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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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

Permit a Wee Money Rant …

Our dear local newspaper begins an article (opinion page) with this statement, “The Lord rested on the seventh day. And sometimes it appears that churches, having done their work on Day 7 rest for the other six.”

So local journalists, why do you need to do that? God forbid you miss an opportunity at taking a shot at Christians, even while writing to applaud one – the article praising the good work of the departing Salvation Army director.

On the same day is another article about my own Hagerstown Rotary Club, which gave away $63,000 to local non-profits – representing the distributions of funds raised over the past year. Within the article is this statement, “Since its inception in 1980, the Hagerstown Rotary Club has raised more than $1.6 million for more than 120 nonprofit organizations.”  This is all very commendable, and I am not knocking it as insignificant.

In reflection over my 19 years at Tri-State Fellowship (beginning here on the 4th Sunday of June in 1994), our church has simply given away about two million dollars to missions and benevolent causes near and far. And in our own lean financial times and while facing our budget for the coming fiscal year, this seems at first glance like a crazy activity to have done. It is a number that roughly equals the amount we have spent on all land and building acquisitions over the same time. Imagine if you personally gave away amounts equal to your mortgage and value of your home. Well, some of you reading this have probably done that … and done it through TSF … which explains why we were able to have done what we did.

Our rewards for giving as unto the Lord are not to be realized in this world – certainly not through a media that generally despises people of faith. It is not even surprising when we take a shot of false accusation, as Jesus said it would occur … “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”  And Peter said to live such good lives amongst the people of this world, that though they may criticize you, your good deeds would be more than obvious.

Yep, yep… but I did find it annoying.

Bro Time in TX

Over the years as a pastor I have gone to many pastoral conferences and seminars. Earlier in my career I found many of them to be helpful and interesting, but as time went by, this was less true. It seemed that the practical truths and benefits were more difficult to find and hidden within a sea of miscellaneous ideas that were either unrelated to my church situation or were things we had been doing for years.IMG_0221[1]

The national organization of our denomination – The Evangelical Free Church of America – has national conferences that are extremely good. There are many break-out sessions of great value. But I’ve never found anything as helpful and practically beneficial as an affinity group that has been put together also by the EFCA – called Team 500. It is for lead pastors of churches with 500-1,000 people in their ministry (there is another group called “The K Club” which is for churches of over 1,000 people).

Over the past eight years, I have attended this on six occasions. As I write this, I am sitting in the session this year at First Evangelical Free Church of Austin, Texas. Right now they are talking about church governance and how to change structures … as they are mostly talking about changing in a direction like we already have and have possessed from the beginning. So I can listen and write at the same time!

IMG_0220[1]

The 3rd guy from the left is J.J. Plasencio – the bass player from Sixpence None the Richer – who is the worship leader at the host church here in Austin.

But there are so many topics over these years that I have found to be helpful, and that is true again this year. But beyond that, this is the best group of guys I’ve ever known in ministry; I love these men and we are warriors in the conflict at the same time and in the same sorts of battles with all of the similar issues that we confront in this age and culture. One of the guys here and I think so much alike and have had so many of the same experiences, that I began to wonder if we were separated at birth. I knew he was of a similar age, so I asked him exactly when he was born … and it turns out that I am one day older than him!

We Are Not Ranking Well These Days!

Two somewhat similar religious/church studies have come to my attention in the past week, and our area and the state of Maryland does not score well in either.

bible-cities-square-220x220The first is a Barna Research Group look at how the Bible is viewed in 96 geographical areas of the country – around major cities. It ranks the most and least “Bible-minded” cities by examining how people in those urban areas view the Scriptures. The research asked about how much people use the Bible, as well as how much they value its authority – thereby reflecting the overall openness or resistance to God’s Word.

Cities and urban areas in the top 10 were:  Knoxville, TN (52% of the population is Bible-minded), Shreveport, LA (52%), Chattanooga, TN (52%), Birmingham, AL (50%), Jackson, MS (50%), Springfield, MO (49%), Charlotte, NC (48%), Lynchburg, VA (48%), Huntsville-Decatur, AL (48%), and Charleston, WV (47%).

At the bottom of the list were Providence, RI (9%), Albany, NY (10%), Burlington, VT (16%), Portland, ME (16%), Hartford, CT (16%), Boston, MA (16%), San Francisco, CA (16%), Phoenix, AZ (17%), Buffalo, NY (18%), New York, NY (18%), Cedar Rapids, IA (18%), and Las Vegas, NV (18%).

So where was Hagerstown? Well, we were grouped as “Washington D.C./Hagerstown” and ranked 63rd at 25% … not so great. I guess it can be argued that the District dragged us down!

