The time I needed a member to forgive me

I have never before told this story.

Last week’s death of a woman reminded me of the time I exercised perhaps the worst judgment of my entire eighteen years as a pastor.

The set-up to the wonderful conclusion takes a bit, but I am confident that, if you wade through it to the end, you will be glad you did.

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The old joke is that ministers only work one day a week. The actual joke is that they can often go for many weeks without enjoying a full twenty-four day with no church work.

During my eighteen years as a pastor, my own joke was fashioned. Whenever I tried to take a vacation, a church member died. Well, not every vacation, but it happened often enough that I found myself holding my breath whenever a week off was near.

The first occurred a couple of years after I arrived at Port Hope in 2001. An older woman died a few days before deer season. Since 1981, my family had held deer camp on state forest land near my home town of Montague. After I became a minister, this week in November, which I would spend in the woods with my brothers, along with other family and friends, often was the only chance in the year when I could get home.

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St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, Port Hope, Michigan.

The woman’s funeral would be on November 15. Opening Day. Deer camp always began a day or three before the hunting season, and I didn’t want to miss the festivities we had on Opening Day Eve, even if I would have to miss hunting on the first day. I drove to West Michigan on the fourteenth, then, on the fifteenth, hit the road early to make the four-and-a-half-hour drive back for the funeral. After the funeral lunch, I was back on the road to deer camp.

I will not recount every vacation which was interrupted for funerals, such as the deer camp when not one, but two members died, and the year when Julie and I were at her folks’ in Iowa when a member died, then, as we cut short our vacation and were driving home, I received a call from the daughter of a yet another member who had died.

Okay, I just recounted those two disrupted vacations. Here’s one more.

I had not been able to attend a high school class reunion for many years, and I was really looking forward to my thirtieth, in 2005. Julie and I made our way to West Michigan a couple of days before the party. We were enjoying a leisurely afternoon with some shopping when my cell phone rang. It was the funeral home. A beloved woman had died, to whom I had ministered at her home as she could not make it to church. Her funeral would be held the day after my class reunion.

Since I didn’t have a service folder or sermon written, I couldn’t dash home the morning of the funeral, as I did for the Opening Day funeral. Julie and I would have to head back to Port Hope the day before. Saturday evening. During my class reunion.

We went to the reunion and crammed into two hours as many conversations as possible, then headed home. We arrived in Port Hope well into the wee hours. The next day was Sunday. Of course, I had someone lined up to lead worship in my place. It was weird, having the church bells ringing for the 8:00 a.m. service acting as my wake-up call. I arose, did my funeral prep, and then did my job.

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If you are wondering why I came home for funerals, the answer is complex. First, I was the pastor for these folks, and, often, I got to know them very well, so I wanted to be there for them and with them. Second, these folks got to know me, too, and they counted on me to bring them God’s Word. Most churches, which are large enough to have as many funerals as St. John did, have two ministers, or, at least, a regular pastor and a retired one, so a pastor can go on vacation and not have it interrupted by church work. As for smaller congregations, which I served my first five years in Iowa, they have fewer funerals—I had two to four each year—and, thus, fewer chances to coincide with a vacation.

Also—and this had the biggest impact on me, as to why I didn’t enlist the pastor at a nearby congregation when I was out of town—early in my time in Port Hope, one of our church elders commented, “If you are within driving distance, we expect you to interrupt your vacation.” So, I did what was expected of me.

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St. John, from its large, beautiful back yard.

After a decade of rarely being able to enjoy a full week off, I was worn out with the interruptions to the point of being . . . yeah, I gotta admit it: I was angry over how often it happened.  I dreaded the last few days before a vacation, waiting for the phone to ring with the bad news.

November of 2011 arrived, and I was ready to take my week off in the woods. I had a wedding on Saturday, November 12. I would lead worship the next day, then head to Montague after church.

Julie and I returned to the parsonage from the wedding reception and, when I entered my office to put away my stuff, I saw the light on my office phone machine was blinking.

I was afraid to play the message.

I played the message.

The news caused me to drop into my chair and cry. Hard.

A member had died. He was a lovely gentleman. I had ministered much to him and his wife, and to their extended family. There was no way I could see myself telling the son that, hey, I was going on vacation, and couldn’t they please call the pastor in Harbor Beach or Bad Axe to officiate?

The funeral would be the day after Opening Day. I drove to deer camp after worship on Sunday, enjoyed two days there, then drove back the morning of the funeral. I was in my office, an hour or so before the funeral, when my phone rang. I found it odd that it was the funeral director.

“Warren, I’m going to see you in a few minutes. What’s up?”

“Another member of yours just died.”

“But, I’m on vacation! I shouldn’t even be here, today!”

I told him that I didn’t know what I was going to do, but that I might not be sticking around. I needed this vacation, something fierce. I already was hurting over having to interrupt it once, and the years of disturbed vacations was weighing on me. If I were to officiate this funeral, the rest of my week would be lost, and I couldn’t extend it because Thanksgiving was the week after that.

I was fit to be tied.

I loved the man who had just died. I had ministered to him and his wife, in their home, most of the decade I had been in Port Hope. Indeed, I had officiated her funeral only two years earlier. I wanted to be there for the family, all whom I knew well.

Fit to be tied quickly grew into downright miserable. If I didn’t have this time off, I would not be able to get away until I had no idea when. I was mentally pooped. I longed to be with my family, to enjoy the quiet of the woods, to not be the pastor for a week.

I decided that I would not be staying. I mustered my courage and called the daughter. I explained my situation, then I suggested, “You can call the pastor in Harbor Beach, or the one in Bad Axe.” I answered her various questions and gave her this tip and that information, to leave her equipped to do everything that needed to be accomplished.

We hung up, and I tried to convince myself that I had handled it well, and everything would be okay.

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You guessed right. All was not okay.

The rest of the week I was at deer camp, my conscience gnawed at me, but I was convinced that I did what any reasonable person would do, and any reasonable family would understand.

My first day back on the job, I immediately went to the daughter, who was St. John’s church and school secretary. I asked how everything went. I told her how badly I felt for not being there, but how I needed the vacation even more badly. She was quiet in her responses, but didn’t argue with me.  She was her usual, kind self.

Once again, I tried to convince myself that I had handled it well. Sometimes, I can be such a dope.

Within days, that church elder—the man who told me that I was expected to be there for funerals if I were within driving distance—came to the parsonage. He had heard that the family was not happy with me. I didn’t argue with him for long. The Holy Spirit finally kicked me upside the head hard enough that I got it. I was able to recognize that I had made the wrong decision, a monumentally selfish one.

I had not been there when I was needed to do the job for which I was called to St. John.

It was time for me to do what I taught from God’s Word all Christians are to do, and then it would be up to this woman to do the same. Times like these are exactly when we too often do not follow the correct path, because it is hard to admit our sins directly to another person, and it can be just as hard to let go of our hurt and forgive the one who repents. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It was time for us to put our faith to work.

I contacted the daughter.

We sat down together, just the two of us. I went back over everything that had transpired, wanting her to recognize how I got into the rough spot I had found myself. But, now, I didn’t use it as an excuse.  Now, I confessed to her, “None of that matters. I blew it. I did not do right by you. I was so angry that yet another of my vacations was ruined that I wasn’t able to see straight. I wound up making the wrong decision. If I could change it, I would. I am so sorry that I was not there for you. Will you please forgive me?”

She had tears in her eyes. She didn’t speak quickly, but finally she was able to look at me and say those precious words. “I forgive you.”

With my own eyes now welled with tears, I thanked her.

Because she was St. John’s secretary, she and I interacted a lot. I immediately knew that she had truly forgiven me because, the rest of my years in Port Hope, our relationship was as good as before I sinned against her and her family.

Oh, how I wish I could once more return to Port Hope, for her funeral on Friday, to proclaim the Good News of our Lord Jesus for the sake of her eternal life, and for sake of all of those gathered.

I would gladly tell of the time I was the sinner in need of absolution, and Andrea Piotter was Jesus-in-the-flesh for me, forgiving this trespasser as lovingly as the Lord always forgave her.

Thank you, Andrea. I eagerly anticipate our blessed reunion at the throne of our Lord Jesus Christ—the reunion which will never be interrupted.

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Ken Schave—let’s be like him

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What do you appreciate in a person? Someone who is friendly and kind and hardworking? Someone who stands up for what he believes? Someone on whom you can rely? Someone who pitches in, who would give you the shirt off his back and, after that, the shoes and socks off his feet? Someone who doesn’t simply say “do this and do that,” but does what he says?

If this is the kind of person you appreciate, then you would have loved Ken Schave, whose earthly pilgrimage came to an end on January 6.

I was Ken’s pastor in Port Hope, but I first met him in Guttenberg. When I had accepted St. John’s call to be their pastor, to move my family’s belongings four men drove the ten hours from where they lived in the farthest east of Michigan, next to Lake Huron, to where I lived in the farthest east of Iowa, next to the Mississippi River. Ken, who was sixty-seven at the time, was one of St. John’s wise men who had come from the east.

Once in Port Hope, my first encounter with Ken involved putting on more miles. His mother was in a nursing home in Bad Axe, a half-hour away. Ken let me know that a stroke had robbed her of her speech. So, he offered, if I would like he would accompany me for my first visit both to show me where to go and to make easier my first visit with his mother. I was pleased for him to introduce me to his mother and to learn the way to the nursing home and hospital that avoided having to go through downtown.

