On Saturday, September 3rd, I officiated the memorial service of Taylor Williams. He was an Army Medic who had been murdered in Georgia, stabbed in the back eleven times. He was 26. The morning of the service, I posted in Westfield’s Facebook group:
I mentioned on Sunday that we have a funeral this afternoon. I alluded to the fact that it was a particularly tragic situation, but didn’t go into a whole lot of details b/c kids were present. The person we’re remembering today is Taylor Williams. He was an Army Medic, a firefighter, and he was murdered in Georgia–stabbed 11 times in the back. I’ve attached his obituary if you’d like to read it.
Right now, I’m staring at a blinking cursor trying to figure out what to say that proclaims the gospel and isn’t down right patronizing. This church thing we’re in together? It’s hard work.
All of that to say, take a quick second to pray for inspiration and grace and for this family that is reeling. And hug your loved ones a little tighter, too. Side note: if you want to come this afternoon at 3 for moral support, I’m all for it!
The following is what I came up with. A few quick notes: (1) I am honored to have been chosen by his family to be the one to walk with them in the muddy waters of grief that they are neck deep in. (2) I’m indebted to the Army chaplain who presided over Taylor’s service in Georgia, and am grateful for his willingness to share his remarks–sections of which are included here. Thank you for gathering such lovely stories from Taylor’s childhood. (3) You can read his obituary here. (4) The passage I preached on is this one from John.
The first thing that has to be said is: this is a really shitty situation. Taylor was too young, too bright, had too much potential for his life to end in such a tragic way. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not OK. It’s not going to be OK. To his family: you have every right to be mad as hell about this—about the injustice of this situation. I wouldn’t blame you if it was all you could do not to stand up right here and shout at God or collapse in your anger. And you know something, if that’s what you need to do, go for it. You’ve got a room full of people who’ll love you through it.
When I’m preparing for a funeral, the gospel lesson I typically use is from John 14. You’ve heard it before even if you don’t realize it. It’s got those familiar words, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled, and don’t let the be afraid. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Blah. Blah. Blah.
The truth is, I believe that, I buy it. But right now, when it comes to Taylor and his murder—that seems anything but comforting. In fact, to me, it feels downright patronizing. “Don’t let my heart be troubled? My kid, my grandson, my nephew, my friend was just killed. Of course my heart is troubled. It’s pissed and broken and exhausted and uneasy and everything else but calm and patient and still.”
So I didn’t look in John 14. I flipped a few chapters ahead, to John 11—the story of a man named Lazarus who had died. Actually, the story is less about Lazarus and more about his sisters, Mary and Martha. You see, Jesus was a few days away from the house the siblings shared in Bethany when he got word that the brother, Lazarus, was sick. And instead of hightailing it to Lazarus’ bedside, he lingered—doddling on this or that, God knows what. He was so late, that by the time he was finally on his way to Bethany, Lazarus had died.
Now we’ve met Martha and Mary before. The last time they hosted Jesus’ at their home, Martha was the one scurrying around the kitchen making preparations while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. We think of Martha as being the more conventional of the two sisters—the one who’ll stick to tradition, to the ways things always were. Tradition held that the family of the deceased would stay at home, mourning for a period of time.
This time, Martha wasn’t having it. The second she’s hears Jesus is near, she runs out to meet him. And do you remember what she says? “Lord, if only you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Now there are a couple of ways we could read that line. Maybe its a simple stating of the obvious. But I tend to read it with a touch of sarcasm. I’m from Georgia and I’m here to tell you we have a unique term for that in the South. We’d call that: pissy-ness. When I come across this line, what I hear is this: “Lord, if only you had been here, if only you had cared enough, if only you had hurried up, if only we had mattered enough, my brother wouldn’t have died. Thanks a lot.” And lest you think Martha is overreacting, Mary encountered Jesus and says the same thing, “If only you’d been here.”
