A tribute offered by The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop of Massachusetts,
at Trinity Cathedral, Trenton, New Jersey, on Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Easter Day, 1997: George Councell in his Easter sermon tells the congregation:
“Twenty years ago my father-in-law, a Lutheran pastor, stood up at the funeral of his wife and told the church, ‘The promises of God are sure.’ And then he sat down. What better moment to preach his shortest and, perhaps, his greatest Easter sermon?”[i]
Pastor Tietjan spoke the gospel truth. The promises of God are sure. Unfortunately, perhaps, for you, neither the Bishop of Massachusetts nor the Presiding Bishop is as pithy as Pastor Tietjen. But then, neither was George!
Let me speak of the Top Five Loves of George.
Number Five: George Councell loved to read. He would quote to you from Dante, or Phillip Yancey, or John Donne, or Maya Angelou. The thing was, it didn’t have to be high-flown or literary. I once heard him construct an entire sermon around The Velveteen Rabbit – about how we are made real by being loved. You’ll recall that the evidence of the Velveteen Rabbit having been loved and therefore real was that its fur had been largely rubbed off. The sermon was for the installation of a new rector. George took special delight in pointing out that, like the rabbit, the parish’s new priest was rather bald, and therefore obviously lovable and “real!”
The man’s reading tastes were prodigious – and always there was a gospel message in there somewhere.
Number Four: George Councell loved baseball. Wherever he went, he took to the ballpark. In Western Mass, as Canon to the Ordinary, he would lead the clergy in a pickup ballgame each year during clergy conference.
I once heard George construct an entire theology of mission around Bob Uecker, legendary broadcast announcer for the Milwaukee Brewers. Whenever a Milwaukee slugger hit a potential homer, Uecker would coax the ball out of the park, shouting, “Get up! Get up! Get outta here!”
George loved that. He reckoned it was a decent summary of what churchgoers were supposed to do – not sit around in their pews, but “get up and get outta here” to do God’s work. Occasionally, in spite of George’s tendency towards strict Prayer Book rubrical adherence, he would instruct the deacon to use Uecker’s shout as the liturgy’s Dismissal: “Get up! Get up! Get outta here!”
The man’s appetite for baseball was prodigious – and always there was a gospel message in there somewhere.
Number Three: George Councell loved music. Concert going; drumming in the basement; playing air guitar in a hospital bed. His joy when singing was irrepressible. Some time after leaving Chicago for Cleveland I noticed that the acolytes at my new church were making fun of me for bouncing up onto my toes when singing lively hymns. I realized that I had picked that up from singing next to George for all those years.
He was musically omnivorous, conversant on a range of musicians from Verdi to the hip-hop artist Mos Def. I once heard him construct an entire Easter sermon around Chumbawamba, the ‘90s British Rock band, and their hit sensation “Tubthumping.” Do you remember its catchy chorus?
I get knocked down, but I get up again
You are never gonna keep me down
I get knocked down, but I get up again
You are never gonna keep me down
I mean, sure, there’s an Easter message in there. But who thinks to preach a sermon on Chumbawamba, on Easter Day, in well-heeled Lake Forest? George, that’s who!
The man’s appetite for music was prodigious – and always there was a gospel message in there somewhere.
Number Two: George Councell loved the Church. He loved it in its every manifestation. He loved the vestments and the sacraments and the sacred spaces – loved them because he knew them to be vessels of God’s grace. He loved the people he served – in L.A., in Western Massachusetts, in Chicago. And when the Diocese of New Jersey was in need of healing, when it appealed in its profile for “a person of prayer, who lives the faith,” one who is “a peacemaker and a spiritual diplomat,” George answered the call, and you got the bishop you sought.
He loved to make his declaration in Spanish: “Me encanta la iglesia.” ‘I love the church … The church enchants me.’ As he once wrote, “I haven’t got all the answers and I am not a good Christian, but, by grace, I have decided to follow Jesus and to join in kingdom-building with other disciples in the fellowship of Christ’s Church.”[ii]
The man’s love for Jesus – and for the Church, and for her people – was prodigious, and always there people to love.
He loved to read. He loved baseball. He loved music. He loved the church. And supremely, beyond all else, George loved Ruth, and the families from which they came, and the family they created. We all heard about Sarah’s studies in China and later her organizing work. We watched George eagerly head off on the father-daughter drive with Martha to Oberlin. The girls’ accomplishments, and, more importantly, the manifestly good people they grew to be – nothing made George more proud or happy. As the girls’ own families grew, the circle of his love just grew with them.
George and Ruth were college sweethearts, and there was something about that youthful sweetness and delight that continued to characterize their love for each other for 47 years. George rejoiced at Ruth’s artistic gift, and the ways she found to share it. But the greatest gift for George was Ruthie herself, and he loved her, and she returned that love with quiet abundance. That she forgave the Church for its demands upon her beloved is one more gift to be acknowledged.
Nobody but Ruth knows the complete cost of George’s struggle with Parkinsons for the past decade, and especially the past three years. Both of them faced into it with characteristic grace and strength. To the diagnosis he responded by heading off to climb Kilimanjaro with a favorite deacon. You might say George responded to his disease with his Chumbawamba theology: I get knocked down, but I get up again; you are never gonna keep me down!
Ruth says that the physical manifestations which others noticed were really not the hardest part. The hardest part, of course, was the cognitive diminishment. Yet even that was met with characteristic sweetness and humor. At one point, Ruth relates, she sent him to the grocery store for eggplant. He returned home with a chocolate cake. (Ruth, I wonder if you are quite sure that this was a cognitive lapse?)
Not so long ago he came back from the grocery, inexplicably, with eight pacakges of Hebrew National hot dogs. When Ruth gently wondered what he was thinking, he replied, “Oh … well … it’s for all my friends!” (There do not exist enough hot dogs for all George’s friends.) Ruth pointed out that he forgot the buns. So the next day George made another trip to the store, and returned with a few dozen hamburger buns! A few days ago his family had a picnic to enjoy George’s hot dogs – a eucharistic feast if ever there was one.
It is said that in old age or in illness, we are apt to become more of whatever we are. So George became more gentle, more kind, more humble, more sweet, more patient, more faithful. In 2003 here is what this diocese said it hoped for: “The brave heart that is not discouraged, the hopeful heart that makes the best of all things: this is the heart needed in our next bishop.” Well, you got it my friends. Oh, man, how you got it.
George rarely spoke of his family in sermons. (Wise man, that George.) But here is one story, from 1997, with which to conclude. George wrote:
“Some years ago one of our daughters took a serious interest in music and set out to become a professional. As I sat with her one day before an important audition, I handed her a card that read, ‘Let them know you love it.’ … [George continues:] Our goal is so to live that the world may know that we love life, for the love of God who gave us this wondrous gift, the grace to enjoy it, and a passion to share it, for the sake of Jesus Christ.”[iii]
Thank God for George, for the wondrous gift of his life, for the grace with which he enjoyed it, and for the love and passion with which he shared it.
Christ is risen. George is risen with him. Alleluia. Amen.
[i] GEC Easter Day sermon, March 30, 1997, at The Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, IL
[ii] GEC sermon, April 28, 2002, at The Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, IL
[iii] GEC sermon, April 27, 1997, at The Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, IL