It wasn’t always easy being around Grandpa.
Although he had a good sense of humor and told entertaining stories, you always knew what was coming — something about Jesus.
He had a habit of interrupting a perfectly good football game on Sunday by asking “What are they saying about Jesus on television today?”
Often my brothers and I were reluctant to invite friends to join us for Sunday dinner because we knew Grandpa would find a way to corner them and ask if they knew where they were going when they died — if they were “holding on to those nail-scarred hands.”
Grocery stores were even worse. Before the checkout clerk could ask “paper or plastic?” Grandpa found a way to enquire about the condition of her immortal soul. My uncle once confided that he hid behind a display of Legg’s hose while Grandpa sprang his question.
And there were other things — witnessing in the county jail, handing out tracts in the mall, walking down Main Street with a cross on his back. My dad was a pastor and both of his parents were ordained ministers and so I understood why they often acted the way they did. Yet my mom’s dad didn’t even have a church title and still he went around acting more like a preacher than anyone I knew.
The one thing that baffled me most was what he did on the telephone. Anytime I was at his house I could expect the same thing. He’d pick up the phone book, find a name and dial. “Good morning,” he’d say when they answered, “Jesus is precious and so are you.” Often that’s as far as he’d get before they’d hang up. Sometimes he had the opportunity to ask the person if they knew Jesus and very occasionally he would lead someone in the sinner’s prayer. Despite all the hang-ups, despite some crude responses, he kept doing it, day after day.
“Well, that’s just Grandpa,” I remember thinking at the time.
Going off to college gave me a new perspective on him — especially when I returned home after a semester with classes in psychology, apologetics and theology.
I thought about my psychology classes and wondered what behavioral motivation led Grandpa to act so religious — was it something from his childhood or a need to please people at his church? I thought about my apologetics classes and wondered if he knew his cold-calling and tract-distributing approach was inferior to other strategies for presenting Christianity. I thought about my theology classes and wondered if Grandpa’s fixation on heaven made him less sensitive to the real world around him.
More than anything, I thought, “That’s just Grandpa, clinging to a simple, less-sophisticated Christianity in a world that is passing him by.”
As I got older, I learned to love Grandpa more and appreciate the spiritual heritage he created in our family, but I still couldn’t quite understand what made him tick.
Sitting through his funeral service this past summer, I felt I was being re-introduced to Grandpa. At least three themes of his life emerged then that helped me finally understand and appreciate his motivation and methods:
- Life requires spiritual discipline.
- Everyone is precious in God’s eyes.
- Our reward is in heaven.
The more I think about these themes, the more I go beyond just understanding what made Grandpa tick. I’m also discovering just how bold and life-changing the simplest ideas can be.
Here’s what they looked like in Grandpa’s life.
Everyone in the family knew Grandpa was committed to devotional time. Around 4 a.m., he would get up and spend an hour reading his Bible and praying. At times I thought this was his way to punch a spiritual clock and earn God’s favor.
But my dad made a point at the funeral I had never thought about. He reminded the audience that Grandpa trained on the Charles Atlas muscle-building program when he was younger. You may remember Charles Atlas from the comic book ads where a scrawny man has sand kicked in his face at the beach, but redeems himself (and gets the girl) by doing the Charles Atlas workout.
Grandpa believed in physical discipline, but he also knew that the demands of life required him to be just as disciplined in his spiritual life. The great reformer Martin Luther was known to say, “Today is going to be such a busy day that I can’t start it without extra hours of prayer.” Like Luther, Grandpa knew he couldn’t afford to miss out on a daily opportunity to go to God for wisdom, direction and encouragement to face his day.
I thought I was smart when I tried to understand Grandpa using theories I learned in Psychology 101 — but I overlooked the research on the value of conditioning the mind and heart through daily time in prayerful meditation.
It was Grandpa’s discipline of daily prayer and reading that made him who he was. Consider the difference between the foundation on which he built each day compared to the kind I built upon. In the past, I often started my mornings with lingering thoughts from a strange dream or a television show I watched the night before. I’d then mix in articles from the newspaper and music from the radio on the way to work — a real hodgepodge of trivial thoughts.
