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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Cooling the Flames
I have felt a strange and sad disconnect this week. A disconnect between our spiritual aspirations and our global reality.
Thursday was the 19th annual Unity World Day of Prayer to unite people of all faiths in prayer for the well-being of each other and the world. Today is Awareness Day, inspired by The Rev. Nadim Nassar, a Syrian-born priest in the Church of England. In 2003, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he launched the Awareness Foundation to heal misunderstandings about the world’s religions.
And next Friday is the International Day of Peace, established by the United Nations 30 years ago as a 24-hour vigil for peace and nonviolence—in every place of spiritual practice, by all men, women, and children who seek peace in the world.
Yet against these events, against our collective yearning for peace, we’ve seen fiery protests and deadly conflicts escalating to nearly 20 countries this week—spreading from the Middle East to Europe. We hear angry reactions throughout our nation, heating up already overheated political campaigns. The news is confusing; the agitation intense.
How can we, as individuals, as followers of the One we call the Prince of Peace, act meaningfully in this time of conflict? Maintain a peaceful awareness without denying these conflicts—or being inflamed by them? Because, believe me, the anger we feel rising up around us is hot.
And we humans are all wired to feel it. Some anger management experts suggest that the average adult gets angry about once a day and annoyed about three times a day. Others suggest that getting angry 15 times a day is a more realistic average.
Anger is a common, unavoidable emotion. The part of our brain responsible, the amygdala, is very efficient about sending out alarms of threat, triggering our body’s fight mode through neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones. Our muscles tense; our heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure go up; our faces flush; our attention narrows to a sharp point.
And then, as James describes so well, our tongues usually kick in: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
Verily, I say unto you, I know that feeling of a tongue set on fire by hell. At one point when my daughters were teenagers, I overheard their nickname for me: “Chomper.” And I had to laugh. And I had to own it. More often than not in those years, I was a sad wife; an irritable mother; a combustible worker with an aching back. My preoccupation with hurt blocked a lot of joy. And when the people around me didn’t match my version of how they should act, I felt shortchanged. And angry. And out of control. Chomper!
So I identify a lot with Peter when he loses it with Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning. Dear Peter. He gets it wrong so often, but he’s always putting up his hand to answer the hardest questions. Right before he goes out of control, he’s offered a bold, heartfelt response to Jesus’s question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Messiah.”
This is a powerful identification. Before Peter’s eyes, Jesus has been restoring sight and hearing; miraculously feeding the hungry; walking on water; teaching a deep wisdom. In this instant, Peter first openly says this is the “anointed” one, the descendant of David who will restore and vindicate God’s people and rule over a blessed era of earthly peace. But within a flash, Peter twists this awe into anger.
According to accounts in Mark and Matthew, as soon as Jesus then reveals that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and killed, Peter pulls him aside and “rebukes” him. Angrily reprimands the King of the Universe! "Never, Lord!" he says. "This shall never happen to you!" And Jesus rebukes him in return, “Get behind me, Satan!”—using the Aramaic word satanas, which means “adversary” or “opponent.” Within an instant, Peter’s anger has turned him into a stumbling block, which Jesus must move aside for his message to get through to his disciples.
The fire in Peter’s tongue, his aggression in this moment, is a cautionary tale for us about what triggers our anger. You see, the scientific experts tell us that anger has deeper roots. It’s a mostly automatic response to some form of pain, physical or emotional.
And this pain is ignited into anger by some rapid thought: a perception or assumption that someone else has injured us, mistreated us, opposed our long-held views. And we’d much rather direct our anger at an outside target than to stop and feel our pain—or examine our vulnerability.
I believe, more than anything else, Peter was in pain and afraid when he lashed out at Jesus. In pain over the threat to his long-held view of a rescuing Messiah. Afraid that not only would Jesus suffer and die, but that he would, too. Ready to try to twist and control Jesus’s destiny by arguing with him, rather than accept this harsh reality.
It’s a universal human strategy that goes beyond nation, culture, race, religion. When we get angry at what someone else says or does, we lash out, try to make them suffer, with the hope that we will suffer less.
Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, suggests an opposite approach in his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. Published in September 2001, it became a national bestseller when we were deeply searching for answers about peace. He teaches: “When you get angry, go back to yourself, and take very good care of your anger. And when someone makes you suffer, go back and take care of your suffering, your anger.” Does this make any sense to us Westerners?
He puts it in imagery we can understand, that’s close to our reading from James: “If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after the person you suspect has burned down your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put out the fire. So when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.”
Go back to yourself. In a physiological sense, that translates into: learn ways to help your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that controls judgment, get the upper hand over your emotional amygdala. In the spiritual sense, that translates into: let go of your sense of righteousness or superiority that feeds off anger, and quiet down. Don’t suppress your anger—but don’t express it either.
Just separate from the person or situation and spend some time with yourself: with mindful breathing, smiling, or walking. Interrupt the habit energy that makes you confrontational. You may even need to lie down for a while, if you can, just breathing and allowing yourself to dissipate your tension.
This way you attend to your anger, Hanh says, just as a mother gently cares for her howling, suffering baby. You’ll find relief in five, ten, fifteen minutes. And then be able to patiently look at the nature of your perceptions, the thoughts that triggered your anger, and begin to understand your part in the conflict. And eventually reconnect with the other, or the perceived enemy in your mind, to reconcile.
This practice is, in fact, the first step in St. Patrick’s Parish Life Covenant for unity and peace. It’s our first step for conflict resolution: Take time: “I will work on myself first, examining my own role in the conflict. I will become curious rather than angry.”
And Hanh’s practice is, I believe, at the heart of what Jesus taught his disciples after his blow-up with Peter: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Denying ourselves means letting go of our illusion of control. Taking up our cross means having the courage to face the suffering in this world and recognize our part in it, without causing more.
Having the mindfulness to interrupt our habit of focusing anger on others—and look inward to the deeper sources of our pain. Having the patience to tend to these hurts until we become stronger, using the healing energy of the Holy Spirit to transform our anger into greater compassion, understanding, love, and happiness. Into peace.
This transformation of habitual anger takes focus. It takes practice. We Peters and Chompers must be willing to give up our old life of control and frustration. Lose this life, Jesus says, so you can save it. Cool the flames in this angry world, for my sake. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Interfaith Minister, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
  http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=5803&cn=116.
 Thich Nhat Hahn, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (New York: Riverhead Books, 2001), p. 24.
 Ibid., p. 34.