On a mound in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin sits the mother house of a community of Dominican sisters. My friend Kathleen spent her novice years there. The retired sisters living on the mound serve as spiritual mentors and teachers of life as imitators of God.
Padriac came to the mound as a very young woman: proud, energized by her calling to serve God, and hoping to live out her vocation as a teacher. In a community that takes seriously the vow of humility; Padriac was made a housekeeper. And while housekeeping is honorable, essential work, it was not the life and work that Padriac envisioned for herself.
For sixty-five years, Padriac served her sisters as a devoted, creative, and efficient housekeeper. And for sixty-five years, she simmered and seethed; angry as a wet skunk. And then she retired.
Padriac had only one friend on the mound—Finbar. They spent most of their time together, because no one wanted to be around Padriac. Her anger terrified. They served as one another’s confidant and confessor. And whatever civility Padriac could manage bore the imprint of Finbar’s covering love.
Then Finbar suffered a stroke, and had to move off the mound into a nursing facility. As the driver for the sisters, Kathleen took Padriac to visit Finbar every single day. And every single day proved a terror.
Kathleen treated Padriac with all the tenderness she could muster. And one day, as Kathleen was helping Padriac out of the car, the older woman fell into her arms sobbing. “I didn’t know I would need to be held,” Padriac said.
“Well you do,” Kathleen replied. “And I believe you will need to be held again. So if it is OK with you, I’ll come and sit with you and Finbar for just a bit every day.”
When Finbar died, Padriac asked Sister Kathleen to be her escort down the aisle of the church and on the long walk to the cemetery. “I don’t think I can make it alone,” she said.
After everyone else had gone, Padriac stood looking down at her friend’s coffin, already lowered into the grave. Kathleen stood silently, overhearing Padriac’s poignant goodbye to her friend.
“After sixty five hears of humiliation, I have learned what humility means. You would be proud of me Finbar. I didn’t terrorize any novices today. I’m asking you, if you will, to take my anger to God with you as you go. I think I would like to be happy, for just a little while.”
Anger has power; the potential to destroy love, to kill relationships, and every lovely thing. An ill-timed word or a malicious act can break even the strongest bond. And when anger becomes our habit, our regular way of being and doing, life goes awry.
Bitterness and wrath, wrangling and slander, malice and grumbling interfere with our prayer; prevent us from approaching God with openness and in humility. Resentments absorb our energy and misdirect our attention, and lead us to attend to lesser things.
Consider the crowd gathered around Jesus. “I am the bread come down from heaven,” he says, “that you might have eternal life.” The crowd’s resentment gets the best of them. “We know you; we know who you are, where you come from, who your parents are. So, Jesus – what makes you think you’re so special?”
Standing in the presence of God’s embodied gift of eternal and everlasting life and love, they miss the invitation to live as God’s beloved children.
In contrast stands Ephesians. Here, Paul’s desire for life as God’s beloved community proves all that matters: a life as a new creation in Christ made possible in our baptism, a life as one people—one body—forever bound, forever joined, one to another; a life quickened by the Holy Spirit, rooted in a common ethic, marked by kindness, tenderness, forgiveness, and love,
When anger and resentment fester, they invite a demonic mischief to wreak havoc among God’s beloved children. Ephesians calls that sin.
Paul raises no objection to the emotion of anger. He assumes its presence in community. Paul’s concern is for how we manage the anger we experience. He recognizes anger does not automatically lead to sin; that anger can bear love’s face when confronting evil, oppression, and injustice. Anger can be put to saving purpose.
So Ephesians offers the community of God’s children directions for managing this powerfully strong emotion.
“Let us all speak truth to our neighbors” Ephesians begins. That means no denying or repressing our anger. No “just getting it off our chest” or “letting it all out” without discerning thought, concern for facts, examining our part in things. No going passive with our aggression.
Truthful anger maintains the community, says Paul. It is exchanged in community.
Consider David and Absalom: a family of anger upon anger, sin upon sin. Rape leads to murder leads to banishment leads to shunning. David loses one son because of rape and murder. He loses another because he refuses to speak a word of personal pardon to Absalom; to heal the festering bitterness and malice with an embrace.
Only in the suffering that follows Absalom’s death will David recover prayer, face the consequences of his sin and anger, stand humbly before God.
Speak the truth. Be angry. But do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. And do not make room for the devil.
Anger arises as an invitation to—and the energy for—action. God intends truthful anger for healing, unity, and newness. Any inclination to use our anger to serve self-interest, to soothe injured pride, to support personal peevishness, calls us to mature in prayer, in humility, in truth; less we grieve the Spirit of God.
To use our anger in life-giving ways requires awareness and thoughtfulness. We of the clenched fists, the pounding pulse, the pumping adrenaline, seek in our prayer to choose a fight worthy of God.
In 1985, Sarah Brady made an angry call to the offices of the National Rifle Association. Her husband, Jim, had been seriously disabled by gunfire as John Hinckley made an attempt to assassinate President Reagan.
Having learned that the NRA was supporting the repeal of the 1968 gun control law; Mrs. Brady told the NRA: “My name is Sarah Brady, and you’ve never heard of me. But I am going to make it my life’s ambition to put you all out of business.” Sarah Brady was a deeply gracious woman; thoughtful, self-aware, careful, and she sought good counsel. And for as long as she lived, she never gave up the fight.
Here, Ephesians turns; offering a more expansive word, a deeper challenge. “Be kind to one another: tender hearted, forgiving, as God has forgiven you. Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Expressing holy anger almost always requires forgiveness. To channel our anger in ways that imitate God requires sacrificial love and hope for the future. God gives us this way of love, the possibilities of hope, the promise of a future in Jesus, who spoke forgiveness from the cross.
Nowhere in recent days have we seen a more humbling, prayerful, faith-filled expression of this generous forgiveness than in the words and actions of the people of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.
Instead of a destructive rage, the church—and particularly the families of all nine of those who perished—challenged us to consider our relationship to anger and the use of anger to strengthen the whole community of God’s people.
Facing Dylan Roof in the courtroom every family spoke a word of forgiveness. Hear Bethane Middleton Brown, whose sister, a pastor, perished.
“For me, I am a work in progress. And I acknowledge I am very angry. But one thing my sister always joined our family with—she taught me that we are the families that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.“ Speaking directly to the young man, she continued, “I pray God’s mercy on your soul. And I thank God that I will be around when your judgment day comes with Him. May God bless you.”
Sometimes it is only at the grave that we finally learn to live as imitators of God. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. I wonder if there’s something for us to learn in these stories of three sisters, an angry wife, nine broken-hearted families and their congregation—about the healing of anger.
This I know. Anger, when confessed in love, opens the door to newness. God in Christ—the living bread come down from heaven—nourishes our hearts and lives towards loving purpose. Following Christ, our desire to live in love as God’s beloved children matures: as grace, mercy, and kindness; as saving action and the capacity to forgive and to bless; and perhaps as happiness—at least for a little while.