Puppy Love

Connie

I got the text message at 8:58 on Tuesday morning.

It was from the woman who cuts my hair, because, you know, when you sit in someone’s chair for an hour each month you talk, and we both talk a lot. One of the things she talks about is her two little dogs, and on Tuesday she texted to let me know that she’d had to put one of her little dogs “down.”  She wrote:

“The last few weeks she had been in a lot of pain, not eating and very anxious. It was so difficult to say goodbye to her. I love her so very much…”

I can’t tell you how many times in my work as a pastor someone has told me about losing a pet. They make it clear that their pet was not an animal, but a member of the family. They are grieving, and their grief is as real as any grief there is. Tuesday’s text reminded me of the first time I experienced that kind of grief personally. I talked about it in my Thanksgiving sermon in 2012:

“[My parents must have felt a little guilty about taking me away from the only home I had ever known when we moved to West Virginia, so] on my seventh birthday they took me to a kennel and bought me a puppy.  I wanted a Cocker Spaniel; I had seen one in a book. But the closest thing we could find was a Brittany Spaniel. Instead of golden curls it had brown and white curls, but it was still beautiful. ‘I want that one,’ I said, pointing, and my parents (who must have been feeling more than a little guilty) paid a small fortune so we could take that puppy home.

“I thought a Brittany Spaniel deserved a sophisticated name, so I named her “Constance,” but ended up calling her “Connie.”  That first night we brought her home I wanted her to sleep with me, but since she wasn’t housebroken yet my mom thought it would be a good idea if we kept her shut up for the night in our big pantry.  She put down newspapers all over the floor, and then I came down the stairs dragging my sleeping bag and put it down on top of the newspapers.  I slept right there that night, in the pantry with my puppy, and when I woke up the next morning there were little puppy piles all around me and wet spots on the paper but that’s not what woke me: it was Connie, licking my face with her little pink tongue.

“I was the happiest seven-year-old in the world.”

She learned to follow me wherever I went around the house, out into the back yard, down the street. In fact, I couldn’t get her to stop following me. When she got a little older and a little bigger she would chase the family station wagon down the road as long as she could keep up, with me yelling at her out the window, telling her to go home.  She did that for months, and even when I shut her up inside the back yard fence she seemed to find a way out. One day she chased us all the way down to the highway, swung wide when we turned right, and got hit by a car coming the other way.

She never felt a thing.

Dad scooped up her broken body, loaded it into the back of the station wagon where I was sitting, and as we turned around and headed back toward home to lay that dog to rest I ran my fingers through her soft fur and wiped my tears and my nose on my sleeve.

I was the saddest seven-year-old in the world.

You know how we sometimes say about a relationship that it’s “only puppy love,” because the children who are feeling it are not old enough to experience “real” love? My father-in-law used to say, “Don’t call it puppy love. It’s the most love they’ve ever known.”  So, don’t call it “puppy grief” when someone loses a pet. It may not be the most grief they have ever known, but it is as real as it gets.

I’m saying prayers today for my friend who lost her dog, and for you if you have ever known that particular loss.

It’s as real as it gets.

A Challenge to Our City

David-Bailey heaadshot 3For the third year in a row David Bailey and I would like to challenge the people of Richmond to read a book together during February, and the book we have chosen is White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

I (Jim) am the pastor of Richmond’s historic First Baptist Church, founded in 1780.  I (David) am the founder of Arrabon, a non-profit devoted to the work of reconciliation. 

You are probably asking the question, “Why should we read White Fragility, a book written by a white person for white people during Black History Month?”

Because of the subtitle: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. 

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Both of us have found that it can be easier for white people to talk about the progress of black people during Black History Month, but often find it difficult to talk about racism. That’s what drew me (Jim) to the book in the first place.  I had preached three sermons in a row that touched on the subject of racism when one of my parishioners said, “Dr. Somerville, I’ve been really hurt by what you said in those sermons. I’m not a racist!”  

