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Thanksgiving 2001 (Papa’s Tribute)

**My grandpa, papa as I called him (pronounced paw-paw) would have been 92 this past February 2nd.  Being on Groundhog Day, his birthday was always easy to remember.  If you’ve listened to me preach for any length of time you’ve heard testimonies from his life before.  He was a precious man to me and to many.  Writing has long been a personal favored form of expression and the following is an edited excerpt from something I wrote not long after he went home to be with the Lord.   I shortened it down to a length that would fit on two pages and the font still be readable.  I pray that telling a part of the story of this man of God is a blessing to you***

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“I heard you’ve been bragging about me.”

“Yeah, I told my roommate about what a man of God you are and about how glad I am that you are my Grandpa.  I’m proud of you Papa.”

“Well, I’m proud of you too son, and you’ll never know how much I love you.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing you on Thanksgiving.  Talk to you soon! I love you!  Good-bye. ”

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I spent a great part of my elementary school years with my grandparents.  My grandma would come pick me up at my house and take me to her place where I would catch the bus to school with my aunt.  She was only ten years older than me and was still in high school.  I would go to school and then the bus would take me back to my grandparent’s house where fried potatoes would be waiting along with the mandate to do my homework.

My Grandpa wouldn’t get home until about four o’clock or so.  He was already at work in the coalmines of Kentucky by the time I got to his house in the morning.  He was always glad to see me when he got home in the afternoon.  Grandpa, Papa as I called him, was a Baptist minister, a United Baptist minister to be precise.  He ministered at several churches in Southeastern Kentucky during the five years that my Mom, Dad, and I lived in the same area.

It never failed, on Sundays, Wednesdays, and during revivals, my Grandpa would be in church and so too would I if I was with my Grandparents that evening.  He would go to the coalmines at six in the morning, be to church by six at night, and then get up and do it again the next day and be glad about it.  When people from his congregation were in the hospital, he was there by their side.  When a funeral or wedding needed to be done, he was there.  When a call came in, he was glad to answer.

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My Grandpa’s life hadn’t always been one that would have been worth bragging about.  He used to be a severe alcoholic.  If his employer was of the persuasion that he shouldn’t be drinking on the job, my grandpa was of the persuasion that he needed to find a new place to work.  Over time, my Grandpa’s drinking problem grew worse as did his temper.  By the time my Mom and Dad were engaged, her senior year in college, Papa’s alcoholism and anger had reached a critical climax.

One night, as my Dad was picking my Mom up for church, Grandpa’s anger finally exploded.  He told my Mom and Dad that they had better take my Grandma and my Mom’s sister, who was only nine at the time, with them to church because he was going to burn the house down.  Grandpa said that if my Grandma and Aunt were still inside of the house, then so be it, he was going to burn it down anyway.  Needless to say my Mom and Dad took my Grandma and my Aunt with them to church that evening.  They didn’t know what to expect when they returned because Grandpa’s alcoholism turned him into a violent man whose threats were not to be taken idly.

But they didn’t have to wait until service was over to find out what Papa was going to do.  He came to the church building and circled it several times before finally parking the car and going inside.  Papa walked through the door and went straight to the altar without ever pausing at a pew.  He didn’t wait for a call to be given by the preacher, for he was heeding a personal invitation given by the King of kings and the Lord of lords Himself.  Grandpa was saved that night.  He repented of sin and put faith in Christ.  He came in drunk and went out sober.  He came in with torment and left with peace.  He came in an old man and walked out a new one.  He never touched alcohol again the rest of his life and the house that he was going to burn down still stands to this day, both the natural one and the spiritual one.  For Grandpa, all the old things had passed away, behold all things were made new (2 Cor. 5:17).  He was a new creation in Christ and it was this new creation that I began to know and love when I came into the world.  I was born the year after my Grandfather was born again.

