And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Sometimes you hear a thread of a family story that is so contrary to your version of the story that it makes you reexamine and ponder what you know and what you do not know to be true.
That is what happened to me last Friday. My thoughts and heart have been knotted ever since as I sort through the tangled, loose, or just plain snarled threads of a family story that has had far-reaching consequences even to this day.
A long time ago, decades ago when I was a small child, my grandfather committed a great wrong against me, not just once, but numerous times over several years.
When he died in the spring of my fourth grade year, I was relieved. No more hiding, no more dodging, no more trying to be invisible.
My grandfather's death had an immediately freeing effect on me, but what I did not know in my ten year old naivety was that the emotional consequences of what had happened would imprint me forever. In part, it made me who and what I am today. Some of that has been to my benefit: what happened infused me with determination and resilience to survive what otherwise would have destroyed me. Some of that was to my detriment and it took a long time with a wonderful therapist to help reshape core coping mechanisms that had served the child well, but were disastrous for the adult.
But this post is not about what happened. This post is about the new line of the story that I heard for the first time last Friday and am weaving into the story I already know.
On Friday, I accompanied my aunt Ginger to the hospital while she underwent a medical procedure. While we waited in the prep area, she on the bed, I on the hard chair, we talked to pass the time and Ginger started sharing family stories.
I learned things about Grandma Skatzes (her mother) that I had not heard before: how she went to work in the kitchens of the women's dorm in this small town when my grandfather was ill and unable to work, how much she loved that job and how she hated to give it up when he was better and insisted she quit. I heard how during the Depression she was the one who went to the Relief Office to get food for the family, as my grandfather was too proud to ask for help despite the hunger at home.
And then Ginger told me a story I had not heard before, about my grandfather's final days. My grandfather had a heart attack and was hospitalized. Within a week or two, he would have a massive one that would kill him. That part of the story I knew. But what I didn't know is that for several days prior to his death, at my grandfather's request, a minister came daily to the hospital and met with him for lengthy talks.
Ginger, who knows my story, stopped in her narrative and said, "I wonder if he was feeling…guilty over…you know…and wanted to…well, maybe atone for what he did…well…you know…."
We changed the topic and the day went on. But I carried that new piece of information home with me and have turned it over innumerable times since then.
My grandfather met with a minister several times in the days leading up to his death.
I struggle with the notion of my grandfather seeking forgiveness in his dying days, if that is what he indeed did. I struggle with the image of my grandfather, facing death, finding solace with a minister.
I struggle big time with all this. Never mind that faith is meant to be a strength and comfort to people. Never mind that it is not my right to dictate how, when, or even whether a person repents of his wrongs. I struggle with the notion of my grandfather having that comfort at all.
It is hard to forgive.
One of the many, many reasons I veered away from church as a young adult was my childhood church's interpretation of the duty and obligation of Christians to "forgive those who trespass against us." That message was hardened into a kind of co-dependency diatribe by our elderly minister and at least one Sunday School teacher whose class I attended for one or two miserable years. If we were incapable of forgiving someone who had wronged us, then we were at fault, we were to blame, and we were the ones in dire need of forgiveness. Never mind what the wrong was. The burden was all on me, the victim, to rise magnanimously above the wrong and forgive the wrongdoer. Anything less than that and I was probably heading to hell in a personalized hand basket.
There was no discussion of the human and humane side of forgiveness: that forgiving lifts a burden from the victim's heart, that forgiveness allows the one who has been wronged to move on and put the wrong aside. If someone, anyone, had suggested that side to forgiveness, instead of threatening me with damnation if I could not grant absolute and total forgiveness, I might have listened.
But, as taught, this was a version of forgiveness that I could not swallow. It was not one I could find in the Bible. It was certainly not one I could live with as a tenet of faith. It left me outside in the cold, victimized in spirit, knowing in my heart there was no place for me inside that church. It is no coincidence that the religion that drew me in was Judaism, which places the emphasis on atonement by the person who has done the wrong, including, where possible, to the victim.
It is no wonder that I have been journeying spiritually for so long.
It was my wonderful therapist who finally explained forgiveness to me in a way I could understand and accept. He asked me how I felt about forgiveness, which caused me to nearly leap out of my seat. I explained the whole painful religious experience that left me feeling more victimized than before. He was quiet while I calmed down, and then he suggested equating forgiveness with forgiving a past due bill in a business. You stop sending the bill. You write it off. It doesn't undo what happened, it doesn't explain or excuse the act, but it allows you to put it away.
You just let it go.
I could accept that. I could mentally run the bill and stick it away in a folder marked "closed accounts." And that is what I did, until Ginger's story last Friday.
Now the bill is in my hand again.
In writing this post, I read various translations of the Lord's Prayer, particularly the verse having to do with forgiving "those who trespass against us." I did not find any version of the prayer, including the King James version, that used the "trespass" language. I did find multiple versions that spoke of forgiving debts and forgiving debtors, in line with what my therapist discussed.
I can approach forgiveness on those terms. It's a debt. Not all debts are honored. Not all debts are paid.
Not all debts are collectible.
Did my grandfather seek forgiveness in his final days? I don't know. I'll never know. Am I better able to forgive his wrongs, knowing he might have been remorseful, that he might have repented? I don't know. I do know this: what happened is a long, overdue bill and there is no need for me to continue to send it. It will never be paid, but I can let it go.
The account is closed.