I’ve been thinking of what I should say today for some time now, and what I want to say today is this:
There is a certain lack of credible heroes in our world.
We tend to go one of two ways with our heroes – we either dress our heroes up in costumes, making one-dimensional cartoons out of them, or we have reluctant heroes who never seem to do anything right, lack courage, skill and character, with only the possibility that they might learn something by the end. What we lack are heroes of substance. People we are proud of yet we know are not perfect; people who do their best and try to bring out the best in others. People who sacrifice for the greater good as well as for the people they love.
My grandparents were real heroes. And the world is a little less heroic now that they are gone. Not just because they served so well with courage and valor – one at home and one abroad during the Second Word War (which automatically qualifies them as heroes forevermore), but because of the way they both lived their lives during the peace, and instilled that same courage and determination to do the right thing for others in each of us – both for the wider good and those we love. They have been and will remain true heroes.
I know people experience each other differently when they are friends or colleagues, when they are your parents, or if they are your grandparents. You may have known AJ and Norma your whole life or you might have come into the family later on – but beneath each of the ways we have experienced them – with their quirky personalities, their passions, their long stories that you wondered if they were going anywhere, their generosity, their hospitality in their home, their abundance of food on the table and a place at it for everyone, it didn’t take long for a person to know that these were loving people. These people loved each other dearly, loved their family closely (even if it felt like smothering sometimes), loved their country openly, and always had open arms to include one more into that love. That takes courage, attentiveness, and a spirit that looked beyond themselves to others that really does set them apart as heroes. For that I am thankful, and I am sure you are too.
Heroes are strong. When AJ was younger he had a physical strength that could lift just about anything – I remember the stories how he built the bedrooms in the Brookfield house and lifting those heavy beams. His mind was a greater strength. AJ possessed a certain brilliance that could analyze, take things apart and rebuild them better than they were first constructed. Engineering was a good field for him. He had the ability to be probably the smartest person in the room, but not make you feel like an idiot. At least as I experienced him he wanted to listen and give his attention, because the greatest of his strengths was the ability to make you feel like you were the only one in the room, and the only one in his world. When I was younger he was a big man – no longer big and strong from his physical prowess but from the strength of Norma’s cooking around his middle. He was a jolly, plump, caring soul who laughed often and loved to scoop little ones up in his arms and sit them on his lap. Even as he grew older, thinner, weaker and more diminutive in his stature, strength and even mental capacity – he was a sweetheart, a jolly old soul, even to the end.
Norma had a different strength. She was not a person you could really say “NO” to – especially if she had an idea that she thought could help you. Over the years I hope you learned the delicate balance between commenting on something new she had on display but not giving it too high praise or you would be sent home with it. She had an ongoing concern that your plate was always full and you needed to learn to make sure there was room for seconds or even thirds because you were not leaving the table until you had them. You had to keep track of a few details at the beginning of a story she was telling because then you could ask a question bring her back after she got lost on a long tangent that contained some minor detail she found significant she wanted you to know. Norma was scrappy, resilient, and tough – but even if you thought it was directed at you – it really wasn’t. She just wanted what was best for you and was determined to see you do it. She was the kind of person you would want in a street fight – because you knew she had you back. Whenever you would say goodbye she’s always give these long hugs filled with a tailor-made sermon just for you about things you should be working on, encouragement to do it, with a certain determination in her voice that said, “You better do your best or there will be hell to pay.” I think her favorite phrases were – “Make us proud.” I’m not sure who started it, but both of them were fond of saying, “Stay out of trees.” When I told her I was going to seminary she said with gusto, “Give ’em hell.”
Heroes are strong. Norma and AJ were strong. Heroes are not perfect. Norma and AJ were not perfect. Heroes are real – not in costumes or with secret identities, but real people doing real things that matter. My grandparents were such people. I am thankful for them. We never see this in the movies or in our folklore – but even heroes, real heroes, grow old and die. Much of this heroic generation – including these two heroic leaders of our family are gone.
Part of life is death. Part of heroism is knowing weakness, and both AJ and Norma embodied that too. AJ’s physical strength left him after years of heart trouble, and his mental decline brought him to his end. Norma’s fierce determination could not save her from the cancer that took her life.
But love remains. The love they shared together remains. The love they shared with us remains. The love of God present in their lives remains too.
I stand in a unique position today as family chaplain. As a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ I have certain commitments. As a member of this family I have certain commitments too. Those commitments don’t always agree. I’m OK with that. I am open to what that might mean, and I hope you are too.
I am not going to stand here and tell you what to believe. I’m not here to scold you. I am not here to make you feel uncomfortable. This is not the day for that. Today is about honoring my grandparents and we are.
But I will share what I believe.
I have been around enough people in their last days or even moments to say this with some authority and clarity. Even those filled with certainty have doubts. Even those with faith get scared. And most people, even when they lack faith or certainty – at the end – find peace. I find that incredibly comforting.
To me – faith is born out of weakness; not out of our strength, heroism, or our ability to understand. The hope I have for the future is not born out of how well we lived, but is a gift born out of the life of another. What binds us together is not just the bonds of blood and friendship (as strong as those bonds may be), but we are bound to a love so powerful it is willing to give up its life that we might live together anew.
This to me is who God is and what God promises:
God’s love for us reaches deeper than anything we put in its way – our pain, anger, confusion or guilt. This to me is who Jesus is: He bears that same pain, anger, guilt and confusion for us and with us, to show us another way – which leads to faith – a gift of the Spirit where none of those things matter, because the promise of God’s love is true, and that gives us something to say – especially on days like this.
Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans (8:31-39)
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What shall we say? What shall we say of these fallen heroes? What shall we say as we leave this place?
I think Papa would probably chuckle and say, “Stay out of trees.”
Grammy would say with great gusto and fire in her voice, “Give em’ hell.”
I say to you, “The love of God, and the peace that surpasses understanding, go with you, and make you strong.” Amen