Joan wasn’t a lifelong follower of Jesus. She was never a regular part of any church fellowship. She never went on a mission trip or taught the Bible to kids in a Sunday school. She lived most of her 62 years apart from Jesus, but was never far from the Kingdom. Like the wise Pharisee in Mark 12, she seemed to understand intuitively that God’s ultimate interest in her life was not for the sake of any piety she might possess, but love. And in God’s common grace, she had a lot of love. I know that because she was my Nana (grandmother).
She never had it easy. She didn’t come from money. She had no great opportunities at success in any way meaningful to most Americans. For many years, she carved a life out for her four kids, and if there was anything left after that, then she helped herself. Joan somehow managed to create meals out of very little in the way of ingredients. But her own lack was never a reason for denying hospitality in her worldview. As her own children would testify, if you had nowhere else to go for a meal, you had a seat at her table and a plate of food in front of you. If you didn’t have a family at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, she’d make you part of her family.
Nana Joan loved without conditions (unless you messed with her family….then there were consequences). She made friends easily, and didn’t know how to keep the mood in a room serious. It wasn’t just a matter of being welcomed into her home. For her, it was a welcome into her heart. Most people who say things like that are being sentimental…I got to watch it for 21 years. There was never a single time in my life that she didn’t go the extra mile for me, or my brother and sisters, or my cousins. There wasn’t a time in my life where she wasn’t giving her whole being into making sure her family stayed together, moving past spats and hurt feelings all over the place. “Love covers a multitude of sins” is usually understood as a motivation for forgiveness…but Nana’s love was covering everyone’s sins so we could be a family.
Mind you, she did all this despite the brokenness of her own body. It would be easy to lose count of the medical conditions and physical struggles that she lived with everyday. But she didn’t let it steal her joy. She’d fight on and on, because her family needed her. When she went to the hospital in July 2010, no one believed it would be the last time she’d face these things. Her kids and grandkids, brothers and sisters, and others visited regularly. She heard from one of her own grandkids the Good News about Jesus and received it. The woman who loved with everything she had finally met Love that far outmatched her own, and it was obvious in that final week. When she passed July 31, I’ve no doubt she received the welcome of a Father Who will never kick her out.
When I spoke at her burial, the Lord reminded me of the story of Tabitha in Acts. Tabitha was a believer who was a lot like my Nana Joan. She gave everything for those who were not so fortunate (and was probably not a woman of means herself). She passed, and Peter, who was in the area, heard the testimonies of all that she had done in the Lord’s Name. Peter raised Tabitha back to life. I wish to this day that God had done that for our family. But I also hear the promise of this passage: Tabitha was raised temporarily…to die again.But our hope as Christians is to a resurrection — a true return to life — and I can’t wait till it happens, because when it does, I know that “everything sad will come untrue” (Tolkien). When it happens, we will experience in even greater ways the hospitality and joy of a God who enabled Nana Joan to live her life with that kind of welcome.
Bonus: My sister Cailee sang “I Will Rise” (Chris Tomlin) at the memorial service, capturing so well the hope that we have in the resurrection Jesus has won for us.