There was a path I was meant to travel. It started 40 years ago and ended last month. I had no idea that the Lord had something waiting for me all that time. The Lord waited patiently to lead me down that path to a point where I would fully appreciate an incident and a kindly soul that would affect the course of my life.
I was the liturgist on May 30th at our local United Methodist Church in Abilene. Members of the congregation take turns as liturgist on Sunday mornings. Normally it only involves reading two passages from the bible and leading a short responsive reading with the congregation.
On this particular Sunday, though, it was the day before Memorial Day. In America, Memorial Day originally started as Decoration Day and was started to pay honor to those soldiers who died during the American Civil War.
Over the years it has grown to be a national holiday when we remember the soldiers who died during all our wars. In addition, most families honor family and friends who have passed away by visiting graves and leaving flowers. It is a time of remembrance and honor.
In our local church we celebrate it as All Saints Memorial Sunday. It is a very reverent service. The name of each person, from our congregation, who passed during the previous year, is read aloud. A single handbell is rung once and a candle is lit for that person on the alter table.
In a normal year it is a very somber and touching ceremony.
This last year, though, was anything but normal. Since we couldn’t have in-person worship last year, it meant that our list of persons who had passed was twice as long. We had two years of loved ones to remember.
Just prior to the service, our Pastor, John Collins, handed me the list and asked if I would read the names in addition to the memorials which had been given to the church. I agreed to do it because I felt it was a great honor.
I looked the rather long list over and found a couple last names I wasn’t familiar with and had to ask Reverend Collins if I was pronouncing them correctly. There were others who I had known for the entire dozen years I had lived in Abilene. One lady in particular I could see in my mind, clear as day, who had been taken in a tragic accident. She had been so kind to a new lawyer in town when I ventured into her business for the first time those many years earlier.
There were so many names….Too many names.
About 10:30 the service began and I got caught up in reading my bible passages and responsive reading with the congregation. While I was reading the first bible passage I looked out and noticed Will Burton sitting with his family in the congregation. I remembered that he was the Assistant Principal at Abilene High School.
Periodically, something gets your attention and you don’t know why at first. I remember standing there as the congregation sang the hymn. I can’t even tell you what hymn it was, but as I stood there looking at Will Burton, I suddenly remembered my High School Principal Dennis Wilson.
The memory and connection came flooding into my mind.
They say the Lord touches us or speaks to us at different times and in different ways. Many times it isn’t apparent right away where he is taking you.
I stood there singing that hymn and thinking about the High School Principal who was standing about 40 foot away singing the same hymn. But why was this person entering my thoughts at this particular time. He was a nice person and I knew him through church, but that was the extent of our personal connection.
It was about that time, that the Lord showed me where he was leading me…………
It was the early 80’s and dad had moved, along with the rest of the family to a new appointment in the churches of Valley Falls and Coal Creek.
That summer seemed to be very hard for me. I never liked moving to a new church and town. It wasn’t an adventure for me, but a very traumatic experience. Because of this, I was very nervous and scared over having to start a new school again. I dreaded the first day of school all summer.
When that August day came for the first day of school, I froze. I refused to go. It was just too overwhelming and I couldn’t make myself do it. Both of my parents tried reasoning, cajolling, and finally yelling at me to get me to leave for school. We had only moved two months earlier and the last thing they wanted was a school incident. The new preachers kid getting in trouble for skipping school the first day was a terrible thought for my parents. They made several attempts throughout the day, but I was really distraught and frightened. It was something they didn’t really understand.
In fact, that was the angriest I had ever seen my dad. It was the one time I ever heard him say a swear word and it was directed at me. Anyone who knew my father, the kindly, jovial and loving person, wouldn’t believe that he even knew any swear words.
Mom finally calmed things down and got dad to go to the church. She let me to go to my room to decompress and calm down also.
It was at this point that Edith Purvis did a simple, yet wonderful thing. She called the high school and talked to the principal, Dennis Wilson. I had no idea she had done this and would have been mortified if I’d known what she was up to.
She didn’t say anything right away, but later that evening she sat me down and told me that she had talked to the principal. She then told me that he agreed to stop by our house in the morning and was going to walk with me to school so that I wouldn’t be alone. If things didn’t go well, I could come back to the house.
At first I was stunned by what mom had done. I wasn’t too sure about this plan, but mom had worked it out, so I figured I’d give it a try.
The next morning about 7:30 the doorbell rang and sure enough there stood this thin man with a full beard. He held his hand out and introduced himself as Dennis Wilson. He smiled and seemed genuinely interested in how I was feeling. He seemed very reassuring and I began to let go of some of the tension. The very idea that the high school principal cared enough to take time to walk to school with someone as unimportant as me helped me to believe his sincerity.
As we walked toward the school, he told me something I’d never forget. He said that it had been his first day of class at this new school and he was nervous and scared as well. He then said that I would not be alone, but would have him as a friend.
I never forgot that incredible act of kindness. He didn’t have to walk over to my house and then walk with me to school. He could have just said get to school or else, but he didn’t. He showed kindness and empathy. He opened up enough to show me he had many of the same feelings of anxiety and fear that I had. He created a connection between the two of us who were both starting a new school.
I spent the next several years at that school with him as my principal. I did my level best over those years, acting like an adolescent boy and screwing up on a regular basis. He put up with a lot of teenage nonsense, but he did it with grace and calm. I remember that even on the occasions when I got detention or some other punishment, he never lost his cool. I never felt that anything he did had any animosity connected with it. What I did sense was that he truly cared about whether I was successful. He helped me when I applied for scholarships to college and kept me going when I wanted to give up.
Over the years after graduation I moved away and so did Dr. Wilson.
While standing there singing that hymn on All Saints Memorial Sunday, the Lord spoke to me. You see I suddenly remembered that Dennis Wilson had been one of the first persons in Kansas to die from Covid-19 in March 2020. He had retired from education and was living in Lenexa near his family.
I looked back out at Will Burton and it caused me to think about my own principal, Dennis Wilson.
I felt the tears come to my eyes and my heart beat as I felt the Lord telling me to remember and to honor my principal from all those years ago. That kindly soul who took the time to walk a scared high school student to his first day of school.
I thank you and honor you Dennis Wilson. I pray that I have been able to live up to that special kindness you showed me and that you realize the great influence you had on me and countless students over the years. Kindness and empathy are two of the greatest creations of God and he gave both of them to you as a teacher and principal.
Dennis Wilson…..I Remember You……I Honor You……I Thank You.