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Column: Jesus, country music and NASCAR: Montage of a life joyously lived
Ronda Rich

He was not old. Or middle aged. Remnants of youthful dew still misted his ruddy Scotch-Irish complexion.

At 33, there was no explanation for the suddenness of it. No accident. No illness. No abuse. No obesity. All that could be said is that Jesus, inexplicably, just one day up and called.

As we all pondered the sadness and the hole his earthly departure had left, I kept recalling a passage from C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed,” in which he poured out his heartbreak over the death of his wife, Joy. Lewis, in talking about the wonderfulness of all he expected heaven to be, recounted the story of where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

“And we call Lazarus the lucky one?” Lewis asked.

A convincing argument. If we had to choose between the peace of heaven and the turmoil of earth, which would we choose?

Yet, the loss of such a good-hearted, kind-spirited young man is hard to accept when such mean ones can live long, fruitless lives. It is a good thing that I am not in charge of the roll that is called up yonder.

Though he left behind a beautiful, grieving widow — one of the most beloved women I have ever known — I think he would have heartily approved of his funeral in the stained-glass beauty of the Methodist church where a black-clothed, respectfully-dressed congregation of mourners assembled.

A happy, photographic montage of his life joyously lived played out to the banjos and fiddles of country singer Randy Travis’ version of “I’ll Fly Away.”

The preacher spoke of Michael’s devotion to the Clemson Tigers and pointed out the orange silk tie he wore in tribute.

“However,” his widow pointed out when she gracefully and bravely spoke, “he had joined me in a love for the Georgia Bulldogs and willingly attended the games.”

He would have done anything for that woman he loved so powerfully.

A friend, during fleeting breaks in heaving sobs, told stories of their trips to the Daytona 500 where Michael cheered on his favorite driver, Mark Martin.

Mark Martin. That may have been the first time I heard Mark Martin touted at a funeral. Usually it’s Earnhardt, Petty or Waltrip. It thrilled me, though. Mark Martin is one of my favorites. I worked with him for a time during my NASCAR years. I have never known a nicer person or a more cooperative driver. 

A couple of years ago, we ran into Mark at a NASCAR Hall of Fame event. Wisely, he had been inducted into the Hall of Fame the previous year. We exchanged remembrances — including the 1990 championship that Mark had lost by a few points to Earnhardt — and laughed about happier times. Once, after the last San Francisco earthquake, Mark, his wife, Arlene, and I had been flown by helicopter over the ravaged city on a flight to a press conference in Sacramento.

After the press conference, we returned to the ball field to meet the helicopter that had previously landed there in the midst of the diamond. There, he assured us, he’d be waiting for the trip back to San Francisco. He had disappeared. For two hours, we waited until we were told by the charter company that he left us to answer an urgent summons from filmmaker George Lucas.

When I introduced them, Tink said to Mark, “She raves about you. I have never heard anyone speak higher of a person than she does of you.”

I was glad that Mark Martin had a well-earned place in the eulogy of a man who was as nice and likable as he was. It gave me a smile in the midst of such sorrow.

Later, at a reception, I remarked to a friend, “That was THE perfect Southern funeral.”

And it was.

Jesus, country music, stock car racing and SEC football.

Talk about a life truly well-lived. Though short, Michael’s surely was.


Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.