I want to tell you about a wonderful evening that happened last spring and about the reason for it, which has just now come to fruition. Let me tell you the story just as I experienced it.
Last spring we were supposed to have a cook-out with the Old Testament families at Doug and Rose Green’s house, so I baked a cake, which was my part of the food assignment, and arrived about 2 minutes after the appointed time. There were lots of cars parked in front of the house, and as I headed through the house toward the back deck I could see that there were lots of people out back. That was surprising, but Rose is a free spirit and very hospitable, so I figured she had decided to expand the guest list and that later I would find out how that had materialized. As I spotted some of the faces I saw that they were all wonderful friends of ours and knew that this would be a great time.
When I stepped onto the back deck it should have struck me as odd that all these people were here so far ahead of the time we were supposed to gather, but that didn’t register. The conversations sort of stopped and everybody looked at me, but sometimes in a crowd it happens that all the conversations come to a lull at the same time, and since that happened to happen at the moment that I came through I figured that is why they all happened to look over and notice my stepping out the back door. One person said “Surprise!” sort of jokingly, but I figured he was just commenting on the coincidence that all the talking happened to stop just at the moment when I arrived and was, by his comment, saying, “Hey, this feels kind of awkward, like when somebody arrives at their surprise party and everybody yells, ‘Surprise!’” So I still didn’t think anything of it. Plus, there by the back door was my granddaughter Emily in Alasdair’s arms, and while that should have seemed oddest of all, the delight of seeing her there drove al logic off the horizon. She has that kind of effect on me.
It wasn’t until I heard Rose say to someone inside, “Yes, she’s just come through,” (sort of like in the Truman Show) that it crossed my brain that this could be a surprise party for me. But there was absolutely no earthly reason for such a party. I couldn’t think of a single reason, so I just stood there holding Emily and wondering what was going on.
Then Doug came out and said that it was indeed a surprise party for our whole family (with Emily standing in for Eowyn, who was at college out of state, Doug specified) and that we were to all stand in a certain spot and open a gift. Actually twin gifts, which we were to open at the very same time, since they were exactly the same gift. There was some hilarity to the opening, since Bev Rutledge had wrapped them beautifully in multiple layers, but when we finally opened the last layer, there in a box lay a spiral bound manuscript. I saw a picture of a pastoral (as in sheep in a pasture) scene. I saw the words “Eyes to See, Ears to Hear” and I quickly ran through a few book titles in my head that sound something like that. But this was none of those. Then I saw Al’s name on the front cover. Then I saw the names of the editors: Peter Enns, Douglas J. Green, Michael B. Kelly. And then I noticed the line “Essays in Memory of J. Alan Groves.” And finally it registered what I was holding in my hands. It was a festschrift. That’s a fancy German name for a book that contains essays written in someone’s honor by colleagues in his or her field. Often it is published on the occasion of the honoree’s retirement. All of that took a few seconds to run through my mind.
I started to cry.
Then I opened the book and saw the table of contents—a foreword by Moises Silva; tributes by Sinclair Ferguson, Sam Logan, Eep Talstra and Ed Welch; articles by Tremper Longman, Bruce Waltke, Doug, Pete, Mike, Adrian Smith, Karen Jobes, Chris Fantuzzo, Brad Gregory, Sam Boyd, Bill Egar, and Kirk Lowery. All wonderful friends of Al who were precious to him and dear to his heart. The title comes from something that Al used to pray all the time. He almost always closed his prayers with the request that God would give us “eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand.” I couldn’t even imagine the time and effort by so many, especially Pete, Doug and Mike, that had gone into creating this book. What a gift! I was completely blown away and didn’t know what to say.
Then followed a scrumptious dinner on Doug and Rose’s back deck with all of us tucked in cozily around a big long table on a clear early summer evening with strings of twinkling lights and with fireflies in the trees. Doug unfolded the story of how this book had come into existence over the course of several years and how it had morphed even in the last two weeks prior to going to print. People who were present and who had written tributes for the book read theirs, and the tributes of those who were not present were read aloud by others. By the time Ed finished reading his I think we all had tears flowing.
We savored memories and reflections and appreciation, laughter and tears, sharing together with one heart the fondness we all had for Al, the ache of him being gone but also the joy of this amazing gift that so many people worked so hard and so long to put together to honor him. How so many people had kept this a total secret is completely beyond me! That in itself is something of a miracle.
As I thought about what this book represented I was blown out of the water by the depth, and breadth and perfection of it. Al never published much during his lifetime. A large part of the reason for that was that people always came first, and writing got pushed to the background. Al never regretted that choice, neither generally nor in any given particular situation. I don’t know how often it was even a conscious choice–it was simply the natural direction of his heart. But he did wish he could have done more writing as well.
But now the people he touched, and learned from, and taught, who were so precious to him and who were influenced by him in one way or another have done that job for him. This festschrift is perfect! In some ways it is almost more appropriate that Al’s name in print should be on work written by people he loved. He was always all about teamwork, and doing things together, and supporting and encouraging each other. (It’s one of the reasons he loved Larry Bird—for all of Larry’s amazing talent, he was a team player.) Academics place a great deal of importance on getting things published. Now Al’s friends have accomplished that on his behalf. The book is chock-full of thoughtful and interesting essays written by his colleagues and former students. In his case “publish or perish” became a distinctly either/or scenario, although he would not have chosen it to be that way. But these friends have turned it into a both/and option instead.
Pete, Doug and Mike had planned to have the surprise party this fall when the book would come to publication. But they found out the publisher—P & R Publishing—was about to list it in their catalog that was coming out in June, and then I would be bound to find out about it, so they pushed the date up. Well, now it’s fall and the book is out. It’s listed at ~$25, but if you’re interested in reading it I know you can get it from WTSbooks.com for $16.25.
I can’t begin to guess what Al would say about this. He would be touched beyond words at this lavish gift of love. Someday, I imagine, he’ll probably tell the authors himself. Meanwhile, if you are interested, I hope you will enjoy it. I have.
Be well in the Lord’s Care,