Anger (sermon from September 13, 2015)

You maybe heard the story about the little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail into the fence. The first day the boy had driven thirty-seven nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally, the first day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it, and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day he was able to hold his temper.

The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a person and draw it out, it won’t matter how many times you say “I’m sorry”, the wound is still there.”

Our scripture from the letter of James this morning reminds us how much our words matter. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

These are words we can understand. There is no one here who has not been the recipient of pain through something someone has said to us or about us. Words that are spoken in anger are the ones that cut particularly deep.

I learned this young. My father was a good man, but he had a temper. It was rarely directed at mom or us kids but it’s sad that when I remember him, I cannot remember him apart from his anger. He was so angry about many things – mostly the things he felt powerless to control in his life. His health was so bad that he wasn’t able to work and this truth cut at him. He was in chronic pain most of his life and suffered from a head injury as a child that contributed to his anger also in many ways. Sometimes he would be sullen and stew for days and weeks at a time – that was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as when he would explode. He would start yelling – raging at the air seemingly. Because it wouldn’t matter if we were in the house to listen to him or not, he would just keep yelling. He would rage about the injustices he felt the world had given him. He would turn on the television and then rage about something happening there. Our house was very small and there was nowhere to go in it where we could escape listening to him. So I would walk up our country road, even on bitter cold winter days to breathe and see how far I could get away from the house so that I would not hear the yelling anymore.

This was a long time ago, of course and even though all this was hard for me to understand as a kid – I don’t harbor any bad feelings toward my dad because of this – I believe he hated his temper. I really think his temper was something he never learned how to control. It was like a beast that came to visit and it was too big for him to easily keep out. The problem was, his rage didn’t just torment him. It tormented all of us. It damaged our family. Children cannot help but be hurt by harsh words that are flung through the air. Spouses, no matter how understanding, cannot help but receive scars from living with someone with uncontrolled anger.

Anger hurts. We know it. But what can we do about it?

I’ve been reading about this lately and I have found some helpful wisdom here and there. I thought it would be especially helpful for us to look at what the Bible says about anger as we consider how to give it as small a place in our lives as possible.

First, it is important to remember that the emotion of anger is normal. Even Jesus himself acknowledged it. He felt it – I remember Jesus in the temple when he threw over the tables because he was angry that people had lost sight of the purpose of the temple. In Ephesians 4:26 it reads, “Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger.” As long as we are human beings we are subject to feeling anger. We can’t be free of that and we don’t need to feel guilty for experiencing anger if someone hurts us or someone we love or shows us an injustice.

The sin comes in letting the anger have power over us and have a say in our thoughts and our words. The emotion of anger can be so sneaky – because after the initial shock or pain wears off, sometimes we can almost come to enjoy our anger – but that anger is no less harmful to us or to others. Taking a bit of pleasure in your enemy going through a difficulty of some sort, the bit of gossip about them that does not shine a good light on them and you get to pass it on. We’ve all been guilty of relishing and rolling around a bit in our anger sometimes. You know what I’m talking about. The conversations that usually start with something like, “I know I shouldn’t say this but…” or “I know it’s not very Christian but…” or does this sound familiar, “Oh, I just hate to say this about so and so…but it’s true!” – we all do this – and we put that disclaimer at the front or at the end because we know – even if what we are spreading is true – we shouldn’t be saying anything to hurt the reputation of another person. That simply isn’t the kind of behavior our God calls us to. That behavior doesn’t speak well of us or the One in whom we believe. I like how Martin Luther puts it in his explanation of the eighth commandment. He writes, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ not only encourages us to not speak badly about those who have hurt us, but tells us to take one step farther – and search for ways to speak kindly about them.

Oh man, that is so hard!

But Christ calls us to not let our emotions rule us. Anger can come so quickly and no matter how faithful we like to think we are, we are never beyond the temptation to get angry or to hold on to grudges. But God is slow to anger and we need to work to be the same way. Psalm 78:38 says “God turned his anger away and did not stir up wrath.” “Turned away” means God controlled it. Remember, self-control is a fruit of the spirit. It is an aspect of God’s character that God has shared with us.

