Maureen Witmer Memorial Service

One of the realities of a long-term pastorate is that you are more than a hired gun to perform a shorter-term task. I have had it suggested to me on various occasions it is healthier for both the pastor and the church that regular turnover occurs. Some denominations in the hierarchical system of governance with bishops do make this rotation happen. Other church growth and health analysts argue against it, citing research to the contrary. But in any event, I do know this: that when people you have known for 20 years pass away, you’re not just losing a congregant you have known for a sliver of life; you are rather losing a dear friend and a piece of your own heart.

So it is for me in the loss of Maureen Witmer, as it has been for a number of others before her. And it was a personal privilege to officiate at her memorial service. Quite a number of people have asked about a recording of the service, which we did not do. But here is a transcript of the remarks from the service on March 9th… maureen pic

Welcome>>  On behalf of the Witmer family, the Grunberg family and Geraldine Horine, I want to thank you all for being with us today and for taking time from the busyness of life to support these dear friends in this time of loss, with all its attendant sadness.

To the family I say>>  You are much loved. The folks who have gathered today, along with the overwhelmingly enormous crowd who came to meet you last evening at Fiery’s, testify to the impact of Maureen’s life and your family connections with so many people in this community. Whereas nothing can adequately or fully fill the vacuum that you experience this day, I trust you are bolstered and encouraged by this outpouring of love and support.

Know also that this body of people — both in the church family of TSF and the hundreds of people beyond — stand ready and desirous of walking life with you in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. By allowing people to serve you, you give them the opportunity to serve not just you, but God as well; and in that, you serve them in return. It is the way that God has set up the body of Christ, the church, to work toward the benefit of all.

TODAY>> Our task today is to bring some eternal perspective and comfort to a circumstance that is high up upon the chart of “that which is difficult to understand and make sense of.”

Though we could give theological explanations that address the fallen and sinful condition of mankind with the curse of death that befell the human condition … along with the lack of obligation that God has for granting any of us any blessings of life whatsoever … those are academic considerations — filled with truth, but perhaps short on emotion and warmth for a time of deep sorrow.

We know that God’s ways are higher than our ways and our understandings. We are often unable to understand the “whys” and “whens” of what God allows, and does, or does not choose to do. But we are not without promises that in any situation of life and death, for those who know Christ, God’s love is ever present and unending. It is sufficient and He is with us through every storm of life.

Prayer

Song – Lori Boutieller – “God Loves You” – (Jaci Velasquez)

One of the great joys of my life was coaching high school runners at Williamsport and being in a place of conversation with them about their future choices in terms of colleges, careers, etc.  One of my all-time favorite kids was a girl who was beautiful, top of the class academically, a state champion more times than she could count without thinking about it and writing them all down, and a delightfully joyous gal in every way. And in talking about colleges and majors, she one day just sort of broke down and said, “Coach, what it comes down to is this: What I really want to do in life is be married with a family and be a mom to my children. Isn’t it just awful that I don’t have any more ambition than that?”

It is a sad commentary on a culture where girls who dream of such a life are seen or made to feel inadequate and less contributory.

Maureen was, like the girl in the story, all of those things: beautiful!!  Smart … articulate … fun … capable of going and doing anything she might have set her heart upon. But earlier in life than most, she was a wife and mom. But she never regretted that; rather she embraced that life with enthusiasm and vigor, and she excelled in the role with results that are plainly obvious for all to see…

  • Wes: You hit the “good wife jackpot.”
  • Zachary and Alexis: You hit the “great mom jackpot.”
  • And the rest of us hit “the great friend jackpot.”

And we’re all going to miss her; we’re all going to have those surreal moments when we think to call her, but can’t. It happened to me last night while in line at Fiery’s. I went to text one of my sons and looked down through messages to find his name, and I saw Maureen’s name and there was my last text message to and from her.

Along with this sadness, I suspect we all have two other emotions we are wrestling with: confusion and anger. And I want to speak a bit about each, bringing to each some eternal perspective from God’s Word to us.

Confusion

Why has this happened to such a beautiful and still rather young woman? There was serious suffering involved, and it simply seems terribly unfair.

