This is the story of how fundamentalism bit me at my grandmother’s funeral in 2009. It taught me as to how fundamentalism causes intense pain when you least expect it. This experience, combined with growing doubt, became the tipping point and resulted in me pushing back from Christianity for years. What haunted me is prior material from John MacArthur which came back at me during a Catholic funeral. This is a journal entry on my family’s history in Montana and of a deep searing loss that I feel today.
“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
John Steinbeck “The Winter of Our Discontent”
“It’s always hard to lose somebody. It leaves a hole in you heart that never grows back.”
Kevin Brooks “Lucas”
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.
Psalm 116:15 NIV
“I believe Satan has managed to take control of the Catholic system.”
John MacArthur May 1, 2002
Butte, America Documentary on Butte History
In my story I have already touched upon how the fundamentalism of John Piper deeply hurt my mother. My mother who had survived pancreatic cancer was hurt and deeply wounded when her son who drank the John Piper kool aid once in his life gave this pamphlet to his mother telling her that her cancer was a gift from God. In an act of incredible bravery a mother tearfully called out her only son years later. That pain and rage drove me in my faith crisis and was a contributing factor to all the spiritual problems I had. Today you are going to learn of another situation that helped push me over my tipping point and reject Christianity for years. However this story doesn’t involve John Piper, but instead John MacArthur and his “Grace to You” ministry. This is a story of how fundamentalism crashed a funeral and excerabeted feeling of loss which came about due to the death of my grandmother in October of 2009.
Family History in Montana
Before I get started I need to talk about my family and give you some idea as to how deep my roots are in Montana. My family on my dad’s side can trace their roots to the days when Montana was a territory I believe. My family had a presence in a number of cities in Montana at one time or another to include Havre, Bozeman, Livingston, and Deer Lodge. But the bulk of my family called Butte and Helena home. I grew up having one relative who spoke of watching as a kid the final US goverment campaign to put the Indians on a reservation in the early twentieth century. My family’s history in Montana is rich and when I took a history class in college I read about my family as well in the textbook I used. My family had served in state government and included serving in the state legislature, an Attorney General and a Governor. Actually one of the neatest pictures in my family album at home in California is of my great uncle appearing on the back of a train in Butte, with Harry Truman who was holding my dad as an infant.
My father was born in Havre in 1936. Sadly, shortly after he was born his father would die of pneumonia. My grandmother was a widow after only 2 or 3 years of marriage. This was an incredible tragedy in my family’s life and one that I have felt growing up. My grandmother then went to school at the University of Montana at Missoula where she picked up a degree in education. She raised my father while simultaneously teaching in Butte for the remainder of her life. Everyone knew Isobel, especially in a small town where an elementary school teacher who taught for decades is firmly established and known. Often whenever I was in Butte people asked if I was related to Isobel when they heard my last name. I often explained, yes she was my grandmother. The last time this happened was in June of 2009 when I was in Butte and went to the YMCA to swim. The clerk at the front desk asked me if I was related to Isobel, and explained that he worked with her at the McKinley School.
In June of 2009 I traveled to Butte, Montana for my grandmother’s 100th birthday. I am ashamed to say this but as I moved further and further east it became harder to see my grandmother. When she stopped traveling to California for Christmas my family saw her less, and traveled to Montana to visit her. For her 100th birthday though I had decided to visit Isobel. So with that I flew up to Butte. While I was having faith problems and doubt what grabbed my attention was seeing the majesty of the Belt mountains against the Montana sky. The scenery and nature of Montana was stunning. I sent a text to several friends about how the majesty of nature really showed the glory of God. This actually helped me spiritually just seeing the majesty of nature. And this would become a theme that helped me later on in my faith crisis. In the mornings I got up early and went to the Butte YMCA to swim which I very much enjoyed.
