Holy Hospitality (A Eulogy For My Grandmother)


NOTE: This is the eulogy I offered at my grandmother’s funeral this week and I share it simply to honor her who I loved so dearly. It’s ok to laugh while reading this. The occasional humor is intentional. This wasn’t for a memorial. It was for a celebration of my grandmother’s life. Also for a bit of context, my wife is a Yankee as are both of my children. Don’t worry. It’ll make sense later.

I think Jesus was a southerner at heart.

The man loved to eat.

Consider how much of the gospels are devoted to Jesus and his disciples eating or Jesus talking about eating. His first miracle came to pass at a wedding feast. His most famous miracle involved lunch with thousands. Before his crucifixion he shared one last supper with his disciples and after he rose from the grave they had breakfast together on the beach. In between there are countless parables and teachings about table fellowship, the table of God in the kingdom in heaven, where to sit at the table, who to invite, what to eat, and at the end of all things Jesus tells us he won’t be standing at the pearly gates asking us whether or not we agreed with various doctrines. He’ll say I was hungry. Did you feed me?

Jesus loved to eat.

I think that’s part of the reason my grandmother was such a great disciple.

She loved to cook.

It began in her garden. When she wasn’t tending to her azaleas and irises, her peonies and hydrangeas, or trimming her beloved roses, Granny was picking okra and tomatoes or teaching us youngins how to shuck corn and pickle vegetables.

Her devotion to canning was a product of her childhood. Granny was a child of the Depression. She knew what it meant to do without and therefore the importance of never letting anything go to waste. It’s why you would find a jar of bacon grease within arms’ reach of the stove for frying whatever needed frying or if you were to explore her basement you would discover row after row of canned vegetables and fruits of every kind. It was a cornucopia of preserves just waiting to be consumed whenever the need arose.

But the true heart of the house and my grandmother’s life, was her kitchen.

I’ll never forget a cross stitch she had hanging on the wall beside the sink. It read “God loves a man with dishpan hands.” As a kid I never really understood what that saying meant. It wasn’t until I got a little older and realized that dishpan hands were hands wrinkled from being submerged too long in a tub of water that I understood that that cross stitch message was actually a passive aggressive reminder to my grandfather to remember to help wash the dishes.

But the cross stitch was more than that. It was a lesson in equality. In seeing that reminder to my grandfather to do his part to help around the house, I was taught that the household is a shared responsibility, that raising a family is something parents do together, and most importantly that women are equal to men. Anything a man could do, my grandmother could do just as well or in many cases even better. She passed that strength onto my mom who in turn embodied the lessons of independence, self-sufficiency, and strength for me. But those values of women’s equality didn’t come from a political movement. They arose directly from the gospel itself. After all, when all of the male disciples were cowering in fear behind locked doors after the crucifixion, it was women who went to the empty tomb, women who first encountered the resurrected Jesus, and women who first preached the good news of the resurrection – to men. Without women, there would be no church. And without the women in my life, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.

Across from that legendary cross stitch was my grandmother’s simple electric stove. Simple in construction, but a work of wonder in its ability to turn out world class meals – and not just when company was over either. Granny made meals from scratch anytime we were hungry. Whether it was her famous cornbread, fried chicken, squash casserole, or the fried okra that never seemed to quite make it to the table because my brother and sister and I swiped it away the moment it left the frying pan, my grandmother rarely made a bad meal. I say rarely because I do have one particular meal she made for me forever etched into my memory, though in her defense it didn’t start off poorly. I had stayed home sick one day from school which meant staying with Granny because my mother was at work. For lunch that day she made me chicken noodle soup. But I wasn’t in the mood. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in the mood either…for my attitude. She told me I couldn’t leave the table until I ate every bite. And she meant it. I sat there for hours. Stubbornly doing nothing at first, then trying every trick I could think of to get down the now cold chicken noodle soup. It was a war of attrition. She won, of course. And I haven’t been able to eat chicken noodle soup ever since.

But the great soup war of my childhood wasn’t really a war at all. It was another lesson that my grandmother, a lifelong teacher both in and out of the classroom, was trying to teach me: don’t let anything go to waste. And also? You need a little discipline. Sometimes that lesson in discipline came in the form of cold chicken noodle soup, other times it was a switch off of a tree in the backyard that I had to go pick out myself, but more often than not the discipline my grandmother tried to teach me, tried to teach all of us was the sort of discipline it takes to stick with something even when it’s hard or we don’t want to do it. The kind of discipline you need to say “no” to things you would rather say ”yes” to, but don’t really need. The sort of discipline that shapes and molds you into a better person and ultimately a better disciple of Jesus.

