This is was absolutely the hardest sermon I have ever written or delivered. My grandmother, who passed away on February 18, 2002 after 90 years of life, was a very, very special woman. She will be missed and I will carry her with me forever.
We are here to celebrate the life of Ruby Lillian Hunter Bryant Bunn. My grandmother. My last grandparent.
For 33 and a half years, I was blessed with having a grandmother. Not everyone can say that, and for that I am grateful. Then in what didnít always seem like a blessing at the time, I lived with her for about 17 of those 33 years. Which created more of a bond. And while often times we didnít understand each other, didnít like each other, and there were the disagreements and fights that all families go through, the fact is, like her, and so many other people, especially black people, I was partially raised by my grandmother.
And I was thinking the other day about these books that appeared on the market a few years ago. Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, or from Star Trek, or all these other "needed to know books." And it was then I realized that for the most part, I could write my own book. And if I were to title it, it would be called Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned From My Grandmother.
My grandmother taught me a lot of things. Not always by words, but often by example. Which is usually a more important lesson. After all, anyone can talk and say brilliant, magical, pretty words, and say the right things at the right time, but when someone lives what they teach you, then it takes on a different light.
So this morning, I want to talk about the 5 key things my grandmother taught me. She taught me about the importance of an education, the important of respect, the importance of self-reliance, the importance of family, and the importance of God. So these are the 5 things I will be focusing on.
Oh, I should mention a 6th thing. When I first started preaching, my grandmother told me, in quite a stern and serious tone Ė "If you are preaching and canít say what you have to say in 20 minutes or less, then you donít need to be up there." And me being the obedient child that I am, I will ATTEMPT to stay within those parameters. After all, when she asked me to preach her funeral a few years ago, she told me not to preach too long, then said "well, you normally donít preach very long anyway, so I guess it will be okay." But just in case, I hope she will forgive me this morning if I go a little over 20 minutes.
But back to the 5 points. The first was education. I donít think it would be inaccurate to say that my grandmother was probably the first person in her family to go to college. Graduating from grade school at the age of 11, obviously she had a great depth of understanding about things academic.
And those things followed her. Education to her was extremely important. She would tell me how proud she was the day my mother got accepted to Fisk. And that she was proud not only because she was going to college, but of the college that she was going to. She told me she would brag to people about her smart daughter who was going to one of the best schools for black people at the time. And probably, her mind was eased with the fact that her daughter was getting an education and therefore, would not have to struggle as hard as others.
Likewise, when I got accepted to Morehouse, she was equally proud. She took note of the fact that I would be following, of sorts, in the steps of both my parents, since both had attended historically black colleges. The tradition and history of Morehouse impressed her greatly, and she would tell me how Morehouse was my opportunity to make a better life for myself, better than even what my parents had.
When I came home from Morehouse and go to college here in the city, her main concern was that I got back into college. While I know she was not happy with my decision to leave Morehouse, she supported me, and once I started back to school, she maintained a healthy interest in my education. She always offered to give me whatever money she had, even if it was a dollar for bus fare, if that would make things a little easier for me.
But when I dropped out of college, she was greatly disappointed. And she never told me exactly, but I knew it. After a while, she started hounding me. Asking me when I was going back to school, and when I was going to finish my degree. In fact, in her later years, it was a daily question, and I mean that literally. She was always asking, pleading with me to finish my education, stressing to me how important it would be for me. She would sometimes tell me of how she wished she had gotten a college degree and how that was one of her few regrets in life.
Her commitment to education didnít just deal with me, tho. She also took her time to tutor and teach those who had problems reading. And she not only did it out of a commitment to help, but she truly enjoyed helping people learn to read. I can remember a couple of times her coming home and being a little sad because she would meet someone in their 40's or 50's who had never learn to read, and remarking to me what a waste it was. But she cared. And I always respected that.
I like to think that part of that was due to her love of reading herself. My grandmother read more mystery novels of any person I knew. And she didnít like the basic whodunitís. She liked the Agatha Christie types that really challenged her thinking and made you think and really examine what the plot was. In fact, she was the easiest person to buy a birthday or Christmas present before, because she was always happy to read a book.
