Monthly Archives: June 2007

06-17-07 LIFE CHOICES: ANGER OR SELF-CONTROL

          LIFE CHOICES: ANGER OR SELF-CONTROL?

Proverbs 15: 1-4; Galatians 5: 16-23

 

Today I have been married for 29 years and have already made plans to celebrate our 30th next year!  One of the things I have learned over the years is to change or re-direct angry responses to situations.  In 1991, for example, I preached a Mother’s Day sermon that I called “Hallmarks of a Healthy Home.” It started something like this:  “The car pulls into the driveway. The expected joy of having this significant person come home is now replaced by anxiety and silence.  Only the dog dares to come to the door, greeting his master with the undaunted hope that the man will be glad to see him. The children’s stomachs start to tie in knots; the wife’s heart races a little faster.  He reaches the door, opens the door, and then slams the door. Dad is home, and everyone knows it. With fire in his eyes, he ignores man’s best friends and the children hide in their rooms. His wife comes out to greet him trying to soften any verbal attacks from their children’s ears. And so, the evening begins.” Such is a scenario not just found in family abuse cases; it happens all the time in homes where incomes are high, middle, or low. When I told that story in ’91, two people who heard the message saw themselves in the story, changed their ways, and are now still happily married. I have told people who get ballistically angry that when they do, they become clinically insane, but only a fictional story like the one I just told helps them recognize how they must look to their children or their wife. Their face gets red, veins may pop out on their forehead, or instead, with calculated coldness they cut a swath of fear like a tornado. Of course, anger can pour out like a volcano from women or teenagers as well.  What do we do with this emotion called anger?  Do we try to clamp the lid on a boiling pot to keep it from boiling over? Do we hope that flammable mixtures do not explode when we create sparks?  Or do we let our anger go, like a lava flow, cooking and hardening everything in its path? If people in this world expect to be effective parents or grandparents, mentors or examples, life choices between anger and self-control must be made.

 

Last week I started this series on Life Choices with the subject: “Enmity (making enemies) or Kindness.” Today’s list also comes from Galatians 5, when Paul the Apostle heard that grown people in the Galatian Church he founded were acting more like carnal Christians than spiritual ones. The list that was called “works of the flesh” included “anger;” the list that was called “fruits of the Spirit” included “self-control.”  He even cut right to the chase in writing the letter, doing away with ordinary salutations because things were so out of hand. One might conclude that anger is always wrong. But if we turn to the Gospels, there are clearly times that Jesus gets angry, yet he was without sin, wasn’t he? Therefore, there must be some ways that anger can be productive instead of destructive. Let’s consider them today. The most famous account that looks like anger is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. We find simmering anger in Jesus’ words also when he addresses Pharisees, King Herod and the Chief Priest. He sometimes displays passive anger, sometimes aggressive anger. What can we learn about anger and self-control from Jesus?  First, anger is not needed for the trivial, but for the tremendous. There were times when clearly crowds tugged on his robe and hung on his arms and followed him relentlessly. He could have gotten angry at them; instead he used self-control and directed anger at the people in political and religious power, who could have but didn’t make conditions better for women, children, beggars, and invalids.  Many a justice issue would never have been accomplished if one or two good people had not decided that they were mad as could be and were not going to take it any more. Jesus set a standard that only a few over the years have grasped. Most of us let a frivolous incident draw power and focus away from our day, instead of saving our anger to fight injustice. A car cuts a man off in traffic and he tailgates and flashes lights or blasts the horn. (I used to do that; what a waste of energy.) One time I imagined the driver in front of me was some punk kid; I started to get mad, but on closer inspection found that she was an old, confused woman from the church! (Don’t start guessing, this was years ago!) I decided to picture rude drivers as being in crisis, oblivious, or senile, none of whom should be given the power to ruin my day by their actions, but that was exactly what I HAD been doing. So, by and large, I have stopped giving them the power to do that. I slip up sometimes, especially when I feel drained. You too can try to save your anger for causes that matter. That leads me to the next point: “Anger can be used to change unjust laws and actions instead of making withering attacks on loved ones or strangers.  In this passage, I am confident that the Sadducees had already been told by Jesus that the Temple was a House of Prayer for all Nations. As they ignored his warning, he turns over the merchant’s tables, cooking his own hide in the process. That often happens when anger is unleashed: we get fired, we get divorced, we get emotional turmoil, or we get killed. But Jesus does the work that fits into his Father’s bigger plan. Did you also notice that Jesus could have gotten angry with the crowds who hounded him, or at the invalid who never had the help or speed to be first in the Pool of Bethsaida for healing (they believed only the first ones got healed.) But instead Jesus uses self-control, just asking the man if he wanted to be well, and he healed him. You may also recall the woman caught in adultery. Jesus told her to sin no more and he let her go, knowing that it took two to have a relationship, but in those days there was no law to condemn a married man of the crime, just a law against the woman. If he had had more time, would Jesus have worked to change that law? Too many spend their anger energy on daily occurrences that inconvenience or startle them. I know persons who, because they are in a slow check out line or the store has a cumbersome system of price checks or returns, who have said harsh or thoughtless things to cashiers. (Even I have done that, before I worked to change those foolish and hurtful actions.)

