A few months after our first wedding anniversary, Polly and I packed up all of our worldly goods and moved to Newark, Ohio. We later moved to Buckeye Lake and then to the Southeast Ohio communities of New Lexington, Glenford, New Lexington — again, Somerset, Junction City, and Mount Perry. All told, we lived in Central and Southeast Ohio for fifteen years. During this time, I pastored churches in Somerset/Mount Perry and Buckeye Lake, Ohio. A consummate Type A workaholic, I neglected my wife and children. Thinking that all that mattered was serving Jesus, winning souls, and building churches, I worked day and night, rarely taking a day off. Work for the night is coming when no man can work, the Bible says. Jesus could return at any moment, I thought at the time. I want to be found busily laboring in God’s vineyard when Jesus splits the Eastern sky! Jesus said in Luke 18:8, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? When Jesus returned to earth, I wanted him to find me working hard at keeping the faith.
My children can testify to what I have written above. They watched their father walk out of the house in the morning, returning home later in the day, only to shower, change clothes, and head out the door once again, often not returning until they were in bed. For years, I worked a full-time secular job while also pastoring a church full-time. Even when I stopped working secular jobs and devoted all of my time to the work of the ministry, I still worked 60 plus hours a week.
Fifteen years of busting-my-ass for Jesus. Fifteen years of sacrificing family and body. Fifteen years, one vacation — a preaching engagement in Braintree, Massachusetts. Fifteen years, and not ONE, just the two of us date with my wife. Let that sink in for a moment. Not ONE date. Polly and I spent a good bit of time last night combing through our shared memories. We couldn’t come up with ONE instance of the two of us — sans children — going out on a date. Oh, we went to scores of special church events, Valentine’s banquets, and the like, but we never, not ONE time, got in the car, just the two of us, and went somewhere to spend an evening enjoying each other’s company.
I told Polly that it is a wonder that our marriage survived. While I was busy winning souls, studying for sermons, and building churches, Polly invested her time in raising our children. Now, I don’t want to paint a misleading picture. When I had time, I spent it with my family. We spent many a summer Saturday evening watching races at local dirt tracks. We also— in the early 1990s — took numerous day trips to West Virginia and Kentucky. Our older children have fond memories of crazy family road trips along the forgotten back — often unpaved — roads of Southeast Ohio and neighboring West Virginia. That said, what time I had for doing these kind of things was limited. Jesus ALWAYS came first.
While these memories remind me of the fact that I did spend time with my beautiful wife and children, I find myself saddened by the fact that I should have spent a lot more time with them, but didn’t. Southeast Ohio is a place of beauty, yet I rarely took the time to enjoy the scenery. Enjoying life was for those who didn’t take seriously the commands of Jesus. As the Apostle Paul centuries before, I wanted my life to be a testimony of single-minded devotion to Jesus. Better to burn out than rust out, I thought at the time. Some day, I will enjoy the scenery of God’s eternal kingdom! Did not the Bible say, prepare to meet the Lord thy God? There will be plenty time later to relax and fish along the banks of the River of Life.
My children and Polly have long since forgiven me for not giving them the time they deserved. They understand why I worked like I did, but I have a hard time forgiving myself for putting God, Jesus, the church, preaching, and winning souls before my family. No matter how often I talk about this with my counselor, the guilt and sense of loss remain. I suspect other super-Christians-turned-atheists have similar stories to tell. We sacrificed the temporal for the eternal. Now that we understand the temporal is all we have, it is hard not to look at the past with bitter regret. Particularly for those of us with chronic illnesses and pain, it is hard not to lament offering the best years of our lives on the altar of a non-existent God.
There is nothing I can do about the past. It is what it is, as I am fond of saying. All I can do is make the most of what life I have left. Fortunately, my six children and eleven grandchildren live less than 20 minutes away. Given an opportunity to do things differently, I do my best to spend time with them. Some days, it is difficult. To quote a well-worn cliché, my spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I know there will come a day when I will be in a wheelchair. It has been 18 months since I have driven a car. Forced to rely on others to haul my ass (and the rest of my body) around, I am unable to do all that I want to do. I do what I can, forcing myself — at times — to do things that I probably shouldn’t be doing. I know that this life is all that I have. As a Christian, I said, Only one life t’will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last. As an atheist, I see things differently. Only one life t’will soon be past. End of story. All that will remain are the memories I made with my family while I was alive.
And as far as the no date thing? I think Polly can attest to the fact that I have acquitted myself quite nicely. We now take short vacations, road trips, and go on frequent just the two of us dates. Are we making up for lost time? I think so. Polly has become my best friend. I genuinely enjoy her company, even when her driving puts me in fear of my life. We have a bucket list of places we would like to visit. Will we successfully check off everything on the list? Probably not. As we wander together through life, we continue to find places we want to check out. So much to see, do, and experience. Funny what you find when you take your eyes off the heavens and look at what is right in front of you.