Charles Siburt: The (Almost) Blind Prophet
This morning Charles Siburt, described by one of his sons as “the best man I’ve ever known,” died. He was a good friend. I’ll remember his remarkable voice, his big bellowing laugh, the way his face could express the words “these are my sons in whom I’m well pleased” when around John and Ben, and his insight.
Like Tiresias, the blind prophet in Greek mythology, Charlie could see things no one else could see—despite his failing eyesight. And he wasn’t afraid to help people move beyond the places where they were stuck. He helped others see ways in which their own pride, bitterness, sense of privilege, and nearsightedness were interfering with better relationships.
Two of my favorite memories about Charlie aren’t altogether pleasant. (Let’s be honest: people didn’t call him “Chainsaw Charlie” for nothing. The truth is that this was a compliment: you just don’t meet many people in life who will love you enough to tell you the truth about yourself. It’s also why so many churches brought Charlie in to help them. When all else fails, try asking someone who will tell you the truth.)
Both of the memories come from the mid-90’s, around the time of Megan’s death. Diane and I were exhausted, and in my exhaustion I lost nearly all ability to see myself. Charlie held up a much-needed mirror.
Once was after a tense elders meeting—this seems strange to say, because there was almost never a tense elders meeting the last ten years I was at Highland—when I drove him home. We sat in the car late at night. I invited him to tell me what he thought about some conflict I was in with a few people. And kindly, but very directly, he spoke words that hurt. Because they were true. He spoke them as a friend, not as a scolding elder. And then he moved on to words of affirmation and hope. I remember thinking that this was a new beginning for me as a minister.
The other time came about a year later. It was two months after our daughter’s death. I was fragile and tired, but I needed someone to tell me that that’s not an excuse for poor behavior. I got mad at Clois Fowler. Yes, Clois Fowler: one of the best men I’ve ever known in my life. My friend. Like a father to me. But in my exhaustion and immaturity, I got upset. So I went to Charlie. I guess I was going to tattle on Clois. Or perhaps I just figured another strong leader of our church would put his seal of approval on my anger.
Wanna guess how that went? Charlie told me that he could understand how weary I must be, but that I needed to pull it together. He told me that if I had a bigger fan at Highland—someone who’d cleaned up more of my messes than anyone else—than Clois, he didn’t know who it was. He said, “If you can’t make things work with Clois, I’m guessing you can’t make things work. He’s your greatest fan.” I crumpled in sorrow. Charlie prayed for me, and I went to Clois immediately to apologize. (If you know Clois, you know that he’d already forgiven me.)
Somebody in life has to love you enough to tell you the truth. And it helps when this person is a friend.
My greatest bond with Charlie was this: we were ALWAYS fans of each other’s sons. (And he and Judy loved Megan while she was alive, too.) I aways asked him about John and Ben; he always asked me about Matt and Chris.
So it’s fitting that the last time I saw Charlie was about three weeks ago: he was sitting at The Beehive eating lunch with Judy, John, and Ben. He asked about Chris’s youth ministry internship; and he told me that John came into his hospital room asking if it was Halloween because he’d just seen Matt Cope dressed up like a doctor.
His body was bearing the marks of a long battle with cancer. But there was that great joyful face of his, sitting at a good meal with his wife and sons.
Thank you, Charlie. Well done.