Hank Heitschel was a man in love with his wife Myra, who glowed when he talked about her, who cared for her in her disability with a tenderness and patience that touched us all, who, in his partnership with Myra, showed us what it is for a husband and wife to be truly one flesh in Christ.
He was a man who loved doting on his nephew and niece. Kevin and Ellen speak of how fortunate they were to have had a second set of parents in Hank and Myra. As children they remember happy sleepovers in which their uncle and auntie would always be sure to take them to the toy store. (They suspect they were “spoiled.”) They remember how Hank filled in as their “father figure” after their own father died in 1991, picking Ellen up at college and such.
He was a man who loved cooking the Thanksgiving turkey when his brother Carl and his children would come from Illinois to sit down in at Myra and Hank’s table along with Ira (Myra’s brother) and his family, where together they would all give thanks to God for the blessings of their lives.
He was a man adored and admired by his nieces and nephews: by Carl, Tommy, Gary, Eddie and Shirley, by Kevin and Ellen. He was a man they could always turn to, who could be counted on to do anything for them, and wasn’t afraid to say, “I love you.” (Hank’s family has gathered here tonight from as far away as California, Colorado, and Illinois.)
He was a man who throughout his life had an impressive capacity for learning: who mastered the intricacies of Myra’s dialysis treatments, the ins and outs of building construction, the complexities of the computer. Hank once built a television set from scratch.
He was a man who enjoyed cooking; a man who relaxed by doing counter cross stitch, a man who enjoyed laughter.
He was a man who, along with Myra, for years now have faithfully looked after their friend Madeline Ormsbee after her husband, Hank’s good friend, Ken died. He was a man who was always ready to help Doris Bradley with her mother.
He was a man who loved to climb behind the wheel of his RV with his wife at his side and take to the road to behold the magnificent beauty of this great nation; visiting all forty-nine states in the continental United States, bringing back a junk of an ice berg from Alaska to store in his refrigerator.
He was someone who always looked forward and never looked back; who never complained about the hardships that life sometimes handed him.
He was a man who combined extraordinary gentleness with a dogged determination and inner strength.
Perhaps before everything else, Hank was a man of faith, who died knowing he was loved.
A number of us have seen some similarities between Hank and the figure of Moses in the Old Testament. You may be familiar with the story of Moses’ childhood.
As a baby Moses was saved from death at the hands of Pharaoh by the resourcefulness of his mother. He was an Israelite raised not among his own people, but rather in the court of Pharaoh, a stranger in a strange land.
Hank was born on May 4, 1926 in Munich, Germany. When he was only nine months old, his father and mother took Hank and his older brother Carl and moved to New Jersey. As a young German immigrant growing up in the United States in the years following World War I and leading up to World War II, Hank experienced what it felt like to be an outsider, to be treated with suspicion and scorn. For a number of years Hank’s family lived in the gardener’s cottage on a wealthy estate in Connecticut. During this time Hank experienced what it was to be looked down upon as a working class family living among the rich. And when in 1936 the ten year old Hank and his mother traveled back to Germany for four months to care for his sick grandmother, during a time when a militant nationalism was on the rise. The boy who had felt excluded as a German in the United States felt exclusion once more for somehow not being a “real German”.
These formative experiences did at least two things for Hank: First, they gave him a tremendous appreciation for the places in this world where he did experience a sense of belonging. He found tremendous happiness in the family ties he came to know with Myra’s family: her brother Ira, his wife Marilyn and their two children, Ellen and Kevin, Kevin’s wife Carol, and their children, Corrie and Natalie.
He also delighted in the profound sense of belonging he enjoyed here in this church family. He never underestimated what it meant to have a community of people to share your joys and your sorrows with.
There was the time Hank and Myra traveled in their RV to Phoenix in hopes of saving Myra’s legs through a laser treatment offered by doctors there. When they got there, the doctors gave them the discouraging news that there was nothing they could do for Myra. It was Happy Apple Bazaar Time, something Hank loved being a part of, and I called Hank and Myra on the phone. We talked and then I passed the phone from person to person in our church family, and by the time the phone conversation was over, Hank was simply elated. He drew such strength from knowing he had the love of his church family with him. He wanted other people to have this same sense of belonging and shared kindness.