 

Third, write letters to legislators instead of graffiti on someone’s house, car, or anonymous notes.  Made famous by American Idol, country star Carrie Underwood, sings “I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped-up 4 wheel drive, carved my name into his leather seats,” to get back at a cheating man.  The world of the flesh cheers such a nervy and destructive way to get back at a jerk. But the fruit of the Spirit asks how much destruction is healthy for us to leave in the wake of a broken relationship?  Relationship specialist Dr. Greg Baer, the author of the book REAL LOVE, is now on his second marriage because he was so good at destroying his first one. Now he says, “I have learned that anger is always wrong.” I might amend that to say almost always wrong. Angry people can channel their energy into passionate feelings. Anger is destructive, but when it becomes passion, then funds are raised to help cure diseases, laws are changed to help accommodate those with disabilities; rules are put into place to make the world a more just place, and rights to those who have earned them. Well-channeled anger has given men the right to work, women the right to vote, people of color the right to enter a business through the same door as others, and passion-driven leaders have brought down tyrants from their thrones. Channeled anger becomes productive, not destructive.

 

Finally, and now I’m especially talking to the fathers: deal with your anger in appropriate ways. If a sale goes bad, don’t blame your wife. If your boss makes you mad, don’t blame your kids. If a driver in traffic is thoughtless, self-centered, or distracted, don’t punish your pet. How ironic that we treat the ones we supposedly love most with our misdirected anger.  Take note and make the changes. Find the right outlets to deal with your work frustrations, even if you need to talk with a counselor or do something physical—like sports—to direct your anger into action.  Our well-being as men and fathers, and the well-being of our families, both depend heavily on us.  Remember Paul’s words in Galatians; remember Jesus, the pioneer of the faith, as ones who took anger out of the driver’s seat and put self-control in. It is life giving and life changing to make that change I know. May you trust good divine and human guidance in this tough and important work.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  June 17, 2007

06-10-07 LIFE CHOICES: ENMITY OR KINDNESS

LIFE CHOICES: ENMITY OR KINDNESS?

Matthew 5: 43-45; Galatians 5: 16-23

 

 It was baseball player and dry wit philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once confused listeners with this sage advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  It was American poet, Robert Frost, who made the idea of making right choices significant with his famous line:  “Two roads diverged into the wood, and I, I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” And it was the Lord God who, through Moses in Deuteronomy, said to all who were listening: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse:” And then God offers this wonderful piece of advice: “Choose life! Then you and your descendents will live.”  Every day we make choices: what clothes should I wear; what shall I eat; when will I call it a night?  Only children, unable to make wise choices without a parent’s guidance, generally have less say on these questions. But through life, the questions get harder: Will I take this test and cheat or study and do the best I can? Will I keep having these friends even though they always get me into trouble? Will I tryout for cheerleading or run for student government, or join the French Club or do all of them? Will I be in Boy Scouts and try out for basketball and join the Flying Club or just do some or none of them? (I actually did all three in high school.) Every weekend, someone is deciding whether or not to take a drink, and if they do, whether they will then drive under the influence of alcohol. Sometime along the way you may have chosen to stay with a boyfriend or girlfriend or to break up. On the other hand, someone may have broken up with you which is one of the most difficult hurts for teenagers and college aged students to overcome. Some say, when they lose their patience or their temper, that another driver or a husband, wife, child, or friend made them do it.  No; no one has the power to cause your bad behavior.  Only you allow your bad behavior. I hate it when I cannot blame my behavior on someone else as much as you do! I could parade a dozen specialists in front of you today- psychotherapists, pastoral counselors, even 12 Step Program mentors – and they would agree with that statement. Life is full of choices, and behavior is one of them. How you feel carries no moral weight; how you act does. Today and the rest of this month the sermon series is on LIFE CHOICES.

