Posted: July 7, 2007 in Miscellaneous

My mom with Willie Sandlin (sent to me by Brett Carlile)

To combine thoughts from a couple of recent posts…

* From Blue Like Jazz: “Writers don’t make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don’t work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck’s book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man’s stupid words. And for this, as I said before, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more.”

* I believe today is the day for Willie Sandlin’s funeral. I do not know this for sure; I only deduce this from a comment from Facebook. My mother is normally my reliable source of information on Northeast Arkansas, but she is currently in Costa Rica, accessible only by carrier pigeon or llama (that’s my picture, at least), so I’m not sure. Either way, I’m thinking of the Sandlin family today. I appreciated so much all the kind comments from folks after what I wrote about Willie the other day. I hope this sounds right: I really didn’t know Willie meant as much as he did to me. The news caught me off-guard, and as I often do while off-guard, I sat down to write about it. And I’m too stupid not to share my off-guard writing with the whole world.

Anyway, tying all the above together… My friend, Terry Austin, is about the best writer I know. And I know upwards of ten people. So today, thinking of Willie, and thinking of writing, I thought I’d share what Terry wrote about Willie on his blog called Crowley’s Ridge Journal on Independence Day:

Willie Sandlin died earlier today in a Utah hospital room. Earlier in the day, doctors had – for what seemed like the thousandth time – told Willie’s family that the damage was more extensive than they’d thought, that they hadn’t been able to do what they’d hoped to do, that they didn’t know their next step or how much time Willie had remaining.Much of this scenario had played itself out time and time again for nearly 20 years, starting when Willie returned from a mission trip throwing up everything but his toenails. One medical problem begat another, and for the last few years, Willie’s condition spiraled downward so quickly and severely that he was unable to continue working. And for Willie, whose life and passion was wrapped up in his work as a youth minister, that was an untenable status quo.

Unable to work meant that Willie couldn’t spend time with teenagers, couldn’t address hundreds of young people who gave him their rapt attention, couldn’t travel to Native American reservations or inner city ministries to administer social justice to the residents in those locations.

In his last days, Willie Sandlin sat at home and waited. Waited to get better, or perhaps waited to get worse. He waited, I believe, only because he knew how important it was to his wife, his two sons and his daughter that he indeed ride out this storm. But ultimately, the fear of same outweighed the fear of change, and Willie found the courage to declare his independence.

Willie Sandlin was one of the few people I’ve ever know who truly lived with one foot planted in Heaven and one foot firmly entrenched here. His dual citizenship made him equally comfortable – and yet uncomfortable – in both places. He was a man fully capable of bringing the compassion of Heaven to an otherwise bleak and cold world. He could and did offer that compassion equally to Christian and non-Christian alike, giving every person the sense that he or she was important and worthy of such a gift. And yet his faith ran so deep that he often found himself frustrating those with whom he worked in ministry, for he was “people-focused” and was no keeper of “stuff.” He drove old cars that were forever breaking down, he would give a stranger his last $20 even if Willie needed it to pay his own rent, and he would bend or break rules as he saw fit when he felt someone’s well being was at stake.

The kid everyone else had written off as a lost cause? Willie would invest himself totally in that child’s life. The guy who came, month after month, to ask for groceries or help with the light bill? Willie would find a way to help him. The forms you were supposed to fill out before providing that help? Willie would lose them, or when you asked about them, he’d lock his eyes with yours and do a poor job of fighting back a smile. And you got the message.

People first, rules second. That’s the way of Jesus. And it was the way Willie lived.

At some point, reality crashes on you like falling shards of glass. For me, it came tonight around seven o’clock, when I learned that Willie wasn’t going to get better this time. I sat among a hundred or so friends, all of whom knew Willie, and experienced a palpable sense of loss.

We all changed tonight, though most of us would’ve preferred not to. One person, one larger-than-life man, was ready for this to happen.

One very tired man now, finally, forever, has declared his freedom.

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