By Mark Wilson
Asheville, North Carolina
My grandfather was a preacher. In a world where being defined by your work is passé, it’s difficult to reconcile a man’s legacy absent his profession. But I never knew him being anything other than a preacher. He went into the ministry when he was a few years older than I am now. It feels like what I’m doing for work now is all I’ll ever do. And yet, I don’t know how I would remember my grandfather if he hadn’t had that career change. I don’t know because I don’t know what he did before he was a preacher. That’s what he was as long as I knew him. I know if he hadn’t started preaching, he probably would have never come off the mountain, and my mother would have never met my father, and I would not be here to ruminate on his career choices.
His last name was Love. A last name used to mean something. Cooper, Smith, Tailor, Mason, Weaver. All names that told you what a man was about. Only rarely does a last name carry such weight nowadays. It’s a convention of the modern world that is both good and bad. Your last name no longer defines what you are or will be, but it can also leave you without an anchor in a world that seems to spin faster with each day passed. His name was occasionally the source of humor. Like when the missionary house at the church he pastored for 25+ years was named after him, but was unofficially called “the Love Shack.” His name resonates differently now.
I always enjoyed my grandfather’s stories about what he was like before being a pastor. Like how his hot temper led him to sling a push-mower across the yard at a neighbor he needed to make a point to. I still remember him having a hot temper. It just came out a little differently. When he couldn’t get his socks to fit just right and you could tell it was all he could do not throw his shoes across the room. Or, when he’d bump his head or stub his toe and turn red and clench his fists real tight like he was about to explode. The difference was where his temper might have been scary in his younger days, as he got older it became endearing to his family who would give him a good ribbing over it once he cooled off. He would laugh and shake his head knowing he had it coming.
I like to think his many enviable traits existed both before and after religion transformed him. It’s hard for me to imagine him ever not being one of the kindest and most understanding human beings to ever walk the earth. As a pastor in the Southern Baptist tradition that of late often inspires an ugly eye toward those viewed as different, my grandfather was a true believer. He could get wound up behind the pulpit and convince you the church steps led straight into the lake of fire if you weren’t “living right.” Nonetheless, he led a much more New Testament life. I never heard him utter a cross word about another person. I never saw him treat another person as if they were anything less than the most important person he had ever spoken to. I don’t know if it was because of what he read in the Bible or because he just loved to talk so much that he would not let anything prevent a good conversation, but either way, he lived a better Gospel than could ever fit into a sermon.
He was a preacher, a Love, and my grandfather. I don’t know which of those things made him what he was. Over the past couple of years, since lung cancer took him from the world, I’ve thought about that a lot. I do know the truest sign of the man was the vacuum he left behind; his absence created a hole felt by everyone he touched. It sometimes feels so deep I could fall into it and never climb my way out, that I could spend the rest of my life reconciling his memory with a world that sometimes seems too ugly to have ever contained such a man.
He, of course, would have no patience for such a thing. If he were here, the last thing he’d want to talk about is how I’m dealing with him not being here. He’d want to know how work is going. Probably would ask why I haven’t been to church in a while. He would remind me to be gracious for how much I’ve been blessed. And then, he’d start telling me one of his stories. Sadly, I probably wouldn’t remember much of the story, but I could never forget the man telling it.