 

As we begin, the first question juxtaposes a term from Paul’s the “works of the flesh” list: enmity, with one term from the “fruit of the Spirit” list: kindness.  “Enmity” is, as you might surmise by looking at the word, “is a posture of making enemies of others.”  “Kindness” on the other hand, has its roots in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “hesed” which means “steadfast love,” or “kindness.” Sometimes neighbors become enemies, perhaps out of different viewpoints, or from rudeness, or from stubbornness. When you make enemies, your body, mind and soul, all of them, go through physical, emotional, and spiritual changes. Enmity has been documented to bring about physical symptoms: not only does one’s soul get troubled when one has enemies, one’s mind gets troubled so that sleep gets interrupted, life gets so filled with maddening distractions so that one can hardly function, and smiles go away from everyone’s faces involved. Our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode, a reflex intended to help in an emergency, but not intended to be used for weeks or months on end.  Those in threatening situations are often tortured by a syndrome called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for years of their life. Fighting enemies, whether another condo owner, or a bully at school, or your mother in law, or law breakers if you are on a police force or the system if you are a social worker, all of that is stressful. Enmity also causes health care costs and pharmaceutical profits to rise as medications are used in quantity for headaches, chest pains, stomach problems and indigestion.  There may be times when enmity is a necessary evil:  “Americans have traditionally stood firm against enemies, both foreign and domestic, as military officers and presidents have taken aim at enemies in Oklahoma City, in New York City, in Hiroshima, and in Berlin. Enemies of all shapes and sizes who do diabolical things to other human beings become the enemies of God and of those who stand by ones unjustly killed or tortured. Sometimes our country has joined arms with other nations so that allied forces have the strength to stop a dictator or ruthless regime.  And sadly, sometimes the places in the world where such force may be warranted are not the places where force is aimed. There are, for example, documented human atrocities going on in Sudan, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Uzbekistan. Many Scripture passages show that God condemns, and will judge harshly, those who carry out such acts.  Such brutality was agonizingly captured about the regime of Idi Amin in the 2006 film THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. But interestingly enough, Herod the Great (self named), and Herod Antipas, his son, were among the most ruthless of dictators as well, but there is no word from Jesus that they should have been killed for killing others. “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for and eye,” Jesus said, but I say do not resist one who is evil.” And it was a Hindu leader, Mohandes Gandhi, who read and respected the teachings of Jesus and taught tolerance toward Muslims (and he was killed by a fanatic because of that tolerance), who said the actions of “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In many cases, with steady pressure or undying patience, offering handshakes after agreements can take the place of making enemies. It was President Reagan who brokered peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was President Carter who brokered the Camp David Accords to deal with Arab/Israeli conflicts between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.  History has recorded both successes and tragedies when it comes to work for justice and reconciliation. We need not chose the path of making enemies first when the Savior of the world once said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That is radical, isn’t it? Have our nation’s leaders asked us to pray for Osama Ben Laden, Fidel Castro, or Kim Jung Il?  But in our ordinary run-ins with people that escalate into confrontations, might there be ways to ratchet down the anger or threats? It is our nature to react in human ways; it is our goal to react in Christian ways. As Christian professor Marva Dawn once put it: “Most Christians say they love Jesus; fewer of them love what Jesus loved.”

