Jesus, Outfitter

2013-05-04_16-55-24_961The traditional Gospel for this First Sunday in Lent takes place in a wilderness.  For many of us, the word brings to mind forests, like the Black Hills here in South Dakota.  Wild, sure, but beautiful, spiritual, peaceful.

But the Judean wilderness in which Jesus was tempted by Satan isn’t green; it’s more like 2013-05-05_14-06-23_587South Dakota’s Badlands.  Dry, life challenging if not threatening, and suggesting the possibility of a malign visitor…

Ventures into the wilderness require an outfitter, someone who knows how to survive in the environment and can equip another to do the same.

The more I read the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the more it appears to me that the prayer he taught his followers has direct application to our journey through a “wilderness” that is a spiritual Badlands, where we need to be outfitted against the life sapping forces of the world, the flesh and the devil.

+ In the wilderness, Jesus fasted and “was famished.”  The devil tempts Jesus to manipulate his power to create munchies, and Jesus resists by quoting Moses about not living by bread alone, but by the word from the mouth of God.

And so Jesus outfits us with the petition, give us this day our daily bread, at once a reliance upon God for the physical sustenance that protects us from rash actions born of want and a surrender to the eternal word of God versus the urgent demands of passing situations.

+ In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus to force a meaning on God’s word.  “Doesn’t God say his angels will catch you if you fall?  So make Him prove it.  Jump off a tower.”

So Jesus outfits us with the words, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, an acknowledgement that God’s will, not ours, is sovereign, even in the things of this passing life.  We must not put God to a test devised in our own desires, but seek to know and obey His will as revealed in Scripture.

+ In the wilderness, the devil tempts Jesus with entitlement to all the impressive things of human life, as long as Jesus will worship the tempter – I mean, really worship by falling down in submission, an inferior in the presence of a superior.

So Jesus outfits us with the words, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  There is one God, the Father in heaven, the only worthy object of worship.  (If you’re in a liturgical church, note that the church’s prayers are to the Father, through the Son, in the unifying power of the Holy Spirit.)

And Jesus outfits us with the petition, thy kingdom come.  Whatever great things attract us, our “compass” must keep us on the hard trail that leads to life.  We seek the kingdom of God, and so many detours and assumed short cuts lead to destruction.

Jesus outfits us with the prayer, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  This is a radical rejection of all the impressive things that allure us deeper into the deadly wilderness and away from the eternal kingdom we seek.  To ask forgiveness is to drop the dead weight of our own self-important achievements and “travel light,” reliant on the mercy of God revealed in Christ Jesus for our life. To forgive others is to reject the power to arrange the world around ourselves.  It is to fast from our sense of entitlement to a “splendid kingdom” of this world, and to equip others with the mercy that can help them out of the wilderness in which they, too, are struggling to survive.

+ Finally, Jesus closes his outfitting prayer with words that seem to come straight from his time in the wilderness, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  It is a solemn prayer that God not leave us on our own in the wilderness, but equip us with all we need to resist the tempter.

More than that, it is a profound plea to make our time in the wilderness an outpouring of devotion to God.  Jesus’ final rebuttal of the tempter is, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.  At these words, the devil retreats, and angels come to refresh Jesus.

Then, he goes out to begin preaching his Good News.  Deliver us from evil is not just a prayer for relief, it is a petition for the freedom to traverse the wilderness with all of the marvelous equipment that the Holy Spirit apportions to us, and to do so as part of an expedition, because no one can bear all of the equipment for the journey.  It must be made with others.

Which is why Jesus outfits us with a prayer to Our Father to provide for and protect us.

Unresolved

I’m not alone in questioning the utility of New Year’s Resolutions.  Here’s a good piece by a rising Evangelical star.  

I had some blessed quiet time to read this weekend and found this among piles of jewels from perceptive, expressive souls,

A life is seen now not as the story of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, but as a story of God’s mercy. (John Welch, O. Carm., in The Carmelite Way)

20170101_112849New Year’s Resolutions shift the focus back onto the clashing power and paucity of me, myself and I.  And magical thinking is lurking there in the idea that the flip of a calendar page releases glittering pixie dust to change our hardened habits.

The Christian proclamation, in almost all of its fragmented expressions claiming the title church, always comes back to the centrality of what God has done, is doing and will do.

