Monday, September 28, 2009

Your Biggest Fan In "The Great Cloud of Witnesses"

(I'll be giving a homily at tomorrow evening's funeral service for Andia Shisler. Here's the gist of what I hope to convey to those who love her.)

Hebrews 12:1-3
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Let me first say that on behalf of her family, I want to express deep appreciation for all you for coming out to celebrate Andia's life (or in the case of this blog, chose to take the time to read the first run at tomorrow's homily). I know that coming here wasn't easy. It never is when someone so young loses their life. I know, though, that your presence is a huge lift for Andia's parents, brother, extended family, and close friends. They will never forget the gift you gave of your time and presence, so, once again, thank you.

In all honesty, I didn't know Andia all that well. I'm guessing the first time I ever met her was in the course of planning her grandfather's funeral. I'm sure she relayed a story or two about visiting her grandparents when they lived down south. Good memories I'm sure.

Probably the next time we crossed paths - outside of a handshake and hello after a worship service - was last May. Andia was a member of the Class of 2009, and she stood up front the morning we recognized all the graduating seniors from the church. I remember when I asked her to tell the congregation what she'd be doing come this fall, she said she was heading to Urbana University to play soccer and major in education.

"Major in education, and then play soccer, young lady", I corrected her. It made her and the congregation laugh.

But really, to the best of my own memory, that's about it, and as such I won't waste your time talking about a young woman who has already been properly and wonderfully honored by her family and friends in this service. To be honest, I don't think I could do her memory justice. Instead, I encourage you to remember their words, and if you knew her, share after the service with good friends your thoughts and memories of her.

You won't be sorry you did.

No, as the officiating pastor of the service I think maybe, as you sit there and look at what is for many of you, a fat guy in a funny robe, that maybe in the short time I'll be talking this evening, you have something else you want me to address. A question, rattling around in your brain and the depths of your soul that just won't go away. A one word question that's simple enough, but probably impossible to answer.


Why does an upstanding kid of 18 lose her life? Why doesn't she get to experience college life and eventually graduate, get a job, have a classroom or coach a soccer team of her own? Why didn't she get to see a little brother graduate or mess up some other WBL footplayer under the lights on a Friday night? Why doesn't she get to meet a guy, fall in love, walk an aisle, take vows, have a first dance and piece of wedding cake as she floats out the door on her way to a honeymoon? Why didn't she get a chance to be a mother and grandmother? Why must a pall hang over the heads of a family at Christmas or Thanksgiving? Why must a mother put on a strong front and why must a father face one of those moments where he's about text his daughter.... and realize again she's gone?


Maybe that's a little too graphic for some of you listening (or reading) this right now. I apologize. I didn't mean to upset anybody. It's just not too long ago I was cruising Facebook (yes, I'm old but I do have a Facebook page) and out of blue a sister of a good friend of mine, a member of the
Class of 1987, mentioned recently that it was 23 years ago he lost his life coming home from school in his orange VW Bug.

I don't think of Ed Fox nearly as often I did in the aftermath of his death. Time has a way of temporing the pain. It doesn't do away with it altogether, but it does ease the sense of loss. But every so often I wonder, "What would Ed be doing now, if...?" Would he still be in the service (he enlisted early in the Marines)? Would that sweet, sweet baritone voice still be singing in some choir or group somewhere (we were in choir together.... I loved singing with him because he was so good)? Would he be married? Divorced? Would he be a dad?

I don't think of Ed as often, but my life has gotten far more jumbled since 1986. Professions, degrees, marriage, kids, all kinds of obligations.... such is the reality after we graduate from high school. We go our own separate ways, and pretty soon people who you once thought would be your very best friends forever you now only hear from at Christmas, or the reunion. Or you add them as a Facebook friend, and at best, get semi-caught up and kinda digitally watch them from afar. You don't mean to but the everyday demands of life separate us.

While my pain has eased somewhat, however, I doubt very much this is the same case for Ed's mother and father and sister. I'm guessing they haven't been able to put the kind of distance between themselves and that terrible tragedy on West Shore Drive as I have.

23 years, and still they're left with "Why?". And, really, so are the rest of us. We've just been able to put it out of our mind... mostly.

In any event, I thought it an injustice if on this day, at this service, I didn't at least try to answer that question. To answer it for anyone who lost somebody they loved a long time ago, no matter how sharply or dimmly they remember, and for all of you mourning this young woman. I offer this day my thoughts in the hope that in the midst of the random moment next week, or next month, or 23 years from now when, "Why?", haunts you again, maybe I'll be able to leave with you something that will at least partially fill the blank.

However, before I take my best stab at "Why", I think I'd better share something else that occurred to me as I was trying to wring this out in my tiny brain...

In all my years as a minister, nobody has once, on the good days, the joyous days, the days I hope you celebrate in regards to to the best of time you spent with Andia... nobody's ever asked me, "Why was the Lord so good to me today?" Never happened. Not once.

And that goes for me too.

I mean when Max or Xavier or Eli or Toby were born I never asked why I should have been so privledged to have experienced God's grace in a way that only holding a son for the first time can convey. I never asked God why I was able to marry such a wonderful woman or work at such a great church. I never asked God why He let me experience the euphoria of the Buckeyes eeking out that win against Miami for the National Championship or watching my brother get sworn in as a lawyer or celebrating my mother being named "Teacher of the Year" in Auglaize County.

Nobody, on those days, asks "Why?". Isn't beauty and joy and love as much a mystery as death? Those moments are so fleeting, yet such an intregal part of the foundation for a meaningful life. They carry us in the darkest of days, and yet we don't really think about why God would grace us with such blessings.

I don't think, for example, that Andia walked around wondering why the Lord had blessed her with such great friends and family. I mean, when you, her posse from this past summer, snuck into the Country Club pool after hours for a swim, or when you, her family, charged across an open field on a snowmobile, or when any of you who coached or played with Andia on a soccer team experienced the bond that can only come when a group of individuals work for one goal and one purpose, blessed her life I don't think Andia sat around wondering, "Gee whiz, dude.... why is God been so good to me?"

That wasn't her way.

Don't misunderstand me... I believe she cared about the Lord. She was no saint (I heard the stories shared at the prayer vigil in her honor Sunday night here and I heard there were other stories that couldn't be shared in a church... I got a few of those from my past too), but saints are few and far between. She loved the Lord, of this I am sure, I just don't think, given what I've heard about her that on the joyous of joyful moments Andia sat around wondering why God let her be so blessed. In fact, if I understand her correctly, on those days I think she just tried in her own way to magnify the blessing.

And, if we're gonna be completely honest here, I don't think on her darkest days or moments Andia sat around moping about where God was. If the team lost, I have to think Andia thought the team's effort just wasn't good enough, or that everyone needed to work harder.

Or, God help the fool who picked on her little brother - that was her job and no one elses - but if he had missed a key tackle or block that helped cost the team the game I don't think she would look for some great extistential meaning. She'd give him a hug, and tell him to get his ass into the weight room. Am I right?

When she lost someone she loved - like her grandfather or her "nana" - it didn't send her into such a funk that she became unable to laugh or love or poke fun or celebrate life. That's not what I heard of the one called Mandia who left a teacher a bag of Hershey's kisses in his school mailbox and taped one of her friend's pictures to the bag.

But, once again, I digress. Given all of this, all this stuff about God and Andia and joy and pain and winning and losing and life and death, here's my best guess at the question of "Why did Andia Shisler lose her life?"

I don't know. Why one person gets into a horrible accident and walks away with a scratch and another doesn't walk away is more than just a physics problem. It's a mystery, much like life, fate, free will, the afterlife, God, Heaven.... there's a reason why we say in this Christian walk a person has to have faith. Faith is what you have when your counting on beyond what the sciences or rationality can explain.

Given what I've learned about her, however, Andia wouldn't want you sitting around moping about "Why?". For the blessings in life we receive, and the trials we must endure. They are both great mysteries, the genesis of which is convoluded and impossible to understand. How we deal with them though is defined by what we believe about what we gather is the meaning behind everything.

I cannot speak for people of other faiths. To do so would be me speaking in ignorance. I can speak as a Christian leader, and in our tradition we believe that good can come out of all things, both good and bad. That we can do all things, persevere through all things, and still bring life in the aftermath of all things, through Christ who strengthens us.

That's what Paul tells us in the book of Hebrews. Whether the day is the greatest ever, or the worst nightmare we can imagine, our eyes need to stay fixed on the tape at the end of the race. On a prize that's greater than a medal or trophy or ring. A prize that can only be granted by the Master, who has established the criteria for worthiness through his own devotion, body, blood, and life. A prize given after we have lived this life as faithfully as we were able, given our limitations and circumstances, and we stand on the other side, before our Maker, who asks us to bow our head, and instead of a medal says:

"Well done, good and faithful servant."

