Memories of a Great Dad

I believe my father is worthy of honor for he loved others well. He also did many things well. He wrote articles as a guest editorialist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, taught college economics classes at multiple universities, organized a host of athletic event for kids, played football at the Airforce Academy, and racked up a lifetime of honors as a high school athlete, including a spot in the St. Joseph High School Sports Hall of Fame. But he would be the first to tell you that those things mattered only a little to him. People remained his first passion. More specifically, we his family were his joy.

Why Blog?

Before I dive into the essence of who my dad was, I want to briefly explain why I write and blog. As it did for C.S. Lewis, writing proves for me to be a powerful means by which I organize my sorrows and find answers to my questions. I suppose one could say it’s my method.

What follows is but a small reflection of the light that was my dear and now deceased father. It is not the sum total of who he was. To piece together that picture, one would need to talk to my dear mother, all of my siblings- their spouses and children, my uncle, my father’s beloved university students, his extended family, and the many random people that my dad had helped. I believe that many of these stories will also be shared in the days and weeks ahead as antidotes, eulogies, and phone conversations. What follows below is one section of one chapter in that much grandeur story, the story of Mark Witkowski.

My Dad

Though my dad always downplayed his own accomplishments, he always highlighted mine. When he battled brain cancer decades ago, one of his highlights from that hard season of life was watching my older brother and I play little league baseball together. Thomas opened the game on the mound, and I caught him behind the plate. I cannot remember the score of that game. But I do remember my dad watching the game in the cheap, metal bleachers behind home plate with my mom and the ride home in the blue dodge minivan where he shared how proud of us he was.

Though always quick to praise me, he also was never afraid to correct me when I mis-stepped. He was the first coach to make me run laps after I angrily questioned his coaching strategy during my 11-year-old little league season. That strategy ended with me winning our league’s championship trophy. He was a great coach. At the sports banquet that commemorated the end of my high school baseball career, the speaker praised my godly character. But dad and I both knew my character on the field fell short of God’s holiness. I had ended the season shoving a teammate in anger. As we walked back out to the car in the quiet of the night sky, he looked at me and said, “Peter, what he said about you was a lie.”

While I disappointed him at times, he never gave up on me. He was always ready to encourage me. He rejoiced when I told him that I had become a Christian and quickly arranged for me to go on my first mission trip a few days later. It was there in the deserts of New Mexico that I first sensed God calling me to fulltime ministry. He helped me get into college and encouraged me to apply for the UALR Donaghy Scholars Program when I felt deeply insecure about my academic abilities. When I sank into depression during my final year of seminary, his simple advice to keep going to church proved to be the life raft that my soul needed until God righted it afresh. There was no limit to his simple and yet profound encouragement.

There was also no limit to his laughter. My mom could make him laugh like no one else through her teasing and nudges. He in-turn never stopped tickling her. If I have coopted anything from my parents’ marriage into my relationship with April, it is undoubtedly my father’s love for long conversations and tickle messuages. In other words, I knew April was the one because I could both talk to her without stopping and never get bored and could find great joy in tickling her.

He also liked to play pranks. Once when I lived in Louisville, he arrived at my home while I was still at work. Since my roommates had not meet him, he seized the moment, entered the house with his badge open, and told all my roommates that he had come to investigate Peter Witkowski for trafficking in stolen antiques. And they thought I was just a simple seminar student.

When I entered fulltime ministry, he became the closest thing I had to a pastoral fan club. He made a point to attend my ordination service with my mom. He liked my blogs so much that he convinced major websites to republish them. During COVID, he faithfully watched every sermon I preached. About Forty-five minutes to an hour later, I would invariably get a call or a text from him telling me that I had done a good job. A few months ago, he even approached me about creating an Amissville Baptist Church St. Louis Campus. Though completely impractical and somewhat antithetical to my understanding of ecclesiology, the gesture beautifully captured his never-ending love and support for me. This past Sunday, I once again received a text message from Mark Witkowski. It read, “Good sermon today.” I will miss my dad.

What meant the most to me in these later years was his love for my family. He dearly loved my bride, April. I think he was always somewhat surprised that someone so amazing as her could love his son. He was deeply thankful for her presence in my life. He warmly welcomed her into our family and loved her from the day he met her.