These first two occasions with Ken showed me everything I would see in him the entire thirteen years I was in Port Hope. He was friendly and kind and hardworking, and everything else you appreciate in a person. There was never a time when I was not pleased to see Ken.

While I grew to know Ken well, for the details of his life I direct you to his thorough obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/michigansthumb/obituary.aspx?n=kenneth-l-schave&pid=187772735

Ken and his beloved Janet were married sixty years. Talk about a perfectly matched set of folks. While this piece is about Ken, I can’t entirely ignore speaking of Janet. It’s funny; where Ken almost completely reminded me of my dad—in every way, they conducted themselves the same—I thought of Janet as a sister—an older sister, which I was always quick to point out to her, longing to rile her. This is how Janet and I interacted, one of us picking on the other, and then the other jabbing back, the way siblings do it.

For many of my thirteen years in Port Hope, Ken served on the board of elders. (In the Lutheran church, the elders serve as the pastor’s right-hand men, concerned with the faith and worship aspects of the congregation.) And, when Ken was on the board, he always was elected chair of the board.

Thinking of Ken leading our meetings, the word “calm” jumps to the front of my mind. He never acted quickly or harshly. Every word was measured with thoughtfulness and kindness. Even if a situation were contentious, opposing opinions could only come from the rest of the board in the same manner as Ken exhibited. He was a true role model.

Around 2010, Ken suffered a serious injury. As memory serves, he had been mowing the Port Hope public school’s lawn when he had mower trouble. Working on the problem, he suffered the injury, a severely broken hip. (I await Janet’s reading this and delighting in correcting how many errors in memory I just suffered!) [I heard from Janet.  The year was 2013.  I was surprised that it was the year before I retired.] After surgery, Ken would have a long recuperation in the long term wing of the Harbor Beach hospital.

As is a pastor’s duty and joy, I visited Ken many times. All of our visits were filled with catching up on where he was in recovering, then friendly conversation, and finally a devotion and, typically, the Lord’s Supper.

Recuperating did not go as quickly or smoothly as anyone would want. Finally, Ken was frustrated. Once again, he would remind me of my own father. When my dad broke his hip, I was able to visit him the next day, before he had surgery. I asked him how his pain was. Calmly, he gently said, “It’s damn bad.” Now, Ken’s complaint would sound the same.

Ken Schave actually griped. I never thought I’d hear it, not from him. He was done with being lame. He was over the hospital’s food. Physical therapy had gone from the pain in his hip to a pain in the neck.

Even as he whined, he did so in his mild-mannered way. I listened without speaking. I felt for him. And I didn’t have to wait long for what I should have known would immediately follow his pity party.

He repented of his grumbling. He began to number his blessings—his faithful Janet, and the wonderful hospital staff, and this and that and everything which filled his life with goodness.

Once again, Ken displayed to me the spirit of the Lord Jesus, who lived in him by the gift of faith, which Ken possessed and practiced all his years. While I have not seen Ken since I retired in 2014, I am confident that he was strong in Christ right through to his last day—and that Janet was, and remains so—with the sure and certain hope that he was, and always will be, a child of the heavenly Father.

If I were still Ken’s pastor and officiating his funeral, at this point in the sermon I would direct Janet, and her family and friends, to our ultimate hope in Christ. Because I led 150 funerals in Port Hope, it often came out like this, where I wanted them to look farther than their joy that the loved one’s soul was with the Lord, but to the best which was yet to come.

First Corinthians fifteen tells us four ways our bodies go into the earth because of death, and four ways in which death will be conquered in the resurrection given to us by Jesus Christ.

First, the body that is sown into the earth is perishable—that is, we live in bodies that can and do die, and we can’t stop it. The body that Jesus will raise from the dead will be imperishable—the same as His—never to be touched by death again.

Second, the body that is sown into the earth is laid to rest in dishonor—that is, it is a shame that our bodies should be captured in a casket or cremated and contained in an urn. The body that Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised in glory; the resurrected body will never again be held captive.

Third, the body that is sown into the earth is sown in weakness. These present bodies succumb to disease, to old age, to accidents, to every manner of harm which silence them. The body that Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised in power—no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain will ever visit our resurrected bodies.

Finally, the body that is sown into the earth is a natural body. We are shackled to the laws of this corrupted world, in this sinful nature. The body that Jesus will raise from the dead will be raised a spiritual body and, of this, I can barely speak, because you and I cannot even begin to imagine what it will be like to transcend the only world that we know.

All of this, dear friends, Jesus Christ has prepared for Ken, and for you. So, for now, Ken’s soul delights in heaven, at the foot of the Lord Jesus’ throne, praising the Lord for his salvation. So, for now, you delight in the house of Jesus, at His altar-throne, from which He is proclaimed in the Gospel, in which you are baptized into His gifts, and from where you are fed upon His living body and blood.

