The year was 2005. I had just decided to leave my fancy corporate job at the world's most prestigious consulting firm to take up instead the far more lucrative profession of writing books for an as-yet invisible audience. Mom was sure to love this story ("You quit that to do what?"), so I decided not to tell her or anyone but a few close friends about this scheme.
Now I think of myself as a resilient fellow. However, considering how I had never gotten paid for writing a word before, let alone a whole book, there was certain uncertainty ahead. Will it work? How will I support myself? What if the whole thing tanks? Am I suited for tent life?
I had started going to the Agape International Spiritual Center on a lark a year prior. Upon my first visit, I was struck by the singing, the dancing, the jumbotrons, the colorful décor, the super-diverse crowd, the energetic speaker, Dr Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder and Spiritual Director of Agape, and his wife Rickie Byars-Beckwith, who composed and sang the music. "Cool spot!", I thought, went along my merry way and didn't come back for a few months.
Now in the midst of my entrepreneurial venture (which some friends were kind enough to call 'gainful unemployment'), I was reminded of Agape and had flexibility in my schedule to attend again.
Part of Agape's appeal for me was that you're not required to practice anything, perform any rituals, or subscribe to any kind of dogma. Considering my inveterate skepticism as a scientist and my allergy to any kind of religiosity (thanks to living under state-sponsored fundamentalism for a spell), this was an auspicious start. At Agape, you could just show up to services any time, drink in the spiritual sustenance, and go back the way you came. Nothing to buy, nothing to believe, no one to accost you.
The message Dr Michael conveyed in his services being consistently inspiring, uplifiting, non-denominational, non-prescriptive, unconventional and pretty darn funny, this here lifelong non-churchgoer found himself attending services more and more often.
As I continued working on the book, bouts of self-doubt would still pop up. "Did I make a mistake leaving a decent job? Is something wrong with me?"
The little community of Agape I had discovered in Culver City, California was a potent antidote to worry, fear and doubt. Dr Michael's talks were the tonic of reassurance that kept up my energy and spirits while writing the book. At 6pm on a Wednesday night, I'd be moping around, thinking, "This is going nowhere," and by 8.30pm at the end of service a complete turnaround would have occurred: "I'm gonna do this and it's gonna go huge."
One of Dr Michael's themes that I like is that we are all instruments of the divine, put on earth for a definite and glorious purpose. There are vast reserves of power and grace within us that are just waiting to be awakened, if we were only to acknowledge them. As stated in the congregation's new-visitor welcome, you are an image and spiritual likeness of god.
Agape's notion of god is "the love-intelligence that governs the universe"; your version can be whatever suits you best: nature, higher power, Allah, Yahweh, the great mystery, universal love, the cosmos. The idea is not to get hung up on terminology, but rather to tap into a power bigger than yourself so you can grow.
Some of Dr Michael's other recurring themes were also instrumental in getting me through that and other rough patches:
- Your past is not your future. You can let go of whatever happened before and emerge renewed in this very moment should you choose to do so. Since there is greatness within you waiting to express itself, the best is yet to come.
- Be in the world but not of the world. Make it a practice to reside at such an elevated spiritual plane that pettiness, worry, doubt and fear have a tough time reaching you.
- To overcome a challenge, be bigger than your problem.
- To attain a certain desirable state of being - say, success or wealth - pray believing that you already have that which you seek.
- Right now, wherever you are, in this very moment, everything is fine - you're breathing, your heart's beating, you're clothed and there's a roof over your head. Start with that feeling and expand it into every corner of your life till you're suffused with well-being.
- In the same way that electricity works in invisible ways, the abundance of the universe is always presenting itself to you invisibly. Open yourself up to it to let in.
- When in doubt, practice gratitude. If it doesn't seem to work, practice it some more. There are infinite things for which we can be grateful.
- Meditation, affirmation, positive prayer and sacred service done regularly will get you to wherever you need to go.
- The world is much bigger and wiser than us. Sometimes we just have to let go and trust it to take care of us in its mysterious ways - "let go and let god", as Dr Michael puts it.
As beneficial as it is to read about these ideas, they provide a small fraction of the impact of seeing Dr. Michael live. The Rev, as we affectionately call him, is a force of nature. His speeches have the emotional impact and uplift of the best speakers I have ever heard; they hold genuine transformative power. This explains why I have recordings of dozens of Dr Michael's speeches so I can revisit them.
Some people think of Agape as church for people who don't go to church; others attend it as an inspirational supplement to their own denominational services. Wherever people come from - young or old, skeptic or believer, jaded or eager, from all color and creed - Agape tends to embrace them. This is because Dr Michael seems to have this uncanny ability to talk about exactly what you need to hear at that moment.
That's how I felt every time I attended Agape as I was writing my first book. To conclude that tale, I'm pleased to report that the book did well. I'm still writing four years later and still attending Agape regularly for my booster shots of spiritual renewal. To those of you who can attend the Wednesday evening and Sunday morning services at the Agape Sanctuary in Culver City, I urge you to pay a visit.
To those of you who are far from Los Angeles, I'm happy to report that you can catch Dr Michael's PBS special starting November 26, 2009. Check The-Answer-Is-You.com for local listings. Also, the AgapeLive.com site recently started to offer live streaming, so you can now catch Dr Michael from wherever you are on your computer as he delivers his talk live.
Always generous, inspiring, relevant and elevating, Dr Michael is a spiritual teacher for our times for all those seeking to become their best possible selves. He is a teacher of teachers. If you haven't heard Dr Michael before, this week is a good time to get familiar with him through "The Answer is You" PBS special. I have a feeling you'll enjoy the experience.
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