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[Originally posted 10/27/2012]

I have compiled on this blog page some of the memorial material to commemorate the passing of my brother-in-law, Mark Phebus.

He died Tuesday evening, October 23 at about 6 pm in a tragic accident on the Skyline Drive near Harrisonburg, VA. He and his wife were driving in their SUV and towing their mobile home when they came around a bend in the road and were struck by a falling pine tree. Clearly, this was the hand of the providence of the Lord in taking Mark home without any suffering or complications while sparing Joanne in amazing fashion.

Check out this link including picture from someone else who was taking pictures from the overlooks and came upon the accident scene:

Larry Brown’s Flickr page news account of the fatal accident:

HARRISONBURG — A Tennessee man died Tuesday evening on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park when a tree came crashing down on his car.

The man [Mark Phebus] and a passenger [his wife Joanne] was traveling south near the U.S. 33 entrance to the park at about 6 p.m. when a live white pine tree uprooted and fell onto the mid-sized SUV he was driving, according to SNP public information officer Claire Comer.

The victim, whose identity has not been released, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The passenger in the vehicle was not injured.

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Memorial Service comments by Paul Apple:

On behalf of the Phebus family and the Apple family I want to express our appreciation for all of you coming out this afternoon for this informal fellowship time to celebrate Mark’s life and offer comfort to family members and friends. In such an unexpected tragedy that just hits us so suddenly there are so many thoughts and emotions that we can’t hope to tie things up into some neat little package. We are confronted with the sobering frailty of life and the finiteness of our own understanding. But in the midst of our grief, as raw as the emotions still are, we want to affirm the goodness of our God and the fact that His lovingkindness to us is new every morning. Great is His faithfulness so we can rejoice in Mark’s entrance into eternity in the presence of his Lord and Savior. The One who conquered sin and death by His sacrifice for our sins and His resurrection to new life is the only one who can make sense out of such events.

I want to start by sharing just a few of the traits which the Lord developed in Mark that made him a good son, a good brother, a good husband, a good father and a good friend: he was dependable (hard to find in today’s culture where commitment seems to mean nothing); he was a hard worker with a servant attitude (comes from good stock; every church leader loves to have more of these); he had a sense of humor and was fun to be around; he was gifted in organization (go over to his house for a movie and you get handed a 5 page printout – you pick movie #68 and he plucks it from the shelf – don’t try that in my house); he cared for Joanne and loved her and took care of her . . .

I could go on but Joanne wants me to keep this short so I am only going to focus on two simple Bible references to two different birds – these are not Joanne’s Orioles or my Ravens. We are going to just mention something we can learn from Eagles and Sparrows –

First, Eagles. Mark’s favorite verse was Is. 40:31 “those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not get tired. They will walk and not become weary.” These are important words of comfort to those of us who are left behind. Who still must cope each day with living in a fallen world with all of its pressures and sorrow and difficulties. What a vision of hope there is for those who fix their eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in the strength which only he can provide. If you are trying to cope with Mark’s loss in your own strength without a personal relationship with the one who can free us like eagles to soar on high, I encourage you to seek out someone here today to ask questions about their faith … about Mark’s faith. God does not want us to be weighed down by sorrow and grief. Yes we sorrow; but we have someone who frees us from our burdens and gives us hope for the future. I get frustrated at funerals where I hear people parrot standard catch phrases like “well he’s better off; Or … he’s gone home to a better place.” Thankfully that is true in Mark’s case, but it is sadly not true for those who have not bowed the knee to the Savior. That is why Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes comments that funerals are actually more beneficial to us than party times. We are forced to meditate on what is life all about and where are we headed. So remember Is. 40:31 — Mark’s favorite verse and live like an eagle.

Secondly, Sparrows. A much more common bird that we see every day – but much smaller and less significant. Not majestic like the wide wingspan of the soaring eagle. But Jesus pointed out the sparrow to teach His disciples important lessons about the Providence of God. Sometimes we imagine that our world is spinning out of control and we are lost in a sea of chaos and confusion. But nothing happens outside of God’s sovereign control. “God works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.”

Matt. 10:29-31 “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.”

You see that tree that fell on the Skyline Drive was no accident from God’s perspective. That tree had Mark’s name written on it by His loving Heavenly Father. The same God who by His grace wrote Mark’s name in the Book of Life before He even created the heavens and the earth. There is a tree or a disease or something out there for each one of us that has our name written on it with a specific date and time stamp. Not one little sparrow can fall to the ground apart from the providential oversight of our Heavenly Father. I preached on this passage a couple of weeks ago .. and the lyrics that keep playing through my mind are from the song:

“His eye is on the sparrow”

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,

Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,

When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

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Memories (from Mark’s wife Joanne)

Looking back over the past few days, there have been so many things of note confirming to me God’s choosing to take Mark home to be with Him on October 23, 2012. That has given me great peace and comfort, knowing God is sovereign in His Providential dealings for us. What follows are some of the unique hands-on God-directed events that He graced Mark and me with:

In our devotions the night before the accident, we were reading in 1 Timothy about the care of widows. The devotions I read before going to bed after the accident, included the following passage from Ecclesiastes 5:

“God gives some people the ability to enjoy the wealth and property he gives them, as well as the ability to accept their state in life and enjoy their work. They do not worry about how short life is, because God keeps them busy with what they love to do.”

