Missing in Action
Missing in Action
Bob Wright, who worked as an associate pastor with me in Valley Stream, teased with the question, “How does it feel to have had so placid a ministry?” A case can be made that The Rev. Mr. Wright’s assumption was on target. Consider: just two pastorates through forty-six years, seventeen and a half in Brooklyn, twenty-nine more fourteen miles to the east in Valley Stream. No rebellion in the congregational ranks. No severe injury or illness. Always firmly embedded in the parish life, no matter what the national or international crisis roiling in the larger world.
Sometimes I think I was a twentieth century version of Anthony Trollope’s country parson, measuring his days tending to souls in a country parish, dining regularly on wine and pheasant, a pleasant, placid, pastoral pastoral life.
Any number of novels read recently give me pause. Violence erupts in them with a fury and an inevitability I have not experienced in my “placid” life. Middlesex begins with the slaughter of the Greeks by the Turks at Smyrna in the first quarter of the 20th Century. Kite Runner describes the horrific decapitations by the Taliban of women buried to the neck in soccer fields in Afghanistan. A biography of Joseph Twichell, 19th Century pastor of Asylum Hill Congregational Church, reports his service as a Yankee chaplain at the battlelines during the Civil War. A recent Yale graduate, Twichell wrote home about the bloodshed, the broken bones, the crushed skulls of the young men whom he held in their dying. Girls of a Tender Age, a memoir of a Hartford native, revolves around the rape and murder of an eleven year old neighbor.
The suspicion lingers, that I’ve missed something in these seventy-six years of mine, perhaps a depth of feeling and understanding, because of the placidity of the road taken through time. I was too young for World War II. When conscripts were sought for the Korean War I was 4F and then 4D. By the time of the Viet Nam War I was too old. Sure I resided in Brooklyn, but the reality and randomness of that borough’s violence has been grossly overstated. Trollope, far better than Dominic Dunne, would recognize me.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not regret missing the demonic action into which so many others have been plunged. But the placidity of my journey here disqualifies me from commenting on and reassuring those who have seen firsthand “the evil men do.” I have no authority of personal experience to sympathize, “I understand.” Honesty requires that I remain silent when speaking with the father of a forty-one year old son, a broker with Cantor Fitzgerald, who is numbered among the three thousand lost on 9/11/01. A shoulder to lean on, yes; and ears willing to listen, sure; tears ready to well up, readily; but comprehend the depth of the sorrow?
Paul Scherer, seminary professor after years as a pastor on Central Park West in NYC, advised fledgling pastors when confronted with human agonies beyond their own experience to use a consecrated imagination. I’ve tried and I’m still trying; but I confess to feelings of inadequacy beneath my bold and certain outward appearance. My reading in retirement only serves to increase the suspicion that, despite fifty plus years of pastoral experience, I have been missing the action that confers authenticity and depth to words, from the pulpit or printed on the monitor.
Even as I thank the good Lord for sparing me, I seek to come to terms with the placidity of my ministry and my life. I hope the late Bob Wright, the book editor who encouraged me to write these essays, gets to read this one. He inspired it.