An Emotional Sucker Punch Put Me on the Canvas

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Thursday coming will be Thanksgiving and the “official start” of the Holiday Season. Of course, nearly half the stores around here had Christmas decorations out before Halloween, so I’m not so certain about how “official” the start is anymore.

Since I love to eat and love my family, the holiday season has always been a coveted and special time of the year for me because it involves a great deal of both. The holidays have also been precious to me over the years because I was raised with an eye towards keeping sight of the real reason we celebrate Thanksgiving — to give thanks for all we have — and Christmas — the birth of our Savior. The holidays held meaning beyond turkey, trees, and tinsel ever since I can remember and as unbelievable as it may sound, I once came desperately close to chucking it all and throwing my lot in with the rest of the commercial and material world because I very nearly renounced my faith in God and Christ and became an atheist. Very, very nearly.

The event leading directly to the train wreck of faith I experienced was the death of my maternal grandfather in October 2006. I’ve written about Papa John’s death before, but I’ve never admitted in my writing just how profoundly his death crushed me on a spiritual and emotional level. Nothing else I’ve ever faced, or am likely to face — including Mama’s impending departure from this life — hit me as hard and affected me as deeply in a core area, THE core area, of my life.

I haven’t always been a Christian, but I’ve always been a believer in Christ. Mama took me to church willingly or by force until I was 12 years old and she said I could decide for myself. Granny and Papa Wham took me to church every Wednesday night and many Sunday mornings when I was young and stayed with them on the weekends from time to time. Christ, the Bible, and Church were the warp of my life and I no more doubted the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible than I doubted the air I breathed.

Quite literally, “Mama ‘n Them” said God said it and they believed it, so I believed it as well. Completely and without question. As I got older, I read a little bit more and studied a little bit more on my own and hashed out some reasons on my own why I believed what I did.

Still, I never put in a lot of thought about my faith or what I believed in. I just took it as a matter of course. Growing up in a small Southern town didn’t really present me with a great many attacks on my beliefs and even when I was challenged by some “Godless” professors at Clemson and later USC, I just laughed them off. I was a de facto associate pastor at the church where Budge and I were married and I was the one many people called and referred others to with hard questions about theology and faith. I was happily and blissfully going along with my Christian life secure in my beliefs and certain beyond doubt God was in His Heaven and all was right with the world.

Then in October 2006, when I was 35, Papa John fell and had to go to the hospital. Seventeen days later, he was dead and when I conducted his funeral in a driving rainstorm the next day, I left my world insofar as what I believed in and the faith I had unquestioningly carried with me from childhood in a hole in the red Carolina mud with him. When I walked away from Papa’s grave, I walked away confused, in more pain than I thought I could bear, and believing in nothing anymore. I’ve mentioned before how much of a hammer blow getting fired from Woodmont and Greenville County Schools had been to me, but that entire event was an emotional scratch compared to the effect Papa’s death had on me.

Here’s where some explanation is due but you aren’t going to get all you need to understand why I reacted so badly mainly because I don’t know how to explain it to anyone but my wife, my therapist, and a tiny handful of people I still call friends. Even if I told the entire story from beginning to end, it still wouldn’t make sense to any of you and worse, you might take the opportunity to think less of and even make a disparaging comment about Papa John and if you did, I’d hate you for the rest of my life. So what broke me? Long story short, Papa John wasn’t supposed to die crippled in a coma the way he did. Oh, he was mortal. I knew that and I’m not stupid. Papa, like all of us, was destined to die, but not the way he did. I hope that’s enough, but just know that’s leaving out 99 and 44/100th% of the story.

I didn’t darken a church door for over a year. For several years before Papa’s death, cracks had been forming between me and my former church and they now became canyons and ended up being hammer blows of their own. Worst of all for my mind though, I started asking questions. I’d always tested and examined every dimension of my life in miniscule detail, but not my faith. Now I did. Once I started asking questions, the gates fell down as questions led to even more questions and the more the questions multiplied, the more the answers disappeared. The more the answers disappeared, the more the doubts grew.

For someone like me for whom faith was the same as oxygen, I was dying. I could have picked up a red hot horseshoe and it may have made a more visible scar, but it wouldn’t have been anymore painful. I couldn’t tell anyone though, because I didn’t want to drag someone down with me. During this entire time, Budge was the only one who knew how bad I was struggling. I had to stay strong for Mama, because for six months after Papa John’s death, I thought we were probably going to lose her also since she was grieving to the point of starvation.

Days dragged in to weeks and weeks turned to months and I was no better off than I’d been standing by Papa’s open grave. It was at that lowest point I figured I would be better off turning my back on everything I had believed in all my life than it was to try to force myself to hold on to what no longer made any sense to me.  At that moment, I was very nearly an atheist and that condition would last for longer than I like to admit.

Come back later and I’ll explain how I ended up still believing today.

Love y’all. Keep those feet clean.

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