Is Your House in Order?

Study No. 71

It was 10:30 PM as I pulled into the driveway of our home. There had been pressing problems at work, and I was four hours later than usual. When I opened the front door, there was my wife Shirley with little Rachel in her arms. Tears were in her eyes, so much so that she could not speak.

Shirley had been canning grape juice like she does everything else: with long hours of concentrated hard work. The table was full of jars beautifully sealed. As always, there was never enough time to do everything she wanted to do. But now all this work seemed so trivial, unimportant.

Shirley’s brother Leon, 100 miles south of us, had gone to bed well before this time, as he had to get up at 3:30 AM the next morning to go to work in the woods. His wife Sarah answered a telephone call that jolted them out of every routine.

Charles, Shirley’s other brother, was getting home at about the same time as I was. He was in a "high" after successfully presenting a financial planning seminar. His wife Darlene had to pause awhile before she broke the sad news to him.

Other homes of friends and relatives were similarly affected by tragic news from a mountain road near Asheville, North Carolina. Shirley’s sister Glenda and husband Tom Tanner had been traveling with their family across the country from their Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, home, visiting friends and relatives along the way. There was "little David," as we affectionately called their blond four year old son, and two year old Jennifer. Glenda was seven months pregnant.

After spending a religious holy day with friends in Minnesota, they traveled to North Carolina to visit relatives, where Shirley and Glenda had been born and had spent their early years. After this, they had planned to visit a lonely man in Ohio who needed spiritual fellowship. Tom and Glenda had visited Nanny Bell Morgan, Glenda’s ninety-year-old grandmother. And also Phyllis Hamlin, Glenda’s sister, and her husband Paul. Their red-headed daughter Paula had enjoyed playing with David and Jennifer.

About 9 PM, the Tanners were driving on a winding mountain road, returning to the Hamlin’s after visiting Granny Morgan. A tractor trailer truck at the top of a hill lost its brakes and came roaring down the hill towards the Tanner car. It jack-knifed, taking up the whole road, leaving no escape for the Tanners. The trailer slammed into them head-on, shoved them over a thirty foot bank, and landed on top of the Tanner car. The entire Tanner family was instantly killed. They probably never knew what hit them.

A cousin of Paul Hamlin happened to be at the scene of the accident shortly afterwards, noticed the Idaho license plate, and notified the Hamlin’s of the tragedy.

Such a nightmare is entirely devastating to those affected by it; even those with a devout and sincere belief in God are shaken. Unless one has experienced such a tragedy, it is impossible to comprehend it. Stunned disbelief is a common initial reaction. Hours or days later, the grief and tears overtake the loved ones left behind. It is one thing for an older person to pass on after a long illness. But for a young, vigorous family to be snuffed out, erased from existence, totally gone: this is truly grievous.

In the case of many of the participants in this tragedy, the emotion that caused the most heartbreak was guilt. Guilt, because something had been left undone, and now it was too late. Or maybe a tinge of guilt because of a feeling of responsibility for the accident.

For Shirley and myself, there had been some written exchanges and hurt feelings. We had traveled to Idaho the previous Thanksgiving and spent four days with Tom and Glenda. Overall, it was a very enjoyable stay, in spite of some religious arguments over the correct date for a religious festival. A month before the Tanners decided to make the trip east, Tom had invited us to come up to Idaho for a week, but we spurned his offer in a caustic letter. As a result, they decided to go on their fatal trip. To our relief, Shirley had written a letter of apology to Glenda, and just before they left, Glenda had responded with a very sweet letter saying that all was forgiven. To our chagrin, we had not called them for some time and let them get off without telephoning. If only we had not been so obnoxious, perhaps we would still have these dear friends and relatives. Glenda had lived with us for at least a year before she married Tom. And Tom seemed like a brother to me. (I have three sisters and am the only son.) We felt close to Tom and Glenda, more than almost anyone else. It was an immeasurable loss we suffered, with nobody to replace them.

For Floyd and Florence Whitaker, Glenda’s parents, tragedy had struck their family of six for the first time. Glenda was their youngest, and as is often the case, she was special. A very precious gal with spunk and drive, Glenda corresponded often with her parents. All summer she had been begging them to come and visit her. But you know how it is: so much work to do! A 45-acre farm, dozens of head of cattle, scores of chickens, a big garden, completing the building of a new home, building barns and gathering hay, maintaining a timber business. The Whitaker’s are examples of Ecclesiastes 9:10 in action: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." But with news of the untimely deaths of daughter, son-in-law, and darling grandchildren, all of this work now seemed so trivial, unimportant. They had put off time and again going to Idaho to visit the Tanners. Now it was too late. There was still work left to do on the farm, but fewer children and grandchildren to enjoy.

For Phyllis Hamlin, there was the agony of realizing that in a time of indecision, she had nearly decided to go with the Tanners on the visit from their house to grandmother’s.

For Kay Hechel, Glenda’s other sister in South Carolina, there was the grief that she had missed seeing Tom and Glenda a few months earlier on a trip to the West Coast, and that on this trip of the Tanners, Tom and Glenda were scheduled to see them in a few days.

Charles Whitaker had not even seen his little niece Jennifer, nor had he or his brother, Leon, known that Glenda was pregnant. She had been keeping it as kind of a secret.

And for James Vivo, news of the death of Tom and Glenda was sorrow added to sorrow. He had just returned from appearing in court. His former wife had divorced him and was suing Vivo for child support. The judge had thrown the book at James. He lives in financially depressed Youngstown, Ohio, and his music store barely breaks even. Now he was being forced to pay an exorbitant sum, and lose dear friends as well.

We knew Tom Tanner’s relatives fairly well. There are his parents Woody and Eunice, his brother Steve and Steve’s wife Jackie, and his sisters Sarah and Mary. A close family, remarkable in every way. They seemed to bear up so well. Tom’s mother seemed to be every bit a comforter to all who came to the funeral.

The bodies were sent by air and the funeral was scheduled for Friday afternoon in Bonner’s Ferry. Paul Hamlin, at the other end, proved to be a real rock, taking care of so many details.

Charles and Darlene Whitaker, Leon and Sarah Whitaker, and Shirley and myself drove up together to Idaho to the funeral. We met Florence and Floyd Whitaker at Sandpoint, Idaho, and drove on to Bonner’s Ferry. The tragedy was drawing the family together as never before. We met Woody and Eunice, and Steve Tanner at the funeral home. It was small for the many people expected to come, so the funeral services — closed casket — were slated for the county fairgrounds memorial hall. The caskets were there, but had to remain closed because of the serious head injuries they sustained. Somehow it is hard for the reality of death to sink in unless one can see the body.

We talked with the Tanners, and cried with them, reliving highlights of the lives of those we had lost. Eunice Tanner’s wonderful character glowed. She had lost her eldest son, but here she was comforting us, helping us to understand in greater detail what Tom and Glenda were like. The Tanners gave us the keys to Tom and Glenda’s house, encouraging us to go by, and take anything we wanted to remember them by.

The story began to unfold. We had known them well. But now we were led into the inner chamber of their short, exemplary lives.

Before the funeral, the three Whitaker couples, and Shirley and I went to visit the cute, three bedroom split-level house Tom built, and where they had lived. I could see in my mind’s eye our rambling house: too many things in too little space, always needing some cleaning up somewhere. But Tom and Glenda’s house shone radiantly, exactly as they had left it when they left on their fatal trip. Immaculately neat, containing only essentials, simply yet artistically arranged. From the organized kitchen, to the lovely children’s rooms, to the basement (where even the "junk" was neatly stored), it was amazing, dumbfounding. Floyd Whitaker thought somehow Tom and Glenda may have known they were going to die and that they purposely put their house in order. This may be true. It was uncanny. The freezer in the basement had each plastic freezer carton uniformly stacked with produce that Glenda had preserved. The side of Tom’s garage had wood stacked for the winter. The harvest was in. Their work was done. Their house was in order. I could not conceive of a finer memorial to the quality of their lives than their neat and orderly house.

Throughout the rest of the day, at the funeral, the grave side services, and afterwards at Woody and Eunice Tanner’s house, we learned more details of how Tom and Glenda did indeed have their "house" in order.

Glenda was a homemaker par excellence, a virtuous woman such as described in Proverbs 31:10-31. She was one of the most frugal yet generous people we have known. Mrs. Tanner said Glenda had bought and sold five refrigerators, making money on the deal each time. She would buy something from a garage sale, keep it awhile, and sell it for more than she paid for it. She had a beautiful new sewing machine as a result of conducting garage sales herself.

The children were refreshingly obedient. They did what they were told, yet they received discipline only rarely. Three year old David had said before the family left on the trip: "My mommy doesn’t want me to eat cookies so I won’t get sick for the trip!" Daily there was a "quiet time" for the children to learn silence and quiet study or play. At mealtime, the children ate their meals, and did not pick and fuss at their food.

Tom and Glenda always immediately answered personal letters. They had time for other people. That is, they made time for others. As witness at the funeral, elderly people came that had received regular visits from Tom and Glenda, even just before they left on their trip. They would frequently call or visit if possible, the lonely, the "little ones," as they called them. In fact, their cross-country trip was designed to contact as many people as possible. Other people’s needs came first with them, not their own material things.

Eunice Tanner expressed it well when she said that Glenda always had her priorities in order. She visited Glenda often on her way to town, perhaps too much. But Glenda was always composed, and never made her mother-in-law feel unwelcome. "Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates," Proverbs 31:31.

The small town of Bonner’s Ferry has about 2,000 people. Approximately 300-400 of them showed up for the funeral. Tom’s employer, a Mennonite carpenter, told us how fine a man Tom was. Friends drove for hundreds of miles to pay them tribute.

What they had left behind them was something very wonderful. It is inspiring to think of it. Somehow the Creator had been very kind to Tom and Glenda Tanner. In a few short years, He had allowed them to do so much, and leave such a sterling example for us.

Some time previously, Tom and Glenda had been playing cards with the folks. Usually a quiet person, Glenda got very enthused and excited over the game. Tom said in an aside to the friends: "I didn’t think it was possible to love someone so much. If anything ever happens to Glenda and David, I want to go with my family."

Tom was firmly against resorting to medical science and hospitals. Instead, he firmly believed in divine healing and natural means of health maintenance. Tom had a deep love for his children, and knowing the troublesome world in which we live, he expressed his concerns about what his children would have to go through, to Paul Hamlin as they walked on a mountain in North Carolina shortly before the tragedy.

It seems like Tom and Glenda’s wishes were met in all these instances. Tom got to go with his family. They did not have to suffer in a hospital. And their children did not have to go through the devastating times of the apocalypse. As the minister expressed at the funeral, God calls us into His family, and He called them as a family.

In eloquent, but simple, heartfelt words, the funeral message gave comfort and hope to both families, lessons for us never to forget. Ecclesiastes 7:2, "It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart." Verse 1 tells us that the day of death is better than the day of birth. Eunice said that Tom would have wanted us to learn something from this. The death of this family, like the sickness of Lazarus, should not be purposeless, "but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby," John 11:4. The examples of their lives could only be possible if the Spirit of God was dwelling in them, doing the works of righteousness. How much are we seeking that Spirit to conduct our lives?

Tom and Glenda Tanner were informal, down-to-earth, practical Christians, who did not take on too many physical activities that would distract them from the important priorities of serving others, training their family, maintaining a Godly home, and encouraging others spiritually. They were never too busy to take time for others. Nor was their life too cluttered so as to bog them down with their own pursuits. They never sought money or material goods, but never seemed to lack. They were a happy family. Their house and their lives were a memorial to the great Creator whom they served. As Shirley said, they always tried their best to do the right thing.

So, what is the conclusion of the matter? Tom and Glenda’s orderly house and exemplary lives seemed to say that they were ready to die. Yet when we step back and look at our lives, are we ready? The apostle Paul had that confidence shortly before his death: "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing," II Timothy 4:6-8.

The lesson that we ought to learn from this tragedy is expressed in the proper understanding of Ecclesiastes 9:10. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, [the priorities, serving God, the family and the needs of others most of all] do it with thy might." I found out to my chagrin that I was working too hard on those things of least importance, and scarcely leaving any time at all for the really big things. The family is important. Other people’s needs are important. But, our heavenly Father is most important. Putting one’s house in order is simply putting one’s priorities in order. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you," Matthew 6:33.

Is your house in order? W

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