Well done the job you did to love others - your family, friends, those who make you uncomfortable, and even those who when you think of them create a pit in the bottom of your stomach.

Well done the job you did loving the Lord, praying even when you weren't sure what to pray, trusting even when your world was shattered, giving even when it seemed like there was nothing no matter how far down you reached, to give.

Well done, even in the midst of your sin and imperfection, the job of inviting God's perfect will to be on earth as it is in Heaven.

Well done, says the Master, who knows what it feels like to be rejected. Who knows the sting of scorn, the burning that comes only with ridicule, and the grief and mourning that comes only with death.

Well done from the One who too, in his darkest hour, asked "Why? Why, Papa are You foresaking me too?"

Feel free to ask "Why?", just don't let it overwhelm you. Depress you. Defeat you. Think of Jesus, who overcame death, and remember that promise is yours also.

And, just one last thing....

Remember, that as Jesus comes along side you, celebrating your victories, and washing your feet whilst laying hands upon you in your defeats, that another one sits watching. One who no longer wonders why, and won't tolerate letting you use her to make excuses for letting your life come to a standstill.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

What a wonderful image Paul leaves us with today. Us, surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses". Because I have a relationship with this congregation that spans almost two decades, when I stand in this place - whether it be in the Centrum or Sanctuary, or outside during Fall Fest or on the shore of Sims' pond at the Sea of Galilee Party, or wherever it is ministry happens - I have this sense that we're being watched. Names like Pat and Helen Price, Gail Goodwin, Stan Weller, Dwight and Mary Becker.... names that might not mean much to you, but for me, and many others who knew and loved them, but names of people who lived and sacrificed for this family of faith. And I think personally of names meaningful to me - Dean, Fred, Carol, Dick, and yes, Ed Fox - sitting in that great assembly rooting me, and so many others, on as we strive to bring love and light into this world.

There she sits. Not just another face in the crowd. She's watching, pulling for you to honor the Lord by doing your best. Encouraging you to give away your mourning, and letting the Author of Life turing into dancing. You stumble, and she makes a weird noise, laughs at you, and tells you to keep pushing.

Give back like the young woman who wanted to mold middle school students. Give freely, like the young woman who would give the shirt off her back for her friends, and as she grew in grace those in need.

Ask "Why?", but ask the "Why?" Andia, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt right now is begging you to ask:

"Why am I sitting here moping about what isn't, when I could be celebrating what is, while living a life worthy of one day being given one of those seats in that great assembly of witnesses where I can root on those I love for all eternity?"

Why? I don't know. But you'd better not hang your head and blaim her. You'll have to answer for that someday, because she's watching. Rooting you on.

"Here's a hug. Now get your ass back in the weight room."


Karen said...



Bravo, Bryan!

I did not know Andia personally, but know of her family because Eric helped Mr. Mox coach Cole in baseball this past year.

I hope your inspirational message reaches everyone in attendance, as well as those who chose to read it, as I did.

What a beautiful, thought-provoking homily.

I pray that that service went well.

For the work you do.......JOB WELL DONE!

In His Name,

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Bryan!!

I did not know Andia personally, but I know of their family because Eric helped Mr. Mox coach Cole in baseball last year.

What an inspirational, thought-provoking message. I hope it touched everyone in attendance, the way it touched me. What a beautiful tribute to an awesome young lady, whose life was cut short and will be missed by all.

For all you do.......JOB WELL DONE.

In His Name,

ElleBee said...

Beautiful, Bryan. Words fail me. God bless Andia's family, friends and all of us touched, however remotely, by her life.

Anonymous said...


I have heard you deliver many messages in the past, but this by far the most inspirational. I will keep Andia and her family in my prayers.

May God bless you for the wonderful words.


Anonymous said...


I don't know any of the people involved in this, but I will keep them in my prayers. "Time will pass so quickly, but time will heal the wounds." I tend to believe this line, but for something of this nature time can never pass fast enough.

Your words are beautiful, and what you have written here should be an inspiration to all who face tough times. Thanks for taking the time to put it up.


Andrew said...

Sept. 28... is this thing on????