16 Jun Life, Love, and the Pursuit of God (epilogue)
by: Phil Barkman
August 19, 2007. It was a warm summer morning; Atlee, Mary, and two of their sons, Joe and Phil, were headed for southern Ohio. There was a Barkman family reunion planned at a farm owned by Atlee’s brother Raymond, and most of the family had planned on being there. It was a pleasant drive through the hilly countryside, and Atlee and the others arrived before the rest of the family showed up. As noontime approached, more of the Barkmans arrived and soon the air was filled with the noise of conversation and children playing. Atlee’s brothers, Bert, Emmanuel, and Raymond, were all there, and the conversation became animated as nephews and cousins joined in.
It was an interesting scene, to see the four patriarchs of the Barkman families together. They were normally viewed as fathers and uncles, but to see them interacting as brothers added a new dimension to their characters and personalities. These men, by the lives they lived and the examples they set, have raised the bar for those following after.
The outing took place in a field bordered by a stream, with towering trees lining the 3- to 4-foot banks. The water, shallow at this time of the year, gurgled and swirled over the large flat rocks that line the creek bed. Raymond’s sons, being an adventuresome crew, had at some point in time build a 20-foot platform on the north bank of the creek and attached a rope high up in one of the trees. By climbing onto the platform, stepping into the loop at the end of the rope and leaping into thin air, they could experience an exhilarating ride.
As time passed, the conversation turned to the rope swing, and one of the nephews, in fun, challenged the elderly men to take a ride.
“Well, I’ll do it if Atlee will,” joked Emmanuel, and immediately Atlee was on his feet and heading for the creek. Laughter and cheers arose as he crossed the creek towards the platform on the opposite bank. The laughter abated, however, as he climbed the bank at the base of the platform. He wasn’t really going to do it, was he? As Atlee began to ascend the ladder, his family realized that he wasn’t bluffing, and that’s when the prayers began.
“Don’t do it!” exclaimed a niece, while Mary turned her face away; she couldn’t bear to watch. There were murmurs of dismay, and the laughter changed to shouts of instruction.
“Put your foot in that loop!”
“Take ahold above the knot!”
Atlee inched his way forward on the platform, sat down on the edge, and gripped the 60-foot rope firmly. He slipped his foot into the loop at the end, gave a few tugs, and then off he went. Some of the family shouted with enthusiasm and others exclaimed in fear as he swooped down across the creek, just a few feet above the rocks. Up he went among the trees on the opposite bank, and then back, each 75-foot arc seeming to last forever.
As he swung back and forth, his momentum decreasing, two of his nephews positioned themselves on the bank and on his tenth pass, caught him and brought him to a stop. The family released a collective sigh of relief as he let go of the rope and rolled onto the creek bank. The rest of the afternoon was spent pleasantly enough, but the details of it are now mostly forgotten, overshadowed by the visual of that 77-year-old man swinging on the rope like a gigantic pendulum.
Quite some time had passed before Atlee told the family that when he stepped off the platform, the rope slipped, and only the toe of his boot was in the loop.
* * * * *
Atlee and Mary with their children
It’s May 2016; Mom and Dad and I are sitting in Boyd and Wurthman Restaurant in Berlin, waiting for our lunch. Talk turns to the rope swing ride; a family member at the reunion had taken a video of it, but Mom and Dad can’t find their copy of the DVD. Uncle Bert is sending his copy up from Florida, and Dad can hardly wait to see it.
“We should go down there and I could take that ride again,” says Dad with a slight smile, knowing the reaction that he is going to get.
“No!” Mom shakes her head firmly, and I have to laugh, but I can’t refrain from saying, “I think we’d have to stop you this time!”
Dad isn’t as strong physically as he was nine years ago; diabetes, depression, and macular degeneration have all taken a toll. A visit to the ER with chest pains, a fall that skinned his nose, and a less than certain stride are some of the markers that age has left on his body.
And yet his family and friends can attest that when he is asked, “How are you?” or, “How was your day?”, the answer is almost always positive.
“I’ve had a good day!” is usually followed by a more detailed explanation. The love of God, the mystery of His grace and mercy, and the blessings to be found in Scripture are frequently the topic of discussion and the reason why Dad considers most of his days to be very good.
Mom and Dad are the first to remind us that they’re not perfect, and that reaching the so-called golden years does not make this race any easier to run. They encounter the same spiritual battles and emotional issues that we all face, and added to that are the challenges of a body that just does not want to respond as it used to.
Sometimes Dad will sit in his recliner to take a nap, but he won’t sleep. He is kept awake by the thoughts of God, and of how He has brought them through so many things, both good and bad. As he looks back on their life, he sees now how God was at work, even so many years ago, even when he wasn’t aware of it. He recalls the hard times and the good times, and can now more clearly see the picture that was being painted, of which he had no idea those many years ago.
He has told us how he sits and thinks of the events leading to the crucifixion of Christ. He will close his eyes and imagine that night in the garden and then the journey to the judgment halls of Pilate and Herod. He sees the torture that Christ took for us, and then he imagines the procession winding up the hill of Calvary. He sees Christ being placed on the cross and has found himself literally flinching as, in his mind’s eye, he sees the hammer descend upon the spike that will hold Christ on that instrument of death.
Atlee and Mary with their grandchildren
For Mom and Dad, knowing God is not merely an exercise in religion, but an intimate friendship with and worship of their heavenly Father, and a faith in the living Christ that has carried them through all that life has thrown their way. Listening to the voice of the Spirit and experiencing the comfort He brings has made all the struggle worthwhile and brings them joy in their latter years.
Mom and Dad spend their days in their apartment at the Commons of Walnut Hills, where they frequently entertain visitors. Family members, friends and former neighbors stop by to chat and to check on their welfare. Dad’s enthusiasm for life and Moms steady, quiet friendship and her heart for “the least of these” are an inspiration to many.
They enjoy having someone take them for a drive or out to lunch, where they often encounter old friends and acquaintances. Dad cannot see very well and finds it difficult to recognize faces, even from a short distance, so he’s always pleased when friends make themselves known. Many are familiar with the phrase he so frequently uses in greeting; “Lobe der Herr!” (Bless the Lord!)
As the children of Atlee and Mary, we have watched them throughout our entire lives, and yes, we’ve seen some of the struggles they’ve encountered and the failures they’ve experienced. But we have also seen their victories and their love for God and their family. The patience, perseverance, and integrity with which they lived their lives has been instructional in our own. They have not only taught us well but have demonstrated to us what it looks like to daily walk with God. We have had the privilege of being first-hand witnesses to their life, their love, and their pursuit of God.