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Archive for the ‘Personal Stories’ Category

Dad

Here’s the story of my Dad’s life that I shared at his funeral last Thursday. My brothers have their own versions of his life story, but this is mine and I’m sticking to it (smile).

To the best of my knowledge, these are the facts:

James Somerville (no middle name) was born on June 17, 1931, in Cross Hill, South Carolina.  As his father would remind him repeatedly in years to come, his birth brought on one of the hottest spells they’d ever had in those parts.  When I close my eyes I can almost picture his tiny mother, Hattie, laboring in a stifling upstairs room to bring him into the world as her husband, Walter, a Presbyterian minister, walked the floors and prayed for a cooling breeze.

Little Jimmy, as he was called, was the sixth son and the seventh child born into that family.  There aren’t many pictures of him.  In one, he is standing with his brothers and sisters wearing shoes with a single strap across the top—“girl shoes”—as we later teased him, a description he didn’t care for at all.  In another he is staring out of the frame wearing wire-rim glasses: his yearbook picture.  He looks so serious, so studious, that you almost have to look at the cartoons he drew for that yearbook before you can see the twinkle in his eye.

He went to King College in Bristol, Tennessee, where word got out that he thought Mary Rice Whiting—“Ricie” as they called her—was the prettiest freshman on campus.  He approached her as she was gathering up her music after playing the piano at a campus event to ask her to the dance.  He had broken his jaw playing football, and had his teeth wired together.  He mumbled, “You wouldn’t want to go to the dance with an old bum like me, would you?”

But she did.

Eventually he asked her to marry him, and she said yes.  But then she began to have second thoughts.  She wanted to be a missionary in China, or maybe Mexico.  She tried to break things off with him while he was away in graduate school but he got in the car to come and talk her out of it.  They went for a drive, and parked the car, and when they had made all the arguments they could it got quiet, and in that silence Ricie was fairly sure she heard God say, “There’s your mission field.”

And so they married, on August 31, 1954, at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Camden, South Carolina.  The bride was stunning.  The groom looked slightly undernourished, with a bristly flat-top haircut and black horn-rimmed glasses, but happy to be marrying the prettiest girl in South Carolina.  They went to Decatur, Georgia, where he finished up his studies at Columbia Theological Seminary, and then on to Troy, Alabama, where their first two sons, Eddie and Scotty, were born.  From there they moved to Hayneville, Alabama, where little Jimmy was born.  But it was while they were in Hayneville that Jim was invited to say the opening prayer at a meeting of the White Citizens’ Council, formed to resist segregation following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954.  Dad was fairly sure Jesus would NOT say the opening prayer at the White Citizens’ Council, and therefore declined.  Not long after that the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his front yard, and his only comment when he came in from looking at the ashes was, “Sure was a little one.”  But the elders of his own church began to get nervous, and when he got a chance to make a move they encouraged him to take it.

Jim, Ricie, and their three boys moved to Wise, Virginia, where he served as pastor of the Gladeville Presbyterian Church.  It was there that Greg and Gray were born, and there that Jim began to feel called to work with the poor.  In late 1966 he resigned from the church and took his family to Blowing Rock, NC, where they spent the winter in his mother-in-law’s unheated summer cottage.  Jim would build a blazing fire in the fireplace each school day and bang on the brass fire pole, saying, “This is the day The Lord has made.”  His three school-age sons, sleeping in the loft above, were supposed to say, “Let us be glad and rejoice in it!”  But only Scott ever did, leaping out the door of the loft and squeaking down the brass fire pole in his underwear.

The family moved to West Virginia in early 1967, and Jim went to work for the West Virginia Mountain Project—an initiative of the United Presbyterian Church focused on ending poverty in Boone County, West Virginia.  He worked toward that goal for years, living at the poverty level himself and moving his family up and down the Big Coal River Valley—once because the boys accidentally burned down the rental house they were living in while building a volcano in the back yard.  The family settled in an old white farm house on a hill near Racine, West Virginia, where they spent ten mostly happy years.  It was there that Billy was born in 1976, the last of six sons.  But it was also there that Ricie began to feel the return of her missionary fervor, and asked her husband when he had last talked to someone about Jesus.

Not long after that Jim considered following a lifelong love of nature and studying forestry, but he had a vision of Jesus asking him, as he was in the library, “What are you doing here?”  And so he renewed his commitment to ministry, left his work with the poor, and became the pastor of Clothier Presbyterian Church.  Two years later, after his own father’s death, he seemed to feel free to resign not only from the church, but also from the ministry.  He ended up in Buckhannon, West Virginia, in nursing school, which he loved.  After graduation he worked as a rehab nurse in Asheville, North Carolina, and then as a pediatric home health nurse—a visiting grandpa—who made his rounds in nearby Madison County.

