Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
May 19, 2019
How swiftly the years move by
At 87 and counting, I agree with other old codgers who like to say, “The older you get, the faster it seems the years go by.” These days I don’t need a fan; the pages on my calendar are turning so fast they keep the air moving around me.
Dreadful things happen in the sunset years. One of the worst is memory loss. I dread the onset of dementia illnesses. But it happens. We all have loved ones and friends whose memories have been destroyed by brain diseases. Globally, 50 million people have dementia problems. Researchers predict this number will triple in the next 30 years.
While there is no known cure for dementia illnesses, health experts tell us there are things we can do to reduce the risk of becoming victims. Eat a balanced diet. Stay active physically. Don’t smoke at all and don’t drink too much alcohol. While exercise of the body is recommended, I believe the exercise of the brain may also be helpful. So my wife diligently works crossword puzzles and I push myself to think well and write intelligently.
As age takes its toll on my body, I try to laugh more than complain. Recently I had a good laugh in the middle of a street in downtown Birmingham. I had gone to visit a friend in the UAB hospital. I was halfway across the street when the light changed from red to green. Cars started moving. My mind said, “Run!” My body said, “You can’t run anymore!” I stood there laughing for a few seconds and then began walking, hoping the drivers would have mercy on an old man moving slowly.
I laugh also at the idea of memory loss. When I look back to the beginning of my life, I realize I have already lost most of my childhood memories. I can hardly remember my boyhood days. Strain as I may, the screen of my first six years remains blank.
I do remember starting to school at age six in Wetumpka at Hohenberg Memorial School. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Oakley Melton, remains the kindest, most wonderful teacher I ever knew. Burned in my memory is the shock and fear that gripped me the afternoon I missed the school bus for my ride home some 12 miles away. Mrs. Melton found me crying and, instead of scolding me, took me to her home nearby. There I played in the front yard with her sons Oakley Junior and Bimbo, enjoyed the delicious fudge she served us, and waited for my parents to come for me. Lord, I do remember that day!
Elementary school (we called it grammar school) lasted six long years. School was fun for me. I enjoying learning. I discovered that wonderful place called “the library.” There I became friends with Tarzan and the Rover Boys, Tom, Sam and Dick. I fell in love with books, especially adventure books.
Those were the days of singing “Scotland’s burning, fire, fire,” “Honky said the Donkey,” “Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking,” and “Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main.” Those songs and others are stamped on my brain and generate joy every time I recall them. But the best thing about that happy time is that I met my bride in the first grade. Dean bowled me over with those big, adorable eyes and that long, brunette hair. I was hooked from day one. I still think I overheard her whisper to one of the other girls, “I’m going to marry that boy one day!”
My mother made sure I developed good study habits. After getting home from school, I had chores to do, mainly milking two cows and making sure they were secured and fed. My daily goal was to get my chores done by 5:30 so I could be by my radio in time for the next episode of “The Lone Ranger.” It was not a good day if I missed listening to the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride again. Supper was next, after which Mama shut me up in the Breakfast Room to study for an hour, and never less than an hour. Homework had to be done!
Seventh grade was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. My junior and high school years in Wetumpka were marvelous. Learning was still fun. I loved playing on the football and basketball teams and I enjoyed being a Thespian. School plays were a delightful extra. And at Mama’s insistence, I took voice lessons and sang in recitals for three years. I enjoyed singing in the Glee Club too – until the teacher/director kicked me out for needless horseplay. She taught me that foolish behavior could have serious consequences.
Senior Sponsor Mary Williams was a gifted teacher but also a marvelous human being. She went out of her way to make our senior year a great one. We all loved and admired her. But I had no idea back then that many years later I would be called on to do the eulogy for her funeral. After the funeral, the Class President, Sonny Holdbrooks, said to me, “I loved the way you quoted William Shakespeare in your remarks.” I replied, “It would have been impossible to pay tribute to her without quoting Shakespeare.” He agreed. Mrs. Williams convinced us that our Class of 1950 was so special that we wept when graduation came. But the end did come, and with it, the necessity of a new beginning.
Four years at Auburn University (API back then) followed for me. They were challenging but fun years. No longer a Wetumpka Indian, I became a Tiger. War Eagle blood was soon in my veins. When I bleed, the blood is orange and blue. My Crimson Tide buddies poked fun at us by calling Auburn a “Cow College.” That did not bother me; I was a country boy at home on the Plains.
But college has an ending too. That’s the plan. The learned professors prepare you to leave, to go do something worth doing. How quickly, in retrospect, those years passed. One day I was slopping hogs and feeding chickens in Elmore County. The next day I was studying English literature at Auburn. Then, as quickly as a jet is catapulted off an aircraft carrier, I was in Music City studying the theology of the early church fathers.
It seems now almost like a dream. I was mystified by the absurdity of a farmer’s son waking up on the campus of Vanderbilt University preparing for the ministry. But there I was, on the crest of a new beginning, at age 22, and clueless to the surprises that awaited us. With two years of marriage under our belts, and a precious one-year-old son in tow, we had the world by the tail. I would have laughed had you had told us that tragedy was stalking us.
Eighteen months later our son was dead, a victim of leukemia. In shock and grief, we came home to Wetumpka and buried David. A heartbreaking chapter in our lives had ended. Though I was but halfway through seminary, we felt a new start would help us. A month later we were living not in Nashville but in tiny Midway, Alabama, where I was pastor of a four-point circuit. I transferred to Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, needing 18 months there to earn my Master’s Degree. Travel time to school was five hours, a long 170 miles with no interstate highways back then.
Spring’s freshness in 1958 included my graduation at Emory. Two months later, on our last Sunday in Midway, we sang with the people the hymn, “Till We Meet Again.” We wept as we struggled to sing this slow, sad song. It was such a wrenching experience that I have never wanted to sing that song again. Its words are draped in pain in my soul. But we managed to move on and serve 48 years as pastor of several churches, including four years as a traveling evangelist with our General Board of Evangelism in Nashville.
There is neither space nor time to tell about all the chapters in our lives. Like your own, each chapter begins and it ends. Another begins. New starts are part of the warp and woof of life.
A lasting marriage must have new beginnings. A husband and a wife can become bogged down in failure, trouble and misfortune. Life’s pressures trigger words we wish we had never said. So there is the need for confession and forgiveness. The only saving remedy is a new start.
Reconciliation is never easy. There is a price to be paid. Those of us who think we are always right must admit we have been wrong before healing can occur. How many new starts my wife and I have had, I do not recall. I do know that we have started over enough times that our partnership will have endured 67 years come June first. And it is stronger now than ever.
In 2002 mandatory retirement (at age 70) brought my life of pastoral ministry (under the appointment of a bishop) to an end. A new beginning and a new title: retiree. Then before I could get adjusted to warming a pew on Sundays, Lester Spencer, the pastor at Saint James United Methodist Church in Montgomery, gave me a new start on his staff as an associate pastor. I thought the fat lady had sung but I was wrong.
I never dreamed the years as an associate pastor would pass so swiftly or be so rewarding. Last year this chapter ended with the church naming me “Pastor Emeritus” as I “retired” once again. Graciously, the church asked me to keep an office at the church and preach once a month. So I guess I am only 90 percent retired! This too will end one day. But until then I plan to arise every morning with all the gratitude and enthusiasm I can muster and live each day to the fullest.
Wherever you are in your life’s journey, you will be wise to remember the past with thankfulness – as long as your brain will permit you to do so. It will help to stir your memories and write them down so your grandchildren can read them. Then embrace each new chapter with gratitude, not regret, and walk into the future with hope. Throw in a little grit, fortitude and humor for good measure. The steadying conviction that has been a constant rainbow in my sky has been my confidence in the faithfulness of God. He loves us and his plans for us are good, so good that none of the problems of this world can prevent him from bringing us at last to the heavenly home he has promised to those who trust him. A diseased brain and a worn out body will be replaced with a new brain and a new body!
As long as we can believe strongly in God’s faithfulness, we can keep on getting back up no matter how many times we fall down. We can make a new start again and again. Then, one day, when the end comes, hopefully we can peacefully relinquish our hold on this life and by the grace of God begin a new chapter in that sweet land beyond the river. Until then, with joy we can, we must, we will carry on! + + +