Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Legacy of Laughter and Faith

Bob Whitlock Memorial Service
March 3, 2016

To Peggy, Bob, Lee, to granddaughters and your husbands, Courtney and Lance, Anna Grace and Cody, and Miriam and Michael, and to the nine dearly loved great grandchildren, thank you for the honor of sharing today as we remember and celebrate the life of a husband, a brother, a cousin, an uncle, a father, a granddaddy, a Granddaddy Bob, and a Granny Bob.  And his life is indeed worth celebrating. 

But we begin by acknowledging that we hurt; there’s no getting around that.  Mourning is appropriate.  But when a follower of Jesus passes, grief is tempered by a greater hope and assurance of a better place of great celebration. Jesus defeated sin and death and all who believe in Him, there is the promise and reality of eternal life.  So even in the midst of sorrow, we remember a man whose life is worthy of celebrating.

As some of you know, when I prepare to preach a funeral for a believer, a passage from the Bible will come to the forefront of my thoughts.  Because he spent a career delivering mail, I thought of the passage in Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news…of happiness.”

Certainly Bob Whitlock delivered his fair share of good news through the years. But then I thought of all the bills he delivered to people, and I thought Bob might rather I choose another scripture reference, and another Bible passage does remind me of Bob. It’s found in Genesis in the story of Jacob and his sons. 

You recall that the patriarch, Jacob (Israel) had a large family—thirteen children, twelve of them sons. His two youngest sons, Joseph and Benjamin, had a special bond.  Both born to Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin were favored by their father.  As father’s age, they became more patient and loving and appreciative of the sweetness of fatherhood.  My oldest son had quite a different experience growing up than did my youngest son. Such was the case with Jacob’s youngest sons, Joseph and Benjamin.

When Joseph was a young man, his older brothers envied him so much that they ended up selling him as a slave to Midianites who took him to Egypt.  Through extraordinary circumstances, Joseph came to the attention of Pharaoh, the most powerful man of the most powerful kingdom on earth, and he was placed as the king’s prime minister, in control of the entire Egyptian kingdom.

Joseph’s plan to store sufficient food supplies for the nation during a coming famine, not only saved Egypt, but surrounding nations and peoples as well. His actions and stewardship ended up saving from starvation his own father, Jacob, and the brothers who had wronged him so badly thirteen years earlier. When the brothers went to find food in Egypt, without Benjamin, for Jacob was afraid for his youngest son to go with them, they encounter their own brother Joseph.  He recognized them, but they believed he was long dead and so did not know it was Joseph who stood before them as ruler.

Without their realizing, Joseph tested his brothers to see if they were trustworthy and to know whether they had repented and changed.  Following a series of tests, they return again this time with their brother Benjamin as he had insisted they do.  The tests Joseph put them through convinced him of their change, and we read of a meal they had with him just before he revealed himself to them. You’ll notice too that the brothers knew something was up when they were seated in birth order as they ate and that Benjamin was given extra portions during the meal.

We read in Genesis 43:26-34:  26 When Joseph came home, they brought into the house to him the present that they had with them and bowed down to him to the ground. 27 And he inquired about their welfare and said, “Is your father well, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” 28 They said, “Your servant our father is well; he is still alive.” And they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves. 29 And he lifted up his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother's son, and said, “Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me? God be gracious to you, my son!” 30 Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there. 31 Then he washed his face and came out. And controlling himself he said, “Serve the food.” 32 They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. 33 And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth. And the men looked at one another in amazement. 34 Portions were taken to them from Joseph's table, but Benjamin's portion was five times as much as any of theirs. And they drank and were merry with him.

Afterwards, in one of the most heart-rending, wonderful stories of the Bible, Joseph reveals himself and all the brothers weep and rejoice, and especially did Joseph weep on the neck of his little brother Benjamin. 

Most often, this story focuses on Joseph, but take a look for just a second at Benjamin.  There are a few points worth noting.  First, it is safe to say, that among the entire family of Jacob, there was a favorite, Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob. Babies of the family often find themselves the favorites.  In research on birth order, youngest children are often the most gregarious, the ones who entertain and keep the rest of the family smiling and laughing.

That may have been true of Benjamin.  We do know that he was particularly close to his next older brother.  As the youngest, they spent their early years playing together, with Joseph no doubt his trusted confidante. Benjamin, as one of the sons of Jacob—of Israel—became leader of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Benjamites were known for their skills as warriors; they were famously gifted as archers with bow and arrow, and for their accuracy with slingshots. 

