Family, Forgiveness, and Freedom


By: Nathan Hart

On a cool October Saturday in 1969, a 19-year-old boy named Jimmy and a 20-year-old girl named Wilma were married in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Jimmy’s dad was a Baptist preacher and officiated the ceremony which included an acapella rendition of 1st Corinthians 13 sung by the groom himself. The sky was cloudy all day but the sun shined brilliantly during the reciting of the vows. At the reception in the church basement, ham-on-buns were served. The getaway car was a borrowed Mustang and the couple honeymooned happily in Boston.

A little over nine months later, Wilma gave birth to a baby boy. That boy is my older brother; there are two sisters between us, and I was born in 1978 as the youngest child of the family.

Last summer, my dad Jim (as he is now called) and my mom Wilma celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at the family cottage in Michigan. They were joined by my siblings and me, our spouses, and thirteen grandchildren.

At the cottage one evening, we sat around the table on the screened-in porch after dinner. As the food settled in our bellies and the sun set over the lake, we began to individually share words of blessing for my parents. One of the teenage granddaughters thanked them for being an inspiring example of faith in God and humble service to the poor. My sister thanked them for sticking together through the challenges of marriage, careers, and raising kids. My nephew, through tears, thanked them for being so open and welcoming to him and everyone they ever meet. Everyone shared a heartfelt word. As I sat there and listened to so many testimonies of my parents’ influence, I began to realize that they have given us the richest of inheritances: love. We never had very much money, but they generously gave us that greater gift.

Our family’s story isn’t perfect. I could share examples of rebellion (especially during the teenage years), heartbreak, alcohol overuse, a mortgage foreclosure, and more. Much forgiveness was required—but here’s the thing—much forgiveness was given. When there was brokenness, there was also repair. What did repair look like? Often it was simply saying, “I forgive you.” Sometimes it meant doing the hard work of reconciliation. It was a daily search for grace. Grace is undeserved kindness and unconditional love. Grace says “I accept you whether you succeed or fail.” Grace means letting your own selfish needs die so that others can thrive in your sacrificial love. This describes the home I grew up in. This is the rich inheritance I received from Jim and Wilma.

I share this story with you for two reasons. First, it’s a quintessentially American story. My mom was conceived in The Netherlands in 1947 and born in Michigan in 1948. My grandparents emigrated to the U.S. as soon as they could scrape together enough money after the war. (Can you picture my sweet grandmother, pregnant and not knowing much English, flying over the Atlantic and arriving in a land of uncertainty and promise for her unborn daughter?) It amazes me to think that only twenty years later, that immigrant daughter married my dad, whose family tree had been in the States for generations and included pastors, schoolteachers, and even slave owners (see my April 2019 column entitled The Slave Owner and the Savior). In America, previous generations’ pains and privileges allow for future generation’s possibilities. In America, an immigrant can marry the great grandson of a slave owner and together they can create a new redemptive branch in their family trees. There’s a lot going wrong in our nation these days, but if we can maintain these kinds of values and policies, we can keep providing an environment in which redemption stories can be lived.

Second, the story is quintessentially Christian. There is a reason my parents are able to so freely love, forgive, and serve people. The reason is the gospel: that God first loved, forgave, and served us. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The message of the gospel is that Jesus lovingly laid down his life, taking the penalty of our sins upon himself, so that we can live forever in his unconditional love. When we receive this amazingly good news, we are freed up to love, forgive, and serve everyone we encounter, including our family members, friends, and fellow citizens.

This October, I am grateful for Jim and Wilma; for the country that makes their story achievable and for the gospel which makes their love possible.