By Kyle Whitmire
Alabama Media Group
I was 10 years old when my mom died. She was killed in a single-car accident on a lonely road driving home from a work trip in Montgomery. Someone nearby heard the wreck but no one saw the accident. Nobody could explain how it happened.
But I’ve always known why she died.
I’ve written several times about the lessons she left with me and how that tragedy has colored many things in my life — from how I look at life and death to the way I never pass up a chance to tell my wife or my children that I love them.
There’s one thing, though, I’ve kept to myself — the why.
In the days and years after the accident, there were plenty of well-meaning people who offered unsolicited explanations, mostly a lot of God-talk.
It was the Lord’s plan.
He needed her more than we did.
We all have a day and an hour.
And so forth.
When I reflect on it now, I realize all those benign aphorisms are horrible things to say to any child in grief. Who wants to hear that God killed your mom? Is that really supposed to help?
But I never resented those folks, first because I understood they were well-intentioned. And second, I already knew why my mom died in that wreck.
She refused to wear her seatbelt.
Mind you, she made me wear mine. I was born a little early for boosters in back seats, but she always made me strap in. When I fussed and asked why she didn’t wear hers, she would always come up with an excuse, usually having to do with her height. Sometimes she’d argue that, for a five-foot person like her, seatbelts made driving more dangerous. But those excuses were just that — excuses.
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. And this one doesn’t complicate things with amateur theology or deciphering the divine plans of a mysterious deity.
She died because she didn’t wear her seatbelt. That’s it.
I didn’t suppress that bit of knowledge but I never said it out loud, either, until recently.
My son was fussing about the straps of his car seat when I heard the buckle unhitch behind me in traffic. And I let loose what I hadn’t had the temerity to say in 34 years. He got quiet. The message got across.
I love my mom and I miss her. Not a day goes by I don’t think about her, especially now that I have children of my own. But I do blame her, just a little. I wish she’d lived to play with her grandkids.
However, learning from hard lessons is how you claw back life from tragedy. It’s how you keep going. It’s how you grow old enough to play with your grandkids.
But I see a lot of folks driving around right now with their seatbelts unfastened, in a manner of speaking. Of course, I’m talking about vaccines. And Covid-19.
Also, a lot of messy religious talk that’s getting in the way of simple truth.
Since the outset of the pandemic, I’ve read stories littered with the same old lines from years ago. Sometimes it’s a grief-stricken attempt to explain why a loved one died. Other times, it’s an excuse-ridden rationalization for unnecessary risk-taking.
We all have to go some time.
Everyone has a day and an hour.
When it’s your time, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Call it Final Destination Syndrome. Like the premise of that 2000 horror flick, there’s a pernicious belief that there’s no cheating death when it’s your time. If you don’t die of Covid, it could be a heart attack, or if not a heart attack then a freak accident. It’s a defeatist belief masquerading as faith. It pretends to be a sort of spiritual surrender, but really, it’s Russian roulette. It’s recklessness dressing up as religion.
And there are too many pastors unwilling to refute it. Some are spreading it. And polling has consistently shown white Evangelicals among the most vaccine-hesitant, if not downright stubborn.
Earlier this month, a reporter from Politico asked nearly a dozen Southern pastors what they were telling their congregations about the Covid vaccines. Many said, nothing.
“If I put forth effort to push it, I’d be wasting my breath,” said Nathan White, the pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Virginia. The issue had become too polarizing, he argued.
That hasn’t stopped others from pulling in the opposite direction. This week a Nashville-area pastor, Greg Locke, called Covid a hoax and told his congregation that, if they wore masks to church, he’d ask them to leave. “Don’t believe this delta variant nonsense,” he said. “Stop it!”
Others have, sadly, taught Covid’s lessons through tragic examples, as Bishop Gerald Glenn did when he encouraged his congregation last year to ignore Virginia’s warnings about mingling in large crowds.
“I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus,” he told them. And then he died from it.
None of this is to bash religion. Far from it. Rather, it’s time to quit blaming God for our mistakes.
Faith and medicine need not be incompatible things. In fact, the Bible itself admonishes those who would tempt the Lord, demanding miracles of God when there are practical solutions right in front of us. It’s OK to pray and take the shot.
And if pastors are afraid of polarizing issues, do they not preach about heaven and hell? What’s more polarizing than death?
There’s a joke I’ve seen going around again lately, but I was a boy when I first heard it from the pulpit in my church.
A flood strikes a small Southern town, where an old pastor sits rocking on his porch when the neighbors pull up with an aluminum fishing boat. They plead for the preacher to get in, but he insists he’ll be fine.
“The Lord will take care of me,” he tells them.
The water rises. The preacher is on his roof when the sheriff’s department arrives with a rescue boat. But again he declines.
“The Lord will take care of me,” he tells them.
The water rises. The preacher is standing on his chimney when the National Guard flies overhead in a helicopter. They drop a rope ladder to him. But he waves them away.
“The Lord will take care of me,” he shouts before they fly on.
An hour later the preacher arrives at the Pearly Gates, where St. Peter asks what the heck he’s doing there. The preacher is confused, too. He says he thought the Lord would take care of him.
“Well, we sent two rowboats and a helicopter,” St. Peter says. “What more did you expect?”
The Lord works in mysterious ways, except when He doesn’t.
Trust in God. But wear your seatbelt. And get that shot.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, 2020 winner of the Walker Stone Award for editorial writing, the 2021 Society of Professional Journalists award for opinion writing, and the 2021 Molly Ivins Prize for political commentary.