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Salvation and the Journey of a Preacher-man


“But the truth is that you reach a stage, whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, when you are no longer making up your mind on a purely rational basis. It becomes a matter of life, and how individuals wish to lead it, and whether temperament or experience makes this ‘deep’ kind of life something which appeals to them.” A.N. Wilson. God’s Funeral. W.W. Norton & Co. 1999. p. 336.

My father’s name was Thomas Odland Willey. After graduation from Union College, he became an Adventist minister. He was born on a North Dakota homestead in 1910 and his birth, and early youth there never allowed him to imagine greater affection for another place: despite the cold winters, hot summers and limitless, mean-spirited mosquitoes.

We used to talk about religion a fair amount as father and son—its disappointments, origins, values, and benefits. In the end, it seemed to him we only have one life with a never-ending dispute between good and evil. Maybe for this reason, my father believed he had been fated by some mystifying force which pieced together an exile from his birthplace—though he claimed he was not sociable with the devil.

His exile from the homestead happened during the Great Depression before leaving home to attend college. I am not sure he would want me to talk about this. But, as a mature pastor, with experiences in local churches and administration, he took his peace from trying to get closer to God who never stepped out in the open from what he knew about the Old Testament.

I especially enjoyed conversations after his retirement from church employment. In private, he became a freethinker and had given up on exaggerated religious claims and speculations from Scriptures. He used to wonder why God’s son had to die on a cross to establish deeply held religious perceptions for a life hereafter. Unlike Descartes, he had not come up with a single cast-iron method by which you can test truth while justifying the validity of that method. The geological strata made it clear to him that the world was not made all at once in six days but by a gradual process over long eons of time, including the fact that animal species are mutable.

Thinking back, one of my best memories was when I drove him to his 60th high school reunion in Mohall, North Dakota, near the homestead where he grew up. By then, he was almost eighty-years old. On the return home to California, he told me how his exile from the homestead began.

The reunion was fantastic. All of his Norwegian and German high school classmates were still alive, and he had one remaining sister on the farm. Returning home after we left the reunion, he sat quietly looking out the pickup window watching passing farmland. There was a light drizzle. The air was warm. The windows were rolled down—the tires splashed through the puddles of water on the patched roadway. I left him alone with his thoughts. Besides, I had my own.

I wondered what was going through his mind, all the while assuming he was still in custody of the myriad goodbyes and happy memories of the reunion. It had been a wonderful time for him—I could tell that much. This was probably the last time he would see his North Dakota relatives, the farmstead, Mohall, and his classmates. Just the year before he had endured a heart attack and was still battling diabetes. I thought the reunion had revealed his mortality as much as anything, and I kept wondering how a person accepts that his days are numbered.  Is this how life ends—wobbling on down a wet road?  Do you just vanish as you drive away from your ancestral home, saying doleful, wistful good-byes to the past?

Suddenly, without provocation, after we had gathered up forty miles from the homestead, he broke out of his silence and commanded: “Pull off the road.  I want to talk to you!”

I had learned not to dispute him when he spoke with this kind of authority. We hadn’t seen any travelers for fifteen or twenty minutes on this northern-most highway in North Dakota. There was hardly a more solitary place than this. Even if we couldn’t find a place to pull over we could have stopped in the middle of the road as it was unlikely we would see another car soon. Some farmers on this highway, when they see a parked vehicle by the side of the road, stop for a chat to avoid boredom since they haven’t talked to anyone for a while.

There was a dirt road that connected the field to the highway, and I backed onto a level place. The hay field across the road had just been mowed, and the wet alfalfa lay in rows giving off a fragrant pampas smell.

He turned to me and said, “I suppose you overheard people talking at the reunion about a tragic accident I caused.” There was a long pause—he seemed hesitant to go on.

Then he continued, “I’ve never talked to you about this event. It happened when I was twenty-one. It nearly overwhelmed me at the time, and to this day it’s still heartbreaking to think about it. After the accident, I fled to the hayloft in the barn for two weeks, trying to sort things out. Now I want to talk to you while I still have a chance.”

He dropped his head and began speaking slower with tears in his voice, “I hope you’ll understand.” He seemed to want to run away from what he had just said. The mood changed—it began to rain more vigorously.

Then he asked me straight away. “Do you know anything about this?”

“Not much!” Although, to lead him along, I could have said, “What are you talking about?” It just didn’t seem the time to tease him with wit or clever nuances.

