It will be the past
and we'll live there together.
Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.
It will be the past.
We'll all go back together.
Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.
It will be the past.
And it will last forever. ("Heaven" by Patrick Phillips)
In my first memories of my grandfather, he is always outside. He is on a tractor mowing acres of grass on a farm in Minnesota. He is reeling back and casting into a lake to pull out a fish much bigger in his imagination. He is sitting in a chair on a porch or in a garden watching my grandmother pick green beans off a vine or maybe raspberries off a bush. He is emerging from cornfields with the husks waving high above even his head. He is on a beach in Hawaii in a photo he’s brought back to Missouri; he’s reading a book on a beach. He is outside, living.
"This is what you shall do,” Walt Whitman once wrote. “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."
My grandfather was outside living.
He gave me some fossils when I was a little girl, some old fossils I suppose he had kept in his science classroom, but once retired, he passed on these little treasures in an old cigar box: a leaf imprinted in stone, a piece of petrified wood, and I kept those fossils in the cigar box and in my bedroom knowing that they connected me not only to my grandfather who loved science and nature and this beautiful world we live in, but they connected me to something much greater, much older, much bigger than even he or I could imagine… they connected me to the Creator.
My grandfather was outside living. But he didn’t just love the land, he loved animals too. I’ve heard stories of the farm in Minnesota and raccoons you could pet, and domesticated ducks named Ike and Mayme, and the old black and white photos of some cat grandpa loved, or Liza who used to lay at his feet near his favorite chair. My Aunt Milly describes the critters that were always kept around the house or in the yard or in Grandpa’s classroom: little mice, salamanders, guinea pigs, snakes and all kinds of interesting things. I can remember as a child, driving back up to the farm from Missouri to Minnesota, if ever we would spot a turtle alongside the road, my grandpa would pull the car over, get out to inspect it, and if it wasn’t a snapping turtle, we were often allowed to keep it, or at the very least play with it for a few minutes in the tall grass alongside the highway.
My grandfather father spent much time living outside and much time living outside himself.
Maybe it was his understanding of science and nature that summoned forth a reverence for the Creator of all things. Maybe it was his sense of connection to all things created, the handiwork of God that inspired his faith. But my grandfather was a faithful man, a man who lived outside himself.
“We’ll take the bill,” I can hear my grandpa announcing to the waitress, loud enough that my mom and dad could hear and later loud enough that I could hear so that none of us would be tempted to lay a hand on the little white slip of paper that would be delivered to the table where we were dining. He was insistent on providing for his family, not because he was the man of the house or out of some acquiesce to a sensationalized gender role, but because he adored his family, because he wanted to make sure that we were all cared for, that we knew we were loved and supported.
His prayers would have been enough though.
“I’m praying for you,” he said to me almost every time I would leave or arrive in St. Joseph for a holiday or vacation. “I’m praying for you,” and I knew he was, more than I (the minister) was praying for him, I’m sure. Even the last time I saw him, when he could barely speak and rarely would put his teeth in which made communication even more difficult, he said to me, and I could understand him, “I’m praying for you.” I can remember my grandpa praying, years ago, at the table in his dining room on Sunday afternoons when we would gather for lunch after church. He would pray for all of those who weren’t with us there in that moment, wherever they were. And I knew he was talking about John and Ardys in Duluth and Ann and John in Honolulu and Milly and Mike and my cousins in Columbia and especially my aunt Gloria in Hawaii. Sometimes he would cry when he came to this part in the prayer. And I never knew why someone would cry right before lunch in the middle of the afternoon. At that time in my life I didn’t understand what it meant to do something you loved, to be somewhere you were called, even if that meant leaving the family you needed. But my grandpa understood that. And while he always wanted each of us to be happy, he voiced in his prayer the desire that all of us would be together in spirit, wherever we were.
His prayers would have been enough, but that’s not all he gave us.
Grandpa loved each one of his children and grandchildren exactly as we are. This kind of love should be a fine art. To allow another person to be fully themselves and to love them without expectation or judgment is a rare trait to find. In a world that spends so much time telling women and men to be skinny, athletic, successful, one-of-a-kind, valuing independence and perfection while at the same time pushing us all toward one generic prototype, we as a people have forgotten what it means to live communally, to live as the body of Christ letting the hand be the hand and the large intestine be the large intestine. J In a world that would rather report on what multi-millionaire just got married instead of what mother just worked three jobs to put her kid through college, my grandfather never asked anything of any of us other than that we be ourselves.
