The very first full memory I have of someone preaching the message of salvation to me is when I was six years old. It wasn’t at a church. Or a revival. Or a kids camp. It was in the passenger seat of a car driving down Highway 60 in western Kentucky. The evangelist wasn’t a Reverend. Or a Pastor. Or even a Brother. It was my Grandmother D. And it wasn’t a message she was prepared to give. On a warm afternoon in May, I remember hearing the worst news of my life. Followed by the best. I just didn’t know it yet.
In the last days of my Mother’s life, our father sent my brother and I to stay occasionally with our cousins in Henderson while he took care of his ailing wife, dying of cancer. With wet cheeks and a broken voice, Grandmother D walked inside the small farmhouse with a pitiful smile, ready to take two young boys to see something no child should ever see. On Mother’s Day no less. My Aunt Jenny was crying. We were going home, but home wasn’t the same anymore.
In the car, tears began filling my Grandmother’s eyes. In my heart, I already knew. “Is Mom gone?” I asked softly, my eyes glued to my grandmother. The car was silent. My brother, at 4 years old, watched from the back seat. Unable to fully understand, impossible to fully forget. “Sweetheart….” Grandmother D started. Her voice trembled. Reaching for a handkerchief, she refused to answer with a simple yes. In that moment, with the weight of our hope and our innocence on her shoulders, it wasn’t enough. Our hearts needed more than a word. She loved us too much to lay such an anvil of pain and hurt on such delicate souls. In a family of “strong” men, that such a responsibility was laid on my elementary school teaching grandmother is something for which I’m incredibly thankful. On Highway 60, an elderly woman who hadn’t regularly attended a church in decades was trying to explain to two children the most difficult question on earth, a question that would make most grown men stumble. The question of why.
“Honey…sometimes…the Lord….” Those were the first four words out of her slow, trembling lips. I won’t ever forget them. I can’t. For me, just as important as what Grandmother D did say during that ride home was what she didn’t say. She didn’t fill our hearts with the shallow notion that it was simply “meant to be.” She didn’t tell us that “your Mom’s an angel now.” She didn’t remind us that “life happens.” Thank God my Grandmother D didn’t tell us that “it is what it is.” In these moments, such man-made, God-less wisdom falls miserably short. Remarkably, what was to be one of the most important conversations in my entire life didn’t even begin with a reflection on my mother’s extraordinary life. We weren’t consoled with her years of service to the church playing the piano, or her love for teaching children, or her involvement in the choir. At six years old, my very first question about death was met with a very simple answer, and it had God – not Mom – as its subject. From the mouths of grandmothers comes a very simple Gospel, and that’s precisely what our hearts needed in the car that afternoon. About grace. About faith. In 1992, on Highway 60, in Reed, Kentucky, a six-year-old child quietly surrendered to the idea that God was sovereign. It changed my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but 25 years later, on the very same road, I needed that same Gospel again. In a much different way.
When my grandfather asked me to do his funeral just a few years ago, it was at the Dinner table and I honestly thought it was a joke. I got my sense of humor, and my name, from him. But after he mentioned it 4 or 5 more times, it was obvious he was serious. After all, I was his pastor grandson. As the patriarch of our family, Obbie Eudale Todd was a fantastic grandfather in every way but one. Unlike that fateful drive in 1992 with my grandmother, I never once heard Grandaddy Obbie voluntarily mention God unless it was in a joke. He rarely went to church. He much preferred golfing on Sundays and joking about what pastors thought of him when he actually did attend. Being asked to perform my grandfather’s funeral was an incredible honor, but in reality, my name was one of the few things I actually shared with the man. Gospel conversations were hopelessly scarce, and when they did occur, they were painfully brief. It was Grandad, after all, who tried to convince me to go to dental school instead of seminary. The thought of what I would actually say at his service troubled me for several years.
The day that Grandaddy passed, I could still feel the uncertainty. I received the news from My Aunt Linda, who called me less than an hour before I went up to preach one Sunday at my church in Georgia. The news shook me. But in a much different way than had the news of mother’s death. Nevertheless, I came home to Kentucky, ready to fulfill my grandfather’s wishes. On the day of the funeral, on my way to Henderson, on the very same road I’d been told the worst news of my life, I drove to the service, collecting words and stories and thoughts in my head. My Grandad wanted his grandson, his namesake, to perform his funeral service. Now here I was, wondering what to say about someone whose life was filled with so many good things but lacking in one.
Upon hearing of his death, I asked my Aunt Linda if God had saved Grandaddy. She happily informed me that a local hospital chaplain had come into his room one evening, and that Grandaddy had repented of his sins and believed on Jesus for salvation. She said he was “absolutely” ready to die. That thought rattled in my brain. Was it a sincere confession? What about all the other times he’d said similar things only to return to his old ways? How was I supposed to speak of his life now? It was a weight on my shoulders that I wasn’t prepared to bear.
As I drove down Highway 60, I thought about the simple Gospel. The one I’d heard as a child on this same road. The one I preach today. Twenty-five years ago, it was enough to console a confused six-year-old boy with questions about death and eternity. The message of faith in God’s grace was my rest and my comfort then. Was it not enough today? Did God have less mercy for the penitent thief on the cross than He did for Mary Magdalene? If His grace is irrespective of the greatest deeds, is it not accomplished regardless of the worst? All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. (Joel 2:32) Even Grandad. If I could celebrate my mother’s noble life in Christ, I could celebrate a sinful old man found in Him as well.
A few hours later, I performed the service in front of family and friends. I celebrated the fact that Grandad was a World War II veteran, a loyal husband, a former educator, and the first head football coach at Henderson County High School. I told them how great a Grandad he was, and how much he loved me. But I also preached a simple message of God’s unconditional love, a message I’d heard a quarter of a century ago from the woman standing in the front row. The Gospel she explained to two boys on Highway 60. It was sufficient then. It’s sufficient today. Now my Grandad and I really share a Name. For me, the greatest thing Grandaddy Obbie ever did in his life was to face death by trusting Jesus with his very soul. In the end, whether at 6 or 92, the only message of salvation worth treasuring is the simple Gospel we receive like children.