Ari Widener Memorial Service
December 9, 2017 (died December 5)
Note: I did not know Ari Widener personally, but his parents were special friends of ours during both of our tenures in Wichita. Russ was head of the Music Department at Wichita State University. He taught our son Eddie to play the trombone when he was in grade school and served as our church’s choir director after my retirement. Maggie was in Bible study with Jan for many years.
Obituary: Ari Alexander Widener was born in Canoga Park, California in 1974, when his older brother, Christian, was 15 months old. After we had Anah, in 1981, we moved to Wichita. Ari was a very energetic child. He loved skateboarding and soccer. He experimented with everything. When we first got a microwave oven, we told him never to put anything metal into it. Fifteen minutes later we saw blue sparks coming from the kitchen and a big smile on Ari’s face. “I just wanted to see what would happen with a ball of aluminum foil!”
As a teen, he worked for MCI telemarketing. They flew him to Atlanta to accept the award as top salesperson in the country—with a prize of $10,000.
Unfortunately, he experimented with many other things, which were not as productive. After years of wandering, he finished his days homeless in Los Angeles. His body was found beneath a freeway bridge on the morning of Dec. 5.
Ari is survived by his mother—Maggie, his father—Russ, two brothers—Christian and Hans, and three sisters—Anah, Maddie and Adrielle, and his grandfather—Jack, and aunts— Linda and Collette.
Our hearts’ cry for Ari has been Psalm 143:1-2. “Hear my prayer, O Lord, Give ear to my supplications! Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness! And do not enter into judgement with Your servant, For in your sight no man living is righteous. “
Introduction: Russ and Maggie, I want to thank you for asking me to be a part of this memorial service. You guys have meant a lot to me over the past 40 years. I did not know Ari personally, but I so appreciate that you have shared with me through the years some of the difficult journey you and his siblings have walked with Ari. The final chapter is not what you hoped for and prayed for, but I am glad all of you have chosen to honor Ari with this memorial service.
Funerals have two major purposes. One is to honor our loved one by sharing special memories. The other is to hear a Word from the Lord—perhaps a word of comfort, a word of encouragement, a word of edification, even a word of warning. We’re going to start by listening to the Scriptures. I want to read a couple of passages from the Psalter.
Prayer: Our Father and our God, we come to you today as needy people. Our hearts are tender as we are reminded once again that “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” We seek the comfort of your Holy Spirit and the fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ.
Thank you, Lord, for precious memories this dear family has of Ari. I pray for Russ and Maggie, for Christian, for Anah, and Hans, and Maddie and Adrielle, and for all the family and friends that are gathered here today, that you will give them insight into your grace and mercy and provide the strength to move on in life and service.
Most of all we thank You for sending Your dear Son to be our Savior. In His name we pray, Amen.
Memories: Family members
Music: Bernie Zuniga, “Be Still My Soul”
Message: What do you do when you are disappointed by someone close to you? I mean reallydisappointed and I mean someone really close? When a husband gets involved in his umpteenth affair? When a child is on his 5th or 6th drug rehab program? When you discover that a family member has abused one of your children? When your parent plays favorites over the years and you are the victim?
Friends, great disappointment with someone you’re really close to is not an unusual experience. In fact, it may be the norm more than the exception. We need to learn how to deal with it; we need to learn who to go to with the pain. I want to offer two suggestions or propositions in dealing with great disappointment in someone very close.
First, we must keep in mind that it is very rare that a loved one hurts us on purpose. I don’t suggest that it never happens. There are a few people in the world who are evil to the core. They hurt others, they do it intentionally, and they don’t care. But that is actually very unusual. Most people hurt others because they themselves have been hurt. Most child molesters were molested themselves. Most abusive parents had very poor role modeling from their own parents. Kids from broken homes almost always struggle with their self-image, and a broken self-image has huge ramifications for the rest of their relationships. People with mental illness experience enormous societal barriers.
Now I am not arguing that we take personal responsibility out of the equation. Modern psychiatry has done us all a great disfavor by identifying almost every aberrant behavior as an illness, or even worse, denying the behaviors are even aberrant. In 1973 Karl Meninger, a famous psychiatrist here in Kansas published a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? And the answer this generation has been giving is another question, “Whatever Became of What?” They don’t even recognize the category we call “sin.”
