God’s Guide to Anger Management

Preached August 9, 2009 at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, SC

Readings for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost:
John 6:35-51
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

This morning’s song is from 1982. It was the first major hit for Crosby, Stills and Nash in roughly five years. It went to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in August of 1982. The song is “Wasted on the Way” and you’re welcome to sing along and add the harmony parts!

Look around me, I can see my life before me
Running rings around the way it used to be
I am older now, I have more than what I wanted
But I wish that I had started long before I did
And there’s so much time to make up everywhere you turn
Time we have wasted on the way
So much water moving underneath the bridge
Let the water come and carry us away

The last weekend of this month, I will do something I’ve done just about every month this year – I will board a plane to a faraway destination where I will talk to groups of people about my book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. I’ll be jetting off to Ottawa, Canada to take part in their pride parade and celebration. This time is a little bit different because Wanda will be going with me.

While we are there – on Friday, August 28 – Wanda and I will stand before a pastor who has been granted the power to legally marry us. When we return we will be legal spouses – in the country of Canada at least. I’m thrilled that Wanda has agreed to marry me because eight years ago, it looked like it would never happen. Wanda and I had just started dating and our first Christmas together it appeared that our relationship would be over before it even had a chance to start.

The problem started just as we left Atlanta to come to South Carolina for a visit over the holidays. Wanda and her son Jamie came to pick me up from my job at CNN. We were taking two cars up for the trip. Before we could leave, however, I had a little run in with one of CNN’s security guards. He confiscated my CNN ID and told me I’d have to go through channels to get it back whenever I returned from vacation.

I was livid. I don’t know if you understand the importance of your ID badge at CNN. It not only gets you into the building without going through security – you need it to simply go to the bathroom. I’ve forgotten my ID before and had to have people escort me to the bathroom and back again – talk about embarrassing. So, I knew when I got back I’d have to go through security, get a co-worker to come and fetch me from the security desk and find a bathroom pal until I could get my ID badge returned. That made me mad. But, just the way the security guard had treated me really made me angry. I had no recourse against him – he had all the power and left me feeling humiliated and … well, angry. I could not do anything to change the situation. All I could do was rage – and rage I did – all the way to South Carolina. I was a dog with a bone and I wouldn’t let it go.

That made Wanda mad. She was so mad, in fact, that she put me out of her car and put me in the car with Jamie. That was probably better for us both. I didn’t want to rage in front of Jamie – so he and I had a pleasant ride the rest of the way to our destination.

But, when we got there – I was still mad and so was Wanda. I asked her later, “Do you still love me?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I don’t like you right now.”

And, in her own way, she gave me an ultimatum that I understood clearly – I could choose my anger, or I could choose our relationship.

I had spent my entire life up to that point being very angry. I grew up in a family where expressing the range of human emotions wasn’t encouraged. Instead, the only emotion that got free expression was anger. My father was a very angry man who would openly rage at us. That rage often turned physical, especially against my brother. So, anger was a way of life in my family – it’s the only way we dealt openly with anything.

Atlanta was a perfect place to fuel my anger. I got to exercise it daily whenever I climbed into the driver’s seat. I fully expected to die in a road rage incident before my 30th birthday. A recent survey by a national auto club ranked Atlanta among the top five worst cities in the U.S. for road rage incidents. It ranks right up there with New York, Dallas-Fort Worth and Miami for drivers cutting each other off, driving aggressively and giving one another the one finger salute.

The worst incident happened in Peachtree City when another driver cut us off, scraping our front bumper in the process. I wasn’t even driving, but I jumped out of the passenger side and ran screaming at the other driver. We met in the middle of the road and went nose to nose, calling each other everything but a child of God.

The cops finally came, information was exchanged, including home addresses, and I awoke the next day to two flat tires. If this guy snuck up to our house in the middle of the night to slash our tires, what else could he have done to us? He may have had a gun – broke into the house – poisoned our animals – anything. That incident really was my wake up call. The anger had to stop. It was not only destroying my relationship with Wanda and other people – but it could, one day, destroy me.

