This afternoon we have come together to remember, with thanksgiving, the life of William Neill and to acknowledge that the Lord is sovereign in all things.
I have just read a portion from Psalm 90. God’s word was very precious to Billy (as we all knew him). This particular Psalm was written by Israel's leader, as the Israelites came up out of the land of Egypt. At the time of writing, Moses was an old man, looking back over the years and reflecting on life compared to the vastness of eternity - promised by God to those who trust in Him.
The Psalm also seeks to use a number of pictures to describe life and I hope we will see this as we move forward in our reflections.
One such picture is rendered in the King James version of the Psalm, where it says that we spend our years as a tale that is told.
This afternoon I want to use that picture, or allusion, to think of Billy and his life as a story told, or a book written.
Bear with me - ‘a tale that is told’ - every story has a beginning. For Billy the story of his life began on the 6th May, 1932, a son to William and Susanne Neill and a brother to Jim, Kay, Lily, Rita, Marie and Isobel. To his surviving sisters Rita, Marie and Isobel, I extend our deepest sympathy and assure you of the prayers of all of us, on the loss of your dear and much loved brother. I know he always enjoyed your company, and I was often in the house when he was preparing for your arrival with stew simmering on the stove.
I know that your father died when Billy was just 19 and in many ways Billy took up the role of man in the house and you all looked up to him. He was particularly close to his late brother Jim, but indeed to all the family.
The family home was in Chamberlain Street and I am in no doubt it was a busy, loving and noisy home.
Every book has many chapters. One of the first was Billy's education in Templemore Public Elementary School from where he left to take up his first job. He was employed as a tanker driver, and then as a milkman with the Co-op Dairy. In the early years he was out on the lorry, then in later years in the office. He was well regarded by all on his run. He worked right through all the difficult years here in Northern Ireland and surprisingly he was robbed only once in all his years on the milk round. Craig has great memories of travelling with his dad on the run - Craig with his two bottles in his hands and his father with eight. I’m not sure if Craig was more of a hindrance or a help.
As a young man, Billy played football for a variety of teams. Latterly, to encourage the boys, he supported Arsenal, but he would watch any sport on the television.
In those early years he loved to attend the dances in the variety of dance halls, from the Willowfield Unionist to the Floral Hall, but it was in the Majestic Ballroom that he was to meet the love of his life, a young Jean Hall. Thus began another chapter of his life.
Jean lived in Sandy Row and that was a walk of an evening – escorting her home from a dance and then walking back to East Belfast - he was keen! Love bloomed and they were married in June, 1963, in St Aidan’s Parish Church. After honeymooning in Butlins in Mossley, they returned to their first and only home in Abetta Parade. It was here that they grew together as a couple and God blessed them with three children: Roberta, Susan and Craig.
Yet another chapter in Billy’s life. As a family you have lovely memories of summer holidays spent in Bangor and at the caravan in Millisle. Those are precious memories of both mum and dad. Billy, I understand, was not the disciplinarian in the house, rather, he was the peacemaker. If the children wanted to get anything past their mum they went to Billy and he poured oil on troubled water. It didn't mean that they avoided the discipline, but it was somewhat abated by his quiet words.
Roberta paved the way for the rest of the family. Susan headed off to Edinburgh and Craig stretched mum and dad’s patience in various ways, like skipping school and hiding in the cupboard. At times they were totally oblivious to all that he was doing, except when Susan squealed on him.
For the family both mum and dad were very special. As dad he was very down there with you, it was he who let you play in the river and helped you catch spricks. He just loved simply getting down and playing with you, just having fun. I know when we talked of them both, you did so with real warmth and affection. As your dad, Billy was always very supportive and non-judgmental, always being there with you through some very difficult times. He was so proud of all the family and your lives and achievements.
