Thursday, December 22, 2011
The Preacher’s Corner
Don Wilson loved and respected
This Christmas will mark a special anniversary for the Presbyterians in Lamar and Byhalia, for on Christmas morning at 9 (at Lamar) and 11 (at Byhalia) our good friend Don Wilson will preach his final sermons before his formal retirement from the ministry of word and sacrament.
Our church in Holly Springs will not have services on Christmas Day, and I hope our members will go and support Don and his wife Mary Ann on this special occasion in their lives, and in the lives of these churches Don has so faithfully served. He has been pastor to them for his entire career—since 1965! That is remarkable for any minister—unusual in olden times and almost unprecedented in the present era. Don is the senior active minister in our regional church council, St. Andrew Presbytery.
Don is not the sort of person who seeks the limelight, or who is comfortable with either flattery or pretense, so I will not offer either sentimental remarks or fabricated tributes. He is best honored by saying that his ministry has demonstrated sheer competence and unquestioned integrity, untainted by the vanities, desire for accolades, or career advancement as measured by secular standards of success.
Don has simply seen Christian work to be done, and has addressed the need before him as best he could. He has not cultivated moneyed members to access their largesse, nor has he reached out to others with an eye to the praise that such actions might garner. He has never sought to get his picture in the paper, his voice on the radio, much less his face on television. It goes without saying that Don has conducted his ministry quite effectively apart from such fashionable inventions as Facebook, My Space, and Twitter.
I am quite sure that there are no churches that have enjoyed a more carefully prepared sermon than the little congregations at Byhalia and Lamar. One of the things we treasure in most of our churches is a sermon prepared just for our particular congregation. An efficiency expert would surely recommend that some highly gifted preacher be chosen to compose a message that could be read (or played via a big-screen television) for all the churches in our communion. People could have the benefit of “the best,” and all the rest of us preachers could be freed up to do other things, such as sitting behind a desk and “administering” like corporate CEO’s do. But most of us treasure the sermon made for us, whether our congregation has 20 or 2,000 present to hear it.
So for all these years Don has given himself to this task, sitting at a small table in a basement corner of the Byhalia Church, with all his books laid out before him. These books have been carefully-chosen and are well-worn now, for Don is not given to clerical faddism.
Don has always respected the dignity of the gospel. He does not engage in stunts to promote himself or his churches. As far as I know, he has never delivered his sermon from the roof just to garner high attendance in the Sunday school. But if you have ever needed someone to go with you to a scary doctor’s appointment, or to sit with you in the absence of family when you were grieving a terrible loss, or even to loan you a few dollars to tide your family over, then Don has been the one to go to. He has generously shared the fruits of his garden, even as he has shared the fruits of his study. Both have yielded a rich harvest through the years.
We’ve all had the experience of going to a church as a visitor or potential new member, introducing ourselves and the next Sunday having the minister behold us once again as a complete stranger. Don has never regarded people as blank statistics, treating all of us who have known him as individuals to be cared for and tended—never as problems to be solved.
I have hung around so long that there are very few Presbyterian ministers in this state more senior than I. But Don was one who was there as I was getting started, and I have clear memories of his presence and encouragement from the outset. Don has been a role model for me since my high school days. Our proximity has meant that he has watched over and encouraged my own preparation for and entry upon the work of ministry for all these years. He has been my closest Presbyterian colleague for 25 years. I cannot imagine having had a better ministerial neighbor, and I am happy to say that he has influenced my concept of ministry in all sorts of ways large and small. In those places where I fall short, the fault is not due to Don!
One cannot pen a tribute to Don without a word about Mary Ann. Here is a couple who are devoted to one another. Don married Mary Ann (she is the former Mary Ann Stanback of Byhalia) after he came as a bachelor pastor to the churches at Byhalia, Lamar, and the country chapels of Hudsonville and Red Banks. They courted “for quite a while” as Mary Ann recounts the tale, and from all I can observe it was “a marriage made in heaven.” Mary Ann is a church person in her own right, a devoted Christian, and interested in many things. She, too, has a wonderful set of friends and has made rich contributions to the life of our area, like Don, far beyond the bounds of his parish.
For thirteen years Don added to his duties, conducting services for tiny Greenfield Presbyterian Church, south of Waterford, one of the few historically black Presbyterian churches in the South. This inter-racial ecumenical ministry was another of Don’s quiet enterprises—ground-breaking and beneficial to both the congregation and the wider community. I believe that two of the church’s young people entered the ministry during his ministry there.
While I was away serving my first pastorate in Chicago, my own family were the recipients of Don’s care at some of our most vulnerable moments. Both of my parents spent long periods in the Baptist Hospital in Memphis, far from their home church and pastor down in the Mississippi Delta and Don, learning of their need, visited them frequently and counseled them wisely during periods when both were facing very serious illnesses. I will always be intensely grateful for this care that Don exercised when I could not be nearby as much as I would have liked. This is perhaps also to say how much I have enjoyed the many invitations to dine at the Wilson family table in the manse at Byhalia!
There is an old phrase in the Presbyterian Church’s constitution concerning the officers of the church that, to me, expresses what Don has done throughout his long ministry, namely that church officers “should pray with and for the people…visit the people at their homes, especially the sick…instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourner, nourish and guard the children of the church; and all those duties which private Christians are bound to discharge by the law of charity, are especially incumbent upon [church officers] by divine vocation, and are to be discharged as official duties.”
Greg Goodwiller, our presbytery’s executive says, “Don’s devotion and faithfulness are legendary in north Mississippi. He is loved by his congregations and deeply respected by his colleagues in the Presbytery of St. Andrew.” To sum up, I will just let the remark of one of his church members, uttered several times to me in private conversation stand in its own light, that “Don is the best Christian I know.”
We all wish Don and Mary Ann a happy and enjoyable retirement, the best health that advancing years can allow, and the knowledge that those of us who have known them have respected, cherished and honored their work and lives lived in our midst. May these memories and our love surround them as a benediction.
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