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 Kingdom Just Keeps Coming!

partnershipRecently I challenged the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church to help me take our mission to the next level.  For a year the whole church was working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia (KOH2RVA).  By the end of the year it was obvious that the job was too big for any one church to do alone, so we began a year of mission called KOHx2 (Kingdom of Heaven Times Two), with an emphasis on partnership.  In the same way that Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to do the work of the Kingdom, it made sense to us to work with other individuals, churches, agencies, and organizations to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond and beyond.

I call this new mission “KOHx2: Bringing It Together.”

I challenged the staff to collect pictures and stories that would illustrate this mission, and to share them with me so I could post them on my blog.  A few days ago I got this email from Senior Associate Pastor Lynn Turner:

Jim

I don’t know if you can use this or not in your blog, but felt compelled to write it just as a reflection from my heart this past week.  It has caused me to think about this partnership thing in a totally different light.

Lynn

What Lynn wrote came out of her regular work at church, which reminded me that church work at its best IS the work of the Kingdom, and sometimes church people step up and help out in ways that truly bring heaven to earth.

Take a look at what Lynn wrote:

Reflections on KOHx2: Partnership and Generosity

It began with phone calls this past week of various needs within our church family: One family, out of full time work, medical needs, and needing some help catching up on bills; Another family, having faced extraordinary medical circumstances, still in the hospital, and their heating system out in their home with no funds at this time to get it fixed: Another family moving into an apartment with need of furniture and the basics to get them on their feet; all members of our congregation and all legitimate needs.
And thus the partnership and generosity wheels began turning…

An anonymous gift to help with current bills, a heating company stepping in to donate a used system and time to install, and an envelope of money given to me by a church member this past week with the words, “Sometimes ministers just need some discretionary funds to help folks out, use this as the needs arise.”

I have been overwhelmed this week with the way God has revealed to me that bringing the kingdom comes with partners….all kinds of partners…with a spirit of generosity that just points to Jesus.

KOHx2 has been hard at work this week. Blessings abound!

KOH2RVA: Day 331

Streetwalking PrayerWay back on Day 40 of this year-long, every-member mission trip I wrote about having lunch with Travis Collins, pastor of Bon Air Baptist Church, and something that church refers to as its “Streetwalking” ministry, headed up by Valerie Carter, Associate Pastor for Glocal Missions. Valerie explained it like this:

In this ministry we walk, pray and engage those whom we meet in what is known as the “prostitution zones” of our city (Jefferson Davis Highway and Chamberlayne Avenue). Our intention is to meet and engage women in prostitution but we share with all those that we meet on any given night. Many of the prostitutes are men in drag. We ask of their well-being, and remind each of them of God’s love for them. We offer a listening ear, share a prayer, and give a list of resources to call for help or to “get out” if ever needed.

At the end of the post I invited anyone who wanted to participate in that ministry to “show up at the Buford Road campus of Bon Air Baptist Church on the third Friday night of each month at 10:00 and tell Travis and Valerie that you’re there to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. They’ll know what you’re talking about.” I’m not sure if Debbie Boykin did it that way or some other way, but somehow she got involved in that ministry, and in response to a recent email from Steve Blanchard describing our own efforts to abolish slavery and human trafficking she wrote this:

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Hey Steve and all,

Just wanted to give you a quick update and overview of our StreetWalking Ministry from July 19.

One lady approached my team member and me. We had waved to her from the sidewalk. She jumped out of the chair she was sitting in with a huge smile on her face as if we were old friends. Neither one of us had ever met her before. We introduced ourselves and told her why we were walking. She hugged our necks and told us that she was a believer but had alcohol issues but God laid it on her heart to jump up and go to us (when I say she jumped I mean she REALLY did jump). She was not intoxicated, but she’d had a few drinks that night. She needs the company of believers around her. She and I will be attending a Bible Study together that is held on Jeff Davis Highway. She is a sister in Christ. Please pray for Tina.

We started wrapping things up around 1:45 a.m. It had been a good night for conversation and prayer. As we crossed the street to end our night with prayer, my team member prayed: “God, if there is anyone else you want us to speak with tonight, now is the time.” We huddled together, debriefed the night with our fellow walkers, held hands in a circle and began our prayer. Someone shouted, “HEY, can I join your group?” We opened our eyes and turned around and there was a young, 20-something woman running toward us. We said, “SURE, come join us!” We told her who we were and why we were there. “Sandy” shared that she was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and heroin and she had become a prostitute to support her habit. She wanted out, but did not know how. We shared with her how to begin, how we could assist her, and that we were there tonight for that very purpose. She held us tight and we prayed and laid hands on her. When we said our Amen, she said, “I usually run away from folks like you. I don’t know why I didn’t tonight, but something told me to run TO this group, NOT away from this group!”

TO GOD BE THE GLORY, GREAT THINGS HE HATH DONE

Isn’t He good??

Debbie

Yes.  God is good.  And God uses good and faithful people to do much of his work on earth.  Thanks Debbie, Steve, Valerie, Travis, and all those others who are trying to rescue the victims of slavery and human trafficking.  In Luke 4 Jesus says, among other things, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to … proclaim release to the captives and … let the oppressed go free.”

It it was important to him, it should be important to us.

KOH2RVA: Day 299

Book Buddies 2Tomorrow will be Day 300 of First Baptist Church’s year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

How are we doing?

Well, the Kingdom hasn’t come, not yet, not entirely, but there have been many times when heaven touched down briefly, just long enough to encourage us. I sometimes think about that remarkable picture of the sixth-grade boy from the housing projects in the East End reading to one of our privileged preschoolers at First Baptist and realize that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been on this mission—if one of our members hadn’t been thinking about what she could do to help bring heaven to earth.

But that’s just one example. There are hundreds more, literally. So many of our members have been involved, and in so many ways. When I flip through the pictures I’ve posted on my blog in the last 299 days the stories come rushing back right along with them until I am almost overwhelmed by God’s goodness and grace and a glimpse of what is possible when his people put their shoulder to the wheel and push in the same direction, toward the coming of his Kingdom.

So I’m putting together a slide show for our closing celebration on Sunday, September 8. It’s going to feature dozens of those pictures and a song called “Heaven” by Michael Gungor that says, “I don’t know but I’ve been told, heaven is coming down to this world.”

There are days when I can believe it, and this day may be one of them. Why not seize the opportunity to do something on this day that is picture-worthy, story-worthy—one of those things that will stay in your memory forever as an example of how heaven can come to earth and sometimes does? And then do this: take a picture, write up the story, and send it to me at somerville@fbcrichmond.org. Who knows? It may be the Day 300 example of how “heaven is coming down to this world.”

KOH2RVA: Day 240

We_Can_Do_It!At the end of worship on Sunday I praised the communion team for “filling all those little cups.” I did it because I had heard some reports about how long it takes to do that, and how much work it is, and how little it seems to be appreciated. So I wanted to appreciate, publicly, the team that fills those little cups so we can have communion.

Since then I’ve been thinking about that line, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” from a poem by John Milton, which was used during World War II to affirm those who didn’t fight on the front lines, yet were still invaluable to the effort.  I found this post on a web site called “WWII Talk” by someone named “Jamesicus”:

Support and Administrative personnel are essential to winning wars. The men and women who fight in battle on the front lines rightfully get most of the glory and reap the accolades for they spill the blood and undergo the extreme hardships and are the most frequently and terribly wounded, often bearing the scars of battle for the rest of their lives. Many pay the supreme sacrifice in the bloom of their youth to defend their country and, in the case of WW2 especially, in order to preserve worldwide liberty and freedom.

However, wars could not be fought nor victories won without the legions of behind the scenes support personnel: clerks, cooks, transportation, supply, medical, maintenance, command & control, weather, civil engineers, legal, training, mechanics ….. and so on (I have probably inadvertently omitted many). They are the unsung and often unheralded heroes and heroines of the military who, like the combat soldiers sailors and airmen, endure long periods of separation from their loved ones, interminable boredom and loneliness and sometimes are wounded or die from non-battlefield injuries.

I want to salute the combat veterans of each branch of all Allied Military forces and offer profound thanks for their service and devotion—particularly those who were wounded or paid the supreme sacrifice in WW2—we are here today enjoying our freedoms and pursuit of happiness because of what they did.

I also salute the myriads of support personnel who toiled so hard and endured so much—frequently without much recognition—in order to insure the success of innumerable military missions and to aid & succor the magnificent fighting men and women.

“They also serve who only stand and wait”

Well said, Jamesicus, whoever you are, and thank you for reminding me that it’s not only the people who are on the front lines of this year-long, every-member mission trip who are helping us succeed, but also the “legions of behind the scenes support” as you put it: the communion team, the baptism team, the teller committee, the Sunday school teachers, the nursery workers, the deacons, the church officers, the standing committee members, the support staff, the custodians, the bus drivers, the ushers and greeters (like Jamesicus, I have “probably inadvertently omitted many”). They are the unsung and often unheralded heroes and heroines of this year-long, every-member mission trip we call KOH2RVA.

We couldn’t do it without them.

