As I was traveling to St. Louis in February for the United Methodist Church’s called General Conference, I received word that my grandmother, NaNa, had passed away. From my hotel room, I talked with my family and began planning the service that would celebrate her life. I wrote the homily I preached in the same hotel, during the General Conference, and on the way back to Virginia. NaNa’s celebration of life was held at Enon United Methodist Church, her church for all of her 90+ years. I chose Luke 18:1-8 as my preaching text.
I can remember as a child during the stillness of a summer evening hearing the gentle humming or singing from across the creek. In the moments that I would stop to listen, I realized that it was coming from NaNa and PaPa’s back porch. Most often NaNa was sitting on the porch snapping beans and singing a familiar hymn. Now, whatever I was doing, usually didn’t last very long. Inevitably, she would see me outside and holler my name, which was the invitation to join her in snapping beans. And if I didn’t respond the first time, the call would continue until I responded.
Moments like this capture some of the core values of what made NaNa, NaNa. Music was an important part of her life, but not more important than family. Moments like this on the porch were not as much about the beans (or other summer veggies) as they were about spending time with family. There was always a joy when the family gathered at the house. And I imagine as the family grew to include husbands and wives and great-grandchildren, it might have stressed her out a bit to have so many people in the house.
But she still loved it.
She loved us grandkids – from tickling us to the floor as kids to coming outside to see what new thing we tinkering with. She loved to laugh with others. NaNa’s great-niece Tamara recalled, “She was always smiling and knew how to crack me up.”
She was a hard worker and a strong woman. There were days when her kitchen was hotter than outside as she gathered anyone who was around to help her with canning the summer harvest. From tending to the flower beds to the nukes and crannies of this building she loved, she did with intentionality and care. I remember one time when Nana and Papa were on vacation Dad and I took up their responsibilities for cleaning the church, and let me say, church people are messy . . . . .
And she did this for 50 years.
She was determined. When she made up her mind about doing something, she did it. There was no giving up and there was no turning back. Cameron tells this story that as a child he wanted to be able to play after school with Rondal and me. So he schemed a plan to play sick and it worked. He was taken to NaNa’s for the day. As soon as the school bus dropped Rondal and I off, and headed down the road, Cameron bounced into action. This was the chance. But, Nana would have none of it. “You’re sick,” she said, “You can’t go play.”
Never give up and no turning back.
Her determination showed up when someone tried to tell her she couldn’t do something. Every ounce of her being was going to prove that she could . . . . and she did. She tackled new challenges and new things in a way that inspires us to do the same. She became a mail carrier before the fancy little mail trucks, learning to sit in the passenger seat to drive while tossing the mail into the mailboxes. In addition to singing and playing the piano, she took lessons to learn to play the violin. In addition to sewing – making dresses for granddaughters and hemming pants for grandsons (which I could have used today) – about 25 years ago she turned the living room into a quilt studio as she set out to make a quilt for each grandchild as gifts on their wedding day.
Most of all, she was a woman full of faith.
As I pondered this week what scripture we might use that would speak of NaNa, I thought of Luke 18. And I realize that this is not a typical scripture we would use at a time like this, so I ask you to hang in there with me.
When we read this story, Jesus is telling us that we should be like the persistent widow, continuously bringing our prayers, joys, and concerns, to God. The Apostle Paul echoes this when he says, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
This is not to say that we should keep repeating the same prayers over and over. The widow in this story is persistently crying for justice while living a just life. When it comes to our faith, we should never give in and never give up. We persistently cry out to God as we persistently live out our faith.
This is who NaNa was.
From singing her faith on the back porch to singing in the choir; from teaching Sunday school in the little cinder block building out back to spending time in the Word with her Upper Room devotional and Bible. Her faith was important to her.
Yet, she was persistent in living out her faith.
It was not uncommon to find a part of the house transformed into living quarters so that someone who was recovering from surgery or who had recently been ill had a place to recover. Nor was it not unusual for one of us to find a place to stay in the midst of transitions of life. Even if she disagreed with something you did or said, her compassion trumped all that.
Angie and I participated in summer work camps – week-long mission camps – and NaNa was always fascinated by the stories we would tell. NaNa would get involved by organizing folks here at Enon to take lunches to a crew of youth and adults in Richmond. I rarely got to benefit from those lunches, but she and PaPa both enjoyed meeting the youth and seeing what they were doing.
She and PaPa loved it!
One year at Richmond work camp, the crew I was apart of dropped another crew off at their house and we would go to the house we were working on about a block away. Much to my dismay, NaNa and PaPa (and the folks at Enon) fed this crew for the week. When we would go to pick up the crew, I would sit on the front porch with the resident and connect with her. NaNa had done the same thing.
We had this unique experience of being in mission with the same person during the same week. We were able to both hear about this woman’s struggles and needs. Afterward, NaNa and I organized a can food drive here at the church. Most of the canned goods went to MCEF, but some were set aside for this woman. NaNa and I drove to the house in Richmond and dropped them off with the resident.
In the work that I am doing now, I’m trying to teach church people to do what came so naturally to NaNa and PaPa. They were able to meet people wherever they were, have a conversation with them that communicated to that person that they are worthy, valued, and loved just as they were. It didn’t matter who you were, or what color your hair was, you were valued and loved.
One of the most sacred spaces at Nana’s was the kitchen table.
It didn’t matter where you had been, how long you had been gone, what you had done, or who you were, there was a place there at the table. And as the family grew, the table grew (although some of us never made it to the adult table). Great niece Tamara has fond memories of sitting in Aunt Gladys’ kitchen, “always feeding me,” she said, and “asking me a thousand questions about my life.”
The same was true for all of us. There was always a place at the table for us, there were questions for sure, but mostly there was love and grace.
All of this was possible for her because of her faith – her strong and persistent faith.
I have this memory of NaNa playing the piano at her house, and when she would play by ear, it was a magical and mysterious thing. I recall being amazed at it all. She would play a bit and then stop and look at me and ask, “What hymn was that?” This is how I learned the hymns of the church, which have become a key part of my faith. This “Guess the Hymn” game would continue for a while. And then she would begin playing what has become a very familiar tune to me. Instead of stopping and asking me what hymn, she would start singing, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”
You see when she sang this, there was no doubt in my mind that this was indeed her story and this was indeed her song. She lived with the blessed assurance that Jesus Christ is her Lord and Savior. She lived knowing the promise of the resurrection. And that remained true in these last few years. From sitting on the front pew paying no mind to the hymn book, but singing every word to moments with Angie and Marilyn singing together finding the sweet spots of harmony.
This is her story, this is her song.
I attended General Conference this week and as I was walking around the stadium (where the St. Louis Rams play), I noticed a stack of Upper Room devotions for the taking. Thinking about NaNa, I picked one up and opened it and the scripture at the top of the page was this: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!’
NaNa lived with such faith that she had the blessed assurance that hope was built on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ so that victory in this life and the next is found not in things of this world, but in the everlasting love of Jesus Christ. So there was no doubt that when her name was being called, she responded to the invitation.
May we all strive to do the same. Amen.