One of the best ways to learn to control the flare-up of anger is the tried but true – counting to ten. Or counting to 100. Count to 1000 if you need to count that high to calm down. Let emotions subside and then decide.

Breathe deeply. Pause and focus on your breathing. It can be helpful to remember that the word in Hebrew for the Holy Spirit , Ruah, can also be translated as “breath” – picture the Holy Spirit’s presence filling you and granting you peace in that moment.

If your anger is about something big – write about it and get your feelings out, talk about it with someone you trust, if it is a long-term anger, pour energy into something constructive – train for a marathon, spend time doing an activity where you find real joy and with people who energize you.

If your anger is about something small – try to let go of who is right and who is wrong. I Corinthians teaches us that love doesn’t keep track of things like that anyway.

And remember that as Christians we cannot talk about anger without also talking about forgiveness. We are commanded by Christ to forgive one another because God has forgiven us.

How do we do this? First, we desire to do it. We know that desire motivates us to go through whatever we need to go through to reach our goal – but the desire will probably not come immediately. Our gut reaction after being hurt is not to forgive – but that’s when we must dig deep into God’s word which reminds us over and over of the importance of forgiveness – and the desire to be free of the poison of anger comes. When we are fed by God’s word it becomes easier to remember that we are to be people of forgiveness – it doesn’t mean we will change the way we feel right away every time we are hurt – but if we have decided to be people of forgiveness and gentleness and not people of anger, we slowly are shaped and molded into a more Christ-like form.

Another step in forgiveness is to depend on the Holy Spirit to help you do what you have decided to do. Deciding is important, but then we also need God’s help to do something as big as forgiving.

And finally – what do you think the final step in true forgiveness is? It’s this: Matthew 5:44-45 reads, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you to show that you are the children of your Father who is in heaven.”

Scripture is clear that we pray for blessing on our enemies. Oh, this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It demands so much of us! Keep in mind, it does not ask us to stay in relationship with those who have hurt us deeply or continuously – but it does ask us to pray for them. And in doing so, the damage that our anger has done to us begins to mend. As we learn how to lift all of it – that person, that relationship, that pain into God’s care – the poison seeps out of us and we are free.

Anger is something it is hard to talk about and even more difficult to feel. But we must choose to let go of it. And the good news is that we can do that. God will help us to do that if we keep turning to God’s word and turning to God in prayers for the well-being of our enemies, and the healing of our brokenness.

In the Harry Potter books, one of my favorite moments comes when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all the time and he had dark feelings. Sirius Black tells Harry to listen to him very carefully and said, “You’re not a bad person. You are a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That is who we really are.”
May we choose the Light today and every day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Aylan (sermon from 9/6/15 at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church)

Dear Aylan,

I saw the picture of you in the news this week. I, along with the rest of the world, saw you there – lying on the beach, your body lifeless. Your little red shirt and blue shorts, tiny tennis-shoes. At first my mind didn’t understand what I was seeing until my eyes scanned the caption under the picture which read,

The two small boys whose bodies washed up on a Turkish beach Wednesday were Kurdish refugees from Kobane, Syria, whose family had been desperately trying to emigrate to Canada.

Galib Kurdi, five, and his three-year-old brother Aylan died along with their mother Rehan and eight other refugees when their boat overturned in a desperate flight from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

The boys’ father, Abdullah, survived. His family says his only wish now is to return to Kobane with his dead wife and children, bury them, and be buried alongside them.”

I suppose I did what every parent did at the sight of that photo. I gasped. I thought of my own dear boys. I thought about how I would give anything and everything to keep them safe – and how I’m sure your parents felt the same.

