KOH2RVA: Day 281

DadYesterday was Father’s Day. Today is my dad’s birthday. He had the misfortune of being born so close to Father’s Day that when he became a father he often received one gift or card for both. “Happy Birth-Father’s-Day!” my brothers and I would write on the tags of our poorly wrapped homemade gifts. But Dad didn’t seem to mind.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

I talked about him at last night’s vesper service at Westminster-Canterbury and read some excerpts from the little book I once put together for him: Seventy Things I Remember about My Dad (in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday). I talked about the time he rolled naked in the snow just to prove to his sons that it wasn’t too cold to walk to school; about the way his eyes used to light up when he challenged us to a game of Monopoly; about the way he taught us that when you had something hard to do it was best to just get it over with, as soon as possible.

I didn’t talk about the 25 years my dad spent trying to end poverty as a Presbyterian missionary in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in America—but as I sit here this morning thinking about how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, I can see where some of my inspiration comes from. I got a glimpse of it during last night’s introduction.

Ginna Lavender, a resident of Westminster-Canterbury and a member of First Baptist Church, told the group who had come for vespers that our church is on a year-long, every-member mission trip. She said, “Dr. Somerville tells us to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up our sleeves and go to work.” It was just after that that I stood up to talk about my dad, and as I reflect on it this morning it occurs to me that that’s what my dad was doing: looking around for anything that didn’t look like heaven and then rolling up his sleeves and going to work.

John Denver sang that West Virginia is “almost heaven,” but he wasn’t singing about Boone County. The poverty there was bone-crushing. Dad once took us to Thanksgiving dinner with a family that was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff. The house they were in wasn’t much of an improvement. But Dad had seen that house as he was driving up Joe’s Creek Hollow one day—with the rusted-out hulks of old cars in the front yard and the bags and piles of trash in the back—and he had gotten out to meet the family that lived there, to talk to them, and get to know them, and see if he could do anything to help. That initial meeting turned into a friendship that lasted for years, and I would guess that Dad got as much from the Dotsons as they got from him.

It wouldn’t have happened if Dad hadn’t been “looking around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven,” but he was, and he found it, and he rolled up his sleeves and tried to make a difference. God only knows if he did, but that’s OK.

He wasn’t in it for the glory.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. I’m inspired by your life and ministry. And when I go out to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, today,

I’ll be thinking of you.

KOH2RVA: Day 112

snow-covered-fieldDo you know that song, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go”? Yesterday that’s what I did with my family, except we went over the mountain and through the woods to grandmother’s nursing home.

On a good day it’s about a three-hour drive from Richmond to Franklin, West Virginia, and yesterday was a good day. My daughter Ellie is visiting from New York and Catherine is home for her winter break. We all piled into the car yesterday morning (along with Ellie’s two dogs) and headed for the hills.

We had plenty to talk about on the way, and as we got off the Interstate and into the country there was plenty to see. There was snow on the ground! The roads were clear but the fields on both sides were glazed like a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Ellie saw a horse-drawn Amish buggy whizzing down the road. Catherine saw a deer head hanging from a tree (yikes!). We went over Shenandoah mountain through so many hairpin curves that everybody began to feel a little queasy, but from the top the views were breathtaking.

When we finally got to Franklin we were dismayed to learn that the entire nursing home was under quarantine because of the flu, and were told at the front desk that we wouldn’t be able to visit my parents. I said, “But I called yesterday! But we just drove three hours! But my daughter has come from New York!” And while I was protesting the director of nursing happened along and said that my mother, at least, wasn’t showing any symptoms and could come to the family room for a visit.

So, that’s what we had: a two-hour visit with my mother, who entertained us the whole time. She had us laughing like a stand-up comedian. When it was time to go I asked if we could walk around to the side of the building and at least wave to my dad through the window. One of the nurses said she would go to his room and open the curtain. So, off we went, hiking around the side of the nursing home through ankle-deep snow.

As we went Christy reminded the girls of those days when they used to visit the nursing home in Wingate, North Carolina, where we lived at the time. She would take them to be “spirit lifters,” and Ellie, at least, spent a lot of time painting fingernails, which the ladies there seemed to love.

I thought about how that was one more way of bringing heaven to earth. Long before our year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Christy and the girls were figuring out that when one person shares the love of Christ with another heaven touches down—however briefly–wherever you are.

And that’s what we had with my dad yesterday: a very brief moment.

