My dad’s parents each died when I was in high school. In both instances, I received the news via phone call and began the moments of grief alone. When my grandmother died, the school staff were made aware and quickly came to comfort and surround me with love. Days later, my parents and siblings traveled to attend the funeral. I did not. In fact, it was several months until I saw any of my family members. I was at boarding school.
Leaving school for several weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean for a funeral was impractical and cost-prohibitive. Many weeks later I saw the photos of the family gathering, the reunion. The following year, for the same reasons, I did not attend my grandfather’s funeral. Years later, when I returned to the U.S. for college, my grandparents were not there. Two years after they passed away, I grieved anew. Though many family members were now habituated in some ways to their physical absence, this was the first time I was experiencing it.
We are living in a moment when thousands of people are similarly unable to be physically present for suffering family members or to attend funerals. Whether or not the death is related to COVID-19, we are grieving from a distance. Andy Crouch, in his book The Tech-wise Family, shares that he and his wife committed, early in their marriage, to always attend weddings and funerals. Presence was so important; they would make great sacrifices for at least one of them to attend. Now, even if such a sacrifice to attend a funeral were possible, in many cases it would not be permissible.
Though my own grandparents passed away many years ago, I think about them and the fact I was not present at their funerals. And I think about their legacies, which endure long beyond the grieving process. In our cultural context, legacy often connotes carefully curated moments and wise words intended to leave an impression. Or legacy simply means the financial benefits left to descendants. I lived over half of my childhood overseas, thus moments with grandparents were infrequent. But I spent enough time with them to see the example of their faith in Christ lived out loud. Their legacy was their example.
An example of service in the local church
Both sets of my grandparents set the example of service to Christ in their local church. None of my grandparents were ‘in ministry.’ They lived ministry. Several years ago, I visited the home church of my paternal grandparents and met people impacted by their lives. Upon hearing that I was their granddaughter, a woman came up to me and said her life was changed by her interaction with my grandfather.
She was a young mother, coming to church for the first time. My grandfather was the first person to greet her at the church door, hand her a bulletin and let her know she was welcome to leave her child in the nursery if she so desired. Weary and searching, eager for a break from her infant and an opportunity to worship uninterrupted, she was thrilled at the thought of a safe place to leave her child. That was over 40 years ago. She’s still at the church.
Over the decades and into their final years, my grandparents served in Sunday school, on welcoming and mission committees, or through weekly Bible studies. The longevity of their faithful service served as an example not only to their children, but also their grandchildren.
An example of service to the global church
Last week, I went through a stack of postcards in the family archives. “Thank you for your support,” read a postcard from missionaries in the Philippines. “Thank you for having us over for dinner and we look forward to seeing you again,” read another, from Japan. “Grandfather and grandmother, I miss you and am doing well,” read one from an international university student who had returned home. Their financial and personal commitment to the kingdom of God extended far beyond the borders of the United States. Indeed, both sets of grandparents exemplified their commitment to the global church by encouraging their own children when they moved overseas as missionaries, taking along the grandchildren, of course.
An example of ministry in the community
Service wasn’t reserved for church family or church-sponsored events. On their own initiatives, my grandparents served those outside the church.
One grandmother was active in fundraising for a local children’s home. I remember, as a preteen, attending a fundraising dinner and hearing the stories of how the ministry was impacting lives in Chicago. I wasn’t old enough to donate. I was probably just there for the food. But grandma invited us along because this was a part of her life. For decades she served this community. And she invited her grandchildren to participate.
My grandfather regularly, faithfully, went to the nursing home on Sunday mornings to lead church service. These forgotten residents of the community had a member of the Body of Christ who honored them by organizing fellowship, singing, prayer, and the hearing of the Word. I attended several of those services as a young child. Wheelchairs were brought in. The residents were lined up, some more aware than others. Some participated and some just observed as my grandfather loved by pouring into them. His example instilled in me, and other family members, a compassion for the elderly. I think of his example frequently during these times, when the elderly are at the greatest risk for succumbing to COVID-19.
An example of thriving relationships with the ‘other’
One summer in my early teens I flew in from out of town to visit my maternal grandmother, now a widow. Sunday morning, as the sun rose over the Rocky Mountains, I carried a heavy box of her literacy materials to the car. We arrived at church well before the regular crowd. A small cohort met us in a Sunday School room. They were illiterate adults, there to be tutored by my grandmother, a woman who had been passionate about literacy for decades. The demographic included English language learners, immigrants and an ex-convict. I observed, probably bored out of my mind. But I remember her enthusiasm and joy. She wasn’t going to cancel class because her granddaughter was visiting from out of state.
My other grandparents also lived the example of service to the ‘other’ by welcoming into their home people whose first language was not English. International students, foreign pastors or visiting engineers from various countries – all were welcome at their table. Indeed, many visitors stayed in their home for days or weeks. My grandparents would talk about these friendships. Accessible photos albums or a stack of letters with foreign postage stamps would catch a child’s eye, visible reminders of their global relationships.
For my grandparents, a lifestyle of mission was a way of life. And it didn’t come to a halt when the grandchildren came to visit. Like us all, they were marked by imperfections and foibles. They made many mistakes. But they could say, along with Paul, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil 3:17). Their example of a living faith is their legacy.
Even now, as communal grieving is delayed, we can praise God for his faithfulness in the lives of those who have been called to their eternal home during the pandemic. And we can look to their example for how we can be on mission with Christ in the days, weeks and years to come.