Friday, December 5, 2008

Jesus, Matthew and Anger

This week, I read Matthew Chapter 5, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I was reminded again just how radical Jesus' teaching were (and still are). He certainly didn't come to earth 2,000 years ago to have a beer with us and pat us on the back for doing such a good job. He came to save us, yes, but also to teach us how to live, how to love, and how to do both with joy and hope. But his prescription for living is by no means easy:

21 "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder,
and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'
22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

I have a hard time seeing anger right up there with murder, probably because anger is one of my "favorites" of the deadly sins. I definitely don't like thinking of my flaring temper as the equivalent of taking another's life. This section of Matthew is more than a little uncomfortable for me, and something I've been praying about and meditating on all week.

I've also been reading "Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith" by Kathleen Norris. She has this to say about anger:

"But human anger can never be as simply and essentially righteous as God's
anger; in us, even well-placed anger all too easily becomes mean and
self-serving. It can cause us to lose both our focus and our
balance." (p. 126)

And an example from this week comes to mind. I had one of those 4-hour appointment blocks for a repair person to fix a small problem with our new refrigerator. This was the third time I was given a four-hour block of time to sit and wait for a repair person for this particular repair. The first time, I got a call 3 hours and 55 minutes into the waiting time to say that no one would be able to come that day. The second time, a repair person showed up at the 3 hour, 55 minute mark only to tell me that he did not have the necessary part and would have it shipped to me. When would it be convenient for me to sit at home for 4 hours and await his return to install the new part? Tuesday of this week was the date we chose.

Tuesday came, and again, at the 3:55 mark, I received a phone call. Someone would be there within 1 hour, promise, guaranteed, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die. An hour went by. An hour and a half. Two hours. I was frustrated. I was angry, and I'll even say that, to some extent, my anger was justified. I called the repair service, and was patched through one Customer Service Rep after another. I requested supervisors. Mysteriously, I kept getting disconnected, and was forced to call back in, dial my way through the automated answering system, and re-state my entire life story three additional times. To say that my frustration grew exponentially would be a bit of an understatement.

But here's where Norris was right (and where I can see what Jesus is getting at)... very quickly, as I was fed one set of scripted lines after another, my anger turned mean and self-serving. I became rude, unpleasant, demanding. Finally, in a flare of my temper, I just hung up.* Never in all of this did I take a moment out to pray. Never did I stop and consider that it was another human being I was talking to (ok, yelling at)... and not even the human being responsible for my having to wait and wait and wait.

So, it makes me uncomfortable to equate anger with murder, but are they really all that different? Is it that much of a stretch to see how unchecked anger can lead to murder? Or at the very least, can lead to saying or doing hurtful things, things that I might never consider saying or doing in my calm, rational mind? Can I admit that my temper tantrums might damage others, causing unnecessary, perhaps even lasting, pain and suffering?

Norris writes that "the remedy for all anger is prayer." Jesus tells us, a little later in Matthew, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Well, I think persecution would be a stretch for the source of most of my anger... but the teaching is the same: pray for those who cause us distress, in whatever form. My favorite Confessor always gave me that same counsel: pray, and then pray some more.

Now, if I could just remember to do that before I reach the point of anger.

*In case you are wondering, after I hung up, I opened up the package with the replacement part and installed it myself. Then, I spent the rest of the day scouring my house, in an attempt to work off my frustration. It wasn't until late in the day that I thought to stop and pray, and finally found calm. By then, the repair person had stopped by (4 1/2 hours later than the phone call had promised; 8 1/2 hours past when our "scheduled" time slot began), I told him I had fixed it, and he left.

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