I went to Atlanta Unity church the Sunday before last expecting to hear a woman named Edwene Gaines talk about prosperity. But I was three days early; she wasn’t speaking until Wednesday night.
However, the four-piece band played Van Morrison’s "Into the Mystic" and an even better rendition of U2’s "Mysterious Ways," and I got a message I couldn’t leave behind with the church bulletin.
"None of us was parented the way we wanted to be all the time," said the minister, John Strickland, and yet the quality of our life is affected by our ability — or, very often, our inability — to forgive those against whom we have a grudge.
My father to mind. I’ve done a lot of work around our relationship, and I figured it was pretty clean. But he jumped so readily to mind, that I had to re-consider, and I was doing just that that afternoon when the phone rang.
It was my ex-girlfriend, MJ, calling to say that Andy Stanley, one of the most successful ministers in Atlanta, was speaking that evening about his stormy relationship with his father. MJ never was convinced that I’d made peace with my dad, so there I was a few hours later standing next to her in Buckhead Church, a/k/a "rock ‘n’ roll church," while a six-piece band played a tone-perfect version of Tom Petty’s "Won’t Back Down."
(Right about now, the nostalgic reader is probably wondering "Whatever happened to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross’?" All I know is that going to Buckhead Church was like going to a rock concert. It was packed with young people in jeans, t-shirts, shorts and sundresses, most of them unaccompanied by parents.)
Rev. Stanley, appearing not in person, but on huge video screens left, front and center, read first from the II Samuel about King David and his estrangement from his son, Absalom. Then he spoke about his own highly publicized rift with his father, Charles, a well-known Baptist preacher.
His message was the same as Strickland’s: that while it seems easier to walk away from difficult family relationships, there is something within us that craves connection. Those relationships are worth fighting for, he said, even if you fail.
"Forgive them," he said. "Let the past be the past."
Stanley said he and his father never did agree, but "I got what everyone wants from his father, which is approval. And my father got what every parent wants from their child, which is respect."
I did a quick inventory that evening and came up with a handful of people I’d been harboring some animus towards. None of it seemed explosive or even particularly meaningful, but I could see the value of forgiving. If you claim to be on the spiritual path, as I do, and you aspire to be the best person you can be, as I also do, then there can be no tolerating dark, untidy corners in your life.
So, using a simple affirmation, I started forgiving: my father, a brother, a former colleague, former friends, acquaintances, an ex-wife.
In a couple of cases, I had to pause. The trouble with forgiving is it means getting off my position. I have to let go of being "right," or at least what I thought was right. Worse, I have to re-open myself – in theory, at least – to someone I had excommunicated. And if that person was worthy of my anger or distrust, why bother?
Andy Stanley said that he and his father had counseling for 2 1/2 years, and at one point he was so frustrated he told the counselor that he was giving up. The counselor said nothing.
"OK," said Stanley, "when can I give up on this?"
The counselor replied, "When your heavenly Father gives up on you."
In his fascinating book "Power vs. Force," David R. Hawkins discusses a fool-proof method by which any yes-no question can be tested and by which consciousness itself can be calibrated. He writes that while love, compassion and forgiveness seem submissive, they actually calibrate as "profoundly empowering."
So I did the forgiveness work, and while I cannot say that my condition improved dramatically, I felt better, as if I’d paid the bills or washed the car. And an odd thing happened: I woke up in the morning smelling like a goat.
The dictates of the social contract notwithstanding, this is a good thing. Ordinarily, I get powerful body odor when I’ve done intense release work. It’s an indication that I’ve shaken loose emotional toxins and they are leaching out of my body.
But I’d done nothing more intense than forgive a handful of people, so Strickland, Stanley and Hawkins were right: forgiveness is powerful.
Ten days into it, I’m still doing the work, and I’ve added myself to the list. I forgive myself for the choices I’ve made, for the self-doubt and the scarcity thinking, and things are improving. I feel better, lighter, and a couple of opportunities have emerged that were nowhere on the horizon a week ago. I’ve also booked my first acting job since last fall.
By the way, I did manage to hear Edwene Gaines, and guess what the second of her four pillars of prosperity was?
You got it: forgiveness.
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