Anger is like this – we waste so much of our time being angry. We also waste our health on it. Studies show that anger raises blood pressure and can lead to heart problems. My father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 54. So, anger can be deadly.

Because of our anger we hold grudges and let it ruin relationships. We spend our time picking over our wounds, reliving the offense, nursing our hurt feelings and refusing to find ways to reconcile, ways to heal ourselves and those around us. Instead of clinging to our anger, we need to see it as so much water under the bridge – and let the water come and carry us away.

Oh, when you were young, did you question all the answers
Did you envy all the dancers who had all the nerve
Look around you know, you must go for what you wanted
Look at all my friends who did and got what they deserved
So much time to make up everywhere you turn
Time we have wasted on the way
So much water moving underneath the bridge
Let the water come and carry us away

In Ephesians we read that we are to be imitators of God, and the author of this epistle gives us a guide on how to do that. One theological side note, not all scholars agree that Ephesians was actually written by the apostle Paul – most believe it was written after his death, in his name, by one of his followers. That doesn’t make it any less valuable to us, however – because if we read it carefully we’ll find God’s Guide to Anger Management in its words.

First, the author counsels the Ephesians to “be angry, but do not sin.” For someone with habitual anger, like me, this is good and bad news. I can be angry. The Bible says so! I have permission to get angry – to get upset at people and situations that frustrate me. I even have permission to get angry with God. The scriptures tell me, “Be angry!” But, then there’s the rest of the sentence – “but do not sin.”

Oh. So, I can get angry – but, I can’t let that anger cause me to sin – to miss the mark or offend another person. What can I do then? Rage in private? No, what the writer of Ephesians is getting at is this – transform your anger. Use it. Don’t let it fester, but turn this negative emotion into something positive.

Today we begin our six-week Rainbow Pride observance. The movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality began with an act of anger. The patrons at the Stonewall Inn bar in New York City were tired of being harassed by the police. They simply wanted to be left alone to come together as a community, even if just for a little while. But, the bar kept being raided and patrons hustled off to jail in paddy wagons. One night in 1969, the bar patrons – gays, lesbians, and drag queens – got angry enough to fight back.

The riot at Stonewall Inn marks the beginning of a movement – a transformation of that negative energy of anger into a positive movement that has brought many reforms for our community and continues to inspire our community to work for full equality.

Be angry! But don’t sin – don’t let that anger tear apart the community and don’t hold a grudge – reconcile with those around you and live in harmony. This is God’s first rule for anger management.

There’s so much time to make up for when we’ve been angry and sinned. Let us repent and let those past sins flow like so much water under the bridge. Let the water come and carry us away.

So much time to make up everywhere you turn
Time we have wasted on the way
So much water moving underneath the bridge
Let the water come and carry us away

How many times have you been angry with someone and said something to them that you either immediately or later regretted? Show of hands? That’s what anger does – it makes us lash out at people. We say hurtful things to one another and damage our most precious relationships.

I recall seeing a church sign recently that read, “The best way to have the last word is to apologize.” And my snarky self thought that was brilliant! That way I could say: “I’m sorry you’re an idiot!”

But, such a retort, while it may feel good, violates God’s second rule for anger management: “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.”

When we’re angry, our words are always less than graceful. Instead, they become weapons that we brandish wildly, cutting and slashing, not caring who gets hurt or how deeply we wound another person.

We often don’t realize how powerful words can be. The Bible tells us that our entire universe came into being by God speaking a few simple words. That power has been given to us. The words we speak can bring healing or they can bring harm. Children who are raised in a family where they were constantly told they were stupid, or ugly, or would never amount to anything take those words to heart and live them out. Unless there are other, equally powerful words spoken to them later in life, they believe what they’ve been told and they see themselves as stupid, ugly and useless. Relationships are destroyed and whole communities can be torn apart by words – usually known as “gossip.” One person says something about another person, another person believes it and passes it on and before you know it – people are mad at each other – they’re not sure why but they’re convinced something is wrong in their community and, more often than not, communities disband or go to war with one another – simply because of something someone said.