The nurse pulled back the curtain and the four of us stood at the window to see Dad, lying in his bed, smiling up at us. Just because it seemed like the thing to do I began to sing, “We wish you a merry Christmas,” and the family joined in, and then, to our surprise, we could see Dad joining in, singing along with us. The nurse opened his window just a crack so we could hear him and he could hear us, and when we were finished singing we told him that we loved him and blew kisses and waved goodbye.

That was it.

That was all the nurse had time for but probably all my dad had strength for. He’s very weak these days. And to leave him with the image of four impromptu carolers wishing him a merry Christmas and a happy new year was probably about the best we could have done.

And so we drove back to Richmond, satisfied by the visit, having brought the Kingdom of Heaven a little closer to Franklin, West Virginia.

Today, I’m back in this city I love, wondering how I can be a “spirit lifter” here. What about you? Is there somebody whose spirit you can lift, even if you have to go over the river and through the woods to do it?

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?

The Cure for Boredom

When I was a boy I attended West Virginia public schools, and although I had some excellent teachers the schools themselves left something to be desired.  I remember the kind of excitement that would begin building in the spring of each year as we anticipated summer vacation and our release from the stuffy confines of the classroom, from the tedium of bending over our desks, working math problems on lined notebook paper with Number 2 pencils as a single wasp buzzed in through the open windows and bumped up against the high ceiling of the room.  On the last day of school we watched the clock on the wall as if our lives depended on it, and in a way they did—the quality of our lives, at least.  The closer we got to 3:15 the slower that minute hand moved.  Even the big, red second hand seemed to slow down until it was dragging around the face of the clock like a stick through the mud. 

But then it happened: the buzzer sounded and we whooped and threw our notebooks in the air and off we went, tumbling out the front door and down the steps and to the waiting school buses where we sang in unison that great old hymn,

School’s out, school’s out,
Teacher let the monkeys out
One went east and one went west
And one went up the teacher’s dress!

It was magical, that ride home on the bus.  The windows were down and the warm breezes were blowing in and we were in the best mood possible, laughing and singing and shoving each other—absolutely intoxicated by the freedom we felt.  The only thing better was waking up the next morning and realizing that it was the first day of summer vacation.  My brothers and I—five of us at the time—would toss back the bedsheets, put on our shorts and T-shirts, and run barefoot into the back yard, ready to spend the day in glorious, useless, endless play.

Those feelings lasted until sometime in the middle of the afternoon, usually, and—although we could hardly believe it—by then we had already done most of the things we had been dreaming of those last few weeks of school.  That long list of things!  Knocked out in a few hours’ time.  Unbelievable.  We tried to hide the fact from ourselves.  We pretended that we were still having fun.  But even more we tried to hide the fact from our parents, because once somebody let it slip, once one of my little brothers let out even the tiniest, whispered, “I’m bored!” in their presence—well, that did it.  The next morning at 7:30 my mother would crank up the record player and put on an album called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  Lying there in our beds we could hear the scratch of the needle as it fell and hear the hiss of the speakers even before a John Philip Sousa composition came blasting out of 76 trombones like cannonballs, rocketing up the stairs, and bouncing around our room at something just above 100 decibels.

That was our cue—subtle as it was—to get up, get out of bed, and come downstairs for breakfast.  Mom would have cooked bacon and eggs, biscuits and grits, and we would all sit around the table rubbing our sleepy eyes and washing down our breakfast with glasses of orange juice and ice cold milk.  And then, just before eight, as someone was reaching for the last biscuit, Dad would hand out the work assignments for the day.  And with the exception of Saturday and Sunday this is how it would be every day for the rest of the summer.  This was my parents’ cure for boredom.

We would work in teams of two or three from eight until noon.  We would hoe corn, clear brush, muck out the horses’ stalls, stretch barbed wire fencing, and the sweat would run down in rivers, and we would start dreaming about what we were going to do as soon as noontime came, and the work was over.  We talked about it.  We made plans as we worked.  But the first thing we always wanted to do on those hot days—even before we ate lunch—was to go down to the river, to splash out into that cool, clear water, to dive headfirst under the surface, roll slowly over onto our backs, and come up spouting like whales.  Oh, freedom!  Oh, perfect, precious, delicious freedom! 

Sometimes you don’t appreciate what you have until you have to do without it.

