Monday, January 30, 2012

Seen--and STILL Snubbed--By Oscar (Lead Performer Addition)

With the 2012 Oscar nominations being announced last week, the Hungry Preacher continues his long-running series on Oscar-worthy performances that were seen by the Academy (we know this, since they nominated other performer[s] from the same movie) and yet were still not nominated.  Read here for ground rules and such.

Briefly, these are genuine snubs--"Saw it, didn't like it"--and not just great performances that didn't happen to get seen by enough voters.

This series started with supporting actor snubs, but continues with lead performers of all genders.  Lead performers are less likely to get snubbed, if for no other reason than most movies have, at most, 2 lead performers but often upwards of 5 or 6 supporting performers with roles that could merit Oscar consideration.  Also, lead roles are more frequently given to big-name performers who can ride their fame alone to an Oscar nomination.

Without further ado, here are the biggest supporting actor snubs of the 2000’s from movies that received an acting nomination for someone else.  (All info is from

What movie?  Moulin Rouge! (2001) [EDITOR'S NOTE: The exclamation point is part of the title!  Really!  The Hungry Preacher doesn't get that excited about ANY movie!]
Who got nominated?  Nicole Kidman
Who got snubbed?  Ewan McGregor
Did anyone else see what I saw (i.e., any awards or noms from anyone)?  Mostly in countries that speak English but sound funny doing it, like England and Australia.  He also got noticed by organizations that recognize "Musical or Comedy" performances as distinct from "Drama", and actually won the "Musical or Comedy" Satellite award.
What’s the big deal?  First, a question: What do William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, and Warren Beatty all have in common?  Answer: They all turned down the role of Paul Sheldon in the film "Misery," the movie best known for winning Kathy Bates a best actress Oscar.  Paul Sheldon was a great role, and James Caan nailed it.  But the guys on the list above understood the rule: "The 'straight man' will not get noticed" ("straight" as in "not over-the-top").  Ewan McGregor seems to have missed that memo.  Since he gained prominence playing a heroin addict in 1996's "Trainspotting," Ewan has steadily played characters that are more normal than the characters around him, sometimes bizarrely so (think "The Men Who Stare at Goats," opposite a paranoid, goat-staring George Clooney; "Big Fish," opposite a steady flow of circus types; "Star Wars," opposite Jar Jar Binks; and don't forget this year's "Beginners," where he was the straight man times-two, opposite Christopher Plummer's just-come-out dying old widower).

A comparison of his roles shows that Ewan can play subdued characters with great distinctiveness and believability, and none was more impressive than his turn as Christian, opposite Nicole Kidman's Satine in "Moulin Rouge!"  In a surreal movie overflowing with larger-than-life characters, Ewan utterly convinces as the naive protagonist who believes in love, experiences firsthand all of the reasons to cynically abandon his belief, and resolutely decides to cling to his initial belief in spite of it all.  We see Christian not so much experience an awakening, but earn painful credibility to his already-awakened point of view.  At the beginning of the film, Christian believes in love, but has neither loved nor lost.  By the end, he has done both, and still believes.  And Ewan communicates this growth without without slipping into one-note cynicism or passing judgment on his old self.  Oh, and he sings.

What movie?  Lost in Translation (2003)
Who got nominated?  Bill Murray
Who got snubbed?  Scarlett Johansson
Did anyone else see what I saw (i.e., any awards or noms from anyone)?  Yes, quite a few folks did.  Most notably, she was nominated for a Golden Globe and won acting awards from Boston Film critics and even BAFTA, which doesn't distinguish between dramatic and comedic performances.
What’s the big deal?  This role is different from most, in that the "Oscar moment" for most characters takes place near the end of a film, leaving us with a lasting impression.  Charlotte, however, "breaks" during the opening scene--on the phone, no less--and spends the rest of the movie processing and burying.  It's an unconventional character arc, and perhaps one that damaged Scarlett's Oscar chances.  Watching characters explode is more memorable than watching them defuse bomb after emotional bomb right below the surface (or than watching them clean up the debris from ones they couldn't quite defuse--also just below the surface).  Of course, the eyes give her away.  Maybe Scarlett had an unfair advantage in playing this role; if the eyes are the window to the soul, who better to cast in this role?  If we're supposed to believe that Bill Murray's Bob can see past Charlotte's outward hiding and denying, past her facade of having it all together, and into her fear and loneliness--well, of COURSE an actress with huge, deep eyes should be cast as Charlotte.  All the better for US to see HER with, right?  Lots of people have big eyes, though, and Scarlett used hers to perfection in this movie, giving us a thousand different glimpses into Charlotte's wounded soul that she paradoxically guarded, yet yearned to have embraced.

