The text below is the transcript of my reflections about Willie Styron at his Life Celebration service on Sunday, August 25, 2019. It was written to be spoken, and I have not edited it for print and reading, so please forgive any grammer issues…
I feel like I came late to the Willie Party! I’ve only known Willie for about 9 years.
I actually met Jane before I met Willie – she had been invited by someone else to our church. She came the first time with her sister, Connie, and she never stopped!
Willie took a while longer. His neighbor, David Phelps, had told me a year or two earlier about Willie – he talked about what a great guy he was, and how he was a great neighbor… but that he didn’t seem to have much interest in the whole church scene.
Jane was a different story… Jane got excited about church. And Willie was watching.
She got excited about Jesus. And Willie was watching.
In time, Jane professed her faith in Jesus, was baptized in the Atlantic, and became a follower of Jesus. And Willie was watching.
Jane began to change – in small ways – in good ways. And Willie was watching.
Willie later told me that he was watching and waiting to see if all of this excitement was something that was going to stick, or if it was just a flash in the pan. He told me how she would come home from church, excited about whatever had been talked about that particular day – and they would talk together over lunch about the Bible, about following Jesus, about their lives.
Jane invited Willie to church every now and then, and he came with her on a few holidays here and there, but she didn’t want to push him and drive him away. So she was patient.
We used to meet at the Elk’s Lodge back off of Business Drive. Jane had gotten plugged into our church and helped with getting coffee ready and preparing snacks on Sunday mornings – and I’ll never forget the morning that Willie just showed up, on his own. She was so surprised and so excited! And he kept coming back, and eventually he joined our church and shared his story with me…
As a young man, Willie had professed faith in Jesus and been baptized, and was really starting to get serious about his faith – faith that had been kindled by his father. Willie told me his dad wasn’t a religious man, but he had read the Bible and he knew a lot about faith and about Jesus. But Willie had an incident where someone who claimed to be a Christian did some things that took advantage of the very church the guy – and Willie – was attending. Willie quit that job and got another one, and would you believe that the same thing happened again?
Willie decided that if that was how “Christians” acted, then he didn’t wasn’t to have anything much to do with them. And so he put church and faith on the back burner, and for a lot of years didn’t have much to do with either one of them. Until he started watching Jane.
After he started coming to church regularly, Willie soon jumped in with both feet!
It wasn’t too long after he really became active in our church that we decided to move from the Elks Lodge to the shopping center where we currently meet. We had a lot of work that needed to be done to the new building before we could move in there, and Willie took charge, rolled up his sleeves, and led us in what we needed to do and often showed us how to do it! He worked at it himself. He called in favors with people he knew. He even paid out of his own pocket at times to make things happen.
Willie loved to plan – And I love to plan – that’s something that we have in common! So I would put together these timelines of what needed to happen when and in what order, and then I’d put deadlines on them, and come up with a date that things would get done. And Willie would just smile at me. After a while, I put all of these plans for these individual projects into a master plan that would get us in the new building by June 17th – Father’s Day.
And Willie just smiled at me.
I later came to realize that his smile was really his way of saying to me, “You may be an idiot – but I love you anyway!”
We finished the work and were in on September 9th! Not exactly on my schedule! In spite of both of us knowing that I was an idiot, he and I became close friends really fast.
It was really neat to watch Willie grow in his faith – and it was also amazing to me how well read he was and how much he knew about everything! Even about God and Jesus and the Church! Willie was one of the smartest people I have ever known. And one of the most humble people I’ve ever known.
One of the coolest things about Willie was that he was who he was – all the time – to everyone. He was a creator – a builder – a fixer – a maker –> and he offered that to people! Some folks wall off what they do for a living from everyone else – they don’t want to take their work home with them – they don’t want to help people out with their work skills because it intrudes on their personal time and personal life. That was not Willie Styron! One of my all-time favorite Willy-isms that he often said was: “Man built it – Man can rebuild it.” And Willy would help just about anyone rebuild just about anything.
