Life goes on. My father said it often in his later years. I suspect it came from his own experience of change and loss over time. Whenever I visited, Dad and I would reminisce about the many wonderful times we had together, and, invariably he would say, “Life goes on.” In other words, we all experience sorrow and joy, good times and tough times, laughter and tears.
Last week was one of those times. At the cemetery, we prayed, “Almighty God, into your hands we commend your child, Gerald Francis Hartzel Sr., in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. These cremains we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” Then each family member took a turn shoveling dirt into my father’s grave.
My ancestors on both parents’ sides arrived in southeastern Pennsylvania from Europe in the early 1700’s. William Penn, who founded the state of Pennsylvania, was an early advocate for religious freedom, offering protection for minorities such as Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren.
What I am most grateful for about my father is that he always supported me, even though he didn’t always understand my career path. He helped me though college, then two years of graduate school for sacred music, then several more years in seminary. Women were not allowed to be pastors in the General Conference Mennonite Church when I was growing up, but my father always encouraged my call to ministry. Eventually, I was ordained in my home church, but my call ultimately led me to The United Methodist Church. “Life goes on,” Dad would say.
As I led the memorial service, it was all I could do to hold back the tears. They were tears of joy, however, because of the legacy that my father left for his family, friends, and church. Last week, I was able to talk with relatives I hadn’t seen for many years. I also connected with my cousins, not to mention my three siblings and spouses and their children. Our personal times of remembering were rich and poignant.
I was especially touched by the number of people who attended the service because they had been my Dad’s employees. Growing up, I always worked at his factory during the summer and was astounded that one of my work buddies from fifty years ago, Valeria, who is in her 90’s, took the time to come to the service. She still looked the same! My father provided many jobs for people in the small village of Vernfield, PA and was a wonderful and kind boss.
I was particularly close to my father because we were fishing, cycling, golfing, and singing buddies. One of my fondest memories was of my father taking me on a fishing trip to Costa Rica just two weeks before Gary and I were married. Unfortunately, I was seasick for the first two days out on the Pacific Ocean and spent all my time throwing up. After I got my sea legs, I did enjoy the last few days and reeled in a few sailfish.
What has touched me the most over these past weeks, however, is the dozens and dozens of cards and emails that Gary and I received, expressing condolences upon my father’s death. I tear up every time I look at the pile of cards. People from every church I have ever served, as well as clergy, laity, and bishops from around the United Methodist connection took the time to write a few lines on a card, send an email, say a prayer, make a phone call, or offer a memorial contribution to Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, PA, which was my father’s life-long spiritual home.
A number of people commented about the times when I would write, preach, or tell stories about the impact my father had on my life and faith. On some cards, people in local churches and/or staff members signed their names. Some of the people I did not even know, but their words of assurance and love have made a lasting imprint upon my heart. Here is just a sample of these beautiful messages of hope and love.
- “Open when you have time.” These words on the outside the envelope. And on the inside, “May you feel the comforting embrace of the Holy Spirit now and all the times you will miss your father. Grieve well.”
- “As you now add to all that the sacred task of commending a beloved parent unto God’s keeping, I am praying that you will experience the great strength, peace, and love of Christ.”
- “Even never meeting him, it was clear what a wonderful person he was and how much he meant to you.”
- “I write to offer my condolences after the passing of your dad, Gerald. Love and prayers from around the globe, including friends in Wisconsin. Please know you are held in community.”
- “I pray you have time to simply be a daughter who had lost her dad. May God sing over you and give you peace.”
- “May you feel the arms of God wrapped around you with comfort.”
- “It is our prayer that you will be blessed with many wonderful memories of your dad and that you will have a sense of God’s grace as you gather with family at this time.”
- “You have shared many stories of your father with us. May memories sustain you now.”
- “May God comfort you as only God can.”
- “Sharing in your sorrow and rejoicing with you in God’s promises”
- “We pray that during these tender moments your heart is filled with wonderful memories of a beloved father. Further, we pray with you as you embrace the truth of his passing to the church Triumphant. You are beloved.”
- “The Holy Spirit and your many friends are beside you.”
- “May love be what you remember most. Prayers for comfort and peace.”
During the sermon, I shared a quote from the German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart, who expressed it this way seven hundred years ago. “God lies in wait for us with nothing so much as love, and love is like a fisherman’s hook. Whatever the fisherman does, and whoever is caught by this hook, love does it, and love alone.”
Life goes on. Yet, for just a moment, can you be still and know that God is God? Have you been caught yet by the hook of God’s love? How will you fish for people by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, embodying the gospel, and then patiently waiting for God to work? How does God want to use you as a channel of grace, hope, and love? How will make a positive difference in the lives of those around you in the days and months ahead?