Family and friends of Jim and Nedra Lemke gathered Saturday at Faith Community Church to celebrate their lives and mourn their deaths.
Those close to the couple remembered them as kind and generous people who lived up to the mantra “What Would Jesus Do?”
Jim, 59, and Nedra, 57, of Fort Atkinson died of gunshot wounds Tuesday, June 16, outside of the Town of Sumner home of Nedra’s late father, where they had gone to mow the lawn. Her brother is being sought in connection with the murders.
The Fort Atkinson church was filled, with attendees wearing masks and alternate aisles closed off to enable social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic. The service was live-streamed and may be viewed at https://vimeo.com/showcase/fccfa.
“Many of you have asked, or are still asking, “Why did this happen? ... How could something like this happen to someone like Jim and Nedra Lemke – such amazing people?” said the Rev. Rusty Lyon, senior pastor at Faith Community Church.
He said that the Lemkes had found their purpose in life through many years of service to the church, and its youth ministry in particular. Those who remain to mourn them have a purpose too, and the pastor asked them to refocus that purpose in light of the impact the Lemkes had during their too-short time on Earth.
Yes, Lyon said, we can mourn the loss of these incredible people in our lives and in our community, but we should recognize at the same time that this couple crossed the finish line together, that they entered into eternity together, just as they served their community and their God together for nearly four decades of their lives.
Lyon said that he was shaken by the loss of these dear people, whose lives were a testimony to God, and he asked God to come into mourners’ broken hearts so they could rededicate themselves to living their lives in reflection of their faith.
Sharing memories of their parents were three of the Lemkes’ five children.
Amanda Waterworth, “the middle child,” called her parents “two of the most amazing people I’ve ever known.”
She described her mother as beautiful, patient and kind, a living example of selfless love. But Nedra also carried a strong strain of mischievousness, Amanda said, delighting in practical jokes and pulling others into her schemes.
She noted that her mother, however, is best remembered as a virtuous woman, as described in Proverbs 31:
“Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies …
“Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
“Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.”
“My mother, the virtuous woman in flesh, a living example of selflessnes,” Amanda concluded.
Son Joshua, the Lemkes’ youngest child, said he recently had the honor of hearing his father speak at his maternal grandfather’s funeral. While he had not expected to speak at his parents’ funeral so soon, he was happy to reflect on his parents’ sterling character, their love for each other and family, and their determination.
He described his father as a capable provider for his family who had the strength and perseverance to run 50- and 100-kilometer races.
The Lemkes traveled the world, impacting lives in Lithuania, Germany, France, Mexico and New Zealand, and were friends to all they met, Josh said.
Reflecting on the sudden loss of his parents, Josh quoted a phrase his father often said: “God has a plan.
“It’s something I’ve heard from him a thousand times,” the son said.
He said that these unexpected deaths came practically on the heels of another loss, but the recent funeral for his grandfather, Verdal Anderson, on June 12, served as a beautiful occasion that brought all of the family members together.
Just days prior to the Lemkes’ deaths, all of the children had returned to stay at their parents’ home and enjoy each other’s company prior their grandfather’s service.
It was the first time they all had been able to get together at the same time for many years, and, Josh said, he and his siblings relished being able to sit down to breakfast with their parents, to sit outside and sip coffee, to go on a ride with their father on his new motorcycle and spend time with their mother.
“Thank God I had the chance to spend this time with my parents and siblings,” Josh said, adding that little did they know this would be the last time.
Josh recalled his father’s dedication to God and that Jim’s sense of purpose was offset by a sometimes silly sense of humor that kept things fresh and fun.
He remembered how his parents had taken a rundown house and turned it into a beautiful property.
He remembered his parents’ strong and loving relationship and the way they’d go on long bicycle rides together from the east side of Fort Atkinson to Milwaukee.
“They were truly in love for almost 40 years,” Josh said.
Going through his parents’ possessions in the last few days, Josh said, he came upon boxes of correspondence they had saved through the years, including letters that his father had written his mother when they were in college and living in separate cities.
One was labeled “to my best friend,” which Josh said he felt remained true to the end. He said his parents were husband and wife, father and mother, but always best friends.
Daughter Jennifer Majewski thanked the community for its outpouring of support.
She said that on this somber occasion, it was comforting to know how much of an impact her parents had made on so many people.
“We never knew how many,” she said.
She noted that some of the people in the pews and viewing at home might have received a gift from Jim that showcased his craftsmanship as a blacksmith: a small metal leaf for their keychain.