Quickly, I thought I’d better tell him what I knew so it might make it easier for him to go on. So, I told him about the earliest and imperfect awareness about a family death I’d heard in 1944 as a child lying on the floor of the homestead over the upstairs grill, listening to the grandparents talking below. And I told him about overhearing his brother George speaking to someone in the dining room during a past Thanksgiving about carrying his bleeding little brother into the farmhouse. I was washing dishes in the kitchen, and George stopped talking when he saw me at the kitchen sink.

A wet wind swirled through the open window. We were heading into a dark corner of his memory where there had been a family death, presumably one that he had caused. And just as suddenly as the conversation began, I didn’t want to go there though certain little memory pieces had been properly placed for his telling.

Paradoxically, I wondered why it had taken him a lifetime to talk about this. As far as I knew, he was an open book about family matters; including gossip. He caught me off guard as I had not overheard any family misfortunes during the reunion. I looked in his direction and tears were crowding in his eyes; his voice began to quiver. Then he began again.

“My brother George and I were shooting ground squirrels down on grandpa’s pasture, and coming home, I took the rifle from George and aimed at a tin can on a fence post out by the road,” he said. “We had used up all the shells except one that had fallen out of the box. Just as I pulled the trigger, our little brother Billie, seven years old, jumped out from behind a cottonwood tree, and the bullet slammed into the side of his head. With his arms in the air, Billie fell to the ground without a sound. I knew he’d been hit, but I did not know how badly. George picked Billie up and carried him over his shoulder into the farmhouse with the blood streaming down his back. We found out later that Billie had played hooky from school, so we did not know he had sneaked out of the house to scare us. Think of the probability of these events coming together so precisely! Billie died in the Minot General Hospital seventeen hours later.”

The years may have tumbled by, but this calamity still owned my father. During parts of the conversation he held his hand over his mouth, trying to keep his lips from quivering. And I think he still held back some hard truths though it didn’t matter as I learned what it was he wanted to say. I sat there trying to keep his grief and anguish from gathering in my own mind.  It didn’t work.  After a time, I asked him some questions, and we started on down the road.

The rain had stopped. The hay and grain fields were darker in color. Most of the puddles on the road had dried. After we stopped talking about this tragedy, I felt like he and I were sad refugees, riding on the bits and pieces of our lives scattered about the road with no safe place to gather them up. Neither of us said anything for quite some time, and I felt the silence disrespectful on my part. The rest of the journey seemed tarnished with grief and sorrow and grinding misery until we got home. His story showed the flawed, disappointed, and passionately truthful nature of the human experience.

In his earlier days, my father grew up expecting certain exhausting perfectionistic doctrines for direction and guidance when pinning his hopes on a mansion in heaven after passing through a final judgment maintained by the heavenly courts. During his ministry, he felt that the frequent end-of-the-world preaching, based on random historical events, was demeaning, along with other things such as ingathering. Discussions of the investigative judgment in church publications and weeks of prayer left many pew-sitters with a horrible dread that their probation may have closed, and perhaps they would quietly miss out on the Second Coming.  At times, because of his own doubts, he became melancholy and withered under the sense of the dreadful judgment of God that should fall on those who have sinned the most fearful and unpardonable sin for killing another human being—even if it was an accident. Throughout his time on the earth, he yearned for peace in understanding the ultimate fate of “condemned sinners” and how he might achieve everlasting life and in this indeterminable search. He was not alone.

After this merciless event in his life, he was in pursuit of his own self-worth on some mythical road.  Yet, in some sense, he did not belong here at all.  Even in his bleakest moments of doubt, he remained what might pertinently be called an agnostic Adventist. I often thought he feared the ecclesiastical consequences of unbelief and sustentation withdrawal during retirement should it be known the extent of his doubts.

While he was talking to me, he spoke about his mother’s rejection and expulsion from the garden of his childhood though that was not all of the suffering he spoke about. Two years after graduating from college, his first wife (my mother) was slowly strangled by Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and just two weeks after her burial, his father-in-law hanged himself from the windmill on their farm in Nebraska, wrought with grief from digging her grave. Hanging there, he was exposed to children walking down the road on the way to school—which likely created a lasting impression for these school children. It is eerie now as I reflect on this telling how his life hovers around my own, and I suspect sneaking away to some empty room cannot break the underworld of despair by trying to defend orthodoxies.

When I think of what he said, I imagine mice tracks on the floor of an abandoned granary where all you see are the dusty trails and nothing of the mice. Time has a way of softening these harsh and brutal memories. Somehow, he loomed over these dark events and claimed his rightful place in the world though he always wondered if he had any free choice to change the outcome of his life. To my knowledge, he never preached about these calamities. Surely, it could be said, he believed congregants wanted to know that it makes a difference whether their pastor believed in a Divine Lawgiver, the Sabbath, the Ten Commandments, and a future life in Christ. As it was in his day (and still today), the propagation of unbelief was an indictable offence under church administration.

As he used to say, “People fancy themselves having free choices, but no one will be free as long as there are unplanned calamities, pestilences, and evil predators.” In his preaching, that was about as far he would take his own most inexpressible calamities that might fall upon a faithful believer.

My father often wondered why this omnipotent event happened to him and not to someone else. One time, he said that if he could have another go at life, he would “want to talk to the Lord first and try to work some things out beforehand.”

I was with him as he approached the time when, as he glibly said, “I am ready to turn in my lunch pail.” During the last months of his life, I thought he might revert to his more religious days—the days when he was a preacher man. But he did not like hypocrites then, and he did not go there himself. Even so, in the remaining months of his life, he devoted some time to his own religious meanderings and doubts while at the same time searching for some voice in the sky that would be more calming than his own. In the end, he seemed tired of all the variations on salvation theories he had encountered and, instead, stood tall and strong against the winds of mystery.

Religion without a heaven is like a bird without a sky or a fish without a sea. Maybe for this reason, as he was failing he asked me one day; “Do you think I am going to heaven?”

I told him such a question was better put to a rabbi, a priest, or some other cosmological authority. But since he had asked me as his son, I would try to do my best to answer the question from what I knew.

Moving self-consciously, I said, “Pops, if anyone goes to heaven, you’re in the front of the line. You shouldn’t have any doubts about that.” He had always been a kind, easygoing, gregarious preacher who could make instant friends with strangers. Frankly I did not have any better insights about the journey to heaven than what he already knew.

Because of the manner in which he was raised, there was an abundance of uncertainty about how a “sinful man” gets to heaven in the first place. He had lived all his life with religious doctrines that doubted salvation through grace as a healthy, motivating factor to secure obedience. I suppose that was why he asked the unanswerable question.

“Furthermore,” I said, “there are double-header baseball games every afternoon in heaven for those who enjoy the game as much as you! I’ll even wager that you’ll be catching ‘Hesitation’ Satchel Paige while you’re up against the battery of ‘Prince Hal’ Newhouser and Yogi Berra on the opposing team.”

This blissful imagination unfolded in his mind. Baseball was his favorite sport. He seemed comfortable with what he knew and whether or not I was telling him the pleasure of truth he desired. On the farm in his youth, he was the outstanding catcher and home-run hitter for the town’s team.

The Sunday before he passed away, he asked me to come by the house and see him. It sounded like he wanted to give me some sturdy advice he had recently discovered while reading A.N. Wilson’s “God’s Funeral.”  Instead, he handed me one of his favorite pistols and said he wanted me to have something to remember him by. At first, I was miffed by this gift and refused to take it. I had more than enough to remember him. Later, I caught on to what he was trying to tell me. There was this longing for love and connection with his first-born son who had come to know his most enduring misery and sufferings.

As I was leaving, he asked me to sit down and linger a little longer as he had something more to say from the book he was reading. He looked at me with a half-hearted grin, and I knew right away he did not expect me take him seriously.

“You know, son, can’t you see? If Adam had not eaten the apple, you and I would now be in the Garden of Eden. Whereas, things being as they are, we have a chance of Heaven which is a much better place, far beyond the reach of the Hubble telescope.”

He passed away in September 1990. As far as I know, none of his flock ever knew about these devastating experiences or his preoccupations with doubt. As a carry forward, he viewed salvation as a contract between the Almighty and mankind. And that after a faithful person passed away and entered into the Book of Life, there was no way for the individual to insist that God’s side of the bargain be enforced. The other limb of the salvation contract after death promised this: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” At times in his sermons, my father repeated these lofty comforting words but quietly recognized that God’s part of the bargain could not be enforced, even from pleadings at a funeral or etched on a grave marker.

The truth is that my father was devotedly fond of his family, honest and polite, well-behaved and of a sober character, and seemingly quite at variance with the side of his doubts and skepticism that left the old biblical certainties in tatters.


T. Joe Willey received his Ph.D in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, Walla Walla College, and La Sierra University.  He was a fellow with Nobel Prize winner Sir John Eccles at the University of New York, Buffalo, and served as a research fellow at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, Los Angeles.

Image: Thomas Odland Willey – senior portrait for the Union College yearbook.


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