I preached yesterday at Reconciler - my first time in the pulpit (ok, at the crossing) there. I did it without notes, but I think this text is pretty close to what I actually said yesterday.
I’ve had a lot of weird dreams recently. I had a dream about a snout coming out of the ground. I had a dream that I got married, but my mother was wasn’t around to remind me what to do, so I ended up wearing a t-shirt and cut-offs to the reception. And I had one where I was fighting with a close friend, and the fight got bigger and bigger, worse than any fight I’ve ever had with any friend before, and we were screaming and yelling, and then I picked up a ceramic mug and I hurled it at my friend’s head, and it hit him, and the mug broke.
I woke up then, before I could tell how badly the mug had hurt him, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It scared me, a lot. I don’t like to think that there’s a part of me that’s capable of that, that would ever do such a thing - to anyone, let alone to a friend. But I also know that part of me is there, that part that almost craves violence, that threatens to erupt in an angry outburst. It’s always been there, and I’ve spent a fair amount of energy training it to stay back, and also trying to appear to the world as though that part doesn’t exist.
I’ve done a pretty good job at that. Most people think of me, maybe not as a gentle person exactly, but not as a violent one or even an angry one either - at least I think not. And that’s fair, at some level, because I’m really not actually prone to violent outbursts either. I may have dreamed that I threw a mug at someone’s head, but I haven’t actually done it. And mostly, I can be pretty satisfied with giving the impression that that kind of rage isn’t hiding in there.
And then I hear a passage like this one from 2 Timothy. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” Holy... Really? I can pull the wool over the eyes of the people around me, even over my own eyes a lot of the time. But I can’t trick God. God knows better. God knows my need to be ashamed.
And I know it. Just like I’ve always known that part of me is inclined to uncontrollable anger. I’ve always known that it’s just waiting to erupt. I’ve always been scared of it. And so I’ve always known that need to be ashamed. And knowing all that as I do, I’m very aware of how limited I am in my ability to “rightly explain the word of truth.” And so I wonder - am I really the one who should be explaining the word of truth? It seems like there’s just so much shame standing between me and it.
Except that somehow that’s not quite the end of this story. Because another funny thing happened this week. Someone pointed out to me that that part that could get uncontrollably angry isn’t just a darkness in me. It comes from my darkness, absolutely, and it’s that shadow side that I saw in my dream. But that uncontrollable anger comes from a fire deep within me. And that fire is the source not only of frightening rage, but of power and strength. It’s the fire that allows me, even spurs me, to be rightly angry when things are just really messed up. It’s the fire that made me speak out and then eventually leave the Intervarsity group in college because I couldn’t stand the way they treated my queer friends. It’s the fire that makes me stand up to people at school when I think they’re abusing their power. It’s the fire that lets me speak with assurance when I’m convinced of the truth of something.
And as I realized this, I heard the passage from 2 Timothy echoing in my head again: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” Hunh. If the uncontrollable anger that makes me ashamed before God comes from the same fire that I just said lets me speak with assurance when I’m convinced of the truth of something…. Maybe I’m not incapable of rightly explaining the word of truth after all. Maybe rightly explaining the word of truth doesn’t mean I’m expected to have it all together - or even to have this angry piece of me completely pinned down. Maybe it means doing my best to make sure that that fire is being fed by the Holy Spirit and not the fires of selfishness or of self-hatred, and then letting that fire fuel my speech and my work. Maybe that's how I can present myself as a worker who has no need to be ashamed.
I suspect I’m not the only one who’s known this kind of anger and darkness. I know I’m not the only one who has a fire burning inside like that – I’ve seen it in a lot of you already. I’ve seen it in the way Jeremy talks about international debt and Jubilee. I’ve seen it in the way Kate talks about Jesus. I’ve seen it a lot here. And maybe your fires don’t threaten to burn out of control. Maybe you don’t feel like you need to keep that fire screened in all the time. Or maybe you do. I don’t know.
What I know is this: my dream this week made me wonder whether I was safe to touch - whether I was endangering those around me just by being near them, by being in relationship with them. I wondered whether I ought to pull myself back, separate myself more from the world, in order not to catch my neighbors on fire just by standing next to them. But then I began to wonder also, even if I learned to keep that fire totally contained, or to put it out altogether – would that just change the problem? We need more people to stand up for the voiceless more often, more people to question power, more people to speak words of comfort with assurance more often – not less. We do have to face the possibility that by touching things with that kind of heat, we may set them on fire. But if we can find ways to tend those fires carefully, to let them be fueled by the Holy Spirit – maybe that’s not such a bad thing.