Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (6/19) — Chapter Six, Rose (2/4)

OUR HYBRID TEA ROSE called Dolly Parton displayed beautiful blossoms all season long but, like many other modern roses, had no real fragrance.


BOONE, N.C. (Oct. 27, 2019) – It’s Sunday, but we didn’t go to church this morning—well, not in the old-fashioned way we usually do. We didn’t have time. So we went to new-fangled, high-tech church.

It has been a busy weekend, one of happy reunions, hopeful awareness-raising events and wistful visits to places both old and new for a group of sisters who four decades ago—sorry, girls—shared four years together that marked the bittersweet end of youth and the sunny start of unadulterated adulthood.

In that regard, some things do improve with age—like the wine and bourbon whiskey Boomers drink. At this point in our lives, our memories taste richer or sweeter than they probably were, while the future looks partly cloudy to mostly sunny at best. So we try to revisit those days past that weren’t entirely carefree by any means, but were as of yet unburdened by the accumulated worry of adult experience and responsibility—our days of glory, our days of grace.

WE SAW THIS SIMPLE CROSS Sunday afternoon on the riverbank next to the greenway at Brookshire Park in Boone. We wondered why the cross and a single brick were there.

All in all, it was a good weekend for Timberley and her sisters, even during a rainy Saturday afternoon and stormy evening that altered their long-held plans and kept them at their rented house in the wet and wild autumn woods instead of out on the town one last night. But they were together, and that was what counted most, I’m sure. Still, when the sun rose to clear October skies this morning, I’m fairly sure no one objected as they packed for their drives home and then went out to breakfast at the ol’ Grandview.

That’s why we didn’t go to church this morning—not because we wanted to eat bacon, eggs, homemade biscuits and apple butter with a grand view of Grandfather Mountain. We weren’t able to do that, for as much as we wanted to. We ate oatmeal at home. No, we didn’t drive the hour down the mountain to our home church because a person sometimes needs to step away or step back or step out of something for a moment to see just where he’s standing or what he’s standing in. Isn’t that what Sundays are all about, anyway?

And that’s really what church is all about, too, right? Seeing where we stand in relation to the universe around us? Not just the world. The whole universe. Everything under all the suns we see and don’t see. Trying to understand what our lives were, what they are now, and what our lives might possibly become.

Pastor Rick would be aghast at that last paragraph, though I think that such a laid-back preacher as he is should be agog, not aghast, when a poor seeker like me falls for his multimedia pitch and tunes in on an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning. Why would I choose to watch the contemporary service streamed on his website when I could attend the more traditional worship service at my church off the mountain?

Besides the reasons I’ve already given, maybe I was curious, or slightly agog, about the allure of what’s called contemporary Christian worship, with its laid-back pastors in jeans and flannels or tees, its soft-rock bands and mic-brandishing praise teams, and its multimedia presentations on stage-wide screens. Maybe I wanted to see if their definitions of God and Christianity are that much different from mine.

So I googled Pastor Rick’s church and found its website, and at 10:30 a.m.—when our church down the mountain was starting its more or less traditional service—we watched a pre-recorded presentation of religious rock music and somewhat secular sermonizing that had been produced Saturday afternoon as the first of the megachurch’s four apparently identical weekend worship services. It was, well, interesting.

It wasn’t Pastor Rick, though. Like our real-life pastor in Morganton, Pastor Rick has been out of town this weekend—actually, on his way back home today from an important mission trip abroad. That was his story, anyway, in the video clip that introduced the guest speaker, who, I gathered, was there partly to promote his latest book—not Pastor Rick’s book, which has sold a gazillion copies over the past few years, but this other guy’s new book. Do you ever get the idea that it’s always about selling something?

