Patriarch — ˈpātrēˌärk (noun)
1. the male head of a family or tribe.
2. any of those biblical figures regarded as fathers of the human race, esp. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their forefathers, or the sons of Jacob.
This morning, my dad called me with the news that my grandpa, William “Bill” Dean (whom we referred to as “Gramps”), passed away in the presence of his wife and four remaining sons. I stayed calm and said, “I’m so sorry, Dad,” and managed to keep my composure. We have been waiting for Gramps to pass for days, and we all agreed that we would rather he slipped away than suffer through the pain that began last night. I even prayed this morning that God would quickly welcome him home.
But I didn’t expect the flood of emotions that overtook me after I hung up the phone. I haven’t stopped crying since.
I’m not crying because I’m uncertain of Gramps’ place in eternity. I told my wife a few days ago that his place in Heaven is the most secure of any other person I’ve known. I’m not crying because he was taken too early—he lived to the age of 92. I’m not crying because I feel sorry for the family, because we will all band together and help Grancie as she faces a future without him. We all knew this day was coming.
I am crying because I realized that, ultimately, I owe everything to him.
I OWE MY LIFE TO GRAMPS
I owe my very existence to the fact that he survived the “war to end all wars,” despite being shot on three separate occasions in three difference European countries as a paratrooper in the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion. The final injury left him 100% disabled, walking with a limp for the rest of his life. He returned to America, married his sweetheart, and fathered five sons, the middle of which is my father, Jerry Dean.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve told the story of how Gramps laid in the snow with a bullet in his arm, thousands of miles away from home, praying to God that he would help him survive the onslaught that was killing his fellow soldiers around him. He spoke the words, “Jesus, if you will allow me to live, I vow to do anything You ever ask me to do.”
The tank that was responsible for the slaughter somehow overlooked him, rolled away, and allowed him to make good on the promise that he made to God.
I OWE MY JOY TO GRAMPS
We owe the laughter that fills every family meeting to Gramps, who always had a story to tell, followed by the wheezing laugh that caused his shoulders to bounce and his tongue to hang ever-so-slightly out the side of his mouth. And you could be sure he’d laugh a lot harder at the story if he was the one telling it. Gramps loved to make people laugh.
Some of the cousins’ younger years were spent laughing (yet simultaneously dry-heaving), as Gramps pinned down our arms and placed his false teeth on our bare stomachs. Please take a moment to consider the severity of the emotional scarring this produced (I’m kidding—it’s still hilarious).
When he lived here in Bossier City, Gramps took me to McDonald’s when I was around seven-years-old. I was playing in the ball pit of the play ground when I stepped in something warm. I lifted my sock above the surface of the plastic balls, and smelled my suddenly-wet foot, realizing that my sock had absorbed the fluids that had recently evacuated the bladder of the girl beside me. I rushed out (sans socks) and hurriedly told Gramps, “We have to go.” He asked, “Why?” I pointed to the girl and said, “See that girl? I just stepped in her pee.” I don’t remember the story as well as Gramps, but I certainly remember how hard he laughed every single time he retold it. No one laughed quite like Gramps. There were several times he laughed so hard that I was concerned he might have a heart attack.
I often find myself focusing on the negatives in life, and am prone to mood swings and cynicism, but each time I left Gramps’ presence, I determined to remain positive, to trust in God, and rededicate myself not only to His work, but His peace. I can state without a doubt that his influence changed a part of my nature, or at least made me aware enough to do something about it.
Gramps loved being around people, and he loved to feel concern for anyone. He didn’t care about how much money you had, your social status, your skin color, or your past. He only cared that you had an encounter with God, and lived a life dedicated to Him. This is why Gramps somehow found a way to meet the people standing in lines beside, in front, or behind him wherever he went. He loved God, and He loved all of God’s children. His joy was infectious, and it will always be one of his defining characteristic.
I OWE MY LOVE OF TRUTH TO GRAMPS
The most important thing I owe to Gramps is the Truth to which he clung from his spiritual awakening as a young man until this morning.
Once home from the war, he heard of an ex-sailor whose family was concerned about him after he spoke in a language that he didn’t know as the Spirit of God moved on him. The family didn’t say anything nice about him, but instead told Gramps, “He is crazy. I will give you an example. His mother can prepare a good meal, and he will go to pray and fail to eat.” They didn’t understand the change in his life, and they certainly didn’t understand fasting a good meal.
They expressed concern about the church their son was attending, but the more they discussed it, the more Gramps became curious about his experience. He asked, “Where is this church located?” That next Sunday, he found himself sitting on the back row with his wife and infant son, where the demonstrative worship and atmosphere frightened him into thinking, “God, if you get me out of here, I’ll never be back.”
