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The Journey of a Christian Agnostic: Remembering 18 Years of Priestly Ministry

“Do you exist? I think not. I have never seen you or touched you or felt you. Well, sometimes I think you’re presen163017_10150113444907059_3944470_nt 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.” Andrew Greeley in The Beggar Girl of St Germain

Eighteen years ago, on a warm and sultry night in Libertytown Maryland I was ordained as a Priest. I had been graduated from seminary in 1992 and been ordained as a minister in an Evangelical Protestant church in 1991 and served as a chaplain in the Army National Guard and Reserve as well as civilian hospital ministry, but in the course of my studies and subsequent study I came to a more Anglican and Catholic understanding of life and ministry.

Since that time the world has changed and I have changed. Back then I lived my life with a fair amount of certitude, hubris and arrogance, a trait that many, maybe even most young ministers regardless of their denomination or religion often fall into, and unfortunately many who seek to climb the ecclesiastical ladder to power, influence and sometimes fortune never forsake. At one time I believed that church and church leaders should not be questioned, until I found that they like many others were just as prone to cruelty, injustice and desire for power and authority as anyone I knew in the secular world.

After encountering this lack of care, cruelty and and injustice, both in the church and among some senior military chaplains my eyes were opened. I should have known better because just before I left the active duty Army to go to seminary I was told by my brigade executive officer “Steve, you think that the Medical department is too political, cutthroat and vicious, we can’t hold a candle to the Chaplain Corps.”

Unfortunately he was right, not only the Chaplain Corps, but many churches and denominations. I know far too many ministers and other ordained clergy who have been crushed by the burdens placed on them by their faith groups as well as various chaplain ministries, military and civilian. When I was in seminary I was shocked by the number of “former ministers” that I encountered, many who had real, earned academic theological degrees, as well as a wealth of pastoral experience, but the common thing that must shared was being abused, abandoned and sometimes even persecuted by their faith communities, often for the most trivial of reasons.

While I do not have any regrets about following the call to ministry and the priestly vocation, and would do it again, I do not recommend it to most people, it is an incredibly difficult life .

Since that night in 1996 my life has experienced twists and turns that I could never have imagined. Like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead wrote in his song “Truckin’” 
“what a long strange trip it’s been.” That being said most of my time as a priest has been spent serving in some capacity on active duty as a military chaplain, first in the Army, but since 1999 in the Navy.

After Iraq, my life changed, afflicted with severe PTSD and what also might be considered “moral injury” I collapsed, psychologically, physically and spiritually. For all practical purposes I was an agnostic, praying that God just might still exist. When faith, seemingly miraculously returned it ended the hubris and certitude. I became much more willing to ask questions, express my doubts and publicly disagree with the church that I was first ordained as a priest. That got me thrown out of that church, as my bishop accused me of being “too liberal,” and thankfully I am now in a faith community where I am a good fit.

Faith has returned, at least part of the time and to be honest I still doubt, and that is not a bad thing. Andrew Greeley, speaking as Bishop Blackie Ryan in the novel The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain wrote: “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.”

I still serve as a priest and Navy Chaplain. I am happy and like Father Jean-Claude in Andrew Greeley’s novel I believe and do not believe at the same time. I have the honor of serving a small chapel for our students at the Joint Forces Staff College as well as teaching ethics, military history and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride. I also find a great deal of meaning in writing on this website, something that was begun out of the anguish of what I was going through after Iraq. In this website I serve people that I may never meet, and when they write, share their own stories and seek and encourage me it renews my faith and hope. As Andrew Greeley said: “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish. And it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.”

My politics and views on many social issues have changed significantly since I was ordained, they are significantly more liberal and I think better grounded in the grace and love of God than they were before. As far as the people I encounter, both in the chapel setting, at the Staff College and among people I meet in town I find that I am much more comfortable listening to and being there for others, especially struggling clergy and others who find church not a place of solace, but a place of fear where they are neither cared for or accepted, the outcasts. Thus I feel strongly that eery encounter, especially sacramental ones are times to show care for others. As Andrew Greeley wrote in his final Bishop Blackie novel The Archbishop Goes to Andalusia:

“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.” 

That was something that I experienced this weekend with a visitor to my chapel. That makes it all worth it, despite that I believe and do not believe at the same time and I will live with this tension and trust that the Jesus the Christ, God who took on the fullness of humanity for the life of the world will somehow understand.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Long Strange Trip: Six Years After Returning from Iraq

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It is hard to believe because it seems like it was yesterday, but six Years ago tonight I got off a plane, home from Iraq. The final flight on a commercial aircraft going from Philadelphia to Norfolk was crowded, but the people on board were polite to us, both the flight crew and the passengers, but it was like I had returned to a different world. What I entered was the same as it always had been, but I was different.

Guy Sager, an Alsatian who served in the German Army in World War Two wrote at the end of his book The Forgotten Soldier:  

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

About a year after my return, actually on February 16th 2009 I began writing on this site. I began it in large part to express my inner angst and as a means to my own healing as well as to help others. The beginnings came out of my initial therapy with Dr Elmer Maggard, who I sometimes refer as “Elmer the Shrink.” Elmer asked me if I was willing to open up and share my story even though I was still very broken and vulnerable, feeling abandoned by God, the church and most clergy.

