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Bill, Renee and Ryan McCullough lived the life they were given. They weren’t scared to die because they were too busy living! Loving deeply, giving themselves generously, and serving others selflessly. Showing us what lives of significance look like. We’re here to celebrate the life and mourn the death of our friends and loved ones, dear to those here today and so many more near and far.
We gather to honor three lives well lived - all three cut short long before their time - to bid farewell to beloved companions, and to offer sympathy and support, in all ways, to those who mourn this loss.
Especially this family - AJ, Tyler, Stephanie & Kieran, Rachel, Bill, Norma & Greg. Ruth & Frank, Phil & Brenda, Kay & Clint. We are here with you, and here for you.
Today we must be honest with ourselves that Ryan, Bill and Renee are gone. For many of us who are still in shock, we set this space and time apart to open ourselves to the immense horror of our loss, to let ourselves feel it, and to begin the agonizing process of grieving this loss. These losses.
We gather in the presence of God, though God remains a mystery. We gather in the wake of death, though death remains a mystery. We gather in memory of lives worth celebrating, though life remains a mystery.
What we need are not dismissals of our grief, nor answers to the questions grief will raise. What we need is space and time to grieve well. Room and occasion to rejoice in the lives of Ryan and Renee and Bill. This is that space. These are the those sacred moments. Welcome.
Bill AND Renee AND Ryan. Had this been any one of them, the task of speaking into this loss would have been overwhelming. But the weight of grieving all three at once, is impossible. So let’s begin by letting ourselves off the hook. It’s only been six days since we lost three of the most important people in the world to us. We will not finish the work of grief today, and so let's remove this pressure. We will not go back to normal, but we will, in time, discover and create a new normal. Some of us will spend our lives in recovery from this tragedy. So take a breath, as best you can release the knot in your chest, and trust this process, the people around you, and the sacred journey of mourning that has carried people through loss, and into healing, throughout time.
Moment Of Silence
Let’s prepare ourselves for this work with a moment of silence, for us to breathe deeply, and to open ourselves to the waves of emotion that will come in these following moments…
As we sit in silence, and as these feelings come, respond to them in whatever way best helps you to move through this time. It might be to pray, it might be to focus on your breath, it might be to hold a cherished memory in your mind's eye, or simply to acknowledge the feelings, and then to release them. Whatever your response, please be gentle with yourselves.
We cannot talk ourselves out of this.
So in a world of words, may silence be our prayer.
Let us pray:
Oh God, ground of being, from whom all life and goodness come, and to whom we entrust life’s final return. As far as we know, you hold the mysteries of life and death. Grant that we might have what little faith is needed to lean in the direction of that hope. We are immeasurably grateful for the gift of the lives and the love of Bill, Renee and Ryan, even as we are saddened, numb, angry and confused that the gift of their presence is no longer with us. As you’ve been a sacred presence with these three throughout their lives, be unmistakably present with us now in our tears of joy and tears of grief, as we navigate this shadowy, though essential, path of making peace with loss, of blessing these loved ones with our fondest farewells. We anticipate that in the coming days, we will be caught off guard by the weight of grief… but let us resolve by some sacred ambition beyond ourselves, to leave the door of darkness cracked, allowing the light of memory, joy and laughter to surprise us, as did each of these sweet lives, when we least expected. We believe this to be your desire for us and from us, and so we pray - in the name God, in the light of Christ, in the spirit of love and Grace. Amen.
One of the gifts of social media, is the way you all have been able to share such beautiful remembrances this week. If you haven’t had a chance, I encourage you to take time to see these three lives through the eyes of so many in this room and beyond. As we’ve said, it’s impossible to offer a comprehensive remembrance of any one of these three, much less all three. And I don’t feel the need be the one to offer THE formal or THE final remembrance. I can’t. This work is for each of us, and for all of us, which we have been and will continue to do together in our stories and letters and posts. I can speak only from the gift of my experience with them.
Devil Monologue. The first 10 or 15 times you heard it you were breathless laughing. After that you just kinda settled in for the show and watched in awe. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his goofy laugh or infectious smile. Bill and I laughed together, trusted each other, and loved the time we spent together. He was a true friend
Renee was the voice of grace and such wisdom. She was often some mix of a mother and an oracle to me. She’d hug my neck and welcome me like family, and the next minute ask a piercing question that would turn my world upside down. She’d listen deeply, then say nothing and just shoot me a classic Renee look, and I’d know I there was so much more to talk about. She’d disagree with me, and somehow communicate that she had my back no matter what. She was a relentless encourager of my life and work. She taught me it was ok to question the Sunday school teacher, conveniently that was Bill. And she was the first person who ever responded to my Sunday school answers with, "BS! Tell me what you really think." Renee and I laughed together, challenged each other, and shared a trust and respect beyond words.
We intentionally invented ways to make youth group games dangerous, and we had the cops called on us a few times for playing them, when and where out not to have been. But I always admired how easily Ryan could flip the switch when deep conversations crept up. There was always so much more going on just below the surface: A contemplative goodness, and kindness, and openness. He appreciated simplicity: being outside, cold beer, good friends, a loyal dog. And he traded in the currency of respect and decency. Ryan and laughed a lot, talked a little, but trusted and respected each other in ways we never spoke - though I wish I had.
These three weren’t perfect, they never claimed to be, and no one expected it. But they were so, so good.
Theses three loved God even though their understanding and experience of God changed. They loved their family - parents boys, brothers, sisters, daughters in law, wives, girl friends and dogs - even as that family grew and changed. They loved their friends, even though their friendships changed, with distance and time, with the tidal ebb and flow of season and circumstance.
To say they loved God, family and friends through changing circumstances and conditions, is to say that they experienced God, family and friendship as unconditional They loved unconditionally, and without asking for it they brought that out in us. In the midst of a life of change, their roots were in something deeper than shifting conditions. They were grounded in the sacred, anchored in family, and rooted to friendships that transcended conditions.
This unconditional life and love is what captivated us about Bill and Renee and Ryan, even if we could never quite put our finger on it - the depth and quality of experience they insisted was possible, not by preaching it, but by living it; the kind of life that created an unmistakable gravity, in which orbited their nuclear family, but whose gravity was so unconditional and generous, that for them, it could not help but draw others into its orbit. Family came to include so many others beyond their blood.
I know this because I knew them this way, as family away from family, as surrogate parents, extended brotherhood, mentor, friend, and peer. And as Facebook fills with tributes, I realize hundreds of others knew them this way, who I don’t know; Which means that this experience is not the exception but the rule, that the love that they extended, without condition, was an open table of belonging, that was broad and generous enough, a hospitality that was rich and good enough, that as different as we are who fill this room, we each had a seat at this table. We are united here today as a family extended from their family. United not only by the crippling sorrow of this loss, but by their unconditional lives, into which each of us was welcomed.
When I close my eyes this week, I see Bill, stuck on broken down ski lift in West Virginia, shouting down to the next lift, something about sweet tea. I see Renee sitting at a table with 10 of us, on a mission trip in Mexico, taking communion with chocolate milk and sweet bread, staying up too late telling stories and sharing advice about marriage with Stacy and me. I see Ryan out behind our first apartment, throwing knives at oak trees as it got too dark to see, or slapping my ass in the dugout at the softball field with his goofy grin.
And when I open my eyes there are still no words…
Death reminds us of the poverty of words. What can be said? No sacred text, prayer or poetry can dress nor soothe the raw-to-touch exposure of our hearts. No song nor story can mend the wreckage of our sunken chests, Nor can tears wash away the stain of our sorrow. And yet we must speak. And we must cry. We must remember and we must laugh. This is how we mourn, how we grieve, and how we bear their lives forward in our lives.
Into this poverty of words, as we grasp for some assurance, some hope, it seems appropriate to let Bill speak first.
I texted Bill last Friday to apologize for having to reschedule our meeting from lunch to later in the day, and in true Bill fashion, in a tragic and poetic serendipity, the last text I’ll ever get from Bill McCullough was this, and I quote:
“As a prophet once said: shit happens”
I think this perfectly captures not only the down to earth, even whimsical approach to life, that these three shared; but a way we can view this tragedy, and endure our suffering that is profoundly consistent with how they saw the world and experienced life.
