My father died in high summer. The sun had already baked the red Georgia clay into stretches of hard crust across much of the landscape. Tiny black gnats floated drunkenly around eyes and lips and ears. Slow. Persistent. Annoyingly elusive.
The Baptist graveside service was scheduled for ten in the morning. Even under the canopy’s shade, the sun’s heat and the thick, humid air sent beads of sweat rolling down my torso. A black suit in the July heat of south Georgia was a bad idea.
Having flown from St. Louis into Augusta the night before, I drove a rental into Louisville in time to arrive at the burial site about twenty minutes early. Three men in short-sleeved shirts and jeans and caps stood near the grave.
I recognized them as men that my father would hail at Waffle House on my infrequent visits to Louisville. My father would banter with them about fishing while we waited for our take-out order. He never introduced me. I wondered if he actually remembered their names. They looked to me as if they were wondering why this guy was talking to them.
When I walked up to them that morning, they studied their shoes as I shook their hands and introduced myself and thanked them for coming. They never told me their names.
We stood there together awkwardly sharing an uncomfortable silence. After what seemed like about a month, the rest of the family pulled up in a couple of limos trailing the hearse. They had gathered beforehand at the funeral home. I must have missed that memo.
Four families connected only by some association with Sam Owensby gathered under the canopy at graveside.
Sam’s only surviving brother and his wife represented the family of origin.
My half-brother and half-sister—along with their spouses and children—shared Sam’s first wife as mother and grandmother.
I am the only surviving son of wife number two.
Wife number three—suffering pitiably of dementia—arrived with her two daughters by her deceased first husband.
Sam was always fond of telling us that we were all one family. Brothers and sisters. He made no distinction so there wasn’t one. He was the scion of a great clan. In fact, to hear him tell it, he was widely recognized as a great man. Admired for his hard work and integrity by everybody in that small southern town.
There was tension in the air. Ann, the younger daughter of Sam’s third wife, pulled me aside. She said, “Sam passed that letter you sent around to everybody. He wanted us to say how terrible you are. You were very brave to send it. And you were very brave to show up here.”
That letter was something a spiritual friend advised me to write. Living with Sam’s lie about himself and keeping his secrets had been making me nuts. So, I wrote a letter confronting my father with the truth about his control and his abuse and his infidelities and his mendacity.
I showed it to my friend. He read it silently. “Wow. That’s an honest letter. Now what do you intend to do with it?”
“I sent it.”
“I sent it.”
“Oh,” he said.
Standing at the grave that day, feeling like a gate crasher, I was wondering just how wise it was to have mailed that letter. Looking back on it from the span of a decade, I would have to say that the jury is still out.
Being in my father’s good graces meant giving assent to the lie that he told about himself and keeping his secrets buried. I couldn’t do that anymore. Not without doing increasingly severe damage to my own soul and poisoning the relationships I hold dear.
And yet, I recognize that my letter was a blunt instrument. Sure, I told the truth. But as one of my old professors used to say, I was doing brain surgery with a buzz saw.
Reconciliation is immensely delicate and difficult work. It is God’s chief work in Christ. And God has a Church to take up that work. To put that another way, God has disciples to do that work. God has you and me.
Jesus said it this way. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23)
Frequently, forgiveness is explained using the metaphor of law courts. We acquit someone of an offense that they have committed. This is not to say that we excuse bad behavior. On the contrary, forgiveness begins with holding a guilty party accountable. However, we set aside our temptation to retaliate in kind. Mercy displaces punishment.
Forgiveness can be a unilateral act. Jesus teaches us to forgive even the unrepentant. That’s what it means to forgive seventy times seven times. We forgive because of who Jesus is making us, not in response to what someone does or doesn’t do.
Reconciliation, by contrast, is always a two-way street. Regaining trust and repairing a fractured relationship requires offending parties to express remorse and to amend their ways.
Approaching forgiveness and reconciliation in these terms has its merits. However, using the metaphor of healing offers us a broader, richer perspective on the work of reconciliation.
Destructive and self-destructive patterns of behavior indicate a deeper spiritual disintegration. Moral misbehavior points toward an abiding injury in the soul. Sinful behavior betrays a shattered soul in need of healing.
Let me be clear. I am not excusing wrongdoing by calling attention to the fractured souls that give rise to it. Instead, I am highlighting the deeper work of reconciliation.
Jesus doesn’t just want to get us off the hook. He wants to make us whole and to make us one. That is the work of reconciliation. And it is the work that Jesus gives the Church—gives you and me—to do in the cluttered, unkempt place that is our real lives.
As I look back on my father’s funeral, I see things about the man that I simply failed to appreciate when I confronted him with the wounds he had caused.
He craved esteem and acceptance. And yet, at the end of his life, that man who claimed to be widely admired had only his quarrelsome family and three acquaintances at his funeral.
Caught up at the time in my family drama, I missed how sad and poignant this was. My father had a deep longing to be more than he was. Something profound was missing in his heart and in his sense of his own self-worth. And so he spent a lifetime building and sustaining an elaborate, absurd fiction about himself.
My father had described himself as an indispensable deacon at his Baptist Church. And yet, the preacher at that congregation began his sermon this way. “I didn’t really know Mr. Sam…”
Well, preacher, I guess I didn’t really know Mr. Sam, either. I saw him only through the pain he had given me. And as a follower of Jesus, I recognize that I can be more than that.
In Christ, we can see through our own woundedness to the woundedness of others. Even as we hold them accountable for their moral failings, we can—with Jesus’ help—seek to be instruments of healing for their shattered souls.