Any attempt to pay tribute to one who has meant so much to so many is bound to be feeble at best, but I need to try. I want to convey our friendship in "snapshots" of my encounters & experiences with Dan over the years.
Dan Williams was first and foremost an encourager who faced his share of challenges and met them head-on with faith, love, hope, and humor, qualities with which he blessed everyone he met.
I met Dan almost 15 years ago, and we became good, close friends in short order. In the fall of 2001, I heard that the Texas Baptist Laity Institute (TBLI) would be conducting training for "mentors" (TBLI's name for teachers) at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. Being interested in getting more actively involved in Baptist life, I thought this sounded like a good opportunity.
Dan Williams was TBLI's president and facilitated the training. After an opening general session, we broke off into workshops for training on specific courses that we were interested in teaching. I chose the workshop that focused on my greatest passion - Baptist Distinctives, which was led by Bill Pinson, who had developed the course.
One requirement to be certified as a TBLI mentor was endorsement by two ministers from your home church. That was no problem; I went to my pastor and music minister, and they were pleased to endorse me. However, when I showed my pastor the syllabus for the Baptist Distinctives course, he firmly instructed me, "I don't want you teaching that stuff about the SBC controversy here."
So I decided not to teach any courses at that church. If I could not teach ALL of the course, then I would not teach ANY of it.
Discouraged, I called Dan. He assured me that he would find me a place where I could teach freely. Discouragement had a short life in the presence of Dan Williams.
Several other visits with Dan spring to mind:
- In the summer of 2004, Joanna and I left that church in Plano, where I had tried for 17 years to inform and educate people on Baptist principles and the dangers of Fundamentalism, with a spectacular lack of success. We wound up joining Wilshire in Dallas, where we are still members today. However, before deciding, we also visited First Baptist, Richardson, where Dan and Anita were members. We visited Anita's Sunday School class. Joanna and I had barely entered the room before Dan and Anita's son, Nathan, greeted us and made us feel more welcome than I've ever experienced in visiting a church for the first time. Nathan has that encourager "gene," too!
- That August, Dan and I met for coffee. As we sat and talked, Dan told me that he had arranged for me to teach TBLI's Church History course at First Baptist, Richardson, in the spring of 2005. However, Dan also informed me that, though he had not yet made it public, he would soon be resigning as president of TBLI.
I taught two courses - Church History and Baptist Distinctives - over the next two years at FBC Richardson and Wilshire. It was a rewarding experience, and I came to appreciate the work that both Dan and his successor, Linda Cross, did through TBLI.
- In late 2007, Dan was called as pastor to First Baptist Church, Shawnee, Oklahoma. Shortly before he and Anita left Texas, Dan and I met for coffee, and I gave this Baylor grad a quick "primer" on Shawnee and my alma mater, Oklahoma Baptist University, albeit from a perspective of 30+ years earlier. Not sure how helpful I was, but Dan enjoyed my attempt to educate him on the "OBU culture."
It was bittersweet, though, as Dan and I had met fairly regularly at this La Madeleine Cafe in Plano for coffee and conversation, and this would be the last time.
- I went up to Shawnee in November 2008 for Homecoming; it was the 35th anniversary reunion of my 1973 graduating class. That Saturday afternoon, Dan and I met for coffee at one of his favorite Shawnee hangouts, McAlister's Deli. It turned out that Nathan worked there, though he wasn't working this particular afternoon. One of the young managers came over and told Dan that Nathan had been named employee of the month; Dan just beamed.
That evening, at the Homecoming Musical Gala in Raley Chapel, I sat with Dan and Anita; afterwards, Dan introduced me to David Whitlock, then only recently installed as OBU's new president.
The next morning, I worshipped at First Baptist (where I had been a member during my freshman year at OBU 39 years earlier). My best memory of that morning was Dan sitting on the chancel steps doing the children's sermon, and the children's obvious love for "Pastor Dan." Seeing the joy with which he bantered with the kids, I got the feeling that this might be just about his favorite part of pastoring.
- In 2010, Dan and Anita were called to another place with special meaning for Joanna and me - Hong Kong. (Joanna was born and raised in Hong Kong.) Dan served International Baptist Church as pastor. In September 2011, we took a trip to Hong Kong to spend time with Joanna's sister, Betty, and her family.
On Sunday, September 11, Joanna and I visited International Baptist Church, and went to lunch with Dan and Anita afterwards. We had a great visit, with Dan and Anita sharing about their experience there, and Joanna sharing her own special memories of Hong Kong. We were pleased to hear that their experience in Hong Kong was such a positive one; they were loving that church, and the church loved them.
- The last time I saw Dan was November 2014, when he attended our Texas Baptists Committed Breakfast at the BGCT annual meeting in Waco. He sat next to me, and it was wonderful to visit with him.
A few nuggets:
- "Diversity is a grand thing. Many Baptists used to know that. We have 16 nationalities at IBC." (International Baptist Church, Hong Kong)
- "Tell the gang, in spite of being in Hong Kong I will always be a Texas Baptists Committed person at heart." ("the gang" refers to the TBC Board)
- (Upon sharing that, following a visit to Texas, he and Anita had returned to Hong Kong without Nathan, who had been accepted into an assisted living workshop for special needs adults) "I had no idea he would be accepted and move right in while we were in Texas. I am grieving because of our good relationship, and I miss him terribly."
- (In an email to a number of friends after his prostate cancer had returned) "Paul puts the way I feel this way in Romans 8: 26 ff. 'In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.' Thank you all for being the kind of friends and family we can call on and count on to pray for this process."
- "I am on a hormone blocker, and the worst of the side effects is HOT FLASHES! All I can say is, 'Set my soul afire, LORD!' I told Anita in a moment of humor that she would be pleased in having a new soprano in the church choir! She laughed! We both did."
This week, a friend of Dan and Anita's posted to Facebook a video clip of Dan, Anita, and their family singing The New 23rd Psalm only weeks before Dan's death. I've watched it several times, and I cry every time. It's overwhelming to see such faith lived out in the face of death. Watching them sing "Even when walking through the dark valley of death . . . valley of death . . . I will never be afraid for He is close beside me, guarding, guiding all the way," I see a living picture of the victory that we have in Christ, the hope that doesn't just "spring" eternal, it IS eternal.
Tomorrow we will gather - family and friends - at First Baptist Church of Austin, to celebrate the life of Dan Williams and to mourn our loss. But our loss is only temporary. A reunion is in our future!
Thanks be to God for the life of Dan Williams and for letting me know him as my friend for these past 15 years. Thanks be to God for the influence and example of Dan Williams, not only as a minister of the Gospel, but for the example he set as a loving husband and father, and for the wife and children who are his greatest testimony, as well as the many others whose lives he has touched through the years with Christ's grace . . . and for the way that he showed us to both live and die - with faith, love, hope, and humor. Thanks be to God!