On Sunday, millions watched Oprah interview Prince Harry and Megan, the Duchess of Sussex. Over the course of the conversation, the couple made several dramatic revelations, the majority about family members.
-Meghan disclosed that there had been “concerns and conversations” between her husband and his family, the Royal family, about how dark their son’s skin might be.
-Both Meghan and Harry talked about the challenges of convincing their relatives of the severity of the bad press they received and specifically of the toxicity of the racism leveled at their family. “If a member of his family would comfortably say ‘We’ve all had to deal with things that are rude’ — rude and racist are not the same,” said Meghan.
-Meghan also added she dealt with suicidal thoughts and after seeking out the professional health at the palace’s HR department and, “I was told that I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.”
-Harry said after leaving the monarchy behind, he realized. “I was trapped but I didn’t know I was trapped,” he said. “My father and my brother, they are trapped. They don’t get to leave.”
-He also said that his relationship with his father had suffered greatly over the years. At one point his father had stopped taking his calls. “I will always love him. But there’s a lot of hurt that’s happened and I will continue to make it one of my priorities to try and heal that relationship.”
With this conversation dominating the week’s news cycle, this week on Quick to Listen we wanted to talk about families, specifically adult children’s relationship with their parents. How does one honor their parents and live out the fifth commandment in 2021?
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #255
In the Bible, there is a specific commandment: Honor your father and mother. How would you define honor?
Leslie Leyland Fields: The Hebrew word is kabod, which means to give weight to, to give gravity to, or give glory to. So that immediately tells us that this is not a flippant thing, this is a heavy word—to give to your parents weight and gravity, and in some kind of earthy sense, to give glory to them.
For some people, that's really easy to follow because they have wonderful parents, but interestingly, God did not qualify that statement. He didn't say honor your mother and father when they are honorable or when they behave honorably. It’s pretty much just this blanket statement. So then it becomes tricky when you’ve got a difficult relationship with your parents or there’s a lot of hurt and conflict there.
There’s research that's been done lately on how people have read that commandment. And in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, a lot of the sermons that were on this commandment focused on the idea it being about young children obeying their parents. But more recently, the sermons have shifted to talking about adults and their aging parents. Did you have any shift in your understanding that this verse was being directed towards young children or being directed towards adult children?
Leslie Leyland Fields: There's no either/or here, it's both/and. We don't have to choose.
Obviously when we're parents and our children are small, we're going to hammer home that, but I think it's really important that that commandment doesn't fade away and doesn't disappear once we're adults and we're married, and when our parents become elderly. It must be a lifelong orientation.
And I'm telling you this as information and what I believe. But ask me if I've acted upon this, and then we have a different story. That’s part of my story and part of why I wrote my book Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. I was estranged from my father for 30 plus years of my life until God just grabbed a hold of me with that verse, “Honor your mother and father.”
I wrestled with that verse and with “Forgive us as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us” in The Lord’s Prayer. It's a recent turnaround in my life, within the last 10 years, where I went was going blindly on my way, being estranged from my father and I thought that was the right thing to do until God just turned me around.
Another loaded or complicated word that we hear in the New Testament is when Paul writes, “obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.” How might you define the word “obey” and where do you see that existing with regards to “honor”? Are they similar or different concepts? Do they overlap?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I do think they are different concepts. That verse from Paul—“Obey your parents in the Lord for this is right”—was speaking to a culture in a time when families were multi-generational, and families were patriarchal; often three or four lived within the same house.
I have understood those words more as a parent to my six children, but this is another example that when you get to be an adult and when you marry and when you have children of your own, it becomes so much more complicated. And I have lived in the nexus of this complication for a lot of my life.
When I married my husband, I also married into a family business. That meant that we lived together on one tiny remote little Island in the wilderness of Alaska. We lived together, we commercial fished together, it was completely multi-generational communal living.