And a few the descendants of Benjamin are worth noting.  The first King of Israel was a Benjamite, a direct descendent named Saul. Mordecai and Esther were both Benjamites. The entire Jewish nation was saved by the strategy of Mordecai and Esther. And of course, another of Benjamin’s descendants was the prolific author and missionary named Saul of Tarsus, known as the Apostle Paul, who by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, Philemon, Colossians, Philippians, 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy and Titus.  Some theorize more, but we know he penned those thirteen books of the Bible.

From the Bible’s account, we know that Benjamin was dearly loved by his family—perhaps the favorite. We know that Benjamin lived a life of consequence and left a legacy worthy of celebrating.  That legacy included descendants who were used mightily by God, both in defense of God’s people and in spreading the Gospel of Jesus. To be a Benjamite, according to Paul, was reason enough for honor.

And so it is with Robert T. Whitlock, Sr., named for his grandfather—A.F. Whitlock’s father—Robert Whitlock, himself a soldier in the 7th Tennessee Infantry, who not only survived the terrible battle at Gettysburg, but also fought and stood alongside Lee at Appomattox. 

Bob was the youngest born to his father and mother, He was one of the four little ones or younger ones in the family. He was especially close to his next older brother Harold, my grandpa.  As I understand, and as it was a necessity in a family of eleven children, each new child born was assigned to one of the other children for care. Harold was assigned to Bob.  I’ve heard stories that when Bob was little and would scrape a knee or cry for someone, it was usually for his brother, Harold.

As his namesake had two generations before, Bob was a soldier. Just a teenager when drafted during WWII. He trained for two months then sent into the battle theater first in North Africa then in Italy serving in the 5th Army, 91st Infantry Division, and fighting in terrible battles I never heard him mention. His awards and decorations include EAME Theater Ribbon, three Bronze Stars, Good Conduct Medal, Purple Heart, World War II Victory Ribbon, Distinguished Unit Badge.  I mentioned that Benjamin’s descendant were gifted as archers and slingers, Bob earned the Sharpshooter rifle badge. During his time in the war, he was wounded three times, airlifted to an Army hospital in Rome, then shipped back to the front each time. If not for Bob Whitlock and the countless others whose lives were put on the line to protect us, we might not be standing here right now, speaking English and enjoying any of the freedoms we have.

Though he had seen so much carnage and suffering by the time he was only 21, though he carried shrapnel in his body the rest of his life, he was the kindest, funniest man you’ll ever meet. Cheerful. Quick-witted. Smiling. Laughing.  Dearly loved by his family, I dare to say, he was many of the family’s favorite.  While all of the Whitlocks have a deep appreciation for story-telling and teasing, Bob was certainly one you could count on to enjoy a good laugh. 
Because of the relationship of my grandpa and Bob, I grew up closer to Bob and Peggy than nearly anyone else in the Whitlock clan. Many of my fondest memories are with them in Ponca, or on camping trips to Cedar Point in Ohio, on their farm in Fletcher, on our farm in Wayne.  And always, always, there was laughter. 

The most innocuous things would result in laughter.  When Bob and Peggy visited us in Missouri, during our years there, they came over for dinner, Dana had made a wonderful meal that began with a salad.  She had the fixings there on the table and dished out bowls of lettuce including Romain, iceburg, and mixed greens.  There was her homemade poppyseed dressing, small mandarin oranges, sliced almonds, the works. 

We began building our salads and passing the goodies and Bob just kept watching us and then putting on the next item passed to him to do it just like Dana had done on hers.  When she dished out the mandarin oranges on her salad and passed them to Bob, he looked at her and started snickering and said, “Really, little oranges on the salad?  Well, this is a fancy salad.”  We all started laughing and as he ate his salad he just giggled and snorted and the whole lot of us kept giggling all the way through dinner, for why I don’t know.  It was just fun being with Uncle Bob.

I remember that sometime in the middle or late 1970s, we had gathered, like every year I could remember, at Bircha’s and Kenneth’s house in Fletcher for Christmas. Great Grandaddy, nearly blind by this point, was seated on the couch. I watched from across the room as a parade of famiy and his own children sat next to him and took turns visiting the old preacher in this three-piece suit.

I saw Uncle Frank take a box and sit down next to Granddaddy and opened it.  Inside was a fedora.  Plaid.  He tried it on and thanked Frank for the Christmas gift.  I saw him wear it countless times over the years. Frank made a point of telling him, “Papa, the hat is from Lillian and Frank.”  He repeated that two or three times and Grandaddy assured him he understood and thanked him again.

Then about ten minutes later, I saw Uncle Bob go sit next to Grandaddy and start visiting.  Bob asked him, “Papa, do you like your new hat that Peggy and I got you?” 

“I thought that was from Frank and Lillian.”

“No, no.  I told you, the hat is from me and Peggy.” 

