This is the end of an era.
She was born in the Roaring Twenties (that explains a lot), grew up in the Great Depression, survived the World War Two era, lived through the Eisenhower years, got through the tumultuous Sixties and the scandalous Seventies, and all the way into the 21st century. Nearly a hundred years! What a century her life has spanned!
On Saturday, July 24, 2021, I got a call from Ruby Grindstaff at 9:37 AM. It lasted 25 seconds. She said, “Pastor David, I hate to bother you, but I wonder if I could trouble you to take me to the hospital? I’m not feeling at all well and I think I need to go.” I said, “Ruby, I’ll be right there.”
So here they are, in as close to the order I encountered them as I can remember.
When I got to her house a few minutes later she came right out. I opened the door to our car for her, and she apologized to me for disturbing my morning. I kept telling her she wasn’t disturbing me, and I was absolutely willing to take her to the hospital. Then she told me she’d been having chest pain all night and that she’d decided if it was still there in the morning, she would go to the hospital. And I wondered why she hadn’t called before.
On our short drive to the hospital, she told me, “I just want to live till my 98th birthday, because I want all those children to come home again!” Then we were there, and a security guard brought out a wheelchair for her, and they whisked her away through the Emergency Room doors. After a while, a nurse came out to the waiting room and said, “Ruby sent me out here with strict orders for you. She said she is being well taken care of and there is no reason for you to sit out here in this waiting room. She told me to tell you to go on home.” I asked if she was still in pain and was assured she was not. “She’s just chatting up the nurses,” I was told. So I wrote my phone number down on a slip of paper in case she needed to reach me, and I reluctantly headed home. I called Ruby’s daughter Debbie before I left the parking lot, and she absolved me of my guilt and told me her brother Carl was on his way from Bloomington. So I went home.
The next day after the morning worship service Debbie called me back and said her mother wanted to see me. She told me they’d made arrangements with the hospital for me to get in to see her. So I made my first hospital call in a year and a half, and went to see Ruby.
Ruby was in a room in the ICU. She was in pain then, and it was difficult for her to breathe. We talked for a while. But the longer I was there, the more animated she became, and the more I kept glancing at the nurse’s desk. I kept trying to tell her she needed to rest and get her to quiet down. Finally I asked her if I could pray with her. “Oh, yes!” she said, and grasped my hand. Before I prayed, I quoted Isaiah 41:10 to her…and she quoted it right along with me: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Then she quoted most of Psalm 23 to me. After I prayed, I told her, “You don’t have any idea how much our church loves you. You don’t have any idea how much my family and I love you. But as much as we love you, Jesus loves you even more.” Then I left, promising to come back before the evening service.
I did come back, but she was fast asleep. They’d given her something because she seemed a little anxious and in discomfort, and they wanted her to sleep. So I stood beside her bed and prayed a silent prayer. She looked so small and frail.
It was the last time I ever saw her.
They called her son Carl to the hospital about 1:30 Monday morning. Not long after he arrived, Ruby peacefully slipped away. Debbie called me at 7:24 that morning to tell me her mother had died. She said she didn’t want me going to the hospital to find out that way. Later that morning, I told my wife, “It almost feels like we’ve lost another parent or grandparent.” She agreed.
We’ve known Ruby since 1997…twenty-four years. My first memory of Ruby is from a Trustees meeting at the church. She was involved, animated, respectful and polite. But she shared her opinion as to what to do in very clear terms.
A few years after that, Ruby happened to be our Assistant Moderator and found herself presiding over one of our Official Board Meetings, because the Moderator was out of town. She handled that meeting very efficiently and quickly! To our astonishment, everything was done and the meeting was over in about twenty minutes! We looked at each other with our mouths open, and I said, “Ruby for Moderator for life! Give her a cup of coffee and watch her go!”
Ruby lived life in forward motion, and a brisk clip! I almost said “fast-forward”, but she never seemed frantic or flustered. Just efficient. Not long after I came to the church, I brought something to Ruby’s door. She said something about her husband Carl. I told her, “Ruby, sometime you’ll have to tell me about him and how he died. I’d like to know about him.” I anticipated sitting down with her in the near future for a cup of coffee and a quiet talk. But to my surprise, she proceeded to tell me the whole story in about two minutes, right there on her front doorstep.
Ruby was a bundle of energy. She was always moving, even when she sat still. Actually, she didn’t sit still. My wife sat beside her in church once and told me Ruby was always fidgeting. And my wife had read an article that said people who fidget tend to be slender. That explained a lot, too.
Ruby told me once, “Pastor David, it’s white sugar and white flower that makes us fat!” And she was certainly a testimony to that simple philosophy of eating. Up until her back surgery, she did 100 sit-ups every day. She told me, “Pastor David, my little tummy is as flat as could be!” I had no response to that.
She also walked for exercise all around her neighborhood. Sometimes, when she still drove, she would come to the church early on Wednesday evenings to walk around our parking lot. It always worried me, especially after she fell and had injured her wrists. But you couldn’t convince her not to walk.
She never called attention to this or “tooted her own horn,” but when she still had her car, every week she would visit everyone she knew at Glenburn Home. Her visits were never very long, but it was important to her to go see them.
A year or so after my mother died, I would tease Ruby, and tell her, “Ruby, I’d introduce you to my Dad, but I know you’re not interested in younger men.” And she’d say, “Oh, Pastor David!”