I fight that with the best of resolution makers, wanting to take up my lance and attack windmills in hopes of – validating?  requalifying for?  earning? maybe even replacing? – God’s favor poured over and into my life.

Lately I’ve had some living reminders to drop the lance, the projection of my own wishes and fantasies, and take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I have an active and elaborate prayer life, but I’ve noticed my wife progressing and changing with a simple recollection of Psalm 51:11, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

I think the power there is in the Hebrew verb for create, which in that verse is the same as in Genesis 1:1, a verb reserved for actions of which only God is capable.  Resolve what we might, there is change that only God can accomplish.

20170101_103502Lately I’ve been assisting (not leading – they lead themselves quite well) a Dinka (South Sudanese) congregation here.  Their Deacon came to the house yesterday to help me learn some of their hymns.  He was gloriously patient – it must have been like teaching a child new words but he stuck with it and now I can throw my heart, mind and voice into verses like Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty in Dinka.  (And like Hebrew having a verb for creation reserved to God, Dinka expresses God’s might via a combination of singular and plural nouns something like “power greater than any other powers”).

I had to get out of my own way to learn from Deacon John, gracious as he was.  My head was filled with thoughts of “performing well,” getting praise for my ability to learn and providing paternalistic proof of my cross cultural munificence, etc.

So I prayed to God, extolling him as the Lord of language, the one who spoke all into existence, confounded vanity at Babel and sent power to preach Good News at Pentecost.  I prayed to get out of the way so I could learn the words and tunes to the extent that they brought Him glory and blessed His people.

The Dinka liturgy is about 2 hours from now.  I’m practicing and all that, but it’s less about my nervous and ego saturated resolve to sing in a new language then about loving God and neighbor in worship.  And before and after worship.

Which I won’t resolve to do because it’s beyond my doing.

I’m so ashamed

I recently heard some efforts to distinguish between guilt and shame.

Guilt is a function of an healthy conscience – I do wrong, I feel badly about the wrong, and I can do something corrective and move on.

Shame is heavier – I do wrong and conclude that I am a ‘bad person,’ and will continue to condemn myself as ‘not _____ enough.’

The awful permanence of shame, as well as it’s antidote, is expressed in a verse from the New Testament,

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2 ESV)

The Permanence of Shame

The cross points to permanent condemnation.  The Romans crucified people and posted the victims’ crimes on signs as an epitaph of irrevocable judgment.

In the religion of Jesus’ earthly time and place, execution by crucifixion was considered a form of hanging, defined in the Scriptures as a final proof that the victim was – talk about shame – cursed in the eyes of God and a stain upon the land and people,

…his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:23 ESV)

On the cross, Jesus shared the death of the uncounted and unnamed multitude who die bearing a label.  No way to do anything about it; no way to atone for the offense if guilty or to clear one’s name if unjustly condemned.

That’s how shame works, There’s nothing you can do about it.  You’ll never be _____ enough.  You’ll always be _____.

ShameShame reflects an external voice that we internalize. The voice is often that of a parent but can come from some other impactful person or group in our lives.  The Greek noun for shame used in Hebrews 12:2 appears in the Gospel of Luke to express public humiliation, and in Paul’s Second Letter to Corinth about the secrecy that shame engenders – the desire to hide ourselves from what we’ve come to perceive as an accusing world.

The Antidote for Shame

However shame enters our makeup, the antidote involves putting it in its place.

Jesus despised the shame with which the Roman government and the Temple Priests alike labelled him via the cross.  The Greek verb translated “despise” is an intriguing compound of “down” and a complex word connoting “thought, feeling, understanding” – key inner qualities that can guide our behavior.

That is, Jesus thought down upon the effort to humiliate him.  He belittled it by enduring it and going on toward the joy set before him.  He founded and perfected faith, knowing that ultimate worth, validation and reward are with God and not the fleeting opinions and indignities inflicted by people.  Jesus rose from the finality of the world’s shaming verdict and sits gloriously at the right hand of the throne of God.

The antidote for shame is to internalize a stronger voice than the one(s) that condemn(s) us.  By this voice we endure the world’s judgments, fair or not, and carry on in the assurance of our value to God.

