This is the dedication page of my new book, Being Called Chaplain: How I Lost My Name and (Eventually) Found My Faith. It was an easy decision whose names should go on that page. I wish I could tell you about Sam. God, I loved Sam. But because I met Sam through my work at the hospital, confidentiality has to be protected. DEG, on the other hand, I can tell you a lot about him. He is never far from my thoughts, and today especially, he’s on my mind and in my heart. Dr. Daniel E. Goodman, my friend and divinity school professor, died on January 13, 2009, six years ago today.
He was extraordinary. I’ve never met anyone more genuine and kind. He was brilliant, yet so humble that he made everyone around him feel like an equal. He was hilariously funny, but the humor was never at anyone else’s expense. To be teased by him was to know that you were an insider, and that you were loved. His family, friends, and students were the most precious treasures on earth to Dr. Goodman. He once preached a sermon about friendship, and I can’t tell you how much it meant to me. In a church culture that so often elevates the love of a husband and wife above all else, I had often felt left out as a single person. I’d never heard that the love of friendship was so holy, so important, even though it’s right there in the gospels – Jesus tells his disciples, “I have called you friends.” Dan Goodman was my friend, and I am thankful beyond measure for that.
The day after coming home from his memorial service, I started writing Dr. Goodman a letter. It was all I could do. My heart and my faith were broken. In a world where a perfectly healthy 40-year-old saint could drop dead without warning, nothing made sense at all. I wanted to give up, on ministry, on God, on everything. But as I wrote him the letter, I realized that the best way to honor his memory and his investment in me as his student was to try to piece my faith back together. It wasn’t easy, and in some ways I’m still working on it. That first year after his death, it was my mission, and I poured my heart and soul into it, writing it all down, because that’s the best way I know to make sense of things. And at the end of it all, I had a book.
That book will be available electronically later today, and in print in a few weeks (probably sometime around Dr. Goodman’s birthday, appropriately enough), with his name on the dedication page. There’s a lot of him in the book, through flashbacks to his classroom lectures and sermons, adventures we had on our trip to Israel and Egypt, and all the “conversations” I’ve had with him since he died, in dreams and prayers. I was afraid of losing him when he died. But I haven’t. All of us who loved him keep him with us. My Facebook newsfeed is full of pictures and stories of Dr. Goodman today, and it makes me smile through tears. He was the one who introduced me to the writings of Frederick Buechner, and one of my favorite Buechner quotes has been on my mind all day:
“When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart. For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost.”
— Whistling in the Dark, p. 100
We remember him, and he is never entirely lost. Pictures of him (like the one copied below of the two of us in Israel) hang on my wall and sit on my mantle. His sermons and class lectures are on my iPod. His barely legible notes are on all the essays I’ve saved and in my Happy Thoughts Box for safe keeping. And now his humor and encouragement and passion for teaching are on the pages of the book I’ve written. Everyone who reads the book will get to know Dr. Goodman just a little bit, and I’m as proud of that as anything else. More people knowing Dan Goodman can only make the world a better place.
The quote I placed on the memorial page was the title of a sermon he preached a few months before he died (though I remember him preaching it in chapel at school a few years earlier, at least in an embryonic form). I shared part of that sermon in another blog post recently. He was a great preacher, always gently leading the congregation to listen to a story and explore it alongside him. “I am writing blindly . . .” Those were the last written words of a Russian sailor named Dmitri Kolesnikov, who was trapped along with 23 other men in the rear compartment of a nuclear submarine, the Kursk, which went down after a crippling explosion in 2000. Holed up in complete darkness as their oxygen slowly ran out, Kolesnikov did the best he could to compose a note to his wife on a scrap of paper, and finished it with those words. In his sermon, Dr. Goodman said that we are all, in our own ways, writing blindly.
Those words, he said, “are, in my estimation, the most profound expression that I’ve ever come across of humanity’s strength and humanity’s frailty both at the same time. ‘I am writing’ is his declaration of strength and hope. ‘Blindly’ is his admission of weakness and failure. . . Others have said that writing is the singular act of human freedom, and so when we encounter something so final, so inescapable as death, we write to break the silence of our own enslavement. . . We write because, in that moment, it’s the only way left to survive.”
It was writing that helped me survive the grief of losing my friends Sam and DEG. And it’s my fervent hope that part of them survives because I wrote about them. I hope you’ll read about them and remember them with me. And I hope that you too will continue this defiant act of human freedom, this search for God, that we call writing, even if we are all just writing blindly.