By RAHN ADAMS
I’m starting this column on March 28, 2019, so who knows what will happen between now and when it’s posted—or if it’s ever posted? No one, right? Life can be good, bad or indifferent.
But it’s Opening Day in Major League baseball, when hope, if not optimism, springs eternal, and when grass, except here in Boone, is green again. So here’s what I’m thinking about right now.
It has been that kind of retirement so far for Timberley and me. We retired from public school teaching in August 2016 because the demands of working full-time and helping care for two elderly, seriously-ill parents had become too great. Then, after saying good-bye to the daily grind of teaching—and three-quarters of our annual income—both of us encountered health problems of our own that far overshadowed mere worries about financial security.
Fortunately, as of this writing, we both have realized “new normals” in response to our medical challenges. Timberley has been able to continue teaching part-time at Appalachian State University during three of the past four semesters since her cancer surgery, and last fall I started working there, too, as a part-time consultant in the University Writing Center, my first real job since my back surgery one year ago this week. For those opportunities, we’re grateful.
Also, we’ve both been trying to rededicate ourselves to creative pursuits—Timberley’s art and digital graphics, and my writing and music—but we’ve had mixed results, mainly from the all-too-frequent interruptions of circumstances beyond our control—that is to say, from life. It’s as if someone who is in control of our day-to-day lives—and who has curious senses of humor and timing—doesn’t want us to make long-term plans or be too ambitious about anything.
In spiritual terms, we’re learning to be Buddhists even though we’d rather remain Methodists. We’re learning that desire—wanting anything outside living in the moment, really—causes our own suffering. Over the past couple of years, we’ve made various plans to do various things that we might have enjoyed, but something—usually something quite serious—has invariably foiled our plans. The old Cosmic Monkey-Wrench Gang has been working overtime in our lives.
So far we have been able to observe Lent (or whatever Buddhists call it) with no discernible interference. Our stomachs are growling from cutting out lunch and from otherwise sticking to our low-carb, low-sugar, low-fun diets. As a result, we’ve both lost weight—me more than Timberley, because I had much more to lose than she did. We’re also reading a Lenten daily devotional, as well as several other books on religious issues pertinent to Christian life.
And we’re trying to find different ways to give to members of various communities both within and without our church, through our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service, to paraphrase the old Methodist pledge that Timberley made as a child upon confirmation and that I promised some 39 years ago when I put my old Baptist ways behind me and joined the United Methodist Church, whose view of somewhat conditional salvation I have come to share.
By conditional, I’m referring to a perhaps wrong-headed perspective on salvation for which my late father, a Baptist preacher, criticized Methodists. Whether he was right or wrong, he often claimed that Methodists believed they could lose their salvation if they didn’t live right, while Baptists believed that once they were saved, they stayed saved and would spend eternity in heaven no matter how much hell they raised on Earth (my words, definitely not my father’s).
Whenever a Baptist we knew strayed, shall we say, far from the fold, I’d ask Dad if it was fair for that backsliding believer to be rewarded with eternal bliss after causing so much infernal suffering among fellow travelers to the grave. His response invariably would be, “He must not have been truly saved.” I remember him referring to each backslider as a he because I don’t remember ever asking that question about a woman. Now I wonder why men were so bad back then.
Dad’s answer—that the wayward guy probably hadn’t really been saved—never sat well with me, at least not with my teen-aged sense of fair play (as compared to my 60-year-old adult sense that there’s little fairness in life). But then there were Jesus’ teachings about welcoming ungrateful, hard-partying sons back home, not stoning naughty women, paying shirkers as much as hard workers, and, of course, that whole dunking versus sprinkling thing. Dad had every angle covered.
Until he didn’t. When it happened to him, that is—it being life, or, more specifically, the true realization of his own mortality.