I never knew the “old” Grandpa but instead grew to dearly love the “new” one that loved and served Christ.  When I heard stories from my Mom and others about his life before he was saved, I found them hard to believe.  Yet I knew they were telling the truth.  Although Papa didn’t tell stories of his vile past as many preachers do, he never denied the glorious gospel fact that he had been a sinner, and a very ‘good’ sinner at that, who had been saved by the unmerited favor of God’s grace.  He didn’t focus upon the testimony of his past but rather chose to spend time developing a testimony for the future.  I needed to only look at the life of the converted Grandpa I knew and compare it to the life of the unbelieving one I had only heard about to see the total transforming power of Jesus and the effects of the glorious gospel of His Kingdom upon a believer in the here and now as well as in the hereafter.

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When I was ten years old my family and I moved to Florida.  My parents and I thus began the summer tradition of driving I-75 from South Florida to my grandparents’ home in Ohio, the place to which my Grandpa retired soon after we had moved to Florida.  It was a long trip and because of going to see my Grandparents, we never really took what most would consider a ‘real’ vacation.  But we didn’t regret any of those trips.  It was such a joy to see them every year.  Occasionally, if Mom and Dad could get the time off work, we would try to go up for either Thanksgiving or Christmas as well.

My Grandparents and Aunt (aka Sis) only came to Florida twice before I went to college.  Once for vacation purposes and the other on the occasion of my graduation from high school.  I remember how proud my Grandpa was, not just because I had graduated from high school with honors, but more because we shared the same faith.  He had taken me to church for many times in my youth, but I came to the Lord in a personal way in Florida when I was thirteen.  I knew the Lord, had been baptized, was a bright student, respected my parents, and had short hair; Papa was so proud.

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Then I went to college.  I was nervous as a freshman, not about academics because those had always seemed to come naturally, but about the social/relational aspects of being away from home for the first time.  I was many miles away from any of my family and that was hard for someone who had always been a Momma’s boy and a homebody.  Papa knew this and was concerned about me.  He would call me about once a week, once every week and a half at the most.

He wouldn’t talk long.  He didn’t want to bother me or to take me away from my studies or my friends, he just wanted to check up on me and make sure I was doing okay.  My parents missed me greatly when I went to college for we have always been very close.  I was still home during the summers, but our annual summer trek to Ohio was cut short because vacation time now had to be spent picking me up from Tulsa, Oklahoma and bringing me back to Florida.

Therefore, when I went off to college, we started a new tradition.  I would go to Ohio to be with my Grandparents and Sis and her own family, which began with her marriage at the end of my freshman year, every Thanksgiving.  My parents would make it up if they could, but it was understood that at Thanksgiving I was going to be with Papa and Mama.

My Grandpa knew that I was studying for the ministry and more frequently continued in a tradition of calling me ‘brother’ which he began when I was saved.  He had a great respect as well as love for me.  Even though he knew that I came from a slightly different theological perspective than he, Papa always got me opportunities to preach in the churches that were a part of his denominational affiliation.  Whether they let me continue preaching because they liked my preaching or because of my Grandfather’s influence, I do not know, but I always got an opportunity to preach one service, and at one time a whole ‘revival’, when I was around Papa.

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I left college after three years, before receiving my degree.  Papa wasn’t overly thrilled about that decision.  He asked me if I was sure about what I was doing.  He didn’t like my decision, but he never let it come between us.  The calls kept coming, as did the encouragement and the opportunities to minister when I was around him.

It was within a year after I had left college for the first time (I would later return to finish my undergraduate degree and complete a master’s as well) that we found out that my Grandpa had lung cancer.  The doctors said that much of his right lung was already eaten up with it.  The tumor was large.  They offered chemotherapy but did not provide an optimistic prognosis.

My Grandpa, the fighter that he was, went through many chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  Papa had hardly ever been sick as long as I could remember.  He was a man’s man, a strong man who didn’t miss work, didn’t get sick, and didn’t complain.  But the chemotherapy slowed down this man who had been more active in retirement through ministry and home construction projects than most people are in their primes.  I remember calling him one night and his voice was so weak that I could scarcely hear it.  He wanted to talk to me and did for a few minutes, but eventually the pain he was feeling grew so great that he handed the phone to my Grandmother.  He couldn’t talk anymore.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to scream.

I began to pray for him like I had never prayed for anyone before in my life.  My mom, one of the most faithful prayer warriors I have ever known, would pray for Papa for hours and hours.  Papa was perhaps the most optimistic of all of us, he wasn’t afraid to die but continually said about his healing that “God could move in a way that none could hinder.”

