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Have to Walk that Lonesome Valley - You've Got to Walk it by Yourself

How often have you ever had a chaplain come to you for support and advice? I don't know about you, but this is not an everyday event in my world. However, that is just what happened at a recent event of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firefighters Association (CVVFA) in Hancock, MD. Let me preface my remarks by stating that our association has lost a lot of members in the past 12 months. As matter of fact we have lost five of our past presidents. Sadly, two of our losses were not really that old. They were truly called home before their time.

Anyway, our CVVFA Chaplain Charlie Barnhart came up to me on the night of our arrival in Berkley Springs, WV, and asked me if I could provide some support and advice. Needless to say I lost no time in offering what support I could. As it turns out, my friend Chaplain Charlie has had a really bad run of funerals over the past month or so. He mentioned to me that in one week he had performed seven separate funerals. He then told me that after going away on vacation, upon his return he had to perform another five services.

Charlie went on to confide in me that he was feeling real weary. He also seemed worried that he was not being effective. He was concerned about his upcoming sermon at our CVVFA Annual Memorial Service. Actually it seemed to me that he was more concerned about the fact that he had not actually written a sermon. He then asked me what he should do. Being your basic wise guy from New Jersey, my first suggestion was that he should start hanging out with some younger people. After the chuckling subsided, he then told me that there was a great range of age in the many people he had buried.

Charlie then went on to tell me that he had recently had a change of heart in the manner in which he delivered his weekly services at his church in Taneytown, MD. He mentioned that many of his recent sermons and prayers at his church in Taneytown were delivered off the cuff and from the heart. He also said that he had taken to leaving the pulpit and moving out into the congregation to give his message. He told me that he felt really comfortable in doing this. I replied that I really enjoyed pastors who could do this. It seems to me that this act of leave the pulpit indicated a lack of fear on the part of those pastors who did this. I told Charlie that this indicated, at least to me, a certain comfort in interacting with their flock.

It was at that point when I paused to ponder what advice should I give. What should I do? What should I say? How does one say to a Man of God that he should have faith? After a few moments' thought, my words began to flow slowly and deliberately. The thoughts which I provided to my friend came from my heart and they were in no particular order. But they came.

First off I mentioned that moving from the pulpit to the people was a good thing. Many people seem to see the pulpit as a faraway place, with the actual pulpit serving as a barrier separating the pastor from the people. Next I suggested to Charlie that not having a speech to read was OK with me. I indicated that I had done this in the past. I further suggested that he should take some time and make some notes. I suggested that he needed to make a list with at least six key bullet points. I then suggested that he weave a tapestry of thought around each point.

My advice then took on a serious tone. I asked Charlie not to write these thoughts down. I suggested that he would be best served by going back to his room and pondering the points he had made. My advice was simple, just think the thoughts and then roll them around in your mind. Make them a part of your heart.

My final suggestion to him was that he should remember the words within the 23rd Psalm which described the journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. You must walk through the valley. You cannot turn back. You cannot climb out of the valley. You cannot avoid the trip. You must suck it up and walk through that lonesome valley on your journey through this life. And like the title of this article says, you've got to walk it by yourself.

Charlie and I passed each other by the coffee pot in waiting area of our convention hotel the next morning. He did not speak, but simply gave me the thumbs up sign. This piqued my interest and I left for our morning sessions, looking forward to hearing what our chaplain had to say at our memorial service. Our service was held at a lovely little Catholic church on High Street in downtown Hancock.

As I took my position in the rear of that lovely little edifice, my mind began to travel back in time. One of the people being honored this day was my late friend Joe Bukowski of the Aetna Hose, Hook, and Ladder Company in Newark, DE. Joe was a past president of the CVFFA, and a friend.

>p>More than that, Joe was a buddy and a fellow cigar aficionado. We spent countless hours over the years sharing a smoke and philosophizing about the future of the American Fire Service. I did not know the other people being memorialized by the service as well as I did Joe, but realized that each had played a part in making the CVVFA what it is today. Each person's life had a value and that was what our group was honoring. Sadly, this is a concept being lost in our country today. All too often we seem to honor the celebrities of our world. However, the person who has lived a good life and contributed to him community is too often overlooked.

The hymns of the day were all favorites in my world of religious music. The lessons from the old and new Testament scriptures were appropriate. From the old Testament came the words from the Book of Ecclesiastes which told us that there was a season for everything. From the Book of John we were all reminded of the reality that there were many rooms in Heaven for all of us, if you accept the Lord and confess your sins. We then sang the words of the 23rd Psalm to remind us of the journey through the valley mentioned earlier.

All of this led up to the point at which Chaplain Charlie was to deliver his sermon. He rose from his seat and then moved out into the midst of the congregation. He joined the flock to deliver his message. He began with a confession. He told all of us that he had not written a sermon. He did tell us that he simply wanted to share a few thoughts with us about his love for the CVVFA and its members. He stated that he was going to tell us a story.

He spoke of his initial election to office many years ago. He spoke of the joy of being asked to tend a real special flock. He then went on to mention his relationship with a number of the past presidents. He spoke of the importance of friendship, service, loyalty, and honesty. His words were moving indeed. He had words of praise for the accomplishments of each. He mentioned the uniqueness of each person and the impact of their actions.

He then went on to speak of the need to honor the specific things which occur between the beginning and the end of a person's life. One of his key thoughts involved the need to be true to your friends and keep the names of your friends on your lips. The simple act of mentioning a friend in passing can serve to keep their memory alive in the world. He urged those of us in attendance to keep their memories alive through our actions and devotion to others.

He concluded his words of wisdom to us with an important thought. He urged us to live according to the exhortations of the Book of Ecclesiastes. He asked us to consider how we could continue to live on this earth if we did not believe this that there was a time for everything, a time to be born, a time to live, and a time to die. He told the congregation that we were all on a journey through the valley of the shadow of death. He suggested to us that we could not run back out of the valley. He stated that we must walk through the valley. You cannot climb out of the valley. He told us that we had to walk through that valley all by ourselves. I was quietly pleased that he had used my words to complete his thoughts.

There is a story in my words to you this day. My friend Chaplain Charlie faced a challenge. He faced his demons and attacked them head on. He had walked through that lonesome valley. He met the challenge. But as you might expect, he did not walk it alone. I am referring to the fact that the Lord was with him, but you might also gather that it is my belief that part of our time here on earth must be spent helping and supporting others.

Each of you will face moments of doubt like this. Let me suggest that if you are there for others, they will be there when you need them. When you leave this valley of tears, the love you leave will be equal to the love you made and gave. We need a lot more Chaplain Charlie's and a lot fewer "celebrities."

That's my story, and I am sticking with it.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at