This guest post comes to us from PCB, an attorney, legal academic, and brother of BCC’s own Sam MB.
The usual discussion on the Atonement relates to the miraculous way that Christ’s sacrifice makes us, imperfect sinners, able to overcome our weaknesses to live with our perfect Father again in celestial glory. I believe in that vision of the Atonement. A recent experience, though, has led me to see the Atonement as more than that. I also believe that the Atonement can help us overcome the sins of others and not simply forgive, but become reconciled with them. The At-One-Ment of the Savior’s sacrifice can build bridges between our broken hearts and the ones who have done the breaking in ways that can allow us to heal.
In 1991, my father died. I was nine, and he was my hero. My parents had divorced a few years before, and while I knew the details that precipitated the divorce didn’t exactly wrap my Dad in glory, my mother did an extraordinary job preserving his memory, encouraging me to preserve and even deepen my love for him. I expressed this love through emulation, and did so for about nine years. He was a musician, so I became a musician. He loved scouting; I followed suit. I even had a pillowcase with his face emblazoned on it (a gift he gave me and me siblings, deeply odd in retrospect but cherished at the time) and a blown-up photo of the two of us above my bed.
In 1998, in the fall of my senior year of high school, an older sibling made a passing reference to a family memory that I had, almost willfully it seems, blocked and blurred in the intervening years. The memory was an odd one, though, and showed me that the image I had created of my father was seriously incomplete. My brother courteously deflected my questions, and encouraged me to talk further with our mother to know more.
I spoke to Mom. Confronted her, really, insisting that she clarify this almost forgotten memory. She responded, tearfully but respectfully: “How much do you want to know?” My seventeen-year-old self couldn’t stomach the ignorance: “Everything.” And so she did. About the divorce. About the pain Dad had caused the family. About his serious, extraordinary misdeeds that sounded more fictional than real. I wept, wanted to throw up, and, when I returned from a long drive by myself to think through what I had just heard, I removed the photo from the wall.
Dad died a second time that day. For the next ten or so years, his influence in my life was as the anti-example. Whatever he was, I wanted badly not to be. I eventually married a wonderful woman and started a career and a family. What lingering thoughts I directed toward him — and they were honestly very few — were mostly only when forced by others (the innocent question: “What does your Dad do?” elicited perfunctory responses that, depending on the context, sometimes included barbs about his sad little life). Honestly, about the only time I thought of him was on the anniversary of his birth and death, when my siblings or mother would frequently write very short tributes to him, sent to our family’s email list. I never joined that chorus, and in fact frequently found these tributes distasteful. I often wondered — “How can you guys be so glib? Dad was a bad guy; he hurt us; he hurt our saintly mother; why not let’s call a spade a spade and move on with things?”
A year or so ago, a different brother, whose essays will be familiar to regular readers of BCC, wrote on this site about his own reconciliation with Dad. That beautiful essay made me feel, poignantly, how distant I felt from Dad and his memory, and how, though dormant, this bitterness was hurting me. For the first time in a decade, I wanted to feel something more for Dad’s memory than the anti-legacy I had constructed, as in — “What would Dad do as a husband, father, lawyer, son, church member, person? Because I will do the opposite in every respect.” That’s a terrible legacy to maintain, and I wanted to feel something different. I just didn’t know how to let go.
I spent the next couple of months fasting and praying to feel that peace. It did not come. But during the third consecutive fast, I sat lost in thought during sacrament meeting. Oblivious to all this was my two-year-old son, who sat cuddling me closely. In my mind’s eye, I pictured Dad and his tweed jacket, sitting in the empty pew next to me. I wondered what I would do, what I would say, if I saw him there now. Would I launch an inquisition? Would I demand his apology? Would I remind him of his misdeeds? Would I make awkward small talk, catching him up on what had happened in the intervening twenty years? Would I tell him he was forgiven? Would I struggle to chat about common acquaintances, thinking the whole time about how much I just wanted not to be like him?
And then, the moment of miraculous peace. My scabbed-over wounds reopened, but revealed a deeper emotion – something so raw and real and honestly so beautiful that I can only describe it as the Holy Ghost. Tearfully, it became obvious to me. I would do none of those things: no inquisition, accusation, or small talk. I doubt I would say anything at all. I would, just like my own precious toddler, fall into him, hug him tightly, and then weep. I wouldn’t have any reaction but longing, hugging and crying, discovering again the Dad-shaped hole that he has left behind, that has never been filled.
As I pondered this special moment, I felt the deep love of God and the power of the Atonement bridging gaps that I had long thought unbridgeable. I felt like I could — finally — separate the actions from the man. I felt, however briefly, a taste of how God must have seen his son, my father. And I felt the invitation to humility. Bad actions are easy to identify. Bad people much harder. I’ll leave the latter to God, and tell Dad that my children, his grandchildren, will grow up in a home where his name will be respected.
Of course, it’s easier to find this peace in situations like mine where the pain is long removed; I have a great deal of sympathy for those who ache to forgive others who continue to wound them. But I believe deeply that Christ can lend us the love that He feels for others – even those who have absolutely no legitimate claim on our love, through their own carelessness or even acts they intend to hurt us. And that is one of the gifts of the Atonement: that we can be given the gift to love with that borrowed love, and to be healed through that experience.
And so, for the first time in many, many years, I finally feel comfortable joining the annual salute — here’s to you, Dad. I look forward to that tearful embrace, and to introducing you to my wife and your grandsons.