ADVENT 2017- OPPORTUNITY FOR A NEW BEGINNING – MAKE STRAIGHT THE PATHS
A Homily Given by Tom and Barbara Vossler to the St. James Congregation December 6th, 2017
(Tom) They were born and spent their early life in Tunigen, a small village in the duchy of Wurttemberg, a Lutheran stronghold in Catholic dominated Southern Germany.
In March of 1853 the three friends journeyed north to the shipping port at Hamburg. Christian Vossler, age 27; Christian Gallman, age 25 and Agatha Kaiser, age 22. On that pathway of their new beginning, they took with them a change of clothes, enough money to book passage to America, their fear of God and their faith in their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Christian Vossler and Agatha Kaiser married in November, 1853. By 1857, enough money had been earned to purchase land on the wooded hills overlooking the small farming community of Wellsville, in western New York State.
Through hard work and God’s blessing, Christian and Agatha Vossler prospered. Among their increase on their sixty acre farm, sixteen children were born to them, all but two surviving to adult-hood. Four generations later I was born. They had prepared the way for me.
After building their homes and their barns, the men, and other German-Lutheran families in the area built their church two miles away in the village of Wellsville. It was there in the church which they had built one hundred years before that I was baptized and confirmed as a child of God.
There is no question that within my memory, church-life was an extension of home-life. The reverse was also true, home-life was an extension of church-life. One of the ways in which the families supported the mission of the church, was the custom that at intervals through the generations, a family member would be identified and encouraged to study to become a pastor in the church.
I was grandmother’s chosen one. Pastor Elmer Krentz, our spiritual leader agreed. Mother and Father agreed. It seemed everyone had a plan for me.
But I was not as sure of their plan as they were and I turned away from the pathway that had been prepared for me. In 1964, I enrolled instead in a four-year military college. That decision took me down a totally different pathway than that envisioned by my kinsmen and church family. The straight pathway they had prepared for me became the road not taken.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
(Barbara) Tom and I met when we were sixteen years old. We soon became the best of friends and what in those days we called “an item”. High school days led to college days at which point we were separated by the distance of half a continent, I in Missouri and Tom in Pennsylvania.
We married in June, 1968 following Tom’s college graduation and commissioning into the Army as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry.
The day after Thanksgiving 1968 we set out on our new beginning as our pathway took us to Fort Benning, Georgia and the U.S. Army Infantry Center.
(Tom) We settled in at Fort Benning, I began my training as a combat platoon leader and we joined a new family – the Army Family. Given who we then were, our life was filled with both certainty and uncertainty. We had the certainty of our love for one another and the certainty of our love for our God.
But, given my new position, what was now also certain was that unless something happened very soon in ending the Vietnam War, I would soon be in it. That in itself created uncertainty for our future. But our faith in our God and our bond together was strong and we endured.
As it is written in Psalm 27: The Lord is my light and my salvation; who then should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom should I be afraid?
(Barbara) Upon completion of training at Fort Benning and in Panama, and a brief assignment in West Texas, Tom left for Vietnam two days after Christmas, 1969. I remained at Fort Benning with the women of our new family – the waiting wives – we gained strength and consolation from each other during the deployment of our soldier-husbands into the combat zone.
(Tom) Moments ago I quoted Robert Frost in saying that the road not taken has made all of the difference. Upon arrival in Vietnam, I took command of my infantry platoon of forty young men – at age 23, I was the oldest man in the platoon.
I found however, in Vietnam and in Cambodia, that all of the pathways were crooked. As one American Civil War veteran had earlier put it: “Hell is empty and all of the devils are here”. But, we did our duty as we understood it according to the rules of war and the commandments of our God. But – all of the difference – did something change? Yes, many things changed, but the biggest change was within me.
In late October 1970 I returned back “to the world” as we then called it and to back to Barbara at Fort Benning. It was good to be home. I also came home to a great surprise. In the time I was gone, the Episcopalian girl I had married had taken the necessary classes to become a Lutheran. And we prospered together in our small Lutheran congregation off-post at Fort Benning.
Assigned as an instructor in the Weapons Department of the Infantry Center, I now prepared young soldiers to join the great crusade in Vietnam. The crooked pathways I experienced in Vietnam and Cambodia were now able to be made straight. Well, not yet.
(Barbara) They say warfare changes a man, particularly those who were actually combat soldiers. Tom was no exception. Upon returning home he was not the same man who left the year before. While not physically wounded, praise God, there were hidden wounds of the mind that needed time to heal.
While Tom never abused me or the children, factors of un-Christian behavior: resentment leading-to anger, distrust of politicians and the media, cynicism, intolerance, thoughts of betrayal, came to the forefront. The pathways of his mind remained crooked.
(Tom) Yes, great changes had taken place in a short period of time. But, we had two things going for us after the war. First, through our long-standing relationship, Barbara, my best friend and my wife, knew me as an adult better than anyone else knew me. Her faith was strong, her faith in Jesus Christ and the straight road which He offered to us, and her faith in me.
The second thing we had going for us was that in the years after Vietnam we remained in the Army, and the Army family, where we did not have to explain ourselves to one another. We understood each other. We did not have to justify. For us is was God, Duty, Honor, Country. And, over time, our road was made straight again.
(Barbara) We stayed on Active Duty in the Army for thirty years. As we look back to all of that, we recognize those years as good years, memorable times in the Army, among good, true friends who we still correspond with to this day.
We had the blessing of the birth and growth of two fine sons. Yet, we also suffered, through miscarriage, and survived a near fatal encounter with Melanoma Cancer and we marveled at our Lord God’s compassion at the absolute most fearful time of our lives.
Through all of that we remained strong in our fear of God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Through all of that we had the Army chaplains to guide us in our spiritual faith.
A mighty fortress is our God, A sword and shield victorious.
(Tom) Under Federal law, the year 1998 was my year of mandatory retirement from the Army. I had served my limit of thirty years’ service. Our pathway was made uncertain. Would we be accepted into polite civilian society? Could we accept what that society had to offer us given who we then were and all that had gone before? So many questions.
(Barbara) Fortunately, two and one-half years prior to Army retirement we had established residence here in Gettysburg and quietly eased our way into the local community while Tom fulfilled his final duty assignment on the faculty of the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks.
One Sunday we attended services here at St. James. We liked what we had seen and heard so we went back the next Sunday.
What we found was that as soon as we left the old family of the Army, we joined a new family at St. James. A new family which embraced the customs and traditions that we remembered fondly from our past and which also embraced our beliefs and our faith in our God. And our pathway was made straight.
(Tom) The pathway embarked upon by my ancestors four generations ago, has brought us here to Gettysburg. We now own a sixty acre farm as they did back then. We did not have sixteen children as they did, Praise God, but the pathway they had prepared for us has, in the end, brought us here to this time and place. We are who we are now because of who they were then.
For us, on our farm and in our life, we once again have a new beginning as caretakers for those creatures which our Lord God has Himself created. We take great joy in doing God’s work with our hands.
(Barbara) In this Advent season, as we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, we are reminded that our lives are a series of choices; of roads taken and not taken. The distractions, the enticements, from the straight road of the Lord our God to the alternative of the crooked road are many and offered to us at all ages. God grant that we have the foresight and the fortitude to stay on the straight path.
(Tom) Also in this Advent season we look forward to the second coming of Christ. We assume that at some point in the coming weeks, Minister of Music Tim Braband will have us joyfully singing:
Prepare the royal highway; The King of kings is near! Let every hill and valley, A level road appear!