I dare not fully describe the day I’ve had here. Not only would no one believe the extremes of this day (from a generous, unexpected gift to the church to two of my children in a school bus accident (they are fine)), but I suspect more than a few readers might question my sanity if I tell you everything. Not that that would be anything new . . . . Suffice it to say that you will understand the basic feeling of my day by reading the first paragraph of this entry and also by hearing about an experience I had at the end of the day.
This particular adventure began when Wardell, the very nice young man who works at our front desk in the evenings here at church, called me in my office to tell me there was someone here who needed to talk to a pastor.
I think nice, virtuous pastors take a call like this one and either think, “Oh, I am so glad that someone in need found their way to the church. I hope I can be the presence of Christ for him or her” or, they kneel to pray before heading out to greet said person.
I, conversely, immediately began formulating the reason why I could not see the person in question and began to tell Wardell to kindly invite the person to make an appointment for another time. I had to teach a class in about 45 minutes, after all, and surely everybody knows the pastor should not be disturbed while she studies . . . !
But then I got almost knocked over by guilt so I grudgingly and with an admittedly bad attitude, went out front to talk to this person.
Because Calvary is a large, downtown church, usually when situations like this one arise, the person asking to speak with a pastor is homeless and asking for some kind of financial assistance. The trick is to be patient and compassionate and at the same time make sure you’re not getting taken for a ride. So I admit I was surprised to see that, when I met Robert, he didn’t immediately appear to be someone who was living on the street. On the surface he seemed pretty clean, fairly well dressed, not too unkempt. But as he began to talk I realized this was one problem was I not going to solve by listening thoughtfully and offering a voucher to the nearest shelter.
“They’re after me,” he said in a panic.
(This also happens a lot in this city, the center of our government, where many people who struggle with paranoia come to try to get to the bottom of whatever secret government plot is currently ruining their lives. Yet another situation not addressed in seminary.)
The more Robert talked, the more my minimal psychiatric diagnostic skills kicked in. “They’re controlling my mind! They are following me and trying to make me crazy! There’s a huge conspiracy out there to ruin my life!” (I knew enough, of course, to know this was not a time for jokes. But it did briefly cross my mind that sometimes I say the same exact things about my kids.) Paranoia, I quickly labeled him, probably Schizophrenia, too, and asked, “Robert, do you take medicine?”
Robert paused and kind of looked at me with some measure of scorn. Medicine, he explained, dulls his senses and takes away his dignity. He just won’t take it anymore.
This is a classic situation for someone living on the street. I knew that Robert probably can’t function in regular society because he’s struggling so much with mental illness. I also know there’s no magical pill that will instantly make things better. And, I agreed with him when he told me he just didn’t want to get into the mental health system again because he felt like he just got shuttled from one agency to another.
I told Robert I didn’t have the answers to his questions, that I didn’t know the solution to his dilemma, and his face fell.
“All I want is to live a normal life, to have a regular job and a family, to be happy. But I am so afraid all the time. I feel like my life is over. Everyone listens to me like you are listening to me—I can tell you are a compassionate person and you feel sorry for me. But then they tell me they can’t help me. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. There must be some power in this world that is stronger than what I am facing—don’t you represent God? Can’t God do something? I just want to know why. I want to know why this is happening to me. I want somebody to give me a real answer. Please. Can’t you tell me why?”
As tears ran down his face, I suddenly realized that though Robert clearly was very sick, his questions made a lot of sense. In fact, his questions are questions all of us ask at some time or another, and that feeling of desperately reaching out for God, hoping beyond hope that you can find some peace in the middle of pain–it’s a feeling we humans share. Even through the fog of sickness, Robert’s tortured questions made up a perfectly sane lament.
I couldn’t help Robert. I couldn’t answer his questions. He left the church yesterday without learning the answer to why. What he probably didn’t know was that I don’t have the answers to those questions for my own life, much less anybody else’s.
I hope Robert slept somewhere safe last night. I hope he found just a little bit of peace. I hope asking the questions and wailing the lament along with someone else who is also wondering why gave him a shred of hope to hang on for awhile longer. I hope Robert knows that God doesn’t reside in pat answers and easy solutions . . . that God is right there, in the questions.
And I hope I know that, too.