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My mind wandered, the eyes teared up, and one escaped, fortunately unnoticed, as I sat in the pew.  I was thinking of my friend, the Rev. Dr. Bill McSwegin, who died and was buried last week, as the congregation sang a hymn that contained the lyrics, “he spoke the ancient words.” The words stuck in my mind and caused the emotive response, though I know men are not supposed to cry.

We’d graduated from East Liverpool High School back in 1964 and Bill matriculated to Yale, became a preacher for the Presybterians, and served the church for over thirty years. A little over two years ago he emailed me to let me know he’d contracted a virulent form of lung cancer and the prognosis wasn’t good.

I prayed for Bill every day. I asked for a miracle and told Bill to believe it as well. I sent him emails, I encouraged him as best I could, but Bill wasn’t healed, rather he suffered the surgeries and treatment, both chemo and radiation, that are the result of a primitive but necessary technology.

He suffered greatly. I don’t know where the courage comes from.

God insisted then and there, in that pew, that I write a tribute. I argued and begged that this was not a good time . . . .for one thing, I can barely see this stupid computer screen through the tears. Well, God quit messin’ around with me a long time ago. I think he stopped finding my antics amusing around 1964. Now, its the hyperphysical slap across the head, with a “pay attention, dummy!”

But that’s my relationship with the Lord, God of the Universe; I know I’m a poor excuse as a follower of the Jewish carpenter, but even with my faults and shortcomings, I am loved by God and love God. I know Him and He knows me, and in the end when He wants something done, I do it.

But when I sat in that Free Methodist pew this morning I didn’t have a clue as to how I was going to write a tribute for Bill. Emotionally, I just wasn’t up for it . . . but when I heard the congregation singing “you said the ancient words” I also heard God say very clearly, “ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION.” And, I knew He was talking about Bill.


John Goodman, a man with an ironic name and the spirit of a true Christian, sent me an email shortly after I arrived home from church. Rev. Goodman was a friend of Bill’s and in his kindness sent me the sermon Bill wrote for his own funeral titled: The Grace We Don’t Deserve , and Bill’s rather extensive notes for his funeral titled: Service of Thanksgiving and Celebration for the life of William R. McSwegin, April 21, 2009 . . . (You’ll have to forgive me, I’m having a really difficult time in getting this down.)

And, so it is that God, in His provision, requires little of me . . . He provided all that I would need . . . .He’s done that my entire life.


Below are selected excepts, written by Bill, from his “notes for the service,” and a selection of the hymns and songs that were played and sung with his explanation why he chose them:

It is an odd thing to be planning your own funeral. I have been (as the old blues lyric goes) “fixin’ to die” now for more than two years . . . .and perhaps have had too much time on my hands to think and rethink the whole thing.”

“Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring . . . . One of the most sublime of Bach’s works, played at my ordination and my wedding, and so here, too.”

“It is well with my Soul . . . Because it is well with my soul.”

“Everyone Gets a Turn, and This is Mine . . . Jim Tthyren  took the words I said when I first was told I had cancer and made them into the lyrics, and Bill Carter put Jim’s words to music. I am blessed to have two such good and talented friends.”

Psalm 42:1-6a . . . ”I began the search for God-when? Sometime in high school to be sure. One summer I read the seond chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in an anthology, and the words which captured me most were: “I went to the woods becaue I wished to live deliberately . . . and not when I came to die, discover I had not lived . . . I wanted to . . . drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms.” So I began to think about what it means to be alive and began to really pray for perhaps the first time in my life (other than those prayers at meal time and the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer at night). My prayers then most often took the form of “If you are there God, help me and thank you.”

1 Corinthians 13 . . . “I have been surrounded by love all my life. I didn’t always appreciate it when I was a child, because it was like the air I breathed-taken for granted. I had wonderful parents and a wonderful sister, I had aunts and uncles and friends who filled my life with richness and joy. I married one of the best human beings I have ever known and have been blessed with the love of two astounding children of whom I could not be more proud. All of my life, love has been there in such great abundance, that indeed I have been the most blessed of souls.”

Romans 8:18-39 . . . .”These are the strongest words in all of Scripture. They tell of a God who holds on to us when we can’t or won’t hold on to Him.”

“I’ll Fly Away” . . . .”this is as good an image of  what I can imagine of what happens at death as any. It also has a special place in my heart becaues I remember singing it at the top of my lungs (I had two good ones then) in the pouring rain at a Bluegrass festival in North Carolina . . . .


Below are selected excerpts from Bill’s funeral sermon (Bill wrote the sermon as a poem):

“Life is not fair
life is never fair
What our faith gives us is not protection from the unfairness of life
What our faith gives us is something far more precious than that
What our faith gives us is God
a relationship with God
It is only God’s grace that sustains us
in good times as well as bad
Life is not fair
Life is never fair
Yet . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yet despite all our losses
in spite of all our suffering
All of us
get far more than we can ever earn
far more than we can ever deserve
in this life
Life is not fair
Life is never fair
thanks be to God for that


This one’s for you Bill.

Thank you for your humor, your courage, your wisdom, your love.

Thank you, my old friend, for speaking the ancient words.

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