But then, as he recounted in his book, I Am a Survivor, “I remembered my vow on that snow-covered battlefield, so I went back.”
In the middle of the next service, he abruptly stood to his feet in the middle of the service and said to the startled preacher, “I would like to be baptized with the Holy Ghost!” God filled him with the Holy Ghost not long after, with Gramps speaking in a heavenly language as the Spirit of God gave the utterance.
Later, a stranger approached him in church and said, “God has sent me to talk to you tonight,” and badgered him until he allowed him to give him a Bible study, showing him in Acts 2:38, Acts 8:12, 16, 10:48, and 19:5 where the apostles baptized in the name of Jesus’.
He remembered, “I saw my need to be obedient, so with my sweet wife I was baptized in the wonderful name, which is above every name: Jesus.”
He moved to a city where he didn’t know a single person, but a small group was asking for a preacher. Local businessmen would not hire him because of his call to the ministry, and one grocer even told him, “I will never sell you anything on credit.” Puzzled, Gramps let him know that he had no intention of ever buying anything on credit, but the man responded, “Now you know, just in case.”
Gramps looked back on that memory and said, “I would like to call him back from the grave just long enough to let him see how those boys whom he was willing to let starve have been successful.”
They didn’t have much growing up, but all five of Bill and Mary Dean’s sons saw not only the sacrifices they made, but the purpose and dedication behind those sacrifices. As they played football outside the church, they could hear Gramps’ intense prayers through the walls and windows of that place of worship. Following his example, four of the boys accepted God’s calling and would become pastors in three states, with the fifth also feeling called to another ministry, operating a funeral home and comforting those in grief. The five boys gave them sixteen grandchildren, who in turn have produced fifteen great grandchildren (with a sixteenth due any day).
Each of us bear the burden of a deep responsibility to protect what Gramps cherished: the Truth of God’s Word, the power of the Gospel, a life set apart for His glory, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the proclamation that there is one God, and His name is Jesus.
Though I know Gramps bragged on all of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, I cannot help but look at the man I am and feel that I fall woefully short of the standard he set. He was desperate to win each soul he encountered, incredibly passionate in his preaching, and faithful in his belief that God would answer every need. I don’t believe I’m alone in my feelings, as I’m sure many of my siblings and cousins also feel the weight of his influence upon their shoulders. But despite my own shortcomings, Gramps presence, and now his memory, will always serve as a higher mark for which to strive.
And that’s what made him our patriarch. He was not only our grandfather and our elder. He wasn’t only worth a thousand laughs, acting as the life of every party or gathering. He wasn’t just a pastor who loved each and every one of his people like family. He wasn’t just a proud, concerned grandfather. He wasn’t just a retired minister, typing countless messages in all-caps to send to his large Email contact list.
He was a beacon of light around which our entirely family gathered. He has always been present and steady, serving as something like the center of our universe.
But with that light seemingly extinguished this morning, I now realize just how much our world changed the moment he drew his final breath, and it hurts.
I’ll begin to close by quoting Gramps’ final paragraph from his book:
Well, what about this eight-one-year-old man today? I still keep my vow by sending out a small sermon thought every Saturday across America and also to Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. At the same time, I have great expectations of meeting Jesus in the air when He comes for His bride.
Well, Gramps, you didn’t quite make the rapture, but that same light that guided are family didn’t die with you. It just ascended a little higher.
And just as you ended every night with prayer, turning and kneeling into your recliner, tonight I’ll kneel beside my son before I carry him upstairs into his bed, calling out his name in prayer and prophesying over his future. Then, the same as every other night, I’ll tuck him into bed, kiss his head, and once again whisper those words into his ear, “There is one God, and His name is Jesus.”
And as I do it, I’ll remember the tall, skinny East Texas boy who decided to obey God’s calling no matter where it took him, no matter the cost, and no matter the effort required.
Anyone who attended a church service with Gramps knew that he was likely to get excited, to let out a squealing, “Yeeeoooahhhwww!” and begin dancing as well as his hobbled ankle would allow. As he aged, the dancing became a little slower, the hops a little shorter.
In his final days, my dad and his brothers played some Gospel music for Gramps. Barely able to make a sound or even eat, he raised his hands and slowly moved his feet. My dad asked him, “Are you trying to dance?” He responded with a barely-audible, “Yes.”
I’m sure Gramps is dancing in worship once again, even as I write this post. But today, for the very first time, he’s dancing without a limp.
I love you, Gramps.