They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
“Oaks of righteousness.” Those great old trees symbolize everything solid, lasting and beautiful and so it is a fitting image to remember Father Bill, for he was all those things, solid, everlastingly faithful, beautiful in the way only someone who truly walks with the Lord can be. Isaiah called such people “oaks of righteousness,” righteousness being a word we little understand, a word to which we attach all sorts of holier-than-thou meanings, but to be righteous is simply to walk with the Lord over the journey that is this life in such a way that the whole self is transformed into something that glows from within.
That transformed self grew out of a wealth of experiences that many of you know better than I: how he served in WWII and was there at Pearl Harbor when the ship next to his was destroyed. How he served in parishes of distinction not just in this country but in the world. How he came to Norfolk and made this his home and blessed all who knew him throughout his life with that warm smile, those gentle, twinkling eyes, that serene presence. Such righteousness as his was almost tangible, felt in a personal warmth, a charisma born of friendship with the Lord. It is not merely a personal quality but a spiritual quality.
It is a quality that he freely shared, finding always the word of blessing needed, teaching by example an intense reverence and devotion. One priest has told me he learned all the theology he needed to know from Father Bill simply by watching him. Watching Bill, there were no words needed to understand the miracle that is God’s presence in life. Because to spend time with him was to spend time with someone who was a friend of God. And it was delightfully contagious, this quiet assurance something that became part of those who knew him.
Which is not to say that he wasn’t immensely, refreshingly human. His genuine humanity was perhaps his most appealing asset; his ability to be comfortable with all the foibles of being a created being in an imperfect world. I am told that he once served in a church without air conditioning, on one of those blistering hot days that make one long for the pool or the ocean. Being both practical and not above the little joke, Bill wore his bathing suit under his cassock. Which would have been fine except that large fans had been installed in the church to move the air around and the fans insisted on blowing open his cassock at the most inopportune times, exposing some very white legs! It is so hard to be righteous when people are laughing at you! Then too, Bill was a huge Yankees fan and a die-hard Democrat, that loyalty being the price of admission to the breakfast group. I suspect many people faked being Democratic just to be around him.
And while his ears would not, in his later years, allow him to hear the gospel, it was OK, for he was at work being the gospel for all of us who need to have it enfleshed. That kind of righteousness comes of having heard the voice of the shepherd where it matters, in your heart, and of having followed, of having given oneself to those expressions of the good news of God that Isaiah spoke of, of bringing to everyone, with your own self, the presence of the living Christ. And those rare souls who live this way can’t help but bring garlands while we wear only ashes, can’t help but offer praise while we feel faint and weary, can’t help but make us feel anointed with the oil of gladness even while our spirits are weak. It is this kind of righteousness that builds up in the face of devastation, which repairs that which seems forever ruined. Such were the gifts of Father Bill among us, an oak of righteousness, and peace and gentleness.
Such people are the plantings of the Lord in our midst, the visible reminder of God’s generosity and graciousness. Isaiah says these oaks of righteousness among us are sent to display the glory of the Lord. It is for that, I am sure, but much more I believe, to display God’s kindness, compassion and humility. It is those qualities that draw us to God and that drew us to Father Bill, who made those qualities visible.
It was that kindness, that compassion, and that humility that converted my soul, yet again, though I barely knew him at the time. Because Father Bill did something that stunned me with its pure beauty, though for him it was an act as natural as breathing, and as revealing. It was perhaps my first Maundy Thursday here, and Father Bill came forward for the rite of footwashing. He had his feet washed and then Father Bill turned and knelt, rather painfully I’m sure, on the stone floor, to wash the feet of the next person. And after washing this man’s feet, so gently, he bent and, cradling those feet in his hands, he kissed them. And in that act, he recognized, and honored, the Christ present, in that moment, before him. It was theology lived out, a theology of humility by a distinguished, experienced, aging priest, a man who need kneel before no one, except the living God.
DeeDee, Bill, daughter DeeDee, all of you who were family to him, who loved him – thank you for sharing him with us, for having allowed us to see something of the good work that God can do in a man who offers his life in that service. Know that as the Lord has been his help and salvation, He is also ours. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Bill now sees face to face that friend he served for so long, the One we came to know through knowing him.