Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Patterns of Family and Forgiveness — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on October 30th, 2011

It was one of the most amazing experiences I have had as a minister.  It began with a phone call from a woman, now in her late forties, to tell me that the man I was caring for, her father, was not all he seemed to be.  She said that I did not know the whole story.  She needed me to know that, no matter how nice he seemed, no matter how much the rest of the family wanted to celebrate him as a person… things had not always been so nice, and the relationship between this father and daughter was far from perfect.

It was while I was serving as a Hospice Chaplain Resident in one of the northern suburbs of Chicago.  I have spoken about preaching of this with the family, and they have given me permission to share the generalities of their story.  I am not going to share any details, because frankly they are not necessary… and this story is so common that I would be willing to bet it will resonate with many among us today.

The father, who was my patient, was a very charismatic, outgoing man.  He was the kind of guy who dominated any room he walked into, be it the clubroom of his favorite Elks Lodge, or the living room crammed with a hospital bed and medical gear that was where I met him.  He had end-stage lung cancer, and when I met him he had only a few months left to live… and we all knew it.  He knew he was dying.  His wife knew he was dying.  His three daughters knew he was dying.

One of my first conversations with him was his asking me if I would let him write his own eulogy.  I told him that of course I would let him write his own eulogy.  I’d even help…  He could write his own eulogy… but if he wanted it preached he’d have to come to the memorial service and preach it himself.   If I was doing the service, I would say whatever I pleased, because he would not be there to stop me.   He smiled, and said that he’d just decided to adopt me…   In that moment, I became his and the family’s chaplain, and perhaps a little more.  He was an ardent Atheist, and to the end of his days he was amazed that he could find, in his words, his own Priest.

 

 

Among the many lessons about families that I learned in my year as a hospice chaplain, there are two that stand out ahead of any others.  The first is that whatever patterns a family has practiced over the many decades they have been together, those patterns will become far more pronounced when the family is under stress.  If there is a pattern that the family will cede authority to one member, say the mother, then under stress the authority of that mother will become absolute.  If there exists within a family a tension between the first and the second born child, then under stress that tension will turn into overt hostility.  If the pattern in a family is to just not see inconvenient or uncomfortable truths, then under stress that family will likely move into profound denial.

Whatever the patterns in a family are, when that family is put under stress those patterns not only continue, but they become more intense.  The more profound the stress, the more the intensely the family will follow the patterns they have always known.

The second lesson I learned about families from my time as a hospice chaplain is that there are few places in our lives we can be hurt worse than in our families.  From being with families whose loved ones were dying in hospice, to my overnight shifts as the Chaplain in the ER and Trauma Center at the hospital I worked for, it was amazing to me how much emotional pain can be created within families, even when we do not intend to.  And, sometimes family members do intend to cause harm to one another… and if that is a pattern in the family, it will only be intensified when the family is under stress.

I do not want to give the impression that families always react badly under stress, because that is simply not true.  And I do not want to give the impression that families are always hurting one another, because that is also not true.  I remember one family that had a pattern of co-operation and working together, who under the stress of their grandmother’s final days used the timesheets from the McDonalds franchise the family owned to prepare a shift-schedule so that their grandmother would never be alone.

I remember another family that had set a pattern of being so considerate of one another that, when the family was under stress my hardest work as their chaplain was getting them to think of caring for themselves… each of them was focused on making sure everyone else was okay… including the woman who was dying.

So, for good or for ill, when families are under stress they will follow and intensify whatever patterns they have always followed… and it is in families that we are vulnerable to some of our deepest emotional wounds.

There was a pattern in the family of the gregarious father I was caring for in hospice, one that had gone back decades.  That pattern was that the youngest daughter was often in conflict with her father and the rest of the family…and that conflict was often over whether or not the family was as perfect as the father wanted it to appear.

This pattern of conflict between the father and the daughter had a decades-long history, going back to when the daughter was a young girl.  At several times it had become so intense on either side that it could only be termed as abusive.  In her high school years, the daughter had suffered some physical abuse at the hands of her father… abuse that had never been acknowledged and recognized, much less apologized for.  To have admitted it occurred would have proven that the family was not as “perfect” as the father liked to present it as being.

On the phone with me, the daughter told me the story of her relationship with her father.  Later, we met and discussed it in person .  Though there had been times when the relationship between this father and daughter had been strained, it had never fully broken.  When I asked her why she had not simply given up, why she stayed engaged in the family all of these years, she told me that it was because she knew that part of the reason that she and her father fought was because they were so much alike.  Even with all that had happened, she still loved him.

As you might be able to tell, this family touched my heart.  Many of my families during that year as a hospice chaplain touched my heart, but this one was special to me, and it took me a long while to understand why.

You see, there is a pattern in my family too.  It is a pattern that goes back not just a few decades, but generations.  I’ve been able to trace it back through three generations, but I am willing to bet that if I could find the history, I would see it go back even further than this.  My family has been repeating this same pattern for a hundred years or more…

What touched me about this family, about this daughter’s relationship to her father was that she made a different decision than would be made in my family.  Even with all the pain and the hurt, this daughter enacted the pattern that she kept coming back to her family, and to her father.  While not necessarily forgetting or even forgiving what had gone on before, she still found ways to stay in relationship with her father.  And, in staying in relationship, she continued to challenge the myth that their family was “perfect”.