You know, I think Martha was on to something. Because we could easily put Taylor in there. “Jesus, if you were here, if the stories were true, if you were real, Taylor wouldn’t be dead.” If only you’d been here, my son wouldn’t have died, my brother wouldn’t have died, my grandson wouldn’t have died, my friend wouldn’t have died.
But you know something, I believe in the good news of the gospel. And the good news for Mary and Martha is that the story wasn’t over yet. Death didn’t have the last word. So for now, we’ll rail at God, we’ll ask God over and over again why he let it happen? Where God was? What the the hell God was thinking? We’ll shake our fists at God, shouting, “If only you’d been here! If only you’d protected him! If only you cared enough!” God can take that. God’s big enough to hold all of that—our disappointment, anger, broken-heartedness.
And through our hot, angry tears we’ll tell Taylor’s story—a story, believe it or not, still being written. That story begins with a baby that was, by all accounts, angelic. I’ve seen pictures. They’re not exaggerating. The kid was a cherub—at least in the looks department: curly blonde hair, clear blue eyes. Personality-wise, less so. He was rambunctious and independent and had a penchant for taking things apart and putting them back together again. Early on, he wouldn’t call it baseball, opting instead for the far more accurate name: Bat ’n’ Ball. He loved wearing his Batman PJs.
Taylor was a sports lover, playing baseball and football among others. Once, when playing football, he fractured his growth plate and then practically insisted that he keep playing.
And he loved to fish. He would go fishing with his father. He liked the fight that inevitably occurred when the fish to the bait, and he liked the competition with his father. I’m sure you were unaware that Taylor was competitive. He tried to win no matter what it was and fishing was no different. He started fishing young. By the time he was ten years old he caught a catfish in Connecticut that weight over three pounds—a state record!
He was an ambitious child who never really met a stranger. His grandfather tells the story about a five year old Taylor on a vacation in Maine. They were staying at a hotel with a pool. Taylor went out to the pool and came back five minutes later and asked to use the phone, stating he wanted to make a call to his friend. Taylor’s grandfather, skeptical as anyone would be of a five year old, asked, “what friend?” “The one I just made at the pool.”
So Taylor picks up the phone, dials his friend’s room (which neither his grandfather or grandmother knew how to do!), and a few minutes later a little kid shows up at the door to their room. Sure enough, Taylor had made a new friend. Taylor was like that—kind and friendly, the kind of guy you wanted to be friends with. On other trips to Maine, his grandfather remembers Taylor ordering lobsters and steamers—a must have on any trip back to New England.
He was a helper. When he was not even two, Taylor helped build a deck. His grandfather would put the plank in place and start the nail, then Taylor would come along and pound it into place. He nailed it every time. He would help anyone, anytime. You were moving? He was there. You were in trouble? He was there. He was dependable and reliable—going out of his way to help folks.
In his teens, this helpful streak became even more evident as he joined the East Brooklyn Fire Department. When he was 18, he ran into a burning house to save a man facing certain death over on South Street. He was awarded a medal by the State of Connecticut for bravery.
His courage paired with his deep-seated desire to help folks to make a tip-top Army medic. He joined the service to help people. He was deployed twice to Afghanistan with the Army Louisiana National Guard, and he had just recently transferred to the Georgia Guard.
Even though he was a long way from family, they were always close to his heart. He would call his mama for all kinds of advice—everything from medical help (she is a nurse, after all) to clothes to home decorating. He’d send her pictures of clothes he was taking about buying and ask for her opinion. Or he’d send her picture of color samples for the house. He wanted to follow in his mom’s footsteps, planning on becoming a nurse, then a PA, and ultimately and physician.
While overseas, his family would send care packages to him stuffed with beef jerky and popcorn and Red Vines. Now you might not realize this, but there are two kinds of families in the world: there are Twizzler families and Red Vine families. The Red Vines caught on in Taylor’s unit. He would share them with the other soldiers, and soon he called home. “You made a hero of me, Gramp.” EVERYONE WANTED RED VINES!
