Friday, March 1, 2013

Witness to the Dark

God our [Parent], you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.   (From The Book of Common Prayer, page 829)
A number of years ago I was asked by the Chief of Police in Holden if I'd be willing to serve as a volunteer chaplain to the department. I agreed to do it, and as a way of beginning to understand the work I started riding along with officers on patrol. This was an extraordinary gift. First of all, as I had learned as a parent with two sons, it is very often much easier to talk in the car with guys (and most of them are guys) than to sit and talk face-to-face. They would open up much more "on the road" than if we were just hanging around the police station. But I also got to see another dimension of the town that I lived and worked in, especially after dark.

I remember an officer reflecting once about his own cynicism about human nature and my apparent naivete. (I think he mistakenly took my optimism for naivete but that is another post.) He said, "you see people at their Sunday best. I see them at their Saturday night worst." At the time, I simply received the comment. Over time, however, I have realized that while this may have been true on his side of things, i.e. that cops very often do see people at their worst, he did not fully appreciate the depth of pastoral ministry, which is about way more than Sunday morning worship.

As I prepare to make a change from parish ministry to diocesan ministry, I find myself pondering this more and more. After twenty years as a parish priest, and especially the past fifteen in Holden where relationships have developed not only among my parishioners but in the wider community, I know that the truth is that a parish priest is invited into people's real lives - in all of their glorious ambiguity. I am indeed an optimist about people, but not because I am naive about human nature or the challenges of finding our way through this "unsteady and confusing world." And more than being an optimist by nature, I choose, in Christ, to be a person of hope.

There is a hymn we sing in my church called, "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light." But those words only have meaning if we have first witnessed the dark. I want...that is a key word. The reason the Church is called to be light in the world is that in the depths of the tradition we do know something of what it feels like when the lights go out. You don't get to Easter morning without Good Friday. And the ultimate battle is not with flesh and blood, but the powers of darkness that threaten to hurt and destroy the creatures of God. Episcopalians don't tend to talk that way much outside of the Baptismal liturgy but that language is a part of our theological vocabularies and I think that we need to learn better how and when to use it.

In all the funerals at which I have presided as a pastor, the hardest ones (and the ones that continue to stay with you) are the ones for young people. The death of a ninety-year old is sad, but it is usually fairly easy to sing "for all the saints who from their labors rest" on such an occasion and to believe it. The death of an infant from SIDS, or a preteen from a heart-defect, or a suicide that cuts short a young life is always tragic. Such deaths affect not only the family, and not just a congregation, but an entire community.

I read a galley proof of Bob Larsted's Witness to the Dark: My Daughter's Troubled Times - A Comedy of Emotions this past summer. Bob Larsted is a pen name; his website can be found here. Yesterday he handed me an official autographed copy of it, which touched me very deeply. He is not a parishioner, but our lives crossed in several ways over the past fifteen years: at the local public schools, through a program called Destination Imagination, and at a funeral at which I presided for a teenager who took his own life. And so it is that I appear as a a very minor character in his story as the (unnamed) rector who presided at that service, around the time that his daughter's own troubled times began. The book describes "Bob's" roller coaster ride as a parent through "his daughter's battle with sadness, cutting, and suicide attempts, depression, bipolar and schizoaffective disorders." He takes us through the minefield of trying to deal with schools and the healthcare system. While that story is profoundly sad, he manages to do so in ways that actually have you laughing at times. It is not for the faint of heart. And yet he tells it in a quirky, unique, way that truly does read like a "comedy of emotions."

It is not up to me to quibble over the title of a book and it is what it says it is: a powerful witness to the dark. And yet, the mere fact of his daughter Patricia's survival to the age of twenty and in the extraordinary poetry she has written in her own right and in this book about a parent's love, there is also a testimony to the light. It is not a religious book, but it is about faith in the deepest sense of that word. It is most definitely about hope. As the great Bruce Springsteen once put it, at the end of every hard day, people find a reason to believe.

I commend it to you, especially if you are a parent or loved one of someone who struggles with any form of mental illness. Or if you work in a school or the mental health profession. In the midst of all of the talk about gun violence in our country and of the need for better gun control laws (which I wholeheartedly support) there is also clearly a need to better understand and treat mental illness. This book gives you a unique perspective on all of that. It is a profoundly human story of courage, love and survival, and that is an inspiration to all of us - and a light shining in the darkness. 

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