"The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." – Genesis 17:8
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die…” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2
When I was in kindergarten (or maybe first grade), I remember getting called down to the office. I can’t recall all of the details but I do remember hearing that my grandfather had passed away and being told that I’d be getting out of school for the next few days. I didn’t fully comprehend the word ‘death’ or its implications but I remember being happy that I was out of class. I stood in the office with my brother, a goofy grin on my face. I can still hear him attempting to verbally shake me from my stupor, “Don’t you understand, Casey? Papa is gone.”
Twenty-three years have passed since that day and though I don’t necessarily understand ‘death’ any better than I did when I was five, I do understand many of its implications. I know the emptiness that so often accompanies it. I’ve thought about plans we had only to remember they will have to be left unfulfilled. I’ve thought about phone calls I should have made and pictures I should have sent. Like the gnawing of termites, death enters silently, right below our feet, and threatens to weaken the very foundation of our lives. But it needn’t be so. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
I was reminded of my grandfather’s passing twenty-some years ago tonight when I got the call that my other grandfather had passed away. Although they were as different as two men could be, each of their lives taught me invaluable lessons that I’ll never forget. I’d like to share a few of those lessons with you tonight.
Don’t Stop Praying
My great-grandfather died due to injuries he sustained in an accident at the mill where he worked. His son, my grandfather, was just a boy at the time. He didn’t go to church growing up and he never started. He was a good man, dealt honestly with people, always kept his word, the kind of man for whom a handshake was as good as a three-hundred page contract; but he didn’t seem interested in God. It wasn’t that he was opposed to the idea of God or the Bible or Jesus or anything like that. He just wasn’t interested. He had made something of himself, worked hard, and didn’t seem to need anyone.
When I came to Christ, I began praying that he would put his faith in God too. I prayed and I prayed that God would change his heart and convince him to come to church. In 2009, I moved to the same town where he lived and began preaching on Sunday nights at a church there. I can remember talking to him and trying to drop hints here and there.
“Well, Pawpaw, I guess I better get going to church. You ought to come down and hear me,” I’d say, praying with all my might that he’d say, “Sure. Let’s go!” He never did. Instead, he’d look out the window and tell me that he looked forward to me coming back.
There were times that I was so discouraged in my prayers I felt like quitting but I kept praying. Last year, he became my main focus of prayer. Every time I’d put my daughter to sleep, we’d pray for him together. When I was alone, I’d think of him and ask God to speak to him. My heart grew weary and yet I pressed on, holding tightly to the promise, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). I continued lifting him up in prayer until God spoke to me clearly, urging me to get an older minister near my grandfather to go talk to him. He did and after eighty-two years of resisting God’s call (and a lot of prayer), he finally submitted.
Jesus once told a parable about a woman who was dealing with an unjust judge. She kept pestering him until he finally caved and gave her what she wanted. Jesus said that we need to be like that woman. Don’t quit seeking God because he doesn’t answer after the first time you ask…or the second. Sometimes he wants us to pray for ten years.
Earlier tonight, while preparing for a Bible Study, I came across this story: “One day George Mueller began praying for five of his friends. After many months, one of them came to the Lord. Ten years later, two others were converted. It took 25 years before the fourth man was saved. Mueller persevered in prayer until his death for the fifth friend, and throughout those 52 years he never gave up hoping that he would accept Christ! His faith was rewarded, for soon after Mueller’s funeral the last one was saved.” Don’t stop praying until after your dead.
Put Family First
Although my grandfather wasn’t a religious man, he believed very strongly that family was of the greatest importance. When his mother was in the hospital, he would go see her every day after work. Why? Because family mattered. He passed on this familial love and devotion down to his children and now, it’s been passed on to his grandchildren. In fact, while he was in the hospital, some of the staff approached his children and thanked them for being so involved and staying with him around the clock.
“Most people just leave their parents here and go off to do whatever they need to do,” the nurse said. But that wasn’t how my grandfather did things. It’s a lesson my father and his siblings learned, so it wasn’t going to be how they did things either. I’m thankful that I was born in a family that values one another.
And while I’m on the topic of family, let me tell you, my grandfather loved his daughter and granddaughters. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we went over and saw Pawpaw. I told him that I had no interest in having any girls. I wanted boys and nothing but boys. He looked at me surprised, shook his head, and told me that I was crazy. He said that there was nothing like a daughter. “You’ll see,” he told me with a grin and a laugh, “you aren’t going to have anything but girls.”
When our first child turned out to be a girl, we brought her by his house on the way home from the hospital. He held her in his arms, smile beaming, and reminded me about what I’d said before.
“Still don’t want any girls?” he asked me, laughing.
I now have two daughters and I’m hoping for another. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to hold those girls without thinking of his smiling face and simple question, “Still don’t want any girls?”
You’re Not Bound By Your Past
My grandfather didn’t have the most perfect childhood. He lost his father at a young age. He was forced to drop out of school so he could work and help with the family finances. Alcohol was a specter that haunted the lives of many of his family members. And yet, he worked hard, made something of himself, built a family, and lived a full life. He could’ve taken so many different paths and ended up in so many different places but he didn’t live bound to his past. He pressed forward and made a difference in this world through his sons, daughter, and grandchildren.
I remember asking him about why he never got involved in alcohol. He told me that when he was just a boy, he’d gotten a bottle of whiskey and gone out back behind a shed with his brothers. After drinking a little, he threw up and never touched the stuff again. I thank God that he threw up that day. And I thank God that he didn’t allow any of the negative events that characterized his youth and adolescence to drag him down. Instead, he pressed on and stayed focus on the goal.
God wants to take you, wherever you are, and break the chains of the past that have tried to bind you. When some of the teachers of the law brought a woman (caught in the very act of adultery) to Jesus and demanded to know whether they should stone her or not, Jesus famously responded, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” After all of her accusers had gone, Jesus turned to the woman and asked, “Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?” When she confirmed to him that they had all left, these were his final words to her, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” Christ desires to take us, shake us loose from our past, and make us new creations.
Tonight, my grandfather knows exactly what that means.
“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26
In Memoriam James Fenn