Recently, my three year old son has been starting a lot of sentences with the phrase, “My old grandpa used to say…” and finishing them with his own versions of well-worn sayings or important truths in his three-year universe. I think it started because I frequently bring up my Grandpa Mark, who was known in our family for silly lines like, “Only the nose knows,” and more sage advice like, “I never knew I liked it ‘til I tried it.” I love it that the memory of my grandfather is being kept alive not only in my own stories, but now also in the imagination of my son, who was born a few years after my grandfather’s death.
There were many things I admired about Grandpa Mark. About once a month in college, I would open my post-office box to find a card from him. It always contained a twenty-dollar bill along with the instruction to take a break from the cafeteria and treat a friend to a good hamburger off-campus somewhere. Even though my grandpa was a youth during the Great Depression and worked two full-time jobs as an adult to feed his family of six, he was always generous with his money. Thrifty but generous. Some of my favorite memories are going garage sale shopping with him, helping him select toys and books to send to the community in the Marshall Islands where his youngest son had served in the Peace Corps.
Grandpa Mark’s generosity with money was just one part of his generosity of spirit. At one point in my youth, he befriended a young mother and her daughter. They were living in her car when he met them, so he invited them to live with him until they were able to find a more permanent home. Some people thought he was crazy, inviting strangers into his home. I think he was just being his pragmatic self; he had a bedroom, bathroom, and living room in the basement that he was not using and he met someone who could. This mother and daughter were just two in the long-line of people my grandpa reached out to in friendship.
Perhaps what I admired most about Grandpa Mark was his desire to keep living, growing, and learning. When I declared a religion major in college, he was inspired to take out a subscription to Biblical Archeology, a magazine about a topic he had always wanted to know more about. When he was 89, Grandpa Mark lost one of his legs to gangrene. Not wanting to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, he went through the painstaking process of learning to walk with a prosthetic leg.
For me, Grandpa Mark was a living instantiation of the trust and love demonstrated by those who believe in God and follow Christ. I still feel his presence and influence in my life, even though he is gone.
Next week we celebrate the Feast of All Saints and All Souls Day. These have always been among my favorite holy days in the church calendar because they celebrate the communion of saints, the doctrine that informs us that our Christian community is not made up only of the people alive right now. Our Christian community extends back, to my Grandpa Mark and to centuries of believers before him, people who even in death are still united because they are part of the body of Christ. In a time when individualism is a strong cultural force and people question the very reality of an afterlife, I find the communion of saints gives me language to make sense out of my connection with my grandfather. I take comfort in being a part of this extended family because it feels as if someone always has my back, as if someone always understands, as if there is always someone there to celebrate with me.
The other reason I love the doctrine of the communion of saints is that it reminds us of the saintliness of everyday people, people like my Grandpa Mark, who while sinful and flawed, also strive to follow Jesus’ example in the world to the best of their abilities. Sure, there are the famous Saints with a capital “S,” the ones for faced extreme trials for their faith, but if they were our only examples of faith, many of us would have given up long ago. I am more appreciative of the saints with a lowercase “s,” the everyday saints among us, because I feel like I might just be able to be one of them, with God’s help, of course.
Who are the everyday saints who have been part of your life?
What have you learned from them about what it means to be a follower of Jesus?