This past weekend I strapped on my face mask and hopped on a plane for Lubbock, Texas. I traveled in from the northern territory of Michigan to officiate at the celebration of life ceremony for my Aunt Flo. Others know her as Florence Littauer, a prolific author and Christian speaker who traveled the globe to offer a message of hope. My father had performed all priestly duties for the family for generations so, in his absence, Florence thought I might be a suitable stand-in for her service whenever that time arrived. So I arrived at my cousin’s home as the latest family marry-er and bury-er. What a great honor it was for me to be given the chance to say a few words of remembrance about a woman who was a masterful wordsmith! It’s impossible to adequately cover the immensity of Florence’s life and ministry in any kind of memorial service. Fortunately most people who knew her have read her books and those writings help us better understand who she was. So I’ll try to capture her essence from the family perspective.
I remember one conversation between Florence and her two brothers when she was doing a little funeral pre-planning. She envisioned the service taking place in the Crystal Cathedral, where she had spoken to a filled sanctuary years ago. Her suggestion was that the congregation would sing the doxology after the words of remembrance were completed. That would be the signal for some poor chap in the balcony to begin to slowly crank her glorious body on a guide wire that would allow her to float slowly over the congregation. Her arms spread in an angelic pose, her body would ultimately arrive in the front of the sanctuary. Her brothers were already laughing at this point. I can hear her emphasizing the singing: “Praise God from whom all blessings Flo, Flo, Flo…” This is classic Florence Littauer—having good fun at her own expense while entertaining others with her great sense of humor.
Florence was born on April 27, 1928 and died on July 11, 2020. Her life was bracketed with two global crises. One was economic—the Great Depression—and the other is a pandemic that ground her social outings to a halt in the last months of her life. But Florence had an indomitable spirit. She grew up in a family where there was joy. I have childhood memories of my dad getting together with his two siblings and their mother. They laughed! They used their keen verbal skills to recount crazy stories and then roar with laughter. My grandmother would sometimes raise an eyebrow and try to conceal a smile. But she was all in!
I can’t tell you how many times I heard a reference to their upbringing that happened “in three rooms behind the store.” Struggling to raise three children during the depression, Florence’s parents opened a literal Ma and Pa convenience store that was open to the community every day of the year except for Easter and Christmas. I did a tour of Haverhill, Massachusetts a couple of years ago with Florence’s daughter, Lauren, her husband, Randy and several other family members. We took pictures of ourselves standing on the same front stoop where my grandparents had welcomed customers into their care. I called Aunt Flo and asked her to describe these three rooms in which five people lived their lives. For probably 45 minutes she walked me through every part of that building. She detailed what her life had been like in their unusual home. I didn’t realize it at the time but my aunt was drawing a diagram of the floor plan as we spoke. Florence was living with my cousin, Marita, at the time of the phone conversation so she sent me the diagram later. It looks nondescript to all of us but Florence was reliving memories from her childhood as we talked. In those very modest quarters, three future speakers grew up. In spite of their limited income, my grandparents paid for lessons so as to develop their children’s sizable gifts. Aunt Flo was treated to elocution lessons, a word so fancy we don’t know what it means! In other words, Florence got coached in speech. I think those lessons took, right? All three children learned as their careers took shape to curb their Boston accents, putting “Rs” in the right spots and taking them out where they ought not to be!
Florence became a teacher of high school students. She got them so fired up about her engagement that the students completely planned her wedding and their class project extraordinaire became a lead article in LIFE Magazine. This first job was the beginning to a long career in teaching folks in different settings, encouraging them to stretch into their greatest potential. She was a leader who motivated folks into action. I remember her telling a story about how she had gone out to the parking ramp after a shopping outing. She had totally forgotten where she parked her car. (She would be the first to tell you that her personality type wasn’t always great with the small details of daily living! That’s where her meticulous husband, Fred, stepped in!) As she wandered, other people joined her in the search. It became an adventurous group project. When they finally found it, everyone cheered. Strangers became friends through her spontaneous leadership!
Fred and Flo were a striking couple. At the end of her life, Florence told Marita that she wished to be “really amazing”. Any of you who knew them know that, together, Fred and Flo were “really amazing”! They color-coordinated their outfits. I remember they arrived at one family gathering in matching teal. In fact, I was so impressed that Fred was wearing a pair of Italian leather loafers that were, you guessed it, teal! They flashed beautiful smiles. Their gifts fit together perfectly. Their greatest joy was their family: three wonderful children, Lauren, Marita and Fred; five fine grandchildren and six great grandchildren who step into a blessed legacy!