Willie has helped me with so many projects at my home, that I can’t walk through my house without seeing something that makes me think of him! He would always reach out to me and ask if I needed help with anything – it was pretty amazing.
We’ve heard a lot of great Willie Stories this afternoon, from people who loved him and who he loved. And I have a lot of Willie Stories that I could share. Like how he helped my oldest son complete his Eagle Scout Project. And how he helped my other son complete his Senior Project for high school. Or how he surprised my son, when his team won the Super Bowl (a team that Willie didn’t even care much for), by ordering a jersey of my son’s favorite quarterback and left it hanging on my son’s drum kit at church for him to discover the following week. Or how he encouraged my daughter in Tae Kwon Do, or for playing in the band, or for singing.
But there’s one story that I know that Willie would want me to share with you all today. I know this, because I have spent countless hours over the past several years talking with him about this particular story, and what it meant to him. It’s a story that started long before Willie Styron came on the scene, and he got caught up in this story, and it became his story too. And I would say to you that if you loved Willie Styron, and if you believe in the character and integrity and rock-solid man that Willie was, if you would say, “If Willie Styron says it then you can take it to the bank” – then I would challenge you to listen closely to this story. Willie would want you to know it too. And Willie would tell you that you can take it to the bank.
The story begins with God creating mankind in his image –
God is the BIG “C” Creator, and he created us to be like him and to be LITTLE “c” creators. Willie was a great creator made in God’s image!
And he gave us the amazing gift of Free Will – the ability to choose whether we would love him or not – to choose whether we would live our lives the way that he told us we should live, or not. Willie – like you and me – had this same Free Will.
And God knew that we would choose to live life our way, and because of that we would sin – we would disobey God – and we would be separated from God for all eternity. Willie chose to pursue life on his own terms, and Willie was separated from God. Willie knew about God, and he knew who God was… but Willie (thanks in large part to the negative actions of other people) chose to pursue his own way. And because of that, Willie lived much of his life separated from God and in disobedience to God.
But God had a plan. For everyone. Including Willie Styron… including you… including me.
God left his throne and came here, to walk on this Earth. Scripture says Jesus Christ is “Immanuel” – “God With Us”. He came to be with us, he lived a life without sin, and then He died on the cross in our place…
In Willie Styron’s place… In my place… In your place…
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Scripture also says, “That whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.”
Willie Styron believed those words.
Willie Styron believed that when he died, he would be with God because of what Jesus did on the cross. Willie’s Story intersected with God’s Story, and it made all the difference in the world to him! Willie believed that everyone would have a better life now and an eternal life after death if they believed in and lived for Jesus Christ. That’s what he believed, and that’s what he practiced for the past several years of his life, and that’s what he would want every one of us to know today.
You might say, “I am who I am. I can’t change.”
Willie would say that that’s baloney!
He would share – as he did several times with his church family – about how following Jesus changed him. He’d tell you about how he used to have a problem with people who didn’t drive the way he wanted them to, and how he would “speak in tongues” – and I don’t mean the Biblical sense – at people on the road! And he’d tell you about how one day he heard a sermon at church on anger, and the specific example of uncontrolled road rage. He’d tell you how he spent a long time in self-examination over this, and how he made the commitment to pray for people when they “agitated” him on the road. And he’d tell you how it led him to do a LOT of praying! A WHOLE LOT! But he’d also tell you how the anger began to slowly tone down. And he’d tell you that it was because of Jesus, not because of him. And he would tell you that Jesus can change you, too – especially in the areas that you think can’t be changed!
If that’s something you’d like to talk with someone else about, feel free to let me know. Because that’s what Willie would want me to do.
Willie had two very specific requests that he shared with Jane for when he passed away:
- He didn’t want a funeral. He hated going to funerals, and he didn’t want to have one. So that’s why Jane decided to have a Celebration of his life instead of a traditional funeral.
- Willie also wanted a specific poem read at his cremation. So Justin is going to accompany me and we would like to present to you Crossing The Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson…
Crossing the Bar
by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
Be such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.