While in Butte, I was thrilled to see my grandmother. At 100 she was feisty, alert, and still held down her own place. My grandmother refused to go into assisted living and was still very sharp in her thinking. My family and she played cards and a fun board game called Aggravation. For her 100th birthday we had a small catered dinner by a fine dining place called the Uptown Café which is one of the nicer restaurants in Butte. My grandmother was very private and didn’t want the attention. My dad also got Montana’s Governor at the time, Brian Schweitzer, to issue a proclamation celebrating the fact that she lived to 100. Time flew while I was there and it was so great to be back in Montana and to see my grandmother again. I love Montana, the culture, the people and the way of life there, if given a choice between the rigors of Washington, D.C. and the down home approach in Montana, well I would choose Montana any day! The day I had to fly back to Washington, D.C. I gave Isobel a long hug and we posed for a picture. This would be the last picture I would get with my grandmother. When I was on the plane waiting for it to take off, one of the thoughts that popped up in my head is one that I dreaded: that the next time I would be back in Butte would be for Isobel’s funeral.
The Phone Call I Feared
This may seem contradictory especially as I would soon go out of my way in distancing evangelicals from my life, and intentionally burning bridges; but my mom gave me some good advice when I was younger that I never fully realized until October of 2009. Sometimes as you grow you learn more about life through unfortunate circumstances. My mom told me to never walk away from an argument and to be at peace with as many people as possible. As my mom said, you never know what is going to happen to someone. I heard that when I was younger but I never fully comprehended it until the passing of my grandmother. In October 2009 a few days before she passed I made a quick phone call from work and spoke with my grandmother for a few minutes. We talked for a brief while, she asked how life is going, and affirmed how much she loved me. After speaking for a few minutes she encouraged me to get back to work. And with that we said our goodbyes. I had no idea that goodbye would be forever and that it would be the final time I would speak to my grandmother. Today as I reflect back on it I now understand what my mom taught me. And I think it really shows the wisdom and sage advice that she posses. One of the things that I take a lot of personal satisfaction in is the following. My grandmother and I were at peace. The relationship ended well, and with deep love for each other. Though I miss her today and am reminded of her when I will go in a restaurant and see her favorite meal prime rib, or hear her favorite song on the radio I am at peace knowing that it ended well. There are no regrets; no “I wish I would have said…” Instead there is just peace, and for that I am grateful.
In October of 2009 came that phone call I dreaded. I was out ill from work and my father had called me and wanted to speak. He told me that my grandmother was not doing well and that she would probably die sometime during the night. I was standing in my kitchen when I heard the news and I cried. At first I was in denial and then I had a difficult time. That night in my condo I tried to sleep but tossed and turned as well. All I could think about was my wonderful grandmother. I had a lot of questions such as was she suffering? Was she in pain? I was coming to terms and realizing that someone who had been in my life for 34 years would be gone. A void was being created that I could not replace nor fill. I couldn’t sleep and I got up in the middle of the night and went to a 24 hour café called Amphora. In the early morning hours I got a booth and as I sat there I grabbed a snack and spent the time thinking about what was happening. I also cried and grieved at what was transpiring. I spent most of the night there and then went back to my condo. That night I got hardly any sleep at all. The next morning my dad called and told me that Isobel had passed away. When she died hospice workers were with her, and her last words were, “I hope this won’t be too hard on my son.” I was in the restaurant at the time it happened. That day or afterward I got a card from my grandmother for Halloween, and it was too painful to open so I sat on it for a while. I knew that I would be traveling back to Montana for the funeral and made plans to return to Butte.
I remember standing in my grandmother’s apartment with my family after she had passed away. The place had a different feel to it with her being gone. I couldn’t figure out what to make of it, and wondered if it was her presence and being there alone that indicted that feeling. I didn’t hear her voice at all and while the place still had that unique smell, that seemed to be fading as well. My grandmother always had a preferred lotion she would always use and for years when I was growing up and she visited I knew she was visiting because I could smell it when I walked into the house. That smell was gone. Likewise everywhere I looked I saw reminders of my grandmother. Pictures, notes, etc… would be discovered as we started to clean the place. My mom was cleaning part of my grandmother’s bedroom and she found some dinosaur drawings I did when I was 7 or so that I gave to my grandmother at the time. It was painful. While we were there the card I sent to my grandmother arrived. It felt weird staring at the table and seeing the postmark “Fairfax” and to know it was not going to be opened. It also felt weird to mail it and see it arrive.
One of the things we had to do is clean out my grandmother’s kitchen. We didn’t know what to do with all the food. We didn’t want to throw it all out, and we thought of another way to give the food away. In order to help you understand the next part let me backtrack a little bit. As my grandmother aged she had a difficult time taking the garbage downstairs, because walking became more difficult. One of her neighbors offered to help out and did that for Isobel. Even when the neighbor moved away he still came back and helped Isobel by taking out the garbage. This individual financially struggled and was living at the poverty level in Montana. My family then thought that we should give the food to him, and tell her that Isobel passed away. My dad and I agreed to do that and took the perishable foods and loaded them up in a card board box and went to his home. When we knocked we heard the dogs bark, but no one was home. We were about to leave when he came out. My dad broke the news to this man that my grandmother had passed away. And this man became so full of grief and extended his condolences. He then proceeded to tell us some things about my grandmother that I was unaware. I would learn a side to my grandmother that I never knew. Isobel had helped this man and offered support. Furthermore this man was a recovering alcoholic and my grandmother showered him with love and encouraged him forward. This man told my dad and I how my grandmother’s love and support helped keep him away from alcohol. I was baffled as this was a side to my grandmother that I didn’t see. After the experience I wished I could have had another conversation with Isobel and ask her some of these questions. These are some of the questions that even today still haunt me. When I was in Butte I had a couple of situations where the love and grace my grandmother showed was on display consistently. For example my family went to a place in Butte called Pekin Noodle Parlor which I believe is the oldest, operating Chinese restaurant in the western United States. Montana Magazine did an article about it, but so did the local Butte paper. My grandmother taught the owner in the 1940’s or 50’s and he loved my grandmother and credited her for helping him. At the restaurant he saw my family and my father broke the news to him of Isobel’s death. He wept and told my family what Isobel meant to him as a teacher.
Enter John MacArthur and “Grace to You”
There are several things I would like to propose in this post that deal with fundamentalism. First of all fundamentalism is a mindset and is not limited to religion. You can find it in politics, your local PTA, the Boy Scouts or even the Northern Virginia Poodle Club. Next I would suggest that when you are a fundamentalist you don’t believe you are a fundamentalist because of how the words and definition of fundamentalism has been redefined. This is courtesy of individuals like Mark Driscoll and John Piper who have been successful at redefining words. Also I would suggest that fundamentalism bites you when you are least prepared or least expecting it. It crushes you when you are in a period of pain, grief, mourning or outright shock. This is one of the lessons I learned at a funeral. Before I get to the funeral I need to spend some time discussing John MacArthur. Years prior and I will not say when or where someone who I liked recommended to me that I read John MacArthur. He was described as “Biblical” (I have more to say about that loaded word Biblical another day). So I looked into John MacArthur and while I didn’t consume too much I read enough to get a taste. I actually read his teachings about Catholicism. This sermon here called “The Scandal of the Catholic Priesthood” is what hung around and came back to bite me. (By the way quick side note….I find it deeply interesting that some evangelicals will trash the Pope while simultaneously creating a new one in John Piper) And before I continue I should state that will there is much that I respect about the Catholic faith there are a few issues that I disagree with the Catholic church on. One of these days I would like to write about that in depth. But in John MacArthurs sermon which I ingested years prior he writes about how the Catholic priesthood is controlled by Satan. You can read about that in the link above. But the one line that stood out for me is this one, “I believe Satan has managed to take control of the Catholic system.” While the entire article is brazen that was over the top for me. As disturbing as it was I didn’t think it would pop up at my grandmother’s funeral.
Isobel’s Wake and Funeral
While you always know that a loved one is going to die one day you never are prepared for someone’s death. A death of someone you are close to robs you of life and seals a relationship permanently. When a person dies there are no final words, no opportunities to undo prior arguments or feuding. No death is final. The day before Isobel’s funeral my family had a private wake with my grandmother and it was deeply personal. When I was with my dad looking at my grandmother one of the things I told him as how you can tell a lot about a person based on their eyes. A person’s eyes give life, or tell you how a person is doing. With my grandmother now being deceased it was her eyes that were the biggest indicator that she was gone. After the wake my grandmother was cremated and the card I sent Isobel which just arrived was cremated along with her. Per my grandmother’s request there was no public funeral. No obituary was posted in the Montana Standard, the local Butte paper. It is how some of the Irish are…just private and small. The Catholic Priest that my grandmother loved led the funeral mass. It was during this time followed by standing next to the grave of my grandmother that previous material from John MacArthur’s fundamentalism started to haunt me. As I was grieving, mourning and trying to come to terms with her passing the previous John MacArthur material that I had looked at came back to bite me. I realized how John MacArthur or other fundamentalists would have condemned my grandmother. Some of these fundamentalists described that Catholic Church as a cult, and called implied that the priesthood is satanic. It was during this time that I was struggling more and more with evangelicalism. A couple of days prior to the funeral I had learned new and unknown information about my grandmother showing grace to a recovering alcoholic and I privately wondered…how many evangelicals would do that? Dealing with fundamentalism at a funeral of a loved one is the last thing I needed. For me while I was starting to burn bridges with people hearing and dealing with the emotional aspects of fundamentalism was like pouring gasoline on a fire. My thinking was changing and painful situations like the funeral only confirmed in my mind why evangelical Christianity is a cancer. To deal with all this at a funeral angered me. It is with that that I rode away from the cemetery in anger, and that anger would only grow with the passing of time. In the fall of 2009 I resumed pulling back from Christianity. I severed relationships, ended a number of associations and wanted to distance myself from Christianity. I was both in a deep faith crisis and I was recoiling in pain.
Return to Butte and Healing from Christianity
That previous situation weighed on me deeply. But then another course of events began to unfold in my family. In January 2012 we thought my father had a stroke, instead he had a grade 3 brain tumor with which he was struggling. He had surgery and continuing radiation therapy. While all this was going on my dad who was dealing with his brain tumor wanted to return back to his hometown of Butte, Montana and see the city. He also wanted to see his mother’s grave, and see family. I had wanted to go to Butte as well especially with things playing out like they were in my family as I wanted to spend time with my father. However, another unique opportunity presented itself in Butte, Montana that I was also able to enjoy. The Northern Pacific Railroad Historical Society decided to hold their annual convention in Butte, and it happened to fall around the time I had planned to go. So I kind of had the best of both worlds. I went up there and hung around my family and then I also attended parts of the Northern Pacific Historical Society convention. They had historical presentations dealing with both Butte, and Montana history, which as a history nerd I liked. A couple of authors spoke, and they had presentations on railroad operations, including one fascinating one dealing with common discipline problems on the Northern Pacific railroad in the early part of the 20th century.
But two things happened in Butte that were deeply noteworthy. Previously when I was down in North Carolina I swung by the Duke University Book Store and picked up a number of t-shirts, memorabilia, and desk trinkets for my dad who is Duke Alumni. I blew a good portion of my paycheck at the Duke University Book Store. My dad loves Duke and was proud to do his surgical residency at that university. When I gave the shirts to him in Butte he lit up and just glowed at seeing all the Duke stuff. During this time with my dad I wanted to do anything and everything possible to encourage, build up his morale, and show him love as he dealt with his brain tumor. Then another private situation happened that allowed for me to have closure. The last time I was in Butte I went for my grandmother’s funeral. As I wrote above it was also a time where I was bit by past fundamentalism amidst a funeral. I had a lot of anger from that experience and I wanted to go and find a way to work through it. So when I had some time I traveled to the cemetery where my grandmother is interned, and spent some time next to her grave. This time it was different than 2009. I was out of Christianity and away from fundamentalism. The problem in my mind was Christianity but that was gone. While there at my grandmother’s grave I reflected on my grandmother, what I lost, and the hole that was in my life. But at the gravesite I was able to do something that during the funeral I was unable to do because I was consumed with anger in thinking about how people like John MacArthur would have condemned Catholics like my grandmother. At my grandmother’s grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Butte I was able to tell her goodbye and that I missed her. Since fundamentalism previously prevented closure, this time I was able to discover it. What also helped me at the time in my thinking is that since I was out of Christianity the problems that were created by Christianity were gone.