And then I went on with my day, Aylan. I had stuff to do. I had to run some errands and go to a Bible study and visit some people. Later that day when I was scanning facebook I saw someone had posted your picture again. Again, I felt sad. I felt helpless. I felt thankful my own boys were safe and I prayed for your father.

I went to sleep that night and woke in the morning to see your picture again in the newspaper. Aylan, I confess that I didn’t want to see it again. I didn’t want to see it because I felt bad when I looked at it. Even though I had only just heard about you the day before, your little red shirt and blue shorts were old news now. How long was I expected to feel sad for you? How long should I feel bad about your whole situation I knew nothing about? I had plenty other things to think about and plenty other news to read.

But then you started staying near to me. In my thoughts, in my heart.

I’m ashamed to admit to you, Aylan, that I knew so very little before these last days about what is going on in your homeland. I get so busy with my own life and my own cares that too often the news I hear from around the world becomes just noise and I don’t stop to pay attention to what is happening. Of course I had heard things about Syria, about ISIS, and while things sounded bad, I knew there was so much to pray about things right here in my own country. And you and your family sounded so far away. Until I saw you there with your little red shirt and your little blue shorts, tiny tennis shoes. For me and for many, You weren’t just another headline. You were far from the first child to die because of the civil war in your homeland but when I saw you I finally realized –You could have been my boys. My boys could have been you. Except they were born here and you were born there.

So when you started to stay near in my thoughts this week, sweet Aylan, I finally opened my eyes and ears. It’s astonishing how much I can learn when I actually pay attention to things beyond myself and my own zip code. I learned that there are 5.6 million children like you who have lost homes and lives and any sense of safety because of the civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011. Many are now living in over-stretched refugee camps, makeshift shelters or villages. Many have fled Syria on foot, taking only what they could carry. Most fled under the cover of night to avoid sniper fire and shelling. There are Millions refugee children just like you who are exhausted, hungry and terrified.

Thousands of Syrians still flee their country every day. They often decide to finally escape after seeing their neighborhoods bombed or family members killed. The risks on the journey to the border can be as high as staying. Families walk for miles through the night to avoid being shot at by snipers or being caught by soldiers who will kidnap young men to fight for the regime.

Aylan, I read the story of a young mother, Hiba – she recently fled with her daughter and her severely disabled son, following the destruction of her home.

Hiba said, “Once the shells started and we ran…I couldn’t take my son’s wheelchair so I had to carry him, and run. We thought it was better for us to die in the street than under the rubble of our house. We ran at three in the morning and we didn’t know where to go. We were just running because we didn’t want to die under the rubble. I wasn’t thinking – I just wanted to protect my children.”

In the morning we came back to our home but it was ruined…I cried and I shouted but there was nothing else I could do. There is no human being alive that wouldn’t be sad – we worked all our life to building our home and suddenly we lose it all. “

There is no place for us to go, no safe space to go to at all.”


I read about how the majority of displaced Syrians are living in Jordan or Lebanon – countries that are stretched beyond their breaking point now and unable to take care of the people who are there. Others have taken to the sea to try to get to other countries where there might be a future. Aylan, I know your family did what you had to do. You had to leave.

And then, not long after your journey began, we saw your picture. Dear boy, I am so sorry. I’m so sad that you had to leave your home and face that terrifying journey over the water. I can’t begin to know the kind of horror that you experienced in your short life.

But I’m so thankful that whoever took those pictures let the world see them. Forgive me that for even a moment I wanted to turn away and not see the picture. We need to see it. We need to hate your death and the violence in this world that caused it.

You were just three years old – but your life mattered in countless ways – to your parents, to your whole family, to God – and though we did not meet, now you are so near to me each day.

Aylan, you were with me when I was studying the texts from the Bible for this week. When I read the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of hope to the exiles in Babylon and talking about the waters breaking forth in the wilderness and the streams in the desert, I wondered where the hope was for you when the waters enveloped your sweet little head.

