A friend asked if I hadn’t “got it out of my system” yet. And yes, there’s an underlying theme of abuse, forgiveness and recovery in my three novels. And yes, I’ve sort of got it out of my system, but, like a tendency toward migraines, “it” comes back whenever circumstances, politics, current events etc trigger it. My fourth novel will be different though; it’s a mystery, for a start. But it’s still about wounded characters, and abuse of any type will cause those wounds. For me, reading and writing are about seeing through different eyes and realizing life’s not as black and white as I’d imagined; about asking how and why others might be different from me; and about recognizing this is a broken world where none of us are perfect; where difference teaches; and otherness helps us better see ourselves. We none of us have the right to claim another’s imperfections more “wrong” than our own in this world. After all, I can’t eat wheat, though the Bible tells me it’s good…
Which leads to my other books. I’m delightedly seeing my Bible stories republished – same covers, same stories, same “inspired by faith and science” theme (the publisher’s imprint is even called “Inspired by Faith & Science,” an imprint of “Ink-Filled Stories” who have published the novels), and lots more illustrations. There are even “Collectors’ Color Editions” coming out. Getting it all linked up on Amazon will take time. I’m guessing getting the books into real bookstores might take even longer. But it’s exciting (to me at least), and it fits my theme of a broken world, where brokenness needs to be forgiven.
So here’s an excerpt from “Bethlehem’s Baby,” coming soon to print:
In the beginning, God created the universe. He made stars and planets. He made the sun, moon and earth. He made mountains and seas, flowers and trees, birds and bees, and animals and people. And everything was good.
God made the world like a painter creating a beautiful picture. He mixed its colors together, designed its patterns, and added light and dark in all the right places. When God finished painting, the earth was good enough to hang on the wall of heaven.
God made the world like an author writing a book. He worked out the details, solved all the mysteries, and linked all the pieces together. When God finished writing, he gave us his words in the Bible so we could read them. Meanwhile angels rejoiced to know what he’d done.
God made the world like a programmer designing a computer game. He set up all the scenes, made voices for the characters, and planned how all the rules would make everything work. But computer games often have bugs in them. Our world was so good when God finished making it, there wasn’t a single mistake in it anywhere.
But God didn’t hang the world on a wall when he’d finished. He didn’t leave the Bible on a bookshelf to look nice. And he didn’t sell his program to people who wanted to play humans on their computer. Instead, God made the world like a gardener who works in a park. When he’d finished planning and planting everything, God stepped right into the park to help the people look after it. God’s park was a beautiful place called the Garden of Eden.
God worked in his Garden of Eden every day, feeding animals, helping bees, watering flowers, cleaning the rivers, and pouring sweetness into beautiful berries hanging from the trees. God walked and talked with the people in Eden, loving them like a father loves his children. He taught them to play and he kept them perfectly safe. No one was ever hungry in the Garden of Eden. No one was tired or sick. Nobody ever had to work too much and no one was ever bored. Even plants and animals were perfectly safe in Eden, everything beautifully in balance, living and dying in due season with no sickness, no loneliness, no sorrow and no pain.
But then the people in God’s garden, the people God had chosen to be his very own children, broke God’s rules. They didn’t care that the rules were there to keep them safe, or else they didn’t remember. They just wanted to do as they pleased and have fun and pretend they were in charge. So they ate the fruit of a special tree that wasn’t theirs to eat…
Noise filled the forest that morning, growing louder as the day went on. It was almost like a party. Crowds, of young and old alike, thronged the paths, marched through trees, and gathered around the duck pond, the bench on the hill, and the parking lot. There was scarcely space for anyone to hide. But he knew his place. He’d watched them setting up sound systems, with amplifiers and speakers, wires like vines tangling with branches and leaves. He’d heard them testing, “One, two three,” and he’d almost smiled as birds and squirrels raucously answered the sound. But he hadn’t known what they were doing it for. He’d pretended not to care. He’d pretended not to hear those fate-filled words, Memorial for Amelia, so long after death and burial had rendered them meaningless.
A paper bag containing two whole burgers waited in the trashcan—food cast away by the murderer’s daughter-in-law who didn’t seem hungry, though she kept on buying more meals. The victim’s mother didn’t eat of course, and was quietly fading away. She stood near her nemesis now, each with that cone of silence hanging over her head, each separately alive though they seemed like they’d rather be dead. Poised by the makeshift stage, they waited ahead of the crowds while priests and pastors, imam and rabbi, passed by in robes of pomp and intensity.