It is the voice of God in Jesus Christ, speaking through the Holy Spirit,

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  (Romans 5:1-5 NRSV)

A 7 and 7 for your Christmas Feast

The birth of Jesus, in which the Word of God becomes flesh and lives among us, is celebrated in advance in Isaiah 11:2-3, one of the Advent prophecies with which the church waits for Christmas,

ViviLnk
Waiting for the Word-Made-Flesh (you can click on all pictures to enlarge – also pictures are my own so feel free to use/share/whatev)

The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORDand his delight shall be the fear of the LORD. (NAB)

St. Thomas Aquinas (who says Christianity doesn’t produce great intellects?) distilled this passage into what are known as The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.    The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1831 lists them as

wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

We first encounter the Spirit who gives these gifts in the beginning, initiating the seven days of creation,

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2 ESV)

Are there any correspondences between the Spirit’s original creative work and how the Spirit continues to visit the creation with gifts?

Day 1/Gift 1: Light and Wisdom

sunlightAnd God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:3 ESV)  Human instinct equates wisdom with light.  The word “enlighten” captures this.  Ancient wisdom says, And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:13 NASB).  Likewise we state the inverse, that darkness is deprivation of wisdom, You’re wrong, you madman. There’s no darkness except ignorance (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 4.2).

The Spirit’s ultimate work is testimony to Jesus, in whom wisdom is made complete,

Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”  (John 8:12 NKJV)

Day 2/Gift 2: Heaven and Understanding

And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so.(Genesis 1:7 ESV)  Heaven is the “expanse” and separates the waters of the earth from the waters of the clouds.  Yet we know that rain and snow will fall and evaporation will take place.  The waters are in constant interplay as liquid, solid and gas.heavens

The Spirit weaves the very nature of God into the creation here.  Father, Son and Spirit are three distinct persons but are one substance, one God.  The Christian revelation of God as a mysterious, always existing relationship is reflected in the fluid (sorry, but it’s the best word here) division of the waters.

Understanding is the gift that overcomes division.  It’s more than our paltry “toleration” of difference; it is the establishment of unity, even compassion.

The Spirit prepares the creation for human beings, creatures separated from the Creator yet bearing His image and intended to enjoy the creation with Him for eternity.

Jesus is God and human being, and he works to restore lost understanding.  As he told his followers after stooping to wash their feet,

“You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:7 NIV)

Day 3/Gift 3: Land, plant life and counsel.

fall color

The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:12 ESV)

Although humanity, rebellion and death have not warped the creation to this point, God brings forth life that will be tended by people and can be cultivated for greater abundance.  Or wasted.

Counsel will emerge as generations pass on guidance as to which plants are good to eat, what is required for their growth and how to farm for plentiful harvests.

Counsel will be needed to warn about behavior that depletes the earth or hoards the bounty.

Jesus points to the fruit of the earth as he counsels gratitude toward God and generosity toward other people,

And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21 NASB)

Day 4/Gift 4: Heavenly Bodies and Fortitude

And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:14-15 ESV)

What does God hanging all those lights have to do with us exercising fortitude or enduring strength?

The Heavens and the EarthGod reveals that the heavens will become a source of power and responsibility to humanity.  We work in the light and rest in the dark.  We recognize or ignore signs; we understand the demands and priorities of seasons; we tie our efforts and deadlines to calendars reflecting the patterns in the skies.

Navigating signs and seasons, days and years requires fortitude.  Strength against cynicism when the same routines come and go.  Endurance for work that must be maintained “in season and out.”  The courage to cease work on an appointed day of rest and exercise faith that the cosmos depends upon God, not us.

In his season on the Earth, Jesus pointed to himself as the ultimate heavenly light, the sign that needs to be seen and followed in the fortitude of faith,

Jesus replied, “My light will shine for you just a little longer. Walk in the light while you can, so the darkness will not overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness cannot see where they are going. Put your trust in the light while there is still time; then you will become children of the light.” (John 12:35-36 NLT)

Day 5/Gift 5: Aquatic Life, Birds and Knowledge

shark from hussey
Hey, we’re landlocked. So here’s a visiting sea creature.

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:20-21 ESV)

After the plants, God creates more complex life.  These creatures live in environments that the soon-to-be human race cannot naturally inhabit, the water and the sky.

