This is a follow-up post to In Memory of Stephanie Wingard. Another related post is my post from 2007 about the forgiveness in the Nickel Mines Amish School Shooting.
Stephanie’s was a large funeral. Estimates ranged from 875 to 900+.
Those of us that had attended youth fellowship meetings were seated in the church auditorium’s balcony and sang several songs. There were about 60-701 of us.
The church’s auditorium was fairly small and seated only the extended family. Everyone else sat in the gym, watching the service on closed circuit television.
It was a very touching service. The most touching part for myself–and apparently for those from youth fellowship meetings with whom I was sitting (most of us began crying at this point)–was the part where forgiveness was expressed toward Dave. The preacher, Donny Swartzentruber, who is Stephanie’s uncle (he’s married to one of Olen’s sisters, I believe), asked Dave to come to the front. Donny put his arm around Dave and talked for a while about forgiveness. He then expressed his own forgiveness and the forgiveness of one of his daughters who was the closest friend of Steph’s from their family. He then asked that anyone in Steph’s family that forgave Dave would stand. Olen, Emily, and the three boys stood to their feet. He then asked that anyone from Steph’s extended family that forgave would stand. Steph’s aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc stood to their feet. He then asked that those from the youth fellowship meetings that wished to extend forgiveness to Dave would stand. We stood.
I think the reason it was so moving is because forgiveness is difficult for us emotionally when we have been hurt. Also, I felt the presence of God’s love so strongly and it felt like we were extending something to our fellow man that God extends to us; I felt a harmony with God, a peace with God, and the presence of God, to the extent that it moved me and others to tears.
Donny noted that Dave was shaking with sobs.
As the funeral procession snaked through the flat Oklahoman countryside from the church to the cemetery, each corner had a state trooper standing at attention, keeping back the non-existent traffic.
The Xanga of devoted2him has pictures of the graveside service and several poems written in Steph’s memory.
Through this all, the words of Jesus have been ringing in my ears: “Forgive and you will be forgiven.”2 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”3 As always, Jesus makes the logic of his teachings most clear with simple stories. Like the following parable.
Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV):
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents (millions of dollars) was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii (a few dollars). He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
We have been forgiven so incredibly much! To turn around and not forgive our fellow man is the height of absurdity.
As I’ve discussed forgiveness and mercy, there have been those who have come to me expressing the need for responsibility and not obstructing justice. Primarily that was two of my brothers in Christ from the Lott community who feel a large weight of responsibility for what happened. I can understand their perspective and especially appreciated when one of the them expressed, “We extend forgiveness, but we do not stand in the way of the law’s justice.” I have come to the conclusion that their level of responsibility is something that they’ll have to struggle through in the days and months ahead. Taking responsibility may indeed be the Godly course of action in the case of the Lott community. I don’t know enough about the community to know. As a friend of Steph’s (not knowing Dave), I can only offer forgiveness, not seek justice or responsibility.
A few more choice quotes from various people I’ve been talking to about this:
“God offers forgiveness, but nature does not.”
“There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
There was a comment on a news site that gave the idea that Mennonites’ forgiveness is actually just not wanting to be held accountable to the law. I believe this is belied by the Nickel Mines School Shooting (Wikipedia) in which forgiveness was extended to non-Amish/non-Mennonite people. We believe in offering forgiveness to anyone who wrongs us, not just Amish or Mennonites. Also, Dirk Willems–a hero/martyr of Anbaptists/Mennonites/Amish–sacrificed his own life in order to save the life of one of his persecutors.
Also, there was criticism made of my comments “justifying” Dave breaking the law by not insisting that Stephanie take his proffered helmet. I would object to the idea that I was justifying Dave’s breaking the law. I was expressing understanding and empathy, but I was not justifying it. There are many unjustifiable things that are perfectly understandable.
Blessings to all as we seek to follow Christ and His commands! May we look to Him to supply us with wisdom on how He wishes us to live. May he fill our hearts with his love and compassion and may we feel and understand his heart. May we continue to pray for Steph’s family and Dave in the weeks and months ahead.
