A Eulogy for My Pastor G.L Vittitow
This is a long overdue eulogy of one of the most influential pastors in my life-Brother Vittitow. No. He's not dead. That is the problem with eulogies. We reserve them for funerals when the term has nothing to do with death. A eulogy is simply “kind words spoken over someone.” It's a shame that we often wait until someone is no longer with us to express our grateful thoughts regarding the person. Here are a few thoughts while Pastor is still with us.
In the denomination I was raised in, the preferred term of affection in the church is Brother and Sister.
Bro. Vittitow was my and Melanie’s pastor when we moved to Louisville Kentucky to attend Southern seminary. In my denomination there were two choices of where to attend church in Louisville and Calvary, where pastor Vittitow served, was an easy choice for us. The people were friendly and welcoming. Pastor’s son Kevin was one of the first people to greet us and made us feel like long lost friends. Those were good reasons to visit the church, but Pastor Vittitow was the reason we stayed.
He was very sensitive to the Holy Spirit and he led the congregation with that sensitivity. He was compassionate to those who were facing tough times. He had an aura about him. Although he was not highly educated, he was bold in his proclamation of the gospel. I’m reminded of what was said about Peter and John in the book of Acts… “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.(Acts 4:13) I always sensed that pastor was soaked in prayer. He began each year leading our church through a special time of fasting.
He broke the bank taking me and Melanie out to lunch almost every Sunday. He knew we were away from home at seminary and treated us like his kids. He generally ate at the greasiest spoon in Louisville-Sandy’s. He loved their fried chicken-keeping the stereotype alive that all preachers love fried chicken. It was a great honor when he asked me to be his Assistant Pastor. It gave me a front row seat into the life of a great pastor.
He became the District Superintendent of the Commonwealth of Kentucky while we were there. He was not a politician. He got the job because he outloved, outworked, outcared, and outgave everyone else in the District. He would use his construction skills to build things at the camp often working from early morning late night.
This year, his denomination nominated him as a “Hero of Faith”. It’s the Hall of Fame of those who have made a major impact. This September he will receive the award at the General Conference appropriately being held in Louisville, Kentucky.
The church life at Calvary made our seminary years very fulfilling. I used to tell people that I was a seminarian at the Baptist seminary by day and a Pentecostal preacher by night. Pastor Vittitow rounded out my education at seminary by showing me what a real pastor looks like.
Sister Vittitow was also like a mom away from home for us and their daughter and son Keri and Kevin became family to us. I recently received word that Brother Vittitow was in poor health. I have only seen him once in the 27 years since we left seminary. We have loosely stayed in touch through Facebook and occasionally correspondence, but we have not had occasion for personal visits.
Recently, his son Kevin, called to let me know he was in the hospital and in poor health. Melanie and I made plans and went to visit them in their home when he was released. It was like nothing had changed in all those years. The old conversations picked up where we left them almost three decades ago and we had a blessed reunion with the whole family.
Brother Vittitow is facing an uphill physical battle with Congestive Heart Failure and he is now on dialysis. I just wanted him to know that our lives will ever be touched by his faithful shepherding of us all those years ago. I told him that I owed him about $5,000.00 of lunches from Sandy’s.
Almost every week, Melanie and I buy somebody’s lunch. It’s a small token of paying forward the generosity that was bestowed on us by the Vittitows. Congratulations on being honored as a “Hero of Faith” Long before the award was bestowed, however, you were a hero to Melanie and me.
Phil Nordstrom Lead Pastor
An Uplyfting Morning
It was my intention to begin driving early this morning in my ride share career,. I hadn't set an alarm. My "old man" alarm is sufficient these days. I squinted at my iphone and was disappointed I was up so early. I shuffled over to the bathroom at 5:00am. Going back to sleep was not an option. My brain was now fully engaged on Sunday's sermon, last minute Christmas, and where I might find customers who needed rides today. By 5:30 I was dressed and in my car. I placed water in cup holders to offer my passengers and candy canes in the wells of the door handles to give my riders a special little Christmas treat.
I always turn on both my Uber and Lyft apps while I'm still in my garage even though I rarely get a call until I get near downtown or the University of Tennessee Campus. As soon as I turned my Lyft app on, however, it "chimed". The chime is the sound that indicates a rider is looking for my help. I grunted as I noticed the rider was sixteen miles away and the drive would take about 25 minutes. I have five seconds to decide whether to take the ride and after a momentary pause I begrudgingly touched the "accept" icon on the screen. Normally, a ride is at the most, five or ten minutes away. Because it was so early, however, and there were so few drivers, I was "chimed" for this distant call.
I turned on some Pentatonix Christmas music to brighten my mood and by the time I reached the West Knoxville address I was in good spirits. My "Lyft" app sent a message saying, "Be sure to welcome them, this is their first ride with Lyft."
"Welcome to Lyft" I said as they shut out the frigid night air, closed the door, and began to settle into the warm air of my Prius.
"Oh this isn't our first ride. It's just the first time we requested on her phone" said the young man. "Our trip will have four stops." He said.
Four stops can mean a long quiet ride, or sometimes a lengthy life-giving conversation. I decided to engage. We talked about their three kids, their jobs, and how, slowly, but surely, they were beginning to advance in life. They were so pleasant. He even bought me a coffee from Pilot on our first stop.