But their greatest sorrow also emerged from that same family setting. They lost two young sons, Freddy and Larry, leaving a deep wound that could only be healed through faith. Fred and Florence allowed God to use that double tragedy to minister to others. It awakened a deep sense of compassion for others whom they encouraged through their writing and speaking. One woman expressed her gratitude to them in her words of condolence: “Florence and Fred were instrumental in a very dark time in my life. She was speaking at a ladies’ retreat in Frankfort, KY two months after we had lost a daughter to suicide. As they both spoke on the closing day it turned the course of my life upside down and led me to complete healing only the Lord could orchestrate through them.”
Florence’s greatest body of work became a description of personality types. As people learned to better understand themselves, they were able to connect more effectively with their loved ones whose personality type was different from their own. She became known particularly for her Silver Boxes story that has influenced countless people to use their words to build up and encourage. It stemmed from an impromptu children’s message she was asked to give so she chose a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that had been important in shaping the spiritual life of her own children: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may be grace to those who hear.” The young woman who excelled at her elocution lessons grabbed onto a passage about speaking and made it come alive for generations of people. With her keen sense of humor she was able to teach profound lessons of faith in an engaging manner. I am sure that all of us here have had a good laugh with Florence even as we benefited from her wisdom. A couple of email messages gave praise for this great attribute that came from the close quarters behind a store in which the Chapman family of five lived. Doreen wrote, “So grateful to have been mentored by the incredible, amazingly knowledgeable and laughter-filled Florence Littauer.” Another woman described how she was given the delightful task of driving Florence to the airport after one of her speaking engagements. She writes, “That trip was a hoot! One lesson I learned, the deeper the clothing discount/bargain, doesn’t make it look better on me!” What great advice from the woman we remember as being a strong, dynamic, and colorful presence. While in Lubbock, I stayed in my aunt’s room and her closet confirmed that she was well qualified to give out fashion tips! Florence wasn’t afraid to cover any number of different subject areas with obvious expertise.
Last week I dug into the story about Jacob’s ladder for our worship service. Maybe you remember that Jacob, our fine patriarch in the faith, was fleeing from his family because he had stolen his twin brother’s birthright. Worried that the older twin would kill his scheming younger brother, Rebecca hurriedly sent her son away from the home with unimaginable heartbreak. (Something tells me this family would have greatly benefited from Florence’s personality inventory!) On his first night out, camping fearfully under the stars, he had a dream. He saw a ladder going between earth and heaven with angels climbing up and down. In that dream God spoke to Jacob, assuring him of His presence, protection, and homecoming. When Jacob awakens he knows that he has had a visitation from God almighty. He trades in fear for assurance because he now knows that he is no longer traveling alone. The dream turns his flight into a pilgrimage of faith and Jacob was forever honored as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
My Aunt Flo dared to dream beyond her circumstances at critical junctures in her life. Not only did she rise above tragic losses with her faith in a loving God still intact. She shared that faith with others who had lost their way and assumed that they were traveling alone. The dream of Jacob reminds us that the connection between heaven and earth is intact. What seems like an unbridgeable chasm between us and those who have left this earthly realm is, in fact, an active travel route. That doesn’t ease our grieving for those we can no longer see or hug or laugh with. But we have this tremendous assurance that all is well for those on the other end of the ladder and that they will be there to greet us when our time comes to change to a heavenly vantage point.
This upcoming weekend was to be a Chapman family reunion for the families of Florence, Jim, and Ron. We had such a good time partying with Florence at her 90th birthday party in California that we decided to meet again. When the save-the-date cards came in the mail, Aunt Flo called me. She told me she was a fan of this event! She thought it would be great to be together. She told me several times with her dry wit that, if she could make it until then, she would for sure be there. When COVID swept in, we regretfully cancelled the reunion. But Florence must have dreamed beyond these earthly hardships because we all gathered for a Chapman reunion this past weekend! We just moved it up by a week and changed it to her newest hometown of Lubbock. She also changed her location from the earthly end of the ladder to the heavenly gate. With her death we are reminded that this reunion is much greater than what meets the eye. Not only have we expanded our Chapman reunion to include all of you. We know now that it included Florence’s husband, Fred, and their precious little boys, Freddy, III and Larry. It welcomed Walter and Katie back into their joyful and articulate family. It made a place for Jim and Katie at the table. All of us, together, on both ends of a stairway to heaven, knew that God was with us.
As Florence stood before her Maker, hand-hand once again with her beloved Fred, we can imagine that she was shown the impact of those many silver boxes she had handed out in her earthly life, words of blessing passed forward from one person to the next. From three rooms behind the store to a mansion in the sky, Florence joins the reunion in spirit, no longer in flesh. I can hear her exclaim like her ancestor in the faith, Jacob, “Surely You were with me all along, and I did not know it!” What good news this is for all of us!
Well done, thou good and faithful servant, Florence. Enter into the joy of your Master!