“The Reach of a Ripple”

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Therefore, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the enemy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.

I am often asked to take faith out of its lofty theoretical realm and put it into practical terms for what it means to a regular person on a daily basis.  Ephesians offers sound, practical advice for how to live a faithful life. Such as:

Speak the truth.

Do not stay angry.

Build others up with your words instead of tearing them down.

Don’t be bitter.

Be kind.

Forgive others.

Live in love.

Do these things and you will be imitators of God.

Sounds easy enough, but oh how we struggle.  Oh how I struggle.  Especially with anger.  The scripture passage says not to let the sun go down on your anger.  It is easier said than done.  Anger is such a powerful emotion it is worth exploring more.  Our quality of life would be greatly improved if we could find better ways of dealing with anger.

The American Psychological Association reports the findings of Dr. Raymond DiGiuseppe, PhD, chair of the psychology department at St. John’s University in New York.  In his research to develop a new anger disorder scale he surveyed 1,300 people ages 18 to 90.  “Men scored higher on physical aggression, passive aggression and experiences of impulsively dealing with their anger.  Women were found to be angry longer, more resentful and less likely to express their anger, compared with men. DiGiuseppe found that women used indirect aggression by “writing off” a higher number of people–intending to never speak to them again because of their anger.”  Are those findings surprising to you?  I found that his findings match up with my experiences of anger.  I am an expert at holding a grudge.

Anger is something that all of us experience and try to find healthy ways of dealing with it.  It is interesting to note that Paul Marshall reports that “amazon.com currently lists more than seventy five hundred religious titles that touch on the subject of anger.” Just in the religious section on this one subject! Anger is indeed part of being human, but part of being a person of faith is trying to find a healthy and faithful way of dealing with anger and all your powerful emotions.

There are many ways to deal with anger.  Sometimes it can be as simple as taking a walk when you are upset or calling up a friend and sharing your feelings.  It is said that when Abraham Lincoln had to write a letter to someone who had irritated him, he would often write two letters. The first letter was deliberately insulting. Then, having gotten those feelings out of his system, he would tear it up and write a second letter, this one tactful and discreet.  This is a smart idea.  Especially in this era of emails when it is so easy to type up an angry email and send it off with a quick click.  When you are angry it can be a good thing to type up an email saying all the things you wish you could say and then delete it.  Come back to your emails later when you are calmer and re-write the email.  You will usually be glad that you did not react out of emotion and that you grounded yourself before sending out wrathful writings.  With anger sometimes we have trouble acting out impulsively and sometimes we have trouble because we hold our anger in and don’t express it.

I was recently talking to a young person who told me about his experience at a wilderness camp that he went to as a teen.  He went to the camp because he was seriously struggling at home.  His family had suffered some significant losses that traumatized him.  At the camp the counselors were trying to help him deal with the emotional baggage that he was carrying with him.  Every day they hiked 6 to 10 miles in the wilderness carrying heavy packs. The counselors told the young man that he also had to carry a 25 pound rock.  He took on the added weight, silently bearing the increased burden.

He became accustomed to it and soon he did not pay attention to the rock.  Eventually he was given another 25 pound rock that he was told to carry along with his regular pack and the first rock.  He persevered with this weight as well.  Finally the counselors told him that he had to carry his rocks and the packs of the other campers.   Straining to manage all that was put on him, he finally snapped.  It was too much to take, and he threw the rocks off a ledge and refused to carry anything else.  The counselors congratulated him on getting the message.

What weights have you taken on that you are carrying around with you?  You might tell yourself that you deserve to suffer a bit or that you are strong enough to handle whatever is put on you.  All of us have our own emotional or mental version of those rocks.  We think we can take it even though things just seem to keep piling up.  Eventually you have to let go.  For instance, in a relationship, maybe there are some miscommunications.  You skip over them thinking that they don’t really matter.  Your feelings are hurt but you don’t think it’s worth mentioning. Over time the miscommunication adds up.  There is a distance that starts to grow between the two of you based on the way you think you have been mistreated. You continue to silently bear the burden, but the weight of it eventually gets to be too much and there is a fight, a rupture, a major breakdown.  If we had followed the advice of the passage from Ephesians that we are focusing on today, then maybe this wouldn’t happen.

