c.m. “bud” kinsey: a life remembered

the following are my reflections on my grandfather’s life–a man who shaped my life more than anyone else–offered as the eulogy at his memorial service on january 5, 2017.

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good afternoon, my name is ryan pemberton, and i’m “bud” kinsey’s grandson. on behalf of our entire family, thank you for joining us to celebrate and remember his life.

some of you here will know that i have a deep appreciation for the writing of english author c. s. lewis, perhaps most well known for his chronicles of narnia series. lewis begins one of the books in his beloved narnia series with this line: “there was a boy called eustace clarence scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

we’re gathered here today to remember a man named clell manardy kinsey, though he didn’t deserve it. which is at least partly why people called him “bud” most his life.

family members and bank tellers, waitresses and co-workers alike all called my grandfather, “bud,” and they meant it. they called him “bud” because, like eustace clarence scrubb, he deserved it.

 

i. bud’s life

clell manardy kinsey was born in st. george, south carolina on september 23rd, 1930, to weldon poozer kinsey and his wife, cornelia alice kinsey. no offense to any mothers in the room, but my grandfather would want you all to know that he grew up with the best mom in the whole world.

 

catching dinner

number 10 in a family of 12 children, my grandfather was born in the south in the dustbowl era: one of the most financially fraught periods in our nation’s modern history, which explains why I—and so many of our family members—grew up with grandpa’s well worn phrase: “i’d rather you have too much than not enough.”

my grandfather grew up learning how to catch dinner for his family: rabbits, fish. setting rabbit traps with grandpa was something my cousins and i grew up doing for fun; for my grandpa, as a young boy, it was a matter of having dinner or not.

he once told me a story about flipping a coin with his brothers at the start of the day to decide whether they’d go to school or go fishing. when the coin landed straight up and down in the sand, the choice was easy: fishing it was.

 

mechanics, engineering, and football

my grandfather earned only one “a” in school, and that in woodworking, which surprised me to learn as an adult, given that he was the one who most motivated my academic achievements.

where he excelled was working with his hands: my grandfather was a lay engineer and a skilled mechanic. he never met a pile of tarps and rope he didn’t like: creating the most intricate tarp system you ever saw over his back deck each winter.

in his last days, even when he could no longer speak, and could only barely move, i watched my grandfather slowly and patiently weave his hospital bed remote control through his bed’s metal bars, preventing the remote’s cord from getting caught when the bed was raised or lowered, and leaving the remote precisely at hand level.

he also excelled on the football field: though his mother initially refused to let my grandpa turn out for the team—worried that he’d get hurt—when she later heard just how good he was, she gave in.

 

military years

after high school, and in the wake of world war II, my grandfather enlisted in the u.s. army, trained at fort bliss in el paso, tx and fort lewis in washington state, and then served with an artillery unit for one term, before returning home.

after a couple years at home, my grandfather enlisted in the u.s. air force, attending training school for auto and engine mechanics, construction equipment repair, metallurgy, welding, and leadership. “be a leader, never a follower,” he used to say.

my grandfather served our nation for decades, domestically and abroad, working as a mechanic and later as a site superintendent in his final years of service.

 

marriage & kids

along the way, he met a striking young woman named phillis at a swimming hole near richland, washington, who he married in late september of 1952. the couple had four children: laurie, michael, karen, and barb.

as a family, they traveled the world. my grandfather was stationed in salzburg, austria just after they were married, and 10 years before “the sound of music” was filmed there. their family later spent time in florida, washington state, okinawa, kansas, and wyoming, even while my grandfather was stationed elsewhere at times.

never one to talk much about his days in vietnam, his time there haunted his dreams for years to come.

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grateful for where i stand

my grandfather once told me a story about waking up one morning when he was serving with the red horse combat civil engineering unit. he and his friend mac decided to move tents that day, for no reason beyond a gut feeling.

that night a rocket hit the tent next to where they had been sleeping.

“there were holes all over ours,” he told me. “that was just another time i could have been gone. every night I pray to our God through the Lord Jesus Christ thanking Him for where i stand.”

he retired from the military in 1970 as a master sergeant.

 

value of a hard day’s work

my grandfather was one of the hardest working men i’ve ever met.

after serving in the military for more than two decades, he moved his family back to washington state, where he would work at arco’s cherry point refinery in ferndale as a welder, before finally retiring from there, too.

he taught me, and so many of my cousins, the value of putting in a good, long day’s worth of hard work, even though he was retired for as long as I can remember. he always stayed busy, always had projects going on around his house: repairing his pool, the deck, working in the yard, or tending to his garden.

one of my most lasting pictures I have of my grandfather is of him in a pair of sun-bleached swim trunks, smelling of coppertone sunscreen, working barefoot in his backyard.

 

serving others

Like a good writer, my grandfather showed, rather than told me, the importance of serving others. in his retirement years, i watched and even at times joined alongside him as he volunteered for a number of organizations: the local children’s museum, meals on wheels, and elsewhere.

 

a series of boxers

when his youngest was in high school, my grandfather and grandmother divorced. he later remarried, sharon, a mail deliverer with the u.s. postal service, who had several children of her own—debbi, katrina, and george—expanding his already large family, and giving even more people the opportunity to benefit from knowing him intimately.

my grandfather and sharon took in and loved a series of dogs—all boxers. clell, bucket, and fancy were a few of those fortunate enough to have my grandfather as their owner: waking when he awoke, staying up late listening to old country music together, singing and playing the harmonica, and napping when he laid down on the couch to “think,” as he used to call it.

 

II. to know bud

2439 moore st.

for several decades, my grandfather lived in the home at the southwest corner of moore and alabama street in bellingham: “2439 moore street,” as he taught me to recite as a young boy, in case I ever needed it.

with a lawn that was always immaculately kept and where for many years a tall, leafy willow tree stood to greet guests, my grandfather’s house was home to countless family barbeques, pool parties with friends, watching the fireworks over bellingham bay on the fourth of july, crab feeds, low country boils, and more.

my grandfather regularly could be found cooking in his den for family and whomever they wanted to bring along. when the food was ready, he’d get one of the children to ring the dinner bell and shout, “beans are ready!”, regardless of whether beans were actually being served.

 

loved a cigar

some of us remember the rich smell of pipe tobacco grandpa used to smoke from his recliner in the corner of his living room at the end of the day. but mostly it was cigars for grandpa.

that man loved a cigar.

in fact, it’s not easy to find a photo of him without one. and he loved to share, as you’ll likely notice in the slideshow later.

 

looked sharp

though he was never showy, my grandfather always took care with his appearance. he (not so secretly) dyed his hair on occasion in old age, and he made sure it was brushed before bed each night to the very end.

my grandfather was one of those rare types who was well dressed without being materialistic.

“let’s go to kmart and check out the latest fashions,” he’d say to me as a young boy. or fred meyer. or sears, while picking up a new bandsaw blade.

i never realized the humor in that until I wrote that line.

 

masterful storyteller

my grandfather was hands down one of the most creative people i have ever met. and he was a masterful storyteller.

if you never heard the one about finding his boxer, clell, cleverly disguised as a gambler at the nooksack casino, you’d better ask somebody.

 

a humor beyond quirky

but perhaps one of his greatest traits was his sense of humor. “quirky” doesn’t quite do it justice.

when the magic eye pictures were at the height of their popularity—those images you had to focus your eyes on just so in order to see a three-dimensional ship, eagle, or some other discovery—my grandfather installed a series of framed, fake magic eye images in his living room: tall, narrow pieces of felt with a bronze title underneath.

in the late 1990s, my grandfather, my cousin alvin and I took over sole ownership of the alphabet. let that sink in for a minute. there’s a faded, framed certificate, which we had made up at kinko’s, on his refrigerator to this day to prove the fact.

always one for a practical joke: memories of the fast cat, hitting a ping pong ball over the house, and more still bring a laugh to our family and friends.

but of all the jokes he made and played, so far as I can remember, my grandfather never made others feel bad, which is the best kind of humor.

 

nicknames 

he used to love to give nicknames: rip, mo, spider, doc whistler, broken ukulele, little hammer, and countless others that he created from scratch for those he loved.

like many things with my grandfather’s sense of humor, if you have to explain, don’t bother.

 

finding a keeper

the first time my now-wife jen stopped by my grandpa’s house without me, some fifteen years ago, she had my brother and sister with her.

as he often did when people dropped in, my grandpa asked if they’d like something to eat. when they said sure, he made them grilled cheese sandwiches with peanut butter.

jen finished hers and complimented the chef on his culinary creativity. later that day he phoned to tell me that i had found myself a keeper.