After we left visiting with Mark’s folks (a timely divine appointment) and were driving over to the entrance to the Skyline Parkway, Mark unexpectedly started talking about what he wanted to have happen when he died.

Mark: “When I die, I want to be cremated and then scatter my ashes.”

Joanne: “Don’t you want to be buried with Benjamin. I could sneak in at night and dig a hole and stick you in right there.”

Mark: “You could do that anytime, but no—I want to be scattered over the ocean.”

Joanne: “But I don’t have a boat”

Mark: “By that time, we’ll have a kayak, and you can paddle out and scatter my ashes in the ocean.”

Joanne: “Ok”

That conversation has taken all the decision-making out of the funeral process. Mark blessed me by doing that.

Entering the Skyline Parkway’s National Park entrance, Mark commented that we’d just recovered another $15 of the $80 National Park Annual Pass fee we’d paid. So far we’d gotten back $45 dollars, so there was still more to get. He didn’t know that by the end of the day, we would have recovered all of the Park Pass fee—and he’d more than gotten his money’s worth out of that pass.

Once on the parkway, Mark kept getting out of the car to take pictures. After 5pm, he began looking for the right overlook to take sunset pictures. At each overlook, he’d say—“No, the sun is still up too high”—and we then drove on to the next. Finally, he left an overlook saying that he’d stop at the next one and would take the pictures there. We never made it to that overlook, but our pastor told me that Mark now has the perfect picture—in heaven!

Rounding a curve, we both said—“Look at that tree. It’s falling!”—pointing to a 40 foot pine tree coming down on my side of the road. Mark swerved and a moment later the tree crashed through his side of the windshield, through the dash and steering column impacting him. He died instantly. Mark had always said he did not want to linger with an illness and did not want to be resuscitated—so God blessed him with a death where he did not suffer. The ranger later said he’d been working there around 20 years, and he’d never seen a person killed by a falling tree.

When the car came to a stop after climbing the left embankment, it was precariously perched—with the car not rolling over because the weight of the trailer held it in place. Later we are still amazed at how the tree could have totally missed my side of the car. I was covered with glass but escaped with only minor scratches. Even Mocha was unharmed.

As soon as I sat back up, God provided the help I needed. A man appeared by my door, secured Mocha in his car and helped me out the window. Then there were at least 3 people providing me with blankets and hugs and encouraging words; walking me down the bank, while more than 10 people surrounded the car—managing to remove Mark from the wreckage. All of these people were bystanders who had left their cars to come to our aid.

There was no cell reception on the mountain, but one man had a satellite phone and called for help. Soon 2 volunteer responders came and took over my care. One of them pulled out a cross from her pocket and handed it to me saying she had just made it a half-hour before coming on shift and stuck it in her pocket—something she never did—so it must have been meant for me.

It took around 20 minutes for the EMT rescue responders to arrive and although the bystanders had been doing CPR and had bandaged the wounds, there wasn’t anything they could have done since he had already died. It was remarkable the care they showed Mark, making sure to let the EMTs decide if he could be saved or not. How difficult that whole process must have been for them, but God gave them the grace to do it.

I was taken to the ranger station to wait for Clark, Bev and Eric to come and get me. Ranger Joe and his partner stayed with me until they got there, making sure I was okay—even though it meant keeping the station open hours after it was supposed to be closed for the night. While Ranger Kimberly took care of my needs, Ranger Joe got all of the essential items from the car and trailer that I’d listed, so I could take them along with me.

Mark’s phone was the hardest to find. The ranger couldn’t see it, but could hear it because my sister Chris had sent it a message. Without it beeping, the phone would not have been found. It had somehow fallen down inside the door panel, and after spotting it through a hole with a flashlight, he managed to pull it out.

While at the ranger station, 2 men came over to me saying they were wounded American soldiers from Afghanistan here on a stress-free weekend. I said I was so sorry that this had not been a stress-free time for therm. But they expressed how glad they were to be there—understanding how I was feeling—comforting me with hugs and words and then asked to pray with me. Mark had come to know Christ in the Navy, so connecting with these men in that tragic context was a blessing to me.

The circumstances continued to be remarkable. On the way back to Clark’s home, we saw a buck cross over the road in front of us. Usually you might see a doe—it’s rare to see a buck.

I mentioned Mark’s burial wishes, and Eric brought up that as a Navy veteran, Mark’s ashes could be buried at sea and that would fulfill his wishes. And it would be done by a chaplain with honor. The arrangements now stand for his ashes to be scattered by a ship from the San Diego port, where he’d been stationed.

