Compassionate Truth, Ode to Jim Somerville

The timing of this entry is a little off.  Sorry about that. Some things came up that I needed to take care of.  You will find out about those later. On this beautiful afternoon though, I am posting this blog as I am reminded of God’s grace and wisdom. I am writing this blog for four reasons:

  • to show that I am healing
  • to speak up for someone else, in honor of those times when no one spoke up for me
  • to practice using my voice
  • to speak with compassionate truth

I have been out of the loop for a while but recently caught back up to my Baptist roots and happenings in the Richmond area.  Regularly I read the blog posts by my pastor, friend and colleague Jim Somerville.  IMG_8977He is a man of integrity, wisdom and humility.  I trust what he has to say.  I know it comes from much thought, preparation, prayer, and study.  And if I know his blog posts come from that much prep, imagine what he does to prepare for one of his sermons.  I was in the congregation on Sunday, April 28th when he preached on Acts 11:1-18 during his sermon series, “The Acts of an Easter People.”  I’ve listened to all the sermons in the series.  They are considerate, challenging and thought provoking.  They are biblical. These are sermons that any follower of Christ would benefit from listening to.

With my experience as a Baptist minister, I imagine Jim has gotten a few calls, emails, face-to-face challenges and concerns over the April 28th sermon and his recent blog posts that followed. Church members don’t shy away from letting you know when their toes have been stepped on. Looking at the comments on his blog, I know Jim has stepped on some of those toes.  I would recommend to all who have commented, called, and emailed their concerns to listen and read all the words and hear the compassionate truth that he shared in the series. I can say this with confidence. Those words were not Jim’s but God’s; working through Jim as the vessel he is called to be.   The question that comes to mind is what is shaking people up so much that they are anxious to have a conversation about scripture, about people, about God’s love and understanding.  Why are Baptists fearful of the conversation?

I trust Jim Somerville as a Baptist Minister.  I say that without hesitation and that took some serious work on my part.  I have been in ministry for 13 years, ordained in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, through Glen Allen Baptist Church and then received ministerial standing in the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts.  Through both associations, I went through a rigorous process of communicating my calling to vocational ministry, my theology, my understanding of scripture, and where I see God leading me.  I was questioned on my thoughts about scripture, about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the church.  My mental capacity, family life, financial spending, and even my sexuality were questioned to a depth that people in the business world (or any other part of the secular world) would never have allowed.   I don’t know anybody in the congregations that would have ever allowed those questions to be asked of them.  Throughout my 13 years in ministry, the one thing I never saw questioned was the behavior of other Baptist ministers in their treatment of one called into ministry.

When I went through my ordination council, I answered many questions brought on by the council. The council was a mix of conservative, moderate and liberal ministers and leaders in the association.  They challenged me on several topics of ministry and faith, which I expected.  However the lone female minister in the group asked me if I was gay, simply because I was single and “older” in my call, yet nobody questioned her asking me such a question.  Sadly, not even me.  I answered her question and thought later I should have asked back, “Why? Are you asking me out?”  Oh well.  Hindsight.

My mental capacity was called into questioned by a church personnel committee, when I shared in confidentiality that I was in counseling over continued grief of my father’s sudden death and depression. Someone broke confidentiality and took that information to the pastor.  Instead of supporting me, the pastor called me a “liability” and allowed for the personnel committee’s questioning of my capabilities to take place and insistence on medical authorization that said I could do my job.  Do you know how many well-known and “successful” ministers are in counseling, and that’s in order to survive in church ministry? Nobody questioned his behavior.

I was talking to the senior pastor of a church searching for a Minister to Families. We were talking about my call and possible interviews for such a position. He said and I quote, “If I had two resumes in front of me; yours and another minister with the same qualifications, I would offer the position to the other minister because you don’t look like you love God with all your heart, mind and soul.”  He was referring to my weight that I know is not “ideal”.  Why was this Senior Pastor not questioned about his behavior and self-given authority to decide whom God is calling because of how one “looks”? “You don’t look like you love God.”  How does that look?  We don’t even know what Jesus looks like. How would he know how much a mere mortal loves God by the way one looks? Nobody questioned his behavior.

I was reprimanded by a deacon and another long-term member of a church, for being too friendly in worship and treading on their spiritual fulfillment by saying, “good morning” at the beginning of the service. Instead of standing with me and acknowledging my exemplary worship skills, the Senior Pastor said, “If eliminating two words will keep them off my back, then let’s do it.” Well, ok then.

