Franklin Hall was only 20 years old, a student in our Project 12 Discipleship Training School of which I am a teacher / staffer.
Last week Franklin was riding in a car with two other P12 students in Pennsylvania. They had a roll-over accident and Franklin was thrown from the car and killed.
Virtually the entire Project 12, students and staff, went to Cadillac Michigan for the wake and funeral last weekend.
What did I experience?
Frustration. Franklin was a student whom I identified with… he saw Christianity as central to everything, yet was deeply disturbed by the Church’s woundedness and lukewarmness. (A song he’d written, performed at his funeral by some of the P12 students, underscored this love for, yet pain because of, the church.) I was frustrated because I wanted to get to know Franklin better. And here, only a few weeks into our year, he is gone.
Finality. As we entered the funeral home where the wake was held, and I saw Franklin’s body lying in the casket, I was struck with his youth. The make-up on one of his hands did not completely cover the bruises. And I, often haunted by the reality of death, felt its presence in an almost scientific way. Death is the end of all that happens on this earth. Death is the Ultimate Earthly Fact. Everyone will end up in a coffin.
Faith. For what, I thought as we sat the next morning in the Nazarene Church’s sanctuary, do we live? Death is the end of this life, but for the Christian it is the beginning of the next life. It is a door, not a wall. And when one of the relatives of Franklin stood up, she held (literally) a door upon which some months ago — before all this came to pass — had painted an image of Franklin. He is holding open his shirt, and inside the opening is a fire so vivid it appears to be a bomb-blast. He is shouting, and above his head three or four large black birds (crows, I think to myself) fly up and away from him. Are those crows death? Is his faith-filled heart filled with a power that overthrows death?
Various voices from past and present are raised to talk about Franklin. His mother and father tell us how Rusty became Franklin, how he joined a group of Christians called “Scum of the Earth” (see: http://www.scumoftheearth.net ).
The verse the name is taken from, said Rusty’s sister, is this one: “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13)
Rusty became Franklin recently when through this group he had a renewal of faith, a commitment to Christ that he felt required him to use his middle name as signifier of a new life in Jesus.
I listened to his story, told through the lips of his parents, his brother, his friends, his high school wrestling coach. Franklin, it turns out, wrestled injured for three years. (The word “Relentless” emblazoned a wrestling banner near his coffin at the wake.)
I looked around the church, filled to overflowing. And I looked up at the platform where Rusty lay, his coffin covered with rough but beautiful artwork with a sort of punk feel to it all.
I remembered Franklin’s words weeks earlier, as we’d sat around a campfire at the Project 12 Orientation at our Cornerstone Farm. He’d shared his story, and he’d shared his desire to pastor.
I looked at this group of people again, here in this church, with death the winner only if what is visible is all that exists. And I felt the current of the Invisible God, His Resurrection Power, His Agape Love. Franklin’s life lasted 20 years, so short a time that he had the appearance of a child still, and his coffin was lined with pictures of spiderman. He looked like a fragile child asleep. Yet above his head, almost directly, was a comic book word balloon: “SMASH!” And I thought, with a start, that’s what he’s done in Christ.
Death is smashed. Death has been overcome. The Final Fact of this world is negated by Faith in Christ.
But pain remains. I looked at the young girl / woman, another P12 student, Franklin’s beloved. She sat with his parents, and her face was filled with anguish.
Christ wept. He knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Yet he wept. The Bible does not say why he wept, only that he did.
That is enough for me. God wept not only for us, but with us. That is the only answer to the mystery of suffering that I know. And it suffices. It is, in the end, one of the most powerful reasons for my faith in Christ. A suffering God is a God in Whom I can believe.
Franklin is with Christ. He is in Joy forever. We — his friends and family — are not yet fully with Christ, knowing as we are known. We dwell yet in the land of reflection and shadow.
I sat with a dear friend of mine, Curt Mortimer, that first night at the wake. We were alone in a side room, and I asked Curt how he was feeling. Curt, you see, lost his own son years ago to cancer. Benjamin was only nine years old when he died.
When Curt hugged Franklin’s mother, I knew there was a knowledge between them I could not (and thank God I could not) fully know. And as Curt and I talked, I looked at his face and saw in it a suffering that seemed (and this isn’t poetic — this is what I experienced at that moment) a sort of gentle light of nobility in his features. And I imagined, or tried to, what it would be like to have one of my four children still in that coffin. And I shuddered.
Franklin preaches in his death. He has become a pastor, leaving us this one last life sermon. There are men and women older than I am who have lived thoughtless lives, lives which deny the power of God and deny the meaning of human existence. They have lived lives which are death in life, vacuous and self-seeking and pleasure-seeking without any sense of consequences temporal or eternal.
Franklin’s life and words testify against that road. In twenty years he left a lasting legacy of Grace, meaning, and commitment. “Obey” one of his shirts said on it. Obedience was a road he’d set out on, obedience to Love.
I am convicted and challenged by his example.
– Chicago 10/19/09