Monthly Archives: April 2015

Burning anger

What to do when your anger makes you angry

I get it when I’m angry about the big stuff. Once a friend conned me out of $3500; I was angry. Once a project at work was single-handedly held up for nearly a year by a regulator who kept changing the rules on us; I was angry. It makes sense.

What baffles me is the irrational anger. Recently I read about a 120-foot rusted metal barricade, installed as a “sculpture”, that defaced a public plaza in Manhattan from 1981-89. I was furious for days. Over a problem I never saw, already resolved for more than 25 years. “Oooh, for a short time decades ago, certain million-dollar views weren’t quite as nice as they should have been!” What?

Anger is often a symptom

One of the best sermons I ever heard was in the late 1990s by Jay Mitchell called “I’m Angry! Now What?” He made the point that anger can be like a fire alarm— it is obvious and loud, but in the final analysis, it is only distantly related to the actual problem. The noise is caused by the smoke, which is coming from the fire. The urgent problem is to find the fire; only a fool would waste time trying to deal with the noise. Yet this is the most common reaction to anger: we fire both barrels at whatever set us off, without a moment’s pause to look for an actual source.

Once I was temping at an escrow office, and an agent was trying to close a deal, expecting some important documents. To do him a favor, the moment they arrived, I got up from my desk and walked them a block down the street to his office. The next day, he called my boss and demanded that I be fired. I never found out what perceived slight had made me the object of his wrath, but I have often wondered: Where in his life was the volcano of anger that erupted onto me as an essentially innocent bystander? And did he ever find it and extinguish it? (By the way, my boss did not fire me; she dropped that agent as a customer instead… “Oft doth evil mar itself.”)

“In your anger, do not sin”

I’ll never know what was going on in that agent’s life, but I can be inspired by that example to pause and reflect before I lash out in anger. Dealing constructively with anger is a part of life, and the bible has a lot of really sound advice about it, but the overarching principle comes from Psalm 4:4: “In your anger, do not sin.” I may never have sinned by calling someone’s boss to get them fired, but I have certainly blown it plenty of other times in my life. (Read: “reply-all button”.)

To deal with your anger by simply stifling it… this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it

The verse goes on to say, “Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent,” which, taken in isolation, sounds like advice to deal with your anger by simply stifling it. However, this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it; the real problem (the fire) will grow until it can no longer be ignored, when the problem will be more difficult (if not impossible) to resolve, and the destruction will inevitably be much greater. I once had a housemate whose significant relationships always went through the same pattern: things would mostly be good, but with some area of conflict. He would ignore the conflict (“take it like a man”, as he put it) until he reached the limits of his endurance, and then his verbal anger would explode, resulting in the destruction of the relationship.

The only solution he could imagine was to have unlimited endurance that could never be exhausted, so that he could continue to stifle his feelings in perpetuity. I urged him, instead, to consider trying to deal with the issue. His response to this was, “No, that’s what I just said: when I run out of patience and try to deal with the issue, that’s when the wheels come off and everything falls apart.” To him, “dealing with the issue” was synonymous with unconstructively blowing up at his partner. However, I do not think this is what scripture has in mind when it says to “ponder in your heart and be silent.”

“When the fire is out”

Instead, I think the biblical picture here is to take time, cool off, and reflect. I once had a friend who was so intent on taking Ephesians 4:26 literally and verbatim that, if she and her husband got into a fight close to sunset, she would insist on having it out right then. Some of their most heated arguments occurred that way. (A good example of the need to seek biblical advice in prayer, and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit— not legalistically.) They finally learned that, if they were having issues with each other in the evening, they were much better off going to bed (there’s a literal verse application for you: “pondering in their bed”), and dealing with it fresh in the morning. Turned out most of the friction in their marriage had come from forcing serious discussions at the end of the day while they were both exhausted.

We may try to fight small fires ourselves, but in a big fire, by far the best course of action is to find a place of safety for ourselves and our loved ones, and to call in outside help. In the same way, few of our problems are created by ourselves alone, and few can be resolved by ourselves alone. Yet we often turn to secrecy because we find our problems embarrassing. Can you imagine declining to call the fire department out of similar reasoning? Trusted friends, pastors, counsellors… all can be part of helping us find, and resolve, the root causes of our anger.

Once the fire is put out— once we do not feel that hot anger rising in our cheeks— real work can be accomplished for good. In a building, if the problem is faulty wiring, that problem will still be there the next morning, and can be much more constructively addressed then. Whereas, there is a very good reason electricians don’t try to work on buildings while they are burning.