When the oncologists diagnosed April with breast cancer and talked of her impending death, it was his voice that spurred me to search for better treatment plans and better doctors. And it was he who daily and at times hourly prayed for her healing, “a full healing” as he would say. Even in these last days as his strength and soundness of mind briefly return, he once again called April to tell her that he was praying for her.

Closing Thoughts

Though some kids never hear their father say, ‘I love you,” I regularly heard those words. April and my children regularly heard those words too. We also felt them. In their own way, my kids knew that Papa Wit loved them. He was Luke’s model train buddy and Lily and Lacey’s friend who took them on wagon rides. As his health declined, my kids regularly asked me to pray for Papa Wit.

They prayed for him to come home. With the help of hospice, he returned to his home a few weeks ago. Then on Wednesday December 1, 2021, he went to his final home, to highest heaven above. As I type out these reflections, I have no doubt of my dad’s final destination for he loved others well. As 1 John 3:14 says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” In addition to seeing Jesus face to face, my dad has also gotten to meet his eldest grandson, Peter Alexander. He has no reason to return to this sad world.

Still, I find great sorrow in this moment. I distinctly remember my father crying at his father’s funeral. I suspect I will do the same. I do not mourn him but rather the relationship with him that death has temporarily interrupted.

When second Peter died in 2013, Isaiah 65:20 became one of my favorite verses for it addressed the heartache associated with losing an infant child. Today the verse takes on an ever-fuller meaning as it addresses the heartache of losing my father. Oh friends, how I long for that promised day, a day when, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not fill out his days.”

Love Your Enemies

The Ukrainian pastor could not believe what he saw. He had arrived at the situation innocently enough. A few days earlier, an elderly woman had come to his office seeking help to secure her dying son’s diabetic medication. Wanting to be the hands and feet of Jesus, the pastor secured the medicine and then brought it to the woman’s home. But when he walked into the back bedroom, he did not see just any man. He saw ‘the man,’ his former security guard. For ten years, this guard had wiped his feces on the pastor’s toast. To top off the torture, the guard had also blindfolded and then tied the pastor to the execution post. The guard demanded that the pastor recant. He refused. But instead of gun shots, curses rang out. The guard then untied the pastor, drug him across the prison floor, and tossed him out of the gate. That chapter of the pastor’s life had ended just a few months earlier. Now he stood over his abuser unrecognized and full opportunity. Here was his moment, his chance for payback, justice, and revenge. What should he do?

What would you do if you had the opportunity to get even with that one person who had destroyed your childhood, ruined your marriage, or trashed your reputation? What would you do if you had the opportunity to get even with your most hated enemy?
The Sunday school answer (of course) consists of us loving and forgiving those who hurt us. After all Jesus had told his listeners in Matthew 5:44, “But, I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Still, this is not so easy to do when applied to the real world. Jesus knew this. In Matthew 5:43, he describes the general religious approach to dealing with enemies when he states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Though modern ears get a touch squeamish around the word “hate,” they still very much tolerate the concept that characterized second temple religiosity. One does not have to go far before he or she will hear people qualifying their love for others with appeals to the concepts of negativity and toxicity. We love those who support our passions and who give credence to our hurts. On the other hand, we hate those who push unkind, toxic, and destructive vibes into our souls. We shun them because they are bad for us. They always bring us down with their criticisms and judgement. Like the people of Jesus’s day, we tend to love our friends and hate our enemies. Despite our disposition towards hating, Jesus still calls us to love our enemies. After all, God sends rain on the just and the unjust and defines love according to his extraordinary character.

What does Love Look Like?

Before we dive into why we should love our enemies, we need to grasp what this love looks like. Namely, it looks like prayer. When men and women insult us, hurt us, and harm us even though we are peaceable, we are to first rejoice for such persecution proves that we are suffering as Jesus suffered (Matt 5:10-12). But then we pray!
If we truly love someone, we should want them to know the peace and joy of Jesus. We should hope and pray that those who have tortured us with their hands and words become members of our churches. This is not to say that we sidestep the legal system when crimes have been committed. But even as our enemies wind their way through the court system, our prayer should be for their salvation. Augustine helpfully defined love’s perfection as the ability, “To love our enemies, and to love them to the end that they may be our brothers.”