Friends, sin is part of the human condition. It affects everything. Every single one of us struggles with it. None of us lives up to even our own standards, much less to God’s. And the result is that we are all guilty before God and stand in need of his forgiveness. But one can acknowledge that, it seems to me, and still admit there are some people who are dealt a much tougher hand in life than we were dealt, and when we do, that should produce some understanding, compassion, and empathy. We are never promised equality in terms of where we are born, the IQ we are born with, our appearance, our family of origin, the presence or absence of mental illness. So when dealing with those who have hurt us, it is wise to consider their particular set of circumstances. I’m reminded of an old Indian proverb: “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked in his moccasins for two weeks.” So my first proposition is that we need to keep in mind that it is very rare that a loved one hurts us on purpose.
Nevertheless, we are hurt. So my second proposition is that we need to learn to forgive. Of course, as Christians we all know we should forgive. We all know verses like, “Be ye kind one to another, tender hearted and forgiving one another, just as God for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you.” But how do you forgive those who wreak havoc in our lives over a period of years, especially when they up and die before we ever have a chance to find peace with them or reconcile?
I want to share two Bible stories that involve forgiveness of very difficult family members. One is from the life of King David. Earlier we read one of his Psalms (27). Scholars have concluded that the specific circumstances that generated this Psalm was the attempted coup within his own family by his son Absalom.
Absalom had always been a difficult child. He killed one of his half-brothers and was banished for a period of time by David. Then he tried to steal the hearts of the people and seize the throne from his father. David had to set up a government-in-exile across the Jordan and he organized those troops who remained loyal to him to meet the expected onslaught. Absalom, in the meantime, gathered all the outstanding young men to his cause, publicly disgraced his father by sleeping with his harem, and then prepared a great army to finish David off. David was humiliated, outgunned, and heavily outnumbered by his enemies: he knew real fear.
Doesn’t that background offer new meaning to David’s words in Psalm 27: The LORD is my light and my salvation–whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life–of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident. The antidote to fear is knowing who God is—light, salvation, and a stronghold.
As the story unfolds, Absalom, who had long flowing hair, was riding his mule and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak tree, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree and he was left hanging in midair while the mule kept going. Against David’s specific orders to spare his son, ten of David’s soldiers surrounded Absalom, struck him, and killed him. One of them went to David and, expecting to be rewarded, bragged that Absalom was dead. We read David’s response at the end of 2 Samuel 18: “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you– Absalom, my son, my son.’”
Friends, the pathos of that moment is evidence that David was doing his best to walk in Absalom’s shoes. He knew his son didn’t ask to be born to royalty with all the unique temptations that wealth and power bring with them. He knew that Absalom had missed his father’s influence while the king was busy with the affairs of state. I also see some evidence that David felt some guilt, in that Absalom was certainly impacted by his sin with Bathsheba and the broken home that resulted.
Absalom was responsible for the evil things he did, but David empathized with his unique circumstances and would never give up loving him or hoping the best for him. And when it was too late to hope any longer, he felt the load of grief and pain that only a parent in those circumstances could understand.
The other story I want to recall for you comes from about 8 centuries before David, and it is the account of Joseph and his brothers. Most of you know the story. Joseph was hated by his ten older brothers because of their father’s unbridled favoritism toward him. When he was just 17 years old, he was sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites by his own brothers, then sold again in the slave market in Egypt to one of Pharaoh’s officials, then thrown into prison on trumped-up charges where he remained for well over two years. Through a very improbable set of circumstances (but certainly not by chance), he ends up being appointed Prime Minister of Egypt, the greatest nation of ancient times.
A famine subsequently hits the entire Middle East, causing Joseph’ s brothers back in Canaan to come to Egypt in search of food. Joseph, in his capacity as chief of food distribution, recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. After all, 22 years have passed and Joseph is now very Egyptian in his dress and in his speech. Over a period of time, involving two trips by the brothers to Egypt to buy food, Joseph subtly explores whether his brothers’ consciences have been awakened. I wish we had time to tell the story in detail, but you will have to fill in the gaps with your own reading. But I do want to read a portion of Genesis 45 where we have the pathos-filled account of the point where Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers.
“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. (What he says is, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” but what they hear is “I am Joseph and you are dead men!”)
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God….
Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin (his younger brother) and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.”
Can you imagine anyone more difficult to forgive than Joseph’s brothers? Yet somehow Joseph manages to do so. I want us to briefly consider four principles that are evident in this amazing account:
1. Forgiveness requires honestly acknowledging that someone has hurt us. The first thing Joseph says to his brothers is, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!” He doesn’t excuse it. He doesn’t sugarcoat it. He doesn’t justify it because of their father’s favoritism toward him. He just tells it like it is. Friends, you cannot forgive what is not wrong. You must name it as sin, as inexcusable or it really can’t be forgiven.
