11 Things I Learned About God From My Grandpa
My grandfather, Elwin Wiley Moore, fell asleep in the Lord on Saturday. He was an amazing man who taught me so much about God. But he never once beat me over the head with the Bible. Instead, I learned about God from him through his life, his actions, and his example, more than just through his words. He has always been my clearest window into the character of God. So, as I reflect on his life and what he has meant to me, I wanted to write down eleven of the most meaningly things I learned about God from my grandpa.
1. God values relationships with people over material achievement or “success”
In so many respects, my grandpa was a humble man. Even though he was gifted and smart, he never achieved material success in business or education. He never achieved great wealth or status or notoriety. But what he did achieve was a legacy of faith and family. He put his relationship with his family before any personal achievement. He didn’t sideline his role as a father to pursue a career, even though he would have been great at it. I think my grandpa could have been a very “successful” minister (whatever that means). I think he could have gone to Bible college and seminary and pastored a church congregation. I think he was gifted in those ways. But his faith in God was modeled for me in how he loved his wives (he lost his first two wives to breast cancer), his daughters, and grandchildren. His faith was modeled for me in how little concern he had for accolades or trophies. He didn’t care about gaining degrees, getting elected to things, or getting recognized by people, or getting a high-paying position. Instead, invested everything into his relationships with people.
This taught me something profound about God. God is a relational God. God invests everything in his covenant relationship with people—his commitment to us, his care for us, demonstrating his love for us. God isn’t concerned with just making us “successful” by whatever standard that is measured these days. No, God is concerned with making us human, making us good, making us like him. God has created us for relationships and relationships are how we are formed into the kinds of people we are becoming. My grandpa understood this at a deep level and he lived this out throughout his life. He taught me that God values people over positions and pieces of paper and pomp and circumstance.
2. God is a captivating story-teller
When my grandpa would tell stories, I was transported somewhere else. No matter where we were, when he started to tell a story, it was like we were around a campfire late at night and all you could hear was the cracking of the fire over his hushed but serious tone. He loved to tell stories from when he and his brothers were kids. He told me story once about the wheel coming off a Model A Ford he and brothers were driving, while they were driving it, and the wheel rolling into an apple orchard. When they went looking for the wheel, they were chased out of the orchard by the owner who thought they were there to steal his apples. He also told me stories from the Bible. But they were so much better when he told them. They were more vivid, more relatable. My grandpa had a way of capturing my attention that I have seldom experienced from anyone else.
When I teach the Bible to the congregation I serve as a pastor, I often try to think of ways to capture their attention. But, there is one way that is ingrained into all of us: stories. I tell stories as much as I can because we’re wired for stories. Our brains retain more information when its couched in a story. We are more stimulated by stories than propositions. I believe this is because God is a story-teller. Like my grandpa, God catches us up in the adventure of his story. We become characters in the unfolding story of his redemptive activity in the world.
3. God invites us with him on his mission
God doesn’t just tell us a story in which we are characters. God also invites us on an adventure upon which God has already embarked. We get to tag along and play a small but important role.
I remember when I was a little kid and my grandpa was a carpenter. He had his own business remodeling kitchens for people. He would make trips to Arthur, IL where a lot of Amish people lived, to buy their famously well-crafted wooden cabinets. He had a small, bright yellow, Toyota pick-up truck with only two seats in it. I was too little to ride in the front seat with him. So I had to ride on the narrow little bench behind the two seats that wasn’t made for sitting. So, my grandpa somehow attached one of his old leather belts to that seat as a seatbelt for me. And every time I got to ride down to Arthur with him, he’d stop and buy me peanut M&Ms and tell me they were vitamins. “Eat your vitamins,” he’d say.
I remember seeing the Amish carpenters working in their workshops with air-powered equipment. It was fascinating. I’d ask him why they all had beards and why they drove horse-buggies. And he’d tell me all about it. They’d wave to me in the back of the truck and then they’d load the cabinets into the back. And we’d drive back to Champaign. Then, when he was remodeling someone’s kitchen, he’d give me a little baby hammer, call me his helper, and let me drive a few nails in.
Later, in seminary, when I learned the concept of the Missio Dei (the Mission of God), I thought about my grandpa. The Missio Dei is the redemptive mission of God in the world into which we are invited to play a small but important role. God is on a mission to redeem and restore the world—you could say he’s “remodeling” it like a carpenter. He’s the expert, we’re not. He’s got the plans and the tools, not us. But he invites us to be his helpers, gives us tools and lets us drive a few nails.
Like my grandpa, God doesn’t need our help—he wants it. He gets joy from including us in his work. He invites us to join him so we can learn about him and so we can mature into people who do the restorative work he does.