At this point, some will object because of the magnitude of their opponents. They believe that this unchecked politician will destroy their very way of life. This pastor will ruin the church. Or this boss will ruin their career. Such concerns are often not unfounded. But it does not change the Jesus’s mandate to love and pray for one’s enemies. As the British Pastor, John Stott noted, Jesus prayed for the men as they drove the nails into his hands. He then writes, “If the cruel torture of the crucifixion could not silence our Lord’s prayer for his enemies, what pain, pride prejudice or sloth could justify the silencing of ours?” None can. For the Christian only one class of people exists: those whom we love and pray for.

Sun and Rain

Such prayer-filled love is not optional. As Matthew 5:45 makes clear, all the sons of God pray for their enemies because the sons reflect the character of their Father. He makes it rain on the just and the unjust (5:45). Though many religious people assume the presence of a new car, or their recent promotion reveals that God is pleased with them, they have no biblical basis for such thought. In his love, God cares for both the wicked and the righteous alike. The farmer who faithfully loves his wife and the farmer who has as many sexual partners as he does ears of corn can both plant, harvest, and sell corn with great success. God does not wipe sinners out the moment they sin. He patiently endures their evil (and our evil for that matter) allowing the sun afresh on both the righteous and the unrighteous. When Christians pop out an umbrella or marvels at the red sunset, they should remember their father’s caring disposition to them and to those who torment them. God loves his enemies. How can his sons and daughters do otherwise?

Extraordinary Love

Moreover, the simple ability to love those who love us falls short of the essence of God’s supernatural love. Jesus points out in Matthew 5:46, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Jesus then restates the idea with Gentiles in verse 47 to help his listeners understand that even the most unreligious person will love those who love them back. Though we should love our friends, spouses, and those that share our interests. We must not boast in this love for it is common to all. Both the Christian husband wearing a tie to church and the lesbian husband wearing her black leather pants understand the importance of caring for their sick partner for both know that a happy wife equals a happy life. What sets the believer apart from the unbeliever is that the tie wearing guy should be just as ready to help his lesbian neighbor as he is his own wife. As the martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “No sacrifice which a lover would make for his beloved is too great for us to make for our enemy.” With this in mind, can we say that we truly love our enemies?

When Jesus saw us laying helplessly on the bed of life after having devoted all our energies to openly undermining, attacking, and insulting him and his loving glory, he loved us afresh. He went and died on the cross so that we might live. And then he ascended to the throne where he intercedes on our behalf. Salvation exists because God loved his enemies to the point where they became his sons and daughters. Should we not do the same?

What Did the Pastor Do?

The Ukrainian pastor knew the surpassing love of God. Instead of exacting vengeance so he could get some closure, he gave them man his medicine. And then when the mother asked, the pastor prayed for her son, he did. By God’s grace he loved his enemy.
Will you?

Genuine Love Does Not Consume

heart-700141_1920Genuine love does not consume the object of its affection. In Psalm 26:9-10, David asks God to spare him from judgement because he has not been a bloodthirsty man, “in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hand are full of bribes.”

When we think of bloodthirsty men, we correctly conjure up images of abortion doctors, husbands who murder their wives while on their honeymoon, and large corporations that stick thousands of employees in unsafe buildings that collapse and kill hundreds of poor people.

But the heart of bloodthirsty person does not reside exclusively on Wall Street or in the palaces of government power. It resides in senior adults, young men, and little kids. The bloodthirsty devour the lives of others for their own success. The senior adult who befriends a high school student to get some  technology help and then reneges on the contract employs evil devices. The young man who attends church to secure the love of his future wife and then removes himself from fellowship once rings are exchanged has taken advantage of others. And, the child who befriends the ‘smart girl’ so she can improve her grades and then refuses to sit next to her at lunch once grades are posted possesses the soul of the bloodthirsty. Those who love people like they love their favorite food reveal that have never loved.

True love does not consume others; it benefits others. If we love others well they should thrive at our expense. We should skip buying a new pair of shoes so that we can help our out-of -work neighbor buy groceries even though he can never repay us. We should invest in the life of the student, knowing we may never see her again and knowing she will bless countless others. And, we should take the senior adult to his doctor appointments even though he will never thank us because we desire to him healthy enough to attend church. If we love others, we will bless others, for this is the love of Christ.

He died for us because he loved us. He gets nothing from us and yet gives us eternal love. Those who have experienced the selfless love of God as they repented and believed on the finished work of Jesus should love selflessly. The world will know we are Christians by our love.

What about you? Will you be spared from judgment because you have love well?