Meanwhile the stranger stayed hidden under trees. The white cat twined around his feet. “Garnet,” he whispered, remembering its name from long ago.
“I lost my daughter,” Evie said into an ice-cream microphone, candy pink and much too cheerful for her frozen face. Her thin voice snatched at the air, while electronics caught the sound, amplifying silence to crackling booms. Confidence faded backward into the trees then reflected again. Is she looking at me? “I lost my daughter right over there.” She pointed. He was glad he’d hidden himself this side of the pond instead. People stared. “A dog found her and dug her up. She was buried like a bone. So then we put her in a coffin. Were you there? Did you see? She was so beautiful.”
He, the Prowler, had seen the coffin, but he hadn’t seen the child, grown old and still. He thought she must have been beautiful; she must have looked like her mother though she’d had her father’s eyes. He shuffled his feet, wondering where the dog had buried that particular, earth-shattering, beautiful feast.
The microphone fell from Evie’s hands. He almost wanted to run and comfort her. But the other woman, the evil Lydia, picked it up and handed it back. She held her arms around the broken mother, for a while, then let her speak again.
“You know what I prayed sometimes?” Evie asked.
What? Evie prayed? The Prowler thought she’d given up prayer long ago, when God stopped answering, and the child’s diagnosis remained unforgivably unchanged.
“For my Amelia? You know what I prayed? You know what she was like.”
He had no right; he couldn’t know, because he’d left her behind.
“I prayed that God would protect my little girl, because I wouldn’t always be here for her, because a mother’s meant to die before her children isn’t she? I never expected I’d have to bury her.”
A father shouldn’t have to bury his children either.
Evie sobbed again. “I thought, you know, the same things you all thought—about how she’d never learn to cope on her own.”
He’d thought it too. He’d known. He had to leave before his daughter’s future ceased to exist, before the blame became too great for any of them to bear. But Evie always insisted on believing there’d be hope; sweet Evie, ever betrayed by his denial and her broken child. So she stood, talking now about prayer.
“I asked God to help. So I guess God must’ve decided she wouldn’t have to cope. I guess God took her away instead of taking me. I don’t like how it happened. I’m sure she didn’t like it. But God took her, and now my Amelia’s okay.”
Evie sobbed, the sound hard and fierce, as loudspeakers turned it to shouting over the crowd. “Now she’s never going to suffer anymore, and I don’t need to be scared for her.” It might have been a cry of triumph, but Evie’s voice faded, strangling the final words. She wrung her hands and held the microphone low against her waist, a leaden weight that needed to fall to the ground.
Meanwhile the Prowler crouched over the cat, burying his face in fur. He tried not to cry, tried to make no sound, and prayed he wouldn’t be heard or seen at all.
“I guess it’s me who has to cope now on my own,” Evie continued, “not Amelia. And I just want to ask you all to help, ’cause it’s so very, very hard.”
He couldn’t help. His heart was stone, and he couldn’t put those shattered pieces together, never again. He really was a shiftless, worthless soul.
When the Prowler looked up, the other woman had taken Evie’s position on the makeshift stage. “I don’t know what I lost,” Lydia said, evil Lydia, unwitting daughter-in-law of a murderer. She faced the crowd’s accusation with a gaze that trembled and wavered even more than her hands. She held the shivering microphone close to her nose, and clutched her stomach as if in pain. “I lost my father-in-law I suppose. And then it was like he’d never really been there for me to lose, like I’d never really known him. I feel like everything’s sliding away, like it’s all an illusion. Nothing’s certain anymore.”
Curled low to the ground, crouched like a dog beside the cat, the stranger knew what Lydia meant. Nothing was certain, and life slips away like water in the stream. He remembered where he’d heard her name, Lydia Markham, from that distant part of his life. The cat wasn’t hers; it was her neighbor’s, and she was married to the son from Markham’s garage, just along the road. He needed to hate her, because the man from that garage was the man in the woods, the Paradise Predator turned Murderer, the man who killed the child.
