An unexpected blessing – and a sadness

Last night (at time of writing) I arrived home from my vacation with my wife. It was much needed and we had a fantastic time (I may write about some moments from it in another missive – I might not). While we were away my brother and parents had borrowed our house for their own time off. Upon our return I discovered they had left in my study a box full of books.

These were books I’d been expecting, but had in all honesty forgotten about.

These were my Grandfather’s.

I grew up as the son of a vicar, and also as the grandson of a vicar; my mum’s dad, the Reverend Canon John Short.

What could I say about Grandad? An awful lot. But at his core, he was the most faithful godly man I’ve ever been blessed to know and it would be hard to overstate the impact he had on me as I was growing up; both by his example, and by his daily prayers for myself, my siblings, all my cousins, and many others. He was a loving father, a beloved grandfather, and a man filled with grace who impacted the lives of all who met him. Perhaps I’m biased, but he was a man of many stories who somehow found it impossible to travel anywhere without bumping into someone he knew, whether he was in London, up Mount Snowden or in a random post-office out in the back of beyond. In 1987 he had brain-stem viral encephalitis. My Grandma tells me that while he was in hospital the doctors were concerned he would never regain consciousness, and if he did he would never walk again and would possibly not be able to speak. My Grandparents were well plugged into various prayer support networks and many Christians from Churches across London and indeed the world heard that John needed prayers. And prayed they did.

The new scans of his brain surprised the doctors – some of the damage had been reversed! (Something that doesn’t happen – especially not in the 1980s). Grandad would make a good recovery, but his mobility was affected. For many years he walked on crutches, and then became increasingly reliant on a wheelchair. (One of my earlier memories, sometime before I was four because we moved to Deven when I turned four, is of building a tower with wooden bricks in the living room and of Grandad teasing me by playfully knocking it over with his walking stick. I would build it, he would knock it down, would build it, he would knock it down…) Despite his newfound disability, Grandad resisted the temptation to become bitter. He trusted God in all things and had confidence that when he will be resurrected on the last day with all of God’s children, he will once again be able to walk and run to the glory of God in the new creation.

One of the many moments in my life where he impacted me occured when we were staying at my grandparent’s house. I would sleep in Grandad’s study on a camp bed, surrounded by his books which filled the large bookcases lining each of the walls. If I couldn’t sleep, or had woken up early, I began to look at these books to see what Grandad was interested in. One time, when I was maybe ten, I picked up his copy of ‘The Message’ Bible and began to read at the dining table as I waited for people to come down for breakfast. Grandad came down with his Bible to read for a while before breakfast and, upon discovering I was reading the Bible, asked what I was reading. I told him I was reading the Gospel of Luke. We sat quietly at the table, each reading Luke from our own Bibles. After a while, Grandad asked me: so what do you think of what you’ve been reading? Does anything stand out?

And I remember very clearly saying that I was surprised by Jesus.

He asked me: why?

I responded that I didn’t know that Jesus was such a good teacher! I’m reading what he says and he tells a story and it makes sense. But when we’re in Church we hear Jesus speak and then someone else talks about it and I get confused about it and lose interest.

My Grandad chuckled and smiled, “Well I think Jesus is the best teacher. All we can ever do is try and help point people back to him and hope that what seems clear and obvious to us will also make sense to them.”

This sense of Jesus as ‘the best teacher’ has never left me, and even with all of my theological studies since I find it not only helpful but essential to remember that ultimately Jesus is my teacher – I learn from him, rather than trying to shape him to fit into my own understanding.

I remember on another occasion he asked me what I’d found of interest. I’d looked through a cabinet of books in the dining room and started reading the Case against Christ: some statements for the defence by John Young. Although I suspect that it was a book he would have liked to keep for reference because of its clear and helpful arguments about the trustworthiness of the Bible’s claims about Jesus, he told me that if I was interested in it I should keep it and read it.

Perhaps these conversations are part of why my birthday presents turned from toys to books on faith and theology. When I was confirmed and received my first Eucharist on June 18th 2006, aged thirteen, he and my Grandma gave me a copy of John Stott’s Basic Christianity with the message: ‘We hope this book will keep you along the Christian pathway throughout your life.’

For Christmas that year they gave me John Stott’s Through the Bible, Through the Year with a note saying: We hope that you will enjoy this John Stott book as we think you enjoy Basic Christianity. ‘This one is for doing daily reading, but isn’t dated so you can read it when you like. Mum’s having one too so you can exchange thoughts.’ I’ve used this for a couple of different years – first in 2007, then again for some of 2011 and again for a whole year starting in September of 2014.

For my sixteenth birthday they gave me In Understanding Be Men: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine by TC Hammond, with a post it note inside:

1 Corinthians 14:20

When I turned eighteen, and while I’d been studying philosophy and ethics at A-Level, they gave me both the IVP New Bible Dictionary and New Bible Commentary as books “which will add to your library for life”. These included the Bible verse 2 Timothy 3: 14-17 :

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In 2012 I was in my second year of my BA in Theology at the London School of Theology and they gave me Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.