 

electric grin

my grandfather loved a good joke, and he had an electric grin that lit up his entire face and made you want to share any good joke you knew with him just to get a peek at it.

ask any waitress at denny’s in town or any teller at us bank; his was the smile against which all other smiles will be forever measured.

 

inventive euphemisms

bud kinsey never met a euphemism he didn’t like. and when one wasn’t readily available that suited his purposes, he’d invent one.

stamp, thinking, billy jar, and so many others served as code words for spotting an attractive woman, taking a nap, and the makeshift urinal he kept in his car for emergencies.

 

proudest achievement

but of all his efforts, it was bud kinsey’s family that he was most proud. you couldn’t make it far inside his home without coming face-to-face with framed certificates and newspaper clippings of his family’s accomplishments decorating his walls.

with four children of his own, and countless grandchildren and great grandchildren, someone was always stopping into 2439 moore street, just to say hello—and they would always be greeted the same way: with an open door, a smile, and, if they were young enough, an invitation to check out the “goody drawer.”

like my cousin bj recently wrote for my grandfather’s obituary, bud kinsey was a magical man who pulled candy from his twinkling ceiling.

it’s just what he did.

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not sensational; quietly exceptional

My grandfather was not a sensational man: he was not gregarious, he preferred not to be the center of attention.

but he was a quietly exceptional man, leaving an immeasurable impact on so many of our lives with his consistent, diligent, intentional, creative love.

not sensational, but quietly exceptional. that’s my grandfather.

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III. remember your stories

and he was always teaching me, he was always teaching all of us. he still is.

remember your stories, that’s what so much of grandpa’s life taught me. remember your stories, and tell them to one another.

write down your stories, grandpa says. It doesn’t have to be anything special, just tell me about your day. tell me about waking up. tell me about going to sleep.

tell me about seeing your children for the first time. tell me about seeing your children after a long day.

tell me about your life.

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remembering a moment for a lifetime

tell me about coring a watermelon and filling it with chocolate pudding. tell me about helping a bunch of young cousins remember a moment for a lifetime.

tell me about sitting in a circle on the kitchen’s linoleum floor, using a toothpick to punch a pin-sized hole in an egg, and taking turns sucking the yoke out.

“put some salt on it,” grandpa says.

tell me about smelling the salty bay air before the sun has risen, about sliding your fingers between a crab’s claws and shell and yanking until it’s insides become its outsides, and then staring in shock as its big pincher grabs the skin between your thumb and pointer finger.

“it’s making friends with you,” grandpa says.

tell me about your friends. tell me about the time you had your friends over for a pool party and your grandpa served everyone blue-dyed corn on the cob.

“why’s the corn blue,” your friends ask.

“because that’s just my grandpa,” you say with a shrug.

as I said, if you have to explain, don’t bother.

because he was trying his best to help you remember your life.

 

remember me

like our experiences and stories about grandpa—some of them are shared, and some of them are unique to each one of us—there’s a story about Jesus found only in luke’s gospel; it’s a story about remembering.

it comes from the very end of Jesus’ life.

luke tells us that when Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state, he was hung up on a cross between two convicted criminals, one on his left, the other on his right (luke 23).

we’re told that one of the criminals, in his pain and anger, began to ridicule Jesus.

“are you not the Messiah?” he asked, sarcastically. “save yourself, and us!” (23:39).

but the other criminal, in just as much pain, surprisingly sticks up for Jesus.

“do you not fear God?” he asks his fellow convict. “we have been condemned justly, but this man has done nothing wrong” (v.40-41).

and then he turns to Jesus with what is, perhaps, the most human request: “remember me,” he says.

“jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” (23:42).

“Remember me,” the thief on the cross with a whole lifetime behind him says, a lifetime he cannot change. cannot correct. cannot redeem.

and yet, he has the gall to say, “remember me.” my God, remember me.

it is, of course, the same thing grandpa was always telling us: remember. remember me. remember who you are.

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stay afloat

i was reading with the window open one spring afternoon when a cottonwood tree seedling, what grandpa used to call “cottonballs,” came floating through my window and landed on my book.

seated there, i heard my grandpa’s words: “when the cotton balls stop falling, that’s when you know we can open the pool.”

smells of coppertone sunscreen, working on projects around the house, napping on the couch (or “thinking,” as he put it), and so many other memories suddenly flood my thoughts.

