Sunday, August 9, 2009

On Anger

In our culture, there is a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and apprehension about anger and how we should deal with it. It is an especially difficult subject for many Christians, who often assume that feeling angry is a sin and that imitating Jesus requires us to be a doormat for the rest of the world to walk all over. The church is supposed to be a “no anger” zone where we learn how to be nice to each other; whether we want to or not. Here the repression of anger is the norm.

On the other hand, popular psychology has frequently taught us that we should express our anger. It operates on a “hydraulic model” that sees anger as a kind of energy that backs up and overflows our emotional reservoir, overwhelming us and others if we don’t get it out of our system. If you let it build up, you’ll explode, so vent your anger as it comes up. Anger is inevitable and you have to let it flow. Here the expression of anger is the norm.

And so we are left with very mixed messages about anger. My sense is that the Christian tradition and contemporary psychological theory are both much wiser and more subtle than either of their popular expressions. In fact, the ancient traditions of the Church, especially those derived from the astute psychological observations of the early monastics, anticipate much of the best of modern psychology. They agree on one fundamental point: anger is a choice. Anger does not have to be repressed or expressed. It can be transformed at its roots.

It may seem counter-intuitive to speak of anger as a choice. We can’t help how we feel, right? Feelings just “are;” well, yes and no. Human beings have a far greater range of freedom with respect to how we respond to the world than we want to admit, because it means that we have to take responsibility for our actions.

Consider, for example, a rather typical situation in which angry feelings arise. “Stella is standing in line at the bank. It is 1:20, and she is due back at her office at 1:30. She could make it in time if she is lucky and the line moves along. But things don’t go well. Two of the five tellers close their windows. ‘How dare they take a break when there are people waiting?’ she thinks. One customer is buying travelers checks. ‘Why don’t they have a special window for that kind of service?’ she asks the person behind her in line. The customer slowly signs each check as she cheerfully discusses her planned vacation. ‘Who cares about Florida in April? Just sign the [stupid] checks and get going for [the love of God],’ Stella muttered under her breath. By now Stella is impatiently opening and closing the snap on her purse. At another window an elderly woman is leafing through a huge, over-stuffed purse looking for something. ‘This could take all day!’ She sighs in exasperation. Her lunch, which she bolted down half an hour ago, sits like a rock in her stomach. The noise of other people’s conversations is annoying, and the two men standing behind her in line are too close. A young man is counting out the money he received from the teller and carefully tucking it into his wallet before he leaves the window. ‘Good grief! Just move it!’ she thinks.”

“By the time its her turn at the window, at 1:29, she’s in a rage. Her heart is pounding, she is breathing heavily, her mouth is dry, her hands shake. She’s made at the stupid, slow patrons and the inconsiderate bank tellers. She’s mad at her boss for making her feel guilty if she’s even a minute late and resents her job for only allowing a one-hour lunch break. She’s angry at the restaurant for its slow, inefficient service and the undigested food she can still taste.”

“Stella’s anger is a physical experience. All strong emotions – anger, fear, excitement – trigger powerful hormonal responses that cause body changes. These responses occur automatically in [humans] and other animals and are an important survival mechanism.”

“While the physiological experience of anger proceeds automatically once it is triggered, getting angry is by no means automatic. Stella’s anger is triggered by things that she tells herself while standing line: ‘Tellers shouldn’t take breaks while people are waiting . . . They should have a special window . . . Who cares about Florida? . . . and so on. It is Stella’s thoughts that actually start the emotional ball rolling, signaling her body to prepare for battle.”[1]

Our perception and interpretation of reality, our thoughts about our experience, give shape to our emotional energies in powerful ways. That perception is limited, and our interpretation can be mistaken; especially when, like Stella, we find ourselves operating from the stance that we are the center of the universe. We react to reality as we are – in bondage to resentment from the past or fears about the future – rather than reacting to reality as it is.

“Wrath is a reminder of hidden hatred, that is to say, remembrance of wrongs. Wrath is a desire for the injury of the one who has provoked you. Irascibility is the untimely blazing up of the heart. Bitterness is a movement of displeasure seated in the soul. Anger is an easily changeable movement of one’s disposition and disfiguration of soul.”[2] St. John Climacus points out that our perception and reaction can shift when we move from an ego-

centric to a God-centric perspective.

