Forgiving Ourselves: Stepping into Mercy's Breaking Wave
As a pastor, I led an annual retreat for incarcerated mothers and their youth. To pull it off, our prison ministry collaborated with a sister congregation and the chaplains serving at this minimum security prison in the mountains of western North Carolina, where all inmates were within five years of release. Many of the women shared a common story—one of sexual assault and self-medication from the pain of that trauma with drugs or alcohol. It was often for drug possession (many times on behalf of an intimate partner) or dealing that they were first arrested and sentenced to time in prison. Tracing the origins of trauma that stretch like a web through the lives of inmates reveals the stubborn persistence of family dysfunction. The “sins of the father” are indeed borne by the generations to come. Which is how I came to find myself leading ice-breakers out at a mountain campground with incarcerated mothers and their youth.
The youth traveled from all over the state to spend this day with their mothers. Some appeared moody and withdrawn, others leaned into their mothers like small children starved for love. It would take them the course of the day, complete with a low ropes course, lunch, games, crafts, and free time to reconnect at a deeper level. The mothers, who had prepared for these hours in counseling and recovery sessions, tended to show up fully present for it all; their eyes misty, their voices breaking with emotion, their arms reflexively reaching for their child. Some youth enjoyed few opportunities for visitation with their mothers due to lack of transportation or scheduling complications, and this day allowed them to spend several hours together for the first time in years.
Though the mothers prepared and embraced every moment away from the razor wire that enclosed the prison grounds, the youth arrived fresh from daily lives from which their mothers were absent. These mothers had missed the formative years of their childhood either in prison or addiction. The betrayal they experienced from that aching absence was sometimes written on their faces; others sequestered this secret in the deepest recesses of their heart. The time lost, of course, could never be returned. I looked at the youth and thought about those times after I left home when I would come down with the flu and long for no one but my mother to take care of me. We all share the primal experience of a child’s hunger to be nurtured and loved unconditionally by their parents. These youth each harbored that yearning child somewhere deep inside of them, the child who did not receive what should be a birthright—the daily adoration of a parent.
As a mother myself, I desperately longed for the youth to forgive their mothers, some of whom they had never known as clean and sober. I longed for them to waste not another moment on bitterness or resentment, on blame or shame. As a mother myself, I also longed for the mothers to forgive themselves for one of life’s most painful breaches—failing to show up for their children and make plain their unconditional love.
One game I lead after opening icebreakers was called “Walk the Line.” An imaginary spectrum of “agree” and “disagree” would run from two points marked on the grass. I would read a statement, perhaps “chocolate is better than bacon,” and the mothers and youth would move to a place on the line that revealed their true stance—agree, disagree, or somewhere in the middle. We began with food preferences, but moved into deeper things, often ending on the topic of forgiveness. “You can forgive someone even if they haven’t admitted what they did wrong,” I would say, and the mothers would troop down, almost as one body, to the “agree” side. They knew they stood in need of forgiveness far before they had the words to name the offense. Moreover, they knew they came by their own trauma and troubles often through the sins of their own parents.
One year a mother thanked me after the retreat saying, “You know, I didn’t even know if my own child preferred bacon or chocolate. I learned a lot about them today.” I remember driving home from that retreat, weeping for the terrible hunger of the youth to be loved and the mothers to be forgiven. At dinner that night, I drank in every moment with my own children—the way their faces lit up, the casual mess each made, the simple joy of being together. Each moment felt as weighty as gold.
All parents know the terrible cost of harming our own children with something we’ve done or left undone; something we’ve said or left unsaid. We know that at some point along the way, parenting brings us to that ancient threshold where inter-generational harms we swore we would never pass along are transferred down to our children through our own misdeeds and shortcomings. A parent who can ask their child for forgiveness from the youngest of ages acknowledges that those who love each other make mistakes that require repair.
And yet the forgiveness we so often fail to acknowledge is self-forgiveness.
Perhaps we are too invested in our own narrative which excuses our behavior or vilifies the other to admit wrongdoing. Maybe from a young age we were taught that all harmful behavior must have been provoked by the victim. Or it might be that we ourselves are not so different from the mothers fighting addiction behind bars—we’d just as soon drown out the chorus of guilt through avoidance or another drink. It’s painful to stand in our real selves and acknowledge--really own--the ways in which we have harmed those we love. Sometimes it makes us feel weak and small, shamefully imperfect, when we take an honest look at our worst moments. Here, the Psalms come to our aid: "With your strength, O Rock, lift me up, let me not sink in the mire; let me be delivered from fear as from deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the abyss overwhelm me. Take heed of my afflictions and pain; let your saving grace, O God, set me on high!"
To forgive ourselves, we must allow lament, repentance, and grace to step in. The Hebrew Scriptures insist that candor about suffering makes way for hope. Lament makes praise possible. Think of it. The anguish of exile did not lead to a loss of faith. “Rather, the exile became a remarkable moment in the life of the Jewish community for inventive and generative faith.” The place of woundedness harbors a unique capacity to become the location for transformation. To get there, however, we must first acknowledge the despair of lament, a radical act in America’s pain-and-death-denying culture. While many indigenous cultures create space for communal wailing and embodied expressions of grief, white Americans have mostly given up the practice of lament. If we are to forgive ourselves, however, we must claim and claw our way back to the sacred act of grieving; of naming what was lost and sitting with where that shows up in our bodies. The Psalms echo the full range of human emotion, including the depths of despair. "Come to my aid, O God! More in number than the hairs of my head are the fears that I carry; So mighty are they, the walls that I built can no longer withstand them. What must I do to be at peace again?"
Lament leads us into the heart of repentance, a full turning from the path down which we were previously headed. In repentance we acknowledge that we have failed to be true to what Howard Thurman calls “the sound of the genuine” within ourselves. We have hidden from the truth or stared it plain in the face while refusing to change our ways. Sometimes we don’t know how to change, so ingrained are our habits. We cannot truly repent, however, until we stand solidly in the truth of our primal identity as beloved children of God.
Full repentance extends beyond apology, it is a process of turning in which we develop new habits of the heart that nurture the genuine within. Repentance invites us to look directly into the mirror and not shrink from the brokenness within, knowing that every human being is more than their worst moments. It invites us to cast our burdens on God. "May my home become a house of prayer, that others might come to bask in your presence. May those who have been oppressed and persecuted come and find safety and solace within its doors."
Lament and repentance clear space for God’s grace to enter in and do the rest. When we stand, mindful of our need, and allow the wave of divine grace to break upon us, we know deep in the bones that we can never truly repay the debt of harming others or ourselves. This inability allows us to forgive others the way that we ourselves have been forgiven by God. When we do this, we enact grace. We become mercy. "Let the oppressed see and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts be renewed. For the Heart of all hearts hears those in need and pours out compassion on those in bondage. Let heaven and earth praise the Creator, the seas and all that dwell in them. For in God lies our salvation, and the healing of the nations…and those who live in the way of love shall dwell with love forever."
Years ago, I attended a renewal retreat for young clergy. It took place at the beach, and we were invited to wade into the water. As the waves lapped at our legs, we heard the instructions to turn and look out at the vastness of the ocean; to imagine the world that swims in that great womb of the earth. God’s Spirit is like that ocean, deep and wide, dangerously full of life, filling our cups to overflowing. If we ever fall into the trap of thinking others will thrive because of our gifts or fail because of our weaknesses, we can remember that we draw from this ocean of love, forgiveness, and peace. We blessed each other then with handfuls of salty water, because ministry and life are so much bigger than any one of us, and God’s grace and mercies are abundant. We were reminded that it is the God of the ocean, the Creator of this vast space, as far as the eye can see, it is this Holy One who fills us and sustains us, so that our wells will not run dry. Standing in that surf, with waves breaking upon us, I glimpsed the true power and depth of divine mercy.
Standing in the breaking wave of grace blesses with the unconditional love the child in each one of us craves. It is a blessing described by poet Jan Richardson like this: “The secret of this blessing is that it is written on the back of what binds you. To read this blessing, you must take hold of the end of what confines you, must begin to tug at the edge of what wraps you round. It may take long for its length to fall away, for the words of this blessing to unwind in folds about your feet. By then, you will no longer need them. By then this blessing will have pressed itself into your waking flesh, will have passed into your bones, will have traveled every vein until it comes to rest inside the chambers of your heart that beats to the rhythm of benediction and the cadence of release.” In God’s mercy, may it be so—for you and me, for all the flawed mothers and their beloved children.
 A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament.