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Pastors' Conference 1972

This is it. This is where our book ends. I want to thank you for sticking with us over the first half of this year. We’ll be back with a very different story on the first Sunday in July.

Chapter 49

Chapter 49

Tom found her less than two minutes before Glynn arrived. Claire was unconscious, huddled with her suitcase at the inset of the front steps to the high school, which provided minimal but critical protection from the snow. Tom unlocked the school door and the two men took Claire inside. Glynn removed his parka while Tom ran to the office and called Hub then called Linda. Getting her to the hospital in Arvel was going to be treacherous but it was the only choice if they were to save her. 

Hardly a word passed between the two men beyond what was absolutely necessary. Anger glared in Tom’s eyes as hot as guilt coldly contracted Glynn’s. When Hub arrived the men helped him put the teenager on the cot, covered her with warm blankets, and put her in the ambulance. Hub insisted that Glynn ride up front with him while Tom rode in the back with his daughter. While both men had been focused on Claire, Hub could see that neither of them had been fit to be out in the weather, either. All three would need medical care.

News of Claire nearly freezing to death made its way around town quickly. Word that Sunday services were canceled did not. As phone calls intended to notify members about the church were hijacked by concern and anger over Claire, it wasn’t long before the Sunday services were forgotten completely. As a result, come 10:00 there were five elderly women standing at the front door of the church wondering why they couldn’t get in. Rose could see them from the front window of the funeral home and had them come there to wait until she could arrange rides home for them. 

Hub was, for the time being, stuck at the hospital in Arvel due to the sheriff in Ridell County declaring the roads too unsafe for even an ambulance. Rose called Buck who, in turn, called Horace, who, thinking additional backup might be good, called Alan. More than an hour passed before the three deacons made it to the funeral home.

Alan was furious when he arrived. “Why didn’t anyone call these ladies and tell them there were no services today?” he shouted at Buck as he stomped up the ramp to the funeral home. 

“The chain was started,” Buck shot back firmly. “Obviously, you knew. Horace knew. Most of the church members knew. Somewhere, someone failed to continue the calling. There’s no way to know who it was, so let’s just get these women home and be done with it.”

“Had the preacher called off the services when I told him to, this wouldn’t have happened. There would have been plenty of time to get the word out,” Alan insisted, pushing his point. “The problem here is that the preacher doesn’t listen.”

“You mean he doesn’t listen to you,” Horace said sternly. “I told him to wait. I thought we’d be able to get some blades out on the street and I thought the county would have salt trucks out. Had those things happened, Claire would have made it home safely and we could have had church this morning. It’s the county’s fault as much as it is anyone’s.”

Alan clenched his fist and got in Horace’s face. “That’s horse pucky and you know it. When was the last time anyone’s seen county salt trucks on Adelberg streets? 15, 20 years at least! He was a fool if he listened to you and you were a bigger fool for suggesting it.”

“Glynn’s not been here long enough to know that the county ignores us,” Buck said, stepping between Horace and Alan. “And as pastor, he has an obligation to consider what’s best for the church as a whole. He’ll be as upset as anyone that the word didn’t get around.”

“By the way, where is he?” Horace asked. “I kinda figured he’d be the first one Rose would have called.”

Buck shoved his hands in his pockets to protect them from the numbness he was beginning to feel. “The hospital kept both him and Tom,” he said. “Neither of them needed to be out in the snow any more than Claire did. It’s a wonder they’re not all three dead.”

“That’s what ignorance and stubbornness will get you,” Alan said. “They’re all three book smart and think they know everything. We see where that got them.”

The three men delivered each of the ladies to their homes, being careful to walk them to the door so that they wouldn’t slip on the ice. Traveling anywhere, even short distances, seemed to take forever. While the snow had stopped falling during the night, the wind had taken over and blown the snow into massive drifts that blocked the road in some places and left the slick ice bare in others. Once the men had finished their deliveries, they each crept home with every intention of staying there no matter who asked for help. Being on the roads at this point was suicide.

Glynn had asked the hospital call Marve when they admitted him. She wasn’t surprised by the phone call. She also knew that they would have to keep him until the roads cleared up. If Hub couldn’t make it back there was no way she was going to risk making the trip. Instead, she sat by the telephone in the kitchen, answering one call after another. Everyone was angry and Marve understood but had no answers for anyone. 

Marve was confused when Roger, Clement, and Bill had all called in succession to ask if Glynn had seen the morning newspaper. She might have understood had their paper been delivered, but roads were so bad that even paper delivery had been canceled in Adelberg, though it had managed to arrive everywhere else. Instead, she told them what had happened with Claire and that Glynn was back in the hospital. “I don’t know if the cold caused the MS to flare up or if they’re treating a serious case of stupidity,” Marve told Roger. “It’s probably best that he’s there where he’s only getting limited information. I think everyone in town is upset with him right now.”

Each of the three preachers had a different response. Clement tried to be comforting and asked if Marve needed anything. Roger was more pragmatic. “These things happen and the bad news seems to come in waves. I’m sure we can work through this.” Bill showed a broader concern. “I’m worried for him, Marve, and I’m worried for our association. Nothing feels right this morning.”

Marve found Bill’s response curious but chose to not press for details. It was obvious something was up in the association and at this point, she really didn’t care what it was. She had enough to worry about with Glynn being back in the hospital and the focus of everyone’s anger. She thanked Bill for his concern and went hung up so she could answer the next call from yet another furious church member.

Glynn laid back in the hospital bed and tried to be thankful for the relative peace and quiet. The nurses had assured him that Claire was going to be okay, despite some frostbite and the severe cold essentially burning the inside of her lungs. What they didn’t tell him was that Tom now had full-fledged pneumonia and was on a ventilator. Had he known, Glynn likely would have tried walking down there and making peace with Claire’s father. Whether the omission was accidental or on purpose would forever be a point of speculation. As it was, he was lying there practicing the breathing techniques he had been given when Bill walked into the room with a newspaper tucked under his arm.

“Please tell me I’m not the only reason you’re here,” Glynn said as he sat up and shook the other pastor’s hand. “There’s no way the roads have started melting already.”

Bill shook his head and smiled. “Are you kidding? The old folks in my church are what keeps this hospital in the black. I always have a reason to be here. I talked to your wife earlier, though, and she told me they were keeping you until this mess clears up. I thought you could use some company.”

“Your wife got tired of having you underfoot, huh?” Glynn teased.

“Well, yeah, I’ve been pretty animated this morning, I’m afraid,” Bill said. “This landed on my front porch before I had my first cup of coffee. Roger said he’d called you yesterday when he found out.” He tossed the front section of the newspaper at Glynn whose jaw dropped when he saw the headline.


If Roger had spoken with the newspaper’s reporter, he had not succeeded in getting them to hold back on any of the details of the accident. The article, which completely occupied all the space above the fold, blamed Larry for almost everything short of driving the pickup that had hit him. The sheriff was waiting to arrest him. The district attorney was promising to prosecute the most severe charges he could. And there, in the middle of everything, was a damning quote from Roger that read, “If Rev. Winston has indeed done anything wrong, he will surely know the wrath of God.” 

Glynn put the newspaper down and looked at Bill. “Did he really say that?”

Bill nodded, his arms crossed in front of him, his expression stern. “He insists that the paper took him out of context, that he said that in the middle of a larger statement that they omitted. That’s irrelevant now. This is what every person in both counties woke up to this morning. It’s a good thing all the churches were closed or we might have had a riot on our hands. I’ve already run into a couple of Larry’s church members here in the hallway. They’re ready to lynch him.”

Glynn sat up a little more. “Crap, I hadn’t thought … He’s still here in the hospital, isn’t he?”

“He’s in intensive care,” Bill said, “and if God has any desire to show him mercy, he’ll just call him on home. There are police staked out just outside the unit, ready to arrest him the moment he’s conscious. The hospital has asked his wife to stay home to avoid there being any difficult scenes.”

Glynn looked at the newspaper again, shaking his head as he re-read the article. “What about the kid’s parents? This doesn’t say anything about their response.”

Bill pulled up a chair and sat down. “They’ve lawyered up and aren’t speaking to anyone. Roger tried to contact them to offer to pay for the funeral but they wouldn’t take his call. I can’t say I blame them. I know you weren’t here, but there was an Assembly of God pastor a few years back who was accused of raping a girl in his church. Their denomination got him out of town before charges could be filed, no idea whatever happened to him. There were a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of anger over that situation and this has brought all that back up with even more intensity. I’ve had a couple of church members ask if we’re all depraved sex freaks. If church members are thinking that, I’m not sure I want to know what those outside the church are saying.”

The two pastors sat there in silence as Glynn read the article again. While the reporter expertly guided his words to avoid making any deliberate and possibly slanderous charges, there was little doubt left in the reader’s mind that Larry Winston was a deplorable person who hid behind the cover of being a pastor while drinking heavily and doing unspeakable things to boys. That a truck had slammed into his car, killing the boy and severely injuring him was treated as an afterthought. The truck driver’s name wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the article. There was no police statement saying he’d been arrested. 

Neither of the men had any sense of how much time had passed when Dr. Guinn appeared in the doorway of Glynn’s room. “Brother Waterbury, I thought you’d want to know, Horace Lyles was just admitted a few minutes ago. For the moment it looks as though he’s had a heart attack brought on by being out in the cold. We’re doing the best for him we can but it’s too soon to make any more of a diagnosis.”

Glynn sighed and put his hands over his face. He felt dizzy but didn’t want to lie down. “Thanks for letting me know. Is his daughter here with him?”

The administrator shook his head. “It was a sheriff’s deputy that brought him over. He said the road was too slick for anyone to follow. I guess it took several minutes for him to get out to the farm after they got the call, and then over an hour to get him here to the hospital. In that respect, Mr. Lyles is lucky to be with us at all.”

“Let me know when he’s in recovery and awake. I’ll try to make it down there to see him,” Glynn said as though this were routine and he could hop up any time he wanted and leave the room.

“Hold on there,” Alton said sternly, walking over and putting his hand on Glynn’s shoulder. “I’ve seen your chart. You’re lucky I don’t have you in a hospital gown. If your oxygen levels aren’t better at the next check, I’m hooking you up to a bottle and probably an IV. I’m keeping Dr. Dornboss in the loop, of course, but for the duration of this ice, we’re pretty much limited to the staff immediately available. I’d appreciate it if you’d not give them more to do.” He smiled as he spoke, trying to mask the seriousness of Glynn’s condition by keeping the tone light. He turned and motioned for Bill to follow him into the hallway, closing the door behind them.

“Can you stay here and make sure he doesn’t leave his room?” Alton asked Bill. “We’ve got three of his church members here already and two other people from Adelberg he doesn’t know about. This isn’t the time for him to be playing pastor. The cold hurt him a lot more than he knows. I don’t really have any justification for hooking him up to anything yet, though. I need him to stay put, keep his blood pressure down. If you could help with that it would be much appreciated.”
Bill agreed to stay and used a telephone in the lobby to call his wife before returning to Glynn’s room. “Looks like they’re not letting anyone leave now,” Bill said as he returned to the chair next to the bed. “Hope you don’t mind being stuck with me for company.”

“Well, you’re not the prettiest guest I could hope for, but since my wife is stuck at home I guess you’ll have to do,” Glynn teased. The two pastors chatted casually for a while and eventually, Hub made his way down to the room, pulled up a chair, and joined the conversation. Hub’s stories did a lot to lighten the mood and kept both pastors laughing.

Marve called to check on her husband and everyone else around 3:00. She didn’t tell him that she talked with Claire before talking with him. The girl’s throat was still raw and her voice hoarse but she had managed to tell Marve she was sorry for over-reacting and causing so much trouble. Marve had done her best to console the girl, telling her that at any other time leaving would have been the right thing to do. Neither did Marve tell him that she’d talked with Dr. Guinn and knew that the odds for either Horace or Tom surviving the night were slim. By the time she talked to Glynn, she knew she needed to paint a picture that glossed over the severity of the entire situation.

“Don’t worry about anything here,” she told him. “With everything that’s happened, no one else is going anywhere. The county superintendent has already closed schools for tomorrow. The radio is saying it’s supposed to be a little warmer tomorrow and that maybe that will melt the ice a bit.”

“How bad were the phone calls this morning?” Glynn asked, knowing that few of his church members were likely to have withheld their opinions.

“You’re going to have some explaining to do, for sure,” Marve warned. “Even your own children want to know why Daddy made Claire cry. You’d best start practicing your humility now. Be glad that news about that Larry Winston guy is distracting everyone.”

Glynn gulped hard. He had assumed no one in Adelberg had seen the newspaper. “So, you know about that?”

“Yeah, it’s been on the radio all day. Alan’s making a lot of noise, saying he wishes he’d killed him at the annual meeting and not many people are disagreeing with him. He’s also suggesting that there needs to be a board or committee to oversee pastors, but you know Alan, he likes talking big.” Marve stopped, wondering if she’d said too much. The last thing she wanted to do was get Glynn more upset than he already was. She carefully brought the conversation to a close, told Glynn she loved him, and hung up hoping that things wouldn’t get any worse while knowing instinctively that they would.

As the afternoon ceded into darkness, the hospital stayed busy. From inside Glynn’s room, the sound of multiple alarms and code alerts made it clear that the small staff was being pushed to their limit. There was no shift change. The same staff that had been on duty when Glynn arrived the night before was still working. The reality was that they needed at least three more doctors and a dozen more nurses. Dr. Guinn knew better than to issue that order, though. Every emergency case they had received that day was tied to the weather in some form. Calling in additional help, risking the lives of doctors and nurses he needed, was out of the question. 

Eventually, a nursing assistant came through handing out trays of food. “Since no one can leave, everyone gets to eat,” she said, apologizing for the lack of selection. She looked weary, her smile forced, half-hearted at best. Everyone needed a break but there seemed to be no break coming. A nurse came and checked Glynn’s vital signs. She then left for a few minutes only to return and hook him up to oxygen, start an IV, and a heart rate monitor, forcing him to lie back in the bed and limit his talking. 

As the hour grew late, Bill figured out that the chair he was in reclined. An orderly brought in a similar chair for Hub along with some blankets. The men felt guilty for relaxing when the staff was getting by on 30-minute naps between emergencies. When Bill asked if there was anything they could do to help, Dr. Guinn had sent back the message that staying out of the halls and keeping Glynn calm was sufficient.

All night long, bells dinged, alarms sounded, code alerts were announced. With each one came the sound of nurses and doctors running back and forth along the hallway. As the night progressed, there was one death, then another, and just before dawn, a third. 

When a nurse checked Glynn’s vital signs the next morning, she took him off the oxygen and IV. An orderly brought them coffee, scrambled eggs, and dry toast. Bill jokingly remarked that this was the worst camp he’d ever attended. Eventually, Bill and Hub both left the room, Hub to check on his ambulance, Bill, ostensibly, to stretch his legs and make some phone calls. 

No one but Glynn was in the room when the door seemed to open by itself. There sat Claire, unescorted, in a wheelchair, her hands and feet still bandaged from the frostbite. She rolled the chair as close to Glynn’s bed as she could. 

He could see that the girl had been crying. He sat up in bed and reached over to take her hand. “I’m so sorry, Claire,” he started.

“My Daddy died last night and they didn’t even tell me,” the girl said in a rough whisper. “I didn’t get to say goodbye. No one got to tell him that he was loved. Mom can’t even get here. And it’s all my fault.”

Glynn got out of bed and knelt beside the wheelchair. “No, Claire, it’s not your fault. If you need someone to blame, blame me. I shouldn’t have talked to you like that. I should have stopped you from leaving.”

Claire shook her head as more tears streamed down her face. She tried to speak but no sound was coming out of her frost-burned throat. 

“I’m so very sorry, Claire,” Glynn said, choking on the lump in his own throat. 

A nurse walked into the room at that moment, interrupting the conversation. “There you are, young lady. You had half the staff panicked because no one saw you leave your room. Come on, let’s go back now. You can talk with Rev. Waterbury later.” 

Claire bowed her head and sobbed hard, giving into all the grief inside her as the nurse pushed her out of the pastor’s room. Glynn wanted to chase after them, wanted to continue apologizing. If anything, the whole matter was his fault.

“Get your backside back up in that bed,” Dr. Guinn said sternly as he suddenly appeared in the doorway. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you earlier. It’s been a rough night. Rev. Winston passed around 11:00 and that was a mess to deal with. Then, Mr. Lyles died around 2:00. It took so long for him to get to us, there really wasn’t anything we could do to repair the damage. Mr. Huddleston passed just before 6:00 and before you and Claire both go off on some guilt trip, he almost certainly had pneumonia at least a day, maybe two before. His lungs were weak from smoking. Even if he hadn’t been out in the cold I doubt we could have saved him.”

The report was a lie, one of those doctors would tell to ease the pain from an unexpected death. The administrator understood the signs of depression and knew that the truth, that yes, Tom had pneumonia from being out in the ice and snow on Friday but would have recovered, could send either Claire or Glynn spiraling into a tomb of self-doubt from which they might not recover. The death certificate would have listed the same cause of death either way. 

“I know you’re anxious to get up and be the great pastor who comforts everyone,” Alton said as he helped Glynn back into bed, “but not today. And if you’re not careful, you won’t be able to help anyone at all. A lot of people live a long time with MS, but you’ve got to respect it and not push or it will kill you.”

Glynn dropped his head back on the pillow, consumed by a grief and darkness he had never known. Questions filled his mind. Where was God? Why was this happening now, right before Christmas? How was he supposed to handle not just one but two funerals of men who were critically important to the community? What was he supposed to say to Claire and Linda? What was he supposed to say to anyone?

There were no answers coming. He prayed, and prayed, and pleaded with God, but all he got for his efforts was the steady beep of the heart monitor.

Our story continues below this break

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Chapter 50

Chapter 50

Winter funerals are mercifully short. Even packed gymnasiums are still drafty. No one stands around to exchange memories of the deceased. Graveside services are as brief as possible. In almost every instance there is a dominating but unspoken sense of “let’s just hurry up and get this over.” Bereaved families mourn more internally, less expressive, and with greater inward contemplation. 

Glynn managed to preach both funerals without any physical incident, though everyone was certainly watching to see whether the pastor would hold up under the strain. Horace’s service was on Thursday afternoon in the church, every bit as packed as Joanne’s had been a few months earlier. His daughters, sitting on the front row, cried just enough to be respectful but they had already decided between them to put the farm up for sale after the holidays and let Adelberg become a memory in their still-young lives. 

Tom’s service was held in the school gymnasium on Friday. School was canceled for the day and educators from across the region were in attendance. There were some, sitting at the top of the bleachers as far removed from actual mourners as possible, who anxiously watched to see if the preacher would crack, rubbing their hands together not so much to keep warm but in gleeful anticipation that he, too, might become a victim of the grim reaper’s scythe. 

Claire was still in a wheelchair and would be for a couple of weeks as multiple treatments were needed to repair her lungs and throat. Linda hung tightly to Marve as both women still held that it was their own husband’s thoughtlessness, not the other’s, that had brought them to these circumstances. Together, they sat in the cold metal folding chairs placed on the gymnasium floor, realizing that it was the fault-filled nature of humanity that complicated their perspective of the day. Words rushed past their ears without being heard or having any meaning. They left the gym, sad for the necessity of the event, thankful that it was over, hopeful that they would now be allowed to mourn in peace.

Glynn preached short sermons the next two Sundays to a half-empty sanctuary. Not everyone stayed away for the same reason. Some feared a cold rain might turn to ice and bring a repeat of the same deadly conditions. There was also a handful of elderly church members for whom venturing out on cold weather was simply not an option. Among the others, however, lied a blanket of resentment, anger, and mistrust that would never go away. Watching the difficulty with which Linda pushed Claire’s wheelchair into the sanctuary and the manner in which the device partially blocked the center aisle was, in many minds, symbolic of the effects of carelessness. That the pastor’s condition was frail seemed to many to be a just consequence for his part in all that had happened, however small it might have truly been.

In between Sundays, there were many conversations, some hushed, others shouted. In the monthly deacon’s meeting, Alan was not hesitant to charge Glynn with gross negligence and pushed for a vote of no confidence at the next business meeting.

“You’re full of cold dishwater if you think I’m going to let that happen,” Buck charged. “We need to unify this church right now, not split it further apart!”

“Then let the church unify around justice for Tom and Horace and Claire,” Alan pushed back. “Don’t you realize what we’ve lost here? Seat cushions aren’t going to soften the blow to this church’s ability to trust and follow this pastor. He has exhibited a severe lack of judgment and I’m not convinced, nor are many other church members, that he is capable of leading us forward!”

Buck stood and leaned over into Alan’s face as close as he dared, putting a hand on Alan’s shoulder in case he should think of taking a swing. “If anyone other than you is thinking such derogatory and sinful thoughts it’s because you put them in their head, Alan Mayes. We keep finding ourselves on opposite sides of this barbed-wire fence because you are an aggressively power-hungry big mouth who gets off on telling other people what you want them to think. It’s not going to work this time, Alan. I’m standing up to you right now and I will continue to do so. You’re wrong, what you’re doing is sinful, and if there’s anyone who has exhibited a severe lack of judgment here it’s you!”

Alan attempted to stand but with Buck’s hand on one shoulder and Roger Sutherland holding the other, he quickly realized he was overpowered and angrily pushed them both away from him. He was about to fling a bucket of insults at both men when Marcus spoke up from across the room.

“I’ve been in this church longer than either of you,” the elder deacon said quietly, “and I can tell you right now that the greatest damage that has ever been done to this church has been because of this group right here, the deacons, the men who are supposed to be the spiritual foundation of this church, getting into fights and not once thinking of what’s best for the church or considering what God might have intended. I don’t know what you three think we’re supposed to be doing right now, but I can promise you that yelling at each other isn’t going to accomplish a dad-burned thing.”

Buck sat back down in his chair and Roger moved his chair slightly away from Alan’s. Glynn, who had been sitting quietly in his office chair letting the deacons control the meeting, was wishing that he could be completely invisible or, preferably, not present at all. 

Marcus continued. “Look, nothing we say or do is going to change a cotton-pickin’ thing that happened. Yes, mistakes were made by multiple people but the consequences of those mistakes were sufficiently severe that any further action does nothing more than make a bad situation worse. It seems to me that if we can’t stand behind our pastor right now as a united body then we really have no church at all. We’re just playing.”

After several more minutes of tense conversation, the group finally decided to issue a statement of support for Glynn that would be read at the conclusion of the next Sunday’s service. Buck was tasked with typing it up and the other three would sign it before the service. When Glynn finally sat forward in his chair to say something, the men were startled, having all but forgotten that the preacher was still in the room.

The reaction from the church to the deacon’s statement was pallid, though, and did little to sway general opinions in the town. No longer able to take casual walks around to chat with everyone, Glynn felt distanced from his congregation which made his assessment of their response more negative than it needed to be. As the community saw less of the pastor, they less frequently considered him as someone to seek out and their opinions tended to remain negative. 

Cautioned even more about attending potentially emotional events such as associational meetings, Clement would instead drive over and visit with Glynn, letting him know what was happening and trying to pull the pastor’s opinions out of him. Response to Larry’s Winston’s death had been muted. Roger had let everyone know that this was not the time to be speaking ill of their late colleague even if the circumstances did appear damning. Larry had died without any opportunity to defend himself. The whole situation would be allowed to pass quietly away and never spoken of again.

Clement found it interesting that on the same weekend, a pastor down in the Southwestern part of the state, a James Swathmore, had been driving on rain-slickened roads late that night and apparently skidded off the road, down an embankment, and ended upside down in a creek. No one seemed to know whether it was the accident or the cold or the water that had killed the pastor of First Baptist, Latimore. This was just one of those tragic things that had happened. Most of the pastors in the state didn’t find out until after the funeral.

“It’s that time of year when everyone’s swapping churches,” Clement told him. “No one’s really paying attention to anything else going on in the convention. Dr. Hobbs resigned at First, Oklahoma City, but Gene Garrison seems already positioned to take that spot. Jackie Draper’s leaving First Southern, Down City for someplace down in Texas, one of the Dallas suburbs that’s growing really fast. I’m thinking about putting my name in for that one. I think I’ve had about all the closed-mindedness I can handle. What about you? You going to stick it out here?”

Glynn shook his head. “I’ve not even thought about it, really. Until the MS settles down and I know what life is going to be like I don’t think I can consider doing anything different. I’m damaged goods.”

Calvin called a couple of times to check on Glynn’s progress. The calls seemed more formal and obligatory than they had been, though. There were no offers for any kind of additional assistance beyond the assurance that the hospital bill was handled by the convention.  Even Calvin’s seasonal “Merry Christmas” sounded hollow. 

Frances and Marve managed to cobble together a children’s Christmas pageant for the Christmas Eve service. The decision had been made to forego Sunday school that morning and start the service at 10:30, allowing it to be a bit longer yet not slip over much past the noon hour. Richard had the meager choir prepare a couple of seasonal songs that would be presented in a most ear-cringing manner. The sanctuary was decorated with plastic poinsettias and strands of holly that were dusty from having set in a box in a storeroom since the previous Christmas. Brown paper bags were filled with nuts, fruit, and hard ribbon candy to hand out after the service.

Glynn stood in front of the bathroom mirror that morning, attempting to shave while Marve and the children scurried around him. Lita was looking desperately for her white shoes, proclaiming that an angel could only wear white, referring to her role in the Christmas pageant. Hayden was roaming around the house practicing bleating like a sheep. Marve regularly reached around her husband to retrieve something from the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. The accidental bumps and shoves were enough that Glynn was thankful he wasn’t trying to shave with a straight razor. 

“I’m told Christmas is the biggest Sunday of the year,” Marve said as she dried her hands on a towel. “Think it will hold up?”

“There are children in a pageant, right? We may not set any records, but we’ll do okay,” Glynn said. “The kids are the draw this morning, not me. By the time we get to the sermon, half the congregation will be ready to leave. I’ll keep it short, don’t worry.”

Even with the service not starting until 10:30, the Waterbury’s needed to be there by 9:00. There were still decorations to set up, stage props tp get ready, and costumes to fit as children slowly trickled into the fellowship hall. Everyone seemed jovial with Merry Christmases on their lips. 

Claire was out of her wheelchair now, walking carefully in special shoes that helped balance her weight. Two fingers on her left hand were still bandaged but that didn’t stop her from jumping in to help put little ones in costumes. Her voice was still hoarse and raspy, something the doctors assured her would go away over time. She had decided she didn’t mind so much, though, as it made teachers less likely to call on her in class.

The pageant went as small-town pageants do. Some of the “sheep” were mooing. Some of the “cows” were neighing. Of the “host” of angels, only two were singing, Lita being the loudest, proud that she knew all the words to all the songs. “Baby Jesus,” who was nearly two years old, hopped down from “Mary’s” lap when he spied his mother sitting in the congregation. Many pictures were taken. Most of the spoken lines were butchered. No one really cared. Their kids were in the pageant. That was enough.

The pulpit had been moved to provide room for the pageant, so Glynn was a bit nervous about not having anything to hold onto or lean against as he began his sermon. Luke’s account of the birth of Christ had been read twice already, so he skipped any additional scripture reading and jumped straight into his homily.

“Merry Christmas,” he started.

“Merry Christmas,” the congregation replied.

Glynn looked out over the packed congregation, seeing many faces for the first time, almost everyone smiling as though everything was completely normal. “Isn’t it wonderful how practically everyone loves a newborn baby? We love that smell of powder and baby oil. We love the innocence they project. We love the potential they bring for doing something great. Babies are a symbol of the newness of life, a chance for humanity to try again, and the hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll get it right this time.

“But as we all know, babies don’t stay small and cute forever. They grow up, they develop minds and opinions and wills of their own and as Mary looked down into the wrinkly, reddish-brown skin of the miracle to which she’d given birth, she cherished those simple moments of his childhood. There, in that stable, Mary became Christ’s first disciple. Looking down into that precious face, she believed as only a mother can believe. She knew her child would change the world.

“From that very moment of his birth, however, that child, that little baby, was a challenge to authority. Herod knew it and slaughtered thousands of baby boys in an attempt to silence the message Jesus brought to the world. Even when Mary and Joseph brought their family back from Egypt, they settled in Nazareth because bringing a message that saves the world is not always popular. 

“Jesus, however, didn’t come to be popular. The birth of Jesus Christ represents, more than anything, a new chance for the people of this earth to start over. They had messed up the system of religious laws so badly, they had created such an amazing tangle of nonsense, that God had to either destroy them or forgive them and through the birth of Jesus, he offered us forgiveness.

“We like the sound of that, don’t we? Forgiveness? We are all happy to embrace God’s willingness to wipe our slate clean, let us stand before him pure and blameless. But Jesus didn’t package that forgiveness in a box with pretty ribbons and a cool tag that said, ‘To Glynn, From your favorite Savior.’ The salvation that Jesus offers came packaged in a baby who grew to become a young man who caused a lot of trouble. 

“Jesus was only twelve, still in many ways a child, when he sat in the temple and challenged the religious leaders. Right then, they knew this boy was going to be trouble. As he grew older and began to draw an entourage of rough men and women of questionable reputations, the forgiveness, and healing, and unconditional love Jesus offered became a threat to the religious community.
“Who knew that love and forgiveness could be so controversial?” Glynn paused and looked at Claire as he continued. “Still, today, we’re struggling to figure out the fullness of Christ’s message because it doesn’t always fit comfortably with the structures that we’ve built in our worship of him. We’re just now figuring out that Jesus was all about equal rights. He was practicing and preaching equal rights long before there was a proposed amendment, long before there were feminist magazine articles, and long before there was a civil rights movement. 

“We’ve gone so far in trying to make the story of Jesus fit our own narrative that we’ve eliminated the fact that the twelve disciples we so frequently refer to was a mixed bag of ethnicities whose attachment to Judaism was sometimes more a matter of business than belief. And we’ve all but omitted the role of women in Jesus’ ministry because that doesn’t play well with our concept of patriarchal dominance. 

“In his birth declaration of peace on earth, Jesus brought trouble and conflict to the status quo. The life of that little baby whose birth we celebrate was not comfortable, was not conformative, and often challenged authority. Imagine the brazen audacity of someone who stood up and said, ‘You have to listen to me because my Daddy gave me all authority in heaven and earth and He told me to do this and my Daddy is bigger and better than your Daddy.’ Can you perhaps see why that didn’t go over so well? 

“We come to church this morning enjoying the festivities of the holiday spirit. We enjoy watching the children and we like this simple, rural picture of Christ that we’ve created. We see a baby born in a barn and it feels like he’s one of us. 

“But if we fully embrace the baby in the manger, we have to equally embrace the adult he became and that means we have to embrace the possibility that the way we’ve always thought about God and about the Bible might not be correct. The Rabbis, Sadducees, and Pharisees that Jesus challenged represented thousands of years of study, and there he sat telling them that they were getting it all wrong. If we’re going to embrace the baby in the manger, we have to accept the likelihood that Jesus would tell us the same thing. We’re getting it all wrong.

“Fortunately, for us, there is forgiveness and this baby brings us salvation and a chance to look at the new year with the hope that maybe we’ll do better this time. Maybe we won’t be so quick to judge. Maybe we’ll listen when a teenager challenges our spiritual world view. Maybe we’ll see that sometimes, peace is a revolution.”

Glynn looked out across the congregation and could see that only a handful were still paying attention. Among those, Claire was smiling her biggest smile, Buck was nodding his head in agreement, and Alan Mayes sat on the back row, his arms folded in front of him, an unseasonal scowl on his face. 

The pastor knew that he had not created a smooth path forward for himself. He was painfully well aware of the physical stress and trouble that would come with standing behind what he had just preached. 

As they drove out to Buck and Frances’ house for dinner, the kids in the back seat comparing and trading the contents of their goody bags, Marve reached over and took Glynn’s hand. “That was quite a package you delivered this morning,” she said softly. 

“Merry Christmas,” he said, smiling.

Pastors' Conference 1972

Reading time: 37 min
Pastors' Conference, 1972, ch. 37038

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Chapter 37

Chapter 37

Glynn drove home as quickly as he could, stopping only for a quick burger at a truck stop north of Oklahoma City. While part of his mind still wanted to go over the sermon he’d just preached and the various reactions he had seen, he knew his focus had to be on what was waiting for him in Adelberg. Joanne Lyles was dead. Everyone’s mom was gone. A significant portion of the church’s backbone was no more. The work ahead of him needed a team, not a lone preacher. Horace would obviously be distraught. He was a strong man, an outspoken man, but he loved his wife dearly and wisely listened to her when she spoke. She was the center of their home. That part was understandable but there was more.

Their two daughters, Glynn struggled to remember their names, Sharon and Denise? Sharon was a senior at OU. Denise worked for the Williams Corporation in Tulsa. He was sure both of them would already be home, grieving for their mother while trying to help their dad. He hardly knew the girls at all, having only met them a couple of times each. He had no clue how to minister to them now. What did they need to hear? What did they need to say?

Then, there was the church. Joanne was the lifeblood of the church in so many different ways. She taught 4-6-grade girls’ Sunday School and had for generations. She ran VBS and both camps. She was responsible for the Christmas pageant. Anything the Women’s Missionary Union ever did, which admittedly wasn’t much, was because Joanne pushed them then took the lead in making sure it got done. Practically every auxiliary ministry of the church had Joanne involved.

An even bigger task, though, would be helping the community to mourn. Joanne had grown up here. She went to school here. She and Horace had gotten married a mere two weeks after they graduated high school some 30-plus years ago. She was pregnant with Sharon when Horace was drafted to fight in WWII. She ran what was then a small farm by herself, kept it going, and made it profitable so that when Horace returned they were able to expand. She was involved in every school bake sale, every fundraiser, chaperoned field trips, went to every ballgame, ran the concession stand for baseball and basketball games, and was involved in every community event that ever happened. There wasn’t a person in town who didn’t know Joanne Lyles.

Most importantly, though, Glynn knew that Joanne was the compassionate person who paid for school lunches when children couldn’t afford them. When he would go to visit someone who was ill at home, Joanne had almost always been there before him bringing in food and helping take care of home chores. She talked to teachers who would tell her which children were wearing the same clothes to school every day and would secretly, anonymously, buy them new clothes without ever asking for any help. She knew who was being abused and rumor had it she had taken a shotgun with her to confront more than one Dad, warning them to never touch their daughters again.

What was Glynn supposed to say to that many people, all who had personal relationships with Joanne and now, quite suddenly, had no one to trust, no one to ask for help, no one to come to their defense? Sure, the preacherly thing to do would be to tell them that they could turn to God, but Jesus wasn’t going to be in the concession stand at tonight’s football game. A spiritual replacement wasn’t enough. They would be looking for someone physical to step in and Glynn wasn’t immediately aware of anyone who was the least bit capable of filling Joanne’s shoes.

As Glynn arrived in the small town, he drove by the funeral home to see if Horace was there yet. He wasn’t, so Glynn went on home. He would prefer to take a shower and change clothes before meeting with Horace and the girls. As he pulled into the driveway, the kids came bursting out the front door of the parsonage yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!” Glynn got out of the car and gave each of them a big hug before pulling his suitcase out of the back seat.

Marve was standing on the front porch drying her hands on a dishtowel. She smiled as her husband vainly attempted to carry both wriggling children and the suitcase, eventually having to set the children down, disappointedly. “Hub says Horace and the girls are coming in around 6:00. I’ll have dinner ready by the time you get out of the shower.”

Glynn leaned over and kissed his wife as he attempted to climb the steps with Hayden attached to his leg. “Sorry I wasn’t gone long enough for you to miss me,” he said with a playful smile. Even if there were serious matters waiting, he could set those aside long enough to flirt with his wife.

“You weren’t gone long enough for anyone to get into trouble, either,” she shot back with a knowing wink. “Parm chicken, peas, and corn sound okay?”

“Sounds perfect,” he replied, entering the house and taking a deep sigh as he looked around to make sure nothing changed. He needed something to be stable and home needed to be that place. 

Even the quick shower and meal wasn’t enough to calm Glynn’s anxiety as he drove to the funeral home. Hub was waiting for him at the door, still not understanding why the preacher had been gone but smart enough to not say anything more about it at the moment. “Hey, preacher,” the funeral director said as he held the door open. “I’m glad you’re here. I wouldn’t want to go through this without some help.”

“Marve told me it was rather traumatic this morning,” Glynn said softly. There was something about being inside the funeral home that caused everyone to lower their voice and he was no exception.

“Traumatic is an understatement, preacher. He didn’t want to let her go. When Marve told me you were out of town, I called for Alan and a couple of others to come help. They had to physically hold him back while we put her on the gurney and took her to the ambulance.” Hub paused. “I’m almost wondering if we should call for some backup tonight. If he breaks down like that here, you and I aren’t going to be enough to handle him.”

Glynn considered the matter for a moment. Horace was a big man and grief had a way of causing people to do some strange and drastic things. He could understand Hub’s concern. “His daughters are coming with him, correct?”

Hub nodded.

“Bill’s across the street, the Jones boy is just a block over, he’s big enough to help handle Horace. Maybe call them, have them be on standby. Let’s see how he’s doing, try to keep things as quiet as possible,” Glynn advised. He said a quick, silent prayer that Horace would be able to stay composed. Any level of public breakdown would eventually lead to humiliation that Horace didn’t need.

Much to the pastor’s relief, it was a calm and composed Horace Lyles that walked into the funeral home a few minutes later, a daughter on each arm, lingering tears in everyone’s bloodshot eyes. The deacon’s handshake was firm and he nodded resolutely to the preacher as a way of confirming that he was going to get through this. Any emotional breakdown would be done in private. He understood that a level of public decorum had to be followed.

The process was familiar and Hub guided Horace through it compassionately. First, there was a casket to pick out. Horace wisely let his daughters take the lead on this and wiped tears from his eyes as they chose one that was pink with embossed roses. Then, while Hub and Glynn took the casket to the back, Rose explained the various burial plans that were available, including vaults and tombstones. The tombstone, she explained, didn’t need to be chosen right at this moment, but again, the girls came to a relatively quick choice of pink-toned granite. After some discussion, it was decided that the funeral service would be held at the church on Monday afternoon at 3:00.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to check with the school about using the gym?” Rose asked. “A lot of people are going to want to pay their respects.”

Horace shook his head. “She loved the town, but she loved that church more,” he said. “I think she’d be upset if we had her funeral in the gym. A funeral’s not a ball game.”

By the time the arrangements were made, Glynn and Hub had Joanne’s casket ready for viewing in the chapel. They waited anxiously as Horace walked slowly down the aisle to look at his deceased wife. There was a moment of concern as he paused for a moment and choked back a sob, but he quickly composed himself and walked the rest of the way with his arms around the girls. They cried together. They took turns crying separately. Glynn stood at the casket with his arms around Horace, searching for something inspirational to say what wouldn’t feel trite. Nothing came to mind.

When it seemed that everyone was cried-out for the evening, Glynn, in full pastor mode, prayed with the family in his most compassionate voice, a prayer that he had used too many times the past few months. As he asked God to comfort the family through their grief, though, he couldn’t help wondering if anyone was listening. If God was listening, he certainly wasn’t coming off as caring. 

They walked out of the funeral home together into the quiet of a cool late-September evening. The football team was playing out of town and those who hadn’t gone to the game had mostly gone on to bed. Cricket chirps echoed quietly through the empty streets, a soft breeze gave a sense of solemnity to the moment. 

Glynn stood at the car door as Horace paused before getting in. “You know, preacher,” the deacon said quietly, “I’m probably going to be mad at God for taking her before he took me. That’s the way we had it all planned out. Girls would get married, have grandchildren, and then I’d die, probably out in the middle of a field somewhere yelling at a cow that had gotten itself stuck. She’d bury me then enjoy the next years enjoying the grandkids and spoiling everyone. That’s the way it was supposed to happen. It’s not all sunk in just yet, but when it does, I’m going to be angry.”

Glynn nodded. “That’s okay. We can be mad at God. He can take it. One of the challenges of death is that it never, ever makes sense. It’s okay to wrestle with this unexpected reality and if you need me, if you simply need someone as a stand-in for God so you can yell out your anger and frustration, I’m here. You know my number.”

The deacon nodded and patted the pastor on the shoulder. “You know, Joanne was the one who told the church we needed you. She was right. She was always right.” He bowed his head and sighed then got into the car and drove back to the farm.

Saturday and Sunday were almost surreal. Normal activities occurred, shopping, farming, laundry, and other routine things, but it all felt automated as if the entire town had fallen into some kind of trance. Of course, the community rallied around Horace and the girls. There were so many cars parked along the road to Horace’s house that Glynn had to park down the road and walk the better part of a mile to get to the family. Women throughout the town were involved in preparing meals and a schedule was created so that Horace wouldn’t have to worry about cooking for the better part of a month. Everyone knew the schedule was clumsy and not nearly as well planned as Joanne would have done.

Glynn borrowed pieces from Thursday’s sermon for Sunday morning, using slightly different language to make it more palatable for the circumstances. The sanctuary was full, which wasn’t surprising, but there was no emotion beyond sadness. They listened politely as the pastor spoke of the necessity of death’s absolute horror and the transcendent power of God that made resurrection possible, but when it was all over they filed out with few words, returned to their homes, and ate dinner in near silence. Only the smallest of children, the two- and three-year-olds, seemed unaffected. Their shrieks and squeals as they ran about playing felt disruptive to the grieving process and parents went out of their way to quiet the young ones who had not yet lost their happiness.

Monday was a process more complicated than a full Catholic Requiem and Glynn was at the center of it all. While Baptists didn’t believe in taking the body out to the home, there were scheduled viewings at the funeral home. Horace and the girls were coming in at 9:00 and would receive visitors so people in town could offer their condolences and remind them how much Joanne had meant to their lives. Glynn was there for all of it, patiently counseling those who could not contain their grief, watching Horace and helping him slip into a separate room when the press of well-wishers became overwhelming. Hub did his best to keep traffic flowing smoothly through the small chapel but the crowd was overwhelming as people from all over the two-county area came to pay their respects.

Glynn followed the family back out to the farm at 11 and did his best to politely tell people that the road needed to be kept clear for the family car, the funeral home’s extended-body Cadillac that could hold up to seven mourners in the back if everyone squeezed in tightly. Few cared to listen and it was only when Alan came out and took over parking duties that the road was quickly cleared.

Back at the church, Buck and his wife, Frances, along with Irene Hendricks, Norma Little, and an exasperated Roger Sutherland, whose cows had decided they didn’t like their pasture and taken a stroll down the road, worked with Rose to get the church set up for the funeral. There was no question that the crowd was going to be too large for the sanctuary. The crowd at the funeral home had Rose wishing she had insisted upon using the school gym, but she knew that would have had its own set of problems as well. Buck and Roger attached a couple of auxiliary speakers to the sanctuary’s meager sound system and ran wire back to the fellowship hall where an additional 100 folding chairs had been set up. This would serve as overflow for those unable to be seated in the sanctuary. The women made sure the sanctuary was clean from Sunday’s services. Rose managed the onslaught of flowers as they delivered, making sure there would be plenty of space for the casket when it was brought over. 

Most of the town, including the school and the bank, shut down at noon so that everyone would have time to prepare for the funeral. Only the diner and the gas station stayed open until 1:00, which was considered the last minute. Marve and Claire had volunteered to keep smaller children in the church’s nursery so that parents could attend the funeral but older children were given no choice but to attend with their parents, leading to no small amount of fussing at having to wear their best clothes two days in a row. 

Hub closed the funeral home at 1:00 as well. While the distance between the funeral home and the church sanctuary was only a little more than 200 feet, moving the casket respectfully meant either loading it in the hearse and then backing up to the front door of the church, or calling the pallbearers to ceremoniously carry the casket from one place to the other. Glynn and Hub had talked about the options and decided that using the hearse was probably the safest. The pallbearers Horace had chosen included his fellow deacons and Glynn doubted whether Marcus was strong enough to make that march. When the casket was safely in place at the front of the sanctuary, Hub left and drove out to the farm to pick up the family. 

People began arriving at the church at 2:00, desperate to get a seat in the sanctuary if at all possible. Rose began directing people to the overflow space by 2:30. At 2:45, Buck opened the windows in the fellowship hall so that those standing outside could hear. While the street in front of the church had been blocked off, cars were parked throughout the neighborhood all the way back to the highway so that when the family car pulled into town Horace felt the need to ask Hub if they would have to leave the family car and walk part of the way to church. Hub smiled and expertly navigated the Cadillac through the narrow space, pulling up in front of the church at precisely 2:58. 

Normally, Glynn liked to keep a funeral service to 20 minutes, maximum, but there was no way for that to happen this afternoon. A former Sunday School student of Joanne’s, who had moved away 15 years ago, had a poem she wanted to read. The poem was long. Sharon and Denise could not agree on which was their mother’s favorite hymn, so three of them were included in the service. Horace had agreed to let a group of three women share remembrances they had of Joanne. By the time Glynn stepped behind the pulpit for the requisite homily, 30 minutes had already passed. People who had been sitting in their pews since 2:00 were beginning to fidget. Still, this wasn’t something he could abbreviate.

For the next 20 minutes, Glynn spoke softly of Joanne’s commitment to her family, her community, and her church, interweaving examples of her dedication with scripture. Unlike Sunday morning’s sermon, he mentioned death very little and focused more on the life Joanne had lived and compared that to the life she would experience through the resurrection. He kept the theology simple and avoided common clichés about everyone seeing her again in heaven or a great reunion “on the other side.” 

When the sermon was finished, it took another 45 minutes for people to file out, passing by the open casket one last time. Afterward, Horace and the extended family, which included Joanne’s mother and three brothers, were given time for a last goodbye. Glynn and Hub stood by, carefully watching in case Horace should break down and need assistance. Hub had seen grieving husbands practically pull their dead wives from the casket and feared something similar might happen here but Horace remained reasonably composed, crying with his daughters but knowingly aware that he was expected to set an example for the entire town.

The string of cars following the hearse out to the town’s cemetery was over a mile long and took 20 minutes to park. Here, Glynn was able to keep the service brief. Clouds were gathering and thunder rumbled as he gave final words of encouragement and said the last prayer. He walked the family back to their cars and assured them he would be out the next day to check on them. As the family car drove away, it began to rain. 

Glynn hurried back under the tent that had been set up over the gravesite. He watched as the crowd quickly dispersed. Only after almost everyone was gone did he look over under a large pine and see Calvin Cane standing under an umbrella, watching somberly. Glynn felt compelled to walk over and say something.

“This is a surprise,” Glynn said softly as he approached. “I wouldn’t have expected Joanne’s service to warrant a visit from anyone in the Baptist Building.”

“I just came on my own,” Calvin said with a shrug. “After your sermon last Thursday I wanted to see how you handled something this delicate. You did a good job. You stayed true to what you preached at the retreat which couldn’t have been easy.”

“Is anything we ever do all that easy?” Glynn asked.

Calvin shook his head. “No, I guess it isn’t, is it.” He paused for a moment then added, “I guess I should warn you that you’ll definitely be getting some letters and not all of them are going to be positive. The conversation the rest of the day was lively, to say the least. I can’t even say that everyone in the Baptist Building agrees with you. There will be many interesting conversations in the weeks ahead.”

Glynn looked at the ground and kicked at a clump of weeds with the toe of this shoe. This wasn’t something he particularly wanted to hear. He definitely wasn’t in the mood to deal with someone else’s fussing. “I’m sorry if I caused any problems,” he said. “The more I read on the topic, though, the more I felt we’d been approaching it all wrong, turning death into a fantasy of immortality.”

“You were right to say what you did,” Calvin quickly responded. “And you will want to know that Dr. Hobbs called yours the most thought-provoking message of the entire weekend. He’s squarely in your corner, as are Joe and I and several others, those who appreciate a thoughtful, careful approach to the scripture. There were a lot of pastors from smaller churches, though, who are struggling to understand and a handful that are downright angry. You’ll be hearing from them. Just, please, don’t feel the need to respond or engage with any of them. If they get abusive, let me know. There are a couple I had to take aside there at the retreat because they were being inappropriate with their comments. Let us deal with the rowdiness. You focus on helping your community heal.”

A bolt of lightning hit close enough that both men were startled. Calvin excused himself and made a run for his car. Glynn waited until the casket had been lowered into the grave then made the solemn drive home. Death, he thought, was exhausting for the living. He wondered to himself if there was a better way to grieve, to mourn without it consuming the entire body. 

The town felt vacant for 6:00 on a Monday evening. There were no cars out driving from one place to the next, no lights on in the store windows, no sign that anyone lived in any of the houses. Adelberg was coming to grips with the absolute horror and blackness of death and Glynn knew that as people dealt with the finality in their own way there would be questions. He didn’t want dealing with death to be his legacy, but he knew that to leave the community struggling would be the cruelest thing he could do. 

Chapter 38

Chapter 38

The first letter came on Tuesday. Glynn opened it and at the sight of the “Dear Fool,” greeting, folded the letter, returned it to its envelope, and put it in the bottom drawer of the desk. He didn’t have time to argue with anyone who wasn’t part of the community for which he was spiritually responsible. The association’s annual meeting was quickly approaching. The executive committee was meeting a prospective Director of Missions that afternoon at Clement’s church. Glynn hoped that this would be someone they could trust, hire, and introduce at the meeting at the end of the month. 

While he understood the importance of the position and the need for the committee to do due diligence, at the same time he knew there was plenty of need right in Adelberg that could fill his schedule for the rest of the year and beyond. Joanne’s death had prompted many questions as to who was going to take her place. Marve had already taken a number of phone calls asking if she could help in the various activities that Joanne led. She had balked hard at first, but by Monday evening was beginning to wonder if she was being too reclusive. Glynn knew she couldn’t do everything Joanne had, that she should do that much, but he didn’t have anyone else to suggest, either. 

There were also requests for him to speak. The Lion’s Club issued their third invitation and Glynn was beginning to feel pressure to accept. The town’s garden club was being persistent as well, their chairperson having been the first phone call he fielded upon arriving at the office. The high school science teacher was wondering if perhaps Glynn might talk about the nature of death and decay both physically and spiritually, as the teacher was concerned that a purely academic discussion might upset too many of his students. 

He had already planned to stop by and check on Horace on his way back from the executive committee meeting and had warned Marve that they might need to have dinner a little later than usual. Glynn was feeling the pressure from all the ministerial needs of the community when Marve called.

“The eye place in Oklahoma City called. They want to see Hayden next Monday at nine,” she said. “The next appointment they have open isn’t until mid-November. I know it’s a long drive. What do you think.”

“The drive isn’t’ going to get any shorter in November,” Glynn responded. “Maybe we can have Claire spend the night and she can walk Lita to school that morning.”

“How early do you think we’ll need to leave?” Marve asked, concerned about the length of the trip. Hayden, of course, could sleep in the back seat, but she had never been able to sleep well in the car. If nothing else, she was concerned about Glynn falling asleep at the wheel.

“If we leave the house by 4:00 we should be fine. We won’t have any real traffic until we get close to the city.” Glynn didn’t mind the drive all that much. The turnpike road was fairly smooth and he knew the trip back would be the harder part. He could ask Marve to do some of the driving then.

Marve agreed and said she’d handle all the arrangements. She could tell Glynn was stressed. All the talk and study about death the past few weeks had left him somber and quiet. Even their date nights had been less robust as he wrestled with the thoughts continually going through his head. 

All the details might have seemed minor to anyone bothering to observe from the outside; not that anyone would actually bother. Most people assumed that the life of a small-town pastor had to be fairly mundane, perhaps even boring. What else could there be to do but visit the sick, bury the dead, and marry the young? Glynn knew, however, that even the smallest detail, if missed, could grow into a major issue down the road. He was doing his best to pay attention to what he heard in the diner and at the gas station, looking for opportunities to head off problems before they became large, and for the most part, he was successful. Everything that was hitting him now, though, was proving to be a challenge.

Distractions seemed necessary right now. The radio blared songs by Elvis Presley, who Glynn never really liked but Marve did so he tried his best to pretend, interesting songs with almost nonsensical lyrics by The Moody Blues, Chicago, and a quirky but fun instrumental called Popcorn that never failed to make Glynn smile. Glynn was thankful for the drive to Washataug by himself where no one cared if he sang with the radio or “danced” a little in the seat as he drove. Being able to clear his mind, even for the scant 20 minutes that it took to make the drive, was welcome and probably even necessary. 

Glynn liked the large, well-lit fellowship hall at Emmanuel Church. Here, the walls were paneled, not painted concrete block like most churches. Coffee came from a commercial coffee maker, not a five-gallon pot. Seats in the metal folding chairs were padded. They were all relatively small touches but together they presented an impression of a church that was more established, was doing well, and maybe had a little extra money to spend instead of worrying over every little detail. 

Clement was waiting with Carl when Glynn arrived. Somehow, Clement had managed to convince the baker at the town’s lone bakery to provide them with some extra donuts, and Carl had just taken a large bite of one when Glynn walked in, nearly choking in attempt to swallow quickly. 

“Hail our associational celebrity!” Clement exclaimed as he shook Glynn’s hand. “Brother, as ill-timed as your church member’s death may have been, you being able to duck out saved you having to answer a lot of questions that afternoon.”

“So I’ve been told,” Glynn responded. “Calvin was up for the funeral yesterday. Apparently I’m in for a deluge of letters. I got one this morning that started, ‘Dear Fool.’ I’ve not read any further than that and probably won’t.”

“I don’t blame you,” Clement said as they walked together toward the coffee pot. “Some of the conversations reminded me of seminary, debating whether or not it is possible for the soul to die. Any letters you might get from those guys are likely to at least be polite and reasonably academic in their argument. The guys whose study is limited to the King James Version and Strong’s Concordance, though, they were hot. How dare you suggest that the early church had re-written some of the Bible to suit their political needs?” He paused to laugh at his own sarcasm. “I’m constantly amazed that some preachers feel they don’t need any level of understanding beyond what they see right there in their Bible. You can’t even talk Bible history with them let alone any level of criticism. They’re short-fused and always seem ready to fight.”

“I think they feel threatened,” Carl said as he licked the glazed sugar off his fingers. “I know I did when I first started preaching. I mean, you feel this call to preach, and once you’ve made that public, churches around here seem to think God somehow magically grants you all the wisdom and understanding of scriptures. It’s easy to buy into that concept. You’re supposed to be able to answer everyone’s spiritual questions. You end up thinking you know things when you really have no clue. When something or someone comes along and challenges your perspective, it’s easy to take it personally.”

Glynn picked up a donut and was momentarily distracted by the wealth of glazed dripping from the fresh pastry. 

“Don’t worry, that donut isn’t going to challenge your views on the Eucharist,” Clement teased.

Glynn smiled and took a small bite of the pastry, being sure to swallow before trying to talk. “That’s exactly why I think we need a well-educated and experienced Director of Missions,” he said, picking back up on the conversation. “When I first started, I had an older pastor who immediately dumped a pile of books in my lap and told me to start reading. Right from the beginning, I had the opposite feeling. I knew I didn’t know anything and honestly, there are still some passages of scripture I won’t preach from because I really don’t understand what’s going on. Actually, there’s a lot of passages I won’t preach from.”

The three men walked over to a round table and each took a seat. They were still talking about the dominant lack of education when a rather round gentleman in a brown suit walked through the door. He was a little shorter than Glynn and at least a hundred pounds heavier. There was a hint of a wheeze as he talked, as though his lungs weren’t quite producing enough air to get the words completely out of his mouth. His hair was dark and curly but grayed at the temples and he walked with just a bit of a waddle.

“Hi, I’m Roger Gentry,” he said as he entered, then, looking at Clement, added, “Good to see you again, brother! That was a lively retreat, wasn’t it?” Before Clement had a chance to respond, Roger recognized Glynn and his eyes brightened as he turned and extended his hand, “And you’re Glynn Waterbury, aren’t you? My goodness, but you set off a spark! I loved it! I’ve never seen Hobbs and Ingram and the gang work so hard to answer questions and either explain or dodge a topic for the rest of the weekend. Hultgren was over there, ‘I think there’s room for more than one opinion on the matter,’ because he hadn’t had time to confer with Billy Graham as to what his own opinion is supposed to be. Our little state needed that jolt. Love it!”

As Carl introduced himself, Bill and Herb entered together, each making their own introduction. Once everyone had been sufficiently supplied with coffee and donuts, Carl sheepishly taking three more, they sat back down at the table and began the interview. Clement distributed copies of Roger’s resumè outlining his education; OBU graduate, Masters from Southwestern Seminary, and his pastoral experience; four churches across twenty-three years. He was pleasant and easy to talk with, almost to the point of being jovial had it not been for the fact that Bill kept asking rather weighted questions about deeper theological matters, which Roger answered in an academic fashion that seemed to please both Bill and Clement. 

After several minutes of going back and forth, and multiple trips to the coffee pot, Roger said, “You know, I have to be upfront. Dr. Ingram told me about some of the challenges this association has faced. He showed me the list of allegations Emmitt made and brought me up to date on what has happened since. This a powder keg of a position and I can’t promise you that my kid gloves are soft enough to avoid setting the whole thing on fire. I’m not sure there exists anyone who could. What I can promise you, is that I’ll push education, see if maybe we can get some seminary extension courses offered up here, or at least within a driveable distance. I’ll try to stay on top of the most difficult situations, keep them from becoming trouble spots for the whole association. Unlike some, I don’t believe the Baptist Faith and Message is creedal. With all due respect to Dr. Hobbs and the leadership he’s given that project, it’s got some holes that I think are going to become problems for the convention, especially in our larger churches. I’m bothered by this whole infallibility debate that’s started. I think it’s dangerous, especially for our pastors who don’t have the education to fully understand the concept. What I can do, though, is promise to be there to answer every question I can, push every resource that’s available, and be the backstop you all need when things get rough.”

The meeting adjourned and after Roger left it took little time for the committee to agree that he was who they wanted to fill the position. They authorized Clement to present the offer and let them know if there were any additional questions that needed to be answered.

Glynn drove home feeling pleased that, with any luck, the whole question of a Director of Missions had been resolved and things in the association could get back to normal. He stopped by to check on Horace and was pleased to hear that Sharon was going to take the rest of the semester off to help her Dad cope. There seemed to be little question that he needed someone to help for a while. 

Increasingly early sunsets meant it was dark by the time Glynn pulled into the driveway at home. Marve had already fed the kids and was trying to get through bath time. Glynn quickly downed the plate of leftovers that was set aside for him so he could help. Neither child was being terribly cooperative. Hayden didn’t like the underwear Marve had pulled from the drawer. Lita’s hair was tangled. By the time all the issues were resolved and the kids were in bed, Marve and Glynn fell slumped together on the couch feeling thoroughly exhausted.

“Do you think we can convince the world to finally slow down for a bit?” Marve asked hopefully.

“We can ask, but something tells me just asking could bring more trouble,” Glynn answered. His voice was quiet. He reached over and took Marve’s hand. “Everything set for Oklahoma City?” he asked.

Marve nodded and leaned into his shoulder. Claire had been excited about spending the night with Lita and walking her to school. Marve still had her reservations but there didn’t seem to be a better option. She was thankful that Claire’s parents gave her that much freedom on a school night. “It’s not ever going to get any easier, is it?” she asked, knowing the answer already.

“Probably not,” Glynn murmured. “I think I’d worry about what was wrong if it did.”

They turned on the television only marginally aware of what they were watching. They were both asleep before the first commercial.

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Reading time: 32 min
Pastor's Conference, 1972, ch. 35-36

While portions of our story might stand alone, most of it needs some context. If you’re just joining us, you may wish to click here to start from the beginning.

Chapter 35

Chapter 35

Dr. Able Ginzeman moved the equipment away from Hayden’s eyes and sighed. As an ophthalmologist with more than 20 years of experience, he had seen all manner of pediatric eye disease, but it was never easy breaking the news to parents, especially when he knew that treating the issue was likely going to cost more than the family’s annual income. Dr. Dornboss had already told him that if the diagnosis was what he suspected that the Waterbury’s would not be able to afford the necessary surgery. Still, there was little question that the family doctors’ suspicions had been correct.

“There’s really no easy way to put this,” Dr. Ginzeman started as reached over and took a prescription pad off a nearby counter. “Hayden has pediatric cataracts and is going to require surgery.”

Glynn and Marve looked at each other, horror-struck. They had walked into the exam knowing that a common childhood problem, such as near- or far-sightedness, would require glasses and that alone would have strained their meager income. But surgery? Cataracts?

“I thought cataracts only developed in older people,” Glynn said, feeling lost and confused by the diagnosis.

Dr. Ginzemen had anticipated the shock. No parent was ever ready for anything more than, “your child needs glasses.” He pulled over a stool and sat down so that he was at eye level with the parents. “You’re correct, normally cataracts are something our eyes develop as we age. Pediatric cataracts are reasonably rare but definitely not unheard of and you’d probably be surprised at how often it comes up. Chances are reasonably high that he has had them since birth, they were just too small to notice until now. Dr. Dornboss was not being neglectful in missing them at his last exam.”

“So, he was born with them?” Marve asked, a growing feeling of desperation coming over her. “Why are we just now noticing? And why only at school?”

“Unlike adult cataracts, children can develop cataracts in two ways. One can be like a gray cloud forming over the eye all at once. That would have been noticeable quickly. In fact, you would have seen it at home without any need for medical devices.” The doctor paused to make sure the parents were following. News like this often came with a level of shock that made it difficult for people to follow long explanations. “Hayden’s are more like little pieces, tiny dots that are slowly growing. They’ve not been a problem until now partly because they were too small to interfere with what he was doing. He’s also at an age where he’s just now being asked to focus on smaller details. What didn’t bother him when he was outside playing with his toys is now an issue because the cataracts are blurring those details. They’ve not reached a point yet where they completely obscure his vision, but it makes things like numbers and letters blurry around the edges.”

Glynn looked over at Hayden sitting in the exam chair, the little boy’s still-dilated pupils wide with wonder. “So, what exactly are we looking at? You said surgery. What’s that going to involve?”

Dr. Ginzeman took a deep breath. “It means he’ll have to see a specialist in Oklahoma City. They’ll have to confirm the diagnosis and then they’ll schedule the surgery. There’s currently only one place in Oklahoma that does this kind of work, so we don’t have any real choice, but from an insurance perspective, that’s ultimately a good thing. They’re likely to cover more than they might otherwise. Depending on how busy they are, we can probably get him an appointment in two or three weeks, and they’ll probably schedule the surgery a week or two after that.”

Marve and Glynn looked at each other. Oklahoma City. Surgery. Insurance. They were both overwhelmed, their minds spinning off in different directions, imagining worst-case scenarios that would never come true but would continue plaguing the back of their minds until the whole ordeal was over. 

For Marve, the mere mention of surgery was frightening. She had been frightened of the concept since her own botched tonsillectomy when she was seven years old. Hearing that her young son was going to be subjected to something significantly more dangerous left her shaking. She held onto Glynn’s hand tightly, fighting the urge to rush over and snatch up the little boy and run out of the room as if she could physically remove him from the danger. “Surgery sounds so dangerous,” she finally said. “Is that the only way they can be treated? We can’t put some kind of drops in his eyes to dissolve them?”

“I’m afraid the medicine hasn’t reached that point yet,” the doctor said, doing his best to sound compassionate. He knew the surgery was challenging and contained no small amount of risk, but that wasn’t something he was ready to discuss with the Waterbury’s at this point. They were still trying to process the diagnosis. They didn’t need to be scared more. 

“About a month after the surgery, they’ll want to see him in Oklahoma City again,” Dr. Ginzeman continued. “They’ll check and make sure everything’s healing okay and that they got all the little pieces. Then, you’ll come back here and we’ll  get him fitted for glasses.”

“So, this isn’t going to be a short and easy process,” Glynn said. “I hate to ask this question, but how much of this do you think insurance is going to cover?”

Dr. Ginzeman had been waiting for this question. Every parent eventually had to ask. Glynn had shown more restraint than most. “Fortunately, the severity of his diagnosis means it falls under the heading of medical necessity. That means that if we don’t address the situation right now, with some measure of urgency, that it will cost more to fix later and could seriously impact other health issues. I’ve already talked with Dr. Dornboss and I think we can get insurance to pay for close to 90 percent of the bill. What they don’t pay, we’ll look to foundations like the Lion’s Club and some other places that help specifically with pediatric eye care.”

As he was talking, Dr. Ginzeman watched carefully as Marve and Glynn considered what he was saying. Again, he found himself trying to soften the edges on topics that were complicated and involved. The truth was that a lot of paperwork would have to pass between the various doctors involved and the insurance companies. There would be routine denials that would have to be challenged and clinical justification written for everything that needed to be done. The volume of bureaucracy was so severe that he employed two people full time in his office to do nothing but try and keep it all straight. 

“I want to warn you,” the doctor said, “You’re going to see a lot of invoices and statements and letters that are going to have some very frightening numbers on them. Let me suggest you just file them away and pay no attention to them for now. Don’t throw them away or lose them because you may need them later, but don’t dwell on them. Just put them in a file. You won’t get a final bill from any of the doctors or the hospital until after everything is over and every option has been exhausted. Given the time frame we’re looking at, that’s likely to be January or February of next year. I have people here and they have people in Oklahoma city who do nothing but work with insurance companies. You don’t worry about that. You focus on this little guy, keep him healthy, make sure he eats well and gets plenty of exercise, which I doubt is going to be a problem.”

Dr. Ginzeman scribbled on the prescription pad and then handed the script to Glynn. “Take this to your pharmacy at home. They’re drops you’ll want to put in his eyes each morning. It just helps clear up any goop or film that might develop overnight while he’s sleeping. It doesn’t directly affect those cataracts, but it might help slow their growth while we finish looking at everything. My office will check with Oklahoma City and then they’ll reach out to you to set an appointment.” He pushed the stool back, stood up, and helped Hayden down from the exam chair. The whole conversation had taken less than five minutes but he knew that for Glynn and Marve it felt like an eternity had just passed. “I’m going to waive your co-pay for today,” he said. “You’ve got a lot coming up, and I know it’s scary. Just remember, it’s everyone’s goal to make sure you’re little boy is as healthy as possible. You’re not in this alone.”

Glynn picked up Hayden and gave him a squeeze. He and Marve thanked the doctor and walked out into the bright September sunshine still trying to process everything they’d just been told. The first part of the trip back was fairly quiet. They found a place to eat lunch and headed back to Adelberg as quickly as possible. They had made arrangements for Claire to walk Lita home and stay with her until they returned, just in case, but they both preferred to be there by the time school was out.

As they passed through Washataug, Glynn said, “Maybe I should cancel that thing at the Pastor’s Retreat this week. This is a lot to process. It doesn’t feel right for me to run off and leave you and the kids.”

Marve was silent for a moment, which caused Glynn no small amount of anxiety. Normally, he could read her face and tell what she was thinking, but there was no way to look at her and focus on driving at the same time. Finally, she said, “No, I think you should go. You’ve been working on that sermon too long and, let’s be honest, Glynn, the exposure could pay off long-term. Besides, if you stay home you’re just going to stew and worry about things you can’t control. Go. Spend some time with your preacher buddies. Maybe make a new friend or two. You need the break.”

Glynn tried to object, but Marve had made up her mind. She’d pack his bags and put them in the car herself if necessary. He was going and there was no point trying to get out of it, no matter how much he really didn’t want to go. 

Sure enough, two days later Glynn was in the car, having said goodbye to his family, headed into something he had no idea how to anticipate. The state convention’s campground served as a conference center the remainder of the year, and Glynn was surprised by the rugged terrain he encountered as he drove South from Oklahoma City. Here, the rolling hills were not green and lush as they tended to be in the Northeastern part of the state. Instead, they were rough and raw with sprouts of dried prairie grass growing between outcroppings of rock and scraggly pines scattered across the terrain. Glynn thought this was a slightly unusual place to put a campground but was aware that it had been in place for so long now that to even mention moving it would have been offensive to most of the churches in the state.

Clement and Bill had offered to let Glynn ride down with them, and initially, he had agreed to do so. After the trip to Bartlesville, though, he apologized and told the other pastors he needed the flexibility to return suddenly if a church member needed him. Not that there was a church member that had mentioned such a thing. Glynn simply didn’t like the feeling of being trapped, reliant on someone else’s transportation. Instead, he enjoyed the solitude of driving by himself, going over his sermon in his mind, still attempting to process everything that was going to be required to take care of Hayden’s eyes. He felt the pressure growing and he wasn’t convinced he was up to everything that was being set before him.

Arriving at the campground, Glynn was pleased to be assigned to one of the hotel-like rooms in the facility normally reserved for convention staff and visiting dignitaries. He would share a room with another of the retreat’s speakers, a pastor from one of the Oklahoma City suburbs whose church was growing at a surprising rate. Not that Glynn would ever see his roommate outside of the few minutes before and after sleeping. The schedule was packed and his roommate was popular. There was no time for lounging about in the room.

Calvin, of course, greeted Glynn enthusiastically. “I’ve put you on the schedule for Friday at 11:00,” Glynn was told. “I know, right before lunch may not seem like the best spot to talk about death, but you’d be surprised how many of the guys don’t stay past the Friday afternoon ballgame, especially those who live the furthest out. I wanted to make sure you had the largest audience possible.”

Glynn immediately felt his anxiety increase 300 percent. He still wasn’t convinced that his sermon was as good as it could be and now the pressure was on to deliver something close to perfection. His mind started racing with all the corrections he needed to make. Normally, he would carefully practice delivering a sermon this important but there wasn’t the time nor a place that he knew would be unobtrusive. 

After unpacking, Glynn walked down to the cafeteria where the pastors were gathering for coffee and donuts. Several pastors, including Clement, Bill, Carl, and Herb, were already there, chatting and laughing. He was about to walk over and join them when Joe Ingram spotted him and rushed over. 

“Glynn! It’s so good to see you again!” the executive director said with a big smile and strong handshake. “Calvin’s been keeping me up with everything going on up your direction. It’s been a rough year up there. How are you doing?”

“We’re doing well, thank you,” Glynn responded with the expected answer. “This certainly has been a huge learning experience. A lot more has happened than I would have ever expected.”

“This has been an unusual year,” Joe agreed, “but then, it seems there’s always a crisis going on somewhere. That’s why we need events like this. They’re not only educational and informative, they give us a chance to be encouraging to those who are struggling.”

Glynn laughed. “I’m not sure my topic is the most encouraging.”

Joe smiled. “You might be surprised. Death is an interesting topic and affects people in different ways. I have no doubt that your message will be exactly what someone needs to hear.” He paused for a moment then added, “Has Calvin talked to you about the response letters?”

“No, are those something we send out later?” Glynn asked, curious as to what was meant.

“It’s one of the side effects of speaking at large gatherings like this,” Joe answered. “Anytime you get this many preachers together, it doesn’t matter what you say, someone will disagree. Take the rapture, for example. You could preach on the second coming of Christ and 85 percent of the pastors here will agree and shout you on. However, those who went to seminary at Southern or Golden Gate, or if they went to college at one of the Ivy League schools, we have a couple of those, they’re going to disagree and at least a couple of them would write you a letter about it.”

Glynn’s eyes widened with surprise. He never had considered that someone might respond negatively to his sermon, at least not in a physical manner.

“Now, with a topic like that, they’re going to be pretty nice about it, take the academic approach of telling you why they think you’re wrong,” Joe continued. “But if you were to, say, challenge the dominant concepts of the deity of Christ or the reality of the resurrection, you’d get some rather harsh mail.”

Glynn felt his stomach do a flip. He felt he has definitely challenging some of the myths around death. Could his concepts possibly offend someone? “I never considered that. Not that I would expect everyone to agree with everything I say, but to go so far as to write about it seems a little extreme.”

“Don’t let it factor into what you say,” Joe said, his voice cheerful and encouraging. “Everyone gets two or three letters. Most of the time you can just ignore them and go on. If you get one that’s disturbing or if you get more than you expected, let us know and we’ll help handle them. It’s sometimes surprising what these guys get upset about.”

Joe gave Glynn a pat on the back and walked over to talk with another pastor who had just walked into the cafeteria. Glynn went over and sat down at the table with Clement and the others. He was greeted by a chorus of good-natured ribbing about being a celebrity and hob-knobbing with the convention elites. He was pleased that, so far, the atmosphere here was much more relaxing than the associational pastors’ conferences had been.

“Have you seen anyone else here from the association?” Glynn asked, looking around the room. 

“I think Herschel Vandemeer from First, Washataug is here,” Clement says. “He likes this type of meeting because it gives him a chance to hang out with the guys from Oklahoma City as if he isn’t down there half the time anyway. Don’t expect him to say anything to the rest of us, though. He doesn’t even acknowledge the other pastors in town, let alone the association.”

Bill nodded. “That tends to be true for the pastors of almost all the larger churches. First Tulsa, if Dr. Hultgren wasn’t speaking he wouldn’t be here. He’s friends with Billy Graham and Oral Roberts and prefers hanging out with guys like that. The rest of us don’t even register as existing.”

“I tried introducing myself to Herschel Hobbs, once,” Herb said. “There were so many people around him, though, he didn’t get a chance to respond before someone else was asking another question and pulling him away. It was rather frustrating.”

Bill nodded toward the far corner of the cafeteria. “He’s over there now holding court. He’s retiring from pastoring First, Oklahoma City at the end of the year, but they’re giving him the title of ‘Pastor Emeritus,’ and keeping him on the payroll. It’s probably for the best. He’s a dynamic preacher but he’s always left the ministry of the church to his staff.”

Carl looked over at the group surrounding the fabled theologian who had authored The Baptist Faith and Message some nine years earlier. “What does ‘Pastor Emeritus’ even mean? I’ve always looked at him as a kind of spiritual Superman. He pastors the church, writes articles and books, records that broadcast for the Radio and Television Commission, is on a dozen different boards and committees at both the state and national levels. I think of ‘emeritus’ as another word for retired. I don’t see Dr. Hobbs retiring anytime soon.”

Clement chuckled. “Are you kidding? They’re just making it easier for him to do what he’s already doing, minus the bothersome task of having to preach every Sunday. He’ll keep on doing all the convention stuff. He stopped being a real pastor years ago.”

“Have you heard who’s taking his place?” Herb asked to no one in particular.

“My money’s on Gene Garrison,” Bill said. “When Emmit first left, he was one of the top names the convention recommended to be our Director of Missions, but his name was almost immediately withdrawn after they sent us that list. The explanation was that he was expected to take on a significant pastoral responsibility.”

Glynn sat back in his chair and sighed. “Do you think the people in our churches have any idea of everything that goes on behind the scenes like this? I mean, here we are fawning over pastors with big names and big churches, but it doesn’t sound like they do much pastoring at all. They’re more like the Baptist version of politicians; they show up on Sunday to hog the spotlight, but the rest of the time they’re off padding their pockets with book deals and speaking engagements, completely ignoring their churches.”

“Careful, you could end up being one of them,” Clement teased. “You’re the one invited to speak after being here less than a year. Next thing we know, they’ll have you at one of those big Oklahoma City churches.”

“Are you kidding?” Glynn countered. “I have enough trouble being pastor to 100 people. A big church would kill me!”

The men laughed and continued their light-hearted banter on through dinner. By the time the evening session started, the speakers seemed like more of an interruption than an inspiration. Glynn felt he was getting more benefit from sitting around tables talking with different pastors than anything he heard from the small podium the preachers were using. He couldn’t help wonder if other pastors would feel the same way about his sermon as well. Was he anything more than an interruption, a break in the camaraderie most of them seemed to need? 

Glynn excused himself from the after-session coffee and returned to his room to give his message a few more tweaks. He had reached a point of accepting that he wasn’t going to be the most dynamic or popular speaker there. Neither did he hope to build up his own reputation among the pastors. He wanted to make a statement, though, and to do that he was going to have to take a different approach than he had planned.

Chapter 36

Chapter 36

Friday morning’s schedule was divided into two sessions, one at 8:00, which seemed a bit early for several of the pastors, and the second at 10:30, following an hour’s break. Each session had two speakers with a couple of hymns before each one. The format gave the session some sense of being a worship service only slightly less formal and without anyone passing an offering plate. 

Working from a theme of “Confronting Pastoral Fears,” the speakers for the early session had been assigned the topics of “Dealing With Rejection,” and “Surviving Success,” topics Glynn found interesting but the substance was less than helpful. 

“The Pastoral Paradox” was the topic of the speaker preceding Glynn. He’d had a chance to visit with the veteran pastor the night before and was interested in the consideration of balancing preaching responsibilities with ministerial responsibilities and the fear of doing neither well. 

Glynn wouldn’t have a chance to hear the message, though. They were nearing the end of the break time when Dr. Ingram’s secretary found him and handed him a note instructing him to call home immediately. The secretary told him where the camp’s office phone was located and how to get an outside line. 

Without any context to the message, Glynn panicked, nearly running to the camp office to place the call. He knew that Marve wouldn’t have called unless the situation was more than she could manage, and he knew Marve could manage just about anything. That meant either something catastrophic had happened to one of the children or there had been a significant death, someone other than one of the older church members perpetually on what Glynn sarcastically referred to as the Death Watch List. He worried about his parents. He worried about Marve’s parents. 

Marve seemed to anticipate Glynn’s angst. She answered the phone with, “The kids are fine, our parents are fine, nothing’s on fire. Take a second and catch your breath.”

“You know me too well,” Glynn said. “There seemed to be a bit of urgency when they delivered the message, though.”

“There is,” Marve answered quietly. “Joanne Lyles died this morning. Apparently, she had a stroke while fixing breakfast. Horace was there, of course, and he called Hub immediately, but there wasn’t anything anyone could do. She was gone before Hub could get all the way out there.”

Glynn took a deep breath, trying to weigh the significance of the news not only for Horace but for the entire church family. “Do I need to jump ship and leave now?” he asked, concerned both for Horace but also not wanting to leave Calvin in the lurch, especially given how unusual it was for someone like Glynn to have the chance to speak.

Marve was silent for a moment, an uncomfortable silence that made it difficult to know whether she was hedging her answer or trying to figure out how to put it delicately. “Horace knows where you are, of course, and to some degree, he understands how important it is. He said to tell you not to rush back. Between you and me, though? He’s a basket case, Glynn. He called, then Hub called and, of course, Hub didn’t know where you were and actually sounded a bit angry that you weren’t available to go out there immediately. Is there anything keeping you there after you speak?”

“Not that I know of,” Glynn said. “In fact, judging from the actions of some of the others, speaking then leaving seems to be part of the routine. I doubt anyone other than the guys from around here would miss me. I can leave right after, grab lunch in Oklahoma City, and be home before five, I think.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Marve responded. “I won’t say anything, just in case you do get delayed, but if you can be here by the time Rose is done embalming and all, I think that would be good. Horace certainly doesn’t need to go to the funeral home without some support.”

For the first time that day, Glynn felt comfortable with the decision he was making. “It’s settled then. I’ll leave as soon as I speak and get there as quickly as I can. Do me a favor and keep tabs on any plans any of the ladies are making. This is going to be a jolt to the entire church. The women can’t help but respond”

“Will do. Drive safe, and remember I love you,” Marve answered as she hung up the phone. 

Glynn walked slowly back to the small chapel where the sessions were being held, taking in the enormity of what had just happened. Joanne’s presence was deeply woven into the fabric of the entire church. There was no one whose life she hadn’t touched in some significant way, from taking food to someone who was ill to teaching Sunday School, to running both VBS and church camp. Losing her was as though the whole church had lost its collective mother.

Outside the chapel, he came across Calvin and Joe standing a few feet away from the door. Calvin saw the deep expression of anguish on Glynn’s face and knew something was wrong. “Brother Glynn,” he called somewhat softly, motioning for him to join them. “Is everything okay? I noticed you had a phone call earlier.”

“The wife of one of my deacons died earlier this morning. Her presence in the church was significant. I’ll be leaving just as soon as I finish speaking,” Glynn said, trying to keep his voice from wavering. 

Joe and Clavin both placed an arm around the pastor’s shoulder in comfort, drawing him closer into their circle. “Listen, you are not under any obligation to speak under these circumstances. Every pastor in there will understand if you need to leave,” Calvin told him.

“For all the pretense of importance we put on these things, your church family comes first,” Joe said. “I’ll cover for you myself if you wish.”

Glynn tried to force a smile, but it came out more like a grimace. “I appreciate the flexibility,” he said, “but I think I need to preach this as much for myself right now as for anyone else. I need to remind myself of who God is in the face of death. I wouldn’t mind a little prayer, though,” The statement was meant more rhetorically than anything; it was one of those religious phrases that just came out when there wasn’t anything concrete to be done. What happened next caught him by surprise.

“Absolutely,” Joe said. He knelt where he had been standing and Glynn and Calvin followed suit. With their hands on Glynn’s shoulders, they each prayed, asking God to comfort Horace and his family, the church in Adelberg, and to give Glynn strength to know what to say. While they were praying, Glynn felt a third hand on his shoulders. He didn’t look up, but when Calvin finished praying, Glynn recognized the voice of Herschel Hobbs. Soon, there was a fourth hand, then a fifth, and more as convention staff members who had been outside the chapel came and joined them. Each knelt in the dusty Southern Oklahoma sand. If they could reach Glynn, they put a hand on him. They took their cue from the person praying before him and continued the near-mantra that Joe had started. 

When the last person stopped, 23 men stood around Glynn, assuring him they would be praying as he spoke, and as he drove home. He felt both emboldened and oddly embarrassed at having unexpectedly drawn so much attention. Inside, the group was singing the second hymn before Glynn was to speak.

“I’ll keep my introduction abbreviated,” Calvin said. “Take as much or as little time as you feel led. The clock’s off.”

The group was standing as they sang, making it easier for the men to enter and make their way to their seats. When they finished the hymn and sat down, Calvin made his way to the podium and after making a couple of announcements concerning the afternoon’s softball game, he said, “Our next speaker, unlike some others, needs an introduction. Glynn Waterbury is new to us, having been only been pastor of First Baptist, Adelberg since February. Coming from a bi-vocational position near the Detroit area, he’s still getting accustomed to the way we do things down here and the challenges of being a full-time pastor. He’s speaking this morning, though, because he’s had to deal with some significant deaths in the short time he’s been here and his manner and method of approach to the topic is one I felt appropriate to be shared here, given our theme. Please welcome Reverend Glynn Waterbury.

In traditional Southern Baptist fashion, there was no applause. Clapping was considered to promote vanity, something that plagued many despite no one thinking it was their own problem. Instead, a chorus of hearty Amens came from the group and Glynn stepped behind the lectern that now seemed too small and too wobbly to support the weight he desired to place on it. He looked across the audience and saw Clement and the others from his association sitting together, smiling in anticipation. For the most part, the faces of all the men were encouraging. They were eager to listen and Glynn wondered how quickly the smiles were about to fade.

Placing his hands on either side of the lectern, he began: “Death is such a fun topic to be assigned, isn’t it?” He paused for the smattering of chuckles that passed through the group of pastors. “Unlike I might with some other topics, though, I want to warn you from the outset that I did not come here armed with jokes. I do not intend for the next few minutes to be filled with amusing anecdotes. If you feel good when you leave this chapel for lunch, I want it to be because of the surety you have in the absolute awesomeness of God’s transcendent immanence and faithfulness, not because I’ve found some magical way of making a difficult topic something less than the frightening monster it is.

“Death is an absolute. I received word earlier that a dear soul, perhaps the one person who might be considered the mother to all of our church, suffered a stroke and died this morning. She was making breakfast for her family, something she enjoyed doing, and in that flash of a moment, she ceased to be.”

Murmurs of shock and concern waved across the group and Glynn gave them space to react before continuing. “Do you know what happens when you have a stroke? I know it’s a common medical term and as pastors, we hear it often as a cause of death. We know it has something to do with the brain, but do we really understand what it’s like to have a stroke? Maybe some of you do, but for the rest, please let me briefly explain.

“A stroke is caused when something, usually a blood clot or a hemorrhage, blocks the flow of blood to the brain. That’s the nice, clinical definition that we get from doctors trying to explain to grieving families what just happened to the person who 30 minutes ago seemed perfectly alive and well. 

“But for the person experiencing the stroke, there’s a lot more. For Joanne Lyles this morning, she likely woke up with the headache that was signaling that there was a problem. Some people describe it as a lightning strike, like biting into ice cream and getting that brain freeze we all dread. And Joanne, like most of us who live busy lives, ignored that headache and began her morning routine. She made coffee. She cooked bacon. She was working on scrambled eggs. Then, the left side of her brain, the part that keeps us present, focused, and in control, stopped working. For a moment, Joanne likely felt wonderful as the right side of her brain filled her with a sense of euphoria. She wouldn’t have felt the pain of her brain shutting down. She would have more likely had what some people might call a moment of oneness with the universe. She smiled, not because she was seeing Jesus, but because the part of her brain that processes reality was gone. With blinding speed, as she was consciously experiencing this almost out-of-body feeling, other portions of her brain were shutting down. She lost muscular control of her body and slumped to the floor. She lost the ability to recognize speech or respond in any verbal manner. As her husband rushed to her, his face was no longer recognizable. 

“Then, all too quickly, before anyone had time to call for help, the euphoria was turned off like a light switch, and there was nothing. No bright light. No sudden whoosh of her soul leaving her body. Just black, lonely, disarming, frightening, nothing. She was dead.

“Right here is where we as pastors make our first mistake because our instinct is to mitigate that solid, dark, painful reality of the absoluteness of death. So, we don’t use the word. Instead, we say that Joanne has passed on or passed away. She is no longer with us. She has entered into the arms of God. She has crossed the river. She has met her maker, her God, her Savior. She has gone on to her eternal reward. 

“Outside of our religious context, people say that someone has bought the farm, kicked the bucket, fallen off the perch, assumed room temperature, cashed in their chips, and quite poetically, shuffled off this mortal coil. For the entirety of humanity, we have looked for ways of describing death without actually using the word because the meaning and inference that comes with saying that someone is dead drives home just how dark and bleak that reality is.

“Death is the final end, and that scares us. Death is the emptiness of being forsaken, it is a rupture to our reality, a discontinuity, sheer blankness, and absolute poverty. In death, our lives are cast into a human void with no inner view, no period of self-reflection, and no explanation. Whatever sense we try to make of death comes not from death itself because death is always senseless. So we attempt to make some leap from this senselessness by ignoring the reality with a selected reading, some artificially imposed hope from something other than death’s complete and unwavering bleakness. 

“Death is so frightening, so radical, that it puts us in a position as pastors to try and find some softer way to explain the unexplainable. And in trying to pull that punch, we too often resort to folklore, tradition, and nursery rhymes in place of what the Bible lays out for us. Oh, we can stretch and bend and try to make different pieces of scripture fit all those little stories, but not only are we not being faithful to scripture when we do so, but we are also simultaneously diminishing the power of God.

“As unintentional as it may be, we are frequently engaged in deceit when we approach the topic of death, starting with its origins. We look at the book of Genesis and tell our congregations that it is the sin of Adam that brought death into being, that before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, everyone and everything was immortal and that was good. I am convinced, however, that that’s not the truth. 

“Remember how in the very beginning of the book of Genesis, where God is looking at this mess of void, formless swamp of deep darknesses and over that primordial mess he says, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good so he separated the light from the darkness and right there, as he was creating the first day, establishing this thing we call time, in the deepest, furthest reaches of darkness, where there isn’t even the slightest hint that light exists, there is where God created death. It has been with us from the very beginning because without it we cannot begin to fully understand the transcendent glory of the God who defies that darkness.”

Glynn paused to let the statement sink in. The smiles were gone, a serious, almost stern expression taking its place as the pastors began to realize that this new guy was challenging their theology. He looked at Clement, who met his gaze and nodded. He looked to the front row and saw Dr. Hobbs furiously writing on a scrap of paper. A couple of rows behind him, Warren Hultgren, surrounded by his staff, had leaned forward, his hands folded on the back of the chair in front of him. Toward the back of the chapel, the one pastor who had not gotten the memo about dressing casually, Gene Garrison, had his Bible open in front of him, checking the validity of what Glynn was saying. He continued.

“Bad theology comes in many forms with many different excuses. Over time they have mixed and intermingled with each other to the point that we cannot recognize what is Truth until we compare the mythology we’ve created around death with the reality of God. Perhaps the most common is the idea that the soul, immortal, never experiences death, that when the earthen container of life is broken, the soul somehow floats right on up to the presence of God. There are two problems with that concept. 

“First, it’s a hoax not supported by original scripture. There is no soul in the Hebraic tradition of the Old Testament. Neither Jesus nor Paul would have understood what we were talking about. Instead, the concept on which they operated was the reality of something they called Sheol, an absolute nothingness. Only when popular philosophy finally embraced Aristotle’s idea of the soul being a separate existence from the human body, some 300 years after Christ, did church leaders go back and actually re-write scripture in an effort to support this belief that originated in secular thought.

“But even apart from this strange embrace of Greek philosophy, if we preach that the soul just somehow automatically disjoins from the body and is spirited away, what is it, exactly, that God is resurrecting? If what we’re saying is that the soul is capable of making its own way without actually experiencing death for itself, then why did Christ need to die? Are we daring to say that death is now somehow different than it was 2,000 years ago? There’s nothing in scripture to support that and it’s a dangerous presumption to make. If the soul does not experience death for itself then we are inherently diminishing if not completely negating the power of God through the resurrection! The soul must die, just as Jesus completely and fully died, experiencing that full rejection of life, or else the immanence of God over death is moot.”

Glynn definitely had everyone’s attention now. Some were flipping through their Bibles, others had closed them, sitting sternly with their arms crossed defiantly. He ignored them and went on.

“Another concept that has recently gained a lot of popularity and taken over a lot of contemporary literature on the subject, is that death is something we have to work to accept as part of five stages of grief. I’m sure you’ve heard of them: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The process, based not in scripture but contemporary psychology, comes across as a compassionate understanding of what is presented as a natural course of the life cycle. When we have finally matured enough, when we have fought our way through these destructive stages to ultimate acceptance, only then can we appreciate the finality of death and move on from it.

“The problem with this approach is first that it reduces death to merely a distorted perspective; that death is only bad because we perceive it wrongly through our maladjusted attitudes, because we refuse to accept the natural conclusion of life. This is just the way life is. You live, then you die, accept it and be free. But again, if death is something we can psychologically accept, if it’s not something from which we desire to run away and avoid, if it is only the final stage of human growth, then what does that make of God? If death is a natural extension of life, then do we even need God?

“It is the undeniable condition of death’s darkness that makes the question of God’s existence moot. Only in the complete collapse of the human person is the primal shape of faith revealed. Faith must desperately cling to the God who is in no way affirmed by the darkness ahead but who triumphs over that darkness through the power of his own transcendence. Take away the power of death and we mute the power of God. How dare we even consider such a thing?

“There are also those who look to death as a point of ultimate realization, the pinnacle of human existence where we finally realize what it is to be human in the brief instant before we stop being human. Go ahead, try to make sense of that. Such a philosophy ultimately discards God entirely.

“And the one that gets me the most is the idea that death is like a butterfly breaking forth from a chrysalis, bursting forth from the drudgery of this mortal existence into the beauty and splendor of heaven. It sounds nice, doesn’t it, but the superficial aspects of the metaphor deny the existence of death completely. Death? What’s that? Oh, you mean that old cocoon? That’s nothing. 

“Have any of you, probably as children, broken open a chrysalis to see what’s inside? If you have, you likely know that in order for a butterfly to ever break free from the unpenetrable darkness, the caterpillar that created the tomb has to die, its body reduced to nothing more than an icky, sticky, smelly, disgusting block of a mess. Only there, when every last vestige of its previous life is completely stripped away, does God’s creation deliver a butterfly. Full, complete, death of the whole body has to occur before eternal life can become an option. 

“As comfortable as it may make us and our congregations, when we preach anything other than the absolute rigid blankness of death we distort and diminish who God is and what he can accomplish. Only in that hopelessness where no possible human remedy could potentially exist, where the most brilliant mind has no chance to explain its way out or provide another alternative, only there does faith finally, desperately, look to the omnipotence of God and find salvation. If God is going to be our rock, then death must first be the ocean in which we drown. Only when we risk complete nothingness, a blankness that erases the whole of our existence, can God’s power reward us with eternal life. 

“When I leave here in a few minutes, I return to a man who is not only experiencing the loss of his wife and the mother of his children, I have a deacon who is beginning to see for himself the darkness of death. I will not tell him that God called his wife home. I will not tell him that her death is in any way, shape, or form acceptable. I will not excuse her death as just another passing phase that he has to learn to accept. 

“Instead, I will admit with him that his wife’s death is a tragedy for him, his family, and the whole community. I will acknowledge with him the pain of despair that he is feeling; diminishing, or excusing it in no way, but embracing it with him as a partner in grief. Then I will gently assure him, that through all the anguish, through all the darkness, through the utter finality of death, at the ultimate end of everything, there, God is our strength and our refuge. There, God transcends all else and displays the full power and awesomeness of his deity. There, just as God raised Jesus, he raises Joanne Lyles. 

“We can preach no mediation. We cannot embrace any attempt to soften the blow by deteriorating death’s power. Death is the ultimate opposite. Death is death, but God is God. How dare we preach anything else?”

Glynn looked at his audience. Expressions of wonder, confusion, and disbelief scattered between nods of agreement, thoughtfulness, and appreciation. Clement smiled and give him a discreet thumbs-up. Glynn stepped back from the lectern, looked at Calvin who nodded his understanding that the sermon was complete, then slipped out the side door. Within minutes he was heading for home where the reality of his sermon was waiting.

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Pastor's Conference, 1972

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Chapter 27

Chapter 27

The rain at the end of the week was just what was needed to put a few more people in the pews on Sunday morning. Not that 86 was all that thrilling of a number, but it was a welcome change of direction from the 70s and 60s that occupied most of July. Farmers, of course, were still in the fields, but ranchers had a chance to relax a little. Wives and children were at least present. Glynn took this as a positive sign that things were turning around and was able to relax a little after the evening service, taking time to play in the yard with the kids before they had to go to bed. He was beginning to feel as though he might, finally, be settling into this full-time pastorate thing.

The pastor was still feeling that same confidence as he drove to Arvel for the pastors’ conference on Monday. Morning temperatures weren’t quite as hot so he drove with the car windows down and the radio blasting as he drove as fast as he dared down the highway. He even dared to sing along with Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” something he would only do when no one else was within possible earshot. 

The meeting was at a different church this morning. Olivet Baptist Church was on the East side of Arvel, a smaller church whose regular Sunday morning attendance was just a little less than Adelbert’s. Glynn pulled into the small parking lot noting the usual pastors who were present, and curious by a couple of newer vehicles he didn’t recognize. Unlike their meetings at other churches, this one was taking place in the church sanctuary, which felt a little more formal. A lectern stood in front of the left section of pews as pastors stood in the aisles talking. At the front, Emmit seemed to be in serious discussion with a face Glynn only partially recognized. He knew the man was from Oklahoma City but couldn’t remember what he did there and was curious that he would be all the way up in Arvel on a Monday morning. Oklahoma City was a good four-hour drive away.

Emmit called the meeting to order and the pastors took seats in the first four rows of pews, Glynn and Carl choosing the fourth row, visibly separated from the others. After the usual roll call, Emmit introduced Bruce Haggard, the state convention’s director of religious education. Bruce was present to explain some significant changes coming to the Sunday School curriculum starting with the next quarter in October. It was especially important to push the new curriculum because the association had the lowest rate of using the convention materials in the state.

Glynn yawned. He couldn’t help it. From his perspective, Southern Baptist churches used Southern Baptist materials and if someone in a Sunday School class wanted to challenge the content of that material on any given Sunday then that just made for a more lively and in-depth discussion. He knew too well that adult classes were often little more than gossip sessions using scripture as a cover. He also found it disturbing in his own church that men’s and women’s classes were separate except for the “young adults” class from which one was ejected when they turned 40. Trying to change that tradition, though, was something Glynn had elected to not undertake for fear that the resulting turmoil might create more problems than it would solve.

As the meeting ended, Carl couldn’t resist teasing Glynn about his apparent lack of interest. “The morning’s topic a little dry for you?” he chided.

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Glynn confessed. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I appreciate the changes they’re making but was that really worth him making the trip all the way up here from Oklahoma City on a Monday morning? Seems a bit excessive to me. Why the over-sell?”

“Because more than half these churches use curriculum from nondenominational publishers and there are three churches I know of that don’t use any curriculum at all, they just let their teachers wing it,” Carl explained. “You’d be surprised at what’s being taught in some of these Sunday School classes.”

Glynn shook his head. “Is that something we can really control, though? Our women’s classes are little more than gossip sessions. The men sit around and talk weather and farming and second-guessing Coach Fairbanks, who had better have a good season this year or I’m going to have to preach on anger management.”

Carl laughed. Oklahoma University football was almost as much a religion across the state and there wasn’t a Southern Baptist church in the state that didn’t experience Sunday morning attendance fluctuations based on how well the Sooners were playing. “I’m thankful for away games,” he said. “We have a couple of diehard Crimson and Cream fans who are in Norman for every home game and don’t make it back until late Sunday afternoon. It amazes me how seriously they take their football.”

“It was one of the first topics raised to me when I moved here back in February,” Glynn said. “February and they were thinking about this fall’s football season. Something about a set of brothers in the defensive lineup.”

Carl was still laughing and nodding his head. “I know exactly what you’re talking about. Lucious, Lee Roy, and Dewey Selmon. They’re already calling them the Selmon Wall. My last deacon’s meeting was nothing but that and how we’re going to beat Nebraska.”

Glynn had started walking up the aisle toward the door as he said, “Too bad we can’t turn that enthusiasm into more excitement for the church.”

“Maybe we can,” Carl responded. “That guy from Houston a couple of weeks ago, you remember we said he talked about meeting people where they are? So, what if we find a way to make the result of Saturday’s game affect something on Sunday morning? Not anything critical, mind you, but some kind of contest.”

Glynn paused and gave the idea some thought. Certainly, the men in his church were competitive enough that the right tactic might work. “Any specific?” he asked.

Carl shrugged. “I’m not sure. I think it needs to be something fun, something that won’t actually distract too much.”

“And what happens if the season doesn’t turn out as good as everyone seems to think it will?” Glynn asked.

“Then Chuck Fairbanks is going to be looking for a new job,” Carl laughed. “I don’t know, just an idea. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.”

Glynn said careful and hasty goodbyes where he thought necessary and then made his usual rounds at the hospital. There was no one in critical condition this morning, just a couple of minor surgeries for older people who would be back up and ignoring their doctor’s advice by the end of the week. Despite the weekend’s rains, the weather was still hot and Glynn was hoping to spend most of his afternoons in the air-conditioned office. The books Clement had given him provided plenty of new and interesting material to read, much of which challenged his long-held beliefs, forcing the preacher to either justify what he had been telling people from the pulpit or consider changing his views. 

For the most part, Glynn got what he wanted. Marve was busy getting the kids ready for school in a few weeks, an extra chore with Hayden starting kindergarten. Afternoon heat kept most everyone indoors. What pastoral visits needed to be made were done earlier in the day when breezes were still cool. Wednesday’s prayer meeting was still lightly attended but Glynn was beginning to enjoy the conversations he would have with the few who did attend and walking home by himself afterward was calming.

It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that disruption came calling. Glynn had been so deeply engrossed in the book he was reading that the was startled by the ringing telephone. Hearing Emmit’s voice on the other end of the line immediately made him curious. The Director of Missions was rarely in his office on Friday afternoons. 

After briefly exchanging pleasantries, Emmit quickly got down to the purpose of his call. “Glynn, I’d like to ask you to do me a favor. Normally, I would send something like this over to Clement or Bill but they’re both out of town this afternoon. I have a couple sitting just outside my office who are wanting to get married but they’re having difficulty finding someone to perform the ceremony for them. They already have their wedding license and blood test, but the court clerk refused to marry them and they’ve not been able to find a pastor here who would. Do you think you could do a quick ceremony for them? You’d need a couple of witnesses.”

The question caught Glynn off guard. He hadn’t done too many weddings over his career because the churches he pastored tended to not have young people of marrying age. There had been none in the Adelbert church since he moved there. Performing the ceremony wasn’t really that big of a deal but it seemed strange that no one else was willing to marry the couple. “I guess I can,” he replied. “I don’t understand why they’re having so much trouble getting married, though. What’s causing the problem? Are they both divorced or something?”

“Worse,” Emmit said, being careful to keep his voice soft so as to not be overheard. “The groom is a negro from Joplin.”

Glynn immediately understood the challenge. Racism in Oklahoma ran deep. While he had grown accustomed to working with and around black people on the plant floor in Michigan, even there everything was largely segregated. There simply were no black people living in most Oklahoma towns. They weren’t welcome and people, even churches, weren’t hesitant about letting their stance be known, sometimes with threats of violence. “Just make sure I’m clear, you are asking me to marry a mixed-race couple?” Glynn asked. 

“Yeah, if you think you’re up to it,” Emmit responded. “I’d do it but everyone here in the office has already left. I don’t have anyone to act as a witness.”

Glynn thought carefully before responding. This was the sort of thing that could be bigger than it should. He had heard the foul language being used around town to describe black people whose names ended up in the news. While he had never bothered to ask, he was fairly certain that even Buck would be less than welcoming. He let out a long sigh. “I guess I can. I’m not sure I can find any witnesses either, though. I suppose Marve might be willing to come down but doesn’t the license require two signatures?”

“It does, but there’s a way around that. I can sign one of the spaces before they leave here. No one is going to know that I’m not actually in the room and I don’t think anyone is going to snitch on us,” Emmit said. “And you don’t want to do this at the church. Word gets out that you did and you’ll have more trouble than either of us want to handle. I would recommend taking them to the parsonage, marry them in your living room.”

Emmit was asking was a lot. Glynn’s own opinion was that love was love. The Supreme Court had struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriages in 1967 but there were still a large number of preachers and churches, especially in the South, who refused to perform the ceremony. This was the sort of thing that could get a pastor run out of town in a hurry. “Go ahead and send them over,” Glynn finally said. “We’ll get them married one way or another.”

By the time the pastor hung up the phone, the breeze from the small air-conditioner in the window sent chills across his skin. He knew the risk he was taking not only with the church but with Marve as well. He dialed their home number and waited for his wife to answer. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until the eighth ring that she picked up. “Hi honey, I have a huge favor to ask and I’m sorry it’s last-minute,” he started.

The conversation was surprisingly brief. Marve not only agreed to be the necessary witness but said she would send the kids to play next door so that they wouldn’t be in the way, or accidentally snitch on them later to a church member. When she offered refreshment Glynn questioned whether that might be too much, that the couple’s safety depended in part on covertly being able to slip in and out of town without being noticed. Marve insisted that they at least offer them something cool to drink.

Glynn was waiting outside the church when the couple pulled into the parking lot. He told them to follow him to the parsonage and instructed them to pull into the garage so that it wouldn’t be evident that they had company. The couple nodded, understanding the risks everyone was taking.

Once they were seated in the parsonage living room, Glynn and Marve found the young couple to be quite charming and obviously very much in love. The bride was a young woman just 22 years old and fresh out of college. Her long, blonde hair flowed down to the middle of her back, a light contrast to the short, white dress she was wearing. He was a couple of inches taller than Glynn and fit, his hair cut short, close to his head. He was a med student about to enter his first year of residency. His light blue slacks with the flared legs and brightly patterned shirt looked sharp but definitely stood out in the rural environment.

The couple had met in college at the University of Chicago where many of their friends were interracial couples as well. They knew coming back to the bride’s home in Arvel would be controversial but they hadn’t anticipated the outright hostility shown by the bride’s family. The couple had briefly considered getting married in Joplin, but the groom’s family had threatened to disown him if he walked through the door with a white woman. Even after they finally decided to elope, every step of the process had presented a new challenge. 

Under more normal conditions, Glynn would have insisted on at least some brief marital counseling before agreeing to marry someone, but after hearing the couple’s story he was convinced that he was ill-equipped to offer them any substantial advice. They had already encountered more challenges to their relationship than most couples would experience over a lifetime and they knew there were more to come. He prayed with them briefly, asking God’s blessing on their union and safety as they traveled back to Chicago.

Asking the couple to stand facing him in the middle of the living room, Glynn began the brief ceremony. 

“We are gathered here in the sight of God to witness the union of Lamar and Elizabeth in holy matrimony. This is not a matter to be entered into lightly. Marriage is prescribed and ordained by God and is not meant to be taken with a deep and abiding love founded in our faith in the Creator, fully aware of the obligations and responsibilities we have both to God and to each other. 

“Lamar, do you take Elizabeth to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, through good times and bad, sickness and health, whether richer or poorer, to be faithful to her in all things and to love her as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Lamar said firmly.

“Elizabeth, do you take Lamar to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, through good times and bad, sickness and health, whether richer or poorer, to be faithful to him in all things and to love and support him as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Elizabeth answered with a soft smile.

“Then without the presence of any objection and by the authority invested in me by the state of Oklahoma, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Glynn looked at Lamar and added, “You may now kiss the bride.”

The newlyweds wasted no time getting on the road, hoping to make it as far as St. Louis where they had secured a hotel room for the night. Glynn watched carefully as they backed out of the garage and drove down the hill. He felt certain that they had sufficiently pulled off the event without anyone noticing. It was still early enough in the afternoon that none of the neighbors who might have cared were home. Their path out of town avoided being seen or noticed by anyone curious. The pastor sighed in relief, quietly wishing the couple a happy life. Glynn tucked the marriage license in his Bible to mail to the court clerk the next day.

Saturday mornings always started earlier than Glynn would have liked. Lita was up at the crack of dawn, turning on the television to watch cartoons. Inevitably, Hayden wouldn’t be far behind. There was no such thing as sleeping late. Glynn made coffee while Marve made breakfast. While waiting, he stepped out on the front porch and picked up the morning newspaper, neatly rolled and bound with a rubber band. The pastor casually opened the paper and looked at the headlines. The man convicted of shooting Alabama Governor George Wallace had been sentenced. Bobby Fisher won game 10 of the World Chess Championship. It wasn’t until he had sat down in his recliner that he read the headline below the fold, “Arvel Woman Murdered In St. Louis.”

Glynn’s stomach turned and wrenched as he read the too brief article. The paper said that Elizabeth and a “colored man from Chicago” were shot and robbed as they walked back to their motel after dinner. There was no mention of the couple being newlyweds. They hadn’t made it a day. Their marriage license was still in Glynn’s Bible.

Angrily, Glynn stormed into the kitchen, slammed the newspaper on the table and shouted, “God has a lot of explaining to do!” He thundered out of the kitchen and into the garage, beating the hood of the car with his fists. How could a just God allow this? Was this God’s way of objecting to interracial marriage? Glynn refused to believe that. He kicked at the tires as tears streamed down his face. God had made a mistake. There was no infallibility here. A perfect God could not have allowed this to happen.

Glynn’s sudden actions shocked the rest of the family. No one was accustomed to him raising his voice about anything. To do so while invoking the name of God was something even Marve had never seen him do. 

Both kids came running into the kitchen. Marve assured them that everything was going to be okay. Only after placating them with toast and butter did she look at the newspaper and see what had been so upsetting. 

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she returned to fixing breakfast. In her brief time away from the stove, the bacon she was cooking had burned to the point of being inedible. She dumped the bacon into the trash, slammed the pan onto the stove, and sank to the floor sobbing.

Chapter 28

chapter 28

Glynn found it difficult to stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning. For the first time in his ministerial career, he didn’t feel as though he was serving God. This felt just like any other pointless job, work performed for a boss who really didn’t care. He waded through his sermon with the same level of enthusiasm he might have had for cleaning up after one of Hayden’s frequent toilet accidents. His heart wasn’t in it and he didn’t care. Still, as he stood at the back of the church after the service, his congregation had only praise with “Great sermon, pastor,” being said so frequently that by the time the last person left the sanctuary Glynn wanted to scream, “No, it wasn’t!” at the top of his lungs.

He was in a bad mood, feeling at times abandoned by God and at other times questioning whether God was sovereign at all. Taking a nap didn’t help. Playing outside with Hayden, something that could usually snap Glynn out of any bad mood, didn’t help. He plowed through the evening service even more frustrated and detached than he had been that morning. Instead of the calm, steady voice that his congregation was accustomed to hearing, his tone was aggressive and at times accusatory. He considered it some form of religious perversion that the tactic actually moved a couple of people to come forward during the invitation for “rededication.”

Not that Glynn actually believed in this thing Southern Baptists looked at as some form of spiritual re-purposing or confession after a particularly bad sin. Baptists held strongly to the doctrine of the Security of the Believer; in short, once saved, always saved, no matter what. Glynn looked at the doctrine as a spiritual safety net. It removed the need for confession or any actual acknowledgment of one’s sins beyond the point of salvation. Should an alleged Christian commit particularly heinous acts, such as murder, then it was excused as the person having never truly been saved in the first place. 

The doctrine was riddled with holes that could only be explained away with an academic twisting of scripture that explained away passages such as Hebrews 6, which specifically states, 

4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.

Ever-changing definitions of “apostasy” enabled pastors to convince church members that no, they hadn’t lost their salvation, but simply needed to re-dedicate, spiritually double-down and try harder.

Right now, Glynn hated that doctrine. Of the two women who came forward, one was merely convicted that she hadn’t been reading her Bible enough, not something Glynn considered an actual sin given that there was no concrete determination as to what “enough” might be. The other admitted to having difficulty getting her mind off “impure thoughts.” The pastor didn’t dig for details. He didn’t want to know. The young woman was married and he knew the couple was trying to start a family. From his perspective, it was unlikely she was doing anything wrong. He prayed a hollow prayer with both women and sent them back to their seats, doubting that either would actually change anything in their lives. 

After the service, which again drew “good sermon” accolades, Glynn sent Marve on home with the kids so that he could stay behind and do some reading. Marve could tell her husband was struggling with more than the unjustness of the young couple’s murder. She kissed him on the cheek and promised to wait up for him.

With everyone else gone, Glynn turned off the lights in the sanctuary and walked into the small office. He leaned against the desk and pulled his hands through his hair. He still wanted to scream, to yell at God for having messed up, to erase the wedding ceremony from his memory, to pack up the family and run away, abandoning the pastorate for a calm, predictable 40-hour-a-week factory job that might not pay much but at least made sense. 

This made twice within a month that death had gotten too close. At least Jerry’s death, however ill-timed it might have been, made sense. He knew he had cancer. He had time to prepare. Elizabeth and Lamar didn’t get that chance. They didn’t see what was coming. All their discussion of dealing with the anger of their families didn’t prepare them for the hate they encountered on a St. Louis street. Glynn could excuse God for Jerry’s death as an act of mercy. There was no excuse for the cold-blooded murder of the young newlyweds and that tore at every fiber of Glynn’s soul.

Looking over at the box of books still sitting on the folding chair, he angrily picked up the box and dumped its contents into the floor. What good were they? What wisdom could any of them possibly have?