I think he is right about this, though I’m not sure anger is an “easily” changeable movement. Deep-seated patterns of resentment and angry reactivity to the world can be very challenging, though not impossible, to transform. Abba Ammonas said, "I have spent fourteen years . . . asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger."[3] Learning to deal with anger takes time and practice.

The Letter to the Ephesians provides sound practical advice in this regard. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up . . . be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, 29, 32)

First, be aware of how you are responding to your experience of the world. Angry feelings are not in and of themselves sinful. They simply signal a perceived threat or loss, whether physical or emotional, and prompt a response.

The issue is not anger itself, but what we do with it. We are admonished to be careful that our anger does not lead to sin – to the violation of relationship with God and other people – and that it does not “make room for the devil.” Anger that goes unchecked leads to the loss of freedom. When we are “in a rage,” we can not think clearly. We can not pray. We loose touch with reality, with a God-centered perspective.

It is this loss of freedom when overcome by anger that makes room for evil. This is what most concerned the early monastics of the Egyptian desert, who counseled practicing awareness of our thoughts so that we can acknowledge and treat disturbing feelings at their root, before we speak or act.

Be aware of your feelings, but don’t become attached to them. “Not allowing the sun to go down on your anger” means realizing that all feelings are transient. We don’t need to cling to them. We can let them go. Such non-attachment gives us the space we need to pray and talk with others about our perceptions and how best to respond.

Finally, we are encouraged to respond in ways that build up rather than destroy relationships, by being careful about our speech and action. Practice kindness and forgiveness in imitation of God, who has revealed his mercy toward us in the face of Jesus Christ. Such forbearance takes account of human imperfection. It doesn’t mean ignoring or excusing real harms done to us. It simply means refusing to be defined by those harms or to respond in ways that perpetuate cycles of rage and revenge. We can learn to respond with insight and compassion toward those persons and situations that threaten us.

St. Nilus of Mt. Sinai said, “When you pray as you ought, there may come into your mind things about which it seems right to be angry with your brother. There is absolutely no anger against your brother which could be justified. If you look, you will find that the question can be settled quite well without anger. Therefore do your best not to be moved to anger.” [4]

If we look deeply into the causes and conditions that generate harm, seeing with God’s eyes, we are given the freedom in Christ to respond creatively. Anger is a choice. When we are able to choose otherwise, then we are indeed free.

[1] When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within, pp. 23-24.

[2] St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), Step 8: On Freedom From Anger and On Meekness.

[3] Sr. Benedicta Ward, "The Sayings of the Desert Fathers," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 25-28.

[4] "153 Texts on Prayer", St Nilus of Mt Sinai, "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 127 - 135.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Summer Reading

I just by chance picked up Michael Plekon's book, Hidden Holiness. It is a beautiful and evocative reflection on the meaning of "sainthood" in our time. Plekon, an Orthodox priest, draws on a variety of sources from both the Eastern Orthodox tradition, ancient and modern, as well as some unlikely modern figures from across Christian traditions and even outside them, such as Etty Hillesum.

Hillesum was a Dutch Jew who died in the Holocaust. Discovering her story and Plekon's reflections on her life alone (which draws from Rowan William's meditation about her) is worth picking up the book. Here is a prayer found in Hillesum's writings from the concentration camp:

"You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, 'I shan't let them get me in their clutches.' But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms. I am beginning to feel a little more peaceful, God, thanks to this conversation with You. I shall have many more conversations with you. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You, and I shall never drive You from my presence. (12 July 1942) - Hidden Holiness, p. 32.

And then, Rowan Williams:

"Remember that for Etty, the self's 'safeguarding' of God is inseperable from that careful attention to what is given room in the self's encounter with itself: making space for sorrow without it being crowded out by anger or hate, is bound in with the self's hospitality to God. 'God is in safe hands with us despite everything,' she wrote, in September 1943. She died in November. To see that what matters is not that you are - in any easy sense - safe in the hands of God but that God is safe in your hands is to turn upside down in consolatory version of faith, to stake yourself indeed on an 'eternal covenant.'" - Hidden Holiness, pp. 37-38.

This isn't a book about saints as extraordinary people distant from us, but about the way holiness takes shape in ordinary people in both mundane and extraordinary circumstances - and how such holiness is God's gift, a gift sometimes barely perceptible in the midst of suffering.

Perhaps it is this "sheltering of God" that is God "sheltering us" by desiring to make of even the utmost limits of human suffering an opportunity to be drawn closer to him.

