“The House Grandma Built”
A message delivered on All Saints Sunday, November 2008I was only seven years old when my Grandma Stone died. She lived just outside Nashville Tennessee on our old family farm; I lived 12 hours away in northern Virginia. As a result we only saw each other about once a year. The year before she died she came and stayed with our family for the best month of my life. In those four weeks she taught me what I call "The BLT lessons of Life: Biscuits, Laughter, and Teeth." Let me explain why those three words are the keys to unlocking the memories of my grandma that have remained in my heart for almost five decades. First, the biscuits. In our little house’s tight galley kitchen, I’d watch Grandma Stone create the biscuit mix from scratch with flour and baking powder and butter and milk, roll it out with a rolling pin, toss a blizzard of flour over the raw dough and then take a plastic drinking cup and cut out the biscuits. Those biscuits are still the best I ever ate. We’d stab butter and jelly or honey into the biscuit’s belly and eat knowing that there was not only no better taste in the world, there was no better smell, no better texture, no better food on God’s good earth. Long before Hardee’s mass-produced breakfast biscuits, I was eating them every day for lunch at school with a slab of ham, eggs, or bacon in the middle. After Lydia and I were married I remained a biscuit addict. Early in our marriage, before we had children, we sat at our tiny dinner table in the kitchen with our nightly ration and after a few minutes Lydia asked, “What happened to the biscuits?” I looked at the basket with a mixture of surprise and that shame peculiar to husbands who have been caught being oblivious to their wife’s needs. I had eaten nine of the ten biscuits she had baked, as easily as if I had breathed them in. Years later I’ve had to join a sort of Biscuits Anonymous. The great tragedy of my middle age is that I can no longer eat biscuits on a regular basis – each biscuit means an extra hour at the gym and I can’t spend nine hours a day working out. So aside from their gastronomical and aesthetic value - and aside from the weight they added to my torso - what do these biscuits have to do with who I am today? The mystery of why some memories stay with us and some disappear into the vaporous recesses of our minds, is that we are most likely to remember those things that impacted us the most, that left a deep and lasting impression and somehow connected us to the larger mysteries of life. Here are two life lessons I learned from watching my grandmother prepare those country biscuits from scratch: Number one: Nothing went to waste in the production. After the first biscuits were cut out of the flat dough, the remnants were then folded back into each other, rolled out again and more biscuits cut until there was no dough left. So grandma was teaching me that there’s value in even the smallest remnant, there’s value in the leftovers, there’s value in what may at first appear as waste. Find value in everything. Don’t throw away anything that has value, especially people. Number two: As a rule in life, the simplest pleasures are the best. The ingredients for the biscuits were few and common. The tools to make them were basic. They only took ten minutes to bake – even though that was the longest ten minutes of my adolescent day. You don’t need to travel to Europe and drop a couple of hundred dollars on your credit card to know the paradise of taste. Paradise was right there in our little kitchen at 149 Cardinal Drive, created by a simple country grandmother from Mt. Juliet Tennessee. Grandma’s biscuits taught me that the simplest pleasures of life are the best and they are free. I later learned that Jesus once shared that wisdom on a hillside with his disciples when he told them to look around at the simple beauty of nature and behold how its glory outshines the greatest achievements of a man. The second part of grandma’s BLT wisdom was Laughter. To my mom and dad and brother and sister, my real name seemed to be “Smart-Aleck.” I heard that name used so often in a derogatory fashion that I came to believe that my title of Smart-Aleck was right up there with Hitler and Satan. So when grandma came and laughed at my juvenile attempts at being funny, for the first time in my life I had a fan. I remember her hugs, her smiles, the times she laughed so hard I thought her false teeth would fall out. I appreciated that laughter so much. Up to this point I thought that my natural tendency to want to be a clown was a huge flaw, a characteristic that would have to be purged if I was going to survive to manhood. But grandma made me feel like a star and I began to see that humor was sometimes a good thing and not just something I’d get punished for. Grandma gave me the gift of her laughter and an appreciation for my own. She seemed to understand that I needed someone to believe in me at that time in my life, someone to say that not every impulse of my heart was bad. A couple of years before her last visit with our family, Grandma gave me one of my first lasting memories. I was singing in the Christmas pageant at a little Baptist church. Not just singing but the soloist on “Away in a Manger.” I was only five and I had a speech impediment. I could not say my hard “L’s” so my version went like this: “… the wittle ward