For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
2 Corinthians 4:17
The turkey soup was in a copper-bottom stainless steel Revere pot resting on top of the wood stove in Grandpa’s shop. It was two days after Thanksgiving eight years ago. I remember it was cold out, cold enough to make nose hairs freeze and ears pine for the equator. “Come on in and take a seat, Matt,” Grandpa said as I walked in out of the cold. He was stirring the soup with a ladle and had a couple bowls and a box of plastic spoons standing by. The stove had a good fire going in it and there was a three foot by four foot stack of Douglas fir to the right of the stove against the wall- split and ready to add to the fire. The shop, stick-built and spacious, was mostly finished, needing only the interior finished. The wall studs were bare with the paper backing of the insulation showing. The ceiling was open and uninsulated but all the light fixtures were wired in and doing a nice job of brightening up the place.
“We’ll get this shop finished up next spring,” said Grandpa. We both chatted and talked, catching up on things. I had just moved to North Central Washington from the Puget Sound only a week or so before. It was good to sit there in the quiet, listening to the fire crack and pop, the heat of the stove chasing the bitter cold away. Being the late part of November, with subzero temperatures and snow already on the ground to stay, fall was practically gone, so naturally we speculated about how much snow we would get throughout the next three or four months.
In a whimsically reflective tone, Grandpa began telling me about the reason behind building this shop. “The Quonset hut was crushed under the weight of last winter’s snow. Nearly completely demolished the Mazda pickup we had and could’ve demolished me.” Clearly, he was in the “laugh about it later” stage because he joked about it. I suppose it was a good thing he didn’t go back for whatever he left in that Mazda. Since the old galvanized metal shop was no more, it was only logical that a better, stronger, more up to code building be its replacement. (I think there is a inherent yearning hardwired into a lot of men to strive after a garage or workshop if they have never had one all their life. I write this with no other evidence than what I can remember of my Grandpa. He made due without one in different ways for most of his life. Also, for myself, I yearn for a shop myself.)
“I mainly supervised and drove to town for building supplies throughout the construction,” he said. He emphasized the word supervise pretty heavily with a smile. “Soup’s ready,” he said sipping the soup and confirming it was hot. Here’s a bowl, and the spoons are on that table.” We each filled our bowls up with a hot, brothy soup filled with a liberal amount of turkey and vegetables. Leftovers from Thanksgiving. We ate and talked more like two old buddies with winter outside and soup and firewood within. It was savory, but not overly so. “I made this yesterday but it tastes better today, I think. It’s always better the next day.”
Turkey Soup and the Fall of Rome
When one is in the middle of a monumental moment in life, seldom does one grasp the gravity of it. In and of itself, turkey soup certainly does not compare with the freezing of the Rhine River in impacting the fall of Rome and changing the course of Western Civilization. Nor does it conjure up images of Beowulf slaying a dragon. It was simply soup made by my Grandpa. The fellow who told me stories about moonshiners in Kentucky, one of his older brothers being chased by a panther in a “holler” in the dark, and his conversion to Christianity in his twenties, and almost being murdered by a rooster. The grandfather who built me and my brother a tree house, took us fishing, and threw a hatchet into a tree from forty feet. The guy who told me when I was just starting to drive, “Don’t worry about turn signals; they’ll only get you killed.” He was like Chuck Norris to me growing up, light on the martial arts and heavy on the Kentucky and old country music.
However mundane turkey soup can be, lacking the historical impact on the “big picture” of things, in a fissure of time, that pot of soup will always be something important in my own life.
The cold chill outside sat at bay while in the shop, sitting on white plastic chairs in front of the wood stove, Grandpa and I chatted as we were being warmed by the fire with soup in our bellies. We got up to leave the warmth of the shop, pulling the damper all the way out to kill the fire.
“Shouldn’t we take the pot of soup in the house to save for later?” I asked.
“Nah, we’ll leave it out here. It’ll cool down fast in here once the fire’s out. It’s probably below zero out now,” Grandpa replied. So we left that pot of soup on the stove. “We’ll come back out here tomorrow anyway and have lunch then.” We both then turned and headed out the door where the air instantly bit and numbed our faces. (Later that winter, the temperatures dipped to minus twenty, and some north facing draws got down to minus thirty without windchill.)
The next day was just about as cold. The clear night of deafening cold gave way to sunshine without a cloud in the sky. The feeling one gets after coming down from a high from Thanksgiving was still looming, with the anxious sentiment of Christmas looming larger still. It was a happy time. That morning, conversation took place over a piece of pie and a cup of black coffee. Having newly moved, job prospects and my plan now that I had quit my job on the coast to come to the quiet of a rural area were, naturally, prominent topics between Grandpa and me.
“There’s a saw mill down in town,” Grandpa informed me. “Also, there’s a gold mine supposedly under construction up on Buckhorn Mountain.” I nodded, having heard about these potential opportunities along with a few others. Grandpa and I talked a lot about work all that day, which both added to my enthusiasm as well as to sobering me up to the fact that I quit a steady job in a more robust economy and moved over to a more economically repressed community of mostly retired people in the slowest time of year in terms of job markets. I had to be honest with myself, I moved over because of a girl. Eventually, that girl became my wife, but, as it is said, that is another story. (A success story.)
It seemed like talking was the biggest activity me and Grandpa did since I moved there. Eating even took a subordinate position to being the fuel for dialogue between me and the man who could throw a hatchet into a tree trunk at forty feet. I was twenty and could hold my own in a conversation, but I still felt boyish around him, begging him to tell me once more about the time he fell out of a barn loft, being saved by impaling his wrist on a hay hook dangling from a chain. Chuck Norris, who?
Eventually, we did make it back out to the shop, which had cooled down to not much warmer than outside. The soup was not frozen solid, but it was kept cold enough not to have spoiled. Grandpa and I teamed up and got a fire going. He opened the damper and got some newspaper ready. I took a hatchet and split a bit of kindling off a piece of larch, positioning the wood on the wadded up paper. He lit it, and once the splintered pieces began to burn nicely, we added a few rounds of larch and fir. The stove began to heat up and heave out groanings and pops indicative of a good fire. Soon enough we were both helping ourselves to another bowl of hot turkey soup. After we had eaten and talked a while more, Grandpa opened the stove door. The coals inside flickered and the flames danced, pulsating with an abundance of fuel and oxygen. He threw another small log in and shut the door. Another hour our so, we dampened the fire back down and left, leaving the flames to decrease to flickers and eventually extinguish.
Supper and Reflection
That evening we had supper in the house. Outside nothing stirred, the trees and the snow deafened any noise. Inside, the house was aglow with lights from the kitchen and front room where we all sat at the dining table, having finished our meal. The quiet outside was more than compensated for by the commotion of voices inside. Laughs and sighs from everyone due to funny stories gave way to only a voice or two, one at a time, with others listening or taking turns talking. A lot of remembering. Before I left, the subject of our 2004 road trip out to Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan came up. That brought smiles to each of us, but especially to me and Grandpa. We were always close, but, in a subjective way for me at least, on that trip me and him became best friends.
Many of our close relatives had died in so close a time frame, I said. Grandpa looked at me and nodded, wincing his eyes, furrowing his brow like he did when he was putting thought into something- or holding back a tear. Christians weeping for Christians who have died to this mortal life seems contradictory to the gospel. We are but flesh, with ties to this world, and longings for our true, eternal home. Grief is not antithetical to the gospel, but it is a part of the redemptive story. I’ll never fully comprehend it on this side of eternity, but I know that Christ became flesh for the sake of his own and for us he was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3b, ESV).
We said goodnight. I gave Grandpa a hug and he said, “See you later.”
Morning, Freezing Fog, and the Weight of Glory
I was sleeping in a camp trailer on my mother and stepfather’s property, when I was awoke by my mom opening the aluminum door, crying loudly. “What’s wrong,” I asked, startled and not wanting the answer to my question. “My dad is dead!” she said, fighting the words. “Grandpa died!” she said again, stepping back outside in a fit of tears.
I sat up, still in bed, feeling dazed and cold. Tears streamed down my face. I could see my breath. “Oh, Grandpa,” I said aloud, getting dressed. It was still dark, and the sun wouldn’t be up for another couple hours. It wouldn’t matter anyway, the icy fog blanketed everything in frost and shrouded visibility. I hopped in the truck with my folks, and we headed over to Grandma as quickly as we could.
When we got to my grandparents’ house, the fog had barely lifted at all. Everything was dark except for light coming from the windows. Once inside, we could hear Grandma before we saw her. All we could do was hug her and cry with her, finding Grandpa motionless in his recliner in the office room. The deepest of griefs is known when the reality of death is known. It’s at that moment when it’s hardest to triumphantly proclaim,
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55)
It’s at such moments in time, where even the reality of Christ’s triumph over death, if we’re honest, is overshadowed by the aches in our hearts and the noise of our cries. When I saw Grandpa’s body lying still, without life, the only thing I could do was cry. No trying to hold back the shock or grief. Underlying it all, the sadness, the emptiness, and dumbfounded shock, the longing gave way to clinging to the “man of sorrows” instead of the body in the recliner.
Later that morning, the body was taken away, and more infinitely deep sadness welled up within me. Grandma sat still, exhausted, tears still flowing. Some solace came that day, when what seemed like the whole local church had shown up throughout the day. Everyone sharing in the loss, exchanging hugs, with some reminders of God’s faithfulness one expects to hear from fellow Christians. I walked outside. I went to the unfinished shop. It was cold, but I had to be alone. I built a fire and sat in solitude, watching the flames flicker and grow into a roaring fire. With the stove door open, I thought about how in the previous days, and the day before, I sat with my Grandpa, the man who told me stories of growing up in Kentucky, of bootleggers in dry counties, and how he learned to play guitar. The man who could throw a hatchet into a tree at forty feet.
Alone and out of sight, engrossed in sadness, I cannot say I was in that shop quoting scripture aloud, wearing a mass market Christian T-shirt with a picture of some blue jeans with holes in the knees that says “Pray Hard!” Not so much. I wasn’t wearing a Bible camp smile. Nothing significant was going through my head. But in a completely objective sense, I knew this much, that God has swallowed up death forever and that he will wipe away tears from the faces of his elect (Is. 25:8).
I closed the stove door and put my head in my hands and sobbed. It was an honest longing, the admission that we were made for more than this transitory place, heaped up in runny-nosed scalding tears. Then I looked up and stared at the Revere copper-bottom pot. I got up and opened the lid. Soup’s about ready to eat, I thought. I got a bowl, heaping turkey soup into it. And I ate.