I worked on his tree farm for one summer when I was in junior high. He woke me early to work the property, to get sap on my clothes and to harden my hands for manhood. He tried so hard to nurture in me an affection for seeds and saplings and to care for them. My proclivity to day-dreams, to laziness, to playing when I should be working, was admittedly frustrating to him. After a day of work, we used to roll into the house at around 9:00 pm to the smell of warm food and the chastisement of my grandmother.
“He’s a growing boy, Ed! You can’t keep him out this late. He needs rest and a good meal!”
He’d mumble something about every boy needing to learn how to work and there was a particular inflection in his voice that made it obvious how he felt about this boy in particular. I never doubted his love, but I also never doubted his opinion of my manhood: he was perfectly clear on what he thought of my work-ethic and, as everyone knows, manhood and work ethic were inseparable in his mind. They were, of course, both right.
I remember one particular night when my grandparents had guests over and there was really no place to duck and cover except up in my grandfather’s loft which was his bedroom. So I clambered up the stairs and brooded around, looking for something to do. I found a framed stitch-work hanging on the wall of Proverbs 22:29: “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will work before kings. He will not work for unknown men.”
There was something enchanting about that little promise, something enticing in all the right ways. Something inside me awoke that night to the possible rewards of hard work. I realized that the rewards for hard work were not the grades or the financial windfall, but the possibility of doing great things with great people. In that moment, I realized why, to some degree, my PopPop worked so hard and why he asked me to work hard too. He wanted to do great things for great people and he wanted the same opportunity for his grandson.
I didn’t do the mental math at the time to recognize that my grandfather was already working before a king he knew and loved; namely, The Lord, Jesus Christ. However imperfect his love for Jesus Christ and for people, my PopPop had faith, like a seed, and he knew in no uncertain terms that it was the most important seed in all the world. He was faithful to nurture that seed in himself and in others and I’m the beneficiary of his efforts.
Now, I can say with the Psalmist that “the lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me” (Psalm 16:6) and “you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name” (Psalm 61:5).
I haven’t really developed an interest in planting and nurturing trees…but you’ll find this interesting: my son has. They hardly knew each other and yet there is something in my son that loves the seed and sapling. One month ago, he started a mango tree from seed and it’s still growing in my living room. Of his own accord, my son started a maple tree from seed last summer. He’s almost irritating in his attention to detail around those trees. I never told him to plant them or pluck the lower leaves or weed around their base or water them, but he does it all nonetheless. On the day we heard that PopPop died, we prepared four flats with soil and planted some seeds that PopPop collected decades ago. It was our small way to honor his life. Who knows if they’ll take? But I know that if they don’t, it won’t be my son’s fault. He goes out most mornings in the dark, before school, and waters them from a spray bottle he stole from his mother’s stuff.
Robert Louis Stevenson asked that these words be carved on his tombstone: “Here he lies where he long’d to be.” So it will be for my grandfather when his remains are buried in Michigan. His body will be a part of the loam of the earth, the loam that he loved, but he will be enjoying the new resurrection. In both cases it will be true: He lies where he long’d to be and his faith, like a seed, grows in his great grandchildren’s lives. Already, the mountains of this needy world are being peopled by the saplings he planted.
Today, I will join my grandmother, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, and my siblings in honoring my grandfather’s life. I can tell you with all certainty that I will thank my God for this rare heritage of faith. I will remember that stitched proverb. “Do you see a man skilled in his work?” Yes. Yes, I do. And, happily, he’s at work for the King of kings and Lord of lords right now in a place where there are no beetles, aphids, or diseases to threaten his work. There is no pain nor Alzheimer’s disease.
Now that you’re gone, PopPop, we’ll remember that “the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them” (Psalms 103:17-18). While you have had to live in this broken world with a breaking body and mind, God brings you now to the other side of the smudged window where you see “face to face.”
PopPop, you’ve run the race and now you’ve heard what we so badly long to hear ourselves: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I love you, PopPop. I’ll see you on the other side.