There are some people whose impact on your life is immeasurable. When I heard last week that my childhood pastor, Don Stolhammer, had gone home to be with the Lord, there were a flood of memories of a man who had great spiritual influence over some of the most formative years of my life.
I remember him telling the story to me, just earlier this year, of how he sat on a stump “out back” in Wisconsin and wrestled with God about going into the ministry. He chose to say, “I’m willing,”—and God went on to use him to richly bless my life and that of so many others.
One of the most invaluable gifts he gave was that of a solid foundation in sound Biblical doctrine. I was too busy soaking it all in when I was young to fully appreciate what I was getting, but looking back now I am deeply grateful for the depth, clarity and thoroughness of his teaching. I can literally still hear the way he explained certain verses and passages when I read my Bible, and how the marker would squeak on the white board as he scrawled it full of words, maps and diagrams on Sunday nights.
I remember him teaching us Greek words so we could understand our Bibles better. I was so fascinated by this, I asked him how I could learn more Biblical Greek for myself. He lent me a whole box full of his Greek study cassette tapes, books and notes from seminary, and also taught me how to utilize my Strong’s Concordance to quickly and easily look up the Greek meanings of words in my Bible. While I eventually decided that learning an entire new language was more than I could handle at the time, his lesson on the use of the Hebrew/Greek section of Strong’s stuck with me and is a tool I’ve utilized many, many times since.
I remember him quoting verse after verse of Scripture and encouraging us to do the same.
I remember him quoting A.W. Tozer and other great Christians, and how he liked singing hymns like “Children of the Heavenly Father” and “Redeeming Love” and “He the Pearly Gates Will Open”.
I remember being a little bit in awe of his Bible as a child, with notes scrawled thick in the margins and worn binding patched together with gray duct tape.
I remember how he’d quote S.M. Lockridge at the end of the Good Friday service: “It’s Friday…but Sunday’s a comin’!”.
I remember him telling the story of “My Heart, Christ’s Home”, and I still have the copy of it he gave me when I asked where I could get one.
I remember him publicly apologizing to the entire congregation one Sunday for having a wrong attitude when he delivered the previous week’s sermon, and how much I respected him for his honesty and humility.
I remember that he was not some unreachable daunting figure in my life, but someone who was approachable, kind and always took time to answer questions and take genuine interest in me.
And so many of my favorite childhood memories, things like beautiful candlelight Christmas, Good Friday and Thanksgiving services, singing around the campfire at the parsonage, and weekend-long missions conferences, are associated with his leadership and ministry at Northern Bible Church.
When I decided I wanted to get baptized at age 9, I distinctly remember sitting down with him and my dad in his office with the 70’s shag carpet, every nook and cranny crammed to the ceiling with books, and one of the first questions he asked me was, “Why do you want to do this?” And, kindly but more pointedly, “Are you doing this because you see other people doing it?” That kind of brought me up short in my mind, because it was a little bit true. I had heard that another girl a little bit older than me was getting baptized, and I remember thinking that if she could do it, why couldn’t I? And when he asked me that, I realized that I couldn’t do it just to be cool like someone else. I had to do it because I understood what it meant and believed in it with all my heart. I remember how clearly and kindly he walked through the whole process with me, making sure I understood exactly the seriousness and significance of what I was doing. On a gently overcast Sunday afternoon a few weeks later, he was the one who dunked me under the water of Lake Dellwater while the crowd on the beach sang “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”.
In my adulthood, though retired, he remained a trusted friend and source of much wise counsel.
When we got married, he did our counseling and gave the message at our wedding. Later, as my husband took on and began his very first pastorate, Pastor Don made himself available to Zach as an invaluable listening ear and voice of experience and wise counsel.
One of my sweetest memories, however, is from just this last year. When we were considering a major life change and move, and torn over the multiple options before us, Pastor Don was the one who helped us see our way through a confusing sea of emotions and well-meant but conflicting advice. He was one of our only advisors who literally gave no opinion, but simply shared wisdom from his own years of experience in ministry, and challenged us to earnestly seek and follow God’s will rather than man’s (our own or others). His counsel was pivotal in our ultimate decision. The time he took, the prayers he prayed, and the care he showed for us during this time meant the world to us, and it brings tears to my eyes even as I write. He and Donna were there to give us hugs and assure us of their prayers at our last little goodbye party in Bemidji. “We’ll look forward to seeing you and hearing all about Alaska when you come back for visits,” he assured us. I did not imagine that it would be the last time we would speak face to face with him on this earth.
On September 30th, heaven welcomed a good and faithful servant. He is with his Savior face to face, receiving his reward. Our loss, his incredible gain. I only pray that those of us who he invested in can step up to fill the void he has left behind and carry on his legacy of faithfulness for Christ to the next generation.
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:21)