Bill Gourley Memorial – October 4, 2014
St. Augustine's Episcopal Church
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” we hear today, from the first reading, in the Book of Lamentations. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end.”
Love is exactly what the Gourleys have been showered with, over the past months, and especially in the last weeks of Bill’s life. Athletes he had coached and friends and family and neighbors from down the street and people from very far away came to the Gourleys’ home to tell Bill what he meant to them. And if they couldn’t come in person, they wrote – notes and cards and emails, many of which Carol and Doug shared with me. In them, people talked about what Bill was like as a coach (real, tough, with high expectations that he meant to see fulfilled, and also a great capacity for fun), and as a parent figure (assigning chores to his children’s friends who visited the Gourley house, drawing others closer into the circle, helping them feel like they belonged). There were so many, written by folks who obviously cared so deeply. I found myself walking around with images of them, like snapshots in a wallet, of who Bill was for the people who took such time and care to write.
Steadfast is a word I would use. Bill stuck around, in ways that mattered to the people, in ways that were important. He was steadfast in his love as a husband to Carol for 58 years, as a father and a grandfather, as a coach challenging people to grow into what they were capable of, as a neighbor, as a friend.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.
People seem to have carried these stories about who Bill was in their lives, like we might carry a favorite picture. And finding out that he was so sick meant that it was time to take that story out, reflect it back to the one who made it possible, as if to say: this is who you are for me; this is who I am, because of you.
“You were the perfect person to come into my life at the perfect time,” one person wrote.
“I am a better father because of your example,” wrote another friend.
“Now swim,” a nephew recalls his Uncle Bill’s words to him, as Bill pushed him into the deep end of the swimming pool. “And I did,” he wrote.
And again, I hear those words: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”
My own images of Bill over the past two years that I knew him show up in snapshots, too.
I see him here at church in our Parish Hall on a Monday morning, together with the others who count and record and deposit our offerings from Sunday worship. Long after their actual work was done, they would sit and talk, finish drinking the coffee they had made, eating the treats Mary Jane McCluskey brought from Lawrence Dean bakery. I’m pretty sure the problems of the world were solved across the table on those Monday mornings, along with opinions shared, stories told.
I see him two days before this past Christmas at a party, telling me about his thankfully brief trip in and out of the Emergency Room the day before. He was frustrated that he’d had to go in, glad to have been released – honest, practical – and then turning quickly with a smile and a twinkle in his eye to tell a story about something else.
And I see him the very next night, Christmas Eve, here at church. It’s a big night here, Christmas Eve…and we had had some kind of a scheduling mixup that meant my husband John (sorry, honey, liability of being a clergy spouse) was, at that moment, the solo usher for a whole bunch of people coming to worship, helping them in the door, getting a bulletin for the service, finding a seat. Bill and Carol walked in for the late service, and found John serving by himself, and so Bill stayed at the back instead to help. He had been at the hospital two days before. But he wasn’t going to leave John on his own.
I see Bill and Carol getting out of the car the first Sunday back from their yearly trip to Sanibel. He was tan, and rested, relaxed. He said, “You know, I swam every single day. And it was great.”
And I see him just a couple of months ago, in the pews here after another service. He was sitting with Carol, and their neighbor and dear friend Debra Bonamici, teasing them both about their various escapades…and in the midst of the teasing, sharing stories with me about his courtship with Carol so many years ago.
He was practical and honest and opinionated and hopeful and real. And kind. And loving. And I don’t know a better phrase for what all that boils down to, at its essence, than those words from Lamentations: steadfast love.
No one knows that truth of Bill more dearly than Carol, and Bill and Carol’s children, and their grandchildren. Those snapshot stories continue: Bill watching his grandkids at practices and games and meets. Calling each one of them by names of his own creation…and them, in turn, calling themselves by his name.
The promise of God’s steadfast love that we hear in this first passage is that it never ceases, it never goes away. At our very best, that is the kind of love we are able to reflect to one another.
Your snapshots – your stories of who Bill was, and is, for you – they reflect that promise of steadfast love. And they are yours. They are a part of who you are for the rest of your life. They are for you, to be taken out from time to time and shared again and admired, like that favorite picture that reminds you of what is dear and special and good.
A coach of the very best kind to the end of his earthly life and beyond, my guess is, though, that it wouldn’t be good enough for Bill to have you just admire these stories that he helped to make true in your life. I think he would want you to live into what it is they call forth in you. My guess, he might challenge you, too, to find the kind of steadfast love that you are meant to live…and then to do that as fully as you can.
He might challenge you. He might even push you.
And then tell you to swim.