Some might have been the recipient of one of Nedra’s pranks.
And many got to enjoy one of Nedra’s home-cooked meals or hear one of Jim’s “Dad jokes.”
Had they been here today, Jennifer said, her parents would ask their mourners to do three things: have fun, love God and make a positive impact on others’ lives.
The Rev. John Ackatz, youth pastor at Faith Community Church, said he had the honor to know Jim and Nedra for the past three-plus decades and to work with them for the last 20 years serving middle-school students through their church.
In honor of this connection, Ackatz wore beneath his suit coat a T-shirt with the Faith “Middle” logo emblazoned on it rather than a traditional dress shirt and tie.
Ackatz thanked the family for sharing their stories about who their mom and dad were, and their grace in dealing with the media in the wake of the murders.
“It was incredible to watch reporters who didn’t know them connect with their story,” Ackatz said.
He called the Lemkes awesome mentors and youth leaders for the church’s middle-level youth.
“Their dedication came out in so many ways,” he said, noting Nedra’s commitment to getting up at 4 a.m. to bake a huge batch of cinnamon rolls for the youth group, Jim’s perseverance in running up to 100 miles, and both of their dedication to helping youth and others connect with God.
The Lemkes were incredibly kind and caring people, the pastor said, recalling several instances in which they really went the extra mile for others.
For example, Ackatz told of a camping trip in which there was an outbreak of norovirus and he was terribly ill, and Jim came in to check on him every two hours to make sure he was OK.
“No one else came to see me — they stayed well away,” Ackatz said, referring to how contagious the gastrointestinal illness is.
Meanwhile, the couple’s pranks — masterminded by Nedra, but often carried out by Jim — spread laughter and delight, even years later, he said.
He recalled one Christmas celebration to which they brought silly string, which wound up in the tree and all over the snacks. Five years later, when the hosts moved the electric fireplace to paint behind it, they found even more silly string, a memento of the playful occasion years earlier.
In the same vein, Ackatz asked, “Who has squirt guns (placed around) in their house in case they might need them?”
The answer: Nedra.
Through small actions and large, the Lemkes have left an impression on so many lives, Ackatz said.
Alhough they now are gone, they have set a shining example for others to emulate.
Ackatz acknowledged that in the wake of the murders, he has found himself overwhelmed with tears several times, but the lesson the Lemkes leave behind is not in their loss, but in the way they lived.
“They have lived a life of grace, mercy and forgiveness,” he said. “We need to follow their example.”
Connie Congdon, a fellow youth director and friend, shared a reading from Ephesians 2:8-10:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God —not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Congdon ended with the observation, “We were saved to serve, and that’s exactly what they (the Lemkes) did.”
Then Pastor Lyon addressed the “elephant in the room”: Why such a horrible thing could happen to such good people.
“Maybe some of you have asked or are still asking, ‘Where is God? If God is who we think he is, and if Jim and Nedra were so devoted to him in their faith, how could God allow something like this to happen to them?’” Lyon asked.
He noted that there is a huge difference between what God ordains and what God allows, asserting that when God allows bad things to happen, he redeems them for a higher purpose.
“On this side of eternity, death hurts,” Lyon acknowledged. “I was rocked when I heard of Jim and Nedra’s passing. When I finally received word that it was true, I wept.”
Is it acceptable to be overwhelmed at a time like this? Yes, he said, citing the shortest verse in the Bible, which reads, “Jesus wept.”
He urged grievers not to bury their pain, as the full expression of grief aids people in healing their hearts and moving on.
Though it seems unfair to lose such good people while they still should have had many years to look forward to, the pastor said, long life and comfort in this world are not promised to those who live by the word of God.
Many people in the Bible who lived superlative lives and dedicated themselves to God were called to heaven early, he noted, saying that the reward of a life dedicated to God lies not in this world, but in the next.
He closed the service with this quote from II Corinthians 4:16-18: “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not upon what it seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Also participating I the service were Julie Strasburg, who read Micah 6:8; Pastor Chad Sanders, who led two hymns; Devin Truman, an employee of Jim’s at JNL Wrought Iron, who explained the meaning behind the metal leaf; and music by pianist Shirley Brown.
After the funeral, pallbearers accompanied the twin caskets to two white hearses, placing them inside simultaneously. They then led a long line of cars to Union Cemetery for burial.
Memorials may be made to the Lemke Memorial Youth Ministry Fund. On the church’s website, visit the Online Donation page.