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

The Girl from Kissimmee

I can still remember my first real date.  It was with this girl I met at summer camp.  She had been visiting a cousin in Charleston,West Virginia, but she was from a place called Kissimmee, Florida.  The first time she said it it sounded like an invitation.  “Where are you from?” I asked, and she said, “Florida.”  “Where in Florida?” I asked, and she said, “Kissimmee,” in a way that made it sound just like “Kiss me.”

I wanted to.  I really did.  But she was so young and I was so shy I just blushed and thought, “Maybe another time.”

So, when she wrote to me the next year and said she was coming back to visit her cousin I asked her if she’d like to go out.  She said she would, which created a whole new set of challenges.  I had just gotten my driver’s license a few months before and the only car we had that was nearly nice enough to take a girl out in was this old Fiat station wagon someone had given us.  At one time it had been a nice, bright red, but years of sitting out in the sun had dulled it to a red that was almost the color of rust.  Or maybe it was rust.  Either way, I spent most of a summer day washing that car and waxing it until that rusty red paint job was shining bright.  I got out the vacuum cleaner and an extension cord and sucked up all the dirt off the floorboards, I wiped down all the interior surfaces and washed the windows, and then I took a needle and a piece of brown thread and sewed up a rip in the driver’s seat until you could hardly see it at all. 

And then I cleaned myself up and dressed in my best blue jeans and got in that car and drove all the way to Charleston—an hour away—to see that girl. 

I’m pretty sure that engine had four cylinders in it, but on the way to Charleston I became convinced that only three of them were working, and if I got above 45 miles an hour that little car vibrated so badly I thought I would lose the fillings in my teeth.  I had trouble finding that girl’s house in those days before GPS’s were invented, and when I brought her out to the car all she said was, “It sure is little.” 

That didn’t sound like a compliment. 

I took her out to dinner where we quickly discovered that we didn’t have much in common and mostly ended up staring at our plates.  I brought her back home and can’t even remember if I tried to steal a kiss before I came around to her side of the car to let her out.  It wasn’t all that I had imagined.  It wasn’t even close.  But look what that girl had done to me!  How the very thought of seeing her again had kept me working all day to turn the sow’s ear of that old Fiat station wagon into a silk purse. 

That story came to mind in this season of Advent and made me think that if I would do all that for some girl I hardly knew, how much more should I be willing to get myself shined up and ready for the coming of Christ?

How to Stay Warm on a Cold Night

Snuggle_Buddies_by_DragonflyHeartSometimes everything just comes together.

It did this morning at community missions, down on the basement level of our building.  I try to go down there every Wednesday morning to greet our homeless neighbors and make them feel welcome.  I usually share a thought and say a prayer.  I don’t always know what my “thought” is going to be until it’s time to speak, but this morning everything came together. 

I was watching people come in from outside, shaking the rain off their caps and jackets.  I knew that it wouldn’t be long before they start to come in shivering from the cold.  So when Brenda Andrews announced (confidently) that I was going to share a good word I began to tell them about David.

For four weeks now on Tuesday nights I have been telling the story of King David out at Westminster Canterbury, the elegant retirement community on Westbrook Road.  This week I was talking about the end of David’s life and how, when he was an old man, he just couldn’t stay warm.  “He would go to bed at night and shiver beneath his blankets,” I said.  “His bones would ache with the cold, his knees would knock together, and no matter how many covers they piled on top of him he couldn’t get warm.”

I could see people nodding their heads; they’d had nights like that, except they hadn’t had a bed to sleep in and not nearly so many covers.

“You may have read in the Book of Ecclesiastes,” I said: “‘Two can stay warm under the same blanket, but how can one stay warm alone?'” (Ecc. 4:11). 

I’m not sure they had read it, but I could see that it made sense to everyone in the room.  “Yes, two can stay warm under the same blanket!”  Some of them smiled at memories they would have been embarrassed to share.

“So David’s advisors suggested that they find the prettiest girl in Israel and let her try to keep David warm at night.  This idea pleased the king (Oh, did it?), and so they held a national beauty contest, going through every village from Dan to Beersheba looking for the prettiest girl in the land.  They finally settled on Abishag the Shunnamite, and from that night on (although the Bible makes it clear that she had no “relations” with him), Abishag slept in David’s bed and kept him warm.”

I don’t think most of the people at community missions had heard that story before, though it’s right there in 1 Kings, chapter 1.  They smiled at the image of the old king finally warm at night, and some of them must have wondered how they would stay warm when the winter winds begin to blow.

“The thing I love about David,” I said, “is that he was so human, so real.  He had been a great warrior—a giant killer!—but he got to be an old man who couldn’t stay warm at night.  He loved God and wanted to please him but he also made some terrible mistakes along the way and had to beg for God’s forgiveness.  Still, he was remembered as the greatest king who ever lived in Israel, and his story gives me hope.”

“If God can use someone like David, he can use all of us, can’t he?”

And they nodded, they really did. 

“Of course he can!”

 

The Girl in the Purple Shoes

purple-irisesI was at Starbucks this afternoon, reading through a stack of correspondence, studying for Wednesday night’s sermon from Mark 12:1-12, and savoring the first few pages of Phyllis Tickle’s new book, The Great Emergence, when I looked up and saw a pair of shoes that inspired poety.  Here’s the result:

There is a girl
with her purple tennis shoes propped up
on the window sill at Starbucks,
jiggling her heels up and down
as she reads a thick textbook and nibbles
a slice of iced lemon pound cake.

It occurs to me that she
picked out those purple shoes;
That she looked through her closet and decided
that for this day—
this first gloomy,
then rainy,
now (surprisingly!) sunny Springtime day—
those shoes the color of purple irises
would be perfect.

–Jim Somerville, © 2009

A Million Miles from Heaven

Hear or download this post (mp3 file – 3:21): A Million Miles from Heaven

The story was buried on page A15 in Sunday’s Washington Post, but of all the stories I read before my afternoon nap it was the one that haunted my dreams.  The opening sentence summed it up like a coroner’s report: “MOGADISHU, Somalia, Nov. 1 — A 13-year-old girl who said she had been raped was stoned to death in Somalia after being accused of adultery.” 

A thirteen-year-old girl.  Stoned.  To death.

The story continued: “Dozens of men stoned Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow to death Monday in a stadium packed with 1,000 spectators in the southern port city of Kismaayo, Amnesty International reported.”

By dozens of men.  In a stadium.  Packed with 1,000 spectators.

“The Islamist militia in charge of Kismaayo had accused her of adultery after she reported that three men had raped her, the rights group said.  Initial local news reports said that Duhulow was 23, but her father told Amnesty International that she was 13.  Some of the Somali journalists who first reported the killing later told the human rights group that they had reported she was 23 based on her physical appearance.”

The fact that a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death is horrifying in and of itself, but the circumstanes make it more horrifying still.  Chief among these, for me, is the image of a stadium packed with 1,000 spectators, watching as dozens of men stone to death a 13-year-old girl wrongfully accused of adultery.  Wasn’t there anyone among those thousand who stood up and shouted “NO!”?  Can a thousand people sit and watch quietly while an act of murderous injustice is performed? 

I keep saying that at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we’re trying to “bring heaven to earth,” and I keep encouraging people to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and go to work there.  But so much of the time what I see around First Baptist looks heavenly.  I can almost convince myself that our work here is done.  But if I walk around the neighborhood for a while I can see that we’re not done yet.  And if I drive into some other, poorer parts of the city I can see that heaven’s a long way away.  And when I read an article like this one I see that there are some parts of the world where heaven is so far from earth people must wonder if it will ever come.  I think of that little girl’s father, sobbing into his pillow over his daughter’s senseless death, and I think I know why Jesus had to die on the cross—because evil like this won’t be overcome with a few minutes’ tidying-up: 

It’s going to take everything we’ve got.

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This photo was taken by John Watson, and has been one of the most requested photos on my blog.