George Nairn-Briggs is prompted to consider the power of forgiveness
AGAINST THE ODDS
True Stories of Forgiveness and Healing
BRF, 192pp, pbk
It was a delightful surprise to find that I knew a number of contributors to this book. They include Bishop Peter Forster who wrote me a beautiful letter when my appointment as Dean of Wakefield was announced. The `Penny in the chapter entitled ‘Twenty Minutes: Penny’s Story’ sat with me for the Diocese of Wakefield on General Synod many years ago. Thaddeus Birchard and I crossed paths when we were both involved in the Pastoral Care and Counselling scene in London.
This book is a collection of eight stories of individuals who have had to face tremendous challenges in their lives and who have had to overcome them and on the way work out what forgiveness means for them. In short each contributor has found that without forgiveness, there is no healing. That is not to say that they have found it easy, rather it has been a struggle with ‘the dark night of the soul’ for each of them.
Each story is followed by a reflection by a separate person from the writer. The reflection helps the reader to see what has been happening to the storyteller and draws out some spiritual and ethical questions for our consideration. This is followed by some very helpful questions to be considered either by individual readers or by groups. These questions help the reader make the experience of the storyteller their own by asking, `What do you think?’
The first two stories, by Ray and Bill, centre round their experiences of being prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War. Each in their own way endured terrible suffering and cruelty. Both describe how they dealt with their lives both as prisoners and in the after war years.
Joanne tells of how she endured rape and her long fight to have a face to face meeting with her rapist set up so that she could get him to understand and accept responsibility for the way his actions had ruined her and other peoples’ lives. She movingly recounts how she came to tell him that she forgave him.
In `Twenty Minutes: Penny’s Story, Penny recounts her experience of not only nearly being killed by the IRA bomb in Manchester, but the way in which she had to rebuild her business when her bookshop was totally wrecked in the blast. She had to work through not only her anger against the IRA, but her fury that the authorities had not told her to vacate the building!
Terry tells of his single minded search for material success. His failed marriage and personal breakdown bring this false idol crashing down. A caring and listening priest makes him revise his picture of a God whose love has to be earned. Then we hear how his experience of the unconditional love from a rescue dog he takes in makes the whole concept of the Prodigal Son real to him. Finally he understands that new beginnings come from learning to `blossom where you are planted’.
I nearly wept when I read Gary’s story. He shares with us the awful experience he and wife have of finding that their unborn son is dead in the womb. To make it worse this happens at Walsingham in the middle of a pilgrimage with
3,000 people praying for them. `Why doesn’t God answer prayer?’ is the big question at the heart of this story. I won’t say any more here, because you really do have to read this story yourself to understand the complexity of what Gary and his family go through.
Claire, in her story, recounts how she discovers that her husband is addicted to online pornography. The sheer honesty of her account of her feelings of revulsion and her struggle to get him to admit he has a serious addiction problem are one of the bravest things I have read in a long time.
Finally, James’ story of his quarrel and years long falling out with his brother makes the reader look at just what is `the price of being right’? (or rather thinking that you are right!). It is not until he realized how the whole of the rest of his family, not just he and his brother, are being destroyed by his refusal to seek out reconciliation that he makes that crucial `first move In the end he has to ask himself, `What is it costing YOU to be right?’ The book ends with a short chapter which challenges the reader to look at how he or she deals with forgiving others, or indeed themselves, as well as how they receive forgiveness.
If we are to take the forgiving business seriously, we need to `write our own story. Again to help do that the reader is not only given some questions to look at alone or in a group, but also some resources by way of groups and organizations that are there to support.
I read this book at one go, so absorbing did I find it. I strongly recommend it, for either individual reflection or use in a group.