Tag Archives: the mystery of faith

Faith, Doubt, and the Little Things: Thoughts at the End of a Long but Good Week


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has been a long, tiring, yet very good week. For those who have followed me on this blog for so long, I want to say thank you. I left my last assignment broken, dispirited, struggling with my faith and calling, but as a result of a series of events regarding my retirement, my faith has been renewed and my sense of calling and joy to serve as a Priest restored. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience doubts, or question doctrine, or even wonder about the existence of God. I wish that I can say that that wasn’t the case, but the fact is that all of us, believers or unbelievers alike live in what the German Pastor, theologian, resistier and martyr to Adolf Hitler said:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  

Whether we believe or don’t believe; are fixed in our religious doctrine or non-religious ideology, or doubt as I so frequently do, the fact is that we live in the uncomfortable middle. Truthfully, we come from a beginning that we can only only make ultimately unprovable theological or scientific theories of origins; and move to an end, that while it certainly will happen, either in apocalyptic fury, or where either we ourselves will destroy most of the life of the planet, save the Cockroaches, or the Sun goes supernova and consumes the Earth and the rest of our pitiful solar system, unless the dreams of Gene Roddenberry come true. Truthfully, I have learned in my almost sixty years of earthly existence to be okay with that. Others religious and non-believers alike aren’t okay with that, simply because they require certitude.

The seeds of this idea were planted over 25 years ago during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency, at Parkland Memorial Hospital confronted me about my “illusion of control” after a case conference. He was frustrated with me, and for him it was a throw away comment, but is penetrated the armored belt that I had surrounded my heart, soul, and intellect with for years, even before I became an Army officer in 1983.

I mentioned a lot of the week last night. I have felt a renewal of faith and call; a joy in ministry and caring for people that I haven’t experienced since my time in Iraq, which was quite literally, “the best of times and the worst of times. At the same time, while I believe, I doubt. As Father Andrew Greeley wrote in his novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain: 

“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re present but that may be wish fulfillment. Intellectually, I have no reason to believe. Yet much of the time I act like I do believe …. Only when I have time to reflect do I feel doubts, and then after the doubts certainty that the universe is cold and lonely. I know that I am a hypocrite and a fool. Then I preside over the Eucharist in my unsteady bumbling way and I know that you are. I don’t believe but I know.”

The words reflected what I was going through. I believed, but I didn’t. Of course that would not only continue as my tour in Iraq progressed but got worse after I returned from Iraq. However, I discovered, much to my surprise that I was not alone. That there were a number of other very good, caring Chaplains, Priests and ministers going through similar doubts, fears and pain.

The irrepressible Bishop Blackie continued:

“Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.”

The words were and still remain an epiphany to me. Belief and unbelief co-existing simultaneously, yet in a way strangely congruent with the testimony of scripture, the anguished words of a man whose son was possessed by an evil spirit confessing to Jesus: “I believe, help my unbelief.” Maybe that is why in the Liturgy of the Eucharist we proclaim the mystery of faith, or as it is translated from Latin into German Geheimnis des Glaubens. That mystery, is that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. That really is the mystery of what Christians call faith

We can be reasonably certain from non-Christian sources like the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman Letter to Trajan, written by Pliny the Younger, that there was a man name Jesus who was crucified by the Romans, and whose followers believed that he had died, been buried, had risen from the dead. Likewise, It was the testimony of those early believers in Scripture and non-canonical writings, that he would come again. Pliny described them as model citizens whose only fault, was that they would not burn incense and proclaim that Caesar was Lord, and sought the advice of Emperor Trajan on what to do with them. Before and after that many gave their lives peacefully as martyrs for this crucified man named Jesus.

That is why as strongly, or as doubtfully we believe as Christians, what we believe is based upon faith, mixed with fact, which until those words become reality, cannot be proven. Which is why some priests, like the fictional Jean Paul in Greeley’s novel and me “ both believe and not believe at the same time.”

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but in this season of Lent where Christians are called to draw near to God in order to be transformed by God’s love, and share it with others through their lives and actions, not just words, platitudes, and certitudes, but being humble servants of others we come to experience a renewal of life which can only be described as mysterious.

So that is it for the night and I hope that no matter what you believe that you experience joy, love, and even come to revel in the mystery that we call life and faith, and share that love, human, and or divine with others. After all, a smile, a friendly greeting, an expression of care from a friend or stranger, looking into someone’s eyes with care and concern, may be the only good thing that a person living a lonely, sad, and anxiety filled life, might experience that day. As my one of my football coaches in high school, Duke Pasquini told me “it’s the little things that count.” 