I know this man, and he’s right: he’s not a racist.  But his response to the subject of racism is typical among white people: we take it personally.  I explained that I wasn’t talking about individual racism; I was talking about systemic racism. I said, “You are one of the good guys!  You are one of those people who can help to dismantle the structures of racism that exist in our society and make Richmond a better place!”

But not if we can’t talk about the problem.  

Katy Waldman of The New Yorker writes: “In 2011, Robin DiAngelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ to describe the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged— and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy. Why, she wondered, did her feedback prompt such resistance, as if the mention of racism were more offensive than the fact or practice of it?  In White Fragility she argues that our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discomfort, so that they fall to pieces at the first application of stress—such as, for instance, when someone suggests that ‘flesh-toned’ may not be an appropriate name for a beige crayon.”[1]

You might ask the question, why would a person of color want to read White Fragility

In my work (David), every week a person of color comes to me saying, “I’m exhausted… why don’t [white] people get it? I don’t understand.” Whenever I encourage a person of color to read White Fragility it is empowering to them because light is turned on in a way they can see clearly the depth of the problem. 

“If your definition of a racist is someone who holds conscious dislike of people because of race,” DiAngelo writes, “then I agree that it is offensive for me to suggest that you are racist when I don’t know you,” she writes. “I also agree that if this is your definition of racism, and you are against racism, then you are not racist. Now breathe. I am not using this definition of racism, and I am not saying that you are immoral. If you can remain open as I lay out my argument, it should soon begin to make sense.”[2]

We hope that every Richmonder will accept our challenge to read White Fragility during the month of February.  We believe that if we can all remain open then Robin DiAngelo’s argument will “soon begin to make sense.”  And if it makes sense, we should all be better able to talk about racism in ways that help and heal our beloved city.

White Fragility is available online and at bookstores everywhere.  A limited number of free copies will be available at Richmond’s First Baptist Church (2709 Monument Avenue) beginning February 1.  A panel discussion will be held at the church on Monday, March 2, at 7:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public.  

—Jim Somerville & David M. Bailey

 

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[1] Katy Waldman, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018.
[2] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 13.

 

Close Enough to Walk

 

snow boots 3This week I moved to the suburbs.

It’s only temporary. My daughter and her husband are away and Christy and I are house sitting and dog sitting in the West End. But I am gaining a whole new appreciation for commuters.

I thought about it while I was stuck in traffic on Wednesday.

At my first church Christy and I lived in the parsonage. It was in the “suburbs” of New Castle, Kentucky, which means that it was still less than a mile from the church, directly across the street from the courthouse in that sleepy, county seat town.

When we moved to Wingate, North Carolina, we also lived in the parsonage, but this time we were practically in the church’s backyard. On Sunday mornings (and almost every day) I could walk to work in less than a minute. But it was there I learned how important it is to live close to the church.

There was one snowy Sunday morning when any pastor in his right mind would have called things off. We weren’t used to snow that far south, and there was a lot of it. It was still coming down thick and fast when I walked over around 9:00 and opened the doors. I found a snow shovel and cleared off the front steps but still nobody came for Sunday school. Around 10:30 the first person showed up for worship, and by 11:00 there were seven of us—total. Our organist wasn’t there. I ended up playing the three hymns I know how to play on the piano so we sang, “Amazing Grace,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “In the Sweet By and By.”

I preached the sermon I had prepared and as those six hardy parishioners were leaving the service one of them said, “I needed this more than you know.” He said it with tears in his eyes, which may have led to my conviction that worship is important, and that the doors of the church should be open every Sunday morning, no matter how bad the weather is outside.

So when we moved to Washington, DC, it was important to me to live in the city, not the suburbs. I wanted to be close enough to the church to walk if I had to, just so I could open the doors on Sunday mornings. The closest house we could find was four miles from the church, but I thought “I can do that.”