Over the last 15 years of his life, my father suffered like a modern-day Job, having to endure more physical problems than one human being deserved—heart disease that required a pacemaker, skin cancers that had to be removed regularly, colon cancer that led to a permanent ileostomy and several other related surgeries, and, maybe worst of all, diabetes that meant mood swings, daily injections, rigorous monitoring of blood sugar and a diet that ruled out most favorite foods.
I was sitting with him when he died. He was at home in his own bed—though it was a rented hospital-style model—and had been under hospice care for a number of weeks. Other family members, including Mom, who continued to be Dad’s principle caregiver, were asleep elsewhere in the house, as it was long after midnight. We all had known that Dad’s days, if not hours, were numbered, because he had fallen into a coma of sorts a couple of days earlier.
Before going into that long sleep from which he never awakened, Dad expressed one night what I interpreted as doubt over why he had experienced all that disease and suffering. I think he and I had been watching an Atlanta Braves game on TV at the time, this being back when Atlanta’s Hall of Fame pitchers were making other teams suffer, not when the Braves themselves were perennial losers, back when Dad would take me, my brothers and some of our friends to occasional ballgames in Atlanta.
So it wasn’t our shared history as long-suffering Braves fans that made Dad think about life’s woes.
Also, keep in mind that I had always been the “wayward” son—the one who had dropped out of college twice, the first time after forty days and forty nights as a freshman at bewildering Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist Christian institution in Greenville, S.C., where my parents had met and one elder sibling of mine had also graduated. For the sake of balance, I later dropped out of App State so that I could begin pursuing a writing career—but I did so as a junior with a 4.0 GPA.
Not only was I the former college dropout in a family of overachieving degree holders, but I had married a Methodist and become a Methodist, as I’ve already noted. Another sibling also married a Methodist but kept going to the Baptist church even after pledging their I do’s in a Methodist sanctuary. While Timberley and I were dating, my mother—a Baptist all her life—actually asked her if Methodists were socialists. I’m still not sure where that came from—maybe from propaganda at Bob Jones—but it surprised Timberley, who had been a Methodist all her life.
So it wasn’t my socialistic tendencies that had prompted Dad to ask me, of all people, why he, of all people, was suffering so much after a life of dedication to God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Bob Jones University, and pastorates at six Baptist or Bible churches in North Carolina and Illinois.
I don’t know why he confided in me, why this man with whom I’d never really had any father-son talks, not even the birds-and-the-bees talk, suddenly decided to ask me the toughest question about Christian life that particular night—in other words, why do bad things happen to good people? But my reply was the same one I’m sure he would have given me if our roles had been reversed.
“If you truly believe in God,” this preacher’s kid told his doubting dad, “then you also have to believe there’s a reason for all this.” And that seemed to satisfy my earthly father. I knew that a no-nonsense fundamentalist like Dad would never even consider that God might have set our world in motion, only to walk away from His creation. To a good Southern Baptist—or even to a bad Baptist—God is immanent in every moment of our existence, from conception to eternal life after death.
But I’m a Methodist. And I do see some good things about socialism.
In the early morning hours of June 16, 2001, as I sat in the uncomfortable chair beside Dad’s bed, I took up his Holy Bible (KJV) from the nightstand and leafed through the Old Testament to the Book of Ecclesiastes, and I started reading my favorite words of biblical wisdom. Just after I read the familiar opening verses of the third chapter—all those “There is a time for . . .” lines—I heard a noise come from his throat. I looked up and whispered, “Daddy? Are you awake?” Of course, there would be no reply. His sunken eyes remained closed. His chest rose and fell one last time. It was that simple.
Today is the 6th of May, over a month since I began writing this column. As I look back over what I’ve written, I see nothing I particularly need to change. The Braves are flirting with first place in the National League East, and the grass here in Boone is so green that I’ve already had to mow it twice. Our spring flowers here at the Rutherwood house are just starting to blossom, while the daffodils, thrift, azaleas and irises at the old homeplace in Morganton are all but bloomed out. Things live, things die.
To everything there is a season. Even for hope.