The other listing that caught my eye was written in an article called 493 Churches to Watch in 2013. This was actually a compilation of 22 lists of U.S. churches since 2004 that have been chronicled as the largest, fastest-growing, and best known for influence, innovation, or church planting. I am sorry to report that Tri-State Fellowship did not make the list. However, nothing remotely close to us made the list either; and there were only a handful of Maryland churches – mostly ethnic congregations – from the Baltimore and D.C. area in Md.  Probably the closest to Hagerstown of any church on the list is McLean Bible Church in Virginia.

This is not the easiest area in which to minister, but there sure are a lot of people to reach out to with the truth!

The Ghost of Christmas Programs Past

I have been performing in Christmas pageants and programs my entire life – no joke! I probably missed being in them at ages 1 and 2, but not age 3.  My earliest memories include my mother pushing me onto stage to sing at a ridiculously young age. She was in charge of the programs, and she knew my birth father was a professional singer – so, I was predestined to be out there! And doing the same is what I’ll be a part of this Sunday at Tri-State at 9:30 and 11:00.

At my previous church in New Jersey, probably around about the late 1980s, in the midst of a choral program, I had arranged for a person in the audience to stand and shout out in an angry voice something similar to:  “All this cheerful Christmas music is just a waste! I don’t see what there is to be cheerful about. There are crazy dictators all over the world and injustice is something we see around us every day! I’m sick of all this joy, joy, joy!”

Of course, the audience was not expecting this (and I had an uncle in the crowd – who was admittedly a bit slow – ask me the next day, “Hey what was the matter with that guy yelling last night?”)  But, back to the program – I had it planned that I would respond to my planted fellow needing anger management, “You are correct; and you are far from the first to make note of that very problem. Just have a seat and listen to the words of this old song.”

I had chosen a very creative arrangement of the old hymn “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  That song is set to a rather cheerful melodic line and harmonies. But if you know the lyrics, you know that there is a stanza in which the text changes from expressions of joy and light, to a statement of the dark realities of a troubled world … and my choral arrangement set this following verse in a dark and foreboding minor key.  Written on Christmas day in 1863 – in the midst of the Civil War and upon the recent severe wounding of his son – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed within his poem:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

On this sad day of national grief over the tragedy in Connecticut, we can surely resonate with these thoughts! Hate appears to be winning.

But the game is not over yet; the final verse of the poem – of life – of God’s work – is not written yet. Hence Longfellow wrote:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

There is no hope but in God; there is no peace or final justice but in the cross and the victory of Christ over death, sin, and all the injustice rooted therein.

… the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. …  Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Communion Frequency

It has been noted by many people at TSF that there has been a more frequent observance of communion over these weeks where varied service changes have taken place. And this has raised the question as to why? … will it now be weekly instead of monthly?

The quick answer is that it will be more frequent than in the past, though not a necessary feature of every Sunday gathering.

The primary reason for the larger emphasis is from a conviction that we need to have a greater focus upon the communication of the Gospel. Many Sundays the communion time fits very naturally with the teaching topic and passage of the day. Other times however, the topic is focused upon another area of biblical truth; and including the communion allows opportunity to incorporate a section of our gathering time again upon the Gospel.

The primary concern I always have heard over the years regarding such a frequent observance of the Lord’s Table is that such a pattern of recurrence will make the commemoration too common-place and routine, thus diminishing its meaning. I would grant that anything in the expression of faith that becomes rote loses its uniqueness and special qualities … but the answer is not to diminish the event, but to diminish the rote nature of the event by creatively making it a meaningful observance.

I often respond to the objection by saying this: Think about it – why is it only communion that we worry about losing its meaning? We would never say, “We should only pray once a month, because, if we pray every week, it won’t be special and we’ll just be uttering vain and repetitious phrases.”  We would never say, “Preach, teach, instruct – it goes on every week and gets so tiring – let’s not have any teaching except once a month so that we don’t get so bored with it.”

One might respond that those examples are ridiculous – that the early church in the time of the Apostles gave themselves to prayer and teaching. Yes, they did. But what was the one, first, primary, central reason for which they gathered? It was to REMEMBER. That was the focus of the gathering – to remember the Gospel truth of Christ’s sacrifice … and along the way they prayed and taught the Scriptures. The early church would have NEVER gotten together without observing the communion.

So I would submit to you that our emphasis is the restoration of a rightful focus, and we want it to be meaningful in a fresh and new way each Sunday. We have no reason to meet; we have no life and relationship with God … without the incredible sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ – the innocent for the guilty. Let us – as oft as we do it – be awestruck in the memorial remembrance of the One who gave His life freely that we might live!