Eulogy for A Friend: Bill Watkins
April 1, 2014 • Mt. Carmel Presbyterian Church • 2048 Carmel Road, Charlotte, NC
Bill Watkins and I have been friends for forty years. We met while he was on staff with Campus Crusade and then worked together with Worldwide Discipleship Association. I was Best Man at his wedding.
We had a lot in common. (Except he had an IQ of about 10,000, and I didn’t.) We both collected stamps, baseball cards, and books. We also rooted for the same SEC teams, except when they played each other. And we read (and re-read) the same English authors: Sayers, Tolkien, Stott, and Lewis (to mention a few).
There’s another thing that Bill and I have in common: We both love, and are loved by, wonderful women who will receive a star in heaven’s crown for hazardous duty on earth.
Bill never held public office, or ran a company, or made a lot of money, or did many of the things that many people think evidence greatness. But he was an exceptionally great person: a loyal brother, a good son, a faithful friend.
He never wrote that book we all kept urging him to write. But (as you may already realize) he did something far more significant: HE WROTE LETTERS, hundreds and hundreds of them. And those letters, written by a man who loved God supremely, changed many lives. Mine was one that was changed.
I suspect that many of his friends have a “Letters from Bill” file. I want to remember him, and glorify God, by reading just a few snippets of his correspondence, samples of his trade and indicators of his heart. Once he sent a letter just because he loved the stamp.
A stamp which looks this good deserves to be mailed, and on an envelope worth carrying it. (Now I have an empty page to fill up to justify the postage!) I think we Christians ought to forget about trying to build an American culture that is seasoned with Christianity. It’s too late for that. We need to a build a distinctively Christian culture, proper to a holy nation and a royal priesthood, and let it shine against the darkening common culture, while we still have the freedom to be openly creative.
One of the last times I saw Bill, we went book-hunting together. It was one of our favorite pastimes with one difference: I collected books, but Bill actually READ them.
Friday was a depressing day, so I went book-browsing. (An alcoholic should not go into a bar.) I bought a 1913 edition of Hilaire Belloc’s: “The Servile State”. It was worth buying for the binding, but the contents are excellent too!
A good browser never stops with just the item he came in for. He looks around to see if there are any chance opportunities. Two books were lying on a bench, either put there by a clerk for later re-shelving, or left there by a customer. One of the books had an appetizing look to it. Sniffing it, I began to drool over its savory aroma. But a scavenger must be careful. The customer who left it might be back to claim his own. Just to make sure, I circled around, and the book was still lying there! I went back and looked it over again. Still cautious – a hyena is always nervous about a lion returning to claim his kill – but I left with the prize in hand!
In addition to his love of books, Bill loved discipleship. (I was not surprised to hear that he was launching a new men’s group at church this month.)
May our ministry produce knights and kings – men who know how to wield power and rule wisely. In paradise we were meant to be innocent kings, wielding authority and power incorruptibly. Now power corrupts. Can there be such a thing as an innocent king? Can a man conquer his enemies, subdue rebels, dispense justice, levy taxes, and command loyalty without so using force that he loses his purity? Do innocence and power go together? Of course they do in Jesus! He is the only innocent King – and we renounced His kingship and assassinated Him. Jesus is our stories-come-true. Innocence does sit on the Throne!
And sometimes it wasn’t what he wrote but what he quoted that made an impact. In ministry I was often embroiled in petty religious infighting. In response, Bill cited C.S. Lewis:
“Men who have gods, worship those gods; it is the spectators who describe this as religion! The moment a man seriously accepts a deity his interest in religion is at an end. He’s got something else to think about!”
It may be old news, but I hear you and WDA have been through another period of stress. When big celestial bodies change orbits, they emit a burst of gravity waves and space-time perturbations. You must have a Guardian Angel keeping you from colliding, crashing, or breaking apart into meteorites and moon dust. Astronomy and planets are not ready for ‘Comet Dukes’ just yet. WDA will not disintegrate until The Sovereign Lord speaks the word. God continues to polish your hide to a glowing sheen. He must have a special purpose for you. The way the times are going, righteousness and godliness will be rarer than ever. Keep sowing the seeds-of-revival, they’ll sprout someday!
Oddly enough, Bill and I rarely lived in the same city at the same time, but he loved to come for visits and we loved having him in our home. He told me once that “Ebenhearth”, our home in Fayetteville, reminded him of Tolkien’s Rivendell, calling it, “The Second to Last Homely House West of the Mountains”. After one visit he wrote Linda:
Households full of grace and wisdom seem to be disappearing. Without Ebenhearth Bob would have a lower platform, far less credibility, and a great deal less joy. The “Lady of Ebenhearth” adds something irreplaceable to his work.
In flipping through “That Hideous Strength”, I saw a line which brought Ebenhearth to mind. Merlin has made his way out of the ground and to the Manor of St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill and reflects to Ransom: “In all the house there are warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial.”
