I was tempted to use the word "passed", but Phil would not have let me get away with that. He would have said, "Say what you mean." Among his other traits, Phil was a truth-teller.
In 1992, I returned to Marin after living in Oregon for two years. Looking for a church community of people who try to live lives modeled after Jesus, I visited several, eventually trying out a church pastored by one of my seminary classmates, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon. I soon met this gentleman who was "different". He was obviously "not young" in years, but the things he kept saying told me that he was mentally and emotionally alive and exciting.
As I came to know Philip Economon, I was drawn to a man who spoke his mind, no watering down the truth as he saw it just so others would like him better. Not that he suffered for a lack of friends. Everyone in the church knew and loved Phil. As I came to discover, he was also well-known and well-liked by the general community.
I could fill this blog with his exploits from an illustrious past, including traipsing across France, Belgium and Germany during World War II, part of the liberating army that defeated "that maniac in Germany" as Phil speaks of Hitler; or his taking olive trees to Afghanistan to help those farmers or the many ways he volunteered in Marin. But I only want to write about his influence on my life; the things he taught me.
Phil was part of a group at Westminster that I call the Community of Heretics. The official name is the Faith Cafe, but my term is better. This is a group that ranges in age from about 65 up to just under 100. In other words, the older people who actually like to think. It can be a contentious group. Leaders have torn their hair out trying to control these heretics. Why heretics, this small group–about 10-15–seem never to have encountered an idea they would not entertain and examine. And Phil was right there in the mix, one of the free-thinkers.
Don't try to sneak in some abstract, but meaningless verbiage, Phil would pipe up with "Say what you mean." pushing us to be honest and not obfuscate. Don't use a six syllable word when a common three syllable would be more understandable. Another of Phil's frequent and useful interjections was "How do you apply that in YOUR life?" If you are saying something important, it can't be left as abstraction.
Phil believed that humanity is progressing. Despite all the problems and evil in the world, the arc of history bends toward justice and progress and increasing positive behavior in people. Sometimes the evidence seems thin. Reading the news media is disheartening at times. The frontpage stories are of police murdering citizens and civilians murdering police, rape, torture and war. But what Phil knew is that there is really less of this now than at any time in history. Well researched statistics support Phil's notion. The headlines may scream, but the reality is that there are fewer wars among nations now–not that wars in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere are to be taken lightly, and Phil did not take them so. There are fewer violent crimes. We are safer in our homes and on our streets than ever before. Health care is improving. Phil might complain about the sluggishness of progress, but he never doubted that the future would be better than the past.
Only rarely did Phil come up with an aphorism or metaphor. Mostly he was too straightforward. But after a special moment when I heard him challenge a visiting authority figure, I was so in awe, I blurted out, "Phil. When I grow up I want to be like you." He was taken aback at first, but then he said "David, don't grow up. When you grow up, there's nothing left to do but die. That's the way it is with flowers and with us. Just keep growing."
I never again heard Phil say anything "guru" like that again, but instead I watched him live his life in that way.
There is a great scholar, theologian and philosopher, John Shelby Spong who often says that what as Jesus followers we are called to do is to "Live fully. Love wastefully. And be all that we have been created to be." Philip Economon personalized this for me.
And now he "grew up" but he continues to live in his influence in my life and directly in the lives of hundreds of others.