Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Still, Small Voice is Gone

Silent House - Dixie Chicks (mp3)
Hey Kind Friend - Indigo Girls (mp3)

Charlie Samuel might as well have been 85 when I first met him. I was in second grade when he walked into my Sunday School class and introduced himself as our teacher for the next two years. To a second-grader, anyone over 25 is placed into a singular category of age in our mind: old. Mr. Samuel was Old. Really Old.

I'm fairly certain most of us are born with a Spider Sense, an ability to instinctively feel when someone is a threat to us or if they are a good person, a person we should heed and observe intensely. It might not be 100% accurate -- in all honesty, which of our senses are? -- but it works more often than not, and when my classmates and I first encountered Mr. Samuel, we knew immediately he was a man worthy of our hard-to-focus attention. He wasn't entertaining, necessarily. He didn't put on costumes or sing or flail his arms around when he talked like I'd do if I had to teach young elementary students about the Bible. He just oozed Wisdom. It emanated out of his pores like garlic. His calm and soft-spoken manner simply helped affirm this sense.

Older people tend to think children and teenagers don't appreciate wisdom, don't respect the wisdom of their elders, but I happen to think that's a misguided accusation. Like most people I know, teenagers and kids respect wisdom plenty, we just don't always understand it. And sometimes the wisdom of our elders risks getting in the way of our own experiences. We want to find out for ourselves whether that stove eye is really hot. That's what makes us human. That's what makes us need to go to Sunday School.

I can't exactly claim I remember any of his specific lessons. I can't even say I remember many of the oodles of Bible verses he asked our class to memorize. I was so good at it that he started giving me extra ones to memorize, but I've long forgotten the word-for-word versions and have to rely on my ad-libbed versions and hope I can find a Bible around to verify the general gist of it for me.

While I don't remember the lessons, I remember Mr. Samuel. Even then I knew he was a good man, and maybe even a great man, at least in the limited scope of my interactions with him, which was limited to church.

Once I'd left his class I moved on to other teachers, younger teachers and youth leaders more inclined to entertain, or sing, or flail their arms about when talking. But Mr. Samuel was not done with us. He continued to keep track of us. Like an owl, he would watch me proudly -- and maybe with just a hint of concern -- as I evolved and aged in the halls and sanctuary of our church.

Years later I had finished college, eventually returned to Chattanooga, and found myself back at First Cumberland, where I began to learn more about Mr. Samuel. (When you're a second-grader, you don't realize that people have lives outside your presence. You kinda figure they pop out of thin air to teach your Sunday School class and then, once you leave, they go back in their box until next Sunday. All kids think they live in something akin to The Truman Show.)

I learned he served in World War II. I learned he was a husband and a father. I learned he was respected and endeared as much by the adults at our church as he was by me and all those kids he taught. He was, as best I could tell, that rarest of men whose missteps were few and whose enemies existed only on other dimensions. Not only did everyone in our church admire and respect him, but he also played down his successes and achievements with tremendous humility. It would have been easier to remove molars from his mouth with a spoon than to have him discuss his life's accomplishments.

The first day I dared step into a Sunday School classroom as a teacher myself -- some 17 years after I first encountered him -- Mr. Samuel solidified his place as one of my few true heroes. I knew at that moment I could only hope to be a shadow of the teacher, the man, the imparter of Wisdom he was, a man whose successes were measured in people, not things or awards, whose power was measured in quiet confidence and tenderness, not prominence or news stories.

Four years ago, our church learned Mr. Samuel had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and the news both frightened and saddened me. We live in a time where it seems if death hasn't found you by a certain age, cancer or Alzheimer's will. Time, it would seem, is not really on our side after all. Not in this life, at least. His struggle was difficult to witness, and the challenges such an illness puts on the family of a victim are impossible to grasp. I know Mrs. Samuel struggled with it, with him, and on several occasions I found myself overcome with emotion and racing for solitude after talking with her about it. Even the most courageous souls can be frightened and panicked when confronting an illness that slowly erases the mind, the gradual human impersonation of a chicken with its head cut off.

Still, whenever his body and health could manage it, he was in church. He, too, might have forgotten many of the Bible verses he used to have memorized, but I don't think he could ever forget God and his relationship with Jesus Christ.

In the late fall of 2007, columnist Rosa Brooks lamented how carelessly Americans today sling around the title of "hero." She regretted that giving such a noble title to so many for doing so little sullied the very power of the word, and I agree with her. We've lowered the standards on most things lately, and those whom we call "heroes" is on that list.

Charlie Samuel might very well deserve to be considered a hero by anyone who knew him, but he might not. From my perspective, it really doesn't matter whether he earned that specific title. What Charlie Samuel was -- for his church and beyond -- was a living, breathing example of someone whose actions, words, and deeds proclaimed the glory of Jesus Christ. He was a man who embodied that so-true quote from St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."

Lifelong role model. Priceless teacher. Honorable and humble man. Thank you thank you thank you God for your servant, Charlie.

Charlie Samuel died Wednesday, July 15. He was 82.


jed said...

a great post, Billy. i hope we all have our own Charlie.

Karos said...

What a gift men and women like Charlie are to the world. I'm sorry he's gone.

troutking said...

wonderful post, billy.

daisy said...

What a wonderfully well wriiten tribute. I am sure that Charlie is both honored and proud.

BeckEye said...

Beautiful tribute, Billy.

Daytimerush said...

Aw. Very nice Billy. I'm glad he was a part of your life.

Goofytakemyhand said...

Very moving tribute, Billy. From personal experience, it is saddening to witness the inevitably long, gradual decline of a loved one due to Alzheimer's.

The Warden said...

Great tribute to what sounds like a terrific teacher.