“Samuel: you’ll find some hefty theology here! We thought that Calvin would give you better counsel than many of his contemporary successors would. With our love, Grandma and Grandad.”

Whenever I’d see Grandad or speak on the phone he would ask how my studies were going, what I was reading and thinking about. As God drew me along the path towards theology, and then onto my sense of vocation ministry within the Church of England, Grandad was always there supporting me and praying for me.

While I was studying at the London School of Theology I would often have essays to complete during the Christmas vacation, and as such I’d spend new year at home looking after the cats, playing xbox, and working on my essays rather than going with the rest of my family to see Grandma and Grandad for New Year. Christmas of 2013 was a difficult one. My eyes had been playing up and I had several trips to the hospital for tests (more on this in a Note from the Pilgrim Path another time). In between those trips and procrastination amplified by binge-watching tv boxsets as a coping mechanism, I wrote Is Paul’s attitude to The Law in Romans different from that found in Deuteronomy? for one of the more heavily weighted modules in my final year; ‘the Bible and the People of God’. While I was working on that essay Grandad became unwell and went to hospital with an infection. He remained there for a while and I returned to the London School of Theology. A few weeks later he was improving and relocated from hospital to a place called Burswood, a wonderful christian place which Grandma and Grandad had both been to for a couple of holidays as staff could help with Grandad and his wheelchair and so on. They also do respite care with medical staff available.

Grandad was improving and doing well. I’d received my grade back for this essay – first class! I phoned Grandma and asked her to let Grandad know. My family planned to travel down and spend the day with him and Grandma together. Dad and my siblings met me at the train station to give me a lift. I knew immediately from Dad’s face that something was up. He told me that Grandad had taken a sudden turn for the worse. This would likely be the last time we would see him.

The next few hours were something of a blur. Lots of conversations between Grandma, Mum and her brother and sister; first by phone, then in person as one by one my extended family made the journey over and joined us. Grandad was sleeping, we didn’t get a chance to speak with him. But we gathered around him and read scriptures over him, we prayed for him and sang a couple of his favourite hymns. It was hard to know how much he could tell was going on, but when I was talking to him and saying that I would look forward to the day when ‘the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable’ (1 Corinthians 15:52) and be with him on the last day as we see Jesus face to face he squeezed my hand gently.

I remember distinctly having a strangely powerful sense of peace, that Grandad was going to be okay and that rather than being only sad it was a time to support my family and cousins. We spoke together, shared memories and talked about how faith helps – or might help – in these situations. We prayed together and even laughed together. It was an oddly good experience. Some point during that evening Grandma spoke to me and told me how proud he had been when she told him about my essay. Later I would talk to Dad about this and ask how he found the balance of being a vicar supporting his family in a moment of grieving and saying goodbye, as well as asking how he was doing.

Grandad didn’t die that night. We all left having said our goodbyes to him and one another and went our separate ways. Mum and my aunt and uncle each took turns being with him and Grandma until he passed peacefully a few days later. Those few days between having said goodbye and waiting to hear that he had actually died were peculiar, impossible to describe unless you’ve also had a similar experience.

When I heard the news I felt a sense of relief mingled with sadness. A short while later I went to dinner – at the London School of Theology our meals were all catered for and everyone ate together in the hall – and sat with Desmond; a larger than life pentecostal pastor. He asked me why I was looking down. I began to tell him, and explained what had happened. To my complete and utter bemusement, he began to laugh. A booming and joyful laugh. “Oh Sammy! He was blessed! All those years of faithful ministry serving the Lord, preaching the Gospel, and raising his family. How many of you are there? Fifteen or so? And all of you share in the faith? And you were there to sing hymns over him, to read scripture over him, to pray for him as he departs to be with our Lord? He was blessed, I tell you! Oh, that I would find myself in that situation when I die! Aha! How wonderful!”

Grief is never easy.

Even writing these words brings tears to the corner of my eyes and a lump in my throat. Yet Desmond was right. John Short is with his Lord, and that’s something to be glad of even as we grieve our loss of his company with us. I was numb to my studies until after the funeral, and the funeral itself was to have a significant impact on my life.

The previous summer I’d had a placement opportunity with two different vicars in my dad’s deanery – a group of local churches that support one another – and during those weeks I felt alive and like life was somehow good. There was an intangible sense of rightness about everything. Throughout my time studying theology various people had asked the age old question “Do you think you’ll become a vicar then?”, to which my answer had always been a firm “No”. In part, because I didn’t like the expectation that I would grow up to copy my Dad – I wanted to be my own man, living my own life.

However living my own life had led me to living my own faith and in the week or so following the Easter of 2013 I found myself emailing the Bishop’s Officer for Ordinands and Initial Training, saying: “I eagerly desire to seek God’s will for my life and to serve him and my fellow Christians as best as I can.” At that point I wasn’t deadset on training for ordained ministry, but I felt I had to explore it – perhaps more in the hopes that God would say “no” more than anything else. And so I embarked on a process of “thinking about what the next step in the future is and… praying for God’s guidance and looking into different options”.

