My heart has been very heavy this past week. The revelations that Rep. Mark Foley sent sexually explicit emails to teenage pages in the House of Representatives sicken me. I am also upset that House Republican leaders failed to act for months after being warned of the messages. Thankfully, Mark Foley has resigned his House seat and has entered a treatment center where he can receive help. I pray for healing for him and especially for the young people whose lives have been forever changed by Foley’s highly inappropriate conduct.
The storming of an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, by Charles Carl Roberts IV and the killing of 5 Amish girls has deeply troubled me as well. Roberts was clearly tormented with the death of an infant daughter and memories of molesting 2 young relatives years go. Who could have anticipated, however, that his self-destructive behavior would end the lives of innocent girls in a quiet Amish community?
On the outside, Mark Foley and Charles Roberts seemed to be pretty normal people. Yet, for various reasons, they descended into darkness. In the late 19th century, the phrase, “heart of darkness,” became a metaphor among travelers in the innermost regions of the Congo River in Africa. Joseph Conrad chose that phrase for his 1899 book, Heart of Darkness, a tale of the dark goings on in the Belgian Congo, but more particularly of one man’s descent into his own darkness.
There is a part of each one of our hearts that is evil. Every last one of us is capable of great evil as well as great good. We humans continually struggle, believing that we are created in the image of God but also knowing that the sinful aspect of our human nature causes us at times to make the wrong decisions, hurt other people terribly, and act in ways that are contrary to God’s intentions for us. Until we acknowledge our own heart of darkness, we cannot we be whole and healthy human beings and begin the journey toward God.
Over 25 years of ministry, I have encountered the “heart of darkness” in others and also in myself. Many times I have said, “There but the grace of God go I.” As I grow older and become more self-aware, I realize that I, too, am capable of making huge mistakes in judgment and causing great evil. What keeps me on track is my connection with God and with the community of faith, which calls me to accountability and offers support.
As you know, we are in an election year in the state of Michigan. I enjoy observing the various candidates, how they conduct themselves, what they believe, and how much of their campaigning is positive and negative. I am especially curious to learn what I can about the inner lives of our candidates, for I am convinced that effective leaders must pay attention to their hearts. Only by entering into the darkness of our own hearts can we as leaders effectively lead others to the light. Engaging our own heart of darkness becomes an existential confrontation with ourselves. I become very wary when I listen to leaders who refuse to admit mistakes or apologize. I watch out for leaders who are not willing to acknowledge their heart of darkness because to me, that means they are out of touch with their true self. And they are at high risk to fall into temptation.
Author Parker Palmer gives us this definition of a leader in his book, Let Your Life Speak. “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there.” As pastors and leaders, we have immense power to cast darkness or light upon others. It is only when we recognize the shadows in ourselves and are willing to enter our heart of darkness; it is only when we dare to go past ego to our true self; it is only when we recognize that our motives are not always pure and our efforts are not always well-intended; it is only when we know that we are God’s beloved not because of anything we do but simply because we are; only then are we able to return to the world, bearing more gracefully the responsibilities that come with being human.
I would encourage you to intentionally journey into the heart of darkness, to embrace the darkness, to learn from it, to be open to it, and to use the darkness to be more compassionate, caring and light-giving. Scott Peck writes in his book, The Road Less Traveled, “The central defect of evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it… Both good and evil are in all our hearts. Only when I can acknowledge all parts of me can I move from childhood to maturity, from isolation to community, and from running and covering to peace and equanimity.” When we choose this option, we acknowledge that we are not strong enough or courageous enough or smart enough to conquer the darkness on our own, but we believe that, as God’s beloved, grace will give us what we don’t have.
I am praying for Mark Foley and for the teenage pages. I am praying for the family of Charles Roberts as well as the families of the Amish girls who were killed and wounded. I am praying for forgiveness, for healing, for light to overcome the darkness, and for new life to rise out of the ashes. Most of all, I am praying that each one of us can face our darkness directly, go through it, and come out on the other side with hearts that are larger and wiser.