So education and all of the things that go with it, the importance of it, and the necessity of it, that was one of the things she taught me.
The second point was respect. My grandmother gave and demanded respect from people. She carried herself in such a manner that you couldnít help but to give her that respect. While my grandmother was respectful of the proper order of things, she also knew that in order to succeed in life, you had to be a person who commanded respect.
Like my father, she always took issue with how I dressed, even when I was in casual mode. But she loved to see me in a suit. There were times, later in her life, where I would come by the house just so she would see me in a suit, because I knew how important that was to her. When I was younger, she used to tell me that dressing the part was as equal to being the part, because often people judged you on how you dressed. And while I didnít always want to hear it, I knew she was right.
She also taught me about treating people in a particular manner, especially women. I never brought many of my girlfriends in college around my grandmother. In fact, I can think of only 2 or 3 that she actually met. I discovered later that she usually did not approve of my choices. But she never said anything to me. It was important to me, however, that when I brought someone home to meet her and my mother, that they presented themselves in a certain fashion, although now I realized it didnít always occur as positively as I would have hoped.
But she was always kind and courteous to anyone I ever introduced her to, even to the people I knew at the time she did not like.
There is one more thing about this issue of respect I need to bring up. When I used to say this people thought I was joking, but my grandmother was the only person I feared. She was the only person I was afraid of, once I became an adult. It was a healthy fear, not something negative, or something borne out of resentment, but because of this deep abiding respect I had for her, I was afraid of her as well.
I remember one day when I was home from school, I was in college at the time, and I was in my room watching TV or something. And she was in the kitchen cooking herself something to eat. And I sensed that she was in a bad mood, so I kept my distance from her, staying in my room. Thankfully, there was a bathroom directly next to my room, or I might have had problems that day.
But then, out of nowhere, she started cursing. Banging pots and pans and stuff. And let me tell you something, that was probably one of only 3 times in my whole life I heard my grandmother swear. And I got nervous. I was afraid. Not knowing what to do or what to say, I said nothing. So I called my mother at work, almost whispering in the phone "Gran is in the kitchen cursing." My mother, being almost as much of a chicken as me said, "Well, come get me and weíll go out to eat and let her cool down. But I donít want to be in the house."
So you understand what I am saying, me and my mother ran away from home that day. Because we were both afraid of my grandmother. I still donít know what she was mad at that day, it was probably something my mother did, since she was always doing something, with me being the perfect grandchild, but whatever it was, my mom and I knew enough to stay out of her way.
It was respect that made us run away that day. We all respected her because she gave us respect. She even respect people she didnít like, which was a unique thing for me. But she taught me that by respecting people, you in turn gain respect from others.
The third point is self-reliance. My grandmother did not want anyone to do anything for her that she could not do herself. She was adamant about that. I cannot really remember her ever asking me to open a jar or bottle for her, to get something off a higher shelf, or anything like that. I donít even remember her asking me to pour her a glass of water. In her later years, when I would do those things, she would get irritated, not at me, but at herself, because she was so used to doing things on her own, it really deeply bothered her to not be able to do things for herself.
One of the recurring arguments we had with her the last few years was over her wanting to go to the store. She wanted to go to the store. For what, I donít know. But she wanted to go to the store. And we would not take her. Because we figured we could do it for her and we knew it wasnít safe for a woman in her condition. But she would threaten to get on the bus and go to the store. Now she never learned how to drive, so anywhere she needed to go, she usually would talk the bus. In fact, she would call me, as recently as a year and a half ago, barely able to walk to the bathroom, to tell me she was going to walk 3 blocks over to Jeffrey and catch the bus and got to Jewelís or Dominickís or something. And then I would have to tell her no.
See, the interesting thing for me is that in the span of a couple of years, I went from the typical grandson to a pseudo-parental figure. It was interesting because as hard as it was for me, I can only imagine how hard it was for my mother. Which is the reason why when my mother wanted to make certain decisions about my grandmothers status, she would ask me, and I would tell my mother, "You live with her, I donít. You know better than I do."
