As I said previously, how we talk about God is bound up with how we relate to others. For many, their view of God as Father is effected by a poor relationship with their fathers (and still others gravitate to the notion of God as Father as a way of filling that absence). For me, the notion of God as a Father was never the problem.
I have previously spoken about my mother, of just how proud I was of her when she stood up to her abusive ex-husband. This is not the entire story, which I have saved till now. There is a saying that one should not speak ill of the dead, and I understand this. However, what I am about to write to you is necessary. It is necessary to write this down for me personally because writing is quite therapeutic for me. This writing project has been really a patchwork quilt of years of my writing things down to help process what has happened to me. If you are going through things like this, I strongly encourage you to write your experiences down: journal them; get it all on a page; allow the page to situate your memories into something more coherent; reflect on them no matter how broken they may be; you might even, if you are ready, allow others to read them; and this writing, reflecting, and sharing, as I have found, has been a tremendous help in bringing the fragments together. The second reason is simply then if you are going to reflect on the past, you need to be honest about it all, the good and the bad: No more lies or sugar-coated truths. Healing only happens when the past is rigorously, if even painfully, reckoned with. Some of the stories I am about to tell you I chuckle about today. I didn’t back then. The truth is my mother and I had quite a strained relationship up until her passing, which I must tell you about before we continue.
Perhaps the earliest dimension of this is that I think I had a case of middle child syndrome. If you are a middle child, you know what I am talking about. My older brother got privileges for being the oldest. My younger sister got exceptions for being the youngest (or at least that is every middle child’s perception).
But there was more to that. As I said before, my parents got a divorce when I was in elementary school. No divorce is a good divorce, but this was a particularly unpleasant one. I remember when I was young hearing the arguing. My father would bring me to church to meet with the pastor, which I realize in hindsight were counselling sessions.
Something precipitous happened the day a man came to our door. He seemed nice enough, and he introduced himself as an old friend of my mother’s from high school. He had moved away to Australia but was back for an extended visit and decided to look up old mates from school. He stayed for the evening and left. However, he and my mother proceeded to chat quite a lot over ICQ. Are you old enough to remember ICQ? This was one of the precursors to contemporary messenger apps. Perhaps you can still remember its distinct, hello!-like notification beeps. I remember peering into our basement where our family computer was on days my dad was working, and for hours my mother would chat with him.
Of course, being young and not knowing any better, I remember at dinnertime my dad mentioning how he had to carry on some correspondence over some matters of bills and things like that. I recall asking, “What is a ‘correspondence’?”
My father explained, “It is when people send messages back and forth to communicate.”
“Oh, like what mom and her friend do all the time,” I said.
My father’s face changed, looking over at my mom. She did not look happy either. They started arguing. Dinner wrapped up, and we were sent to our rooms. Afterwards, my mother came up to me and said, “Why did you have to mention that? You did that on purpose, didn’t you? Do you even realize all the trouble you have caused?” The truth is that I did not understand. In time I slowly noticed that I was much more disorganized and absent-minded than my peers. I would so often not understand why I said something, and it caused trouble or I did not know how to say something, and trouble would continue. I grew to hate myself for how I so often didn’t understand things. It was not long after that my parents sat us, kids, down and tried to explain that they were separating. My dad went to live with a friend in his basement. I remember feeling like this was my fault. Also, remember praying, hoping that they would get back together. If faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, why don’t I have enough faith to bring my parents back together? I also remember not knowing what to feel. I felt numb, really, a numbness that could be easily remedied with video games.
As I eventually put together, my mom separated from my dad under the pretense that this was temporary and that they were going to get back together. She just wanted her space, she alleged. However, as soon as he was out, she left on a trip to pursue a relationship with her old friend in Australia. It did not work out, but that did not prevent my mother from serving my father papers for a divorce. My dad got, as the phrase goes, “taken to the cleaners.” Part of it was also that my father did not want to fight my mother in court and gave in to her demands.
If you are a child of divorce, you had to, like I had to do, sift through layers of anecdotes and attacks ex-spouses say to their children to make sure they are the ones that look like the good ones in a divorce. My mother did plenty of that. I don’t know how much of it was true. I got the sense that my dad was often quite insensitive at some crucial points in my mother’s life and often had a terrible temper, but these vices were always highly embellished. My father, on the other hand, never spoke poorly of my mother. It took me a few years to notice this, but when I did, it left a distinct impression. While my father was not around much after the initial separation, we got much closer through my high school years. I could tell my mother did not like this.
