You wouldn’t know by looking at Roger Willis that he’s one of the best Christians the world has ever known. I always thought that was his secret. You know, being meek and lowly in spirit and all. Jesus said blessed are those. And that’s Roger.
He’s not tall—five-foot-seven, five-foot-nine in his boots. A scraggly gray beard juts out almost perpendicular from his chin. Aside from the occasional trim, it’s sat untouched for the last fifty years or so. Just there, jutting out and seeming to defy gravity, as if daring the world to hit the man behind it.
And the world has been happy to oblige. Roger hasn’t had what most would call a good life, and what’s worse is that he’s innocent of making it that way.
Things started off well enough in that true, Southern way. Roger was born to a farmer and a school teacher soon after Hitler called it quits in ’45. His childhood was the perfect blend of innocence and dirty hands, and he was kept free from the realities of the world until two weeks after his tenth birthday. That’s when his father was killed when his tractor rolled on the back forty of their farm.
It was just Roger and his mother then. The two made due well enough. Roger’s mother kept him in school until the ninth grade, at which point she bowed to his wishes to devote himself full time to farming. By then, there wasn’t much choice.
Roger’s mother joined her husband just after his nineteenth birthday. That was a tough time from what I’ve heard, and understandably so. But God was looking out for his favorite Virginia farmer, because right around that time was when Mary Booker walked into his life. Roger remembered her from school way back when, remembered how pretty she was and how nice. The two of them met when Mary began attending the Methodist church where Roger had been born and raised. Their first date was for ice cream down at the Dairy Queen. They were married six months later.
Things turned around for Roger then. The farm was producing everything from corn to cows in abundance, and the Willis family grew to include a son and daughter. I think there are seasons in life much like there are in the world. If I’m right about that, then the next twenty years or so was Roger’s spring, when everything grew and blossomed and the winds were all soft and smelled like new life.
Then came Vietnam. All that kept Roger’s son from volunteering was knowing his father would have to run the farm on his own, but then came the draft notice. His son left Virginia in the summer of ’69. He died in a rice field eight months later. Roger’s spring was over then.
You could say the autumn of his life arrived twenty years later, when his daughter died of what he called “The woman cancer.”
Winter came last year when Mary Booker Willis, Roger’s wife of nearly fifty years, passed on after a stroke. Roger lost the farm soon after. The corn and the cows stopped growing, and he was too old and too tired to start over.
I’ve told you all that just to tell you this: you would not know Roger Willis has suffered such loss. No. Speak to him and you will hear a song in his words and see the brightness in his eyes. Sit near him at church, and you will hear his voice singing above the rest. Listen to him pray, and you will know that Jesus is more than his Lord, He is a friend. Pass him in the store, and you will walk away happier than you were. Roger will make sure of that.
Amazing, isn’t it?
How could he have such faith after such suffering? How could he not simply continue, but thrive?
I asked him the other day at the hardware store, and his answer surprised me.
“I doubted,” he said.
When his father died, Roger doubted. Same with his mother and his son and his daughter. Same with Mary. When he lost his farm, too. He doubted God, doubted His love and even His very existence. He doubted aloud in the darkness of an empty house and an empty bed, calling out to the great Not There. He doubted an answer would come. One always did.
I’m going to remember that. Because I’m often fooled into thinking my faith is made stronger by my answers. It isn’t.
It’s made stronger by my questions.