Mark’s Witkowski’s Funeral Sermon

Grief proves to be a powerful emotion. It can heal divisions, mend marriages, and inspire us to accomplish goals that previously seemed out of reach. Conversely, it can shatter relationships, uproot lives, and remove the good inhibitions that prevent us from spending our life savings on an outlandish trip to Australia or on that life-size Star Trek Enterprise model.

Our Lord and savior knew the emotion as well. Luke who wrote the gospel which bears his name famously reported that “Jesus wept” when he came to the home of his then dead friend Lazarus (11:35). The verse before Luke 11:35, reveals that Jesus intensely felt the sorrow of death. The text says Jesus, “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled (Lk 11:34).” Even though many of us like Jesus place our hope in the resurrection from the dead, it is not wrong to grieve Mark’s death. The Puritan writer John Flavell helpfully noted,

It is much more becoming a Christian to ingeniously open his troubles than to sullenly smother them…Griefs are eased by groans and heart-pressures by utterance.

In other words, we do not need to fear the tears on our face or the sorrows that invariably slip into our minds as we start this new season of our lives. We should both celebrate Mark’s life and grieve his death. And we should do those things in a productive and constructive manner. Were my dad here today, I think this would be his concern for us. He would want us to grieve well. He would not want his memory to burden his dear wife, children, grandchildren, extended family, or friends with excessive sorrow.

Over these last few years, my dad championed Ephesians 5:15-21 as his life verses. He wanted to live with great care for he knew the days were evil. Since death remains the most profound manifestation of evil, I believe these verses that meant so much to my dear father in life will prove meaningful to us as we grieve his death. I hope Paul’s letter will inspire us to walk carefully and to study the Scriptures. It is these two principles that best explain who Mark was. And it is these two principles that helps us grieve well.

To Walk Carefully

To grieve well, we must walk carefully.

If ever there was a planner, it was Mark Witkowski. Whether it was the purchasing of little tikes cars for track meets, the calling of U.S. senators to book his next economic speaker’s forum, or the mailing of valentine’s day cards accompanied by a five-dollar bill to all his grandkids, Mark lived life with great care and intentionality. He thrived on organizing basketball tournaments, coaching our baseball teams, and coordinating anniversary trips. If he wasn’t doing something big, he was busy selecting the right flowers for his various gardens, creating a tree house for his grandkids, or decorating the house for my mom. He never stopped planning. Even on his death bed, he constantly talked of redoing the floors in his house and of renting a store front so that he could open an extension campus of my Northern Virginia church in the St. Louis area.

He did all that he did with others in mind. He walked carefully so that his employers would thrive, so that his kids would have opportunities to succeed, and so that Joetta would be well cared for. Even as he approached death, he talked of getting his childhood train set to Little Thomas and Luke. He wanted the childhood toy that had brough him such joy to bless another generation of Witkowskis. He longed to make the best use of his days for he had experienced evil.

Though Mark saw the best in others, he remained ever aware of the days were evil. He had been wrongfully terminated from more than one job. He had developed and beaten brain cancer. And, he had walked through all the ups and downs of his kids’ and grandkids’ lives. He understood the realities of sin nature. In Ephesians 4:17-18, Paul said that the Gentiles, those who do not follow Jesus, walk “in the futility of their minds…darkened in their understanding.” Dad knew the world was broken and needed to be fixed.

The Faith of Mark Witkowski

Dad also knew that he was broken. As a young man and in his earlier years as my father, he had been dead in his trespasses and sin. He made mistakes. Some tense moments punctuated those early years of his life. But they never defined him because he found Jesus, the life and light of men. What Paul writes in Ephesians 2:4-5 proved true of my dad: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loves us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.”

Mark understood that he was made in the image of his creator and that that image had been corrupted by his father Adam and by his willful desire to do evil. He also grasped that he could not work his way to heaven through baptism or being kind. More importantly, he knew he did not have to trust in good works because Jesus, being both fully God and fully man, had lived the perfect life that God had called all of us to live. Mark knew that Jesus had freely offered to exchange his life for ours. He had died on the cross and rose again so that we could live with him forever. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” By the God’s grace, Mark had understood and responded to the gospel with repentance and faith through grace.

It was the grace of Jesus that inspired my dad to see the good in all of us. It was the grace of Jesus that motivated him to plan. It was the grace of Jesus the proved to be the source of his wisdom. It made him the man we knew, loved, and now miss. It was this grace that he hoped all his children, grandchildren, family, and friends would encounter through faith. It is this grace friends that I offer to you today. Repent and believe.

Were Mark to tell us anything today, he would tell us to place our hope in Jesus and to keep our grief in check. He would allow us to be sad for a few days. Then, he would encourage us to graciously do the next thing. He would want us to love our mom, our families, and those around us. He would encourage us to walk carefully.