The chapters of Billy’s life continued to fill up with the growing family and to Roberta, Tom, Susan, Philip, Craig and Lynn, again I extend the prayerful support of your many friends and of the congregation of Mountpottinger. Billy loved when the opportunity presented itself, to visit Craig and Lynn in Cyprus, Roberta in Magherafelt and Susan in Edinburgh. Sadly his health didn't allow him to arrange for Chris to drive him to Edinburgh on a boys’ road trip, after Chris had passed his driving test. He had to make do with the pair of them flying there. May I pay tribute to you all for the love and support shown to Billy. I know he appreciated all that was done for him, and it was a blessing to him for you all to be with him during his last days before his homecall.
The Lord continued to bless Billy and Jean with the new chapters of grandchildren, all of whom were precious - as evidenced by their tribute. To Hannah; Nathan and his wife Christina; Conor and his wife Hannah; Ciara; Christopher; Callum and David, along with those precious great grandchildren, Cillian and Emerson, we extend our prayer support at this time of loss.
As a family you have all been wonderfully blessed with the love and support of a very special dad and granddad and his special handshakes, a man who was generous to a fault.
Truth is he loved nothing better than to have the whole family around him. When able, he loved making lunch for Roberta (now she will have to make a packed lunch), or picking up the boys from school and feeding them at his house - all of this enriched his life, especially after the death of his dear wife Jean, whom he nursed and missed greatly since she was called home in June of 2008.
Billy was a fiercely independent man who never liked to be idle. He loved to be out and about and was well known in Boots the chemist - in the last weeks of lockdown they delivered medicines to him. He loved his bowls, was a member of Willowfield bowling club and was known by many within the bowling fraternity. Often a shopping trip to Tesco was an opportunity to meet up with old friends.
Another of those great chapters in Billy’s life was his introduction to the Author of Life itself, God and His son the Lord Jesus.
When growing up, the children were taken by a neighbour each Sunday, as well as during the week, to the programmes in St Donards and after some time Jean began to attend. Billy had never been much of a church attender, but he began to go along to support Jean.
It was during a mission held in the church, and encouraged by the rector, that Billy attended and came under conviction of sin. He trusted in the Lord for salvation and both he and Jean grew in their love for the Lord. Billy became actively involved in St Donards. Playing for the bowls, he was made church warden and was a member of the select vestry. He was faithful in worship and loved the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper - which we had the great joy of sharing together just a few days before his homecall.
Following the death of Jean, he began to attend Mountpottinger, going to St Donards for early morning communion and then joining us at our 11.30 service. Eventually he transferred and was received into membership and it seemed as if he had always been part of the fellowship. He was known and loved by all. He was simply described as a gentleman. It was always a joy to see him arrive early for church, firstly to get his parking space, but also to settle his breathing, because he battled to make sure he didn’t miss church.
He engaged fully in the life of the congregation, being a member of the Senior Citizens Fellowship and the Mixed Fellowship. He was a constant encourager and a dear friend. He supported the work of the organisations and took on the mantle of making fruit loaves for BB camp. Last year was the first year we were bereft of those. I understand Roberta was given the recipe by her dad and had to make the said loaves last Christmas, so if you want one, speak to Roberta.
The final chapters of Billy’s life have been marked with illness, which he battled with courage. His answer to the question, “How are you?” was always the same, “I’m doing okay, I'm fine.” I know that the family would like me to express their thanks to the medical team in Linen Court Surgery and also to all the girls in Boots, who loved to see him coming into the shop – they would, and did, go the extra mile to help him. Thanks are also due to the district nurses who supported Billy and the family in these last few weeks, their kindness was much appreciated.
Every book has a beginning. Every book has chapters - the half of Billy's we haven't opened. Every book has an author. For Billy it was the Lord in whom he trusted daily. Every book comes to an end. For Billy that final call home came Sunday evening past, when he slipped from this world into the presence of the Lord Jesus, the author and perfecter of his faith.
In that moment all the pain and distress of this world passed away and now he rests united with his beloved Jean in the glorious presence of the Lord.
