The Seven Deadlies: Anger

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost:

I have had enough… (Isaiah 1:10-20)
Woe to you! (Luke 11:37-52)

Tonight’s first song is from one of our favorite duos here at Jubilee! Circle – The Indigo Girls. Keeper of My Heart is from their 1990 release “Nomads, Indians, Saints.”

[Verse] For you, I would tattoo me,
With lines crossing into a hand,
And a heart that would never bleed.
With the twilight and the horse drawn on my arm
Standing for an addiction,
Pray we go unharmed.

[Chorus] Here is my love and anger,
you see now, these are my gods, these are my scars.
Here is, here is my love and anger,
well these arms are burning, but they’re open wide

If you’ve known me for about five minutes you know that one of biggest struggles of my life has been to overcome my battle with the deadly sin of anger.

Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation that gave us Lutherans and a host of other Protestants, once remarked: “I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; for when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.”

That’s well and good for Luther, but anger has never done anything for me except destroy relationships, hinder my own spiritual growth, and leave me feeling terrible. Anger has never been anything for me but a hindrance and a burden.

I came by my anger honestly, though. 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 Wanda and I 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.

This kind of anger is sinful, because it is destructive – and my destructive anger bred destructive anger from the man who had hit us. This kind of anger breeds evil.

This is not to say that anger is sinful. Healthy anger is, as Matthew Fox writes, “a means to a loving end. To ignore (our anger) or not employ it well is to limit our capacity for love. It is to love badly, to miss the mark, to misdirect our powers for love and relating.”

When we engage in healthy anger – we say to one another, “here is my love and anger.” We’re willing to lift each other up – to share with each other our gods – what we worship – and to share our scars – what has done us harm in our lives. When we engage in healthy anger, we are vulnerable to one another – open to give and to receive. When we engage in healthy anger, we create compassion – and prevent destruction.

[Verse] Some things, I hold too tightly,
Some things, I’ll never, I’ll never touch.
Oh, but, I’m wearing down the stones in the river,
And you see all my life, I’ve painted with anger’s brush

[Chorus] Now, now could you lift me through my love and anger,
You see now, these are your gods, these are my scars.
Lift me through my love and anger,
ah, well, my arms are burning, but they’re open wide

“I’ve had enough!” This is God speaking to the Israelites through the prophet Isaiah. God is pissed at his chosen people. God has taken care of them – seen them through thick and thin and never abandoned them – yet the people persist in abandoning God, chasing after other gods, and generally giving God the finger at every turn.

Now, God is angry and he’s letting them know.

I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

God tells them they can pray all they want, he’s not listening anymore. God’s anger is burning hot here – but notice where God goes with this anger. Instead of simply smiting the Hebrews right on the spot – which he has every right to do and no one would really blame him – he uses his anger wisely.

“Come now, let us argue it out,” God tells them – let’s talk about this. I’m mad at you, but I’m ready to reason with you – to give you options, to give you a chance to redeem this situation.

God tells them their options: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Here, God gives us some big clues on what makes Her angry: When we do evil, when we allow our own anger to burn hot – but for the wrong reasons and directed at the wrong things. God gets angry because we have neglected to do good, to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, or plead for the widow.

God gets angry because we get angry at the wrong things. We see injustice, we see oppression, we see widows and orphans – but we get angry at bad drivers, bad hair days, long lines at the grocery store, or when the waitress brings us cold food.

God is telling the Hebrews – “I’m angry because these things – these injustices – fail to make you angry – angry enough to get off your lazy desert dwelling butts to do anything about it.”

We are the keeper of the hearts in this world. We are called to lift one another through our love and anger. We are called to be voices for justice, for compassion, for equality. We are called to be righteously pissed. But so often, we miss the mark – and fall into the sin of misdirected anger.

So, what is it that gets us all worked up – a long line at the grocery store, or the increasingly long lines at food banks? Do we get angry because our boss is a jerk, or does it make us angry because thousands upon thousands no longer have bosses to complain about because they’ve lost their jobs? Do we get angry at slow traffic, or do we get angry at the corporations that continue to rape and pillage our globe for ever more cheaper sources of fuel? Do we get angry at the people who seem to abuse the welfare system, or do we get angry at about a system that keeps them in poverty? Do we get angry because we don’t think we get paid enough, or do we get angry at the businesses and governments who take advantage of child labor and pay slave wages so we can buy cheap products at Wal-Mart?

“I’ve had enough,” God said in anger. Have we?

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] Oh, you precious kid, I have a motion just for you.
I see a warrior, barefoot and dancing,
Oh, with tears of pain and beauty, and all of this is true

[Chorus] For you lift me through my love and anger,
You see now these are my gods, these are your scars.
Lift me through my love and anger,
Oh, when my arms are burning, and they’re open wide

[Ending Verse] Pointing out the graveyards, I will be the reaper
If you will be the keeper of my hear
t I will be the reaper, if you will be the keeper
You are the keeper of this heart … of my heart.

You can blow up, have a conniption, get your dander up, have a hissy fit, get outraged, throw a tantrum, get your knickers in a wad, storm out of the room, get hot under the collar, take umbrage, get offended, become indignant, be vexed, fly into a rage, leave in a huff, give in to your fury, or get rankled. No matter how you express your anger, if it’s misdirected – if it’s anger without a goal of bringing healing and compassion into this world – it is an anger that will make you bitter, hurt those around you, and eventually eat you alive.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from a singer called “the Grandmother of punk.” Patti Smith was highly influential on the New York punk scene after the release of her album “Horses” in 1975. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2007. The song we’re doing is called “People Have the Power” and it comes from Smith’s 1988 album “Dream of Life.” It was ranked #22 in New Music Expresses list of top singles that year.

[Verse] I was dreaming, in my dreaming,
of an aspect bright and fair
And my sleeping, it was broken,
but my dream, it lingered near
In the form of, shining valleys,
where the pure air, recognized
And my senses, newly opened,
I awakened to cry
That the people have the power to redeem the works of fools
Upon the meek the graces shower,
it’s decreed, the people rule.

[Chorus] The people have the power,
the people have the power
The people have the power,
the people have the power

“Woe to you!” This is what we find Jesus saying as he confronts his favorite audience – the Pharisees and the lawyers. These are the guys who know it all. They’ve got their spiritual house in order because they do all that is required of them – all the rituals, all the fasting, all the praying. They are God’s kind of guys – and they wouldn’t let a moment go by without reminding everyone of that fact.

We still have people in the world like that today – some of them are even famous preacher types. Jesus’ words to them are just as fresh as ever.

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.”

Sounds a lot like what God said to those ancient Hebrews – “woe to you because you’ve got your priorities all screwed up. You get angry when people don’t worship rightly, or don’t believe rightly, or don’t give you the seat of honor – but you fail to get worked up about the right things – about the injustice going on all around you.”

The Pharisees and the lawyers don’t get it – they say, “Jesus, you’re insulting us!” and he was – because they – like us today – sorely needed insulting. They needed to be reminded that their anger was misdirected – and it was eating them alive from the inside out. By becoming angry over the wrong things – the Pharisees had become “whitewashed tombs” – all pretty and pious on the outside, but ugly and dead on the inside. That’s what misdirected anger does – it devours our inner selves. It perverts our sense of justice so we, like the Pharisees before us, continually get angry about the wrong things.

Jesus was outraged by the Pharisees and the lawyers – and in his outrage he gave them an example of healthy rage. When we see an injustice – when we see that the emperor has no clothes, and we call foul – we are engaged in righteous anger.

Fox reminds us that it is “important to keep anger alive.”