Thanksgiving Dinner at Dorothy’s House

Editor’s Note: I shared this story as part of the sermon at last night’s Thanksgiving service.  Several people have suggested that I post it here so others could enjoy it.  So, here it is, with every good wish for a happy Thanksgiving.  –Jim



shackI lived in Wise County, Virginia, from 1961 to 1966.  I was just a kid at the time.  My dad was a Presbyterian minister, the pastor of Gladeville Presbyterian Church in Wise.  But then he accepted a call to a special ministry among the poor in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in the country—and took what amounted to a vow of poverty to do it.  I don’t remember him ever asking my permission.  If he had I probably would have said no.  But that’s how I ended up in Boone County, West Virginia and that’s where this story takes place.


My family was living in Bloomingrose, one of the most inappropriately named towns in America.  There was nothing about it that suggested a rose in bloom.  I was enrolled at Comfort Elementary School a few miles down the river—one of the most inappropriately named schools in America.  There was nothing about it to suggest comfort.  I was in the fourth grade, trying to adapt to the culture of a new school.  Very quickly I learned that one of the worst things anybody could say about you was to say that you were “a Dotson.” 


The Dotson clan lived a couple of miles up Joe’s Creek from where the elementary school stood.  Howard Dotson, the patriarch, was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff.  With a lot of hard work and perseverance he had been able to move into a tumbledown shack near the creek where he and his wife Susan had brought five or six children into the world.  All of these children shared the same characteristic:  a head full of stiff, blonde hair that stuck out in every direction.  Howard Junior, Ricky, Stoney, Vicky, Dorothy (there might have been one or two more), all had this same, wild hair.  I don’t think it would have stayed down if they had tried to comb it, but I’m not sure they ever had. 


Dorothy was in my class at school.  I used to glance at her in the next row over, clutching a pencil in her grubby fist and trying to write in her notebook.  I saw that her knuckles were skinned up, probably from hitting boys, and probably the boys she hit deserved it.  Because the worst thing you could say to anybody at Comfort Elementary School is to say that they liked Dorothy.  You would hear it on the playground from time to time: some boy pointing at another boy and jeering, “You like Dor-thy!”  To which the only appropriate response was categorical denial, and maybe a punch in the nose.


So you can imagine how excited I was when my dad told us that we were going to be having Thanksgiving dinner at the Dotson’s house.  It seems the ladies at the Methodist church had given them a huge turkey and they wanted to share it with us.  I tried to talk Dad out of it, tried to explain to him that if I went to Dorothy Dotson’s house for Thanksgiving I could never show my face at Comfort Elementary School again.  But Dad said we had to go, that it would be rude not to, and although I didn’t say so I was thinking being rude to the Dotsons wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.  Going to their house for Thanksgiving might be.


But we went anyway.  We pulled into that wide spot by the road where they parked and then went down the creek bank, across a rickety, homemade bridge, and up the other side into their front yard, which was mostly dirt.  They had a wide front porch on their house, with a ratty-looking sofa and a recliner on it.  A washing machine.  Off to one side of the house were three old cars in various states of repair.  One of them had a tripod over it where Junior was pulling out a bad engine.  Another had a small tree growing up through the place where the engine used to be.  There were black, plastic garbage bags full of trash in the back yard, some that had been ripped open by dogs.  I took a deep breath before going inside.


But inside the house smelled wonderful.  Susan was putting the finishing touches on the turkey and I saw that she had borrowed some chairs to put around the table.  When we all sat down we were shoulder to shoulder and my shoulder was right next to…Dorothy’s.  She had dressed up for the occasion, put on a pale blue dress and some shockingly red lipstick.  It looked like she had even tried to comb her hair down, although without much success.  It was her mother who put her there beside me, thinking that since we were in the same class we would have a lot to talk about.  We didn’t.  I dug into my dinner and tried to finish as quickly as possible so I could excuse myself and go outside.


We had turkey, canned green beans, slices of white bread, and RC Cola.  That was it.  And when I was finished I pushed my chair back and asked if I could be excused.  That’s when Dorothy asked me if I wanted to play horseshoes and, because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, I said yes.  She put on a coat and some rubber boots and we went out to the front yard where they had a horseshoe pit.  She looked kind of funny, wearing that old coat over her pale blue dress, with those shocking red lips and that wild blonde hair, but when it came to pitching horseshoes she was all business.  She beat me three games in a row and then I think she let me win one out of pity.  We played most of the rest of the afternoon and even talked a little bit.


On the way home I sat in the back seat of the station wagon, reflecting on the experience.  At some point I caught my dad looking at me in the rearview mirror.  He had that look on his face, you know?  The one that says, “See?  That wasn’t so bad.”  It really wasn’t, but it left me wondering what I would say if anyone at Comfort Elementary School ever accused me of liking Dorothy.  In a way I did like her.  She wasn’t so bad…


…for a girl.