As we made our way to the second stop we needed to get off on Merchants Drive. "Do you know where that is?" The young man asked.
I had to make a choice at that moment. I could tell them I pastor a church off of Merchants, but sometimes that changes the dynamics of the conversation. Some people quit being themselves when they discover they are talking to a "preacher." I almost didn't tell them. Since were were going to drive right past my church, however, I decided to let them in on a little more about me.
"Actually, yes." I conceded. "I do know Merchants. In fact, I pastor a church one mile off the exit."
"Oh yea," said my new young friend. "Didn't it used to be called Beth...Beth..."
"Bethesda..." I said.
"Yes, it changed its name a few years back." He said. "I know that church. Funny story. One day, about four years ago this time, I was driving my car on the interstate and ran out of gas. I had no money and I couldn't get anybody to stop and give me a ride. The pastor at the time stopped, bought me a gas can, and filled up my car with gas."
The few hairs I have stood at attention at the back of my neck. "That was me." I said. "I forgot all about that until you mentioned it."
As the reader you need to know that I am no Mother Theresa. This is not my practice. In fiver years, I could count on one hand the times I have stopped along the road to help someone. Something, that day, however, prompted me to stop and help that guy. The memory of that cold night came flooding back.
The girl in the car filled in the details of the story. Even though she wasn't with him during the incident, he had shared that story with her multiple times. "It was shortly after we had our third baby." she said. "He turns five today."
"Every time I pass your church I think I need to stop by." said the young man.
More emboldened, I went for the ask. "Maybe its not a coincidence I'm up earlier than normal driving." I said with a smile on my face. "Maybe its no accident that you called me within two seconds of me turning on my app and you didn't cancel me even though I was twenty five minutes away." I made my "elevator" speech gently but thoroughly.
He agreed that this seemed more than coincidental. I invited him to church and had wonderful conversation over the next hour of driving to all of the stops he needed to make. When I dropped him off at work, I gave him some candy canes and a card with our church information on it. We exchanged phone numbers because he has some trade skills that may come come in handy for me one day.
I don't know what if anything will come of it. I only know that God loves people so much that he works in the mundane details of our days to put us together and lift each other up. I'm sure I got more out of my conversation with this precious young couple than they did having to spend over an hour with a pastor who talked their legs off.
I'm glad my man alarm went off. I'm glad I accepted the distant call this morning. I'm glad i went ahead and mentioned I was a pastor. I'm glad I stopped to help him four years ago. I'm glad for the wonder of being part of an adventure that defies my comprehension, supersedes my logic, and transcends the most mundane encounters into Divine appointments.
Phil Nordstrom Author
Coffee Shop Thoughts...
When I’m in need of some quiet study/write/read time and I can’t manage to get anything done at home, I head to a coffee shop. Not going to lie, I typically go for the high-maintenance orders.
Sitting at a coffee shop as we speak. Just ordered my drink: an almond milk decaf latte in a mug. Not too complicated today. Almond milk because I’m staying away from dairy and decaf because I’m working to break the caffeine addiction. I passed around plenty of “pleases” and “thank yous” because I certainly felt like the difficult one in the room. Paid my fee, stepped up to the counter, and waited with a smile.
The barista loudly announced, "grande latte!" and handed me a beautiful ceramic mug filled with coffee and milk.
Big smile on, I shrugged my shoulders and politely asked, “this is the almond milk decaf, right?”
Without saying a word, he glared at me, took the mug from my hands, dumped the mug into the sink while maintaining eye contact, and then noisily dropped the mug into the sink. I was quick to apologize, making an argument that I haven’t had a cup of full caffeine coffee in a couple months and wouldn’t want to go off the deep end. He made no attempt to respond to my monologue, so I politely sat down, my back to the counter. I heard milk steaming and other people grabbing their orders but there was no mention of an almond milk decaf latte.
Ten or so minutes later, I casually turned around and glanced at the counter, wondering if my drink had been remade. It had. But no one told me. It was sitting on the opposite side of the counter, slowly becoming cold. Barista had chosen to not re-announce my drink - very obvious he was purposeful in his choice.
My blood pressure surged for a few quick seconds. What a jerk. I shot a dirty look at the person who appeared to be in charge, took the drink back to my table, and noisily sat back down. As my heart literally began to beat faster, I entertained the idea of reporting him in that very moment - walking over to the counter where I ordered and making some rude comment about how he was being a terrible employee and a poor representation of the company.
Then I paused for a second...the word “mercy” came to mind.
I fully realize I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but bear with me for a moment.
At it’s essence, mercy is withholding from someone what they deserve. It is compassion or forgiveness shown to someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.
That barista “deserved” to be reported just a few moments ago. He “deserved” to get a rude glance and not so kind word. From the way he continued to have negative conversation behind the counter, he probably “deserved” a reprimand from management on maintaining a professional demeanor. But today I chose mercy. Not because I’m the bigger person, but simply because I have received mercy myself.
I don’t deserve mercy. I don’t deserve love, compassion, grace, peace, mercy...I don’t deserve any of that.