Yet when humans come to be, we look at these creatures and categorize them.  And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19 ESV) Be it a scientific descriptor like chondrichthyes  or the more common dubbing, these creatures take their names from our point of view; we relate to them based on our knowledge of the creation.

And by our knowledge we gain ability to inhabit their environments, at least for limited stretches.  We observe that wood floats, so we build rafts.  We know more of what makes for buoyancy, and we build vessels of other materials.  We know we need air, so we devise snorkels, scuba gear, submarines and other means to visit the sea creatures where they live.  We know the birds and how they stay aloft, and we fashion our own flying machines to keep us airborne for awhile.

But knowledge imparted by God is not limited to some dispassionate awareness.   If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.  (I Corinthians 13:2 NLT)

All creation is an expression of divine love.  This is the height of knowledge.  We exist because of God’s love, and we are given the high position to know and love all else that He’s made.  So Jesus came to tell us,

Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds!  (Luke 12:24 NAB)

Day 6/Gift 6: Terrestrial Life (including Humans) and Piety

There’s a dog at my feet as I ponder and try to express things.  A loving companion of God’s own making.

Lily Lewis & ClarkThen the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man… (Genesis 2:18-19 ESV)

But God went beyond this on the sixth day, imbuing the human race with more of the divine mystery, complete only as a relationship of persons,

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV) 

Upon this outward and visible expression of God’s image God sent an inward and spiritual reality,

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  (Gen. 1:28 ESV)

We not only bear a likeness to our Maker, we share God’s life-giving power and His rule over the creation.

This sets up two possible responses.  Our dominion over the earth can be short sighted and self centered, or it can have an eternal point of view filled with the Creator’s love.  We can practice piety, seeing the presence and purpose of God in all things and treating every bit of life as holy.

If we are aware of the blessing, we can shape our lives as offerings of gratitude and praise to God, in everything and for everything. 

Piety is an identity and a way of life, not an occasional expression of “religion.”  This is the offering of life that Jesus made and that Jesus offers for us and to us,

Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’  (John 6:37-40 NRSV)

Day 7/Gift 7: Rest and The Fear of the Lord

 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 1:31; 2:1-3 ESV)

Rest and fear?  Doesn’t make sense unless you’re having a nightmare.

But look at God’s point of view, revealed by the Spirit in the Scriptures.  God appreciated everything – it was good – so he stopped work to just let it be and to take it all in.  But He wasn’t passive – he blessed the day, filling it with the Spirit.  The day of wonder and appreciation became holy, God’s own.

Notice that he didn’t lean back and look at His infinitely complex masterpiece, full of upcoming disappointments, betrayals and calling for a massive divine sacrifice to restore it, and say, “Oh no, what have I done?”  That’s not the “fear” that the Spirit delivers as a gift.

Rather, God entrusts the day to us.  Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8).  Yes, that can be read as one more obligation to be kept with craven fear, to ward off the wrath of a selfish pagan god.  But that’s not what Jesus came to reveal,

Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”  Mark 2:27 NASB)

tawny port
(Don’t want to offend any non-drinkers/folks in recovery. Just a picture of a warm, restful and abundant moment at home. Please imagine the simple blessings God gives you.)

The fear of the Lord we are meant to observe is to stand in awe and wonder of a love so great that it overwhelms us and, in doing so renews our lives.  It is to sit back and delight in the creation and, more than that, the Creator who loves us and shares it with us forever.  Jesus came and taught us,

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  (John 15:9-12) 

+++

When I wish you a Merry Christmas, I express the hope – maybe even express the blessing – that the complete joy of the Heavenly Father, through the divine and human Son, in the creative and always gift-giving power of the Holy Spirit be yours now and for eternity.  Amen.

 Christmas Tree

Why the devil needs violence

The devil, as presented in the Bible, is a deceiver.  He’s not an “evil god” in an arm wrestling match with the good God.  He has to get people fixated on finite, carnal stuff to distract them from eternal, spiritual reality.

Violence is useful to this end.  It hurts, it shocks, it’s loud, it pushes fear buttons, it amps up our anger.

Most of all, it distracts from the gentle but decisive coming of the new heavens and new earth.