As I said before, it was around this time that I felt a call to become a pastor. My mother also did not like this. In high school, I expressed interest in becoming a lawyer or an architect. My mother liked these possibilities, but she was really set on my sister and me becoming doctors. I suspect that this was the dream she had that she wanted for us. Parents do these kinds of things: the dreams they did not achieve, they want to achieve through their children. It can be empowering in some cases, but it can also be stifling. My experience was the latter. When I told her I wanted to be a pastor, the common topic at nearly every dinner time conversation was some way of suggesting to me that I needed to have a different career. However, when around other people, she gloated that her son was going on to be a pastor as if to post about her own parental prowess. In the moments where she seemed to have accepted this career choice, she seemed to take on as her duty to help me succeed the need to nag me about all the ways I had to improve if I was going to succeed at my job: I need to be more extroverted; I needed to do something about my acne; I needed to go to these schools; I needed dress this way, etc. My mother would nag me about all the things I needed to change to the point I would have anxiety attacks. I can tell you I was very happy to go away to college.
My mother also did not like that my dad, within a few years of the divorce, started dating a woman from his work, a lovely lady named Marrilyn, and they got engaged. My mother also got engaged to her boyfriend as well (I have already written about him) yet had no date set. Now, my father and my soon-to-be stepmom were set to get married in mid-January. Well, my father, during one of the times he came by to drop something off at the house, made a comment that it was better that he got married first, implying that he was the victim of the divorce. This lit a fire in my mother.
A conversation around the dinner table just after New Year’s went like this. My mother turned to the family: “How would you like to have a wedding next week?” I remember us three kids just sitting there puzzled, unsure if this was a joke. It was not a joke. My mother organized a simple wedding with some of the family and friends in town, and she got married a week before my dad’s wedding. At the time, my family attended a community church off and on, and she was somehow able to persuade Pastor Don to do the service on short notice.
Well, we know how that marriage turned out: not well. When my mother successfully repelled my stepdad, around this time, we all noticed that she started getting more and more erratic. She even noted how she felt so much more unfocused and scatterbrained. The cancer had gone into remission, but something was clearly different about her. A part of this was that she quickly developed a carefree spirit. This was understandable for anyone who has fought cancer, but it went simply too far.
One day she announced at dinner that she was done with religion. It was just one more thing that was holding her down and preventing her from living a full life. I suspect someone from church said something judgmental to her because I don’t specifically recall her ever saying something negative about the churches or pastors she knew.
Over the next few months, my visits home from college on the weekends felt like a guessing game of which boyfriend was going to be around. There were several at once. All of them were thoroughly nauseating. There was the one who fancied himself an inventor. There was that other one who was a right-wing gun nut. There was another who claimed he was in the secret service but could not talk about his work. I’ll save you the intrigue: he wasn’t.
But one was the veritable stand out in terms of just how unbearable they could be. His name was Nick. Nick was as old as my grandparents. I am not being judgmental about couples with significant age gaps, but this struck me at the time as just weird. I admit some prejudice here, but the way they would giggle and whisper giddy nothings to each other was barf-worthy. But weirder still, Nick persuaded my mother to join the Unity Church. I always felt like that name was a bit of a misnomer. It was really a New Age group. “Cult” is too strong of a word, for it was fairly benign. It emphasized spiritual healing and the usual vague spiritualized self-improvement platitudes that others do. It has a book by its original leader of his strange visions. Its adherents claimed that they are not “religious, just spiritual” but then did all the same things religious people are about anyway, with the exception that it had a certain wishy-washy syncretism to it where my mom was encouraged to dabble in everything from things like Reiki, to positive thought philosophy like The Secret, to consulting a pendulum (look it up).