“But, God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” [Ephesians 2:4-6]
Did you catch that? His love was so great (an indescribable love) that He was rich in mercy. Not selective in mercy, RICH in mercy. He loved me even when I was living (and often choose to live) a life that was dead and ultimately headed for eternal death. My finite mind can’t wrap itself around that. I mess up daily. Sometimes by accident. Oftentimes by choice. And, yet, He LOVES me and has MERCY that is overflowing. And because of that, He makes me alive. HE makes me alive.
I have received a mercy that is beyond sufficient description. I am loved by a God who loves me regardless of my poor decisions. He shows me rich amounts of mercy in spite of my (often) daily choices to pridefully turn away from Him.
With Christ in me, having received that indescribable gift of love and mercy, I have a duty to spread those very things to all I encounter. The very least I can do is show some mercy, smile, and say thank you in the midst of a coffee drink order gone bad.
~ Emily Harbin
I'm a daughter, sister, and aunt who lives in Clinton, TN.
Thrilled and honored to be serving alongside the worship team at Life Church. He is worthy of our worship!
Still The Safest Place on Earth
There is nothing like the love and warmth of a healthy, loving, local church. In a world that's raining bullets, its still the safest place on earth. The image of First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs haunts me. A pristine house of worship; an embassy for the Prince of Peace. Evil confronts with violent rage. The ugly carnage exposes the truth. Unconquerable love will win the day. My friend, Dr Jeannie Killian, posted on Sunday, "You know the saddest thing about today's mass shooting? That we have to use the word "today's." " As a pastor, this one hits close to home.
I am writing through the tears of a pastor who is hurting for another pastor. Frankly, I need a pastor right now. The minister who is helping me through this the most is none other than Rev Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of this devastated congregation. I'm sorry to say that all ministers have not been helpful. I was not helped by the blowhard megachurch pastor on a major network who was interviewed as a representative of "the church." He was completely tone deaf to the moment. All he could do was to gloat about how President Trump was such a wonderful "comforter in chief" and suggest that every church in America needs armed guards because we are such "soft targets."
Really? The answer to violence is to get into an arms race with evil? I understand that security in churches must be addressed, but our first instinct should be welcoming people in, rather than securing our borders. The greatest weapon of the church is and always will be non retaliatory love. Its the kind of love I have witnessed in Pastor Frank Pomeroy, pastor of First Baptist Church Sutherland Springs Texas.
If you want to know what a pastor looks like, check out Pastor Pomeroy. His church may not be large, but on a good Sunday about 20 percent of the population of his town attends his church. He wasn't always a pastor. Apparently, according to his sermon the Sunday before the shooting, he was a heathen who nobody would have believed could "get saved" let alone become a pastor.
I watched the entire church service from October 29, the Sunday before the shooting. I and 138,000 people, in fact, have watched it so far on YouTube. I watched Bobby and Shani Corrigan help lead worship that morning. It was hard to watch knowing they were two of victims of the shooting the following week.
Their praise team won't win any Dove Awards, Their harmonies could be tighter and they could use some cool lighting and fog machines but the sincerity of their worship ushered me into God's Presence.
I watched Pastor Frank announce the Fall Festival and tell us that Halloween was also the Lord's day. He asked people to bring 2 liter soda bottles for a "ring toss" and asked people to bake cakes for the cake walk. He was quick to add, however, that if you bring nothing at all, please come and enjoy the evening with your kids and grandkids. He suggested that those with no kids could just come and watch.
After some more passionate worship, it was pastor's to preach. Pastor Frank preached a very creative and helpful message. His words seemed prophetic now that we know what happened the following week. His message was about leaning on God, in situations that we don't understand. I needed this Word. He brought his motorcycle to church and had it sitting right in front of the altar. He made a great analogy between riding a motorcycle and living by faith.
His text was from Proverbs 3:5 "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding." He took the next half hour encouraging us to "lean in" to Jesus when life throws us curves. He showed a video of the fastest motorcycles in the world and showed how the drivers lean almost to to the pavement on curves. You explained how bikers leaning makes the bike easier to control. Pastor Frank explained centrical and how it keeps the bike from tipping when you lean it. He talked about how it goes against our natural instincts to "lean." and compared this to leaning on the Lord when it doesn't make sense. Amen Pastor Frank! Amen!
Pastor then talked about the importance of looking towards your destination instead of focusing on the curve. He said that looking at the curves gives bikers vertigo and causes them to fall. The message encouraged us to keep our eyes on the prize when we are going through the curves life throws at us.
He even told the story of C.S. Lewis becoming a Christian on a motorcycle when he was on his way to the zoo. Lewis wasn't a believer when he started the trip but was a believer when he arrived. I have to admit, I didn't expect a South Texas rural pastor to be quoting Lewis. Forgive me for my own prejudices.
Finally, Pastor Frank exulted in the freedom he felt while riding his Harley. There was something about the joyful way he described the exhilaration of riding a motorcycle and serving Jesus that made me want to ride on this journey of faith with him.
