I was in high school, it was late at night, and I was having trouble falling asleep. All of a sudden from my younger brother’s room — Andrew by now had been asleep for hours – came the sound of shouting: “Martha, YOU ARE SO STUPID!”
My brother and I get along, at times even quite well. We were one another’s most faithful playmates over the course of long family trips. We were allies when we felt our parents were being unfair or insensitive. We value one another’s company as adults. But this sleep-talking incident hasn’t been the only one in which I have also picked up on a current of animosity or frustration that Andrew has felt toward me over the years. Now that I have my own daughter and son, same birth order with Cecilia just two years older than Gordon, I have a better understanding.
Cecilia, as the older sister, is genuine in her desire to be helpful to the one that she sees as being drastically less advanced than she is. Although she couldn’t possibly remember life being so, she is seemingly formed by her early experience of having a baby brother who couldn’t walk, who couldn’t talk, to whom she could dictate games and perimeters and for whom she could speak. I marvelled at the way that she would play with her baby brother, chatting with him in the way that only toddlers are capable, just able to bridge the gap between their own newly forming language skills and yet still able to talk in the coos and babbles of a newborn. It has now been a very long time since Gordon was grateful for an older sister’s smothering attention and crisp little voice speaking on his behalf. And yet it seems to be ingrained in her big sister nature to slip into this ‘ruler of the kid universe’ role. It is now just as ingrained for Gordon to rail against it, so frustrated at times by her overbearing ways that he can do nothing other than splutter and shake.
The more that I talk about the dynamic I see at play in my own children, the more that I hear others begin to speak up about their own similar experience. It appears there is a particular kind of relationship that can emerge between an older sister and younger brother close in age. Gordon’s spluttering and shaking, my brother’s explosion of sleep-talking frustration, are possibly pretty normal reactions to a pretty normal strain on a pretty normal sibling configuration.
Which leads me to wonder about sin. Jesus enters the Galilean scene as a newly baptized adult, proclaiming ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!’ Forgiveness is undeniably a central sign of the nearness of that kingdom. Just as his teacher John the Baptist used baptism as a ways of signalling the repentance and forgiveness of sins, so Jesus often identifies acts of healing as signs of forgiveness. Jesus models prayer for us and explicitly links the desire God’s kingdom to come on earth around the plea that God will not only provide us with the sustenance we need for the day, but also and equally, the ability to both give and receive this forgiveness. He controversially claims the authority to forgive sins, an act that was normally reserved for God’s power alone. This sort of talk is noted as one of the reasons for Jesus’ eventual arrest and death.
It’s also one reason modern people identify for pushing Jesus away. The long association of the church with an institution that imprisons people with guilt, with a feeling of dirtiness or unworthiness; our modern mantra of ‘I’m okay, you’re okay,’; the genuine block that a self-sufficient North American individual feels in being able to name themselves as needing a Saviour to forgive them; these realities can leave many people with a sense of ambivalence, or even outright discomfort or disgust, with the precepts of Christianity. “I don’t need a religion to make me feel bad about myself!” I have heard more than once.
However, this particular rejection of Christianity might have more to do with lack of imagination in how our faith is both received and presented than it does with an actual problem with the way of Jesus. Sin and forgiveness are proclaimed as much more than simply a list of wrongdoings that God tallies up against us and then Jesus erases. We see how sin is separation taking place in numerous ways – paralysation, alienation, accusation, despair and hopelessness, fear and stereotype, blindness – and how so much of the reality surrounding sin cannot be reduced to merely one person’s wrong-doing against another, but rather is the result of entrenched systems in how we encounter and treat one another.
The one who makes all things new exposes those systems. When the kingdom of God comes near, we are called out of the trenches. There are epiphanies, sudden insights, leaping off the pages of Scripture as men and women become able to see their separation from one another, as well as the possibility of shedding old ways like a snake sheds skin that no longer fits. In my priestly ministry, I have offered a number of instances of private Confession & Absolution. Each time involved far more than rattling off past mistakes and instead became an admission of yearning, yearning to leave behind guilt, to let go of bitterness, to shed the ways of dysfunction, to mend broken relationships, to be raised out of systems that have been filled with hurt, to embrace a life which is abundant.
I joke that Gordon will be in therapy for years as a result of his relationship with his sister. I have heard parents joke the same about the inevitable mistakes they make in raising their children. There are very serious breaches of trust, grave hurt, that human beings can inflict on one another and from which we need healing. But there is also a very common reality that also exists, to which the Kingdom of God surely also speaks: that we can love one another deeply and wish good things for each other and we can still develop habits of disappointment and combat, even before we have consciously made a choice to do so. How do I interpret my relationship with my brother in the kingdom of God? I don’t feel guilty for patterns that were created so long before either of us knew what we were doing, although I likely was bossy and over-bearing to him in a way that was justifiably irritating. That older sister/younger brother dynamic is emblematic of the unintentional brokenness of human relationships. I don’t feel guilty, but I seek wholeness: for me and my brother, for my own children. May blind eyes one day see the humour and the folly of how we learned to live with one another. May captives be set free to learn new ways, to shed old skins. May the love that actually is at the heart of our closest and most difficult relationships be, at the last, the truest thing in how we are and have been with one another.