May 6th, 2017

I was leaving church last Saturday evening about 5:30 when my cell phone rang.  It seemed odd that Amber Tramble was calling me.  It wasn’t Amber; it was a St. Stephens volunteer fire fighter using her cell phone to tell me that Justin had passed away.  I have to admit my first thought was that he had taken his own life because he has struggled with depression.

That wasn’t it. Justin was in his garage, doing something he loved.  It was also an escape place from whatever was spinning in his head.  Generally, though, what he was doing out there was for someone else.  He had created this chalkboard/LED table top for the church.  He had used a similar design in a reversible table top for Amber.

It was one of Justin’s passions to do things for others.  A little over three years ago, he emailed my wife, Linda, and asked about the church hosting a pampering day for Moms of young children.  I think he did it mostly for Amber, because he knew he was at times hard to live with.  But he also wanted other young Moms to have a day where they get a manicure, do Holy Yoga, have a meal provided, and so on.

What he created in his garage was always for someone else.  If you went into his garage last weekend, you would have found him working on a table top that didn’t look like much at the time.  He was experimenting with Lichtenberg figures, created by electricity creeping across the wood.  The result can be beautiful.  Wood doesn’t conduct electricity, of course, so you have to put a solution of water and baking soda on the wood. High voltage is required.

The method is named after Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a German physicist and professor.  He was a pastor’s kid, the youngest of 17 children who found that electricity “strange tree-like patterns,” or fractals, as it makes its way through various materials.  It’s easy to learn about this method on the Internet, but you will normally find a warning such as this –

This demonstration is extremely, extremely dangerous. — If you touch ANYTHING (wires, transformer, wood… anything!) while it’s plugged in you will be ELECTROCUTED and DIE — PEOPLE HAVE DIED from microwave transformers — all it takes is one mistake — YOU DON’T GET A SECOND CHANCE…..


We don’t know exactly what happened last Saturday, but it had something to do with exactly that.  It was tragic, but on the other hand what Justin was doing was so consistent with the rest of his life.  Risk + Creativity + Others = Justin Tramble.

Regardless of how he died, his death at age 33 raises a common question.  Where was God?  Couldn’t the God who brought Justin home safe from Iraq have protected him last Saturday?

A few minutes ago, our choir sang an anthem based on Psalm 91, which Pastor Lori read for us before the choir sang the words.  If you’re wondering why the music in this service is more traditional, Amber sings in our chancel choir and they wanted to sing for her. But Justin also loved some of that old music.  He had posted a video on Facebook “When Church Music Sounded Like This,” with a contemporary group singing a medley of “Come Thou Fount,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Amazing Grace,” and some other hymns.

Psalm 91 beautifully expresses God’s care and protection over his own.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

If you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you.

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him. I will protect him.”

Where was that God last Saturday?  He was right there with Justin, I promise.  He never left his side.  I’ll come back to that theme.

The things that mattered to Justin Tramble were no secret, especially if you were his Facebook friend.  The main thing you knew about Justin from Facebook was that he loved to make people laugh.  If he could cause someone to smile every day with a goofy picture of himself or a funny video of something, he would do it.  His profile picture was a lookalike of Benjamin Franklin on a $100 bill with the caption, “Who’s your Daddy?”  He had earlier posted another one looking like George Washington on the $1 bill.

Justin posted one video saying Amber wanted to trim his eyebrows, but in the video he had his hair wrapped around his forehead into one huge unibrow.  Amber talks about how one of Justin’s favorite pranks was to honk the horn, wave in one direction, and look in the other.

His favorite person to make smile, or to smile with, was Alayna, and she’s turning out just like him.  They loved to wrestle, shoot nerf guns, or play monster.

He had memes on his Facebook page, like a guy sprawled across some pieces of vinyl siding in the back of a pickup with the caption, “Who needs ratchet straps when you have friends?”  Some of his posts were, let’s just say, “inappropriate” from my perspective, but from his perspective he just wanted to lighten someone’s day.  He also had inspirational pieces, like Denzel Washington’s recent commencement address, or a disabled girl named Lainie making a shot in a basketball game.

And, of course, some of his posts were about the military.  One that would make you cry was of a young man being sworn into the Army.  His twin brother had already been deployed, but unbeknownst to Christopher Sanchez the Army had arranged for his brother Andrew to be there.  Andrew was standing right behind him, and at one point Christopher was ordered to “About Face.”  He was then a foot or so away from the one guy he really wanted to be there.

Justin had a special spot for active military and veterans.  He always felt he needed to do his duty for them in honor of his fallen comrades.  He would love for you to give a memorial gift to a cause his buddy created, Feeding a Hungry Veteran.

This was also the motivation for his patented Herbinator, a project he was just starting to get off the ground.  Its purpose is to grind marijuana for medical use, and he particularly wanted it to be legal and available and usable for disabled vets.  It was something he could do for them.  Amber’s mother Sandy added that part of Justin’s motivation was to make enough money to give it away.

I enjoyed the Facebook posts from Justin’s sister, Ashley, the last few days.  There were some great shots of them as kids having fun, but also a reminder of pain in the family.  Justin had a baby sister to pass at age 17 months when he was only 12.  It was but one indication of some of the difficulties in his childhood which he had shared with me.  Sometimes funny guys are trying to mask difficult memories.

