Jim pulled me aside and said he had a question for me.
We were in the locker room of the local pool and exercise center. We were also in our altogether. It's a sight, this altogetherness, our twin grandsons find both very funny and very distasteful. They may be fascinated with the blood and gore of XBox "World of Warcraft," but naked men past their prime make them reach for paper bags. We, Jim and I, however, conversed as if we had just met while passing on Main Street.
The other thing you should know about Jim and me, other than our unabashed nakedness, is my unofficial status in the locker room as an expert on matters religious. Exactly how that came about I'm not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with my overheard conversations, with a rabbi, with an admirer of John Calvin, and with a couple of professors, one at Trinity, the other at Conn College. The locker room is the kind of place one expects to hear an exchange of ribald jokes not a philosophical discussion. Jim, let it be said, is a purveyor of the former more often than he is a participant in the latter.
But this day he wanted the resident theologian to hear an exchange he had recently with a young, very religious woman whom he suspected of trying to convert him to her fundamentalist version of Christianity. He posed her a conundrum. What would you say, Jim asked her, if you won the lottery? "Praise the Lord," she replied. What if the next day you went to the doctor, he examined you and told you you had only four more months to live? She wasn't so quick to answer, but said she would probably cry. Jim went for the soul's jugular: if God gave you the winning ticket for the lottery, then who gave you the terminal illness? "The devil? The devil," she concluded.
Jim wanted to know from me, therefore, if there are two Gods. In proper monotheistic orthodoxy I stated, "No, just one"; adding, "Even the devil must finally serve God's purposes."
Which, of course, raises one of the thorniest theological issues: reconciling innocent human suffering with the existence of a loving and just God. Now that Jim and I were on the same page, I anticipated that next turn in our conversation, resorting to an oft-used nostrum which offers little comfort to the afflicted, even if it tells the truth of it: "All things happen to all people." Saints are not immune to swine flu. The Apostle Paul suffered, we think, from epilepsy. Francis Asbury, the premier American Methodist evangelist in the eighteenth century, was afflicted with vitamintosis.
That bad things happen to good people no less than to bad people we are reminded with every glance toward a church steeple.
It wasn't far from that thought to the anguished complaint this pastor has heard hundreds of times during his ministry to souls. Right, that complaint: "Why me?" When cars collide, yours is badly damaged, and it wasn't your fault. When the doctor's diagnosis matches the one given in hypothetical to Jim's soul-saver. When the Bridge of San Luis Rey collapses. When the IRS audits you. Name the unexpected sorrow, terror, or blow.
My dear friend and commiserator about the miserable Mets, the late Austin Armitstead, afflicted in his last years with a debilitating stroke leaving him limping and lisping, upon hearing the question (why me?) raised for him by a sympathetic visitor, replied, God love him, "Why not me?"
Jim, God love him too, smiled as we parted after our heavy theological discussion. He said, with the Why Me? syndrome in mind that he often thinks it about himself, but in a context that took me by surprise. Jim meant his situation in life, just why he, unlike so many of his friends, has been spared.
Jim is 92.