If Jesus wasn’t real.
That was the reply I gave to a friend in a conversation we had last summer. The question was, “How are you still a Christian?”
A dear friend from college and her family were passing through the area and we finally had some time to catch up on life. She really just graciously listened to me as I verbally processed through the past year. The year when we nearly lost my mom to COVID. The year when my siblings and I finally had a chance to talk to each other about our childhood. The year when we all finally realized we weren’t just remembering our childhood wrong. The year when the preacher’s kids said out loud what happened in our home.
Yes, it all started with my mom’s battle with COVID, but much more trauma was at play than just an illness. More at play was dealing with dad.
To the local community, my dad is “Brother Charles” the pastor or “Charlie” the guy who worked for decades at the local lumber yard. Brother Charles would visit any person in the hospital. He would sit for hours with families in waiting rooms or stop in and pray with a family before or after a procedure in the hospital. Brother Charles would come over to your house and help you fix whatever thing was broken or needing repair. Brother Charles never knew a stranger and could talk to anyone, anytime, for hours.
Charlie would get calls at midnight or 2am when someone’s water lines froze in their house and would meet up with them at the lumber yard and get them what they needed. He would go up for whatever emergency people had and take care of their needs. Charlie was an outside salesman for the lumber yard and knew every building site in the three-county area and was fair and honest with his clients. Charlie knew his doors and windows and could spot when something was going to leak air and not be energy efficient. Charlie may not have always known how it fix it himself, but he had friends within the trades who could do the job for you. Charlie could replace an outlet or ceiling fan, if you gave him enough time to think through it.
Then there was my dad.
Things I learned from my dad: I learned how to hold a flashlight perfectly still as he worked on the car. I learned how to mentally keep track of all of the tools when working on a project. I learned how to listen carefully and how to anticipate a need to the point that it seems like I am a mind reader. I learned to look for potential problems and take care of them before anyone could get upset. I learned how to look for good windows and doors in houses. I learned that my undiagnosed dyslexia made it seem like I was guessing when learning to read and that guessing would get you hit. I learned my tears weren’t worth shedding and that it was better to “buck up” than cry. I learned that little girls can be groomed and used as informants by a father looking for reasons to control, confront, and verbally abuse his family. I learned to stay outside, because, unknown to me for many years, the verbal abuse became physical violence too many times.
My dad, the one we saw at home, wasn’t “Brother Charles” or “Charlie”. I have had a year and a half trying to reconcile these different people. One person is a kind compassionate Christian who helps others and cares about people. The other is a man who comes home from work never really interacting with us and we tried not to make angry.
It wasn’t that dad was angry all the time, but when he did get angry it was bad. We lived our lives around him and his fits of anger.
Dad always liked to brag that he as a Southern Baptist pastor and he never drank, did drugs, or smoked. Thinking back, that was our salvation. If he had drank, then I am pretty sure he would have killed my mom.
Stories and instances come back of time and time again when “Brother Charles” would say things and we would cringe. However, being the preacher’s family, we came to church, served others, and kept our secret keepers shut. Preacher’s families are supposed to be perfect. We are the example of the family God had planned. That is how the church and the small community viewed us and that is who we were on Sundays and at school.
Honestly, I tried to be as prefect as possible. If there was a rule, I would follow it. If there was a test, I would ace it. My ears are un-pierced and I don’t know much of the popular songs of when I was in school because we weren’t allowed to listen to it.
You grow up, go to college, and don’t come home for a long time.
Mom is left with dad and his changing health conditions, including his mild strokes and heart issues. The strokes just enhanced his personality and the severity of the mood swings. Mom struggles physically with two rounds of cancer, a genetic heart defect and a heart valve replacement, and then the covid.
Dad takes out all of his anger and frustration on mom. He is getting worse. We offer to let her live with you and leave dad, but she is stuck by her commitment to him. That and the threat of, “I won’t let you leave” followed up with “people respect me, I am pastor”. Words that bound her to him time and time again.
Why tell you all about this? Well, dad is dying. He needed a triple heart bypass this week, but didn’t have veins good enough to harvest for the surgery. He had decades of diabetes and heart disease where he took medicines instead of doing lifestyle changes made it where he had no healthy veins. There was always one more pill he could take instead of taking responsibility for his health. No one could tell him what he was doing was bad or him.
Here I sit and wrestle. Dad is dying and still in denial of the whole thing. The surgeon told him that he couldn’t fix his heart and was going to see if another hospital might take the risk of the surgery for him. Dad took that someone else is going to fix it and he is fine. The surgeon told my mom to call in the family and say goodbye. It is not if my dad is going to die, it’s when. If dad doesn’t follow the discharge instructions, it will be sooner as opposed to later.
Dad has always been the hero or victim in any story he tells. Right now, he is both. The hero to the community he served and the victim of his own pride. Knowing that sooner as opposed to later, we will be together as his life is memorialized and wresting again with having to keep my secret keeper shut a little while longer. Letting others share their stories about Brother Charles and Charlie. Wishing that either one of those men had been my dad. People telling me how sorry they are that my dad is gone, when it might honestly feel like a relief (yes, I said that out loud).
My friend asked me last summer how I was still a Christian. Hearing the stories about the abusive father who was the preacher, how did I have faith? I told her that Jesus was real. If he wasn’t, then my story would be different. If Jesus wasn’t real, I would be a mess. He is real and has been with me through it all.
I know as we walk through these next few months that Jesus will continue to be real in the mess that is sure to come. He will be real as I lose my dad. He will be real when we move my mom. He will be real when I am exhausted, overwhelmed, and numb.
I am not trying to put a bow on a broken situation but I know I am not alone. Too many of us have been in good “Christian” families that were just as broken as everyone else’s but had to keep our secret keepers shut. We had to put on a good front and hide what was going on at home. I am writing so you know that you are not alone. You are not alone in your confusion. You are not alone in your struggle with forgiveness. You are not alone in your tightrope of feeling relief and knowing that feels inappropriate.