Archives For Military Chaplain

Suspicious Séances

June 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

lincolnsDid you hear about the séances that were held at the White House? It’s true, but it’s not recent news. They were conducted for Mary Todd Lincoln, and her husband, the president, apparently joined in attendance at some of them.

The Lincoln’s had lost their eleven year old son Willie to Typhoid in February 1862. Nearly all historians describing Mary’s grief accurately use the word “inconsolable”.

Since the Lincoln’s were not Christian, Mary sought the illusion of comfort in spiritualism, a thriving movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism typically contends that the spirits of the dead survive in a manner where they can, and do, communicate with the living. This interchange is typically facilitated by a “medium,” someone particularly attuned to the “spirit world.”

Mediums sometimes allow themselves to become physical vessels for these spirits.

Christians either dismiss such experiences as fraud, or as demonic possession. Which depends on their own worldview. Some Christians dismiss the spiritual realm, while others recognize it is quite real.

C.S. Lewis would be in the latter camp, as his preface to The Screwtape Letters amply illustrates.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Christians who acknowledge the spiritual warfare which is waged beyond our physical senses understand the meaning of Paul’s words: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Returning to the 1800s

The reason I have been thinking about Mary Lincoln—who would later be institutionalized and attempted suicide—is because I’m finishing up an article for the online journal I edit about the military chaplaincy. It’s called Curtana: Sword of Mercy, and the new issue will be posted by the end of the month.*

The specific article relates the story of Ellen Elvira Gibson (Hobart),** who was the first woman chaplain in the American military. She served a Wisconsin regiment, and her story is nothing short of fascinating.

Hobart was a spiritualist, and “ordained” by a group of the same who banded together to provide just such credentials. Interestingly, although she gave hundreds of (paid) lectures in a spiritual “trance” state, she would ultimately reject spiritualism. She turned to a more radical and secular “freethinking” as spiritualism was waning in popularity, but still a formidable presence.

Chaplain Hobart would gain renown in anti-Christian circles for her book The Godly Women of the Bible by an Ungodly Woman of the Nineteenth Century. Numerous atheist websites cite a quotation from the volume. “The abominable laws respecting [women in the Bible] . . . are a disgrace to civilization and English literature; and any family which permits such a volume to lie on their parlor-table ought to be ostracized from all respectable society. . .”

Contemporary readers will find it odd that one of the reasons spiritualism received a warm welcome in Europe and America was precisely because it seemed to offer measurable, “scientific” evidence of the afterlife. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Faust writes:

To an age increasingly caught up in the notion of science as the measure of truth, spiritualism offered belief that seemed to rely on empirical evidence rather than revelation and faith. If the dead could cause tables to rise, telegraph messages from the world beyond, and even communicate in lengthy statements through spirit mediums, an afterlife clearly must exist. Here was, in the words of one popular spiritualist advocate, ‘proof palpable of immortality’” (180-81).

Returning to the Inklings

One of Lewis’ dearest friends was Owen Barfield. Sadly, the two remained separated throughout life by their religious beliefs. Barfield had helped Lewis come to believe in God (i.e. theism) but could not journey with Lewis on to Christianity. Barfield, instead, became one of the greatest of Anthroposophist evangelists.

Anthroposophy possesses elements of philosophy, but is also inarguably a religion in its own right. It also holds a view of the afterlife distinct from both Christianity and historic spiritualism.

But the nature of the religion created by Rudolf Steiner (which evolved from his involvement in Theosophy) is not the subject of our reflections here. However, if one is interested in learning more about Owen Barfield, a 1992 documentary can be viewed here.

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The image above is a famous example of “spirit photography” taken by William Mulmer, who made it popular. He was once placed on trial for fraud, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

* I may delay publication of this particular article since the issue will already carry the biography of another chaplain.

** The reason “Hobart” is bracketed, is because it was her married name at the time of her military service. However, the marriage was short lived, and most of her life she went by “Ella E. Gibson.”

Autistic Considerations

August 22, 2013 — 13 Comments

Bill & Barbara ChristopherMost of us have a friend, loved one, or acquaintance affected by autism. I’m not sure if this would have been accurate a generation ago.

And I’m not merely referring to the lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. There are numerous reports that its frequency is increasing.

Autism is not necessarily debilitating. In minor cases it’s barely noticeable. Like many problems, its severity is manifested across a wide spectrum.

I have autism on my mind now, as the new school year approaches and my wife sets up her special education classroom. She’s excited about the return of her precious kids. It’s wonderful how so many of them make amazing process both in academics and social abilities.

The return of school, however, is not the primary reason for my current thoughts. I’m writing an article I hope to submit to an Autism magazine, inspired by a recent interview I conducted.

I was privileged to speak at length with the father of a severely autistic son who will be known to many readers of Mere Inkling. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, has been a prominent spokesman for autism concerns for many years. (A link to the article appears below.)

Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book entitled Mixed Blessings. It recounted their early struggles providing Ned with everything he needed to make his life as full as it could possibly be. Due to their diligence and deep love for their son, Ned continues to enjoy his active life today.

They embody the noble type of earnest love C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves. There he says that true love is gift-love, not seeking increased dependence on itself, but liberating the beloved to become as independent as they possibly can.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law.

The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love—a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes—must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

This despite the counsel of one early specialist who advised them that since Ned was adopted they should just take him and trade him in for a child who wasn’t defective. Yes, someone really said that to them.

