Friday, January 28, 2011

Message to the Community (excerpts from the memorial service for Jack Proctor)

Yesterday I co-officiated at a memorial service for a teen who took his own life. The service was held at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and I was joined by Karen Lampe, their Executive Pastor for Congregational Care, in leading the service. The guests at the service included several hundred high school students. I don’t normally post my words from memorial services on this blog. However, I feel like it is important that these words I spoke in the portion of the service called the “Message to the Community” are available. The family gave me permission to post these words and also asked that I include this link to a memorial fund in his honor.

In this service we felt it was so important to say some words to the wider community. What I want to tell all of you is simply this: Don’t forget. Don’t forget. In visiting with Jack’s family, I was struck by the comment that “Jack forgot.” He forgot the things that made life worth living. He forgot that he was loved and liked and that others cared for him. He forgot the possibilities of what his future could hold. He forgot how much he mattered to other people. Don’t forget.

Some of you have probably heard of a guy named Dan Savage. He doesn’t get mentioned too often in church, but last year Dan Savage started this thing called the “It Gets Better” Project. The project is aimed at LGBT youth who are bullied or discriminated against. But the message can speak to any young person who feels hopeless or desperate, for any reason. The message of the project is really simple: If things are really hard and really desperate for you right now, you need to know that things get better. They really do get better.

So, maybe you really don’t like the town you live in. The good news is you don’t have to live here forever. There will come a time in your life when you will be able to choose where you want to live. You will have the choice and chance to try out life in another part of the country or the world. This isn’t for the rest of your life. But there is a rest of your life and it gets better.

So, maybe you can’t stand high school. Maybe high school is really hard for you right. But don’t forget this about high school: it ends. And then you get to live the rest of your life, and the only thing I know about the rest of your life is that once you make it through high school you don’t have to go back to high school. High school isn’t for the rest of your life, but there is a rest of your life and it gets better.

Maybe you are in a family situation that is really hard for you. I want to tell you something. It is not really a secret, but we don’t talk about it a lot. In my entire ministry I have never met a family without problems. I have a feeling that Karen might say the same thing. Now, all the problems are different, and some are bigger than others, but they are all real. And, the good news is that even if the challenge right now seems insurmountable, there isn’t a challenge that’s impossible to manage. It does get better.

Or maybe you are lonely right now. Maybe you are finding that it is hard to make friends. Don’t forget that the world is bigger than your school. There is a place for you and a community for you and amazing people for you to find. It may take a little time and it may not be easy, but it will get better if you allow it to get better. What Dan says is true. It is about getting through the day or the week and remembering that what you are dealing with is not forever. It does get better. It will get better.

And, it can start getting better right away. There is someone who will listen to you. There is someone who will be there to help you if you reach out. Reach out. Pastor Karen is here in this church. I’m available down at the congregation I serve. It can be a church or it can be a synagogue, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a teacher. It can be someone at your school that you trust. It can be a trusted adult or a family member you trust. It can be a hotline that you call. You aren’t alone, so don’t try to face it alone. There are people here for you right now.

I want to ask you to do something. It may feel a little bit funny or awkward to do it, but you’re going to have to trust me. In just a moment I am going to ask you to stop looking up here. Instead, I’m going to ask you to look out across this room. Look into the eyes of the people sitting all around you. Look into the eyes of people sitting on either side of you, of the people sitting in front of you and behind you. Make eye contact with someone down the aisle, or over in the corner. If you’ve been crying, that’s OK. You are beautiful. The tears are tears of love and, because they are tears of love, they are also tears of beauty.

So, you are looking around: You are seeing your friends. Maybe you are looking into the eyes of important adults in your life. Maybe you are looking at a family member or someone from your church or your school. As you are looking around, as you are looking into the faces of one another, just take a moment to know: you are not alone. Remember: you are not alone. Don’t forget: you are not alone.

This is what we can’t forget. Standing up here in front of all of you, this is what I wish Jack had been able to see: a room full of care and love, compassion and understanding.

Don’t forget that you are loved. Don’t forget that people care about you. Don’t forget, even when it is really hard to remember. You matter and you bring things to other people that matter. If you ever can’t see that, you need to find someone who will help you to remember that you matter, someone who help you remember what you’ve forgotten.


One of Jack’s favorite books was My Side of the Mountain, a Newbery Honor Book by Jean Craighead George. It is a favorite book of many young people. The story involves a boy named Sam who leaves his family and his community in the city to go and live in the wilds of nature. Sam learns to make fire and catch food. He learns about trees and plants and the ways of the forest. Sam’s companions become a falcon, a weasel, and a raccoon.

But, the thing about this book is this: it isn’t about Sam’s leaving as it is about Sam’s returning. Slowly, over the course of the book, Sam learns how to trust and how to let people into his world. First, it is a kind farmer who teaches him how to start a fire. Then it is a kind English teacher who takes hikes in the woods. Then it is his father and, then, his family and his community.

I don’t think this was Jack’s favorite book because of the leaving. I think it was his favorite book because of this longing to open up his life to others, this longing to connect. Listen to this passage from My Side of the Mountain,
By the middle of March I could have told you it was spring without looking. Jessie, the raccoon, did not come around anymore, she was fishing the rewarding waters of the open stream, she was returning to a tree hollow full of babies. The Baron Weasel did not come by. There were salamanders and frogs to keep him busy. The chickadees sang alone, not in a winter group, and the skunks and minks and foxes found food more abundant in the forest than at my tree house. The circumstances that had brought us all together in the winter were no more. There was food on the land and the snow was slipping away. […]

At noon… a voice called from the glen… “Dad!” I shouted, and once again burst down the mountainside to see my father.

As I ran toward him, I heard sounds that stopped me… For a long moment I stood wondering whether to meet him or run forever. I was self-sufficient, I could travel the world over, never needing a penny, never asking anything of anyone… I started to run. I got as far as the gorge but turned back. I wanted to see my family.

I walked down the mountain to greet them. I walked slowly, knowing that my solitude was all over. I could hear the voices of my entire family, father and mother, sisters and brothers. They filled my silent mountain. I jumped in the air and laughed for joy.

I think Jack’s longing and Sam’s longing were the same. In coming together today, we have filled his side of his silent mountain. We miss Jack. We miss Jack dearly. And, we will continue filling his silent side of the mountain.