Note: The following is the funeral message for my grandfather, delivered on June 19, 2018, in Leitchfield, Kentucky.
One of the more welcome effects of loss is nostalgia. For me these past few days, that has looked like shuffling through my own mental database of memories involving the man the world knew as Hubert Gene Humphrey, but I knew simply as Dad-Dad. In the same way that one might flip through an old photo album—or for the teenagers present, scroll through an Instagram feed—I’ve been going one by one through the snapshots of Dad-Dad that are stored away in my mind, revisiting the images from my past that are marked by his presence.
Some of those snapshots are faded and blurry, and I can just barely make them out; others are clear and vibrant, high resolution memories seared forever into my brain. Some are as recent as a few months ago; others date back three decades. Some are set in Little Rock, others in Brentwood, still others in Falls of Rough, and plenty more in places too numerous to mention. Some are intimate moments, sparsely populated; others are crowded occasions, full of colorful characters—namely, younger and better-looking versions of many of you! Some of the scenes represent significant life events such as graduations, weddings, or funerals; others are just ordinary, mundane moments such as evenings on the lake, car rides listening to the Cathedrals, or eating Mom-Mom’s lasagna around the table. The images are all different, all unique in their own special ways.
And yet as I have worked my way through these memories, there has been one curious commonality that I can’t help but notice. Although I don’t know what your memories look like, my mental photographs that involve Dad-Dad seem to share one consistent feature: he’s almost always at the edge of the frame. Or in the background. Or just slightly out of focus.
Sure, there are plenty of actual pictures—physical photographs taken with physical cameras—that feature Dad-Dad front and center in all of his tall, dark, and handsome charm. But for some reason, in the snapshots captured in my memory, it’s almost as if he’s made it into the picture purely by accident. As if he had no clue there was even a picture being taken at all. He’s off to the side, cranking the ice cream maker while everyone else stuffs their faces. He’s quietly driving the boat while everyone else has a blast swimming and riding the tube. He’s patiently cooking up breakfast while everyone else is busy chatting or playing around the house.
Looking back at these scenes stored in my memory, I’m struck by how often Dad-Dad appears as a secondary character, taking on a supporting role. He’s not making a fuss about himself. He’s not basking in the spotlight. Instead, he’s busy serving others, catering to what everyone else wants.
In one sense, I find this incredibly frustrating, Now, more than ever, I want to be able to summon memories in which Dad-Dad takes center stage. In his physical absence, I don’t want to have to chase down an elusive figure who fades into the background every chance he gets.
But in another sense, I find great delight in knowing that my grandfather was content to occupy secondary spaces for the sake of others. In a meaningful and memorable way, Dad-Dad’s consistent position at the edge of the imaginary frame has given me a living, breathing example of what humility and godliness look like. He embodied what the Apostle Paul wrote about in Philippians 2:3-4:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
It is a noble and praiseworthy thing to be known as someone who counts other people as significant—more significant, in fact, than yourself. And this is exactly what Dad-Dad did.
From my vantage point, his life was one prolonged demonstration of what it means to look to the interests of others. It would simply be impossible to calculate the sheer volume of his generosity as a husband, a father, a grandfather, an employee, a neighbor, a church member, a friend. If nothing else, just consider the number of ceremonies and performances and sporting events he sat through with a smile on his face for his kids and grandkids. The mere thought of it makes my rear-end hurt! But he was always there. Regardless of how you knew him, you can bet that he took interest in your interests, he found joy in your joy, he felt sorrow over your sorrows. Which is to say that he truly cared about you.
So as much as I may wish that Dad-Dad wasn’t consistently at the edge of the frame in my mental pictures of him, I realize that it was a deliberate placement on his part. He chose to sit off to the side, he sought out the peripheral position, and he did it for the rest of us. So that we could be at the heart of the action. So that we could be on the receiving end of service, celebration, and love.
It’s precisely here that we begin to see Dad-Dad’s humility for what it really was—not just a commendable character trait of an admirable man, but much more than that, a vivid reflection of the purest manifestation of selflessness, sacrifice, and submission the world has known.
Earlier I read from Philippians 2 and the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to look to the interests of others. But immediately following those verses, he goes on to offer this explanation:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
In a room like this, there are bound to be a great number of opinions and beliefs about Jesus—and that’s okay. I’m not here to argue with anyone or pronounce the final word on weighty spiritual matters that deserve honest investigation and careful scrutiny. But I will ask you to consider this one question: Based on the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus Christ, what is it that stands out to you about him? To be sure, there are many who admire his teaching ability or his ethical clarity or his visionary leadership. But when I read what the Bible has to say about Jesus, what I see more than anything else is radical, self-denying love. In fact, when I encounter Jesus in the Scriptures, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m chasing an elusive, edge-of-the-frame sort of guy. A person who excels at elevating the significance of others while happily letting go of any sense of significance for himself.
