Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dealing with anger -- and other thoughts

I was privileged to preach at All Saints Episcopal Church in Oxnard, CA, on August 9.  I thought the sermon might be of interest as if makes reference to the Desert Fathers tradition about how to handle the sins/emotions/thoughts/logismoi that were such a preoccupation. And still are.

All Saints Episcopal Church, Oxnard CA
Proper 14B
August 9, 2015
Adam D. McCoy, OHC

    From the fourth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, which we have just heard: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

    Many years ago, in the early 1970s, more than 40 years ago now, when I joined the Order of the Holy Cross at our monastery on the Hudson River in New York State, I found myself taking my turn cooking and cleaning in the kitchen.  In those days we did not employ a cook, but since we had a lot of novices - more than thirty at that point – we did it all ourselves, preparing and serving three meals a day for forty or so members of the community and for anywhere from ten to thirty guests.  One of the brothers in first vows was in charge, and he told us what to cook and how he wanted it cooked, down to the small details.  I think he loved his job, because he really liked telling people what to do.  He supervised every detail of the cooking and the serving, and then he supervised every detail of the cleaning up.  He liked a tidy kitchen.  His kind of tidy.

    Not all of the novices who worked under his care enjoyed the experience.  Most of us already had some experience cooking and cleaning and didn’t especially care for Brother’s hovering presence as we prepared the food.  Nor did we especially care for his meticulously demanding instructions about cleaning up.  Nor for his sometimes sarcastic remarks about our work.  He was an enthusiastic follower of the diet plans of Adelle Davis, who preached a low fat, low sugar diet as the way to avoid cancer.  Brother constructed our menus according to her rigorous principles, and not everyone in the community rejoiced in them.  I must confess that when she died of cancer in 1974, some of us were not slow to draw a lesson from her ironic end.

    This is all a long prologue to one fateful day.  I forget exactly when it was.  I forget the exact causes.  I forget what had been cooked and served.  In fact, forgetting was a good thing in this case.  I do recall that it was during the final cleanup of the kitchen.  I suppose Brother had been especially overbearing about something.  I can imagine that I was likely not being my most charming, helpful, humble self either.  At any rate.  Temperatures rose.  Words were exchanged.  And exchanged again.  Louder and louder.  Pots flew through the air.  Pans followed them.  Heads were narrowly missed.  Doors were slammed. 

    The next day when I returned to work in the kitchen, all was quiet.  Too quiet.  Brother appeared.  He came over to me, put his arm around me, and said, “Well, let’s get on with it then.”  And then quoted the very verse from Ephesians we have just heard.  He left the monastery eventually and I stayed, but we have remained friends to this day.       

    “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”  I learned an important lesson that day.  As good as we may try to be – and after all, I was training in the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and not doing a very good job of the obedience part – as good as we may try to be, anger, and other dangerous emotions, will happen.  But they do not have to define our relationships or control our lives. 

    The ancient desert fathers and mothers in the monastic tradition knew this too.  They, like Ephesians, connected it with the devil.  Anger, and other harmful things, will overtake us. And if we give in to them, tempers will flare, words will be exchanged, pots and pans will be thrown, doors will be slammed, and relationships will be damaged. 

    The desert fathers and mothers called things like anger, pride, envy, greed, sloth, gluttony, and lust  “passions” or “thoughts”, and much of what monks and nuns did then and do now is to learn what our passions, our “thoughts”, are, to recognize them when they arrive, to know how they work in us in general, and more importantly how they work in me, to know which of my buttons they push, which well-worn paths they follow, which bad habits they evoke.  And then, surprisingly, how to call them each by name when they arrive, know what they’re up to, and like a perfect host with an unwelcome guest, to know just where to put them so they won’t cause any more trouble till they decide to go away.  Consciousness – awareness of who we really are and what can happen if we let ourselves be controlled – is the first thing.  “Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”  Know the truth about our own lives so that we can speak truth to each other.   And as we grow in self-knowledge, the knowledge of the passions we are drawn to, the evil thoughts which come unbidden into our minds, we can grow also in the ability to keep from harming each other.  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath 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.”

    How can we find the energy, the capacity to do all this?  Our gospel reading this morning points the way.  Jesus tells us, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”   We will find what we need by taking Jesus into our life, taking his life into our life.  If we want to live a Christlike life, we cannot do it on our own steam.  But we can do it if we take His life into our lives. 

    There’s no way I could put away my anger in that kitchen all by myself, and I didn’t, and neither did Brother.  I exploded and so did he.  And if we had left it there, it would have grown, making the next day worse and God knows how bad the day afterward would have been.  But by not letting the sun go down on it, by dealing with it using the tools Christ gives us, we can pick up and start again.

    One other interesting detail in today’s gospel catches my eye: Jesus compares the bread of his flesh to the manna the Israelites found on the ground in the wilderness during their Exodus out of Egypt.  Moses told the Israelites not to store up the manna for the next day, but to eat it on the same day it appeared, trusting God to give them what they needed fresh every day.  Ephesians tells us “do not let the sun go down on your anger”, in other words, use the grace God gives us at the time it is given.  The bread Jesus gives us from his own flesh is like the daily bread we ask of God in the Lord’s Prayer.  Manna stored in jars became wormy, and so does the grace of forgiveness we are given if we don’t use it right away.  Eat today’s manna today.  Do not let your anger linger till tomorrow.  The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.  Give us this day our daily bread.  

    “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

    As the saying goes, “You are what you eat”.