In the instant that the books hit the floor, Glynn knew he couldn’t leave them there even if he wanted to. He couldn’t throw them away. Even badly written books full of nonsense were still a record of someone’s thoughts or creative effort. Destroying books was, in Glynn’s opinion, a worse sin than what either woman had confessed to during the invitation. Looking at the small pile scattered at his feet, one of the heavier-weighted books with the title Letters and Papers from Prison on its spine. The author’s name sounded vaguely familiar, he recognized it as belonging to a theologian, but the pastor wasn’t familiar with the work or the person. He picked up the book wondering if there was anything of value. Starting on the page that naturally fell open, he read:

God is teaching us that we must live as humans who can get along very well without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. Matthew 8:17 (he took up our infirmities, and bore the burden of our sins) makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering.

This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. . .

Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; Letters and Papers from Prison. Translated by Reginald H. Fuller. London: SCM, 1953; as Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

“Participating in the suffering of God?” Is that what was happening? Was the whole purpose of death and disease in the world to help Christians identify with the suffering of God? Glynn wasn’t convinced he was ready to buy that argument. He flipped over a few pages and read more.

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

“I’m not sure anyone even knows what simplicity and straightforwardness are anymore,” Glynn thought to himself. He thumbed across a few more pages in the large book, wondering if there was any way he could ever read through the whole thing. He read more:

Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

Glynn flipped to the back of the book, reading the author’s biography on the inside flap of the dustjacket. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor, imprisoned and hung by the Nazis for his association with a group plotting the assassination of Hitler. Martyr. Yet another of God’s own that had been allowed to die violently at the hands of cruel and vicious hate.

Glynn set the large book on the desk then bent down and picked up the others one at a time, placing them carefully on the bookshelf. There was obviously a lot here that he needed to read. He felt ignorant and uninformed. Perhaps he should quit and go to college, even seminary. Clement certainly seemed to know a lot more about everything. He hadn’t hung around Bill all that much but he appeared much more enlightened than Glynn was feeling at the moment. 

The pastor turned off the lights in the office and walked home in the dusky dark alone, his tie loosened, his suit coat slung over his shoulder. Too many questions were swirling in his mind. If evil and stupidity walked hand in hand in the seats of great power, what chance did anyone have? How could God possibly be sovereign in that situation? Could it be that the key to control was no control? Or was it more likely that God needs chaos to force people to turn to him?

Answers weren’t coming. All week long, Glynn continued to wrestle with the questions burning in his mind. By the time Thursday evening rolled around, he was wondering if there was any point in taking Marve out to dinner. Even Claire remarked quietly to Marve how grumpy and angry the pastor seemed that week.

The couple drove over to Arvel for dinner at a restaurant known locally for the quality of its fried catfish. Marve wasn’t a fan of the bottom-feeding fish and opted for fried chicken instead. The lengthy cooking time of both gave the couple plenty of time to talk.

“So, are you going to tell me what’s going on in that muddled head of yours or are you happy being so cantankerous that everyone in town is starting to think they’ve done something to make you angry?” Marve asked once the server had taken their order.
Glynn looked out through the floor-to-ceiling window at the birds gathering around the large pond stocked with the catfish that furnished the restaurant its fresh catch. “What do you mean?” he responded, not yet fully plugged into the conversation.

Marve reached across the table and took Glynn’s hand. “Look at me,” she said firmly, waiting for him to redirect his attention before continuing. “You’re letting whatever is bothering you get in the way of you doing anything. You’ve snapped at the kids all week, which I can sort of understand. Lita’s been a bit of a brat. But you also snapped at dear Mrs. Walker when you saw her at the post office yesterday. She was so worried she had offended you that she actually called me to see what she had done wrong. You were sharp with the guys at the gas station, you totally pushed off Claire’s questions, which, by the way, the child is asking some tough ones that if you don’t answer she’s going to make the wrong assumptions and get herself into trouble. You’ve ended multiple phone calls without even saying goodbye. Glynn, you’re about to completely undo everything you’ve worked hard to build here. What the sam hill is going on?”

Glynn looked at his wife, then looked down at the table, the white linen cloth catching the fading sunlight through the window and turning everything around them a warm amber. “Those kids, Elizabeth and Lamar,” he said. “Part of me wants to ask God what he was thinking, why he didn’t stop the violence or misdirect them away from it. How could that in any way have been God’s will? There is nothing good that can come out of such a horrible tragedy. At the same time, I can’t stop wondering if the reason I’m having such a problem getting over this is because I’m not really the person who needs to be answering those questions. That’s why I keep putting Claire off. I don’t have any answers. I’m no longer sure of much of anything. I don’t know if I need to go back to college and maybe seminary, try to get to a place of deeper understanding, or if I just need to give up and move back to Michigan.”

“You need to get your head back in the game,” Marve answered, giving him the stern look she usually reserved for the children. “Maybe stop chasing the answers and give them a chance to come to you. You’re answering one question by asking another and all that’s doing is making you and everyone around you a little more crazy. You need to focus more on meeting the needs of the people who are right here, people who are still alive and need your help. There’s nothing you can do for Elizabeth and Lamar now. God’s done what he’s done. So you have questions. Fine. You can’t let the absence of a ready answer get in the way of at least being civil.”

Glynn looked across the table at his wife and felt his face flush. “Why would I be civil in the face of such horrible crimes like this?”

“Glynn, you’re acting as though someone killed your own children,” Marve charged. “You know as well as I do, if not better, that two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s not what the Bible teaches.”

“What if what the Bible is attempting to teach us turns out to be false? I have believed all my life that God is sovereign, that God is in control, that nothing escapes the vision nor the will nor the plan of God.” Glynn paused and took a drink of the water sitting in the crystal glass near his left hand. “Nothing in the past month has supported any of those theories. Instead, everything I’ve believed, everything I’ve preached, seems to be a lie and I just can’t stuff that in my pocket and ignore it. Either God is wrong or I’m just too stupid to see where he’s right.”

Marve released her grip on Glynn’s hand and sat back in her chair. This wasn’t the response she had expected. Her husband was normally calm and understanding, the kind of person who would apologize before knowing what he had done wrong. As much as she wanted to be supportive she couldn’t let this stubborn streak go unchallenged. “You’re not stupid, Glynn. And right now I’m concerned. I think you should see the doctor and have your blood pressure checked. Something. Talk to Emmit or someone. If you can’t find a solution to that mess you’ve got going up there, you’re going to have bigger problems than the deaths of two people you hardly knew. Focus on Adelbert, not the rest of the world.”

Glynn ran his hands through his hair, a move Marve recognized as a sign that he didn’t know how to put into words what he was feeling. “I’m sorry, but I need God to tell me what’s going on,” he said. “I’m done with this game. I need simplicity. I need God to be straightforward and stop hiding all the clues.”

Marve gave an exasperated sigh. There was no point in arguing with him any further. She changed the topic and they spent the rest of the evening with mindless banter about things they both knew were substitutes for real conversations. The drive back to Adelbert was quiet and after Glynn drove Claire home he came back to find that Marve had gone to bed without him. He sat on the edge of the recliner, buried his face in his hands, and prayed. Someone in the universe had the answers. He needed to know what they were.

Reading time: 32 min
Looking For Legacy

Note: I’m a rebel and don’t underline anything like links to other websites. I do have links scattered throughout this article, though. You’ll find them hiding behind the text in bold italics. Except for that example just before this sentence. Go ahead, click the links. They’ll take you somewhere. Probably. Also, in regard to that whole ten-year challenge, the photos with today’s article are re-processed versions of self-portraits taken across several years. How many, I’m not sure. I know the baby in the second photo is a teenager now. No relevance, just something to amuse myself.

This week’s article is probably going to be shorter than normal. I was 3632 words into an article on Thanksgiving and its foundation in elitism, not reality, when I came across this article in The New Yorker that said almost exactly the same things, quoted or referenced many of the same sources, tossed in the author of a related book, and did it all in under a thousand words. Obviously, they were missing some of the humor and detail I was putting in my article, but at the end of the day, the article they published on Monday of this past week (November 18) scooped everything I was going to say. 

Insert heavy sigh and a couple of expletives. Now I have to find something else to write about and I have two days to do it instead of six. Maybe we just skip this week, or go ahead and run one of those “looking back” or “In the past ten years” articles that magazines use for filler when they can’t think of any decent content this time of year. I’ve done that before. I’m trying to not do that again this year. We’re just under 200 words at this point. How am I doing?

I’m panicking, that’s how I’m doing. Getting something interesting written isn’t the only reason for the panic this morning. The end of the year is some five and a half weeks away and with that brings the not insignificant decisions about what to do next year, whether to continue current activities or change course and try something else. On most things, I’m rather stubborn about continuing because most of what I’m doing is working the way I expected it to work. However, there are exceptions and it is the exceptions that are causing me angst. 

When I’m honest about what is going on, I have to admit that I’m dealing with something that perhaps is unique to older creatives: Fear Of Being Forgotten. This is in sharp contrast to the whole millennial FOMO thing. Missing out isn’t all that big of a concern for me. I don’t like flying because I hate airports. I don’t do arena concerts because what the fuck is the point if you can’t see the band or hear the music? I don’t do extreme anything because extreme things are for extreme people who the rest of us if we’re honest, find annoying. [Don’t worry, we’ll never say that to your face.] Missing out doesn’t bother me because I’m not especially motivated to do those things in the first place.

What bothers me is the fear that I’m going to be forgotten. The fear that if I miss a week’s post, or go a week without publishing more photographs, or even if I simply keep doing the exact same thing I’ve been doing for the past 35 years, I’ll one day wake up and no one will know, or care, who I am. I will disappear from everyone’s memory and everything I’ve ever done will be gone. 

I would think that I’m alone and psychotic in this fear and while I’ve not yet eliminated the psychiatric failings a couple of quick messages to former classmates assures me I’m not alone. As the world around us changes into something we no longer recognize, the need to be remembered grows stronger. The challenge is not that we fear being consigned to history but that we want to make sure our page is included in the book and not edited out.

Walk with me.

It Started With A Random Article

A long time ago

There are various places on various devices I use that feed me headlines to random news stories. Most of these are curated along general topics such as politics, art, news, weather, etc. Most days, they all link to the same stories from different sources. However, a couple of weeks ago, for reasons I’m not sure I can explain adequately, my phone offered up a link to an article written in 2013 by a young English woman named Vanessa who lives in Paris. She sounds sufficiently nice and perfectly millennial in all the appropriate ways but the article she wrote six years ago, Found in a Junk Shop: Secrets of an Undiscovered Visionary Artist sent a chill down my spine. 

WHY did Google suddenly think I needed to see this depressing headline right now? Every other article suggested was current. Why did they feel that this six-year-old article by a person I don’t know is suddenly relevant now? Why is the Smashed-Face Wheezer Kitty sitting in the dish drain cleaning himself? Life is full of too many questions and not nearly enough answers

The article is about a Prussian immigrant named Charles Dellschau who worked as a butcher and died in 1923. Several years after his death, a used furniture dealer bought 12 notebooks off a junk collector. The used furniture dealer paid no attention to the notebooks until an Art History student actually opened one and discovered absolutely amazing artwork on the inside. The entire contents of the notebooks are nothing short of incredible. 

Mr. Dellschau had spent the bulk of his elder years after he had retired from chopping up dead animals, documenting the plans and conversations of a secret organization known as the Sonoma Aero Club. Apparently, the club was composed of people, perhaps engineers or physicists, who were studying the possibility of human flight long before the Wright Brothers. Dellschau’s notebooks are largely the minutes of that club’s activities and include spectacular drawings done in colored pencil of the various plans the members had submitted for possible flying machines, many of which appear architecturally feasible. 

Mind you, the drawings start in 1899, more than twenty years before the Wright Brothers started piecing together bicycle parts in North Carolina. The notebooks talk about the goings-on of the secret society and hint at an even larger secret society that controlled their actions, so it’s not surprising that the notebooks were hidden and nearly lost completely. 

However, the presence of these drawings raises some questions about Mr. Dellshau’s past. These are not the work of someone who simply picked up a colored pencil one day and started messing around. Mr. Dellschau was 71 when he started compiling these notebooks. What happened before then besides the whole immigration and being a butcher thing? Where did he learn to draw? Did he go to art school in Europe somewhere? We do know he was 25 when he migrated to the US, but there’s a lot of ground to cover between 1853 and 1899. How could such talent have remained hidden and unknown?

Pretty easily, actually. Consider the time when he arrived in the US, just barely before the start of the Civil War. Art wasn’t exactly a bustling enterprise and being an artist wasn’t exactly the kind of job that paid the rent. Being a butcher was more reliable because if there’s one thing about US history that hasn’t changed over the years it is the fact that we are fanatical about eating meat.

Were there any other Dellschau works that weren’t secret though? We’ve no idea and there’s no way at this point to follow up on any conjecture. At some point, a nurse who had been looking after Dellschau’s elderly step-daughter was ordered to clean the trash from the house. The notebooks and many other things were put out on the curb for the trash. A junk collector saved the 12 notebooks, but there’s no indication as to what else might have been among the clutter. 

What we do know is that a single page from one of the notebooks was demanding $15,000 at auction in the late 1990s. The works of those notebooks are valuable for both their historical value and insight as well as the quality of Dellschaus’s artwork.

Reading through Vanessa’s article was both interesting and disheartening. What Dellschau documented has the potential to alter our view of flight history. At the same time, though, here was someone whose talent was shelved and literally discarded. Hundreds of pages of drawings that represent hours upon hours of handwork cast aside and totally forgotten even by his own family! The fact that absolutely no one cared is devastating.

Now we are at the point where the article triggers my fear. What is to prevent my own work from completely disappearing and being forgotten? Yes, I’ve given my boys instructions to publish my photographs through whatever means available when I die, but that in no way means anyone is going to give a shit. The digital works especially could easily be lost, deleted, or left on drives that later technology no longer has the capacity to access. Charles I. Letbetter could end up being as forgotten as was Charles Dellschau, and I don’t have a secret airship-building club to document for later retrieval. This line of thought is deeply disturbing.

What It Means To Have A Legacy

What Is A Legacy

By purest definition, a legacy typically involves the bequest of someone deceased. That’s not, particularly, how the word is used in popular culture, however. We often hear of the legacy of former presidents, for example, whether they’re yet dead or not. If President Obama can have a legacy, then so can I. He’s a year younger than me, that whippersnapper. 

If one is looking for help establishing their legacy, though, good luck finding it. While there are plenty of “financial planners” who will help you “manage” your estate while you are living, and a plethora of attorneys ready to help draw up a complicated will and/or establish living trusts or family foundations, there’s nothing outside the financial industry to help make sure one is remembered for anything other than investing well and leaving a pile of cash that everyone wants for their own projects. 

In recent years, though, a different kind of legacy has cropped up, a digitally-oriented existence that continues on after a person dies. The use of the term legacy is loosely derived from the tech world’s reference to older software and computer systems. That has morphed into legacy profiles, the continued existence of a person’s social media accounts after they’ve died. Typically, they’re maintained by a surviving family member as a way for friends to share remembrances of the deceased. They don’t typically get a lot of traffic and I always find it interesting how not everyone on their friend list knows or remembers that a person has passed when their birthday rolls around. I am friends with one such legacy profile of a former high school classmate. She’s been gone over five years, but I still get reminders from Facebook on her birthday and when I look, sure enough, there are clueless congratulations from people who have no idea she’s dead. 

These digital legacies are still new enough and uncoordinated enough to not have any boundaries around them. Nothing other than a family member’s interest determines how long the legacy profiles stay active. In theory, that family member could continue posting as the deceased, though that would be really creepy. Most I’ve observed just sit there with remembrances posted on the anniversary of the person’s death or, because we’re reminded, on their birthday. 

Others, though, become online places to grieve. One such profile, in particular, strikes me because of the frequency with which the deceased’s family post messages to her. The young woman’s untimely death four years ago is something her family still struggles to understand and her mother and sister regularly post messages to her wall, often at great length, as part of their grieving process. They’ll occasionally post pictures, talk about family trips when she was young, or recount embarrassing moments that make them laugh. For those family members, the profile is cathartic and maintains the legacy of their loved one.

There are other forms of digital legacy as well that are more professional and curated. At least, that’s what they set out to be. Google the name of most any deceased celebrity and you’ll see what I mean. Take, for example, the late actor Bela Lugosi. He became famous for his 1931 depiction of Count Dracula and went on to make quite a career in cinema’s early horror movies. At 6’ 1”, his towering height over most actors and his thick Hungarian accent was unmistakable. For millions of fans, Bela Lugosi was Dracula and the website celebrates his memory with movie clips and pictures.

Oh, and you can also buy stuff. The site, operated by the late actor’s son, licenses merchandise with the Bela Lugosi name, making it possible, if one is really such a committed fan, to purchase t-shirts, posters, beer, greeting cards, guitars, or even a life-sized resin bust. The family also operates Lugosi Wines. I’m guessing they specialize in reds. Blood reds. (If you didn’t roll your eyes just then, please check your pulse.) Even here, there’s a relationship to the financial concept of a legacy taking care of one’s surviving family. I’ve no idea how many people actually spend money on Bela Lugosi products, but I assume it’s enough to pay the annual web hosting fees so that the original on-screen Dracula is never forgotten.

Lugosi is fortunate in that there is someone who cares about how he is remembered and has carefully curated the site to protect his name and reputation. Not every celebrity gets that treatment. 

A perfect example is the late supporting actor Robert Prosky. He has nearly 80 film credits, mostly from the 1980s, and had a thriving stage career twenty years before that. He had a family with three children who, presumably loved him, but his on-screen legacy is in the hands of people who don’t have a direct attachment to the late actor. There are his IMDb profile and his Wikipedia page but both of those are subject to amateur curating and are not guaranteed to be accurate. There’s also a lack of warmth and emotion as both sites are designed to simply restate facts such as movies in which he appeared and the dates of stage performances. 

Also, no one seems to be aching to make money off the actor’s memory. Almost certainly, there’s some provision for continuing royalties to be forwarded to his family, but they’re not out there with Robert Prosky t-shirts, mugs, or 2-acre plotted subdivisions (I see you, Dennis Weaver family). That in no way means that his family didn’t love him and doesn’t appreciate his memory. 

If anything, I am disturbed by the uneasy connection between a person’s legacy and the licensing of their memory. I cannot help but wonder if the motivation for such lies in an effort to protect the reputation of a beloved person or to compensate for the loss of revenue caused by their death. I understand the licensing of a likeness or name as a means of protecting one’s reputation, especially regarding living celebrities or those recently deceased. Former NBA star Michael Jordan pretty much set the standard for making money off his own name and he jealously protects the brand he has created. Others, though, such as the Bela Lugosi guitars, seems like a desperate reach to make a buck wherever one can. One ends up asking the question of whether this is legacy or exploitation?

At the center of these questions remains the primary goal of remembering who someone was and what they did. If selling cheesy merchandise keeps someone’s name from being completely forgotten, is that worthwhile? Is that what the deceased would have wanted? Does it in any way reflect who they were, their goals and desires in life? Does the method matter as long as the motive is achieved?

Perhaps what bugs me, even more, is the question of whether it is better to have a cheesy, laughable legacy versus no legacy at all? If not selling licensed merch results in one being forgotten altogether, have we lost something important? Think of all the young people who had bit supporting roles in forgettable films or short-lived TV series and are now completely forgotten except as an IMDb listing with little information. For some, that is exactly what they want, having walked away from the film industry to make their mark elsewhere. 

Others, though, perhaps desired and deserved something more but fate intervened, taking their young lives early through no fault of their own. Heather O’Rourke, from the Poltergeist movies, comes to mind. Her only “legacy” remaining is the odd fact that died of cardiac arrest at the age of twelve while filming Poltergeist III. The child had been ill and was undergoing surgery at the time. Short of that oddity, she is all but forgotten.

There is no guarantee that just because someone did something noticeable once upon a time than anyone is going to remember whatever it was they did. Not everyone has a legitimate legacy, something that is remembered and is of value. What’s more, we don’t necessarily get to determine whether we have a legacy or what that legacy is. If we want any part in determining what people remember about us, we have to manage that memory before we die. Bet you didn’t have that on your bucket list, did you?

Managing Your Own Legacy

Who was this guy

Oddly enough, we’ve circled back around to the research I did for that article on Thanksgiving you’re not reading. When it comes to legacy management, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD), or Mayflower Society as they’re more commonly known, does about as good a job of making sure the memory of the original pilgrims is kept alive and thriving. They’ve had to do that because if they hadn’t we wouldn’t be talking about Pilgrims and arguing about the treatment of native tribes. In fact, chances are reasonably high we wouldn’t think about that first set of 102 strangely dressed people at all if the Mayflower Society hadn’t commandeered Thanksgiving over 100 years ago.

You see, when President Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November as a national holiday in 1863, he had other motives in mind, namely, getting re-elected and ending the damned civil war. The establishment of a Thanksgiving holiday was an astute and calculated political move in an attempt to buoy up the spirit of a country whose moral was devastated by the prolonged war. Lincoln was looking at an election coming up the next year and while it might have been an electoral college landslide (221-21), he still only won 55% of the popular vote, which means a lot of people weren’t on board with how things were going. 

Establishing a national holiday was a call for unity, an attempt to put a positive spin on dire circumstances, and shifting the blame to deity because if we’re thanking God for the good things, we can blame him for the bad stuff, too. Classic governmental “it’s not our fault,” deflection.

What Lincoln was doing, in a manner so unique that a young Mike Pence made it the topic of his senior thesis at Hanover College, was co-opting religion for political purposes. Keeping the Union voters focused on “their godly duty” kept their mind off an ungodly war and the act that even when they were winning there were still a lot of people being killed. There’s no mention of pilgrims or Plymouth or turkeys or indigenous peoples in his declaration. 

So, along comes the dear folk of the Mayflower Society who decided that the legacy of their ancestors fit well with the new holiday and decided the two needed to be married. They sought to cement the legacy of what was actually only 40 people, most of whom died the first winter. [The other people, known as “strangers,” had been allowed on board because the Pilgrims couldn’t afford to pay for the trip by themselves.] However, since they were working with people who didn’t take copious notes of every aspect of their lives or Instagram every meal they ever ate, they decided they would make things up as they went, making their ancestors appear divinely righteous as they settled the New Land filled with savages. 

Yes, they intentionally made shit up, something for which they’ve apologized in advance of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage next year. They’ve also apologized to some 4,500 descendants of the Wampanoag tribe who were driven from their land by the first descendants of the Mayflower settlers. All this was done, however, in the name of legacy building, creating something that would justify remembering their ancestors. 

Such is the risk of dying. If we’ve not already established our legacies before we pass, we leave our stories to be told by someone else who may not have the same motivation in telling our stories as we have for ourselves. To protect our legacy, we have to begin managing them ourselves before we die. 

I’ve looked around at what it takes to build a lasting legacy and I, quite honestly, consider most of the advice horse shit. What you’ll find on the standard Google search is a bunch of feel-good claptrap with bullet points listing nonsense such as, “Dare to be joyful,” “Nauseate yourself,” “Consider the responsibility that comes with your power,” “Do the next right thing,” and just in case you forgot, “Die.” Apparently doing this is called “leadership” because every last one of those came from a leadership article printed in places like INC magazine and Harvard Business Review. Notice I’m not giving you links to the articles. They’re stupid, vague and unrealistic. Don’t read them.

No, I’ve done a lot of studying in the past 12 or so hours and this is the more honest list of what it takes to build a legacy.

  1. Have kids

Why? Because, “your children are your greatest legacy,” in theory. Of course, that’s assuming that your children actually turn out okay and do something with their lives besides sitting on the couch losing at video games all day. The flaw in this piece is that not every child is going to grow up giving a damn about what you’ve done with your life. In fact, they’re more likely to want to separate their legacy from yours, which means you’re not going to get any real help from them. Also, it’s apparently bad to pressure kids to actually do something. Kids are not dependable. However, if you don’t have kids there’s no one to verify that you actually exist. They don’t have to like you, they may call you names, but as long as they can confirm your existence they’ve done their part.

  1. Do something

What’s going to help you here is if you’re doing something no one else is doing, or do something first that everyone else wants to do, or, if you’re really desperate, do something better than anyone. Legacy is perpetuated on the concept that you’re different and thereby special, at least in that one specific area. Of course, this means you’re probably going to have to put forth some effort of some kind. I suppose there are some folks over at Guinness World Records who might care if you grow the longest beard or don’t cut your fingernails for 30 years but, for the most part, lazy people don’t get legacies. Maybe you create beautiful portraits by holding the fuzzy end of the brush in your mouth. Perhaps you invent a new and more effective way of impeaching presidents. Find a cure for stupidity and your legacy is pretty much a lock. But at the core, you have to do something.

  1. Monetize what you do

People are much more interested in what you do if you’re making money doing it. Why? Because they hope to copy you and make money, also. This is why being first is important. License your shit as you go so that no one can make money by copying you without your attornies suing their ass to hell and back. Having your work licensed before you die also makes it easier for your descendants to make money off your work which will please them very much because, like Bela Lugosi’s son, they don’t have to get their own job. Having a lot of money when you die helps pay for all the things necessary to make sure people remember that you made a lot of money. There’s also the fact that if people become accustomed to paying for your shit before you die they’ll go nuts and pay a lot more after you die. Again, something to make your kids happy and more willing, maybe, to care about your legacy.

  1. Organize your shit

Charles Dellschau’s work would never have been found had he not put it all in notebooks that he made himself. Millions of dollars worth of amazing art and artifacts have been lost to history because they were left sitting someplace where no one expected to find anything valuable. Your life’s work could be similarly lost if there’s not some reasonably organized method through which it can be retrieved. This is an especially difficult thing for creatives because many of us are, by nature, rather scattered and cluttered at best. Some of the most brilliant thinkers I’ve met are also some of the sloppiest in keeping things where they can be found. Get a safe. Get a lockbox. Utilize some method of organization that’s not subject to someone making monthly payments for the space. You want the memories of your life to be secure even if you die at sea and no one notices for a couple of months. Then, make sure someone knows where everything is. Don’t leave it where the maid might throw it out with the trash.

  1. Build demand for what you do

This part is super tough because let be honest, there are a lot of creative people the world is too stupid to appreciate while they’re alive. I worry strongly that I’m among that group. If there is demand for what you do before you die, then there is likely to be continued demand for what you did after you die. If that’s not possible, and it’s not always our choice, steps four and six are all the more important because when that demand does occur, when people finally get a clue and appreciate what you do, the work has to be organized and the right people have to be in charge of your legacy. Legacy is easier, though, if one has already made an impression and burned at least some small place in the public mind.

  1. Leave the right people in charge

Remember those kids we mentioned all the way back in step one? Here’s where they could finally become important. Once you’re gone you don’t get a lot of say in what happens to your stuff or your memory. People say what they want, remember what fits their own agenda. Sure, you can have a will, but the reach of that document is limited. Establishing a foundation or trust gives you the opportunity to assign people to manage what you leave. If your children are enthusiastic and competent, then assign them to the boards. If you’re not sure you can trust them, find people you can. Leaving the right people in charge can cause your legacy to either be great or a complete disaster.

  1. Die during a slow news cycle

31 August 1997 is a powerful day for many people for that was the day Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car accident. Do you know who else died that day? No, you don’t because the news of her death completely overwhelmed every other death for the next week. Two days later, Rudolph Bing, the fantastic manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera died, as did noted psychotherapist, Viktor Frankl. During a slower news cycle, both of those deaths would have been noteworthy but they had the misfortune of dying at a time when everyone was paying attention to what was happening in Britain. This makes it important to watch everything and everyone around you, avoid taking unnecessary risks, especially in the back of limousines, and be sure to take your vitamins. Kind of like looking both ways before you cross the street, try to make sure no one’s going to eclipse the news of your death; it makes the whole legacy thing difficult to establish.

Legacies Don’t Last Forever

The Old Man

When I’m taking my son to work we pass by two cemeteries within a few hundred yards of each other. The one on our left is over 150 years old and contains several large obelisks and massive headstones to mark the memory of someone who died a long time ago. The size of those monuments suggests that perhaps it is worth one’s time to investigate the legacy of the person buried there. The cemetery on our right is what is known as a “perpetual care” cemetery. There are no obelisks or massive pieces of granite. Instead, bronze markers are placed above each grave at a level that allows the grounds to be mowed and manicured with relative ease. To some extent, everyone is equal in this cemetery, a forced democratization in death. At the same time, there’s nothing here that suggests anyone in that field is worth remembering. 

There are precious few names, maybe 200 over all of history, that are remembered more than a couple of generations. Those names belong to people who radically changed the world or at least, their part of it. What they did still holds some effect today and that makes them worth remembering. For everyone else? Good luck being remembered more than a generation. 

A couple of years ago, Disney released an interesting movie named COCO. One of the subplots to the story is a centuries-old myth that when there is no one left among the living to speak your name, your soul dies and is gone forever. Accordingly, that is why celebrations like Día de Muertos are important, they keep alive the names of one’s ancestors which guarantees their souls’ continued existence. In essence, it becomes the responsibility of one’s family to facilitate their legacy. If the family decides that one’s name is to no longer be mentioned, as is the case in the movie, then that person’s soul can be lost forever.

While I’m not big on mythologies, there is still that concern that at whatever point no one remembers my name, finds it printed in some genealogy, or attached to a photographic print hanging on someone’s wall, the value of my existence disappears. This creates an existential problem. If, at some point in the future, my existence no longer matters, does my existence matter now? Why go to all the effort of creating anything if, say 200 years in the future, absolutely no one has any clue, not even a hint, that the works created or the people involved in creating them ever lived? If there’s no longevity, why bother?

There is a term for what I may be experiencing here. I’m not inclined to believe any online diagnosis, but I find this, on some level, to be interesting. Consider:

Athazagoraphobia is a rarely discussed phobia. It means the fear of forgetting or the fear of being forgotten or ignored. Thus, Athazagoraphobia is of two types or has dual components: it might be seen in dementia patients in their early stages (or patients suffering from other medical conditions where memory loss occurs) where they fear forgetting their own identity and other things.  Alternatively, it may be seen in spouses or caregivers of Alzheimer’s/dementia patients where the individuals believe their loved ones will forget them eventually, (or that they would be forgotten after the loved one has passed). It may even be triggered in the childhood where one has been left alone or been ignored for long periods of time. [source]

That all sounds legitimate until one gets down toward the bottom of the same page and reads:

Gingko Biloba, Ginseng, omega-3 fatty acid supplements, etc are some proven medicines that can arrest memory loss and improve general cognitive brain function.
Patients must also focus on eating a diet rich in walnuts, salmon, fruits and vegetables as well as exercising regularly to keep depression at bay and delay age-related memory loss. 

Uhm, in a word, no. While I don’t want to completely discount natural remedies, when I see yet another ailment claiming to be cured by Gingko Biloba and Ginseng it is difficult to not chalk it up as untested and unproven because there have been no definitive peer-reviewed studies on Ginseng and Gingko Biloba that satisfactorily prove they help anything. They don’t hurt, per se, but they don’t cure.

Still, there’s some comfort in knowing that there’s a word. I won’t remember it, but I’ll have this article to refer back to as long as I continue to pay the hosting fees on a regular basis. The Internet is another thing that may not be as permanent as we like to think it is. Take out the power grid and the whole thing is useless. More likely, replace it with better technology and it becomes useless and, over time, forgotten as do humans.

At least with Mr. Dellschau’s drawings, his legacy seems secure in the hands of a capable and interested curator. Well, it did for a while. It seems the person who wrote the book about Dellschau and was in possession of the notebooks ran short on cash and started selling them off one page at a time. 

That’s the way things happen in the art world, though, isn’t it? No matter how well one is known, no matter how valuable their work, once a piece of art is sold the artist is no longer in control. There is nothing to stop priceless works from being bought up and stored, unseen, in someone’s garage. As long as there are still plenty of works in the public realm the artist’s memory remains alive, but should a collector corner the market on a given artist’s work, they can doom their legacy by keeping the works hidden.

No matter what we do, no matter what steps we take, there are no guarantees. Odds are overwhelming that, sooner or later, we are forgotten and our attempts at creating a legacy for ourselves become irrelevant. 

Some would claim that this inevitable irrelevance is sufficient argument for living solely in the moment: You Only Live Once (YOLO). If what we do ultimately doesn’t matter then why not do what makes us happy at this very moment, even if it means going into debt? 

My difficulty with that concept is that while the long-term view of life may be less than positive, the short-term view is that our lives are generally too long to be careless. If all we had was the immediate, there would be no reason to be concerned about cancer or war or even propagation of the species. Only when we have an eye toward legacy, toward what comes after us, do we consider the manner in which we treat the environment or bettering society in any way. Only when we look beyond ourselves do we find a reason to care about how we treat others, coming to the defense of the helpless, the integrity of our leaders, or our interpretation of a tradition. 

Sigh. So much for writing a short article. What began as a frustration point has developed into this whole treatise that aimlessly looks for a way to justify caring about my work. I sit here now, 5,000 words and two days later wondering if there is any point in creating anything at all. 

For the moment, my consolation is that even if I am not eternally remembered, perhaps, through means and methods out of my control, my work might positively influence someone else who does become that person who joins the list of names recognized through the ages for their contribution to the world. My sons are still young enough to do something surprising. Perhaps three generations from now, someone might see one of my prints and find the spark of inspiration is born in them.

I will accept that intermediate thought, and perhaps a shot of scotch, as sufficient comfort to allow me to sleep. The ghost of legacy will return, though, and continue to haunt until a sufficient answer is found. Someone call Mr. Dickens. I hear he has experience with this sort of thing.

You may read that New Yorker piece now. I’m going to make you scroll back to the top of the page for the link, though.

Reading time: 31 min
Old man, talking

This is not the article I had planned on publishing this morning. I had planned a rather involved treatise challenging that political conservatism and Christianity do not go together. That article will have to wait for next week.

In the course of working on that article, I had reason to stop by Rachel Held Evan’s website. There, I discovered that she was in a medically induced coma after suffering seizures resulting from an allergic reaction to antibiotics. At that particular point early in the week, the tone was positive and hopeful, but it did not stay that way.

Rachel Held Evans died early Saturday morning, surrounded by her family and a host of dear friends at the age of 37. She leaves behind her husband, Dan, and two very young children.

There has been a flood of sympathetic response, a GoFundMe to help defray medical expenses and all the kind responses one might expect for someone who was loved and respected both within and external to the Christian evangelical community. That is what is appropriate for now. Many will have justifiable questions later but at this moment, there is a grieving husband and two confused babies who have lost the dynamic center of their universe. What matters right now is that they have the support they need to pick up the pieces and continue.

I focused on a Twitter rant from Mrs. Evans back in January of 2018. In it, she challenged church patriarchy and the climate of sexual abuse it hides and too often excused. Hers was but the first of many voices on the more progressive side of the evangelical movement to call out not only pastors but entire churches and denominations for their complicity in the abuse plaguing the Christian church.

Mrs. Evans was one of maybe four people in public Christian circles for whom I still have some respect. While I certainly didn’t agree with everything she wrote, she was one of the few voices of reason to stand up and object while the rest of the Church careens off a cliff following the path of Pharisees.

The world needs more voices like Rachel Held Evans, voices willing to stand up to religious traditions that make absolutely no sense, voices willing to call out the patriarchal nonsense embedded in contemporary Christianity, voices that don’t give in to political conservatism that flies in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ. Her passing is a tremendous loss to the community of people who want to believe but aren’t buying the bullshit of the religious right.

To remember Mrs. Evans, I decided to re-publish the article from January, 2018, that first brought her to my attention. Some of the social and political references feel a little dated now because we’ve suffered through so much other nonsense in the interim. Still, her words ring as strongly now as they did then. They always will. Rachel Held Evans had an incredible voice and we are blessed that, for a while, she shared it with us.

Here is the complete article:

Old Man Talking

Rachel Held Evans on Sexual Abuse & Patriarchy in the Church

Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) went on a Twitter rant in response to the standing ovation a Memphis megachurch pastor received after admitting he had sexually assaulted a teenager.

Let’s be very clear from the beginning that I don’t know Rachel Held Evans. I know she has authored three books: Searching For Sunday, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and Faith Unraveled. She’s married, has a baby boy, and her online presence is carefully managed by her publisher. Honestly, she strikes me as the type of overly zealous “I came back to Jesus so you should too” type of millennial who is attempting to re-work Christianity so that it fits more comfortably with the worldview common to her age group. That’s not a criticism, necessarily, but an acknowledgment that, like most millennials, she has difficulty accepting the status quo and chooses to re-fashion the existing structure rather than chucking it and starting over. People her age are doing similar things in fashion, retail, beer brewing, banking, advertising, and even politics. So be it.

Until this morning, I had no reason to be interested in Ms. Evans or her books. I seem to vaguely recall seeing a publisher’s blurb for Searching For Sunday (or maybe a reference from John Pavlovitz?) but her story is her story, not something an old apple like me is going to find inspirational. I do best just letting those things be. I’ve no reason to comment. 

Then, I open Twitter this morning (@ThOldManTalking) and find Ms. Evans has responded to a news item in the way that is now most likely to have a wide-spread affect: Twitter Rant. The rant comes in response to news reports (I’m looking at the story in the NY Times) that members of the Memphis megachurch Highpoint gave pastor Andy Savage a standing ovation after he admitted to having sexually assaulted a teenaged member of his congregation 20 years ago.  No, I’m not kidding. They actually stood an applauded his admission of sexual assault. There’s video to which I won’t like because, frankly, it’s disgusting.

Obviously, and with good reason, the Internet did its collective spit take when the news came out and every pastor worth their salt, all four of them, condemned what happened, recognizing that the action is symptomatic of a Church that is woefully out of touch with Christianity, let alone the society it purports to serve. Ms. Evans’ tweet storm, though, goes a step further in addressing one of the root causes of many of the Church’s failings: patriarchy. We mention patriarchy as one of the sources of unwarranted privilege just last week. She hones in specifically on its role in maintaining an acceptance of abuse that the rest of society sees as untenable.

Here are Ms. Evans’ tweets, hopefully in the order they appeared:

This week: 1 James Dobson encouraged Christians to fast & pray for the protection a serial sex abuser (Trump). 2 When a mega-church pastor’s criminal sexual assault was exposed, he received a standing ovation from his congregation. 3 One of Roy Moore’s victims’ house burned down.

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

All of these stories point to why I’m sadly pessimistic about a #metoo-style cultural shift in evangelical Christianity (and, to an extent, the broader Church). I’m pessimistic because of the deadly combination of patriarchy & (as discussed recently) evangelical exceptionalism…

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

As I’ve stated before, evangelical exceptionalism understands “the world” or “the culture” to be filled with darkness & sin, teeming with people who are “lost,” and evangelicalism & evangelicals to be the sole bearers of light, the counter-cultural path to salvation…

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

…White evangelicals perceive “the world” to struggle with racism & sexual immorality, but not themselves. Because of this, it’s rare to see serious efforts made at examining the ways racism & toxic masculinity/patriarchy are embedded in evangelical culture…

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

…You see this so clearly in the fact that Andy Savage’s church rejects LGBT people, yet gives their abusive pastor a standing ovation! (This points to the reality that anti-LGBT sentiment is usually more about prejudice than a commitment to “sexual purity.”)…

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

The fact is, evangelical culture (and, generally speaking, the Church culture at large) remains mired in patriarchy. So someone who is perceived as a “man of God” doing “God’s work” will almost always be protected over women & children. It happens all. the. time.

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

When Savage’s victim came forward, who did she face? Who was in charge of her church? Men. All men. When churches sideline women from leadership, a culture of patriarchy is inevitable and toxic, abusive masculinity flourishes.

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

But you won’t see many churches challenging patriarchy or abuse or toxic masculinity in Christian culture. Instead, you hear sermon after sermon railing against immodesty, cohabitation, sex before marriage, LGBT people – all those real or perceived “sins of the culture”…

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

In order to turn #metoo into #churchtoo, the Church in America, and specifically evangelicals, are going to have to muster some humility and take a serious look at how patriarchy, sexism, and toxic masculinity have infected their culture…

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

It’s great to see women like @BethMooreLPM & @KayWarren1 speaking out. But as long as church leadership & evangelical culture are dominated by men (who believe God wants it that way!) I fear the voices of women & victims will not be heard and nothing will change.

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

TLDR version: In the name of Jesus, smash the damn patriarchy. / End thread.

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 10, 2018

Hold on, she’s not really done quite yet.

So I feel like this thread was too pessimistic and Oprah says we should be hopeful. So some hopeful thoughts: While the Church in America is perhaps not positioned to lead the charge against sexual harassment & toxic masculinity…

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 11, 2018

…there are some significant generational differences within the Church, including evangelicalism, that suggest attitudes are changing on gender & sexuality. I’m hopeful this means more introspective conversations about consent, inclusion, & patriarchy in the near future.

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 11, 2018

Also, our present cultural moment, as tough as it’s been, seems to have emboldened some voices of dissent among evangelical women. If evangelicals yield to their wisdom, there’s hope.

— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) January 11, 2018

Wow. I fully agree with everything Ms. Evans says in that rant and more. Patriarchy is a significant part of what makes religious privilege so very dangerous to a fair and equitable society. As long as the prevailing thought is that women need to “stay in their lane and do what they’re told,” we’re not going to see any progress within that portion of society. Even evangelical women are supporting this abusive nonsense, which is symptomatic of long-term abuse.

Ms. Evans makes a couple of references in her rant that probably need some clarification for anyone not glued to multiple news feeds.

Re. James Dobson (sorry, I just threw up a little): The founder of the ultra-rightwing group “Focus on the Family,” Dobson said in a conference call, ” I’m calling for a nationwide movement to pray for him [the president]. I’m calling for a day of fasting and prayer. I hope that Christian people from coast to coast will join in that time. The date is your choice, but we do need to be praying for our president.” Dobson is afraid that the president is impeachable which would result in a loss of power for religious-based hate groups such as his. [source: Newsweek]

Re. Roy Moore: According to the Washington Examiner, “the family home of Tina Johnson, one of the several women who recently accused the failed U.S. Senate candidate of sexual misconduct in the 1990s, was destroyed in a blaze.” The fire has prompted an arson investigation. One has to admit it looks highly suspicious.

Re. Kay Warren: The wife of Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch, tweeted:

The church must lead the way in cleaning house over sexual abuse. We dishonor God if we expect those outside the church to be held responsible for their sinful/criminal behavior and applaud those guilty of the same actions in the church.

— Kay Warren (@KayWarren1) January 10, 2018

While the words are nice to the ears of some, she still bows to the patriarchy defended by her husband.

Re. Beth Moore. Ms. Moore is the founder of Living Proof Ministries, one of those organizations directed specifically toward evangelical women. Some claim the purpose of these organizations is to keep evangelical women in line, but I’m not familiar enough with this one to comment further. I’m not seeing any tweet from Ms. Moore that directly references matters of abuse and/or patriarchy but she did post this:

Grateful for brothers asking what you can do for your sisters. This would be my shot at a short answer: treat us with the same dignity with which you want to be treated. Don’t talk down to us. Value what we bring. And know that most of us have zero desire to reduce or seduce you.

— Beth Moore (@BethMooreLPM) January 10, 2018

I’ll be honest, that tweet makes me very uncomfortable and I’m not sure it’s the one to which Ms. Evans refers. If it’s not, I apologize. Something tells me Ms.Moore and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, though.

I’m going to restrain myself from commenting further and let all this information stand on its own merit or lack thereof. Arguing belief systems with people is a pointless waste of time and misses the greater issue that both religion and patriarchy establish and maintain a level of privilege that is unjust, unfair, and unequal on a grand scale. So long as such a system of privilege exists people are going to suffer in more ways than can be enumerated.

Consider this a sidebar to the greater conversation regarding a doctrine of fairness. More on that particular issue is coming soon. I hope. Depending on the weather (quite literally).

Abide in Peace,
-The Old Man

Reading time: 11 min
Love Stories From The Past - Old Man Talking

One of the challenges I face this time of year is that with all the writing we do for PATTERN we don’t really have time for anything else, especially the long-read articles we enjoy posting here and that three or four people sometimes read. Since I hate to disappoint such a huge number of fans, I’ve gone back into the archives and dug up an essay and four short stories from nine and ten years ago. Some of them might have been published before but if they were the places where they existed are no longer. So, take your time and enjoy some thoughts from a previous mind.

The True Face of Love

Love Stories From The Past - Old Man Talking

I should probably warn you that this was written during a particularly difficult time of my life when keeping a roof over my head was a challenge. My outlook was influenced by the negative situations of the past few weeks. I’m not really as down on love as this essay might indicate.

Those of us who have been raised under often misguided teachings of Western Philosophy have long considered the matter of Love to be that for which one strives, the end goal of our being. We have been victimised by fairy tales with the notion that Love will bring us into everlasting bliss, inducing a state commonly referred to as “happily ever after.”

 Reality takes us down a much different path, however, and after observing not only my own near-fatal experience but that of others for whom I care deeply, I am now of the admittedly cynical opinion that Love is, itself, a tragedy of pain, compounded by the disillusionment of hope and sealed through the annulment of Faith. In short, Love is its own abhorrent antithesis.

 What we have been fed regarding the myth of Love is about as accurate as stating the gods reside on Mount Olympus; one may believe earnestly and with the utmost purity of heart, but upon arriving at that lofty longitudinal location all one finds is rocky, barren emptiness. All the world’s most classing and wonderfully epic poetry cannot make real what never existed.

 Further cursing our lustful longing for the non-existent is the wretched influence of Christianity, which codifies Love as being the primary characteristic of its deity. “God loves you,” we’ve been told, but as we look at their definition of Love, one finds that the promise has little, if any, resemblance to reality.

 For those of you confused, please allow me to explain.

 I Corinthians 13 is generally regarded as the idealistic definition of Love, both in deistic and human terms. Here we are told that to be without love is to be nothing, that our words are but noise, that our well-meant deeds, our very lives, are worthless unless enveloped in love. Should such be the Truth, however, our lives would only be all the more miserable.

 Let’s break this down point by point.

 Love is patient.

Since when? Love is too fleeting, too impulsive to wait around for anything or anyone. Love demands that one grab hold now or be lost to it forever, with no assurance of a second chance.

 Love is kind.

Such a definition must require one to equate kindness with a strong blow to the head. Reality is Love is cruel, impetuous and even homicidal. Kindness is but a mask used by Love to implement its evil schemes.

 Love does not envy.

No, envy would be too mild a label. Love is a jealous bitch that cannot tolerate being ignored nor any attempt at being replaced. Love demands every ounce of attention, energy and thought once can muster and executes an act of most diabolical revenge when not given all it wants.

 Love does not boast, nor is proud.

Ah, that would explain why Love takes out full-page ads and marks its territory like a dog. No, love wants everyone to know exactly what it’s doing, who it has conquered, and how devastating the victory. That’s why engagement rings are priced in the thousands and brides spend more on weddings that their spouse will earn in ten years. Hell, Love even has its own holiday. How is that not prideful?

 Love is not rude.

Quite to the contrary, Love has no manners; it never knocks before entering, blatantly ignores personal boundaries, enforces its own agenda and never cleans up after itself, never failing to leave a disastrous mess in its wake. Should one actually issue Love an invitation, however, one can be quite certain that Love will either ignore the request or come too late.

 Love is not easily angered.

Explain then, please, how it is that crimes of passion occur? When it comes to anger, Love drives us to the brink of insanity and then gleefully pushes us over the edge. Love thrives on anger and creates such where it does not already exist.

 Love keeps no record of wrong.

Love is an elephant of trespasses never forgotten. No amount of apology, no degree of remorse, is ever sufficient to remove the stain love perceives against it. Love not only records misdeeds but has them well-cataloged and cross-referenced so that an entire compendium may be presented at a moment’s notice.

 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in Truth.

In reality, love does everything it can to mask the Truth to the furtherance of Evil. Under the disguise of Love, patriots and religious fanatics both monger war. Concealed by a pretense of Love, the non-compliant are stripped of their individuality. Hiding behind Love one inevitably find treachery to the furtherance of its own malicious cause. Love abhors Truth because therein Love is exposed as a demon, creating lies to ensure its salvation.

 Love always protects.

Going unspoken in that statement is the fact that what Love protects is its own self-interests. Love all too readily jettisons anything and any one should it feel threatened. Love is the traitor quick to lay fault for its crimes on those it supposed to love. Love keeps none safe but opens all to pain.

 Love always trusts.

Love does not even trust itself, for it is always suspicious of motives, always on guard lest it be usurped, always vigilant against anything perceived as a threat. Love builds fences, chains down what it owns and denies freedom lest one wander away. Love trusts no one.

 Love always hopes.

Love is void of hope, entrapping one in an endless spiral of false promises that if one only loves a bit more then life will surely improve. Too late we discover that the more one loves the more life is stricken with pain and suffering. Love promises happiness but leaves us with only tears. Love hints at fulfillment only to hand us disappointment. Love destroys hope.

 Love always perseveres.

Granted, love does tend to stick around, especially where it is no longer welcome and only so that it might inflict greater pain and conflict. At the same time, however, love is all too fleeting, creating within us a dependency and reliance only to disappear when we need it most. Love has no backbone and runs when challenged.

 Love never fails.

Quite to the contrary, Love is ultimately bound to do nothing but fail. No matter how strong, no matter how secure, love inevitably drives a knife through one’s heart. Love dies long before one reaches the graveyard. Love creates in us a set of expectations it has absolutely no intention of ever fulfilling. Failure is planned and inevitable even from the beginning.

 I realize that such strong cynicism must make one uncomfortable, yet such is the impact of showing Love as it truly exists: greedy, vindictive, selfish, jealous, self-serving, and traitorous. We, as a society, have been fed and all too eagerly consumed a pack of lies.

 Wherein is the justification for such cynicism? Consider, if you dare, what would have to happen for Love to be all that it claims. Most certainly our lives would be different. If love were to live up to its own marketing, the following would have to happen.

  1. Love would usurp free will. There would be no one who could deny or reject Love if it were truly as good, pure, and strong as it claims.
  2. Love would heal, not hurt. If  Love was truly a positive force, it would be impossible for it to leave pain and remorse in its wake.
  3. Love would not be bound by social inadequacies. Were love true to its claim, there would be no regard to race, gender, physical appearance, education, economics, or any other social manifestation. Love would not require the pretense of contract but would be open, free and liberating.
  4. Love would not be elusive. If love were truly righteous, then one would never need to be in search of it for it would already be present and evident. Love cannot be true if one cannot even discern where it exists.
  5. Love would transcend nationalism, religion, and politics. Were Love as wonderful as it claims, there would be no institution able to stand against it. Boundaries and borders would fall; churches, mosques, and synagogues would cease to exist; jails and prisons, courts and legislators would no longer be necessary.

 The fact that none of those elements are even remotely true stands as evidence to the farcical nature of Love. Who among us has known love without pain? Who among us has found love without suffering? Can anyone claim to have survive love without scars, bruises or even impairment? Is there anyone for whom love has never yielded disappointment, anger and resentment? I dare say there is no soul that has ever lived that has known Love in a wholly positive form.

 Perhaps we are better off to avoid love in all its forms and machinations; but yet, it is a cancer, worming its way into the healthiest of souls and destroying everything in its wake. Even if we do not search for love, it seeks us out on its own so that no one might be immune from its perversity.

 And what does it say of any deity supposedly formed of Love? Can such a god be trusted? Who would dare to embrace one knowingly committed to such utter destruction of the heart? Such a deity must only be bent upon enslaving those foolish enough to believe, using them to its own self-centered end.

 If I am wrong, then let Love prove itself, not merely for my own benefit, but more for those who have most recently been victims of Love’s vicious ripping and abuse. I would hope more for the happiness of those around me than I would for my own. Regrettably, I do not anticipate seeing smiles on those faces so recently streaked by tears, for Love has left nothing but ruin and despair in its wake.

 May this serve as a warning: Love is evil masked in imagined happiness; embrace it at your own peril.

THE COUPLE IN 4D (part one)

Love Stories From The Past - Old Man Talking

Sadly, there is no part two to this story. I wish there was.

“John! John! Did you see? We’re getting new neighbors!” Alice was in quite a state of excitement as she peered through the apartment window at the activities going on outside.

“That’s nice,” John said, in his usual disinterested tone. He was quite accustomed to Alice’s habit of watching everything that happened outside their window and reporting every little detail back to him. He was glad they didn’t have a television. He couldn’t imagine what would happen if Alice had more than one “window” to look out.

“It’s a couple! How nice!” she continued. “A nice, young couple. I bet their newlyweds! Isn’t that sweet, John? We have newlyweds moving in next door!”

“MMhmm,” John murmured.

“You know how I can tell their newlyweds?” Alice prattled. “Look at how sparse their furniture is. Why, the children have practically nothing at all on that little truck. I do hope that’s not all their belongings. There’s hardly anything at all.”

“Maybe they’re just frugal,” John said. “What are we having for dinner?”

“No, that is definitely a hand-me-down sofa they’re taking in. I mean, the thing is just beyond ratty. I bet that’s something they’ve gotten at a yard sale or left over from a college apartment or something. You know, when you’re just starting out, you can’t really afford nice things. Remember that sofa we inherited from my parents? I think every couple starts out with an old sofa like that. Old sofas and new marriages. Isn’t there a saying about that? If there’s not, there should be.”

“Maybe you could come up with one,” John said, rolling his eyes, knowing Alice would be oblivious to the sarcasm.

Alice continued the play-by-play. “Oh, look, isn’t that sweet? He just gave her a kiss on the cheek. It’s nice to see couples who are so romantic, don’t you think, John? Why, I remember when you and I used to be like that. We’d go on our evening walks, holding hands, and you’d lean over and kiss me. Ah, there’s nothing like romance in full bloom, is there, John?”

John rustled his paper.

“Oh dear, wait a minute. Uhm … wow, John. You wouldn’t believe what she just did. Why, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone do anything like that in public before. Especially out here where …OH MY! Johnathan! She just took her shirt off!!”

Johnathan set down his paper and walked over to the window. Sure enough, the buxom young woman had removed her t-shirt and was walking around in just her bra and a pair of thin shorts. ‘I must say, it does improve the scenery around here.”

“Johnathan Allen!” Alice scolded. “Get away from that window and go back to your paper, you dirty old man! Don’t you know it’s not polite to stare?”

John chuckled as he returned to the table and picked up his newspaper.

“You know, I hope they’re not going to be one of those couples who are loud when they’re doing things in the bedroom,” Alice said. Her tone had changed to one of concern. “The walls in this apartment complex aren’t really all that well insulated in the first place, you know. People can hear just about everything.”

“Yes, I’m sure the neighbors get an earful from us,” John quipped.

Alice ignored him. “You’d think they’d be more respectful of other people and keep those kinds of things to themselves. After all, it’s not like the rest of the world is even remotely interested in their private relations. They should keep quiet like we did when we were first married. I would have been horrified had my parents ever heard us.”

“Your parents might have found it amusing, though. Your dad kept asking me what was wrong,” John teased.

“Your mind just stays in the gutter, doesn’t it?” Alice scolded.  “Well, I can tell you right now that they’d better not start making a lot of noise over there. I’ll report them to the tenants association in a heartbeat, I will. I’ve gotten rather accustomed to the peace and quiet of not having neighbors in that apartment. I hate to see anyone noisy move in.”

“You don’t know that they’re going to be noisy,” John warned. “The poor kids haven’t even finished moving everything in yet. Get away from that window and think about something more important, like what we’re going to have for dinner.”

Alice let the curtain closed and turned toward the kitchen. “Well, okay. But I’m warning you, I’m going to be keeping an ear out for what’s happening over there. I simply won’t tolerate living next to a 24-hour orgy.”

“Unless we’re invited,” John said.

Alice scowled and stomped into the kitchen.


Love Stories From The Past - Old Man Talking

There’s a twist to this little love story. Try to figure it out before it’s revealed at the end.

Spring was finally flirting with the idea of making an appearance. Warm breezes tossed the waste from random junk food across streets abnormally busy for a Wednesday night. Bare legs were in view, laughter heard, and a general sense of pleasure at having survived the winter.

Karen and Doug walked the sidewalk hand in hand as they had done so many times before. These were their sidewalks, in their village, around their home. They couldn’t imagine ever being anywhere else. Nights like this reminded them of why they had moved here in the first place.

“I like neon,” Karen said. “I like the way it stands out of the darkness with its colors and soft curves.”

Doug looked over at the nearest sign and read, “We deliver.” He thought for a moment then continued, “Doesn’t it seem a bit strange, though, if one wants delivery, they’re likely not going to be where they can see the sign?”

Karen turned her head and considered the question. “Perhaps, but if you remember the sign one might look up the number and call.”

“One remembers the neon,” Doug said.

“Yes,” Karen agreed. “The neon burns its message into your brain like a hot brand on cowhide.” She made a “tssssss” sound as she thrust her arm forward, branding an imaginary bovine.

 Doug laughed, “You can take the girl off the farm …”

“But you can’t make her drink that fancy water,” Karen finished.

They strolled a bit further, quietly watching the activity around them. Bars opened their windows to the sidewalk, allowing random music to filter to the street. Doug and Karen would dance as they passed such a place, then continue walking.

“A rather lively group out this evening,” Doug observed. “Almost as though they’ve been freed from some sort of prison.”

“They’ve no idea, though, do they,” Karen said. “At least, I hope not. Have you noticed how much more aggressive the police are than they used to be.”

Doug looked over to where a group of officers stood outside a nightclub door. “Yes. Gone are the days of that nice officer Harwick walking the night beat. he loved the village. Loved the people in it. These guys … they don’t have any connection to the people. They act like they’re doing one a favor by not arresting them for breathing.”

“But then, Officer Harwick didn’t have to worry about all these kids getting drunk and running their cars into light poles on the way home,” Karen reminded him.

Doug chuckled. “Remember how he used to handle Drunk Eddie, though? He’d take him over to the canal, strip him down to his underwear, and make him stand in the water until he sobered up.”

Karen laughed at the memory, then added. “I can just see him trying that today. Taking a bunch of kids down to the canal, making them stand in the water … That would be quite a sight!”

“It would be,” Doug agreed, “Especially all these pretty young girls in their underwear.”

“Those who are wearing underwear,” Karen said, pointing to a bra lying abandoned on the ground. “Some people just can’t wait to get undressed, I suppose.”

“A feeling with which we’re certainly familiar,” Doug said.

Karen jabbed her elbow into Doug’s ribs. “At least we had the good sense to take our underwear with us,” she said smiling. “Can you imagine what Mr. Rideski would have said had he found my panties on the door of his bagel shop?”

Doug laughed so loudly as to make others look for the source of the noise. “That was quite a night! The bagel shop, the laundry, the grocery, your father’s garage …”

“We were so naughty,” Karen teased.

“We still could be, you know,” Doug offered, grinning. “We definitely wouldn’t get caught.”

“True,” Karen agreed. “That is an advantage. But it just wouldn’t feel the same, if you know what I mean.”

Doug nodded in agreement. “That’s a definite disadvantage. No one warns you about that.”

They walked a bit further, past a brightly lit nightclub with people standing in line to have their ID checked. They stood and watched for a moment before continuing down the sidewalk.

“Remember when we were the ones down here every night?” Doug asked.

“All too well,” Karen said. “After all, we pretty much still are.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Doug whispered.

Karen put her arm around him and snuggled close. “I know. And even after all these years, I still can’t imagine anyone I’d rather be stuck walking the streets with than you.”

He kissed the top of her head and felt a sudden jolt as a group of young women ran into them.

One of the girls stopped. “Guys, we just ran through that couple!” she said to her friends. Then, turning to Karen and Doug, offered an apology, “I’m sorry, as I’m sure you can tell we’ve had a bit too much to drink.”

“Please, don’t drive,” Karen said, smiling.

“Don’t worry,” the girl promised. “We’re taking a cab home.”

“Who are you talking to,” one of the other girls asked.

“That couple we ran into,” the first answered.

“Come on, you’ve had too much to drink.”

Karen and Doug watched the girls as they turned the corner, then continued their walk.

“That ought to make her dreams interesting,” Karen said.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Doug replied. “We’ll have to be more careful where we stop to kiss.”

“Funny how it’s only the really drunk ones,” Karen mused.

“Sad how many end up joining us,” Doug replied.

A cool breeze blew from the South.

“Time to go,” Doug said.

“It’s been so pleasant.”


Another gust and they faded into the wind, leaving nothing on the streets but the glow of neon and memories of a love that once was.


Love Stories From The Past - Old Man Talking

This one is a little longer but well worth the time. While the story is strictly fictional, I’ve wondered how many times it has been played out in real life, at least in part.

The old priest mumbled through the graveside service as though he were somehow wasting God’s time, hardly pausing to breathe. I hadn’t expected much of a turnout. Nun’s funerals typically aren’t well attended. I hadn’t expected to be the only one there, either. The plain, gray casket didn’t even have any flowers, and I felt guilty for not having thought of that detail. Even in death, Sister Agnes had found a way to push my guilt button.

I fingered the rosary in the left pocket of my best trousers. One might think that after all those years of Jesuit school I’d remember which bead went with which prayer, but I’d been quite intentional in making sure those brain cells were totally obliterated from my mind years ago. I hadn’t even thought of the rosary until Sister Agnes had pressed this one into my hand; it had been her last assignment to me, though I was clueless how I was to complete the task.

“Promise me, Lucas Philburn Nash,” she had whispered. She had always addressed me by my full name. “Promise me you’ll return this to its rightful owner. I am done with it now. It must be returned.”

I had, of course, wanted to ask to whom the rosary might belong. Was it a current student who had left it behind in a desk? Someone in the parish who forgot it in a pew? This little piece of information seemed rather critical, but it never came. Her eyes simply closed and she ceased to be. Death had come that easily. That quietly.

The last amen was barely audible and I might not have noticed the service was over had the priest not immediately turned to leave. I sighed, took one last look at the still-open grave, and turned toward the curb where my car was parked. Crying seemed appropriate, but I had no tears available, not even for Sister Agnes.

She was instantly recognizable, standing at the corner of the rectory looking as though she was committing a crime simply by being there, expecting to be caught and arrested at any moment. Some sixty-plus years had passed, but her face still had a look of youthfulness that had not changed. Sister Agnes only had one picture in her possession. I had seen it sitting on her desk so many times that its image was seared into my mind. I had only once dared to ask who the young woman was. Sister Agnes had been quick and stern in her rebuke and I hadn’t asked again. Now, though, I was about to find out. Somehow, she had found out about the old nun’s passing and was here.

I tried to smile as I approached, but it was not enough to keep the frightened woman from turning and walking quickly in the opposite direction. “Excuse me,” I called. “I think I have something of yours.”

She stopped and slowly turned, tears filling her eyes. “How could that be,” she asked. “You don’t even know who I am.”

“She knew you would come,” I said, instantly loathing the tone with which the words came from my mouth. I took the rosary from my pocket and pressed it into the woman’s soft hand.

Fingering the beads, the old woman finally smiled. “It’s been 64 years since I’ve seen this rosary,” she said. Then, looking up at me as though she had just thought of something odd, she asked, “What might your name be, young man?”

“Lucas Philburn Nash,” I said hesitantly. I was quickly growing curious about this mysterious old woman.

She smiled. “Your father was Lawrence.”

“Yes ma’am,” I replied with genuine astonishment.

Taking my hand in hers, she began walking. “Come with me, Lucas. I have something you need to see.”

There were plenty of other things I could have, should have, been doing that afternoon. Yet, there’s something about a mysterious stranger showing up and saying, “I have something you need to see,” that automatically pushes the pause button on everything else. I expected to be guided to a car, probably an older model, large, domestic, with only a few thousand miles on it. Instead, we walked a mere four blocks to an old brownstone walk up.

She hummed softly as we walked. A thousand questions were building in my mind, but unsure of which to ask first, I stayed silent. Only when we reached the front steps of her home did she finally introduce herself. “My parents named me Gracious,” she said with a smile, “but you may call me Grace, Mr. Nash.”

“Thank you, Grace,” I said. “Might I ask how you knew my father?” I asked, “and Sister Agnes?”

“We’re getting to that,” Grace answered as she turned her key in the lock. Opening the door, she instructed, “Have a seat there on the sofa while I put on water for tea.”

The living room was an antique dealers dream. None of the furnishings were any less than forty years old and most considerably older. Only one lamp shoved almost shamefully into a corner was modern enough to seem out of place. Decades of lives coming and going lingered in the fragrance of cleaning oil and age. The walls were adorned with pictures of almost every kind, including the requisite Sacred Heart. A crucifix hung over the door. The highest parts of the walls were darkened from years of radiated heat. This was a well-lived-in home.

Grace returned from the kitchen with a frame and a photo album in her hands. She set the frame on the coffee table in front of me. “You’re familiar with this picture, I assume.”

I was. This was the same photograph Sister Agnes had kept on her desk for as long as I’d known her, and probably longer. The picture was of two girls in Catholic school dress, sitting on the steps of the very church we had just left, smiling.

Grace sat next to me and put the well-worn photo album in my lap. “Before you open that book,” she said, “I must ask, how much do you know about your father’s family?”

“Nothing,” I said, shaking my head. “My father was adopted. He went into the Army right out of high school and both his adopted parents were killed in a car accident while he was in Korea.”

“Yes, that was most tragic,” Grace said. “They were such wonderful people, doing what they did. Really a godsend.” Genuflecting instinctively, Grace said a quick prayer for my adopted grandparents. “Go ahead, open the book,” she said when finished.

I opened the cover carefully. The first picture was that of a small baby, a young couple presumably the child’s parents, and a priest. I looked to Grace for an explanation.

“Your grandparents, the day they received your father,” was the answer I needed. “They had been trying for so long and had so much love to give. There really was never any question that they were the best choice for raising Lawrence.”

“So, you knew my father?” I asked, trying hard to hide the strange mix of emotions stirring inside.

“Yes,” she smiled, “but go on. There’s more.”

I carefully turned the pages, one after the other, as pictures of my father’s childhood, teen years, and military service filled the pages of the photo album. About halfway through came his wedding; that picture I knew well. Then, just a few pages over was my baby picture … and Sister Agnes. “Sister Agnes was there when I was born?”

“Lawrence wouldn’t have let her miss it,” Grace said. “He had just figured everything out for himself and insisted Agnes be your godmother, though technically that was against Church rules.”

“I don’t understand …”

Grace turned a few more pages, to a picture of my father standing next to Sister Agnes, minus her habit. The connection was instantly obvious. The eyes, the mouth, the smile.

“How is that possible?” I asked. “Are you trying to tell me … “

“Yes,” Grace said, filling in where I couldn’t. “Agnes was your real grandmother.”

My head was spinning now. I had grown up in Sister Agnes’ continual oversight, to be sure. As a child, it seemed no matter where I turned she was there. But … she was a NUN, for Christ’s sake! “I don’t understand. How?”

Grace sighed. “I understand you are a fairly liberal-minded young man.”

I nodded.

The old woman first went to the kitchen, bringing back to cups of steaming tea. took the frame off the coffee table and looked at the picture fondly, tracing her finger over the image of Agnes’ youthful face. “We didn’t even know lesbian was a word back then,” she started. “All we knew was that we couldn’t control what we were feeling and we knew that would eventually get us both into trouble. A casual touch here, a hug there, and by the time we were 16 our sleepovers at each other’s houses were nothing short of full-scale love fests. Our parents never seemed to expect a thing. They just thought we were best friends … “

Tears formed in Grace’s eyes as she spoke. “Our birthdays are just two weeks apart, and when we turned 17, Agnes’ mother said something about us double-dating. Up to that point, we neither one had even thought about boys. We knew if we didn’t at least pretend to be interested, though, people would start getting suspicious. So, we picked a couple of guys who seemed safe and went out on a double date. At the end of the night, my date took me home, walked me to the door, and that was it. Agnes’ date, however, took her to the park and raped her. She seemed to know instantly that she was pregnant.”

“My father?” I asked.

“Yes,” Grace said. “Of course, back then it was quite shameful to have a child out of wedlock, not at all like it is today. Agnes’ parents couldn’t stand the embarrassment so they sent her to live with an aunt in Texas. Everything happened so quickly we neither one knew what to think. My best friend, my first and only true love, was yanked from my life. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see her again. The day she left, I knew I needed to give her something to remind her of me, but didn’t know what. At the last moment, as she sat crying in the back seat of her father’s car, I gave her my rosary.”

“So, what happened?” I inquired, my curiosity now quite high and I could feel my whole world spinning on its head. “I mean, I’ve grown up with Sister Agnes looking over me, quite literally, but I’ve never seen you, despite the fact I grew up in this neighborhood. How is that possible.”

Grace smiled. “We wrote for a while,” she explained. “I helped her choose the Nash’s as your father’s parents. She wanted him to be raised here, in the same church she was raised. Father Macelhaney was quite helpful and understanding. I wanted to see her after the baby was born, but when she entered the convent she was immediately cloistered. The letters stopped. Mine were returned unopened. I’m not sure where all they sent her, but she was as good as gone. So, I decided that I would move on as well. I finally found a guy I could stand, married, had two children of my own, all the while being careful to keep a watchful eye over your father. I remained friends with the Nash’s, though they never did know my connection with Agnes. When Lawrence joined the Army and the Nash’s died, I was afraid I would completely lose touch.”

“But he figured out she was his mother,” I inserted.

“Quite well,” Grace said. “He had even tracked down the address of the house in which she was raised. He and your mother, Vivian, showed up at my door one Saturday morning, carrying this box of records they’d collected. He knew I would be able to confirm what he already knew. He wanted me to help him find Agnes. There was no way he could have known how excited I was to do that not just for him, but for myself. It took a lot of phone calls and more than a little wrangling with diocese politics, but we finally found her in a small parish in Iowa. I don’t have any idea how he did it, but Lawrence somehow convinced that Agnes had to be re-assigned to this parish, and never moved. I always suspicioned there was some money involved, but that was none of my business. All I cared about was that Agnes, MY AGNES, was coming home!”

Grace hugged the picture to her chest and rocked back and forth a bit before continuing. “The first time I saw her when she stepped off that bus, all those old feelings came flooding back. I loved her just as much then as I had when we were teenagers. For that first couple of weeks, we neither one could have been happier. Of course, she had her church duties to attend to, and I had grandchildren, but we still managed to spend each moment we could steal in each other’s company. And that was a problem. Agnes had made a vow, and it was one she took quite seriously. She had given her life to the church and there simply was no reneging on God. We knew, we both knew, that if we kept seeing each other, even in church, we would not be able to stay apart for long. I figured Agnes had already sacrificed enough. Vivian was pregnant with you. She was thrilled to be a grandmother, even if she couldn’t tell anyone about it. I had to be the one to sacrifice this time. So, I moved.”

“Your husband agreed to that?” I asked, surprised.

“Oh, he couldn’t have been happier. He hated this neighborhood. We moved to Florida and played the retirement game. Agnes still sent me pictures, obviously, but I kept my distance for as long as I could.” Grace set the picture back on the table. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She reached for a tissue and dabbed at the moisture in old-lady fashion. I took her frail hands in mine.

“So, when did you come back?” I asked.

“When she didn’t send a Christmas card,” Grace answered. “My husband had died, kids and grandkids all scattered. When she didn’t send a card or answer my letters, I knew something was wrong.”

“She’d gone blind, couldn’t see to write anymore,” I explained.

“Yes, just about the time you graduated college, wasn’t it?” Grace added. “And you mercifully dropped by to read to her once a week. I should have recognized you. You have her eyes, too.”

“She taught me to read,” I said. “She taught me everything.”

Grace smiled. “I was at mass every Sunday, but she never knew. I can’t tell you how many times I would see her kneeling there and want to speak, but … it just didn’t feel right anymore. As she got worse, the parish kept her cloistered more. I’m pretty sure, for the past three years, you’re the only one from outside who has been allowed any contact with her.”

I nodded. It had only been Sister Agnes’ own seemingly crazed fits that had allowed me to keep up my visits. Other nuns made sure she was fed and bathed, but other than that she had no contact with anyone. The last year before her death she had not even spoken until the last few days before her death.

“Why didn’t she tell me?” I asked. “She told me so much those last two days, about where she’d been, what she’d learned, what I needed to know … why did she not tell me she was my grandmother?”

Grace took the rosary and placed it in my hands. “She did, the only way you could be told.”

The sky had long grown dark and there was not one but two parking tickets on my windshield by the time I returned to my car. I didn’t mind. So many questions always stirring in my mind made sense now. I could proceed with eyes open, understanding. For all Sister Agnes had taught me, this, finally, had been my real education.


Love Stories From The Past - Old Man Talking

Our final story is quite short but I hope you’ll carry its final message with you: just dance.

The glow of a dozen different digital monitors was the only illuminate in the room. Still, that was quite enough for the attending physicians to read the notes on their charts.

“All the tests have gone well to this point,” said Dr. Adrian Campbell, an experienced researcher whose reputation was several times larger than her diminutive physical appearance. “I think we’re ready to attempt reanimation.”

Both doctors looked yet again at the nude female form that had been the subject of their research for so many months.

“Amazing what you’ve been able to accomplish already,” Dr. Ellen Cartwright said. As head of the John H. and Karen M. Phillips Research Center for Medical Studies, Dr. Cartwright was responsible not only for funding but ensuring the success of the research undertaken within her facilities. “Even if reanimation isn’t possible just yet, what we’ve already learned is enough to move medical science forward by leaps and bounds. I mean, she actually looks as though she’s alive.”

“I guess that depends on how one wants to define ‘alive,’ ” Dr. Campbell answered. “There was no organic internal organ we were able to save. The heart, the lungs, complete digestive system, is all machinery.”

“So essentially you’ve just built a robot inside a human body,” Dr. Cartwright said, her voice sounding concerned.

“I don’t think so, Ellen. She still has her own brain, her own thoughts, her own memories. Her cognizant abilities have not been impaired in any fashion.”

“But she has no real heart. She’s all metal and silicone and plastic on the inside. Does she even eat organic food?”

“Yes, and it is critical for her muscles and brain that she does so. Except for the energy spheres, she should appear and function as normally as any other human. Emotions come from the brain, not any other organ. She should still be able to feel, to love, to care, just like you and me.”

“So, she is still human.”

“Without question.”

Dr. Cartwright studied the notes on the chart some more. “We’re ready to attempt reanimation then?”

Dr. Campbell smiled. “Simply a matter of turning on the lights. The energy spheres are fully charged and should initiation animation once the lights are on.”

Dr. Cartwright closed her notes and placed her hand on Adrian’s shoulder. “Collect your team, then. This could be a historic day.”

Thirty minutes later, as twenty sets of eyes watched through the observation window above, Dr. Campbell removed the last of the monitors from the body and repositioned the table to an upright position.

“Dr. Campbell, how do you think the subject will respond upon reanimation,” someone asked.

“If my assumptions are correct, she should resume whatever activity she was engaged in when her organic body died. Unfortunately, we have no idea exactly what she might have been doing at the time of original death.”

 Adrian made a vain attempt and primping her hair a bit. She knew cameras would be recording whatever happened or didn’t happen, next. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the reanimation of Allison Bently.”

With that, the darkened room suddenly filled with over 5,000 watts of light. There was a pause, and then movement. Allison smiled, and everyone on the observation deck cheered. Allison took two steps away from the examination table, and then, just as Dr. Campbell had predicted, her brain took her back to the activity in which she was engaged at the moment of her last memory.

And she danced.

Reading time: 34 min
Old Man Talking

Of all the music one hears in their life, what would you want to be the last song you hear before you die?

Normally I wouldn’t say anything but given how emotionally challenging it was to write this article, I feel it only fair to warn those sensitive to end-of-life topics that portions of this article could trigger related anxieties. Please use your best judgment in continuing.

This article contains several links with useful information related to the subject. Don’t be afraid to click on them and examine the information for yourself.

When a thought is put out into the universe on the scale of an article in The Washington Post one has to assume that there are a lot of people meant to receive that message. One can only speculate as to why so many people need that message at that particular time, especially when the topic isn’t one of national concern, such as the president losing the launch codes or some similar disaster. When the message strikes at a more personal level, one finds it difficult to ask the universe what’s about to happen for so many people to need that thought right now.

Such was the case when the Post published this opinion piece recently by Dr. Mark Taubert. Dr. Taubert specializes in palliative medicine in Britain. He’s the one who looks for the best way to make a patient comfortable when curing their disease is no longer an option. For many, he’s the last doctor one sees before death. Sounds like a cheery job, doesn’t it?

Dr. Taubert wrote the article after walking into the room of a dying patient whose family was playing Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” Dr. Taubert found the selection amusing, given the cheerful disposition of the music juxtaposed against the gravity of the inevitable end-of-life event. He quite nicely, and in fewer words than I tend to use, spoke of how our brain functions shift as we are in the process of dying, allowing our auditory system to receive a higher level of energy while other portions of our body, and our brain, are shutting down. He makes a case for making one’s wishes known in advance should our own families be faced with similar circumstances.

Articles like this tend to come off as rather morbid. No one likes to think of the inevitability of death, even though doing so is one of the most responsible and compassionate things one can do. With all the other negatively-toned news the Post has to published, I can’t help but wonder why the paper chose to publish this article at all, and especially right at this particular moment. A brief op-ed like this seems like perfect fodder for an online publication that needs something to fill space on a Tuesday, not valuable column inches in the Sunday edition.

I don’t believe accidents just “happen” anywhere in the universe. The implosion of a star millions of light years away creates a massive amount of energy that expands throughout the galaxy for eons, affecting everything it touches. If the op-ed team at the Post was convinced this was a good article to publish at this exact moment, I have to believe that a lot of people need to consider this situation right now, including me.

Before delving into the issue of trying to unravel which song I want to hear last, though, we need to consider the issues surrounding chronic and terminal illness as well as the manner in which one dies. Yes, these are challenging conversations to have but, again, we are at our most responsible when we tackle these issues before they become necessary. After making a will, discussing and planning our end-of-life care is one of the most important things we can do for our families. As for choosing a final song, well, that may be the most difficult aspect of all.

Planning For The Longest Life Possible

The Last Song I Ever Hear -- Old Man Talking

Everyone dies. We understand that. We don’t necessarily like to think about it, but it inevitably happens. If we’re fortunate, by the time we get to that stage in our existence we’ve lived a full life and are ready to pass peacefully. Certainly, not everyone gets that opportunity and we are more than aware of situations where lives ended without any warning. The amount of planning we can do for sudden death is limited to having a will and a pre-paid service plan of some form (I’ll discuss those later). However, for the greater majority of people, death is something we at least get a hint at. There’s no good reason to not give the matter some serious thought.

Let’s look at the facts for a minute. Those of us living in the United States have a reasonably long life expectancy, despite the numbers having shrunken slightly in the past couple of years. Most women can expect to live well into their 80s and most men into their mid-70s. Yes, death is sexist if one goes strictly by the numbers. Still, compared to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, we likely have a lot of life ahead of us. Few people are terribly surprised to hear of someone reaching the century mark in life. As medicine continues to develop ways for us to maintain a relatively decent quality of life, more of us may live to be 110 or even 120.

However, living a long time doesn’t necessary mean that we’re all that healthy.  

Roughly 65% of all deaths in the US are due to some form of chronic illness. I know, you thought I was going to say heart disease. Heart disease, cancer, lung disease, sepsis, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, COPD, and HIV are all among the rather long list of chronic diseases that ultimately prove fatal for those who have them. Those numbers skyrocket when one adds developing countries into the mix.

The thing about living with a chronic illness is that one can’t always predict how quickly it’s going to do its dirty deed. When caught early and treated correctly by a professional (don’t even talk to me about “holistic” cures), their effect can be minimized and one can enjoy a quality life for a very long time. Yet, one has to live with the knowledge that at any given moment something unseen and unsuspected can trigger a rapid advancement of the disease, bringing one to a critical state literally in the blink of an eye.

Whether it happens quickly or over the long term, we eventually get to that point where we’re no longer ambulatory, our quality of life declines, and our disease becomes terminal. Still, we might live several more years. My paternal grandfather lived almost 14 years past his doctor’s initial diagnosis. My father, unfortunately, was not so lucky and passed within a matter of months. Either way, death is more likely to take us slowly, over days, weeks, or months, rather than suddenly and unexpected.

Given such inevitability, it makes much more sense to plan not only for our eventual demise but for whatever term of palliative and hospice care one might need in the final period. Again, yes, I understand this is not a fun conversation, but it is a necessary one.

Giving Some Dignity To Death

The last song I ever hear -- Old Man Talking

The call came late in the afternoon, December 1, 2002. I was sitting in my downstairs office at home. The day was cloudy, the temperatures relatively cool for North Georgia. I don’t remember exactly what else had my attention, but I was waiting for this call. There was no hesitation in answering when the phone rang.

My father had started chemotherapy that morning. Weeks of radiation had failed to reduce the size of the tumor growing on the left side of his head. The hope, presented to my father as cheerfully as possible, was that the chemotherapy would kill the tumor and that surgery might be possible afterward. That wasn’t the way things turned out.

Mother was sobbing as she relayed the news. Poppa had responded negatively to the treatment and had almost died on the table. The doctor would not be making another attempt. Poppa’s situation was now terminal.

Instead of killing the tumor, the attempt at chemotherapy seemed to invigorate the damn thing. While we had already made a trip to Oklahoma earlier that year, we hastily made plans to be back there for the holidays, knowing that they would be my father’s last. We talked with the boys, attempted to prepare them for what was coming, but the truth is that we were all caught off guard. We had not planned at all for this scenario.

Unfortunately, we are not alone in being caught off guard. Of the millions of deaths that occur due to chronic illness, the number of families prepared to handle the challenges of long-term end-of-life care are few. Think you can handle some numbers? Here are some of the statistics most pertinent to our conversation:

  • Over eight million people annually receive support from a long-term care service: home health agencies, nursing facilities, hospices, residential care communities, and adult day service centers.
  • As of 2015 (the last year for which accurate numbers are available) 12 million Americans needed some form of long-term care (longer than six months).
  • 69% of persons over the age of 65 develop disabilities before they die. One fifth of those will incur over $25,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
  • The National Alliance for Caregiving estimates that approximately 65 million family and informal (non licensed) caregivers provide for an elderly family member.
  • A national survey conducted by Myers Research Institute shows that the majority of assisted living facilities discharge residents whose cognitive abilities reach moderate to advanced stages. This often limits the patient’s ability to find suitable care outside a nursing home.

Now, how many people actually want to spend their last days in a nursing home? Not many. While the conditions of many nursing facilities has dramatically improved over the past 20 years, the greater majority of people would much rather live out their final days in their own home surrounded by faces they know (or once knew in the case of dementia patients). In fact, in 1999, the Supreme Court of the United States confirmed the right to receive care “within the community” as opposed to an institution whenever such care does not diminish the patient’s quality of life.

“Dying with dignity” is a phrase we often heat associated with arguments for selected life termination in the event of terminal diagnosis. However, that phrase should also be applied to that term leading up to one’s end of life. While how we die is an important conversation for some, the manner in which we live our final years, weeks, or days is important for everyone. If we want to preserve the dignity of our life, then we need to plan for that eventuality and discuss those plans with our loved ones.

Otherwise, families are too often left in a lurch, told they need to provide care for a loved one and having no substantive idea of who to call or where to turn. Siblings squabble, families splinter, and meanwhile the patient’s quality of life is reduced to the point where significant time is shaved off their life simply because no one knows what to do. In worst case scenarios, the government steps in, minimal care is provided, and any dignity that was left is lost.

Facing Our Fears With Peaceful Determination

The last song I ever hear -- Old Man Talking

My father’s last words to me were, “I love you, son. Take care of your mother. Tell those boys how much I love them.” His physical pain in those final hours was so severe that no amount of morphine was sufficient. Seeing tears roll down his face broke my heart. He did not look forward to death because, as always, he was concerned about his family more than himself. He did not fear death, though. He knew that everything surrounding the next step was secure. He was confident in his faith and in the knowledge that Mom would not have to worry.

I have never understood why we fear death so much that we are unable to discuss it intelligently and plan for its inevitability. For people of faith, so very much of the music and rhetoric that dominates religious services revolves around the promises of what comes after this life. Christians, especially, have whole volumes of hymns such as “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “The Old Ship of Zion,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.,” all of which celebrate moving on beyond this life. For those agnostic or atheist, the end of this life is simply a transfer of our energy back into the cosmos. Allowing mythologies and old tales to subdue us with fear regarding death is something that has never made sense to me.

What I do understand, however, is Poppa’s desire to take care of his family, especially Mother. Most people (there are always ornery exceptions) don’t want their passing, or their end-of-life care to cause unnecessary burden or trouble for their family. My maternal grandfather lived with us off and on for several years and it always bothered him when any aspect of our lives, no matter how trivial, required adjusting to make sure he had the care he needed. While I tease my boys that I plan on hanging around and embarrassing them until I’m 150, the reality is that I hope they never have to worry about any aspect of my care. Love leads us to make our transition from this life as peaceful as possible for everyone, not just ourselves.

Achieving that goal, however, requires some determination and planning in three general areas that one can never address too early in life. When one considers the possibility that a stroke or accident or unexpected disease may leave us without the ability to participate in our care planning when we need it, the assurance that those possibilities have already been addressed allows us to live our entire lives with a greater level of peace.

There are three areas of planning one needs to address.

Financial Readiness

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the population can be divided into two groups when it comes to financial planning: those who do and those who don’t. I’m in the latter group. Not that I didn’t try, but when one’s income is inconsistent, as it is not only for most creatives or anyone who is self-employed or a serial entrepreneur, the consistent contributions necessary for intelligent financial planning are not always there.

Planning early is the advice financial planners always give, but in an economy that emphasises experiences over savings that often doesn’t happen. When we do realize we need to plan, somewhere past age 40, we start realizing that we’ve already missed out on a lot of options that would benefit us. Past the age of 45, a number of insurance options grow considerably more expensive and if one has a pre-existing condition or four, as many of us have, the best life insurance policies are often out of our reach.

There are a couple of necessary steps to take regardless of one’s circumstances. First, know what the costs are in your area. The Genworth Long Term Care Survey is a helpful resource that breaks down costs for one’s general region. This is helpful when one is considering their options.

Second, get some help. This is tough for a lot of us. Admitting that we need help planning for our final years feels fatalistic, as though we’re already giving up. We’re not. Asking for help is a move that makes us stronger. AARP has a number of suggestions (no big surprise there). However, what might make more sense is consulting a local palliative care provider who offers a full range of services. They often have financial planners on staff or can put one in contact with social workers who are aware of the full range of financial options.  Know that Medicare does not pay for what they call “custodial care,” so one is likely to need other options.

Long-Term Care Preparation

How does one plan for something when they don’t know exactly what they’re going to need or when they’re going to need it? Again, there are two critical steps that we have to consider. The first can be done to a certain extent online: know what options are available. Most palliative care companies have websites that detail the various services available. Interestingly enough, the VA website does a good job of covering a great many of the options, though I certainly wouldn’t recommend going through the VA to exercise any of those options.

The second step is a little more involved: deciding what you want. This is challenging because as we sit here right at this moment I know I’m not sure exactly what I want. I know I don’t want to be a burden on Kat or any of my boys. At the same time, I’m far to grumpy an old man to tolerate being in a facility as long as there are other options.

Earlier this week, I took a moment to watch the Netflix movie, The Last Laugh, with Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, and Andie MacDowell. While the movie itself had a number of inaccuracies that bugged me, what it drove home for me was that very few of us want to be “put up” somewhere. We’d much rather remain active even if it means doing something out of character, like driving across country on a comedy tour or posing nude for an art sculpture. Another important point, however, is the need to communicate our desires with our families.

We’re not as likely to get what we want in our final years if no one knows what we want, and I mean in excruciating detail, such as wanting to have a hound dog by my side no matter what, and what might happen if a caregiver ever comes at me with gazpacho. I’ve never understood the point of cold soup.

Sure, we want to consider what happens when we reach that point where we can’t get out of bed unassisted or its no longer safe to make our own coffee. We also need to communicate what we want prior to that point as well. If we don’t want to look at latter life planning as a fatalistic exercise, we should make it clear exactly how we want to live.

FInally, it is important that we have someone we can trust who has some form of power of attorney. At any point where we are unable to communicate for ourselves for any reason, we need to know who has our back and that they’re going to respect our plans and wishes. There are various forms of Power of Attorney, so talk with a social worker or legal expert to determine which works best for you and then choose carefully.

End-Of-Life Planning

Finally, let’s deal with the inevitable. Talk about it, plan for it, and then don’t worry about it. No, this isn’t going to be a fun conversation no matter when it occurs. However, here’s what I do know: it’s a lot easier to make those decisions now than leaving them to a grief-stricken family. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Coming from the background I do, where not only did Poppa officiate at a number of funerals but family members owned funeral homes and I even worked in a couple during college, I am extremely well versed in how the family that seemed to be holding it together during one’s decline falls completely apart in all the worst ways after one is actually gone. Trust me, leaving your end-of-life planning to the grief-stricken is not advisable.

I no longer have any family members (that I know) still involved in the funeral business, so I reached out to Chris Highsmith, a former classmate who now owns Burckhalter-Highsmith Funeral Home in Vinita, Oklahoma. I wanted to know if prepaid, pre-planned funeral services were still available. They are, and I want to encourage people to consider this option no matter what other financial options they might have at their disposal.

Both my parents had prepaid plans that they had purchased when my brother and I were still very young. I cannot begin to express how much of a relief that was when they passed. When Poppa died, all Mother had to do was sign papers ordering the sufficient number of death certificates and deliver the suit in which Poppa would be buried. Perhaps even more critical, though, was when Mother passed six months later. Her death was sudden and unexpected. There was no emotional planning. Still, my brother and I walked into the funeral home and were immediately assured that everything was in place. We only had to provide her clothes.

Again, we are a unique family. The funeral director we were using was a family friend with whom we had worked for years. What I didn’t know, however, if plans such as the ones my parents had were still available for purchase. There had been talk in the late 80s and 90s of discontinuing those options due to a lack of interest on the investment.

Chris assured me of two important things: A number of funeral homes still offer the service, and yes, they are transferable. Just this past week, Chris was fulfilling a prepaid plan that had originated in California in 2002. This is important as many of us don’t know exactly where we’ll be when we pass. I’m still holding out for eventually moving to the West Coast. There are plenty of people who have dreams of spending their final years somewhere warm. That doesn’t mean we can’t go ahead and plan for this final event.

Do this. If the thought of going to a funeral home creeps you out, a number of funeral service providers, including Chris’, provide pre-planning forms on their websites. Let me encourage you, though, to develop a relationship with a funeral director. They really are wonderful people, often with the best sense of humor. In my opinion, this is just as important as having a will. Define exactly what you want and get that emotional challenge out of the way. Once it’s done, communicate to someone where those plans are and then proceed to live the rest of your life with all the bliss one can muster.

Listening To The Music

The Last Song I Ever Hear -- Old Man Talking

Now that we’ve gotten all the necessary planning out of the way, let’s get back to talking about music. Specifically, the music we want dominating the latter part of our lives. This is important on a number of levels.

First of all, for the vast majority of our lives music has played a role in all the important events we’ve experienced. We remember the song playing when we first fell in love, that song that just clicked at the first concert we attended, and the song we found comforting when we were really, really sad. We jam to music while driving, while working, and while at the gy. When music has played such an important part in all the rest of our lives it is silly to not include it in our end-of-life planning.

Secondly, there is increasing evidence that music has a positive effect on our health as we age. As I talked about palliative care with a friend who recently lost her father after a prolonged illness, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that one of his care providers would routinely bring her guitar and not only play music he knew but facilitated his participation, even if it was just tapping on a tambourine. Music helps us focus, at least for a while, on something other than the pain and loss of function that one often experiences in those last months of life.

Third, hearing is one of the last functions we lose before we die. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that as other body functions begin to fail our hearing is actually enhanced, making it all that much more important that the sound around us be carefully considered. Would one rather here the beep-beep-beep of life monitors counting down our final heart beats or something that makes us smile as we remember the heart beats we’ve already enjoyed?

What we don’t want is some random selection of songs that hold no meaning for us. I have a broad and varied taste in music but if someone thinks I’m going to tolerate a playlist of “golden oldies” from the 1950s, they are sadly mistaken. When I reach that point where I could “go at any time,” I better not be hearing strains of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as I take my final breaths. So help me, I’ll come back and haunt someone if that happens.

Fortunately, we live in an amazing time where we don’t have to rely on our advice to family members or caregivers. We can create our own playlists of songs that actually have meaning to us, music that leaves us happy as we contemplate taking our final breath. There are plenty of ways of doing that, from putting songs on a flash drive to creating a playlist on one’s favorite streaming service. With just a little work we can rest easy knowing that some toneless contemporary drivel is not going to be stuck in our ears for eternity.

Mind you, we’re not talking about the music played at one’s funeral service. While there may be some overlap, the music at a memorial service is not for us but for the people who are left. This is a selfish moment. To hell with what anyone else wants to hear. Let this be your own playlist. No judgement allowed.

Sorting Through A Lifetime of Favorites

The Last Song I Ever Hear -- Old Man Talking

Of course, the moment one sits down to distill a lifetime of music memories into a handful of final choices, we begin to realize just how much music we’ve enjoyed over a lifetime. We also are likely to realize how much our tastes have changed. There are some songs that we thoroughly enjoyed in our teen years that we might not be able to stand now. How does one curate this final list so that it’s not 24 years long?

I cannot provide all the answers for you. Not everyone has complicated music tastes. I have a good friend who has been a country music radio DJ for over 40 years. His playlist is likely to be pretty straightforward. Mine, on the other hand, is all over the place. To help you narrow down your choices, here’s how I constructed my list.

  • Five songs from my earliest memories. For me, these are all gospel songs with a heavy tendency toward traditional spirituals such as Mahalia Jackson’s “Great Gettin’ Up Morning,” and Ethel Waters’ “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” Popular music was all but nonexistent when I was little so even though my belief system is dramatically different from my parents, these songs still tug at my heart and provide a sense of warmth and comfort.
  • Five songs from when I first started choosing my own music. I received my first transistor radio in the summer of 1968. Oh, but the wonderful songs I suddenly discovered! The best part was that it came with an earpiece so I didn’t have to divulge to my parents the rebellious sound choices I was making. Songs from this period include Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” Peter, Paul, and Mary’s take on “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and, perhaps somewhat inexplicably, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel.” The line “What goes up must come down” is something I will always hear sung in my head and if one isn’t careful I must just get up out of my deathbed and dance to that one. The memories I have of that summer are still as fresh as any.
  • Five songs my early teens. That period between ages 12-14 isn’t especially long, but they are extremely influential and for many people accompany a lot of “firsts,” such as the first love or first kiss. For me, however, my parents’ influence was especially strong during this period. Living in extreme northeastern Oklahoma, it was only country music on the radio (FM radio was just getting started) and most of the opportunities I had for experiencing live music involved the church, particularly the resurgence of gospel quartets. This has stuck with me forever. I love the harmonies and the passion found in this music, even if I don’t agree with their precepts. All the artists from this period are gone now, but I’ll never forget watching Rosie Rosell sing “Oh What A Savior” or George Younce stepping into “This Old House.” I have a ten-hour playlist filled with this music and it’s still my go-to specifically when I’m editing nude photographs. Don’t judge me.
  • Five songs I will always want to hear one last time. Okay, calling this section of the playlist “songs” is a bit of an understatement. This is the music from my formal education in the field, the pieces that I’ve either played or conducted at significant points in my schooling. These five pieces alone are well over an hour in length. Sorry, not sorry. These are masterworks and, so help me, if there’s an ounce of muscle control left, my arms are coming up and my hands are going to move through all five. I also have to be very specific here, though. I was trying to explain this to Kat and she looked at me as though I am crazy. Not every classical recording is the same. If I’m listening to Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto in b-minor, it had damn well better be Van Cliburn at the piano or I’m likely to throw something. Similarly, if I hear some thin-toned rendition of the “Choral” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, know that I will get out of my bed, no matter how close to death I might be, and beat someone with the nearest baton-looking instrument I can find. The 1964 Decca recording with Leopold Stokowski conducting is pretty much the only one I find acceptable. The double bass sound is too thin on everything else.
  • Five songs from my mid-late teens. Yeah, we’re skipping straight over the disco years. I don’t need that in my ears. There were some classic songs from this era, though, and this was probably the era most difficult to narrow down to only five songs. The various playlists I have from this period would take three full days to get through if we played them non-stop. I narrowed down my choices, though, by thinking which ones would likely have the greatest meaning for me as I lie in bed wondering if my next breath might be my last. Morbid, yes, but effective. The five I ultimately chose are songs that would, in one way or another, be fitting were I to die while they are playing. If given a choice, I’d rather “Listen To The Music” be the last thing I hear, though “Dust in the Wind” is also totally appropriate. Any of these five are fine, thank you. Not that I’ll remember, or be able to communicate my appreciation, but those who know me best will appreciate the significance.

Why have I not chosen anything from later in life? Because, let’s face it, music from the late 70s-early 80s was the best. There’s a reason these songs are still popular even in contemporary culture. By the time we made it to the 90s too much of the music was being over-produced, digitally influenced, and in many cases just plain horrible. Why would I want to listen to anything when I’m dying that I don’t listen to while I’m alive?

Sure, I try to keep up with contemporary music and there are artists like Jon Batiste and Kendra Foster whose talent I greatly respect. I need to be awake and have my cognitive abilities in tact, however, to appreciate their music. While I enjoy what they’re doing, their music has not had the opportunity yet to attach to my soul.

One of the benefits of advance planning, however, is that we can always change things. If I live another 30 years (or 60) then I’m likely to revise the playlist, adding another section of music that speaks to me now. Planning ahead doesn’t mean that we can’t change things if our circumstances change.

What we have to realize is that we don’t have control over everything that happens to us. While we may live very long and active lives, and I certainly hope we all do, there is also the very real chance that one might suddenly find themselves with limited functionality, their body unable to fulfill all the tasks we expect from it. It is against that inevitability that we make these plans now.

I have absolutely no idea why the universe put this topic into the cosmic conversation at this particular time. As I’ve done research this week, I’ve come to appreciate the wealth of options that are available on every level. We who are past the age of dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse are surrounded by opportunities to remain active and vital participants in society even past the point of being fully ambulatory.

What I cannot over-emphasize is that we need to plan and make these decisions for ourselves and then fully communicate these decisions to our loved ones. How we spend our final years, months, and days should not be matters of hastily made decisions put off until the last minute. We control our quality of life for our entire life when we plan now.

Here’s my final playlist, for now. Listen if you like. More importantly, make your own. Let the last song you ever hear one that you can carry with you into eternity.

All images included in this article are the copyrighted property of charles i. letbetter and cannot be used elsewhere without express written consent.

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It's So Hard To Say Goodbye

September was not a kind month. Let’s take a moment to consider what all happened, in no particular order.

At least 70 known deaths from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston, Texas area. This doesn’t count the deaths in Louisiana and Mississippi nor deaths that occurred after the storm as a result of injuries sustained in the storm.

At least 75 deaths from Hurricane Irma all across Florida. Again, this isn’t counting deaths that happen well after the storm.

At least 320 people died as a result of two massive earthquakes in Mexico. Rescue efforts have largely been halted, but more bodies could still be found.

More than 1,200 dead from Monsoons in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Due to the nature of the flooding, actual fatality counts are impossible.

641 people were killed in various terrorist attacks around the world.

Human rights groups report 3,055 deaths in Syria’s brutal civil war.

And there’s nothing close to an accurate count of the hundreds, possibly thousands of Rohingya Muslims slaughtered in Myanmar (Burma).

So when we woke up Monday morning to find that October was starting with a new record, the new worst mass shooting on American soil, our hearts sank. The one-year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, which claimed the lives of 40 people, was just this past June 16.  As I’m writing, 59 have been confirmed dead in this horrible event. The numbers will almost certainly go up, quite possibly as high as 70. Whose heart doesn’t break when things like this happen?

Late night talk show hosts have become the voice of America’s conscience in many ways and this time it was ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel who seemed to find the words so many were wanting to say. Take a look:

I no longer have the strength in me to be angry when things like this happen, not because I find any justification or fall into a well of apathy, but because the repetitiveness of running on this treadmill has left me exhausted. The pattern remains the same. An event takes place, in our pain, we focus on our anger, and then, as the pain normalizes (it never really goes away because we don’t deal with it), we move on to other things. Not only does the problem remain unsolved, we never actually attempt to address the problem at all. We just argue about it on social media using the exact same platitudes we did with the last mass shooting. Politicians wait out the mass hysteria and then continue to do nothing because they know we won’t hold them responsible for their complete lack of activity.

And here we are again, mourning the loss of innocent people, people who had almost certainly saved their money and looked forward to their trip to Vegas for months. As the names of the dead are confirmed, notice how few are from the Las Vegas area. They’re from all over the US. Teachers, nurses, police officers, attornies, single moms, loving dads, all of whom were there enjoying the music they loved, and then they died.

Over and over and over again this past month, people have died in large numbers and for anyone with an ounce of compassion, our hearts are ripped apart every time.  Our emotional wounds don’t even have time to heal from one assault before we’re blindsided with another.

And then, Tom Petty died.

Sigh. Big, deep, heavy sigh.

My late father was of the opinion that one of the reasons we are so horrified by moments like this, events that yield large numbers of dead, is because they force us to confront our own mortality. Who among those killed in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey or Irma had planned to die? Of all the people in Mexico City who were crushed under the buildings they assumed were protecting them, did any have time to prepare for their death? The people of Syria have lived under the constant reality of war for many years, but when a child is caught in the crossfire do his parents mourn any less? We see these things happening around us and are frightened because we realize that so often when death arrives at our door we have no warning. Life is just over. Done.

We react to horrible situations like these out of fear, fear that we might be next and that there may not be a damn thing we can do about it. We react because we don’t want to be the next one to lose a brother, or sister, or child, or parent or spouse. We fear our death because we are, despite all our alleged faith, not convinced of whatever comes next. We fear the deaths of those we love because we don’t know how to conceive of living without them.

Saying goodbye to life is hard because we view death as an end rather than the beginning of whatever comes next. We see a finality to death because we can’t imagine existence beyond the confines of our human bodies. We fear death because we count it as a loss rather than a transition.

Kahlil Gibran, in the final chapter of The Prophet, gives us some wise words regarding death:

You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honor.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Struggle with this as I know you will, let me challenge our view of death. Killing people is a weapon only as long as we treat death as a loss. Yet, what is it we are losing? The very phrase to “lose my life” is a deception. I cannot lose my life; it isn’t going to fall out of my pocket as though it were loose change. I cannot “give up” my life because there is no one person or entity to accept it as terms of surrender. A life doesn’t “expire” like milk past its use-by date. Life does not end but simply transitions and moves on to the next thing.

We have so heavily bought into the notion that beyond death lies a place of punishment and pain that we will do almost anything to avoid that possible outcome. Never mind the religious activities that we hope might save us from that horrible doom. We still fear death because we’re never quite sure that we’ve done enough to escape hell. We like the concept of a salvation that cannot be removed from us, but at our core, we still don’t trust it, we worry that there is no heaven, or that we might not actually make it.

Strip all the centuries of mythology away, though, and look at death as a transition. Place on the other side of that transition whatever existence makes you feel better, but don’t make it something worthy of your fear. Rather, put on the other side of that transition a point of hope. Call it Heaven, Nirvana, or a Collective Consciousness; whatever works for you and your belief system, but embrace that and let it replace your fear.

I like Gibran’s very last line: “And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” Think of what it would be like to always be tied to something, to have your arms and legs tethered so that you could move, but you couldn’t leave; to be anchored in one space that is yours. Then, just imagine what it would be like, after years and years of being tethered, to suddenly be let free, to be set loose. That, Gibran says, is what death does.

You’ve wrestled with this concept before, though in a different form. Think Shakespeare and Hamlet’s soliloquy. You know, the one that starts, “To be or not to be …” Jump to the end of that one and we find some interesting words:

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life. 

The respect that makes calamity of so long life. Shuffling of “this mortal coil” frees us from the bonds and limitations of the vessel in which we are contained. Whether we sleep or, perchance dream, and whether those dreams are a reality on a different plane of existence, we transition into another level of existence that causes us to look back upon this life as a calamity for having been as long as it was.

Is it possible for us to not fear death? Is it possible for us to turn goodbye into “congratulations on your promotion?” Can we see death as a stepping stone, not a stopping point?

It's so hard to say goodby

photo: charles i. letbetter

We do not minimize the value of this life when we elevate the value of what lies beyond this life. What we do here does not mean any less if what happens next is even better. Love is love on every plane of existence and love itself is eternal. We are fond of the saying, “you can’t take it with you,’ and that is absolutely true of the material and physical pieces of a life tethered to this dust. But then, why would we want to take anything from here? If we break free of our bonds, do we stop to gather up the ropes that tied us down? I don’t think so.

Love is not one of those bonds, though, and the love we cultivate in this life, the things we do selflessly for others, the goodwill we forge simply by being nice to other people, all that is a positively charged energy that attaches itself to us and where we go all that love and peace and comfort continues right on into forever with us. As long as we have this life we have the opportunity to generate the love that carries with us to the next. What we do here is not wasted, but what we do here is not the limit of who we are.

Perhaps, just maybe, the reason it is so difficult to say goodbye is because that’s not what we’re supposed to be saying at all. And if we take away death’s ability to scare the bejeezus out of us we also take away the ability for madmen and terrorists to use it as a weapon against us.

What if, instead of mourning what we perceive as a loss we celebrated the elevation of our friends and loved ones to something better, shuffling off the bonds that limited their existence? What if, instead of holding funerals we held parties, complete with cake and champagne, or at least a very old scotch? Would that not be better than the torment we put ourselves through every time nature or insanity releases a number of us from our confines?

This is a difficult conversation to have even within me. Religious philosophy has so dominated our societies for so long that trying to reimagine death as merely a transition feels a bit like trying to put a coat on backward and inside-out. Yet, even within the confines of religion, where one believes that a better place awaits, do we not prove ourselves unbelievers if we let our fear of death send us into mourning? Should we not rejoice that great-grandma has left her pain and suffering behind, escaped the imprisonment of her body and transitioned onto her Heaven, whatever that may be? If paradise is what we believe waits for us how incredibly stupid are we being when we are afraid of reaching that milestone?

There is a Christian hymn written in 1898 by Johnson Oatman, Jr. that I grew up singing but never really understanding the insight of the words. While Oatman was obviously Christian and was making reference to that expectation of a Heaven, if one strips away the religious connotation and looks at it simply as about the transition from this life to the next, we find a solace and even a yearning that leads us away from fear.

My heart has no desire to stay

Where doubts arise and fears dismay;

Though some may dwell where these abound,

My prayer, my aim is higher ground.

I want to scale the utmost height

And catch a gleam of glory bright;

But still I’ll pray, ’til heaven I’ve found

“Lord, lead me on to higher ground.”

Those lines, which are actually part of the second verse, are some of the most common-sense poetry one might find. Fear, doubt, worry, trouble, are all inherent to this earth-bound existence but if they do not exist outside these carbon containers we call bodies then why would our aim not be that “higher ground” of which Oatman writes?

If we stop looking at death as an ending point we can also do away with all that nonsense about sending “thoughts and prayers” to those devastated by disastrous events. That part has never made a lick of sense to me. Thoughts and prayers don’t put food on anyone’s table, doesn’t rebuild the home they lost, doesn’t replace the clothes swept away, and doesn’t improve anyone’s life in any way. What thoughts and prayers do is assuage the guilt that comes from sitting on one’s ass and doing absolutely nothing in the face of someone else’s need.

Rather, if death is a transition point, then perhaps we can start having honest conversations about quality of life issues and easing that transition rather than allowing people to lie in bed for years, connected to machinery, unable to communicate, to perform any willful function, and suffer until their body erodes to the point that even the machinery can no longer keep them alive. If we accept that there is no loss but gain in death then perhaps we can adjust our concept of war and how it is waged. If we stop looking at death as a personal affront to our existence then maybe, just maybe, we can reconsider why we are so damned obsessed with weaponry, its size, and its firepower, in the first place.  Remove our universal fear of death and perhaps we’ll stop acting so fucking stupid.

I don’t like saying goodbye, even when I know there’s a hello coming around the corner. I get anxious every time the Young Woman leaves the house, whether she’s going to work or to visit her parents or hang out with a friend. I worry she won’t come back through no fault of her own. To be in this world puts one at danger from the carelessness of others and the inevitability of nature. One never can be quite sure when either might interrupt our lives.

Yet, if I try to set aside the gut-wrenching pain that comes with yesterday’s tragic news then I am perceived as cold, unfeeling, and unsympathetic. I like to think that I can feel empathy for those whose loved ones were senselessly murdered in Las Vegas, but am I being disrespectful if I drink to the transition of those souls rather than mourn their departure from this physical realm? What if I say “Congratulations” rather than, “Goodbye?” Would you be offended if it were your loved one?

Centuries of philosophical tradition and religious teaching are not set aside and replaced in a moment even if they were adopted in that way. I cannot, however, avoid the feeling that all our grief and anger and hostility happen because we are not yet enlightened enough to see the reality of what, if anything. waits on the other side of mortality. If we can find a way to set aside our fear of what comes after death then it stands to reason that we will see less death and with it a solution to the overwhelming disasters we’ve faced the past month.

There is no benefit in yelling and screaming at politicians, tilting at the windmills of changed policies. Rather, may we render terror ineffective by embracing death as a step forward, reaching the top of the mountain so that we might begin to climb onto higher ground. This may be the first step toward finding Peace.

And there, in Peace, may you abide.
-The Old Man

Reading time: 14 min

Participants who drank at least 4 cups significantly lowered their risk of dying.

Source: Your coffee habit could lower your risk of death

DUDES! Who knew we had the elixir of life right in front of us this whole time? Doctors have been saying quite a while that coffee is NOT bad for you, in most circumstances, but lowering your risk of dying is even better than we thought!

I don’t know about you, but dying never has really been all that high on my list of things I want to do on any given day. I mean, if I croak, I croak. I’ve had a decent life, done a sufficient number of things. I’m good with putting a period at the end of a sentence and moving on to whatever comes next. But not dying? BONUS!

And to think that my regular morning routine is enough to get me to that added benefit. I’m up at 5:00 AM most mornings so that I can have some quiet, contemplative time to myself before the little ones come barrelling through needing help finding the clothes that are literally right in front of them. Coffee is the first thing that happens once the dogs are out the door with four cups consumed by 10:00 most mornings. Not a problem.

What the study doesn’t seem to address, though, is what happens if we like triple or quadruple our consumption beyond those four cups. While that’s not an everyday occurrence for me, personally, I know plenty of people who simply do not abide without that mug in their hand. Something tells me there is a point of diminishing returns somewhere and it would really be nice to know what that is.

Granted, there are a few dudes who have to stick to decaf and it would seem that those poor folks are just doomed to die early. If I had to drink decaf, I might ask to die early. I mean, dude, that’s like trying to pass off a White Russian with something other than Kaluha in the mix.

Still, this is excellent news for a large number of us. Hooray for reducing the risk of dying. Chalk this one up to one of those days where we eat the bear.

Abide in peace,
the Old Man

Reading time: 1 min