KOH2RVA: Day 187

Habitat2By Lori Knapp, Guest Blogger

What do two retired gentlemen, a construction worker, a housewife, a couple of unemployed people, and an employee of C. F. Sauer have in common? Bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

On Wednesday the First Baptist bus came to a stop in front of 3300 T Street, in Richmond’s Churchill district. Seven of us, all church members, stood in the chilly early morning air, awaiting our assignments for a day on the job with Richmond’s Habitat for Humanity.

We came ready to work, not knowing what the day would bring, who we would meet, or whether we would be working outside or in. Our assignment was to paint. Three homes awaited their first coat of paint. Ceilings, and closets, and walls, Oh my! And we weren’t prepared to paint. Most of us donated perfectly good clothes to the cause, as we rolled, cut in, and trim-painted the three homes.

We worked side by side with a young man who is the owner of a previously built Habitat home, just 5 doors down. The people who apply for Habitat houses are required to put in 320 hours of “sweat equity” on their homes, with at least 100 hours on the construction site. This man, Jose, told me that working on the houses gave him a sense of pride, and ownership, and that he prays for his new neighbors-to-be. His family is very careful to keep their home in good, clean condition, especially since they know how much work goes into each one. Sitting and sharing our lunch with him made my heart swell.

On Wednesday seven of us answered the call to get off the bus and onto the mission field, to do our part in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Talking with Jose helped me see just how much difference our efforts can make, and yet I came away feeling that I received much more than I gave.

Here am I, Lord. Use me.

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Photo: Stacy Hansen, Bob Palmer, Roland Evans, Millie Barnes, Lori Knapp, and David Humrich take a well-deserved break on the Habitat job site.

KOH2RVA: Day 181

Good news!  The Kingdom of Heaven is coming to Richmond, Virginia!  This letter from CARITAS, one of our partners in the effort to end homelessness, will make a believer out of you!

To: CARITAS Congregation Partners
From: Sharon Drescher, CARITAS Volunteer Manager
Date: March 5, 2013
Subject: CARITAS and the Fight to End Homelessness

homeless manTogether we are fighting the good fight against Homelessness and we are WINNING! The most recent numbers show that our overall numbers are down. This is good news! We thank you for joining us in this valuable work and hope you know we could not do this without all of you.

CARITAS started as a winter cots program nearly 25 years ago with limited client services. Learning from our experience and innovating along the way, CARITAS added case management to address the root causes of homelessness, such as mental illness and addiction. Today, there is a newer model that is proving to be more effective and efficient in helping the homeless become independent in our community. Research shows that people are better able to become self-sufficient if they live in housing (rather than emergency shelter) early on and are surrounded there with the support services they need. This focus on prevention and rapid re-housing has been endorsed by Homeward, our authority on best practices, and government funding sources are moving in this direction as well. We join with our other partners in human services area in supporting these coordinated community-wide efforts.

Even though the emphasis has shifted, we recognize that there will always be a need for emergency shelter. CARITAS has made a commitment to continue to provide emergency shelter for the neediest among us, and we will continue to need you, our congregation partners.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO YOU?

For those of you who are currently hosting CARITAS Shelter guests this means there will be some changes in our available weeks. CARITAS will not need to open a second men’s site during the winter months; so, there will be fewer host weeks needed during those months. We are hoping that many of you will schedule your host weeks at another time of year. There is always a need for hosting clients in the summer months.

ADDITIONAL MISSION OPPORTUNITIES:

There are many additional ways to participate and support our local mission. Our other programs include: the CARITAS Furniture Bank, CARITAS Works (career readiness programs offer many great ways to get to know us even better), and The Healing Place, our new 12-step residential recovery program.

• You, and anyone from your congregation, are invited to visit us, attend our uplifting Morning Motivations session at 8:45 am M-F or come to New Volunteer Orientation any Wednesday at 1pm.

• Furniture/Household Essential Drives are perfect ways to help us keep our shelves full and ready to serve our 80 families each month.

• A furniture build or a men’s clothing drive are good opportunities for your youth group or Sunday school class.

• Your financial support allows us to provide help across our programs where it’s needed the most.

Moving people from Shelter to Stability is not a band aid quick fix but a long-term effort to address a community crisis. Working together we can help solve this problem. Your ongoing support is a vital part of that solution.

Trust us to continue to bring you this important mission work. As the largest homeless services program in the area, we understand the problem, work closely with other agencies to leverage our resources and will always need your help to assist our most vulnerable.

Our doors at 1125 E. Commerce Road are open, and we are ready to engage you in purpose that transforms lives right here in our community. Thank you for your continued support, and please let me know if you have questions. I can be reached at 804-343-5008 x424 or sdrescher@caritasva.org