Remembering a Grandfather's Legacy

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I’m kind of sad this afternoon, because it’s October 6th.

This is the birthday of my grandfather Kenneth Dwayne Summy, who died almost eight years ago now. Most of you won’t know the name Ken Summy. He was a coastal Mississippi milkman, a church usher, a world traveler. And I miss him terribly.

Below is a eulogy I delivered for him at his funeral in January 2003. Perhaps it will cause you to reflect on your own grandfather’s legacy, if it’s a good one. And perhaps if your grandfather is still living in this earth, it might prompt you to call him, and to thank God for him.

Happy birthday Paw. I look forward to your oyster stew in the new Jerusalem.

“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. [Psalm 103:13-19 ESV]

Ken Summy would not have wanted much made of this event. He was never one for ceremony-except that in so many ways he was. He was at the center of so many quiet traditions and unspoken ceremonies that have made up the warp and woof of our family. For centuries Jewish boys have waited for the age of twelve for the certainty of a bar mitzvah celebration. With just as much certainty, the Summy grandchildren waited for a trip to Walt Disney World at the age of four-if Paw could wait that long. Every spring meant an endless succession of Mardi Gras parades across the Coast and beyond. Every summer meant camping trips and beach outings and treks to the Neshoba County fair. Christmas brought the certainty that every year every one would buy him shirts-and he would try them all on, one by one, one on top of the other.

And now our hearts are swollen with grief because these unwritten traditions are now silenced. A stability, a sameness, a certainty, is now gone from all of our lives, never to return. David knew of this agony as he sang this psalm to his covenant God. From dust we have come and to the dust we return. A man’s life, he laments, is as temporal as grass. But it does not seem so.

Indeed the Spirit warns us throughout the pages of Scripture that a fleeting life can seem deceptively so everlasting. Jesus tells us of the man who built for himself many barns, reveling in his own success-only to perish in his folly. Ken Summy was not captivated by the follies of faddish consumerism and selfish vanity. After all, this is a man who took pride in never having air conditioning in his home or in his car.

Instead, Ken Summy knew something of what someone once called the “permanent things.” He seemed to know instinctively something of what was important-and something of what was not. He lived a life of dignity, a life of quiet gravity.

The Psalmist tells us that the span of a man’s years is as that of a flower. It flourishes and then falls away. The wind passes over the ground and its place remembers it no more. And, yet again, it does not seem so.

Ken Summy especially seemed so strong, so vital. I could never imagine that his day would ever be here. I remember how he would walk so fast–and so far ahead–that often we could not keep up with him when we were teenagers. I can still remember him turning around, with a twinkle in his eye, yelling, “For crying out loud, can’t you keep up?”

And now he is gone.

But the Psalmist does not leave it there. He contrasts the temporality of a man’s life with what he calls “steadfast love,” a Creator’s love that extends from eternity past to eternity future. It is a love, he sings, that extends to children’s children, throughout all generations. Indeed, David compares this steadfast love to that of a father who compassionately loves his children.

We are blessed to have seen a reflection of this kind of fatherly steadfastness in the life of Ken Summy. Steadfastness seems out of place in an era dominated by what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests,” hollow men who can emote with all of the latest therapeutic lingo, but who will not honor their covenants to their wives, their children, their churches, their communities. But the life of Ken Summy was different.

I detected the difference from a very early age. Other children went “to see” their grandparents at certain occasions of the year. We never “went to see” Grandma and Paw. They were always there. They were always such a part of our lives. Indeed I cannot remember a single rite of passage in which Paw was not right there-at the center of it all. He gave to us a love that was certain and solid, a love that was steadfast.

And yet, as this Davidic Psalm reveals to us, the steadfastness of the love of God is greater yet. It extends beyond death, and conquers it. David says that the blessings of this steadfast love extend to the one who keeps the commandments of Yahweh, to the one who remembers the covenant with his Creator. But who is this? David elsewhere laments that none are righteous, not even one. All of us have rebelled against the law of God, all of us hide from the holiness of His presence.

This event today is a stark reminder of the truth. We are all in Adam, and we all share in his curse. We are hurtling toward an eternal death, a death we have chosen and a death we deserve.

But the Scriptures contrast this curse with steadfast love. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that this steadfast love of God is not a concept or an emotion, but is instead a Person, a Person who takes on our flesh and our bone, sharing in our dusty nature. In His crucifixion, He bore in His own body the curse of the covenant, suffering in the place of sinners the eternality of death. In His resurrection from the dead, He stood where Adam would not stand, and crushed the head of the Serpent who so cunningly deceives us and who so accurately accuses us.

Ken Summy’s hope is not his own righteousness. That could never be enough. Instead, his hope is a righteousness outside of himself, one found in union with Another. His hope is the righteousness of Jesus of Nazareth, the One who kept the commandments and remembered the covenant (2 Cor 5:21). David sees something of this truth when he leaps from praise of God’s steadfast love to praise for His royal sovereignty. God has promised to put all things under the feet of His Messiah. And yet, as we see in this world of funeral homes and graveyards, all things are not yet under His feet.

The hope for Ken Summy, and the only hope any of us can have, is something that happened to a cadaver in a graveyard in first century Palestine. The Scriptures call this a down-payment of Christian hope (1 Cor 15:20-23). The Resurrection of Jesus is a guarantee by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to His Messiah. It is a guarantee that all who cast themselves on the mercy of God in Christ will share in this resurrection, they will conquer with Him over death itself (Rev 2:7). This is the only hope for a man in the face of death. It is the hope that the triumphant Son of the Most High will call out the names of all who are in Christ, and they who hear will live (John 5:25). Herein is love, steadfast love.

We are here today to say our goodbyes to a man whom we love. We stand here in sorrow, and it should be in sorrow, because death is horrible. This is not the way it should be.

And yet we stand here also in hope, hope in the steadfast love of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. David’s great son, Solomon the wise, tells us that love is as strong as death (Song of Solomon 8:6). But David’s greater Son, who is Wisdom Himself, reminds us also that love, steadfast love, is even stronger than that.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).