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Man of God

From a recent journal entry.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:3-5

The call comes—someone’s looking for a priest.  Of course, you’re not a priest but you’re close enough.  There’s been some trouble and someone wants to talk to a “holy man.”  They want a man of God to come.

Someone’s in a desperate place—they’ve tried to take their life.  It didn’t work but things still look pretty bleak and dark and hopeless and they’re really scared and they don’t know where to turn.  They need to find a better place to live, a place where the terrifying images and the dark apparitions will just leave them alone for a while… A place where the evil people will stop abusing  and using and dehumanizing them…. A place where they won’t have to be so damn afraid all the time…

So what will you say, man of God?  When you walk through the door and you see their frightened face and the bandages covering the places where the blades left their mark?  When you see the nervous fear and uncertainty mixed with expectation and guarded hope etched all over their face?  When the desperation and confusion bleeds through strained conversation?  When you have 45 short minutes punctuated by unexpected visitors and hushed consultations just outside the door to to speak into years of pain?  What will you say?

What will you say, man of God, when you hear about years of abuse and torment and neglect?  When you get the shards and fragments of a thousand little dark stories that have all conspired to lead a human life to this point where no human life should ever end up?  Will you dig deep into your bag of theological tricks and find the right one for the job?  Will you conjure up concepts like love and grace and free will and providence and redemption?  Will you speak about how things happen for a reason?  Do these words and these phrases fit in places like this?  For people like this?  What do you think, man of God?

What will you say, man of God, to someone who has heard so many lies about who they are and what they are worth that it seems like there’s no way in for the truth?  When the truth seems impotent and small compared to the monstrous evils of a lifetime of deception and manipulation?  What will it mean for you to tell them that God loves them when they have pounded on heaven’s door and gotten no response?  What will it mean for you tell them that they are precious and valuable when all they have ever felt is worthless and abandoned?  Does the truth work in a place like this, man of God?

What do you think, man of God?  Can a world as wild and terrifying as ours—a world where wounded and discarded human treasures grope around in the darkness for glimmers of light and life—be a safe place for faith and hope and love to grow?  Is there good enough news for stories like this?  Can stories like this be part of the “all things” God is reconciling to himself?

What do you say, man of God?

47 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Your posting here is of such a personal nature that I fear saying the wrong thing. Forgive me I do.

    Re: What would you say, man of God? I would start here: “Someone called me and said you were looking for a priest. Is it true? Why were you looking for a priest?”

    Re: What do you think, man of God? Most of us, the ones who have deeply about this question, hope no one asks. That is the problem for a man of God in modernity, especially for a Protestant man of God. A priest has keys to sacraments. A Protestant minister has only the Word and his thoughts. It is like that pastor in Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett, who had no remedies for the woman who lived on Shell Island.

    November 13, 2009
    • I can only speak personally, but I certainly have no problem with people asking. The difficulty of the questions doesn’t mean that they’re not worth facing. I don’t think I was any better or worse off in this context because I’m a Protestant.

      November 13, 2009
      • Ken #

        What did you say?

        November 13, 2009
      • Ken #

        And I meant to also ask, what do you think? What are the answers to your man of God questions?

        November 13, 2009
      • I mostly just listened.

        Re: the answers to the questions, I suppose that depends on which questions in which context, etc. For the main one—is there good enough news for a world with stories as tragic as the ones ours has seen?—my answer is yes.

        November 13, 2009
  2. J #

    Ryan:

    It’s interesting to me that the western church (and especially us pastors) think that we have to verbally say something with words. Perhaps being present says enough.

    Which leads to a second observation. In the verse you quote, it’s interesting that the light does not conquer. It simply refuses to be overcome. If we consider the light that the writer of John would have been thinking about (candle flames, twinkling stars, bright sun and moon, and their reflections on the lake surface), that suggests a posture that gently and simply offers what the goodness that it has and is.

    Which leads to a third observation. In my travels to Canadian churches, I was often chagrined that we would sing songs about God being the “Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (as Isa 9:6 puts it). Very rarely did we sing songs of lament because we are too preoccupied with having answers that “work” (might or power) so that we can have secure lives that we can comfortably control(security and peace of an everlasting father).

    Almost never did we sing songs that included the first part of Isa 9:6 which describes God as “Wonderful Counselor.” What does a wonderful counselor do? (S)he listens. (S)he asks good questions. (S)he walks with us, so to speak, through the challenges/brokenness/darkness in which we find ourselves. (S)he helps us to discover things for ourselves. (S)he does not control the person (s)he is helping, but simply offers a gift (light) that can be refused.

    With that in mind, man of God, I’ll add another question to yours: “How will you be?”

    November 13, 2009
    • Wise words, J. Thank you.

      November 13, 2009
  3. Actually, Ryan, you are a priest of our royal priesthood, and you have many sacraments: first among them the Church, both your little church and the Church universal, the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before you and remain around you. You also have your baptism, in the Christ who has authority over all powers and principalities; and you have prayer, prayers that God hears and loves to hear.

    “God gives his people everything they need to follow him.” Our efforts may never give the signs of success demanded by the world, but we have confidence in Christ. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

    November 13, 2009
    • Michael, thanks for the reminder of the sufficiency of the one true High Priest, and of the priestly role that we who follow him are entrusted with.

      November 13, 2009
  4. Deborah #

    When someone’s in a pit, it’s not tidy answers they’re looking for-it’s an arm, comfort, relief and love. Christ in you certainly has the goods to do that. We come to the end of ourselves, bump up against the limits of our understanding and what is left is God’s strength. We need to learn how to give that away. It’s really important I think, for the church to let go of our need to be the source. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Christians talk as though God does nothing in ‘real life’. The promised ‘Comforter’ is available, but I think overlooked as some intangible ‘thing’ that the charismatic types are too obsessed with. Whatever camp you’re in, the scripture says plainly in red letters I might add, that He would not leave us as orphans. We are not the source. God is alive and close. I think we make ourselves available- a catalyst for an authentic encounter with God. But if we don’t believe in ‘that sort of stuff’… What do we have to offer but our theology? In answering the call, and having nothing to say, why not ask the ‘Comforter’to give you words of comfort to pass on? Sometimes He says nothing, but you feel just to listen, let them cry in your arms. Love like that is from God, powerfull stuff.

    November 13, 2009
    • Ken #

      If the person were open to charismas like healing, for example, what would you do?

      November 13, 2009
      • Deborah #

        That’s where it gets hard isn’t it? I’ve seen real healing, and false declarations of healing. This made me a charismatic/sceptic 🙂 A hard place to be, to be sure. I tend to lean toward asking God to heal the heart, the deep wounds that come from trama of any kind- to the body and/or the heart. The frustration for me is always the need to see it happen NOW. When healing doesn’t come I always ask why, and almost always am faced with a decision- Is God still good? Even when I don’t see relief come. I decide that yes, He is good. He is good because in the midst of pain, He is with us. In a very real and tangible way. There is a process of ‘waking-up’ to the reality of ‘God with us’ that transforms our suffering. That’s what I believe, and so that’s where I would start in prayer, with a person in pain.
        ‘Where is God in all of this?’ “God, where are you and what do you want to say/do?” Asking the one in pain to do the asking right then and there, and weighing/testing the answer together.
        If the prayer time seems to go nowhere, we will meet again, and ask again. The time spent is never a waste of time. At the very very least, we get to deepen our fellowship with one another in seeking God, and with God. That in itself is a manifestation of His grace, God is still good.

        November 13, 2009
      • Ken #

        Your intuitions and mine are the same here. Your experiences and mine match. In the most terrible moments of my life I have had the sense that, as you say, “He is good because in the midst of pain, He is with us.” I have wished for more than that, with respect to healings, and life and death, for example, but have been glad to at least have the sense that he is with us. I had not thought of it in the same words before, but I believe you are right that “there is a process of ‘waking-up’ to the reality of ‘God with us’ that transforms our suffering.”

        Although I have never been part of a charismatic congregation, I have had the good fortune to have friends who are and to worship with them and witness the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

        I like your expression: “We are not the source. God is alive and close. I think we make ourselves available- a catalyst for an authentic encounter with God.” This is a very fine model for ministry. It is a priestly model, with or without particular sacraments.

        November 13, 2009
  5. Thanks Ken, I’m I made sense. It must be a good day 🙂

    November 13, 2009
  6. Oops, the word ‘glad’ was in that last post,I swear! lol. When it comes to my ability to communicate, it’s either ‘feast’ or ‘famine’ I’m afraid…

    November 13, 2009
  7. Ken #

    I knew a great man who killed himself because he could no longer take the pain associated with his illness and I fear that he also felt that he was a burden to those he loved. A day or two before he died he woke from a nap (I guess it was a nap) and felt disappointed to be alive. He had thought, while dreaming I guess, that he had been in heaven and was there with his family members who died before him. He felt great disappointment that he was alive.

    Do you think there is ever goodness in suicide?

    An old friend of my neighbor walked into garage and shot himself in the head. He had some depression, but otherwise had a good life, not at all like the man you visited. My neighbor feels much grief and guilt that he had not been more supportive of his old friend. My neighbor is one of the most compassionate men I have ever known – no one could have a better friend. He is such a friend to me.

    I know a young man, 19, who has tried to kill himself twice in the last few months. He has also battered his parents. He has a long tale of anger and abuse, if you listen to him. It is a tale that bears no resemblance to reality. He has had a good life, with loving parents, and he became a drug addict.

    About a month ago I met a man on top of mountain. We talked about a place where we had both hiked named Suicide Rock. He wished the government would change the name. It made him sad and angry. A friend of his recently threw himself in front of a freight train and died. The hiker attributed it to depression. He and I made plans to go there together after Christmas.

    In seminary, in a discussion of assisted suicide, all of the seminary students except for me said they would help a person in pain kill themselves. They had never done it. They imagined it an act of mercy. They did not realize how much it hurts.

    On the way to Suicide Rock there is a place where a young man killed himself a couple of years ago. It is about twenty-five feet to the side of the trail. After his body was found, friends placed a cross there. It stayed for a few months and then it was gone. I imagine he just could not make it as far as the rock.

    Suicide Rock is a beautiful place. Peaceful. It has grand views of the mountains near and distant, and yet it has an intimate feel. It is like an island in the sky. It is cutoff from the rest of the world. Both below it and above it is only sky. I have never thought I understand the name, but maybe I do. Maybe we all do.

    November 14, 2009
    • Thanks for sharing this Ken.

      November 14, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Make a friend, man of God. Make a friend.

    With regard to a request for a Priest, as Ken points to, there may be a real desire for sacramental grace through reconcilliation/confession and communion. Perhaps a close relative could help you with that understanding.

    Perhaps if that understanding is made clear to you, you could help bring a Priest to a family in need.

    November 15, 2009
    • I have friends. I understand the concepts you refer to.

      This post wasn’t a plea for advice.

      November 15, 2009
  9. Paul Johnston #

    The “make a friend response” was my continuation of the post as it presented itself to my ear. I was as much making the point to myself, yourself or any self in a similar situation. My intention was to be empathetic both to the person suffering and the person listening.

    You’ve either got to stop reading unintended hostility into my comments or ask me to stop commenting.

    The continual personal digressions between us are a hindrance to mutual sharing, teaching and faith building.

    November 15, 2009
    • I didn’t read any hostility into your comments, just a lack of understanding and sensitivity. There’s only so many times you can hear some variation of “why don’t you let the Catholics show you how to do it” without it getting a bit tiresome. Try to imagine how it might sound to a pastor who responded to a call for help to hear, “Perhaps if that understanding is made clear to you, you could help bring a Priest to a family in need.”

      November 16, 2009
  10. Paul Johnston #

    I would like to imagine that a pastor without an authority to provide Catholic sacramental grace to a person who may well be seeking it, would help facilitate such a process, if he could. Providing he first “understood” that was being asked of him.

    November 16, 2009
    • I would like to imagine that someone who knows very little about the specific context under discussion, nothing about the age, gender, religious background, mental/spiritual state, personal history, etc of the person in need, nothing about the specifics of the initial conversation or subsequent ones might consider the possibility that someone who does have some insight into these areas (and does know a thing or two about grace and reconciliation and forgiveness) could be trusted to make an appropriate decision about what they do or do not have the “authority” to do and what might be the best course of action to take to meet the person in question’s needs.

      November 16, 2009
  11. Paul Johnston #

    With regard to your comment, “This post wasn’t a plea for advice”.

    Time is a very finite and precious commodity. If I do not understand you to be open to a community of thought where sharing of spiritual discernments, mutually informing and advising ourselves and others as to what right responses to the challenges of life ought to look like, I would prefer to dialogue elsewhere.

    While I understand that my approach to such community has at times been a hindrance, and I am prayerfully engaged in improving, I struggle to understand a spirituality that at times prioritizes hurt feelings before Holy Spirit discernments.

    Surely I haven’t been that much of a cross, brother.

    November 16, 2009
    • I struggle to understand a spirituality that at times prioritizes hurt feelings before Holy Spirit discernments.

      Seriously, Paul? You think my feelings are hurt? And that these “hurt feelings” take priority over Holy Spirit discernments (as you understand them) in my spirituality? I don’t even know what it would mean to say that “hurt feelings” are a part of someone’s spirituality! Are you suggesting that the Holy Spirit was not involved in decisions I made (and continue to make) around this situation? I’m certainly open to a community of dialogue (that’s the whole point of blogging, after all), but I don’t find bewildering and condescending comments like this to be very helpful toward that end.

      Re: the “advice” comment, I guess I just assumed that the nature of the post (and the fact that it was labeled as a journal entry) would sort of block off certain kinds of responses. Most of my posts make an argument of some kind; this was a pretty raw reflection on how I was feeling after a difficult experience. I wasn’t really seeking an analysis of how I might have handled the situation better/differently. Of course you’re free to respond however you want, but sometimes it’s difficult not to respond defensively. If I came across as unnecessarily harsh or abrupt, I apologize.

      November 16, 2009
  12. Ken #

    I am just writing to say that I hope that reconciliation is possible. Sometimes, as we all know, it takes time, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

    Each of us who posts comments here does so by the grace of our host, Ryan. And without Ryan’s continuing initiative in thinking of things to post the discussion would simply end. I imagine all of us who comment here feel a great deal of appreciation for what Ryan gives to this effort.

    To me, Paul’s participation adds depth to the discussion from a Catholic perspective. I would sure miss it if he stopped posting replies. An example is Paul’s appreciation for the sacrament of penance and his personal testimony to the value of prayer keyed to the heart of that sacrament which is so important within in the Roman tradition. I happened to be reading today about how and why this changed in subtle ways in the Protestant Reformation. It is in Chapter 2 of Taylor’s A Secular Age.

    Similarly, Deborah’s participation adds depth to the discussion from a charismatic perspective and adds a crucial woman’s voice to an otherwise mostly male discussion. In addition, I find her contributions quite penetrating to the heart of things.

    I wish someone who is Jewish would join the discussion.

    Personally, I confess that I am something of a theological mongrel. Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish, atheist (sadly, I am mostly that,) transcendentalist, existentialist, nature lover. I imagine sometimes Ryan and others wonder just where I am coming from. As a mongrel who lives a land called lost borders, you all enrich my faith.

    In this instance, it is up to Paul and Ryan, of course, and ultimately what happens in the future is up to Ryan as our vital host. He has the most difficult task. If at all possible, I hope we can hold it together.

    November 16, 2009
    • Thanks for this Ken. I think I speak for others when I say that the words of a “theological mongrel” are also deeply appreciated. It is not difficult to be the “host” of such interesting conversations involving such interesting people.

      November 17, 2009
      • Ken #

        Thank you, Ryan. You are wonderfully suited for this role as I am sure you are for the role of pastor.

        I feel so relieved by the comments you and Paul posted in response to this one of mine. Thank you both for the kindness.

        I think you have so perfectly summed up the risk associated with on-line communications. And the “gift” ethic in the last sentence of your message below is such a beautiful ethic.

        November 17, 2009
  13. Paul Johnston #

    Thank you again, Ken. I can see why your spiritual portfolio is so diverse, everybody wants you on their team. 🙂

    Ryan, Ken is right to remind me of both your graciousness as host and the greater challenge and responsibility that role embodies. I truly thank you for all your efforts.

    With regard to your last response, I would have done better to use the word dialogue, where I used the word spirituality. I’m sorry for the inferences inspired, truly such thoughts never occurred to me.

    That being said I am greatly troubled by a post that has inspired responses more concerned with your right to pastor as opposed to right pastoring, your misinterpretation of my intentions (again) and quite frankly another protestation of degrees of innocence and mea culpa, on my part.

    The situation you describe deserves much better treatment.

    November 16, 2009
    • Thanks for your response, Paul. On one level, it’s impossible for past conversations (the whole Catholic vs. Protestant dimension that seems to invariably trickle in) not to inform how I interpret your words sometimes, but it seems that I have misunderstood your intentions here. I responded to some of your comments at the end of a very difficult week. This isn’t an excuse, just a bit of context. Looking back, I can certainly see that I could have chosen to interpret your comments more charitably. For not doing so, I am sorry.

      I suppose this has been a good reminder of the inherent limitations of the medium of online communication. Words on a screen can never tell the whole story—for either the author of the words or the one reading/responding to them. Perhaps one of the significant gifts that we can give one another—in this context and others— is the gift of assuming the best rather than the worst in each other’s words.

      November 17, 2009
  14. Well said Ken, and by the way, I agree- “I wish someone who is Jewish would join the discussion.” That would simply ‘rock’ :)And thanks for your encouragement Re; my participation in the conversations here.

    Ryan- I thought your journal entry was an excellent expression. Thank you.

    November 17, 2009
  15. Yme #

    I’ve been there. I’ve been in that dark place. I was in that place where it seemed to me that the best thing for the world (yes I hear the arrogance in that statement) was for me not to be in it anymore.

    By grace, I was caught in time, and remanded (after a three-hour standoff with police) to the Psych ward.

    Two became lights in the darkness for me in that ugly place was precisely.

    One had the courage to enter that darkness with me. She sat with me and asked me to talk. She held my hand as she slowly descended into the pit where I was, seeking to understand what had driven me there, seeking to feel the pain I knew. For me (and I know this is a highly personal element), what had driven me to that place was a self-hatred based on a growing surety that my value to the world was only because of what I did, not because of any intrinsic worth. As a slow but sure element of that (ongoing) process, I had forgotten how to laugh, forgotten how to recognize joy in life. She sat with me in that pain, not just once but many times, and showed me in very brief but growing glimpses that I was more than what I did.

    The other was a psych nurse who watched me that first day, and who told me in strong, blunt and necessary language, “I can help you. But you need to get off your lazy ass and give a f***. If you don’t, I can’t help you, and you will die.” She also entered into that darkness, in a more professional way.

    Which leads me to my comment … that surely part of what incarnation means is to be willing to enter into the darkness confident that we bear the light within us. That’s not advice. That has become part of the ongoing and altogether lovely part of my ministry and my being. It is deeply sacramental without being a sacrament.

    It would not have worked for someone to tell me I was a valuable and cherished son of God. I knew that. (Well, I knew it in my head.) After all, I was a minister for God’s sake. I had said the very words to other people in their desperate times.

    I needed more than words. I needed proof … and that was given by people who were willing to come into the darkness, to descend with me in fear and trepidation… and who were, at the same time, healthy enough to have the confidence to go there with me, knowing that there was a way out, that I was being embraced even if I did not feel it.

