Thoughts from the abyss

Image retrieved from my favorite web comic,

To any who read my blog and maybe even get something out of it, I ask your pardon for my lengthy absence. I have, as it were, taken a prolonged and most unwanted plunge into the dark, icy waters of despondency and existential nihilism. What began as a run of the mill bout of depression morphed into a dark exploration of my own deep-seated doubts about God, religion, and the nature of reality. My depression and existential darkness became inexorably entangled with one another, and this shit storm of anomie dragged on from the middle of December until 5 days ago. During all this, the insoluble problem of suffering and evil ceased to be an abstract puzzle and became for me a personalized struggle which forced me to painfully confront the fact that I don’t really believe God is good and just in creating the world in which we live.

I hate depression, but I’ve come to see it as an asset because it can act as a sort of purgatory wherein self-deceptions, blithely held beliefs, and poorly thought-out ideas are burned away. That is, when I reach a certain point where my faith seems to evaporate, and certain of my views that stem from a sense of concern for the well-being of society take leave, I’m prone to nihilistic revaluations wherein I torch my interior world and let the flames consume what they may. That’s not to say I don’t still battle with inner resistance that screams out in pain at the thought of losing cherished beliefs, but the effects of depression leave me entirely devoid of a sense of God’s presence and enable me to better gaze into what I think Nietzsche might have meant when he spoke of “the abyss.”

Without depression, I’m unable to grapple with the problem of suffering and evil apart from the cushion of a comfortable piety which enables me to trust God even when I don’t understand something. Depression robs me of that cushion, and this last time around it forced me to face with frightening clarity my underlying doubts and anger directed toward God for all the wrongs created by men and sufferings inflicted by Nature. I reject the over-simple explanation that God gives us free will and therefore is not responsible for all that went wrong with creation, as if it were a simple misunderstanding on the part of humanity and only needed a quick explanation to set things straight.

If God is the wellspring and grounding of all existence, the source from which all that is and could be continually draws its being and substance, then I cannot conceive of how God can be let off the hook for anything that happens. Simply put, if in God we all “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then I fail to see how everything that happens is not within the purview of God’s responsibility, even granting that God gives independent agency to the sentient creatures which proceed forth from his mind. The medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich boldly faced this question in her Showings, admitting her great struggle and ultimate inability to resolve this quandary. Her mystical showings were a result of a lifetime of reflections and dialogue with God on the existential conflict between evil and God’s love.

Depression by itself does not bring clarity, but rather it sets the stage for clarity after the storm clouds have passed and ideas have been purified or reduced to rubble. The icy interior darkness which passes through my soul a few times a year brings with it a madness of its own, a madness which threatens to be a sickness unto death if it’s acute or lengthy enough. But when the darkness finally gives way to light, when my interior world reaches equilibrium with the surrounding environment such that I no longer feel painfully discordant with the pace and mood of everything else around me, the presence of God is renewed in me and the interior winter gives way to a new springtime. It’s probably not coincidental that this last bout of depression seems to have coincided so closely with the shortening and lengthening of the days.

I’m still wrestling with the problem of suffering and evil in the world, and of the goodness of God. But if I’m honest, I frequently do even if I don’t feel alienated from God. Perhaps in my recent darkest hours, I’ve been wrestling with God like Jacob. Today I thought back to the experience I had in the mountains last year that I think of as a mystical experience. It was where the problem of suffering and evil seemed incomprehensibly resolved in the light of God’s perspective. In that experience I somehow felt that the world as currently stands, somehow exists in harmony with God’s love. But I felt this could only be understood from the inaccessible Divine vantage point, which I felt I had been privileged for a brief moment to glimpse within my soul. On the ground level, this could not be understood, though the resolution was very real and even in the midst of everybody on ground level.

This is most difficult to accept because it means we have to become childlike, as Jesus says we must if we are to enter the Kingdom. I think I now have a better understanding of how or why people could consciously choose to walk away from the Kingdom in favor of their own so-called wisdom. Psalm 97 describes God’s throne as being surrounded by clouds and thick darkness, and I think that in my despondent moods, trying hard to peer into the mind of God hidden behind this impenetrable cloud, I lose myself in existential despair. Attempting to gaze into the very secrets of God which are not permitted to me or anyone else, I instead gaze into the abyss of my own ignorance and finitude, running the risk of self-destruction in the process.

Therefore, I see the mystical route as the only viable road on which I can travel. Not that I’m a mystic, if by ‘mystic’ we mean someone for whom religious ecstasies and visions are somewhat the norm for their journey. But in the sense that Karl Rahner spoke of in his Concern for the Church, where he speculated that if Christianity is to survive the modern/postmodern era, ordinary Christians must become mystics if by ‘mysticism’ we mean “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” Only from the real experience of God encountered within our heart of hearts, can we face the problem of evil without settling for facile soundbite answers. And I think existential struggle, where we feel that God has abandoned us—if God is anything more than a figment of our imaginations—provides the fertile ground wherein we can have authentic encounter with God. That leads me to the final lesson I’ve taken away from this recent experience: drawing close to God means we simultaneously draw perilously close to atheism.

Herod, Blackwater, and the War on Christmas — Parish on Fire

Be sure to follow the news over the holiday, our professor told us as we headed out the door. It was 2002, and I was a freshman journalism student in Washington, DC. Because this is when the powers-that-be do their worst. When no one is paying attention, he practically had to shout over us to […]

Herod, Blackwater, and the War on Christmas — Parish on Fire

The author of this excellent piece really struck a chord with a similar vein of thinking I’ve mulled over this holiday season.

