He who angers you conquers you. — Elizabeth Kenny
I’m sort of an angry guy. And knowing that makes me, well, angry. Anger, after all, is a completely useless emotion. Well, perhaps useless isn’t quite the right word. Destructive. Yeah, I think that’s it. I spent most of my life hurt and angry. When you open my blog, you rarely read what I originally wrote. No, everything will be going along pretty well when, of a sudden, I discover that we’ve wandered off into Angry Land. I’ve been hurt along the way and lashing out seems like it ought to feel pretty good. The problem is, it doesn’t end up feeling good at all. That’s where I’m learning to step back and look to see where it all went wrong. Ah, there it is. It was all sunshine and roses right up until that paragraph. Some of the roses may be pretty dark, but they were roses nonetheless.
I’d love to say that, once discovering the error of my ways, I just grab the mouse, hold down the left button as I highlight the offending paragraph(s), right-click, and choose Delete. Sometimes that happens, but not usually. No, I’m not that well yet. My tendency, instead, is to Save As, rename the file to something like Less_Angry_2.doc, then, and only then, hold down the left button as I highlight the offending paragraph(s), right-click, and choose Delete in this new file. I mean, who knows when I might need those angry paragraphs? Perhaps I’ll find the magic bullet that makes lashing out okay and I’ll already have some paragraphs to throw together into a dynamite, angry new story. As I said, I’m not that well yet.
You may remember that book from the late sixties, I’m Okay, You’re Okay, by Thomas A. Harris, MD. For most of my life, I planned to write my own book. It was going to be called I’m Certainly Not Okay and I Have Serious Doubts About You. I think I could have had a million-seller there, only I wasn’t okay enough with myself to write it and I had serious doubts that you’d really buy it.
My main point in writing, however, isn’t to tick people off. That may be the result with some of my writing for some people, but it’s not my primary purpose. Sometimes it just seems like ticking people off is a secondary bonus. The primary concern, though, is to get people to read all the way to the end. You may not like what I have to say, but I want to try to be sure you don’t like what I have to say all the way to the bottom of the piece. That’s where I hide the redeeming stuff. So, couldn’t I just skip to the last paragraph and save a little time? you may well ask. I can see you’re a thinking bunch. But, no, it just doesn’t work that way. Don’t ask me why, just take my word for it. Doesn’t work that way.
Are you sure, Ben, that there’s a redeeming part – at the end or anywhere else in the piece? you ask next. This is where I plead the Fifth and tell you rather curtly that I believe you ask far too many questions. Remember – angry guy – boiling just below the surface. So, now that we have that straight, let’s proceed, shall we?
It’s occurred to me that, even as an angry guy, I still ended up back in church after a brief, forty-year respite to lick my wounds. I was angry at me, at you, at Jesus, at my mother, particularly my father, and at the Church in particular. I’ve capitalized Church here because that word represents far more than the Baptists who I felt were originally responsible for my less-than-perfect life. No, Church encompassed every religion, every denomination within a particular religious path, any and everything that even smelled of a power above all. I had decided it was all a bunch of hooey (don’t ask me why I know these words) and I was simply not going to stand for it.
And yet, angry guys don’t show up in church by accident. It simply doesn’t happen that way. No, I showed up quite deliberating if you really must know. I had a purpose for being there or I most certainly would not have been there at all.
I’ve discovered to my dismay, however, that angry guys don’t stay in church by accident, either. Imagine how angry I was after walking out of that first service when I realized I wanted to go back! Frightened is probably a better word, but it makes me angry to think about how frightened I was, so let’s just stick with angry if it’s all the same to you.
No, you just can’t stay by accident. See, I have to admit that those Baptists at Lake Shore didn’t send a busload of conversion specialists to my house to drag me, kicking and screaming, of course, back to church that second week. That would make a pretty good story, though, don’t you think? Still, I have to remind myself that it didn’t happen that way. Something had cracked. In the worship service at that time, they were doing a series called The Tearing and the Light. A little light managed to leak through that first week despite my best efforts. It was just enough to terrify me and make me know I had to get out of there as quickly as I could. After all, I hadn’t seen this much light in a very long time and it startled me and made me want to shield my eyes.
Before leaving that first Sunday, I promised my step-mother and my friend, Myrl, quickly and quietly, that I’d explain later. These two women had known me for fifty years and didn’t know anything about what I ended up telling them later that week through a letter. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have told them face-to-face. But I’d held on to the secrets far too long. They didn’t want to stay inside me any more. And that little crack allowed them to begin to escape. I was to discover I didn’t even know the whole story myself. But I told them what I knew at the time and, apparently, that was enough to start.
And so I returned that next week – suddenly a frightened child who didn’t know why the music hurt and comforted him at the same time. I suppose it was just time. Sometimes, thank God, it’s finally just time. I was tired of the running. My soul was tired and in need of a little rest.
Whew, that’s a little heavy. Let’s get back to the angry guy. He’s still with me, after all. Usually, though, he’s not quite as angry as he used to be. It’s a terrible thing to feel that something you love has been ripped away from you. It’s an amazing thing to discover that same love is still with you. And, so, I stayed. It’s why I decided to share with you my Angry Guy’s Guide to Church. I came back to church once I realized there were places where the people understood a loving God who turns away no one. From that perspective, I started thinking about what a person might look for when deciding on a church home – whether they’ve been gone for a long time or even if they are currently sitting in a church pew as a member of a church. By no means exhaustive, perhaps it’s a place to start you thinking. It goes something like this:
If you leave church feeling guilty no matter how many good things you’ve done that week, perhaps you’ve not found a church home. If you leave thinking, “I’ve just got to do better,” perhaps you’ve not found a church home. If you leave church in fear for your mortal soul, you have perhaps not found a church home. If you leave church not fearing for your mortal soul because you figure you’ve already taken care of that and it makes little difference what you do from here out, perhaps you’ve not found a church home. If you leave church feeling smug about being better and more right than those “others” out there, you perhaps have not found a church home. If you are able to leave church and go about a life filled with unfettered consumerism unconcerned with what you have to do to get what you want, you may not have found a church home. If you leave church feeling like your fellow church members are watching to make sure you are doing “right” and feel expected to do the same, perhaps you’ve not found a church home. If you leave church after having been told it’s God’s way or the highway, perhaps you’ve not found a church home. If you feel all of these things and you are sitting in church as a member of that church, perhaps it’s time to look again for a church home.
On the other hand, if you leave church with a smile on your face and a lightness of heart, you probably have found a church home. If you leave church and know you are a child of God – and have always been, you have probably found a church home. If you leave church convinced that you want to do a little better job of being Christ to others, you’ve probably found a church home. If you leave church and realize you may not need more stuff to clutter your life, perhaps you’ve found a church home. If you leave church and realize it really is better to give than to receive, perhaps you’ve found a church home. If you leave church and know it’s not about anything you do to earn God’s love, but about who God is, perhaps you’ve found a church home.
I attend a Sunday School class at my church now. I believe it’s called Adult Christian Education these days, but I’m old-school and still prefer calling it Sunday School. I’ve been back in Sunday School for about three years now. It’s my first experience as an adult in such a class. In that class and the one I attend now, we’re encouraged to question and, if so inclined, to doubt. We’re invited to listen to others’ questions and doubts. We’re even encouraged to open our mouths and venture an opinion or observation. The teacher of the class isn’t so much the person with all the answers as the person who is willing to ask the questions. My pastor in Waco and now in Dallas do the same things. They invite their congregations to ask questions and, then, not to expect pat answers. After all, if you’re unwilling to question, how will you ever know what you truly believe?
Don’t get me wrong. Neither of these pastors actually invites you to share your questions or your thoughts on what they’re saying while they’re actually saying it. That would be a free-for-all, not a worship service. No, you’re invited to take those questions along with you, to think about them, then to share later. It’s more civilized that way. The process is basically the same, however. They’re not there to read straight from the Bible as though it were a user’s manual. That has lead to some very odd behavior over the centuries. But when you approach the stories by asking the question “I wonder what this is supposed to mean?” you may just find that there are answers that make sense in your life in today’s world.
I hear people say doubt is the opposite of faith. I beg to differ. Faith without doubt is stagnant. No one is so pious that they never have doubts – about something, about some aspect of what they’ve been told about God. They may lie to you and/or lie to themselves, but doubt comes, on occasion, to us all. Doubt at its best encourages me, in the end, to probe deeper and trust more fully. If I rely on the faith I had as a child merely because I was told what to believe way back then, I’m afraid I’ve done a disservice not only to myself, but also to God. God is so much more than I was able to comprehend as a child. On the other hand, many of us find we’ve lost the sense of awe we had with God as a child. I believe you can have both – a maturing understanding of God and the sense of awe that follows you from childhood, even if you think you’ve forgotten it. In some ways, children are way ahead of us in their basic understanding of God. It may help you to sit quietly and try to remember God before people told you a bunch of stuff they thought they knew about God and sort of spoiled God for you.
So, when things look particularly bleak, I try to sit down and remember God the way 8-year-old Ben remembers God. And 8-year-old Ben is usually quite cooperative and shares his vision with me. I can’t tell you how truly grateful I am to have discovered the vision is still there after all these years. I’m thankful just enough of it was there to make me care sufficiently to show up to surprise my step-mother at church after her daughter had died, thereby starting the journey home. I’m thankful I found more of it in a labyrinth behind that church where I went to weed and pray. I’m certainly thankful it was there as my mother was dying.
I brought all my doubts and fears with me to that labyrinth. There was a lot of talking going on in my head and even some out loud. Sometimes I can’t hear myself well enough unless I say it out loud. Perhaps it becomes more real to me. A lot of the anger was certainly real. But I discovered in that place that my anger had never really been at God. My anger was with people who said they were acting for God as they told me I was unacceptable to God. And my anger was with myself for allowing those people to govern my life in so many ways for decades.
Church isn’t about having no responsibility for your actions – at least I don’t think it should be. But it’s also not about making people feel like they’ve never done enough – that they are never enough. I believe we are all good enough to God exactly as we are – not that we can’t all use a little improvement. Okay, a lot of improvement. I feel a little less angry when I remember how God sees me. I think I should try to remember it a little more often.