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Passing on a Legacy

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At the first sign of snowflakes this winter, my kids begged to go sledding at my grandparents’ home next to their lake. Their giggles and screams as they sped down the hill I sledded on as a child affirmed the call God had given my husband and me two years earlier—go home to family.

As the first grandchild in a large family—57 in 2021 and growing—I grew up with love and support that was fostered by the leadership of my grandparents. Our family is far from perfect, and we learn daily how to love each other well. Yet the solid foundation I took into adulthood enabled me to enter life with the desire to love the Lord and to pursue a purposeful path. Since graduating from college my husband and I had built a life together in another city. It was in that diverse and challenging city that I found social work and foster care as my new path to bring the gospel through the pursuit of justice.

But nine years later, shortly before the birth of our second child in 2019, we moved to my hometown. God had given us a clear word—family. Little did we know how He would use that calling. When God brought us back to my hometown, I stepped into an intense mentorship with my grandfather. I knew he had a successful 40-year career at Alcoa and that he had used God’s principles to mentor the food ministry at Allegheny Center C&MA Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to thrive. I witnessed firsthand as that stability permitted the church to quickly mobilize in the spring of 2020 to serve thousands of meals each week to school-age children as COVID-19 shut down schools and food distribution sites.

Keith and Sally with their children

For years, my family had asked my grandpa to write a book using his wisdom, mentoring, and career experience to help people with their church ministries and family. He resisted—humbly. Yet in fall 2019, I unexpectedly found myself at his kitchen table every Friday afternoon while my children played in the background, typing furiously on my laptop as he told me story after story. I told my husband one day after I came home, “If these stories never become a book, I will always treasure this time with my grandparents, hearing their stories.”

The Lord developed my grandparents over their 63-year marriage, and now I was poised to be mentored and developed by my grandfather over this year-long writing project. In Unconditional Love—The High Side of Life by Keith and Sally Turnbull (self-published in November 2020), we wrote my grandparents’ love story, and the making of the book itself was orchestrated and developed by God.

Building a Love Story

Keith and Sally while dating in high school

When my grandpa decided to pull his archival boxes from the attic and read through my grandmother’s diaries from when they were dating in high school and college, breakthrough happened. My grandmother was a prolific writer and documented her whole life, keeping every letter, diary, and essay. Suddenly, my grandpa was writing faster than I could type and called multiple times a day with discoveries he was making about how God had orchestrated their relationship.

As his writing surged in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Suddenly, we were separated from physically meeting and restricted by a generational knowledge of technology. Yet my grandpa handwrote page after page and left them on his back porch for me to retrieve as we spoke through his sliding glass window. I returned home to type and edit, with two young kids underfoot. Then I gave the pages back and received his handwritten notes on pages covered in post-it notes. In this unorthodox way, we built a love story during a season of lockdowns and quarantine.
My grandparents wrote with uncommon candor, sometimes to the point of tears, about their lives with the singular goal that a reader may come to know the unconditional love of Jesus—a desire for everyone to know the Lord and achieve a life on this side of heaven that approaches the “High Side”:

High Side is a term that I’ve assigned to the extremely positive state that we have reached in our marriage. We had anxiously anticipated marriage for three years and had dreams about how good it would be. But when we returned from our honeymoon and began to live God’s principles for marriage, we surged past our dreams into HIGH SIDE MARRIAGE.
As our book progresses into mentoring, problem solving, etc., we again use High Side when we surge above our stretch expectations. The High Side is getting closer to the principle as God designed it. It is a discovery beyond our wildest dream. [. . .] Jesus taught in Matthew 7:24 that we should “build our house upon a rock (God)” and He had gifted us with the shared faith to do just that. We had already experienced it on our honeymoon. Then (Matthew 7:25 continues) “the rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall.” Our story was a bit different: sunburn, overheated car, mosquitos, and an engine problem. But neither of us even blinked, let alone feared or became stressed. Our house (marriage) was built on the rock (God) and secured forever.

Their love story is the center of the book. My grandmother chose the title—Unconditional Love—and their love story is the model and example for all of the stories that follow—through family, parenting, career, church, and ministry.

Quiet Mentorship

Keith reviewing Jessica's edits of his book

God orchestrated every aspect of the timeline of this book—for my move back home to be the editor, for the first COVID-19 lockdowns while my grandfather had a breakthrough that allowed him to spend months of writing and discovering, and for publishing as my grandmother’s final letter of encouragement as she entered her last days before heaven.
God knew that my grandmother would be weakening from her battle with Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a type of blood cancer, as this book was sent out in 2020. She was the writer and photographer of the family—she sent out 1,300 cards and letters in 2019 and mailed 750 Christmas cards every year. My grandpa attempted to minimize any space in the margins to keep my grandma from writing a personalized note on all 750 to save her some work. Yet she thwarted him and persisted by writing notes in tiny handwriting.
My grandpa’s mentorship of me continued without words as he tirelessly and selflessly cared for my grandma as she weakened. Watching as he daily tended to her needs and stated “I love you” every time he left her room spoke to the unconditional love God gave them for each other. I could only experience that level of mentorship by spending time in their home with them every week, witnessing their godly example of living the Lord’s principles daily.
On January 20, 2021, God called my grandma home to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” For the few days before her passing, our family gathered to say goodbye by taking turns reading the book out loud to her. I cried when I opened the package with the first copy of the book, and I cry again as I write these words because my grandma’s testimony and legacy of love for God and her family is now preserved for future generations. All she did was centered on pouring the love of Jesus onto others that they would know her Father.
As a granddaughter, I never imagined I would receive the honor to work side by side with a mentor such as my grandpa and be entrusted with telling their story. Learning how the Lord developed my grandparents over their life and used that development to pour into others was an invaluable lesson that I will cherish. God moved past my expectations into the High Side—into family as a love-linked life experience.

Keith and his great granddaughter Lucy looking at family photos

 

Boxes of Sally’s many letters to friends and family

 

Jessica and Keith with the first copy of Unconditional Love

 

An excerpt from Unconditional Love—The High Side of Life by Keith and Sally Turnbull

“As a family, we love, intentionally bond, and seek time with one another. I was poor and then Sally and I became wealthy. We were both humble, such that it was not easy to write a book about successes. But we shared our testimony and wisdom with our family, church, and others for decades—at Bible study, at our yearly camping trip, etc.—and we strived to record our story for future generations in this book.

[. . .]

Sally and I became Christians in unusual ways that profoundly impacted our lives. Sally taught fifth grade girls at church for over 50 years. She was an encourager; she imparted love to every girl she taught. We bought a lake for our family, only to learn that it was God’s lake where He intended to show His love. We had an open house at our home for teens and young adults from our church every Sunday afternoon for about 15 years, with a typical attendance of 35. Sally was a prolific writer, sending out encouraging notes virtually every day and 750 at Christmas. Our children, grandchildren, and their spouses are all Christians, striving to live their life stories well.

I repeat that our humility made this book difficult to write. But love mandated that we write it.

Our story is 120 years long, beginning with our parents who shaped our lives, and then extending to the year 2020 when I am 85 and Sally, who passed into God’s presence January 20, was 84 [. . .] I pray for you to learn the high side—getting closer to the principle as God designed it.”

—Keith Turnbull

Unconditional Love—The High Side of Life was a gift from Keith and Sally to their family and church and was sent out to over 800 families in place of a yearly Christmas card in 2020. The book is available for purchase on Amazon at minimal cost. You can find more information at unconditionallovethebook.com.

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