Blogs on Kingsview & Co, which is an extension of DreamSeeker Magazine, are from main blogger Michael A. King combined with intermittent guest posts.
Below is the most recent prior Kingsview post, released in DreamSeeker Magazine 2012 at Kingsview Autumn 2012, and functioning here as the first post of Kingsview & Co.
Where Torment and Transcendence Mix
Michael A. King
The death of both my parents amid journeying with various friends and colleagues through complex family dynamics has made me want to zoom out to bigger-picture reflections. What keeps coming to me is this: Families are where we primally and intimately experience torment and transcendence.
I hasten to recognize that torment probably isn’t how those blessed with sunnier family experience would put it. And transcendence may not compute for those who have known primarily ways families maim.
So let me simply report why I think of both torment and transcendence.
Torment because I’ve seen so much of it in family layers going back generations. And in communities, often church-related, I regularly participate in. The torment can range across mental illness; the pain such illness inflicts on sufferers and those who love them; suicide; amid inability to navigate inherited shadows passing them on to others; divorce and its trauma for those separating as well as children, relatives, friends. I know a family in which attempts of children to grow up lead to being literally disowned; there is torment here for those disowned even as surely the acts of disowning flow from their own prior wells of anguish.
I could go on—and on—but my point isn’t to belabor the torment. I simply want to name it plus offer the severe mercy of acknowledging that the torment is not rectified by being Christian but accompanies us as Christians. No example I’ve offered flows from non-Christian family life. I don’t blame Christianity—but those of us in Christian families can empower shadows through believing there must be something non-Christian about them, hence we may take our church selves to church, sequester our family hurts at home, and in so doing often deepen rather than heal them.
I’ve seen this dynamic in relation to suicide and its frequent companion, depression. Many of us were formed within an understanding that suicide was sin and depression a sign of spiritual failure. Suicide has been viewed as so grievous we can even tell of suicidal loved ones whose bodies congregations wouldn’t allow in cemetaries. Seeing association with depression or suicide as shameful has made us reluctant to talk about such matters, to make them part of our church lives or faith journeys, to trust that rather than God’s judgment added to the depressive’s or the suicide’s torment, grace even here, and maybe especially here, can sorrowfully and tenderly abound.
And maybe that takes us to the cusp of transcendence. Because when families are able, imperfectly though truly, to confront their torments, they can become zones of amazing grace.
Not cheap grace. Any family who has walked through the worst of the worst knows grace is costly, bought by tears, sleepless nights of reliving nightmares, choices to grow even when one’s family soil seems too shallow to offer nurture, turning to mentors and therapists and friends and sometimes our own family members with readiness to keep loving even when it hurts like we imagine hell itself to hurt.
Recently a friend I’m in touch with only on Facebook, but with whom I share roots going back to our growing up together as children of missionaries, posted that a giant of our missionary youths had entered hospice care. This stirred us to share memories.
My friend remarked of the dying missionary and his wife that they “were probably the first people I met—as a young child—that were very very much in love and full of creative, imaginative energy. I’ll never forget them running across a field, hand in hand. I was very young and there is no photograph of that moment, but it is engraved in my mind.”
Chills. Tears. That is a picture of transcendence. Family can carry us beyond our worst to miracles larger than we achieve in isolation. Hand in hand across a field. So classic a film-like image as to be almost a cliché but in the best sense of cliché—though we risk cheapening it by repetition, the reason we’re thus tempted is that it’s so primally and powerfully true.
I think of the day a dying mother, amid a family’s shadows, embraced a child. And in that embrace said to one who was long an adult yet also a child tremulous still, “I love you as you are.” Transcendence.
Again I could go on. Because could we with ink the ocean fill, we wouldn’t exhaust the love, of God or for each other, that allows us to turn scripts of even family torment into narratives of transcendence.
—Michael A. King, Telford, Pennsylvania and Harrisonburg, Virginia, is Dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This column was first published in The Mennonite (Oct. 2011).