I could hardly breathe as he described his ride to church that morning on his bike with his daughter Belle on the back watching the beautiful Texas sunrise together. Pastor Frank sounds like a great dad. I can't imagine his loss after discovering his beloved Belle was one of those who perished. The newscaster I heard announce it acted surprised a young girl would go to church when her parents were away. I'm not surprised, however, after getting to know Frank better. He made church and living for Jesus sound so exhilarating. He concluded that sermon by inviting any of the kids or adults to come forward and have their picture taken on his "bike". The love and tenderness with which he spoke about the kids, reminded me of one who said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, for such is the kingdom of heaven." I apologize for the old English, but I memoized that one as a boy in the King James Version.
I'm sure Pastor Frank must be suffering survivors guilt, but I believe he was spared for a reason. We need Frank Pomeroy. America needs more pastors than him. Sadly, the church has come to be defined about how we come down on various social issues of the day. I heard no talk of social issues in Bro. Frank's church. I only heard and witnessed the love of Jesus who gives meaning to our lives and gets us through the curves of life.
I'm not even Baptist, but if I lived in this little town, I'd probably be at Sutherland Springs FBC. The surviving members of the church are already using the Christian "F" word. Forgive. The inexplicable love of Jesus is shining through people who have every right to be bitter and disillusioned. I'm blessed by the love of other Christ followers. I was happy to see the Southern Baptist denomination has offered to pay all funeral expenses. I pray that beauty comes out of your ashes, the oil of gladness will someday replace your mourning.
I just want to say I love you dear brother. You don't have to be strong right now. You have already told us what to do. Lean in and keep your eyes on the destination. Your love, your life, and your legacy has touched my soul.
With deep respect,
Pastor Phil Nordstrom
The Communion of the Saints
There is a peculiar line toward the end of the Apostle’s Creed, which says, “I believe in…the communion of saints.” From ancient times, the church has confessed the belief that church consists of people both living and dead who participate in the ongoing mission of the church. In the ancient church, the dead were considered “the church triumphant.” The living saints were called “the church militant.”
This time of year is both a celebration of the Reformation and All Saints Day. Ironically, The Reformation marks the great divide in the church, while All Saints Day celebrates our unity with all the saints both living and dead.
Halloween is actually a secularized version of the Christian celebration of “All Hallows Eve”, which was the church’s remembrance of all the saints who have died. We who are alive are still in "communion" with those who have died.
Hebrews describes this beautiful “communion” with these words: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heave. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)
When I was a child, all the “saints” I knew were living. With the passage of years I have lost grandparents, friends, church members and acquaintances who have joined “the church triumphant.” Eventually, it will reach a tipping point where I will know more saints who have died than those who are alive.
It is a great comfort to me that those in the Lord who have died still love, encourage and help me. They are the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround the living. I believe in “the communion of saints..”
What Happened to Our Village?
In the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in our history, Americans are struggling once again with the disorienting reality that our “village” is not safe. America is supposed to be different than those “other” nations. Our founding fathers came here to escape tyrants and violent persecution.
Almost before the sickening sounds of the bullets raining down from Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas had ceased, our citizens were once again debating about what can stop these random acts of violence. The proposed solutions reveal the deep divide among us. Opinions range from banning guns to others who think we need more guns. I am not an expert on such things. I am neither a gun owner nor the son of a gun owner. Many of my friends are avid hunters and have an attachment to their rifles, whereas other friends would be in favor of stiff gun control laws.
Behind the debate, I hear a much deeper question- “What happened to our village?” Since 9/11 , our self-awareness as a country has changed. Before, we believed that military conflicts happened elsewhere, but not on our soil. Terrorism was something we saw on our televisions, but not in our back yards. When I was a child, the ministerial organization in our small Illinois town organized an effort to bring Laotian refugees to our city in order to escape their war torn country. Tragically, one of the Laotians was killed in the US by a drive-by shooter. Such inexplicable violence might happen in Laos, but not in land of Lincoln and not in Las Vegas.
The question of security is the theme of one of my favorite movies “The Village.” If you have not seen the movie, I highly encourage you to watch it. The setting takes place in a peaceful village with built in protections to keep this utopia from being ruined by attempts to live life on the outside. The dress requirements are extremely modest and the rules are lovingly stringent. In spite of all precautions, however, evil rears its head in this weaponless society. Spoiler alert. Toward the end of the movie, we learn that the elders of the village had previously lived in modern society and had their lives deeply affected by tragic deaths of loved ones due to crime and violence, Creating the village was the elders attempt to eliminate such painful grief. As you might guess, all of their precautions did not keep tragedy from occurring.
There is a great quote toward the end of the movie by one of the elders named August. He says, “you may run from sorrow as we have, but sorrow will find you. It can smell you.”
And yet, the movie also has redeeming hope. Ivy, a blind girl, makes a journey to the “outside” in order to get some much-needed medicine. She meets up with a stranger who helps her get the medicine. Her description of the stranger to the other villagers was profound: “I heard kindness in his voice. I did not expect that.” It is the blind girl who truly sees.
So what is the antidote to our troubled world? Become a Christian! Isn’t that the expected response of Christian pastor?
You may read or hear people who espouse to Christians” suggesting this act of violence was a judgment from God. It is not. They do not represent the one who was willingly broken for our broken world. It is a crude attempt to explain what happened to our village. Judge them gently. We all are struggling with the same question.