And when I think of Paul's instruction in that context, do I have to obey my mother-in-law and my father-in-law? I certainly honored them, but there were circumstances when I did not obey them. And in fact, I did things that they might've been displeased with.
But because I understood that my primary relationship now as a married woman was with my husband and my children—that was my primary family unit—I think my allegiance, the obedience, and the honor starts there.
Let's go back to what you were talking about with your father and being estranged from him. Can you share more about the ways that you began to feel uncomfortable with that and felt like you needed to do more work there?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I had good reasons for the estrangement. My father was just a completely self-oriented person. And I wasn't able to name or even say the word mental illness as a child, but I recognize that there was something very different about him.
His abilities were limited, he wasn't able to work. He didn't earn a living, he couldn't support us, so we were extremely impoverished. There was also a lot of conflict within the home, just a lot of very vocal, verbalized conflict and anger. And that was kind of the milieu of my childhood, and I blamed my father for a good portion of that.
When I left home at 17, my intention was never to see him again. And I carried that intention out for most of my life until the last couple of years of his life. He was in his 80s then, and an incident happened—he had a stroke or he fell on the sidewalk—and he was living in Florida, I was living in Alaska, so we were just as far apart as we could be. And when he fell and onlookers helped him and took him to the hospital and all of that, I realized that he's going to die at some point, and I don't even really know who this man is. I have a story about him—I have my story—but I don't really know his story.
That, along with sitting in church every Sunday and hearing verses that I knew were absolutely aimed at me—“Forgive, as we have been forgiven,” “love mercy”—my conscience and my heart were pricked. And so instead of moving away from my father, I began this process of moving toward him.
And it's not that I wanted to. There was resistance. I felt like Jonah. God was calling me to forgive, and I didn't want to. I resisted and resisted and finally, I just had to give up. It was taking too much energy to resist. I realized it's easier to just obey and walk forward into this and see what happens. And I was able to forgive. I was able to extend mercy.
And the story did not end the way I was hoping and praying that it would. I wanted my father to see me. I wanted my father to acknowledge me and to express love for me. And he wasn't able to do that. But the miracle became that I was able to love him. And I truly was. God gave me a heart of compassion for him and love. And it was so wonderful to love him in the last year of his life.
Do you have any insights about how to love during those times when there's not a lot of connection? How do you love a parent that you are isolated or estranged from? What are some ways that it's still possible to honor and love one's adult parents in that situation?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I think the first and the most essential thing is to pray for them. We might have been so devastated by that parent, but praying for them immediately changes our position and our posture toward them. Now we are going before the throne of God, imploring God to have mercy upon them, imploring God to love them, and to open their eyes and hearts.
My father was an atheist for the last 20 years of his life, so part of me loving him from a distance was praying for him. And I wrote letters to him and sometimes he wrote me back. And now we do have multiple ways to communicate from a distance that remains safe because part of our concern is protecting our children, right? You may have an abusive parent, so you do want to protect your children and your family. That's so important, but you can also love and show mercy in these ways that don't require being together with a physical presence.
Praying, writing letters, calling, sending gifts.
I was really moved to send my father Christmas presents and birthday presents because when nobody did that, nobody had given him gifts. So it was my joy to be able to do that.
When people are thinking about forgiveness, where do they start—especially if there has not been interest on the side of their parents or repentance of particular things that caused the rift in the first place?
Leslie Leyland Fields: This is going to sound strange, but I think the first place that you began is just to acknowledge and confess your hurt and the truth of your own story, and to look at that very carefully. Because one of the things that we tend to do is we gloss that over, or we misunderstand, and we think that forgiveness is about erasing the past or pretending this didn't happen. And I think we cannot turn toward the right until we fully acknowledged the wrong.
So we go back and we look at our own story and speak the truth of our experience. And another reason this is important is that many times when you grow up in a dysfunctional home, you are not allowed to have a story. Your story doesn't exist. Your mother a story, your father has a story, and you have no right to a story. And I see this over and over. This was my experience, and this is the experience of many, many students in my Your Story Matters class.