When he retired, he and Ricie moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, to be near their children and grandchildren, and for a while at least he was almost a full-time grandpa to the large and loving Somerville clan.  A few years later he and Ricie moved to Summerville, South Carolina (no relation), which felt like home to both of them.  But it was there, while stripping a piece of furniture in his tool shed, that Jim apparently inhaled enough toxic fumes to alter his brain chemistry, sending this robustly optimistic and enthusiastic man spiraling downward into a state of severe anxiety and depression.  He struggled with it for years, but it wore him down in mind and body until he ended up here, in Hospice care at Pendleton Manor.  But it was also here that the prayers for his peace of mind were finally answered, and when he took his last breath—just a few days ago—he took it in a state of perfect peace, with no pain at all, and his wife by his side.

Very few people die so well.

But the story of his death is not the story of his life:

  • I have seen this man roll naked in the snow, just to convince his boys that it wasn’t too cold to walk to school.
  • I have watched him fly a hang glider off a sand dune at Kitty Hawk.
  • I have seen him laugh till the tears ran down his cheeks and he slapped the table.
  • I have watched him roll the dice in a game of Monopoly and say, “Seven come eleven, baby needs a new pair of shoes!”
  • I have hiked with him on the Appalachian Trail.
  • I have floated with him down the Big Coal River.
  • I remember the smell of his Old Spice cologne, his Wildroot hair tonic, and his Kiwi shoe polish.
  • I have watched him lather up with Barbasol and puff out his cheeks to get an extra-close shave.
  • I have heard him identify nearly every plant and tree in the woods, and call out the name of every bird that sang.
  • I have heard him sing, “Life is like a Mountain Railroad,” when he headed out to do his chores, or “I’ll Fly Away,” or that Moe Bandy classic,” It Was Always so Easy to Find an Unhappy Woman.”
  • I have seen him work a team of Clydesdale horses.
  • I have heard him clap his hands and say, “OK!” when he was ready to move on to the next thing.
  • I know the sound of his snore and the sound of his sneeze.
  • I have watched him split logs, and chop firewood, and make kindling thin as a matchstick.
  • I have been pinned to the ground, helpless, as he wrestled five of his sons at the same time.
  • I have seen him hug my mother close, and kiss her on the lips.
  • I have run six miles with him on a hilly, West Virginia, road.
  • I know the smell of his sweat.
  • I have heard his voice break when he was doing the funeral of a friend.
  • I have felt the bone-breaking strength of his hug.
  • I have stood beside him in church, both of us trying to outdo the other in hymn-singing.
  • I have seen him look with wonder and love on the face of a newborn grandchild.
  • I have heard him clump up the stairs to my room and say, “It looks like a mule died up here!”
  • I have seen the look in his eye when he says, “I love you,” or “I’m proud of you.”
  • I have heard myself say the same to him.

It’s true: I love you, Dad, and I’m proud of you.

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KissOn my recent visit to Whitcomb Court with members of the police department and the “faith community” there was a woman in my group who insisted on asking everyone we visited, “If you were to die right now do you know for a fact you would go to heaven?” Usually the answer wasn’t yes or no: it was, “I think so.”

“You think so?” the woman asked. “Do you want to know how you can be sure?” And then she quoted Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” And then she would ask the frightened young woman standing at the door to repeat after her as she led her through a version of “the sinner’s prayer,” similar to the one below:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.

At the end of one such prayer she said to the young woman standing there, “Now you’re not a sinner anymore; you’re saved.” And I wondered: does it really happen like that? Are there “magic words” that can save you?

Later I thought about how I do a wedding. At some point I ask the groom to repeat after me, and I lead him through his vows. Afterward I do the same with the bride. And at the end of the service I say, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” When I sign the marriage license after the ceremony I attest to the fact that these two—who used to be single—are now married.

In some ways it seems like magic.

But I don’t think I would be there if I weren’t convinced that they wanted to be married, that they were doing because they loved each other.

Let me give you an example:

Two years ago my daughter and her fiancé were married before a magistrate at New York’s City Hall. I saw the 45-second video. The magistrate asked Nick if he would be willing to take Ellie as his wife and he said yes. And then he asked Ellie if she would take Nick and she said yes. And then the magistrate (who was clearly enjoying his role) drew himself up to his full height and by the authority vested in him by “the great state of New York” pronounced them husband and wife. And that was it; they were married.

