Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. These are not particularly difficult topics for discussion, especially when one has no real “skin” in the game. It is easy to tell someone they must forgive and move on. It is an entirely different matter when we find ourselves on the receiving end of hurtful behavior.
Last Sunday night, public television aired a documentary focusing on those three words. Each example highlighting the excruciating details provided an inside look into the lives of people that lived through difficult circumstances.
In one example, a young mother left her husband and two young children, escaping what she believed to be an environment that increased her anxiety and stress to an unacceptable level that threatened her to the point she thought she would eventually die.
She moved away, went to graduate school and chose a career that gave her a sense of fulfillment. Years later, she desired to reconnect with her children. Though she desires forgiveness for her actions, her primary regret is that her decisions (yet justified in her mind) created a difficult future for her children.
The children resisted, hating her for leaving. The daughter, now a young woman says, “I wasn’t enough of a reason for her to stay…. How can I forgive her when she isn’t sorry for what she did?”
How does one forgive a parent for leaving a young child or a family, not to mention leaving a husband? How can one forgive, even when the other person feels no remorse?
As the documentary suggests, if we are to move on with our lives, we must move toward forgiveness, healing and, hopefully, reconciliation. Without it, we are in danger of losing ourselves, not only to bitterness and anger that consumes us, but we risk losing our health or our very lives.
I offer insight into the experiences the husband and the children were facing with an example that affected my extended family a half century ago.
An uncle lived on a small farm in the Oklahoma panhandle with his wife and family. In addition to farming, he was a self-employed truck driver, hauling milk from local dairies to the milk processor.
His friendliness, generosity and compassionate personality were not only qualities that people liked about him, but they could also threaten the financial stability of his own family. If people needed help, he gave them money with no strings attached. He would rather withhold money from his own family’s needs in order to help someone in need.
His stewardship in the church was equally generous. One Sunday morning in church, my father noticed the wad of dollar bills he placed in the offering.
“The Bible says not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” he replies. “Whatever my hand finds in the pocket, I pull out and put it in the offering.”
Not long afterward, the engine on his semi-tractor gave out. An expensive overhaul was too much for him to cash flow. My father offered to give him the money, however, my uncle’s pride prevented him from accepting the offer.
After exhausting other options, an elder in the local Mennonite church approached him and offered to loan him the money in return for a short-term, unsecured note. Reluctantly, he agreed.
The note was signed and money changed hands.
Before the note was due, the church elder paid my uncle a visit at his farm. “You need to pack up your things and vacate the premises.” (These words reflect a polite version of the alleged conversation.)
Without his knowledge, my uncle signed not only a promissory note, but a carbon paper hidden underneath the secondary copy placed his signature on a contract for deed for the quarter-section of land where the family lived.
In addition to promising to pay back a small note, he unwittingly signed over the entire property, for no money in return.
In an effort to recover my uncle’s land back, he asked my father for a loan to pay off the promissory note. After the payout, the elder refused to relinquish the deed to the land.
After more than two years of legal maneuvering between lawyers, the judge decided in favor of the church elder. The fight was over.
Or so they thought.
The debate within the church did not end there. Rather than working toward reconciliation and restoration between the two parties, the church leadership sided with the elder and ex-communicated not only my uncle and his spouse, but his entire family of three young boys. The boys were recently baptized and had been accepted as members of the church.
Before they could move forward as a family, they endured years of suffering, of putting to rest the humiliation of that experience and the shame of personal failure. Without support from a new community of believers, I do not know if they would have succeeded or survived.
My uncle and aunt chose to forgive and move forward toward healing the emotional and mental anguish. However, the scars of that experience remain with the two surviving sons.
Reconciliation was not possible and never will be. All major parties to the conflict have died.
Before my uncle passed away, more than two decades later, in response to the question, “How do you live with the past?” he said, “Only by the grace of God. Every morning, I relinquish my will to the Lord and forgive. Without it, I could not face another day.”
He was a changed man and a better man because of that unfortunate experience, an example of humility, love and desire to live close to God. He reflected the spirit of Jesus as He hung on the cross, asking the Father to forgive those who were putting him to death.