theology

Remembering My Friend Lew Wilkins


For several months I have had the sadness and happiness of knowing that one of my great friends, Lew Wilkins, was dying. The happiness is because it was always happy to think of Lew. Still is. The other day the final moment came. But it is hardly final. We do not know what comes for any or all of us. We have faith, and sometimes the experience of unity and closeness with those who are no longer here in flesh and blood.

I met Lew when I went to the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1966. He was working in the same building. He was a constant friend during a terribly frustrating time for me. I felt out of place, as though nothing would move. I left early. In the meantime we played bridge with Eugene Carson Blake, our fellow Presbyterian and talked ad infinitum about church problems.

A few years later, Lew and I were in Uppsala at a WCC event and had to physically restrain Gene Blake when he reacted viscerally to yet another effort by the European elite who still dominated the WCC to circumvent his leadership of the organization. He was after all the head of it. He had the same problem I did, but was tougher in some ways.

Both Lew and I were marginal as Presbyterians. I think Lew had a bit more respect than I. Or maybe I was just more inclined to shake dust from my feet. Who knows? In any case, I am pleased to post a eulogy for Lew below with a brief note about the author William G. McAtee.

William G. McAtee’s note to me:

Steve … I am the person who did the eulogy. William G. McAtee. McAtee is simply how some of my closest friends refer to me. You can tell that I was close to Lew. He spoke of his friendship with you on many occasions through the years. I never did have the opportunity to meet you. I regret that. I was working at the Board of Christian Education in 1968 when he came there from Geneva. After we left I came to Kentucky as associate executive of Transylvania Presbytery. Served in that capacity for 10 years then became executive for 16 years before I retired in 1997. We still live here. I have enjoyed your entries in the guestbook, poetry etc. Wish you could have been in Lubbock last week. That would have rounded things out. I am interested in your blog and appreciate you desire to put it there. Of course you are welcome to do that. Don’t be thrown off by the W & M Associates copyright. Lew and I stuck that on some special things we wrote to perpetuate the Associates myth although its for real! So as one final gesture, I stuck it on the eulogy. Best wishes and peace, bill mcatee

A Service of Witness to the Resurrection
In Thanksgiving for the Life of Lewis Langley Wilkins, Jr.
December 25, 1936 – January 31, 2008

Somewhere between “Once Upon a Time” and “The End,” memories are born. Stories are created between the great parentheses of birth and death. There we struggle with all sorts of elemental human experiences: fire and water, earth and air; sight and sound; light and dark; wind and sun; life giving and threatening experiences; opportunities lost and disappointments overcome; promises broken and promises kept; hopes and dreams that take on a new life of their own.

In a primal sense we seem to be genetically stamped with the inclination to tell stories as a means of making sense out of life. Stories about mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and in-laws and outlaws and love and betrayal and forgiveness and everything else under the sun–improbable stories; weird stories; damning stories; redeeming stories; dysfunctional stories; uplifting stories; simple stories; complex stories; stories that link our present with our past and our past with our present; stories that generate misunderstanding; stories that create common understanding; stories of place and community. YOUR STORY, MY STORY, OUR STORY, GOD’S STORY, all co-mingled like the dust and wind of rocky Edwards County Texas or entangled like an over-growth of kudzu in the Mississippi Delta of my birth.

Today we are gathered here to honor the memory of the story called Lewis Langley Wilkins, Jr., that embodies all of these stories. We are also here to give witness to the resurrection. I will forego the usual recitation of Lew’s storied contributions in his service to church and society in a variety of ecumenical and denominational agencies, in the local congregations he dearly loved, and finally in The Plains Institute. Such formal accolades were not his cup of tea.

One of the best things I could possibly do now that would make Lew dance a Texas two-step in those handmade Stonewall County boots of his would be to do what he and I did so many times through the years. I would have you break up in small groups and get you telling stories, where your stories linked with Lew in those elemental experiences of the past. And we would be here until the sun comes up the day after tomorrow!

Oftentimes stories begin with our inability to tell them. But when I am present to you and you to me, and we listen to one another, stories will gush like wildcatting oil wells of yesteryear. Try this: “remember that time with Lew when you lifted your glass in celebration of . . .” or “can you beat what happened to me and Lew at such and such place when . . .” or “remember when Lew got wound up explaining some obscure theological point he had just translated from the work of a little known German theologian . . .” or “the time when I thought my world had gone down the toilet, I remember Lew just being there. . .” or “remember that long night when I waited and waited for Lew to finish a sentence! Which night? Which sentence?”

One night back in January (1/2/08) Judy wrote in the CaringBridge Journal: “Life under any circumstance with Lew Wilkins is not ordinary but it is most certainly interesting even on the hard days . . . .” The next night after listening to the Mass, Lew wanted to listen to the Haggard, Nelson, Price CD. Reflecting on that little moment, Judy entered this in the Journal: “There is always so much complexity . . . but then isn’t that why we all love him . . . Bach to Haggard, Modern Art to Taxidermy . . . the Sacred and the profane . . . and even in these moments he holds these paradoxes in one hand.” (1/3/08)

Miss Judy, I have given that considerable thought and have concluded that this complexity only appears to be a paradox.

