The Misuse of Anger

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
– Frederick Buechner

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, by Theodoor Rombouts

In Ephesians 4:26, Paul says, “be angry but do not sin”.  Paul seems to allow for an Anger that does not reach the level of sin.  In the Old Testament (notably in the Psalms), God is frequently depicted as angry.  In the New Testament, we find Jesus angry as he throws the money changers and merchants out of the Temple.  In the Bible, righteous indignation seems to be an appropriate response to offenses committed against God (Ps. 119:53; Mk. 3:5).  There is a place to respond in Anger, but this Anger is something distinctly less permanent than deeply-rooted wrath or hostility. We all struggle to distinguish between getting angry for injustice versus becoming an angry person.  Anger is needed in some situations of injustice. It is better than callous indifference.  So how do we determine if our anger is indeed righteous or sinful?  We should ask ourselves these questions:

  • Does our expression of Anger lead to love, wholeness (shalom), or healing?  Is it building up others and the body of Christ?  Are we helping to bring healing to someone or some group that has been oppressed or abused?  If the answers are “yes” – then perhaps your expression of Anger is righteous.
  • On the other hand, does my expression of Anger lead to division, destruction, animosity, alienation, or separation?  This kind of Anger would be hard pressed to be “righteous”.

Paul also writes in Ephesians 4:27, “do not make room for the devil”.  When Anger takes up residence within us, we become ‘angry people’. Angry people sow division, destruction, animosity, alienation, and separation.

It seems to me that good people in our society and churches are responding to injustice with Anger.  But they are allowing that Anger to consume them and others in destructive ways.  We are not always good at using Anger in beneficial ways.  Our goal should be to leverage our Anger into love, wholeness, healing, and building up the body of Christ.  We all need to stop and ask this question: Has injustice led me to righteous Anger?  If so, am I leveraging that Anger to build up the body of Christ?  Or, have I allowed that Anger to ‘make room for the devil’ in my life?  Good people, motivated by injustice, are right to get angry.  Too often, many of them lose control of the Anger.  It controls them. The good they want to do is followed by a wake of destruction and brokenness.  I pray we can find ways to harness the passion of righteous Anger to build the body of Christ.

Mercy is the quality that stands against Anger. All the Anger words – wrath, bitterness, resentment, vengeance, judgment, etc. – are devoid of mercy. The person who swims in the current of God’s mercy already has a leg up in dealing with Anger.  God’s love at work in the world is “mercy”…mercy extended toward friends and enemies, those like me and those unlike me, toward those of every race and tribe. Mercy is a distinctly “God-like” quality.

You may be angry for the right reasons; but be careful that your Anger does not consume you and lead to destruction.

Lenten Disciplines for Every Day: Fasting

John the Short said, “If a king wants to take a city filled with his enemies, he first captures their food and water, and when they are starving he subdues them.  So it is with gluttony.  If a man is sincere about fasting and is hungry, the enemies that trouble his soul will grow weak.”

Early Christians believed the first sin of humanity was gluttony – Adam and Eve overreaching beyond God’s boundaries.  It just so happened to be connected to fruit on a tree.  The earliest Christians thought of gluttony in broader terms than we do.  We think of it as ‘overeating’ or ‘lavish feasting’, but the early monastics saw food deeply connected to our spiritual lives.  Thomas Aquinas points to this in the 13th century as he expands gluttony to include ‘eating too eagerly’, which he considered the most egregious form.  Eating eagerly causes us to disregard health, social, and especially spiritual matters in our lives.  He points to Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of beans as a primary example of disregarding the spiritual for sake physical desire.

We all suffer from obsessions with food in our culture.  I am currently binge watching several food shows in ‘4K Ultra HD’, including ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ by Somin Nosrat (which I highly recommend, by the way).  Gluttony has moved from the mouth and the stomach, to my leisure time and my eyes.  While on vacations, my family has a notorious practice of discussing our lunch plans over breakfast, discussing dinner plans over lunch, and discussing breakfast plans over dinner.  I often wonder how much more we could share together….

