Today I’m flying home from Washington where I’ve spent the past few days with family remembering and celebrating my Grandpa Vanstone who passed away the day after Thanksgiving. It’s been a good few days doing what families do when a member dies: talking, eating, reminiscing, grieving, learning, and busying ourselves with the mundane details that such a moment requires. During the memorial service on Thursday I read his obituary, portions from The Psalms, and a few paragraphs of my grandfather’s influence on my life. He was a man of prayer – something that came up repeatedly during the service – and this is what I chose to focus on. Here’s what I said:
My Grandpa talked to God more than he talked to people. This isn’t to say that he didn’t converse with people. He did, though from my vantage point he usually seemed to be on the listening end. And when I say that my Grandpa talked to God more than he talked to people I also don’t mean to say that he didn’t listen to God. He did. But anyone who knew him with any degree of closeness understood that Clarence Vanstone was a man who knew how to speak to God- to speak with humility and boldness, as would a beloved child to his cherished father.
As one of his many grandchildren, I don’t remember a moment when I knew my grandfather prayed. In my young and then not-so-young mind this was simply who he was. At his small desk in his book-lined study he prayed. I knew this somehow. Not because he talked about it. In fact, the only thing I remember him saying about prayer came after each time we blessed the food before a meal. “Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze,” he would say, smiling as he – well – squeezed the hands of those seated next to him. One time – and I remember this rather clearly though it must have happened 25 years ago – one time I asked him why there were always three squeezes. Why not just one? Or two? Or a different number each time? “Because,” he said, sincerely answering my silly question, “squeeze, squeeze, squeeze means I love you.”
This, I think, was my Grandfather’s theology of prayer. He spoke with God regularly because he knew deeply the love of God. Like the Psalmist, my Grandpa could say to his God, “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” My Grandpa prayed – probably for most of us in the room at one point or another – he prayed, because he knew the love and acceptance of his God. He prayed not to escape the world around him. In more recent years I’ve imagined him mostly deeply engaged with the complexities and heartbreaks of life when he entered his study to pray.
My Grandpa has left a legacy for his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren that will continue to bear fruit for years to come. But I wonder if this isn’t his greatest gift. Along with his wife, my grandma, he has demonstrated a way of living that seems strange in a noisy, distracted, and insatiable world. His life of prayer is a sign to us, evidence of a God who loves us despite ourselves. In his steady and assuming manner, Grandpa showed us that our lives can be lived in response to God’s love.
This is a legacy for which I will always be grateful. And in our home, when my wife, 3-year-old son, and I finish praying for our meal, we squeeze one another’s hands three times. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. I love you. We say this because of our love for each other and because – like my grandpa – we hope to spend our lives knowing and responding to the God who first loved us.