One Sunday morning I did. A blizzard was dumping two feet of snow onto the city and when I left home I could hardly find my way to the street. I got onto Military Road and walked through Rock Creek Park to 16th Street. There I was able to catch a bus that dropped me off right in front of the church. I opened the doors and shoveled the snow and at 11:00 there were 25 people in the small side chapel of that huge sanctuary. I didn’t play the hymns, but we had church, and when I gave the invitation three people came forward—an astonishing percentage of the total congregation.

So, when we moved to Richmond we were looking for a house within walking distance, and found one in the Museum District that is an eight-minute walk from church. On every Sunday morning since then (with the exception of two), that’s what I’ve done: I’ve walked to church. And on every Sunday morning since I’ve been here we’ve had church, no matter what the weather was like outside.

I always tell people: “On those snowy days look out your front door, and if it looks like you might slip and fall going down the steps then stay home. I trust you to use your own good judgment.” But I will put on my hiking boots, and grab my trekking poles, and make my way carefully to church. I will open the doors and shovel off the steps. And if absolutely necessary I will play the three hymns I know during worship. But we will have church, because it’s important,

And you never know who might need it.

Loved Back to Life

golden-retriever-puppy-growth-longNote: this is the letter I sent to my congregation the week after Thanksgiving.

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Let me begin with confession:

When it was time to write this letter last week I was out of words. I had preached three times on Sunday, had two funerals on Monday, another one on Tuesday, and then the Thanksgiving service on Tuesday night. I didn’t have time to say what I wanted to say to you so I pulled something from my files, blew the dust off of it, and sent it to you. But it wasn’t what I really wanted to say to you in those days just before Thanksgiving. I wanted to say this:

I’m thankful for you.

When I came to First Baptist in 2008 I was pretty beat up. I had survived an attempt to force me out of my previous church. It’s a long story, but it seems to come down to this: things were changing at that church in a way that made some people uncomfortable; I was the pastor, the agent of change; therefore I needed to go.

I will never forget the deacons’ meeting where five church members were given the opportunity to make accusations against the pastor. For an hour-and-a-half I sat in a room while each of them read off a list of half-truth and untruths intended to bring me down. I sat there silently, biting my lip, but thinking with each accusation, “That’s not true!”

The deacons got together the next week, without me (and without my accusers), and concluded on their own that none of those accusations was valid. They wrote up a statement of love and support for their pastor and read it aloud at the next church business meeting, but the damage had been done. My relationship with that congregation was affected, as was theirs with me.

Those five people eventually left the church and while I hoped things would get better immediately they did not. That small faction had left behind a legacy of suspicion and mistrust that was hard to overcome. I thought about leaving, but didn’t feel that I could until the church was in a healthier place. When I was first contacted by this church I said no.

But five months later this church contacted me again and this time I felt that I could say yes. I met with the search committee. I met with the staff. And finally I agreed to come to Richmond and preach a trial sermon. The church was packed that day, and at the end of worship, after the affirmative vote, you got to your feet and gave me a standing ovation that went on and on. I was blinking back tears, grateful beyond my ability to express it.

In the first days of my ministry here I described the experience as “being licked on the face by an entire litter of Golden Retriever puppies.” That’s how warm your welcome was. But I had trouble receiving it. I had been hurt by a church. I didn’t know if I could trust your love. But you didn’t let that stop you; you just kept on loving me. And little by little the wall I had built around my heart came down, and you got in, and now I can’t imagine that I would ever let you out.

So, this is what I want to say, while the spirit of Thanksgiving still lingers in the air: I love you, and I’m thankful for you, and I’m thankful for the way you loved me back to life again.

You restored my faith in the church.

Jim

“Actually, we’re Atheists”

atheist_eflf1dNote: This is another of my letters to my congregation, now shared with you, the members of my “blogregation.”

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On Tuesday I invited a stranger to church.

Lynn Turner and I were driving out to the Far West End to take communion to one of our members and we stopped for a quick bite of lunch along the way. There was a woman sitting at a nearby table with her young son, a little boy who couldn’t have been more than two. She was helping him eat his lunch, talking to him and smiling at him throughout the meal. I could see them out of the corner of my eye and I kept having this feeling that I should invite them to church. Do you ever have those feelings? I couldn’t tell if it was a nudge from the Holy Spirit or not, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I could imagine this woman and her son fitting into our life together at First Baptist beautifully.