Fair-haired Lydia looked around the crowd, seeing so many faces, but not the man’s. She confronted their knowledge of her father-in-law and called it their mistake too. “Did you take your cars to him? Some of you did, I know. If you talked to him in the garage, if you met him on the street, aren’t you wondering the same things as I am? How could we not have known? How could we all not have known?”
But no one had known that the man who mended cars would break the child.
—If the stranger had stayed, if he’d still been there in her life, could he have kept her from the predator in the woods? Could he have made her safe? Would he have known?
“I lost my memories of my children’s grandfather, and my husband’s father.”
—He’d lost his child, the life he’d thrown away when he left that day.
“All the things I thought he was, the things he could have been…”
—But Amelia could never be more, would never have been anything at all. She didn’t deserve what had happened to her.
“And then my little boy comes up to me and says, ‘I still love him.’”
—Does Evie love me still? Did Amelia?
People in the crowd turned toward each other, anger perhaps on their faces, disgust or something else. “My son still loves him,” Lydia announced firmly, sudden confidence infusing her voice. “His memories, my son’s memories, he’s holding onto them. They were real, those things he remembers; they’re part of my son, part of who he is. And I’m thinking maybe that’s alright, because I’m not sure how to tell him it’s all wrong.”
The Prowler sobbed out loud, knowing everything was wrong, everything since the day he left, since he’d thrown his own memories away. Afraid of little Amelia at three, he’d never known her at seven, at eleven, thirteen. He’d lost that right.
“Everything that’s happened, all these awful things, they don’t change the past.”
—They don’t change the fact that he wasn’t there when he was needed.
“The only thing that’s changing is the future.”
—He had none.
Hearing nothing now but a roaring pain in his ears, the Prowler crouched to the ground. A child’s high trill broke through, impossibly, but he wouldn’t listen. “Daddy, it’s okay. Daddy? Daddy?” The cat clawed his knees and he was still hiding under trees.
“I wonder,” evil Lydia asked, still standing in front of the crowd, still speaking into the microphone. “Is it possible for someone to be two people at once?”
—Could that be him? Could he be lover and betrayer, father and stranger both? Was that why he felt so torn apart?
He crouched in the shadows, waiting for the crowds to depart from the park again. He was well hidden. But then the stranger, husband, prowler, devourer, or father, felt a hand on his shoulder. He heard a once-loved, once-familiar voice whisper his name.
Sylvia had to forgive herself for not speaking earlier. The community needed to forgive itself (and forgive Lydia) for not knowing. And Andrew has to forgive himself for not being there. In the end, they all have to forgive the world for being a place where bad things happen to good people… forgive God for allowing such a place, though it’s we who broke his perfect creation… In the end Andrew has to learn there’s still good in the world. And for all our shouting, all our demonstrations and complaints, all our desperation, there is still good in the world. For that I thank God.
“Why did you do that?” Sharon asked. Sylvia just shrugged as they walked the tree-lined path in silence. “You always do it, don’t you?”
“Not always,” Sylvia mumbled.
“Oh come on!” Sharon stopped short. “Come on. Tell me one time you didn’t.”
They walked on. Dried leaves from long-gone fall crunched underfoot. The air smelled heavy and sickly sweet, pine needles dripping on the outer branches of trees. Light shone brighter as they came to the end of the path. Running water, shouts of children playing and adults calling names drifted nearby. Sunlight slanted through bark dust floating on air.
“Let’s stop here,” said Sharon when they came to a bench, so they sat. Sylvia gazed down at her hands, firmly, primly clasped over her knees, skirt pulled down, legs together. Beside her, Sharon threw herself into a sprawl, arms and legs akimbo on wooden slats. Then she stood again, stepping forward and back.
“No,” Sharon said as Sylvia started to move. “No. You stay there. Let’s talk.” She faced her friend. “You listen, Sylvia. You just sit there and listen to me for a change.” She turned back to the tree-hidden sky, gathering thoughts from the air. “Okay. So we’re at the party and it’s snowing outside.” Arms thrown out dramatically. “Everyone’s happy. Right? Great music. Great food. Nothing bad going on. Nothing our mothers wouldn’t approve of, right?”
Sylvia nodded and groaned.
“And then my brother, my dear sweet Simon that you’ve been going all gooey-eyed over forever, my brother that’s only there ’cause I told him I wanted him to meet you—’cause you told me you wanted to meet him… Yeah?”
Sylvia nodded again.