I just reread the Descent of the Gods upon St. Anne’s in “That Hideous Strength”. I like the idea that Jupiter follows Saturn: jovial majesty follows numbing antiquity. In the end we will be able to laugh, for it is as becoming to royalty as to children. There’s laughter in heaven, contrary to the notions of secular spoilsports. It’s the atheist who’s a killjoy.
Bill had a special connection with Elena our daughter with Down Syndrome. I’d mentioned a baseball game where Elena executed a swinging-bunt and then ran to hug the pitcher.
What a dilemma Elena presented to the scorekeepers! Was the hugging-bunt a hit? fielders choice? error? That was a brilliant tactic – but she wasn’t thinking about tactics was she? She has a wonderful mind and it would be fascinating to know how she thought of baseball. Of course you hug the pitcher before you take your base!
Bill was brilliant, but he was also wise and a child-at-heart. Once, after trading theological reading material he reminded me: What you read to Elena is too important to give up for textbooks!
Knowing we read The Chronicles of Narnia to our children, Bill wrote:
In the magic before the dawn of time, the Father gave the Son incantations to sing to break the spell of sin and death over us. I hope the enchantments are bringing deeper holiness and life to you. Once a King and Queen in Narnia, always a King and Queen!
Now I know why I love this job and why WDA staff are kinda’ weird: we’re teaching students to NOT fit into this world, to LAUGH at Caesar’s demands even as we give him what is his. God is making us into a race of kings and queens, and how CAN the world make sense of us?
But being made holy is not easy. Bill understood this. At times, he struggled with crippling clinical depression.
The ache is deep, but the depression is gradually lifting – the fog has burned off – thinning from a gray pea soup to a light veil. It feels like I’m coming out of a wilderness, heading for usefulness. Carrying the burden has been good training. I just hope I’ve learned the lessons well enough to graduate!
Unsettled times are an assignment from the Lord – by His grace, He does NOT let us get too comfortable in the desert between Eden and Heaven, does not let us mistake oases for the Promised Land. Fat, lazy pilgrims will have trouble making it home.
Sometimes endurance is hell-shattering victory. What can Satan say or do to a man who persists in clinging to Peter’s confession: “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.” Those who endure get to learn how to sing at midnight in prison. Is there a surer sign of heaven for the jailer to see?
When the veil did lift, Bill saw this world (and the next) with startling clarity:
Saturday night strolling on the midway, biting cotton candy, holding your sweetheart’s hand, watching the kids getting spun dizzy on the whirly rides. It really doesn’t get any better than that does it? (It sure beats what’s advertised by the world.) The secret is, and the good news is, that as good as such things are, it really does get a lot better!
Jesus said it’s what’s on the INSIDE that determines greatness. Matters of the heart determine the real outcomes of life.
He said there’s no greater love, but that someone would be willing to lay down their life for others. That was the pattern of Bill’s life. He gave his life away for the people he loved. Many fill their lives by pursuing fame, or riches. But Bill chose love.
His ‘investment portfolio’ was his family and friends. And we’re all the richer for it.
I’m absolutely confident, that if Bill were here today, he would be encouraging US, enriching US, making US better people just by being with us and blessing US.
Bill had a chronic case of Homesickness. But it wasn’t Louisville he longed for: it was Heaven and the world to come. More specifically, it was God Himself that he wanted to see.
Sometimes this homesickness got on my nerves. I would be talking about ‘important stuff’ like “March Madness” brackets or The World Series, and he wouldn’t be paying attention. And it wasn’t just the ADD, (though there WAS that). He’d have this faraway look in these incredibly sad eyes but accompanied by this little grin that made me think I just missed a punch-line. (Sometimes I think he heard angels.) He realized there was much more to come.
After a grueling day of ministry we stopped to regroup and I launched into a bout of self-pity, lamenting about how little we got paid for the emotional buffeting we endured. He politely indulged me, then quoted Jim Elliot: “A man is no fool to give up what he can’t keep, to gain what he can never lose.”
Bill laid aside everything else to follow Christ, because he knew that only a personal relationship with Jesus Christ would lead him home. He understood clearly that religion couldn’t save him, and that sometimes even training for ordination actually hindered what mattered most.
My seminary classes have not once taught me to adore the greatness of God’s loving heart, but His glory shines through the footnotes. The majesty of God cannot be eclipsed by anything man-made, and the Bible still lives after two centuries of dissection. And God’s salvation extends even to the proud intellectual.
There are two kinds of “Good-Byes”
- ‘Final goodbye’ (Don’t expect to ever see someone again.)
- ‘See-you-later goodbye’
On learning of the approaching death of a mutual friend Bill wrote:
Today’s news about Don was grim. The Lord knows what He’s doing, but calling Don Home now will leave us with a mighty big hole in our ranks. God did not mean for us to have to say “good-bye” did He?
Bill’s death has left “a mighty big hole in our ranks”. But even in our sadness, we can be glad for Bill, because he’s glad to be with the Lord. He’s found his way back home!
It gives me great joy, old friend, to know that you are now experiencing the fullness of His joy! This is not a final goodbye, just ‘see you later’.