The truth is, at our best we Christians are imperfect, and at our worst we are imposters. I suppose I toggle somewhere between the two.
And yet, my faith helps me navigate through the abyss.
Jesus didn’t promise a utopian village. He indicated that “sorrow” would find us. “In this world you will have trouble.” Jesus said.
Jesus did not come to eliminate risk from the world. In some ways, His kingdom exacerbates it. The power of love and service is an affront to ruling kings and kingdoms that lead through strength and power.
Like the blind seer, Ivy, people of faith hear the unexpected kindness in the voices of unlikely people. We see love and light in the eyes of everyday heroes. When evil reigns down a thousand bullets of cruelty, my faith combats them with a million acts of kindness. We really do have a nation of beautiful people who need to be healed with hugs instead of divided with hateful rhetoric.
Finally, my faith sees a land beyond this land. We believe in the peaceable kingdom, the virtuous village, the “land that is fairer than day”, the city of God.
Our life task is making this land a little more like that land-that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May God bless all our efforts and may God bring comfort and healing to all who mourn in the village of Vegas. After Jesus promised that in this life we would “have trouble” he left us with a promise of hope. “Take heart”, Jesus said, “I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Where Does My Help Come From?
At the news of a massacre that seems only miles away, who can console? In the midst of a devastating hurricane season, who can provide? In a world filled with terror, who offers security? In fear, where is comfort? In the midst of inadequacy, who defines worth?
If I look down, I see the tears shed on behalf of those lives lost in Las Vegas. If I look down, I see the heads of those bowed in sadness or even in protest. My heart is broken. If I look down, I might be tempted to only look down. I’m sick of seeing these things. Disaster after devastation and fear covered in reality. And, if I’m being honest, it absolutely terrifies me.
Therefore, if I look inward, I will only find the uncertainty and fear in the depths of my being. I don’t have any answers for this devastation and evil. At the end of the day, I can love and also contribute...but I really can’t make a significant difference, can I? As I watch the footage from inside the concert arena, my stomach literally churns and fear floods my heart. To think that even I could have been at that event...or that my mom could’ve been there. My brother, his son. My dad. My closest friend or even my future husband. In the tender parts of my heart, which is often ridden with anxiety, those types of thoughts are absolutely debilitating. Fear is exhausting.
If I look outward, I might see my closest friend or neighbor who is quick to offer a hug or word of encouragement. Those words are comforting, yes. They temporarily conquer my ever present fear of being alone. The significance of surrounding ourselves with people who love and support us cannot be underestimated. I find occasional certainty in the affirmation of others and can temporarily hold onto loyalty in the accountability of those I trust. If I’m not careful, I can discover bits and pieces of my worth in the opinions of those that surround me. I can relish in the areas of life they compliment and I can find my self-worth and strength in their opinions of me. If those opinions are not exactly what I hope to hear, I often revert to looking inward...and we’ve already discovered that not much comes from that.
Looking back might be an option….back to the days when things like massacres didn’t happen. But has there ever been such a day? As a matter of fact, I like the accomplishments and moments of glory from the past. We do it in the government and even in our jobs. We look back when we speak of accomplishments in school. I look back to times where I felt I was making a difference and was capable of holding everything together. We celebrate our previous achievements. But there is absolutely no way to move forward when our eyes are focused on what is behind us.
So, then what? My heart is too broken to console myself and those around me are too unreliable to faithfully hold me up. Looking down and only mourning offers no consolation, but looking backwards hinders any movement forward.
“I lift my eyes up to the hills, from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let my foot be moved. He who keeps me will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is my keeper, the Lord is my shade on my right hand. The sun shall not strike me by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep me from all evil, He will keep my life. The Lord will keep my going out and my coming in from this time forth and forevermore.” [Psalm 121, ESV, emphasis mine]
I don’t understand evil, terror, fear, devastation, or loneliness. I don’t have all the answers. I do know, however, that the One this passage speaks of does have all the answers and He holds me in the very palm of His hand. It doesn’t always make sense nor do I fully understand, but I have no doubt it is truth. I am certain, however, that if I do not look UP to the One who holds me in the very palm of His hand, I’m left only looking down, inward, outward, or behind. When looking in those directions, there is no help to be found.
~ Emily Harbin
Our nation is struggling with a question of patriotism? What is the appropriate posture when our national anthem is played? Do we remove our hats, stand, salute or do we even stand at all? I stand with hand over heart but then I take it one step further. I sing!
I’m the guy in the stadium next to you that’s a little embarrassing because most men don’t sing in public. I sing anyway. I sing with reckless abandon. I sing though our anthem is one of the hardest songs to sing in much the same way that the American experiment is difficult to embody.
Our anthem of freedom wasn’t meant to be sung easily. Some argue for a simpler song but I say we should keep it difficult. Our struggle is not easy so why should it be comfortable to sing America’s song.
I sing though my aging voice struggles to reach the lilting heights of our freedom song’s finish. Excuse me sir. Don’t look at me with distain. This is why I sing…
I sing for those who wear the uniform as I once proudly did. I sing for the conscientious objector whose convictions of peace is a vital part of the soul of this nation.
I sing for those who stand with hands on heart. I sing for those who take a stand by refusing to stand.