In another church, congregation members told me that I needed to go to the gym to work out, I needed to lose weight in order for the clergy robe to look right and someone went as far as to pat my stomach and said, “You need to cut back”.  When I appropriately reported these situations to the Senior Minister, he didn’t see any problem with their behavior. Yeah, he wasn’t questioned either.

A Baptist pastor told me that I am going to hell for being a woman minister.  Another pastor told me that I couldn’t be looked upon as a respectable family minister because I don’t have a family and I am not married.  I was told that I couldn’t do proper pre-marital counseling because I am not married, even though I am certified by one of the most highly recognized and widely used training programs in the country.

And as a side note, these are  just the highlights. Due to a confidentiality agreement I was forced to sign, I am not at liberty to tell you about the lowlights.

All the ministers mentioned are looked up to with great regard in their community and congregations today.  I imagine I am not the only oneIMG_1009 who they treated as such. Yet, when humbled ministers like Jim get questioned for speaking the compassionate truth, it blows my mind. How is that even possible? How are they able to live on in their calling without being questioned? There are reasons and those reasons became the lessons I learned through all of this.  I don’t share this information to be the victim here. I am not the victim any more.  I’m over it and have moved on.  I have forgiven them.  But I learned some valuable lessons I want to share with you today. I want to be a voice for the times when I wasn’t and stand with those when nobody stood with me.

One lesson is because I didn’t have a voice.  I did not have a voice. That is because of me.  I know that and I take responsibility for it.  In fact, I am no longer in congregational/parish ministry. That is not because of my lack of voice, it’s because of the lack of respect given to the calling of one’s sister, a minister called by God and not by the people and certainly not by a Baptist pastor.  I am no longer in parish ministry because of the lack of respect given to God’s calling and the lack of respect given to God, as I was called as one of God’s own.  I am no longer in parish ministry because of the animosity I have towards the church and church leadership that will not stand and give voice for the voiceless.

Then I realized something else. I no longer work for the church.  I work for God.  In fact, I wasn’t supposed to work for the people then, I was supposed to work for God and I failed miserably, except with the youth.  If there was anything good that came from my work in the church was the fact that I provided God’s presence, respect and love for those youth who were looking for someone to look up to.  They were looking for someone who would accept them and love them as God does.  In my 13 years of ministry, youth came to me to discuss they fear of sexuality. They came to me with their questions about friends. Their friends came to me to discuss scripture and God’s love and how could they reconcile the two.  Three of them came out to me because they trusted me.  Their church, their families, and  their friends turned against them and they came to me to find somebody that would love them and in the name of God, would sit and listen.  God gave me the opportunity to be that presence for God when others wouldn’t. And God gave me the blessing to officiate at the wedding of one of those youth and her partner in 2009.  I was asked how that felt. In a country where there is a 52% divorce rate, some by Baptist ministers, I was honored to officiate and witness the wedding and marriage of these two people, who have great love and respect for one another and for the God who loves them enough to bring them together as one.

IMG_3228I no longer work for the church.  I work for God. I work as a chaplain who is trying to give voice for the voiceless. I work to support those who don’t feel like they are being heard.  I work to provide the presence of God for those who need someone that loves them without judgment and ridicule.  I work with those who grieve and suffer, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  When recipients of my care ask what my denomination is, I am afraid to say “Baptist” for the reasons listed above and when I do say I am Baptist, I say I am one of the good ones.  That is a sad reality.

I lost a lot of respect for Baptist ministers through my experience and then I met Jim Somerville. He taught another lesson I learned. There are Baptist ministers who honor their call with grace and humility.  I stand before you and say with all honesty that I don’t know any Baptist minister who has answered God’s call with such grace and humility, integrity and honesty, as Jim has. He stands in the pulpit and speaks the words that are given to him by God. He stands in the pulpit knowing full well that he works for God and God is standing with him.  Jim speaks with what I call “compassionate truth”.   When he preaches and teaches from scripture, he does so only after he has done thorough study, prayer, reading, more prayer and a lot of grace.  I have no doubt in my mind that when Jim is prepared with his sermon on Sunday mornings, or any day of the week, he is prepared with the agenda that God has in mind, and not his own. You can’t be that kind of minister without integrity, humility, honor and grace.  I thank God that Jim has given his life to Christ and his spirit to us all.  I thank God that First Baptist Church in Richmond listened to God’s call and that Jim listened to his.

With that said, why would anyone question his motive, his words, or his actions?  I question how he could go to school in Kentucky, work in North Carolina and Virginia, and yet not follow college basketball.  I mean March Madness does occur during the Lenten season. That cannot be a coincidence, but I digress. One blog post at a time.

