Eulogy for a Tiny, Bright-Eyed Bird

Purple FinchOn Thursday, November 10, I got word that a 15-year-old girl in the church’s youth group had taken her own life.  I jumped in my car and went to the hospital where I found her mother in the waiting room.  I hugged her and hugged her, not knowing what to say and thinking it might be best not to say anything.  But on Tuesday, November 15, we held a memorial service for her daughter in a sanctuary full of grieving friends and family members and a few hundred tearful teenagers, wondering how such a thing could happen to one of their own. This is what I said:

Last Friday morning I went running with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in Richmond, and as we ran I told him what had happened the day before, Thursday, when I got the news about Kat.  I told him the whole sad story and he was a good pastor to me.  He listened, and consoled me, and promised to pray for me today, because he knows how hard it can be to try to find just the right words in times like these.  But when we finished our run he asked, “What was her name again?”  “Fink,” I said.  “Kat Fink.  I’m sure it means something beautiful in German.”  “It does!” he said.  “I had a friend in college named Fink.  It means ‘finch,’ you know, like the bird.”  And I did know the bird.  Finches are some of my favorites.  They are tiny birds with bright eyes and beautiful voices.  I thought, “How perfect for Kat, who seemed so fragile, so vulnerable—like a little bird—and yet who had those bright eyes and that beautiful voice.”  And then yesterday I looked again at the verse I read at her baptism, the one Bart read earlier from Matthew 6: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…. Look at the birds of the air; are you not of more value than they?”

Kat was of so much more value than they.  I think about the words of Psalm 139 and how they describe her.  The psalmist says, “It was you, Lord, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  And so was Kat, fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet here we are at her memorial service, and many of us are wondering why.  Why did this have to happen, and what could we have done to prevent it?  I’m reminded of that story from John 11, where Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died and Jesus goes to the funeral.  It was there, John tells us, that “Jesus wept,” because he loved Lazarus so much.  Lazarus’ sister, Martha, comes out to meet him and says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  A little later her sister Mary comes out and says the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Can you imagine how that must have hurt?  And yet it’s something we all do at a time like this; we all begin to say, “If only.”  “If only I had been there.”  “If only I had called her.”  “If only I had been a better friend.”  But I want you to notice what Jesus does in John 11: he says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  And she says, “I know he will, on the Resurrection, at the last day.”  But Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection, and the life.  Those who believe in me, even if they die, will live.  And everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.”  What Jesus is saying to Martha is that he is not responsible for Lazarus’ death; he is responsible for his life.  And I say to you—all of you who are thinking “if only”—you are not responsible for Kat’s death.  Kat was responsible for her death.  But Jesus Christ is responsible for her everlasting life.

He is the Resurrection.

“So, why did she do it?” you ask.  “Why did she take her own life?”  We may never know, but our best guess is that Kat suffered from an illness we call “depression.”  If she had died of cancer we would still be sad, but at least we would understand, wouldn’t we?  We know how cancer works.  But depression is different.  We don’t understand it all that well, but we do know that there are different kinds and different levels, from feeling depressed because you got a bad grade on a math test to feeling unending, unbearable mental anguish for no reason at all.  I don’t understand it all that well, but I understand it better after more than a year of counseling a woman in our church who suffers from severe depression, and sometimes contemplates suicide.  She’s been very honest with me about it, and she’s asked all the right questions.

When she asked, “Is suicide an unforgivable sin?” I said, “No.  According to Jesus the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”  When she asked, “Is suicide ever an option? I said, “No.  Matters of life and death belong in God’s hands, and Gods hands only.”  When she asked, “What should I do when I’m tempted to commit suicide?”  I said, “When you feel your hand reaching out to do harm to yourself, use it instead to pick up the phone and call me, and if I don’t answer call 911 and say, ‘I need help.'”   Not long ago I got that call from her, and I was able to help, and I was so proud of her for calling.  But still she talks about pain that won’t go away.  She talks about wanting to do whatever it will take to make the pain stop.  But mostly she talks about this feeling of being down in a hole, a deep, dark hole, with no way out.

