Tag Archives: healing and reconciliation

Looking Backward

Several years ago I read a book that made a big impression on me. A major part of the impression was the discovery that I was not the only child on earth who felt that her mother saw or foresaw evil whether it was there or not.

My childhood memories include more than one spanking that proved to have been for crimes not committed. Mother thought I had done something wrong, or she thought that both my brother and I had done something wrong. She dispensed justice despite our frantic protests, and when she learned the truth that we were innocent of the “crime” for which we had been punished, she simply said, “It wasn’t a lick amiss. I’m sure you did do something I failed to punish you for. It will do for that.”

Before you judge my mother to be a monster, know that she had many valuable qualities, many endearing qualities, and if you weighed her good deeds and evil deeds in a balance scale, I doubt hers would be evil in a greater proportion than yours, or anyone else’s. She was a very normal saintly sinner who was sometimes a sinful saint.

In A Woman of Salt, Mary Potter Engel tells a profound mother-daughter story, with parallels to the story of Lot’s wife, who became a pillar of salt when she disobeyed God’s direct order and looked back at the destruction of Sodom. It is a book worth reading if for nothing other than the interpolated midrash. Reading these midrash taught me that there might actually be more than two sides to any story. That discovery all by itself is a valuable insight when applied to challenging relationships.

The central character, Ruth, looks back at her childhood and remarks that “my mother’s eyes [were] everywhere, watching for the evil she saw inside me to emerge.” As she turns to look at her past, she asks if she might be better off if she escaped her past, and then she asks if perhaps it is a good idea to look at the past as long as she looked with the hope for a sign of God’s mercy. Then she asks, was that what Lot’s wife was doing?

I look at my past with that hope, too. I play and replay scenes from my past in my mind, asking if God’s mercy was at work in dark and painful interactions with my mother. Fortunately, God has not turned me into a pillar of salt. Happily, I have actually found some hope.

I did not find my hope until after my mother died. The traumas that marked our relationship made it hard for me to grieve. People need to grieve the dead, but I could not grieve her death until I had made peace with her life. Several months after her death, I made it my Lenten project to forgive my mother. I had learned enough to realize that forgiveness would be much more about pulling poison from memories in my heart that it could ever be about telling her that I forgave her. I could not tell her anything, because she was dead, but the poison in memories of her was corroding all my memories. I was able to see only one side of my entire life story. I needed some new perspectives, perhaps a midrash.

I felt exactly what Ruth, the central character of Woman of Salt felt when she said that her mother was always on the alert for any sign of evil in her daughter. My mother was alert in the same way. She accused me of wanting to hurt her when I failed at a goal she set for me. She accused me of trying to kill her when I invited her to go with me to a movie that scared her. She put me on a diet when she thought I weighed five pounds too much and quizzed the mothers of girls I visited overnight to find out if I ate outside my diet while visiting. (The mothers found those questions peculiar enough to ask me if my mother were well.)

For many years, memories like these were the only memories I really knew I had. I thought the miserable memories were the only ones. That is why I finally realized that I had to forgive my mother. I could not go on thinking of her as a vindictive person who hurt me. I needed to be able to remember that she had also blessed me. I needed to remember that she searched high and low in three counties for a specific pair of shoes I said I wanted. She stayed up all night making a dress for a church festival, literally sewing me into it five minutes before we left for church. She stretched an already stressed family budget to send me to college, not wanting me to work, for fear it would hurt my grades. She taught me that the will to succeed makes any goal achievable.

My experience learning to forgive involved a lot of prayer and meditation on Bible texts. I wrote poems about my experiences and my feelings, and as the weeks of Lent passed, those bitter poems became prayerful. Some might even have qualified as nascent midrash, the bare beginnings of my own midrash. I was beginning to see more than one facet of my experiences. As it happened, our church scheduled a service of healing and reconciliation the Wednesday before Easter that year, and I attended.

I did not know what to expect, but I came full of hope that my effort to forgive my mother was finally about to bear fruit. Toward the end of the service, people were invited to the altar if they wished the pastor to pray for them. I went forward, and I expected the pastor to ask me why I was there. He didn’t. Instead, he looked me in the eye as he marked the sign of the cross on my forehead with oil, and then he prayed. When I heard the words, which I do not now remember, I burst into tears. They were about my relationship with my mother, and he could only have spoken those words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Grief for my mother’s death welled up inside of me and flowed out in streams of tears. I forgave her with all my heart, and as the poison of my anger and pain flowed away, I remembered a thousand reasons to love her.