I think I only saw Ruby in a hospital—as a patient—twice over the whole time I knew her. She and her family managed to take care of her back surgery and to have her injured wrists treated without me being at the hospital, though I did see her before and after, at her house. But some years ago, she was in Green County Hospital at least overnight for some reason that I don’t recall, and I visited her there in the ICU for the first time.
She was lying in the bed with a sheet over her and they had her hooked up to all kinds of monitors. She had her glasses off, and I had a moment of surprise. Now, I’ve already told my wife about this. I even told Ruby, years later. And I don’t mean anything inappropriate about it at all. But I looked at her eyes, and her hair was somehow still perfectly in place even in the hospital. And I thought, “Ruby is still a beautiful woman!” And then I thought about her Sunday School class. In those days there were two or three older bachelor men who came to that class, and suddenly I had a new insight. Ruby greeted everyone who came to that class with a hug. And I thought, “If I was an older bachelor, I think I’d be faithful to Ruby’s Sunday School class, too!”
Ruby never heard any of my Christmas sermons. She always flew out to spend Christmas with her daughter Debbie and her family, first in California, and then in Texas after they moved. Ruby was always apologetic for not being here at Christmas. And she would tell me, “I think this is the last year I’m going to go. I’m getting too old!” She also thought it was too much trouble for Debbie to come up and accompany her when she travelled. But for my part, I always encouraged her to go. I said, “Ruby, if my mother was still alive, I’d want to spend Christmas with her, too.”
She may not have heard any of my Christmas sermons, but Ruby attended just about every funeral I’ve done since I came to this church. I don’t just grab a set of notes and do a funeral. That feels too much like “phoning it in” or “painting by numbers.” I do find myself going to the same Scriptures and saying many of the same things over and over to different families. I may have said these things before, but each family still needs to hear these wonderful truths when they’re grieving the loss of a loved one. But I told Ruby, “You come to so many of my funerals, sometimes I throw in new stuff just for you.” And I don’t know how many times she would say something affirming to me after a funeral, and tell me I’d done a good job (whether I had or not). And then she’d say, “Now, I want you to do just as good a job at my funeral as you did for this one.” And I’d usually say. “All right…but let’s not do this for at least twenty years or so.” And she’d say, “Twenty years! Oh, I hope not!”
Every service of our church, Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night, Ruby was always there. I could tell you right where she sat at each service, the same spot every time. During December it always felt funny when she would go to visit Debbie’s family. It felt…emptier. We were always glad when she came back. One Wednesday we even started to sing “Hello, Ruby! Well, hello, Ruby! It’s so nice to have you back where you belong!” Which embarrassed her no end. But I think it pleased her, too.
One month before she died, on Saturday, June 26, our church had a “Backyard Bash,” a pitch-in dinner with games for kids…and they had me play and sing, ‘cause I work cheap. It was hot, so we had it inside our recreation building. But our gym isn’t air-conditioned, and it was still plenty warm. Ruby sat with about 20-25 other people and listened to everything I played. And when I quit after about an hour and twenty minutes, to my absolute dismay Ruby came walking across that concrete floor and attempted to pick up my heavy guitar case. She said, “You’ve been singing your heart out for over an hour. Let me help you put your things away!” She was going to help me, so I could rest!
I told her every now and then, “It wouldn’t be First Baptist Church without Ruby.” I meant that, but let me explain it for the rest of our church members’ sake.
Every church member is important. Paul likened Christians in a congregation to members in a body. 1 Corinthians 12:27 says “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” And every local church body needs every member to function in order to be strong and healthy. Each church member contributes to the overall condition of the church, whether in a good or bad way. And each church member helps to make up what I’ll call the personality of the church. That changes over time. Our church’s personality is different now than it was in the fifties, the sixties, the nineties, or even a decade ago. You can’t stop that. It just happens. People come and go and make their contributions—or cause their problems—and the church changes.
But sometimes someone like Ruby comes along. Ruby put her faith in Jesus Christ and then was baptized on May 8, 1955—almost nine months before I was born. She was baptized by Rev. Royden Rea. She took her first steps in the Christian life with him and his wife Mary. She grew with Rev. Dale Heinbaugh and his wife Esther. She served with Rev. Kenny Adams and his wife Wynn. And she was here to welcome me and my wife Rae Anne, and to be an unfailing source of encouragement to us for twenty-four years.
The “bad apple” church members get all the attention and sometimes consume all your focus. The truth is, they are just a very loud minority. Most church members aren’t like that. And occasionally you get one like Ruby Grindstaff. People like her make putting up with all those other people worth it.
Let me amend that. There’s no one like Ruby Grindstaff. She wasn’t perfect…but she was pretty good! I began calling her our “church mother.” And her contribution to the life of our church over the past 66 years has been…words fail. Deep. Positive. Encouraging. Incredible. Not indelible. Everybody’s influence fades. There will arise a generation that “knows not Ruby.” But the memory of troublemakers fades fast. We’re going to be remembering Ruby for a long time.
I’m so glad we don’t have to worry about her falling anymore, or about something happening to her alone at home. I’m so glad she doesn’t have to diminish physically anymore. I’m so glad she got to live out her life in her own house. And as much as I prayed that, when it was God’s time, she’d just go to sleep in her own chair or her own bed, and wake up with Jesus—there was still something entirely appropriate about Ruby leaving this life from the hospital she loved so much and had served so faithfully for decades.
I’m glad she’s Home now. But I’m sure going to miss her.
We all are. Thank You, God, for Ruby!
Soli Deo Gloria!