One day I asked her to describe that hole and she said, “It’s deep.”  “How deep?” I asked.  “So deep you can’t see any light at the top,” she said.  “How wide is it?” I asked.  “About wide enough to stretch out your arms,” she said.  “What are the walls made of?” I asked.  “Dirt,” she said.  “Do they go straight up or do they angle?” I asked.  “They go straight up.”  “And what’s the floor like?”  “It’s dirt, too,” she said, “And some gravel.”  Her answers were very specific.  They made me believe she had spent a lot of time in that hole.  But then I remembered something I did once when I was a boy and I told her about it.  My mother had plucked a chicken (some of you may know what that means), and she asked me to bury the grocery bag full of feathers in an unused part of the garden.  So, I went out there with a shovel and began to dig.  The dirt was so soft that I soon had a nice sized hole, but it was also so soft that I kept on digging until I had dug a proper grave for those chicken feathers.  I buried them, but then I moved over a few feet and began to dig again.  I dug most of the rest of that day, until I had a circular hole about six feet across and about six feet deep.  When I stood at the bottom I could stretch my arms out and almost touch the walls on each side.

The next day I dug a tunnel out of the hole and up to the surface, and then I covered the hole with some old boards and a tarp, and shoveled loose dirt on top of it until you could hardly tell it was there.  I dragged a bale of straw in there from the barn and scattered it on the floor of my hole until it was warm and dry and sweet smelling.  I cut a niche in the wall, put a candle in a quart jar, lit the candle, and put it in the niche.  And then I took my sleeping bag down there, and a pillow, and a good book, and a snack, and I wish you could have seen me, lying on that sleeping bag, my head propped up on a pillow, surrounded by sweet smelling straw, eating a snack and reading a book by the light of that candle.

When I finished telling that story this woman was smiling at the very thought of turning a hole into such a happy place.  I said, “Maybe you could do the same.  Maybe, the next time you find yourself in that hole, you could get comfortable, find a good book, light a candle, and have a snack.  And maybe you could let that candle be a symbol of God’s presence.”  And then I told her, “That’s why we light the candles in the sanctuary.  Every time we have a service in there we light the candles to remind us that God is present.  And God is present.  There isn’t anywhere we can go that God isn’t present.  Psalm 139 says: “If I make my bed in Sheol (which is really nothing more than a hole in the ground), you are there.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  As it says in John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.”  And in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for God is with me.”

God is with us.

And Kat…is with God.

–Jim Somerville

KOH2RVA: Day 285

River Baptism

I got a call on Wednesday from a producer in New York who is working on a documentary film about faith—“the positive aspects of faith,” she said, suggesting by her tone of voice that there are some aspects of faith that are not so positive. She has in mind a very ambitious seven-part series, but the first part would be a two-hour documentary on “the birth of faith,” and that’s why she was talking to me.

She had found some pictures of First Baptist Richmond’s annual river baptism online and thought that it would be a wonderful way to talk about and think about the birth of faith. She was calling to find out more about it and, especially, to ask if I thought the church would be open to participating in the project.

She asked how the annual river baptism got started, and I surprised myself by saying, “Well, this town has a river running through it, a beautiful river” (in fact, Richmond was recently named the Number One River City in America by Outside magazine). “It seemed only natural to take advantage of that, and to do at least one baptism a year outdoors.”

She wanted to know about baptism itself. She had grown up Presbyterian, in Ohio. She knew about infant baptism followed by confirmation at a later age but she didn’t know about immersion. I told her I had grown up Presbyterian as well, but because my family moved around so much I had missed confirmation. And so, at the age of 14, I asked to be baptized, and a few weeks later my father—a Presbyterian minister—and a friend of his who was a Baptist minister dipped me down under the muddy waters of the Big Coal River in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I told her how the Apostle Paul seemed to think of baptism as a kind of death, burial, and resurrection; how the old “you” goes down into the water and “dies,” and a new you comes up (Romans 6:4-11). I told her that for some people it is the perfect symbol for leaving behind a life they’ve made a mess of and starting fresh.  I told her how the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the first breath of their new life in Christ.

I must have done a good job because when I got finished she said, “That makes me want to get baptized!”

So, there may be a film crew at our annual river baptism on July 21. And there may be a producer who throws down her clipboard, rips off her headset, and wades out into the water. As you might have read on this blog a few days ago, baptism is one of those places where heaven comes closest to earth, and maybe that’s why we’re having a river baptism: because we’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia,

And this is one of the best ways we know to do it.