After the funeral, my grandmother gave me one of Grandpa’s Bibles. The following sampling of his many underlined passages gave me a sense of the very different kinds of thoughts Grandpa had starting his day:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)
“The righteous cry and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles.” (Psalm 34:17)
“I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” (Psalm 37:25)
Grandpa couldn’t help but live differently after starting each morning with his compass reset toward God, his sins forgiven and his future secured. He was ready for anything the day could throw at him and could boldly live his faith instead of just reacting to the world around him. That’s the fruit of spiritual discipline.
Seeing Through God’s Eyes
In addition to his insight on Charles Atlas at the funeral, my dad also talked about the basis for Grandpa’s opening line on his telephone calls: “Jesus is precious and so are you.” He pointed out that Grandpa wasn’t using the word ‘precious’ in any kind of soft, “precious moments” kind of way.
Instead, he observed, Grandpa was referring to the incredible sacrifice made by Jesus that in turn makes each of us very special in God’s eyes. Like the precious perfume that Mary poured on His feet, Jesus’ blood on the cross was a costly sacrifice poured out for atonement. Seeing us through the eyes of His sacrificed son, God cannot help but see each of us as precious as well.
While some laughed off Grandpa’s greeting, others treasured the rare unconditional love it communicated. We are all used to people seeing us in terms of what we can do for them — not for our inherent worth. Grandpa felt everyone needed to be reminded they were of great value in God’s eyes.
Dad explained how this approach proved to be effective in Grandpa’s outreach. Dad shared specifically how his own zealous attempts to convert Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses through pugilistic apologetic debates were never as effective as the warmth and love in which Grandpa presented Christ to these groups — despite his lack of training.
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” Paul reminds us. The modern cliché interprets that verse as “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
While I perceived that Grandpa was striving ineffectively in his witness, I realize now he was just lovingly directing people to the good news of the unsophisticated old rugged cross. There’s plenty of room for debate about the effectiveness of various approaches to presenting our faith — but we can never expect much of an approach that forgets how valuable sinners are in God’s eyes.
Reward in Heaven
Whenever Grandpa prayed over a meal he would end by saying, “Now when you’re through with us on this earth give us that home you’ve prepared for us in glory, in Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”
We all knew that Grandpa was looking forward to heaven. Sometimes, however I suspected his longing for heaven made him less earthly-good.
The message at the funeral, though, was that Grandpa’s commitment to treasures in heaven was not mere escapism detaching him from our present world. Instead his contentment in waiting for a reward in another world made it easier for him to tolerate what often seemed like a lack of progress in this world.
A man showed up at Grandpa’s church shortly before he died. “Is this the church Norman Owen (my grandpa) attends?” he asked. “Yes,” the receptionist explained, “but he is in a nursing home now because of Alzheimer’s.” “Well,” the man continued, “he called me 10 years ago and asked if I was ready to accept Christ and I told him I wasn’t, but that seed he planted took root and now I’m ready.”
Grandpa didn’t know about that success story until he went to heaven, but he faithfully made that rejected phone call years ago and had the wherewithal to pick up the phone and keep calling.
Furthermore, Grandpa’s hope for a heavenly reward made it possible for him to shun the rewards of this world. I know my weaknesses. If I had Grandpa’s phone outreach, I would have been tempted to set up Telephone Ministries International and would have sent out frequent press releases announcing all the calls I had made. I would want my ministry to be recognized and appreciated.
But Grandpa didn’t need that. Besides a Layman of the Year award he received once, he didn’t get a lot of recognition in this world; he surely didn’t get any money or prestige out of his effort. He didn’t want any of that. As I remember now, all he wanted was what he used to tell me those times when he would grab my hand with his powerful grip and say, “Don’t you just long to hear those words, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant’?”
In the months since Grandpa died, I’ve learned to treasure the life I witnessed even though I didn’t always understand it. Now I’m not inclined to make judgments about his methods or motivations. Instead I can’t get out of my mind those simple ideas that seem to be slowly turning my world upside down: Life requires spiritual discipline. Everyone is precious in God’s eyes. Our reward is in heaven.
That’s just Grandpa’s legacy.
Copyright 2003 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.