Funeral Homily: Bill Hackney
August 5, 2006 – 11:00 a.m.
There are stories about people and things in this world, and then there are stories, detailed and poetic accounts that tell us much more of what we really want to know. That is part of the beauty and power of holy scripture. I could say to you: There are birds and plants all around us that do just fine, and God cares for you just as much. Or I could say, Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. And if God so clothes the grass of the field, will God not much more clothe you?
I make this distinction because it applies so well to every conversation I’ve had with people about Bill Hackney. Initially people are quick to give me the basic facts about Bill’s life, how he was a dutiful husband and kind father. How he was an excellent lawyer and skilled corporate counsel to whom younger lawyers often went for advice because of his encyclopedic knowledge and broad experience. How Bill was a talented pianist and exceptional cook, and in all things a true gentleman. Now that’s saying a lot about Bill. But it doesn’t give the full picture of his life; that picture only comes when you wait a moment and allow the rest of the stories to be told.
Did Bill like music? Oh yes, he was a symphony supporter and lover of classical music. He also liked jazz, swing and Big Band music. Art Tatum, Basie, Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw – but not the later Artie Shaw; the early Artie Shaw. And a big fan of George Gershwin. Suddenly the detail that he lived with two grand pianos around him during the final months of his life takes on a whole new meaning.
What did Bill like to cook? Oh, he cooked lots of things: steaks, salads, desserts. Meals for 10, 20, 40, 50 people at once. Crème brulee, pâtés, steak tartare, meals with 2 or 3 different sauces, salads where he would make his own dressing, his own mayonnaise. Suddenly we see someone who wasn’t just a cook, but a chef, a person of nuance who gave attention to the fine details that put the art into the culinary arts.
How was Bill involved in this church? Oh, he was very involved. He taught Sunday School and served as an officer. He was Clerk of Session for many years and helped with the Centennial Fund. In fact, his work with the endowment helped it prosper during the stock market’s boom years. He led study groups and theological book circles. He’d go to the Manse Forum with Dr. Robshaw, and with Doris, he organized the Pentameters group. Suddenly what emerges is a person of strong faith and intellectual acumen, a voracious reader with a mind both discerning and curious, anxious to learn new things and to guide others in the pursuit of knowledge.
What about Bill’s character? Oh, he was a diligent, dedicated man of high standards. He was a member of the Clean Plate Club, who’s expletives seldom ranged beyond “Oh phooey” and “Ye Gods.” Bill was the consummate gentleman, someone courteous in manner and ever gracious with others.
It is through these extra, richer details that we can fully appreciate Bill’s life, just as it is in the details and depth of scripture that we grasp what it means to be people of faith serving a loving Creator. It is common to hear the 23rd Psalm or a reading from John 14 at memorial services. What makes those familiar passages so meaningful to us? It is in the details and poetry they contain: The Lord is my shepherd, one who guides us always, leads us to what we truly need, and protects us from harm even in the valley of the shadow of death. The Lord Christ is the one who goes before us to prepare a place for us, to offer us both a location and a relationship that is eternal and satisfies our deepest needs. These passages speak to us because they articulate the promise that we will never be alone, and God’s love for us is stronger than death and eternal as the heavens.
We can go through life without this rich language of faith. We will hear ourselves described by the general categories of life – told when we are officially middle-aged, or retirement age, when we are growing old and declining, when we are limited and full of infirmity. Bill heard that language and struggled against its associated loss of control. Bill, the worker, the learner, the organizer, became in time the restricted, the ill, the dependent one whose hip and kidneys and body failed him. If you only have bland, unpoetic, impersonal language to talk about these stages of life, you are doubly afflicted.
The language of faith looks beyond those simplistic, limiting categories and gives you, to borrow Paul Harvey’s phrase, “the rest of the story.” It acknowledges that there are stages of life, but puts it in the language of Ecclesiastes, saying “For everything there is a season: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to build up and a time to break down, a time for war and a time for peace.” It knows that our bodies will fail us, that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak; but in the words of Paul from 2 Corinthians it says, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” And when the reality of death draws near, we hear the promise of Christ from the gospel of John, “In this world you will know tribulation, but be not afraid, for I have overcome the world.”
As much as Bill struggled during his final years, it was a struggle grounded upon the foundation of faith that preceded it. And that makes all the difference in the world. It’s the difference between being told that Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” opens with a short trill on the F below middle C, followed by an 18-note run along the notes of a B-flat major scale, ending on a high B-flat, or simply listening and hearing so much more…
As we remember Bill from this day forth, we will honor him by being people of the rich details of faith and life. For God and peace and eternal life are in those details.