My childhood friend, Tex Sample, in later years wrote in Ministry in an Oral Culture: Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus & Minnie Pearl, that some of us live in a culture of oral tradition. Understanding of life is reached through relationships and experiences, and that understanding is then passed on to others through proverbs, sayings, stories, and tales. Others of us live in a literate culture in which understanding of life is processed in abstract concepts and rational dissertations. This does not the mean the oral culture is illiterate or the literate culture is devoid of human experience. It simply means that life is processed differently in each of these cultures and both are valid.

These two cultures often clash with little tolerance trafficked between them. Somewhere on that long trek between his beginnings in Rocksprings to his last days in Lubbock, Lew was able to bridge the gulf between these two cultures with such authentic ease, as only few of us are able to do. Sometimes this was grossly misunderstood and resented. At other times it was deeply respected and cherished.

Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass (Prefaced by some Mozart)

Lew’s path and my path finally crossed some forty years ago in 1968, that quiet and peaceful year! Yeah quiet! [read Brokaw’s Boom.] I say, finally, because we had an earlier near miss a decade or so before. I truly suspect we were reincarnated from another life we shared around some ancient watering hole along a distant nomadic trade route.

A couple of years after we met, we both were on the same list to get a “pink slip,” aka “fired,” from our employer in Richmond, Virginia, in spite of the great contributions we had made to the organization! Actually it was the perennial institutional downsizing we go through from time to time and we were the young Turks, the first to go in those days. It was a traumatic experience, loosing our place. Somehow we became convinced that instinctive techniques of survival were not adequate to cope with what was happening to us. We had to be more intentional about where we were headed.

So our “burning bush” type of inquiring minds led us to create the mythical W & M Associates as we set out in two very different directions to find new employment in the Church. This association of two gave form and discipline to reflections on our common history, interests and observations of the world and learnings from them. It became our new school of self-directed continuing education; a new way of putting things together–expecting one thing and discovering another. We even developed a brochure that described what we were doing and printed our own letterhead stationary.

The occasions when our paths crossed became our learning place: forays into Louisiana Bayou Country in the deep of night in search of a Cajun feast you wouldn’t believe; rambling along the midway of a county fair in Mississippi observing the sociological changes taking place; sitting long hours in some bureaucratic negotiation attempting to create the new church organization to end all organizations; holding our own with academics in ivory towers contemplating whatever; random contact with working folk scratching out a living; watching everyday things to figure out what made them work or not work.

Out of our observations and learnings we created communication and educational theories. We designed laboratory-training experiences based on these ideas and then found real live opportunities to test them out in our day jobs with Sunday School teachers, young pastors and other groups. This all may sound overly impressive, but that was part of the myth. In reality it was simply ordinary stuff that helped keep our sanity and a heck of a lot of fun as we made new discoveries about ourselves, and others about us.

Our venture was based on more than merely applied social anthropology. Its foundation was disciplined theological reflection. We were deeply touched by Elie Wiesel’s novel, The Gates of the Forest, a story of a young survivor of the European holocaust. The first pages open with recalling from Jewish folklore, that when misfortune threatened the Jews, a great Rabbi would go into the forest to meditate, light a fire, say a special prayer, and a miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. As this power was transmitted from generation to generation, the next Rabbi would forget part of the ritual. Finally, the fourth generation Rabbi was quoted as saying:

“I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient. And it was sufficient.”

Wiesel concludes: “God made man because he loves stories.”

[W & M paraphrased it: God made humankind because she loves stories!]

The most significant thing that W & M Associates created was our concept of Story as Theological Reflection. We articulated the components of story and designed story-telling workshops we either together or separately conducted that combined my story/your story/our story/ God’s Story. One of those events we called “Stories from a New Earth.” In an introductory piece about it, Lew wrote the following:

“. . . The Bible is a book of stories—stories of new things that happen and keep on happening in and around the community of people who put their trust in the God of Abraham.

“In telling the stories from generation to generation, the Bible shows that this community has always struggled to keep its memory and its hope together. The “new covenant” of the exodus generation becomes an old covenant for the prophets. Then comes the story of the most unprecedented new thing of all. A man put to death for blasphemy against the God of Abraham, is raised by that same God to new life.

“The old-new covenant community became the crucible from which a stream of new stories continues to flow . . . . The community of storytellers keeps on struggling to keep its memory and its hope together. The community of people who put their trust in the God of Abraham is the here-and-now crucible in which the there-and-then words take on new resurrection flesh.

“The visionary saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’ The best news of all is this:

THAT NEW EARTH IS ALREADY HERE, IN AN AROUND THE TRUSTING COMMUNITY. WE SEE IT, WE REMEMBER IT, WE HOPE FOR IT.”