According to the Bible, Jesus had existed for all of eternity in such heavenly glory that our minds can’t even imagine it. And yet, he voluntarily left it behind. He entered the created world, he assumed the nature of a human, he was born into a poor, insignificant family, he worked in obscurity as a carpenter, he humbly obeyed the will of his heavenly Father, he embraced the people society had rejected, he spent his energy to bring hope into the lives of others, he literally and figuratively washed the feet of those he shared life with, and ultimately he embraced an unjust execution otherwise reserved for anarchists and criminals.
And why did he do all of these things? What drove him to choose a life—and death—of such lowliness? The answer, in large part, is sitting in this room. He did it for us. He did it for those who were lost and far from God. He did it for people in need of redemption.
So when the Apostle Paul seeks to call forth humility and selflessness from his readers, it’s only natural that he would point squarely at Jesus Christ and say, “There’s your target. That’s the gold standard.”
And when we look at the life of Dad-Dad, a man who loved Jesus, trusted in Jesus, and lived for Jesus, it should come as no surprise that we find it to be a life reflective of Jesus. A life marked by deference toward others. A life of self-giving love. Insofar as Dad-Dad taught us what it means to be humble, he showed us what Jesus Christ is like.
That in and of itself is enough to make us count our blessings for the privilege of having this man in our lives. It is enough to infuse our deep sense of present grief with an even deeper sense of persistent gratitude. But there’s one more thing that is simply too good to be left unsaid.
After describing the downward trajectory of Jesus to the point of death on a cross, the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2 immediately proceeds to say:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
For Jesus, the path of humility was rewarded with exaltation. Yes, Jesus prioritized the interests and needs of others in a life of meekness. Yes, his descent took him ultimately into the grave. But God did not leave him there. As the Scriptures tell us, God unleashed the full force of his power to raise Jesus from the grave and overthrow the tyranny of death. The one who had given up everything for the sake of the world was ultimately victorious over all his oppressors and lifted up to a place of unparalleled glory.
And it’s in that victory—in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ—that the story of Dad-Dad’s own humility and generosity finds its glorious fulfillment. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). He said, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Jesus couldn’t be held by death, and neither can anyone who trusts in him. Including Dad-Dad.
This man who followed the way of Jesus in giving himself to others is now following the way of Jesus in the experience of victory, exaltation, and new life. He is learning first-hand what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12), and what the New Testament writer James meant when he said, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). Whatever Dad-Dad gave up in devoting his life to the rest of us, God has already more than restored. Those of us gathered here to grieve and to mourn can find comfort in this fact. Jesus’ story didn’t end in the grave, and neither has Dad-Dad’s.
All of this gives me a new perspective on those images of Dad-Dad stored away in my memory. Sure, he may be in the background or out of focus in many of those pictures. But that’s right where he wanted to be. And, if we can learn anything from his example, that’s right where we should be, as well. It’s only at the edge of the frame that we can find ourselves at the center of God’s eternal favor.
I can only speak for myself here, but reflecting on the life of Dad-Dad makes me more than ever want to follow in his footsteps, to give my life liberally for the benefit of others. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with ambition or success or accomplishment or self-expression. But if I have to go all-in, I want to go all-in on love. I want to be remembered for not getting wrapped up in how I’m going to be remembered.
If Dad-Dad were sitting here right now, I’m quite certain he’d be eager for us all to stop making such a fuss about him so he could go grab a spoon to help serve us lunch. Or go catch up with some of the folks he hadn’t seen for awhile. Or go find a great-grandkid to plop on his lap, continuing to teach the next generation of Humphreys how a horse eats corn. Simply put, if Dad-Dad were here, he’d want to be loving on us. But although he’s not here, we are. And it is now up to us to love on one another. To love on our families. To love on our neighbors. To love on those who are different from us. To love on our enemies. To love on anyone and everyone who needs loved on.
As the heirs and heiresses of Dad-Dad’s legacy, I can’t think of anything more fitting. Nor can I think of anything more necessary. The world doesn’t need more people obsessed with getting ahead and being noticed and living for themselves. Instead, the world needs more people who are satisfied with cranking the ice cream. And driving the boat. And cooking the breakfast. And sitting in the stands. And watching the birds. And reading the Uncle Wiggly stories. And living like Jesus.
Dad-Dad has marked out the trail for us. It’s a trail that leads to humility in the service of others on its way to glory in the of reward of resurrection. And I believe the invitation before each of us today is to walk down that trail, following Dad-Dad as he followed Jesus. There’s plenty of room at the edge of the frame.