To tell the truth, I still don’t know whether Frank or Bob either one actually bought him the hat.

Peggy, when you and Bob Whitlock met and married, you got a fun-loving man, a good man who was loved by a wide swath of people, and a man who could laugh.  Nearly 70 years of marriage is no small accomplishment, especially to a Whitlock. You’ve set a great example for us. A good measure of a man is what his wife says about him, when he’s not around and able to defend himself.  Listen to how Peggy describes Bob. “He was a great husband and provider, a strict father, but good and fair daddy, a great lover, a darling, and friend.” 

As a postal office worker in Ponca, is it any surprise his window was the favorite?  His line was longer than any because people wanted to do their business with him.  Peggy described him as the “darling of the post office.”

As a grandpa, he was fun too.  Listen to his granddaughters talk about their Grandaddy, their Granny Bob and memories of simple days, horse trough swimming, fishing, hunting, four-wheelers, burn piles, and hay bale jumping. The granddaughters wrote the following:

“Granddaddy didn't talk too much. Most of our memories with him are photographs and videos of the things we did with him.  Most of them summer sun bleached with him in his straw hat and open button down shirt, the long socks drawn up to full height saluting the khaki shorts. His sweaty chest was a nice place to lounge after he'd been working in the garden. Reaching a hand into his shirt pocket and pulling out candy. Swimming in the horse trough on the ample front porch, or riding bikes in circles for hours while he sat contentedly, just watching.  His old pickup, dusty and smelling like straw and oil; riding somewhere with the windows down. Always going somewhere to show us something. Courtney wandering among the countless mysterious jars in the barn,  delighted to be brought along for even a mundane errand such as this.  His sure hands cleaning a fish from the pond.  Anna even remembers once taking a cow to the vet with him, because he wanted her there.  On hands and knees sliding past my hiding spot during a rousing game of peep-eye! The serene black and whites of porch sitting and cracking pecans, the McDonalds drive thru, riding on the hay bale spike behind the tractor, our feet dangling over the gravel road. We were prized possessions, we grand-girls. The gentle way he woke us when we spent the night--his hand making a soothing circle between our shoulder blades while the smell of eggs and bacon and biscuits streamed through the open door. He delighted in us--and every piece of candy, every childlike smile, every bowl of popcorn happily served imprinted this like a stamp on our nature. This is how girls are to be treated, he showed us, but never told--and we knew we were precious.”

Like Benjamin left a legacy for his descendants who did great things with their lives, so has Bob left a legacy for his family. Courtney, Anna Grace, Miriam, you and your children inherit a noble legacy. Tell them that we expect great things from Asher, Jackson, Avery, Gracilyn, Samuel, Liam, Lucy Jewel, Cecilia, and Jude Whitlock.  I expect them and the grandchildren after them to make a difference in the world, for the Kingdom of God, and for the cause of Christ. 

Bob lived out the last years of his life at the VA Nursing Center in Lawton in the Green Wing.  Do you know how the caretakers there described Bob?  As “the darling of the Green Wing.”  He was a favorite of the staff.  Over the last few years, when I dropped in to see him, I always stopped first and bought a few chocolate bars. It’s a Whitlock thing.  The last time I saw him, I hugged his neck, stood and said goodbye.  But he motioned me back.  Though his voice was weak, he pulled me in close and whispered, “Hey David.  Before you go… Would you go ahead and unwrap that candy bar for me so I can eat it?”

Life is brief.  The Bible calls it but a breath. For most of us, the end seems to come sooner than n we imagine, whether we are young or even 91 years or more.  So it is important that we take this opportunity to acknowledge that what really matters is whether we are prepared for the eternity that is beyond this short span we have here.  What matters is whether we are prepared to meet our Maker? 

Bob made a profession of faith as a young boy.  If we believe that Jesus died on the cross, was buried, and rose from the dead, if we turn away from our past disobedience to God and His Word, and place our faith in Jesus, we can live confidently.  And we can die confidently, knowing that this physical death is a mere doorway to eternal life.

Today we mourn, but not as those without hope. Because faith in Jesus changes everything.  Jesus explained His own impending death to his disciples encouraging them in John 14:1-3: “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you will be also.”

Just a few days ago, Bob opened his eyes and beheld a place that is breathtakingly beautiful, peaceful, and filled with joy. I can’t help but believe he began laughing with joy as he entered the presence of King Jesus. I can even imagine the look on his face as he caught his first glimpse of his beloved daughter.  The family wisely did not grieve him with her death this summer.So I can picture him spotting her and shouting, “Goodness, Janet! What are you doing here?”  What a time he is having. What a reunion he is enjoying. Amen.