Last week Friday during Morning Prayer, I was arrested by a line from Psalm 17 [v. 8]: “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wing.” It brought up many and powerful memories, and my tears flowed.
When I was born and until my grandfather’s death when I was five and a half, I came to know the profound and abiding love of my “grandpa.” He had been known as a “tough guy.” He retired from the Milwaukee Fire Department just before I was born, having risen to Battalion Chief and then Captain of the Fireboat on the river going through downtown.
From the stories I heard from relatives when I was growing up, he was not a very nice man, supercritical of others, rude, impatient, inconsiderate. His big virtue was bravery and leadership, for he always led his men into a fire and never sent a man to an area that he would not go. He was respected but not liked very much.
Then he changed, dramatically, which is the reason I share this, because I am always fascinated when someone changes for the better. I was told many times by my mother, my grandmother and my great aunts, that when they put baby Jimmy into his arms, the change began. You know I did not do this to him or for him. I was a helpless baby, then a toddler and then a little boy, and capable of returning affection, and then learning how to delight in people, which may be the essence of love. My grandfather learned to delight in me, like he never had delighted in his own children when they were young. Because of a major surgery on her back that my mother had at the Mayo Clinic, she and Dad were gone for months and then she was in a wheelchair for about a year, with the prognosis that she would never walk again. She did. During that time my grandfather made lots of time for me and I was his frequent companion, going many places with him.
Grandpa had some carpentry skills, and he made me a my-size tool box, like the real ones and painted it red and painted JIMMY BOY on the side. He also made me a large toy chest, and over the doors on the front of it he had painted THE APPLE OF MY EYE. I was young, too young to read it, but when someone read it to me, I knew I was. He is the person I remember as the “unconditional lover” in my life. My family loved me very much, but this love was special: he showed his delight in me, or with something I did or with something I said.
Grandpa died after a massive stroke, and I was heartbroken. When I started to cry, my mother said, “Don’t cry. He would have had to live the rest of his life in bed or in a wheelchair, and he would have hated his life. It is better for him this way.” So I didn’t cry.
But that summer, and again forty years after his death, I almost died from serious illness. In the latter illness, I had a dream (or a vision?) the night after my raging fever had finally broken, and when I went over it with the psychiatrist I was seeing, I said I was sure this was my grandfather. The dam broke and tears welled up and all that grief came pouring out of some deep place in my being.
Why do I share this with you? It’s not something you need to know about me—at least, not the details—, but as I sit here day after day with EZ, watching little TV, I have been doing a lot of reflecting, and different periods of my life come to the fore, often triggered by a piece of scripture. As they open up in my memory, I remember not just the events, but the people with whom I shared those times. I trust you are doing some of this same kind of reflecting, and I hope it is fruitful for you.
I did not realize that the idea of being “the apple of someone’s eye” came from scripture until that phrase jumped out at me when reading Psalm 17 in early adulthood. I have no idea when or how my grandfather learned it, because I do not remember him as a particularly religious man. But whenever he heard it, it certainly resonated with him, and given my experience of his delight, I always knew what it meant.
The lesson in Morning Prayer last Friday came from 1Peter and I want to read a couple of verses of it for you [3:15-16a]: “…in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
How do you account for the hope that is in you? What a wonderful question! Simply put, “Why do you have faith? How did you come by it?” I think I grew up with faith because of my grandfather, even though I have no memory of him talking about God or saying a prayer. It was who he was that counted. He changed from someone who people considered nasty to someone people liked to be around. It was love that changed him, and I do not mean my love for him, for I had not yet learned how. It was his loving me, his truly delighting in someone besides himself and once he started loving, he became a new man. I think that delight is the essence of love, because it always catches us by surprise. We learn how to do loving things after being surprised by delight or joy.
This experience with my grandfather is part of the many reasons I believe in God. I heard about his change as a child and I experienced his delight as a child. I make sense out of it by reflecting on it as an adult. Because of this experience I believe everyone can change; I have. As we know, it is always God within the loving and within us, and we are, each and all of us, “the apple of God’s eye.” Amen.