I sing for Native peoples who now share their prosperous land with peoples from around the globe even if not by choice.
I sing for George Washington’s march across the Potomac when freedom’s flame was only a flicker.
I sing for slaves huddled in overcrowded ships like animals, ripped from their homelands in order to work under the whip of oppression.
I sing for Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad, for Frederick Douglas’ voice and pen that dealt slavery a stinging blow. I sing with former slave ship captain John Newton who repented of his dehumanizing sins and penned the words to “Amazing Grace.”
I sing for the glory of my home in the North and for my sweet adopted home in Dixie. I sing for the wonder of a nation that was restored after the deep divisions that divided us.
I sing for Dr. King’s dream, for John F. Kennedy’s American idealism, and for Ronald Reagan’s winsome words that made us more proud to be Americans than members of a particular political party.
I sing for the hopeless both far and near yearning to find freedom and “welcome” here.
I sing for Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Jews. And yes, I sing for athiests too.
I sing not to incite hatred, but to inspire love.
Wait a minute. Here it comes. The big finish. “O’er the land of the freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!! And the home of the brave!
This is why I sing.
I don’t know about you, but I like my personal space. If you lean in too close while whispering a secret, I’m probably going to casually lean back and inch towards the nearest exit. You are welcome to tell me all your secrets, but feel free to speak them in a regular voice instead of leaning in super close to whisper in my ear. I like my space. I typically sit on the first row at church. Always have. My dad’s in the ministry, so I grew up sitting on the first row of quite a few different churches. You are welcome to sit on the first row with me in one of those empty seats, but please leave a seat (or two) in between mine and the one you choose. I like my space.
Statistics show that, as Americans, we are most comfortable if there is 1 ½ - 3 feet of space between us - even if we’re close friends. If we are strangers, it’s most comfortable if we stay about 4 feet away from each other, and if I’m speaking to a large group, it’s a good idea to be at least 12 feet from the front of the crowd. Statistics also show that once a room reaches 70% of its capacity, it is full and people don’t feel as comfortable. We have been hovering close to 70% capacity in our sanctuary and have even been over that number some this summer. This is one of the reasons we’ve decided to expand to two services. We want you to feel comfortable and we want to have plenty of space for even more new faces to feel comfortable!
I’ve only been at Life Church for a few short months, and, truth is, it feels like I’ve been here for much longer than that. Because my dad was in the ministry, I remember being a part of 5 churches in one capacity or another during middle school and high school. Since I began college, I’ve been a part of (and served on the worship team in some capacity) at 5 other churches. I say all that to say, there is something incredibly different about Life Church. There is A LOT different about Life Church. Since day one, I’ve felt like I can “be myself,” and I see that echoed in so many of those who call Life Church their home. We are all so different from one another, and yet, we worship and serve together. I truly believe that’s a small picture of what heaven is actually going to look like.
You’ve probably heard that we’re asking those who call Life Church their home to “worship one and serve one.” Think of this as an opportunity to pour into all those who will be visiting Life Church for the first time. This is our opportunity to exemplify what Life Church is all about - it's our opportunity to love like Christ would. We need joyful faces to wave cars into the parking lots and warm smiles to serve coffee in the lobby. We need computer-savvy folks to help in the back, musically-gifted folks to help in the front, and folks who love children to work in the other building. HE is the ONLY reason we are here - I challenge you to continue to make that evident to all who enter our doors!
Starting this Sunday, we will have even more space available for friends, neighbors, and families. Don’t simply invite them, bring them! I truly believe the atmosphere is different and ever-changing here at Life Church. We can’t keep it to ourselves. Without a doubt, I’m confident that God is preparing to do even more than we could ever ask or imagine. I can’t wait. As a matter of fact, I hope we fill to capacity, and at that point, you’re more than welcome to sit right next to me on that front row!!
The full orb of the moon cast a warm glow on a vigil with eternal implications. A chorus of cicadas chirped in the distance. The first kiss of autumn cooled the night air. The light emanating from the second window from the right on 912 North Meadows Boulevard was dim. Her breathing grew shallow, Her eyes focused on a world we could not see. Judy Bagwell began her long transition from this world to the next. Worship music, prayers and expressions of love provided surround sound in her bedroom. This was holy ground.
In the brightly lit living room just outside of this sacred setting, the television broadcast the first game of the University of Tennessee football season. In healthier times, Judy's hospitable home hosted scores of football parties. Judy's cooking took center stage at these soirees, By kickoff, however, the kitchen work was finished. Judy was in her favorite chair cheering on her beloved Volunteers.
Judy was a man's kind of a woman. She liked football, watching Westerns and riding on the back of a motorcycle with her man Morris. Lest, however, you think she was simply a tomboy; think again. Judy had a black belt in shopping. She was the sharpest dresser in our church. She was always decked with jewelry and shoes that perfectly matched whatever outfit she was wearing that day. When our church became more casual, Judy did not. She had no criticism for others, but on Sundays she wanted to look her best for worshipping Jesus. One of Judy’s roles at the church was greeting people at the front door so that our guests could see at least one immensely elegant and dignified person before being introduced to the rest of our motley crew.