But here is the rub…gluttony is always about more than food.  Evagrius listed it as the first of the 8 passions, or terrible temptations.  It has always been connected deeply to our spirituality and has always been see as one of the obstacles to love.

Are you fasting from some food or drink this Lent?  Many of us do.  But let me ask all of us, including myself, to consider whether we are actually giving up something ‘easy’ – which only skims the surface of Lent’s intention – or if we are considering giving up something more difficult?  Here are a few more difficult things to consider ‘fasting’ from not just at Lent, but in our lives…some things that we tend to ‘overindulge’ in:

What if we could learn to tame or possibly lay aside our ego, or even our pride for Lent?

What would it feel like if we could learn to ‘fast’ from worry?

Is it possible for me to go 40 days (or even 1 day?!?) without judging someone else…without being critical…without gossiping…without slandering someone else?

If you are like me, you will say, “that’s basically impossible, so why start?”  You miss the point.  Ash Wednesday begins with the affirmation that we are dust.  We affirm our humanity and our imperfections.  We WILL mess up during Lent…and life.  It is assumed already.  But we identify our failing, we get up, brush ourselves off, ask for God’s guidance, and we learn as we keep going…relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Try it…not just for the remainder of Lent, but everyday.  Think about boldly ‘giving something up’…something hard…something that could change your life.

God’s Will and Messy Faith

Colossians 1:9-10
9For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

This past Sunday, I announced that our family will be moving this summer to serve as the next Senior Pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.  It was an emotionally difficult day announcing we are leaving Wesley at Frederica.  We love Wesley.  We love the people of the church.  We love the community.  Ministry together over the past five years has been deeply rewarding, encouraging, and powerful.  As I shared with the congregation, I am better because I have served Wesley.  Wesley made me better than I ever thought I could be.

I shared Sunday the difficulty of the decision.  How do we discern God’s Will when confronted with two wonderful opportunities?  Deciding between the clearly right and the wrong things should be easy (although, I recognize sometimes it can be a hard decision as well), but how do you go through the process of discerning between two great choices?  Is there only one right path?  Will God only bless the one and not the other?  I didn’t do as good a job explaining Sunday as I hoped to due to the nature of the day.  But let me explain a little more how I believe discernment between two good choices works.

As Wesleyan Methodists, we don’t believe in “determinism” – that God scripts every action, every step, and every move of our lives.  Determinism says we don’t really have choice, we just have the perception that we choose, but God scripts everything.  We see this in language when we say, “It’s all God’s Will,” or “God knows what He’s doing,” or “it’s all in God’s plan.”  This understanding is rooted in a different strand of theological thought than Wesley’s theology.

Others believe God creates the world, sets it in motion and stands back never involved in the creation.  It just operates like a clock that has been wound up and let loose.  Called deists by some, they understand God to be the great Clock Maker.  God is not involved in our lives.  We have total freedom and we can choose any path we want.

A more balanced approach is rooted in our Wesleyan theology.  We believe God is actively involved in our lives.  But we also believe give gives us the freedom to choose.  Freedom of choice can sometimes disrupt God’s purposes for us, but choice also allows us to love God more perfectly.  After all, how can it really be love if have no choice?

Thomas Merton wrote, “A [person] who is afraid to settle their future by a good act of their own free choice does not understand the love of God.  For our freedom is a gift of God given us in order that He may be able to love us more perfectly, and be loved by us more perfectly in return….He Who loves us means to leave us room for our own freedom so that we may dare to choose for ourselves, with no other certainty than that His love will be pleased by our intention to please Him.”

And that is the key…when confronted by two great choices; we are given the freedom to choose.  I truly believe God is involved and can work with us in either choice.  I believe God is pleased by either choice as long as it is our desire to please God.  We use a lot of factors to make our decisions…meditating on scripture, prayer, contemplative listening, listening to wise counsel, watching for opportunities, and sometimes miraculous signs!