“i’m going to teach you how to float on your back,” grandpa says to me from the deep end of the pool in his backyard one hot august day as a young boy. “so that way if you’re ever stranded or in trouble, you can keep yourself afloat until help comes.”

“you can keep afloat this way as long as you need to,” he told me.

but you’ve got to remember.

 

“when you remember me,” frederick buechner writes, “it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that i have left some mark of who i am on who you are.

“it means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us.”

“it means that if we meet again, you will know me.”

“it means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”

 

“remember,” grandpa told us, so long and so often that we nearly tired of hearing it, each year when our stories would be due for the annual chili cook-off memory books.

“remember,” grandpa used to say, and keeps saying still in our minds and hearts.

remember your stories, he’d say.

“remember me,” i hear him saying now.

remember me until the tears fall like rain, rain that falls so hard on a tin roof that it sounds like bacon crackling and spitting on a skillet, as my grandpa used to imagine as a young boy just hoping there’d be breakfast to eat when he awoke.

remember me until the tears fall like a storm you think might never pass, remember me until you can barely breathe because your throat is so tight.

and then keep remembering.

and then, well then you’re free to do with your memories as you like, to keep them to yourself or to share them.

i must share mine. i am called to remember and to point. but you can keep yours if you like.

tell me about your day, or maybe tell yourself, if you’re likely to let it pass you by otherwise. but you must remember.

 

“i have thought sometimes that the Lord must hold the whole of our lives in memory, so to speak,” marilynne robinson writes. “of course He does.”

“remember me,” the strung up thief says at the end of his days. and Jesus says, “don’t worry, I will. today you will join me in paradise.” (luke 27:43).

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Lord Jesus, i thank you that you remember us and our loved ones when we are tempted to forget. i thank you that you remember us into eternity, into peace, that you remember us home.

thank you, Lord, for the gift of bud kinsey, a legendary man who we were gifted to know all these years, and who remains with us through our memories in his absence. be the comfort for our tears, I pray; be good to our father, grandfather, great grandfather, and friend; and help us to always remember.

in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

a letter to hudson

hey hudson,

you were due to arrive the day i first sat down to start writing this letter. we welcomed you into the world a full week later. now that i’m finally wrapping this up, it’s been three weeks since you breathed your first breath of air–a good sign that you’re arriving in the right family.

Hudson's birth

these are the first words i have ever written to you, and the mere mention of that fact is enough to steal my breath. we have a whole lifetime of words ahead of us to exchange, but these are the first. i will do my best.

before your sister was born, i wrote down some things i wanted to make sure she knew. several years later, it feels presumptuous to think you would want to hear what i have to say, or that what i have to say would be of value to you.

perhaps that is simply the passing of time, but i now feel i have less to offer than i did just a few years ago when it comes to worthwhile advice. time will tell.

the story of my life will not be the story of your life, of course. and yet, the story of my life will undoubtedly give shape to yours. so i thought i might start by telling you what life was like when you first arrived into our family.

life when you arrived

we’ve been living in the bay area for just six months at this point, so it still feels new to us in many ways. and after moving four times in the past five years, life has felt transient for a while now.

before we arrived in california, and before we left our home in washington state before that, we lived in england for two years, and then north carolina for a couple more after that. i had been studying theology in both. our time in england was so rich and full and, in many ways, unbelievable that i wrote a book to do my best to keep it all from falling through my fingers. one day i will have many stories to share with you from that chapter of our life.

your sister, emma, was born just after our time in england, and so she spent the first two years of her life in north carolina. two years of learning how to do life as a family of three. how to crawl. how to walk. it all happened there. by the time we were packing up our things in durham, i found myself wanting to boil the curtains and make a soup out of all the memories we made in that home so that we could take it all on the road with us.

after four years of school, and a year back in washington state, we moved to the bay area so that i could take up a new job–which suddenly sounds very grown up and dad-like of me. how does that happen?

i have found myself wondering lately what you will think when you find out one day that i was a university minister when you were born.

will you find that strange?

will you find that fitting?

that i am working in ministry at all–and in a church, no less–has been one of my life’s great surprises. it wasn’t always the case, which is likely why i’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact. but so it is.

my workdays are a combination of hearing from college students about their life (mostly) and their faith (sometimes); doing my best to speak meaningfully into their lives on the difference a life of faith in Christ makes in an often faith-less life; and, at times, reading and writing.

even in the surprise of this work, i often struggle to imagine something that would be more meaningful to me. perhaps one day you will know what i mean.

at the end of my days, i follow so many other commuters home along i-80, past the golden gate bridge standing tall and proud on the westward horizon. when i finally arrive home, i am greeted by your sister, now a dizzying three and a half, and your mother.

your sister often runs to the door, greeting me with a wide, watermelon slice grin. your mother also often looks happy to see me, but her smile, i am sure, has more to do with the fact that she knows that she can now be “off” for a bit.

this is, hands down, the highlight of my days.

when you are one day old enough to read this, hudson, you will likely know them both better than i am now able to put into words, but here’s what their lives looked like before you arrived.

emma

your sister has chocolate brown hair that reaches just past her shoulders, with curls on the ends that dance when she runs. her smile is a gift from your mother, and it is enough to stop me dead in my tracks and lighten my foot steps at the same time.

Emma & Hudsonemma is a wizard at puzzles and matching card games, and she is now asking us to read beatrix potter (“peter rabbit”) at bed time. you cannot keep her dry near a pool.

she has already told us that she wants one, make that two dogs. and a cat. we’re doing our best to hold out, but we have no idea how long that will last.

we have been talking about your arrival for some time now, hudson. we’ve been telling emma that you’re coming, so that you don’t completely sideswipe her.

the evening we found out we were having a boy, emma made a disgusted face. “i thought we were having a girl,” she said. which is funny, given that she had already been telling us she was going to be having a brother long before we knew.

when we tell other people your first name, she frequently corrects us. “you mean hudson james,” she says in a teacher’s voice.

she is also, even at three, one of the most thoughtful people i know. it’s not infrequent that we’re in a store and she grabs something, returns to us, and insists that you’ll need it.

emma has been telling us about all the things she’s going to teach you as your big sister: how to brush your teeth, how to do puzzles; important stuff. just the other day i walked in on her wearing her green fairy wings and reading a picture book to a doll seated on her lap. you can add reading to the list.

Emma reading at 3 and a half

as you will learn, emma is quite sensitive, like her parents. be careful with your words, will you? if you give her time and your undivided attention, she will adore you.

the last few weeks before you arrived, emma would often start the day by staring at your mother’s pregnant belly and shouting, “hudson james, come out!”

your sister has been anxious for your arrival. so has your mother.

your mother

i did my best to paint a portrait of your mother in the letter i wrote to your sister upon her birth; maybe you can look over her notes. but there are a couple things i want to tell you about your mother, since i have your attention.

Jen & Hudsonfirst, your mother is the best woman i have ever met. i mean it.

i’ve known your mother for about half of my life at this point, and never before have i met anyone whose heart i trust more. in a world where trust is hard to come by, your mother has been a rock.

but it’s her love that you will most likely come to appreciate most. your mother’s love is tough and strong. it is one of the most patient, steady, and at times sacrificial loves i have ever experienced. there will come a day when you will know this is true, and you will be as grateful for her then as i am today.

i mentioned this to your sister in my letter to her, but your mom, as you will come to learn, is also much tougher than me. i cried like a baby at our wedding; she didn’t lose a single tear. already i’ve gotten into the habit of calling you sweetheart, which she pointed out to me doesn’t sound masculine enough. so i grew a beard and kept calling you sweetheart.

of course, your mother has her rough edges just as much as the rest of us. i’ll let you discover those for yourself.

a few things to avoid, though, when it comes to your mom: early mornings, if you can; unnecessarily expensive gifts; and the spotlight. also, she’s still working on taking compliments.

if you do happen to cross her, chocolate peanut butter sweets do in a pinch.

life: ball lightning, your voice, & paying attention

as i mentioned, i feel reluctant to tell you much in the way of advice. perhaps it’s a growing sense of my own naivete, or perhaps it’s an even bigger question of whether or not you’ll actually be interested. either way, i have my doubts. i’ll keep this short, but here are some things i’ve noticed when i look out at the world.

Dadda & Hudson

first, you should know that my life has not unfolded according to some well executed plan on my part; it has exploded with surprises. apparently there are actually those most enviable people for whom life seems to go according to plan. but for me, life has been more like ball lightning: exploding here, exploding there, and then, darkness and silence.

in the seeming chaos of it all, you will most likely find yourself wondering, what in the world was that about? but then, after some time, you will look back and think, my God… that was beautiful.

knowing this, in advance, can save you much heartache.

do your best to surround yourself with the kind of people who can put a finger on the ball lightning moments, trace them to the next, and tell you a story. friends are the ones who give meaning to the ball lightning chaos of life.

second, and in absolutely no order, i have to tell you something that will sound like something i have to tell you. i know. but here it is.

you are a male, and a white male at that. which means that you will have, by nature of your birth, a voice. do not take this lightly.

things are changing by the day at this point. in the last couple of years, we have seen the kind of racial violence we haven’t seen in 50 years. i hope to God that things have improved by the time you’re able to read this, but experience shows that these things take time. and lots of hard, intentional, proactive work.

if things have not improved, it means your voice will be heard at a whisper when others are shouting from the rooftops. if you do not use that for good, i have failed you as a father.

and lastly–i promised you i’d keep this short–i cannot hope to know what will bring your life the kind of hope and joy that i desire for you. you will no doubt be influenced by those things that have brought hope and joy to my own life: books, authors, people, places. but i hope you hear me here: when you happen to come across those things that steal your breath and bring you surprise tears, pay attention. pay attention to your life, hudson.

if life is for you anything like it has been for me, the rush of it all will beg you to keep moving. it will tell you that to stop and take it all in is to fall behind.

do not listen.

if you can, pay attention to that which brings life to your life, and point.

music & books

two of the things that have brought life to my life have been music and books. perhaps it will be the same for you.

so you know, the first three songs you heard were “ara batur,” by sigur ros; “drift,” by kim janssen; and “love is all,” by the tallest man on earth. you could do worse than these three.

i do hope you have a deep appreciation for words, as i do. in the way of writers, your taste is not likely to be the same as mine, but here are a few who have left a mark on my life.

frederick buechner encouraged me to see the holiness and grace in everyday life. in the most ordinary, routine moments just as much as in the highest peaks or deepest valleys. that lesson has made each day, no matter how mundane, worth living into deeply.

c. s. lewis once showed me that it is okay to be a thinking christian. maybe, and hopefully, that will sound like a given, but that lesson changed my life in tangible ways.

and dietrich bonhoeffer not only wrote, but lived in such a way that showed me that our God-given gifts are not to be used merely, or even primarily, for ourselves. they are to be poured out for Christ’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of the world. if we try to keep such gifts for our own gain, they will not only spoil, they will turn us sour with them.

there are more writers whose work i would like to share with you, of course. i am sure you and i will discuss them in the years ahead. but if you take your time with these three, your life, and the lives of those around you, will be richer for it. of that i am sure.

not looking the other way

one last thing before i go. at the moment of your birth, your doctor welcomed you into the world and placed you into your mother’s arms in one beautiful, sweeping motion. in an instant, i found myself simultaneously laughing and crying.

Dadda & Hudson first sight

the head nurse was there, standing opposite me, on the other side of your mother. she turned her eyes from you to me and said, “you look as though you didn’t know he was in there!”

i knew you were “in there,” of course, and that you would soon be with us. but if i were being honest with you, hudson, i’d tell you that life has been so busy, at this point where my feet stood waiting for life with you in it, that i had worried you were going to arrive and i would find myself looking the other way.

but here’s the thing, when you arrived, it was impossible for me to be looking anywhere else. i was staring straight at you, but it was you who were looking the other way. and as i spoke to the back of your head, laughing between tears, you picked up your head and turned to face me.

in that moment, as best as i can describe it, i knew the gratuity of God’s grace. one day, i hope, you will know the same.

and years from now, when you take your first steps; when you learn to throw a ball; when you spell your own name for the first time; when you pick up a pen and tell the world a story; when you tell me that you’ve met someone; when you give your heart away; when you receive it back again in pieces; when you come to us and say you’ve decided to step out in faith; i promise to do my best not to be caught looking the other way.

i love you, hudson. we all love you, so much. and in you i see God’s gratuitous grace. if you know nothing else, know that.

i hope you can forgive the trite nature of any or all of my words. i am still new at this, but i am working on it.

your dad,

ryan

but who do you say that I am? a devotional

i was recently asked to lead the staff of westside: a Jesus church, in portland, in a time of devotion. here are the reflections i gave on matthew 16:13-17, the story of peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.

who do others say that I am?

Jesus begins this episode by asking His disciples who other people are saying the “Son of Man” is. and if you’re familiar with matthew’s gospel, you know Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favorite titles for Himself.

and so what we find here is Jesus asking what the crowds are saying about Him. “what’s the watercooler conversation about me been like,” Jesus is asking.

what all of the disciples’ responses have in common is that people are saying that Jesus is one of the prophets. perhaps, even, one of the greatest prophets.

and the interesting thing to notice here is that Jesus seems wholly uninterested in their response. He doesn’t even acknowledge it, as far as we can tell.

which begs several questions: why does Jesus even ask in the first place? does He not know what others are saying? is He going through some sort of existential crisis and is in search of validation?

and why doesn’t he acknowledge their response? if He disagrees, why doesn’t He say so?

instead of acknowledging their response as we might expect, Jesus asks another question.

but who do you say that I am?

“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks.

and the thing i wish scripture told us is how much time passed from Jesus’ question and peter’s response.

you can just imagine the disciples–sensing the weight of this question, and not wanting to get it wrong–doing all they can to avoid eye contact with Jesus. staring at the ground, kicking the dirt. whistling to themselves.

of course, it’s peter who finally breaks the silence.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” peter says.

and unlike before, Jesus not only acknowledges peter’s response, He praises it.

“blessed are you!” Jesus says, which is about as close as we get to Jesus giving an a-plus on one of His pop quizzes.

but He doesn’t stop there, which is the really interesting part.

in the same breath that He uses to praise this response, Jesus tells peter that he could not have answered this question rightly were it not for the Father giving peter the words.

“flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my Father who is in heaven.”

isn’t that odd? why would Jesus ask the disciples a question that He knew they could not answer rightly without God’s help?

“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks the disciples. and this is, i would argue, one of the most important questions in the entire bible. which brings me to my third and final point for reflection.

not a one-off question

the more i think about this story, the more confident i am that this is not a one-off question that Jesus asks and then leaves alone. nor is it simply a question posed to peter.

instead, i think this is a question that scripture, as the living and active word of God, and Jesus, as the living, resurrected Lord, continues to ask each one of us anew each day. moment by moment, even.

this is a question that we can never get away from, never get ahead of.

it is a question we must answer in the seemingly mundane realities of life, as well as the incredible highs and the tragically low points of life.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, in your buying habits. in the television shows you watch. in your internet use.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you finally get that job offer that you’ve been waiting on for what has seemed like an eternity.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you’ve been trying for years to get pregnant, while everyone you know is welcoming a new child into their family, and all your efforts have been met with nothing but closed door after closed door. or when the lab results come back, and it’s cancer.

who do you say Jesus is then? In those moments?

the full, painful reality of the world

i was listening to the radio the other day when i heard what was easily one of the grisliest, most tragic stories i’ve ever heard.

apparently someone opened up a locker in a public transit station in canada recently after noticing a terrible smell. to their horror, they found several newborn baby bodies stuffed into the locker.

the worst part is that these bodies had been there so long that the police couldn’t actually tell how many were there. maybe three, maybe four. they couldn’t make out where one baby’s body ended and the next began.

friends, who in the world do you say Jesus is when you hear those sorts of stories? because whoever we say Jesus is, however we respond to this relentless question, our answer must be able to hold the full, painful reality of the world in which we live.

listen to your life

frederick buechner is a presbyterian minister, novelist, and memoirist whose work i have clung to after being introduced to it a couple years back. he’s incredibly thoughtful, beautifully written, and exceptionally honest about the painful realities of the brokenness of this world.

and one of the repeated themes in buechner’s writing is that of our need to pay attention.

“pay attention,” buechner writes. “pay attention to your life.” to the monotonous, mundane bits just as much as the exciting or even tragic parts.

because if you listen really closely, buechner insists, you will see that your life itself is telling a story.

and that story, i believe, is the only answer we can offer to this question that Jesus asks each and every one of us over and over again: “but who do you say that I am?”