Remembering George

I have done funerals for some incredible people in my life. I have officiated services for many friends. George Brightwell, however, was such a profound influence in my life as a friend … a founder Wellspring, the church I currently serve … and one who loved me as a friend and mentor. This is the sermon I preached at his service today, and it is offered here for the lessons George himself would teach us.

George, as he was known to do with so many of us, became my friend. Through my time here at Wellspring, he was someone with whom I would spend no less than 8 hours each week … either in conversation or meetings or leading worship together or doing worship planning. In my time here, I do not recall George ever taking a Sunday off until he finally just could do it no more. Every Sunday, George and Barbara would show up at 7:30 to make sure everything was unlocked, the walkway was swept, and everything was set for worship. They would not leave until after the late service was over, and even during the pandemic, they still were present for as long as it took to livestream the service and get everything put back in place. Then came the Saturday when George called and said, with this incredible sadness in his voice, that he was too weak to come to church on Sunday. He was apologetic and grief stricken as he saw his Sunday morning routine coming to a close.

I will tell you, however, that George is the only person I know who announced that he was going on hospice, processed into hospice, and then showed up to lead hymns and stay through both worship services the very next Sunday. He took the principles of hospice seriously … the belief that we are to be about living fully until we die. And that is what he did.

George’s stories would begin in different places. If you talked about family, he would tell you about his childhood and growing up in the First Methodist Church in Fort Worth. He would talk about his earliest recollection of clergy, and he could not stop talking about the great Gaston Foote, who served as the senior pastor of that church from 1952 to 1972. It is in the Methodist Youth Fellowship of that same church that George would meet his beloved, Barbara, and that set them on the trajectory that would culminate in 64 years of marriage.

If you asked George about his Christian journey, he would tell the story of a time that was truly transformative. George shared his testimony in this very chapel on March 4, 1993, and I promised him that I would share the main portion of it with you here. Listen to George’s words:

Graduate school.  Marriage.  The corporate world.  Uncertainty.  The Bomb.  Cool, calm, competent (outwardly); insecure, scared, angry (inwardly).  Doing all the right things (still active in the church, community, work life), but for the wrong reasons.  Using intellect, knowledge, humor, as a “nice guy” facade, while acting out ever more destructive behaviors because of the interior fear, insecurity, anger … as yet unnamed demons.  How does one lead such a double life?  By attempting to be in control.  By building a shell with little windows and peepholes and levers and wires for communicating with them, to manipulate them (and GOD) … to keep them out … to keep me in… to stay in control.  Turns out, that’s impossible.

One Saturday morning, during a week-end program at the church, a fellow whom he had only met the night before, a fellow whom he had not had a chance to manipulate into being convinced that he was really (on the outside) a “good guy,” a fellow from Mississippi, who looked like he could have played middle linebacker for the Packers, enfolded him in his arms and said, “George, God loves you and I love you.”  Love me?  God love me?  I, uh … I couldn’t possibly have earned enough brownie points yet!  But (a miracle!) the message came through, the shell cracked, the manipulative devices began to disintegrate, and I began to live life directly, not through an intellectual filter of my own devising.  I began to feel life, to deal in a real way with the trash inside me that I didn’t even want GOD to know about.  I began to love.  I began to live as a man of faith.  A flame extinguished more than twenty years before was rekindled.

That Saturday morning was twenty-five years ago this past weekend [which would have been the end of February 1968].  Tommy Giordano no longer lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and I was not able to find him this past week to tell him what GOD did for me through him and that the flame is still alive.  That grace never gives up.  That the spirit of GOD never keeps as strict a schedule as we do.  I thank Tommy and others like him, and I thank GOD for giving my life back to me.  It hasn’t been easy since that Saturday, but it has been wonderful.  The abundant life is full of love and joy, but it is not devoid of pain.  Yet the pain is not self-inflicted; it comes from the richness of life, full of human relationships and all the joys and sorrows involved in loving self, others, GOD, the world.  Loving self, the self which before I feared and hated.  Loving others, the wife and friends who before I feared and manipulated (in the name of love, for GOD’s sake!).  Loving GOD, who before could not possibly have loved someone like me … I wasn’t good enough!  Loving the world, that nasty old cruel world, which GOD loves so much, but I couldn’t.

To hear George tell it, it was the moment of rebirth. It was a true awakening, and it brought with it the truth that we learn from the mystics … great love and great suffering will always go together. It is about living and loving and suffering and dying, but the story doesn’t end there, and George knew it … great love and great suffering … life and death … will ALWAYS lead us to resurrection.

So George dared to love … not just to love, but to LOVE BIG! He dared to invest his life in the lives of others … into the care of all creation … no matter the cost. This is what led George and Barbara to be the incredible philanthropists they are.

With no biological children of their own, George and Barbara have invested their love in such powerful ways that they have hundreds of children … thousands of grandchildren … tens of thousands of great-grandchildren … so many descendants … because of this transformative power of love.

My own story of George began before we moved to Georgetown. As soon as word was out that I was coming to Wellspring, I got a call from George. Aside from Stef Schutz, who fully embraced technology and who friended me on Facebook the day of the announcement, George was the first Wellspringer who actually called me. He had served as a delegate to the annual conference for over 30 years, and he told me he would look for me at conference. And George’s humor was only enhanced when he could tell people that he finally found me for an introduction … in the men’s room.