Remember that the text counseled us “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”  We need to communicate so we can get our problems out and deal with them and let them go.  We do this so we can be free of our burdens, like throwing the rocks off the cliff.  When we hold things in, take too much on and struggle along silently suffering, it wears us down and what we cannot let go of becomes toxic within us.  When our energy goes into our suffering, then we have less energy for being vessels of God’s love.  I do not think that is what God hopes for us.

I have a story to share from my own camping experience.  A few years ago I took our junior highers to Colorado to hike up Long’s Peak.  We hiked up to the first camp site and stayed the night.  The next day it was too foggy to move on and so we stayed close to camp.  One of our activities was to do a series of meditations.  We had to pick a spot to sit and read a verse of scripture We would try to take in where we were, noticing our surroundings fully with all our senses.  We tried to be open to any connections between the scripture passage and the spiritual wisdom of our natural setting.  We would then write a small reflection in our journals and move on to a new spot and repeat the process.

When I picked my first spot and tried to concentrate on my scripture passage, I couldn’t concentrate.  I found myself thinking about my father.  We had had a huge fight, and we had not spoken in over a year.  Out there, by myself in the woods, I was overwhelmed by loneliness.  Not having my father in my life had made me especially lonely this past year.  I missed him, but all I could think about was how angry I still was at him.  I could not find it in my heart to be kind to him and forgive him.  I was not “living in love” as the scripture says.  I was living in bitterness. As I thought about this, I felt guilty for being consumed by my issues with my father when I was supposed to be meditating on the beauty of the woods.  I got up and moved to a new spot and tried to refocus on the activity, but my head and my heart were filled with the ache of missing my dad and the anger I was clinging to.  I tried another location, a new verse from the Bible and still the other thoughts crowded my mind.  I wasn’t paying attention to where I was.  I was only paying attention to my pain.  As I said earlier, it was a foggy morning and I felt trapped in my own fog of emotions.  I moved to one last spot and made one more attempt to think about scripture and being present in the moment.  I started to pay more attention to my surroundings.  The fog lifted a little.  As it did, I saw that straight in front of me was the outhouse.  Let me tell you that that was one of the strangest spiritual revelations I have ever had, but without a doubt I had a revelation when that outhouse came into view.  I can remember it so clearly, like a light bulb going off in my head.  I thought “Sarah, you have to let your anger go.”  Excuse me for being crude, but this was honestly the way God spoke to me that day. Our bodies are not meant to hold things in.  We physically have to let things out.  In that same way, we have to let things out emotionally or it will become toxic inside us.  Relief poured over me as I kept saying, “Let this go.  Let this anger go.  Let it go.”  I could see how much damage it was doing to me to hold that pain and hurt in.  The burden was so familiar to me that I didn’t care about carrying that weight around with me, but now I couldn’t stand it a minute longer.  I let it go.

What a relief!  I felt so free.

A wise man once said to me “It is good to give gifts that are not earned.”  I thought that my father needed to do something to earn my forgiveness, to deserve it, but that might never happen, and I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life waiting for that.  Was it really worth the time, energy and emotional space that holding onto those wrongs would take?  No.  I had let too many suns go down on my anger, and holding on had only made the pain heavier.  Now that I could let go I felt lightened and relieved.

Whenever there is a problem, my mom says “Let go and let God.”  It is a phrase that I now repeat to myself when I get frustrated or angry.  “Let go and let God.”  When we let go and let God, we trust that God will help to take care of the situation.  We can control the things we can control, and for the rest it is not worth worrying about because God will be in control of those things and will make sure that everything works out the way that it should.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, a poet, and a peace activist who was nominated for the Nobel Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967, is the author of many books, including the best-selling The Miracle of Mindfulness.  He wrote a book about anger and in it he says “To be happy, to me, is to suffer less.  If we were not capable of transforming the pain within ourselves, happiness would not be possible.  The most basic condition for happiness is freedom.  Freedom from anger, despair, jealousy and delusion.  They are poisons, and as long as they are in our hearts, happiness cannot be possible.”  Only we have the power to free ourselves from anger.  We can keep ourselves trapped or we can let go and experience the relief and happiness that comes to us when we let go.

What anger are you holding on to?  Who have you been holding a grudge against?  How many times have you let the sun set on your anger? Take a lesson from scripture today and try letting go and letting God help you to be free from anger to live more fully and joyfully.

Amen.