The words of Bill's prophet haunt us today - shit happens - it doesn't happen for a reason, so we can’t reason or rationalize our way through this. No new bit of information will make this any better, or force it into a framework that makes any sense. Trying explain suffering is like trying to read about how good BBQ tastes, or tell someone how beautiful music sounds. Grief and loss and suffering occur on a register beyond the intellect. They are a mode that is experienced, felt, and lived through, not understood.
While Bill’s unnamed prophet might be playing fast and loose with biblical translation, this is the way the Psalmist sees the world. God is not the name of a snake oil charm that keeps the valley, and the shadow, and the evil, and enemy from happening. It happens. This is life. Rather, God is the name of presence, of comfort, of goodness and mercy, right in the midst of all the darkness and suffering, hardship and horror, that are an inevitable part of life. It’s our own Christ who cries, "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?!"
Shit happens. Tragedy happens. Horrific, inexplicable loss happens. The hope of faith isn’t a genie who parts the clouds and stops the tragedy. The hope faith is that for Bill, Renee, and Ryan, the lives that they lived in the presence of God, the source of all things, the encompassing spirit in whom all that is, is; The reassurance is that they somehow now, mysteriously, go on in this presence, comfort, goodness and mercy, harbored in the name of God, forever.
They live on in our lives as well. They live in our memory as we allow the best of them to inspire us, challenge us, live through us, and to fill us with their love. They will live on in the letters you write, which their grandson will read years from now. They live on as we practice the kind of hospitality they extended to everyone. They live on as we tell the jokes, set the table, and extend the kind of friendship we learned from them. They live now in us.
And for we who are left here in the valley, left to endure the evil of this loss, with the task of this grief, and the depth of this sorrow. The hope of faith is not to try to explain or resolve why this happened. It happened. Like Bill’s prophet said, it happens. The hope of faith is that this same presence, this same comfort, this same goodness and mercy, can be found even in this valley. If you don’t call these by the name of God, fine. Find them in the solidarity of the person next to you. You are not alone in this grief. We are with you. There is comfort in our grief when we grieve together. And in our memories, stories, and even in the agony of our laughter, there is goodness and mercy.
Bill and Renee and Ryan wouldn’t want us to waste time grappling with the questions for which we’ll never have answers. It happens. They would want us to get on living, to live the life we’re given, to take the time we need to grieve, to find presence and comfort in the shadow of death, and to hold fast hope, that even though we can’t see it, today is not every day. The sun will rise on the valley, and we’ll walk into open spaces, where goodness and mercy will follow us again, as Ryan, Renee, and Bill live on through us, present to us, comfort for us, goodness and mercy in us, all of the days our lives
As uncomfortable as this is, when we wander this valley together, we somehow find comfort. There is light in the faces of the people around us who have shared the light of these three lives, and who share it still. The stories and the jokes and the tears which become smiles… They dig up love from the soil of hurt, and reveal the budding blossom of healing, of a new day, the spark of each spirit which made them unique, and the spirit of love they shared, which is with us still, in and among us.
This is the good work of grief, the reassurance of our hope, and the joy that comes with our mourning. Amen
The coming days hold for each of us an uncertain mixture of grief and remembrance, the gravity of loss and the levity of laughter. As we go, may the life, legacy and love of Bill, Ryan, and Renee McCullough go with us. As we move through our grief, may we grieve in a way worthy of their lives and legacy, so that we can continue to live well, and love without condition, for this is what they would have hoped for us. And may we honor these three best by remembering and emulating the very best of their lives and love, the kind of life that will go on in God’s good world forever. Amen.
We are a misfit faith community that gathers in DeLand on Sundays at 5pm. Come as you are.
We value highly the metaphor of journey. We’re different people from different places and backgrounds, representing an intergenerational community, and we’ve traveled different paths. So, we agree not to make assumptions about the person across from us, next to us, or in conversation with us. We challenge ourselves to be sensitive, knowing this community includes a diverse group of people from life-long followers of Jesus, to people who are just now open to the idea that God might exist. We strive to avoid offense, ask good questions, articulate and explain our responses. We don’t assume fluency in bible, spirituality, or Church language, because we believe the message of Jesus is not for Christianity, but for humanity. So, we do everything in the spirit of love and grace.
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