Thursday, December 13, 2007

Forgiving My Father

I read this as a commentary on a recent Rainbow Radio show. I've gotten a lot of feedback from folks who said it helped them, so I'm posting it here. The holidays are hard for some people because of unresolved family issues. I hope this is something that can help bring healing this season.

You can hear the commentary here (at the end of the show).

I was standing toe to toe with a complete stranger in the middle of a busy road in Peachtree City, Georgia. We were yelling, calling each other everything but a child of God. Moments before he had scraped my bumper in a minor fender-bender and I could not contain my rage.

This was not the first time I had been involved in a road rage incident, but it would be the last of this magnitude because of what happened next. The police came, and we exchanged information. The next morning, I awoke to find two flat tires on my car. The thought of my road rage enemy sneaking up to my home in the middle of the night to do further damage to my car frightened me. It was a wake up call. I had to get my anger under control or the next road rage incident could be my last.

To find the root of my anger I had to go back to my childhood. I am the last of five children born to a Southern Baptist preacher and his wife. I grew up in the church, hearing my father preach against many of the world's evils, especially the evils of adultery and divorce. Then, when I was 9-years-old, my father came home and told my mother he had been seeing another woman and wanted a divorce.

My father's hypocrisy created an angry, bitter and cynical child who grew into an angry, bitter and cynical adult. My relationship with my father deteriorated. I wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted nothing to do with church and I especially wanted nothing to do with pastors - who were the worst hypocrites of all.

I was in my 30s when I was finally able to honestly deal with my anger issues. By that time my father had been dead for years – felled by a massive heart attack when I was only 17. He was only 54. His death did not abate my anger. In fact, the night my mother told me of his death I told her that to me he had died years ago when he walked out the door into the arms of another woman. I had no use for the man.

At the root of my anger was a sense of lost security and lost control over my own life. One man's actions took our family from a solid middle class lifestyle to the foreclosure of our nice house. My mother and my one brother still living at home had to move into a housing project in a small town in northeast Georgia. We went from comfortable to living hand to mouth in the spread of a few months – all because one man decided to follow his zipper to another woman's door.

The unfairness of it all made me bitter. The sense of abandonment made me fearful. The loss of my innocence sent me into a rage – one that lasted a good 15 years or so. I can tell you from experience that anger tears you up from the inside out. The bitterness it plants in your heart grows strong and deep. The target of your rage is closer than your dearest friend. They are always with you, constantly stirring your anger and rubbing salt into your open wounds.

Emmet Fox wrote in his book The Sermon on the Mount that anger ties us "to the thing [we] hate. The person perhaps in the whole world whom you most dislike is the very one to whom you are attaching yourself by a hook that is stronger than steel. Is this what you wish?"

It is not what I wished with my father, and my only recourse – the only way to break that tie and release my anger – was to forgive him. In reality my anger wasn't doing anything but hurting me. It's not like I could call my dad and yell at him over the phone. He was dead. My anger made no difference to him. The only person it was hurting was me. If I wanted to be free from anger and bitterness, my only choice was forgiveness.

I made a pilgrimage to his grave one summer. A light drizzle fell from the cloudy sky as I stood at the foot of his final resting place. I don't know what I expected – perhaps I thought it would be easy to just say, "I forgive you, dad." But, it wasn't. When I approached the grave, I discovered my old friend anger had arrived there before me. I stood in the rain and held my anger – and I let dad have all of it. Anyone watching would have probably thought a crazy person was in the graveyard. I screamed at him. I cried. I told him all the awful stuff I ever wanted to say to him. That frustrated, angry, cynical, hurting 9-year-old threw a colossal temper tantrum. And it felt so good.

When it was over, the practical 30-something in me said, "You've come a long way to do this – you can't back out now." So, I laid my anger down to rest beside my father and with all the sincerity I could muster I said, "I forgive you."

In that moment, the heavens opened, the rain stopped and shafts of sunlight burst forth through the parting clouds. In the end, God really is a drama queen. How else can I explain why She led me to follow in my father's footsteps and become the thing I hated most – a pastor.

I left the graveyard lighter than I had ever been. My father is still with me – but now I feel his presence with joy. I understand now, he was simply a human being – doing the best he could. He didn't set out to hurt me, my family, or himself. He made mistakes. He paid the price. But, he taught me a great lesson: anger never creates grace. It's only forgiveness that brings heaven down to earth.


Reverend Bitch Sir! said...

I am so lucky to be able to call you my friend. Your growth in your lifes journey has been amazing.

Your experience here and your willingness to share will be life saving for many. God Bless you my sister.


angelfriend said...

What a wonderful story. I am so touched reading about your healing from anger. I hope to read more of your work. I am a recovering Mormon, and I can relate to the anger held for too many years.