When the decision was made to put her in a nursing home, because as wonderful as the help we had, namely Marcia, who is basically, in my opinion, a saint for putting up with all 3 of us, it was just too hard on my mom, and I knew that. And I didnít want to be telling my mom, "No, I donít want her in a home because..." I had already partially experienced a similar situation with my father and his mother, although I was not privy to everything he went through, I can only imagine how difficult it is to care for someone who can no longer care for themselves.
My mother put up with a lot, and sacrificed a lot, and I donít think people really understand all of the things she did for her mother. I know I donít. But as much as my grandmother gave to my mother when she was growing up, my mother gave it back to her in spades in these last years.
But my grandmother did not want to be a burden to anyone. In fact, that was her mantra. That, I believe, bothered her almost more than anything else about her condition. She was being a bother. She was inconveniencing people. She was making trouble. And while I previously chalked it up to a pity party, I now realize it just wasnít in her nature to have people do things for her that she could do herself. Of all the things about my grandmother I respected, it is that one quality that I respected the most.
The fourth point is the importance of family. For a long time, my grandmother was the matriarch of my family. And she carried that title with pride. She loved having all of us around. When she was married to her second husband, who had a large family, her house would be filled with all these people. And there was always a little spark of something there when she was dealing with her step-grandchildren and those relatives.
As time passed, and family gatherings grew smaller, she was still happy with whoever would be around. It didnít matter if it was 3 of us or 30 of us. She enjoyed being family. She also enjoyed family connections. And she would do anything for family, even if she didnít like it.
After I got through pledging, she pulled me into her room, and started telling me a story of when my mother finished pledging. She told me of how she decorated the entire house in pink and green for my mom, and how happy that made my mom. Then she looked at me and said "We donít have to decorate the house in black and gold for you, do we?" I laughed and told her no. And she said "Good, because that pink and green house was ugly." But because she loved her daughter, she put up with an entire house decorated in pink and green for an entire summer. I bet that year she was happy for mom to go back to college.
However, a few years later was when I really saw a sense of family pride. After I finished my first set of degrees in Masonry, and was preparing to go to my first lodge meeting, she started getting excited. Her father was also a Mason, and he and I have many similarities, including the same birthday, same mannerisms, etc. So for that first meeting, she would ask me if my apron and gloves were clean, and if I knew my material. She would tell me that in order to be a good Mason, I had to have a really nice white apron. And to make sure, she would offer to wash and clean my apron and gloves and then iron them, which she did for my first few lodge meetings. Then, prior to that first meeting, she gave me her fathers Masonic ring. I donít think any gift she ever gave me meant as much. I only wish I appreciated it as much then as I do now. But there was a part of me that always thought that because of her fatherís affiliation, that it made it more special for her to give me that ring.
And then there is Christian. The statement in my family is if I never did anything else right in my life, me giving her Chris as a great-grandson made up for it all. I gave her Christian. Christian was the love her of her life. The last 5 years, whenever she would look at him, talk with him, play catch with him, read him a book, she was alive. More alive that she would be before he got there, and I am told that feeling would last for a while afterwards. It is our strong belief that had it not been for Christian, she would have gone on to glory a few years ago. But Christian kept her alive.
When you came over to the house to visit her, or later, went to the nursing home, one of the first things she would talk about was Christian. Didnít matter who she would be talking to, or what she would talk about. She would talk about her special little boy. My mother used to say that my grandmother liked me more than her. Well, after Christian got here, I knew how she felt.
In fact, upon retrospect, Sunday night, I should have known something was wrong. I wasnít bothered by the fact that she didnít recognize me, but she didnít ask about Christian. And that was odd. Now that I look back upon Sunday, I realized, she was getting ready to go home, to be with her heavenly family.
And last, but certainly not least, she loved God. My grandmother had a very strong faith. She wasnít open about it, she didnít beat you over the head with it, but she had a quiet, unshakable faith. She knew that God was with her at all times and in all places. She knew that God was able. She knew that God was her God.