Finding joy, even in comfort

St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Findlay, Ohio Eucharistic stained glass window depicting bread and wine (Wikipedia)

St. Paul wrote in Philippians 4:12-13, “I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.” And in Luke 16:9, Jesus told his disciples, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

I’ve written before, without a sense of resolution, about the conflict of conscience I experience from time to time in trying to follow Jesus within my context as a middle class American. Yet recently, while reflecting on the friendship developing between myself and an impoverished widow who lives behind us, it seemed more clear to me that being materially comfortable amidst a world of suffering need not be cause for a bad conscience, per se. Insofar as I live comfortably and have some means about me, I can find joy in bringing comfort to others who of themselves, are unable to meet some of their own basic needs. The chief comfort being the solace of developing companionship between two souls who are equally wealthy on account of Christ’s love for us.

The danger in seeking to do good for others, especially those who are at a material disadvantage, lies in the very thought that we may have something to offer the other. When we finally reach the point where we realize we actually have nothing to offer, come what may of our donated money and abilities that we make far too much of in our own minds, then we’re able to finally offer the one thing we can truly give: ourselves. When we stop doing “good” with the expectation of a return for our efforts and generosity, we arrive at the end of our ropes where we can begin to act in humility and love; there, our goodness really becomes good. I think quite often, God must strip away our pride by letting us learn how not to serve others and do good, before we can finally get it right. But I digress.

I think Jesus calls material wealth “dishonest” because it’s inextricably embedded within social systems that perpetuate injustice. But Jesus says wealth can and should be used a pretext for establishing friendships between the poor and people of means. After all how can friendship, much less love, exist where one refuses to help the other in matters of necessity? It is written in James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?”

That there are any class distinctions at all which separate us, is in itself a sinful situation. Much less the fact that someone can live in want of basic necessities while his or her neighbors, literally next door, have plenty. I don’t think as followers of Christ that we’re called to try and solve all of someone else’s financial problems necessarily, but I think we ought to live in the sacramental paradigm whereby our pattern of life—our inner dispositions and outward conduct—reflect something of the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus.

Speaking for myself specifically, sharing resources in the name of Jesus—in terms of financial help, physical labor, and donated time—across social and economic dividing lines, fulfills a sacramental function in witnessing to the reality of the coming of God’s kingdom where all is shared and nobody is in want, and no boundaries separate humanity. Roughly speaking, a sacrament is a symbol which effects what it signifies, though it does not quite yet bring the full reality of God’s kingdom to bear upon its recipient. It’s that paradoxical already/not yet thinking so prominent in Christianity.

For me this all amounts to not only donating abstractly to worthy causes or to church, but also patiently asking God to lead me to direct action, then acting on the faith I profess as the opportunities present themselves. As my giving becomes progressively more generous and sacrificial, more authentic in the way of building up relationships with equals in Christ, I begin to find joy even in the midst of my suffocating material comfort.

All Scripture verses are excerpted from the New American Bible Revised Edition translation.

Eucharizing the ordinary

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God:
command that these gifts be borne
by the hands of your holy Angel
to your altar on high
in the sight of your divine majesty,
so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar
receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,
may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

excerpted from Eucharistic Prayer I (Roman Canon)

Celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an invitation from Jesus to live according to a new dimension, a new paradigm. The scriptures call this the ‘Kingdom of God.’ In the Mass Christ makes himself truly present under the appearance of ordinary bread and wine for our salvation. This great mystery highlights the crucial truth that Christ is truly present in the most ordinary details of our lives, day to day, moment to moment.

All the gifts of creation which sustain us, which we so easily take for granted or frivolously waste, are in a certain sense sacraments of God’s love for us. The gifts of each moment are merely the outer shells of a greater inner truth: that Christ is present and always inviting us to discover his love for us, and to love him in return.

Each moment lived, each encounter or gift received, is given to us by God for our salvation and the salvation of others. The sacrifice of the Mass is the highest, most sublime icon of this truth; I think it’s the most clear image of what is in fact the true nature of every moment we live. May we pray to our Lord for eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to live in gratitude of this awesome truth.

My search for the God who loves (part 11)

FOB Z in Kajaki, Afghanistan.

Leaving Kajaki

I spent the final weeks of my 2012 deployment working with 1/8’s police mentoring team. We lived in a small compound behind the Kajaki Sofla bazaar and maintained a slow operational tempo, patrolling about once a week and making occasional administrative trips to FOB Whitehouse or FOB Z. During this interval I was deeply torn between whether to become a Lutheran or Roman Catholic. Spare time was overabundant, and in spite of our spartan living conditions we had wireless access, enabling me to immerse myself in religious research.

My exposure to Luther might actually mark the first time in my life that I really believed the Gospel. It wasn’t until I read Luther’s catechism and learned the basics of his theology that I understood why the Gospel is actually good news. And I was drawn to how much more the Scriptures made sense within the Lutheran theological paradigm than according to the variations of Evangelical teaching which up to this point, had constituted my religious formation. Suddenly, the New Testament was allowed to actually mean what it says without elaborate hermeneutical twists and turns.

However, I was also drawn to Roman Catholic spirituality and its apostolic foundations. To adapt from C.S. Lewis, there were days when Catholicism seemed unbearably true. Despite the sola fide debates on justification which separated Catholics from Lutherans, I didn’t perceive enough substantial differences such that the Gospel was clearer in the one or compromised in the other. Sometimes it seemed rather plain to me that within Catholicism, one could benefit from the best of Luther’s gospel theology and still participate in the older time-tested traditions rejected by the Reformation. Yet, even though Roman Catholicism held a powerful appeal with me, I seemed to spend a lot of time making arguments in my head for why I shouldn’t become Catholic.