“My brother asks you to dance, and you stand there like a brick. Then he tells you you’re pretty—I know, I was listening—he tells you you’re pretty and you run away like he’s threatened to murder you or something.”
Sylvia’s head angled down. Tears splashed on the backs of hands tightly clasped in her lap.
“Why?” Sharon asked, reaching to comfort her friend. “Why, Sylvia?”
But Sylvia didn’t answer. Her sobs were quiet, though they drowned out the birds and the water, children and parents too. The rest of the park belonged to a different world as Sylvia wept in her secret circle of shame.
A mother walked by, holding a small girl by the hand. “Amelia, this way.” The child hummed tunelessly, trailing a red-dressed doll and stuffed rabbit behind her.
A bunch of schoolchildren, youngsters with bright happy shouts and flashing feet, burst from sunlight into the trees. They raced past the bench with parents following. Sounds of tears and laughter stayed behind, waiting for seasons and time.
“Will you tell me sometime, Sylvia?”
“Maybe. But I don’t think we should stay in the woods on our own. We should warn those kids.”
But how do we warn our children, and how can they know when their safe world’s suddenly strange?
I went out for coffee with Lydia then thought, how stupid—I couldn’t say anything in a store. We carried our drinks down to the park where I thought, how stupid—how could I talk with the forest still watching. Then we wandered the quiet streets back to Lydia’s house. I imagined I’d wait until we were inside, but instead my words just tumbled out.
“In the park. When I was a kid. This guy kept touching me.”
“Why didn’t you just say no,” said my sister, her voice as brittle as saccharine poured into coffee. “It’s what I did.” And I wondered what she meant…
I told my brother and he hugged me and said, “Poor you. Did you know our Lydia got abused too?” So I wondered if you can measure depth with the number of times it occurs, and define who’s more hurt…
Mom didn’t want to believe me at first. I sat beside her on the sofa and we stared at the TV’s empty eye. She said she would have known. She would have noticed it. She said I couldn’t have got home late from school so many times. She said someone would have told her. My school work would have suffered and the teachers would have said. I was never any good with secrets so it couldn’t be true.
Mom said they talk about recovered memories and so many times they’re false. Auto-suggestion, she said, and it’s all the psychiatrist’s fault. So what had my therapist said to me?
I said I never forgot, so I didn’t need to remember, and it had to be true.
She said I’d forgotten his face.
I said I never knew it…
I could tell when Lydia told Troy because of the way he looked at me, as if he was trying to imagine [those] hands on me, or else his own. I was glad I didn’t live in Paradise now. I was glad to get in my car and drive away, back to Donald and the children, back to the safety and secrecy of my home…
The therapist asks me, “What about when you told Donald? What did he say?”
Donald said men have needs and he was glad our children were all boys.
“What did he mean?”
I didn’t ask. I think he meant he loved me and it wasn’t my fault.
If you’ve ever wondered why we don’t tell, ask yourself how you would respond when someone you love tells you.
“But everybody does it,” someone said. “There’d be no one left in government or politics if they kicked them out for that.” For being a drunken teen, for not listening when a woman said no, for abusing physical power… the reward is more power?
I believed them, because the man who hurt me was good, wise, and influential… one of that “everybody” perhaps. But I’ve struggled all my adult life to put any trust in good men, because of him. And now, if “everybody does it,” that proves me right, doesn’t it? Men can’t be trusted, ever… except I’m wrong. Not everybody does it, and believing they do is an insult to half the human race.
Still, it’s “just a youthful mistake” they said. And how many wives would find their husband’s names on “offenders” lists if they’d been caught, sneaking into the bedroom at night? Except abuse of power and youthful indiscretion aren’t the same thing at all. And the answer, in any case, is only a few. To imagine most men sneaked into their girlfriend’s bedroom is an insult again to half the human race. To imagine that sneaking into a bedroom, both parties filled with romance that leads to marriage, might be the same thing as abuse is an insult to the other half.
Nobody should do “it”—and let’s call it by its name: Nobody should abuse a women, or a girl, or a teen (or a boy, an old man, a youth…). Not everybody does “it,” and “it” is never okay.
But how much should a past offense influence an adult man’s future? As much as it influenced the future of the woman he hurt, perhaps? Should it dictate what job he can take? It dictates what job she can cope with. Should it keep him from public office or the public eye? If he wants to avoid wounding her over and again every time she hears his name, of course it should! And if he doesn’t want to avoid wounding her, over and again, perhaps there’s something wrong with him which should, in itself, keep him from public trust or public office.
Should it destroy his livelihood? It might dictate he change his livelihood. It might have changed hers.
Should it cause his name to be dragged through the dirt? Not if he confesses, no. Not if he admits, “I was an idiot,” and hopefully can honestly add, “I’m not that person now.” Not if he says he’s sorry and means it. Not if he accepts that it might cost his job, and allows himself to be as helpless fighting back as his victim once was. Not if he admits that not everyone does it, and nobodyshould do it. Not if he does all he can to avoid dragging her name through the dirt.
No, not everybody does “it.” But we all have a responsibility to change a culture that somehow imagines they do. There are lots of good men and good women out there, lots of reformed men and women too, and lots who still need to admit that what they thought okay was seriously wrong. “It” would, in fact, still be wrong, even if everybody did “it,” and ignorance would be no defense.
The voice on the radio told me how memory works; how traumatic memories get “coded” into the brain, details locked into a fabric that won’t be torn or worn down, even while other recollections fade—as the speaker revealed, which antagonist pushed her into the room might be vague; who lay on top of her is not.
My “code” is mathematical, tied to science and astronomy. I looked into the light and shade of my own memories then, and imagined my trauma like a black hole in the fabric of my universe. Draw too close and I’ll be drawn in. There’s no element of choosing. I can’t decide to forget, or even when to look or turn away. In traveling from this place to that, my path might cross the black hole’s invisible influence. Suddenly I’m spiraling to a place I don’t want to go. Listening to the radio, I spiraled and clung tight to stay controlled.
The voice on the radio spoke out to the world, or at least to this corner, this country of the world. They asked her, “Why now?” “Why remember?” “Why so sure?” And I, who am supposed to have moved on, forgiven, recovered… I almost asked the same just days before. Was that because I didn’t want to go near the black hole in my own memories?
Of course she remembers now, and always. Of course she doesn’t want to speak now, or ever. And of course she does speak, because now the black hole’s right in front of her and there’s no escaping it, and because she’s brave enough to stand up for the rest of us, and because she doesn’t want to fall back into her past every time his name is mentioned on the radio. So I’m sorry I didn’t immediately jump to support her. I’m sorry I imagined that something so long ago perhaps shouldn’t color a man’s future. I realize it colors hers, as such things do mine; so of course it ought to add a shadow to his. I’m sorry I hid behind my neighbors’ platitudes.
My black hole still waits. The memory doesn’t go away just because I’ve “dealt” with it. And traveling from this place to that might still take me dangerously close to its path, especially as I listen to the radio. Sometimes I’ll feel like I’m being used, an object rather than a person, my opinions and my feelings irrelevant. I want to run, lash out, scream and shout. Sometimes I’ll feel those things wrongly, inappropriately. And sometimes I’ll tell myself that’s what’s going on, before I respond inappropriately. Sometimes I won’t. The black hole doesn’t have power because I give it power; it has power because of the way my memories were made, coded into my brain, wired, in-erasable.
I forgave and moved on, but the story’s hardwired into me; some details horribly clear; some distant and vague. I forgave and moved on, but I still steer a cautious path around the black hole in my mind. I pray that path might be clearer now, for listeners to the radio, than it would have been had that brave lady stayed silent. And I thank her for speaking for all of us.
A woman wouldn’t lie, I read recently. The writer amended this, when challenged, to A woman wouldn’t lie about something like this, not when she knows all the pain she’s letting herself in for. The writer concluded that in something like this a woman should always be believed.
It got me wondering, would I rather be believed because I’m a woman, or because what I’ve said is true? Disturbingly, the thought that someone might believe me just because I’m a woman makes me feel small and soiled, a speaker of words not really worth considering.
Even more disturbingly, I know such blind belief in a woman’s words would be misplaced. A woman would lie, just as a man would, if she felt the gain worth the cost. My circle of male acquaintances isn’t wide, but even I know two men—one a close family friend, and one a friend of a relative—who innocently suffered through the courts at the hands of lying women. For both of them, there were neighbors and supposed friends who shunned them, declaring No smoke without a fire and A woman or in one case A teenaged kid wouldn’t lie. Both cases were convincingly proven false, though one man endured jail time before his conviction was overturned. And both men continued to suffer, having lost their jobs, their friends, their security… in one case even his physical health as well.
A woman might lie. So might a man. And truth can be hard to find. Women and men have been abused, as children, teens and adults. Women and men have been lied to and lied about. Women and men deserve an equal say, as do accuser and accused. And perhaps the lesson we should learn is to listen, check the facts, and never assume guilty till the case is solved. No, the woman’s not automatically guilty of overpowering the man with her foolish temptations. And no, the man’s not automatically guilty of overpowering the woman with his strength. The child’s not automatically guilty of lying about the priest, nor the priest of abusing the child. But the case should be investigated, truth be tested, and justice be served as best it humanly can.
Innocent until proven guilty matters, whether layman, priest or politician, whether accuser or accused. Listening matters. Not following after blind falsehoods and baseless assumptions matters. Not choosing our truths based on which media report best grabs our attention, which party we prefer, or which church we attend. Everyone lies, sometimes. So please don’t cheapen our cry to be heard by saying A woman wouldn’t lie. Please tell us we’re worth the effort it might take to find the truth.
Someone commented on one of my posts that I shouldn’t confuse forgiving and forgetting. How very true, but how often we’re told in church and school to “forgive and forget,” as if not forgetting were somehow tantamount to refusing to forgive. If true forgiveness is divine, what on earth does that make forgetting?
We do indeed ask God not to “remember” our sins, and we have done, ever since the days of the Psalms. How nicely the nuns in school used to explain it though, not as a cruel demand on us to do likewise, but as mercy from God. They said we should imagine a timeline of our lives, with every sin, every error, every misunderstanding marked out clearly in black. What a mess, they told us, as we all knew it must be. But then they said we should see that line through God’s eyes, with every sin “crossed” out in the name of Christ; God looking at our messy pasts in delight and declaring “What a wonderful, most perfectly obedient son!”
Maybe that’s divine “forgetting.” Replacing the past—which only God can do (being, as the nuns also explained so well—for a mathematically and scientifically inclined little nine-year-old girl—“outside all time and space”).
God will indeed “remember their sins no more,” as the Bible promises. But today, in time and space, in this time and this place, maybe it behooves us sometimes to forgive and remember; to protect ourselves (those selves for whom Christ died); to protect the sinner from temptation to reoffend; to protect our neighbors… and even to remember; this is how I allowed myself to be hurt; with His help, I’ll not do it again.
The Bible doesn’t tell us to forgive and forget; only that God will forgive, cover our transgressions, cast our crimes from us as far as the east is from the west… and that we, being forgiven, should strive to “forgive.” Which we do, not always succeeding. But whatever would make us imagine we might also cast another’s crimes so impossibly far?
I will try, when I can, to forgive and not hold a grudge. I will ask, when I can’t, that God forgive others for me, and heal my grudge. And I’ll remember to protect myself. I’ll remember, in order to protect myself. Because God loves me, and God considers I’m worth it—he paid the ultimate price for me, so that one day, outside of time and space, neither my sins nor any committed against me will be worth remembering.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Sometimes it’s debts; sometimes it’s trespasses; but the meaning’s the same, and Christians pray these words, in one form or another, every day when they say the Lord’s Prayer.
Sometimes it’s comfort; sometimes it’s condemnation. And sometimes we turn our faces to heaven and ask: What if we can’t forgive? What if the debtor’s dead, or the sinner won’t apologize? What if the crime was committed against others, and I’m just so angry, and anyway, it isn’t my place to forgive? What if…?
Did Jesus really mean that God would forgive my abuser and not forgive me, making my unforgiveness a greater crime than what was done to me?
The secular world told me I should stop letting memories have power over me. It certainly made sense of what I felt. Every time I sensed even the faintest hint that someone was “using” me my anger would rise—misdirected anger; a fury still raging inside. I had no power over it.
So I tried to “understand”—my secular solution—and called it forgiveness in my mind. I knew (far more than I should) of my abuser’s past and how he’d been hurt. I could see the reason for his actions, though I didn’t condone them. I could stop myself from feeling angry at every thought of him… but the anger still waited for any half-hearted excuse to explode out of me. The memory still had secular power. The “sin” of unforgiveness still lurked. In a spiritual sense, I was unforgiven.
In church, they offer the perfect example and tell us to follow it. Jesus forgave from the cross, they say, so why can’t—or why won’t—we. (Of course, Jesus healed, but we don’t pretend we can heal. He raised the dead…. But that’s not the point.)
The I realized—what Jesus said on the cross, what the Bible tells me he said, wasn’t “I forgive,” but “Father forgive,” instead. Jesus, my Savior—his human part at least—did not forgive, for all that he “understood” and could generously claim “they know not what they do.” His understanding of them wasn’t forgiveness, any more than my understanding of my abuser. So he asked his Father to do it for him.
I can cope with that. I can copy that, too, so I did. “Father, forgive my abuser.”
Forgive our society that allows such wrongs. Forgive our churches that closed their eyes. Forgive our families that couldn’t understand. Forgive our neighbors, our friends, the living and the dead. Father forgive, because we can’t, and sometimes, honestly, we confess, we’re not even sure we really want to. But you can do it, Lord.
I don’t understand any Greek or Aramaic. I can’t say how good the Bible’s translation is of any verse. But I’m going to go with “Forgive us our sins, as we ask you to forgive those who sinned against us,” because it fits the message of forgiveness in the Bible, it doesn’t relieve me personal responsibility in desiring forgiveness, and it’s almost the same as the words I was taught. I can cope with being spared from condemnation, and I’ve been given both secular and spiritual relief.
The anger’s still there, sometimes. But it simmers more quietly now, takes longer to stir, and is easier for me to answer with a prayer—with the Lord’s Prayer.
When the pastor preached on the fifth commandment—children obey your parents, teachers, and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all—my first thought, oddly, wasn’t to scream but to question the numbering. It sounds crazy for a mathematician, but I’ve always had trouble with numbers. Symbols (and symbolic numbers) are fine—three for triangles, certainty, the divine and God of course (in so many cultures; the triune God in mine); seven for God’s plan, on the seventh day he rested, seven heavenly bodies, a quarter of the moon’s 28, and seven days in a week; four is the world’s four corners; ten is for men and women, ten-fingered and toed; and four tens delineates a generation, a long time, and an age… So many symbols, so beautifully intertwined. But somehow I’d imagined the ten in the Ten Commandments had to be symbolic too—three for God and seven for his plan.
I looked it up. They really are three and seven in the Catholic tradition I grew up with. They’re numbered the same in Samaritan tradition too, and Lutheran, but not in Jewish or Protestant. Somehow we Catholics concatenated graven images with “no Gods before me:” in number ten (thou shalt not covet), we split apart the coveting of wives and the coveting of goods. How very feminist of us—wives (or spouses, or sexual partners, but that’s a whole ’nuther argument) really aren’t property! (My brother, the Catholic priest, says this may be the only time when I claim my traditions are feminist, but he’s not always right!)
So, Ten Commandments—except that now I’d found 613 more listed in the Old Testament. It’s okay, Pastor; I know I don’t really have to bring you my moldy clothes to inspect when I’ve washed them; I won’t inflict my children’s spots on you either; and I’m happy to eat pork. Those 613 sound more like an application of the ten to a specific situation; they’re probably the reason those Jewish tribes survived all that time in the desert. God loves; God provides.
So, back to Ten Commandments again, and the sermon continues—but now I’ve spotted all those extra commandments Paul gives in his letters. “Wives obey your husbands” even if they abuse you? Paul pairs his injunction with “Husbands, cherish your wives,” so perhaps it’s conditional. “Children obey your parents,” is paired with “Fathers, do not vex your children.” Conditional too?
We’re so good, as church and society, at picking and choosing what to believe. Our favorite disobediences are proudly proclaimed as the reason for society’s ills, even when they’re in the 613 and not the ten. Meanwhile our favorite children are told obey when they haven’t yet learned how to understand right and wrong.
The sermon came to an end. I didn’t scream after all. I did ponder far and wide beyond the Ten Commandments. But I think I learned something. I think I learned there are only ten (by all our different traditions) for a very good reason. Not nine (three plus six), nor eleven (four plus seven), but ten for mankind, ten for God’s perfect provision and wonderful protection—always, yesterday today and tomorrow, only ten.
Let’s pray to understand the ten instead of adding to them. And let’s promise to explain the exceptions too when instructing our children to obey.