So you must acknowledge, “I have a voice. I have a story. This is what happened. This is my experience.” But you can't stop there because the truth of our experience is not the whole truth. Our parents, our father or mother, also have a story. And also has an experience. And when we're children, we don't see that. We don't understand that.
This is part of growing up, that we step out of those small narrow lenses, the glasses that we wear as a hurt daughter, as a hurt son, and we choose to put on some larger glasses that are looking for a larger truth. What is the truth of their experience?
And this is the difference too between a Christian approach to memoir writing versus a non-Christian approach. We recognize that our truth is only one piece of the larger truth. So we're trying to get that at that larger truth.
If we think of the good Samaritan story, we see ourselves as the person headed off from Jerusalem to Jericho—from childhood to adulthood—who was jumped, robbed, beaten, and left bleeding and bloody beside the road. And the truth is if we lift our head and look across on the other side of the road, we're going to find our mother there just as beaten and bloody, we're going to find our father there.
And so this is our job as Christians, as people who love God, as people who are seeking to honor our mother and father, is to find out the fuller story of the hurts and the betrayals and everything that they experienced. And that changes and opens our hearts to have compassion and mercy.
We’re all children with parents with needs that we can minister to, so when can we start expecting to begin doing this?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I think if we wait until they're elderly and they could just die any day, we are missing out on a lot of things.
One thing that we're missing out on is demonstrating to our children how we honor our parents by honoring our own parents. And I think that can begin when our children are young. We want our kids to see us do this even when it's a difficult relationship. I think it's important to model that for our children. This is what it looks like when we do open the door and we do stay in communication with our mother and our father. We are their cheerleaders. We are their supporters.
Our mothers and fathers are human beings, just like us. They have needs just like us. They need cheerleaders, they need supporters. They need to know that they are loved by us. So that's part of the act of taking off the glasses that see our parents only through the lens of “I am their child.” We need to start looking at them through the lens of, “This is my brother and sister in Christ.”
When watching the interview Oprah did with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, you get the sense that he’s caught between the family that he grew up with and the family he’s started. When you're in these places where your loyalties are being challenged, how does that work?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I was impressed by Harry and how they handled this very difficult situation. And I'm very supportive of the decision that they made. I think that's the right decision, to leave and cleave—a principle of Genesis— is really important. His family was clearly being harmed by attitudes and a worldview that they needed to distance themselves from.
I also loved that he said, “I love my father very much, and I will be working hard to work toward healing that relationship.” In the ideal world, that's what you have. You have the recognition that I've got to pull away, I need some boundaries, but at the same time you say, “I also love my mother and father and I desire to have a restored relationship.”
It's the whole boundaries thing. I think we can overdo the boundaries concept, but there are many families and many situations where there does need to be a boundary until behavior changes, or even sometimes you need that boundary to allow for behaviors to begin to change.
Let's talk more about boundaries in the context of honoring your parents. How does one walk that line and how does one go about articulating what your boundaries are and enforcing them?
Leslie Leyland Fields: Prayerfully, of course. Carefully. Step-by-step.
It's a process to even come to that place. But we're not always on our own. There are resources all around us that can help us make those decisions. There are pastors, there are counselors, there are therapists, there are all kinds of books. We're not alone as we try to figure this out.
In what ways do you see honoring and obeying going beyond our individual parent relationships? What can we do individually and what can we do communally to represent our Christian duty to seek social Shalom?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I think that's at the heart of all of this, that we are to be people who live in peace, and with an attitude of forgiveness and mercy and an attitude of community. Where my own individual happiness and good is not the highest good.
That's where we are today as a culture, and that's why there's so much estrangement in families. It's at a record high, and family estrangement is a whole area of study and practice. God is calling us into this world of Shalom, where the hearts of the children and the parents are united in a common purpose. That's what we desire as well within our families. But there is so much brokenness. This is why we're challenged. There's so much addiction. There's so much single parenting and mental illness. And so we are seeing just the absolute breakage and fragmentation and destruction and splintering of the family. And as the family goes, so goes our culture. So this is what we're living in the midst of.
So if we have children—adult children or young children—who are not oriented toward the constant declaration of their own right to happiness and freedom, what we're aiming toward—toward peace, toward forgiveness, toward mercy, being people of mercy, people who easily forgive, people who are not easily offended—that not only begins to heal our families, but it radiates out into our culture and helps our culture to become less splintered, less fragment, solid, and kind and good, and at peace. Shalom.
When thinking about the Royals, there’s a general theme or narrative of between duty and the sacrifice of their sense of self and individuality to fulfill that duty. It echoes the Christian life as there is a need to sacrifice in the Christian life. Where do you see sacrifice coming into play with honoring one’s parents? And where do we misunderstand sacrifice when it comes to honoring our parents?
Leslie Leyland Fields: Let me address that by speaking specifically about several times when I felt a pull between honoring God and honoring a parent.
There are family members who would say to me, “You may not write about our childhood.” And there was sort of a gag order put upon me. And at the same time I felt that God was very much calling me to write, not about every aspect, but certain aspects that I thought would be fair to reveal our poverty and just to hint at some of my father's abuse.
And so here I am in this defining crossroad and in the measurement and calculus, I decided that I need to follow God. And not because I need to emit my primal howl, but that these places of hurt and harm and struggle are often the places where we most minister to others. It's almost always the case that our wounds become in some ways our superpower and our wounds become the means through which we can minister and serve others.
And that was my understanding and so I went forward. And that choice had huge implications for me within my family. This has been very difficult. And yet that decision that I made to follow God was not made lightly. It was made with a lot of prayer and fasting and crying and wrestling with God and then all through the writing process.
Even though the consequences were very difficult, I would not for a moment take that back because there has been such a blessing and such fruit out in the world because of it.
Even in that crucible, you must seek permission. And this road that I've walked on is not a fist in your face. That is not my attitude. And I think that it should never be our attitude. We have to examine our motives very carefully before God and ask, “Why am I doing this? What is this for?”
As you seek publication to tell this story publicly, who does it serve? Who does your story serve? If it serves you and it makes you the hero/victim of your story, then that's probably not legitimate. If the story serves God and serves people and serves to minister, that's a legitimate motive. That should be the primary motive.
The words obey, respect, and love can all mean different things depending on the cultures that we were raised in and the ways that we see these demonstrated and performed. What have you learned from other cultures about honoring parents and about how that will often look differently?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I've done quite a bit of traveling around and have the chance to observe other cultures. There are a lot of people from the Pacific Rim countries near my home, and I see three or four generations sharing a house, pooling their resources. And I love that practice of living together, working together.
That sort of collective, communal family really does have a lot to teach us about laying down our own—sometimes obsessive—individualism that so characterizes the American culture and even the American family, laying down of my own constant need for self-expression and self-actualization. To be focused on, how can this family be strong? How can I contribute to this family? How can I love my parents and my grandparents and my children better? How can we live together more peaceably?
So I think that's an example that's right in front of me of how the family can function.
One of the themes that kept coming up that in the interview was grandparents. And that's important because in this case, the grandparent in question is Queen Elizabeth. Scripture doesn't specifically address grandparents, and yet they often play extremely important roles in many of our upbringings. What thoughts do you have around what honoring them might look like?
Leslie Leyland Fields: I think there's an implication that extends to grandparents. And you have all the same scenarios with grandparents that you have with parents—that some are wonderful and godly and so worthy of respect and honor, and others are just right at the other end of the spectrum.
So I think God wants us to work toward honoring and work toward a relationship that exhibits Shalom and forgiveness and mercy. I think we're always to be oriented in that direction and whether or not it comes to fulfillment and fruition depends a lot on who those grandparents are and who our parents are, but that is to be the orientation of our hearts. And I think that's the most essential thing.
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