When I was in college, she walked up to me and in her usual manner said "Can I talk to you for a minute." So I went in her room, and she handed me a little index card, one of those 3 by 5 cards. On it was written, For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. She did not write on it that the verse came from the 12th Chapter of Luke. She just gave it to me. Then she told me that I had been given a lot. That I had been blessed by God. She also told me that it was one of her favorite scriptures. That I should never forget that.
She enjoyed the fact that I am a minister. She took great pride in that. I could tell when she introduced me to people as "Reverend Smoot." She used that title more than I did. And while I know that the title in and of itself meant really nothing to her, it was the fact that I was a part of something she respected, something she cherished, something she truly believed in.
She would share with me her stories of faith. There is one story I wish she had shared with me, but she thought better not to. But in all of that, when I was pastoring, when I was preaching, I would know whether I was doing good or bad just by looking at her. She wouldnít have to say a thing, I could just tell.
And she loved this church. She belonged to this church since before we moved to this location. Sheíd been a dedicated and faithful member. Church was important to her, but not too important that she lost sight of the true meaning of faith. When I resigned from the pastorate and first began taking a little break from active ministry, she just implored me not to loose right of my faith. I remember she told me, "As important as church is, I hope you know your relationship with God is far more important." She empathized with the issues I had. She never judged me. She never looked down on me. But she remained steadfast in her own faith.
I remember I used to walk in on her praying sometimes. I donít think she liked for people to see her when she prayed. But her faith in God as a healing God, as a miracle worker, her faith in Jesus as her personal savior, were all very evident. She didnít just work in the church because she thought it was the proper or right thing to do. She worked in the church because she believed in what the church could accomplish. She believed that God could work miracles. She believed that Jesus did save. She believed that with God on her side, anything was possible.
And I am realizing now, I never once heard her talk about the devil. And I have to wonder if that helped shape part of my own personal theology. But when she would talk about God to me, when she would share her stories of faith, she never complained about God. She never got angry with God. She never resented God.
My favorite sermon I have preached was inspired by my grandmother. It was about 5 or 6 years ago, and she was facing surgery. She was talking to me about how her health was declining, then she started telling me about a preacher that she saw on TV, I forget his name. She was so moved by this preacher that he caused her to re-evaluate how she viewed her condition. She told me about how she was not perfect, that she had not done everything like she should have, how she still struggles with bad and evil thoughts, and how she gets depressed about her condition from time to time.
Then she told me, and this is a direct quote "I realized then, listening to the minister, why not me? What makes me so special that bad things shouldn't happen to me?" Then she went on, "Maybe this is something you should preach on one day."
That was the first and only time my grandmother ever suggested a sermon, and I preached it. Preached it more times than any other sermon. She suggested it because she knew that despite her condition, that God was still there for her, still there with her. She knew that she didnít deserve special treatment because she of who she was or what she did. But she knew God has a plan for all of us.
And she didnít question that plan. She didnít question God. But she knew, in her heart of hearts, that no matter what, God was there for her.
She lived her life as a godly woman. As used to be said around here, she preached her funeral already. Iím just talking. But I am talking and preaching about a woman who knew she had faults, knew she had issues, but throughout it all, she still loved God. She never turned her back on Him, she never lost faith in Him, she never doubted Him. She knew, that despite anything that could or would happen to her, that there was someone who would take away the pain, take away the hurt, take away the despair.
She lived for 90 years as a God fearing woman. Believing and praying and loving God. Each of the four previous points I talked about, how education, respect, self-reliance and family, all boil down to this. It was all given to her by God. And she used it the best way she knew how. She wasnít perfect, she said so herself. But she was a good woman. She was my grandmother. She was my motherís mother. She was an embodiment of how you donít have to be rich, how you donít have to be famous, how you donít have to drive a big fancy car, to have a good life. She had God. She believed in God. She trusted in God.
And I like to imagine that Monday afternoon, when all had been said and done, that she heard a voice. She heard the voice that said to her, well done, thy good and faithful servant. Well done. You lived your life. Now itís time to rest. No more pain. No more worries. She used to tell me she was tired. Well, sheís not tired anymore.
Itís all right. My grandmother is home.
(Charles E. Smoot © 2000-2009, all rights reserved)