31 October, 2007
18 October, 2007
Those of you in small groups know what kind of special relationship forms between people who regularly pray for each other. We didn't always hang out together, but I always knew he was there. Some corner of my mind paid attention to where he was in chapel (along with the rest of the members of the small group), and at the prayers of the people it was a kind of anchor in reality to know that I was praying for Bill, that wise-cracking dude right over there, rather than some random name off the list of alumni and donors. He'd occasionally come down to my study desk in the basement of the library and keep me company.
Bill got to seminary by a roundabout route. Somewhere around age 30 he got himself elected to the Oklahoma state legislature, served a couple of terms, and then switched parties and lost his next election. Never really left politics altogether, in the sense of politics being the realm of people trying to make a difference in the world and make the world a better place. After he left office, he did a number of things. Worked in advertising for a while, if I remember right, and then was a consultant of some kind. Learned to fly somewhere along the way. He earned at least four academic degrees, including a doctorate (jurisprudence, I think), read Hebrew fluently and enthusiastically, and had a depth of connection to literature that astounded me.
He was in his late 50s at seminary, and you always knew that he was working from a slightly different paradigm than everybody else. Thought he was smarter than the professors (and was in some cases), concentrated on things differently than the rest of us, and was driven by different motivations. I remember him as a passionate reader and scholar of Hebrew and the old testament.
The thing many of my classmates are going to remember was one of his signature moments... his senior sermon. Now, you gotta have a little background on this to understand it. At the seminary in Austin, you get one chance, exactly one, to preach to the community in chapel. Usually it was Thursday, which was the weekly Eucharist, and was your garden-variety Episcopalian sermon: 10 to 12 minutes (maybe 15 at the outside), a few Biblical references, a carefully politically correct joke or two...
Well, old Bill preached on a Wednesday, if I remember right. Wednesday's service (Choral morning prayer, at least a couple of years ago) was usually about 25-30 minutes long, followed by lunch, followed by committee meetings. There's not usually a sermon. Well, that day we had a sermon. Boy did we. Bill preached for, I kid you not, I timed it, forty-seven minutes.
Bless his heart, it was the worst sermon I ever heard in the chapel. It had about four false endings, where people started to pull out their prayer books and shift in their seats, ready to move on... and then he kept talking. At one point, he pulled out a prayer shawl and a zucchetto (skullcap), put them on, and began to chant from the Torah. He rambled, he gushed, he told stories from the prophets, he told stories about his own life. And I'm sitting there the whole time, rear end long ago fallen asleep from the uncomfortable chairs, loving him because he's my prayer partner and wanting to wave the white surrender flag and tell him to shut up at the same time.
My feedback to him was this: in the end, it was basically an eight-word sermon with 46 minutes of commentary. Somewhere in the middle of that rambling and gushing over the beauty and richness of Hebrew scripture and tradition, he said:
I beg of you, drink from this well.
I actually agreed with him on that, and I envied his depth in the scriptures and his knowledge of Hebrew. At one point, he had me convinced that I should wear a zucchetto as part of my normal Sunday clerical attire. (okay, most of you, quit laughing.) I talked myself out of that, mostly because I didn't want to have to explain it a thousand times. (Also because I landed in San Antonio, and the combination of cowboy boots, a clerical collar, and a zucchetto is bizarre.) But hey, I just might go get one and wear it in Bill's honor one of these days.
He died, along with four other people, when the plane he was flying crashed. he was heading from Tulsa to my old home town of Sugar Land, but never got out of town. The funeral is next week, but I'll be at clergy conference. I'll have to let my friends Ron and Stephanie and Reid be my tears for me.
Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting