The next chapter in my conversion story, a long-promised episode that I think will be of interest to many of my Reformed brethren.
In the year or two after my revolution, I began searching for God and for my true spiritual home, more earnestly than ever. Despite all my wanderings and stumblings, I still had the notion that I was somehow in control of my destiny, that I would find God on my terms — that somehow, I could flesh out the truth in my own mind and order my own path. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far with that attitude. But then, a series of events conspired to demonstrate to me, more than ever before, God’s ultimate sovereignty over our lives.
In this period, for really the first time in my life, I found myself presented with Calvinism, the teachings and interpretations in the tradition of John Calvin, what has come to be known as Reformed theology. Since my youth I had been seeking greater intellectual rigor in my faith, a faith tempered by reason and thought — and, like so many young people today, I discovered Calvinism, without really ever looking for it.
Growing up, of course, I had heard of Calvin. One could say he was in my blood. My great-great-grandfather was John Calvin Richardson (1853–1930), and, as far as we know, he lived up to his moniker, being a pious and God-fearing man and a Baptist. I knew very little of Calvin the theologian, only that he taught predestination, which, even to my young, evangelical mind, seemed an unpleasant and frightening doctrine. In school, reading Nathaniel Hawthorne or Mary Rowlandson, we examined the Calvinist themes of providence and the sovereignty of God. I learned the TULIP and its contrast in Arminianism, and realized for the first time that the theology I’d been brought up with was Arminian. I was fascinated and briefly wrestled with the ideas, but resigned myself that I had no authority to come to a conclusion. To my unschooled mind, Calvinism and Arminianism were the only two theological choices.
It was around that time that a friend invited me to her church (coincidentally[?], the caring friend of this episode), the first time I’d visited a church other than my childhood one in years. It was my first encounter with hardboiled Calvinism, and to my surprise I found the preaching compelling and the congregation welcoming and friendly; I made several friends. This was an outpost of Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the sect founded and led by Rev. Ian Paisley — and so it had rabid anti-Catholicism bleeding from its pores. Although this prejudice showed itself even in such far-flung followers as these in Alabama, those I met there were not hateful people — most of them.
The doctrines I’d been exposed to, particularly the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, made an impact on me and fascinated me. I was referred to some A.W. Pink to read. And then — to put an exclamation point on it — came another of the most pivotal moments of my life. Early in 2007, my dear grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. And even as we prayed for his healing, it became increasingly clear to me that God had other plans.
The day he passed away in September was a private, family time, and I won’t compromise that moment by putting it on display here. But on that day we all gathered at his bedside at home — all except my brother, who was working in Huntsville an hour away teaching classes, and whom we didn’t think could get away in time. We finally got in touch with him, too late, we thought.
Doctors say that a person is not conscious or aware during his death throes — but Grandaddy knew; he held on, painfully, until John got there, and was able to say his goodbyes. And then, peacefully, he was gone. It was a beautiful and terrible moment that I cannot write about even now without tears.
I left that day convinced beyond a doubt, more surely than anything had ever convinced me before, that God is the Master of Life and Death; that He had orchestrated that moment, and taken Granddaddy when it was his time, to His glory and eternal rest. That event would shape me in so many ways that I’m still only now realizing: it was the first time I had truly looked death and eternity in the face and not wanted to run away; it was the time when I finally, after years of desperately trying to hold on to everything, to let go.
I remember having thoughts in the months that followed that at the time alarmed me: thinking of Grandaddy in his suffering, in his weakness, in his broken and dying body, as Christ suffering on the cross. But wasn’t this terribly sacrilegious? Granddaddy wasn’t Jesus and wasn’t my Savior; why was I thinking that way? It’s only now, looking back, that I understand. It’s only in Catholic thought that I can make sense of it. God was showing me the meaning of Grandaddy’s suffering: how what seemed so senseless then, He used salvifically; how in His suffering, Christ is united with every one of us who suffers, and we with Him partake of his saving death and Resurrection. “By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion” (CCC 1505).