I haven’t blogged on this site in over a year. That’s mainly because I’ve poured most of my public writing into Firebrand, and in all likelihood most of my more substantive pieces for public consumption will continue to appear there. My hope, though, is to post shorter pieces here from time to time.
I recently attended the funeral of an old friend and mentor, Dr. William J. Abraham. At his funeral I had the privilege of offering a few remarks. I include them here for those who may be interested:
I have the great honor this morning of remembering our beloved Billy and describing his leadership within the Methodist movement–in five minutes, which, as we know, is impossible, so great has been his impact upon our tradition.
I heard Billy tell many times of when he first became conscious of the people called Methodists. After his father died, they were the ones who brought what he called the “orphan money.” He didn’t forget these Methodist saints later in life. In time he would devote himself vocationally and spiritually to Methodism, and especially to its renewal.
Billy once called Methodism a “hiccup of the Holy Spirit.” He had all kinds of funny phrases like that. As a Methodist he embodied the noble tradition of critique from within. He loved Methodism, and yet he was deeply aware of the shortcomings and liabilities of our tradition, both within and beyond the United Methodist Church. He was often intentionally provocative, such as when he delivered a paper for the Wesleyan Theological Society called, “The End of Wesleyan Theology.”
He did not, however, simply provoke simply for the sake of provocation. His goal was to move the intellectual ball forward. No doubt he could be irascible, and when he entered into a debate he went for broke. Too much was at stake, he felt, to soft-pedal discussion of the relevant issues. Christian theology and its philosophical underpinnings deserved nothing less than the most rigorous intellectual inquiry, and this involved drilling down into ideas, all the way to the bottom (as he would say), naming in the clearest terms what did and did not work.
It is hard to overstate his influence upon the Methodist movement. He left a considerable body of work that will inform generations of scholars, pastors, and laypeople. But Billy’s impact upon Methodism will be measured not just in terms of the books he wrote, nor the papers he delivered, but the students he taught, and the ways in which they themselves will shape Methodism in the years ahead. He was committed to theological education not just here in the U.S., but in places like Russia, Romania, and Costa Rica.
I know I speak for many here when I say that he was far more than a teacher to us. How many of us spent hours with him in his office, or at La Madeline, or at his home—talking through difficult problems in theology, philosophy, church politics, or our personal faith in Jesus Christ? It’s astounding that he got any writing done at all. Billy had the mind of a first-rate academic and the heart of a pastor and evangelist. Many here will testify that he was not just a teacher, but a mentor, a guide, even a spiritual father, continuing the work of those who first led us to faith. In my own case, it was my parents who taught me the faith, and Billy helped lead me into spiritual maturity. And he taught me, as he taught many here, to contend for the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints. This heritage of the Great Tradition has been given by the Holy Spirit through the church for our salvation. And we must guard the good treasure entrusted to us.
Not long ago I interviewed Billy for Good News magazine. The article ended up being called “Happy Warrior,” a phrase that described Billy’s personality quite well. In his closing remarks in that interview, Billy advised us, “Stand by the truth and work on it until it becomes essential to your identity.”
Stand by the truth, and work on it until it becomes essential to your identity.
May God give us the courage to live with such conviction.
Billy Abraham has entered the church triumphant. He abides now in the arms of his beloved savior, the same savior he taught so many to love, honor, and serve. I am so grateful for the ways in which this man of God gave of himself for Jesus Christ and his holy church. Billy has left a legacy of faithfulness, rigor, courage, and love. And may the seeds he planted grow to fullness in generations to come.