This past Sunday I had the honor to attend with my family a celebration service to honor my father-in-law, Terry Lahr, for faithful service to his church as their organ player. He has served the Mount Zi0n Baptist Church in Piasa, IL in that role for around 50 years. Week after week, year after year, Terry faithfully expressed his love for Christ by spending a few hours practicing during the week, and then arriving early at church on Sunday to get ready for the service. In this past year he has had to retire from that role. The church invited friends, family, and even his former pastors to come to the service and share a bit about his service, and the small country church was packed. It was a really nice event, and I know that he felt honored for his faithfulness.
As I sat and listened to the different voices honoring him, I got to thinking about my sermon from that morning on Philippians 2:12-18. In the sermon, I mentioned a Eugene Peterson quote, that the Christian life is “A long obedience in the same direction (actually, its the name of a book he wrote).” “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” I realized that my father-in-law has left a legacy of humble faithfulness that personified the goal all of us should have.
During the service, I watched my oldest son speak of how the faithfulness of his grandfather has shaped him and his cousins, and even get teary eyed when thinking of how his grandpa opened his home and life for his wedding. My wife Heidi shared how his playing music at home and church was such a shaping influence on her, as the hymns of the faith were such a big part of their home. She also mentioned that her love for the Carpenters music came about because Terry and his wife Mary were, as Heidi put it, “the original wedding singers,” so often asked to come play and sing for weddings in the church. And of course, in those years, the Carpenters were singing love songs that were perfect for the celebration of love. My wife also remembered the faithfulness to Christ and His church taught by her dad. As a farmer, there are periods where the crops have to be planted, or have to be harvested. These are intense and super busy seasons, needing so much time and energy. But, “Sundays were for church, we knew it,” my wife shared. She told how she put in her dress, and they went to church every week, without fail. There was no reason for missing.
We also heard his current and former pastors share with the crowd how Terry’s faithfulness to his calling as the organist, but also as a deacon, Sunday School teacher, and committee leader has impacted each of them and the ministry of the church. In fact, one of his pastors said that Terry had probably been on and chaired every committee at one time or other except for maybe the WMU (for those not from Baptist life, this is the Women’s Missionary Union). His current pastor shared that Terry still shows up at the church on Sunday morning a couple hours before the service, to turn on the heat or air, and make sure the building is ready for Sunday morning church. In fact, there was a week a month or so back where Terry was sick, running a fever, and told the pastor he could not make it. So the pastor came a little early to get these things done, to find him up at church turning everything on, and then going home to crawl back in bed. We also heard personal stories of how Terry was not just a church member, he was a friend and advocate for their pastor. This is something I watched, as he and my mother-in-law befriended and poured their lives into the life of their pastor and wife, Bob and Mary Ellen Chisenhall, both of whom have gone on to be with the Lord.
One other testimony stuck with me. A teenage young man who currently plays the piano for this church shared how Terry’s faithfulness and graciousness had shaped him. Terry encouraged him at age 10 to consider serving with him as the piano player. He was patient with him and taught this young man how to play in church. It was beautiful to hear how Terry had invested in this young man, encouraging him to develop his gifts and use them in the church to the glory of Christ. This young man then sat and played a beautiful arrangement of hymns and Christian songs chosen by Terry as some of his favorites in his honor.
My father-in-law has spent his 76 years in one church. His parents took him to Mount Zion from the time he was born, he was baptized in this church, married there, and has faithfully served there all his life. This includes around 50 years faithfully leading the church in worship by playing the organ each and every Sunday. He continues to serve there as a deacon and in other roles. We got to laugh a bit when Heidi looked at Terry and told her dad, “Not many people get a chance to get a preview of their funeral.” The room was full of people who had been touched by his service, including church members who had moved away long ago, but came back to this celebration. And, that group included my family, my children. Their lives have been shaped by the legacy left by Terry’s faithful service, sacrificial love for his wife while she suffered, his love for Jesus, and his joy (Andy mentioned that his wife Kelsey said that Terry reminds her of the old man in the movie UP, but with a smile).
Several times, the current pastor there at Mt. Zion reminded us that we were not there to praise Terry, all glory belongs to Christ. And I agree. Yet, God puts His glory on display in the lives of people who trust Him and live in obedience. These are the real heroes of the Christian story, faithful church members who joyously serve Christ and His Bride week after week without fanfare or recognition. So as I listened to the tributes, I was thinking about the idea of a long obedience in the same direction. I realized that my father-in-law was a living picture of what we should all strive to pursue. To be faithful to Christ, using our gifts and talents in service to the Lord, and to love the church so deeply. He never did this for recognition, and to be honest, this event had to be planned without his knowledge or it would have never happened (it was a surprise for him). These are things that will bring us lasting joy, and that show this type of obedience and faith.
During the service a lady from the church sang the old Ray Boltz song, Thank You. For those who are not familiar with the song, its classic Christian hokey song, a dream about heaven where people come up and thank a person in heaven for impacting their lives. Honest confession here, I have a bit of a gag reflex to this kind of hokey thing in church life, probably a residue from sitting in lots of services that were designed to get you all emotional. But as she was singing the song, I also had a little bit of that old Baptist guy rise up and fight against the cynic, and maybe, just maybe I got a little tear. Truth is, it was not so much the song itself, but the idea. In His grace, for our good and joy, and for the glory of Christ, God chooses to use simple faithfulness of ordinary people to leave a legacy that can affect so many people. This is the outcome of any life that seeks to honor Christ and does so for the long haul. This is how God uses people who pursue this long obedience to Christ in the same direction. May this be our goal and passion.