 

An alternative path to take in life is kindness. We might call it love, a means of grace that the King James translates as “charity.” Some of the best charitable (unselfish, caring for others) events have been from eclectic sources: pop stars have sung to feed hungry people in Africa; comedians have given us Comic Relief.  Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, tells the story of Paul Newman calling him personally to ask what particular projects needed supporting through his “Newman’s Own” brand. When he heard about all the international projects, he asked Fuller, “Why have you included countries outside of the United States? The money I gave you was made from sales in the U.S. I think we should use the money in the U.S.”  “Then that’s where it will be used,” replied Millard Fuller. “By the way, why do you help in other countries?” Newman asked. To which Fuller replied “First of all, it is good religion to have a worldwide concern and ministry. God is not an American citizen. God’s love is universal and our expressions of love should be the same. We should put no artificial boundaries on our various expressions of love.” He then went on to point out that America could not accommodate all the immigrants of the world if the only livable country in the world were the U.S. He said if all good but poor people could have at least a decent place to live, then some would turn to God in thanks, some would think kindly about America, and some might “pay forward” the kindness that was offered to them.  Learning that, Paul Newman said use his money wherever it would do the most good. [THE THEOLOGY OF THE HAMMER, Smyth & Helwys Pub., 1984, p.121.]

 

When Paul the Apostle wrote the words in Galatians on the works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit, he had witnessed both of them first hand. The members of that early Galatian church were acting more like they were led by the flesh instead of the Spirit. Some in our day act that way too. This Roman citizen, Paul, who was a Jew who turned Christian, had found a way to look at life and at others differently after his conversion. Paul, for the first time in his life, saw the possibilities, the potential, and the positive nature that others could have if they claimed Christ and acknowledged that God loved them.  Sometimes I have run in to those true “born again” people; no, not the ones that bash you on the heads with their Bibles and judge your Baptism and your salvation, I mean the ones who, at one time, were fighters against Christ or at least apathetic about Christ and his teachings, then one day they get it! The scales fall from their eyes; they go from having desires of the flesh to desires of the Spirit. They begin to care about others instead of living in the infantile stage of self.  I wonder if Paul Newman, or even Millard Fuller, a lawyer on the brink of divorce who gave up on law but not on his marriage to help poor people get a home, I wonder if they had conversion experiences? Fuller has had his personal problems, so we can choose to shun him or appreciate him: we have life choices too.  What I DO notice from some prominent politicians and preachers is that those who condemn the loudest are among those whose personal sins are later exposed or whose judgmentalism squeezes all the juice out of the “fruits of the Spirit.” We are not to live as victims of circumstances, nor are we to live as Monday morning quarterbacks, analyzing the “plays” of others perfectly, but never casting a glance on our own sins. It is exasperating to be around those people for very long. Our life comes down to choices, not down to blame or criticism.  How are you doing with your life choices? Are you busy making enemies, or making friends? Are you busy making noise or are you busy making a difference? Are busy making people mad or are you making them glad they know you?  Take responsibility for yourself and your actions. Do the tough work of being honest with yourself. Acknowledge that you cannot change others, only the way you react to others. And then try some fruit for a change, perhaps some love, joy, peace, or patience; maybe a taste of gentleness and self-control. But this week, try kindness; people can be unreasonable; try it anyway.  Paul believed it so much that he made the list right after the works of the flesh list: the first list made him sick about the Galatians; the second list gave him hope. Perhaps God thinks that way about us.  I’ll close with these words from Mother Teresa: “

          “We are all capable of good and evil. We are not born bad: everybody has something good inside. Some hide it, some neglect it, but it is there. God created us to love and to be loved, so it is our test from God to choose one path or the other…This shouldn’t be such a struggle to achieve.”