Justin’s best friend was one of the guys from his unit in Iraq, Michael Coffey.  I met Michael at the house Saturday night – one of the first people to show up for Amber and the family.  I asked Michael to write out some of his reflections about Justin, and here’s part of what he wrote me –

We had two weeks left in Iraq before we were able to come home.  On their last mission his squad was hit with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) killing two of our soldiers.  Justin was the first truck to pull up to the incident.

They found the gunner under the truck on fire and the passenger cut in half and on fire as well.  They had to put them out with fire extinguishers and put them in body bags and drive them to the nearest base.

That day haunted Justin for the rest of his time here on this earth.  It was always in the back of his mind, and he always thought, “What could I have done differently to save them?”  Justin at an early age had to try and cope and deal with what most people will never have to see or experience.”

We never wanted to admit it, but we realized that we were not the same people we were before we left.  I was worried about my friend, and we had several friends that committed suicide when we came back home.

I asked Justin if he believed in God.  He asked me, “Why would God do something like this and cause him to suffer the way he does?” 

I told him that we may not understand or have the answer why, and will always ask ourselves, “What if?”  But God loves us and although we don’t understand God has a plan for all of us.

For some reason John 15:13 popped into my head:  “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

I asked Justin then if he was saved, and he told me that he did ask the Lord to come into his life, when I’m not sure, but he felt guilty for the way he had lived his life to that point.  We shared some of our deepest darkest secrets during that conversation.

Neither of us has lived a life that we should according to God’s word, but am a firm believer that God forgives, and although we may not be perfect, if all we did was call on his name…we were promised eternity in his kingdom.

I know this was Justin’s heart because just about a week before he died (April 21), he posted a video called “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.”

Here are a few excerpts –

I spent my whole life building this façade of neatness.

But now that I know Jesus, I boast in my weakness.

Because if grace is water, the church should be an ocean.

It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken.

Which means I don’t have to hide my failure, I don’t have to hide my sin.

It doesn’t depend on me; it depends on him.

‘Cause when I was God’s enemy, and certainly not a fan,

He looked down and said, “I want that man.”

Salvation is freely mine, and forgiveness is my own,

Not based on my merits, but on Jesus’ obedience alone.

Justin had added a caption, “Wow!!!!!  Must listen!!!!”

Ten minutes later, he also posted a quote laced with the F-word.  That was Justin.  Like Michael said, far from perfect.

Here’s how Justin shared his own story when he joined our church with Amber in 2013 –

Friday the 13th 2007 I lost my faith when 2 friends were killed in Iraq!  After getting home I lost 6 more friends from my unit – 4 suicides and 2 heart attacks took them from me.  My life I felt was dangling by threads and my marriage began to crumble as well.

In order to save it I had to give up and let Jesus into my heart and he has saved me and my family from failing.  Pastor Paul is the biggest help by helping me turn to God and Jesus to recover my faith.

I am now saved and my life is so much better.  This church has shown me that life may throw a curve ball from time to time but this church showed me how to let go and accept people and God again.

We also ask people to share something unique about themselves when they join the church.  Justin wrote, “I have the special ability to grow a superman patch of hair on my lower back.”

Let me be honest, because I like people to be honest at funerals, especially preachers.  Justin struggled with his faith and he struggled with life.  He lived with his demons all the way to the end.  And he struggled with church.  We tried to help him connect, and many people in our church body, including our pastors, worked hard to embrace him – doubts, anger, grief, and all.  I think sometimes he felt judged with all his pain, but in return sometimes I think he judged us.  Justin found it harder to relate to family than to friends, and the more he saw church as family the more he pulled back.  The truth is that Justin is a very visible example of every single person in God’s church.  We’re all just differently flawed, and we all have blind spots that we excuse in ourselves but not in others.

That takes me to the third Scripture lesson we read earlier.  Tomorrow is our second Sunday here at Corinth studying the book of Revelation.  In the first chapter Jesus appears to John and he says to him, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

I love that phrase, “I am the First and the Last.”  Earlier he says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”  I don’t know a lot of things about life and death, and I can’t answer every question about why a husband and Dad dies so young.  But I know this:  Jesus was there at the beginning of all things and he will be there at the consummation.  He created Justin Tramble.  He brought him into the world with purpose and meaning, and he knew the number of his days.  When Justin so suddenly was taken away from us, Jesus was there to meet him and welcome him home.  He’s the beginning and he’s the end.

You and I are still living in the middle.  Many parts of Justin’s “middle” were difficult.  Psalm 91 is written for those days in our middle that are days of joy, of triumph, or even of simply progress.  God wants to be in the middle of those, and he delights when we overflow with gratitude and praise for the gifts he gives.

But when the days in the middle are hard, and many were hard for Justin as they will be for Amber and Alayna without him, he says again what he says on the front of your bulletin:  “Come unto me, all that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28) Come to me.  It’s such a temptation to run away from him.  So why should we trust him?

One of the other projects Justin had worked on was a table top with three crosses.  It might be his best legacy for us, because in this he gave us the best reminder of why God can be trusted even when we don’t understand.  The Apostle Paul said, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

The cross is where we see God’s version of Justin’s life summary:  risk + creativity + others.  God so loved the world, and he came up with a never-before-tried way to save the world – absolute sacrifice of himself.  For him it was not only risk but plan.  He would die at age 33.  His death would be for the salvation of the world.  As you ponder Justin’s untimely death, the best way to honor his life is if it has meaning – if it creates in you not a reason to run away from God, but a reason to run toward him.  Amen.

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