KOH2RVA: Day 280

Roberts BaptismI’m back from a week at the beach, where I was privileged to participate in my nephew Robert’s baptism. Robert is 19 years old, but he’s lived through a lot in his young life, including an automobile accident that could have killed him. I still shudder when I see pictures of the car. But that was a different time in his life, a time when he was doing some things he needed to leave behind.

Last Thursday night he did exactly that.

Before Robert (and my brother Gray and I) waded out into the water for his baptism I told the family that both Jesus and Paul talk about baptism. Paul talks about it as if it were a kind of death, in which the old person is buried in the waters of baptism and the new person is raised from the dead (Romans 6). Jesus talks about it as a kind of birth, where the one who is baptized is “born again” into a whole new life (John 3). But both Jesus and Paul talk about baptism as a symbol of transformation in which an old life is left behind and a new life begins.

Roberts Baptism afterThat’s been happening for Robert for months now. His life really is changing. His parents talk about it as a miracle. To participate in his baptism, and to witness that miracle first-hand, was an experience of heaven on earth. It didn’t hurt that we were on Kiawah Island, at sunset, on a lovely evening in June, but to wade out into the surf, and to dip Robert down into the ocean of God’s love, and to see the look on his face when he came up again, well…it was as if the sky opened up, and the Spirit came down, and a voice said, “This is my beloved son.”

And he is.

This morning I’m back in Richmond and looking forward to a great day at church and a great week of working to help bring heaven to earth right here, in this place where I live, this place that I love.

I hope you’ll join me.

KOH2RVA: Day 98

Sandy HookFirst Baptist Church has spent nearly 100 days working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, in a year-long, every-member mission trip. I don’t know that every member has been involved, but it certainly does seem that way. Many of them stop me in the hallway to tell me about the work they’ve been doing. They’re excited about it. You can hear it in their voices. You can see it on their faces. And that’s good, because on a day like today I’m thinking about how it takes all of us working together with Jesus to make this world more like heaven while it only takes one of us to make it more like hell.

It happened yesterday.

While we may never know what drove him to do it we know that 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire on Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 26 people—many of them children—before turning the gun on himself. It’s hard to imagine a more horrifying, or hellish, scenario.

How long will it take to undo the damage Adam Lanza did? Forever. While it will take days to restore some semblance of order at Sandy Hook Elementary, weeks to memorialize the 26 people who died in yesterday’s shootings, months to get things back to “normal” in Newtown, some things will never be the same. Parents who lost children will never get them back again, not in this life. And that’s when I become grateful to tears that it’s not all up to us.

While we can “labor alongside Jesus in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth,” Jesus can do some things we can’t. He can bring earth to heaven. He can take the tragedy of yesterday’s shootings and lay it before his heavenly Father. And the Father—who loves little children—can take them in his arms, breathe new life into their broken bodies, and welcome them into his eternal presence.

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes,” writes the author of Revelation. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4).

Until then we keep working with Jesus to bring heaven to earth. We renew our determination. We strengthen our resolve. We know as we didn’t know two days ago…

…it’s going to take all of us.

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Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

KOH2RVA: Day 46

Martin McCain

Yesterday I wrote about “The Memphis Model,” a partnership between hospitals and congregations to keep people healthy. I talked about how doctors and hospitals know about the things that lead to death, but pastors and congregations know about the things that lead to life. Consider the example of one man:

Every two weeks or so, this diabetic’s bad habits—drinking, getting high—landed him in Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s seven-hospital system in Memphis. During a hospital visit a couple of years back, a question sparked the beginning of the change.

“Who’s your pastor?” hospital staff member Blanch Thomas asked. The Rev. Martin McCain, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, he responded. Ms. Thomas checked records and found the church was in Methodist Healthcare’s Congregational Health Network—the official title of the Memphis Model.

Ms. Thomas, who carries the title “navigator” in the network, called Dr. McCain. He unleashed some tough love on the man.

“I told him, ‘You have to take care of yourself if you want to be helpful to your girlfriend and your kids. You are too sick to be out running around with your fellas,’” Dr. McCain said.

Dr. McCain persisted, often tracking the man down on the streets. The pastor also kept in close contact with Ms. Thomas.

Today, the man—now 31—has made positive lifestyle changes that keep him away from the hospital for months at a time.

