Good Friday and Goodbye Grandpa

I don’t know if I can say anything meaningful about Good Friday that hasn’t already been said, and better.  A few years ago, for instance, my favorite blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote a series called “Holy Week for Doubters,” which speaks poignantly to an element of faith oft unspoken, and one which resonates strongly on Good Friday, that sometimes God feels absent. For at least three days, Jesus lay dead in the ground, and those who loved him felt empty, bereft, hopeless. And being a Christian doesn’t exempt us from experiencing fear or insecurity in the face of life’s senselessness. Sometimes, doubt is the only honest answer to life’s bigger questions.

Even I wrote a post two years ago, reflecting on the holiday after spending an afternoon working in a juvenile detention center. On a day set aside to recognize the deep pain in the world, and God’s presence in the midst of it, I sat in a big concrete box with kids who had suffered more in their short years than most of us will in our whole lives. It was sobering, enlightening, and convicting. It reminded me of something fundamental to the character of God: that God is nearest to those who suffer, to those estranged and alienated from the world.

Year after year, Good Friday after Good Friday I write and reflect on how God is present in our pain, grief and suffering. I bluster and pontificate on the problem of evil and how to live faithfully in a world which does not make it easy.  And this year, I finally know what I’m talking about. Kind of.

Mom and my uncle Dave wrote a lovely obituary.
Almost two weeks ago, on March 13th, my grandfather Verner Wayne Magill, died. He had a massive coronary episode and was already unresponsive when found. He spent about a week on life support, first so doctors could try to bring him back, then so family and friends could flock in from all over the country to say goodbye. I myself made the trek from New Jersey to Oregon when I got the news. Over the course of one long week we said our goodbyes, comforted each other, and made funeral arrangements. The service was last Saturday, and it was lovely.

Grandparents die, I understand that. 83 year olds die everyday, it’s a perfectly natural part of life. But a few things about this death exacerbated the sting for those who loved Vern: first, our grandma Tilli Magill had died almost a year to the day prior. Her circumstances were remarkably similar, when after years of middling health she took a sudden turn for the worse and died over the course of a long weekend in a hospital surrounded by friends and family. Hers was the first real death in my life, the first time I’d lost someone so very close to my heart. My whole family has spent the last year recovering from her passing, learning to be ok again without such a steadying source of love and guidance. And I had almost managed to start walking on my own again, when I was suddenly hobbled by the death of my grandpa.

I found this on his kindle.
And he wasn’t just my grandpa, that’s the second thing. He was actually the closest I’ve ever had to a father. For those who don’t know, my own father was an abusive, psychopathic presence in my early life and I haven’t seen him in nineteen-plus years; consequently, Vern (along with Tilli) played a major role in raising me. My brother, sister, mother and I lived with the two of them on and off for my whole childhood. He taught me how to shave, to tie a tie. He was a good man, who convinced me time and again that such a thing as a “good man” was even possible, contra to most other evidence in my life.

And that’s the final thing: Vern was the best of us. He was a load-bearing pillar, a source of stability and safety in all our lives. He was the best man I’ve ever known and will probably ever know, one who touched so many lives. At the funeral one person after another stood before the crowd and thanked Vern for taking them in, providing a safe place, welcoming them to the table. His hospitality was legendary, his congeniality larger than life. I am so lucky to have been his grandson.

But now he’s gone, and with him, the only home I’ve ever known. First it was grandma, then grandpa, and now I hardly know how to live in this world. I suppose I’ll find out, but still.

I’ve spent the last whole year figuring I was in a “Friday” place spiritually. While others at church or at home celebrated, trumpeted their horns, bathed in God’s goodness as one does on Easter, I was mostly trying to keep from falling apart, to reckon with the deep pain of loss. My Jesus was dead and buried.

And just as I saw the light peeking through, here I find myself again, on Friday.

I know there’s hope. I know the end of the story. But I’ll be damned if I can’t see it now.

In fact the only solace of the last year has been that, even at my absolute worst, I have experienced God. Sure, I’ve doubted, I’ve stormed, I’ve ranted like Job at a God whom I blamed for my pain, but in and through it I sporadically remembered one important truth: God does not exempt Godself from pain. I don’t know why God allows such suffering in the world, I don’t understand the long game, but I do see Jesus on the cross.

I see a God who answers our cries and questions not with information, but with God’s very presence, with God’s very blood.

I only know how to be ok in this because I believe that God is suffering with me. That’s all I have: a Jesus who stands beside me, holding up the sky to keep it from crushing me, and before me, as hell wages against him, keeping me from harm, and behind me, there to catch me if I fall.

That’s all I have.

For now, it’s Friday.

“The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
~ Edgar, in King Lear by William Shakespeare


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