But there’s more to the story.

Nick and Ellie had known each other in high school in Washington when Nick was an exchange student from Australia. When he decided to come to New York to see if he could make it there as a chef (because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere) he got in touch with Ellie. They began to send e-mail back and forth, and then text messages, and then long (expensive) phone calls until Nick finally invited Ellie to come see him in Australia. She did, met his family, did some sightseeing, and when she was getting ready to leave Nick said, “If I come to New York do you reckon I could be your boyfriend?”

That’s what happened.

He came to New York and they began dating and at the end of a year he found out that his visa—which he had thought was a two-year visa—was about to expire. He was going to have to go back to Australia. But Ellie didn’t want him to go back to Australia, not without her. She loved him. And he loved her. And that’s when they began to talk about getting married. Three weeks later they stood in front of that self-important magistrate at City Hall and exchanged their vows and seven months after that—to the day—we had a “real” wedding ceremony on the banks of the Rappahannock River right here in Virginia. I did the wedding, and when I asked the groom to repeat after me I heard his voice break. When I asked Ellie to do the same I saw the tear slide down her cheek. I was convinced that they weren’t just going through the motions, that this wedding—which had gotten its start under such unusual circumstances—was the real thing.

That’s not the feeling I had at Whitcomb Court.

I believe the decision to follow Jesus is every bit as personal as the decision to get married, and twice as important. It’s not something you can force somebody to do. When we stand before the Lord someday I don’t think he’s going to ask us if we’ve said the sinner’s prayer. But he might ask us what he asked Peter that day by the seashore, the kind of thing people have been asking each other for centuries before taking the plunge of marriage:

“Do you love me?”

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Pic of the Day

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Winding up my trip to Utah. Getting ready to head home tomorrow. Here is just one of the many breathtaking views I’ve had in the last few days, the kind that inspire poetry, and psalms!

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2013-05-11 12.18.51I confess: I did not bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, yesterday. Instead I drove to Fredericksburg for my daughter Catherine’s college graduation. But there was something heavenly about it all the same. I found myself full of emotion, and every time a family cheered for a son or daughter whose name was called a lump would rise in my throat. I thought about how many hours were represented by that moment: hours of caring for those children, watching them grow, teaching them to tie their shoes, taking them to school for the first time, and now this—this culminating moment when all those hours were rewarded by the calling of a name.

When Catherine’s name was called I stood and cheered as awkwardly as all the other parents. I wish I had done it better, more enthusiastically. I wish I had brought an air horn. I wish she could have heard my voice above all those other voices and known just how proud of her I was in that moment and yet, somehow, no prouder than I have been in every moment of her life.

No, I didn’t bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond yesterday. I hope somebody did. I was busy in Fredericksburg, holding on to the heaven I have, and storing up for those times when heaven seems far, far away.

I love you, Catherine.

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Portrait of young boyNot long ago I had coffee with a church member who put it bluntly: “What do you think about homosexuality?” We had been talking about the recent decision of Ginter Park Baptist Church to ordain an openly gay man and she wanted to know where I stood on the issue.

I was caught a little off guard, so I asked, “What do you think about it?” She said, “I think it’s a sin.”

And that got the conversation started.

I can’t remember everything I said in just the way I said it, but I’ll try to capture the gist of the conversation below, and maybe even add a few thoughts. I said:

“I don’t think it’s a sin to be homosexual, but the Bible is pretty clear about homosexual behavior. It condemns it. But it also condemns a lot of heterosexual behavior, including adultery and fornication.”

I said, “Some people believe that homosexuality is a choice—that people choose to be gay. I suppose that’s possible. We humans are born sinners. We’re capable of almost anything. But in my conversations with gays and lesbians I haven’t talked to anyone who said they chose to be that way. They sometimes ask me, ‘When did you choose to be heterosexual?’

“The answer, of course, is that I didn’t. I didn’t choose to be this way; I discovered it, and, frankly, when I did I was mortified. I couldn’t believe the thoughts I was having about girls. I had always thought of myself as a ‘good Christian boy,’ but the thoughts I was having didn’t seem good or Christian. They seemed sinful, shameful. In those days I underlined long passages from Romans 7 in my big, green Living Bible, including this one: ‘I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway’ (vss. 18-19).

“That described me perfectly.

“I wept over my sin in those days. I prayed over it. I asked God to forgive me. Now imagine if my sinful, shameful thoughts had not been about girls, but about boys? What would I have done then?