One day, toward the end of my stint with the police team, I was riding in the back of our armored vehicle as we approached FOB Whitehouse for an administrative stopover. The felt tension within me, between the pull toward Catholicism and my desire to become Lutheran, was growing particularly acute. Abruptly, with the attention-grabbing clarity of a peal of thunder, a disturbingly sensible thought cut through all the mental white noise: Why do you argue so relentlessly against becoming Catholic, unless you already believe Catholicism is true and don’t want to admit it? It was a jarring, unsettling experience, to say the least. Nonetheless, I persisted in my struggle and actually returned to Camp Leatherneck decided on becoming Lutheran.

Reunion, sorrow, and apprehension

1 MEF MWD Platoon’s final regroup to Camp Leatherneck was marked with great sorrow. One of our handlers, Cpl Keaton Coffey, was killed by a Taliban sniper on May 24th while out on a mission with Marine Corps Special Operations. He was killed only two weeks from the end of our combat operations. During the interval between regrouping at Leatherneck and flying home, our command put together a memorial service for him at the Camp Leatherneck chapel. Unfortunately, we knew the drill all too well from the previous deployment, when Cpl Max Donahue was killed.

Corporal Keaton Coffey (21 Aug. 1989-24 May 2012)

After we mourned Cpl Coffey and honored him with a memorial service, we returned about our business of preparing for command changeover and leaving Afghanistan. Unlike the end of our previous deployment, I was actually ready to go home this time. Whereas I loved my first deployment and couldn’t get enough of it, I ended the second one on a sour note of disappointment. The slow operational tempo had a little to do with how I felt, but most of it was because I spent the deployment under a significant burden of emotional stress and internal turmoil.

Most of this stress wasn’t even related to my spiritual struggles. If church history and ecclesiology had been my biggest concerns (outside the usual concerns of getting blown up or shot), I may actually have found this deployment enjoyably laid back. No, there was business waiting for me back home which I did not look forward to dealing with. I wasn’t even sure how I was going to deal with it. All my praying for an answer failed to yield the sense of clarity I had hoped for; I still had to learn that God is not ordinarily in the business of handing us easy answers.

Plus, my active duty contract was ending in September, and I was very much over the military at this point. Marines nearing the end of their enlistment will often be told, “don’t drop your pack,” which is to say, don’t get lazy, you still have a job to do. Well, as one of my fellow dog handlers laughingly told me at the end of the deployment, “When we got here you were already dragging your pack by a single strap saying, goddammit!” Not exactly a flattering portrayal of me, but honest. I wasn’t careless or complacent when we were outside the wire, but I was visibly burned out and had let my attitude and physique slip.

Rediscerning my discernment

Anyway, after the memorial service I met up with the chaplain and told him that I wanted to become a Lutheran. We sat in his office and talked about it for the next couple of hours. I energetically relayed my story of theological and spiritual discoveries during my final weeks of combat operations, and he tested my motivations and knowledge of Lutheran teaching. After his examination, he concluded that I was a suitable candidate for Confirmation, and subsequently he confirmed me into the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod at the next service.

I was thrilled to finally belong to a liturgical, sacramental church body, and to receive the Eucharist. However, I never fully dealt with my conflict regarding the Catholic Church, and not too long after Confirmation I felt as if I had rushed into a mistake. I decided to quash my concerns once and for all, to let myself enjoy being a Lutheran in peace without suffering to have Rome always casting a shadow over me like some kind of ghost or bad dream. The last thing I wanted was to have to backtrack and become Catholic, after getting confirmed as a Lutheran. I’d already confounded my Baptist family back home with an email telling them I was coming home a Lutheran, for goodness sake!

Writing is what I do when I need to get to the bottom of something that’s got me flummoxed. In this case, I started writing my best defense for why I should be Lutheran, with rebuttals against Roman Catholic arguments. Curiously, I wasn’t worried about sola fide; this honestly seemed to me like a non-issue in the grand scheme of things. My biggest concerns were sola scriptura and ecclesiastical authority. I started the project thinking Lutheranism be the stronger side if I systematically laid out my reasons for why I thought I should be Lutheran as opposed to Roman Catholic. To my dismay, my hypothesis was proven wrong; slowly but surely, I had to admit my best-articulated ideas were fairly easily toppled by the counter-arguments I sought to refute.

For me, the clincher was how we ultimately decide what belongs to the legitimate diversity within catholic tradition as opposed to what’s rejected as heterodox? Lutheranism upholds sola scriptura, with the subtext being that proper scripture interpretation is done through the lens of catholic tradition. This means Lutherans reject private interpretation and favor instead the authority of the church fathers. For example, the Lutheran Reformers argued that sola fide, while not believed or expressed unanimously by all the fathers and councils of the church, nonetheless was expressed by some of the orthodox fathers. To them, sola fide was a legitimately catholic view of justification with sufficient precedent in the tradition, rather than being a theological innovation.

Sounded good at first. But it began to unravel as I questioned who exactly gets to decide which ideas are orthodox or heterodox, and by what mechanism is this decided? There have been revered church fathers and saints who’ve believed things which were later on, decided to be unorthodox. Some church councils have been rejected as heretical by later councils. The whole lot of church history is rather messy, and at the end of the day there needs to be some mechanism that can authoritatively make those unpopular decisions regarding what is legitimately accepted within the diversity of the Catholic faith.

Lutheranism, as a decentralized movement which has solidified into many ecclesiastical bodies across the globe, has no coherent mechanism with which to address the ongoing challenges history continues to throw at the church—not without the ongoing fragmentation and chaos inherent in the Protestant mode of Christianity. Church history is still being written—Catholic tradition is still being formed—and there needs to be a mechanism of authority which defines and holds together this tradition.