The second thing Hank’s early experiences gave him was a life-long compassion for persons who were left out of the circle. I remember, for instance, in the turmoil that followed 9/11 Hank expressed concern for the Arabic immigrants living in our midst who were suffering suspicion and prejudice as a result of the evil actions of a handful of terrorists. It was Hank who, at our Administrative Council meeting, suggested a goal for our church in the coming year of reaching out to people of other faiths in a spirit of reconciliation: that we find opportunities to meet with the Moslems, the Jews, the Hindus who live in our neighborhoods in a sincere desire to learn about their faith.
As a young man, Moses fled from Pharaoh out into the land of Midian, where Moses married a wife and got a job taking care of sheep. You may remember what happened next. One day the Lord revealed himself to Moses in a burning bush that was burning but was not consumed. From thereon the Lord was the center of his life.
At some point in Hank’s youth his family moved to a chicken farm in Whiting, a place Hank didn’t particularly enjoy. Upon graduation from high school he got a job with Federal in Newark, which later became ITT. In 1950 when the Korean War broke out Hank enlisted and served his country for two years, first in Fort Dix, and later on the battlefront in Korea. On the battlefront he took a bullet to the chest, but miraculously was shielded by its impact by a cigarette container in his shirt pocket. Following his time in Korea Hank spent some time in Japan where he experienced earthquakes up close.
Following his discharge, Hank returned to Newark where he took a room at the local YMCA and got his job back at ITT. Shortly thereafter one of the truly great blessings of Hank’s life occurred: he met Myra at a dance at the YMCA. After just a few months of dating, Hank and Myra were married on September 12, 1953 in a small ceremony in Myra’s home church in Dilsburg, PA. Hank and Myra took a honeymoon trip together through New England, which included a drive up and down Mt. Washington, with, Myra learned later, failing brakes. They lived in a furnished apartment for six months until an apartment opened up on Mt. Prospect Avenue. Six years later in 1959 Hank and Myra moved to the home at 11 Eldora Place in Parsippany where they would live for the next 42 years.
Before long, Hank and Myra began attending the Parsippany Methodist Church. As time passed, serving the Lord became more and more central to Hank’s life, and his involvement in the ministries of the church increased. Hank would go out once a week in the company of Jack Kelshaw to make home visits on behalf of the church, inviting people to come to worship. There are people here tonight who first came to this church because of an invitation extended by Hank and Jack. Later Hank became president of the United Methodist Men. He loved putting on dinners for the church.
In 1962, a couple of years after Hank and Myra began attending the Parsippany Methodist Church, the church sanctuary — also known as the “little white church on the hill” — was demolished in order to make room for Interstate 287. Two years later the present church structure was completed, and the all purpose room we are gathered in tonight became the setting for the congregation’s worship. At that time, 40 years ago, it was the hope of the congregation that a new sanctuary would be constructed — a place set apart for the congregation to come together in for worship of God. Time passed, however, and financial realities kept the dream of a new sanctuary on hold.
God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and gave him a great work to do: he was to deliver his people from their captivity to Pharaoh. Moses first reaction was to tell the Lord he had the wrong guy: “I’m not a good public speaker,” said Moses. “Send somebody else.” “Nonsense,” said the Lord. “You’re my man. I will be with you. Don’t be afraid.” So Moses takes on the job.
About twelve years ago Hank heard the Lord calling him to head up our building program for a new, dedicated sanctuary. Like Moses, Hank didn’t think of himself as a leader called to such a great task. He had no prior experience in construction, or fund raising, or public speaking — the sorts of things that would be helpful in such a position. But what Hank did have was faith. He trusted that the Lord wanted this sanctuary built, and in God’s good time, it would happen. With no one else stepping forward to take on the mantle of leadership, Hank was determined that the hope not die. Having recently retired from ITT after 41 years of employment, Hank offered to serve as the chair of the building committee, and his church gratefully accepted his offer.
