Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Thank You, David Bills

David with Willa Lee, Lori Edgerton & Melinda Powell
on one of our infamous Polaroid Scavenger Hunts!
Marilyn and I received word through Facebook this week that our old friend and my first pastor, David Bills, was retiring from the ministry. This was not a shock- we knew it was coming this year. But still, it is hard to imagine New Garden Friends Meeting without him. He served 50 years among Quakers, the last 42 of them at New Garden. That's a long, long time to pastor the same church. And it's not like he was the founding pastor- New Garden was founded in 1754. It was just the perfect match of institution and leader. But at age 73 Dave and amazing wife Jean have decided to move on. Today I want to share what an influence they were on my life and my ministry.

David arrived as pastoral minister at New Garden Friends Meeting just slightly before I did in 1972. It would be several months later before I really came to know him, but there were a number of things about David that stood out to me immediately. My experience with pastors to that point had been very limited, but the ones I had known had seemed quite serious and even a bit scary. David was just the opposite. He didn't tell us to call him Rev. Bills or Pastor Dave or any other formal title- just Dave. He was quick with a smile or a joke that really helped put this young teenager at ease as I tried to settle back into "church" after my family's extended absence. And he really cared about all of us in the youth group. And that youth group would be come the single most important group of people in my life for years to come. David had an impact on so many.

I remember riding with David on a trip up to Sam Levering's orchards and encountering a car with engine trouble. We stopped and looked under the hood, all of us clueless about what we might be looking for. David leaned in and said (and 30+ years later I can hear it as clearly as if were yesterday"I see the problem.  The flange hammer is stuck on the McGuffy box, so your flu-flu valve is not working properly." We all looked at him and then exploded in laughter, understanding he was saying what we all thought- we would be no help in this matter. As usual, David put us all at ease.

New Garden Friends Meeting was a very eclectic place, with people of all ages and many places along the theological spectrum. David knew how to challenge us. He taught us about the Bible, about social justice, about Quakerism and about what it means to truly follow Christ. He taught me that being a pacifist wasn't a political stance, it was simply an expression of following Jesus. His worship style taught me so much about waiting on God and about loving silence. In a place where biblical literacy was sometimes questionable, I remember him delivering a message one Sunday from the book of 2 Heziciah. Many were surprised at the conclusion to discover there is no such book, and the lesson of how easily the uneducated can be misled in the name of God was not lost on anyone. I used that same trick many times over my years in student ministry. In fact, David encouraged first my youth leaders and then later myself to think way outside the box in our ministries. He supported all of us, and always had my back, even when I was wrong. He and Jean opened their home for a weekly gathering of Guilford College students, where they fed us and helped us cope with life, and those meals were some of my favorite times with some amazing friends. He encouraged me to work at Quaker Lake Camp. He pushed me to be involved in North Carolina Yearly Meeting youth activities and to make a difference in the lives of students all over the state- even though many leaders of that YM shunned him personally in those days. Later on he was a strong supporter when I applied for a position in New England Yearly Meeting and when I went to Springfield Friends Meeting. He was one of the pastors who presided over mine and Marilyn's wedding. His daughter Jennifer did the calligraphy on our Quaker Marriage Certificate that hangs in our home today. And when we wanted to have a memorial service in NC for my Dad in 2006, he graciously opened New Garden for us. He loved me when I was a failure and a success; he modeled the love of Christ for me even before I understood what that was. I was by no means a "finished product" when I left New Garden in 1985, but I had a spiritual foundation that has lasted a lifetime.

At the rehearsal dinner
But my most lasting memory of Dave will always be from our rehearsal dinner. As the large party set around tables, dressed fairly formally and toasting us with champagne, a commotion arose from David's table. We looked to see he had a table spoon dangling from his nose. My Dad followed his example, and before long the whole atmosphere of the room had changed with people trying to dangle spoons from their noses. I suppose the greatest compliment I can give David Bills is to say that he was always himself, no matter the situation. Pastors can be so pompous and self-important, seeking to separate themselves from the congregation to lead through some air of superiority. But just try being pompous with a spoon hanging on your nose! It's only fitting that his retirement party was a "Roast," where people told stories about him. His ministry was very much a narrative, and I hope that some day I am remembered in the same way. So thank you, Dave! Enjoy retirement. And know that your influence will be felt for years to come.

To read more about Dave and his life you can read this excellent article from the Greensboro News & Record. Just click the link! 

Because of Jesus,

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