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…
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.
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.
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 …
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!
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 …