    Surely that’s what John points to … what has come into being with him was life

    Thank you for opening this up Ryan

    November 17, 2009
    • Thank you for your story and for your very wise words. Both are very much appreciated.

      November 17, 2009
  16. Shawn #

    It’s funny how we sometimes like to like to debate instead of listen,fix instead of understand. This post is not a plea for answers but a topic for reflection. Ken, Ryan does have friends, and while him and I often talk about the mundane (Hockey, Football, music ect..) he made it clear to me about what a tough encounter he had that afternoon. I knew that I was one of many he had been talking it through with that afternoon. Funny, I sat there racking my brains for some sage advice for him, to lift the weight and pressure that he as a “Holy Man” must feel. Finding nothing of substance, I shared about who I precieved him to be as a person, a friend, rather then as my pastor. As many have posted much better than me, how can we offer nice neat answers to such pain. People are rarely debated out of their suffering, rather if we first offer our hearts or our hands in whatever way we can rather than our opinion or wisdom, then do we earn the right to offer a path out of the darkness.

    November 17, 2009
    • Ken #

      Shawn, I don’t understand why you addressed me in your posting. I think you may have me confused with Paul. And, as Paul clarified, he did not mean that he thought Ryan lacked friends. I have not heard anyone here suggest that one can be “debated out of suffering.”

      Personally, I thought it was clear in Ryan’s posting that this had been a tough encounter. It sounds to me like Ryan did everything he could in the circumstances.

      November 17, 2009
      • Shawn #

        Sorry Ken, my mistake. I found your comments helpful and insightful. Further, I did not really need to address anyone in with my comments.

        November 17, 2009
      • Ken #

        Thank you, Shawn.

        November 17, 2009
  17. James #

    “Which leads me to my comment … that surely part of what incarnation means is to be willing to enter into the darkness confident that we bear the light within us. That’s not advice. That has become part of the ongoing and altogether lovely part of my ministry and my being. It is deeply sacramental without being a sacrament.”

    Amen and Amen!

    Good word, Yme.

    November 17, 2009
  18. Ryan and all

    This is an amazing post and an amazing discussion. My words seem and feel hollow when compared with the comments from others here, but having dealt with similar scenarios in my professional world as a physician, I know how taxing it can be and the catharsis associated with sharing it. Thank you.

    And Yme, thank you!

    November 17, 2009
  19. Paul Johnston #

    Thank you for your very generous response, Ryan. Personal contexts are indeed a crucial component of both our self understandings and our understandings of each other. Very often my responses aren’t mindful of that fact. Reducing people and their points of view to “words on a screen”. Holy indeed is your observation that we assume the best and not the worst of each other.

    I will pray for you that God strengthen your Spirit. That he clothe you in the neccessary armour. That you may be a conduit of His Spirit, of His mighty power. “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities”…

    You are a good soldier for His “gospel of peace”. Of that, there is no doubt.

    November 18, 2009
  20. Paul Johnston #

    Somebodies “riffing” Ephesians,6 big time. 🙂

    November 18, 2009
  21. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, I think you make a very fair observation with regard to the “Protestant/Cathloic dimension” of our relationship. It is a concern that I will try to fraternally address at a more appropriate time, in a more appropriate space.

    November 18, 2009
    • Thanks Paul. I appreciate your prayers.

      By the way, it would be very helpful if you would post your comments as replies to the specific comments you are responding to. There is a “Reply” button in the bottom right corner of every comment. If you click on that prior to commenting, your comment will show up in the portion of the conversation you are involved in rather than at the end of the entire comment thread. This makes it easier for everyone to track these conversations—especially during the longer ones! Thanks.

      November 18, 2009
      • Paul Johnston #

        I pressed my first reply box today. Thanks for the heads up. 🙂

        November 19, 2009
      • I only discovered this a few months ago!

        November 19, 2009
      • I always assumed that the reply just added it on to the end and Ryan was the only one who can insert his comments wherever.

        November 19, 2009
  22. well said Ryan!

    January 20, 2011

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