And when the psalmist sang of giving justice to the oppressed, I hung my head and contemplated how your young life knew of no justice. While other children were busy sleeping in a few more times before school gets started again, while other children were busy riding their bikes around the block or staring at a video game, you were dreaming of a safe place to live for your family, of being done riding in that boat.

Even when I read the gospel for today and heard Jesus talking to the Syrophoenician woman who came to him begging for help for her child and at first he turns her away and only helps her after she holds on tight and keeps asking him, not letting him get away with turning her away – because a parent will do anything to help their child – maybe then I thought of you the most. Sweet boy, you deserved better than what happened to you. You deserved safe passage and a warm bed to sleep in. You deserved a full tummy and to be able to grow up along with your brother, sharing memories and life with your parents. You deserved laughter and education and hope and a future.

Aylan, what can I do for you now? A 45 year-old white preacher in Minnesota. What can I do for you – for children like you? I feel so helpless sometimes. The gospel is so extremely clear about how Christians must care, not only care, but help those who lack anything. The gospel compels us to welcome you and all refugees – with no stipulation or hesitation. And yet, borders rise up everywhere – between lands, between hearts, between peoples – keeping us all in our place, until ultimately we feel threatened by anything or anyone different. I want to help, but I just don’t know how?

Of course, one thing I must do is never ever forget that my ancestors were refugees, too, in their own way. Aylan, it’s true. They left Norway because they were so poor and there was no land and no opportunity. They weren’t in the middle of civil war like your family was – but they did come with a hope for something better – just like your family did.

It was a different time, to be sure, but there’s nothing in the gospel of Jesus Christ that allows me to reserve compassion for when it is easy or when it makes sense or when it doesn’t put me out of my way too much. God doesn’t allow us to see your picture or hear the news about what is happening to you and your people without compelling us to take action. Wherever we are.

And Aylan, in addition to remembering that my own people were once people traveling on the sea looking for a new home, I’m going to do something else.

So, Aylan, I have been thinking about your picture and about how helpless I feel to really do anything for children like you. But then I realized how far from helpless I am. You actually were – you were a child fleeing a war-torn country. But I am not a victim here. I am not helpless. God help me if I act like I am. Because I can use my voice to talk about you. I can encourage others to do the same. I can use my money to help support organizations that can help other children like you. I can stop putting any energy at all into feeling so dang helpless and remember that I may not be able to do everything, but I can do something.

Aylan, when my boys were very little and they wanted me to hold them, they would stretch their arms up to me and say, “Hold you, hold you.” It was the dearest thing in the world to me. Those sweet, trusting faces and knowing they were looking to me for comfort and some sense of assurance in their world. I had the power to give that to them. And so I would reach down and pick them up and hold them close.

And when they are asleep, then and still now, I put my hand on their heads and I bless them and ask God to watch over them now and always. And I trust that no matter what, God will. It’s not trusting that they will always have good luck or that nothing bad will ever happen to them – it’s trusting that no matter what happens, God will be with them. That even on their worst days they will know they are loved – by God and by their family.

Aylan, you are loved, by God and by us. Your death showed me a glimpse of the worst of sin and evil in this world – and now I pray that as I remember you, I‘ll be moved to show a glimpse of something quite different. I will show love and mercy. Generosity and bravery. I’ll not just speak about how awful it is that you died, but I’ll do my best to help where I can because you lived.

I pray you rest in peace.

With love in Christ,

Ruth

p.s. I’ve encouraged our congregation to support the work of Lutheran World Relief among the Syrians – to learn more or to contribute check out http://www.lwr.org

Transformation is Real

A friend asked me to write a blog post for his blog (http://transformation-is-real.com/). I was happy to be asked because I love to write, but I found this assignment taking me on an emotional journey.  I’m glad to share it with you and even more glad to be telling this story from where I am at now than where I was at a few months ago.

You can read it here:

http://www.transformation-is-real.com/transformation-is-real/2015/9/2/ruths-change-finding-gratitude-in-brokenness