Let me share a passage with you that I shared with Maureen just six days ago, from the 73rd Psalm. It is a Scripture that has oft spoken to me in dark times of confusion, especially 20 years ago when it looked like one of my own sons was facing a terminal illness …

Psalm 73

1 Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.

3 For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4 They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.

5 They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.

8 They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression.

9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth.

11 They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”

12 This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.

14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.

16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply 17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.

18 Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin.

19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!

20 They are like a dream when one awakes;

23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

God is in the business of populating eternity with those who believe and trust in him. Our focus, being in the here and now, is all about how we live successfully in this world. And though it is commendable to think about how to live responsibly and well, we do need to understand the relative brevity of life here, as compared to God’s gift for eternity.

ILLUSTRATION >> This piece of paper I hold up — consider its thickness compared to the width of this room. We can do that mathematically by calculating how many papers are in and inch, multiplied by how many inches in the 80’ width of this auditorium. And the result is far bigger than what this life is like relative to the length eternity.

This gives us some perspective, but it does not emotionally answer all our hurts and wounds from the loss of someone dear to us. But we are helped when we consider our lives in light of eternity, noting God’s promises for us in that eternity as we trust Him. For we all get there much sooner than any of us really expect …

Song – Aaron Buchman – “Homesick” – (Mercy Me)

I have heard in the past couple of days a number of conversations around our TSF family about those folks that we have lost here prematurely, relative to chronological age. For sure, there are those who have also lived long and full lives who have now gone home to their eternal abode. But we have walked through more than a couple of experiences of deep loss as a larger church family: from the little boy who charmed us all … Chris Lewis … to our staff associate Beth Ostoich … Loy Capshaw, Scott Barron, Larry and Vicki Crowe, Cynde Nolan, Laurie Shinham, Paul Kotun, Penny Custer, Avery Snyder … and by mentioning these names I mean to be illustrative, not fully inclusive. And now we add to this list the name of Maureen Witmer.

Thinking about these lives that were cut short long before the three score and ten that the Scriptures speak of in Psalm 90, it is enough to get you really angry!

ANGER

You may be surprised today to hear me say that anger is very appropriate on this occasion … that is, if it is directed accurately. The wrong place to be angry is to direct it at God for not coming through in the biggest and best way that WE would have wished he do.

There is a story in the ministry life of Jesus where we see the emotions rise up in him, feelings that included a mix of sympathy and anger. It is in John 11 …

11:1 – Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.   …..

28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.  35 Jesus wept.

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

Note the three times that we see Jesus’ emotions in this passage. From the top, we know that Jesus is going to turn their sorrows into joy. Though he knew that Lazarus would be raised from the dead, we see his empathetic sorrow at the sight of the sadness of those who grieved. And then you read of his emotion when coming to the grave.

The original wording in the Greek language on these occasions speaks of a deep emotional churning within a person’s core being. Christ was angry at death, saddened and angered by the curse of death and its separation. Jesus understands how we feel; that is a biblical truth.

This is the turning point in John’s gospel. The Jewish establishment grudgingly tolerated the preacher-dude Jesus; but this undeniable miracle was too much to allow, and from that point on they determine to kill him and get rid of him.

There was a miracle, and rather than see the God of the miracle, they chose to go on with life in their own familiar way, sustaining their status of being in charge of life around them.

With Maureen, we did not see the miracle of healing that we would have liked to see, even as we understand that death and being ushered into the presence of God is the ultimate miracle. What we did see was someone who endured suffering completely without complaint, doing so upon the basis of a faith that was in something beyond this world — a hope in an eternal reality.

Do you want to see Maureen again someday? You can … if you have the same hope.

The gospel message is simple: Sin separated us from a perfect relationship with God. Death became our sentence, physically and spiritually. Though we all have an appointment with physical death, Christ paid the price of our penalty for spiritual death and eternal separation from God. we simply need to receive that gift, which you can do today, even now.

If you’re not going “yep, yep, that’s right” inside you right now, you may be one who today needs to receive the gift of eternal life, which you may do internally, in prayer, as we close now and talk to God …

Prayer

 

 

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Really, I’m not an Old Man!

