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 86

hands on barsYesterday was a great day at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Attendance was up, giving was up, the “mood” was up (even though I preached a sermon called “The End of the World as We Know It”), and last night’s Hanging of the Green service was a joyful example of what Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming later called “organized chaos.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about:

Last week I was writing about the Richmond Jail and what First Baptist Church could do to bring a little heaven to earth there, where it is so badly needed. I said that jail ministry isn’t for everyone, and a few days later I was reminded why.

Someone who had read my blog asked if I could visit a friend in jail. I said yes, of course; it felt like an answer to my prayer of wanting to get more involved. But a few hours later there I was, asking for permission at the front desk to visit someone I had never met before.

It made a difference that I was a pastor. If I had only been a friend or a family member I probably would have had to schedule an appointment first. But I gave them my name and title and told them I had come to visit and a few minutes later I was buzzed in through the heavy steel doors. I took a seat on my side of the bulletproof glass and waited for the person I was visiting to arrive.

I can’t tell you why he’d been locked up. I can only tell you that he was pretty sure he was going to be locked up for a long, long time. He has small children at home, and he was afraid that by the time he got out they would be grown and gone. He was afraid he wasn’t going to be much good to anybody—not his children, not his wife. He said he didn’t see much reason to go on living.

I asked, “Are you thinking about suicide?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Let me tell you why that’s a bad idea,” and even as I said it I hoped that God would fill in the blank with a good answer. This is what came to my mind: I said, “One thing most fathers don’t give their children enough of is time, but you are going to have nothing but time. You can use that time to write letters to your children, to pray for them, to call them on the phone, to make videos for them. You can be present in their lives even if you are absent physically, and you can be more present than a lot of fathers are.”

And then I was inspired to say this:

“They can lock you up, but they can’t lock up your love. It can go through concrete walls, bulletproof glass, and tempered steel to get to your family, just as God’s love can go through concrete walls, bulletproof glass, and tempered steel to get to you.” It was one of those moments when I thought, “Where did that come from?” because it sounded so much better than anything I could have thought of myself. I have to give credit to the Holy Spirit.  I could tell that it made an impact, that he was thinking those things through and considering the truth of them. In the end I prayed with him, gave him my name and number, and walked out through those heavy steel doors, hearing them clang shut behind me.

“I was in prison,” Jesus said, “and you visited me.” But I couldn’t help thinking about all those others inside who didn’t get a visit that day. What about them? Who will give them a reason to live? I have a feeling that even when we get to the end of this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA we are going to discover that…

Our work is just beginning.

Authenticity

Nobody could have predicted what happened at last Sunday night’s concert.

Phil Mitchell had put together a program called “Dear God”: an assortment of hymns and anthems interspersed with personal letters to God from members of the congregation.  There must have been a hundred people in the choir, singing like angels, and the orchestral accompaniment was heavenly, but when people began to read their prayers a reverent hush fell over the sanctuary. 

Martha Joyner talked about how grateful she was for her family, and especially for her new granddaughter, Emma Grace.  Carl Johnson talked about how God had led him into his work as treasurer of the International Mission Board and through a time of deep personal tragedy.  But then Hannah Ramsey got up to speak.  You could tell, even before she started, that this was going to be hard for her.  Her hands were shaking.  She took a deep breath and let it out.  And then she said, “Dear God, it’s been 99 days since we last talked…”

As she sobbed and struggled through the rest of her letter she talked about losing her sixteen-year-old brother, Jackson, to suicide.  She talked about how angry she was—still—and how she had been trying to work through her pain and her grief.  Her emotion was raw and real, and she held nothing back.  When she finished I let out the breath I had been holding since she began with a single word: “Wow!”   And when she sat down behind me I wrote this note on a slip of paper and passed it to her:

“That was just about the bravest thing I have ever seen.  Certainly the most honest.  Thank you.”

Her courage and honesty added to what had already been shared, and raised the experience of that concert to a new level.  By the time the choir sang “Total Praise” at the end of the evening we were all caught up in a kind of rare unity, where it didn’t really matter who you were or where you came from—we had become family just by being there.  And as we stood to sing the Lord’s Prayer together as a kind of benediction Pastor Emeritus Jim Flamming made his way over to where Hannah was standing and put his arms around her.  I glanced over my shoulder, saw what was going on, and thought what a good instinct it was on his part.  He’s known Hannah all her life.  There was probably a time when she thought Dr. Flamming was God.  For him to put his arms around her like that and hand her his handkerchief was just the right kind of pastoral care. 

The tears flowed freely.

When it was over I told Hannah’s mother that I had read something that very afternoon about how some people avoid church because it doesn’t seem real to them; they’re looking for something “authentic.”  I told her, “But it doesn’t get any more real than it did tonight.” 

It doesn’t. 

And I think we all learned something: that we can not only trust God with our most honest emotions but—when church is real—we can trust each other, too.  And when we do it can make all the difference.  We’re not a roomful of strangers anymore: we’re family.  And a girl who has lost her brother might just discover that she is not alone.

Not by a long shot.