Why would anyone question his motive, his words, or his actions? If you know Jim, you know his calling. If you know Jim, you can see and feel that he is working for God.  Even when the works gets tough; Jim continues to go where God is leading. He does not hide.  To come to the pulpit to preach or the computer to blog and share a word from scripture is not easy, especially when the scripture is not easy to interpret and IMG_4607communicate.  Let me say that again. Scripture is NOT easy.  It is meant for us to read, pray over, gnaw on, ask questions about, study and listen to what God is telling us, to where the spirit is leading us and to do so with humility and trust.  Interpretation of scripture is not easy and is not as black and white as people want it to be.  If we want it to be black and white, then there would be no need for churches, for ministers, for commentaries, for seminaries, for religion, for denominations and for communities. There would be no need for Jim Somerville, who challenges us to do what God has called us to do, transform through the renewing of our minds and our hearts, even when we don’t want to hear it.

I recognize the fact this post could easily be separated into two or three posts but these words really do connect into one purpose. It may be clearer in my head than my computer, but here it goes.

We need more ministers like Jim Somerville. He is essential to the transforming of our minds and our hearts. He is essential to the transforming of our churches back into God’s churches.  He is essential in transforming the church’s voice into being the voice for the voiceless.  Jim recognizes God’s call and need to challenge us, to guide us into discussion and see where God made be leading and what the Spirit may be placing on our hearts and in the churches.

Jim Somerville doesn’t use power, fear, ego or control to get an agenda across. He isn’t out to speak up for one group over another.  He isn’t out to work for the people but to work with the people in order IMG_4482to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.   It’s not about our agendas, our personal beliefs or our fears.  For followers of Christ, it is about God’s agenda, God’s love and God’s commandment, sent through the words and actions of Jesus Christ: love God with your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.   It is about a compassionate truth that provides for the growth and transformation of God’s people, God’s church and all who take part in the Body of Christ.

That compassionate truth invites everyone to the table to have discussion without shame, judgment or fear. That compassionate truth allows for us to sit together, to break bread together and hold peaceful and grace filled conversations.  Jim provides for that opportunity as he shares God’s word through his call.  Not only is Jim a voice for the voiceless, he is a voice for God, called as one of God’s own to share that voice in any possible way he can.  God bless all who are able to hear and listen to what is being said and written.  God bless all who encounter the words and heart of this voice.  God bless the one called to work for God and who does so with humility, grace and hope for all.  God bless you, Jim.

IMG_6643Thank you Jim for doing what God has called you to do.  Thank you for bringing respect, honor, and humility to the role of Minister.  Thank you for being the voice of compassionate truth. Thank you for being a voice for God.

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5 Responses to Compassionate Truth, Ode to Jim Somerville

  1. Jim Somerville says:

    I certainly don’t deserve all this, Linda, but I’m grateful for the way you see me and humbled (again) by your words. I feel like John the Baptist when the scribes and Pharisees asked him if he was the Messiah. “Shucks,” he said, spitting tobacco juice, “I’m just a voice shoutin’ in the wilderness!” (from the Wild West Version).

  2. Mary Dell Sigler says:

    What a great sharing of the respect you have for Jim. And what you said about your time in ministry brought back memories of my time in the church as a pastor. I had some very good experiences but also some that are similar to yours. I have no desire to be in church ministry again. I love my work as a hospice chaplain where I am “allowed” to meet people where they are and accept them for who they are without having to worry about what someone will say about my actions. You will be one incredible North Carolina chaplain.

  3. Wendy Ashenbrnner says:

    You have been through a lot, Linda. I am so happy that you now have a calling and job. Is it hard to go to church at all? Sometimes we find that is true. But, we are almost 4 years out and there is much that is good in our lives. Blessings on you dear girl – go confidently God is not the church!

  4. Ron Smith says:

    Linda,
    I take it from two of the comments posted on this blog that you now have a job as a chaplain. If that is the case, congratulations to you. From the blog entries you posted during your time as a chaplain at MCV during your residency, I have thought that you would make a very good chaplain, either in a hospice setting or in another hospital setting. I wish you well in your future endeavors. Take care.

  5. julie ball says:

    Oh Linda… some of this I knew, and some I didn’t. I am thankful both that you found a Baptist minister you could respect and that you had the courage and the voice to speak up for him. I think the respectable Baptist ministers – both male and female – need all the support they can get. On a lighter (sort of) note, I do know a minister who was once asked by a search committee whether he wore boxers or briefs. It makes me wonder whether churches intentionally put the craziest people in their search committees, or maybe we’ve just gotten so used to the crazy that we don’t even see it anymore… Either way, it’s all the more reason to keep speaking up for what’s right (and possibly what’s sane!)!

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