He was so careful to tell every one of us that we were loved. And he always treated people with respect and dignity. My cousin Ruth writes, “One thing that comes to my mind when I think about Grandpa is how he always seemed to accept me as I was. No matter what color my hair was or what crazy trend I was into, he always treated me with love and kindness. I remember when I was a teenager someone in the family commented negatively on how I was wearing my hair. Grandpa jumped in to stand up for me and said (in a matter of fact tone) ‘Well I like it how it is!’” J Similarly, my youngest sister, Emily recalls, “Every time I left grandpa he was always sure to tell me to ‘keep doing what you're doing!’ and would always let me know just how proud he was.”
And my grandfather was nothing if not forthright. While he didn’t always say much, if he had something on his mind, you can bet he was going to say it. And in a family full of Maker women, I suppose you’d have to learn how to be heard. My father recalls one of the first times he was having dinner with the Maker family. Of course, he joined my grandfather as the only man at the table. And as my grandma and the three daughters chattered on and on about the day and school and dinner, my father describes watching my grandpa ask for someone to please pass the butter. Being on the far end of the table, my father couldn’t reach the butter to pass it to his future-father-in-law, and being new, he didn’t feel it proper to tell one of the girls to listen to their dad. But grandpa kept asking and the Maker women kept right on talking until finally my grandpa shouted, “I said, ‘Pass the butter!’ Dagnabbit!” J As my Grandfather grew older and communication became even more difficult, we discovered that Grandpa only spoke when he felt like something was really worth saying. Usually this too was at the dinner table... and often had no relevance to the conversation at hand because my grandfather couldn’t hear well, and was pesky about putting his hearing aides in. So while the rest of the family would be discussing the price of sweet corn or the new candidate who just joined the political race, my grandfather would suddenly bellow out, “Are you keeping Austin weird, Ann?”
“Yes Grandpa, I’m keeping Austin weird.”
“Good, I’m praying for you.”
His prayers would have been enough, but that’s not all he gave us.
For a while in the late nineties I think, my grandfather began wearing a little gold angel on his lapel. Like the politicians who speak mindlessly from their podiums about liberty and freedom with their little flags pinned to their jackets, so did my grandpa wear his angel, but thoughtfully, to remind him of who he was and who was in control. One afternoon when I was home from college one weekend, he gave me and my sisters little gold crosses on clunky gold chains. The necklaces were not delicate or fancy, but then again, neither is the gospel, and I think my grandpa knew that. He knew the unending generosity of God and that too much generosity, too much compassion, too much truth-telling eventually led Christ to the cross. And handing us those crosses was his way of handing us his faith. A man of few words but a great many actions, the cross was a symbol of the lifestyle my grandfather had chosen and the faith he hoped we too would embrace, wear around our necks, lay against our hearts. I’m wearing that necklack today.
My grandfather touched many people’s lives. Beyond his wife and his three daughters and their partners and his eight grandchildren and little Jacob his great-grandson, my grandfather touched the lives of students over the years, of people at the church and in his Sunday School class, friends at the senior center and the archaeology society.
My Aunt Gloria tells of how proud she was that the city of St. Joseph called her father, “the expert” when dinosaur bones were found nearby. My grandfather’s expertise and compassion and inclusivity touched the lives of many people.
And we all touch each other in so many different ways. Sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. Marge Piercy in her poem, The Tao of Touch writes:
What magic does touch create
that we crave it so. That babies
do not thrive without it. That
the nurse who cuts tough nails
and sands calluses on the elderly
tells me sometimes men weep
as she rubs lotion on their feet. …
We touch each other so many
ways, in curiosity, in anger,
to command attention, to soothe,
to quiet, to rouse, to cure.
Touch is our first language
and often, our last as the breath
ebbs and a hand closes our eyes.
We all touch each other in so many different ways literally and figuratively. And that’s part of the great choice we are faced with in this world. What difference will we make? Who will we be? How will we treat others?
When asked what the greatest of all commandments was, how the law, the all encompassing life of the Jewish people could be summarized, Christ answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
And so as we go forth from this sanctuary today honoring not only a man but our memories. Those memories are testimonies to the life my grandfather led. He lived life abundantly under the influence of Christ’s sacrificial, all encompassing love. And it is abundant life, that is offered to us as well (John 10:10). The life my grandfather embraced was a life in love with God and a life that loved God’s people, no matter who they were.
May we too inherit the legacy of living life outside and living outside ourselves… Amen.