I don’t even know where to begin. I got the call early Tuesday morning telling me that Michael Williams had died. A sudden death like that comes as a shock and I was having a very difficult time processing it in my mind. I had just seen Michael at the Project Transformation luncheon a few days before. We talked for a few minutes like we always did.
My first reaction was to reach out to colleagues and friends who knew and loved him--to alert them to this sad news. Everyone’s reaction was the same--disbelief.
My mind took me back to a couple of weeks ago to the memorial service for Rick Osgood. This was so eerily similar--such a sudden death to a much-beloved friend. Michael and I had talked about an idea I’ve had about creating a storytelling festival on the west side of town and he was very excited about that and pledged to help make it happen.
We talked about his retirement--just last year. He was now teaching at Martin Methodist College and doing some traveling as a featured storyteller and lecturer. What I remember most that day was him telling me how much fun he was having now that the pressure of leading a church was no longer on him. He was relaxed, light, excited.
I don’t like thinking about the world without him. Michael brought joy, insight, and meaning to life in a unique way. I doubt everyone knows that Michael was once the Associate Pastor at Columbia First UMC. Columbia, TN is the home of the annual Mule Day Festival where some 250,000 people (and mules) descend on the town for what is truly a pure slice of small-town Americana. One of the highlights of the Mule Day Festival is the annual “Liars Contest”--where folks get up and tell outlandish stories, always funny. Michael won that contest several times in a row--so much that he was asked, I’m told, NOT to enter so someone else might have a chance to win. Very cool.
Michael led worship for me on many occasions as a guest preacher. I was always as mesmerized by him as everyone else. And jealous that I didn’t possess his skill. He led youth retreats for me when I worked with the conference youth. Young people, especially, gravitated to Michael--that, in itself, is a rare gift.
We were also kindred spirits in how we understood the faith and the church. I think it’s safe to say that we both had a “lover’s quarrel” with the church at times and sought ways to make her stronger. I always loved him for that.
Michael was your pastor at one time and I know how much you loved him. He was pretty easy to love and I know he loved you, too. I remember Rick Osgood’s service as Michael assisted us with it. They were such good friends and Michael was able to capture Rick’s enthusiasm and spirit in that memorial with the catchphrase Rick used a lot to describe something that impressed him - ”That’s really cool”. He found a way to make us all feel better about Rick’s death--a way to make us grateful we had known him.
Today I can’t help but think exactly the same way about Michael. Kurt Vonnegut was one of our nation’s greatest writers. Vonnegut was a “free thinker” and not known as a person of faith. But in one essay he wrote years ago he was describing a man he knew and this is how he described him: “whenever he was near you he just made you feel better about yourself and the world around you. When he was around it was as if someone, somewhere out there, wanted you to like it here.”
Whenever I was around Michael, it was as if someone, somewhere out there, wanted me to like it here. We will all miss him. Rest in peace, dear friend.