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

When Regular Hospitality Seems Radical

Iraqi mother and childLouis Watts introduced me to three couples from Iraq on Sunday.

I had a hard time getting the story straight, but apparently they had watched the worship services from First Baptist on the Internet while they were still in their home country, and now that they were in Richmond (VCU students?), they wanted to visit the church they had only seen on their laptops before.

So they came, and they brought their children, and they left them in the nursery while they attended the service.

Can you imagine going to Iraq, and visiting a mosque, and leaving your children in the nursery?  That must have been what it was like for them, but they did it, and apparently it was a surprisingly good experience for everyone.

No surprise to me: Candi Brown, our Minister to Children, and her crew of volunteers are some of the most loving and caring people on the planet.  But I was still gratified to read this email Louis sent to Candi on Monday morning:

Candi:

Thanks to you and all of your nursery workers for your compassionate care for the Iraqi children attending with their parents at yesterday’s worship service. I can tell you through further conversations with the families at lunch yesterday that the parents were very pleased for their children to get such good care.

The family that had the two little girls have been through great difficulty. Their first child, a son was born in Iraq, but lived only one day; his lungs were underdeveloped and he could not breathe. The second child, the oldest girl yesterday, has significant brain damage and had some problem with her digestive system resulting in her being undernourished. They could do nothing for her in Iraq. Since being in Richmond, she was hospitalized at MCV for 17 days where they performed surgery on her stomach to correct some problems with digestion and installed a feeding tube. She has begun to thrive, at least physically, since that surgery. The third child, also a daughter, seems to be completely healthy. So all of this to say that they were at first hesitant to leave their children, but the husband told me that yesterday was the happiest his wife had been in a long time – seeing that her children were loved and cared for while attending the church service.

A little bit of heaven came to some Iraqi children while in your care yesterday! God bless all of you and all that you do!

Louis

There are times when regular hospitality seems radical, and Sunday was one of those times.

Let’s keep on opening our doors and our hearts, friends, for in doing so some have entertained angels unaware (Heb. 13:2).

Lust and Evangelism

Years ago I read a book by Ferrol Sams called Run with the Horsemen, in which he describes this scene from a small-town barbershop:  “Once Mr. Sam Percy was waiting his turn on a Saturday morning for a haircut and shave.  He was making detailed anatomical comments about each and every female who walked down the street or across the courthouse square.  Finally one young girl hove into view, and Mr. Sam was silent.  Mr. Lum Thornton loudly remarked, ‘Now there’s a fine one!’ [and went on to describe the finer points of her anatomy in graphic detail].  “‘Dammit, Lum,’ complained Mr. Sam Percy, ‘Watch your mouth.  That’s my daughter.’  Mr. Isaac Harte flipped his brush around the neck of the current customer, creating a cloud of talcum powder.  ‘Sam,’ he said softly, ‘ever one of them girls was somebody’s daughter.’” 

That’s just the truth, isn’t it?  Every woman is somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife, and if you can remember that it will help you think of her in a different way.  When you lust after anyone—male or female—you turn that person into a thing, into an object of lust.  Which reminds me of the way some people practice evangelism.  Instead of seeing non-Christians as precious children of God they see them as “souls to be saved.”   Is that any different from looking at a woman and seeing only a body—looking at a person and seeing only a soul? 

I was talking about this to someone who was getting ready to go to a Muslim country as a missionary.  I said, “Please just love those people like God loves them.  Get to know them.  Chop vegetables with them in their kitchens, notice how they put their children to bed, watch the way they move when the music is good, learn the sound of their laughter.  If you form real relationships with them, simply because you want to get to know them and not because you’re trying to convert them, there will be plenty of opportunities to share your faith.  But don’t “use” your friendship to convert them to Christianity.  Just be a Christian friend.”

Now, that may not sound very “strategic” to you, but to me it sounds more like love and less like lust.  It sounds like a way of seeing people as people, and not only as souls.  You see, I don’t think God gave his only begotten son begotten because he loves souls; I think he gave his only begotten son because he loves people.

Keeping the Fifth Commandment

I’m in Frederick, Maryland, today, honoring my father and mother by taking care of them while my brother Scott and his family prepare for his daughter’s wedding at their farm in West Virginia. 

It’s been a pleasure.

This morning, for example, Dad came in to breakfast with a memory about sacking oats in his boyhood with a fellow named “Willie T.”  Dad said, “There we were, sacking oats in that little shed with the tin roof on it, on one of the hottest days in the summer, and boy, did Willie T stink!”  I had never heard that story before, and I had to look for a place to file the mental picture it created.

And then Mom spread out all her family photos on the dining room table while I was doing some reading for Sunday’s sermon.  One after another she would push them across to me and ask me if I remembered this or that event.  There they were: pictures of me and my brothers, my grandparents, some of the places we used to live.  Most of them I had seen before, but some of them were new.  Again I looked for places in my brain to store the images. 

The mental file cabinets are overflowing.

I’ve cooked meals for my folks, washed dishes, helped Dad get a shower, helped Mom find a pen—all those things they used to do for me without grumbling or complaining.  And it really is that endless stream of “little things” that flows into the pool of family love.  They did them for me, and now I get to do them for them, and the pool gets deeper and wider. 

If there were a theme for this Fifth Commandment Retreat it might be “Abundance”: an abundance of memories, an abundance of love, an abundance of care once received and now given with gratitude.  “Honor your father and mother,” God said.  Today it strikes me not so much as a command but as an offer, as a way of entering into abundant life.  But those of you who have cared for your aging parents know how it goes:

Tomorrow may be another story altogether.

How Trust Is Like Humpty Dumpty

It was my foster brother’s fault.

We were walking to the bus stop one morning after a heavy rain.  It was a long walk, and there were puddles everywhere, and somewhere along the way Bill stamped his foot down hard in a puddle and splashed my leg.  And then I splashed him.  And then he splashed me again.  And just when I was getting ready to splash him back he stopped me.

“Hey!” he said, with a mischievous grin on his face.  “If we get wet enough maybe we won’t have to go to school!”

And that was how we both ended up back at home, dripping wet and explaining to my mother that we had “accidentally” fallen into a puddle.

“I guess it’s too late to go to school now, huh?” I said, hopefully.

“Change your clothes,” my mother said, firmly.  “I’ll drive you.”

That was not what we had hoped for.  Bill and I trudged wetly up the stairs to our room where he made a last, desperate, suggestion:

“Let’s hide our shoes!”

“What?”

“Let’s hide our dry shoes.  And then we’ll only have these wet ones.  And your mom won’t make us go to school in wet shoes.”

It didn’t seem like much of a plan, but it was all we had. We hid our only dry shoes and then spent the next half hour frantically “looking” for them.  I began to feel uneasy about it, and when my mother interrupted the search long enough to pray that God would help us find our shoes I felt even worse.  finally she just told us to put on our wet ones, and drove us to school in stony silence. 

It was a few days later that I needed my other shoes.  I went straight to the spot where I had hidden them, dragged them out into the middle of the floor, and began to put them on.

“Jim?” my mother said, from behind a half-closed door.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Did you find your shoes?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“I saw you,” she said, coolly.  “You went right to them.”

“Right!  I said, thinking quickly.  “I remembered where I left them!”

“No,” she said, with a mother’s unquestionable authority, “you remembered where you hid them.”

Gulp.

“You lied to me,” she said at last.  “And now, how will I ever be able to trust you again?”

———————————————

Here is the truth:  Trust, once it has been broken, is nearly impossible to mend.  Like Humpty Dumpty it lies in a pile of pieces that no one can put together again, at least not anytime soon.  I’m pleased to tell you that my mother learned to trust me again, but it didn’t happen overnight.  It took years of unblinking honesty, years of proving myself trustworthy, to overcome that one miserable lie.

So, this is my advice to you: don’t do it.  Don’t tip the fragile trust of a loved one—or anyone—over a wall.  Once it is broken it is broken.

And all the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Can’t put Trust
Back together again.

Self-Centered Service

work-glovesI told the congregation on Sunday that I would be going to South Carolina for a few days this week on a “Fifth Commandment Mission Trip.”  I could see the blank looks on some faces and so I reminded them that the fifth commandment is the one that says, “You shall honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land” (Exodus 20:12).  A Fifth Commandment Mission Trip is one in which you honor your father and mother by driving to their home in South Carolina with your toolbox and work gloves and doing whatever needs to be done around their house. 

I don’t know yet what needs to be done.  I don’t know if I will be able to do it.  But I hope that my very presence with my aging, ailing parents will honor them.  I will probably offer to cut the grass and trim up around the place if that hasn’t been done.  I’m sure there will be some small repairs I can make and some painting I can do.  I’ll probably make a trip to the grocery store, bring back something really yummy, and offer to cook it.  I’ll get Mom to play the piano and we’ll sing a few old hymns.  I’ll sit by Dad’s bedside and tell him about my work.  At night I will lie down on clean sheets in the guest room, exhausted and grateful for this time with my parents.

Before you click on the “comment” link to say, “Oh, Jim!  What a sweet thing to do!” remember that this is a Fifth Commandment mission trip: it’s completely self-centered.  I’m honoring my father and mother so that my days may be long in the land, so that when I’m 108 my children will have to pack up their toolboxes and work gloves…

…and come see me.

The Rhythm of The Heart

vibraphoneAl Astle is in his nineties now, but in his day he was a terrific percussionist, and even now he can produce rhythms and sounds from a vibraphone that will astound a sophisticated audience. 

He is a member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and recently volunteered to help out in our Community Missions program.  When I go down there on Wednesday mornings I ususally find him sitting behind a table with Ralph Anderson, checking and storing the belongings of our homeless neighbors while they get showers.

Al pulled me aside after dinner on Wednesday night and even before he spoke I could tell he was troubled.  He asked me if I had seen the expectant mother at Community Missions, the young woman who looks to be about halfway through her pregnancy, and who sits there with the rest of the homeless waiting her turn in the showers.  I said I had.  Al wondered if she were receiving adequate prenatal care and I said that I didn’t know but we could ask.  I assured him that medical services are available to people like this woman; it would only be a matter of making sure that she gets them.  And then he asked me if I had seen that young woman who comes in with her five-year-old daughter.  I told him I had.  He shook his head and swallowed hard.  A master of expressing his deepest emotions without saying a word, his face told me everything: his heart was breaking for these young women, and for their children.

I don’t know if Al has always felt for the homeless in this way, but that’s what can happen when you take a heart that has been touched by the love of God and put it in the presence of human suffering: it breaks.  And if it’s a heart that has truly been touched by the love of God it does more than that: it acts. 

I was impressed when Al Astle volunteered for Community Missions in his nineties, a time when he might have said, “Let the young people do it.”  I was even more impressed on Wednesday night, when I saw that he is letting his heart be broken by the needs of the world, and for some of the people Jesus loves most, the ones he called “the least of these, my brothers and sisters” (Matt. 25:40).

You go, Al.  I’m proud to be your pastor.