Then as Paul, he would encourage us to avoid foolishness. To put it positively, we should carefully study the word of God.

Carefully Study the Word

My father loved to watch old T.V. shows and movies with my mom including the Bob Newhart show. In an episode of that show, Newhart plays a psychologist who blurts out “Stop it” as he become annoyed with his patient. The patient starts again, and Newhart says, “I know but am telling you all you have to do is stop it. Two words, stop it. No, you are not hearing me, stop it.” In Ephesians 5:17, Paul is telling us to “Stop it.” The idolatry, the greed, the selfishness, the anger, the pride, the sexual immorality, the drunkenness, he says, “stop it.”  To grieve well, we must avoid foolishness. “Stop it,” as Newhart says.

Thankfully, Paul does not end where Newhart ends. He goes forward to positive instruction, telling us that the Word of God can cure foolishness. “Understand what the will of the Lord is.” As Psalm 119:9 reminds us, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” God’s Word cures foolishness.

It reminds us that death is the result of sin and that Jesus is the antidote to death. The Bible also reveals that baby Jesus is coming again. Jesus will one day install a new and perfect world free of sorrow. In other words, we grieve the loss of relationship brought about by death, but we grieve in hope for we know a day is coming when as the prophet Isaiah says,

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 (65:20).

The will of the Lord proved to be grandpa Wit’s source of wisdom. Though my dad was committed to getting us to every baseball, basketball, and dance recital he could, he never let anything interfere with church. Even when on vacation, all seven of us would stumble into some unsuspecting church. Even as he grew weak, he continued to share how the Psalms he read shaped his understanding of life. He ever and always wanted to know the will of God.

If we understand God’s will for our lives, alcohol and all other addictive behaviors will lose their appeal. We will have no need of liquid courage for we will have spiritual courage. If we grieve with the spirit, our sorrow will lead not to depression but to singing, thanksgiving, and service.

Singing

Mark Witkowski loved to sing. At his insistence, us guys would all sing “We Three Kings” with him every December. As our family grew, he would have us all sing the “Twelve days of Christmas.” He took great joy in belting out “5 Golden rings.” When the calendar finally flipped to Christmas, he insisted that the family sing all the Christmas carols on the song sheet he had printed off before moving on to presents. When he tucked us in at night, he would make up songs that ended with him saying, we were his bundles of joy. He would sing loudly at church and delighted in hearing my mom sing.  There was always a melody in his heart when he made us his sausage casserole, worked in the yard, or washed mom’s Christmas dishes. Even when he was down, music proved to be one of his favorite remedies. When the Cubs lost in the playoffs, he would lock himself in his office and play Christmas carols. Were he hear today, I think he would us to channel our grief into the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual song.

Thankfulness

Secondly, my dad was always thankful. There were many moments at the dinner table when the five of us would sit there staring at those whole wheat noodles wondering if this was the moment of revolution. My dad would then sit down at the head of the table and begin to go on and on about how he loved my mom’s spaghetti or latest casserole. Once he gave thanks, we knew the gig was up and begrudging settled into to eat our food.

 According to my dad, my mom was the best cook, teacher, mother, wife, actor, and musician in all the world. Though such verbose language many times proves disingenuous, Dad genuinely believed my mom had hung the moon. Even as he muscles gave way, he talked of getting well because he wanted to care for the woman of his dreams. Though mom was the primary focus of his gratitude, he remained thankful for everyone he meets. He delighted in my sister’s ballet recitals, Thomas’s commissioning service, James’s tap-dance performance, and Andrew’s baseball career. We knew he was thankful for all of us for he seized every opportunity to pray for us, publicly voicing his gratitude to God for us.

Service

Lastly, Mark was submissive. He put the needs of others first. If a homeless guy needed a ride, lunch, or even a job my dad would provide it for him. He regularly took time out his schedule to tutor his college students and to disciple his kids. He always and forever put the needs of the family before his own. His first earthly passion was my mom. He worked hard often holding down two jobs to ensure she had a nice home and could fulfill her passion of teaching and discipling her children. If any of us encountered a hardship, we knew we could ask dad for help, and he would be there. No matter how foolish we had been our dad was already ready to forgive us and to help us afresh. He loved serving others. May our remembrance of Mark end in us singing, giving thanks, and serving others.

Final Thoughts

Mark Witkowski was a special man for he lived out the truths in Ephesians 5:17-21. He walked carefully and understood the Scriptures. May we honor his memory by doing the same. May we grieve well intentionally doing the next thing and studying afresh the word of God. My way faithful honor the legacy of Mark Witkowski.

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.”