Rocky Top

What do you do when you fall off a cliff?  When the rug gets pulled out from under you and you begin a free fall that spirals and circles into blackness until you don’t know which way is up or have any sense of direction?  How do you push through life when your faith takes the wrong exit?  When doubt merges into your lane and causes a pile-up?  It’s so easy to doubt and yet, so hard to talk about.

My grandfather died when I was a young adult in my twenties.  He had cancer, a mass that had interwoven itself throughout the ventricles and arteries surrounding his heart.  By the time it was discovered, it was too entrenched to be removed surgically and could only be minimally shrunken with chemo.  He was terminal.  I was devastated.  He laughed and said it felt like a four-hundred-pound woman sitting on his chest.  I swallowed the lump in my throat.  Steve asked him how he knew what a four-hundred-pound woman felt like since my grandmother couldn’t have weighed more than eighty pounds soaking wet.  

My grandfather loved me fiercely and I loved him.  I went to visit him frequently over the next year as the cancer slowly defeated him.  I even took him to an Alabama vs. Tennessee football game AND let him wear his ugly orange jacket. Tennessee beat Alabama that year.  He was tickled pink.  I had to listen to him sing “Rocky Top” all the way to his house in Greenback, Tennessee.  He died soon after and left me that jacket.

I had known for some while that he would die.  It’s not like he was alive one day and the next day he was gone.  We had time to say good-bye, to be together, to matter to one another before the end.  I took advantage of that time to visit as often as I could, but then he was gone and my grief and devastation were real.  I railed at God—yelling and cursing him for taking away someone I loved so much.  I wept on my bed, rolled into a tight ball until I was utterly exhausted.  I told God that if he was the kind of God who would take my grandfather away and cast him into the eternal fires of damnation, then God and I were no longer friends.  I just couldn’t believe in that God.  My grandfather didn’t go to church.  I had never heard him once mention God.  And I had never brought the subject up with him—I had prayed about his salvation and thought that God would somehow give me a sign, but it never came.  I all but lost my faith, casting around for something to cling too, some way of knowing he would be ok and I would too.  I lay on my bed, grieved over his loss and devastated as to what his future might be.

I had bought into the fundamental, conservative Christianity of the South that offers judgment and condemnation on any one of us when we are not following the rules of its game.  Too often we hear the message that to be “saved” requires a confession of personal faith, saying the Jesus Prayer, taking Jesus on as your Lord and Savior; and though I don’t disagree with any of that, I am not sure I agree with it either.  This personal Jesus thing sounded right—I knew I was going to be ok, but it really bothered me to think that my grandfather would not.  It was not a faith that I could believe in anymore.  It was not a game I was willing to play—the stakes had been set too high.  I was over the cliff.  My doubt had t-boned me and the vehicle of my faith was totaled.

Over the years, I struggled to rekindle the relationship I once thought I had with Jesus.  I wanted to feel special.  I wanted my doubts to go away.  I wanted a new vehicle of faith to drive around in.  It was not until I went to Taize that I discovered that faith is less about the vehicle and more about the tires.  Granted the tires can tell you a lot about the vehicle—one tire means you’re riding a unicycle, two tires are a bicycle or maybe a motorcycle, three becomes a three-wheeler, eighteen probably indicates a tractor-trailer, and so on.  I thought I had been riding around on four tires in a sedan or SUV, in reality, my expression of faith as personal reflected the unicycle I had been on.  No wonder doubt and fear had been chasing me for so long, it’s really hard to stay balanced on a unicycle…not to speak of the endurance needed to ride one for long distances.

The brothers at Taize taught me that faith is not about a personal relationship with Jesus.  That kind of faith doesn’t even make sense.  We might have an intimate relationship with Jesus but a personal relationship is typically narcissistic and self-interested.  It carries the temptation to identify Jesus on our terms instead of defining us on his terms.  One brother in particular told me that he had joined the Taize community because it was the one place he had found in which he knew that when he could not bear his load, he would be surrounded by many who would lift it for him.  The brothers in Taize don’t have personal relationships with Jesus, they share a communal one.  That’s when I began to regain my faith, when I began to seek faith in community, when I began to talk about doubt and darkness instead of keeping it all inside.

I don’t doubt at all that my Papa Jerry (that’s what we called my grandfather) is in heaven.  As a matter of fact, I know he is.  He didn’t have to tell me he had a personal relationship with Jesus, he showed me the communal relationship his faith was rooted in throughout my life.  He would do anything for anyone in need.  He loved me and my sister and my parents and his wife and friends unconditionally—there were times when he should have rejected all of us and never did.  He never said a mean word or raised his voice except when riding roller coasters and then he cussed like a sailor because he was one (though I only ever heard him say, “Oh Mother Frog!”).  I know my Papa Jerry is in heaven because Jesus sent an angel to me the day I grieved myself to exhaustion on my bed.  It wrapped me in its wings of love and hope, soft and tender, drawing me into a place of comfort and reassurance.  That angel never said a word, but in that moment, I knew that Papa Jerry’s soul and the souls of all the departed would rest in peace.  He had entered the communion of saints, the one he had been a part of all along.


Light and Life,