Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In the dappled light of my grandfather

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
Grandpa Max
On Sunday afternoon I received the phone call from my dad in Iowa letting me know that his father, Max, had just passed away. My dad and most of his siblings were present at the bedside when grandpa drew his last breath. In the moments surrounding his passing they sang hymns and uttered prayers for Grandpa Max, for his life here and beyond. A thousand miles away I pictured the bedside scene and assured my father that it's a terribly beautiful thing to stand at the edges of life. To bear witness to our temporality. To give thanks for the startling gift that is life itself. And to bend our hope-filled imaginations toward that day when our sleeping bodies will rise, caught up in a light and a life which dances just beyond our reach.

Still a thousand miles away I continue to ponder my grandpa's life and my place in relation to it. Two weeks ago I wrote a short poem, "In light of the sun", inspired by the image of our cat, Rascal, basking entirely and sublimely in the sun's rays, "between the shifting of shadows." In that "silent singular shine," "there is warmth." And while house cats can largely inhabit that place of purity, radiance, and warmth, humans rarely experience such luxury.

A better image is provided by Michael A. King, the dean of our seminary, who just recently lost both of his parents in a matter of months. In his eulogistic reflections Michael presents the image of dappled light. This image struck a chord within me. Just a quick, steep walk from our front door, at the top of the hill on campus stands my favorite tree. Its branches start a few feet above my head and reach out protectively. The grass beneath this tree is blanket-soft. Its leaves are small and thin - but numerous - and the sunlight through these leaves casts a perfect balance between light and shadow. We can only hope for such balance in our own lives.

What I'm hinting around is that my experience as a grandson to Grandpa Max is not a story dominated by warm, sunny memories. My honest assessment is this: that ours was a relationship cast in a good number of shadows. But let me be quick to say that this is a eulogy, a good word, for my dearly departed grandfather whom I loved. I know the spots where the sun shone brightly and they're significant, more significant than dwelling in the shadows. So let me tell the story of where the sun shone brightest through Grandpa Max onto his grandson. Let us for a moment be Rascal, the cat, stretching out to take in the warmth. By doing so we don't ignore shadow. It's still there, we still respect it. But we don't fear it. It doesn't control us.

About fifteen years ago I was called into the ministry at the Church of the Brethren in Prairie City, Iowa. This wasn't a formal call, mind you; that would come years later. But the late saint, Roberta Elrod, came up to me after I preached my first sermon in high school and said, "You've got it! You're going to be a minister just like your grandpa, Max!" My grandpa was an ordained Brethren minister until his death and had pastored that same congregation for a few years in the early 70s, about ten years before I was born. So when the first sign of my call to the ministry came through Roberta, it was inextricably linked to Grandpa Max. And his presence in that sense has continued.

A few years later in my early 20s my wife and I were serving a Brethren congregation in nearby Ankeny, Iowa, another congregation where my grandpa had served in a pastoral role years before me. The dear sisters and brothers there often confused me with my dad and would speak warmly of Grandpa Max as if he were my own father. Max Bechtol would tell stories from church camp at Pine Lake when he - as a camper - would get busted by my grandpa for amorous advances on the female campers. The younger Max would giggle himself into a tear rolling down his cheek. In those moments I didn't have the heart to remind him that I was the elder Max's grandson.

What I've come to understand about Grandpa Max's legacy impacting my life is that the waters of baptism uniting us in the body of Christ, the church, run thicker than blood. Indeed they will continue to bind us despite his passing. This doesn't erase my sadness and disappointment at never having a warm, personal relationship with my grandpa. What it does, though, is reframe the story of our life together in the Gumm family into a bigger story, the story of our life together in another family, the body of Christ. In this family Grandpa Max is an elder brother to me, someone who has tread before me the path of ministry in the church, in whose steps I now tread. My grandfather's life as a minister - that small part of the big story - is certainly dappled with both light and shadow. I know that; it was written onto my very bones at birth. I experience it every day.

But the power of the big story - life together in the body of Christ - is a power that casts out fear and yes, ultimately shadow. John's gospel tells us startling things about the nature of Jesus, including that "(i)n him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (1:4-5, NIV). In one of Paul's letters to the church in Corinth he speaks on the nature of love practiced in the gathered faith community. While speaking of this true love we clumsily stumble toward he looks forward past our dappled existence and says that for now "we know only in part... but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end... For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully..." (1 Cor. 13:9,10,12; NRSV).

So I stand content in the dappled light of my grandfather, Max Douglas Gumm. I thank God for his presence in my life and for those who were touched by him. By naming both shadow and light in our life together I am humbled in the knowledge that I will cast my own dappled light on those around me, especially my daughter as she grows and matures, learning to navigate this world, seeking to enfold her story into something grand and life-giving. By marking the passing of Grandpa Max may each of us stop, still our beating hearts, and breathe in the Spirit of guidance that Christ imparts on his disciples. May we walk humbly with our God amidst this dimly lit world, ever longing for the true light.

Grandpa wrestling with the kids
Me on his back, my cousin on the right, my brother in the back

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