A few years ago my Grandpa Elam passed away. Grandpa was an interesting and inspiring guy. First off, he wasn’t a blood relative. He took my dad in when he was twelve. Dad had been bounced around a lot after the death of his mom when he was two. His dad, my biological grandfather, couldn’t handle the loss and fell headlong back into his alcoholism. They were a bunch of poor folks in east Texas and although dad’s grandma tried to make a home for him, it was just too much for her. Reverend Albert “Slick” Elam took my pop in and raised him from there.
Slick, as you might tell from the nickname, already had a colorful history. Before he found Jesus he ran bootleg liquor in the central Texas area in the back of a black ’38 Dodge. He gave his life to Jesus and decided he should probably find a new profession. He entered the ministry.
He kept the Dodge for awhile but instead of liquor he started carrying coats and blankets of various sizes. When he came upon needy folks, of any color, especially kids, he’d pull one of those woolen treasures out of the trunk and bless those people with the gift of warmth. Sometimes, like with dad, he took them in. He and his wife couldn’t have kids of their own so they kind of adopted everyone.
I still remember sitting in all those old church pews listening to grandpa preach, but I think his best sermons were the ones that didn’t take place in church, like carrying coats in the back of the Dodge. Maybe it was because he was always bi-vocational. Grandpa ran the Texas House of Representatives print shop for years. He preached a lot of sermons by actions, even leading one famous Texas politician to faith in Jesus. He lived so many sermons they made him Chaplain of the House. I have the honorary gavels that were given to him. That’s how he preached, by action. Grandpa didn’t preach a sermon to me that I remember at 9 years old about facing my fears, instead he took me on the Texas Cyclone roller coaster, nervous as I was. It wasn’t his sermons on faith and following God wherever He led that taught me those things, it was the way he just followed. If a church called him, he prayed and he went, no matter how small or large, urban or rural. If he met someone that led him into a circle of need and he wasn’t currently pastoring, he started a church. If he was currently pastoring, he’d send someone he had raised up in leadership to start the church. He didn’t just preach on family, he created one out of love and whole cloth. Our holidays at his house were constantly made up of a huge group of people, brothers and sisters, but all with different biological parents; all his kids and grandkids.
That’s how he preached. Words, sure, but actions first. Like Francis of Assisi taught us, he preached the Gospel constantly and used words when necessary.
Grandpa wanted to cross the river to Heaven a lot earlier than he actually did. Well into his seventies, though retired, he was still pouring himself into new disciples and new church plants. Every time he would passionately pursue the work thinking this would be the one, the final work, the swan song, and he could cross the river to see his beloved Emma who left him early after losing her fight with breast cancer. But grandpa didn’t have an easy death. His crossing was hard.
He was ill for awhile and lingered under hospice care in his house, cared for by his last family that he had taken in and given his name. He was tired and sick and suffering. I’ll never forget the pain on my dad’s face as he came home from seeing him. My aunt, the first child he actually adopted, was terribly distraught. She asked me, the third generation preacher in the house, why God “wouldn’t just take him?” After all, she reasoned, he had certainly been a good and faithful servant. I was at a loss. Facing the grief of someone losing a parent is dumbfounding. I didn’t know this then, but there are no good answers to that grief.
……Then the words came to me, as if I were actually thinking them, but oh, they were certainly a gift.
“He couldn’t leave us, yet,” I repeated the words to her that appeared in my head. “His struggle and his faith throughout is his last sermon to us. How do we face death?” We were both crying then because the truth was so obvious and painful, but glorious. No one can preach a sermon on how to face death, it must be shown. It was a sermon delivered in love, summed up in a final struggle. It was his last and greatest.