This is a book well worth reading and praying over.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Meditation on the Body of Christ

From Symeon The New Theologian (949-1022):

We awaken in Christ's body
as Christ awakens our bodies
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly whole,
seamless in this Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous?
Then open your heart to Him

And let yourself receive the One
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ's body

Where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him.
And he makes us utterly real

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him, transformed

and recognized as whole, as lovely
and radiant in His Light.
We awaken as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Biblical Love Triangle

Sermon preached on June 28, 2009 at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church and resposted by request.

This morning as we mark Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Freedom Day, we find ourselves in the midst of a cultural and political battle over marriage equality for same-sex couples. This conflict has been acutely felt by all of us in California. Like many of you, I was deeply disappointed by the passage of Proposition Eight and the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it. After so many years and so much struggle, I confess I was surprised to discover how hurt and vulnerable I can still feel in the face of blatant discrimination and relegation to second-class citizenship.

Heterosexual privilege – the notion that heterosexuals are morally superior to queer people and therefore entitled to a level of dignity and fundamental rights that queer folk are denied – a privilege enshrined in law and custom, is just as deeply rooted and intractable as sexism and racism. For too many heterosexual people, their sense of identity and security as persons is constructed over and against queer people. The reverse can be said of queer people too, I suppose, but the difference is that we queers don’t have the power to institutionalize privilege. We find it difficult enough to secure basic equality!

What is particularly ironic is that this heterosexual privilege is often justified in terms of biblical religion. The assumption on the part of many – both those who support and those who oppose marriage equality – is that the Bible is uniformly condemning of same-sex love. A few verses, often quoted out of context and with little understanding, are imposed as the lens through which we are compelled to read the whole of Scripture. I say that this is ironic because, in fact, the model of steadfast love at the heart of the biblical witness is in fact the love shared between two men. And it is this love which becomes the dominant image of divine love. It is God’s steadfast love for his beloved, David, a love that is homosocial and, indeed, homoerotic in its expression, that is the very model of God’s love for Israel and, later, the Church.[1]

Listen again to the words of David as he laments the death of King Saul and of Saul’s son, Jonathan, in battle against the Philistines:

"Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions . . . How the mighty have fallen in the in the midst of battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." (2 Samuel 1:23, 25-26)

David’s outpouring of grief is the tragic climax of the greatest love triangle in the literature of ancient Israel: the tortured relationships between Saul, Jonathan and David. The love of Jonathan and David has often been remarked upon. In last weeks Scripture lessons, we heard the reading from I Samuel, in which David is first introduced to Jonathan.

"When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took [David] that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and belt." (1 Samuel 18:1-4)

In this passage, we see the roots of the rivalry between Saul and Jonathan for David’s affection. Recall that King Saul had already chosen David as his armor-bearer: “David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer.” (1 Samuel 16:21) In the homosocial world of ancient warrior cultures, the relationship between a warrior and his companion was one of fierce loyalty, courageous service, and tender intimacy. But Jonathan, the heir to the throne, also falls for David and enters into a covenant of love with him, seeking David as his own armor-bearer.

As the narrative quickly unfolds, David’s beauty and military prowess bring him great popularity with the militia and with the people. Saul begins to be threatened by David, but this threat isn’t just political. Jonathan, too, garners the affection of the people but perhaps what is even more threatening to Saul, he garners the affection of David. The plot only makes sense if we realize that Jonathan and David’s love unfolds against the background of Saul and David’s erotically charged relationship.

In his jealousy, Saul drives his beloved armor-bearer into the arms of his son, Jonathan. Saul becomes increasingly erratic, on one hand attempting to buy off David by offering his daughters as trophy wives, on the other hand attempting to kill David in fits of pique. He seeks to bind David more closely to him and, finally, to kill him if he cannot control him. But David escapes these plots, often with Jonathan’s help. We are told that when Jonathan secretly goes to meet David, who is in hiding, David “bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more.” (1 Samuel 20:41)

What is amazing, however, is that even as David falls more deeply in love with Jonathan, he never fully forsakes his prior loyalty to his former lover, Saul. Even when David has the opportunity to kill Saul – on more than one occasion – he spares him out of steadfast loyalty and love. We might even say his love for Saul, however dysfunctional, prepares him for his later, more mutual and fulfilling, love for Jonathan. In fact, when things finally fall apart, and both Saul and Jonathan are killed on Mount Gilboa, David mourns for both these “beloved and lovely” men.

In the end this love triangle proves unstable and destructive. David becomes king in place of Saul, but the price he will pay is the death of Saul’s heirs; except for one: Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth, whom David promised to adopt and raise as his own son. Yet, in important ways, David’s steadfast love for Saul and Jonathan endures and prepares him for an even greater love.

The character of God, Yahweh as he is named in the narrative, is imagined, too, as a warrior-king. He chooses first Saul as his armor-bearer, but proves fickle in his love and later selects David as his beloved. Interestingly, what strikes Yahweh about both of these men is their great beauty. We are told that Saul was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2) Later, Yahweh rejects the aging king in favor of young David, who is “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome,” Yahweh declares, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” (1 Samuel 16:12)

And just as we see David progressing in his experience of love and loyalty as he moves through his relationships with Saul and Jonathan, so, too, Yahweh, who is a rather capricious and unpredictable god at the beginning of the narrative, seems to mature in his capacity for steadfast love and loyalty as he moves through his relationships with Saul and David.

It is as if David, by learning how to maneuver through his tragic human love triangle, is enabled to woo and domesticate fickle Yahweh. David’s covenant with Jonathan – a covenant of mutual love and loyalty – is paralleled by David’s covenant with Yahweh – a covenant that is consummated, if you will, with David dancing in a naked frenzy before the Ark of the Lord in chapter six of 2nd Samuel. As Yahweh navigates his own love triangle with Saul and David, he becomes a different kind of divinity, one whose steadfast love for David will become the paradigm of divine mercy and faithfulness in the biblical tradition.

So the next time you see a bumper sticker that says one man plus one woman equals marriage, consider these great love triangles of biblical faith, and the way in which mature, loyal love, both divine and human, is imagined in the relationships between men. Consider the possibility that an understanding of same-sex love as a sacrament, a sign of divine love, may well find its justification at the very heart of biblical faith – and, here, we might recall the love of Naomi and Ruth as well, but that is another sermon.

As I imagine David mourning the death of his lovers, Saul and Jonathan, I’m reminded of the deaths of so many lovers in the age of the great pandemic. In his memoir, Geography of the Heart, Fenton Johnson writes movingly of the life and death of his lover, Larry, a victim of AIDS. Upon learning of Larry’s death, Fenton’s friend, Wendell Berry, wrote to him saying “The disorientation following such loss can be terrible, I know, but grief gives the full measure of love, and it is somehow reassuring to learn, even by suffering, how large and powerful love is.”

How large and powerful love is. Those who have mourned their lovers like David howling on the mountaintop – they know something about how large and powerful love is. They know what it can cost us, and they know what it can create.

Shortly after Larry’s death, Fenton found himself driving to Muir Woods with his mother, reflecting on their memories of Larry, of love, and of loss. And then, his mother, rural Kentucky native and Roman Catholic convert, said something that completely stunned Fenton.
“I always thought of myself as tolerant and open-minded. I grew up with people who were gay, though of course back then we didn’t use that word. I knew some people in our town were gay, everyone knew they were gay, but I didn’t think much about that one way or another. Just live and let live, that’s my way of being in the world. And then you told me you were gay, and I guess I’d suspected it all along, and I just prayed that you’d stay healthy and find yourself a place where you could be happy. I prayed for all that and I was glad to see you get yourself to San Francisco, to a place where you could live in peace and be yourself. I was happy about that, but it wasn’t until I met you and Larry and spent time with the two of you together that I understood that two men could love each other in the same way as a man and a woman.”

“This speaking,” writes Fenton, “is the sacred thing, the gift from the dead to the living.”[2] From the death of his lover came the renewal of his relationship with his mother, bringing a new sense of intimacy, acceptance, and love. This was not the healing he was expecting, or even hoping for, and he never could have imagined what it would cost him. But even Larry’s death served to demonstrate how large and powerful love is.

If our burials are so moving, cannot our marriages be as well? If the death and grief of same-sex lovers can provide such a profound window into love, surely our lives and relationships can as well. It was true for David and Saul and Jonathan, and it is true for us today. Let our prayer be that of the psalmist: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49) And let us discover the answer to this prayer in the steadfast love of queer comrades. Amen.

[1] My reading of the Davidic narrative is taken from Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York: Continuum, 2005), pp. 3-66.

[2] Fenton Johnson, Geography of the Heart: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996), p. 233.