Heaven’s New Coaching Staff
I am struggling to climb out of a deep canyon of mourning and mortality as I lament the loss of my friend, spiritual coach, and former Presbyterian pastor Gary Wilburn.
For the last year, his wife and best friend Bev has chronicled his temporal battle with ALS through a tender email communication across a continent of midnights. Their decision to move to a small town in Baja Mexico so Gary might spend his final days near his beloved Pacific Ocean and family, created a daily odyssey of joys and logistical challenges that left me feeling as though I was a spectator to some grander game of life.
I have written often about Gary, the way an adult might nostalgically reflect on a mentor, teacher or coach who had an influence on their life. We all have people who appear on our life’s path and sadly, it is often in hindsight that we come to realize the gift that was embodied in their ideals, spirit and lens to the world. He was my coach and I will miss him.
Gary Wilburn arrived in California as a young toddler clinging to the hand of a single mother. His father had left the family at an early age – leaving Gary forever wondering what the physical love of a father, a power greater than himself, was like. In a story that tracks remarkably to a biblical parable, he and his penniless mother arrived in Northern California with no place to stay and were shown kindness not by the pillars of society but by some women of ill repute – – spending their first evening among the working girls of a bordello.
His life’s journey would mold the man who would one day decide to become a compassionate educator for justice, equity and humanity. His life was far from ordinary. Yet, he was quick to avoid conversations about himself. He instead focused on those with whom he was entrusted. Occasionally, in quiet discourse and even once in a sermon, Gary revealed aspects of a childhood that was at once, filled with love and at the same time, a more complicated contradiction as his mother worked in a shadow world of government agents and individuals focused on keeping Hollywood and Los Angeles free of the divisive influences of communism and socialism. He would tell stories of a loving home filled with songs and compassion. Yet across the street, a spook my stand in the dark illuminated only by the tangerine glow of a cigarette. Gary’s world was a swirling whirlpool of political dogma and humanity – a mass of seemingly opposed forces.
Gary’s spiritual pursuits were sparked by his life experiences – -a recognition that we were all flawed and fallen but that within us, a divine spark flickers and cannot be extinguished. His mission was to free that light from its prison of self pursuit and self interest.
When we met for the first time, it was if Gary had already punctured through my well developed veneer of fair weathered Christianity and pegged me for what I truly was – – someone with good intentions who rarely acted on them. Instead of lecturing me each Sunday with sermons berating my indifference or patronizing my lack of action in a world filled with inequity and suffering, he led me by the hand like the Ghost of Christmas Present sharing the joys and tragedies borne out of the bondage of self preservation and materialism. Gary knew his flock. They were successful people – CEOs, financial professionals, high performing men and women whose best ideas and self reliance had resulted in material success and comfort. It was an infinitely harder community to convince to pursue a different road when so many had been rewarded in a temporal world for their focus and work ethic.
Gary was determined to share how affluence could become a trap and how believing in yourself as the source of one’s own success, erects your entire self worth on a mortal and inevitably unstable foundation. He tried to teach that spiritual currency of personal worth was of a higher denomination than the temporal currency of net worth. He attempted to show how epiphany could be found in the darkest corners of our lives. Trial, travail, questioning, doubt and suffering were vital DNA for an advanced soul – a soul that understood that there are no burning bushes along this earthly path only people who choose to serve as a vessel for a divine light.
I viewed Gary Wilburn as my coach and captain – – the John Wooden of my spiritual life. Not unlike my hero Wooden, he cared deeply for his “players” and his pyramid for success was built on a foundation of family, service and integrity. His sermons preached relentless repetition of service in hopes that one’s acts of kindness might actually become embedded parts of a person’s character. He understood that it was our nature to be selfish and self centered athletes. For many, we enter life’s parquet courts each day expecting to be the center of the offense. We insist that someone “give us the ball.” It was all about winning the game and the end justified the means. It was up to this coach to redefine what “winning” really meant in an agnostic world that often played by a different set of rules.
Gary would often cry as he delivered his locker room sermons – angered by the inhumanity and indifference that he witnessed in the world. Like children, we would sometimes sit and wonder, “why is he so upset? Is he angry with something that I did?” Invariably, we would be gently reminded that most of our errors were not those of commission but omission. Our fouls were apathy, indifference and a tolerance of the mediocre. We could only win when we played together as a team –as a congregation that was bonded by values and common community.
There is always tension when a coach is whipping his team into shape. Some dislike the pace of change or the candor of the message. A head coach has to deal with alumni and boosters who provide financial support and bring with their contributions strong opinions about the game, how it should be played and what defines success. It seems in sports and in churches, everyone has a different expectation of what the institution should be achieving. Gary understood that an area like Fairfield County could serve as a beacon of generosity and compassion or be seen as the poster child for guarded self interest. Gary was determined to lead his players into discovering the joy of this game called life and to become excited about the spiritual dividends of a life well lived.
Behind every great coach, there is often the partner that holds it all together. John Wooden would tell you the greatest accomplishment of his life was not his winning record or national championships but meeting and marrying his wife Nell. Gary Wilburn would not hesitate to convey his love for Bev who at the end, was clearing Gary’s breathing tube every fifteen minutes through out the day and night so he might live to witness another glorious sunrise. It was Bev’s loving chronicle of Gary’s final days that allowed many of us to grieve more softly in the knowledge that Gary accomplished everything that he had set out to do in life and was wrapped in love every step of his journey.
Someone once said, “the smarter a person is, the harder it is for them to change because they think they have it all figured out. That is why sinners make the best saints. They bring a humility to their spiritual journey which opens the door to understanding. The humble man realizes that one must first seek to understand before being understood.”
I recall a coach in college telling me that I was “over-thinking” things. He pointed to another player who was leading our team with RBIs with runners in scoring position. “He listens. He practices. He does not think about new things as unnatural or different. He repeats them over and over again until they become natural and a part of how he plays. Face it, your best thinking only got you this far. You will never get better until you learn to take someone else’s advice on how to play the game.”
We all need coaches and teachers. No matter how old we are, our life’s journey is one of constant self discovery and improvement. When you are lucky enough to find someone who dedicates their life to helping you become a better person, it is the ultimate gift. Not only do you become a better person for their counsel but you begin to understand that your life’s legacy is helping others compete in this difficult, beautiful game called life.
We lost two life coaches this month. Coaches Wooden and Wilburn have joined a heavenly staff that still stands undefeated. Their one wish is perhaps to keep alive their principles and for us to practice them in all our affairs. We are, after all, their players and our greatest tribute to them is to that we go out every day and compete with integrity always with an eye toward winning the game the right way. Perhaps, we may become a next generation of coaches so that their message might never fall silent in the locker rooms of life.