What movie?  House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Who got nominated?  Ben Kingsley, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Who got snubbed?  Jennifer Connelly
Did anyone else see what I saw (i.e., any awards or noms from anyone)?  Not many.  She won the Kansas City Film Critics Award, and got a couple of other nominations, but got snubbed not just by the Academy, but by the Golden Globes and even the Independent Spirit awards, for which this film was eligible and had a much smaller field of competition.  This is a real head scratcher for me.  I was relatively unimpressed at Connelly's performance in "A Beautiful Mind" from two years earlier, which won her a slew of supporting actress awards.  It seemed that all the pieces were in place for this to be her big "lead actress" parade (at least as far as nominations go): she seemed to be an Academy darling (having just won 2 years prior); she was still young and beautiful and in the prime of her career; she proved she could lead and not just support; she took on an unglamorous and more explosive (i.e., Oscar friendly) role; and nominating her for "House of Sand and Fog" would have given the Academy a chance to validate their decision from 2 years prior.
[EDITOR'S NOTE:  Between writing this entry and publishing the post, I was flipping through a book, "The Ultimate Book of Top 10 Lists--a mind-boggling collection of fun, fascinating and bizarre facts on movies, music, sports, crime, celebrities, history, trivia and more."  I stumbled upon the list "Top 10 Films About Alcoholics."  Number 2?  "House of Sand and Fog."  The last sentence of the explanation reads, "This is one of my favorite plot-oriented films, and as Kathy, Jemnnifer Connelly delivers one of the finest performances I've ever seen."  Ahhhh, the sweet nectar of validation...]
What’s the big deal?  Remember what I said about how memorable it is watching characters explode?  Connelly's Kathy is a step away from pulling off the feat LITERALLY, as she haphazardly fills up a gas can while a cigarette hangs out of her mouth.  And the singleminded carelessness with which she was willing to abandon her humanity for the task was as memorable an image for me as Ben Kingsley running through the hospital, or even his final scene.  Every step Kathy takes down the spiral is convincing, owing to the believable desperateness established by Connelly from scene one.  We believe that Kathy has wholly "built her house on sand," and grabs hold of whatever she can to give herself the illusion of permanence and control: relationships, drugs, booze, justice, and even her life.  The anguish that Kathy feels at not being able to control the one literal, physical house in her life exposes how unstable ALL of her houses are and intensifies her desire to regain control by any means possible.  Connelly drives this progression so seamlessly that by the end of the movie I was asking myself, "How did she get from there to here in only two hours without my even noticing?"  How can the spiral of a character unraveling so extremely be portrayed so subtly?  Like I said: a real head scratcher.

What movie?  In America (2003)
Who got nominated?  Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou
Who got snubbed?  Paddy Considine
Did anyone else see what I saw (i.e., any awards or noms from anyone)?  Barely.  Remember what I said about a head scratcher?  Paddy got nominated for a Satellite award, and also for a British Independent Film award (if you narrow the focus enough, even YOU can get nominated).  Like Connelly, Paddy couldn't even make the cut for an Independent Spirit award.
What’s the big deal?  Heck, I would have nominated Considine based on how well his CHARACTER ("Johnny," an actor) acts within the movie!  Kidding aside, I truly don't remember a time when I was watching a movie and was so unable to resist being pulled in to the emotional journey of a character.  With help from the Bolger sisters, Considine pours out the soul of his character like the colors on a Jackson Pollack painting.  It was messy but mesmerizing.  Child-like, but tragically mature.  Solid and surprisingly coherent, but busy and unpredictable.  Unlike Pollack, with all the madness and sadness, Considine's work pours out a breathtaking streak of hope.  Of course, the thrill of the movie is watching Johnny discover for himself if the streak of white on the painting of his life actually leads anywhere, or was it just an accidental spill?  Until he discovers for certain, we watch him smile and laugh and lash out, like a character in his own life play.  He yearns for a script, but is forced to improvise.  His character is himself, yet even HE isn't sold on his performance--and he doesn't know why.  So he acts, and acts, and acts...  Until, suddenly, he doesn't.  He becomes the character that he has been striving to be.  And with him we weep for joy.

What movie?  Sideways (2004)
Who got nominated?  Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen
Who got snubbed?  Paul Giamatti
Did anyone else see what I saw (i.e., any awards or noms from anyone)?  Yes.  Giamatti got lots of nominations, including SAG and Golden Globe, but only a few wins, thanks largely to some guy named Jamie Foxx playing some guy named Ray Charles the same year.  Amusingly enough, "Ray" and "Sideways" both fall into the "Musical or Comedy" genre (because they're such similar movies!), which means that in almost any other year, Giamatti would have run the table on awards that distinguish between genres.  This year, though, Giamatti was the just the bridesmaid, and not even that for the Oscars.
What’s the big deal?  I've got a soft spot for every-man characters, believing that they are often more difficult to play than Oscar's preferred "disabled, dying, or diabolical."  Giamatti's "Miles" is as "every" as they come.  He's a normal guy with normal habits and insecurities, successful enough by the world's standards.  But spending a week with his friend, Jack, opens Miles' eyes to an uncomfortable incongruency: though Miles thinks more deeply about things like friendship, love, faithfulness, and dreams, Jack is just as happy and successful as Miles is (it seems).  Miles' dissatisfaction swells up during their trip through wine country, and Giamitti lets it spill out like wine from a chalice.  With his expressive eyes and revealing inflections, Giamitti shows us the ultimate "good guy": he refuses to judge his friends' shallowness, and he refuses to partake in it.  But the respect he maintains for those in his immediate circle prevents him from scapegoating any of them for the injustice of his unfulfilled dreams.  He's left casting the blame at faceless publishers.  As this catharsis proves unsatisfying, Miles realizes that his noble striving for a lofty vision of life may actually be a tactic for avoiding the risks of embracing the beauty in life all around him.  Literally and figuratively, we watch as Miles learns when to let a wine age, and when it is time to take a drink.

What movie?  Cinderella Man (2005)
Who got nominated?  Paul Giamatti
Who got snubbed?  Russell Crowe
Did anyone else see what I saw (i.e., any awards or noms from anyone)?  Yes.  Several nominations, including Golden Globe and SAG.
What’s the big deal?  I admit there are a several reasons NOT to appreciate Crowe's performance.  The character wasn't the most nuanced.  Crowe has played a tough guy before.  For that matter, Crowe IS a tough guy, and this role could be dismissed as a typecast.  On the other hand, when I think about Crowe's character, Jim Braddock, I don't think of a tough guy.  It is after the fact that I remind myself that he was, indeed, a boxer.  Instead, I think of him as a sensitive family man unable to provide, humbly aware of his sorry state.  His boxing serves his character; it does not define his character.  Beyond this, I remember being struck by how totally enveloped by the character Crowe allowed himself to be.  It is rare that I watch a movie with a superstar lead and forget that I am watching a superstar pretend to be someone else.  Contrast Crowe's transformation into Braddock with, say, Tom Cruise playing the title character in "The Last Samurai," a movie released a couple years before this one.  In that, I was never NOT watching Tom Cruise playing someone else.  Crowe made me forget I was watching Crowe.  Ironically, easy-to-watch often translates into easy-to-overlook.

What movie?  Frost/Nixon (2008)
Who got nominated?  Frank Langella
Who got snubbed?  Michael Sheen
Did anyone else see what I saw (i.e., any awards or noms from anyone)?  At the risk of offending the Valenciennes International Festival of Action and Adventure Films who awarded their best actor prize jointly to Langella AND Sheen--no, not really.  (Did the international cut of this movie contain scenes of action OR adventure?)
What’s the big deal?  I almost chose Sheen's portrayal of Tony Blair in "The Queen," but one could argue that was a supporting role.  Fortunately, Sheen has been overlooked in all sorts of roles, including this one opposite Frank Langella.  Sheen is a true chameleon; everything I said above about Russell Crowe applies to Sheen in every role he's played.  In fact, despite having seen, liked, and appreciate Sheen's work in both "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon," it wasn't until I examined his film credits that I realized he was in "Midnight in Paris," which I saw about a month ago.  It was one of those "Oh, yeah... that WAS him" moments, which is common with so-called character actors--not so much with leads.  The fact that I recognized his work as Oscar worthy in two prior films, then didn't even recognize HIM in another movie is a testament to his seamless portrayals.  As Frost, the presumably overmatched interviewer of former president Richard Nixon, Sheen shows us his character's gradual appreciation of the gravity of his assignment and how someone for whom things have always come easy can rise to the challenge when something becomes hard.  Which Sheen, of course, make look easy.

With that, we wrap up another addition of "Seen--and STILL Snubbed."  All performers included in this post are eligible for "A Golden Preacher" award, that I or one of my sculpting apprentices will personally construct (not out of real gold, of course) for any recipient who contacts me in person to claim their award.

To everyone else, thanks for reading.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fifty Percent Is Half the Battle

Actually, most of the time, when I FEEL like I'm fifty percent done with something, I'm actually not quite fifty percent done, so maybe it's more accurate to say, "Fifty percent is about two-fifths of the battle."

I'm referring to tasks.  Or, in this case, goals.  Six of them that I shared with readers of WPFF a few months ago, written out on actual e-paper.  These were those goals:

1.  Blog at least 2x a week.
2.  Finish landscaping and lawn-tending that needs to take place in the fall.
3.  Sort through the boxes of art that my children have created the last couple of years.
4.  Become social again, scheduling at least one lunch or coffee a week.
5.  Visit the girls' school at least 3x.
6.  Burn at least 3 DVD's of video from our computer so as to erase the data and free up disk space.

Since a list of goals isn't any good if you don't go back and see where you came up short, let's review:

1.  Blog at least 2x a week.
I was probably about 2x a week until the Christmas holidays blindsided me--they should totally put those things on a calendar or something so people know when they're coming.  I ended up taking about 4 weeks between posts, but it was the worst kind of time off--the kind that you don't give yourself until afterwords, so instead of relaxing about taking a break, you stress about not being more diligent until you're finally like, "I guess I took a break."  I think the goal was good, and I think 2 posts a week is reasonable for the foreseeable future.  I THINK I'm learning how to do this better, though who can know these things for sure?
Level of Completion: Close

2.  Finish landscaping and lawn-tending that needs to take place in the fall.
There's one bag of mulch that I keep hoping that I have already spread around our lone, backyard tree, then forgot that I did it.  Unfortunately, my lack of any memory of doing this task has proven to be completely accurate.  Still, each morning I look out the back window and hope.

Aside from that, fall landscaping was very successful-ish.  I did some mulching, some spreading of grass seed, some fertilizing, and some mowing-in-lieu-of-raking.  I even remembered to completely drain our rain barrel so that it wouldn't crack from freezing water inside.
Level of Completion: Very close

3.  Sort through the boxes of art that my children have created the last couple of years.
My daughters are more prolific artists than I am a writer--or really than I am anything.  I made it through quite a bit of their art, and I've got a "keeper pile".  But they keep making more.  I can't stop them.

What I have learned with this goal (and number 6) is that it's pretty hard for me to make time to do projects that take a little bit time each day, with the fruit of any given daily efforts being virtually negligible.  I don't think I'm special in that way.  I just need to redouble my efforts; or, what's it called after you've already redoubled your efforts once, then need to redouble them again?  Is that retripling?  Or is it exponential, so as to become requadrupling?
Level of Completion: Not very close.

4.  Become social again, scheduling at least one lunch or coffee a week.
It probably helped that I had initially thought I had written down TWO lunches a week, so I got off a pretty fast start.  Even though I slowed down a little, I still ended the semester having averaged even more than 1 meeting a week.  Mission accomplished: I am fully social.
Level of Completion: Full

5.  Visit the girls' school at least 3x.
I adjusted "what counted" with this one, and included chaperoning field trips as well as being "the heavy" at the girls' after-school Lego club.  Plus I had one full-fledged, sit-in-on-the-classroom visit.  All told, there were about 6 experiences of participation with the girls' school.
Level of Completion: Full

6.  Burn at least 3 DVD's of video from our computer so as to erase the data and free up disk space.
As with number 3 above, this "little at a time" task proved difficult to make time for.  A couple of funny things about this goal, though:
-I actually enjoy doing it
-I don't think it's going to take THAT much time
I did an hour's worth of editing today, and made a decent dent.  I think doing 3 hours a week could put me on course to finish within a month or two at most.  It would be VERY nice to have all of our video edited and cataloged.  I just need to make it happen.
Level of Completion: Not very close, but maybe closer than I think

So, this concludes the looking back segment of my fall, 2011 goals, and the results are mixed.  Maybe I came in at a little over 50%, which amounts to half the battle (since finishing the battle always takes a little more time than I think it will).  Good for a batting average, not so good for an ACT score.  In a week or so, I'll look forward again and lay out a new set of spring semester goals (which will include some rehashed fall semester goals as well as some new ones).

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Inspired by Grant: "Amazing, Beautiful"

It was a Tuesday in February and I was in Kentucky, driving through blinding rain to a funeral for a boy I had never met.  I had read stories about him and his battle with a genetic metabolic disorder.  They were at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, and so detailed and revealing that it wasn't until after the funeral that I remembered that I had, in fact, never met Grant in person.

I knew his parents, though.  Shawn and I were pretty good friends in college, although I hadn’t seen or talked with him for years.  He was involved in the college ministry through which I became a Christian.  He and two other guys formed a drama ministry, and invited me to join; we were the four musketeers for my sophomore year.

Shawn was a guy who said what he thought, expressed what he felt, and was who he was.  He was big—tall and large, but not overweight-looking—with brushed-back blondish brown hair and a loud, deep voice.  He was larger-than-life in many ways, with the mannerisms and disposition of a guy who had done some musical theater (which he had). His laugh would fill up a room, booming and bellowing, and sometimes even giggling.  I loved making him laugh.

Despite his presence and his history of performance, I never felt like I was talking to a character when I talked with Shawn.  He listened intently and actively, and he shared personal struggles in appropriate and empathetic ways.  He could carry a crowd, yes.  But he could also carry a conversation—even when that just meant listening with compassion.

Shawn could sing, act, speak in public, and play a handful of instruments; he was socially aware and communicated well in a variety of settings; he was book smart and culturally literate.  He was even decent looking and reasonably athletic.

(If he ever reads this, my guess is he will laugh at that last sentence and—with a big smile on his face—either mock-protest, “He’s got me all wrong—I am INCREDIBLE looking and AMAZINGLY athletic!”; or self-effacingly brush aside my description as “way too kind.”  Either way, I stand by it.)

Oh, by the way: Shawn is also one of the most intellectually brilliant people I have ever met.  He breezed through undergrad and went on to med school to become an anesthesiologist.

On his way, he married Emily.  Though I only knew her a little bit, she made a good impression.  She was intelligent, supportive, pretty, God-loving, and had enough spark to remind Shawn of whatever it was in his busy life that needed some of his attention.  It wasn’t too long before they started a family, bringing into the world a son, then a daughter, and then another son.