“THE STORIES WE TELL ARE FROM A NEW EARTH.”

* * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * *

Last December I spent five very special days and nights with Lew and Judy. It was a sacramental time for me in which I tended his simple basic needs, sleeping in the room with him on a chair to help him make it through the night. [I discovered the second night the chair was a recliner!] I was there to give Judy support and some much needed respite care. During the day Lew and I walked back and forth, watched the birds, ate chicken soup I whipped up, and sometimes just sat in silence or simply nodded off.

On Sunday afternoon we took Lew to ride. He wanted to take me to the American Wind Power Center and see those marvelous life-giving devices while he sat in the car. He had brought me a model of the double windmill on my 65th birthday. He wanted me to see the sculpture Terry Allen did of Stubb and read the plaques on the linoleum floor out at Barbecue Beyond the Grave. We ended the drive with large smoothies.

One of the best of times was the Monday afternoon before I had to fly back to Kentucky. I stoked up the fire I built that morning, filled the birdfeeder, got Lew his fruit juice and sat back and was absorbed by some classical music streaming from the Sirius Radio I hooked up for him. I read some excerpts from Oglesby’s Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air. Lew wanted to make sure I got exposed to the full flavor of Lubbock’s worldwide artistic importance. We put on Terry Allen’s Lubbock: on everything and some Tom X Hancock’s and Robert Earl Keen’s stuff. We just sat and listened and looked at the fire.

After a while Lew got to talking about the CaringBridge phenomenon. He called off all the persons who had posted messages on the Guestbook.[There were 17,490 hits as of noon today!] It was about as diverse, inclusive, and ecumenical group of family, friends and colleagues as you could get. He marveled that so many people were concerned for him. He paused and said, “That is the real Body, ‘the communion of saints.’ That’s what its all about.” I said, “Do you know the one thing that is common to the whole bunch?” “What?” “You. You made a difference in their lives and they are returning the care.” He thought some more and said, “Well, I was just being Lew.” Later it came to me that CaringBridge and the elves and angels and ants and a wide assortment of feathered friends belong to that community of storytellers struggling to keep memory and hope together.

When the fire was about gone, Judy brought out something in her hand and asked Lew if it was time to show it to me. He took it and handed it to me. It was a small, carved piece of antler in the shape of an owl. He said he had gotten it years ago out at Taos and he had been looking for another one just like it ever since. It was an ancient symbol of healing for him, something ever so special. We talked about owls and what they had meant to people over aeons of time. I believe he came close to finding that same healing essence in CaringBridge, for it was the occasion of witness to the sustaining care for each other and God’s creation across the wide spectrum of humankind.

One of the most significant components of story we discovered is its sacramental nature. Long ago we defined “sacramental” as an “act or symbol which propels new meaning forward into some future memory.” Every time now when I look at a miniature granite owl sitting by my computer, a sacramental memory floods over me of that glorious December afternoon I spent with my friends and special associate, Lewis Langley Wilkins, Jr. It brings back to mind that I had the opportunity to tell him that day I was a much more complete person because of what we meant to each other and the long and winding road of discovery we had traveled. The memory of that relationship gives me the energy to face a new day and for this I am forever thankful.

Stories have beginnings and ending. But because of endings, new stories have beginnings. From time to time as we go from this place, some act or symbol will stir a sacramental memory that will flood over you about stories you shared with him and what you meant to each other. May the stories you lived with Lew take on new resurrection flesh in telling your future stories. In just being Lew, he made sure that the stories we will tell are from the New Earth. And that is resurrection here and now for us.

We have offered thanksgiving this day for the life of Lewis L. and given witness for resurrection here and now in the New Earth. Of this we are certain. Now the uncertainty looms large about what comes with resurrection in the New Heaven. I have long since given up on speculating about what that will be. I believe that God has been gracious and loving to us in this life, and that God will do the same for us no matter what comes on the other side of our bodily death.

Knowing Lew like I do, whatever there is in the New Heaven he now experiences, he will do his damnedest to give us a sign as to what it is like! So be alert and vigilant until that comes. By cutting each other some slack no matter how crazy it gets, by taking care of each other and the world about us, by beginning new stories of love and mercy from the New Earth, we may just get a glimpse of the New Heaven. And that will be sufficient.

I get the feeling that Lew may even now be giving me a sign, “Ok, McAtee, enough is enough. Put a lid on it.” Judy, you were so gracious in inviting me to share this special moment here today. I did not even come close to scratching the surface of all the things I wanted to say to you and your family and friends. But as usual, Lew’s sign would be on target one more time, “enough is enough.” Thanks be to God.

The last thing I said to Lew when I left him in December, was what we always said to each other on departing over the years: “See you down the road!” And I know I will, for “The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends.”*

lew wilkins
William G. McAtee

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2 thoughts on “Remembering My Friend Lew Wilkins

  1. Pingback: Remembering James H. Robinson and Others | Stephen C. Rose

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