The Lutheran Reformation launched itself from the Roman Catholic patrimony and grounded itself in many elements of Catholicism of the 16th century. This worked well, so long as Catholicism remained at that point in its development. Beyond that, as history marches on and Catholicism grows and changes, the Lutheran church bodies must also play their role in writing church history. But they must do so as decentralized bodies in a movement which inevitably must succumb to the entropy which afflicts, mutates, and dissolves all Protestant bodies.

That entropy and ultimately, dissolution, are the natural end to the Lutheran Reformation—and all Protestant movements—was something I could not abide. If a church body was more or less correct in its theology and practice, as Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism both claim, there’s something fundamentally wrong about a scenario in which such an ecclesiastical body, or confessional movement, can be allowed to fall apart and ultimately die. This would be tantamount to the Gospel itself being lost, because the Lutheran Reformers contended that it was the integrity of the Gospel which was at stake

I finally gave up. I did my best to argue for the catholicity, the apostolicity of the Lutheran tradition, to assure myself why I shouldn’t have to become Catholic. Like the morning sun gradually illuminating the landscape until darkness has nowhere left to hide, it occurred to me that God was calling me to be Catholic. By the time this occurred to me, I no longer wanted to fight it; I willingly, gladly accepted it. I felt silly for having rushed into a Confirmation service for a denomination I excitedly announced I would be part of, just to have to backtrack and explain, just kidding…I’m going to be Catholic now. I felt that my family wouldn’t take me seriously anymore, that I appeared to be just another religious consumer chasing after fads. No matter, because I knew my heart and what kind of journey I took to reach this moment of discernment. Soon we’d be flying home, where I would confront some really big changes in my life.

MWD memorial at Camp Leatherneck K9 compound, “Camp Donahue.”

My search for the God who loves (part 10)

The flight line at FOB Whitehouse in Kajaki, Afghanistan.

During a temporary recall to Camp Leatherneck for MWD Kiddy’s scheduled veterinarian visit, I attended Lutheran church services, spoke with the chaplain about theology, and discovered the early church fathers were sacramental in their theology. I left Kajaki Sofla a struggling Evangelical, and returned two weeks later convinced God was leading me toward something liturgical, sacramental, and catholic.

Departing Camp Leatherneck to return to my assignment, I flew by rotor craft from Camp Bastion to FOB Whitehouse in the Kajaki district. During my overnight stopover at Whitehouse, I dropped by the chaplain’s tent where I picked up a Catholic periodical entitled The Word Among Us. The next day, 1/8’s police mentoring team arrived and brought me back to our small compound behind the bazaar. There I resumed the slow grind of daily life as part of the occupying force in Kajaki: conducting foot patrols once a week or so, making occasional administrative trips out to nearby FOBs, standing guard duty every morning from 03:00-06:00, and killing lots of time between reading and watching pirated movies.

The view from standing post at the police team compound.

Everyday I eagerly poured through Luther’s Small Catechism and Theodore Graebner’s abridged translation of Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians I had downloaded to my e-reader. I learned from Luther’s catechism to pray daily the Our Father and the Apostles’ Creed, and I worked through the slow process of retraining my neural pathways to rest in assurance of God’s grace given to me in baptism, rather than looking for assurance of salvation in subjective cognitive experiences or judging my own patterns of conduct.

My starved soul ravenously devoured the spiritual feast I brought back with me, and I gladly shed my previously held Evangelical beliefs and assumptions to embrace an emerging new catholic identity. It wasn’t long before I burned with desire to partake of the Eucharist, realizing now that the true body and blood of Christ is what’s offered and received in this sacrament. My longing for the sacraments intensified with time, compounded by the knowledge of how much longer I had until this deployment was finished. It was also a source of great spiritual pain to me that I no longer belonged to an organized church body.

Though my admiration of Martin Luther was great, as was my pull toward the Lutheran tradition, my journey was complicated by the fact that I also felt a strong pull developing toward Rome. This wasn’t something I could ignore, especially if I was taking seriously the witness of the early church. This attraction to Rome developed while I was at Camp Leatherneck and steadily worked its way into the forefront of my mind. Initially I explained away this perennial longing and focused on Luther, but gradually I included Roman Catholicism into the sphere of my discernment. My attraction to Rome grew in proportion to my exposure to it. That is, relative to what I could manage out in the boonies of Afghanistan.

My edition of The Word Among Us had some great articles, not to mention daily Mass readings I could use to supplement my prayer. A feature on St. Faustina and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy captivated my imagination,; through this article I developed a great love for St. Faustina and an interest in reading her spiritual writings. Catholicism could no longer be dismissed as a theological or historical abstraction. It became to me a living, breathing tradition with Jesus at its heart.

Nonetheless, I harbored strong fears that if I were to convert to Catholicism, I would be required to perform a harsh or exacting penance as a condition of entry. My conscience festered with wounds of guilt, inflicted by many sins committed over the years. Exaggerated anxieties about the Catholic Church being a morally harsh institution were undoubtedly aggravated by my reading of early sources like Tertullian and The Shepherd of Hermas. It would take me a long while to develop a more nuanced, contextualized understanding of the church’s historical development of penitential practices and moral theology.

From the depths of my heart, I was crying out for God’s love, a sinner in the process of being humbled. I desperately wanted to give my heart to God, and I knew for sure that God was calling me to give myself to Him through submitting to a particular church body. But when it came to seriously considering Roman Catholicism, I hesitated out of fear that I would be like the rich young man who came to Jesus only to turn away sorrowfully (Matt. 19:16-22).

Foot patrol with the 1/8 police mentoring team.

Even though Roman Catholicism held a deep visceral appeal I could only partially explain by my positive association with it several years previously, Lutheranism nonetheless remained deeply attractive to me. My discovery of Luther’s gospel preaching, built upon on a sturdy foundation of sacramental theology, was honestly the first time I actually recognized the message of our salvation in Jesus Christ as good news. For my entire life up to this point, “gospel preaching” had been for me a source of unremitting torment and theological confusion.