Now, as I said, the good meals far outnumbered the bad and there were many, many good meals, often attended by many, many people. Which is why I was in my 20s before I ever made it to the adult table, not because I was necessarily unfit company, but because – on holidays in particular – my grandmother’s house was bursting at the seams with people. Her large dining room table would be enveloped with as many plates and people as possible. There would be another two or three tables next to it in the living room, two or even four more in the den, and on at least one occasion another table or two downstairs when all of the family from Atlanta was in town. And of course no one was allowed to bring anything. If Granny invited you over for dinner, that meant she was making you dinner. That she was able to feed a small town from her tiny kitchen is nothing short of a loaves and fish sort of miracle.

Outside of immediate family, there were rarely the same people at a meal from one Sunday to the next. My grandmother welcomed everyone to her table no matter who they were or where they came from. And once you sat down at her table you were family. For life. 

The newfound family members she welcomed to dine at her table came from across the country and around the world. If you were a Nazarene passing through Nashville anytime between the 1970s and the turn of the millennium you almost certainly had at least one meal at Rosemary’s table. She loved having family and friends over and she loved to cook, but she also loved to hear stories, meet new people, and give those without anywhere else to go a place to call home. She was a one woman boarding house, but more than that she was the incarnated love of God welcoming everyone to the table.

I have to think part of her love for table fellowship overlapped with her love for travel. While her health allowed, she travelled everywhere she could, from Europe and South America, to the Middle East and the Canadian Rockies and everywhere else in between. As much as she was driven by her insatiable curiosity, I’m convinced Granny loved to travel, in no small part, because it allowed her to fulfill her other great love: shopping. It was in this nexus of travel and shopping that I learned the world was not quite what I thought it was. You see, one place we travelled to quite often was Atlanta to see family. On the way, my mom and grandmother made sure to stop at every single outlet mall and visit every single store between Nashville and the greater Atlanta area. So, one day when my Uncle Steve called and told me he was picking me to go down to a Braves game that started in a mere 4 hours, I panicked, thinking we would surely miss the game because Atlanta was at least 7 or 8 hours away from Nashville. He simply laughed and said, “Son, it only takes you that long to get to Atlanta because your mom and grandmother stop every 5 minutes to go shopping.

My grandmother’s love of travel and shopping was something she shared with my grandfather. On a shelf in the living room of her home on McDonald Drive there was a picture of the two of them sitting next to each on a tour bus as they were headed off on one of their many adventures. Now that they are finally reunited, I like to imagine them back on a tour bus together as my grandfather shows her around heaven.

I imagine her disappointment when my grandfather has to tell her there are no outlet malls in heaven, but I imagine her smile when he takes her to the heavenly gardens where she can tend to endless rows of rose bushes for all eternity. And over there, he tells her, are heaven’s kitchens and Rosemary, I’m so glad you’re finally here because they really need someone to teach them how to make cornbread. And over there are the heavenly ballroom where the angels dance on floors made of clouds, but of course we don’t go in there. We’re Nazarenes.

It’s at this point I imagine her looking over at him with that look that only Granny could give and saying “Now, Lewis, you need to listen up buster. These things there are all fine and good, but I want to see Jesus.”

And I can only begin to imagine the look on my grandmother’s face the moment she finally meets the One she longed for all of her days. 

Christ was the questionable center of my grandmother’s life. More than my grandfather – and she really loved my grandfather. More than family – and she would do anything for her family. More even than cornbread and fried chicken.

My grandmother loved Jesus.

She was a devoted follower of Christ, an entirely sanctified believer, the last of a generation of aisle running, camp meeting holding, holiness revival Nazarenes. And while she remained faithful to many of the rules my generation would now consider legalistic, she never imposed her legalism on us, nor was it ever really legalism to begin with. Her discipline was a sign of her devotion to Christ, of her unwavering commitment to him and him alone. So, she didn’t mind if we went to the movies, or tried to dance, or played card games. But she was clear about one thing: she would disown me if I ever married a Yankee. Thankfully, she came around on that particular part of her holiness code.

My grandmother’s faith, her life of holiness wasn’t found in what she didn’t do or who she avoided, but in what she did and who she welcomed, by how she incarcerated the love of God to everyone she met. 

Her holiness was found in every glass of tea she poured, every conversation held over dinner, every door she opened to a stranger, every bit of beauty and love that she brought into the world.

Her faith was the embodiment of Matthew 25, the incarnation of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, found not in legalism, withdrawal, or theological battles, but in welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink, caring for anyone and everyone who came her way.

Rosemary’s table wasn’t just southern hospitality. It was an act of faith. An expression of her deep love for Christ through which she abundantly blessed others in the same way God had abundantly blessed her.

Rosemary’s table was holiness on a plate.

So Granny, as you stand before your savior as he bids you come and find your seat at the table of God that has been prepared for you since the creation of the world, do so knowing you have left behind a rich and holy legacy of teachers and preachers, puppeteers and cooks, doctors and nurses and caregivers of every kind who will do our best to share the love and hospitality of Christ with the same grace, extravagance and humility you taught us to do.

So enjoy your reward for a life well lived, teach those heavenly yankees how to make a proper batch of cornbread, and tell Grandpa we all said hello.