“I hate to even think about where he’d be if it wasn’t for CHN,” Ms. Thomas said of the network (by Nancy Hull Rigdon, the United Methodist Reporter, October 24, 2012).

Again, I wonder if we could do something like that in Richmond: create a partnership between hospitals and congregations that would give people life and not just save people’s lives. It’s not just “tough love” that people need. Some people need tender love. They need someone to bring them a casserole when they come home from the hospital, someone to remind them to take their pills, someone to drive them to a doctor’s appointment. All of those are ways of helping people stay healthy and stay out of the hospital. Wouldn’t that be a good way to bring heaven to earth?

KOH2RVA: Day 45

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What does the church have to do with health care?

More than you might think.  Certainly more than I thought before hearing Gary Gunderson speak last night.  

Gary is convinced that the church is a vital part of the health care system in this country.  In fact, he says that while hospitals are essentially “treatment systems,” churches are essentially “health systems,” and while doctors know what will kill you, pastors know what will give you life.  

He should know.  

The Rev. Dr. Gary Gunderson is Vice President of Faith and Health Services at Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Prior to that he held a similar position at a hospital in Memphis where he discovered that people who were part of a faith community had about half the “raw mortality rate” of those who were not, and stayed out of the hospital 39% longer.  He enlisted 400 congregations in the Memphis area to partner with the hospital in keeping people healthy.  

It worked.

Dr. Gunderson’s approach has become known as “the Memphis Model,” and the people in Winston-Salem are very excited about using that model there. I’m wondering what would happen if we tried it in Richmond.

Could churches all over town partner with hospitals to keep people healthy?  Could this be one of the ways we help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia?

I need to learn more about the Memphis Model, but last night’s talk whetted my appetite.  I love the idea that while doctors and hospitals are busy preventing the things that lead to death, pastors and congregations are busy promoting the things that lead to life.  

Let’s do some of that today.

Surviving the Hurriquake

Since my last post I have survived a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt as far north as Boston, and felt the gusting fury of Hurricane Irene, which ripped up a half dozen ancient oaks on my street and left most of the city without power. 

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but as I stood in my study last Tuesday watching the light fixtures swing back and forth, as I felt the floor shaking beneath my feet and the wall trembling behind me, I remembered the prayer I used to say in Washington, DC, in those days just after 9/11: “Lord, if this is my day to die, let me do it with faith and courage.”

It wasn’t so bad during the hurricane, but at one point I looked out the window and watched as a giant tree toppled toward my side of the street, missing my daughter’s car by inches.  It made me gulp, and think about how vulnerable we are, how quickly the flame of our fragile lives can be snuffed out.  I survived the storm, but according to this morning’s newspaper at least 20 people didn’t.  What were they thinking in those last seconds of earthly life?

When the earthquake came it took me a full fifteen seconds to figure out what it was.  At first I thought someone was pushing a heavy cart across the floor above me, but as the rumble grew deeper and the building began to shake I knew that couldn’t be it.  When I saw the light fixture begin to swing back and forth I thought, “This is an earthquake!” and at first all I felt was wonder.  I’d never been in an earthquake before (“So this is what it’s like!”).  But then I realized that the floor above me could fall on top of me, crush me and kill me, and that’s when I began to pray. 

It seems to be my instinct, in such “moments of mortality,” to make my peace with God, to make sure that things are OK between us in case I should find myself suddenly standing before him.  But then, in the next second, my mind reaches out toward the people I love, toward friends and family, making sure that things are OK between us in case I should die before I have a chance to say “I’m sorry.” 

Is this why Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and others?  Did he know better than most of us just how fragile life is, how quickly it can end, and how important it is to tend and nurture our most important relationships?  Because an earthquake could come, a tree could fall, and you might not have time in that “moment of mortality” to make your peace with God or say you’re sorry to others. 

Maybe that’s why it felt so right to go to church yesterday morning, after the storm—to spend some time with God and others—to make my peace and say my prayers and hug some people who are dear to me and who need to know it.  If those moments of mortality serve no other purpose they serve that one: they help us remember what matters most.  And for that, among other things, I am grateful.

It’s going to be a beautiful day today.  The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of 83 degrees. 

If I’m not careful, I’ll forget everything I learned.