4. God is a brilliantly creative artist and a designer
My grandpa was a very talented sketch artist. He could draw anything with pencil and paper. And I somehow got that talent from him genetically. I loved to draw as a kid and still do. He loved to sit me beside him in his office at his big drafting board where he drafted plans for remodeled kitchens and let me watch him work. He also loved to sketch things and show me how to draw things. I remember him teaching me how to draw things in “perspective,” like they are three-dimensional.
He once asked me to draw a duck. So, I spent hours drawing the best duck I could. I wanted to impress him, so I worked hard to make it look as realistic as I could. I worked meticulously on the duck’s bill and on every feather. When I was finished I presented it to him hoping he’d be impressed and he was. But he laughed and laughed at me because it was clear he didn’t communicate what he wanted very clearly. He took out another sheet of paper and drew a very basic shape of a duck. Then he walked me over to one of his table saws and used the outline to cut out the shape of a duck from a piece of wood, afixed another piece to the bottom so it could stand up, and gave it to me. He had wanted me to draw a basic outline, but I tried to draw a realistic duck. He was so amused.
My grandpa was never properly theologically-trained. He never went to seminary. But, he did have a deeply-intuitive sense of God formed by his immersion in the story of the scriptures. I remember how passionately he talked about God as an artist and a designer. This was one of the only things he passionately taught me directly about God. He said to me, “God is a Creator; he’s always been creating. So, why would we think he would stop creating in the age to come? I think God is going to keep on creating and I think he’s going to invite us to create along-side him. Maybe he’ll let us design a new species of birds. Or maybe he’ll let us design a new type of animal entirely!” I can still remember how excited he got about this idea. I know he was right about God and I know he’s designing something amazing along-side God right now.
5. God is a patient gardener and joyfully waits for things to grow in his garden
In addition to being a carpenter, my grandpa was also a gardener. He cultivated a large portion of his back yard in Champaign, IL into a garden where he grew his own tomatoes and rhubarb and various other vegetables. He once grew some kind of squash that was over 6 feet long. He was so proud of that thing he dried it and hung it on the wall in his garage!
I’m so grateful to have had a grandfather who worked in the soil and taught me to patiently wait for things to grow. So much of my life, I’ve lived in a world of concrete and glass, freeways and skyscrapers, disconnected from the soil. The experience of working in my grandpa’s garden along-side him grounds me in something deeply human. It makes me think of the story of the Garden of Eden, in which humanity is given the task of caring for a garden God has planted. And in the story God is depicted as walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I wonder sometimes if it’s too much of a stretch to think God could also be depicted as working in the garden himself, teaching Adam and Eve how to grow fruits and vegetables.
God is often depicted as a gardener in scripture; someone who plants seeds, deposits the very essence of something, in hope that it will take on a life of its own, develop into something that will bear fruit. We are God’s garden. We are those in which God has deposited something and is patiently waiting for fruit to grow. I learned this not only from the scriptures, but from the example of my grandpa, depositing the seeds of patience and goodness and gentleness and self-control in my life and waiting patiently to see that fruit to grow in my life.
6. God is a faithful provider, even to the point of sacrificing for those he loves
Throughout my childhood, my mom and I were desperately poor. We often had very little money for food or our basic needs. My grandpa consistently provided for us. He would often bring over groceries, supplies, even buy me clothes. And he would fix things for us, or create some kind of solution that would get the job done if he didn’t have the money to buy what we needed.
I needed a bed frame once and he didn’t have the money to just buy me one. But what he did have was a wooden door he wasn’t using and tools. So, he built me a bed frame out of that wooden door. That’s the kind of person he was. He was a faithful provider.
But he didn’t just give what he could give easily. He often gave more than we could give easily. He often worked and gave sacrificially. To the point that many around him would say to him, you’re working too hard. He once completely remodeled the kitchen of our tiny little house in Urbana. He installed new cabinets, new flooring, I think he even did some plumbing which wasn’t really his thing. He worked so hard, my mom and his wife would beg him to take it easy, to slow down, or to take more breaks. But, my grandpa was stubborn about one thing—his sacrificial love. He would give until it hurts and then keep on giving.
That taught me a deep lesson about God’s character. God loves us in such a way that God gives even until it hurts and then keeps on giving. God gave himself sacrificially in the person of Jesus Christ all the way to the Cross. I learned about God’s sacrificial love from watching my grandpa sacrifice for me.
