Finding our way through anger

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  

Genesis 4:6-7 NRSV

Cain didn’t listen to this wise, loving counsel. He couldn’t contain his anger, and in his anger he couldn’t listen to reason or appeal. He felt offended and couldn’t forgive the offense. He went out and let his anger overwhelm him, killing his brother instead.

What can that have to do with us? More than I once thought. It struck home in a conference when I heard the nun who was teaching say that when we hold onto anger we no longer engage with that person as a whole person; we’ve made him or her into an enemy.  The more we turn away from others in anger (she said), not talking, not even really seeing them, the more we’ve effectively removed them from our world. She called it “spiritual murder.”

Her words were shocking, but there’s a certain truth in them. “Spiritual murder” was the sin that lurked at my door waiting to pounce when I was angry. I tended to withdraw from my offender and avoid him until, without consciously wishing it, it was as if he was dead to me. It’s still a struggle not to withdraw when hurt or offended and anger swamps me. But in the end I know it’s ourselves we kill, bit by bit, when we can’t let anger go or reach through it to forgive.

Though it’s the only way to heal the destructive force of anger, it isn’t easy to forgive. Even in the midst of anger’s powerful feelings I know I need to forgive, not only because the Holy One who loves me requires it, but also because my own anger tears me apart. But the emotional freedom necessary to forgive doesn’t come with the speed of the quick-rising tide of anger. So the struggle is often long and painful, even when the one I’m angry with is someone whose friendship I don’t want to lose.

What makes forgiving so hard for me, though, isn’t letting the other off the hook of blame that I’ve hung them on.  It’s wrestling with myself, bearing the pain of the battle to uncover the root of anger. When I’m able to get my heart quiet enough to hear past my own ranting, in the company of one who is safe (whose judgment I don’t fear), I can hear the painful, critical questions: “Why am I angry? Why do I endlessly repeat the offense in my mind, feeding on its poison, hugging it to myself like a shield? What is it shielding me from?”

Only as I begin to seek the answers to these questions does the truth emerge for me, a slowly brightening light. Finally I find that the battle ends, forgiveness washes anger away, and peace settles in my heart.

[This is adapted from a blog I posted to the Spiritual Directors International newsletter, September 25, 2014]

Quiet losses

Somehow over the long winter a year ago, my favorite tree died. I loved this tree in particular because of the way one of its branches spread in a curving arc outward, reaching toward me from above like a benediction. I loved the sound of its whispering leaves and the songs of the birds it sheltered. But I guess I’d begun to take its blessing for granted, because I didn’t realize its life had gone until late that summer when every other tree had finally filled out with their lush green leaves and this beautiful tree remained barren. It stands there now with only a few thoroughly dried brown leaves still clinging to its desiccated limbs, a skeleton left unburied.

One day in another winter’s storm it may fall, eventually to be overgrown by vines and shrubs like a greening shroud, but for now it stands stark and naked against the life around it. I still feel a pang of grief when I look at it. I miss the gentle sense of blessing it gave me.

This may be how some things end in our lives: unnoticed at first, then startling, then sad, with a feeling of loss that lingers in memory.  

Odds & Ends

I thought I’d share from time to time some of the provocative words of wisdom that I’ve run across. Like this ancient Chinese proverb:

“If we do not change our direction,
we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

Where is it, exactly, that we are headed unthinkingly in our life through our choices and decisions?  Is it a place we really want to get to, or are we wandering aimlessly on a path that will lead us somewhere we’d rather not be?

A Switchback Life

I’ve been living a switchback life. You know, the kind of life that seems to meander like a road or trail that swings now this way, then that way, moving back and forth, usually on a steep path. Skiers ski downhill that way because the path is steep and they need to manage their speed. Roads and railroads follow a similar style going uphill when the climb is steep and hard to navigate.  My life runs that way not because a straight path is dangerous or difficult, and not because I get tired of being here or there, but because I embrace too many projects. I’m interested in and try to work on them all, moving from one to another serially, back and forth, hoping to make some progress on each one. But honestly, it often feels like I’m getting nowhere.

Here and there, this then that, is something a lot of us do, I suspect, switching from one task to another and back again. People often call it multi-tasking. But I’m not so much a multi-tasker as I am a “dedicated dabbler.” A dabbler because I want to do so many different things; dedicated because each one is more a serious desire than a whim. I’ve felt vaguely guilty about this lifestyle.

There was a time when my tendency to dabble was suppressed, when I was laser-focused on one thing: my spiritual life and ministry. There were other things I longed to do but they all fell to the side as I was consumed by the singular overwhelming desire that drove me then: to deepen my communion with God and help others do the same. Now, in retirement, without a church congregation to lead or a clear sense of being called to a ministry, I’ve been freely wandering through this new chapter of my life, switching back and forth from one project to another.  It has felt like a liberation. But I’m not free of the desire to actually accomplish something. I count 7 or 8 major projects I’m pursuing now and I don’t really want to let any of them go.  Each one gives me life.  (If anything, I’d like to add a few in the area of play rather than work: learn to ride horseback, swim regularly, go dancing.)

Sometimes in the past I’ve envied Billy Graham for his life-long, single-minded focus on his ministry for Christ. At other times (most of the time) I envy people like Leonardo Da Vinci or Thomas Edison, who could do so many things and excel at them all. (Secretly I wish I could be a Renaissance woman after the model of Da Vinci for his wide-ranging exploration of science, art, and humanity, but I don’t have the skills, or even the physical stamina.) 

So I live a switchback life because I can’t seem to narrow my focus anymore. I guess I need to make peace with that. For now.

Jumping Outside of the Box

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay 

There is a widespread feeling that as a nation, as a people, we need to make some profound changes, but we don’t know how to escape the box that we live in.  Some people have put forth ideas that at first feel radical and later come to feel necessary, but don’t really know how to get there, while others feel stifled and stuck but also threatened by all the changes being proposed.  Lately we’ve had a leader who has taken a sledge hammer to our way of life and our cherished values, but that has only destroyed what was good without bringing anything good to take its place. I think that secretly we want to expand our boundaries and explore new possibilities, but without “leaving home.”

So if we are living in a box (even a box with smashed walls) how do we get beyond it? How do we jump (to use a different metaphor) out of the frying pan without landing in the fire? How do we effect change in a way that will be life-giving?

Today I’m offering some thoughts I’ve long held and once preached about that I think might be helpful. If you like you can hear it here, in an audio of that sermon: