Posted in pastoral care, reflections

Garbage can mad

clean-your-garbage-canNazarene preacher and publisher Bob Benson was the epitome of gentleness. In his winsome, softspoken way, he told the story of a time when he got angry, or “mad,” as he called it. What pushed him over the edge is unclear, but on that day, Benson stormed out of the house to bring in from the curb the empty family garbage can. With deadpan humor, he confessed:

I don’t even know how the garbage can lid got up on the roof!

After that, his children ranked his occasional moodiness. They’d whisper to each other: “Is he mad?” “Yes, he’s mad.” “But is he garbage can mad?”

The Advent season notwithstanding, a time of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” many are garbage can mad. Terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California – like the flame of a Bunsen burner in a high school chemistry lab – are heating things up, stoking collective anger. Can explosive reactions be far behind?

The Apostle Paul knew how destructive unchecked anger could be. He was determined to throw water on the fire, not gasoline. What is unclear in English but apparent in the original Greek of Ephesians 4:26-27 is that Paul addresses not an individual but a group, the church:

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil”(NRSV).

Anger is a perfectly human emotion. No state of grace exempts us from it. The only question is: How will we together channel it, negatively or positively? Will we as the followers of Jesus Christ allow evil events to heat us up so much that we explode in sinful actions? Here’s the disastrous formula:

Anger ——– >>> sin (v. 26)  = the devil wins (v. 27)

rudyOn September 11, 2001, jetliners became missiles. The Twin Towers in New York City plumetted to the ground. Nearly 3,000 individuals lost their lives, including Americans, Japanese, Brits and Dominicans. In his book Leadership (Little, Brown, 2002), NYC Mayor Rudolph (“Rudy”) Giuliani recounts the events of that day, but especially how he and his team in the aftermath swung into action. They did their best to channel their anger not destructively but productively, coordinating the rescue efforts of thousands of police officers and firefighters, setting up venues where families devastated by the loss of loved ones received a wide range of services from government agencies and private charities. Their mission was not to stoke the hot coals of anger but to help people cope and recover.

As Mayor, people looked to him to set the tone. Giuliani realized that many would be tempted to take out their anger on those who shared the same religious background as the handful of hijackers.  Part of his leadership responsibility  was to temper the flame of angry response. Guiliani writes (p. 360, italics added):

At the same time, I was trying to dampen the concept of group blame. Prejudice is largely about that. It’s about taking the perceived wrongdoing of one or a few people, which can be either real or imagined, then applying it to an entire group. I asked people on both sides not to do that. America is built on equal treatment.

That was 2001. Fast forward to 2015. We cannot control what politicians say, the fearmongering that passes for political discourse. Yet God calls us as followers of Christ to a higher path, to be different. Ours is to march to the beat of a better drummer. Shall we let our anger result in sin? Will we join in the misguided scapegoating, spreading via social media fears, half-truths and reactionary propaganda? Jesus taught us the Golden Rule:

Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31, NRSV).

This is not an option for the one who bears the name of Jesus; it’s a directive. What will obedience to this command look like for us? What it doesn’t look should be obvious. It’s not about registering individuals who belong to minority religious groups or rounding up those who we perceive to be an internal threat, as the U.S. government wrongly did with 127,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during the second World War. On the other hand, the Jesus kind of love – the kind that loves one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:30-31) – may mean welcoming a religious minority family to the neighborhood, introducing yourself with a smile and a plate of homebaked cookies. It could be as simple as offering to help newcomers rake their leaves or tell them where the most affordable grocery store is located, the best family doctor or dentist. Would we want someone to do that for us?

There’s a lot of garbage can anger festering these days. Like for Bob Benson, so for the People of God, anger can quickly overcome us, leading us to impulsive actions that we’ll later regret. Those of other faith traditions are watching to see if Jesus really makes a positive difference. What will they see? In our anger, let us not sin. Let’s not give the devil a victory. Instead, this Advent season and always, let’s model a love that overcomes evil.


Image credits

garbage can:

cover of Giuliani book:


Posted in book reviews, reflections

For an angry age: Henry Fairlie and the “rights” obsession

“Don’t call me mad,” Bill Cosby warned. “Dogs get mad. People get angry.”

Dr. Cosby’s point – from an episode of The Cosby Show – is well-taken. To be “mad” is to be crazy, insane, off-your-rocker. Yet is there not a sense in which anger unchecked can produce in us a kind of mental illness?

In previous posts, we’ve looked at both pride and envy and their negative effects. Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins for Today (Notre Dame, 1978) addresses anger (from the Latin ira) as the third deadly sin. Admitting that there is a legitimate place for anger in the full spectrum of human emotion, Fairlie defines sinful anger that is closely related to hatred or the desire for vengeance (pp. 88-89). Such anger is comparable to fire (p. 89):

We think of Anger in terms of fire: blazing, flaming, scorching, smoking, fuming, spitting, smoldering, heated, white hot, simmering, boiling, and even when it is ice-cold it will still burn. It has been called the Devil’s furnace, and the other sins will fuel it.

