Grandpa Peterson

It wasn’t a very good sermon. I tried to say too much, and not enough of it about Jesus. But two years later, that doesn’t matter too much. Because all I really remember of that Sunday morning in Ellsworth, Wisconsin was the sight of George Peterson smiling, proud that his grandson was in the pulpit of his church.

George Peterson
George L. Peterson (1922-2017) – courtesy of Carol Peterson

Grandpa died on Saturday night at the age of 94. We’ll bury him tomorrow, then return to Zion Covenant once more to mourn, remember, and celebrate. Fortunately, I won’t be preaching that sermon, so I can instead share some thoughts from the more comfortable platform of this blog.

But let me return to the text I preached back in 2015:

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:1-9, NRSV)

I picked this text in part because it made me think of Grandpa, who for decades sowed and harvested from the same good soil that his father and grandfather before him had farmed. I should have just stopped right there and asked Grandpa to talk; for all my studies, I didn’t have the lived hermeneutic of a man who knew the frustration of a failed crop and the joy of a hundredfold yield.

Grandpa Peterson and me on his tractor
Grandpa and me in 1976 – courtesy Elaine Gehrz

Not just a farmer but an award-winning gardener whose flowers gladdened Zion’s sanctuary for decades, Grandpa served as a living reminder for me of humanity’s oldest vocation: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” (Gen 2:15, NKJV).

Of course, on this side of the Fall, that calling involves impossibly hard work. (All the more so because Grandpa had to work other jobs — tanning leather, driving a delivery truck, working in an auto parts factory — to make ends meet.) Remembering Grandpa’s life and grieving his death should lead us to the next chapter in Genesis, another passage that he’d understand better than I:

Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return. (3:17b-19, NKJV)

Under such circumstances, I’m not sure how those called to tend remain tender. But Grandpa grew more than corn and roses; he cultivated in his own life all the fruit of the Spirit. I’ll never know anyone more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled than George Peterson. (“Let your gentleness be known to all men,” I’ll remind those gathered tomorrow, when I read one of Grandpa’s favorite scriptures at his memorial service.)

The headstone Grandma and Grandpa share

I’ve felt a confusing mix of emotions since Saturday. It was hard to watch someone so robust for so long decline so much in Grandpa’s final months. When I choked out final words of farewell last Wednesday, it was the third or fourth such goodbye we’d shared this year. So I couldn’t grieve too bitterly about a peaceful end for someone who said many times that he was ready “to go home to Heaven” — to be in the presence of his Savior and to be reunited with my beloved grandmother, whom he outlived by nearly fifteen years.

But I do feel deeply sad about the loss of his earthly home. Thanks to the incredible caretaking efforts of my aunt Joy, my mom, and their sisters and brother, Grandpa could spend his last days living where he’d been born, come of age, raised his family, and spent his long retirement. He never lived anywhere but the Wisconsin farm where he welcomed his suburb-raised grandchildren every summer, for visits whose reawakened memory last month made me rethink my suspicion of nostalgia:

And since we all remain God’s children, perhaps it’s okay — once in a while — to think like a child and temporarily put away adult-ish ways. Indeed, even as my grandfather loses his ability to remember the recent past, his recollection of being a child has only sharpened. Like me, he looks out over that farm and is brought back to the age when the future, like the rolling fields, seems to stretch on beyond the horizon.

That future has now reached its end. With Grandpa’s death, another Midwestern century farm is sure to be sold, pass out of the family, and begin a new chapter in its history. That’s going to be a hard page to turn. For that homestead was not just the land Grandpa and his ancestors tended; it was a gathering place for our family, and a living memorial to those who had gone before.

But even as Grandpa was keeping that farm, he was tending something more permanent: the faith, hope, and love that he had received from his grandparents and parents and passed on to his children and grandchildren.

Our twins with Grandpa and me
Our last picture together: Grandpa with the oldest of his 17 grandchildren and two of his 18 great-grandchildren

When I preached on Mark 4 at Zion, I focused on Jesus’ mention of crops planted in thin soil; rootless, they wilted in the hot sun. Evangelical Christians like us often focus on the metaphor of fields ripe for harvest, but it struck me that Jesus was also teaching that the kingdom of God starts below ground: with a healthy root system that weathers cold and heat, wind and rain. That’s all the more true if we think about churches like Zion or families like the Petersons. Such Christian communities aren’t replanted annually; like the roses Grandpa first tended with his mother, they’re perennials. In them, faith endures from generation to generation only because well-kept roots year after year send new growth out from the ground.

As church growth strategies go, it’s pretty quiet, humble, and patient. But then Grandpa’s faith was quiet, humble, and patient. It was a faith lived out in love of family and in the hope that they too — that I too, and my children — would know and bear witness to the God whose “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50, NRSV).

Peace be to Grandpa’s memory.