by David Pettit
On these summer Sundays, I invite you to think about lives and what they have meant. To think not with a pietistic paintbrush, but to read carefully, in between the lines, and to discern how God’s gracious purposes might be present in the midst of life’s mixed realities, remembering that our attempt to speak for others’ stories is in some way an attempt to understand our own.
They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Mark 4:38b-39a
Jack lived one day shy of 88 years. He and Anna were born in Germany, in neighboring towns—hers Catholic, Jack’s Lutheran. Jack was a young soldier in World War II, captured and taken a prisoner of war. He was transported by ship to Africa, and then on to the United States. At the end of the war, he crossed the ocean again, returning home to Germany by way of England.
In the immediate years after the war, he married young Anna, age 18. Difficult years. They lived, like most, in great poverty and uncertainty. In 1952 he boarded a ship, this time with Anna and two year old Fred, bound for the United States again. They came to stay with family at the very house where Jack passed away this week. They didn’t know a lick of English. They had two bags and a wooden chest of possessions. They found their way. They worked hard. Anna frugally tracked every cent. But perhaps most of all, they received the goodness, benevolence, and decency of others who were fair, kind, and willing to grant them the opportunity to work.
Among the few possessions filling that wooden chest was a plaque recognizing Jack’s confirmation in the Lutheran church in his hometown. Confirmation is that moment in a young person’s life when they stand before family, friends, and God to confirm for themselves the truths proclaimed at their baptism. Jack confirmed for himself on April 24 that he was indeed a child of God, that God had laid claim on his life. The picture on the plaque is of Jesus calming the seas.
I wonder what it meant to Jack and Anna when among all the possessions they had to choose, they decided to pack that plaque, especially as Jack had already crossed a sea or two at that point in his life. He had seen tumult and war, probably had cried out a few times like the disciples, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
Jack and Anna carried those truths of baptism and confirmation across the sea. And the rough waters did not end at the shores of America. They had their years of making ends meet, of working hard and saving, and of living in a shack with mice for pets.
But around 1960 a new opportunity arose. They who been sojourners and guests, foreigners working hard to learn English, now became hosts. They bought the Catskill Motor Court. The return customers who pulled in that Memorial Day weekend of 1960 found this young German couple. They soon became friends and the customers continued to return. Jack and Anna worked hard, built a house, added the motel units. Anna did the laundry, Jack was the socialite.
They employed chamber maids once the business grew but Jack would go into the rooms first and pull off the used linens. He would look to see if the guests had left a tip. If not, he would pull out a dollar or two of his own, never telling the maids what he had done. Jack did not forget what it was like to be on the low end. He was gracious and generous. As Jack and Anna did well, it was important to them to give money to others, to help. He seemed to know that you don’t get by or get where you need to go without help. He wanted to make it just a little easier on others. Children and grandchildren did not leave without some financial parting gift.
Jack rarely darkened this church’s door, except for dinners. He was not expressive of his faith per se. But the evidence is that Jack remembered that confirmation plaque. God certainly did. God remembered those promises, and God has seen Jack and his family through many storms.
Anna reflected that these last twenty years were really good years. The storms had lessened and their joy increased. God has seen Jack through the storms of this life, and God promises to guide us to the safe harbor of his presence when that final day shall come for each of us, when we will rest at last. We know that Jack, on the anniversary of his confirmation, made the final leg of his journey, entering the peace and calm of God’s heavenly kingdom.
We give thanks for God’s faithfulness over all those years, all those miles, and through all those waves and waters. And we give thanks for Jack, who did not forget what it means to be poor and vulnerable and tossed by the waves, and what it means to be given a chance and help and opportunities. Jack, we bless you today, and we release you into the eternal care of our heavenly Father. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
David Pettit is a minister of the Reformed Church in America, currently serving as pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, while also pursuing doctoral studies in Hebrew Bible at the University of Denver.