The Bible talks about anger

In the same way, the Bible allows for some varieties of anger. Exhibit A is the Lord’s anger as he drove the money-changers from the Temple, declaring that what God intended as a “house of prayer” they had made a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13). Paul cautioned the Ephesians not to “sin” when angry (Ephesians 4:26), implying that anger without sinning is possible. Yet anger appears on the same list as “rage” elsewhere in Paul’s writings, as something of which we must rid ourselves (Colossians 3:8). Both “anger” and “wrath” are divine prerogatives, and God will display them one day toward the wicked (Romans 2:7-9). In short, Scripture is careful to delineate a legitimate place for anger both for the human being and for God, while careful to warn of a type of anger that is destructive.

Continue reading “For an angry age: Henry Fairlie and the “rights” obsession”

Posted in book reviews, reflections

The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie

Henry Fairlie

I like the book of James. When given a choice in Greek 3 which New Testament book to translate, James was my pick. Its poetic expressions in the King James Version fired  my imagination, phrases like “perfect law of liberty” (1:25).

One can hardly address law from a Christian perspective without dealing with the concept of sin. When we become aware of God’s law, we automatically realize that we are lawbreakers, or sinners. This is apparent from the classical Wesleyan definition of sin as a “willful transgression of a known law of God “(see 1 John 3:4).

This essay is the first in a series of reflections on sin. To help focus our thoughts, we will dialogue with Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame Press, 1978). Fairlie (1924-1990) was British by birth but spent much of his adult life in the United States as an essayist and journalist. He wrote for various publications, including the National Review and was fond of informal debate with the late Christopher Hitchens.

Henry Fairlie, a non-theologian who called himself a “reluctant unbeliever” (p. 6), entitles chapter 1 “The Fact of Sin.” Let us examine three subjects he raises in the chapter by answering these questions:

1) What is “sin” ?

2) What are the “seven deadly sins”?

3) Can psychiatry explain the reality of evil?

As we look at how Fairlie responded to these questions, it is hoped that we will gain greater insight into ourselves and each other. More importantly, we will more deeply appreciate how God’s saving and cleansing grace is the only solution to our sinful predicament.

What is “sin” ?

Fairlie describes sin in several ways. Simply put, sin entails “lapses in our conduct” (p. 3). More insightfully, he calls sin “an act of infidelity and not only of disobedience”; it is the act of “a traitor and not only of a criminal” (p. 9).

To be a sinner is to be a traitor. Scripture resonates with this, from when Adam and Eve betrayed God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22). Sin as betrayal underscores the relational nature of sin: “Sin is the destruction of one’s self as well as one’s relationships with others” (p. 4). When we ask ” Who is it hurting?” we are asking only a rhetorical question. Do we really want an answer? If we are honest, we will admit that by its very nature, sin is never solitary. Its painful consequences touch both God and other human beings. Accordingly, Fairlie (pp. 17-18) explains his reason for writing the essays in The Seven Deadly Sins Today :

They are written from the conviction that, as individuals and societies, we are trifling with the fact that sin exists, and that its power to destroy us is as great as ever; from the belief that much of the fecklessness and triviality, dejection and faintheartedness, wasting and corruption, which we now feel around us, in our personal lives but also in our common lives, have their source exactly where we do not choose to look.

Henry Fairlie accepts the concept of original sin – that we have inherited a “tendency” or “inclination” to evil from Adam and Eve – as long as this concept never becomes a reason to deny moral responsibility for our own actions. He clarifies (p. 19):

We will recognize that the inclination to evil is in our natures, that its existence in us presents us with moral choices, and that it is in making those choices that we form our characters. We may be given our natures, but we make our characters; and it if is in our natures to do evil, it can and ought to be in our characters to resist it. When we say that someone is a “good man” or ” good woman,” we do not mean that they are people from whom the inclination to do evil is absent, but that they are people who have wrestled and still wrestle with it.

Having tipped his hat to original sin, Fairlie (too optimistically) refuses to connect the dots. For him, sin is a “lapse,”  as if sin is an anomaly in our behavior. Yet Christian theology affirms the opposite. Sin is not a “lapse” but a symptom of a sickness. If we have better moments, these are but a reflection of God at-work in the lives of all through the influence of the Holy Spirit, what Wesleyans call “prevenient grace.” Even in the believer, what is good in me is most decidedly not me; rather, it is Christ shining out from me! All glory returns to God, who alone deserves it.

Nonetheless, Fairlie is correct when he insists that sin is not merely individual; it has corporate elements. It is not only persons that sin. Societies are also capable of sin (p. 25). It will be interesting to see if he applies this insight as he takes up the seven deadly sins in the remaining chapters of his book.

Continue reading “The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie”