Tuesday, April 24, 2012

When Pastor's Wives Throw Eggs

Warning: This post contains sensitive material.  I'm pouring out my heart here.  Please read with caution... and forgiveness.

Last week my husband got a curt email. He responded politely, in typical pastorly fashion. This was followed by two more emails from the same person, each nastier and harsher than the first. His work ethic, his calling, his abilities as a pastor and his dignity as a fellow human being were all attacked. What stung most was that this person had been a steady supporter of our ministry for years.

I take that back. What stung most was that, in typical pastorly fashion, Greg did not throw cruel words in the opposite direction. Instead, he wrote an apologetic letter stating how much he respected this person and how much this person had contributed to the life of the church and how much this person's prayers had sustained him and how very, very sorry he was for sending that polite reply in the first place. He even wrote the line: "I beg your forgiveness."

It's a week later.  He's yet to receive a reply.

This stuff sucks the life out of me. On the day my husband received the second two emails (also his birthday, in a cruel twist of irony), I couldn't focus. Not on my children, who badly needed my attention. Not on myself. Not even on my husband, whose spirit was understandably shattered. My hands were shaky. My chest felt tight. I wandered around aimlessly. On several occasions, I buried my face in my lap and wept.

The only part of me that seemed to be working properly was the angry-email part of my brain. The section that produces biting sarcasm and defensive, cutting wit.  That part was working overtime. In my head, I had written a reply letter that would have sent this particular person running for cover. Or, optimistically, to the knees in humble, repentant, self-loathing prayer.

In the end, I decided not to send that email. This is because I strive to do my pastor's wife thing well. Which means I cannot blindly jump into these sorts of situations, cannot rush angrily to defend, and most importantly, cannot call a parishioner a well-deserved name or two. Instead, I get to politely practice the art of "shelving" it. I get to hold the hurts inside and, one-by-one, choose to let them go as time softens their sting. I get to pray for help. I get to learn that eventually life goes on, even if I never pushed the "send" button.

In anger management therapy, it's commonly held that the end result of "shelving" or "absorbing" other people's angry tirades is unfortunately not a calm and forgiving attitude. The end result is stress headaches, anxiety, depression, disillusionment, bitterness.  Sometimes suppressed anger even manifests itself in acts of physical and verbal violence, or fantasies of the like.

In the last four years of ministry, I've seen all of these "symptoms" in my husband. I've seen all of them in me.  We both have felt anger so deep and so wide that we've wanted to detonate something.  We've had thoughts of shouting expletives or slamming doors in board meetings.  We have thrown things.  Punched holes in walls.  Spoken hurtful words that really weren't meant for the spouse we love dearly, meant instead for the person who put us in such a mood.

I hate the way our "shelved" anger comes out, how it eventually must come out, so tonight with a small group of trusted friends I broached the subject.  Here was my plan: I would, with a careful tone and under close supervision, reply and respond to those hurtful emails.  It was water I'd never tread in before -- actually REPLYING to that crap.  Defending my family's honor sounded delightful.

My friends weren't so sure.  They agreed that it might make me feel better to let out some steam, but it wouldn't accomplish anything in the way of mending what was broken.  Bless them.  (Curse them.)

I was holding the stack of emails in my hand, and feeling defeated, I announced that if I could not reply, then I was going to take them outside and ritualistically burn them.  The council approved.  One friend mentioned that writing the offender's name on an egg and throwing it might be similarly therapeutic (but that just sounded weird and wasteful to me).

The papers flamed orange and red, dissolving into soot.  It felt sort of nice.  Before the last flames burned out, I aired out my feelings one last time before finally putting them to rest.  "It hurts how people treat my best friend like he's a punching bag."  I wiped at my tears.  "It hurts that my children need me, and I can't give to them because someone else stole all my emotional energy.  It hurts that people cannot control their tempers.  It hurts that people don't think to say 'I'm sorry.'"  The friends listened with sweetly sympathetic faces.

So when my burn party was over, I was surprised to hear one of them say, "I want to throw an egg."  The truth comes out: I wasn't the only one in the group with anger issues.

I grabbed some eggs from the fridge, and the three of us scrawled names on them with a Sharpie.  I had to go back for more eggs.  Some eggs had three or four names on them.  Who knew such levels of rage existed beneath these pleasant smiles?

We lined up, several eggs in each hand, and took turns throwing them at a cement wall near the back of the church.  Some bounced off the grass in front of us, smashing yellow and white on the wall.  Some soared right over the wall and smacked on the church exterior.  One even sailed over the roof of the church.  We howled with laughter.  Eggs are surprisingly hard to aim when you let loose all your fury on them.

After picking up the scraps and hosing off the church (we are, after all, good church people), the three of us parted ways.  And I began to reflect.  How did Jesus handle his anger?

Overwhelmed by crowds of needy people, and the hard work of healing, teaching and preaching to such people, it strikes me that Jesus looked them square in the eyes, and "had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless..." (Matt 9:18).  I like that Jesus, the one that sees beneath the surface of things.  I admire him for his goodness, his steady streams of love.  But some days I can hardly relate. 

The Jesus I can relate to is the one who called people names: Fox (Luke 13:32), Hypocrite (Matt 23:25), and Whitewashed Tombs with Filthy Dead Bones Inside (Matt 23:27) are my favorites.  I like the Jesus who premeditated a violent temple clearing, taking a moment to form himself a sturdy whip to use, presumably, for hitting stuff.  There are words like "scattered" and "overturned" in that story; exclamation points abound!  This Jesus of ours knew about the woes of "shelving it."  He needed a place to insert all that righteous rage.

On days like these, it's that second Jesus I adore.  I appreciate so much his passion, his loyalty, his devotion.  I like that he threw a fit when people he loved were being abused.  It's that Jesus who makes me think it might be okay to throw a lot of eggs at a church building.

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