So, when I finished my meal I got up and walked over to their table, pulled up a chair and sat down. I’m not sure I would have done it if Lynn hadn’t been with me. This is an aside, but there’s something about having someone with me who knows me and will still speak to me even if I make a fool of myself that makes me bold. I’m almost sure that’s why Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, and why Paul always took Barnabas or Silas or Timothy along with him.

But back to the story:

I said, “Excuse me for interrupting, but I saw you here with your little boy and wondered if you go to church anywhere.”

She said, “Oh, we’re not Christian.”

I said, “Oh! Okay. Well, I’m a pastor and we have so many good programs for children at our church I just wanted to invite you, you know, if you didn’t already have a place to go.”

She said, “Actually, we’re atheists.”

And I hadn’t heard that before. I mean, I hadn’t heard a young mother blurt it out in the middle of Panera Bread like that: “We’re atheists.” Talk about boldness!

In some of my recent sermons I’ve mentioned the “Nones”: the growing number of people in America who claim to have no religious faith. That number has climbed from 16% in 2008 to more than 26% currently. Some surveys put it higher than that. It’s only a guess, but I’m guessing that in the same way people have gotten more and more comfortable with skipping church over the last thirty years, and taking their kids to Sunday morning soccer games instead, people will get more and more comfortable with saying out loud, in public places, “We’re atheists!” It may even become fashionable to have no faith. People might start wearing pins on their lapels or putting bumper stickers on their cars to let you know before you even ask, “I’m not interested in your religion.”

But I found myself interested in this woman’s lack of religion.

I said, “I didn’t mean to bother you. I just wanted to invite you to church. But I wish we had time to talk. I’d love to hear your story.” And I could almost see the wheels turning in her brain, thinking, “Yeah, right. You just want to convert me to Christianity.” So I added, “I wouldn’t try to convert you!”

I don’t think I would. I’m naturally curious about people. I love finding out what makes them tick. I would love to know how this woman ended up with no faith at all. But I’m pretty sure that if we had that conversation I would end up telling her my story, and how I couldn’t live without my faith. And if at the end all that she said, “I want what you have,” I wouldn’t withhold it.

I think that’s what you call “sharing” your faith. It’s different from trying to convert people. This verse from 1 Peter sums it up nicely: “Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you about the hope you have. Be ready to give the reason for it. But do it gently and with respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIRV).

I think I was both gentle and respectful to that woman at Panera Bread, but I haven’t stopped thinking about her and her blunt confession: “We’re atheists.” When I think of her I pray for her, and I hope you will, too. Not so much that she would be converted to Christianity and come to our church, but that she would know the love of God and feel it so deeply she could no longer deny:

“God is real.”

I’m praying for you today, and praying that you, too, would know the love of God and feel it deeply.

Jim

How Much Longer?

Three AmigosThe Grand Canyon was every bit as grand as I remembered from the last time I visited, and moreso, because this time I hiked down to the bottom and back, spending four sunny days (and three chilly nights) immersing myself in the Canyon’s majesty at a snail’s pace and at arm’s length.

My brother-in-law, Chuck (at right in the picture above), and I have been hiking together since October, 1980, which makes this our 39th year.  Joe (at left), another friend from college, joined us about 20 years ago on our annual, week-long backpacking adventures.  But here’s something I think we all noticed on this trip:

We’re not getting any younger.

I felt it on that last day, climbing up out of the Canyon, a 3,000-foot change in elevation that was nearly straight up.  On the way to the airport the next day I asked, “How much longer do you think we’re going to be able to do this?”

We’ve talked about it before, especially last year when Chuck had to have back surgery.  We know there will come a time when none of us will be able to shoulder a 50-pound pack and hike ten miles in the mountains.  On this trip we talked about the possibility of doing more base-camping and day-hiking in the future, but none of us seemed shocked by the idea that we might have to make some adjustments, and here’s why:

I’m a pastor, Chuck is an Episcopal priest, and Joe is a hospital chaplain.