And so Hank led us to the promised land of a new sanctuary, through countless detours, like Moses leading the children of Israel through the wilderness. Through it all there was a clarity to Hank’s vision that I personally found very compelling: he was very clear about doing this for God’s glory, not for his own glory. When someone would praise him for his work, he would give the praise to Jesus who, he was sure, walked with him. He felt he had received so much from the Lord; he wanted to give something back.
And every time there was a red sea to be crossed, Hank trusted that the Lord would provide a way through. And the Lord did. I remember a time about six months ago, just as we were about to break ground, when some unanticipated expenses arose. The Trustees were worried and I was worried. I called Hank on the phone, expecting him to be distraught by the news, and instead he was very calm. When I asked him about the sense of calm he possessed, he said simply that he believed the Lord was with us, and that things would get worked out. Hank’s calm assurance put me at ease. By the next day, Hank had figured out a way to postpone some inessential parts of the project that would make it possible to proceed.
What joy Hank found in seeing the construction underway! How happy he was whenever he had good news to deliver to the congregation about progress in the construction. But now we come to the last way Hank’s life resembles that of Moses.
Moses led the children of Israel for 40 years in their wanderings through the wilderness, leading
them to the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, a place that would be a true home
for a people who had known no real home. They drew near to the promised land, and Moses rises
up to the top of Mount Nebo, and from there he can see all of the promised land stretched out
before him. He knows his people will dwell there. But the Lord says to Moses, “I have let you see it
with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” And then Moses dies, having lived, the Scripture
tells us, with vigor and vitality right up to the end. And the Israelites wept for Moses.
And so it was with Hank. He lived with vigor and vitality until this past Tuesday when abdominal pains sent him to the hospital. Hank died early Thursday morning, a couple of months shy of the construction’s completion. He knew we were on the home stretch; but like Moses, he did not see the final completion of his dream. As we have grappled with the shock Hank’s death, many of us have been led to ask, “Why didn’t God let Hank see the completion of the sanctuary he so looked forward to seeing?”
One of the things Hank showed us was that although we don’t always get what we want in this life, if we can just learn to reach out to God, we’ll get what we need. In an Advent Devotional written by church members back in 1993 Hank described the ordeal he and Myra went through as they battled the infections in Myra’s feet and legs. There were long hospital stays for Myra, with Hank always by her side. During two different Decembers Myra had to be hospitalized, and both times they prayed that somehow she might be able to go home for Christmas, but in both instances, it was not to be; Christmas was spent in the hospital. Of this Hank wrote so simply and eloquently: “So our family celebrated Christmas in the hospital. As a result we felt the true meaning of Christmas.” Shortly thereafter, Myra’s legs were amputated, and prostheses were made for Myra to get around on. Hank concludes his Advent devotional so graciously: “With the strength that God had given us, we were able to endure the amputations. We have so much to be thankful for this Advent season. Myra is home and she can walk again. This experience has brought us closer together, with each other, and with God.”
What is a sanctuary? A sanctuary is a space designed in such a way that when we enter we will be inspired to imagine life in heaven; to realize there is far more to life than the few years we are given here on earth — to be reminded that in God we find our true home. Hank has, in other words, reached the ultimate promised land. Even though 11 Eldora Road in Parsippany was for Hank as much of a home as a human home can be, and even though this church was for Hank as much a spiritual home as a church can be, the home that Hank has reached now is HOME in the truest sense of the word — which is something hard for us to get our minds around; it is something we have to take at faith. But its absolutely true.
Hank was a great man of faith. In the letter to the Hebrews, we are given a definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hank had the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. He knew that there was a Good Shepherd who could be counted on, come what may, even at those times when the road is rocky, and the passage way through the darkness has not yet been revealed. He knew where he was headed, and if there were detours along the road of life, so be it; he knew his ultimate destination.
He knew that the sufferings of the present age in no way compare with the glory to be revealed to us — the incredible joy and peace and sublime beauty that await us beyond our last breath here on earth. He knew that Jesus had prepared a place for him in a mansion more beautiful than we can imagine, or ever make with our human hands: a place where there is no death, no pain, and Jesus himself wipes away all the tears.
With however many days God gives each of us yet to live on this earth, let us honor Hank by living them with the same faith — the some love — we have seen so clearly in Hank.