For Luther, faith in Jesus Christ means simply that we believe we are reconciled to the Father on account of the Crucified and Risen Lord. In practical terms, this means trusting that God saves us by washing away our sins and uniting us with Christ through water baptism. For Luther, trusting in God’s saving promise given to us at our baptism is absolutely foundational. Confession and absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar, are also means of grace whereby God communicates salvation to believers and reassures terrified consciences.

Luther’s theology lifted from my shoulders the impossible burden of having to gaze inwardly to the interior movements of my soul, to determine whether or not I stood secure in God’s grace. In his writings I discovered a new image of God, a healthier conception of God. Luther preaches an incarnational God who, understanding we’re bodily as well as spiritual beings, gives us tangible sacramental means within the church with which to bestow the benefits of salvation and assure us we belong to Christ. Come what may of our feelings and internal dispositions, even our sins, we always look outside of ourselves to what Christ does for us in baptism, the Eucharist, and Absolution. This, and nothing more, is Luther’s idea of faith that saves.

The Lutheran Reformation was a liberating discovery. Finding myself in eager agreement with Luther’s gospel preaching, I was freed from ever again having to take seriously the Evangelicals whose teachings impoverished my perceptions of God. I was elated to never have to return to the interpretive chaos, rootlessness, and faddishness inherent in American Evangelicalism. I looked forward to embracing a world of apostolic tradition, liturgy, and solid theology when I finished this deployment.

Until that time though, when I felt my mind rising too high into the clouds of otherworldly thoughts, I had to remember I was still weeks away from the end of combat operations. I was still participating in counterinsurgency patrols in not-so-friendly territory, and needed to keep my head on a swivel and watch where I step.

Patrolling Kajaki Sofla district.

My search for the God who loves (part 9)

Entrance to the K-9 compound at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

When I attended a Lutheran service for the first time at the Camp Leatherneck chapel, its liturgy resonated deeply within me and I knew a liturgical tradition would have be my future in Christianity. As a Baptist I had been introduced to Christ and developed a desire to love Jesus, but I was spiritually anemic and dying for solid nourishment; questions about how to understand God’s plan of salvation still vexed me.

Sometime after attending the service I stopped by the MWR building, where internet access was readily available for 30 minute time slots. I knew nothing about the theology of liturgical Protestant denominations, but naturally Lutheranism would be the place to start. At first I was disappointed to learn that Lutherans believe in baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence. Same for the Anglicans.

I was at a crossroads where I realized that to depart from American Evangelicalism for more liturgical, tradition-oriented forms of Christianity, meant I would inescapably come face to face with sacramental theology. My Evangelical heritage and its spirituality was forever closed off to me, this much I knew despite my uncertainty of everything else. Yet the idea of sacraments seemed to carry with them uncomfortable echoes of Roman Catholic “works righteousness.”

Despite these concerns, I was ready to set out into uncharted waters and trust the Holy Spirit to lead me wherever. I would approach the more catholic-leaning Protestant traditions with an open mind and let them be my teachers. Besides, what harm could come of learning from Martin Luther himself, the great Protestant Reformer whose legacy and work all other Protestant traditions claim as their patrimony? Prior to deployment I enjoyed using a devotional called Faith Alone, a collection of excerpts from Luther adapted into daily readings. From this, I already had a scintilla of exposure to the German monk and liked what I knew of him.

I set up an appointment to meet with the chaplain who presided over the liturgical service I had attended. He was more than happy to make time for me to come and hear him talk about the Lutheran church, its history, and its theology. He was a tall, muscular Navy officer in his fifties or maybe late forties, with glasses and a gray crew cut. My initial impression of him was that he was friendly and easy-going, also direct and no-nonsense, a let’s get down to business kind of man. His denomination was the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest and one of the more theologically conservative Lutheran bodies in the United States.

During my two week stopover at Camp Leatherneck we met in his office at least twice, maybe more, where he explained Lutheranism to me with much clarity and detail. I attended his services for as long as I was at the base, though I refrained from further participating in Communion out of respect for his denomination’s understanding of what it meant to receive the sacrament. I wasn’t yet able to wrap my mind around a sacramental understanding of salvation, but I knew how baptismal regeneration and Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist could be easily read into the Scriptures.

For me the ultimate issue was authority. Lutherans lay claim to their beliefs on the authority of the Scripture interpreted in light of catholic tradition. Their confessional writings go to great lengths to demonstrate that Lutheranism is a legitimate movement within the catholic tradition, and a necessary corrective force therein. Because my interest had shifted from asking what does Scripture say? to asking on what authority do we base our interpretations of Scripture?, it was time to find out whether the early church was sacramental in their theology and worship.

I had on my e-reader the classic Ante-Nicene Fathers by Philip Schaff, a multi-volume collection of writings from the early church fathers. I had not yet attempted to read it because I was intimidated by its imposing size and writing style, but now seemed the time to utilize this resource. If ever in my life I had a lightning-strike conversion experience, it was when I read the following selection from St. Justin Martyr, a 2nd century Christian philosopher:

“And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

Justin Martyr. First Apology. Chapter LXVI—Of the Eucharist.

And just like that, I became convinced that Christianity is at its heart, a sacramental religion whose evangelic rituals are efficacious to salvation. This didn’t exactly settle the issue of which denomination I should join, but it was a huge breakthrough nonetheless.

Elated by my by theological breakthrough—my radical and sudden embrace of a very different conception of Christianity—I returned to my next meeting with the chaplain and excitedly told him how I came to believe in Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper and in baptismal regeneration. I told him I didn’t intellectually understand how it squares with sola fide, but I accepted the truth of it on the authority of Scripture and the testimony of the early church fathers.

I also told him, with a hint of sadness in my voice, that I would soon be returning to my assignment at Kajaki Sofla where I had no access to church services. The chaplain gave me a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism and instructed me to prayerfully study it and, if upon my return I still felt lead in the direction of Lutheranism, to come see him. I excitedly took him up on his offer and departed his office.

MWD Kiddy was pronounced healthy by the base veterinarian, and at the end of a two week stay I was sent back to 1/8’s police mentoring team at the Kajaki Sofla bazaar for the remainder of the deployment. I returned spiritually reinvigorated, with a new sense of focus and closeness with God. My newly discovered sacramental understanding of salvation closed the door on my anxieties about whether nor not I was “truly saved”. But now with the issue of historical and ecclesiastical authority at the fore of my thinking, I would face new ideas and challenges in my personal journey to find the God of love.

My search for the God who loves (part 8)

Picking up where we left off

We touched ground in Afghanistan at Camp Bastion toward the end of November, 2011. The familiar stench of petrol assaulted my nose as we stepped out of the C-17 onto the flight line. Bundles of neural connections, developed from deployment eleven months prior, now lit up in my head like a fireworks show. Many of us would be assigned to work with infantry companies, some with Marine Corps special operations, and a few with NATO allies such as the British. We were dispersed across Helmand Province in pairs, threes or fours, or even alone.

For me, the 2011-2012 deployment started out with a strong operational tempo but then slowed down to a lag. My first assignment was to take a new dog handler and embed with 1/6, situated in a combat outpost atop a hill overlooking the Kajaki Sofla bazaar. We spent a lot of time conducting foot patrols through the vast agricultural landscape and maintaining a rotating presence at a small surveillance outpost in the middle of our territory.

MWD Kiddy standing guard in Kajaki Sofla.

During the winter in Kajaki I diligently read my trusty King James Bible, and books on my e-reader such as Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, and a biography of St. Patrick. I didn’t know what to do at the time with that crazy Shane Claiborne guy, but Francis Chan’s book inspired me to sponsor a child through Compassion International and to think deeper about what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the concreteness of daily living.

At this juncture my spirituality was not focused on figuring out theological puzzles. Being in a combat zone where life and death were more concrete realities, I was concerned mainly with deepening my walk of faith and not losing my already shaky sense of connection with Christ. My image of God remained darkened with frightening portraits of a judgmental, fiercely angry deity who somehow loved me yet also stood at the ready to punish me with enteral hellfire if I didn’t return the love. In spite of my warped view of God, interior experiences of God’s love sometimes flooded my heart with consolation and kept me going. The true God was gradually breaking through to me.

After approximately one and a half months in Kajaki Sofla, the other dog handler and I were pulled back to Camp Leatherneck for reassignment. A few of us were assigned to work with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. My job working with the recon Marines was to search for booby-trapped explosives as we quietly took over housing compounds in the middle of the night to set up our remote base of operations out in the middle of who-knows-where. After we established and fortified our presence, we’d run satellite patrols wherein I utilized my dog to search roadways and buildings. We combed through desolate ghost town-looking villages, eerily depopulated agricultural areas, and got into occasional skirmishes with the Taliban.

Sleeping through light exchanges of gun fire.

Recon released all attached elements after two missions, and thereafter I was sent back to Kajaki Sofla with another experienced dog handler to work with 1/8’s police mentoring team. It was a combined team of infantry and military police, who trained an Afghan national police unit and taught them how to perform routine police work and conduct their own security patrols. Such teams were considered integral to the success of the NATO troop draw-down and eventual exit from Afghanistan. We all lived together in a small walled-in compound, literally no bigger than the residential plot I live on now.

Shortly after our arrival to the team, the other dog handler and myself were dismayed to find their operational tempo was about as tedious as British literature (my apologies to Shakespeare and Jane Austen…but not really). This assignment marked the second half of my deployment, the likes of which seemed to grind slowly like a rusty old water wheel in a trickling current. The Marines we worked with in that team were for the most part great guys; they made our time out there bearable, even enjoyable. Somebody got hold of a soccer ball and a net, and we burned hours playing volleyball with the Afghan police. The team’s Lieutenant once purchased some vegetables and a live turkey at the bazaar, which he later transformed into a delicious stew. It gave us all diarrhea later that night, but it was totally worth it.

The civilian contractor embedded with the team was able to hook us up with some WiFi. Those civilian contractors can finagle just about anything. Now I could download new books to my e-reader. Eventually I resorted to jogging circles around the compound for exercise and sanity.

Desert spirituality and “converting” to liturgy

I don’t remember exactly what I read on my e-reader during all this downtime, except that most of it was Evangelical in its orientation. I also read a lot from a chronological Bible my parents sent via care package. Religious anxieties about my standing with God, the state of my soul, where I would go when I died, these returned to the fore of my thinking. There were days in which I felt just fine, secure in my sense that I rested in the grace of God. But there were days that I wrestled with this; on these days I prayed more and through the experience, learned to rely on God for strength.

Sometime roughly halfway through this final assignment, I was temporarily sent back to Camp Leatherneck so Kiddy could undergo a routine checkup with the base veterinarian. When I arrived at Camp Leatherneck I was thirsty for fellowship with other Christians. Ravenously thirsty. I also felt a strong desire to attend a liturgical worship service, though now I can’t remember why.

I consulted the base chapel’s posted schedule, which labeled services in characteristically bland military style: Liturgical Protestant, Traditional Protestant, Contemporary Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon. I wanted to attend the liturgical service, but I had to stand kennel duty during that service’s time slot. The traditional service would do. Either way, I was excited just to be able to have fellowship with other Christians for once.

When I showed up for Saturday evening worship service, I was delighted to find that the “Traditional Protestant” service was also liturgical. The entire experience was invigorating. The sign of the cross, Apostle’s Creed, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, Scripture readings, a Lord’s Supper that looked like something from an older Western liturgy. Everything was conducted with reverence and according to an organized rubrics.

I didn’t know what denomination this was (found out after the service it was Lutheran), but I loved this style of worship. I received Communion and after the service, walked back to the K-9 compound while savoring the mild leftover taste of wine and thinking repeatedly to myself, the taste of sins forgiven. I wasn’t thinking sacramentally about Communion, but what it represented resonated powerfully with me for the rest of the evening. I was elated to have worshiped with other Christians, and to have done so in a liturgical setting. I all but decided that same night I would seek out a denomination which worshiped liturgically. Something about liturgy and tradition met a need within me that the Baptist denomination simply couldn’t.

Of course, I had to do some research and contend with the theology of liturgical Protestant denominations, whatever that may be. I would surely run into some differences, and therefore potential difficulties. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here, I cautioned myself. But even though theology was very important to me, I was at the point where I had decided that the mainstream Protestant denominations were genuinely Christian, and therefore they were theologically sound at their core.

I had read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity sometime on this deployment and was no doubt influenced by his thinking. But I felt so spiritually dehydrated, I was ready by this point to accept certain theological differences for the sake of a more nourishing spirituality. That Saturday evening when I first attended a Lutheran service in Camp Leatherneck’s chapel, that was when I definitively parted ways with the Baptist denomination and really began my search for a new ecclesiastical home.

How revolutionary is our faith?

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“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.” 

1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16, 17 (NABRE)

Yesterday evening I attended the Saturday Vigil Mass, as I often do in lieu of Sunday morning; I joke with Season that I’m basically a Catholic version of a Seventh Day Adventist. While I waited for the service to begin, I looked around the church and asked myself whether those of us gathered for church really appreciate the radical, extraordinary nature of the claims our Faith makes. I admit to being a little startled by my own line of questioning.

Take the contents of the Nicene Creed we confess at Mass every Sunday (or Saturday evening), or the shorter Apostles Creed we recite at the beginning of the Rosary. Or just read the above snippet from one of today’s Mass readings. How easy is it to gloss over any of this without realizing how extraordinary and downright revolutionary this stuff is? It’s really easy, because we have a natural predilection toward laziness. The New Testament is full of reminders to remain vigilant and not become forgetful. And this was when Christians weren’t far removed from when Jesus taught and healed people, was crucified and risen, and ascended into Heaven.

Last night while I mulled over this question, I thought about how American Christianity is mostly just secularism with a religious hue. Likewise, I believe the majority of American Christians are secularists who enjoy the comfort of having a shallow religious element in their lives. My assessment shouldn’t imply definitive black-and-white categories. Rather, we all live this reality on a scale of gradation. We all possess within us, to varying degrees, a blend of the secular and religious, the sacred and the profane. But if you judge the tree by its fruits, I’d say what goes by the name of ‘Christianity’ in the United States, has been reduced in large part to superficial identity markers with no substantial correlation to what Jesus actually taught.

At any rate, how should our lives look if we actually take to heart the revolutionary nature of the Christian faith? I don’t use the word ‘revolutionary’ lightly, because the contents of the Nicene Creed, not to mention the teachings of Jesus, are most certainly revolutionary. More on that in just a moment. We have some insight from St. Paul:

“We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good [both] for each other and for all. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from what is evil.”

1 Thessalonians 5:14-22

This is basically a rehashing of how Jesus taught us to live. We should strive here to remove the cultural blinders that cause us to gloss over passages such as this and immediately mis-translate it as saying, “be nice.” When St. Paul gives general instructions on how believers should live, it would behoove us to slow down and study them meditatively point by point, in light of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels. Here is one of those passages that’s rich with revolutionary import, yet we don’t notice it because we’ve been probably been brought up in secularism dressed in religious rags.

What do I mean that Christianity is ‘revolutionary’? I mean that if we really take to heart what we’re confessing in church, if we can manage to stomach what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the Gospels without trying to reinterpret (i.e., neutralize) him to comfortably fit our lifestyles, then what we have is volatile, countercultural religious movement which necessarily subverts the ruling order.

Christianity is a deeply political religion; it announces the inauguration of a Kingdom to replace all other sociopolitical orders. Christianity proclaims that the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, has already come, is now sacramentally present in our midst, and will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. The Christian Church demands absolute allegiance, and flatly rejects as idolatry allegiance to anyone or any political order other than Jesus Christ himself. The ethics of the Kingdom of God literally invert the traditional order of human society, which is essentially based on domination of the strong. Don’t believe me? Read the Gospels.

Life in Christ is deeply sacramental. We believe the Kingdom of God has already come, is now present, and has yet to be fully realized. At present we experience the Kingdom through signs and symbols, words and gestures, which point to a greater promised reality. Through these sacramental signs, we participate now in the promised reality, even as we wait to participate in it more fully in the future. As such, Christianity doesn’t view the world as something to be destroyed or escaped.

The world’s salvation—and here I refer to the entire created order including, but not excluded to, all humanity—has not yet been finally realized, but it will be. Because the world has been redeemed, is being redeemed, and will one day be fully saved, we are called by Christ to participate in it as salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). If Jesus tells us to treat this world and its inhabitants as if they were going to be saved, then it must be that it will. Therefore this world is good, albeit corrupted by sin and subject to much destruction, but it will be finally transformed and saved by Jesus (Rom. 8:19-23).

Simply put, real Christianity is much too volatile to be tolerable in polite company or mainstream politics. The religion of Jesus Christ fundamentally runs contrary to the never-ending human struggle to gain dominance over one another. It requires believers to be actively involved in this world as deputies of Christ, to preach the Gospel and transform the world by prayer and example, to personally welcome and serve the poor and despised of society as if they were Christ himself.

Christianity may in fact work with non-Christians for the cause of good, because Jesus did the same (Mark 9:38-41). But Christianity cannot be co-opted by any political parties or causes to be subservient to them, because Jesus never allowed himself to become entangled in present political or economic disputes (Luke 12:13-15).

Stuff my bees taught me in 2020

This year may be known publicly for a lot of things, but in my little corner of the world it’ll be remembered for the birth of our son. Also, I had a pretty good beekeeping year. Since I haven’t posted anything about the bees in quite a while, I consider it my duty and pleasure to try and summarize this beekeeping year in a single post.

Check your labels before spraying organic stuff in the yard

If you don’t, you could accidentally spray imitation bee pheromone in the yard and invite a nasty surprise on yourself. Lemon grass and geranium oil work well to break down stench-producing waste products in chicken pens, but they also happen to be the two ingredients which combine to simulate Nasonov pheromone. This is the pheromone bees produce to guide returning foragers back to the colony.

Apparently, honey bees don’t appreciate being tricked into thinking the area just a few yards behind them has been carpet bombed with Nasonov. Season regretted not seeing me run across the yard hollering and flailing, losing a Croc, and falling into a bush trying to open the back door. As for the organic chicken pen spray, I’ve used it many times since then without a problem. The key is to spray at sundown after the bees turn in for the night.

Mean Queen, good bees?

This is a theory I’m still working on, but I hypothesized sometime last year that queen bees with an aggressive edge would generally produce stronger colonies. My rationale is that they would possess stronger survival traits. Over the past 3 years I have observed within our small bee yard, that my gentlest colonies have perished rather easily while the more defensive ones perform better.

The sole colony I started with this beekeeping year (due mostly to my incompetence in 2019) has been the most defensive colony our short-lived bee operation has yet seen, but they’ve also been the best colony to date. My previous high performer wasn’t quite as defensive but they were no pushovers, either. The current high performance colony is the happy result of a split I performed last year; their queen came from the blind luck of open mating, but she’s been really good.

This colony can be difficult to work with, especially in the summer and harvest months. Usually they have a short threshold of tolerance for invasive beekeeper activity, and the smoker will only marginally increase this threshold. Once you surpass the threshold, their behavior becomes reminiscent of yellow jackets pouring out of a hole to defend their nest, and you’ve lost your audience with them. From that point on, they make it a point to get in your way and be a pain the neck until you close up the hive and walk away.

During in-depth inspections I often have to step away from the hive periodically, due to the frenzy of bees making it difficult to do much of anything with the hive parts. One enterprising young bee even figured out how to sting the outer edge of my ear through my hood. But they’re not aggressive, in the sense that when you’re not invading their home they tolerate human activity in their immediate vicinity rather well. A highly defensive, yet tolerant colony, is a good balance. So far they seem to be on track for surviving their second winter. They have taught me to perform only absolutely necessary inspections, and to keep them brief.

Swarm catching is good for the soul

I had never before dealt with a swarm, but this colony happily decided to do so during the middle of our “beach vacation”, which was spent on lock down at home because of the pandemic. Spotting and catching a swarm helped alleviate the lock down blues.

What I learned about catching a swarm, is that it’s good to have neighbors with ladders. My initial half-baked attempts at climbing the tree, bucket in hand, without a ladder, probably wouldn’t have ended in my favor. Also, I learned that it might be good to spray mist the swarm cluster with 1:1 sugar syrup before shaking them into the bucket, so as to cut down on the amount of bees flying off the branch and out of the bucket during the process.

Climate change = warm winter = lots of bees = colony starvation

Last year’s winter was warm and wet. This meant I had the pleasure of seeing the bees out and about on many a sunny day last winter. While I prefer warm sunny days to cold bleak ones, one of the trade-offs of a warm winter is your bees will consume their honey a lot quicker because they’re more active. This makes supplemental feeding over the winter all the more important as climate change will continue driving idiosyncratic weather patterns and make the traditional seasonal beekeeping calendars obsolete. During winter I like to use the mountain camp feeding method, an easy and minimally invasive way to keep your bees fed during those cold months when they won’t touch syrup.

With warm winters come early brood rearing. With early brood rearing comes an increased demand for food, which again brings us back to the problem of having enough stored honey to get through the winter. My early springtime inspection revealed a box packed full of bees with absolutely no reserves, not even the emergency sugar I stored along the top bars. This meant I had to feed the bees with 1:1 sugar syrup early in the spring until the nectar flow picked up. If you want to harvest honey, springtime feeding to prevent starvation is a precarious balancing act.

Concluding thoughts

At present, my two colonies seem to be doing rather well. I supplementally feed one of them with syrup once and a while. One of the colonies (whose queen happens to be of a pleasant temperament) has appeared to struggle during the late summer months, but yesterday for the first time I noticed they looked really good. Their numbers at the hive entrance actually exceeded the stronger colony, and they were bringing in lots of pollen. I had taken for granted that they may not make it through winter, but now I’m optimistic both colonies will come out of the winter intact.

The honey crop was rather small, but this is expected for swarming. I’ve yet to reach the point where my bees produce a lot of honey; it seems that something happens each year which prevents a good honey crop. Nonetheless, I’m young in my beekeeping career and have much time for getting all that sorted out. The important thing is properly maintaining the colonies so they’ll be happy and healthy.