Almost every day we spend time with people who are further down this trail than we are. In a recent 24-hour period I visited with a woman who is dying, a man who is recovering from surgery, a child who wanted to know about life after death, and a woman who has had to accept the fact that she cannot walk without a cane.  Mortality is all around us. We deal with it every day. We know we aren’t getting younger and stronger because most of the people we minister to aren’t either.

There’s something comforting about that, and I hope it will stay with me when I realize I’ve taken my last backpacking trip, or when I come to the place that I can’t walk without a cane, or when I’m lying on my own death bed.  I’d love to be able to say, “I’ve seen all this before! This is how it goes!” without feeling any bitterness, any remorse.

And there is a part of me—that adventure-loving part of me—that knows what comes next is the greatest adventure of all, one that will make the Grand Canyon look like a hole in the ground by comparison. I want to live with the kind of appreciation, and acceptance, and unshakable faith that will cause me to look forward to that day even though (as Chuck often reminds me),

“There’s no hurry.”

 

Simple, Good, and True

190403-pancakes-066-copy-1554497284I didn’t preach on Sunday, October 13.

My friend Amy Butler was in town and I thought it would be a treat for the congregation to hear her.  She’s kind of famous, having recently finished a five-year stint as Senior Minister of the world-renowned Riverside Church in New York City where she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bill Moyers, Cornel West, John Legend, Neal Patrick Harris, and Adele.  She preached a great sermon, and everybody seemed happy to hear her, but after spending the morning in the spotlight with a celebrity preacher I was ready for something a little different.

So, Christy and I drove to Boykins, Virginia, an hour-and-a-half away, to join our daughter Catherine and her husband Scott for a pancake supper and hymn sing at Boykins Baptist Church, where Scott is the pastor.  It was drizzling rain when we got there, and so we hurried through the side door and into the fellowship hall just as Scott finished the blessing.  “And here are my in-laws!” he announced.

It reminded me so much of my first church—New Castle Baptist in Kentucky.  The names and faces were different but it could have been the same people sitting around those tables in the fellowship hall.  And so, after hugging Scott and Catherine, I went from table to table introducing myself and learning about them.  Eventually somebody brought me a plate of pancakes, bacon, and stewed apples and I sat down beside Scott to eat and talk “shop.”

“How did things go this morning?” I asked.

“Good!” he said.  “It’s been a good day in church.  How about you?”

“The same,” I said, forking in a mouthful of pancakes, and then, a minute later, “But we didn’t have this!  We didn’t have a pancake supper and hymn sing!”

It really was perfect.

Everybody was talking around the tables.  One woman got up out of her chair to come over and sit beside my mother-in-law, Lu, who had come with us.  They started up a conversation and within minutes were laughing out loud about something.  Christy was talking with Catherine.  I was talking with Scott.  Children were doing laps around the fellowship hall.  The pancake chef (who was also the deacon chair) came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on his apron to ask if anybody wanted more.

Eventually someone sat at the piano to play hymns and (here was a surprise) someone else sat down with a cello.  For nearly an hour we called out the numbers of our favorite hymns as these two musicians accompanied us (beautifully) and we sang from hearts full of love and heads full of memories in an old Baptist church by the side of the road in Boykins, Virginia.

Driving home afterward I began to feel wistful, remembering the days when I was a young pastor in a small-town church.  Was life really so much simpler then, or did it only feel that way, looking back?  I know Scott has had to deal with some fairly complex issues in his two years at Boykins.  He calls me from time to time asking, “Have you ever had to deal with anything like this?”  The life of a pastor is not easy, no matter where you are.  But it sure was sweet, on that rainy Sunday night, to gather in the fellowship hall with the church family to eat pancakes and sing hymns, and a good reminder that the best things about church have nothing to do with celebrity preachers or spotlights.  The best things are simple, and good, and true.

And always have been.

Jim