A Prayer of Forgiveness and Blessing

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 16th of Eighth Month, 2020


Speaker: Welling Hall


Scripture: Michael Birkel's translation of 1 John 4: 7-12


Loved ones, let us love one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this was God’s love was manifest among us: God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love—not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent God’s Son to be an atoning for our sins. Loved ones, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.




Good morning, Friends!


This past January, in other words, in an entirely different world, I was given the amazing gift to take an Earlham School of Religion class on prayer and creative writing with my friend and colleague, Michael Birkel. Today I am going to tell you a story about how the union of creative writing with prayer provided an unanticipated opening to heal a relationship with my mother who passed away 14 years ago last month. Today’s service has been planned around her and my relationship with her. For example, I’ve been working on a series of collages initially inspired by my mother and today’s bulletin art is from that series.


My mother loved music and singing. She grew up speaking Mandarin and today we would call her an athlete: she was a dancer, a tennis player, and a bicyclist. This collage includes references to her leading youth hostel tours in Germany between the wars, her love of bright colors, and her appreciation for fine chocolate, among other earthly delights. The Russian text in the collage is a reference to my presence in her life. My vibrant, dancing mother is a person I barely knew.


Reading Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead in Michael’s course transformed my relationship with my mother. The novel is a first person narrative composed by a dying Congregational minister named John Ames. As Ames contemplates the Afterlife, he is consumed by questions of love, reconciliation, and forgiveness, including how to forgive someone for a wound so unfathomable that he doesn’t even know where to begin. His questions, reflecting both book-learning and a sensual love of life; his tentative answers to ultimate questions; and his rejection of a pedantic faith that tolerates no mysteries, resonate with my own theology.


One of the assignments Michael posed for us was to write a prayer of forgiveness and blessing in the style of John Ames. Although the character Ames was not a Quaker, I imagine that he would be very much taken with this query from British Friends:

Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.

And so, with these ideas working within me, I wrote a Prayer of Forgiveness/Blessing to my deceased mother. This is what I shared with my ESR classmates in January:


Lately, I've started to ask myself this question, “What would someone do if they knew, incontrovertibly, from their baby toes to their bangs, that they were loved unconditionally?” How would such a person walk in the world, shoulder their burdens, and move on from trouble? If I could imagine that sense of assured belonging, perhaps I could move that way. And so, perhaps could you, if there were any troubles to move away from in the Afterlife (which there are not). I believe this is the message of John 4:16 “We have known and believed that God loves us. God is love. Those who live in God's love live in God, and God lives in them.”


I know now how ill you were and had been for at least a decade before I was born. And Dad, bless his patriarchal soul, would have been absolutely no help at all. How overwhelming it must have been to find yourself unexpectedly pregnant again despite “the Change" and your despair as you watched freedom from the daily tedium of child rearing recede far into the future. With that in mind, I can comprehend your distance -- like a star from another galaxy whose light grew cold before it touched me.


I do have a few happy memories of you -- I'll share the one because I believe it was a particularly happy day for you too. You were, to use a Spanish expression that you wouldn’t know, "in your sauce." We went, you, me, and Dad, to the World's Fair in New York City. As saccharine as it sounds now and despite all the awful cliches with colonizing overtones, I was completely enchanted by the colorful, singing dolls in the Small World exhibit - and I wouldn't hesitate to guess that's one reason why I chose international relations as my vocation. But the absolute best part of the day for you, as I recall, was taking me to the Fair’s re-creation of a Belgian village where we ate thick, crusty waffles with sweet, juicy red strawberries, slathered with the highest airy mounds of whipped cream that I had ever seen in my whole, entire six and three/quarters years of eating in this world. And you were laughing and smiling and happy, enjoying a moment together with me.


If there were waffles in the Afterlife, I could pray that you might enjoy one now. But eating one alone, however majestic the setting, misses the point entirely. I might however, tweak my question, “How might a person move through the world if she were buoyed by a memory of sharing a heavenly Belgian waffle with her mother?”


***


When I got home from class after sharing my Prayer of Blessing/Forgiveness, my Inbox contained an unexpected email from my sister Deb that included a scan of a letter that I had written a lifetime ago and did not remember.

I had written to my two big sisters away at camp in the summer of 1964 to tell them I missed them. “I forgot you are my sisters,” I said. In all caps and an extra special font I announced that I was going to go to the WORLD’S FAIR on July 27. The next day in class I told other students about this synchronicity. “Synchronicity is the secular word for it,” Greg said.


***


In her book, In God’s Presence, theologian Marjorie Suchocki talks about prayer engaging us in a relationship with God in which the nature of the enterprise has to take into account the world as it actually is. Inter-relational prayer is a way of working with the world as it is to create a world that “reflects something of God’s character.” An example of this is to pray for healing when death is certain and the spiritual healing that takes place cannot hope to restore a dying body. Prayers for healing are always constrained by the reality of mortality.


At the same time, with prayer, spiritual healing is possible for the dying and for those who will survive the death of a loved one, even when the restoration of physical health and well-being is not possible. In a related vein, I heard Michael say in class that death did not pose an insurmountable barrier to blessing and reconciliation.


Perhaps that is another reason why I had decided to write a prayer of forgiveness and blessing for my mother. It has not always been possible for me to think of her in a positive light, even after her death. Her manic-depressive disease (now known as bipolar disorder) was exacerbated by each successive pregnancy - and I have four older siblings. As a mother now myself, it is both easier and harder for me to imagine her condition and what her mental illness meant for her child’s life. Inspired by Marilynne Robinson’s language in Gilead and feeling a link to my maternal Congregational heritage, I thought I could try writing a prayer of reconciliation for our relationship. In that prayer it made sense to remember my mother at her best - during a day together at the World’s Fair.


As it turns out, a trip to the 1964 World’s Fair dedicated to “Peace through Understanding” was a special time for lots of people. I’ve done a bit of research since I first wrote my prayer. The recollected dream attraction of my childhood was a joint project of UNICEF and PepsiCo and shortly thereafter became a hit at DisneyLand. It turns out that the “Bel-Gem” waffles were also a smash hit, remembered by many Baby Boomers as a highlight of their visit to the Fair. It is hard to imagine that their memories could be more divine than mine.


My sister Deb tells me that she had been thinking for a while about scanning that letter and had finally managed to get around to it that morning. My prayer and the receipt of the letter from my childhood self feels like closing a circle that I never expected to close. Last fall I started doing some grief work with my dear friend Cheryl and put off the stage of writing a letter to my mother because I had no clue where to begin. With some more insight from Suchocki, I felt like there might be a way to release a prayer about real human brokenness and work toward some forgiveness. Robinson begins her novel Gilead with John Ames musing that the dead know everything there is about being dead but choose not to share. In the world in which my mother “knows everything there is to know about being dead” but is not able to share, I experience the mystical visitation from my almost seven year old self as an affirmation that my memory of that happy, intimate moment with her is both real and sacred. Words that might be empty or meaningless may later turn out to offer new insight into a relationship. In 1964, the word “mother” stood alone and disconnected in that letter, preceded by punctuation and followed by illegible scribbling. In 2020, the word “mother” stands out as an opening to her and from her. How could it be that this opening would occur right as I was praying about that relationship and this opening would arrive in the context of a letter looking forward to the very day in which my mother was wholly present with me? “Synchronicity,” as Greg said, “is the secular word for it.” I call it evidence that God is Love.


As we enter into waiting worship, I invite you to consider the query I shared at the beginning of my message.

Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/. You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Welling Hall, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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