A Homily for Bill Absher
We preachers know that there are some sermons that even on our best days we are not capable of preaching. The truth of what we are trying to convey is too large, too deep, too thick, too profound for us to express with words. The way that God has been at work is beyond belief and it makes belief possible; but the preacher knows that no sermon can fully express what has been experienced. This is the situation that we face this morning as we gather to remember and give thanks for the life of Bill Absher. There is no sermon that can adequate convey what we have experienced in the life of Bill Absher because his life was a sermon and it was much more powerful than anything that will ever be preached from a pulpit in a church. The church was found wherever Bill Absher happened to be. Some people talk about being the hands and feet of Christ; Bill Absher was the heart of Christ. He was also the hands and feet of Christ, but the way that Bill used his hands and feet gave expression to the heart of Christ. Bill was not holier than thou, but Bill was holy and his holiness allowed us to see and experience the beauty of God’s love. When we celebrated Jean’s life in November, I shared my impression that Jean reflected what we Methodists call Christian perfection. I thought the same was true for Bill. When I related this impression to him during his last hospitalization, Bill commented something to the effect that he should have learned something in ninety years. He had learned what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and his example taught us the deeper truths of our faith which was the greatest sermon that it will ever be our privilege to experience. So I trust you will recognize and understand that I am not capable of preaching the sermon that was Bill Absher. Rather I will simply recount some glimpses of a much larger sermon in the hope that it will remind us all of the God who was at work in and through Bill Absher as well as the way God cares for him and promises to help us.
Curtis observed at the prayer meeting this past Tuesday that a sociologist would have predicted a bleak future for Bill when he was a boy. Bill’s father was killed when he was ten years old and Bill assumed responsibilities for his family that did not permit him to finish high school. Bill had often dreamed of going back to school and he had often said that he would have liked to have been an extension agent. Bill taught himself to be a successful business man which prompted George Allen, an extension agent, to call Bill an extension carpenter. People in Blacksburg knew that they could go to Bill Absher for good guidance and fair treatment. People would often bring some item to the store that they wanted to replace by buying another one. Bill would examine the item and fix it. People knew that they could trust Bill Absher and he built more than a business; he built a reputation that made him one of the most loved and respected people in this community. Bill started his own business at age 51 after working as a carpenter at the arsenal in Radford where he was later hired as an employee. While visiting Curtis in Kentucky, he bought a delivery truck, paint shakers, and shelves from a company that was going out of business to do something that he had contemplated for many years. No sociologist would have predicted that a man who had to grow up without a father, did not have the benefit of finishing his education, and served his nation during the Second World War would turn out to be one of the most respected people in his community. A sociologist would have predicted many other things, but Bill Absher was always predictably reliable and trustworthy. I’m sure many of us remember how Jean loved to tell of the woman who had predicted that their marriage wouldn’t last.
Bill and Jean not only had a marriage that lasted far beyond what anyone would have predicted, but they enjoyed a relationship that made them predictable in their devotion for one another. They were always there for one another and I know that Bill deeply missed Jean. The depth of their relationship was given its most beautiful expression in the love of their family. Barbara and Curtis cared for their parents in ways that left no doubt that they were deeply loved and appreciated. I spent many times with Bill and Jean looking at photographs of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Bill and Jean were immensely proud of their family and they took great delight in the lives of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Mindy, Bill’s granddaughter, sent him a letter last week that read in part, “I love that I was able to share your home with my family! There is no place where we all love to be like Blacksburg. I know that having my grandparents around to get to know my children is a special treasure. I am so thankful that you and grandma set such a wonderful example of love and life and that my children have had the opportunity to experience that as well!” Beth wrote from Chile, “I want to thank you for living your ministry for the world to see, regardless of whether or not the world was watching. You have taught me, and others, so much by your quiet example.”
It is impossible to talk about Bill Absher for very long without talking about his Christian faith. It permeated his life and touched the lives of all who knew him. Beth continued in her letter, “There has been much said in recent months, and I am sure much more to be said, about your life of service . . . to your family, to your church and to your community. Thank you for that witness of giving oneself, of using the unique set of talents that God has given you in order to bring Him glory. Yours is a life that has brought Him glory, and continues to do so through the lives of your children who also live lives of dedicated service to their families, their churches and their communities.” Beth later wrote, “Other than reading the Roanoke Times, the only books I can remember seeing you read are your Bible and your Sunday School lesson. In fact, one of my fondest memories of you is coming home from school one day when you were visiting us in Kentucky and finding you sitting under a tree reading your Bible. It made quite an impression on me because I realized that if you were reading it, it really was an important book.” Mindy recounted in her letter, “My first memories of Blacksburg are probably at your church. How fitting is that? I remember feeling so small while I looked up at that beautiful wood ceiling and thinking that it looked a hundred miles to the front of the church. All my life, every time I go into a new church, I compare it to the Blacksburg United Methodist Church. I’ve yet to find one as compelling! I think though that maybe the reason your church is unparalleled is not because of its architecture but because of the people.” As the pastor of this church, I know that a lot of the people are here because of Bill Absher.
Bill Absher will always be one of the most important people in the history of this church. His love for this church is legendary. Bill is the one who often found his way through the church basement in the dark to insure that the church was warm and comfortable on Sunday mornings. Bill is the one who often did the hard work of starting some new ministry and never wanted a place of prominence in the leadership of that new ministry. He helped to organize the prayer breakfast with Gunnar Teilmann. Bill was told that if he would get the people, Gunnar and Richard Barker would see to the leadership. Bill told them that they had a deal and Bill faithfully called people to invite them to be a part of that ministry. Bill had a way of inviting people to join in ministry that was loving and compelling. He never gave up on people, but persisted in his loving invitation. Bill was an important part of the Murrill Bible Study and while he was well qualified to teach the class himself, he always took on the role of finding people to teach. He had recruited Carter Elliott and Mark Smith in more recent years. Bill was truly a servant of the church who understood the Christ who came not to be served, but to serve. Curtis called him a talent scout who would figure out who could do what and then worked to make it happen. I am confident that it would have been a whole lot less work for Bill to do it himself, but he understood ministry. It is a lesson that I am still learning myself and Bill Absher was a master teacher.
As the pastor of Bill Absher’s church, it was my privilege to experience his witness of Christian faith in the most challenging times of his life. Bill demonstrated the strength that is possible in Christ as he experienced Jean’s death. He was always man enough to cry and he had studied materials given to him by Hospice about grieving the death of a spouse. He kept those materials tucked in his chair and often studied them. He did not try to minimize or ignore his grief, but he entered into it, trusting that God would meet him in that place. He knew what we are experiencing this day and he would want us to know that God will find us even in this place. As Bill’s condition became more difficult and he had to make a decision about going into Hospice, we had some serious conversations. We talked soon after he made the decision to go into Hospice Care and he was quite clear with me that he was comfortable with his decision. As Bill began to move into that place which is somewhere between life and eternal life, I would question Bill about whether he was having any dreams. For a while, Bill reported that he was not having any dreams, but a few weeks ago, he shared with me, initiating the conversation himself, that he had had a dream. He was here at the church digging a new well. When I asked if he had hit water in his dream, he said no. I shared my impression that the dream might be about how this experience was going to take him to a deeper place in his spiritual life since this experience was unlike any that he had ever known before in life. Bill shook his head in agreement and he continued to report having that dream. It is instructive that what was most on Bill’s mind was a project at the church; a project to provide water. The images and the deeper meaning of a well and water reflect a depth of spirituality that is deeply grounded in the Biblical witness. When I related the dream to my wife, she offered her impression that the dream might also be about the church. She suggested that Bill’s dream might be Bill’s final lesson for us; teaching us to go deeper, to look for new sources of living water to sustain us in our life as a Christian community. Curtis thought we might both be right. Because Bill had periods in the last week when he would not sleep, I probed him about this situation. I asked if there was anything on his mind and he indicated that there was. When I asked him if he wanted to talk about it, he would begin to tell me how much he loved me. I thought that was his way of avoiding talking about what was on his mind so we went through that sequence of conversation three times. Wanting to be certain that I had given him every opportunity to express any anxiety that he might have about his approaching death, I bluntly asked him if was afraid. He responded immediately and his response was a resounding and clear, “No!” So I think what was truly on his mind was telling me that he loved me. Then Bill turned to the subject of my mother saying that he was sorry that she had died as tears rolled down his cheeks. Later Bill turned the conversation to my father saying that he knew my father and that he was a nice man. He said something about my father having a delivery job. Now Bill never knew my father or it may be more accurate to say that Bill did not know my father when my father made his home in this world. As I listened to Bill, I began to discern that Bill may have come to know my father as he was moving into that place between life and eternal life. So I asked Bill if he would take a message to my father. As he shook his head affirmatively, I asked Bill to tell my father that I love him. He agreed to give him the message. Now do you understand what was happening? As Bill Absher was dying, he was still doing ministry. He was able to do that because he knew and served a living Lord.
When Bill Absher took his last breath, Lodis, his caretaker, was playing a CD and singing, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Until his last breath in this world, Bill Absher was focused on the love of God. Thanks be to God for the sermon that was Bill Absher which has taught about and touched us with the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Reginald D. Tuck
Blacksburg United Methodist Church
April 7, 2011