At the time I was a practical agnostic. My collapse from PTSD and the moral injuries that I had sustained in Iraq were severe, it was if God had abandoned me, and try as I might nothing worked. In the months before I began writing I had hit bottom. That was then.

The last five years of writing my journey home has been illuminating. As I look back at things that I wrote, surveyed my moods, emotions, intellectual and spiritual development since the beginning of Padre Steve’s World I am reminded of the words to the Grateful Dead song Truckin’ because my life, especially since Iraq has been “a long strange trip.” 

That may seem kind of flippant, but it is true. My journey has been strange and I could not have predicted it back when I got my orders to go to Iraq in May of 2007. I was a volunteer for the mission and what I experienced changed me forever.

I don’t know what the future holds. I was shaken when my Captain Tom Sitsch, my former Commodore at EOD Group Two committed suicide a month ago. I know far too many men and women who have died by their own hand due to the after effects of the trauma they sustained in Iraq Afghanistan, or even Vietnam. What I experience is not unique to me, and that comforts me.

I have been busy this week, between storm recovery, home restoration and catch up at work I have had little time to muse about what the years have been like. I still feel a sense of melancholy as I do every time this year. My difficulty sleeping, nightmares and night terrors still plague me, some nights are better than others but the insomnia that has plagued me since my time in country is still all too real. My anxiety and panic attacks, though diminished still remain.

Faith, which had disappeared has returned, but even that has changed. What I knew to be sure in 2007 is often at best doubt plagued in 2014. For me faith is still often a struggle. Thus I have great empathy for those who do not believe, those who have lost their faith or struggle with doubt, and I cannot condemn them. Sometimes this puts me at odds with other Christians who strongly believe, but who have no tolerance for differences of opinion regarding things which cannot be proven without reference to faith in things that we cannot see. I am okay with that. What I believe about God is more open and less doctrinaire than it was before I left for Iraq. I agree with the late Father Andrew Greeley who wrote:

“I don’t think Jesus was an exclusivist. He said, and we believe, that He is the unique representation of God in the world. But that doesn’t mean this is the only way God can work.”

I am thankful that I have had the chance in a number of venues to share my story. That is a gift that has been given to me and I am thankful for those who at various times have reached out to me, encouraged me and shared their stories of service, faith, struggle, doubt and loss.

In the past five years I walked with and have heard the stories of many people, veterans and their families, both in person and comments made on this site who like me still struggle, with PTSD and moral injury, as well as others who suffer from TBI and other physical injuries. They are comrades. Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his book  All Quiet on the Western Front:

“I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;–I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life…I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.”

In the next week or so I will share some more including my first article, written for my former church while I was still in Iraq around Christmas of 2007.

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Faith, doubt. War, peace. Madness, sanity. Isolation, community, loss and gain. So much still to learn, explore and experience despite everything that has happened. It has been a long strange trip and I expect that the long strange trip will continue. T. E. Lawrence wrote to a friend years after his war in the desert:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

That is all for tonight as I have much to ponder as I sit with Judy. Our dogs Molly and Minnie passed out beside us, and I hope that tonight I will sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, faith, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD

A Long Strange Trip Home from Iraq: A Five Year Trek to Healing

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“Sometimes the lights all shinin’ on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip its been.” 

The Grateful Dead “Truckin’” 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pafY6sZt0FE

Just over 5 years ago I returned from Iraq a changed man. But the change was not complete, it was the fact that the man that I was before Iraq was shattered. I returned vainly hoping to return to what used to be “normal.” But that was not possible. I returned to a place where I felt that I felt abandoned at at times betrayed. I thought that I would be able to get through what I was feeling by working harder, praying more and pushing myself beyond my limits. Within months of my return I was in a state of emotional, spiritual and physical collapse.

Insomnia, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, acute sensory sensitivity to sight, smell and sounds that reminded me of Iraq, rage, depression, emotional distance from those that I loved. I drank more than I should have and self medicated because of chronic pain. Driving became an adventure, my hyper-vigilance made me drive like a Jedi Knight, the “force” was with me. Slow traffic, objects that resembled items that might hide IEDs alongside the road and aggressive or threatening drivers caused outright panic and anxiety.  This led to some unsafe driving practices on my part and thankfully a lawyer got my speeding tickets on US 17 in North Carolina reduced to mechanical violations.

I had deep anger at the politicians and leaders that took us to war and the media that lied about it. I had a spiritual crisis that left me for all intents and purposes an agnostic praying that God still existed. There were few clergy that I even trusted at all because most didn’t seem to either care or understand what I was going through. The only thing that kept me going was a hope that things might get better and only my sense of call as a Priest and Chaplain allowed me to continue in spite of my crisis. During that early period of 2009 I began this site and the article God in the Empty Places…Padre Steve Remembers the Beginnings of Padre Steve’s World helps recount those early days.