After that experience, I discovered that forgiveness is never a done deal. As my mother would have taught me, it takes will to succeed at anything. When you lose the will to forgive, for example, you stop forgiving. You start poking at old wounds and simmering over old anger. To forgive requires a commitment to do it and do it again and keep doing it.

I still know that my mother’s eyes, like those of Ruth’s mother in Woman of Salt, were always “watching for the evil she saw inside me to emerge.” However, because I have forgiven my mother, and I am forgiving my mother, and I will forgive my mother, I also know that she was alert to the evil of sinful human nature in me, because she wanted to teach me how to reject evil and choose the good. It was her hope that in me, the evil would not dominate my good qualities and destroy them, as happens in the lives of people without mothers attentive to the truth of human nature.

That is why I can look back now with hope that I will see the hand of God, acting in mercy in my life, even through the flawed instrumentality of my mother. Maybe especially through the flawed instrumentality of my mother. I am discovering that there actually are more sides to my own story than I ever realized while I was fixated on only the story of injustice and shame. My memories are more like the collection of midrash surrounding Ruth’s story in A Woman of Salt.

I hope my own children are able to see the same thing. If you want to know what Ruth learned in Woman of Salt, you must read the book for yourself.

A Verse for Meditation

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,         
 but you are citizens with the saints
and also members of the household of God
Ephesians 2:19

 Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is a comfort to many of us because, like the Ephesians, we are Gentiles. Before Christ, Israelites held unique status as God’s chosen people, but in Christ all people of the earth are reconciled with God. In Ephesians 2:14, Paul writes that “[Christ] is our peace.”

  • Paul says, “you are no longer strangers.” Have you ever been a stranger in a town or country where you didn’t know anyone and the laws confused you? What is it like to be the strange one in the group?     
  • What is the difference between an alien and a citizen? What is the difference between the status of a member of the household and the status of a visiting stranger? Which image that Paul uses resonates more strongly with you?
  • If people treat aliens with respect and kindness, does that by itself make them citizens? What do you think it means to be “citizens with the saints?” 
  • Elsewhere (Ephesians 2:13-14) Paul said, “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace.” How does this verse enhance your understanding of vs. 19?  
  • Have you ever felt alienated from God? What happened to make you feel reconciled? How bad would it be if you could not be reconciled with God? 
  • Do you find comfort in this verse? Why? If it is comforting, consider memorizing it. Many Christians have comforted themselves in times of great distress by recalling Bible verses they have memorized. 

Why do we Need to Forgive?

When Jesus taught us how to pray, he included a petition that we learn how to forgive: Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. The word here translated as debts is sometimes translated as trespasses, a pretty heavy word for our contemporary culture, and sometimes it is even translated as sins, and nobody likes that word. No matter how the word is translated, it points out that we are all flawed, and we all need to learn how to forgive the flaws of others, because we absolutely want everyone to forgive us our own flaws.

I began thinking about this prayer after a recent conversation with my brother. He was talking about a particularly miserable time in his life due to deep conflict with our parents. His story brought to mind any number of parallel issues in my own relationship with them. We both have some very painful memories about our upbringing. In fact, some of the fractures persisted and splintered into our adult lives. Yet both of us agreed that our parents never actually intended to hurt us at all. They devoutly wanted the best for us. Their idea of the best and our ideas simply did not mesh.

We would both be basket cases, I believe, but for a decision somewhere along the way. I don’t know the details of my brother’s thought processes, but I know mine. I made a decision to forgive them. For both of us forgiveness would have been impossible when we were teens. We could hardly do it in adulthood, because the issues continued. Because our parents moved to a very distant location in retirement, we seldom saw them in person during those years, but on my last visit with my mother, about 3 months before her death, she was still trying to instruct me to undo a decision she had opposed years before. It was extremely hard to learn how to forgive my parents for hurting me in so many ways, even though my mind knew that injury was not their purpose.

Even though I chewed over the problem for years, I might never have been motivated to put that issue at the top of my priorities but for a sermon on Ash Wednesday. Lent is a penitential season, and any Ash Wednesday sermon points us to self-examination. Most such sermons have led me to focus on personal disobedience. Most such sermons lean toward a legalistic interpretation of my need to repent. One was different. Reflecting on the ashes each of us had received as we entered the sanctuary, the pastor asked us to think about what things in our lives needed to be cast into a sacrificial fire.

It was hard to wrap my mind around that concept. But then he asked us what things in our lives stressed or broke our relationship with God. That hit home. Recognizing the pre-eminence of filial respect in God’s scheme of things, I saw for the first time how my anger and resentment of all the wounds my parents inflicted, intentional or not, kept me from growing in my relationship with God. My inability to properly honor my earthly parents threw a huge barrier in the way of my relationship with my heavenly father. As the pastor developed his point and led us to a deeper understanding of the things that necessitated Christ’s death on the cross, I finally realized that my need to cling to the memory of injustice and pain between me and my parents had destroyed that relationship. My unwillingness to let go of my need for people to sympathize with me at the expense of their respect for my parents was destroying me, it was destroying my memory of my parents, and it was poisoning my life of faith. I needed to forgive them in order to heal, because Christ had died in order that I might be healed.

It was hard to absorb the truth that Christ died because I could not learn to love my parents. I kept saying, “But look at what they did!” I kept reciting my litany of complaints. Over that Lenten season I committed myself to learn how to forgive them, and by Holy Week, I felt I was making progress. It is one of the great blessings of my life that our pastor scheduled a service of healing and reconciliation that week. After all my prayers and tears and prayers and gritted teeth, I needed healing and reconciliation.

I thought I had finally forgiven all the physical and spiritual injuries as I arrived at the service. It was a beautiful and worshipful experience. All who wished to do so were invited to the altar for prayer and anointing. Any who wished to stand in support of those being anointed were invited to stand behind and lay their hands on our shoulders. I knelt at the altar and it was no surprise that my husband came to stand behind me and lay his hand on my shoulder. It was a real surprise that two other women from the congregation, neither of whom could possibly have known my reason for being there, came forward and laid their hands on my shoulder as well. In my hour of deep need, three people touched me and shared themselves to give me courage. When the pastor came to me, he anointed my forehead, and then he prayed for me. I know that it was the power of the Holy Spirit using that setting,and in that moment the dam broke. I wept torrentially. I truly felt released from the grip of a lifetime of pain and anger and resentment. I saw clearly the faces of my parents and the love they intended to express in their own way. I knew that Christ’s death for me and for them was not in vain. I truly forgave them. The poison was finally withdrawn.

It would be wonderful to say that that was the end of it, but it wasn’t. It was only the beginning. A lifetime of pain and poison does not simply vanish like morning fog. The recovery after forgiveness of something so deep is like recovery from major surgery. You start feeling a lot better very quickly, but you don’t completely heal for a long time. Of course, my issues with my parents would never have been so deep and prolonged without the instigation and motivation of Satan who whispered constantly, “That is so unfair. You deserve better!” Satan’s whispering is not shut down by one intense spiritual moment. I find that I am not finished learning to forgive even now. Even now, Satan can still bring some old memory to mind in a weak moment, and once again I start to recite my anger. Fortunately, by the grace and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, I am getting better at donning the spiritual armor Paul wrote about in Ephesians. I am learning that the real problem with my parents was always Satan, not my parents.

But most of all, I am learning the blessing of forgiveness. By learning to forgive, I open up my memories. I can remember my childhood as a time of light, not darkness. I can remember all the wonderful things my parents did for me and with me, and those hateful, miserable moments can be put in their proper perspective.

In light of the kinds of things reported regularly in the news, I must hasten to assure you that my brother and I were neither sexually assaulted nor physically beaten as children. We were simply reared by two people whose idea of the right way to rear children was to keep them children until the magic moment,that never really came, when the parents declared them to be adults. The details of our upbringing are irrelevant except to say that we were reared more in the admonition than the nurture of the Lord. Their strict rules and punishments were the outgrowth of what I believe to be a horror that we might turn out bad.

When apartheid came to an end in South Africa, Bishop Tutu worked with a Truth Commission seeking to pull the poison of that horror by structuring opportunities for forgiveness. He documented his work in a book entitled, No Future Without Forgiveness. I think he is right. It is a cosmic truth that we need to forgive. Jesus tells us this truth and invites us to take it into our hearts in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”