2. Forgiveness requires faith in the providence of God. In the trials of life, even in the evil that is perpetrated upon us, there is something happening that cannot be observed with human eyes and ears—God is at work! That is a fundamental assumption throughout Scripture, especially in Joseph’s theology. Three times Joseph says of his betrayal and exile in Egypt, “God sent me ahead of you.” Of course, his brothers were responsible for the terrible act of betrayal in selling him into slavery. But something else was going on at the same time. Something big. Something that must not be missed.
Joseph’s brothers sent him to Egypt. But so did God. Friends, please get this. It is no contradiction to acknowledge that someone has sinned against us, is guilty and responsible for that sin, and to affirm that God, at the same time and in the very same incident, is actively bringing about His eternal purposes. In fact, I don’t know how you can ever fully forgive an evil act unless you recognize that God was there, behind the scenes, working to minimize the eternal damage and bring some good out of the situation.
3. Forgiveness releases the offender from his obligation to us. Joseph says to his brothers, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here” (45:5). And later “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” (50:19). Please understand that it is not within Joseph’s power or prerogative to absolve these brothers of their guilt or any chastisement that God may want to bring upon them, but he can and does release them from any obligation to himself. Forgiving is allowing God to be the judge.
Sometimes I hear people confuse forgiveness with forgetting. “Just forget it and move on,” they say. I don’t think that will get you anywhere. Clara Barton was the Civil War nurse who founded the American Red Cross. She was a devout Christian woman known for never carrying grudges. One time a friend reminded her of a cruel accusation someone had made against her years earlier, but Clara seemed not to remember the incident. “Don’t you remember the wrong that was done to you?” the friend asked. “No,” Clara answered calmly. “I distinctly remember forgetting that.” What Clara Barton was doing was not forgetting but releasing. I found the following prayer which I think expresses true forgiveness:
“Lord, what so-and-so did to me was wrong, and he should pay for what he did. But today I’m releasing him from his obligation to me. Not because he deserves it, or because he has asked for my forgiveness, but because You, God, have released me from the debt I owe You.”
4. Forgiveness allows for restoration. (14-15) Joseph doesn’t say to his brothers, “I forgive you, but I never want to see your ugly faces again!” Instead he embraces them, kisses them, weeps with them, and most importantly of all–talks with them. I would love to have been in on that conversation. Imagine them filling one another in on what had happened over the previous 22 years!
Now it’s at this point that we hit something of a wall today. It’s not possible to embrace Ari, to kiss him, to weep with him, to talk with him. It is not possible to communicate forgiveness to him.
But there are two whom you can forgive today, and they may be the two hardest in the world to forgive. First, you can forgive God. Of course, He cannot be forgiven in the normal sense of the word because God has never sinned; in fact, He has not even hurt us, except in the sense that a surgeon hurts us for our own long-term benefit. Yet I find that many are angry, even bitter toward God for things He has allowed, for things He hasn’t allowed, for dreams that go unfulfilled, for loneliness that goes unabated, for prayers that go unanswered, for not showing us His face. Though they are angry with God, or at least disappointed in Him, people are usually afraid to say so out loud. But in their hearts they are saying, “If God could have prevented this pain that seems to have no redeeming value and He chooses not to do so, why shouldn’t I be angry with him?”
Well, God can handle your disappointment in Him and even your anger. The Psalmist poured out his disappointment with God on many occasions. So did Habakkuk. Listen:
How long, O Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Please notice to whom the prophet poured out these accusations–to God Himself. You can always be honest with Him; He would rather have you accuse Him than ignore Him. He loves you in spite of your anger and disappointment; He cares for you even when He seems most distant.4
The other person you must forgive is yourself. It is almost inevitable when there is a tragic, premature death of a family member for others in the family to feel guilt. Why didn’t I do more? Where did I fail? These are not necessarily illegitimate thoughts. There probably are ways in which you have failed. But now is the time to ask God’s forgiveness and then release it. Enjoy the freedom for which Christ set you free. “If therefore, the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed!”
I would like to ask a question of each of us here this morning: Is there someone you need to forgive, and to express that while you still can? Will you choose to allow the Holy Spirit to soften your heart and begin the process, sometimes a long process, of forgiving, for Christ’s sake? In a world where life can be unbearably unfair because of the evil all around us, the only power we have at times to make it better is love’s power to forgive, to heal memories of the past, and then to get on with living life to the fullest.
We can do that because God did it for us. We have all sinned, grievously sinned, but God has poured out his mercy on us and has offered to cancel our sin debt completely by sending Jesus, His one and only Son, to pay our penalty by dying on the Cross.
Song: Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Benediction: Ephesians 3