Jesus way down his sweet head.” Grandma’s reaction? She laughed and hugged me and told me she had never heard anything like it in her life. She was so proud of me. And I felt that pride and the kindred spirit of my grandmother. The third and last part of grandma’s BLT wisdom was found in her Teeth or lack thereof. Every evening before going to bed, grandma invited me to come and witness what to a seven-year-old boy seemed like the coolest thing on earth. She could take her teeth out. She’d remove her false teeth dramatically and then with a great flourish drop them into a glass of water on her nightstand. The only thing that came close to this dramatic act was watching my Uncle Clyde drop his glass eye into a cup of water on his nightstand. I’d stare at those teeth smiling back at me from that glass and then look at grandma’s now toothless smile and I became her biggest fan. Grandma was way cool. From that nightly routine I learned that it’s alright to make fun of yourself, to be self-deprecating. Grandma didn’t care how funny she looked without her teeth. She was completely at ease with her tooth-lessness. She had her faith. She had her church. She had her Lord. She was saying with godly wisdom that it was OK for me to be comfortable with who I am - and what I look like – to be comfortable in my own skin. Because this is the person God sees and loves, the person God made for a reason. Because of her, I’m OK with me.. Sometimes we think that most of what we learn in life comes in the form of rules and verbal instructions in a classroom, of formal teachings and rational arguments. But we also learn at another level, a learning of lessons that take place in the simple act of being with others who love and care for us and set a godly example. Proverbs 3:3 has a father saying to his son to learn the wisdom of his elders: Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. I believe that if the commandments of God are to be truly written on the heart, worn around the neck, become an integral part of a child’s life, they must be reinforced by the living out of these commandments by parents and mentors. Nothing escapes the attention of a child. They can smell hypocrisy as easily as I could smell my grandma’s country biscuits. Our children are not only listening to us. They are watching us. They are interpreting our actions and judging our sincerity. They are storing up in their hearts either memories of parents and grandparents and mentors and pastors who took seriously God’s Word and Law, or bitter experiences that build a wall of distrust and suspicion of adults - and even the God those adults purport to believe in. The lessons my grandmother taught me remain bound around my neck, written down on the tablet of my heart. Her faith was shaped by the little clapboard church just down the rocky road from her farm, a church that couldn’t hold more than 50 people. Her heart was shaped by the love of God that surrounded her every day, the love she discovered in her grandchildren and in the simple joys of life. It was the love she shared with me - a skinny, wild, rough-housing young boy - that gave credence to the instruction she passed on. It was by the godly wisdom of her ways, and of others who loved us children in word and deed. that the house of our lives was built. It was by her biblically-honed understanding of what we children really needed that our home was established. It was through the knowledge of life I learned by the lessons she taught me that the rooms of my life have been filled with rare and beautiful treasures – the rarest and most beautiful of all being the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Not long after the last time my grandmother visited us, she fell ill and passed away. I had told my second grade teacher about my grandmother’s illness. The day after my grandmother went to her heavenly reward, I went to school and was at the blackboard when Miss Drake asked me if my grandmother was doing better. I broke down and cried and Miss Drake sent me to the school infirmary to lie down and have some time to recover. It was my first experience with real grief, the first time someone close to me had died. In her dying, my grandmother taught me one last lesson - death hurts. It really hurts. But thanks be to God - this isn’t the end of my grandma’s story. God’s trustworthy Word proclaims that Christ has died and risen and defeated death. My grandmother has not only inherited a place in my heart but also a mansion in glory filled with treasure beyond measure, a house built not by human hands but by the Christ who prepared it with love, who fills it with his eternal truth. This promise of glory, the promise that one day I will smell those biscuits again as I walk the heavenly roads, a smell that will lead me into her arms, I keep stored in my heart. I rise up and call her name blessed for all she taught me about life and faith, for her wisdom, her understanding, her knowledge that came from her relationship with God. Will your children, the children of your church, the children of your community rise up and call your name blessed long after the last, fading echoes of your words have been heard on this earthly plain? Will they call you blessed because behind your words there was a wisdom and understanding and knowledge of God that strengthened and enriched their lives? May God make it so. Amen.