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.

Sutherland Springs and Springs of the Water of Life

“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” -Revelation 7:17

Little did I know as we worshiped on November 5 that a tragedy was befalling fellow saints of God in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  At Chapelwood UMC in Houston, we were gathering to worship God and to remember the saints who died this past year.  First Baptist in Sutherland Springs was worshiping as well.  This should have been a Sunday where the saints – living and dead – are united with one song of praise to the Lamb on the throne.  Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics – the untold number of saints gathered around the throne singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)

I have no words to speak or write that can help make sense of this awful tragedy.  Watching the news doesn’t help at all.  “It is a gun issue.”  “It is a mental health issue.”  “It is a sin issue.”  My friends, evil never limits the places and spaces where it works.  Evil will do anything it can to destroy life – to kill, steal, and destroy.  The devil is at work and will always seek to introduce fear and doubt into the lives of people of faith.  Evil will even work after the tragedy as we try to find some easy solution or explanation.  It’s not easy.  It never has been.

I have received quite a few emails asking ‘why’?  I don’t have the answer.  I took theology, psychology, and ethics in seminary and can articulate evil, sin, pain and suffering.  But the theology doesn’t do much for me in this moment.  I am more connected to the laments in the Psalms and the hoped for future in Revelation.  It’s not that I am avoiding anything.  It’s just that this seems to happen every week and words begin to echo into meaninglessness.  I need words to help me name the pain.

Like in Psalm 6, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.  My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.  The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.  All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”

And Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

So, right now and am in sackcloth and ashes.  I am weeping inside and out.

But there is something we can do.  Christians will need to be ready to step up our discipleship if we want to see our world changed.  We must lament…and they we must step forward.  We must give up time to disciple and be discipled.  We must give time to teach our teens and children.  We must open the pathways of the Holy Spirit to work not just in us, but to expand the influence of Christ in the world.

Join me as we weep and cry out.  Then join me as we step forward in faith to change the world.

 

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.”

The Big Three: Money, Sex, and Power

I Corinthians 9:24-27
24Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified

Most of us are overwhelmingly focused on the tasks we have to accomplish each and every day. Last week on Tuesday morning with a bunch of guys at breakfast, I was sharing with them an app I have on my iPad where I keep all my notebooks. The first one I go to every do is the To Do book. I create my To Do list. If I don’t, I will forget something (in addition to the many things I forget to put on my list.) But you see, part of the problem with our out of control lives is this To Do list. We are more focused in our lives on what we have TO DO, then who we are working TO BE. A friend of mine recently asked me if I have ever made a TO BE list instead of a TO DO list. He told me, if you let the TO BE list guide you, you will find your life transformed.  Why is it we spend more time focusing on what we need to do instead of focusing on who we are? Thomas Merton once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This is so true.

Three human needs have the capacity to destroy any one of us if we don’t spend time in examining our lives: money, sex, and power. It is no wonder early monastic communities established three vows for those called to religious leadership: poverty, chastity (celibacy), and obedience. These vows were severe protective measures to guard against the fatal compulsion of these three needs. While the early monastics approached these three human needs with vows of denial, that is not the only way to bring them under control.  During the Reformation in the 16th century, the leaders of the church stressed a more positive response to deal with the Big Three: faithful stewardship, covenantal love, and self-giving service as healthy responses to these three temptations. Rather than deny the needs, they sought to control, direct, and redeem them. This new understanding in Christian faith saw money, sex, and power not as evil in and of themselves, what matters is how they are used in our lives. This is why self-examination is so important in managing our out of control lives. Instead of just going, we need to figure out what makes us go.  Over time the church’s view toward money, sex, and power shifted as the role of each in society was changing.

The modern era has sought to make peace with money, sex, and power. It seems that many of us believe we are immune to the dangers of each one. But the truth is, they still have the power to destroy families and lives if they remain unchecked.
I’ve shared stories before of how the BIG THREE can destroy lives. We’ve seen it in our own families. Most of the time, I have found that what leads us to fall to their power is that we never really spent time examining what makes us tick. We never spent time on our TO BE list.