For all of Shawn’s gifts and abilities, he knew that depending on himself instead of God was as foolish for him as it was for anybody.  When he even sensed pride in his heart, he would confess his concerns at leaders’ meetings or during drama team practices.  He would ask for prayer, that he may learn to grow more dependent on God.

When people who seem to have it all together share their struggles, it can seem disingenuous. Not with Shawn, not to me.  He knew he was just a guy trying to follow his God.  If asking for the prayer support of others would help him do it, then of course that’s what he would do.

After Shawn and Emily moved away, I saw them sparingly.  I met their oldest son when he was a baby, but I had never met their daughter or younger son, Grant.

When I got word that Grant’s body could no longer keep up with his spirit, it was sad but expected.  For months I had planned, when the time came, to do my best to make it to the service.  But when the time came, “my best” didn’t seem like it was going to get me there.  “There” was the eastern edge of Kentucky, on a Tuesday in February.  It turns out when you’re looking ahead a few months, cutting away from family and responsibilities for a couple of days seems pretty simple.  When those “couple of days” were suddenly “tomorrow” and “the next day”?  Well, I sincerely began to wonder if offering meaningful support to my friends necessarily meant showing up to the service in person.

I spent much of the day on Sunday waffling with great earnestness.  I finally came up with a perfect compromise.  Green and pink were the suggested colors for the service—they were Grant’s favorites.  I decided I would take a photo of me and my family dressed in those colors.  Then I’d send the picture to Shawn and Emily, along with a card and a charitable donation, and I would communicate everything I wanted to share without me actually being there.  They would see that I was making a sincere effort (which I was) and perhaps they would even view it as an above-and-beyond effort.  And, God willing, they would be at least a little bit comforted in their loss.

I honestly regarded my idea as a genuine, win-win plan.  I even decided that I would take those next couple of days in St. Louis and make sure not to fritter them away.  I would be extra diligent around the house and spend good, quality time with my family.  For a few seconds, I was very pleased with my plan.

God, it turns out, was NOT very pleased with my plan.  It’s hard to explain, but almost immediately after I decided I was not going, He kind of started twisting my guts around inside of me.  Any stress I felt about going—packing, driving, planning, etc.—was quickly feeling like a walk in the park compared to the agony of NOT going.  It was part spiritual and part physical, this agony, and it wasn’t just a twinge of guilt, either.  It wasn’t really any kind of guilt at all—it was an intense unsettledness.

Almost as a way of teasing out the source of this unsettled feeling, I decided that I WAS going after all.  When I re-committed to making the trip, it was like when a loose bike chain clicks back into place.  It was right.  I was going.

During the most-of-the-night drive, I did a lot of thinking, crying, and praying.  I was glad that God wanted me to go, but I wasn’t sure why, since I figured Shawn and Emily had a deep support system in their church.  I imagined I’d get just a moment to express my sympathies while friends crowded around them.  I hoped that seeing me would be a pleasant enough surprise.  As far as I was concerned, if sharing a kind word for (literally) a minute or two might bring any measure of comfort, the inconvenience of a 2-day drive was a drop in the bucket.

I crept into the service a few moments before it started, sat in the back, and took it all in.  I learned that Grant kept an amazing spirit throughout his sickness, always keeping a sense of humor and a godly outlook. While bedridden, Grant would play the “A to Z” game, reciting characteristics of God, one per letter.  I learned that Grant was a fan of Elvis, and loved dancing and singing to his hits.  Grant’s sister shared some fond memories and stories.  And Shawn himself spoke, sharing the most profound Gospel presentation I have ever heard.  The church was packed with adults from all sorts of spiritual backgrounds, and almost as many children.  Shawn spoke with force and empathy.  Miraculously, his words were compassionate, uncompromising, and clear to everyone.  Non-churchgoers had nothing “go over their heads”; conversely, lifelong Christians did NOT feel that the message “lacked meat.”  Then we sang songs to God.