In my family, the pattern is that, whenever there is a major conflict, the family chooses up sides and fights… and then when the fight is over the sides never speak to each other ever again.  We would still choose up sides in minor conflicts, but when the stress is high enough the conflict would be so intense that the different sides break off all relationship with one another.

I’ve seen this pattern in both my father’s family and my mother’s family.  In my father’s family, the most recent split was over a dispute about my grandfather’s will.  The two sides have not really spoken since he died over ten years ago.  In my mother’s family, the “family lore” tells of two Irish brothers who, on the boat to America, got in a fight and afterwards would not speak to each other.  When the boat landed, one took the name McConnell and moved to Ohio, and the other took the name O’Connell and moved to Georgia… and the myth is the two families have not had anything to do with one another to this day… and no one remembers what the initial fight was even about.

When I do pre-marital/ pre-union counseling for couples that I am going to perform a marital or commitment ceremony for, I ask each of the couple to do a diagram of their family’s emotional systems and patterns to give to their partner as a part of the program… because when you make a commitment to someone, it is not just to them, but to the entirety of each other’s family systems.

Many of you, especially those of you who have had some counseling or clinical training, have heard these ideas about families before.  It is a part of what is called “Family Systems Theory”, and its core rests in the idea that each family has a set of patterns, many of them inherited, that are its foundation, and that, especially under stress, the family will act within these foundational patterns and systems.

Families can change… they can either choose to act outside of their system, and sometimes they can change their family system in both major and minor ways… but only if they become aware of their patterns.  And the only thing anyone can ever change in their family system is themselves… not anyone else.

I remember one particular afternoon, when I was sitting at the bedside of the father who had the conflicted relationship with his daughter.  He loved her dearly, and one of the things that was often on his heart that he wanted to speak about was why the two of them had always had such a rocky relationship.  When I asked him about his relationship with his father, it became clear that he had also had a rocky relationship with his father, because he was always challenging whether things were as perfect in the family as his father told the world they were.

Like father, like daughter…

There were a couple of things that happened for this family, when they began to see the system that they were functioning in.  The first was that, knowing that it was a pattern that extended beyond the moment, and even beyond a generation made it a bit less personal.  It gave both this father and this daughter a bit of distance.  They saw themselves together in a system, not opposed in the moment.  They also saw that they had a choice… to continue acting within the system, or choose a different way of being with one another.

They also saw how this pattern affected them in other parts of their lives.  During one of the fascinating discussions I had with the father about whether God really existed, he turned to me and said that part of why he had trouble believing in God was that the Church was not nearly as perfect as it should be, and that if God was real then why didn’t he “fix” the Church?  He then smiled and said, “wow, that sounds like my daughter”.

Seeing the patterns of our families, we can see the patterns we enact in all parts of our lives.  They are ingrained into us when we are very young, often before our conscious memories are formed.  We carry them with us into every community we participate in.

And, the community that acts most like a family, and has its own patterns and systems that we learn and enact, is a church.  Is it any wonder that the next place after a family where we are most likely to be deeply emotionally hurt is at Church?  Or in our romantic relationships?

Over the last few years, I’ve given a lot of thought to why it is that the places where we can be hurt the deepest seem to be in our families, our loves, and in our religious communities… and I’ve come to a working theory.  I believe it is because, unlike many of the other relationships of our lives, we believe, either rightly or wrongly, that these are relationships we can and should enter into with the whole of our beings.  We risk more of ourselves in families, in churches, and in our loves than we do in most other parts of our lives.  We share more of who we are, and invite others to share more of themselves.  We enter into these relationships with a level of trust that is sacred…

And so, when we are hurt having been this open and trusting… we feel the wounds far deeper than in most of the other relationships of our lives.  The wounds of families, of churches, and of loves are the hardest to heal.  The pain and fear that these wounds bring forth in us is often the hardest to forgive.  And because we often stay in some kind of relationship with those who are in our family, in our romances, and in our churches, we risk being wounded over and over again, often in the same exact place.

Over the months I was with them, I walked with this one father and daughter as they journeyed toward one another.  It was a hard journey for both of them.  Each of them had to ask difficult questions of themselves. They had to encounter places in themselves that were full of pain. They had to re-understand who they were, in relationship to each other and to their whole family.

That journey led them both to a moment, less than a day before the father died.  The daughter was at his bedside, and they were alone.  He could barely speak, and yet he took her hand and he told her he loved her, and he asked for her forgiveness.  He named that he had mistreated her, both emotionally and for a short while physically.  He acted outside of their family pattern, by naming that their family was not perfect, and neither was he.

She did not tell him not to worry about it.  She did not try to say that it was all okay… because it wasn’t.  It was far from okay…  yet in that moment, she did something she had once told me she never thought she could do.

She told him he was forgiven.  She had forgiven him weeks before, when she realized that not forgiving him had been poisoning her own life.  She forgave him not because he had asked for it or even deserved it… but because forgiving him was the first step in changing the pattern in her own life.

Forgiveness is hard… and the more we are hurt, the harder it is.  Where we can be hurt the most is in our church life, our love life, and our family life.  And yet, in all of these places, the ways we are hurt are far more complex than incidents and personalities.  We all exist in our family patterns and systems… and seeing that, perhaps we can see a way to change, to break free…

And to forgive and be forgiven.

So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.

 

 

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