7. God is playful and has a sense of humor
My grandpa wasn’t just a stubborn sacrificer. He was also a joyful, playful, and funny man. He loved to have fun. He was spontaneous. He loved to take off on an adventure, explore some new place, or learn something new. He was curious and inquisitive and he had a quirky sense of humor. In fact, much of his quirky humor was self-effacing. He would do goofy things to make himself look silly to entertain children and make them laugh. He had a healthy self-confidence that allowed him to make fun of himself without making anyone think less of him. In fact, we adored him for it. He would sometimes be the life of the party, making people laugh who felt awkward or uncomfortable.
It’s far too easy to just think of God as serious and judgmental. That’s a pervasive misconception. God is also the God who invented joy. The God whose Spirit gives joy as a gift. God is the God who created laughter. Before I ever understood this about God intellectually I saw this modeled in my grandpa.
8. God is generous and gets joy from giving to us
When I was a kid, I would go to visit my grandpa maybe once ever few weeks or months. That was time enough for him to fill an entire drawer in his office with his pocket change. He dump all his loose coins in that drawer and when I came over he’d give me a bag and let me pore all those coins into it. Sometimes he’d tell me to dump them out on the floor and count them first. That would be the highlight of my week!
Memories of those moments have a deep place in my psyche. They taught me about the generosity of God. The joy that I saw on his face as he gave me those coins was etched into my soul. It taught me that God is generous toward us and it gives him great joy to give us gifts.
9. God may seem like a pushover, but don’t test him. He will pin you to the ground and make you say ‘uncle’
My grandpa worked nearly his whole life. As a boy he worked on a farm. As an adult he worked physically demanding jobs. I don’t know that he ever stepped foot into a gym to exercise, but a lifetime of work made him strong. By his 70s, he didn’t have normal strength for his age; he had that mysterious “old-man strength” that’s surprising.
I remember being a 13 or 14 year old, overconfident teenager and feeling particularly “awry” (which is a word my grandpa liked to use). So, one summer day, I challenged him to a wrestling match. I felt like I’d finally gotten big enough and strong enough to take him down. I remember how coy he was, with a little bit of mischief in his face. He cautioned me over and over. “You don’t want to wrestle me. I might hurt you.” But I pestered him. When he finally agreed to wrestle me, it was over before I knew what hit me. He had pinned me so fast and so completely, that had he wanted to, he really could have hurt me. Then he literally made me say “uncle”! Like in A Christmas Story! I was so impressed, I don’t think I ever challenged him again.
Clearly, God is powerful. God sustains the universe. But, yet, in our hubris we often underestimate God and overestimate ourselves. We think we can take God on in our arrogance. But God has a way of showing us his strength without utterly destroying us. God has backed me into a few corners where I had to say “uncle.” God has shown me that I utterly dependent on him and that he is strong. I learned from the grandpa that just because someone looks like a pushover, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t secretly have strength they can display at anytime.
10. God suffers and grieves loss
Even though my grandpa was a strong man and a playful man, he was also a man who suffered greatly. He lost his first wife to breast cancer while his four daughters we all very young. Of course, I wasn’t around to see how he handled that loss, because I hadn’t been born yet. But I was around when his second wife died of breast cancer. I was maybe 10 years old. I remember his tears. I remember his anguish. I saw a strong man, a man who had so much joy, go through a painful loss. He didn’t try to hide his pain from me. He allowed me to see him hurting. And that has been important for my emotional development as an adult. Because of my grandpa, I knew strong men could cry. I knew strong men could love someone so deeply that they feel lost without them. I knew that it was healthy to grieve and to mourn.
This also taught me about God. God is grieved and suffers. We see this especially in the prophets and in the person of Jesus. God loves humanity so deeply that when human is lost, God suffers. In the scriptures, God’s love for God’s people is often compared to the love a husband has for his wife. When God’s people have turned away from God, scripture says God is passionately moved with suffering love. Before I learned this from the scriptures, I learned this from my grandpa.
11. God gives us himself
I see so much of my grandpa in me. Not just in our physical appearance, although when people see photos of him from when he was younger they say I look a lot like him. But I can see the deposits my grandpa has made in my life. I am made in his image. This has taught me one of the most profound things about God. God has made us in his image. God has placed his Spirit within us and we are given the divine calling to partner with God in the work God is doing to restore the world. Through his life and his love and his genes, my grandpa has given himself to me and with that a legacy to carry on. I feel an enormous sense of pride and responsibility in carrying my grandpa’s name. Because of who he was, I want to be like him. I want to put relationships with people first. I want to tell stories. I want to create and design. I want sow seeds in people’s lives. I want to provide for my family and others in need. I want give sacrificially. I want to go on adventures and have fun. I want to be strong and yet willing to grieve when I suffer. I want to give of myself.
I learned about who I want to be from who I saw God to be through my grandpa.