He was called Doc Williams, and he was the medic’s medic—the medic all tother other medics asked for advice. He always carried his medical bag with him. It was just a part of him. He was a medic because he was compassionate, because he was a caregiver, because he was loyal, because he wanted to help people, because he was a protector, because he was reliable, because he was dependable. He loved serving in the Army,. He loved the camaraderie, the sense of belonging. He found himself in the Army.
During one of his deployments, an IED attack hit the vehicle in front of him. With total disregard for himself and his own safety, he jumped out of the vehicle while being shot at and rushed to the aid of his brothers and sisters in arms. One soldier later commented, “When Taylor got there, I knew everything was going to be OK.” That’s Taylor: giving, generous, loving, seemingly fearless.
He had a way of put others first over and over, even while struggling with is own issues. After returning from his first tour overseas, Taylor was a changed man. The specter of PTSD loomed large, and it haunted him. He struggled with life. And even while confronting the lingering impact of the violence and destruction he encountered, he worked with others to help them overcome their PTSD.
The Army Chaplain who officiated the memorial service in Georgia said it best: “So I say to you today, but not really me—I think Taylor says to any of you here today that are suffering from the pain of a deployment. Seek help. Don’t try to go it alone. Don’t try to hide it. Don’t try to soldier through it. Talk to a friend, a chaplain, a behavioral health specialist. There are people in your life that love you and want you to be healed. If you love Taylor, then listen to his voice now and seek help.”
You know something? The same is true from those of you reeling from this loss. There are people in your life who love you and who will walk alongside you every step of the way. There are folks who will shake there fists at God with you, shouting “If only you’d been here!” And there are folks who will whisper God’s promises of new life to you over and over again when you can’t bring yourself to say the words.
There are a lot questions we have about God and Taylor and murder and injustice, but one question we can answer with complete certainty: he loved and he was loved. He is loved.
We want to know why? Why this one whom we loved so much? Why this family? Why this situation? Why this violence? And those are fair questions to ask. And they’re ones I wish I could answer. And one day, maybe we will find answers to those questions, but for now, all I can say is I don’t know. I don’t know why Taylor or why now or why there.
But there are some things I do know. I know that God doesn’t leave us orphaned. So I am confident Taylor is in the arms of our Heavenly Parent. I know that God knows what its like to lose a child. So I am convinced God’s heart is broken over the loss of this one, too. I know that God is faithful. So I am certain that God was always with Taylor and was always with each of us, and always will be.
So while we struggle to make sense of it all, let us choose to live not in fear but in hope. Let us live not in timidity, but in courage. If Taylor taught us anything it was to care, to be generous, to help, to love. May we honor his memory by caring for people the way he did—fully, completely, unhesitatingly, genuinely. Amen.
Oh. Jon. God led you to the perfect remarks. This was thoughtful and hopeful.
I was in attendance and thank you for the thought, compassion and insight that you poured into the service. Your simple notes of instruction for the attendees made everyone feel at ease regardless of their experience within a church and at funerals/memorials. It is a heartwrenching situation for everyone and I believe you helped give an appropriate tone and message for Taylor’s farewell. Thank you for this labor of faith and love,
I was unable to attend the service but so enjoyed reading your sermon..It was so spot on.I hope it give the family some relief from their grief,
Thank you Jon for sharing . Someone once told me that “Grief is the price we pay for Love”.
Thank God that Love is self renewing ..
I was there for Taylor’s service and it was one of the most beautiful sermons I’ve ever heard, genuine and sincere. I continue to pray for Taylor and his family.
Prayers. Thank you, Jon.
Wow, thank you, this was wonderful and inspiring and sad all at once.
Your words are a comfort. They bring to mind an article I read by Father Jonathan in which he talks about God gift to mankind of free will. Sometimes what we choose to do with that gift surely must be a disappointment to our Lord but it does not mean that God is not with us or has forsaken us. Free will can be the best gift or the worst…we as humans make that choice. Taylor lives with Jesus now .