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Quick to Listen and Slow to Anger

James 1:17-27 and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

Sunday August 29th, 2021

Happy Sunday! Thank you for hanging on!

In our tradition, today is the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost and in our community extremely close to being able to safely worship inside together again as you are comfortable, and so we give thanks for this day we have together.

As we come to this time in our service, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and to let yourself arrive and take in some deep breathes, to notice your heartbeat and to open your heart to hear whatever it is Spirit has for you today. Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19)

“You must understand this, beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for our anger does not produce God's righteousness.” This text from the book of James, from the early First Century Christian community felt like a blessing for a time like this, a reminder that we all need. Because I am sensing that we are angry. Collectively and individually. Educational professionals, clergy, retail workers, airline workers are reporting that we are all angry.

But what do we do when we are right to be angry and have fury and frustration of all kinds from a pandemic and a massacre and the sadness and sorrow of yet another war? We are right to be angry about an economy that only works for some and a world that still lives in dissonance knowing of climate change. But what if anger doesn’t produce the life we want? At least not all kinds of anger, so what do we do with what some are calling our COVID rage?

In 2021 the Federal Aviation Administration has levied over a half a million dollars in fines to disorderly and unmanageable passengers. Since the return and rebound of airline travel, flight attendants around the country are reporting that they have “encountered more aggressive passengers than before the pandemic.” And — 85% — said they had dealt with unruly passengers since the year started, according to a 5,000 person survey by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union.

But as Sarah Smarsh wrote in an essay earlier this month, “Fatigue and outrage are appropriate emotions considering all that has been lost to covid-19: lives, jobs, experiences, money, physical and mental health. But those feelings, if not properly channeled, can themselves take a heavy toll. What do we do with our anger?” She goes on, “Anger is a contagious energy that jumps quickly from one person to the next. It will seize your mind and body as its host. If allowed to explode, it will hurt others. If allowed to implode, it will hurt you. I found that it can be the source of a powerful alchemy. If we are up to the task, it could help us create something good together.

What do we do with our anger? In a time when we might find ourselves searching, seeking, summoning help for answers, what a blessing to know that we can pause and open our sacred text and find wisdom for right now. This ancient letter to those early Jesus followers trying to figure it out amongst themselves, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” As scholar Peter Rhea Jones writes, James “offers what amounts to be a strategy for overcoming destructive anger: be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.”

The other answer to what to do with our anger I believe, is the hard and important spiritual practice of forgiveness. I have had to work on this myself as I have never pastored and partnered and parented in a pandemic before. And because we are all fried, I have at times been impatient with even my precious people, my daughter, my husband, the people I love. Some of us have reflected that it’s almost as if our fuse is shorter right now. But being angry about the hard year that was, hasn’t really been useful for me, so I am working on forgiving myself and others for all of the imperfect ways we got by, because we are still here and still striving for what is good and kind.

As you heard in her brilliant and sweet book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith Anne Lamott writes, “...most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of the people around us.”

What if this moment in all its chaos, is still a gift? And the imperfect love of those around us really is what we need right now? And here’s the other part of the wisdom that you heard from her, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” It’s a gift we can give ourselves.

And for me, anger often comes from not being able to let go of the things I can’t change or undo or redo. There is a grief and a loss for all of the things we cannot fix. But I think we all need to start forgiving ourselves, which opens other things up. And I do believe that this wisdom is true for us now, maybe hard to integrate but still true. We can be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. And while I know that is countercultural, this is our place to practice that together, to live that out for real. I love the words of Paul Boose who said that, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” Listening and leaning into what is good makes new and different things possible.

We are in a wild time and in many ways a harrowing time. But in a weird way for me, church as a concept, as a community, as an essential place to feel and live with hope, has never felt more relevant. What we have here, feels like it’s quite literally a place where we can plug-in to keep going, to remember what we are about and why it matters, to hear and hold ancient wisdom about transforming what is hard, into what could be holy.

It feels a little like we are a group gathered in the darkness to keep a flame of hope alive, to be among those who listen and learn and love, regardless of what comes. In a time when we have been disconnected more than ever, praying in new ways and welcoming new faces as squares, when we have all experienced so much change and grieved so much loss, I think we need to let go of our anger, to grieve, to name the fact that some things won’t ever be like they were before. I am convinced that much of this anger is grief. I have realized that this is some of what is coming up for me.

There are beautiful and bright parts of what we have endured and that is still not done, but I do think we need to name together that we are angry in part because we are sad. But we need to forgive the Universe, ourselves and one another for what is, for what has happened and integrate the lessons and keep going, keep growing deeper together.

Jackie shared a blog called Way to Lead with some of us this week. It highlighted for me how so many of us carried on for a while thinking things would go back to normal and then we decided we could create a new normal, but hadn’t considered all the losses that would mean. We forgot that chaos is a part of creation, that disconnection makes things difficult.

Many of us, they write, “are also protecting the ways of being” and I would add being society “from change… wanting things to go back to how they were. Let’s face it, (many of us) were comfortable… and…knew what to expect. That was a good thing…Now (we) are disconnected from the people (we) used to see every week. How can you know how to pray for them or even how they can pray for you? It is hard, yet you are trying your best to keep the community together, like it used to be…The thing is, no one expected this global shift to hit us. Not one of us expected this, but it is here and unstoppable. The rate of change has our heads spinning and our hearts yearning for the past. We feel threatened. There is no one to blame, which leaves all of us even more frustrated. You are having a hard time imagining what the future looks like and how you will fit in. It really isn’t fair. The hope for the future is to calm ourselves down, catch our breath, and take a hard look at how the church (arrived) and thrived when it was threatened in the past. Just look at Acts 8. Followers of Jesus were persecuted, (actually stoned,) and everyone except the Apostles fled Jerusalem. And those who fled are the people who started what we know as the early church today. Under pressure, people of faith can rethink their way of life, and thrive.” Those are our ancestors! That is us! Under pressure, people of faith can rethink our way of life and thrive.

Beloved of God, what do we do with our anger? We go back to go forward, to the wisdom and wonder of our ancient faith, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Where we need, let us turn our anger to grieving, to forgiveness, to letting go, to giving thanks that we got by, even if imperfectly. Because we are still here and still striving for what is good and kind. We are like those gathered in the darkness to keep the flames of hope alive, to be among those who listen and learn and love, regardless of what comes. What if this moment, this time, as it is, is a gift? And the imperfect love of those around us is just what we need? “The hope for the future is to calm ourselves down, catch our breath, to be quick to listen and slow to anger. May it be so. Amen.

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