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.



  1. Wow. You know, if God wants your attention He has the entire SPECTRUM of services at his disposal. It seems good to me that, despite the unspeakable hardship your dear friends suffered your efforts to console and comfort them brought forth those 'talents' which seem to lay as if in remission. It can be awesomely frightening and powerfully healing to have the Living God 'Update' your soul-software...

  2. Thanks for completing the work, you have done an amazing job honoring Grant, Elana, Jackson, Emily and Shawn. I share all the same memories and it was great to revisit them with you. What's more incredible is that on Friday of the same week, they somehow did it all again for another church full of adults and children in Kansas City! (delia)

    1. Hey, Delia. Thanks for your thoughts and for posting. I'm glad that our recollections and lasting impressions of the night align. I was glad you and Gwen were there to help encourage and be encouraged. It is a blessing to be one of the first "ripples of influence" with everyone who was there, and it is amazing to watch others be impacted by what God did with Grant's life before, during, and after that evening.