However, things seemed to get worse.  Then one morning my Mom got a call from Sis.  The doctors had asked for all of the family to come in.  They gave Grandpa six weeks to live.  We couldn’t believe it.  Many people, indeed many churches, prayed and, by God’s grace, my Grandpa began to make a miraculous turn around.

Within two to three months after we had received the six-week prognosis of impending death, my Grandpa’s tumor had shrunk almost to nonexistence.  The man who had once been so zapped of energy he couldn’t talk, was now back preaching, visiting the sick and elderly, building steps for the church house, planting a garden, and working on various other projects in his garage.  My Heavenly Father had truly worked a miracle on my Grandfather’s behalf, and on mine.  My faith in God had never been stronger.

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Thanksgiving 2001 was a special holiday for many people throughout our country.  The terrorist attacks of September 11th had left Americans with a renewed sense of what is truly important.  Money can be great, power is enjoyed by some, but the significance of God and family comes to the fore in times of crisis.  Americans were concurrently mourning and rejoicing.  Mourning because of the great and tragic loss which many of our number had experienced.  Mourning because life in the United States would never really be the same again.  We thought we were invulnerable, yet with the crashing of the Twin Towers came the crashing of American confidence in that impenetrability.  Still, in the midst of it all, we also found ourselves rejoicing.  Rejoicing perhaps that none of our personal loved ones were killed in the tragedy.  Rejoicing in the strength of our country and in its giving spirit in times of need.  Rejoicing that we had never really been a victim of terrorism before while there are some countries in the world where it is a daily reality.

I was looking forward to seeing my Grandparents that Thanksgiving.  It was the first Thanksgiving since I had left college after completing my master’s degree months before.  I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make the annual trek to Ohio because now I was working.  I had only been on the job for three months and didn’t know if I would get the days off needed to make the journey from Florida to Ohio.  The time off had always been automatic in college.  I was going to try my best.

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I did get to go see my Grandparents that year but it was a little before Thanksgiving and it was a trip I wish I had never had to make.  We received a phone call on November 6; it was a Tuesday.  Sis’ voice was on the other end of the line; she told us that Papa had just been admitted to the hospital.  He had been up most of the night before pacing the house, but that was his normal practice.  Papa would get up and walk the floors and get a drink of water at all hours of the night.  I remember many nights laying in the living room and listening to the television with one ear and listening for Papa with the other.  I would always try and hear him and make the preemptive move of turning off the television and pretending to be asleep before he had time to launch into a ‘mild’ diatribe on the dangers of too much TV and the rewards of getting a good night’s sleep.

But that night it was different.  He had a pain in his chest that just wouldn’t go away.  He thought at first that it might be indigestion but eventually it got to the point that he knew something more serious was occurring.  Finally, he decided to take action and told my Grandma to get ready because they were going to the hospital.  He drove himself there with Mama in the passenger seat.  Totally in character for my Grandpa.  He was quite the independent sort.

The doctors quickly ascertained that he was having a heart attack and that he had a major blockage.  They wanted to perform surgery, a twelve-hour surgery that had less than optimal odds for success.  He decided to have the surgery done.  It lasted for several hours and his vital signs did make a comeback.  Still, the next day he went home to be with the Lord.

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There were no warning signs.  He had been feeling great.  Just the previous Saturday he had helped move new pews into the church sanctuary.  Monday, the day before he had the heart attack, he had chopped wood all day in preparation for winter.  The Saturday night before his death he had called to see how I was doing and to let me know about the new pews.  I wasn’t there the first time he called and he spoke with my roommate.  They had a good conversation and my roommate told him about my bragging about the great man of God that he was.  He was somewhat embarrassed by that but I am so grateful that he had that last acknowledgement of my feelings for him from someone else that I had expressed to him personally several times myself.  When he did talk to me that night, he told me of his conversation with my roommate.  He told me of the new pews and gladly proclaimed that the next time I was in his church I would have a softer seat.  He asked how I was doing and wanted to know if I was coming in for Thanksgiving.  I was fine.  I wasn’t sure about Thanksgiving, but I was trying.  I was glad to hear about the new pews.  “I love you Papa.”  “I love you son.”  “See you soon.”  “Bye.”

