Heaven’s New Coaching Staff

John Wooden at a ceremony on Oct. 14, the coac...
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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.

Sundays With Gary

Sundays With Gary

“A life defined by love will not seek to protect itself or justify itself.  It will be content to be itself and to give itself away with abandon…. love never judges.  Love simply announces that the person you are, nor the deeds you have done, have erected a barrier which the power of this invincible presence cannot overcome.”. Bishop John Spong.

In 1997, journalist Mitch Albom wrote a heart-warming chronicle of the final months he spent with his college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS. Many of us, like Albom -a reporter whose world view had been hardened by a career exposed to life’s harsh inequities, were moved by the valuable life lessons tutored from a 78 year old sociology professor who had dedicated a lifetime of service to shaping young minds.  In the process of imparting his final vita dictata to Mitch, he touched the world.

Morrie’s favorite saying from WH Auden was emphatic: we must “love each other or perish.” In the book, Albom is slowly resuscitated to see the world for its possibilities instead of its limitations, and in his personal resurrection, we find hope. We are blessed if we are fortunate enough to find a Morrie Schwartz – a selfless mentor whose life exemplifies the simple truths that “love conquers all” and that “fear and faith cannot not possibly coexist in the same space.”

New Canaan possessed for a brief and magical time our own Morrie Schwartz in the physical and spiritual being of Pastor Gary Wilburn. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gary stepped down from a dozen year tenure as pastor of New Canaan’s Presbyterian church in 2008.

While his body was beginning to succumb to the debilitating symptoms of his disease, he and his wife Bev, sharpened their resolve and focused on the gift of life – moving to a remote town in Baja Mexico to be closer to family, praise every day and to race time to craft a handbook of living in the form of a trilogy of books. His first two books, The God I Don’t Believe In : Charting A New Course for Christianity and Lot’s of Hope pushed us to reclaim the essential message of Jesus and to embrace the power of hope to change a broken world. Gary’s third and final book – Lots Of Love – is an urgent and loving testimonial to the simple but fundamental building blocks of our human and spiritual DNA – that “love is the beginning and the end of our journey.”

Gary and Bev Wilburn’s triumphs and setbacks are faithfully chronicled by Bev on a website called Caring Bridge that reaches across time zones and distance to bond friends and family of those living with chronic illness.  With Bev as the family air traffic controller, Gary redirects every ounce of his physical being as an author – a celestial cartographer and guide — tracking our human journey as spiritual beings and interpreting along the way the simple divinity that swirls around us.

In a time of great fear and uncertainty, we need these clerics, shamans, priests, and holy persons in our lives to help interpret the deeper meaning of our existence. “Lots of Love” achieves spiritual interpretation the way Stephen Hawking fashioned a less complicated lens to the cosmos in his brilliant book, A Brief History of The Universe.   How ironic that these extraordinary insights should come from two men whose bodies conspire each day to rob them of their ability to teach us.

Pastor Wilburn understands that society is, by nature, cynical with self-interest but also believes unquestionably in the divine flickering in us like a candle hidden under a bushel basket.  Our life’s mission is to discover our potential as change agents in a world through the simple act of loving.  Gary guides us the way a naturalist might walk us along a gentle mountain path, pointing out the beauty and genius of simple acts of kindness and beckons us to be certain we inhale the rich pine scented humanity that comes from our compassion, humor and values that bind us all as families and communities.

Gary chronicles and celebrates the undeniable goodness of people and relates vignette after vignette of countless acts of love, gratitude and faith – whether it is in the simple act of passengers giving up their seats at Christmas so an overbooked flight can make room for soldiers trying to get home on leave from Iraq, to the half century romantic story of Nate and Theo, a New Canaan couple whose lives and deaths proved as remarkable a testament to inexorable love as any parable.

Each day physical life may conspire to ebb out of Gary’s body but his spirit flows through his pen and his glorious fight to bring us all a message of hope at the holiday season. Lots of Love is an ornament to be hung on every tree, a candle to be lit on the last night of Hanukkah, an Eid prayer at Ramadan and a strand of lights at the new moon of Diwali.

Gary’s message at these holidays is captured in the haunted words of the great social reformer, Charles Dickens and the miraculous self-revelation of George Bailey in “Its A Wonderful Life”. Lots of Love walks us across a shattered mosque in Iraq and points out the angels that flit around us each day – our eyes not completely adjusted to see these selfless spirits in the bright light of their kindness.

I can see Gary Wilburn every night in my minds eye.  He is resting in his motorized chair, silhouetted against a tangerine and blood red sunset praising every minute of a warm, Baja afternoon.  Bev is nearby, a soft constant breeze and beloved companion.   He smiles and rests – a spiritual being on a human journey.  He considers the gifts and challenges that he has been presented in a life advising and leading affluent and underserved communities. He is at peace.

I call him my Captain and miss him every day that he has been away.  He taught his congregation to listen, to seek to understand, to probe for the truth and yes, occasionally cry with outrage when a serially flawed society fails to make unconditional love its ultimate priority.  He urges us with labored breath that it is through this door of love that we can discover joy, spiritual connection with a power greater than ourselves and rise to heights as humans never thought possible – buoyed by the sheer weightlessness of seeking truth and justice.

Gary has discovered his one thing and shared it with us.  He offers up in Lots Of Love an antidote to anyone whose life is ruled more by fear than faith and who has yet to extricate themselves from the cat’s cradle snares of life’s material traps.

As he would often share with his loving but recidivist and reluctant congregation, “these three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.” (1 Corinthians 13)