As I mentioned before, my mother and stepfather went into business in alternative health technologies. They specialized in hyperbaric therapy, which involves breathing oxygen while one is in a dive chamber under pressure, and the theory is this has the potential to stimulate rapid healing. This has some proven medical applications, particularly for infections and burn wounds. However, since it was seen as unconventional therapy, the business attracted a community of alternative health enthusiasts that ranged from people just willing to try different things to outright conspiracy theorists and self-proclaimed gurus. One time I threw my back out, and instead of bringing me to a chiropractor (the usual thing that worked to set it back in place), she brought me to one of her friends to have my aura read and healed. I was in a lot of pain, and I was not impressed. I could only take so much of this before I walked out in pain. My mother was furious since I offended a prominent aura healer in the alternative health community with my “narrow-minded Christian dogma.”
In one truly awkward ride come from college one day, my mother informed me that she and Nick had gone to a fortune teller.
“You know those people are fake, right?”
“Spencer, you have got to open up your mind. She was not fake. She knew all about me, my healing journey, my difficulties.” She continued: “She could see what our past lives were like. It all made so much sense.”
“Did it really?” I said skeptically.
“Yes, I have always wondered why Nick and I have such a strong connection,” She said. I recall wondering the same but for different reasons. “The fortune-teller saw that we were lovers in a previous life, but we were separated against our wills from each other, and yet, our souls have found each other again in this next life.”
I said nothing. She continued: “We finally found each other, and now we can be a family: Nick and me and your brother, Devin.”
“So, out of curiosity, why is it just Devin?” I asked, annoyed that my sister and I were excluded (but also somewhat relieved).
“Oh, because the fortune teller saw Devin’s soul too. He was actually our forbidden love child in a previous life.” Again, I said nothing. What do you say to that? I surmised that there was simply no constructive pathway forward in this conversation (perhaps you have had similar conversations with your families). The solution: scuttle. Transition the topic or end this conversation as calmly as possible.
“Oh well, isn’t that interesting,” I said, then turned towards the window and stared out in silence.
One of the first times my wife, Meagan (then girlfriend), visited for dinner, it did not go well. My mother invited us to start interpreting each other’s dreams. She had a dream where she was riding a horse through a herd of cows to a tree with a large fruit on it. She interpreted this as a clear sign from God that she needed to disregard medical advice on her journey to healing. “The cows are the doctors, Spencer,” she insisted.
“How do you know the cows symbolize doctors? I don’t think that is all that clear to me,” I said back. I continued, “You know, if you wanted to hear from God, there is the Bible.”
“I don’t need the institutions of Man telling me what to do. The Bible is just a human book, written by men,” she replied. “How do we even know God is a father or male? What if God is actually a Mother Goddess?” We then rounded off supper by getting into an argument about whether the Catholic church has suppressed evidence of reincarnation and healing crystals.
This was followed up by my mother insisting that we sit in front of a beam ray after dinner so that we could absorb good frequencies. If you don’t know what beam ray is, it is a pseudo-medical theory that certain frequencies have different spiritual healing properties. I am sure it probably does have some medical benefits, but my mother talked about it like she had found the fountain of youth. We chose the path of least resistance. So, Meagan and I sat in front of this blue, blinking tube that pulsated with an annoying, “beep, beep, beep, b-e-e-p, b-e-e-p, b-e-e-p” on and on. For ambiance, she put on her favourite meditation CD that she got from the Unity Church. The meditation track was by a woman who made a pilgrimage to the El Comino de Santiago in Spain in order to become a saint (FYI: that is not how you become a saint). I recall the climax of the pilgrimage was that this woman got to the top of the mountain on her hike, and the universe came at her in a glowing ball of healing energy. She was going to share it with her friends, but she realized that the universe wanted her to become more selfish. “This,” she concluded in the climactic epiphany with spiritual music playing in the background, “is how I became a saint: I needed to be more about me.” The meditation ended. Meagan and I just sat there with confused, blank stares and the beeping in the background. The look on Meagan’s face that weekend¾how do I describe it?¾let’s just say I am surprised she married me after that weekend.
After Meagan and I were married, after getting to another argument, my mother voiced to the two of us that she actually did not approve of Meagan at all. She had made passive-aggressive jokes ever since she met Meagan, but I knew deep down they were serious. She had some strange idea that I would go off to an ivy league school and marry a woman with a rich family or something like that. After that, I was content to refrain from calling home. Then the cancer returned...
Spencer Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife and five boys, and he serves on the board of ASBE.