The next day, a retired Army chaplain and his wife—dear friends of ours, came to visit. He just happened to be off that day from his job as a grief counselor. His Christian perspective and comforting words were truly welcomed by me.

Clark and Jonathan had been submitting claims and filling out forms. In thinking about that, I realized that our new address for the last 3 months had been Fall Branch TN—just the ironic twist Mark would have found intriguing.

The insurance adjuster who was assigned to evaluate the wrecked car and trailer, spoke with Clark—saying his name was Rick Mantz. Clark got him to spell the last name and after hearing that Rick’s ancestors were traced back to Frederick to a Peter Mantz, shared with Rick that he was also related to Peter Mantz—his mother was a Mantz. So our claims adjuster ended up surveying the damage with family interests in mind.

To be thought of and cared for by family and friends—I know Mark would have been blessed by all of this, especially knowing that God’s grace and love and personal touch was on display.

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Thoughts (shorter version edited by Joanne’s sister Sue)

I hope that what you are about to hear is a reminder that God is good. All the time, God is good!

Typically when your spouse passes away unexpectedly, you are left with the task of downsizing and selling your home alone. But God had a different plan for me. Since Mark and I had decided to begin a new chapter in our lives—one of travel and adventure, we spent 6 months together: selling and giving away most of our belongings, scanning pictures and documents onto the computer, and storing items at Jonathan’s home for later on. So now I don’t have to wade through everything by myself; instead, all was done with the help of my husband … my best friend. Only God could have orchestrated that.

Looking back over the past few days, God’s hand has been evident in choosing to take Mark home to be with Him on October 23, 2012. This has given me great peace and comfort, knowing God is purposeful and gracious in His plans for us. I hope it will bring you comfort as well.

The day of the accident, Mark and I visited with his parents in Winchester, VA. Before heading on, Mark posted a wonderful picture of his folks on his Facebook page and wrote the following: “Heading South!! Met Mark’s parents (Clark & Wilma) in Winchester, VA and enjoyed brunch at the Golden Corral. Now going to get on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Tennessee. Trailer was in the shop all day yesterday so hopefully finished with trailer problems for a while. – in Winchester, VA” Well, the trailer problems were indeed finished … and what a blessing to have shared his last day on earth with his parents! Surely God was in this detail.

Before we reached Skyline Drive, Mark actually talked about his funeral arrangements. He said he wanted to be cremated with his ashes scattered at sea. When I responded that I didn’t have a boat in order to do that, Mark was quick to reply, and told me that by then we would probably own a kayak, and that would be sufficient to accomplish the task. Well, that conversation took all the decision-making out of the funeral process. And instead of relying on a kayak, Mark’s ashes will now be buried at sea with dignity—from a naval vessel out of the San Diego port, where he had once been stationed. As a navy veteran, Mark’s remains will be handled with honor by a navy chaplain. This is yet another detail of God’s gracious providences in loving us.

As soon as we got to Skyline Drive, Mark began stopping at the overlooks to take pictures. And as the sun was beginning to set, he wanted the perfect picture of a sunset … and he thought the next overlook would probably be the place! Well, we never made it to that next overlook. But, as our pastor told me, Mark actually did get the perfect picture … and it is called heaven.

That night on Skyline Drive was a beautiful evening, with no wind or rain, yet when we rounded a curve, we saw a huge 40 foot pine coming down towards us, from the right hand side of the road—which was of course, the passenger side. Well, Mark swerved and a moment later the tree came crashing through his side of the windshield—the driver’s side. Mark died instantly. Though the car ended up precariously on an embankment, it didn’t roll over, because the trailer held it in place. It would have made more sense for the right hand side of the car to have been damaged, but I survived with just minor scratches … and so did Mocha. Mark had always said he did not want to linger with an illness nor be resuscitated. Well, God took him instantly, and so he didn’t suffer. Surely God was in these details.

There were many people whom God placed at the scene for us that night: someone to help me and Mocha out of the car; people who provided blankets and hugs and encouragement; several people who began the process of extricating Mark and beginning CPR. There was the man with the satellite phone who was able to make contact with the rescue squad. There was the volunteer rescue woman who handed me a cross she had just made a half hour before coming on shift and had stuck it in her pocket. She said she had never done that before, so it must have been meant for me. There were the 2 wounded veterans who prayed with me. There were the kind park rangers who stayed with me late into the night, way past their shift, so I wouldn’t be alone. And there were Clark and Bev and Eric who came to get me. Though it was a terrible night for me, I felt God’s comforting hand.

Many more things happened that night that have brought me comfort. Surely God was in all the details. Even now, God continues to guide as He gives us an insurance adjuster who, as it turns out, is a distant relative. God’s grace, love and personal touch have been on display. And did I mention this? Our permanent address, since starting out on our trip has been Jonathan’s address. And that address is Fall Branch, TN. Wouldn’t Mark have loved that! Surely God is in the details of our lives. He is good … and we can trust Him, now and for the future.