“I don’t think homosexuality is a choice; I think it is a discovery. The question, then, is this: if you discover you are homosexual, what do you do with your homosexuality? It’s not that much different than asking, ‘If you discover you are heterosexual, what do you do with your heterosexuality?’ For me it was the biggest challenge to my Christianity, or maybe just the most obvious one. When the preacher talked about sin I would swallow hard and look away. I knew what he was talking about. But at least I had this promise in front of me: that someday I could get married and express my sexuality in a God-honoring way. The church (and the Bible) would bless that union. The minister would tell me I could kiss my bride. My friends and family would throw rice—a symbol of fertility—a subtle way of telling me to ‘get on with it!’

“But again, what if my thoughts back in those teenage years had been about boys and not girls? There would be no promise of future happiness, no hope of expressing my sexuality in a God-honoring way. I would have to do what I did then—suppress my thoughts and feelings as best I could and tearfully beg for God’s forgiveness when I couldn’t—for the rest of my life.

“That doesn’t seem fair, but my commitment to the authority of Scripture won’t allow me to dismiss the Bible’s teaching on homosexual behavior any more than I can dismiss its teaching on heterosexual behavior. The same Bible that says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” says, “Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

“I have to deal with that.

“But I also have to deal with this: the young man who grew up at First Baptist Church, who went to Sunday school here, who learned to sing, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so’—this young man who sits in my study and looks up at me with tears in his eyes, asking, in a trembling voice, ‘Am I an abomination?’

“What do I say to him?”

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Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1850s_jpgOne of the things that keeps the Kingdom of heaven from coming to Richmond, Virginia, is the old animosity between the races. White people used to buy and sell black people on the auction block in this town. That’s not something you get over right away.

It’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but you can sometimes still feel the old guilt and fear and hurt that hangs in the air between the races. If the Kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, we’ve got to clear the air. We’ve got to recognize that we are children of the same Father, and start treating each other like members of the same family.

To that end let me share a story about my father.

I’m planning to drive to West Virginia to see him today because my brother Scott, who lives nearby, thinks he may be down to his last few days. I’m at peace about that, and my dad isn’t in any pain, but because of that he’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I woke up this morning thinking about this story. I think I’ve shared it with you before, but let me share it again in honor of my dad and in the hope of someday achieving true and lasting reconciliation between the races.

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I was born on March 14, 1959, in Selma, Alabama. My mother tells me I was the most difficult of all her babies to deliver, and that while she was waiting for me to make up my mind about being born she walked the hallways of that hospital saying the 23rd Psalm over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” My father was the new pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hayneville, Alabama, 35 miles away, and recently he told me the story of his own labor, there, and of his eventual delivery.

He said that when he was considering a call to that church he asked the committee chairman what the civil rights situation was in Hayneville. Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, resistance to integration had been strong in the South, and sometimes violent. The chairman said, “Well, you’re a good old South Carolina boy, aren’t you? You know what it’s like.” And it’s true. My father had grown up in South Carolina. He probably knew exactly what it was like. But he came anyway. He hadn’t been there very long when a member of the church invited him to say the opening prayer at the next meeting of the White Citizen’s Council. “What is the White Citizen’s Council for, exactly?” my father asked. “Could I look over a copy of the Constitution and Bylaws before I give you my answer?” And the man looked at my dad as if he were crazy, or maybe a communist, and said, “Well you know what it’s for: it’s to keep niggers in their place!”

Although I don’t think the Constitution and Bylaws read that way, that is what the White Citizen’s Council was for. According to one of my better sources the WCC was an American white supremacist organization which flourished between the mid-fifties and the mid-seventies. With about 15,000 members, mostly in the South, the group was well known for its opposition to racial integration in the South. Headed by Gordon Lee Baum, a St. Louis attorney, its issues involved the so-called “protection” of “European-American” heritage from those of other ethnicities. If my dad had only had Wikipedia he would have known all that. But in answer to the man’s reply Dad said he didn’t think that was his role in the community. He said he thought his role was to share the gospel with anyone who would receive it, black or white, and to make no distinction between the two. “And that,” my father said, “was when he looked at me as if he really did have a rattlesnake loose in his house.”

It was not long after I was born that the leaders of Dad’s church sat down with him to discuss the policies of racial integration being promoted by the denomination. According to some Presbyterians, at least, black people ought to be welcome in the church just like white people. The elders of the church in Hayneville talked about that for a long time and finally decided that black people—“negroes” as they called them in polite company—were welcome to visit the church but not welcome to join it. And then they looked at my dad to see what he thought. He must have been about thirty years old at the time, a young man, sitting in that room with all his elders, trying to be respectful. But finally he said, “This church doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to Jesus Christ. And I don’t think he would keep anyone from joining because of their skin color.” And the man who had chaired the search committee looked at my dad and said, “Son, I don’t know what kind of religion they taught you in seminary, but we’ve only got one kind of religion here, and it’s that good old Southern religion.”

