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Happy Birthday, Wally Chappell

March 17, 2016   |   By Julianne Harris
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We are a busy world, challenged to cram anything else into our ever-important schedules. But recently Rev. Blair Thompson and I experienced the grace we receive by taking time to be with people. Of course we had to schedule this time on our calendars, but it was a privilege to visit with Rev. Wally Chappell, who turns 96 years-old today.

Wally served as a retired associate for pastoral care at FirstChurch until he was 87 years-old. Having only been on staff at FirstChurch for one year, I had never known Wally, but his name resounds among my colleagues with a unanimous reverence that compelled me to meet him.

This was my first trip to C.C. Young. He’d left his door open in expectation of our visit, and we found him poring over edits of his upcoming book of poetry. He lives on a quiet hallway. It’s a quiet that I’m not used to in my everyday hustle, but one that he relishes.

Blair introduced me just as a lady entered with a large pile of Wally’s mail, mostly from non-profits. He flipped through the envelopes, joking that “Once you make a single contribution, you’re on their list for life.” Then he put the pile down, and in the spirit of generosity gave me a book of his selected sermons while Blair and I pulled up a couple of chairs.

We were there to learn from him. When asked how people can grow deeper in their faith, he chuckled. “Shut up,” he said. “The sense of the holy comes in the silence.” He stumbled upon this silence by accident 45 years ago while driving back and forth from Dallas to Lubbock. The few radio stations played Texas country. “Have you ever noticed that after 20 minutes, all big hats start to sound just alike? Eventually, I got sick of Grandma getting drunk and wrecking her pickup truck, so I turned it off. I’d drift in and out of thoughts in the quiet,” he said.

“Sanctuaries are quiet for a reason. Anyone who wants to know God should shut up, listen, and meditate. They are all avenues into the same mystery. That is the only way you will ever hear the will of the mystery.” Part of Wally’s meditative practice is dialogic thought, with which he delves beyond the single perspective. “Personify your life. Create a voice for it and have a conversation with it.”

Now I am faithful, listening, and deep-thinking, but have never heard the clear, conversational “voice of God.” So I was relieved when Wally clarified that it’s not so much a voice as a nudge. The nudge I could understand.

Among his most recent nudges, he shared that after his wife passed away, the nudge said, You let yourself become a hermit. Quit it. Then a couple weeks later, Go find a project. “They don’t come in clear statements like that, but I hear them and I understand.” And that is the nudge that led him to his current wife, Lawrean.

There’s a typewriter on his desk, which he defaults to instead of a computer. Now an avid writer, Wally first ventured into poetry around age fifty as a way of understanding how we know what we know. Among the things he knows for sure, “The mystery is. And the mystery is on our side. I don’t know anything more significant to say than that. You just come to know it.”

A man of spiritual practice and discipline, he writes down whatever he’s thinking as soon as his feet hit the floor in the morning. Then every two weeks, he reads what he’s written, not to analyze it, but to let it speak to him. It’s a wonder that any of his thoughts go unwritten.

Only once in our conversation did Wally lose his train of thought, which he described among the beauties of getting old. Among the other beauties, he said, “You don’t fret as much and you have a strong tendency to receive what life brings. The years of achieving are behind you, so you have the joy of waiting and receiving the silence.”

As for the fear of death, “We really don’t know. It is in the hands of the mystery. If we see and recognize each other on the other side, that’s as it should be. If we don’t, that’s as it should be.”

It’s about that time that cell phones started buzzing, calling us back to the office. Blair closed our time together in prayer, and he held our hands tightly before kissing them and wishing us well. “Julianne, it was a pleasure to meet you,” he said, and it struck me that he remembered my name. But therein lies the difference between a man who listens and a man who goes through the motions.

Spending those hours with Wally, I appreciated his authenticity with a perfect stranger. Without knowing more than my name, he shared his life with me, which he describes as a wild and willing blessing. “I didn’t plan any of it. And I definitely didn’t plan on getting old. It just sort of happened.”

We have a lot to learn by listening, but so often we fail to declare space and time to be attentive. Thank you, Wally Chappell, for declaring space and time for Blair and me. You are a vessel of God’s grace and wisdom. Happy birthday.

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