Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Our Anger, Our Bodies

Lent 3
March 15, 2009

We’ve been together now for five and a half years; we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. Some of you know that I have anger issues.

The other day I was telling my therapist about the time, ten years ago, when in the middle of the night this guy broke into my house while my family and I were sleeping on the 2nd floor. I woke up to the sounds of him moving around downstairs. I got out of bed; when he heard my feet hit the floorboards he flew out the front door. The police caught him a few minutes later with our money (8 dollars) and our maxed-out credit card stuffed in his pockets. It turned out this was his third strike; they told me he could go away for life - I didn’t feel right about his going away for life for stealing 8 dollars and a credit card so at his sentencing I intervened and asked for mercy on the man.

Which he got – his sentence was reduced to 6 years. He was out in three.

After I told the story my therapist looked at me with these very peaceful blue eyes that he has and said, “And what did you do with your outrage?”

My outrage?

Yes, your outrage. The man broke into your house! It would be normal for you to feel some outrage, wouldn’t it?

Well, you see, of course I had outrage; but I didn’t allow myself to feel it – because, I told myself, I had to be a Christian; I had to be a priest; I had to do the right thing and wear my collar to the sentencing hearing and even visit the man in jail and hear his confession ... and somehow I thought that meant I didn’t get to have my outrage.

Or maybe the outrage just frightened me.

Therapists say that depression is anger turned inward. That’s true in my case; it’s also true for all the brooding Norwegians and self-destructive Irishmen and persecuted Huguenots who were my ancestors.

I grew up living in my head. I know I’m not alone in that – many of us live in our heads far too much; we associate our selves with our thoughts; we make our livings with our minds; we spend endless hours staring at disembodied words made out of electricity on a computer screen and the rest of our time watching disembodied electronic images on a TV.

In the meantime these feelings – which live in our bodies – in our chest and our gut and our voice – have no place to go, so they turn against their host.
But as I get older I realize that I can’t continue to ignore my body without experiencing some pain – coming from my body. Pain is the body’s way of getting our attention and teaching us its ancient wisdom. As I ignore my body I ignore my emotions – because our emotions live in our bodies.

When we’re living in our bodies, our emotions come easily; they rise and fall and we become more human; when we’re living in our heads we can go for days without even knowing what we’re feeling – this is of course especially true for us men - until we find ourselves acting out:getting snarky, or snide, or resentful, or depressed, or withdrawn, or gossipy, or cynical, or blowing up over little things, barking at our children or our dogs or drivers on the road.

It is for this reason that I give thanks for our Gospel story this morning. Jesus is overturning the tables in the temple and driving out the moneychangers. It seems that Jesus was in touch with his anger. It seems he had no difficulty feeling outrage over what the temple authorities were doing in his house; the blood rose in him and before anyone could stop him he was changing history.
Come to think of it, I don’t suppose Jesus had much trouble with any of his emotions, nor with the generalized practice of living fully in his body. After all, he traveled a great distance just to have one.

This is why it’s a very good thing that we have been called to the Church of the Incarnation. Because here we honor the fact that God lives in the body. My body. Your body. This body – the Body of Christ. And because God has a body, God has emotions.

I’ve been making copies of this article by Barbara Brown Taylor – there are some copies available in Farlander. This article speaks to me of the heart of what it means to be a member of the Church of the Incarnation. It’s entitled “Practicing Incarnation.” She says,
...After years of watching bodies being dug out of craters in Manhattan and caves in Afghanistan, after the body counts coming from Southeast Asia, Gaza and Iraq, most of us could use a reminder that God comes to us not beyond the flesh but in the flesh, at the hands of a teacher who will not be spiritualized...

Now the words of my therapist return: what, then, do we do with our outrage? What, I wonder, would Jesus be outraged over if he in his body now? What holy outrage would be animating his sacred flesh?

I wonder: what feelings come up for us as we consider that question? Are we so busy trying to be good Christians that this question frightens us? As a church, have we retreated so far into our heads that we’ve forgotten how to be angry?

Some months ago, during a Sunday coffee hour, a homeless woman who is known to many of us went into the women’s restroom in Farlander Hall, turned off all the lights, locked herself in the stall and started talking to herself.

When someone walked in and turned on the lights, she got very upset; when a few of us tried to intervene she came out into Farlander, started yelling, threw a chair, then stormed out, kicking over a statue of one of our saints in the process.

Well, we felt we had to, we called the police, she was escorted away. But that’s not what I’m outraged about. After all, the woman is mentally ill. She suffers from an illness; she isn’t a criminal; she isn’t evil or morally depraved; in fact she is a lovely and good person who happens to have a chemical imbalance in her brain, which, we often forget, is a part of the body.

If she had a heart condition, she could get treatment; but because her disease is in the brain, she gets to live and sleep on the streets, in cold and rain, and be routinely subjected to predators, assaults, and the criminal justice system.

And even that isn’t exactly what I’m outraged about. What I’m really outraged about – what rises in me as a holy outrage – is the fact that it’s only after she commits a crime and goes to jail – a crime that is caused by her illness – it’s only then, in jail, where she will finally receive a bit of medical treatment for her illness. In other words, the only way she can find treatment for her disease is to be treated like a criminal.

That outrages me. And because it feels to me like a holy outrage, a sacred anger, I feel it is Jesus’ outrage too. And if that doesn’t outrage every one of us, I would be so bold as to say that we are living so far out of our bodies we might as well be walking on the moon.

As a church, what do we do with our anger? Our holy anger?

Some of us know about [name deleted] and what has happened to him. A former member of our staff whom we know and love, now in prison for the crime of being sick. We know about this; how do we feel about it?

Barbara Brown Taylor says,
When I hear people talk about what is wrong with organized religion, or why their mainline churches are failing, I hear about bad music, inept clergy, mean congregations and preoccupation with institutional maintenance. I almost never hear about the intellectualization of faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list. In an age of information overload, ...the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, [emphasis mine] by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.” [The Christian Century, January 27, 2009, p.24-5]

To be a member of the Body of Christ, especially an arm of the Body of Christ called the Church of the Incarnation, means living into the truth of our bodies; and sometimes that means dealing honestly – and tenderly, always tenderly – with our feelings. That’s why I know that while it can be risky for a priest to talk about the truth of his anger or his depression, there is no such risk for me here.


Until I try to buy life insurance, that is; or health insurance if I don’t have any. That’s when living into the truth can make your life difficult. And yet, if I don’t speak of it, and if none of us speaks the truth of our lives, who else would ever be moved to get help for their own issues?

It’s just that easy to pick up your cross and follow Jesus.

To have a body is to bear weight – and sometimes that feels like the weight of the cross. The early church fathers and mothers knew this; they knew that Jesus’ death would have had no meaning if he had not had a real body that died a real death on a real piece of wood.

These bodies that we have been given – these everyday miracles that we inhabit – they are pathways to God. We can trust them. Sure, they might be getting a little rusty and tired and worn out – they can even be dying on a cross of shame – but they are still our best pathway in to the heart of God and to the meaning of life.

This is crazy talk among the wise, as Paul said in our reading this morning, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to [some] and foolishness to [others], but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-24)

The wisdom of God; the power of God; right here, in our bodies. For that and for all things, we give thanks to the Lord our God as found in the body of Christ Jesus. Amen.

1 comment:

Leslie Benjamin said...

Wonderful insight into the connection between our spiritual and physical crosses, both borne on the same shoulders. I am printing this out for Michael to read. So much outrage inside this loving veteran...and he wonders why his body aches so...
Thank you, Matt.