Paul talks here about bringing his body under control and how important it is. We must know that money, sex, and power have the ability to cloud our judgment, corrode our values, and capture our will leading us to behave in ways that are irresponsible.

Where does the search for begin? You and I need to look for individuals who have demonstrated the inner capacity to deal creatively with money, sex, and power in their lives. In Christian tradition, we have called these people spiritual guides, mentors, abbas, or ammas (fathers or mothers).  They come alongside us, with our permission, and become “ruthlessly compassionate truthtellers”.  We can’t overcome the power of the Big Three alone.  We need someone to help us – to guide us.  Will you find someone to come alongside you?  To help you TO BE the person God created you to be?

Discovering Peace

Psalm 56: 1-13
1Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me;  2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High, 3when I am afraid, I put my trust in you.  4In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me? 5All day long they seek to injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil.  6They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps. As they hoped to have my life, 7so repay them for their crime; in wrath cast down the peoples, O God!  8You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?  9Then my enemies will retreat in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. 10In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, 11in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?  12My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.  13For you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.

This is a high anxiety world and suffering is all around us. I don’t have to tell you that. Globally, nationally, locally, and even in our own homes, the suffering is real and palpable and it causes us to be afraid. And while sometimes words can bring comfort, often times there are no words that bring comfort.

Psalm 56 puts words to the fear we face. It puts words to those in a world who are out to get us. “They trample on me, all day long they are out to get me, my foes oppress me, many fight against me.” I’ve wanted to claim Psalm 56 as the “preacher’s psalm”, but I think I will have to stand in line behind a lot of you who want to claim it as “realtor’s psalm”, “bankers’ psalm”, “teachers’ psalm”, “or (insert your life here) psalm”.

King Charles I, the King of England during the English Civil War, was imprisoned in and ultimately beheaded. During his captivity in 1649 he quoted the first two lines of this psalm, “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me; 2my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High,” He used verses 1-2 as a response to the taunts of the jailers who were using Psalm 56:1 as THEIR cry, “All day long your foes oppress me.”
We can all relate to Psalm 56. This Psalm speaks to the passion we feel when we just have had enough. “God, c’mon now. You see what’s going on and I’m not a bad person. I’m kind of expecting you to step in here and make things right.” We are not without hope because we are a suffering. The Psalmist chooses to trust in God and we must as well if we want to find peace in an out of control life.

So how can we gain peace in an out of control life? I want to share two things I believe can help.

Reclaim the language of lament

To find or reclaim peace, we must bring all of our lives to God.  It seems that everything we do in our culture is about avoiding negativity because we believe that somehow that doubt will cause us to be failures. We do this in the church really well because we believe that to acknowledge negativity and suffering is somehow a lack of faith – as though by speaking our fears, hurts, and doubts somehow means God has lost control.  This is why in our culture so many of us feel obligated to say things to suffering people like, “It’s gonna be okay, this is gonna make your stronger.”  One of my former professors at Columbia, Walter Brueggeman, says if you read the Psalms and you will find many instances of faith language that speak in the darkness to the darkness. Some may call it a lack of faith, it is really a bold act of faith to cry out to God. Why we can cry out to God we are reaffirming that the world is to be experienced as it is and not in some pretend way. Just because we don’t want pain and suffering doesn’t mean it will go away!! It is a bolder act of faith to cry out to God with nothing out of bounds. Everything can properly be brought to God. To withhold parts of our life and experience is to withhold parts of ourselves from God’s sovereignty. “Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

I remember sitting with a family in their home after they received news of the husbands terminal cancer. With me in the room they tried to negotiate positive language. I was simply listening, and he finally said, “What I want to say to God right now is not very nice.” I told him to say it. He needed to say it.

