every day.  For me Easter is not just a nice thing to observe, but a necessity in life.

This morning I attended the early Mass with Judy at Ascension Catholic Church.  I love the church, though it is a bit big and busy for me now after Iraq.  So I found me a corner near the choir where I could sit with my back against the wall, an emergency exit to my left, and where I could observe what was going on.  Yes I was having a PTSD moment, but I got through it with the help of the Deity herself and a little ant-anxiety medication.  But the really cool thing was seeing a man who was one of our patients on the ICU a couple of months back.  A man who almost died on us several times, and his wife.  We had grown close during that 2 1/2 weeks and he made it through.  He looked great this morning.  We all hugged and talked of how good God is before Mass, exchanged the Peace and then spent some time together after Mass. That was really cool.  What a way to celebrate Easter.

Life and death, pain and suffering, healing and resurrection.  Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

Peace, Steve+

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