Surviving years alone

Surviving years alone with God and “Into The Woods”

Growing up, some kids wanted to be firefighters or doctors or zookeepers; all I wanted was to have my own family. As a 14-year-old freshman, I made my plan: date in high school, date seriously in college, marry right after graduation, five years just us, first child at 28. But there was a snag you see: no one would go out with me. Contrary to my plan, I had zero girlfriends in high school, then zero in college. My first serious relationship, at age 23, ended after two months when she cheated on me and then dumped me.

As the years wore on, my timeline completely blown, sometimes people talked to me about the so-called “gift of singleness”. Sometime I raged against God. In the end, though, I finally figured it out. If that is you today— waking up every day praying, hopeful; going to bed every night exhausted, discouraged, alone yet again— I am here to tell you that there is an answer, there is hope, there is a way through. You can find it too.

Not having the “gift of singleness”

In Christianese, we have a term— “the gift of singleness”— which imagines a person, spiritually equipped for happiness through focus solely on God and his kingdom, unburdened by the need for significant human relationship. Let’s just say: as a person with a deep heart craving for marriage, that term was often a source of pain to me.

For one thing, like many pieces of supposedly “Christian wisdom”, it’s unbiblical. The closest you find is Paul’s encouragement to “remain as I am“, which is simply advice, unrelated to any sort of spiritual gifting. In the “gift of singleness” concept, there’s the slightly smug implication that love, marriage, and relationship are for those who couldn’t make the “A” grade of God’s sufficiency. In fact, while Paul does talk about the advantages of the single life, those who desire marriage have nothing to apologize for when it comes to scripture:

  • “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 18:22)
  • “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.'” (Genesis 2:18)
  • “Two are better than one…” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Raging against God

It’s easy to talk about the years going by, but it’s really the days that will get you. In our society, there is so much promise of quick-and-casual relationship that it is easy to wake up every morning thinking that, by nightfall, maybe my situation will have completely changed for the better. By tonight, maybe somebody will love me. And days keep going by like that, one after another after another, for thousands of days in a row. Proverbs says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and that is how I felt.

I kept watching other people have what I wanted, and it just started to seem vindictive and personal. I began to get so angry at God, and I often prayed the words of Psalm 44: “But now you have rejected and humbled us; you sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale.”

During all of this, my lifeline was music. Sometimes it was Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me“. Sometimes it was Alanis Morissette. In particular, almost every day, I replayed a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods called “No More”**:

No more giants, waging war.
Can’t we just pursue our lives, with our children and our wives?
‘Til that happy day arrives, how do you ignore
All the witches, all the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the good-byes, the reverses…
All the wondering what even worse is still in store!
All the children.
All the giants.
No more.

** (They left it out of the recent movie version; I was devastated.)

I had a mid-life crisis when I hit age 25 still single— a “quarter century” felt so old— and my biggest question was, “Can I survive this?” The music helped me know that someone else had felt what I faced, and had found a way through to the other side.

Making Peace with God

In prayer as in life, you may often feel there’s no answer if the only answers that “count” are the ones you’ve already decided on

At age 28, I finally thought I had met “The One”. But, after nine months, it fell apart just like all the others, and I finally said, “I give up.” By now, I was supposed to have a over decade of learning how to love. By now, we were supposed to be starting a family. I had tried everything I knew, I had prayed every prayer I could think of, and nothing was making it happen. And for the first time in my life, I had to face the question, “What if this doesn’t happen?” For the first time in my life, I starting looking for outside help. I became willing to adjust my perspective instead of insisting that the world adjust my situation.

I went through a year of therapy, and two years of a twelve-step recovery program for what is called, “SLA” (sex/love addiction). I realized that, in prayer as in life, you may often feel there’s no answer if the only answers that “count” are the ones you’ve already decided on. As in the line from The King’s Speech, if you’re waiting for God to comply with your instructions, “you will wait a long wait.”

All along, I had felt like nothing was working, because to me, “working” meant “making God hurry up.” But the truth is that God will do what God is going to do. That insight is embedded in the very name of God. So if God has a spouse for me out there somewhere, he will bring her into my life if and when it suits him. The only point at which I had any control over the situation was: how to redeem the time until then.

For the first time, I began allowing people to meet some of my needs without insisting they meet them all. I started to think, “What do I enjoy? Why don’t I do that?” I did a triathlon. I started writing. I began volunteering with kids at church. I became a big brother. I quit my job and spent a year teaching dance lessons.

By age 33, I finally started to feel like I had it figured out. I was letting myself enjoy my life for the first time, accepting what was instead of pining for what was not. I was happy. I found peace.

That year I met my wife; we’ve been married 10 years now. Could I have met her earlier? Sure. But would I ever have had those experiences, and learned those lessons? Would I ever have become the man God intended me to be? I’m pretty sure the answer, to all of the above, is “no”.

How Jesus is like nonfat milk

3 Ways Jesus is like nonfat milk

Milk is a starting place.
Milk polarizes.
Milk explains why Jesus had to die.

I don’t have to tell you that when it comes to milk, people have strong preferences. In no other area of life will 1% of butterfat raise such ardent passions. Yet in so many ways, this familiar white beverage is like Our Savior. Milk is a starting place. Milk polarizes. Milk even explains why Jesus had to die…

Milk is a starting place

We are born, I believe, with a desire to seek God. Even many atheists will agree with this, though they offer it to explain why “people had to invent God”, whereas I believe it falls into the same category as all our other in-born desires like food and water and sleep— in no other area is our desire for something held out as evidence that it doesn’t actually exist.

Yet, despite our desire for God, to us in our natural state, he is not particularly accessible. People are as often offended by God’s purity and God’s power as they are attracted by it. Especially in the 21st century America, these qualities of God seem opposed to values like openness and democracy. It runs contrary to our DNA nowadays to simply trust the powers that be to have our best interests at heart (as God has).

Into a world like this, Jesus comes to render God the father into an accessible human shape. In my “faith” conversations with non-believers, they often want to start by talking about objections: “How could God…” and “Why should God…”  and “Why doesn’t God just…” and so on. These are all valid questions and I think that all believers wrestle with them, but they don’t make a very good starting place.

Christ has so much to teach, but in several places, the bible encourages us to start with our times tables before we move on to wrestle with algebra and trig. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it,” says 1 Corinthians 3:2, and 1 Peter 2:2 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Far from insult or condescension, these passages simply reflect the fundamental truth that learning about the deep things of God is like any other area of learning: you have to start at the beginning if you are to make any sense of it.

Milk polarizes

We have it right in my own family: to my brother-in-law, whole milk is a rich, creamy treat, while nonfat is flavorless blue water. To me, nonfat is clean and refreshing, while whole is gloppy and clogging.

Jesus has a similar polarizing quality. The apostle Paul says, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) He’s talking about the incense burned in the parade when Roman armies returned in triumph, marching captives before them toward execution. To the Romans, the incense meant victory and life, but to the captives, it was the stench of their utter destruction. All this even though the smell itself never changes.

Milk explains why Jesus had to die

As I mentioned, I like nonfat milk on my cereal. Once, my family went camping, and the only milk anyone brought was whole. “Well,” they explained, “you can just add water to the whole milk.” I countered, “Then I’ll just have watery whole milk!” You see, the problem is, I don’t like the butterfat, and whole milk still has it no matter how much water you add.

I am sometimes asked, why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Some have even claimed that Christ’s death on the cross is evidence that God is cruel and vindictive. By this line of reasoning, the sins we commit should be balanced against the good things we do, and if the good outweighs the bad, then God should be satisfied.

The problem is, this is just like trying to turn whole milk into nonfat by adding water. If you do, it will just give you an unappetizing frankenbeverage. You can never turn one into the other by adding something (like water); what is needed— the only real solution— is to take something away.

You may have heard the joke that you’ll never find a perfect church, and even if you do, you’ll mess it up when you get there. God’s problem with having the likes of us with him in heaven is, we’d do the same thing. Heaven is characterized by what it has, but also by what it has not: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

When Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, he accomplished that. He turned something unappetizing to God, clogged by gloppy sin, into something delightful and refreshing.

Spiritual lessons from Spirit Airlines

3 Spiritual lessons learned flying the dreaded Spirit Airlines

In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy asks Lizzy Bennet to dance, she curses herself: “Why could I not think of an excuse? I promised myself I would never dance with him… hateful man!”

So, you can imagine how I felt when I recently found I had no choice but to fly on the poster child of all that is wrong nowadays with air travel and, by extension, our country: the dreaded Spirit Airlines. The Internet is crawling with Spirit Airlines horror stories, but booking last-minute, the only alternative would have been 5 hours out of my way for 3x the cost. So, I decided to bite the bullet, buy a ticket, and do my dance with the devil.