We must choose hope in God

Hope. We use the word quite a bit, but I’m not sure we know what it really means. Hope in Psalm 56 is a trust in God and it is something we CHOOSE. The Psalmist writes in verse 11-12, “In God I trust…my vows to you I must perform.”
Hope is not only the desire for something but also the expectation of receiving it. Hope is not so much a passion or emotion, as a desire of the will. A decision based not only on our experience of God in the past but our expectation of how God promise He will work. Hope is to cherish a desire with anticipation. Hope is to expect something with confidence. Hope is . . . to Trust.

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that Hope and Faith depend on each other “not only as a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering.” Hope doesn’t just bring comfort, it stands over against suffering and persecution – it protests it!  Our Christian hope looks toward the days when Christ will make all things new. When we hope, it creates in a believer a “passion for the possible.”  Hope stands against the powers of darkness and suffering and says, “God WILL – God will”

Micah 7:7, the prophet writes, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord and confident in Him I will keep watch; I will wait with hope and expectancy for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.”

Recovering the language of lament. Choosing hope in God. These are keys to finding peace in an out of control life.

The Witness of Unity

John 17:20-26
20”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

We just celebrated World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday of October.  On that day, we lifted up our unity as Christians in the church universal by sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion along with thousands of other Christians worldwide.  There is an urgent need right now for Christians to be a witness through unity, especially in our American political climate.  First and foremost, Christians are fundamentally called to demonstrate our faith guided by Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, during this season of presidential politics many of us seem to guided more by our commitment to political ideologies than the teachings of Christ.

Let me give you two examples.

I have a good friend who is a Christian and a Democrat. She started visiting a new church in the community where she lived.  While she thought her faith and politics lined up, she learned very quickly that the people in her new church did not agree.   In a Sunday school class conversation, several seemed to imply (and one person directly stated), that one cannot be both a Christian and a Democrat. She liked her church and knew everyone did not feel this way, but here she was in a congregation where leaders of her class were telling her that her political views were not Christian. What kind of church would say such things?

I know another man who shared with me his pain around faith and politics. He is a Christian as well and a faithful member of his church. He never told me his political affiliation, but he expressed some deep pain from friends and congregation members who sent out partisan emails. He is the kind of guy who studies the facts and whenever he would try to point out the errors of certain emails (of which most were partisan lies), the response back to him was not exactly in keeping with the kind of love Jesus modeled. They responded to him harshly and he had not even asked to be sent those emails! Someone just included him in all the FWDs. One man said to him, “Don’t talk to me anymore!” What kind of church would say such things?

Actually, both of these people attend the same church.  And the church these two people attend is the church I pastor.

I appreciate some aspects of both parties and disagree with others. I have voted for persons in both parties. Jesus would not perfectly fit either political party. The truth is we Christians have damaged our witness when it comes to how we participate in partisan politics.  I know many people of strong faith who become very un-Christian in their behavior when they begin to talk about politics.

In John’s gospel today, Jesus is talking about unity. As we gather around the table to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we celebrate unity in the Body of Christ. Our faith teaches that we are one body and Christ is the head. This does not mean we are all the same or that we all see the world the same way. We struggle in our differences; I get that – I struggle as well. But we must remember that just because we are commanded to be ONE doesn’t mean we have to all be the SAME.  Unity is not the same as uniformity.  In this section of the gospel of John, Jesus teaches us that our unity is rooted in our faith and that our witness to the world will not be about “right belief” but rather about “right living” – Jesus models the Father, and he calls us to model him. Our love of God and one another, if it is true and authentic, should rise above any difference in our political ideology.

Let me encourage you to be a faithful witness to the love of God in these coming days and weeks. Remember the teachings of Paul from Ephesians 4, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another.”
I want you to be involved and engaged in the political arena, but I want you to remember that you are an ambassador of Christ first and foremost. Our faith should not be trumped by our loyalty to a political party. If it is, we compromise our witness to the world.

Are you a witness to the cosmic power of Christ in our unity? Or is your witness of Christ compromised by our lack of love and unity?