[A SIMPLE PATH, 1995, P. 51] Jeffrey A. Sumner                  June 10, 2007

06-03-07 A TEXT THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

A TEXT THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

Romans 5: 1-5

Thomas Friedman, in his book THE WORLD IS FLAT, points out many events over the ages that have changed the world. Among them: the invention of the printing press in the 15th century; pasteurization in the 19th century, the use of a production line in the 20th century along with the automobile, and the invention of the internet along with good search engines   just before the 21st century to make information sharing occur at light speed. There are also some books that have changed the world; certainly they include the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, Einstein’s book on the theory of relativity, the work of Emperor Constantine’s Council that produced the Nicene Creed, and the ingenious musical writing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Two of the aforementioned events affected those who could read our Romans text today: one, the printing press, allowed more people besides the wealthy or educated to be able to read a Bible. The second event was sacrificially produced by John Wycliffe and others: seeing that the Bible was translated into native tongues instead of just Greek, Hebrew, or Latin.  When that happened, more and more people could read God’s word and begin learning it, discussing it, and sometimes questioning what they had been taught. One such period of time was the convergence of print, distribution, unrest, when God’s Holy Spirit urged troubled souls to speak out. It was the period known as the Reformation, and people like Martin Luther from Germany, Ulrich Zwingli from Switzerland, John Calvin from France, and later John and Charles Wesley from England and John Knox from Scotland to name a few, each rested their theological cases not on what had been taught to them, but on what they themselves had read in what they called Holy Scripture. I will be leading a study on these leaders in August and September. To a church that, in its misguided days, tried to put a price on salvation in addition to the blood of Jesus; had convinced people that the ultimate fate of the dead could be influenced even after death by the prayers and contributions made by loved ones; and had a leader who, over the years in un-Christlike fashion, was coercive, abusive, and enormously powerful.  One of the passages to which these Reformers returned time and time again was Paul’s letter to the Romans. Among their eye-opening texts was the 5th chapter, verses one through five. There are people in our world even now who find themselves in desperate situations: a loved one’s health is in jeopardy, a marriage is failing, a child or grandchild is in harm’s way, or job cuts have made it so that money is gone before the bills are paid.  In desperate times, some people can be talked into magic fixes, refinancing with balloon payments, new age remedies, and products from snake oil salesmen.  As an alternative to those questionable choices for guidance in life, Paul wrote these masterful words, words that have redirected and inspired countless numbers of persons over the years.

 

“Since we are justified by faith” (not through works, good deeds, or the actions of others), “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jesus is the reason we have peace, he paid the price, he took the nails, he pleads our case, he wins our case in Heaven) “and it is through Him that we have obtained access to this grace” (unmerited favor but thankfully imparted) “in which we stand” (on Christ, and the promise of God’s grace, we stand, all other ground is sinking sand) “and we boast not in ourselves, but in the hope of sharing the glory that surrounds God.” Following this famous “justified by faith” passage came a logical argument, a favorite debate strategy used by the Greeks in Asia Minor:  “We even boast, though we suffer, for we know that if we suffer, it produces endurance, and if we endure, it produces character, and character produces hope, and hope in God never lets us down.” Such are the brilliant, inspired words of Paul; Romans is unparalleled in the New Testament. His words gave Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Newton, and countless others the fortification of their faith in time of need. Ages earlier St. Augustine was troubled, tormented by the weight of his sins, and he found guidance in Romans. “First I shall try to grasp the apostle’s purpose which runs through the whole Epistle, and I shall seek guidance from it.” Later Martin Luther, after reading Romans, wrote “Trying to merit grace by preceding works, therefore, is trying to placate God with sins, which is nothing but heaping sins upon sins, making fun of God, and provoking His wrath.” John Wesley read the words on grace and wrote “In all my trials I had always a confidence in Christ … but it was a confidence mixed with fear: I was afraid I had not done enough….But now the clear light shined.” And John Calvin observed: “Faith is a firm and sure knowledge of divine favour toward us.” The world will offer you many choices when you deal with your troubles, doubts, or sorrows. Some seem more tangible and attainable. Those who have followed these five verses have been among those who changed the world. From that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us who were set free by Romans, I hear, ever so faintly, shouts of encouragement from the saints, to hold fast, to not give up, and to not give in.  No matter your dilemma, these words can be the lamp unto your feet and the light unto your path. They have been such for others for centuries. May they guide your feet, and hands, and eyes, and mouth also, because you are already blessed, by God’s amazing grace.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                                 June 2, 2007