This church was as much the center of Ken’s life as was the home he made with Janet. From the Schave house and from the house of God, Ken went into the world and shined the light of Christ. We deeply appreciated him for it, and we praise the Lord for His eternal goodness toward Ken.

Virginia Finkel—stalwart of St. John

 

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She was, in a word, faithful.

Faithful to her work. Faithful to her community. Faithful to her congregation. Faithful to her family and friends. Faithful to the Lord.

Faithfulness and much more lead me to label Virginia Finkel a stalwart. A stalwart is steadfast, sturdy, strongly built. Virginia proved herself to be all of these.

When I arrived in tiny Port Hope, Michigan, in 2001, Virginia had already been the church secretary for thirty-four years. Since she was well into her sixties, I never could have guessed that she had ten more years in her, so that in 2011 we finally were able to throw the big retirement party that she had earned.

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At her retirement party, Virginia is flanked by sons Larry, right, and Ray.

At her retirement, Virginia stood as the second-longest serving person of St. John, falling just short of Rev. Emil Berner.

Virginia was employed by the congregation at fifteen hours per week. I am confident that never once in my ten years with her did she only work fifteen hours in a week.

Part of it was the workload. Some of it was that she was so sociable, making conversation with any and all visitors in the office, whether they were strangers who were in town looking for information about the grave of a long-lost family member, or they were members of the congregation making their rounds—in Port Hope, that was post office, bank, convenience store, and church office—or it was the pastor stopping in with the latest thing to hand off to her and the two of them caught up on the news or got into a discussion of theology.

As this former pastor can attest, Virginia could hold her own in theological conversation.

Returning to the long hours Virginia spent at her desk in St. John’s church-school office, another part of it was that she didn’t work as fast as she used to. She certainly was not the quick hare, but the steady turtle. You do, of course, recall who won the race between those two. Turtles are stalwarts.

And, make no mistake, Virginia could have taken more advantage of computer technology. The day after she retired in 2011, I began emailing to the new church secretary, Andrea Piotter, my weekly stuff for the bulletin, which I had always printed out to hand-deliver to Virginia, which she then had to retype for the bulletin.

Virginia did her best with much of modern technology.  Some of it did its best with her.

Finally, as Virginia would admit, she simply liked being at her desk, in the office, among its traffic, interacting with folks. The October before I arrived, Virginia’s beloved husband, Norm, had died suddenly. Virginia’s work became even more precious, and her need to be home less so. This, of course, was a win/win situation. Virginia benefited from being around the people she loved, and we had her where we needed her with our incessant questions.

If I have not yet built my case that Virginia had been a stalwart, I move onto the practicing of her faith in the Lord Jesus. She worshiped every Sunday and every holy day. She was in Bible class every Sunday. She hated when something—an illness or the weather—kept her from being in the Lord’s house, receiving His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

As already mentioned, she proved that she was paying attention. Many a conversation between us began, “Pastor, I don’t understand how . . .” and then she would bring up something going on in the world that did not match up with the Word of the Lord, which we would flesh out for the next ten minutes.

Virginia served on the Ladies Aid until that group of women simply grew unable to carry on. She attended every church event, from the kids’ basketball games, to choral concerts, to the Christmas program, to you-name-it. Her faithfulness extended to the public school of Port Hope and the village. This was her lifelong home, and she was its beloved daughter and sister.

She and Norm were blessed with two sons and a daughter, and the kids gave them the grandkids of which Virginia spoke to me often. Son Larry didn’t marry, remained in Port Hope, and proved an essential blessing to Mom, especially after Dad died.

My Julie got to know Virginia for herself. Julie served as the school secretary for a couple of years, which had the two of them sitting in the office across from each other. In 2007, to mark Virginia’s reaching forty years as church secretary, Julie put to use her former career—newspaper writer—to pen the lovely tribute which was printed in the local paper.

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Thanks to daughter-in-law, Jane, for this and the picture from Virginia’s retirement party.

Ultimately, even stalwarts like Virginia give out. Her health failed over the past few years. Finally, on September 5, at the age of eighty-four, she fell asleep in Christ.

Because the Lord Jesus is The Faithful One, we trust that He fulfilled every promise to Virginia upon which she relied during her earthly pilgrimage, and that her soul is before Christ’s throne in heaven, praising the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and that on the day of His return to the earth He will resurrect Virginia from her grave, give her a new and imperishable body, and with all of the faithful she will enjoy the eternal heaven-on-earth paradise.

Until that day, we who remain thank the Lord for Virginia. Even more, we do well to follow her example as faithful stalwarts in our homes and churches and jobs.