On the first leg of the trip, the gentleman seated beside me struck up a conversation. After some small talk about our respective vocations and where we were headed, the conversation took an unlikely turn. We soon found ourselves talking about the impact of fathers on their children’s lives (don’t ask me how). Himself a father of three young children, he was especially keen on my sharing my story about my own father and how I came to a place of forgiving him several years earlier.
As a result of forgiving him of some deeply embedded disappointments, I conveyed how I had written my father a letter expressing my love and appreciation for him a few years before he passed away. The reason I could write the letter is because I had forgiven him. I was free, and so was he.
After my father’s funeral, I went through his few earthly belongings and found the letter that I previously had written him. On the top of the letter, he had penned, “This is the nicest letter I’ve ever received.”
This passenger commented, “I’ve not seen my dad for twenty years.” He went on to explain how his father had left his mother, been unfaithful to her many times over, and basically abandoned the family. His personal angst was visible. He conveyed that he might now be ready to release his father from the bitterness that he has held for all these years. I had met myself on the plane in the person of this young man. I was once at this same place. Different circumstances, but same decision point. Will we or will not forgive?
The power of forgiveness is no small thing. In his book Strength to Love (pp. 49-57), Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:43-45 about loving our neighbor and blessing those who despitefully use us and persecute us, all the while forgiving them. King writes: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is the catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt.” He continues, “Hate is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.”
So how do we forgive those who have injured us? This answer to this question is the hallmark of our faith. We forgive because we have been forgiven. As Jesus, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Journey Films has produced a powerful documentary entitled The Power of Forgiveness. Stories feature how people in crisis situations have exerted extraordinary acts of forgiveness. These vignettes include reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, the war-torn region of Beirut, the aftermath of the terrorist attack on 9/11, and the Amish tragedy of October 2, 2006 where five girls between the ages of 6-13 were senselessly murdered. These communities exemplify the exhortation of Martin Luther King Jr. that hate is like an unchecked cancer that erodes the personality.
I am praying that in some way my story of forgiveness will prompt the passenger seated next to me to forgive and make reconciliation with his father. I may never know the outcome. I know that I’ll have many other occasions to inspect my own heart related to forgiveness ~ on and off the plane.