If I end up publishing the article, I’ll mention it again for those who might be interested in reading it. In the meantime, the extensive interview appears in the current issue of a journal I edit for military chaplains, called Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

When we look at a list of autistic traits, it’s normal to recognize some of them in ourselves. That shouldn’t surprise us, since most of these traits are completely “normal” in various degrees.

It is a commonplace practice to perform posthumous diagnoses of well known figures, based upon detailed descriptions of their behaviors. In that vein, I found online lists that included the following personages as possibly autistic: Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Oh, and there’s another name I discovered in one article. The writer suggested that C.S. Lewis’ social preferences suggest that he too suffered the mild version of autism, typically called “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I don’t intend to discuss that now, but I wanted to share a fascinating concept I encountered while researching for this column. In Autism, Art and Children: The Stories We Draw, I read the following about imaginary worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth:

It is this element of world building that forms a bridge between the impersonal character of research and clinical observations and the individual young artists with autism in whom our interest especially lies.

Sacks (1995) points out the importance of fantasy worlds to some individuals with autism . . . this predilection for alternate worlds is frequently encountered in many high-functioning people with autism . . . such high-functioning individuals with autism “describe a great fondness for, almost an addiction to, alternative worlds, imaginary worlds such as those of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, or worlds they imagine themselves.”

Illustrating such world-building activities by an entire family (two parents and their son), all of whom have autism, Sacks remarks, “They have spent years constructing an imaginary world with its own landscapes and geography (endlessly mapped and drawn), its own languages, currency, laws, and customs—a world in which fantasy and rigidity play equal parts.”

This creative activity is of particular interest, for many of the children we have met have individual fantasies in alternative worlds that play major roles in their lives and activities.

I find this analysis captivating. I am utterly fascinated by the construction of imaginary settings. That’s one reason I love the alternate history genre, as it combines the familiar with elements that have transformed them into something inherently different.

I must confess I’ve occupied many an idle hour imaging new worlds. I’ve even invested a fair amount of time in world-building myself—for an alternative history for which I still compile notes and ideas, despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be written. I don’t attribute this to autism, but it serves as another example of just how much all of us have in common.

The fact is none of us is perfectly healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. We are who we are. We can strive to improve many aspects of our lives (and the wellbeing of others), but attaining perfection is impossible in this life.

In the meantime, we can be grateful for wonderful people like Barbara and Bill Christopher, who have courageously shared their own journey to aid us in ours. Their willingness to forsake their rightful shield of privacy and step out into the glare of the public—for our benefit—reveals both their love for their children and their generosity towards strangers.

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The wonderful photograph at the top of the column features Bill and Barbara Christopher. Barbara had a guest role as a nurse in “Dear Mildred,” during which the two of them sang a duet.

The interview with Bill Christopher can be downloaded for free in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available here.

Compassion Fatigue

April 1, 2012 — 6 Comments

Jesus at GethsemaneI just returned from a weeklong gathering with a group of armed forces chaplains. They represented all the branches—Army, Navy & Air Force. (The Navy provides the chaplains for the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard in the United States.)

I retired four years ago, after nearly a quarter century as a chaplain in the Air Force. I miss the people, the esprit de corps, and the awareness of doing something truly important.

On the other hand, I miss neither the innumerable meetings nor the rank consciousness of some chaplains. (Sadly, to some chaplains their rank insignia is more important than the religious symbol they bear.)

I’ve been privileged, in my semi-retirement, to serve my denomination on our national Ministry to the Armed Forces committee. We determine which of our pastors should be allowed to serve as military chaplains. It was in that capacity I attended our annual conference for “our” chaplains.

As always, we offered a first-class program. This one was conducted by Doxology and our speakers were a veteran pastor and a gifted psychologist. They covered a lot of ground during the week, but one of the subjects they began with was helping us assess our own degrees of “compassion fatigue.”

Compassion fatigue is experienced by many people in the so-called helping professions. Medical personnel, first responders and (especially) those in the ministry give so much of themselves without adequate replenishment, that they often end up spiritually exhausted.

It’s easy for critics to judge someone who is genuinely fatigued, because they can become impatient and irritable. People may accuse them of trying to do everything “in their own strength,” rather than relying on God’s grace and anointing.

In his famous prayer, Francis of Assisi asked, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .” This is precisely how most clergy view themselves. But, to more precisely focus the petition, we might pray, “Lord, make me a conduit of your grace.”

If you understand the distinction . . . you can see how even regarding ourselves as God’s instruments or hands or voice in the world, can compel those in the ministry to serve until they drop. So much for the Puritan work ethic. Few of us pause adequately for the rest and renewal we require.

C.S. Lewis described just how costly this love for others can be.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (The Four Loves.)

You may well be on the verge of compassion fatigue yourself, assuming you care deeply about the suffering of others. If you are, I encourage you to join me in identifying times and places to pause and rest in the presence of God. Scheduling opportunities to meditate on his word and listen for his still small voice as we communicate with him in prayer, will refresh and strengthen each of us.

These precious moments won’t occur accidentally. We need to be intentional in carving them out of our too-busy schedules. But, when we do so, we are spared the pain and numbness of compassion fatigue. We can continue to love others, despite the vulnerability, and still remain healthy and whole.