Soon word began to get around in Lowndes County that the new pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hayneville was a “nigger lovin’” preacher. Church attendance began to fall off. Women would stare at my mother in the grocery store. And then one morning while she was fixing breakfast she noticed a string of cars passing by the house, slowing down at the front yard and then speeding up again. One of our neighbors called to ask if we were all right and Mom said, “Yes, why wouldn’t we be?” “Didn’t you know?” said the woman. “Why, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of your house last night!”

Mom hung up the phone and got my father out of bed. He put on his bathrobe and slippers and walked across the front lawn to a patch of burned grass. My mother watched him poke a pile of ashes with the toe of one slipper and when he came back in she said, “Well?” And he answered, almost disappointed: “Sure was a little one.” But after that the threats began to get more serious until my father finally decided he needed to get his family out of there. So, he loaded up his wife and three little boys in a 1953 Ford Fairlane, strapped a dog house on top with our dog “Lady” and her five puppies inside, nailed a piece of plywood over the opening, and then, under cover of darkness, pulled out of the parsonage driveway and headed up the road toward Southwestern Virginia, where he would try to continue his ministry under happier, friendlier circumstances.

Things were happier there, and friendlier, too. But even though I was just a toddler when we left Alabama those stories, and my father’s courageous example, have shaped my views on race relations ever since. How about you? Who shaped your views on this issue?

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At the end of Sunday’s sermon, the one about Jesus cleansing a leper, I referred to my tenth grade yearbook picture. Several people have asked to see it, and although it pains me to post it (I’ve saved it under the file name “Yikes!”) here it is, along with the last few paragraphs of the sermon. Be gentle.

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Last week some of my old classmates from Sherman High School in Seth, West Virginia, caught up with me on Facebook.  They were happy to find me.  They didn’t know what had happened to me.  And they have been very, very kind.  But as I looked through some of the yearbook pictures they had posted on that site I began to realize why they hadn’t heard from me: those two years at Sherman were some of the most painful in my memory. 

My dad, as I’ve told you, was a kind of missionary to the desperately poor in that county and I felt like a missionary kid.  We lived in a house with no running water and no indoor plumbing, which meant that I went to school most days looking kind of rumpled and smelling sort of…unwashed.  And I was a little kid!  I went to high school a year early and didn’t get my growth spurt until two years later.  I was about five feet two with teeth that seemed way too big for my mouth and the worst haircut I’ve ever had in my life.  When I looked through those yearbook pictures I remembered those tall, handsome, confident boys, and those pretty, outgoing, giggly girls, and suddenly there I was, looking like a scared rabbit, trying to hide my face under my crooked bangs when the photographer took the picture.     

When I look closely I can almost see the pain in those eyes. 

But I would guess that I’m not the only one in this room who had that kind of experience in high school.  In fact, there may be a third of you who don’t have your yearbook picture hanging on the wall at home.  Those are such vulnerable years, and we feel so tender; one unkind word can cut us to the quick.  “If you want to you can make me clean,” the leper says to Jesus, and maybe all he really means is, “If you want to you can save me from being a social outcast, you can bring me into the community, you can help me find a place.”  And Jesus says, “I want to,” and then he reaches out and touches the leper.  Who knows how long it had been since anyone offered to do that?  But in that moment, in that action, his leprosy is cured.  He is made clean.  Jesus told him not to say anything about it but he couldn’t help himself. 

It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Think about those people, not only in high school but in every church, who have trouble fitting in, who are almost terrified to visit a Sunday school class where everybody already knows everybody, and where there aren’t any available seats.  Think about how hard it is for some people to walk up the front steps of this church for the first time, not knowing if they will be made to feel welcome or turned away at the door.  Think about those people who have failed at life, who have lost a job, who have been divorced; people who are struggling hard and who need a home; people who have been pushed to the fringes of society because in one way or another they have become “unclean.” In this first chapter of his Gospel I think Mark is being very deliberate in showing us three different things that have no place in God’s kingdom: 1) evil, 2) illness, and 3) exclusion.  Jesus takes his stand against all of these.  He drives out the unclean spirits (vss. 21-28), he cures those who are sick (vss. 29-39), and he welcomes the outcasts (vss. 40-45).  And when he does those things God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

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