Kind of like Franklin Graham’s Decision America, Tar Heel State Tour earlier this month, with one stop at L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory. We had considered attending that evangelical Christian spectacle in person, but we ended up watching it online, too, because the contact person who finally emailed me back from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association office in Charlotte couldn’t assure me that people like us with physical problems wouldn’t have to stand in line for hours outside the ballpark. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

As it turned out, I was glad that we didn’t try to attend in person, especially after we learned that some folks had driven down from Boone but got caught in the traffic jam near the stadium and didn’t get to attend the rally in person. In our case, we stayed in the comfort of home, Timberley sat in her recliner and did work on her laptop, and I lay on the sofa and streamed Franklin Graham on my smart phone. That was good enough for me. I could turn down the volume on Franklin’s godly rock ‘n’ rollers and turn up the words he shared between the band’s sets.

That’s what religion is all about, isn’t it—the words, not the loud music? I’m guessing that Franklin and Pastor Rick would say it’s about The Word, because, as the Gospel of John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But before we get ahead of ourselves, what was that word again? Yeah, I’m asking about the word for God, like in the contemporary Christian song “The Great I Am.” How do we define God? I am … what? Isn’t that what religion is all about?

But we’re often distracted because everybody seems to be selling something nowadays—books or music CDs or, I don’t know, their good names for political influence. Maybe it’s the latest silicone bracelet to remind us of something important. How Voters Help Jesus, indeed. Yes, it is kind of backwards, isn’t it? Shouldn’t the ineffable name of God be as straightforward as the words of his public relations men here on earth? Or is it the other way around?

Don’t try to figure all this out. I’m purposely trying to be inscrutable with all these ineffable questions. Sooner or later I might come up with some inimitable answers, maybe. Just keep reading, because, in the end, isn’t that interaction—asking questions and weighing the answers—what Christianity is about? Yes? No? Maybe?

How about these three questions (out of the 300-some in the gospels) that Jesus himself asked, indubitably:

  • “Why did you turn the church into a marketplace?” (John 2:16)

  • “Are fame and fortune worth trading your soul for?” (Mark 8:36)

  • “How can an imperfect person criticize anyone else?” (Matt. 6:28)

Hit that button and jump right in with your answers. This isn’t Jeopardy, so you don’t have to frame them as questions. It isn’t Wheel of Fortune either, but I’ll spot you as many vowels as you want, and you don’t have to worry about hitting the Bankrupt or Lose-a-Turn wedges. I know, I know. Going to church these days is more like playing Family Feud—with one group of congregants pitted against another—but we’ll just pretend that we’re all friends who don’t fuss about the music played or liturgy conducted.

For my money, contemporary Christian worship—whether it’s a laid-back service at Pastor Rick’s chic church or a political prayer meeting run by Franklin Graham—is the SmackDown wrestling of religion. Everything seems real, sort of. The loud music makes emotions run high before the main event begins, and then the true professionals take the ring in whatever cape, costume or mask befits the personae they portray. But is the action real? And are the words anything more than a pitch? For some believers, yes, definitely.

It’s entertaining, and that’s all that really matters, right? Putting butts in seats, and then getting them up on their feet to shout and sing? I’m not saying that’s true for everyone, but I’m saying that’s how I look at it right now, though maybe not forever. Then what does matter? It’s a question everyone must ask themselves eventually. Right now, I’m asking it—as a friend. And for any friends who are looking for any other answers to old and new questions.

In the language of flowers, yellow roses—like Dolly Parton, our hybrid tea rose I’ve mentioned before—symbolize friendship. If she were still blooming, I would have gathered a bouquet and given them to Timberley and her sisters this weekend. But the only roses still in bloom here in the High Country this late in October are the popular, trademarked Knock Out hybrids—big bushes with flashy red blossoms but no fragrance at all and not nearly as pretty as Dolly. I guess Knock Outs are the SmackDowns of roses. They’ll do, in a pinch.

It’s too late now, though. We’ve all said our goodbyes and hit the road home. A bouquet of roses—or of any flowers, of any color, scented or unscented—certainly would have been a nice gesture. But I was distracted by the rain and didn’t think or act fast enough. “Better late than never” just doesn’t cut it now, no matter what I say here. Now it’s too little, too late. No bourbon-filled brownie points for me. Having good intentions doesn’t matter all that much if I never realize them. Maybe next time, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal, I tell myself. After all, I’m trying to live and learn.

That may seem harsh. But the only life that matters is real. And as we live and breathe, the time is always right now.