At first when things began I could not label what I was going through. But by the middle of June I was falling apart and during a seminar that I was coordinating involving the author of On Killing and On Combat, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman I was in such bad shape that the Medical Officer of EOD Group Two asked me “Are you okay Chaplain?” I told him “no” and after he was sure that I was not a danger to myself he set up an appointment for the next morning. Following his evaluation and subsequent evaluations at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth Virginia I was diagnosed with chronic and severe PTSD, anxiety and depression.

The road back has been long and often difficult. I mentioned that I was going through a spiritual crisis that left me for all intents and purposes an agnostic. It took nearly two years but in the act of conducting what are often called the “Last Rites” for a retired Navy doctor faith returned. It was what I call my “Christmas Miracle” though it actually occurred during Advent (see:  Padre Steve’s Christmas Miracle )

After that things still were difficult. Faith had returned but it was different, less doctrinaire and more accepting of others different than me. I still struggled with depression, anxiety and insomnia. I struggled in my marriage and it seemed that the only place that I could find peace was at a baseball park. The management of the local AAA International League team, the Norfolk Tides allowed me to come and visit the stadium and walk the concourses and be at the field during the off season as well.

In June 2010 I found out that I had been selected for promotion to Commander, the next day my father died and a week later I found that I was being transferred to my current assignment. Just before my transfer I was told by a former Archbishop of my old church that I was “too liberal” and needed to find a new church home. I did with some help and it has been for the better, I still have many friends in that church including other leaders in it and the former Archbishop himself was removed for attempting to remove the military chaplains from that church to another. Change continued as did my struggles but some things were getting better. In spite of my own struggles I was determined to make sure that others like me were cared for and the new assignment at Camp LeJeune gave me plenty of opportunity.

I wrote an article on this site entitled Raw Edges: Are there other Chaplains out there Like Me? That article led to me being contacted by a reporter from our local newspaper, the Jacksonville Daily News they published an article about my struggle and recover in April 2011. Shortly thereafter I was contacted by the DOD Real Warriors Campaign who did a feature on me. That site did a feature on me http://www.realwarriors.net/multimedia/profiles/dundas.php that helped others connect to me and be able in some cases to tell their stories, or those of family members sometimes for the first time.

I was getting better but still struggling, especially with sleep and nightmares. Due to her medical issues my wife remained in Virginia when I went to LeJeune. Last December my dog Molly decided that she was going to stay with me and that was a big help. Her cheerful unflappable personality helped me begin to engage life again. Instead of going home to an empty apartment I was greeted by a dog that welcomed me cheerfully and made me get out of my shell. We ended up a couple of months later getting a new puppy for Judy, a puppy who has added a new dimension to all of our lives.

Finally last year I began some more therapy that was extremely helpful and about a month ago I stopped doing sleeping pills that did not help me sleep and left me feeling almost hung-over every morning, making it hard to function and even to get out of bed. Over the course of nearly 5 years I had been on a number of different medications and all had the same effect, even those designed to not leave the patient that way. My therapist suggested trying Melatonin on duty nights when I needed to be able to drive to work if there was an emergency at the hospital. I noticed a difference. My sleep was no worse and when I got up in the morning I actually felt somewhat rested.

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For the first time since I returned from Iraq I feel that I am functioning like a normal human being. Hope has returned and people that know me can tell the difference. Judy says that I am the man that she fell in love with again. In ministry I have found that what I went through assists me in caring for those going through great difficulties, any do to PTSD, TBI or Combat Stress, but others that are struggling with their place in life in the military institution, particularly caregivers including chaplains and medical personnel. At work I have more energy and connection to people than in years and I have developed more relationships with people on the island as well.

Do I still have days that I struggle? Yes. Is my sleep perfect? No. Do I still have nightmares and strange dreams? Yes. All that being said I know that for the first time in years I approach the Lenten Season feeling good, not just hoping things get better.

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It has been as Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead once sang “a long strange trip” but it continues to get better. If you know someone struggling from the effects of PTSD or other combat trauma there are a lot of resources, sometimes they are hard to find and in some places due to the numbers of personnel suffering they are in short supply, but they are still can be found. My encouragement to others is not to give up, not to lose hope and to keep seeking help. It took me five years to get back to what is my “new normal.” I can’t go back to what I used to be and I don’t want to, my definition of what is “normal” has changed and that is okay.

My views on life, faith, politics, ministry and social issues have changed over the years, I think for the better. Some might disagree, but that is okay, I have been called a lot of things by people that do not understand over the past few years, but I would rather have that than be where I was before Iraq. Iraq changed me in ways I did not expect. When I left for Iraq in 2007 I thought that I was immune to PTSD because of my experience in dealing with trauma and death both in the military and the civilian world. I was wrong, but despite what I have gone through I am glad for the experience.

There is still one constant in my life, besides my wife Judy who has suffered much during my ordeal, and that is baseball. I can only echo the words of James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams “The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, faith, iraq,afghanistan, marriage and relationships, Military, Pastoral Care, PTSD, Tour in Iraq