Updated 09/14/09 to add: Kevin, one of the brothers from Lott whom I talked with at the funeral, left a comment on KWTX’s site that I feel is appropriate to repost here:
As a senior member of the Faith Mennonite Youth Lott TX, I am still in shock at the death of this beautiful young girl. While that shock may fade with time, there is a family whose lives are forever changed with the passing of their daughter and sister. While we cannot change the past, and yes there is forgiveness, I personally and my church have a responsibility and accountibility to face the facts square on for the climate we allowed or created surrounding this untimely death. To say this was simply an “accident” or for that matter “God’s will” is both irresponsible and insensitive as to say it was her parents will that she died. Grant it, death is ultimately the consequence of man’s sin, but until we accept the responsibility for it and turn to God in repentance, it will make no difference in our direction for the future. God help us learn from this experience to make wise choices for the safety and well being of us all.
Kevin, I appreciate the leadership you have taken on this issue. It’s a very important issue and I’m glad you are addressing it.
Kevin and I had a good long talk at Steph’s funeral and we don’t disagree. If I was in his place, I would be saying some of the same things he’s saying.
However, I’m not in his place. I’m in the place of being Steph’s friend. Thus, my response needs to be forgiveness as commanded by Christ.
If I would bear responsibility–even peripheral responsibility–for this accident, I would be taking responsibility. Those are also commands of Christ.
Blessings to you, Kevin, as you help lead your youth group through this difficult time. May God fill you with wisdom on how to bear the responsibility without being burdened with false guilt for what is forgiven by Christ. Both of these are necessary for you. We need God’s wisdom in trying to discern how the two fit together.
Isn’t that one of the greatest questions in life? How mercy and justice meet?
Please note that I would disagree with part of what Kevin said, though I do agree with most of the spirit behind it. I’m not convinced that we really disagree, I think it’s just that he’s in a different position and has different responsibilities than I am/do. “To say this was simply… ‘God’s will’ is both irresponsible and insensitive”. I agree with the spirit behind that to say that we cannot dismiss our own mistakes as being “simply… ‘God’s will’”, thus justifying our mistakes. God’s sovereignty never justifies our mistakes. However, speaking of God’s sovereignty and His ability to turn bad to good is not inherently irresponsible or insensitive, though it can certainly be that in certain situations, depending upon the attitude behind it. God’s sovereignty in this case does not absolve anyone of responsibility, it simply brings glory to God that he can bring so much good from a situation with such a large dose of bad in it. I keep hearing more and more stories of how God has used Steph’s death to accomplish incredible amounts of good. I’ve heard specifically several times that Steph’s mom Emily (and I’m guessing, though I don’t know, the rest of the family as well) is comforted each time she hears of another incident of God using Steph’s death for good. Talking about that is not necessarily insensitive (unless there’s a wrong attitude–an attitude that absolves oneself of responsibility or an attitude that makes light of their pain would be two examples).
Through this all, it is of utmost importance to remember what death is. Death is not, as the world believes, an inseparable rending of us from our loved ones. Death for the believer is to be ushered into the amazing state of walking and talking with our incredible God face to face with no more pain, sorrow, or sickness! When we lose our perspective of what death is, the idea that things like this were God’s will is impossible to accept. Please understand, when I speak of the incredible good of death for the believer, I do not seek to minimize the pain of those that are left behind. I have had a brother, a grandmother, and a cousin die. I have felt the pain of their passing. However, when we place the good of Stephanie next to our own pain, while our own pain still hurts, we can understand–at least on a certain level–how this could have been the will of God. When we hear story after story of how her death has impacted our world for good, we praise God for His incredible love for all of us and His wisdom that passes our own so thoroughly as to not be comparable.
Praise the Lord!
By the way, someday, I’d like to share some of these stories of how God has used Steph’s life for His glory and the betterment of many people. However, I need to get permission from folks, gather stories, and verify details. Is that something people would be interested in?
1This estimate was arrived at by soliciting estimates from a number of other attendees to verify that my own estimate was accurate.
2Luke 6:37 (NIV)
3Matthew 6:14-16 (NIV)