I didn't know what to do. I was in my first job, just a few months removed from the cocoon of a private college. Some maniacs had just flown planes into the WTC towers. I was the youth minister on a two-person church staff. The pastor was in the hospital recovering from surgery.
So I decided to hold a prayer service that night, as so many other churches were doing. The purpose was to sing hymns of lament and trust, offer silent and spoken prayers, and be in the presence of God and one another. This was way out of my league...but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
The sanctuary was packed. Allison (my wife) played piano. I read some prayers. A few people sang. Everyone cried. After about 45 minutes, I offered a benediction and encouraged people to linger in the narthex if they want to talk, shared, and reflect. As I was about to have everyone "go in peace", Mike stood up and started talking...
* * *
Mike was a son of the congregation who had recently discerned a call to ordained ministry. He lived with his wife and two daughters across the street from the church. Mike had enrolled in a local community college to get the necessary undergraduate credits before heading to seminary. Though some in the church had their reservations about Mike's prospects as a pastor, everyone was supportive of him.
* * *
Mike was speaking to those assembled at the prayer service about his own anger, confusion, and doubt surrounding the events that took place earlier in the day. He went on for more than 10 minutes. A few people started leaving. Others were becoming noticeably agitated by his impromptu sermon. I interjected by thanking Mike for his reflections and encouraged him to continue the conversation in the narthex. But he kept talking. And talking. 15 minutes...18...20...25...30. More people left. Most stayed. I sensed it was out of courtesy.
Finally, an old man stood up. His white hair and large glasses covered most of his face, looking like Santa's disheveled brother. He stood hunched over, but spoke with a resonance.
"I believe it's time for us to go home, Mike."
These words seemed to offend our prodigal pastor-in-waiting. Mike rebuked the old man, who didn't back down either. They gently barked back and forth at each other a couple of times. The mood was tense. At this point, most people were grabbing their personal items and heading for the door. I interjected a word of thanks and then left the sanctuary. It was an unfortunate end to the prayer service, but, in many ways, it captured the raw emotion that everyone was feeling at the time. Nobody really knew what to do. Everyone was scared...confused...angry. I, for one, was grateful for the old man who helped Mike to see that there was a better time and place for such a rant.
A few weeks later, Mike drove out to a local park and shot himself in the head. The end of his cryptic 9/11-themed suicide note simply said, "The Devil wins again".
My heart immediately ached for Mike's wife and children...but it didn't take long before I thought of the old man who had the courage to say to Mike what everyone else was thinking. I worried that he might blame himself for contributing to Mike's emotional unraveling. Worse yet, I feared that this small town would look for someone to blame for Mike's suicide, and would make this old man - who kept to himself and lived out in the country - the scape goat.
I came to find out that the old man was an ELCA pastor who did interim work in another synod. He had wrestled with the way he handled Mike ever since the prayer service, and had become even harder on himself after Mike died. He found refuge in the local auto body shop; a one-man operation run by a born-again Lutheran. They shared many conversations and cans of Pepsi in the weeks ahead. Eventually, I'm told, the old pastor was able to forgive himself for doing nothing other than speaking the truth in love.
I had forgotten about the old pastor until this past summer when he was recognized at synod assembly for celebrating an ordination anniversary. I was happy to know that he had stayed in ministry and even came to the assembly. He received our applause with solemn appreciation. I wonder if he was thinking of Mike.
I was...and I am today, too.