A Tribute to My Dad, Ronnie Cox (1948-2023)

I loved my Dad. He passed away just a week ago (June 2, 2023) at the age of 74, peacefully in his sleep.

My earliest memories of him involve his two arms. When he was just four years old, he broke his left arm, which wound up in a cast. When the doctor removed the cast, his arm had already begun to atrophy from the effects of polio. The doctor cried.

From that moment forward, my Dad learned to adapt to his world with what most of us would call a disability. He worked for Holley Carburetor for thirteen years and then, after trying a few other careers, wound up building decks and remodeling houses. With one good arm.

I had the privilege of working alongside him for a year between high school and college and I watched him, day in and day out, come up with ways to accomplish things most people with two good arms couldn’t, all while fighting daily pain from an unending stream of kidney stones. Later, he would wind up on at-home dialysis, but he kept working right up through the final week of his life on Earth.

His left arm was always weak, but I remember staring at his right arm, which was doubly strong from its extra usage. When I was a little kid, that arm made me feel safe.

We vacationed in the Smoky Mountains annually, where we always spent some time at the Chimneys, a picnic area alongside the river where giant boulders broke the flow of the stream to create mini-rapids. The water was always cool and crystal clear.

Chimneys

I loved jumping from boulder to boulder, but doing so got me in trouble once. I’d jumped from one rock up to the next until I was in the middle of the stream on a rock so high that I, as a five- or six-year-old kid, couldn’t see a way back down. I panicked a bit, assuming I’d be stranded there until I starved to death and my family would wonder how I’d died.

And then I heard my Dad’s voice. He was standing below with those two arms outstretched – one, seemingly too weak and puny to catch even a toddler, and the other, strong enough to save several adults, in my mind.

“Jump! I’ve gotcha!” he’d calmly said, knowing I was in no real danger. “I can’t!” I’d replied, knowing these might be my last words. My eyes finally focused on his strong, right arm and I took the leap.

He caught me. We survived. He was a superhero.

Fast-forwarding four decades or so, I recently walked through a hard season with big questions and doubts about God, life, and the universe around us. In my attempt to systematize my experience of the world and neatly order my theology around that experience, I’d struggled greatly for a sense of certainty.

I’ve looked all around me for arms bigger than mine, mighty enough to save me. And what I’ve found is that when I give my attention to the arguments that seem weak, the doubts, and the questions, I feel stranded and alone. Vulnerable.

More recently, though, my soul has been drawn back to what Charles Spurgeon called “the arm that moves the world.” Or as Isaiah put it (in the words of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase):

God has rolled up his sleeves. All the nations can see his holy, muscled arm. Everyone, from one end of the earth to the other, sees him at work, doing his salvation work.

~ Isaiah 52:7 MSG

Every morning, the question lies before me, Will I focus on my doubts, questions, and unanswerable concerns? Or will I focus on the Arm that has saved me time and again?

I can testify that, in the absence of absolute certainty, my very best days are the days on which I choose to take that leap. To trust. To believe that God is there, ready to catch me again, ready to hold me safe.

My mental message to my Dad that day was, how can I be sure you’ll catch me? And my Dad’s knowing look answered, You’re just going to have to decide to trust me.

And so, today, I choose again to trust and take the leap.

Ronnie D. Cox, 1948-2023.

In memory of Ronnie Cox, 1948-2023.