The opening game of the Tennessee football season was conspicuously unimportant on this night. Tonight, the game simply provided a distraction to family and friends who needed to step away from their grief for a few moments. The glow from Judy's bedroom far eclipsed the glare of the bright living room because we knew then what we have always known-knowing Jesus was all that mattered. On this night, no passage of Scripture was needed to bolster this claim. We had the living witness of one of Jesus' most devoted followers-Judy Bagwell. Those of us gathered in Judy’s home that evening thought it was the end. It was, however, only the beginning of the end.
As we reflect of Judy's life, we may imagine that it would be better for us to be at a party in Judy's living room than at her funeral. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived had a different opinion.
2Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies--
so the living should take this to heart.
3 Sorrow is better than laughter,
for sadness has a refining influence on us.
4 A wise person thinks a lot about death,
while a fool thinks only about having a good time. (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)
We have come tonight to learn from Bagwell University. Before, however, we get too deep into the lesson, Judy gave me one instruction. Keep my funeral somewhat light, but not too light.
There are some lighter moments to reflect on. When Judy was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer many of us who were standing in her room were speechless due to the heaviness of the moment. Judy broke the ice by asking, "Why is everyone standing over me like a bunch of vultures."
One day her friend Debbie Cook was visiting from Morristown and Judy knew that the next morning, Debbie was going to be back in Knoxville for work. Judy didn't want her to have to travel all that way so she said, "You big dummy, why didn't you bring your clothes and sleep at my house?”
There was one medicine-induced moment when she insisted that she had to have "cow tails" candy at her funeral. I choose to believe that through the fog she was thinking of me. She knew I always emptied her amazing candy dishes of those deadly "tails."
When Judy went under the care of hospice she asked if they had hospice in South Africa because she so badly wanted to go on one last Missionary "getaway" later this month. Throughout the years, she traveled the world, bringing music and ministry to weary missionaries on foreign fields. Judy was the perfect musician for these trips. She knew everything from the oldest hymn to the most current worship chorus. I believe if they had given the okay, she would have spent her last moments ministering to missionaries.
Instead, however, she ministered in her home from her new fancy recliner. She talked about her Jesus to everyone who would listen. She prayed for people, blessed people, spoke on the phone with people, face timed people and even made a video recording for our church baby dedication in which she prayed over each of those babies whom she loved dearly. Judy inspired all of us with the faith and fearlessness with which she faced her own impending death. On one particular day, she went through her closet deciding which outfit she wanted to wear to meet her sweet Jesus.
Where did this kind of faith come from? Judy's faith was forged as a young child being raised by a godly mother. She walked out that faith as a young girl, playing the piano and singing in her home church. One night, as a sixteen-year-old, she was singing at church when she caught the eye of a young man who was visiting her church with his girlfriend. Until Judy sang, he was slouched down in his pew near the back of the sanctuary. He slowly sat up in his seat, however, as he heard the angelic voice of the person he described as the prettiest little Indian girl he had ever seen. The following Sunday, he figured out a way to leave his other date early to go over to Judy Bowman’s house to "listen to records." Surprisingly, shy little Judy was the one to initiate this invitation. The other girl faded into the background as he was smitten by Judy. Judy and Morris were married within the year.
Morris had a larger than life personality, but Judy clearly kept him grounded. She was the love of his life. Judy was not a wallflower or a sidekick. She was a minister in her own right. After Morris’ death everyone know she would be okay when she famously pointed at her husband’s body during his funeral and made a play on the wording of her last name and said, “He’s the bag, and I’m very well.” It was a joke Morris used to play on her calling Judy “the bag” Judy, however, got the last laugh.
Most of my knowledge of Judy came after Morris' death. She grieved him greatly. She regularly visited his grave and spoke of him often but she didn't stop living. She became an elder in our church due to the mature example she was for people who are growing in their faith. She was a woman of prayer. She read her Bible daily. Judy was reading the entire Bible from cover to cover this year as she had in other years as well.
Judy made her home a haven for people in need of community. She didn’t recognize race or status and treated everyone equally. She had a servant's heart. Judy didn't like to speak on stage. Her personal interactions with people were her pulpit. Judy was a quiet giver. If she knew somebody was in need, she quietly gave to help him or her out. She loved preacher’s kids and was especially kind to my children.
Her home was always immaculate but she had the rare ability to make people feel comfortable in a perfectly kept home. She let people eat in the living room, dining room, kitchen, or on her back deck. She didn’t like to use paper plates. She would rather do the dishes so that her guests could feel special. One great example of her hospitality is that she had a beautiful in ground pool and she didn’t even swim. She had it put in so the rest of us could have a good time.
I consulted with one of her dearest and longest friends, Phyllis Cantrell, about what I was missing about Judy’s earlier life. After thinking for some time she assured me that I hadn’t missed a thing. The beautiful Christian lady who always wore a smile was the same now as she had always been. The trajectory of her life was set by her early relationship with Jesus.
Judy was blessed with great friends. Many of them came from other parts of the state and country to say their good-byes. Steve and Mariann Kidd even stopped by on their annual trip to Knoxville from South Africa. Judy held tightly to a “word” given to her by Mariann that not one branch of her tree would be broken. She understood that to mean her whole family would serve the Lord. Condolences for Judy are being received from around the world.
