Your gifts whatever you discover them to be
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Togetherthat is another possibility waiting.
The choice to bless the world is more than act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition,
A confession of surprise,
A grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness,
That encompasses all life,
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
There moves a holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love
Protesting, urging insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life
As a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage. - The Rev. Rebecca Parker
“Abbot Ammonas said that he had spent fourteen years in Scete praying to God day and night to be delivered from anger.” Thomas Merton
I wonder if he succeeded. Abbot Ammonas was one of the Desert Fathers of the fourth century who removed himself completely from society to seek holiness. In our own times, poet May Sarton went to live by herself in a farmhouse in New Hampshire in a quest for peace and also to pursue the inner life of the writer, poet and journaler. Sarton suffered from depression and had no illusions about the magnitude of the task before her. She wrote at the beginning of her journal:
“Now, I hope to break through into the rough, rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved.”
How wise of May to know that she, like every one of us, has a volcanic center. Only lives utterly lacking passion lack the potential for violence, but of course most of us will never have the luxury of going to the desert or retreating to a cabin in New Hampshire to confront whatever demons of anger we may want to consciously battle. -- Even if we live alone in our homes, we inevitably interact with other people and people are the #1 provokers of anger and violence in other people. Neighbors, relations, drivers on the road, bank tellers, store clerks, the kid who mows your lawn. In all of these encounters there is that opportunity to become angry, that flare of unbridled life force that swells up through the chest or the gut, that brings temporary blindness, that makes us want to lash out verbally or even physically. The driver who almost swerves into your child while jabbering on the cell phone. The neighbor who prefers to communicate his petty concerns via attorney rather than extend the simple courtesy of a phone call to let you know that your tree’s branches have grown onto his property. The attractive friend who plunks herself in your husband’s lap at the cocktail party and smiles innocently when you give her an outraged stare.
Anger and fear are best friends, and they do not make advance reservations for our time and energy: they come uninvited, entering our consciousness with the shocking force of a brick thrown through the window. As the old Monty Python sketch used to say, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.” No one expects Anger. I would like to say that no one welcomes anger, but that’s not true. Some of us know individuals who are rage addicts, who get an obvious high off of the endorphins released by the force of the emotion. Perhaps this is the first time you have heard this term “rageaholic.” If it is, and it resonates with you and seems to describe someone you know, I would direct you to the work of Newton Hightower, and I will include a link to a brief article identifying the signs of anger addiction in the printed copy of this sermon.
Through the magic of technology, we don’t even have to see another human being in the course of our day to have an opportunity to get angry. I’m sure that your blood pressure goes up as regularly as mine over certain items on the news, pieces of information you may receive via a phone call, or some irritating missive received in the mail. Anger is exciting; it can provide the illustion that something is happening when actually the status quo is being preserved. While some assiduously avoid anger, even unhealthily so by becoming entirely conflict-avoidant, others enjoy stirring it up, infecting others with it, feeding off the shared high of a contrived outrage that is often “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Anger comes from fear, and specifically from feeling threatened. It is a human emotion that no one will avoid experiencing many times in his lifetime, but what makes it destructive, or sinful, is how we act on it and how much time and energy we give to it. What is the threat? How legitimate is it? If someone almost hits your child with their car, the only sane response is to be angry, very angry, although anger may come before or after other emotions such as terror or relief. However, the career-oriented father or mother who comes through the door at the end of a hard day at the office and terrorizes the spouse and children because the house isn’t as clean or the dinner as impressive as he or she feels entitled to, is not responding to a legitimate threat. Anger in that case is just a form of bullying, of posturing, of establishing dominance. It should be challenged. It is a form of domestic violence just as surely as is punching or kicking.
When Elie Woods chased Tiger out of the house wielding a golf club, Glamour magazine ran a “you go, girl” item about it. But how is a wife smashing her husband’s car window to get at her cheating husband any more to cheer than a man doing the same thing to his wife? It is true that our culture has a long way to go in accepting anger as part of women’s emotional repertoire, but I don’t see it as an achievement for equal rights to condone violence from women, however righteous their rage may be.
