“You mean his mother is alive?” The question startled me and I struggled for the words to answer.
When our nephew Jon came to live with us, his relationship with his mom was severed. She’d made repeated attempts to reconcile, but Jon was not interested. He’d rip open her frequent and remorseful letters, only to retrieve whatever cash might be inside, refusing to engage any further. I’d return from work to find cremated traces of her correspondence scattered along the brick walk. 22 years of mothering, tiny flakes of ash. Despite his rejection, she kept writing. Kept seeking forgiveness. Steadfast in her determination to build a bridge.
Still, I hadn’t grasped how bad things were till his friend posed that question. Jon had always been so close to his mom. Now he wasn’t simply ignoring her, he was telling others she was dead. I knew deep down, Jon loved his mother, but the divide between them was so wide and so deep, it seemed impossible to cross. Easier to pretend her gone. But you cannot pretend away pain. I recalled a quote that I read as a teen, a nugget of wisdom that stuck with me over the years, pushing me to resolve instead of entomb:
When you repress or suppress those things which you don’t want to live with you don’t really solve the problem because you don’t bury the problem dead – you bury it alive. It remains alive and active inside of you.
Now it was compelling me to redirect Jon. I encouraged him to try to forgive her. Several times I broached the subject. He wasn’t interested. One night I decided to cast a vision, paint a picture of a future other than the one he was choosing. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could sit on the porch and laugh about old times like you used to. You and your mom, joking and telling stories…” He shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Deaf ears. Rejected canvas.
But a few nights later he came downstairs and with a funny grin, and nodding head, and smooth demeanor he spoke. “Auntie Sue, I was thinking about what you said, and I thought, yeah it would be fun, me and my mom sitting on the porch and laughing. I’m gonna call her.”
And just like that he went upstairs and dialed her number.
Unfortunately, anger doesn’t always dissolve. Sometimes it comes to a roaring boil before it evaporates. That was the case with Jon. Though he fully intended to make amends, when his mother answered the phone a thousand profanities shot out of his mouth. Like water busting a dam, he couldn’t stay the emotion. For nearly two hours he spewed forth every cuss word imaginable, his voice penetrating the floor beneath him, the ceiling over my head. This, I thought, is the sound of excavation. Unearthing the rot to build a strong foundation. This too, bridge building. Though it was awkward to hear, it was good for Jon to release all of that pent up anger and sorrow and pain.
Forgiveness is difficult, and messy. What was it like, Lord, when you forgave me? Was it hard for you, like it was hard for Jonny? Did you ache and anger at my rejection? Did you want to write me off for having failed you? Was there pain, deep pain that weighed you down? And yet, you didn’t require a thousand letters from me. You didn’t make me wait and worry and wonder if things could ever be made right. I remember when I went to you. One afternoon when I was 24. Burdened with guilt and fear and an awareness of how very far I was from you. A few words I spoke, words of faith and sorrow and desire. And in that moment, a bridge appeared. One from you to me, from me to you. Across a great divide.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
-Luke 15:20-24 NIV
And though I didn’t deserve it, You ran to me and threw your arms around the pathetic prodigal that I was. Though you should have, could have, might have rejected me, you instead celebrated my return. In spite of everything, you celebrated my return.
I hoped Jon’s mother would hang in there. Not give in to pride. I paced and I prayed. Tom, busy in the garage, got periodic updates, “Jon’s still going at it, honey, keep praying.”
His mother stayed the course. She received every blistering word that Jonny spit forth. One click and she could have cut him off. But she didn’t hang up. She listened. and listened. and listened some more. Tom rotated tires, I prayed, and she listened. Tom changed the oil, I prayed, and she listened. She didn’t argue, she didn’t defend, she listened. Listened until every last bit of anger had dissipated. Until the pot lay dry and every four letter word was spoken. Until there was nothing left to vent.
When the house grew quiet I sat motionless, waiting, not sure what to expect.
And then Jon appeared.
And as if the chasm between them had never existed he announced, “My mom’s coming to visit.” One phone call. Two hours. And canyon crossed. Gap bridged.
They had made peace. The prodigal mother and her son had made peace.
I cannot comprehend my Father’s ability to forgive me so graciously and completely and quickly. Because to me, forgiveness looks far more like the path Jonny traveled. A complicated quagmire, wrought with land mines and the potential for more hurt. On this side of eternity, in the shell of flawed humanity, it is a slow, painful process with uncertain resolution. And for some reason, we want to hang onto the pain, instead of release it. And anger seems the easiest choice. And we prefer the poison of bitterness over the sweetness of peace. And yet, having had a ringside seat to it, I am convinced forgiveness is among the greatest gifts we can receive and give. And that, as we extend it, so we receive it. When we forgive another, we gift ourselves.
Less than a year after Jon and his mother reconciled, he tragically lost his life. But during their final months together, they talked and hugged and joked and comforted. She was fully his mother. He, fully her son. Brushstrokes of hope became happy evenings laughing and reminiscing about old times. Jon died knowing his mother loved him. And she lives knowing she was forgiven. Together they built a bridge towards forgiveness. And found one another. And that indeed is reason to celebrate.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
– St. Francis of Assisi