An Opening Note
I almost missed it. I had seen hundreds of book titles at my grandfather’s house, reviewing what titles I may want to take after his death earlier this year. The title didn’t stand out, nearly invisible amid the Clive Cussler and Ken Follett novels next to my grandfather’s armchair. Something inside said I should not hurry this process, knowing I might miss a treasure. Instead of passing over the hunter green spine with its faded gold lettering, I took it from the stack, expecting to return it to its original place, another volume for the estate sale. I opened the cover and saw this note from my great-grandmother, written to my great-grandfather at Christmas 1944.
I turned the inside cover to the title page, Literary England: Photographs and my Anglophile senses began firing. The title and the note were reason enough to take this book with me. I respect any man who loves books and wants to explore England. The fact that that man is my great-grandfather intrigues me all the more. Roy Craw died in 1952, 8 years after his wife, Ethel, gave him Literary England, and 26 years before I was born.
The book itself has taken a journey. Ten years after Roy opened this gift on Christmas Day 1944, my great-grandmother gave it to another friend, Betty (possibly my great-aunt) on Christmas 1954, two years after Roy passed. Somehow Literary England left Betty’s possession and returned to my grandfather’s home. It probably sat on a bookshelf in obscurity for decades until I took a closer look in early March 2016. Some books go underground for years, gently whispering from their shelves for a new companion. Here was a clue that stirred a longing within.
Regardless of one’s age, sons and daughters long to know their origins, to feel a tangible connection to fathers and mothers of generations past. A letter, a note, a book, a photograph can activate that longing though it lay dormant for years. While I’ve leafed through Grampa Craw’s Literary England, my mother, Roy and Ethel’s granddaughter, has been scanning newly discovered family photographs. Throughout Lent, our family has received dozens of iconic photographs that most of us have never seen. It’s equal parts wonderful and disorienting to view a photograph of your young great-grandfather at an age younger than my present age of 37.
Before this year, the most I knew about Grampa Craw was the year of his death, 1952. He died when my mother was 3. Yet the letters, writings, photographs, and possessions of this man survive, a testimony of his enduring, steadfast faith in Christ and devotion to his family. I cannot know my great-grandfather in a personal way in this life. But the promise of Easter gives me the sure and steadfast hope that I will know and enjoy him along with all the saints in the Day of the Resurrection.
Some may find it strange to write a letter to ancestors. I don’t. I believe in the communion of saints. Cf. The Apostles’ Creed. Because I believe in the communion of saints and the resurrection of the dead, I’ve written the following letter to my great-grandfather, Roy Craw.
An Eastertide Greeting To My Great-Grandfather, Roy Craw, A Man Who Loved Books and England
The Lord is risen, Grampa Craw! And I know what your response must be–He is risen indeed. But when you say indeed to that statement, well, it carries a bit more gravity. You are present with the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord. Though your body fell asleep some 74 years ago, your soul enjoys that heavenly Easter that is the presence of God. I’m enjoying really good days here, but I’m jealous of you.
I really needed a joyful Easter, too. Lent seemed especially long this year, mostly because we began mourning Daddy Joe’s passing almost a month before Ash Wednesday. I still miss him, but know he’s enjoying that eternal Easter joy with all of you. I know you all called him ‘Jody’ but he was always Daddy Joe to me. We found this picture of you both. What did you think of him when he began dating Nan? Even the most honorable young man still needs a good grilling. Could you see back then that they had the stuff to be married for 70 years? These are the questions I want to ask you one day.
I must say that it surprises me that I’ve taken an interest in you. Literary England may have just been another Christmas gift from Gran, but to me, it was the first trace of who you are and what you love. I love books and England, too. That alone made me want to know you more. Literary England now rests in a featured place of my home, not conspicuously hidden like it was on Jody’s shelves.
My mom, Linda, showed me a box of all your reading notes. Now I’m very interested. And I’m sure you’re smiling because your granddaughter has traces of Gran in her, our family curator and archivalist. It’s been a joy to read the letters you wrote to Gran. We’re tracing your life through these letters and photographs thanks to Lindy.
From someone who was a traveling auditor, I suppose it’s not surprising that you a) read a great deal and b) took exacting notes of your readings. Strange for me to learn of your commonplace book notes on Easter weekend though. I had taken a break from Easter sermon prep last Saturday morning to arrange a template for my own reading notes. I didn’t know about your box of notes until Easter Monday. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, even though that family tree separates us by two generations.
We’re all reaching back into the past, Grampa Craw, recovering these stories and photographs, tracing every clue that illuminates the lives of our fathers and mothers. But you and I both know there’s a limit to that reach in the past. That’s why I’m writing this greeting at the beginning of Eastertide. I’ve decided to reach forward into the limitless future that is the eternity of God. It’s still beyond my grasp, I see through a glass darkly, but one day I won’t. It’s Eastertide here, the season when I train my heart and mind to see all things in light of Jesus’ resurrection, which ensures the Great Resurrection Day to come.
I know that one day I will fall asleep in Christ, too, as it’s appointed to all sons and daughters to die in the body. It’s not a grim or fearful thought for me; after all, Christ has swallowed up death in victory. You and I both have inherited the hope of resurrection from the dead. And Life after Life after Death (to quote that great Englishman, N.T. Wright, who you would love), fills my imagination about all the possibilities in God’s new creation.
When God makes his creation new and we find ourselves glorified in resurrection bodies, there are endless things I want to enjoy in God’s new world. I’d love to experience England with you. If I have the theology of resurrected bodies correct–bodies that can pass through space and time as the risen Jesus once did–well, getting there together won’t be difficult. I’d love to see the English places that inspired you. Did Dickens make you want to explore London? A wonderful city, but it will be even more wonderful after God makes it new. Did Wordsworth inspire you to visit Wales and Tintern Abbey? I have these questions, you see.
I’d love to walk the hills descending to Canterbury with you. I’ve yet to read Chaucer, but I loved Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. But more than anything, I’d love to visit that place with you that inspired and shaped my pilgrimage of faith in this life. Then I’d love to head north to walk through the northern dales of Yorkshire. I’ve only walked through Swaledale a few times, but if you’re a man who loves books and England, we’re going to enjoy those hills and streams immensely. When Isaiah said that the wolf will lie down with the lamb in God’s peaceable kingdom, I think of Swaledale.
How wonderful it will be to enjoy God’s new creation with you. I can imagine sitting down with Earl Grey tea after long walks in the Yorkshire dales. Not everything from the old creation will endure in the new creation, but when it comes to Earl Grey tea, well, I’m confident. It’s strange to think that we’ll have all the time in the world to enjoy these things because time will have ceased to be.
I cannot fathom eternity and new creation outside of time. But I do not write these things because I’m interested in the logical puzzle; I write because I long for God’s new world where I will be gathered with my fathers and mothers in eternal worship of the Lord who redeemed us. And I’m sure that world will be far greater than anything I can imagine.
A blessed Eastertide from this side, Grampa Craw. I’m going to resume reading Martin Thornton now, a brilliant and godly Englishman who wrote great books, books that inspire me to be a better priest and father. As I close, know that I continue sojourning here to that eternal City where with all our family and all the saints we will worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forevermore.
Lovingly (I recently learned this charming closing phrase from your letters),