This provides something of a sketch of where my heart and mind was at during that year before Grandad died. The funeral was to be a large and joyful occasion of our family’s shared hope in the Gospel which Grandad had faithfully committed his life to. It was important to my Grandma that those members of the family who wanted to contribute to the funeral should have the opportunity to. This included some of my (very talented) cousins playing in the band for the hymns in the service at church, which was followed by a smaller service led by my Dad at the crematorium; into which all the men in the family, including my brother and I, carried the coffin. I was asked if I would be willing to do the prayers with my cousin Jo during the Church service. She would pray for Grandad and his family, while I was asked to open with some more theologically focused prayers.

We thank you Lord that you sent your Son to lift us up into your eternal love, and today we thank you for the life of your faithful servant John. All lives are precious in your sight Lord, but we thank you in particular for the faithfulness you demonstrated to Grandad in his life and for the work that you called him to as a chosen instrument for the Gospel. …
Ministry is a tough calling but we thank you that your grace was sufficient for Grandad and that through his time at each of these places you used him to bless and encourage many people from all different walks of life. …
We thank you that through his life and example in ministry we and many others encountered your eternal love for your people and we ask that we too may serve you as well as Grandad served you.

A short extract from those prayers.

As a Clergyman, Grandad’s funeral was attended by many of the clergy who had known him at various points in his ministry. Following the service there were refreshments, tea and biscuits. During that time I mingled with family and with older strangers who would remark that they hadn’t seen me since I was yea-high. There were however several people who made a point of seeking me out to thank me for the prayers, and to say that Grandad would have been proud of me. Amongst these people were five or six clergy – some retired, some still serving – who came up to me quite separately and asked if I’d considered training for ordination?

It would be wrong to say that that’s why I became a priest, but it was certainly a weighty and undeniable part of the puzzle.

The night before the funeral, my family were staying with Grandma and she was talking about the comfort she had from having Grandad’s Bible which he had annotated. There’s a passage which was important to the two of them and which was going to be read at the funeral and explained during the sermon. It was Habbakuk 3.17-19.

Grandad had written his own summary of verse 17,

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,”

as “whatever happens,” verses 18-19 follow: “yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s, he makes me tread on my high places.” (emphasis his).

My Grandma found this a comfort for “whatever happens” included his health failing, and his death and ‘yet I will rejoice in the Lord’. Grandma happened to mention that there were a few other comments he had written in the margins, and verses he had underlined, which she found helpful to read. It was then that I realised that although Grandad is gone, he had left behind some insights in his Bible. With Grandma’s permission I spent the rest of that evening into the early hours of the morning going through every single page of his Bible, and documenting every verse or phrase he had underlined, every note written in the margins, and the pages which he had bookmarked.

For the next couple of years I would refer to these notes from time to time, especially when preparing sermons; I’d wonder if Grandad had any ‘advice’ for me. But then in 2018 Grandma stayed with my parents for Christmas and we saw them for my Mum’s birthday meal a few days before. At one point in the evening, Grandma drew me to one side and told me that although she’s really valued reading Grandad’s Bible each day she felt that now she would like me to take it and look after it.

It sits on the shelf next to my computer monitor and is the most precious book I own, because it offers me a kind of living memory of my Grandad that I can take with me as I follow in both his and my father’s footsteps in priestly ministry.

We’d just returned home from holiday. I unlocked the door and went to put some things in my study before fetching more luggage from the car. And there, sitting on a chair, was a box full of books. I opened it briefly and realised they were Grandad’s books. Books I’d been expecting, but had forgotten about. “Ooo!” I said, “Linnea, they’ve left those books for me!”

We continued to unpack the car and sort the house out. It wasn’t until later in the evening that I decided I’d have a brief look at which books were there. There were about thirty when lined up on the window sill. I picked one up and began to leaf through it when I suddenly realised something.

Grandad had underlined a sentence.

I flicked through.

More annotations.

Lines. Both: exclamation and question marks. “Excellent,” “Good,” and other brief comments in the margins, as well as when and where he got or was given the book written neatly inside the front cover.

It had never occurred to me that Grandad might have marked up his books as he had done with his Bible. Suddenly I have in my study not just his annotations on passages of Scripture, but also on doctrine, ethics, and other topics of theology. I was already looking forward to having a chance to delve into these books; to catch a few more glimpses of my Grandad in them is truly an unexpected blessing.

My wife came into my study to find me holding one of the books, smiling even as tears trickled down my cheek. Even now, writing this piece, the bittersweet taste of sadness mingled with blessings ebbs and flows within me.

And so, grateful for the influence he has been on my life and for this most recent of God’s blessings for me, I leave you with these words from Habbakuk as amended by my Grandad – the Reverend Canon John Short.

With every blessing,
Samuel S. Thorp

Husband | Priest | Wanderer

This blog is posted on the seventh anniversary of Grandad’s funeral.
It first appeared as one of my “Notes from the Pilgrim Path” newsletter pieces back in September 2020. For more like this sign up here.

“Notes from the Pilgrim Path” is Samuel’s regular newsletter emailed directly to you.
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