During the reception, I made my move, drifting into Shawn and Emily’s line of sight.  Emily saw me first and did a double take—I saw her mentally filing through her worlds, removing me from an old one, and placing me in this one.  I hugged her, and then I saw Shawn.  He was also surprised.  I offered my condolences and assured them that, in more ways than they could imagine, their efforts had honored Grant and glorified God.

They were appreciative, but seemed to sense that I was only stopping by.  “Are you going somewhere?” Shawn asked.  I explained that I had come to offer some encouragement, that I didn’t want to impose on them, and that I CERTAINLY didn’t want them to worry about entertaining a random old friend from the past.

Shawn took me aside.  He and his family had moved to this small Kentucky town when Grant was getting sick, and Shawn and Emily spent most of their waking hours at the hospital or caring for Grant at home.  He explained that their church had been incredibly supportive and had opened their hearts, arms, and homes to his family.  Their friendships were new and growing.  But what Shawn and Emily did NOT have with their new friends were long-term shared experiences.  Right then, at that moment, it was meaningful for Shawn and Emily to have someone they “went way back with.”  I remember thinking something like, “Oh.”  Pause.  “I see.”

An hour or so later, I was at Shawn and Emily’s house with a small gathering of friends and family members, including a couple of other long-term friends who had made the drive from St. Louis.  It was dark outside, and the mood in the house was surprisingly mellow.  We laughed and reminisced.  We ate vast amounts of food selected from the meals that had been delivered by Shawn and Emily’s church family—and we barely made a dent in the provisions.  I hung out a little bit with Grant’s brother and sister.  For Shawn and Emily, the celebration service might have marked something of a transition between types of grief—and this weird, surreal span of a couple of hours felt like a mellow lull.

There were, of course, moments of tears and sudden waves of sorrow, even within moments of lighter exchange.  Conversations and people flowed around the house; one moment Grant’s older brother was showing me a toy whip; a moment later, I was sitting with just Shawn and Emily, the three of us trying to untangle some of the sadness and confusion they were feeling.

During my drive, I had expected to offer an encouraging sentence or two to Shawn and Emily.  I had NOT expected to—an hour after the service—be sitting in a room of their house with just the two of them, as a friend and a de facto pastor.  Not that I minded.  In fact, though I felt sad and helpless, I also felt strangely blessed to be sharing this time with my friends on this evening.  They didn’t expect me to have any answers that would “make it all go away” and, of course, I didn’t.

Instead of offering answers, I asked questions—questions about Grant, the grieving process, the impact of everything on the kids, and how Shawn and Emily had related to God and to each other since Grant got sick.  As they talked, I listened, and let my mind distill some of what I had been observing.

Eventually, I tried to articulate some of those observations, if for no other reason than to give my friends one more view of the reality they were trying to digest.  Maybe I was like the guy in the upper deck at a baseball game, while Shawn and Emily were deep in the third base dugout.  They were completely engrossed in all that was transpiring on the field before them—indeed, fully involved and invested in every action.  But maybe my spot in the stadium allowed me to see a small corner of the field down the left field line, a spot just out of sight from the third base dugout.  Or, maybe they could just use a different angle to confirm what they had seen.

I observed, for example, that a sanctuary full of people had been given the opportunity to experience the power of God firsthand and to hear a completely Spirit-led rendition of the Gospel.  Because Grant lived his life so full of faith and joy, his earthly death provided an occasion to genuinely and boldly proclaim the truth of the One for whom he lived.  Grant—quite directly—ministered to more people in his 8 years than many Christians do in their whole lives.

I observed that the depth of Grant’s faith far superseded the age of his body.  Like a sauce prepared by a skilled chef, Grant’s faith seemed “reduced”—a lot of flavor (depth of faith) had been packed into a little space (8 years).

I observed that Grant, even after his death, would be an effective missionary for God.  His life—and his family’s reaction to his death—would impact scores, then hundreds of people, many whom he had never met.  I pointed out that I was one of those people.