Since “forewarned is forearmed”, before flying I engrossed myself the ways that Spirit had victimized others and was likely to try victimizing me. In so doing, I had the opportunity to reflect. What would Jesus say about the business practices of Spirit Airlines? What makes people hate them so much? What would Jesus say about that?

The business of ungrace

The truth is, unmerited grace has never come from profit-driven corporations. Love expressing itself through sacrifice is a much likelier source of the real thing.

The number one complaint that people had about Spirit Airlines was this: I was in some kind of trouble, and they wouldn’t help me. I was late for my flight, I had different bags than I’d planned, there was bad weather or a pilot overslept– none of these things are Spirit’s problem and they don’t care who knows it. It is on you to solve all of these problems yourself, at your own (often considerable) expense.

Likewise, the number one response of Spirit’s defenders was, “You should have.” As in, you should have bought travel insurance, you should have arrived earlier, you should have planned better. Everything is your fault. Which is true— you could have done all those things. It’s just that saying so isn’t helpful to someone awash in stress hormones.

Compare and contrast with Jesus. In Jesus’s time, the guilty flocked to him for grace— the woman caught in adultery, the too-short tax collector, even Peter upon first meeting Jesus— none of them pled innocence. And still Christ offered each what they needed but had no right to expect.

In our age, people have ceased to look to the Church for grace, and rightly so in many cases, I’m sorry to say. Vanishing grace is all too real. Corporate America has filled the void, to such an extent that people become volubly angry at Spirit when they fail to live up to the perceived social contract. But the truth is that unmerited grace has never come from profit-driven corporations. Disney will take care of you, but only because you’ve paid thousands of dollars to be there. Love expressing itself through sacrifice as modeled by Our Lord is a much likelier source of the real thing. No matter how many in the church may lose sight of that, there still are a lot who remember.

Innocent and crafty

I, for one, am thankful for the many people who took the time to write up their experiences on Spirit, such as:

  • Paying $100 to carry on a purse because it was 1′ 7″ in greatest dimension instead of the requisite 1′ 4″
  • Trying to check in just 44 minutes before departure and finding their tickets canceled (there is a strictly enforced 45 minute cutoff).

Those people were a blessing to me, and allowed me to make my flight (I left the airport hotel at 5:50 a.m. for an 8:45 departure) without extra baggage fees (I had stuffed my briefcase into my checked luggage and carried my laptop loose in my hands). But I wonder what was in their hearts when they wrote those stories down.

Were they thinking of me and offering me a blessing out of love for their fellow man? Or, more likely in our times, were they simply trying to get even? God is very interested in the condition of our hearts; as it says in Luke 6:45, “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” I have been ripped off before to the tune of hundreds of dollars. I have been robbed several times. I have known violent thoughts as a result of both. It is hard to let go of the anger and find peace, but it is a vitally important battle to fight. Just ask Anakin Skywalker.

I think it is very appropriate for people, even Christians, to write about negative experiences in order to protect others from the same fate; we just need to guard our hearts in the meantime. The same scripture that urges us to be as crafty as serpents also cautions us to be as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). Turning bitter leaves us no different from those who embittered us in the first place.

 Come near

Once at the airport and then on the flight, I have to admit I was surprised. No gate personnel or flight attendants went out of their way to be rude to me. My seat did not smell of puke or cause my knees to touch my chin. The climate on board was not uncomfortable. It was much like any other flight; not at all like going “in country” among a den of hated enemies. It did not feel at all like selling out the American way of life.

I still feel that it is a sadder world when businesses pursue low cost above all else; it leaves our society literally and spiritually impoverished. But regardless of the corporate policies they must follow, at the end of the day the employees are still regular human beings like the rest of us. Bottom line, what they want is to be treated nicely and have a good day at work.

We must remember that, regardless of how offended he was by the condition of the world and all of us in it, Christ came near. His name, Emmanuel, means “God with us”— not “God at a distance judging us”. He said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing” (John 14:12). So if we are to be his followers, we do not have the option of keeping our hands clean and judging one another. His solution to the problem of sin was move in with the sinners and stay for 33 years. No one is asking me to do that with Spirit Airlines, but I am glad I went to see them in person for the span of at least one flight. Very eye-opening.

For the record, though, I still prefer Southwest.