Chaplain: View from a Ringside Seat

As a pastor and police chaplain, I have had a ringside seat on life and death for the past 28 years. I watch people as they journey through life's milestones and face life's challenges and problems. I have dealt with death in many different forms: suicide, murder, accidental death, death from disease, still birth, old age. The thing that still fascinates me after all these years is watching people try to make sense of it all.

For example, once when I was riding along, we were called to a motor vehicle accident - property damage only. The drivers were a bit shaken up, and I remember one of them remarking to me that she couldn't believe this had happened, when she had been to church that morning. She clearly assumed that her prayers should have earned her some special protection. How could such a thing happen to a religious person? I told her that if praying could keep a person safe from misfortune, there wouldn't be an empty pew anywhere, ever. She looked at me with a surprised expression. She must have led a pretty sheltered life, to have gotten to middle age without having that particular illusion challenged!

From my perspective, having responded to numerous fatal accidents, she had been very fortunate indeed. Accidents happen, and in this one, no one was hurt, no one was killed, and both drivers were insured so they were going to be able to have their cars fixed. This was an inconvenience, not a tragedy - and maybe, if she paid attention, it would also be a life lesson.

Death often makes people struggle with their understanding, particularly when it is sudden and unexpected, particularly gruesome, or senseless. This is especially true when dealing with the death of a baby or a child. We cannot comfort ourselves with the long life they've lived, the dreams they've realized, or anything of that sort - and I think it is built right into our DNA that we should protect them. I've watched families wrestle with God's role or apparent lack of action, trying on theories to find some comfort. Maybe God had taken the baby because it was already perfect, and didn't need to live a mortal life - maybe God was protecting the baby from something even worse - maybe God was trying to teach the parents a lesson - theory after theory, tried on and discarded like ill-fitting shoes. Maybe God didn't take the baby - if God created the baby for life, maybe God is as appalled as we are. But then, what does that say to us about God's power? And so we struggle on; we struggle to understand because we have to figure out how to live in a world where we can lose our children, where someone so important to us can suddenly be gone forever.

Making peace with our mortality is essential to those of us who are sometimes called upon to make notifications, and who have to deal with death and assist people in intense times. We do well to pay attention to our own understanding of these matters, and this for several reasons. First and foremost, we need to be able to maintain our own mental, emotional, and spiritual health. At the end of our work day, our families need us to come home whole and healthy, not as a depressed, cynical, or empty shell of a person. As important as it is to be a good cop, it is even more important to be a good person - a good parent, a good spouse, a good friend. In the best case scenario, you will one day retire from your work, and move on to something else. The Job will not always be there, but you want your family to be there until your dying day. Therefore the Job cannot claim ultimate priority over them, or over the health of your own soul.

We also need to have a firm foundation on which to stand professionally when we are in the midst of chaos, and people are looking to us for help. You cannot help but function out of your own understanding of the nature of life and death; that is not something you can lay aside if it is inconvenient to carry with you. If your own answers have led you to a place of cynical despair, how can that not bleed through into your actions, your words, your expressions, your intentions? In contrast, if your own answers have given you a measure of peace and a sensible roadmap by which to guide your own life, that also will speak through your presence in the situation. It will allow you to be the strong arm upon which others can lean in moments of weakness.

Like pastors, cops have a ringside seat on life. Life, death - they see it all! Reality is a tough teacher, because it does not allow us to cling to our illusions, but it is an honest one. If we can make sense of what we see, we have the potential for becoming very wise. Keep your eyes and ears open, not only to what is going on outside of you, but to what is going on inside of you. Pay attention to your own questions; your own insights; the moments when you feel an illusion shattering; the moments when light suddenly shines in a place that had previously been dark to you. All these are the stuff of which wisdom and spiritual strength are born. If you do not know what your questions are, you also will not recognize the answers when you run into them.