The Prophet Isaiah set up the expectation of a Savior who would come in gentleness, vulnerability and suffering:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4 NRSV)

While we are SCREAMING AT ONE ANOTHER and blowing stuff up in our assertions of “justice,” the righteous kingdom is spreading to “the coastlands” – the ends of the earth in Old Testament speak –  by means of a voice barely heard, a passing scarcely felt.

Jesus’ first followers began to recognize him as the fulfillment of this prophecy.  But the devil was always distracting them, trying to enlist them in violence and special effects rather than the gentle persistence of Jesus,

When James and John saw this, they said to Jesus, “Lord, should we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?”  (Luke 9:54 NLT)

Most ancient manuscripts tell us only that Jesus “rebuked them” for this.  But some later manuscripts insert this warning  about spiritual deception, contrasting the saving work of the Holy Spirit with the violence engendered by the devil,

 But He turned and rebuked them, [and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”] And they went on to another village.  (verses 55-56, NASB)

Centuries before, Isaiah described the saving work of God as gentle, life giving rain rather than fire from the sky.

Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down.  Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let righteousness spring up with them!  I, the LORD, have created this.  (45:8)

The gentle way of Jesus should not be confused with wimpiness, although the devil will convince many if not most of us to perceive it that way.  Far from a milquetoast, Jesus brings justice to the wicked and salvation to the righteous, he doesn’t grow faint, and he’s making the whole universe new.  He teaches us that those who renounce (and probably suffer) the devil’s deceptive violence in order to walk Jesus’ gentle, vulnerable and persistent path will share in the eternal joy of his results,

And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

(Matthew 5:1-12 KJV)

 

 

 

The words get stuck in my throat

ISIS.  Boko Haram.  Planned Parenthood.  Pay Day Lenders.  Washington, DC… Like Yul Brynner in The King and I, I say “Etc. etc. etc.”

Our lists might not match up. But most of us have a list of people or behaviors we consider evil.

They mock God and they torment and destroy God’s creation. Their contempt for God’s people seems louder every day.

To which God says,

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:44-48 NRSV)

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14)

That is one tall order. My mouth more readily forms curses.

As for those blessings? Well the words… the words…

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Anger

Those of us who follow Jesus have a hard time with anger.  Generally, the Letter of James serves as a caution,

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:19-21 ESV)

But does this mean that all anger is unrighteous?  Is there an anger that is not just “of man” and reflects the image of God in which we are made?

Jesus is our righteousness, and he expressed anger:

 

Another New Testament passage tells us that anger is not in and of itself a sin, but becomes evil when not expressed,

Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:25-27 NAB)

So anger must be expressed and addressed in a timely way, so that reconciliation can take place before the devil builds walls of estrangement between people and dumps spiritual toxicity into the individual’s soul.

But we (Christians) don’t always do that very well, because we hear James’ warning that our anger won’t produce godly outcomes. Our ambivalence lets the devil move in, sometimes, as abusive clergy or lay bullies inflict their self-serving anger on well meaning folk who feel duty bound to appear anger free.

And appearing anger free isn’t to be free of anger. Anger is like sexuality, a powerful force that doesn’t just evaporate when ignored. It builds up and festers. Depression is sometimes defined as “anger turned inward.” When we swallow our anger,  the righteousness of God, the abundant and joyful life of Christ in us, is sabotaged just as James warns.

I guess that the key word in James is “slow.”  “Slow to speak, slow to anger.”  We need to consider our anger – is it godly, a force to resist that which is manifestly evil?  And if it is, we must consider how we express it, being slow to speak until our tone and words are helpful,

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. (Galatians 6:1 NIV, emphasis added)

Slow, but not too slow.  As the Letter to the Ephesians warns, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Wise old married couples counsel “never go to bed angry.”

While we live in this age, we’ll be fighting (and often losing fights with) the world, the flesh and the devil.  Like all other sins, our misuse of anger can humble us and remind us that we live by the grace of God in Christ.  As one baptismal liturgy* puts it,

Q: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

A: I will, with God’s help.

Not “IF you fall into sin,” but whenever.  It is inevitable, and anger is one of the most common sin pits into which we fall.  Even in the bottom of that hole, Christ waits to boost us out and get us back on the path that leads to life.  He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. (Psalm 40:2, ESV)

*Book of Common Prayer (1979 USA)