A Grandmother’s Legacy

grannyBy Joe LaGuardia

My wife’s grandmother–Granny, as she was known–passed away last month after complications from hip surgery.  We went back to Georgia to mourn with the family and begin preparing her condo for sale.

We all had a job to do.  Some cleaned, others packed clothing.  My children went through her pictures and puzzles.

My wife and I had the long task of going through hundreds of books and prayer journals, all while making a “Goodwill” pile and “keep” pile.  We also had to thumb through every book because she commented one time that she stuffed money in her books.

After two days of going through her library, we didn’t find money, but we did find the DNA that made up her prayer life and legacy.

Granny was an avid reader and journal keeper.  She read and wrote about current events, sports and automobiles, aging and medicine, art, biblical studies, theology, and spirituality.  She wrote extensively in margins of her books, highlighted parts that she found compelling or interesting, and wrote questions–about her faith and theology–on little scraps of paper.  She put little bookmark tabs on pages that she found inspiring or transformative (or formative).

She also kept three-ring binders of hand-written prayer journals.  There were prayers for every occasion, but mostly intercessory prayers for her family–all of the grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren yet to be born.   We found one prayer for the baby that my wife held in her womb for nine months.  Granny didn’t know the name or the gender, but she knew that even that little life needed her prayers and intercessions.

When we looked through that library, it was as if we were looking through Granny’s soul.  I came across many books that I recognized, some that we both read together through the years as we both had a love of spiritual authors contemporary and ancient.  Books, like Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer, to those authored by desert mothers and fathers of the faith, the Celts, or local monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit who wrote on centering prayer and lectio divina and the like.

It reminded me of the lengthy conversations Granny and I used to have about theology.  One time, back in 2003, I was struggling with my walk with Jesus.  I was going through seminary and didn’t have the love for the Lord that I once did.  I faced bouts of depression at the time, and–knowing Granny’s spiritual gift of discernment–shared my struggles with her during a trip to Florida, where she lived at the time.

She told me about this Catholic priest and author that really made a profound impact on her: Henri Nouwen.  She was reading The Way of the Heart, and she thought it might help me with my spiritual malaise.  We took a trip to the bookstore and she graciously bought me a copy.

I read it–a small book, no more than 110 pages or so–about one man’s journey through the arid expanse of the soul, an exploration of the spiritual journey through wilderness and silence that led to sacred solitude and a life of prayer, meaning, and trust in the Lord.

The Way of the Heart changed my life; it inspired me a few years later to focus on spiritual formation for my doctoral dissertation in my work with caregivers.  I taught on that book at least three times in the church I had served for over a dozen years.  It changed other peoples’ lives too.

The books were one thing, Granny’s notes were another.  She had a habit of sticking Post-It notes in her books and journals with names of people from her family for whom she prayed.  That, and the pages of prayer journals she kept, mapped out a legacy that Granny built with conviction, purpose, and a sense of divine vocation.

She didn’t pray because it was expected of her; she prayed because that was her life’s calling.  If every day counted, to be lived out with utter abandon and sacrifice to the Lord, then every prayer counted as well.

My wife spent a few hours one day leafing through those old prayer journals.  In one, she noted that Granny wrote of her prayer life: “Who will pray for my family when I’m gone?”  It inspired tears in us, as well as a time of reflection of our own need to pray for our families.

The lesson Granny still teaches is important:  It is significant to leave behind the fingerprints of intercessory prayer for others to read.  It is a comfort to see that choppy, aged hand-written script in books left behind by a lady who sought the Lord in both scripture and the many books she considered sacred.  It is profoundly moving to know that even when we were too busy to see her often because we were getting on in our careers, having babies, and trying to pay bills, she had spent all those days rocking in that old glider in the corner of her bedroom, praying for us in her own silent way.

Its a legacy that inspires, that still draws us towards that longing to be with the Lord as intensely as she had known Him.  One that still begs the question: Who will pray now that Granny is gone, and how will God’s Word shape us to become the type of angels–the type of angel she became for us in her 85-year sojourn on this earth?

And if you do end up sticking a stash of cash in a book, make sure someone in your family knows the books to which you refer.  It will save your children and grandchildren a heap of time.

Relationships and the sacred space we share

pewsI hear the cliche all of the time: “We are a welcoming church.”

No church thinks that they are not welcoming and, no matter the denomination, each one boasts,”All are invited,” on the marquee.

But I know of a test that truly determines whether this is true: The “Pew Test.”

It is very simple: If a guest comes to your church and sits in any pew, is he or she asked to move because “you’re in my seat”?

I’ve heard horror stories about the “Pew Test” over the years.  We at Trinity have had our share of people who have visited other churches and were told to move from a certain seat.

Yet, I have also learned something very important over the past decade about pews and the people who claim them.   You see, when people have “my seat” in the pew, it is not because they don’t want to welcome others.  It is because our Christian faith is highly experiential and tactile.

It is in church that we experience conversions and born-again transformations.  It is in church that we witness baptisms, baby dedications, and funerals.  There, we are moved with compassion and participate in missions, inspired by God’s Word, and sing hymns that bring encouragement.

We have a variety of spiritual encounters at church, and the seats in which we sit and the rituals that we practice remind us of the variety of ways that God has worked–and works–in our life.

People don’t mean to be rude when they ask you to sit somewhere else; its just that that’s where they’ve sat when they have met with God so many times in their life.  They want to make room for you, but not at the expense of robbing you of the chance to hear their stories, to see why the church is so meaningful to them.

For all of the negative criticism related to rituals, sacred spaces, and monotonous “traditional” worship I’ve heard over the years, I’ve also heard beautiful pleas for why these elements of church-going and worship are significant to those who participate in congregational life.

There is something about sacred spaces–the very pews that we fight over–that gives us opportunities to meet God again and again, week in and week out.  These spaces–both physical and spiritual–are safe places that nurture stability in a world often in disarray and disorientation.

I experienced this in my life in a very personal way.  When my father passed away, his funeral was held in a church that has an auditorium rather than a sanctuary.  There is a stage with a few musical instruments, a simple podium, and a black-curtain backdrop.

It is devoid of icons, crosses, and artwork.  There are no paraments or altar-clothes.  There isn’t an colored antependium that implicitly communicates what season of the Christian year it is.  There are no acolyte candles for children to light or communion chalices to admire, no big open Bible or ambo on a common table that remind us of the centrality of the Holy Word.

The funeral was nice, but I missed my church.  In that moment of sorrow, all I wanted was to sit in my seat in the front row of my church, to be surrounded by my church family, and to find encouragement in that heavy pulpit from which God’s Word had been preached for nearly three decades.

I missed looking at the aged banners that adorn the church walls, the baptistry where my daughter was baptized, the baby-grand piano and the choir loft that’s home to so many familiar hymns and anthems that act as a healing balm to the heart.

I missed seeing one of our children light the acolyte candles to remind me that the Holy Spirit is present with us and that all of us–regardless of age and gender–can participate in our worship to God.  I missed the green antependium, green for “Ordinary Time” in the life of the church, a sign that life still goes on despite tragic loss.

When I did return to my church several weeks later, I found profound comfort in that sacred space.  The songs, the sights, the sounds, and the smells reminded me of a simple message of hope penned long ago by Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I finally felt the silent love of the “church ladies” sitting in the row directly behind me.  I was warmly embraced by my deacon.  Our pianist preached on my first day back, and his message sent our hearts aright with hope, our tears set aflame with love, and our spirits souring upon lofty places.

Only in a sacred space can you experience that kind of divine interaction.  Thanks be to God.