Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 23, 2012
Angry Birds is a delightful brain-numbing, time-wasting, award-winning, highly-popular and addicting computer game created a mere three years ago (December 2009). In the game, you put different birds into a slingshot and then you launch the birds at pigs that are hiding in, on, or under different structures. The point is to destroy the pigs. Out of curiosity, how many people here have ever played the game and know what I’m talking about? (raise hands) If you play it at work, you may not know that there is theme music for this game. Vicky Gordon made me promise to tell you all that the postlude (Angry Birds Theme Music) was my idea. I asked her to do it.
The story that is told in a little 10 or 15 second opening to explain the game is that the pigs have stolen the birds’ eggs, and the birds are trying to get the eggs back. They are angry at the pigs. So they fling themselves across the field and though they injure themselves they hope to also take a pig or two with them. I’m not sure if the makers of the game intended this to be such a fine metaphor of what our anger can do to us, but there it is.
An ancient Chinese saying puts it, “the one who would pursue vengeance must start by digging two graves.” Or as the second reading this morning (from Maj-Britt Johnson) reminds us, the Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with this intent of throwing it at someone else.” Your anger is in you, unless you move it along it will burn inside you and consume you. Ann Landers often said, “hate is like an acid. It destroys the vessel in which it is stored.” The same could easily be said of anger. You will fling yourself across the field, causing certain injury to yourself while hoping and intending to cause injury unto others.
Anger is a natural human response to situations in life. We don’t choose to be angry at something. Our emotions are part of us, they happen. We don’t plan them or choose them, they simply are. Deciding to be angry or to not be angry is like choosing to be happy or to fall in love. It’s ridiculous. We can of course choose to live in ways that promote happiness and discourages anger, but the emotions will always be with us. So my sermon is not a rant against anger. Instead, I want to talk about what we can do about our anger.
But here is a trick: anger is encouraged in our society. Case in point: there isn’t a computer game called ‘peaceful birds’ or ‘forgiving birds.’ That would be boring. No one would play that game. Vengeance is an exciting plot device. It is a compelling and believable motivation for a game or a story. It is a terrible way to live a life, however. But our society does not feed us on stories of peace and forgiveness. We are fed stories of aggression and anger. Our political campaigns have bought into that as well. But what good is it?
Margaret Wheatley, in her wonderful little book Perseverance, asks this question:
But how far can anger carry us? And where do we end up? Anger is a primary cause of burn-out and depression. It doesn’t give us energy it eats at us and makes us sick – there is no nourishment coming into our bodies, such as is so readily available when we feel peaceful, centered, generous. (p 35)
Do you know what that is like? Have you ever let anger circle around inside you and feel it consuming you? I have felt it. It’s funny; I’ve gotten to the point where I can sometimes catch myself cycling around a little nub of anger, working myself up. I am not the ‘explode and say something foolish’ type of person when I’m angry. That still happens, I still do that, but it is not my usual method of being angry. I’m more naturally a stew-er, I stew in my anger.
I’ll be washing dishes, and I will be replaying in my mind some slight or irritant. “Don’t tell me what to think,” Mutter, mutter, mutter. “Oh, you really think you can say that?” Or I’ll be lying awake at midnight trying to relax and trying to count sheep and really all I’m doing is counting my grievances. And I’ll feel the emotions as strongly as if I am in the moment that made me upset. And I can almost feel my spirit contracting and growing bitter.
And I’ll catch myself! Wow, I’m really working myself up. I’m like those stupid birds in that game, sling-shooting my emotional self across the field to batter against the walls of my enemy. To counter the embittering spiral I exercise generosity of spirit. Maybe that person didn’t mean it like that (I think to myself, considering their side of it) or maybe they didn’t know I had this button they would be pushing. Or, maybe they really were trying to offend me and look at how easily I am walking into their script. I don’t need to play along with my anger, I can set it aside. If we can catch ourselves in the spiral, we can set it aside. Forgiveness is in some ways a setting aside of the ‘right and wrong’ of a situation so as to not let it consume us.
Anne Lamott writes about her experience with anger and forgiveness.
I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those… who is heavily into forgiveness. But, they say we are not punished for the sin, but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive. By the time I decided to become one of those who is heavily into forgiveness, it was like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age; everything inside me either recoiled, as from a hot flame, or laughed a little too hysterically. I tried to will myself into forgiving people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years—four former Presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree—it was ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas” meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend I had. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “If we really want to learn forgiveness, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.”
Forgiveness is not easy because it is a choice we can consciously step into, but it is fraught with emotion so it is not entirely in our control. We can say “I forgive you” or “I forgive that person;” and yet still be angry, still have that anger pop up.
Have you ever tried to pray when you’re angry? It’s not easy. According to the desert monks of the early Christian Church, “The remedy for all anger is prayer.”
