The Velveteen Rabbit poses a profound question in the classic children’s story - when comparing itself to other - & more flashy toys – by asking the Skin Horse, “What makes someone real?”
When a child REALLY loves you, then you BECOME real.
Does it hurt?
When you are real, you understand it WILL hurt, … sometimes. And it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are real [I love this part]: most of your hair has been loved off, & your eyes drop out & you get loose in the joints, & very shabby. [Sound like anyone you know? Increasingly, it sounds like EVERYONE I know!] But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
My best friend, Grant Verbeck couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but that never stopped him from singing when we were growing up in the Ellisforde Church of the Brethren in the small town of Tonasket, WA.
As we stood with the congregation to sing that grand old hymn by Harry Emerson Fosdick, “God of Grace & God of Glory,” I was messing around (as I was often prone to do) by nudging him in his side every time we sang his name. “Grant us wisdom, Grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.” Grant was already quite a bit bigger than most boys his own age, & even more so compared to those who were 3 years younger -- like me. So he didn’t budge much -- no matter how hard I pushed. He just stood there solidly, looked down at me, & flashed an amused chipped tooth grin.
I think all of Grant’s friends have similarly fun & fond memories of him. My particular viewpoint is that of a songwriter. Since my early days in that little church, I’ve been writing songs. Most of them are nothing fancy - at least in part because when I write a song - I strive for something simple. To me, simple lyrics are clearer, more memorable, & ultimately more beautiful …like Grant.
Grant understood & embodied this kind of simplicity more than any person I’ve ever known. He didn’t own much stuff – on purpose. He did seasonal agricultural & manual labor – by choice. He traveled around the country & the world -- binding together a community of dispersed peacemakers, family & lifelong friends. On first impression, it may have appeared to others that the rest of us had deeper roots than Grant – roots which seemed to prevent us from picking up to go visit & help each other -- like he always did. But the truth of the matter is that Grant was grounded wherever he was.
He didn’t feel it necessary to save up for his own future. He only needed enough to live simply, & he did so with great pleasure. The rest of his energy & resources were to be shared with others. His itinerate lifestyle left him free to serve others more than most of us ever dream of serving. And in service his roots were particularly deep.
Grant & I traveled to Nicaragua in 1988 with members of University Baptist Church in Seattle to help a sister church build a vocational school for budding artisans to learn a trade. When we weren’t scaling rafters to nail sheet metal roofing or wiring the electrical outlets, we played games with the children. In one game of charades, Grant was assigned to be a creature for his team to guess. You should have heard the children’s peals of laughter when such an enormous cockroach came skittering across the room!
Grant was a lifelong conscientious objector who worked tirelessly for organizations like Heifer Project International, Brethren Disaster Relief, & the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty -- to name just a few. Without Grant, his brother Kent, & their parents Ray & Berta Verbeck, the Church of the Brethren could never have established or maintained Camp Koinonia near Cle Elum, WA.
Additionally, Grant performed countless unheralded services for many others -- including myself & my family. Almost every remodeling project at my house over a period of 25 years had Grant’s hand in it, like the wheelchair ramp Mom needed after she broke her hip, or the extra room my daughters needed when they outgrew the space they’d used as babies (& that we now use for our grandchildren).
For many years before all this, Grant & I worked together on my dad’s apple orchard – pruning, irrigating, thinning, propping, picking, driving tractor & swapping out bins full of apples. We worked hard together but had fun doing so, & had many meaningful conversations while we worked. My dad & mom truly loved Grant as a son, & I as his brother. It was an unspeakable loss to me & so many others when Grant died in a car accident 20 years ago, in February 1999.
I waited years after his death before I could write a fitting tribute to my friend – but I know he wouldn’t have minded the delay. I think he would have just shrugged his shoulders & said, “It’s OK, I’m not in any hurry.” Then he would flash me that chipped-tooth grin. And even though he never sang in tune, it’s his voice & his smile that I’ll always remember as we stood singing -- back home in the Ellisforde Church of the Brethren.
Hymn – God of Grace & God of Glory (#436 in New Century Hymnal)