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Article for February 13, 2011

The yearly Super Bowl party at Lynn’s house exists like the warm lights of a hunting lodge glowing on the horizon of a bleak winter’s landscape.  Each year, Lynn’s party provides an excuse to take out a shovel, and carve a space for one more winter’s holiday…a chance to step in from the cold to visit with dear friends, feast on New Year’s-resolution-busting snacks, and laugh with one another over adult beverages and irreverent television ads.

 

And that’s what usually unfolds at Lynn’s house each year at this time.  It just didn’t happen that way this year.  On the surface, things appeared to be exactly the same.  Just like every year, we gathered.  Just like every year, our glycemic indices were boosted by trays of every imaginable configuration of fat and carbohydrates.  But this year, something was unmistakably different.  This year, the Super Bowl felt much more like a business meeting than a holiday party.  That’s because, this year, after fourteen long years, the Green Bay Packers had come in from the cold!  That’s right, “The Pack” had made it “back” to the Super Bowl.  And for my cheese eating, snow shoveling, Lambeau-loving, Wisconsin born-and-bred wife, (and eldest daughter) the NFL’s championship game had little to do with socializing, and everything to do with concentrating.  This year, the clever television ads were a mere distraction.  This was the year of, “Shh!  I can’t hear the game!” and, “Could you please move, I can’t see the television!”

 

And praise be to God (who, I am told, dons his green and gold whenever the Pack are playing)!  This was the year when the good guys won.  As the clock ticked down to “zero,” with a foam wedge of yellow cheese on her head, braces on her teeth, and fourteen-year-old Green Bay hormones coursing through her veins, my daughter dissolved into a full fifteen minutes of joy-tears as she hugged anything and everything that wasn’t moving.  This was the same girl, who several years ago, wrote the former quarterback, Brett Favre, two separate letters on two separate occasions, begging him to stay on, when it looked like he might retire from her team.  On those two occasions, she received letters back “signed” by her football hero, the legendary, Brett Favre.  Both letters were lovingly enshrined next to her two Favre statues, and two framed Favre action pictures.

 

Just about two years ago, when it was officially announced that her football hero would be playing for the hated Minnesota Vikings, Annalise casually asked me if she could borrow some money.  She explained that she needed to buy some postage to return some merchandise.  When I asked, “What merchandise?” she took me upstairs and pointed to a box that she was ready to send.  With her permission, I opened one of the flaps.  There I found two statues, two framed pictures, and two letters signed, “Sincerely, Brett Favre.”  Her shrine had been dismantled.  She had constructed a new letter to send to her old football hero.  It read, “Dear Mr. Favre, I will not be needing these anymore.  I am no longer your fan.  Sincerely, Annalise Wagner.”

 

This Sunday’s Gospel passage, provided a great opportunity to reflect upon the experience of anger (“But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother or sister will be liable to judgment… (Mt 5: 22a).”  As a clinician formed and informed by Christianity, I have observed that the emotion of anger appears to be a kind of spiritual hot potato for many sincere Christians who truly want to live a Christ-centered life.

 

It seems to me, that any Christian reflection on anger should begin with the insight that, like all the other emotions, anger is morally neutral.  As the old saying goes, “emotions make good servants, but bad masters.”  In other words, it is what one does with feelings like anger that matters.  The appropriate response to emotions is to first, notice them, and then to ask, “What is this feeling revealing to me, and what will I do with it?” In his famous novella, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens observed that some feelings can have a purely biological source.  We can feel easily moved to anger when we have eaten or drunk the wrong things, or failed to get enough sleep.  In these instances, an honest assessment of one’s relationship with alcohol may be called for, or the need to take care of one’s self by getting more sleep may be in order.

 

In other instances, the experience of a deep and persistent emotion like anger can be a finger pointing to important longings of the heart.  According to Saint Ignatius Loyola, we should pay attention to such inner movements.  They have the potential to reveal a divine calling to take action.

 

I have come to the conviction that the capacity for anger was woven into our soul to provide us a way to notice injustice done to ourselves, or others.  Anger can mobilize us to take appropriate action.  I have frequently noticed that in the healing process that follows a cruel childhood, or the break-up of a bad relationship, men or women will heal far more quickly when they allow themselves to feel their anger.  When this happens, I will often hear someone nervously ask,  “But is it okay to be angry?”  My answer to that question is that, anger is a good stepping-stone in the healing process, but it makes a lousy destination.

 

My daughter’s anger helped her move on from her allegiance to a former football idol.  If she had stayed stuck in that anger, by rehearsing it day-after-day, she may have become like one of the poor unfortunates who populate the sports talk shows, for whom an athlete’s choices on, or off the field are the occasion for one more extended rant.

 

This week’s scripture assures us that no part of our humanity is unfit for the Kingdom of God.  If we are willing to work with it through some process of focused reflection, even our anger can be a holy raw material in building up that Kingdom.

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