I wrote this short reflection for The New Olympian, the newsletter for Olympic View Community Church of the Brethren in Seattle, WA.
My dad’s mom, known to me as Granny, walked down the aisle at First United Methodist Church of Pineville, Louisiana, accompanied arm-in-arm by her older brother James, the same brother that led her down the aisle at her wedding fifty-six years ago. Behind her followed her three sons, known to me as Uncle Bill, Uncle Al and Dad, her ten grandchildren (including myself) and various daughters-in-law, nieces and nephews and other relations. The congregation stood as we passed by, accompanied by a solo piano playing Great is Thy Faithfulness.
And that’s when it really hit me, fully, that he was gone.
Of course I teared up a little a few weeks ago when I visited him and he reached for my hand and held it, weakly, but warmly and affectionately. He didn’t say much of anything to me, but he did look at me, eye to eye, for an extended period of time, and I think he knew who I was. As I remember it he even smiled ever so slightly without breaking his gaze, that old sly smile of his.
I’d also been to the visitation the day before the funeral, and lightly wept as I stared into his face and tenderly touched that same hand, now cold and stiff, with my own warmer, fleshier one.
We had also all cried together as an extended family as, over and over again, we watched a video made in his honor by his employer for the celebration of his retirement many years ago, a photo slideshow set to music, featuring pictures of him the way I’ll always remember him: with all his humor and wit, his playfulness, tenderness and strength. And that smile. His face in those pictures was so full of vitality and energy.
But in spite of these things, it still seemed as though my coming to grips with his passing did not yet seem complete. As special as he was to me, as much love as he poured out on me throughout my whole life, in light of all the gratitude I have for who he was as a grandfather and as a man I had expected from myself a much stronger reaction. (I wasn’t by any means preoccupied or self-conscious about this, but it was just something I had noticed.)
As a whole, it was a beautiful funeral. The pastor summarized the obituary that was penned by my dad and his brothers; my Uncle Bill and some friends told stories about him – of which there are many good ones; I had the privilege of reading the 23rd Psalm and parts of John 14, and the pastor talked about Jesus at his friend Lazarus’ funeral, among other things.
But the most memorable moment for me was walking down the aisle in that caravan of Matthewses and McCabes. We were there to remember, mourn and celebrate the life, death and resurrection of William Cannon Matthews, known to me as Grandaddy, and my ability finally to fully remember, properly mourn and adequately celebrate was only realized as the piano melody to Great is Thy Faithfulness rushed into my ears. I sang quietly to myself:
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided; Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
Now that that family caravan is spread back across the United States, and I’m here sitting at my desk in Houston, it almost seems like a strange song for a funeral. But it isn’t. That lonely piano preached to me a sermon that I needed to hear. It turned out that on that day, it was only in the context of remembering God’s own faithful love and mercy that I was able finally to situate my grief at Grandaddy’s death, as well as the fullness of the joy I have for having been a part of his life.
Grandaddy used to tell us grandkids, usually in connection with a lively embrace, “I love you so good.” It was such a unique way of expressing that sentiment, and he said it so often, that it became his signature expression. His great and persistent, generous and extravagant love for me, his grandson, is to me like a parable of God’s love for us.
I’ve said it before: Christianity is basically all about death and resurrection. In Christ the crude physical reality of death has been overcome and the life and love of the Kingdom of God now reigns. Because of the great faithfulness of God, I can affirm that the cold, dead, stiffness of Grandaddy’s hand won’t have the last word. The Christ who suffered so brutally on the cross before being raised up and shown to be Lord of all has taken up the collective suffering of Grandaddy’s life into his arms, and with his own pierced hands finally restores and makes new Grandaddy’s hands, restoring warmth and life greater than any previously imaginable.
And the same Christ in his faithfulness and mercy takes my grief at the loss of Grandaddy, and not just that but all the grief and suffering of the entire universe, into his arms as well. That same Christ promises to wipe away tears from every eye, and to destroy death for forever. And that same Christ promises to make, not just Grandaddy, but all things, new. Great is his faithfulness.