And George had this custom every year at conference when the appointments were about to be announced. For those who are not United Methodist, you should know that clergy are appointed in our denomination by the bishop one year at a time. In June, I will be completing ten one-year appointments to Wellspring. So before the service of appointment making would begin, the members of the conference (both lay and clergy) would be handed the list of appointments. George would flip to the page listing Wellspring, and he would look for my name. He would slap his hand on it and would say, “Yes!” as emphatically as he could. He would then lean over to hug me (he almost always sat right by me), and he would offer some strongly affirming word. Then on the first Sunday after conference, George would take the microphone from me to announce that I had been reappointed for another year. He would invoke clapping as he then hugged me again.

It was the George hugs that defined him, and many of you are here today because that strong hug drew you in closer. George was also prone to whisper his truth in your ear when you got the hug. That hug and that truth was the one he received from Tommy Giordano so long ago: “God loves you, and I love you!” He would often shorten it to simply be: “Remember that you are loved!” But in every way, he was passing along Tommy Giordano’s hug … God’s hug … to everyone he could.

So love is finally what brings us here. Love is the basis of every single scriptural text represented here. It is the love of God for all creation in Isaiah that sends us out in joy only to be led back in peace. It is that love that sets the mountains and the hills bursting into song, and it is that love that makes the trees of the field clap their hands.

In John’s gospel, it is that love that prompts Jesus to prepare a place for his disciples … really for all of us … and it that love that sends Christ back into the world through people like Tommy and George to point us to a home that is both created here in this life and with God forever beyond this life.

It is that love about which the Apostle Paul speaks in Romans 5, as he admonishes us to let love be genuine, to hate what is evil, to hold fast to what is good and TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER WITH MUTUAL AFFECTION. Paul even makes it a bit of a contest to see if we can outdo one another in showing honor, and I think George was up for that challenge.

And the part that meant so much to George had to do with how we deal with those who persecute us … those who hate us … those who cause some of our greatest distress. George was one who dared to take stands that he was aware were not always popular. He stood with people in the margins, and he did not care if that meant that people would not like him or his views. He was faithful to the mandate of Christ to love ever single person, no matter what. As Paul challenges us to come alongside one another with empathy and compassion and to live in harmony with one another, he also challenges us to practice a unique kind of payback for our enemies.

I had to laugh when I realized that only George Brightwell would choose a passage that includes: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

George was all about social justice. There were many people whose actions and decisions that George opposed (whether individually or collectively … even when that injustice was enshrined as legislation). George and Barbara have spent their lives as advocates for the people in the margins. Their lives have been devoted to enhancing the lives of children. His life was devoted to advocacy for immigrants, for the poor, for those who were food and housing insecure, for people who were marginalized because of their sexuality.

George’s other key word besides love was how he ended most of his emails: “Courage.” Literally, “take heart.” While our world is driven by and defined by our fears, George knew that Franklin Roosevelt was right when he said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. He bemoaned how easy it is to take advantage of people if we could only keep them in the place of fear. His radical way of confronting that was simply to say or write the single word: “Courage.”

He often talked about the nature of our Methodist heritage as he would recount John Wesley’s journey as the journey from the head to the heart. He knew that when we finally got into the heart space, we would then find the courage to love big.

When we had a workshop of leaders working on recasting our vision, at Wellspring we determined that perhaps we needed to expand our motto. The motto of Wellspring was previously, “All Are Welcome, All Are Accepted.” For years, at George’s urging, we would verify that by saying, “And all means all.” But in this workshop, we began working on key words that might further our intent in the motto, and the word “love” was strongly encouraged from George’s table. I’m pretty sure it was George who made sure that we didn’t try to move forward without emphasizing love in the strongest possible way.

With that, we officially voted to modify our motto to read: “All Are Welcome, All Are Accepted, All Are Loved, and All Means All.”

You could not know George without knowing what love was, and if you ever had a question about what love was, all you had to do was just stand in his path with your arms open. There would inevitably be a hug and those words, “Remember that you are loved.”

But George had one last enemy to face. He had long since talked about cancer in his family. Every October, George wore pink every single Sunday in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month since he had lost both of his sisters to breast cancer. George now faced his own enemy … the cancer that eventually took his life.

But George did it his way. He followed the advice of his doctors and went through treatments in an effort to fight it, but then when that was unsuccessful, he opted out of very aggressive treatments that, in his mind, would not yield any better results. He went on hospice determined to do it his way, and his way was the way of love.

George was a mentor and teacher to me and so many of you gathered here. His last lesson for us all was clear. He taught us .. he taught me … how to die as a Christian.

It was in his last days that he opened his home and heart to many visitors who both shared their love and received George’s love. George and I planned out this service almost entirely before he died. I sat there as he told me that his favorite hymn had to have a central place in the service. That hymn is Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, and as he told me that, he looked at the love of his life and said, “It is also BB that wilt not let let me go.” That tender moment will forever be etched in my memory.

But there was one last thing to do … one last enemy to face. It was death, and in that moment, George (the quintessential teacher) taught me that last lesson. It was how to love death and transform it from something dreadful to something beautiful. He took the enemy named death and made it a friend. He knew that it was only by loving all … even the enemy known as death … that he would make it be the door that led him into the eternal chorus of heaven.

He knew that it was love that finally would not let him go.


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