Earlier this week, Liz and I were driving through the neighborhood on our way to dinner. It was a beautiful Spring day with the flowers in full bloom, the sky a crisp blue. The perfect backdrop was created as the sun sank lower on the horizon.
As we drove, I saw a bunny quietly enjoying some grass a few yards from the roadside. At first, I passed by, my car outpacing my thoughts. A few seconds later I came to a quick stop and threw the car in reverse.
“What are you doing?!” Liz was startled by my abruptness.
“I’ve got to go back.”
Her lack of response convinced me that she was used to my shenanigans.
As we backed up, the bunny was still there. I put the car in park and jumped out, my camera in hand. I began slowly creeping toward the rabbit, trying to get a picture.
As I came back to the car, I looked at Liz and said, “It would have been Paw Paw’s 91st birthday today.”
She knew then the justification for my actions.
My Grandfather, Edwin Allen Sheneman, was affectionately known as Paw Paw. To say he was a character is an understatement. His life portrayed the culmination of experiences of the greatest generation.
Just recently, I was blessed with a gift from my mother. A journal she had asked Paw Paw to keep for my brother and me. The journal was dated December 1993, but for twenty years it sat by my mother’s bedside, as if it were waiting for the right moment to share it with me.
That time was now.
Seeing my Grandfather’s memories in his own hand brought wisdom from a time long gone. Stories and memories from a then, seventy year old man, as he reflected on years passed.
A life rich in experience.
As Paw Paw closed the journal, he used these words:
“Of course there is much that happened that I can’t write of and some I’ve just forgotten.”
Paw Paw would live another sixteen years after he wrote these words. The pages of his journal are so thick with insight that I can’t begin to detail all of them here. I do believe in time – possibly as a posthumous interview – I will share them with you.
Only now, as I continue to pour into my own writing and purpose, do I truly appreciate Paw Paw and his story. In fact, I’m beginning to see how my life, in a way, is a partial reflection of his.
However, it is a story surrounding his death that caused me to stop in my tracks when seeing that bunny rabbit.
Life in the Midst of Death
Paw Paw’s eighty-five year old frame had weathered the Great Depression, the experiences of combat in World War II, the challenges of husband and fatherhood, the struggles of entrepreneurship, a heart attack, numerous blood transfusions, and countless ailments. He had always persisted, until now.
Cancer was taking over his body.
Up until that point, Paw Paw had an inner strength, a resilience in overcoming adversity on his own. This resilience, however, gave him extreme confidence that often outwitted his faith. He spoke of God with an inquisitive nature, wondering how a sea could be parted and how a man could have been raised from the dead. Yet, despite these doubts, he still held a level of piety.
This blend created a gruff exterior. One that, although curious, refused help.
He refused to admit he was in any way broken.
He often sat in his recliner, staring out the window, a lit cigarette burning in his fingers. In those pensive moments, I believe he thought of many things. I believe he thought of God.
Then, during his final month, he met his Creator face to face.
Of all things, He came in the form of a bunny rabbit.
On his walk to get the mail, Paw Paw noticed a beautiful, sweet bunny rabbit that had been violently struck by a car. The rabbit lay dead in the road.
In that moment, his calloused exterior was pierced by the light of life. The perfect moment created when the combination of his own battle met the questions of his past. He flashed back to his childhood.
As a little boy he heard a story at church about Jesus inviting the little children to come and listen. In his mind’s eye, the animals were gathered around Jesus as well and among them, a bunny rabbit.
In this helpless rabbit, I think Paw Paw saw himself.
For the first time in eighty-five years he came to grips with his own brokenness.
That’s when he asked me something I never thought I would hear.
“Matt, surely a gracious God would have mercy on that sweet rabbit. Do you think he would have mercy on me?”
“Paw Paw, God does have mercy on us, but we have to ask him for it. Have you asked Him for mercy?”
“I’ve never thought about it that way. Maybe I’ll ask him.”
“I think you should.”
An exchange between two generations that held the weight of eternity.
Confession. Forgiveness. Healing. Restoration. Life.
As a reminder of this exchange, my family found a ceramic statue of a bunny and brought it to him in his final days. It touched him deeply.
His hospice room overlooked a small garden and it was in that garden we placed the statue of the bunny, a reminder of Jesus’ presence in our lives, in Paw Paw’s life.
The day before he died, a family friend went to visit him in his room and heard some of his last words. Softly, but confidently Paw Paw said, “Set the bunny free.”
The day after Paw Paw’s death, Mom went to his house and found, in his yard, a cross. A small metallic charm, nearly buried in the grass, bearing the inscription Jesus Loves Me. Paw Paw was free indeed.
As tears fill my eyes recalling the beauty in this story, I chuckle and wipe them away.
Of all things, my hard, war-torn Grandfather was humbled by a bunny rabbit.
In Christ, things are not what they seem. The beauty of a child in a manger. A king riding on a donkey. The savior losing his life in place of our own. The Gospel echoes the words of the Apostle Paul:
“God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” 1 Corinthians 1:27
When I saw the rabbit by the roadside on what would have been Paw Paw’s 91st birthday, I was reminded:
My God is rich in mercy.
“Because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:4-5
He met Paw Paw at his questions and in turn invited him into a relationship, penetrating the calloused exterior.
Because of His great love, He makes us alive even in death.
Question: What broken pieces of your past might be keeping you from embracing God’s mercy?