Really, I’m not an Old Man!

old man mugThe abilities that exist to market items for sale in a targeted fashion never cease to amaze me. This is particularly true with what I see show up on my Facebook page.

Some of what appears is quite creative. Being from New Jersey originally but now living in Maryland, I have had advertisements pop up for shirts that feature the outline of the state of NJ, with the distinctive red, black and yellow colors and symbols of the MD state flag.

But honestly, the picture featured here is truly offensive!  I regularly now see an advertisement of this coffee mug that says, “Never underestimate an old man with a doctoral degree.”  It is nice to have my credentials somehow noticed, but there are a number of concomitant insults.

First of all, targeting me with a coffee mug shows that they truly do not really know me. I don’t do hot drinks, especially coffee. My guess is that it tastes as bad today as it did the last time I attempted to get the vile liquid past my nose and down my throat. That was in 1988.

Beyond that, there are a number of problems with the picture and the statement. Notice that it is photo-shopped, since the lettering does not curve around the cup. Technically, it should refer to the degree as a “doctorate,” and notice also that the tassel is on the wrong side for a graduate. “Never underestimate …”

But clearly the most offensive item is the sobriquet and moniker that the targeted customer — me — is an old man! How in the world did they possibly come to that conclusion? I will bet anything that the neophyte techno-geek who wrote the algorithm that data-mined me is a little punk I could bury today in a bicycle race at any distance between 50 yards and 50 miles! DSC_0162

Another regular advertisement that has been popping up for the past three months is for Toyota Camry automobiles. This is because I did online research in January on the Toyota Solara (a type of Camry), seeing a used vehicle of this model for sale.

I did buy the car. Here it is pictured. I have always wanted a red car … all my life! And it is way cool!  I have never had a car of my own that is so new as a 2006 with only 107,000 miles! And why would I purchase this at my stage of life? Well, I wanted to do it before I die!

But truly, this targeted advertising is offensive!

Bucket List Check-off: Return to the Site of my First Million

Bucket List Check-off: Return to the Site of my First Million

Bucket lists are a bit morbid, though I have a few things that I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time. I did one of them today. I returned to the site of my first million made.

I grew up in a hillside home that overlooked a country club that is as beautiful as any you could find anywhere. Overgrown trees and vegetation have much diminished the view from that location, but when I was a child, it was amazing.

Somewhere around about age nine / 3rd grade I got the idea that I could walk around the extremities of this golf course, find lost golf balls, and sell them back to the goofballs who hit them out of bounds. I would collect them by the hundreds, wash them really clean, display them in egg cartons, and sell the best ones for 50 cents each to golfers on the 18th tee.

My father was rather amazed at this, as there were some weeks in the summer at age 10-12 where I would make more money than he did. There were certain fields and gullies just off the fairways that were particularly good places for ball discovery.

There were a few occupational hazards. The terrain was very rough, there were stickers and brambles everywhere; and since it was a private club, I needed to stay out of sight of the grounds crew. Also, I am sure that my snake paranoia is sourced in this childhood venture. I was fortunate to not be subject to poison ivy problems whatsoever.

It has been about 40 years since the last time I walked the fields and woods around Harkers Hollow country club in Harmony Township, NJ … but I did it today. Some places look exactly the same, whereas others are entirely different. Fields that were my primary “hunting grounds” are now overgrown woods with 80’ trees and dense undergrowth.

Certainly there are no entrepreneurial little boys in the area. Without even trying at all, I soon had about 40 golf balls and could not carry them all. So, being a graduate of Cairn University, I built a cairn of balls in the woods just off the 4th hole – a tribute to one of the fondest memories of my childhood.IMG_1302

It was a great experience, as the area is even prettier than I remember it being as a child, even though the old homestead does not appear to be extraordinarily cared-for … having the appearance of maybe being a day-care house.

Don’t believe the hype that New Jersey is just one big slum or toxic waste site. It simply is not true.

IMG_1305

The picture does not capture how high on a mountainside I am. My house is in the trees to the right and above the clubhouse. The farm and hillside to the upper left of the clubhouse is where my dad grew up – he plowed all those fields with horse-drawn equipment – as did his father and grandfather.