And I pointed out a truth that may have been both the most difficult to grasp and the most liberating: that the pain we were feeling was no longer on behalf of Grant.   Rather, it was because we missed him.  That was fine, of course.  That’s what mourning is, and God expects and even commands us to mourn.  But Grant himself was all done with pain.  As the apostle Paul wrote from prison, “For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.  But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ.  So I really don’t know which is better.  I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me.  But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live” (Philippians 1:21-24, NLT).  The knowledge that Grant has been suddenly liberated may itself gradually liberate us.

We prayed, cried, and hugged.  It had been a full night, and I finally said good-bye.

On the drive home, and then in the months that followed, I reprocessed so many of the details from the evening.  I wanted to extend the sentiment of the evening into the future with some creative impression of what transpired.  I shaped some memories into lines and verses.  I would be driving somewhere or lying in bed or mowing the lawn, and an image would pop into my head.  I’d make a note of it.

But my impressions lacked continuity.  Whatever it was that I was writing was halfway done—maybe more, maybe less—but I’d get distracted and stuck.  When you spend an hour to hammer out a single phrase in a line of a poem that may not ever even be read by another human being—well, it’s sometimes hard to make the effort.

Fortunately, someone else made the effort.  A few months ago, I noticed on Facebook that Shawn made a note about going to a book signing.  I got the impression that he was the signer, and I was curious.  A couple of online searches later, I discovered that Elena, Grant’s sister, was actually the signer.  Apparently, she had written a book about her brother, called “Grant and His Great God.”

I bought it.  You can, too.  It’s good.  It was inspiring and challenging.  Challenging not just in its content, but because while I couldn’t quite finish a short commemorative lyric regarding Grant and his faith, Grant’s sister started, finished, and published an entire book.

So I had a long talk with myself.  I said to myself, “Look, we’ve had our ups and downs, and I know you don’t always like what I have to say.  But don’t you think that MAYBE you could block off some time to shape some of those images and such into something like a finished product?  You know, like soon?”

I had a good point.  I became more diligent.  It still took me another couple of months, but at least the progress was steady.  Who can know if the delay in finishing this lyric was providential or a product of my flawed human condition?  Maybe it was both.  Regardless, God seems to have provided Grant’s family with a lot of support and encouragement since Grant’s passing, even apart from my efforts.  Go figure.  It’s my prayer that these words may serve as an additional conduit for God’s grace and glory.

In the meantime, I sit here grateful for Grant’s life.  I am grateful that God had me attend the service on the far side of Kentucky.  I am grateful for Grant’s family, and for his sister’s book.  So if nothing else, these words are a thank-you note to Shawn, Emily, Jackson, Elena, and Grant.  And, of course, to God.


     Amazing, Beautiful

I’m driving down this hill but I can’t see the road; the rain is falling faster, falling faster than these blades can sweep
The sky, like life, is gray, a blend of hope and fear and other things I’d see if I had more than 3-plus hours sleep

Then a scene on the horizon like a magnet draws my eyes in,
it’s a beacon breaking through the clouds like water through a dam
And by faith my soul is certain that there peeking through the curtain
is the one who died a boy whose faith was worthy of a man

Amazing, beautiful, compassionate, delightful, everlasting,
Finally Grant sees the A to Z’s of his Father face to face
Dancing like the King of Rock led joyf’ly by the King of Kings
Then laughing and collapsing in the Spirit’s calm embrace

The building glows--just like a lamp beneath a cloak--through mist and fog to guide the ev’ning mourners clad in pink and green.
Inside we sing out praises to our God with heavy souls and finite minds that wonder “Why?” and “What does it all mean?”

Then a father weak and grieving rises, arms outstretched, believing
that the question most worth asking isn’t “What?” or “Why?” but “Who?”
And the answer that he clings to is the Savior that he sings to
who assures that faithful hearts, when broken, He will make like new


All these stories, songs, and scriptures, conversations, prayers, and pictures—
instead of sharing time with Grant it’s these things that we share.
But then, through them, God’s bestowing all the things that where Grant’s going
he won’t need—like faith and hope—but that we will until we're there.