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Grandfathers and Grace
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Grandfathers and Grace

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By Melissa Brownback

In early October, I lost my grandfather. It had been over two years since I had seen him due to our cross-country move. The last day we spent together was a classic Midwestern summer afternoon – bright and green, sunny and sticky. And while each interaction was smudged with the fingerprints of dementia, he spent every moment of that day with my two little boys – watching as they chased bubbles and a bright yellow smiley-faced emoji frisbee with sunglasses. It was a snapshot of the best parts of him – his presence, his ability to play, and his tremendous heart for his grandchildren.

As my grandpa’s disorientation and disconnection with himself and others grew, the two-thousand-mile gap between us felt wider and wider. My heart ached to be closer, but the flow of my days and the needs of our family would only allow for one trip home to the Midwest, and I had decided to save it for his funeral. In the final days of his life, I had the beautiful opportunity to connect with my grandpa over Facetime. I shared stories and tears, thanked him for the many ways he had shaped my life, read Scripture to him, and then I said goodbye.

Days later, as I drove into his small, rural, Midwestern town, I felt as though I had been transported back in time. Westfield isn’t even found on most maps of Illinois; it is only a square mile in size, without a single traffic light, gas station, or store. As a kid, this place felt like magic. The slower pace of small-town life coupled with the safety and freedom to venture out and explore, created the perfect recipe for childhood wonder. It is the place I learned to ride a bike and drive a car. It is the place I spent my spring breaks and summers. From the stained-glass windows and red upholstery of the small country church to the smell of burning leaves in the fall and peonies in the spring, memories of this place are etched in every one of my senses.

My heart was filled with a bitter sweetness as I shared space and conversations with my extended family, navigating funeral details and our collective grief. Being in this place with multiple generations, drenched with memories and nostalgia, made me acutely aware of the traits of my family I now carry inside of me. I am hospitable and detail-oriented, like my grandma. I am responsible and sensitive, like my dad. And while I felt incredibly loved and delighted in by my grandpa my entire life, I’ve never considered myself to share any of his attributes. 

Until this weekend.

As I listened to stories about my grandpa’s gregariousness, generosity, and love, there was also a melancholy thread that began to emerge as I learned about his life-long struggle with grace. My relatives remembered that in countless conversations, he would circle back to his past failures and regrets, like a burner on the stove he could never quite be convinced he had turned off. He consistently questioned whether he could be forgiven. I found myself nodding my head with each story. Those feelings felt familiar.

The next day, a steady stream of people filled the little Methodist church to celebrate the life of my grandfather. Coming from a family of musicians and small-town preachers, the service was evenly split with music and a message from one of my grandpa’s brothers. As the service continued, my great uncle’s voice faded into the background as the volume of my internal dialogue heightened. My eyes zeroed in on the photos I had carefully arranged on large white poster boards the night before. 

Tears of compassion mixed with sadness began to fall. I get it, Grandpa. Guilt, shame, and a general sense of unworthiness have often taken up residence in my own heart. I have been following Jesus for nearly 20 years and yet these feelings continue to be my dark companions, threatening to overshadow God’s grace and blind my heart to his love. 

When I’m in this place, it’s impossible to receive the slightest bit of feedback or criticism. Discipline issues with my kids, or anything that doesn’t quite go according to plan drains me to the point of being fatigued to my bones. And yet, my mind runs on overdrive – a master of manufacturing every reason why I’m not enough. I fear that my faults are all others see. I worry that my family and closest friends simply tolerate me.

The tears continued to fall as I again locked eyes with my grandpa’s in a photo of the two of us. I couldn’t have been more than six months old. My heart ached as his smiling eyes looked back at me, grieved that he struggled to believe how loved, cherished, and valued he was. That he could see himself as anything less than beloved was inconceivable to me.

At that moment, an inaudible and gentle whisper filled my heart with a question. What if the truth you see about your grandpa is also true of you? What if it is inconceivable that Jesus could see me as anything less than beloved?

It’s not my failures and less-than-desirable personality traits aren’t true. They are. I have difficult days, I’m not perfect, and I make mistakes all the time. However, the fact that these things are true about me does not mean they are the truth about me. 

I continued to process this dark kinship I share with my grandfather as I drove out of town, wiping tears from my eyes and raindrops from my windshield. And I realized that honoring my grandfather’s life means continuing to fight for grace in mine. I will enter the fray for as long as I live because I am convinced – now more than ever before – that knowing Jesus and learning to live into his love for me is my life’s greatest pursuit.

While I still feel hints of sadness as I consider the internal battle that my grandfather fought, I have great joy knowing that he now experiences, firsthand and forever, the truth that he is loved, pardoned, and free. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12, the dim reflection of God’s presence in his life has been replaced with face-to-face reality. He now knows as fully, as he is fully known. And one day, so will I.