Finally, every book leaves a challenge. Sometimes it seems the story is over too quickly. The psalmist says of life that it’s like a sleep in the night; it’s like the grass which grows up and is cut down; it’s like a flood - it comes and it disappears as quickly. The psalmist measures life as three score years and ten and if by reason of strength, four score, but truth is the years of our lives are not promised to us. The challenge the Psalmist puts to us is to apply our hearts unto wisdom. What is wisdom? Not the measure of academical achievement, but rather numbering our days, recognising that life is short and seeking the comfort and salvation that God offers through the Lord Jesus.
The challenge of Billy's life is, yes, his love, but supremely it is his love and life in the Lord Jesus - for him to die is gain. The eternal riches of the glory of heaven and the nearer presence of his Saviour, and it’s all based on one simple verse of truth and challenge - John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’
Today we remember with thanksgiving the life of William Neill - son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, uncle, dear friend and child of God.
Craig's Tribute to his father
Who would have believed that we would be holding a service of celebration for the life of Billy Neill in a back garden with only 40 people attending? Billy Neill was a rock star, he could have filled Mountpottinger, ground floor and balcony and there would still be people queueing to get in. In fact, he could probably have filled the Ulster Hall and still have people queueing to get in. But circumstances and restrictions have dictated that that is not possible, so here we are in a back garden with only 40 people attending.
But this is not just any back garden, it’s a garden where dad spent many hours watching his grandsons play as boys and grow into men. It’s a garden where he watched me destroy things and then rebuild them giving me advice and a hand when needed. It’s a garden in which he watched and helped Lynne plant flowers and trees to make it as beautiful as it is today. It’s a garden where he spent many special occasions celebrating with all his family. It’s a garden full of wonderful memories for him. And you are not just someone who has walked in off the street. Every one of you here had a special place in dad’s heart and he loved and cherished each and every one of you. I know that if you were to give dad a choice of a service in Mountpottinger surrounded by hundreds of people, which he would have loved, or a service in his son’s back garden, a garden with so many good memories, surrounded by 40 of his most loved and cherished family members, I have no doubt he would choose here, in the garden with you. And when asked, he would also reply that he wouldn’t want anyone to have to get dressed up for him or to have to travel too far for him because he didn’t want them to be put out. That was Dad.
Over the last three weeks, Roberta, Susan and myself have had our lives turned upside down as we have been staying with dad and caring for him 24-7. I personally find that at difficult times like these my normal routine suffers and things get forgotten about. And this is just a personal thing, but one of the things which I tend to forget about is my time of devotion to God. So what I like to do, when the worst is over, is to catch up with all the devotions I have missed, but I will start with a devotion on a day which has more significance. Well, obviously, that day was Friday when dad passed. At the moment I am using a book of devotions called Heart of a Champion and it is to help me prepare my heart in a Godly way for competition. When I picked up the book on Tuesday I looked at the front cover, ‘Heart of a Champion’, and I thought how dad had the heart of a champion. He had to have as he was 88 years old and had been living for over forty years with chronic COPD as well as a number of other ailments; to live for so long he had to have a strong heart, a heart of a champion. But not only did he have the heart of a champion, he also had a heart of gold and would do anything for anyone and want nothing in return. So then I turned to Sunday’s devotion, it was titled “Greatness”. It was based around Matthew 20 v26-28. And Jesus said, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be a slave”. Well dad was a servant, he was a servant to God, he was a servant to his wife, he was a servant to his children and he was a servant to anyone he met. Helping in any way he could even when he wasn’t even fit to help out. That’s why he was a great man, a great gentleman.
So, today is a time to be sad as we have lost someone who means so much to so many of us, but this is a celebration of his life and celebrations are a happy thing and I will give you some reasons why we should be happy. Dad was a man of God, a servant of God and that means we can take comfort in knowing that he is now with his Father in heaven. We should be happy because he is in a place where there is no pain or suffering; dad won’t have to carry his oxygen around with him anymore, he won’t have to suffer the initial pain in his joints as he gets up and down to do something and he won’t have to take a break after every 5 steps to catch his breath before he walks another 5. We should be happy because, after 12 years, he is reunited with the one true love of his life, our mother Jean Neill, and finally we should be happy because he is not lost to us forever; dad will be waiting patiently until we are all reunited with him at a later date.