I would never have the opportunity to speak to him again in this life.  When we got the phone call letting us know that he was in the hospital, I was surprised but not overly concerned.  I began to pray and just had a quiet confidence that the same God who had healed him of the cancer would now heal him of the heart attack.  I slept on the couch that night, what little I did sleep, so I could be by the phone.  It rang and I was informed that he had made it through surgery.  The next morning my Mom, Dad, and I made plans to leave for Ohio.  I was on my way to pick up Mom at work when she got the news, the news that my Grandpa had passed from this life into the next.  A close friend met me outside the door of the Christian School where my Mom was teaching to let me know what had happened.

I would give anything to have been there with my Grandpa in the hospital, to have sat by his bedside, to have spoken to him and offered prayers while touching him with my physical hands.  But I know Papa knew how I felt about him.  I’m thankful that my Grandpa and I knew each other well.  Our love was spoken, not silent; shared, not hoarded.  Not only did we have a mutual love and respect that lives between a Grandfather and a Grandson, but we had a mutual love and respect that came from being brothers in the Lord and fellow ministers of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

I cried all the way home that day.  I cried as I finished getting my things together to take on the trip.  I cried as we made the all too familiar trek up I-75.  I cried when I first saw my Aunt (aka Sis) and Grandma.  I cried when we went to the funeral home and picked out Papa’s casket.  I cried when my Mama asked me to sing at the service.  I just couldn’t.  I cried when we went to the funeral home for the viewing, the longest three hours of my life.  I cried when we got in the car to go to the church for the service.  I cried as I sat on the front row and heard Papa’s best friend preach the service.  I cried when I heard my Grandpa’s favorite songs sung.  I cried on our way to the cemetery for Papa’s internment.  I cried when I heard the guns saluting my Grandfather (he was a WWII veteran).  I knew that my Grandfather was in Heaven.  I knew he had experienced the ultimate healing.  I knew that I would see him again.  I knew; and yet I cried.

I have never been much of a crying fellow.  It’s not because I’m some kind of macho man with a masculine persona to protect.  It’s more because I’m generally an introverted, private person.  I don’t let my emotions get out of control very often.  But, at my Grandpa’s funeral, I cried like a baby in front of God and everybody.  I have cried many times since then.  Not so much mourning my Grandpa’s death, although that has certainly happened as well, but rather because I am thankful for his life.

I wasn’t owed a Grandpa who loved me and cared for me.  I am thankful.  I wasn’t owed a Grandpa who took me to church and taught me the ways of God.  I am thankful.  I wasn’t owed an answer to my prayers for Grandpa to be healed of cancer, yet he was.  I am thankful.  I wasn’t owed the opportunities to help him fix his roof and pour cement steps to his basement and hoe the garden and chop wood for the winter and fix his well, yet we did.  I am thankful.  I wasn’t owed the privilege of having my Grandpa, a man of God whom I respected greatly, get to hear me preach the gospel of Christ, that all mankind are sinners who must repent and put faith in Jesus for forgiveness.  I am thankful.  I wasn’t owed the humbling act of my Grandpa washing my feet (a practice from John’s gospel that his denomination saw as an ordinance of the church), yet he got to perform that task, a ‘duty’ I didn’t want him to do but one which he longed to accomplish before passing from this Earth.  I am thankful.  I wasn’t owed the joy of speaking to him just three days before he had the heart attack.  I am thankful.  I wasn’t owed a Savior who would touch Papa’s life and mine and make it possible for us to be together forever.  I am thankful.  I am thankful.  I am thankful.

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I had studied Heaven and the promises of Scripture concerning the eternal blessedness of the believer.  I had even taught on these same subjects many times.  I had experienced salvation, the beginning of this eternal life, myself and had seen God do the same for others on many occasions.  Yet now I believed it more than ever.  The Christ who promised to be the peace that passes understanding, the friend who sticks closer than a brother, has proved to live up to those promises in a measure that I had never fathomed (Philippians 4:7; Prov. 18:24).  My Grandpa went home to be with Jesus.  My faith in God had never been stronger.