I’ve been thinking about Jesus outside the temple, patiently braiding that whip out of cords. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what it meant, that careful work to create a weapon with which to drive the money changers and the livestock sellers out of the temple. The incident would set the city astir and lead to his execution, according to many accounts. It’s also the only time Jesus appears to teach–or do–anything other than kindness, forgiveness, charity, love, compassion, child-likeness, peace, acceptance, nonviolence… Where does a whip fit into THAT picture?
I don’t know yet, but I think it has something to do with love not being all squishy and hallmarky. I think it says that love doesn’t always mean a pat on the head and kudos. Warm and fuzzies. That sometimes love is hard. Unyielding. Sometimes love is a whip made out of cords, words that sting when they hit. I think love is sometimes an intervention, and sometimes it’s a break-up.
Sometimes I think it’s just realizing that someone we idolized isn’t perfect. It’s bringing those imperfections into the light of day and saying “Look, I know you. You’re pretty screwed up after all, aren’t you?” When necessary, it’s saying, “These things aren’t acceptable. They aren’t becoming on you and I won’t tolerate them.”
I think it’s all those things and then, when everything’s been said, it’s: I love you. Even so. I won’t let you walk on me, I won’t tolerate being treated that way, I won’t stand idly and watch you hurt other people. But I also won’t stop loving you. Ever. Ever ever. Because love: It’s hard as nails.
I haven’t always understood this. I’ve often loved people in the warm and squishy way, and then let them walk on me or walk on other people, and turned a blind eye to it because I didn’t know how to justify my love for the person and also admit to the bad stuff. So I would just ignore it. This happened quite noticeably with an ex-boyfriend or two in my college days, and maybe some day I’ll get around to loving them out loud, here, as well. But that’s not who I want to write about for today’s Sunday Celebration. Today, I’m going to write about my grandpa.
Because, you see, I idolized my grandpa. He’s the one who took us to 7-eleven for slushies, and gave us more toys than we had space for, and took us for raids of the neighbors’s fruit trees. He was the glad-talker whom everyone loved and wanted to help. He introduced me to homegrown tomatoes, and donkey rides. He was gruff and blunt (“here, fill my hands with your crying,” he’d say when I was sad), but he always had hard candies stashed in the barn where he lived, the same barn where he taught me how to mark a deck of cards and cheat at pinochle. Where he told me about the years after the War, and sent me to the cooler for ice-cold Cokes. He’s the one who cried when he found out I was getting married and told me I’d always be his little girl. I have always been passionately fond of him.
So let’s talk about that barn he lived in. You see, he was married to a woman I never understood, and never wanted to be around: My grandmother. They hated each other. She lived in the house, he lived in the barn. I always blamed this, when I was younger, on her. She was controlling and manipulative. Needy and overbearing. I’d say I wanted to go out to the barn and she’d say, “Well, I know he’s more fun than me. Nobody likes to be around me.” Being the only granddaughter I often was stuck with the duty of staying indoors with her.
My brother would be playing ball or helping Grandpa measure boards and build doghouses. He’d be climbing on Grandpa’s pickup truck and helping build a fire in the wood-burning stove.
I would be watching in dread inside the dark old house, as Grandma pulled hideous old clothes out of her closet and said how adorable they would look on me. If I wanted them. Because she wouldn’t want to force anything on anyone, of course, who didn’t like the pretty things she wanted to give them, and she would completely understand if I didn’t think she had good taste in clothes.
Or I’d be sitting in a chair letting her give me the worst permanent of my life (because all the old ladies in the neighborhood love her perms and didn’t I trust her?) and then arrange it in heinously tight curls I’d have to wear to church on Sunday. And all the while listening to how hard she tried to be fair to everyone but that she must be doing it wrong because everyone was mad at her, while simultaneously telling me not to touch the wall in front of me because I’d leave grimy fingerprints.
Sometimes I’d escape to the guest room to catch my breath, maybe change clothes. Even changing into those hideous old things was a welcome opportunity for escape–for about one and a half full minutes, if I was lucky. Then here she came banging on the door, wondering if I was mad at her and why I hadn’t come out yet, and reminding me not to play with anything on the dresser top because they were quite valuable.
So it was easy for me to understand why Grandpa might want to live in the barn. I wanted to live in the barn too. You see, it’s easy to blame the bad stuff on people you already don’t like much. Harder to see that conflict is always many-faceted and the people we love play their own roles in it too.
Grandma and Grandpa are both dead now. But I still love them both–yes, even her. I am still fiercely affectionate toward my Grandpa. But even in the old days there were things I ignored. And more things I didn’t even know. Things that make it a little more complicated.
You see, Grandpa wasn’t always as nice to other people as he was to me. And the card-cheating, well, that wasn’t the worst of the habits he picked up in the War.
Until I was five or six, I had never seen my Grandpa sober. He was a drunk. And a smoker, but then who wasn’t back then. Not only that, but as I grew older even I couldn’t ignore that he was nicer to my brother and me than to my cousins. You see, they were the sons of my mother’s sister… and my mother had always been his favorite. Oh yes, he played favorites. When Grandpa had toys to give us, Teddy and I always got first choice. When my cousins came over to help with doghouses, he yelled at them when they made mistakes. When my cousins came to Grandma’s house, they preferred to be in the house, not in the barn. I suspect those ice cold Cokes and hard candies aren’t so appealing when you know you’re not welcome there.
When Grandpa died, I stood in front of a small gathering of friends at his funeral and cried at the recollection of Grandpa’s scarred hands, cupped in front of him to collect my tears. I cried thinking about those ripe tomatoes fresh and warm from his garden, the long rambles through the neighborhood, Grandpa hanging from the monkey bars on the neighbor’s playground. I cried my grief, right there in front of that small gathering of friends and family. The gathering that included only one of my Grandpa’s two daughters, and one of his three grandsons. The other daughter and grandsons felt they had never had a real father and grandfather in him, and theirs was not the sort of grief you bring to a funeral.
I stood there and cried my grief in front of my Grandmother, whose sorrow was more complex. Hers was sorrow for a marriage that began in grief, marriage to a man who (as the story came down to me) told her on their wedding night that he had brought home syphilis from the War. She loved him in her own wounded way, the love of a woman who longed for adoration, a beautiful woman who expected and deserved to be worshipped and instead found herself disgraced and disrespected before her marriage was even consummated.
And that’s not even everything. I won’t share everything here, because it’s not all mine to share. I don’t even know everything about my Grandpa. But here’s the thing. I don’t need to know everything. Because even if I did, even if some of it is so horrific I’d want to turn away in horror and stop looking… I would still love my Grandpa. I would still love the man who quit drinking when I was six. I would still love the man who fought for his country and then spent his life working to support his little family. Whose friends included the 80-year-old couple next door and the 8-year-old boy down the street who called him “My Friend John.”
But here’s the thing. If he were alive today, I’d have some words with him. I’d go to him and say, “Grandpa. I love you. I love you so much my little heart wants to burst when I think of it. And that’s why I have to tell you: This favoritism, this treating your grandchildren unequally, this is wrong. It’s not fair. It’s not becoming of your tough, kind heart. You can do better.” I’d tell him when he was being mean to Grandma, when he was being unfair. I’d say, “I won’t listen to this. I love you too much to let you hurt Grandma. There is a better way. Let me help you act like the beautiful person I know you are.”
I’d tell him how I know all kinds of things he’s done, and some he may or may not have done, and others that I may have heard corrupted versions of, but that it doesn’t matter. Because I love him anyway. And not just because of the hard candies and the pinochle games. I love him because he is human and worthwhile, because he is a Child of God even if he doesn’t “believe in” God, and because all the bad stuff and the ugly things he’s done and said, those are all just a veneer, a smokescreen he’s erected around himself to protect himself from his pains and traumas. I’d tell him that I love him because I know that somewhere inside he has the strength to shed those layers and let his beautiful true self shine through, if only somehow he can see how to do it. And then I’d try to help him find that way.
He’s gone now, and I’m still sad about that. Maybe especially because I know he died without ever knowing what a beautiful person he could be, what a beautiful person he was even with all the ugliness layered over the beauty. I’m sad because he died before his daughter and grandsons could ever hear him express sorrow over his mistakes with them, before he could give them the father and grandfather they deserve.
All of that is between Grandpa and God now. Not my job. My job is just to keep loving him, despite everything. And that I do.
My other job is to learn when and how to love with a whip of braided cord. So when it’s time to stand up and say, “This isn’t right,” I can do it. Some day I’d like to have the courage Jesus had, to stand up for love and right and good even when the stakes were high, even when it meant literal crucifixion. I’d like to think I’ll have the courage to stand up with a careful plan and a thoughtfully crafted whip and drive out what is wicked and wrong from the temple of our souls so that what is beautiful and right can thrive and grow. Even if I have to sacrifice for it.
Some day. For now, I’m just going to go on loving the people in my life and, when I have to, loving them with a braided whip. But still loving them. Because I’m still sure that that is the chief lesson, the most important thing we can learn in life: How to love. Because, as Glennon says, Love Wins. Always.
Love you, Grandpa. Always.