Friday, June 07, 2019

William Potter Parrish: A Homily For His Funeral, June 5, 2019

e had gathered with no little nervousness. Much was at stake, not the least of which was our future. We were knocking on the door of the Church hoping that we’d be told at some point that we’d be welcome to become priests. It was on the whole a lot easier in those days to get the desired answer than it was later to be. But none of us knew that at the time. We were three postulants for ordination at our first meeting with the examining chaplains of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, a group of senior clergy to whom Bishop Marmion and the diocese had entrusted the task of vetting us young squirts who thought we just might do that impossible job.

One of the senior, trusted clergy picked up his big fat black leather briefcase sometime about 3 in the afternoon, stuffed some papers into it, and announced that he had a meeting to attend at Lynchburg College where he was on the faculty. He struck me as a man of serious purpose and few words, pleasant but somehow a little inscrutable. But that was less about the man, The Reverend Doctor William Potter Parrish, than it was about me, a newish convert to The Episcopal Church still wondering how to navigate in a system that was largely strange to me. Everyone was inscrutable and everything a bit daunting.

What I didn’t know as I watched him pack his briefcase was that I was looking at a man who would come to have a profound impact on my life in ways I could never have imagined then. I didn’t see Bill for the next several decades. In 1992, I answered a call from the vestry of St. John’s, Lynchburg, to become rector. One thing or another had taken the entire clergy and professional staff away from here, so I came on the alert to find somebody fast to help me lead the clergy end of things. I’d hardly unpacked when the then Senior Warden, Jim Peery and his wife Doris had a small gathering to welcome Barbara and me to our new community. Two folks came up to me and said, “You know, Frank, you might be aware that a great priest is available and might be willing to give you some assistance at St. John’s. His name is Bill Parrish. Ever heard of him?” I remembered the black briefcase being shut and the man who had packed and carried it from the meeting long years before. Sure enough, within a short time, I asked and Bill agreed to come here as pastoral assistant.

And what a great day that was, not only for me but for hosts of people in this community. Bill worked several days a week and usually Sundays as well for the next twelve years and then some. He was the mainstay of clergy presence by many a sickbed, in hospitals and retirement homes, up and down the halls and in living quarters at Westminster-Canterbury. He organized a group that we came to call “Daybreak Bible Study” but which the members of it called “Bill Parrish’s Bible Study” that lasted for years. But what few parishioners knew was that Bill kept the staff smiling and the rector supported with an unfailing sense of humor, good judgment, sound counsel, and unflagging faith.

We have a way of looking back over the years and can only be breathless at the patterns we see in retrospect that were barely discernible as events unfolded one after another. I think back to mornings with the staff on Manton Drive, to conversations in weekly meetings, to moments when we’d share pastoral information, to a sermon preached on an Easter morning, a hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway with a hurting knee eventually to be replaced, dear Jackie’s final illness and Jonathan and Minou’s wedding celebration, Herb’s untimely death and young Bill’s fortuitous return to Lynchburg. Those are just a handful of moments that are a part of a pastiche of grace in which his soul rose to its full height and brought the souls of others to stand at attention. You know much more than I do. You know how he touched your life. You know what he taught you. You know what witness he bore as he shared his understanding of the Truth with you. You are here today because of him whose life directly or indirectly brushed or more substantially shaped yours maybe thousands of times, may just a few, maybe only once.

That is the grand mystery pressing upon our consciousness that causes words to form such as these:

Lord you have searched me out and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up.
You discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting places
And are acquainted with all my ways.

The only way we ever discover such a wonder is in the details of our own lives. And the marvel of it is that such awesome love makes itself obvious not so much in the carefully scripted ways we imagine will bring us happiness and fulfillment, but in the jolts and tumbles that we’re least prepared for, twists and turns we never plan and wouldn’t in a thousand lifetimes choose. Deaths and losses and changes and revelations, challenges and dilemmas that leave us exhausted: these are the moments that alone can crack our false sense of self-sufficiency. Ultimately they form the school in which we learn whatever we learn of the power of God, the use of grace, the hope of glory.

Make no mistake. Bill Parrish didn’t get to be the priest or the teacher or the scientist or the friend or the father or grandfather that we honor him for by breezing through life going by someone else’s playbook. Like you and me, he found God showing up in the most unlikely moments, many times surprising with unexpected joy and just as many times bringing clarity through the sheer toughness of necessary change. How do I know? Not just because Bill and I spent a dozen years quite close to each other, but because it isn’t a secret that only through testing do we know what lasts, only through struggle that we experience anything worth calling victory, and only through dying to our ego-bound self that we are ever born into newness of life.

                        Where shall I go from your Spirit?
                        Where shall I flee from your presence?

                        If I climb up to heaven you are there.
                        If I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

All of that is theory and someone else’s experience until life overtakes you and you find it true because you’ve lived it or you are living it. You don’t have to worry about whether you can do it, or whether it is true for you. Nor do you have to take Bill Parrish’s or mine or anyone else’s word for it. All you have to do is look at your own life and you’ll see appearing before your face, indeed closer than your nostrils, that you haven’t really learned anything to compare with what you’ve learned when you’re pushed against the wall, undeniably out of your head’s inventoried resources. You can tell from your own experience that even in joyful times, delightful moments, you never experience pleasure while you’re busy holding back, you never know what it is to rise until see that your white-knuckled holding on is all that keeps you from rising even higher. And letting go of our ideas, preconceptions, judgments is what ultimately brings us to know what trust, the core of faith, is all about.

So it goes.

                        If I take the wings of the morning and dwell
                                    in the uttermost part of the sea
                        Even there your hand will hold me, and your right hand hold me fast.

It is true irony that when we come together, as we do today, to celebrate a human life that in many ways has been beautiful, a life that has made ours richer and fuller, the mass of us generally only knows the most superficial things that made such a person tick. The same will be true of you when your days are over and the love you’ve inspired and left behind brings together those who will honor you. We don’t know now and they won’t know then but a tiny fraction of what has really been your journey. At best they will, as we do today, intuit from the experiences they’ve had the richness of your life, its meaning, the import of your story.

And all of that is just as it should be. The soul loves mystery and rests best in silence. All words of laud and honor will be a faint tinkling in the breeze of memory. It won’t be important. What saves us is not what we’ve done nor really what we’re remembered for. What saves us is Love, the Power that brought us here and receives us back again, the Love that gave us birth and receives us again into its own deep and dazzling darkness.

It is thus with William Potter Parrish, child of God. That was and always will be quite enough.

A homily based on the text of the 139th Psalm. All quotations are from that text.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019.  Copies of this may be freely shared.  Quotations in print or online from this text should be credited to the author.  Thank you.

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