TEXTS FOR PREACHING
Liturgical Reading (“To My Mother” by Wendell Berry): http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/05/09
Gospel (Matthew 18:15-20): http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=158
In a recent Finger Lakes Times column,
I pointed to 1968,
highlighting a few events
out of a seemingly endless convoy
of ever-more horrific moments.
For those of you who lived it,
I’m sure this will bring back memories;
and for those who did not,
it will give you a hint of the social polarization
that consumed our culture fifty years ago.
- January 5, 1968: Dr. Benjamin Spock (the baby doctor) and William Sloan Coffin (Chaplain at Yale) were indicted for conspiracy to encourage violation of draft laws.
- January 23: the U.S. spy boat, The Pueblo and its crew of 83, are captured off the coast of North Korea.
- January 31: The North Vietnamese surprise American and South Vietnamese forces with the Tet Offensive, marking the turning point in how Americans viewed the war.
- February 18: The U.S. announces the highest weekly casualty count of the war – 543 Americans killed and 2,547 wounded.
- March 12: Eugene McCarthy comes within two hundred votes of defeating President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire Primary.
- March 16: Bobby Kennedy announces his Presidential campaign, the same day (though not revealed for another year) that Charlie Company rampages through the Vietnamese village of My Lai and for three hours, massacres more than five hundred infants, children, women and men.
- April 4: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at a Memphis motel while planning the Poor People’s March on Washington. Riots break out across the country, claiming at least forty-six lives.
- April 23: Students occupy five buildings on the campus of Columbia University. At the behest of the university, police storm the buildings and violently remove them.
- May 11: 2,500 people led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, occupy “Resurrection City” on the Mall in Washington.
- June 5: Bobby Kennedy is assassinated the night he wins the California Primary.
- August 28: In Chicago, at the Democratic National Convention, police charge demonstrators without provocation, beating many unconscious, sending one hundred to emergency rooms, and arresting 175.
- October 18: At the Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, medalists in the 200-yard dash, raise the Black Power salute during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
- November 5: On Election Day, Richard Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey by .7% of the votes cast, with White Segregationist candidate George Wallace, receives 13.5%.
You get the picture.
For those who lived through it,
no matter where they lived through it,
alienation was likely the fog in which they were engulfed.
I turned fifteen at the end of 1968
and already had become involved
in anti-war and civil rights politics.
It was also the year I was introduced to pot,
and the relative calm and innocence of childhood
would disappear forever.
I mention 1968 more as a metaphor
than as a history lesson.
It was a time when the society was rent asunder
by extreme alienation,
even worse than now if memory serves.
But it was not only society at large that was alienated,
it was individuals in families and among friends.
A severe alienation entered into the relationship
between me and my parents,
most particularly, with my mom.
The seeds of that alienation
were of course planted in my childhood,
as is most often the case with such fractures.
In later life, I would come to understand
that such fierce disaffection and hostility
surrounding one child in a large family,
is most often a symptom of a dysfunction
In the family system,
that becomes expressed through the weak link.
I was the weak link,
and the relationship between mother and youngest son
was the embodiment of a family dysfunction.
That perspective, however,
was hard won from years of reflection and therapy;
and the blistering of that relationship
carried on into adulthood,
generally masked by politeness and tolerance.
In short, my mother and I
had an extremely complicated and painful relationship,
one that neither of us understood in real time,
and that neither of us knew how to mend
in any serious or authentic way.
You may have had such a relationship
with one of your parents,
or a sibling or child even, it is not so unusual.
Two of the readings today
poke at the dying embers of such alienation,
and may, for some people,
actually stir up some hot coals.
Matthew’s story about Jesus
telling Peter how to resolve alienation
created by a personal wounding or offense,
may work out well between individuals
within relatively equal power relationships,
and within a generally healthy
congregational or institutional culture,
but otherwise, probably not.
And Wendell Berry’s poem
describes a mother cast in the image of God,
a mother or a god
most of us would be utterly delighted to have known.
The truth is,
in the Church,
we are no better at talking honestly about forgiveness
than we are about authentically exploring sex.
We idealize the one
and ignore the other if at all possible.
(Don’t worry, I’m not going to explore sex
from the pulpit today).
From what I can tell,
from my own experience
and having been privy to the experiences of many others,
forgiveness, the way we think about it,
and the way we describe it,
does not truly exist
in instances where the injury or violation
is deep, severe, or violent.
Instead of a state of being –
a point on the horizon we arrive at –
forgiveness is a meandering and never-ending process.
Forgiveness looks and feels different
at different times and places,
just as memory is modified by time and circumstance.
Forgiveness has the wobbly legs of a toddler
learning to walk.
The babe forgets one day’s progress in the next,
and crawls again on the way to remembering
that he or she has taken steps.
Forgiveness is likewise, up and down
and full and anemic,
and restful and anxious,
and calm and festering.
When the wound is severe,
or the alienation deep and painful,
forgiveness is not a happily-ever-after ending.
Rather, it is a process of learning
and gathering up
Just like a poem or a cathedral,
forgiveness is never complete;
never done once and for all –
at least not when the injury has been profound.
So as I have mentioned before,
my mother suffered one of those stair-step illnesses.
She would go along doing okay
until an acute episode would take a little more from her.
Then she would plateau again,
until the next episode,
which would steal a little more vitality.
This went on for thirteen years.
In the last months of her life
she was profoundly anxious about being left alone.
She and my dad lived with one of my sisters,
which greatly benefited her quality of life.
She had a hospital bed in the living room
and at some point, she became so anxious
she insisted on not being alone at night.
If she woke up and no one was there,
she would yell until someone appeared.
I do not remember at what point
people stayed next to her all night,
but my sisters did buy my dad
a mission-style chair and ottoman for that purpose.
I still have that chair in our house today.
Anyway, I lived about a hundred and fifty miles away,
and the last time I saw my mom alive,
is when I finally got up the courage to attempt reconciliation.
It was the middle of the night
and everyone was asleep except me,
and my mother who slept restlessly.
I had to hold her hand or she would become agitated.
So the mission chair was pulled up alongside the bed
like a boat alongside a dock.
My hand slipped through the railing of the
and we held hands.
At one point, my whole arm had fallen asleep,
from my fingertips up to my shoulder.
All the lights were out
except for several nightlights plugged into outlets
on several walls, so that, while dark,
the darkness was never complete.
The oxygen machine that fed her 24/7
made its mechanical sounds
and occasional gurgles.
I can remember like it was yesterday,
how the words were lodged in my throat.
I knew my thoughts were disassociated
from my emotions,
because I lectured myself how silly it was
that I couldn’t say the words.
“Just say it, you bonehead,
what is the big deal?”
Finally, I did.
“Mom,” I muttered,
in a moment that I knew she was awake.
“I…” – there was a pause
while I swallowed hard,
“I am sorry…I’m sorry for all the pain I caused you.”
I waited for my mom’s reply,
wondering what she would say
but mostly relieved that I had finally said it.
If nothing else, I had owned my part.
But of course, I wanted something else.
Something more, from her,
even though it had not been a condition of my saying it.
Suddenly I felt vulnerable
and began to wonder, “What if?”
What if she never says anything?
I was asking for forgiveness,
but what if she didn’t forgive me?
What if I am the only one asking for forgiveness,
and she doesn’t?
I was tripping through the anxiety
and all the things
tumbling around in my head and heart…in silence.
It was silent.
It was dark.
The oxygen machine,
the cold bars of the bed rail,
my mom’s listless hand,
the dog wandering in and out, the ache in my back.
I gave up with a sigh.
I did my part but it was met with silence.
I didn’t feel resentful or angry exactly,
just deeply disappointed
and very, very tired.
I leaned back into the mission chair
and put my feet on the ottoman.
I closed my eyes
but sleep was somewhere on the other side
of chaotic and complicated memories.
About half an hour passed
when out of the silence and darkness
my mom’s voice arrived.
“We did the best we could.”
That was all she said, but it was enough.
“We did the best we could,”
acknowledged both the content of our relationship
and the mutuality of our injuries and responsibilities.
It was the simplest of responses,
yet it embraced both forgiving and forgiveness,
as best we could in that moment.
It was not a Disney ending
but it was a real-life moment of grace.
In the context of our relationship,
given the personalities of the two people involved,
it WAS enough.
My mom died not long after that;
I was not there but I am told
she found more peace at the end.
The process of forgiveness
and reconciliation with my mom
is not done yet;
I am still learning.
I am at peace with her;
she helped to give me that, and
I hope I helped to give her some peace as well.
But I suspect I will keep discovering
more and better ways to forgive and reconcile with her,
even as I continue to discover new
and unexpected dimensions of the wounds
That is how forgiveness and reconciliation work.
and evolve over time
rather than coming to a final end.
That is also their power.
So long as we remain open to the process
of forgiveness and reconciliation,
they have the potential to continue healing
in new and profound ways.
When we wash our hands of forgiveness,
and pretend it is done and over,
never to go there again,
we lose the on-going gifts of healing.
So, healing is a process,
a never-ending and evolving process.
That is its power.
“Forgiving and forgetting” is actually not the ideal
nor the goal to reach for.
Rather, it is to enter into the river of forgiveness
and experience its current and flow,
and allow it to take us far into the distance as it will.