Those prophets, like Isaiah, Fox notes, “were in touch with their anger and with the larger relationships of justice and injustice that other people so often wanted to ignore. Only those who kept a sense of outrage and rebellion alive within themselves escape the plague of mass conformity, anomie, and ennui that settles over every regimented society.”

In other words, the people are powerful when they are rightly angry.

[Verse] Vengeful aspects, became suspect,
and bending low, as if to hear
And the armies, ceased advancing,
because the people, had their ear.
And the shepherds, and the soldiers,
lay beneath among the stars
Exchanging visions, and laying arms,
to waste, in the dust
In the form of shining valleys where the pure air recognized
And my senses, newly opened,
I awakened to the cry

[Chorus] The people have the power,
the people have the power
The people have the power,
the people have the power

Author and pastor Tony Campolo gave a speech on a Christian college campus a few years ago and said this: “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

After his appearance, Campolo’s point about misdirected anger was proven, as the president of the college came up to him and told him he’d never speak there again. So, what are you angry about tonight? Orphans, widows, discrimination, bullying, global warming, poverty, hunger? Or are you angry that somebody got a better parking space, or got three cars ahead of you in traffic, or somebody cut in line?

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn likens our anger to garbage. Any composter knows that garbage is valuable – because compost – something ugly to look at in its raw form – can be transformed into something beautiful – into lettuce, or cucumbers, or flowers. Our job then, is to tend our anger like a garden – to put those ugly seeds of rage into good soil and transform our destructive anger into a righteous anger that brings forth beautiful fruits of love, mercy, and compassion.

Hahn reminds us that all anger springs from suffering – from our own suffering and the suffering of others. Instead of using our anger to inflict even more suffering – Hahn encourages us to see anger as an ally and not an enemy. With anger as an ally, we can begin to use it wisely – to ease not only our own suffering but the suffering of others.

Hahn writes: “When someone insults you or behaves violently towards you, you have to be intelligent enough to see that the person suffers from his own violence and anger. […] When we see that our suffering and anger are no different from their suffering and anger, we will behave more compassionately.”

Anger can be a powerful tool to us, Jubilants, as we survey the world around us.

Sure, there are huge injustices going on – wars, oppression, discrimination, bullying, and senseless deaths. It makes us angry – and it frustrates us because we don’t see how we – just one person – can have an impact on any of it. How can we change it? We feel like we can’t, so our anger escapes in other ways – behind the wheel, in the long line, at work, at home. Small frustrations become huge temper tantrums.

But, we forget just how powerful we are – even as just one person. We can end wars, and oppression, and injustice simply by not contributing to them – by refusing to misdirect our anger – by refusing to inflict suffering on ourselves and others with our anger. We have the power – right here and right now – to bring more compassion into the world.

It may seem hopeless – because there is so much misdirected anger in this world – but being compassionate – ceasing to do evil and learning to do good – is the entire point of seeking union with the Holy. We cannot live into the mystery of the Holy with misdirected anger. The Holy will always elude us – will always turn away from our offerings – unless we use our anger to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.

One thing that makes it all seem less hopeless, is to practice our healthy anger here in community – where we can share our love and anger – and transform it into a community of compassion in action. People have the power – when their anger is healthy. People have the power – when they seek to end suffering.

Jubilants, we have the power!

[Verse] Where there were deserts,
I saw fountains like cream the waters rise,
and we strolled there together with none to laugh or criticize,
and the leopard and the lamb
lay together truly bound
I was hoping in my hoping
to recall what I had found
I was dreaming in my dreaming
god knows a purer view
as I surrender to my sleeping
I commit my dream to you

[Chorus] The people have the power,
the people have the power
The people have the power,
the people have the power

[Ending] The power to dream, to rule,
to wrestle us from fools
It’s decreed, the people rule,
Listen: I believe everything we dream
can come to pass through our union
We can turn the world around,
we can turn the earth’s revolution.
We have the power, people have the power,
The people have the power, the people have the power.

Oh, Yeah!