This is somewhat like the view out our front window, though our house would have been 30-40 higher in elevation.

This is somewhat like the view out our front window, though our house would have been 30-40 higher in elevation.

The woods where these deer are standing was an open, high-grass field when I was a kid.

The woods where these deer are standing was an open, high-grass field when I was a kid.

Here is where I made my first million dollars - sitting on a bench at the back of this tee box - under a big maple tree.

Here is where I made my first million dollars – sitting on a bench at the back of this tee box – under a big maple tree.

The One and Only Good Snake

I have, at various times of my life, either been set upon pedestals as a ministry star, or abandoned as a flop and failure—pretty much while being the same person and doing the same things. Within a span of five minutes, I’ve been told by two different people that I am an amazing and anointed communicator, but then also that I’m such a bore that I seem to be putting myself to sleep while speaking.

Never wanting to displease anyone, I’ve too often not concerned myself enough with being centered rather upon pleasing The One who really counts.

The task of pastoring is impossible. It is crazy to try to please people, because it cannot be done in a diverse community. Truth is, I’m not as good as those fans who’ve come and gone believed me to be, and a great number of the criticisms are indeed unfairly leveled by people with small lives and even smaller perspectives.

Many people are too easily enchanted by a stage. Christians—ministers even—are no exception. Sometimes we elevate our leaders like Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness … as something to pin our hopes to … something to heal us, because we sense, somehow, that we are sick and need saving. Humans desire something to look to vicariously because we are desperate for something of God that we can barely articulate … something up there.

So, we take the beautiful, the talented, the fortunate from among us and lift them up on a stage. We fawn over them. Feed them. Praise them. Buy and sell their books, or books written in their name. We applaud their sermons skillfully delivered with content provided from a nameless someone from afar.

But the celebrities disappoint, and they will always disappoint. Unlike Moses’ bronze snake (or the Lifted One that it prefigured) we do not find healing for our ills in gazing upon our elevated leaders – the Moses people of our age – but only by seeing the Snake.

The voice behind the microphone and the voice that says “amen” in the pew are not so different. The minister at the lush mega-church with a staff of many dozens and the lone pastor in a spindly rural church are far more similar than they are different.

Or at least they ought to be. Both can be voices of wisdom, servants of biblical words and truth to lost and ornery sheep. Neither can save those that gaze upon them.

Because, you see, the Lifted One erodes the heights and valleys of our elevations. Only in elevating him will we see ourselves and others as we are, finding the life we seek in the desert.

So, after years of hating and dissing snakes and even having a snake category on this blog, I have to admit that there is a good Snake – the bronze one from the desert and the person it prefigured.

(Disclosure – I have edited and expanded upon a shorter piece from Leadership Journal in writing this.)

Bottom Rail on Top

In Ken Burn’s epic Civil War documentary, legendary historian Shelby Foote told the story of a slave who ran away from his master, joined the Union army and came back through the South and seized his own master’s plantation with his regiment. Seeing his former master in a lineup of captured Confederates, he says, “Bottom rail on top this time, Massah. Bottom rail’s on top now.”fences

That is quite a role reversal.

My current hospital foray – the first of my life – has put me in the category of living out a role reversal. I’m the patient, not the clergy visitor.

Yesterday, I looked up from my hospital bed at the doorway, and there stood Larry and Joyce Coffin. We just looked at each other for a couple of seconds, and all three of us broke into laughter like a group of elementary schoolgirls. Over the years and through all the surgeries and hospitalizations they have endured, I have very often visited them! About 30 seconds behind them, Ed and Sylvia House walked in, and we had to explain what we were giggling about.

IMG_0827[1]We all need each other at different times, and that is why the Christian life is supposed to be done as a group and shared experience in this thing called the church, even if certain idiosyncrasies or whatever that we all have become occasional annoyance factors. We can’t really make it alone; we’re in it together. So… spend all the time you can serving others, because a day is going to come when you need what someone else has that you do not at the moment possess.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

The Get-Along Shirt

Many years ago I heard James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” say that the #1 frustration of parents was the issue of sibling rivalry. I don’t know if that could be statistically proven, but I certainly remember it being an issue of strife in our family past. It particularly got my attention the day a hammer went flying through the air to hit one brother running away from another brother after a verbal altercation!

get-along shirtI have several times on Facebook seen the accompanying picture. Isn’t that priceless? Why didn’t Diana and I think of this? It would have either solved problems, or so complicated them that we would have had fewer mouths to feed!

A “get-along shirt” like this was pretty much what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote about a couple of women in the church in Philippi. He says, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel…”

These were not bad people; they were effective church workers and servants – commended by no less than the Apostle Paul!  But the benefit of their service was being very much marginalized by some inter-personal controversy surrounding them. It is likely that it also involved other people being put into a position of having to take sides with one or the other. Whatever – the end result was a church-wide distraction that simply did not need to be going on.

Again, I don’t know if it is indeed the #1 frustration of parents, but sibling rivalry and worthless dissention between siblings in the church family is just about the typical pastor’s #1 frustration. Lots of pastors would probably like to have the ability to put some people together inside the same shirt to make them get along! The issues are seldom of sufficient fire to account for the smoke accumulated. Would it not be so very much better to apply some other words of Paul on another occasion to another church:  May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

—–

The above portion of this writing is for next week’s church newsletter. The following will not be a part of that, but for a moment of fun, I will give a Sweet Frog gift card to the first person (not named Buchman) who answers correctly the following two questions about the hammer flying through the air:

1.  The hammer was thrown by …

a. Nathan at Ben

b. Ben at Nathan

c. Nathan at Aaron

d. Aaron at Nathan

e. Ben at Aaron

f. Aaron at Ben

g. Nathan at Jesse

h. Aaron at Nathan

i. Jesse at Ben

j. Jesse at Aaron

k. Jesse at Caleb

l. Aaron at Jesse

m. Caleb at Jesse

2.  The hammer hit the less-than-fully-innocent victim in the …

a. head

b. back

c. buttocks

d. leg

It Takes All Types to Make a World

I enjoy people watching – gotta admit it’s true. And today I’m sitting and typing this at Younger Toyota, while I wait for my car to be serviced.

Sitting across from me in the waiting area is a father and his two sons whom I’d guess to be about ages 15 and 11.

The father is clearly telegraphing his life values and interests. He is wearing a humorous tee-shirt with a giant “WANTED” printed over a couple of pictures of large-mouthed bass about to chomp on a lure. And at the bottom is some sort of “fish killer” message. He is also sporting a camouflage hat. Clearly, this guy is the stereo-typical outdoorsman. I can tell you right now that his vehicle being serviced here simply has to be a four-door Tundra truck. The only thing curious is that it is not a Ford or Chevy that he fixes himself on some cement blocks at home. Update: he is now talking with some on his very large and outdated cell phone about sources of ammo.

The oldest son is clearly a chip off the old block. His camo hat is accessorized (not a word he’d use of course) with various pins and lures. Wearing hiking boots and jeans, the most interesting part of his attire is his red and white plaid button-up dress shirt – that has the sleeves deeply cut out. Along with his peach fuzz-encouraged goatee (I think that is the effort being attempted), he is the next gen expression of Larry the Cable Guy.

Larry the Cable Guy

Larry the Cable Guy

But here’s where it gets interesting. The 11-year-old is entirely different – in dress and deportment. This kid looks like he must have been the illegitimate child of Silicon Valley tech geek and who was abandoned at birth and adopted across the country by a family valuing horsepower over megabytes. The boy is wearing a shirt sporting a movie fantasy theme, with cargo pants and sandals. While his older brother is reading Field and Stream magazine, this younger boy is frantically working away with an iPad.

I don’t mean to be critical… laugh with me here, it is just funny. Hey, I confess to being a geekie guy in many ways, while at the same time having a flock of chickens and a rusted out pickup truck in the woods.

It is simply humorous that so many family systems get such a different mix of kids in the same house from the same parents! When folks over the years have said to me some version of “I don’t know where this kid came from and how he got in our house,” I have just said to them, “God gives us what we need.”  And God has given us a world with all sorts of varied personalities, sometimes even under the same roof.