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Holy or Maundy Thursday….Pausing to Reflect on Communion

Today is Holy or Maundy Thursday, a day where many Churches and Christians take the time within their theological traditions to reflect upon in their worship, the institution of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.  Today for me is always special, though the past couple years I was not doing well do to PTSD and other stuff.  This year is different in the sense that I have began to recover that sense of mystery and awe that comes in this celebration.

I grew up in kind of an eclectic faith tradition as a Navy brat. My family was Methodist and I was baptized in my parents and grandparents home church, Southside Methodist Church in Huntington West Virginia.  However living on the West coast we went to Navy Chapels or local civilian churches of various denominations.  During my dad’s time in Vietnam it was a Roman Catholic Navy chaplain who showed us the love of God when many civilian churches made military families unwelcome.  I owe my vocation and faith to that man who took care of our Protestant family.  I remember attending the Holy Thursday Mass at the little Naval Communication station in 1971. There was a sense of mystery and holiness in that service that stayed with me.  When I was in high school I went to a Conservative Baptist church where communion was not observed in the same manner but the Pastor, Reverend Ron Lundy made it special. There was a sense of holiness and thankfulness that I have seldom seen in Evangelical churches since.

When I went to seminary I was attending a non-denominational evangelical/charismatic church.  It was a good church but little emphasis was placed on communion and apart from Easter Sunday no attention was paid to Holy Week. However as a seminary student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1988-1992 before the great purge of moderates I had a number of professors, but in particular my Church History professor Dr Doyle Young took the time to look at how the major traditions within the Christian faith viewed the Eucharist or Holy Communion.   I was acquainted with most in a fairly rudimentary manner Dr Young brought out the really important theological aspects of each in the context of how each view came about.  I always had a sort of Reformed or Presbyterian view of Holy Communion in that unlike most of my Baptist and Evangelical friends I really believed that there was a “spiritual” presence of Christ in communion as opposed to it being a symbolic memorial.  That changed as I was taught the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the Eucharist but was nailed down as we studied Martin Luther, his understanding of the Eucharist and the discussion between Luther and Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy.  It was Luther’s argument from Scripture “This is my Body, this is my Blood” with which he responded to every argument posed by Zwingli that convinced me of the reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist in more than just a spiritual manner.  I could not ignore Scripture and that was the watershed in bringing me to an Anglican or Anglo-Catholic understanding of faith and the Eucharist.

My purpose here is not to argue for my theological view but rather to encourage Christians to take advantage of the communion that we have with Jesus and through him with the Father and the Spirit as well as the communion that we share with each other.  Though I may believe my understanding of the Eucharist fits best with Scripture and the earliest teaching of the Church I will not use this to attack those who have different viewpoints.  Instead regardless of the theological perspective I hope that my readers will be able to renew their faith tonight as we celebrate this holy evening where Jesus met with his disciples before he was betrayed a Luke the Evangelist wrote:

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it* until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Luke 22:14-20

And Paul to the Corinthians

“ For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for* you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

And Saint John’s comments in the Gospel bearing his name:

“This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:50-51

It is important that no matter whether we view this as a Sacrament or a symbolic memorial that we take this feast of God’s love for us seriously for he comes to us in Word, Sacrament in this moment where we take the time to spend with him and his people as we prepare to celebrate the “Mystery of Faith” “Christ has Died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.”

My prayer is that we all find God’s peace and life during this Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday as we walk with Jesus and his disciples through that tumultuous time.  Lent is ended, our seasonal penitence is done so let us take the time to pause remember and reflect of the remarkable depth of God’s love for us in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” As Martin Luther said “For here in the sacrament [Communion] you receive from Christ’s lips the forgiveness of sins, which contains and conveys God’s grace and Spirit with all his gifts, protection, defense, and power against death and the devil and all evils” (The Large Catechism — p. 98).

Another feature of Holy Thursday is the enactment by the clergy of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. This is important in a world where power and fame is sought after over service to one another, even in churches.  The call of Christ is that we are to be servants of all.

In a world wracked by so much division including Christians who cannot agree on exactly what is going on when we come to the Altar or to the Communion table it is imperative that Christians even given their longstanding differences regarding this would be good to acknowledge their dependence upon God and one another.  If while acknowledging our differences we can at least share in the love and communion of God in Christ even if our individual churches will not share communion with one another. After all in the end it really is about the Lord and his relationship with his people and their relationship with each other and the world that he came to save.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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