Some of you may have read my earlier post where I confessed to judging my brother unfairly. I guess I'm on a confession roll, because I have another one that I've been thinking about for days. However, instead of being the one in need of asking for forgiveness, as in the case of my brother, I am guilty this time of withholding forgiveness -- even though the person who offended me has never asked for it.
I have three sister-in-laws. One of them lives in Canada, another in the US. Both of them are very sweet and I love them.
The third one lives here in Norway. I will call her "Helga."
Helga got together with my husband's older brother about two years after my husband and I started our relationship. We met her for the first time during one of my visits to Norway, before we were married. Even from that first meeting, although she seemed nice, I got a negative vibe from her. Later I found out why.
After I had gone back home to Canada, Helga continued to visit my husband's family and they spent more time together. Somehow, the word had gotten out that I was a Mormon. Helga is the type of person that can seem really sweet and polite, but suddenly make you feel put on the spot by asking very personal questions that can make for an uncomfortable situation. My husband found himself in the hot seat as she peppered him with questions about what kind of "cult" I was a member of, whether my family lived in a "Mormon quarter," and how my religion affected our relationship, etc. I remember talking to him on the phone later when he told me, "I have to say, I don't really like Helga."
About a year later we got married in Canada. When I heard that Helga was coming for the wedding, I felt nervous. I was worried that she would make for an awkward situation with my Mormon family, but I kept telling myself that things would be fine, that surely she would behave when she was the guest in a home of people she had never met who were having a wedding! Well, I was waaaaay too optimistic. Literally about two minutes after arriving, there was a quip in a mocking sort of tone about whether my husband was going to "convert" before the wedding. Later there was a not-so-veiled attempt to find out whether my husband and I would be sleeping together before the wedding, and plenty of other strange and rude comments, to do with religion or our way of life. My husband and I missed out on most of it, since we left for our honeymoon, but both my parents and my mother-in-law filled us in later on all of Helga's antics. Helga's behaviour on the Canada trip remains a classic story on both sides of our family to this day.
Worrying about Helga's behaviour (which turned out to not be without reason) added to my stress. Although I was happy on my wedding day, I was also very sad. I was leaving my family and moving to a different continent. It was a bittersweet time for me and because of that, Helga's behaviour really stung. Not only was I angry, but I was hurt very deeply. By acting rudely towards my family, who I know treated her like gold throughout her entire stay, and making strange comments in a mocking tone regarding my religion, she alienated me and my husband completely. Once I moved to Norway, I did everything I could to avoid her. Even seeing her face or hearing her voice made my skin crawl and literally gave me a sick feeling. This went on for almost 6 years, during which we said not much more than hello to each other. My mother-in-law (who understood completely why we were upset) later told us that Helga had asked her why we were avoiding her and she told her. Helga seemed to be surprised and perhaps slightly apologetic, but she never made an attempt to apologize to us, even though she could have easily sent us a letter or e-mail to avoid the discomfort of a face-to-face meeting. She never asked for forgiveness and I wasn't about to give it to her. Although I can't really say that I "hate" anyone, Helga was high up on my list of people that I intensely disliked.
Now, after what I've told you about Helga so far, you're bound to be surprised at what I'm going to tell you next. You may be amazed to hear that a woman with such contempt for religion, and utterly lacking in tact or manners, had spent years earlier working for the UN in....... of all places..... Afghanistan and Pakistan! Yes, that's right. In a place where women couldn't even go out without a burqa, let alone speak their minds, Helga managed to work for five years without getting herself kicked out or stoned to death, getting out just before the Taliban reached her area. And if that doesn't surprise you enough already, after returning to Norway, going back to school, and meeting my husband's brother, she got a job working for the charity "Save The Children," which has required her to travel to even more war-torn and dangerous countries in recent years. It always puzzled me as to how someone who did such noble work could be so rude and intolerant towards her own family members.
Another classic family story is one that we refer to as "The Christening." Helga and my brother-in-law had a baby and were planning a non-religious "Naming Day" instead of the traditional Lutheran church christening. This is not so uncommon in Norway, where fewer and fewer people have a relationship to the state church outside of weddings and funerals, but it was sort of a big deal for my mother-in-law and her elderly mother, both of whom thought it was important to have the baby blessed by a priest. Helga objected to the christening ceremony, saying she had attended them before and didn't like what the priest had said. As well, she was upset that a prominent bishop in the state church had spoken out against gay marriage. In the end, Helga caved in and decided to honour the wishes of the baby's great-grandmother and the christening ceremony went on without a hitch, even though it looked for a while like Helga was going to perhaps tell the priest what he could or couldn't say during the ceremony. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief after it was over.
Now I need to fast-forward a few years. Everything remained pretty much status quo. We had limited contact with Helga and although it wasn't something that I was dwelling on, I certainly hadn't forgiven her for anything. But, over time, something changed. Perhaps a little bit in her, but a whole lot in me. Call it my "Christmas Miracle."
I had a lousy Christmas. I worked all of the holidays and it was depressing. It was way too quiet, no friends and very little family. I thought I had hit rock bottom when the "highlight" of my Christmas was going to be the usual dinner at Helga's cottage, that type of family event that is held and attended mostly out of obligation, with the usual minimal chit-chat. But somehow, it was different this year.
I had a nice time!
I actually somewhat enjoyed the chattering of my mother-in-law and Helga's mother, as well as the funny comments by our 4 year-old nephew.
I didn't even really want to go home!
And then we invited them all to come to dinner at our house. And I looked forward to it!
Maybe I was just desperate for the company.
Amazingly, we had a nice dinner, decent conversation, no rudeness, no prying, no comments about my picture of Jesus on the wall behind where she was sitting.
I realized after those two gatherings that I wasn't angry anymore. It's strange, but it's all gone -- even though I know that something will happen again, she will say something to bother me someday. In a way I think that's just her personality, but I don't care anymore.
Like I said, she has never apologized. We've never discussed it and so, in a way, nothing has ever been resolved. But over the past few weeks it's like I've had a revelation of sorts as to perhaps why Helga is the way she is.
I am Helga. Well, sort of. I have in a way become her, at least where the subject of religion is concerned. I'm seeing religion through her eyes now. I don't want to stay there, but I'm finding that it's very hard to not stay there.
Although I've never actually talked to Helga about any of this, I've tried to imagine where her hostility for religion stems from. I have several theories:
In a way, I think it's a cultural thing. Norwegians are generally an irreligious people. I've sensed a lot of hostility towards religion here -- especially conservative Christianity. Many Norwegians have little regard for a faith which has caused so much pain for so many people throughout history: those in earlier centuries who were slaughtered in the name of Christianity, those whose unchristened infants were not allowed to be buried in the church cemetery, parents who lost children during World War II and were told by their priest it was their punishment for not attending church, and in more modern times, homosexuals being treated as deviant sinners by certain Christian sects. Christianity, to many, equals guilt, pain, and judgment. The "Good News" message can be very hard to uncover in a sea of hypocrisy.
I know that Helga, as a young woman lost her father in a tragic drowning accident. Although I'd like to think that I would never be bitter at God after such a tragedy, I really can't say for sure that I wouldn't.
I think I also need to take into account that Helga has seen and experienced life in places that I have only read about. It's hard enough to see the good in religion when I'm living in one of the best countries of the world where I'm free to do pretty much whatever I want and not have to worry about suicide bombers at the supermarket. How would anyone fighting for a stop to public stonings and amputations, the right of women to show their faces in public, or protecting little girls from genital mutilation not become cynical about religion when much of the misery stems from exactly that? Would I be immune to such negativity? Would you?
As human beings, we can sometimes believe the unbelievable and do the unthinkable in the name of religion. And I think that we're mistaken if we believe that such extremism is limited to the type of people that blow themselves up on a bus full of innocent civilians. Extremism is sometimes manifested in small, undramatic and seemingly acceptable ways -- yes, even in our church.
I used to hate hearing when people would blame religion for all the war and misery in the world. I wanted to say they were wrong, but the truth is that they're right in many instances. Although pure religion in itself is not responsible for the disruption of peace, in my opinion, people can be convinced that their religious convictions give them a license to do the unthinkable -- Mormons included.
Watching the news from Gaza, I wonder what God really wants. Heck, I can wonder this by reading the Bible and reading how God supposedly advocates the eradication of an entire population -- women and children included -- in Gaza-like fashion. So why wouldn't he approve now?
I'm sure that I can't even begin to appreciate the complexity of the history, politics, and religion that have made the Gaza situation into what it is today. So, for me to pass judgment on what either side does sounds pretty ludicrous, doesn't it? Well, I'm going to do it anyways.
I can greatly sympathize with those who feel oppressed and have their basic freedoms taken away, but anyone who believes that Allah, God, or whatever you want to call him, wants him to pack himself up in explosives, get on a bus filled with innocent people going about their daily business, and blow it up to shreds is, in my opinion, so utterly lacking in any empathy or compassion that it makes me question whether they are even human.
I can also sympathize with the need for a group of people to defend itself from the type of people I mentioned above. If an intruder breaks into your home and threatens your family, you defend it. The intruder may even need to be destroyed in self-defense. But is it OK to kill your intruder's innocent wife, children, burn down his house, and shoot his neighbours because he was a danger to your family? Especially if the intruder has a legitimate claim on the lot that your home is standing on? At what point is it perhaps better to just leave your home, as unfair as it may be, if in order to stay you are required to slaughter the intruder's innocent family, including his children?
Everyone wants a piece of "The Holy Land." After all that has happened there over the centuries, how "holy" is it? All you have to do is watch CNN and the insanity will make you think that perhaps Christopher Hitchens has it right after all.
Stuff like this tears me apart and makes me long for a religion that's easy, that's just about love, compassion, service, and nothing more. No judgments, no guilt, no feeling torn between what feels right and what people want to tell me is right. But it has to be believable. And that's the problem. Someone like Christopher Hitchens is very appealing to one's ego, but one's ego isn't worth so much when a one needs a miracle. People like Hitchens are very smart, but they can't explain away mystical and miraculous religious experiences any more than they can make the earth spin backwards. To me, they're more impossible to believe in as the religions they think they've debunked. But in all honesty, I now understand better than ever why more and more people seem to be finding atheism or agnosticism to make the most sense. In fact, lately I've been thinking that the world would be a better place if everyone thought like Christopher Hitchens. After all, could it get any worse than the current situation in "The Holy Land?"
I wonder if we really understand why people often view religion -- Mormonism being no exception -- the way they do. Do we really get it? I always thought I did, but I think I needed to marry a non-member and move to a place like Norway to understand it better. Maybe I still don't completely get it, but I think I'm getting there. I've always been looking from the inside out. Now I think I've gotten a better perspective from the outside. When I first moved here, I really resented what I felt to be a very strong anti-religious atmosphere. My bad experience with Helga only intensified this feeling and even to this day, I'm a bit paranoid about people here finding out that I'm a Christian. A Mormon! Will they automatically view me as a fanatic? Well, the truth is that some probably would. And this has forced me to get off my religious high horse and really ask myself why people like Helga are the way they are. Is it really all just their fault and theirs alone? In a way yes, in a way no.
I recently came across someone on Facebook, who is LDS, asking why so many people in Arizona seem to hate Mormons these days. I noticed that a fellow Mormon responded by saying, "We have no reason to be dissed at all as our church only teaches good things. Nothing bad whatsoever."
Well, maybe it's all "good" to us!
It amazes me sometimes how we expect everyone to have the same high esteem for our religious teachings and values as we do. We sometimes feel taken aback when people get annoyed at the Elders when they knock on their door (even though you know you get annoyed when the Jehovah's Witnesses knock on yours), when people associate us with the FLDS (even though they stem from us), or when we have a large enough influence to get Prop 8 passed (even though you perhaps resent your neighbour for voting No on 8). I don't necessarily think that we need to apologize for our personal convictions, but I do think that we sometimes expect too much sympathy from people who have negative experience with religion. "We're not threatened by any of this, so why should anyone else have reason to be?" we think to ourselves. And yet how many of us would not feel the least bit discomfort if an atheist was elected as president or prime minister? I admit that even I would.
I have to say that I am, more than ever, grateful for the unique experience of marrying a non-member and moving to a place that I like to describe as a "spiritual desert." One could easily wonder whether that was really the Lord confirming to me that my husband was the one for me and that I should embark on this spiritual journey virtually alone. Some days I think that Satan must have claimed victory the day that he saw me go down this road. I hope, on the contrary, that the Lord was pleased that I would be given this experience and unique perspective from "the other side." And hopefully He was optimistic enough that I'd be able to handle it.
I'm not naive enough to believe that Helga and I will be best friends. Besides our rocky history, I think that our personalities clash. But I have learned to now see her in a slightly more flattering light. Although I don't think that her behaviour was justified by her negative encounters with religion, I think that it's perhaps understandable. And I forgive her, whether she cares or not.
It would be nice if everyone was as open-minded about my beliefs and actually wanted to try to understand them as much as I want to understand theirs. In the mean time, I'd settle for common courtesy, an end to hostility, and a stop to the hate and slaughter that we're seeing in the Middle East.
It seems strange that the Lord would want me to begin to have negative thoughts about religion for the sake of learning forgiveness for someone like Helga. So I'm not sure whether He really intended for me to go down this road, or whether being able to forgive Helga was just a lucky bi-product of a deep spiritual rut that I'm in.
One burden lost, another one gained.