Imagine you are at home one night, alone as usual or by some other circumstance. Imagine as you are home, at night, alone, a turbulent storm stirs up outside. The cloud cover has blocked out all light from the moon; wind blows so hard through the trees around your house that street lights seem to blink outside your windows as branches are blown in front of them bending them close to their breaking point. The house shudders with the gusts of wind and rain strikes violently on the roof. Suddenly inky blackness pours into the room when the power goes out and darkness soaks up all the light like a sponge.
You begin to grope around in the dark to look for that flashlight you know you put in a safe place for such a time as this. But where is it? Moving cautiously through the kitchen you run your hands along the countertops feeling, hoping for some kind of light. Not finding it you make your way to the bathroom, trying not to stumble over the laundry basket you NOW remember you left in the middle of the hallway. Maybe the flashlight is under the sink from that time you had to look in the back of the cabinet to see if there was a leak. Unable to find a source of light, wondering how long you will be in the dark, a little bit of worry starts to creep into your chest.
Do the neighbors have power? Is it just me? Is the battery on my cell phone fully charged? How long will all this last? Will that howling wind ever quiet down? You make your way to the window at the front of the house to see if there is any light at all in the middle of all this darkness. Other than the hazy glow coming from the cities in the distance, though, there is nothing. Not a pinpoint of light, not a shimmering reflection of the pools of rainwater gathering in the street. Not a single beam of light. Not at first.
You sit down in chair near the window trying to gather your thoughts, trying to figure out the next most helpful step. You sit down and try not to let all the worst case scenarios that flirt at the edges of your consciousness take hold of your mind, but as the winds get stronger, the rain pours down heavier, like buckets are being dumped on your windows, that battle gets more and more difficult.
Until for an instant, you think you see a small light in the distance. The flashes of lightning make it difficult to discern, but there! In a moment of darkness - - There! In the distance, down the block, there seems like the maybe just might be a small light bobbing slowing toward your house. Before too long your hope has been confirmed and the light comes closer and closer, until it is accompanied by a knocking on the front door. While you can’t see for certain who it is the outline of the light-bearing stranger is familiar enough that you open the door, letting the one who brings light through the door.
Your neighbor has only one flashlight that can’t be left in your home, but quickly you both put it to good use shining it into the dark corners of this fearful night looking for the source of light you know you have tucked away safely in your own home. Your own flashlight isn’t something you could find by yourself tonight. Things were too dark. The situation too terrifying, but when another came by, a barely-known neighbor, but someone who cares, who brought light to help you navigate your current dark reality, the storm got just a bit more bearable. Together you find your flashlight, right there on the shelf in the hall closest, that stupid laundry basket had gotten in the way and distracted you from looking there the first time through the hallway. But now you have it. Now you have your own light, thanks to another who cared enough to walk with you through the darkness.
Pastor Dan Carlson told us a story similar to this one in the first 25 minutes or so of the police chaplain training I took this week, and I knew immediately this was going to be three days VERY well spent.
“Pastor Dan Carlson retired as Police Chief of the City of Eden Prairie Minnesota in January of 2007. After serving 25 years in the law enforcement profession as a police officer, he has transitioned to a new role serving the profession as a police chaplain. He currently serves as the Chaplain for the Minnesota Chiefs of Police, Hennepin County Chiefs of Police and the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association. Pastor Carlson is also the founder and president of Public Safety Ministries Inc. a nonprofit ministry serving those in public safety professions.
One of our three main trainers at the Minnesota Emergency Services Chaplain Association’s biannual training, Dan was ordained as a pastor in the Minneapolis Area Synod of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on August 15, 2010. He has been “called” and “deployed” to be a mission pastor serving Public Safety Ministries, Inc.” (from the bio on the PSM, Inc. website) Our other trainers included the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, the director of the Minneapolis Police Chaplain Corps and the Rev. John LeMay, the chaplain coordinator for the same corps.
All three come from careers in both law enforcement and ministry. All three carry a deep passion for serving the people of their communities and the police, firefighters, and medical professionals who respond to some of the most difficult situations any of us will ever face. All three, in their own and very different ways, were great teachers as they led sessions on police and firefighter culture, making death notifications, psychological first aid, the chaplains' code of ethics, and chaplain self-care. Even if I had never felt the tugging of the Spirit, the call to serve in the volunteer role of chaplain to our St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department, this training would have been invaluable for my ministry in our own congregation. It was time more than well-spent. At the end of the first day I sent a short, but sincere note of thanks to Larry Szyman, one of the pastors at Faith Community Church, for that congregation’s funding of my training and the training of all of the new police chaplains in our county.
Dan told us that story of the storm, a parable really, to describe what it is to be a chaplain with the police department, but I think it applies to any and all disciples of Jesus, all of us who minister in his name in a stormy and hurting world. The situations we will walk into as friends, neighbors, and Christ-bearers can be the deepest darkest storms of people’s lives. As a chaplain they will be the dark valleys, the valleys of the shadow of death as I show up in the middle of the night to tell a family their son has been found, a daughter her mother has died, or at the scene of an accident where no one knows yet who belongs to whom other than belonging to God. I will be with people in moments they will never be able to forget, and it will be my job to bring light into the darkness.
Dan was careful, though, to point out that we don’t bring our light and make them keep it. We don’t show up with Jesus and force them to accept him. That would be exploitative. That would be spiritual abusive.
The role of the chaplain, and again here I would argue the rule of ALL of us who strive to carry the name of Christ into the world and our relationships, is to meet people spiritually where they are, not to drag them to where we are. We do this by our faith in Jesus and showing our faith in Jesus, but not by thrusting Jesus upon them before they are ready. In religiously and cultural diverse world it is good and necessary for the corps of chaplains to include spiritual leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions.
We show up by the strength of our own light, but use our light to help our neighbors find what will bring them comfort. We use our flashlight to help them recover or discover for the first time, their own. We are there to make sure there is spiritual food to eat, that fish from the overflowing nets of abundant grace and love are available. We are there to make sure the sheep are fed on what will bring them life and comfort in a time when starvation threatens. We aren’t there to force our preferences, but we are there to make sure the whole created order of people are cared for in devastating times, mind, body, and spirit.
I knew immediately almost a year ago when Pr. Larry began to introduce the idea of a police chaplaincy program in the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Department that I wanted to learn more about, that if everything would work out I wanted to be involved. Due to the timing of trainings and the wisdom of the Spirit, the timeline for getting involved was a little longer than I had hoped, but finally this week the training took place. Our volunteer chaplain program in St. Croix County started in October with just Pr. Larry on board. A second pastor started up in January, and two more of us will be on board starting June 1st.
An important reason for my involvement, both for me and for the other chaplains is that I am a woman. I wondered if that would be a stumbling block in our county that is often more conservative religiously. I was ready to make strong arguments if needed, but it wasn’t. Even those whose traditions don’t normally recognize the ministry leadership of women saw the value and even necessity of having a woman spiritual leader in the chaplain corps. There are women police officers, women victims, and women survivors who will all benefit from having a woman’s spiritual presence. This isn’t to say that I can only be a chaplain to women any more than I can only be a pastor to women, or that men can never offer spiritual support to women. However, in some of the delicate situations which we will likely face, in times of domestic or even sexual violence against women, having me on this team, one of the few women pastors in St. Croix County, will be invaluable.
While I will be one of the public faces of this ministry, throughout my discernment about being involved it became very clear to me that I would not be able to participate as a chaplain in emergency situations on my own. In fact, I brought this to the session in January because I wanted their approval and support for my participation. In other words, I want this to be not just my ministry to our county, but a ministry of our church to the county. I will be the one who works on site, but there is a chance we will all get the opportunity to be ministers of grace through our flexibility. While calls that involve the chaplain so far have not been many, they can’t be timed to fit the church meeting schedule. There is a chance that while serving my week “on call” I will have to miss a meeting here or there to accompany the police in their work. At our training we were taught very clearly that our commitments are to God, family, church, than chaplaincy in that order, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes one or more of these higher commitments might need to be postponed while not replaced. This chaplaincy becomes the church’s ministry when we look at it as lending our light to a neighbor in a storm, when we see that that sometimes we may have to reorganize what we are doing a little in order to serve others who are near to us, to serve our neighbors as Jesus commanded us.
Also, there’s a chance these calls might not come at nice 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. times when Phil and I know where are kids are and who will care for them be it, us, their schools, or daycare. There may be times when the call comes at 5:00 a.m., Phil needs to be out the door for work at 5:30 a.m., and our kids leave for school at 8:00 a.m.. If this ministry is not just my ministry, but the ministry of the church, I will have a list of brave and caring souls by my phone who may not be WELCOMING of an early morning phone call, but at least tolerant of it, knowing that they are helping to bring light to someone in a dark valley by getting three kids fed and ready for the day. I am never very good at asking for help but one of the lessons that was driven home this week during our training is that sometimes the biggest blessing you can give someone is asking for their help.
So far, by the grace of God, the St. Croix County Chaplains Corps has not been very busy. In the first three months there were only three calls, but they were three very holy calls as the chaplain brought light to those walking through dark valleys of suicide, life-threatening injuries, and accidental death - - victims, survivors, and the officers on the scene. It is my hope and prayer that my own faith and vocation, the ministry of this church, and the kingdom of God will be strengthened and honored as we participate in this ministry to our neighbors.