But prayer was, according to [one] monk, “warfare to the last breath,” because it was when the monk sat down to pray that he was most likely to be distracted by unresolved anger – old grudges against those who had wronged him, schemes of retaliation and revenge.
(Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace p 126)
I do a centering prayer that is like a Buddhist medication of breathing; that is one of my regular practices. Similar to the chant in our teal hymnal: breathing in I think “peace” and when I breathe out I think “love.”
But sometimes I start doing this and I breathe in the irritating memory at the edge of my consciousness and I breathe out a picture of a person’s words that so bother me and soon I have forgotten to say the words “peace” and “love” and instead I am saying “they were wrong” and “I should have replied thus. That would have shown them.”
But that, right there, is the crux of why I cannot simply condemn anger and be done with it. Anger, as well as being one the basic human emotional responses to life, is also a true response to life. My anger, your anger, anyone’s anger, is first and foremost a response to injury or injustice. Our anger is true. Christine Robinson wrote about this in our first reading this morning; “When someone has hurt me I have a right to be angry.”
Our anger is borne of our love; it arises because we care about something. Rev. Edward Frost has a meditation that begins, “I love those who are angry with me because they care deeply about something they feel I may have hurt.” Reading this line in that meditation is a reminder to me to consider the other person’s perspective. “I love those who are angry with me because they care deeply about something they feel I may have hurt.” And conversely, when I am angry at someone, I can consider my own part in the event or incident that led to my being hurt. My initial anger is a true response to the injury or injustice. I am hurt because of something I care deeply about. My anger is a response to my love. As Robinson said, “I have a right to my anger.” Yet, I must beware: my anger can also consume me, drawing away all capacity I might otherwise have to respond with love. There is no nourishment in my anger, as Margaret Wheatley said.
So, one healthy response is forgiveness. The Aramaic word for ‘forgive’ is literally: to untie, disentangle, to let loose. Forgiveness is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the knot that holds us to the person or event. It is not about forgetting or excusing or any of those other stand-ins that don’t really cover it. Forgiveness is about moving forward in the face of it all.
Christine Robinson continues from the reading we offered this morning, saying,
Forgiveness does not require forgetting. Indeed, our memory of past hurts is one of the things that helps us stay safe in the future. We just need to find a way to give up our anger so that when we remember the incident, the sting is gone, and all that is left is what we have learned. Than we can continue the relationship. (p28)
A key first step in forgiving someone is in acknowledging your real true hurt and injury. And an equally necessary step is to consider the situation from the perspective of the one who caused the injury. If you focus exclusively on the injury, how can you ever see your way through it to the other side of forgiveness? The abusive parent, the disloyal spouse, the spiteful ex-friend, manipulative neighbor, all have full lives beyond the offenses they have committed. All of them have an inherent worth that can be uncovered if you are willing to see it.
The goal is not to lose your anger, but to temper it. That is how we work through all our powerful and painful emotions such as grief and guilt, resentment and anger: temper them in the context of your whole life. Don’t partition these difficult emotions into a small compartment. Let them leak all over your life. When you forgive, your anger does not automatically disappear any more than accepting the death of a loved one causes the grief and loss to go away.
Your anger will continue to pop up from time to time. And you may need to forgive over and over again. And you will know that it has finally taken root when you remember the offense yet feel not the sting.
Anger is often a roadblock to forgiveness. How can we forgive if we are still angry? “My anger is proof that I have not forgiven and cannot forgive.” But I say this is not necessarily true. Your anger is a natural emotional response. Your forgiveness is a choice. And if it seems hard to hold onto both, it may be that what you are longing to forgive is too big – the hurt too significant, the injury ongoing. If that is the case, let me remind you of three things I’ve already said this morning.
First, as Christine Robinson said, “Our memory of past hurts is one of the things that helps us stay safe in the future.” You don’t need to forget, indeed remembering may be key to moving forward without being re-injured. Perhaps give attention to amends at this time and work toward forgiveness in the near future.
Second, as Anne Lamott said, “I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “If we really want to learn forgiveness, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.”” Perhaps you can set aside the really big injury and practice forgiveness in smaller ways, build up the muscles by forgiving the cashier or those noisy kids down the street or that dog. Practice on small things, work your way up to forgiving the big injury in time.
Third, as Margaret Wheatley said, our anger “doesn’t give us energy it eats at us and makes us sick.” Our anger offers no nourishment to our spirit. The cost to holding my anger is a cost I bear – it eats away at my soul. Forgiveness is a salve to the injury, a way to ease out of the anger and into grace and love.
Forgiveness is the ultimate religious activity. It is tucked up between love and justice, calling us to move forward with our imperfect lives and our imperfect relationships. Forgiveness is for the easing of the strains all relationships undergo. It is a salve to the injury, a way to ease out of the anger. Forgiveness steps past the argument of ‘right and wrong’ so that we can move forward, untangled, to continue our relationships and to let our spirits grow.
In a world with out end,
may it be so