The other day I was listening to Prairie Home Companion while taking my seven-year-old son, Fergus, to soccer practice. Alison Krauss was singing an old gospel song which happened to be one of my father’s favorites, one that I requested be sung at his funeral. I don’t know if it was because of the beautiful clarity of Alison Krauss’s voice or the sincere way in which she performed the song or maybe all these things together, but I started listening to those words and maybe for the first time thought about every word of that song. “To Canaan’s Land I’m on my way where the soul of man never dies.”
I grew up in a very conservative home in the Bible Belt South. I learned to attend church the old-fashioned way—I was forced to go. I attended every service: every Sunday morning; every Sunday night; every Wednesday night; every gospel meeting; every night of Vacation Bible School. If the doors to the church were open, my family would be there. Despite my being in church through coercion and through no exercise of free will, the indoctrination took. God was a part of my life and I believed God was good. That is, until the summer of my eleventh year.
My older brother returned from Vietnam that year and the whole extended family was overjoyed to have him back safe and unharmed. I learned about worry that year he was in Vietnam. I saw it daily in the faces of my parents. But I also learned about relief and the unburdening my parents felt when he finally came back home and was stationed in Little Rock, just two hours from home.
Then there was that summer night. Many people my age might remember that night because it was the night of the 1970 All-Star game when Pete Rose charged the catcher and scored the game-winning run for the National League. I remember it because it was the night my family received the call that my brother, while traveling back to the base in Little Rock, had been killed in a car accident. What an absurd thing to happen. What an absurdly bad thing to happen. He survived Vietnam, was stationed near home—and then, to be killed in a car accident, was to me absurd and cruel and I hated God for it. In the months and years that followed I lived in my parent’s grief. For the first time in my life I saw my father cry. I wanted to help but I couldn’t. And I hated God for it.
It would have been easier, I suppose, to quit believing in God. But I needed to believe in God in order to hate God. If I quit believing that would be like letting God off the hook and I refused to do that. Over the years my hatred gradually subsided giving way, eventually, to indifference.
Then I listened to those words: “My darkest night will turn to day and the soul of man never dies.” My father, who had died two years earlier, thirty-four years after losing his oldest son, never lost his faith. I suppose he always listened to the words of that song and believed them. Those words, I’m sure, sustained him, even through his darkest night.
So I listened. And Fergus listened. And I thought, what an absurd thing to believe. What an absurdly good thing to believe, that there could be this place, “. . . where all is peace and joy and love and the soul of man never dies.” When the song ended I turned the radio off and sat there with Fergus. After a brief quiet that followed, Fergus said, “Dad, I like that song.” And I said, “I do too, Fergus. I do, too.”
Tim Barnes is an attorney in Clarksville, Tennessee, and he was elected to the Tennessee State Senate in 2008. He has three children: Patrick (seventeen), Molly (thirteen), and Fergus (eleven). Mr. Barnes spends all of his time balancing the demands of his sole-practitioner law practice, legislative duties, and parenting, which can include driving hundreds of miles to see all three of his children play travel soccer.
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