In my book, Bulletproof Faith, I tell the story of a Sufi master who has come to a village and is asked to heal a child. The villagers crowd around and he says a few simple prayers and tells the people, “Now he will be well.” Someone who didn’t believe in all this spiritual stuff said, “What do you mean? You say a few words and the kid is supposed to get better?” The master approached the man and said, “What do mean? You know nothing of this. You are an ignorant fool!” The man is enraged, he turns red, his body starts to vibrate and he’s about to strike out at the master, and the master says, “See if a word or two can turn you red and fill you with energy and anger, why shouldn’t a few other words have the power to heal?”

God’s second rule of anger management – watch what you say. Your words have the power to harm or to heal. We have so much time to make up for our harmful words of the past. Let them flow like so much water under the bridge. Let the water come and carry us away.

So much time to make up everywhere you turn
Time we have wasted on the way
So much water moving underneath the bridge
Let the water come and carry us away

But, God isn’t finished with us. There’s one more lesson to learn:

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Here, we can take an example from Jesus. In our gospel passage we find Jesus, still teaching the crowd – but this time, the crowd gets a little hot under the collar with Jesus. The scriptures tell us that “the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?'”

They were angry at Jesus for what they perceived to be his arrogance. I mean, here was the son of Joseph – that carpenter’s kid – saying he’s the bread of life who has come down from heaven! How dare he? Who does he think he is?

Remember, now, just a few verses back, this is the crowd that saw Jesus feed a multitude with just a few fish and loaves of bread. They’ve seen Jesus in action, they’ve heard his powerful words, and still they doubt – they complain. They get mad.

What does Jesus do when they get mad at him? Does he get defensive? Does he turn bitter – thinking, “Well, y’know, I’ve done miracles, I’ve preached the gospel and still they won’t listen, so I’m outta here. I quit.” Did he start rumors about those who followed him – gossiping with others about what kind of disbelieving idiots they all are?

No, Jesus didn’t resort to bitterness, or wrath, or anger, or slander, or malice. He was kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving. Even in the face of doubt, anger, slander, and malice, Jesus continued to offer this doubting crowd the bread of life. He continued to love them, to teach them, and to offer them eternal life.

This is our most challenging step as imitators of Christ. No matter how other people treat us – no matter how angry we may get over how people treat us or how political situations affect us or our world – we must continue to offer everyone we meet the bread of life. We must continue to imitate Christ – to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.

Let me be clear – that does not mean we become doormats. That does not mean that we don’t fight for what we believe to be right in this world. Martin Luther King Jr. urged his followers to be tenderhearted, but also to be tough-minded. We must not compromise our principles, ever. We must never be overcome by evil, but overcome all evil with good. Be angry, but do not sin. Transform your anger into positive action – into actions that reconcile relationships and heal the world.

What are you angry about today? Are you angry with another person? Angry with yourself? Angry with God? Angry with the state of the world? Be angry! But do not sin. Give that anger to God, ask God to give you ways to transform that negative emotion into positive action – actions that will heal and transform ourselves, our relationships, our community and our world.

I’ll leave you with one more story. Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard told a parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go. With those wings they could soar. Shouts of “Amen!” were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left commenting on the message and waddled back home. But they never flew.

I challenge you this morning to fly. Don’t waddle home. Instead, live into God’s guide to anger management – be angry, but not sin, speak healing and uplifting words, and be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving. Don’t let anger lead you to waste time along your way – time you’ll just have to make up for later. Let it all flow underneath the bridge. Let the water come and carry us away.

So much love to make up everywhere you turn
Love we have wasted on the way
So much water moving underneath the bridge
Let the water come and carry us away
Let the water come and carry us away