Life events, especially negative ones we all would rather avoid, affect different people different ways. Some allow the events to make them bitter and over time they grow harder to be around. Others decide to get tough, surrounding themselves with a hard shell, allowing no one inside their thoughts. Rare is the person who can face many difficult experiences in life, yet over the years grow mellower. Homer Miller was such a rare person and I believe it was his faith in God that made all the difference.
Shortly after I started high school, I sat with Grandpa on his front porch in Harrison, West Virginia, one lazy summer afternoon, and he was in the mood to reminisce. For the younger readers reminiscing is when you sit quietly and absorb the story, history, or lessons an older and more experienced person decides to share. And the better you are at listening, the more willing that person will be to open the memory archives on your next visit. Some people fill the air around them with meaningless words, but Homer’s words carried weight. When he told a story, it was worth hearing. On that particular day, Grandpa wanted to talk about World War I and his military experience. I was all ears.
Imagine being a teenager, leaving home and the quiet hills of West Virginia for the first time, taking an ocean voyage, and ending the journey in the midst one of the worst wars this world has ever known. Picture the hardship of being a foot soldier in World War I and the heartache of seeing buddies take their last breath and drop beside you. Think about being wounded so far from home, wondering if you would make it back to those Appalachian Mountains.
Grandpa shared from his time in France. He was a corporal carrying responsibility for the well-being of the men under him. Grandpa’s platoon was thirsty and in desperate need of water. The men had gone about as far as they could without relief when their marching brought them to a farm house and there was a well! They pulled up the rope and bucket only to discover the retreating Germans had attempted to contaminate the water. Grandpa shuddered a little as he remembered that awful image still locked in his mind after all those years. He shared just enough detail to let me know this was a difficult moment for him as the leader. The American soldiers could not go on without water so Grandpa told his men he would drink the water first and if it did not bother him, in a little while they also could drink.
Homer returned from the war and took a job milling trees into lumber at the sawmill in Widen, West Virginia. Life around the mill was hard but it seemed another world, miles from the conditions he just left in France. Some soldiers never come home from war. Some make it home physically but never get over the sights and sounds. Homer returned to West Virginia determined to build a life and make the most of his time on earth. Grandpa had this photo tucked into his album with the label, “Homer Miller’s Sunday School Class” and the place was given as Widen. Wouldn’t it be great to know how he made a difference in those young lives and what those boys and the members of their families became? Homer is the tall man in the center right in front of the American flag.
Home Miller was not a man born to luxury and his life was anything but easy. The next event he encountered, as he was trying to bring up a family, was something tagged in the history books as the Great Depression. This was a period in American history where most people knew with certainty “times are hard”. There were few jobs and a man did what he had to providing for his family. Work, when it could be found, was hard, physical labor, not office work in an air conditioned building. Yet Homer’s belief in God grew stronger. I do not remember, as a child or as a teen, eating a meal with Grandpa where we did not stop and give thanks to God for the food waiting on the table.
One of the yearly events my Grandpa looked forward to was the annual Miller family reunion held near July Fourth. Grandpa always flew his American flag at the reunion and it was a special honor for my family to take Grandpa a new flag when his old one was worn and faded. He was one proud American and thought of his nation as a special place, like no other on earth. Thanks for being an example of a good citizen, Grandpa! I fly my flag on those special days, too!
Homer included a time of praise and worship in his reunion gathering. And of course there was a prayer or two. When it comes to religion, many have the attitude that everyone should mind their own business and leave others to choose a path of their own but that rarely works in practice. One person who has found faith needs to point another in the right direction. It’s a simple and workable plan when we stop and examine it. Homer knew faith in God is necessary to survive and thrive in life and he wanted others to know, too. Especially those he loved so well, gathered to celebrate the Miller family with him.
We sang hymns as a group. When the reunion was held at the Miller home in Harrison, men carried Grandma’s pump organ out to the yard so she could lead us. Most of us can still sing the words to “Shall we gather at the river?” even if we cannot do the tune like Grandma. Grandpa read a passage of Scripture and gave a brief exhortation about what he had just read. And he was always dressed in a white shirt and tie because this moment was significant to him. In his own way, Grandpa honored God when he stood in front of us dressed that way. He taught us there is Someone higher than any of us.
As the years went by someone decided the best way to have a reunion was to camp together for a week and I would love to know which one came up with that idea. Mercy sakes! I have seen some nice campgrounds with designated camp sites, warm showers, and flush toilets. The site chosen for the Miller reunion was called Brock Run along the Holly River, part of the Sutton Reservoir in West Virginia. In a travel guide it might be labeled as primitive camping. There was running water … in the river! OK, there was a source of fresh water – a hand operated pump that dredged up water with its own peculiar flavor. Toilets? Yes, his and hers, fiberglass potty houses, ¼ mile down the road and ¼ mile straight up the mountain side. But we went to Brock Run and we had some fun, sweating and jumping in the lake to cool off during the sweltering days, and sitting around the fire at night telling yarns. And in the middle of it all, here came Grandpa, on the Sunday morning of that week, in his white shirt and tie conducting a worship service.
I was seated at Grandpa’s right hand at this service in 1974 and was holding a battery powered tape recorder. As Grandma sang that morning, I caught her on tape. Several hours later I played the tape for someone who had missed Grandpa’s service. Grandpa was talking but stopped and began looking around. He thought Grandma had gone in to take a nap and was curious to know why she was singing again. I showed Grandpa the tape recorder and explained to him what it was. He was astounded and told people, “That beat anything I ever saw!” I would hear that same comment from him many times as the years passed and he retold the story. (And is that Mary or Irene taking a picture in the foreground?)
Homer was not looking for recognition here on earth in all this. He was serving the God he believed in by simply helping others around him, a characteristic that would mark his life. I found notes my brother Jeff took during a discussion with Grandpa about faith and the Bible. Grandpa shared with Jeff, “I wish everyone knew how to know for sure they would go to heaven.” Grandpa went on to give his personal history that he was 30 years old when he trusted Christ for salvation and he regretted waiting that long. Homer carried a heart ache that some in his family chose a different path and found no time for God. Jeff told me there was sadness on Grandpa’s face as he shared these thoughts. A real man who opens his heart and lets us see inside is a real man indeed.
In the New Testament book of James, chapter 3, verse 17 – the writer stated – “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.” Home Miller had that type of wisdom and I wonder where he found it. Surely all the life experiences in his history contributed to his wisdom but was there a deeper cause? Another wise man, King David, the writer of many of the Psalms wrote in Psalm 34:11 – “Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” Why was that lesson so important for children to learn? David’s own son, Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, gave the answer in Proverbs 9:10 – “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
Homer Miller was a wise man because he was a man who had faith in God. That’s where true wisdom begins.