And anger can be righteous; what Rebecca Parker calls “benevolent rage.” Not just the righteous anger that comes from looking at the injustices in the world, but anger at the suffering that is part of our own, personal lives. Anger can be a necessary part of surviving grief and loss. It can be a signal that something needs to change. It is a motivator and a clarifier; if we can attend to the energy that anger generates and not get lost or obsessed the often uncontrollable circumstances that provoked it, we can often use it wisely and well. People conveniently forget or ignore the fact that even Jesus, the one we call Prince of Peace, often made many angry, impatient comments and provoked people with them -- sometimes reaching new understanding, but sometimes just walking away frustrated to pray in solitude! When we insist that to be spiritual is to be perpetually placid, we amputate the entire prophetic tradition from religious history.
Using the metaphor of Jesus’ driving the moneychangers from the temple, Garret Keizer writes that “Even a temple must be cleansed from time to time. A house where no one ever gets mad might not be any more healthy to live in than a house where no one ever opens a window.” A person who never gets angry can be as dangerous as a person who constantly erupts in fits of temper: repression of anger can lead not only to debilitating depression, but to just as destructive behaviors and consequences as can uncontrolled rage. Anger turned inward and imprisoned there will come out in some damaging way. The key is balance, and channeling the energies of anger wisely.
Anger is a form of energy, an energy with electricity and charge to it. When we talk in the church about transformation that we seek in ourselves and in the world, we should reflect on how the illuminating flash of anger can light the way to some of that transformation. Once the heat of anger has cooled, it is often possible to use it creatively, to use it as a propellant not for revenge, which is always a temptation that should be resisted, but for justice, for learning, and in the service of growth.
I recently heard about a conversation between two pastors. One, the minister of a large Lutheran urban congregation, was complaining bitterly to her small-town Unitarian pastor friend that she repented of being associated with a denomination, that had benefited in its recent history by the devoted services of homosexual pastors whose life partners were only acknowledged as “friends.” Now at the end of their lives, these elderly men not being allowed the legal benefits of marriage in their state were also being denied the pension benefits that, had they been married to women would have gone to their spouses after their death.
The urban pastor was furious. She had several such retired homosexual pastors in her congregation whose life partners faced economic hardship that their female counterparts would not. The gross unfairness of it had her spitting mad.
The small-town colleague was furious along with her, and the two spent some time grieving and venting, or what the ancients used to call “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” And then the Unitarian Universalist pastor said, "You should marry him. You should marry your dying colleague."
There was a long silence. The two listened into the silence: the kind of listening you do when someone throws out a crazy idea. Wait a minute. Could the Spirit be moving here, or are we just being crazy?
"You should marry him," said the small-town pastor again to her friend, who is single. "Marry him, get a lawyer to work pro bono, and draw up documents that arrange for the church pension assets to go directly from you to his partner until his death." One part of the current legal definition of marriage about which both the church and the state agree, is that it is a contract valid until "death do us part." The pastor would be married until death parted her and the elderly retired minister, which was imminent. The act would have a Theatre of the Absurd quality to it, and it would be an open act of rebellion against the denominational hierarchy. When the two ministers hung up, they were no longer angry because they had something to do. One went to consult an attorney. The other went to alert some journalists as to a potential story brewing.*
"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" cried Peter Finch at a memorable moment in the film, "Network," a prescient prophetic look at the degeneration of television journalism into infotainment. Also from the cinematic tradition we recall Norma Rae, played by Sally Field, holding the "UNION" sign above her head in a crowded room of textile mill workers in an iconic moment of anger transformed to action. Erin Brokovich, a real woman portrayed in the film by Julia Roberts, enraged by the pollution of the city's water supply, takes on a powerful corporation in a successful attempt to make them accountable for what they have done in secrecy. We love these stories because they're not just Dirty Harry "make my day" revenge fantasies, but inspiring glimpses of how the helpless, choking sensation we often first feel in anger can become crystal-clear visions of how we can take action to transform our lives, seek something different, use the energy of anger benevolent rage -- to shake loose from ties that not only bind but gag.
We will close with the beloved protest song written by activist Holly Near, one of the only hymns I know that honors not the wrath of God, but the benevolent rage of the human community, and that lifts up the possibility that anger and gentleness can co-exist together in us, as we sing, sing for our lives.
* Because some of you asked, the Lutheran pension board voted to extend benefits to the partner of the particular retired pastor, and thereby to open the question of extending benefits to all same-sex partners of their retired clergy. The synod will vote on the matter this summer (2010). The urban pastor still remains ready to enter into a marriage with an elderly gay retired pastor as a form of protest and as a gesture of support, should that be necessary.