The hard part in my decision to leave Wesley and serve Chapelwood is that I had to choose.  That can cause anger and hurt.  This is why in the Methodist Church we Methodist preachers like to have the Bishop simply appoint us.  That way we don’t have to accept any responsibility for moving.  We can let all the anger project on the Bishop and Cabinet.  It is also easier to talk with “deterministic” language about this decision.  God desires this and God led me and it is God’s will.  After all, you can’t be mad at me if God is the one pulling all the strings!

The complexity of discerning God’s will when we face good choices is evident.  My counsel to you is to spend time in prayer, spend time in God’s scriptures, talk to those you look up to and admire spiritually (seek those who are on both sides of the choice), spend time listening to God, and listen to your family.  Then, when time comes…make a decision, know God can work in and bless either choice.

This has been a difficult decision, but I truly see God in it.  I am excited about going to Texas to serve with the wonderful people of Chapelwood, but I am also grieving at the thought of leaving behind the wonderful people of Wesley.

This is a part of the journey, my friends.  As my friend Samuel Ghartey used to say, “I am struggling peacefully, my friend.  I am struggling peacefully.”

Break the Silence…Lament!

Read Psalm 74

We are told all the time that all our problems are solvable.  The wars are solvable – we need either more or less troops.  Our illnesses are solvable – we just need the correct diagnosis and the right medicine.  Our poverty is solvable – “those” people just need to work.  The problem with this assumption is we all know it is not true.  Life is more complex and intricate than we often assume.

One of the powerful messages we are reclaiming during the Lenten season at Wesley is that the Hebrews did not feel that masking the emotional pain of life was appropriate.  They brought their pain to God and cried out in God’s presence.  They were not afraid to speak these prayers of darkness to God.  They believed that this was the only way faith worked – you bring the good to God and you bring the bad to God.  You bring all things to God.

The lament of Psalm 74 is a communal cry and prayer of the Israelites as the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 576 BC.  You can hear their cry as the elements and carvings of the temple are destroyed.  You can feel the pain as they desecrate the holy space.

Professor Walter Brueggemann gives us some wonderful insights regarding the Psalms, especially the lament Psalms.  This “outline” of lament may help us to reclaim our cry. (Spirituality of the Psalms)

First, Brueggeman says that a lament is a cry of expression that always addresses the Lord God. What is said to God may be scandalous and offend some of our sensibilities; but the ones who lament are completely committed, and they believe whatever must be said must be said directly to God who partners with us. We have permission to speak freely, but that speech is always directed to God – honestly and openly.  We bring all we are TO God.  A lament is not a cursing of God, but it is an honest prayer and expression TO God.

Second, the Rev. Dr. Claus Westermann, the great 20th century Old Testament scholar, pointed out the distinctive pattern of the lament.  There is an inherited way it is done.  There is order to it.  This order of the prayer was/is recognized by the Israelites.  The lament has two components:

  • The Plea which is a complaint that God should correct a skewed situation.
  • The Praise where the one praying always moves from a sense of urgency and desperation to joy, gratitude, and well-being.

In Matthew 8:1-4, there is a brief healing story.  “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; 2and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 3He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.””

In his book Psalmist’s Cry: Scripts for Embracing Lament, Walter Brueggemann shows how this healing story models for us the way that lament works as a powerful means to address the emotional pain in our lives and not just mask the symptoms.

First, the leper comes to Jesus and admits his status and despair – his “plea”.  He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than one of the most wounded. He doesn’t come to Jesus on his terms, pretending to have control over his life.  He kneels before Christ and says “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  I am unclean, I am broken, I am weary and I am downtrodden – but you can make me clean.

Second, we notice the trust this healed man places in Jesus.  What if Jesus wouldn’t heal him?  But is more than that, there is an ongoing trust.  He trusted Jesus with not only his initial healing but also with whatever was to come after – to go to the priests and present offerings (and keep the healing quiet).

We have seen this trust in all the lament Psalms we’ve read so far this Lenten season.  There is a definitive plea and always a move to praise…even in the midst of fear and pain.

The lament points out that there are no easy and quick solutions to many things in life.  Not every problem is “solvable”.  But that does not mean we lose our voice.  The Psalms of lament say to us, “you can go to God in darkness and despair and speak to God, and in that plea we can place our trust in God.”