Judy was all about family. She loved her children Lora and Lakieta and her grandchildren Ben and Eric fiercely. She also loved her great granddaughter Kinzli. She treated her new son in law Jamie as her own. She loved her sisters and brothers and all her extended relatives. She was their biggest fan and she made it her life goal that all of them would know the Lord like she did. In fact, that is what she wanted for all of us.
The opening night of the Tennessee football season began her final chapter in this life. She would somehow live eight more days. Her final days seemed to be marked by signs in the heavens; a total eclipse, two epic hurricanes, and one beautiful God kissed moonlit night. Tennessee, by the way, won that game dramatically in overtime. Compared to the beauty, love and faith that surrounded Judy, however, the game paled in comparison.
Earlier that day, on my morning drive to work I was listening to the Bible as is my custom. These ancient words from Isaiah billowed through my speakers. I knew I had to use them for Judy’s funeral.
“6 This is what the Lord says—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies:
“I am the First and the Last;
there is no other God.
7 Who is like me?
You are my witnesses—is there any other God?
No! There is no other Rock—not one!”
13 the wood-carver measures a block of wood
and draws a pattern on it.
He works with chisel and plane
and carves it into a human figure.
He gives it human beauty
and puts it in a little shrine.
He falls down in front of it,
worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
“You are my god!”
18 Such stupidity and ignorance!
Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.
19 The person who made the idol never stops to reflect,
“Why, it’s just a block of wood!
He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
“Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?”  (Excerpts from Isaiah 44)
What are you trusting in today? What lie are you holding onto? Is it career? Sports? Education? Money? Fame? Politics? There is nothing wrong with pursuing a career, or cheering for your team, getting an education, making money or voting for your candidate. Compared to knowing Jesus, however, they are just a block of wood. Worthless idols.
Nothing else matters
The Apostle Paul, after recounting his resume including his education, his blood lineage, and his religious zeal, said,
“7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. 10 I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, 11 so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!  (Philippians 3:7-11)”
Nothing else matters
The Psalmist said it this way: Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7)
Nothing else matters!
The hymn writer put it this way: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness, I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand all other ground is sinking sand.
Nothing else matters!
At Bagwell university we learn that only Jesus can give you peace that passes understanding, joy unspeakable and courage in the face of death. Judy will never have another bad day. Suffering for her has ended. Pain for her has ceased.
On the week before our three babies at the church were dedicated, I was trying to record a video of Judy praying for them. On my first attempt, she was just too sick to do it so I decided to try later in the week. Judy was really focused on doing it and all night one night she kept crying out, I’ve got to pray for those babies.
Finally we were able to get a recording. When she was finished she was exhausted. She called Lakieta and Lora and Ben and Natalie over to her chair. She clearly said, “I’m finished now. I’m finished” These moments were so intimate that Melanie and I quietly stepped away and returned to our home in order to give them this special private time.
Later that night, Lora posted a picture on Facebook of her mother along with the text of Proverbs 31 describing the virtuous woman. One of the lines of that Proverb says, “her children rise up and call her blessed.” Lora. Lakieta and Jamie- The care you provided your mother over these last weeks was awe inspiring. You put careers and homes on hold so you could constantly be with her. You were amazing nurses and caregivers. Even Ben and Natalie took up residence at the end. It was like an extended camp in. We laughed, cried, and ate great food provided by so many wonderful friends. I can’t name you all, but each of you was important to Judy and the family is forever grateful for your care in these days.
I feel so blessed that our families are forever intermingled now by the marriage of our children. I teased Lora and Lakieta that the Nordstrom family was legitimate until we got mixed up with those Bagwells.
I covet your prayers. Melanie and I have been asked to do an impossible task-filling the shoes of Morris and Judy Bagwell. We can never replicate their ministry. God broke the mold when he created Morris and Judy Bagwell. Melanie and I promise with everything in us to honor their legacy of service at our church along with our founders, Paul and Jean Cowell. More importantly, Melanie and I will point people to the same Jesus they pointed people to.
Nothing else matters.
On the morning of September 12 when I received the call that Judy had passed, I quickly got dressed and came over to the house. I was amazed at what I saw. The family was no longer in Judy’s room crying. They were cleaning. The vacuum cleaner was running, beds were being made and dishes were being washed.
Lora explained. Mom mom told us that when you wake up in the morning, be sure to make your beds are made because if you were to die that day somebody might come and find your bedroom a mess. She told a story of Judy getting in a wreck one day and the first thought that crossed her mind was, “my bed’s not made.”
Let’s review what we know…
“We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not hand-made—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.”
Nothing else matters
To use the words of Winston Churchill in a different context, For Judy, this is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. This is the end of the beginning.
And now it is up to us to live and love like Judy. After reflecting on Judy’s words at Morris’ funeral, I will summarize this message in one final sentence. We’ve been left holding the bag, but she is very well.
Dr. Phil Nordstrom is the pastor of Life Church in Knoxville Tennessee. He is passionate about being a father to his three children, loving his wife, and leading people who are far from God toward their highest potential as followers of Jesus.
Life Church Knoxville
We're an inter denominational church in Knoxville, Tennessee that believes that all people matter and should experience the love and power that comes along with a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ.