Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Showing Grace to Our Parents

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they choose.

Thankfully, for many people who have been blessed with good relationships with their parents, showing love to one’s mother and father is not a difficult task. Unfortunately, such is not the case with all people. Some parents are absent or even unknown, others are abusive physically, sexually and/or emotionally, and still others are just difficult, mean or hard to love. This seems especially true when it comes to fathers in our culture. The rates of absent or neglectful fathers seem to only rise higher and higher. For a person of faith, it can be a struggle to follow the instructions of scripture to “honor your father and mother” while taking care of one’s own emotional health.

This past weekend I had the difficult task of giving the eulogy at the funeral for my wife’s grandfather. On the one hand, he was a genuine hero and a good-hearted person. He was a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor who literally showed bravery under fire. He was a career navy man who was capable of true generosity towards neighbors, co-workers and people in need. On the other hand, he could be ornery, mean-spirited and even at times cruel to his own family. I chose to acknowledge the facts well-known to the large gathering of family members present at his funeral, namely that he was an imperfect man. I also celebrated his good accomplishments, and I noted that funerals were in a sense our last opportunity to show grace towards loved ones. Each one of us receives more love than we deserve if we are honest about it, and each of us can only hope that following our own deaths those left behind will choose to remember more of our good qualities than bad.

The parent-child bond is such a complicated one, because our ideal images of our parents, pieced together from cultural icons, entertainment and even fantasy at a level we are barely conscious of, often conflict with our parents as they actually are. Sometimes children (even adult children) choose the ideal version refusing to acknowledge either their parents’ issues or the way those issues have impacted their own lives. Other times, the children choose only to see the bad in their parents and remain bitter and estranged from their parents, even after their parents have died.

A recent episode of the public radio program This American Life told stories of adult children trying to find out the answers to the questions they had always had about their fathers. One of the people featured is the writer Aric Knuth whose father was a merchant marine and would be gone from the family for six months at a time. For years, he sent his father audio letters on cassette tapes asking for his father to make one for him and send it back, just so he could hear his father’s voice. His father never sent one, despite his son’s years of pleas to do so. Knuth confronted his aged father and asked him about the tapes, and his father confessed that he had blown it. He had missed his opportunity to connect with and show love to a son aching to know his absent father. His father shared that his son’s tapes were difficult for him to listen to, because being gone from the family was painful and often hard on his marriage. Hearing his son’s pleas for attention from an absent father was so painful that it left him immobilized and he never reciprocated the love, even though he wanted to. Knuth admitted later in the program that his conversation with his father did not help the anger he had carried since childhood towards his father; it only confused things. He said that the father he remains angry at doesn’t really exist anymore; instead there is a different, older father who is more vulnerable and sympathetic.
As we age and change, so do our parents. Sometimes the person we may have anger towards may no longer exist, at least not in the same way. Time and mortality may rob those of us with painful parental relationships of the reconciliation or closure we desire.
I believe, however, that God’s grace transcends time and even death. I believe there is always time to find peace inside of ourselves, even if the people who have hurt us no longer inhabit this mortal life. I believe God can relieve us of the burdens of carrying around bitterness, anger and emotional pain. Sometimes it may take prayer; other times it may take counseling and therapy, but I believe we do not have to remain bound by the pain of our pasts, even if that pain comes from a parent. I believe there is a way to show grace towards all parents, in spite of their faults, and to accept them as the imperfect and sometimes flawed human beings they are. As a parent, I hope my children can show that grace towards me.

Grace and Peace,

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