Burial Office for Naomi Williams. March 27, 2021. Saint Luke’s, Augusta, Georgia
Romans viii, verse 18 – For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Some years ago I had a young parishioner who was raised by her grandmother in North Carolina. The grandmother was a fervent Baptist. A few of you will know a relative of that grandmother, Dennis Washburn, the rector of All Saints’, Aiken, in the 1980s. The grandmother didn’t much approve of our Church, but one day she said to her niece, ‘Well, I’ll say one thing for your Church.’ Desiree asked her what that one thing was. Her grandmother said, ‘At least your Church doesn’t make preachers lie about people when they die.’
Fortunately, I can say many nice things about Naomi, and all of them will be perfectly true. Furthermore, there are very few not-nice things to be said. Naomi loved her career, loved her nieces and nephews, loved her friends and former students, and loved her parish and Church. She also was the last living founder of this parish, and she will long be remembered here, as she will be by me.
Naturally, I knew Naomi primarily as her bishop. For many years when I made my annual visitation to this parish, Naomi put me up at Brandon Wylde, had me over for a scotch or two, and either cooked dinner or took me to dinner. In the course of enjoying her hospitality, I would get her frank evaluation of the state of the parish and its clergy and would talk about books – what she was reading, what I was reading, and later, what she was writing. In Augusta, no doubt, she was better known as a teacher than as a parishioner. She said to me two years ago, ‘My students hated me when they were students, because I was tough. After they went to college they began to love me, because I prepared them.’ Over the years I’ve met people in Augusta who really didn’t know Saint Luke’s, but who certainly did know Naomi Williams.
Her teaching career was long and influential in the way that a demanding, inspiring teacher can be influential. But her love of teaching and learning did not end with the classroom or with her retirement from classroom teaching. She took great pride in the scholarship program at Brandon Wylde that assisted young staff members and employees to pursue further education. That program helped young people who sometimes had few advantages. Naomi’s interest in what I and everybody else was reading was in part also an extension of her love of learning and teaching. She was happy to correct the grammar of erring preachers and friends and, for all I know, strangers. When she told me after a sermon that she did not detect any deficiencies in my grammar, I was sure I had done fairly well. I was certainly well prepared, since my own mother was a teacher of high school English and Latin and only a little older than Naomi.
Let me give you a final example of Naomi’s love of learning. A few years ago, she lamented to the disappearance of the subjunctive mood: ‘If I were….’ I mentioned that Greek has a third mood in addition to the indicative and the subjunctive, called the optative. I said the optative was somewhere between the indicative and the subjunctive. Naomi said she didn’t really grasp that. I said, ‘Oh yes you do, you just don’t know it. You grew up hearing people say, “Well, I maybe could.” “Maybe could” is an optative. It’s not a matter of fact, it’s not a matter contrary to fact, but it’s somewhere in the world of a wish or possibility.’ Naomi loved that. How many of us rounding 90 are still delighted to learn new things?
Naomi began quite late in life writing, or at any rate publishing novels. It’s always dangerous to assume that an author’s characters are reflections of herself, but clearly Naomi’s biography is reflected her books. Authors are often told that they should write what they know. I believe Naomi had much to say about her upbringing and influences, but I also think in part she began to publish because she just loved to write and read. In any case, just as a clergyman should never not be a clergyman, even when he is not at the altar or in the pulpit, so Naomi was always a teacher, a lover of the English language, and a friend of learning, whether or not in the formal classroom.
Naomi’s religious faith I would describe as sincere and deep but not without reflection, doubt, and self-examination. She was concerned about these qualities, that they implied a lack of faith or rendered her unworthy of God. One thing she liked about the religion of the Prayer Book is its emphasis on the comforting mercy of God even in the midst of human imperfections, doubts, and scruples. She liked that, and also, of course, loved that the religion of the Prayer Book is expressed in the highest form our language has achieved. There was often, I think, an internal dialogue going on between the religion of her upbringing, which gave her much, and the religion that she found herself drawn to and comforted by. In the end I think she was able to reconcile the faith she began with and the faith she chose.
2020 was difficult for many people, not least the residents of places such as Brandon Wylde. Naomi loved Brandon Wylde and felt very fortunate to be there. But there is no doubt that the isolation of lockdown were very hard on many, even those with e-mail and a telephone. While Naomi had, I’m sure, books still to read and people still to talk with, her age was great and her health was deteriorating. Under all of these conditions, I hope she was not too reluctant to put down what the Prayer Book calls ‘the burden of the flesh’. Likewise, for those who cared for her, as for all who see older relatives and friends failing, it is not too hard to let go. Saint Paul tells us that we should
…sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. (I Thess. iv.13f.)
On the basis of simple, fundamental Christian belief in ‘the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’, we have a perspective on life in this world which enables us to say, in the words of my text, that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.’
I learned many years ago as a grandson that death is quite bearable for many elderly people. I have found that conclusion reinforced frequently over forty years as a priest and pastor. Whether Christian or secular we can all appreciate the relief in letting go pain, failing health, and a world whose limits are drawing in. But for Christians there is much more than mere resignation and acceptance. For Christians there is also hope, that most neglected of the Christian virtues. In the light of the Resurrection, whose great feast we will so soon celebrate, death is reduced to relative insignificance. In the light of eternity death is a very small thing. We can, as the Prayer Book says, have ‘patience under [our] sufferings’ when we expect ‘a happy issue out of all [our] afflictions’. A resurrection to eternal life with God is a very happy issue out of afflictions. Death is the strait and narrow gate to eternal life, and, if we reckon rightly, it is not to be compared with the glory in which it will conclude.
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. He is the first-fruits of them that slept. Naomi Eileen Williams was by her baptism and her Christian faith made the child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of heaven. No power in heaven or earth could take those gifts from her: not death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, could separate her from the body of Christ into which she was made a very member incorporate. Only our free will misused can separate us from that love, and it was not her will to be so separated. Between her soul and God’s judgement are interposed the saving merits of God’s love in Jesus Christ in whom she believed. Therefore Christ’s Resurrection is hers as well. Again I say, the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us, for we believe in the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.