Speaking the Truth in Love

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Last Sunday afternoon, after preaching about our need for a humble spirit, I had the worst spirit of impatience and irritability ever. I just hate when that happens. I’m supposed to practice what I preach, and I was doing a lousy job of it. Now, it’s not that being angry was wrong. But how I handled my anger.

Well, it seems that God, through the gift of this lectionary of scripture readings and the relentless return of Sunday preaching, keeps me focused on this point. Be humble. If I can maintain a spirit of humility, then I might not get angry for the wrong reasons. And when I am angry for the right reasons, I might handle my anger constructively, rather than being a bull in a china shop.

So it seems to me that last week’s humble spirit is the inner attitude and speaking the truth in love, dealing with anger in fruitful ways is the outer expression of that inner attitude.

Yesterday, I was sitting at my computer, wishing that I had a good story about anger. I had several stories down in my notes, but none of them seemed just right. So I was actually praying that God would put the right story in my head, when the story happened to me. Really it did. I spotted my new neighbors outside, the new neighbors who just did a complete overhaul of their yard. They have added at least one hundred new plants – no exaggeration. It looks great. I had watched their team of landscape specialists put in lights, fencing, trees, shrubs, pavers, and flowers over the last month. I had talked to the landscaper guys about the hedge between the two yards, about how I thought it needed a significant pruning. The head landscaper agreed.

So on Thursday, I gave this hedge of viburnum a good cutback with both saw and clippers. And today I went out to explain to the neighbors why I had cut it as I did. The neighbors were not happy. In fact, they took that opportunity to chew me out about it, saying the hedge was half theirs and that I should have conferred with them before I “mutilated it.” It took every ounce of self-control for me to explain myself to them calmly. Their sustained anger was shocking. In fact, it ruined my afternoon. I felt so misunderstood. I had, in my mind, done something great for them, as well as for us. I had worked so hard to make sure no clippings landed on their side. I really could not believe they were so angry over a pruned hedge that in Florida will grow back in two or three months time.

But I tried very hard to maintain a humble spirit and acknowledge that my actions had disturbed them and for that I was truly sorry. I was. I apologized, explained, and clarified that this hedge had always been maintained by us, such that we thought it our job to cut it back, especially since their landscapers had not touched it. But I said, that if they really wanted to control the maintenance of the hedge, it was fine with me.

I did not utter a single sassy or unkind word, but since 2:30 yesterday afternoon, I have felt hurt and angry at how unkind they were to me. Wow, I still cannot believe how a bush was more important to them than me, a person. So I thought I’d just be going to bed angry. Instead, I re-wrote nearly the whole sermon. I had anger issues and I needed to struggle with them, with this scripture, and with you. And if my sermon on speaking the truth in love did not have something to contribute to this miserable experience with the neighbor, then it was not worth your time.

I have some embarrassing anger stories. Don’t you? We’ve all got anger stories of what kind or another. In nineteen years of ordained ministry, I’ve made a few people angry, and sometimes I’ve received their displaced anger. I remember the mother of a troubled teen who was mad that the church was not helping her kid. We were involved with him, but there was no way to have a quick fix on that boy. She was angry at him, at herself, and at the world, but the church was an easy target.

I control anger reasonably well, until I reach the end of my rope. In twenty-four years of marriage, the rope has gotten fairly short a few times. One time in a memorable fit of rage I threw down a handful of books in my arms. I forgot I was holding a camera on top of the books. It broke. How do we speak the truth in love when we are angry? How do we let go of anger?

These are questions that beg an answer. Hear the word of the Lord:

Okay, you heard my story about the neighbors. You can probably see that I have an internal problem with anger, with bitterness festering. I have pretty good self-control such that I don’t usually blurt out things that I will regret in the heat of the moment. I have more trouble with internalizing anger and feeling embittered for a while. Richard, sometimes gets embittered, but he has more often had trouble with the external issue of anger. Saying things that should not have been said. Wanting to win the argument at all costs. He does not tend to hold grudges as much as I do.

So how about you? Do you have an internal weakness or external weakness with anger? How many of you keep your mouth shut successfully but then have explosion of anger going off inside you? How many of you wish you could control your tongue when you’re angry? You just say what you think – no matter what.

Anger is okay. It’s just what you do with it that matters. Some of us were taught that the feeling is bad, but anger by itself is not sinful. We should always write angry letters to people who have hurt us. But we should almost never mail them. That’s the danger with email. Mailing is just one click away. Richard regular reminds me “Pray before you click.”

Mark Twain said, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Twain must have been coaching people like me with the internal problem with anger.

Here’s a quote from the satirical stort-story writer, Ambrose Bierce, for those of you who have more of an external problem with anger: “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”

But here’s my favorite quote on this subject – from the Irish American writer, Malachy McCourt: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Okay, so how do we find our way to speaking the truth in love? How do we mature enough to avoid all evil talk and bitter thoughts? How do we find the strength of character to say only what is useful for building up? How can we develop our ability to speak words which give grace to all who hear them?

There’s only one way I know to get rid of bitterness, be tenderhearted, and forgiving, and completely focused on building others up. The only way is to be built up internally with the knowledge of God’s love in Jesus Christ. To spend much time in worship, Bible study, and prayer. Enough time to know deeply that you belong to God, that God defines your worth. Your shouting neighbor does not define your worth. Your embittered ex-spouse does not define your worth. Your alcoholic parent, who routinely cut you down, does not define your worth. Your criticizing boss does not tell you who you are. Your irritated spouse does not tell you who you are. Your needy children do not tell you who you are. Your middle school friend, who is loyal one day and disloyal the next does not tell you who you really are.

God tells you. God says, “You are my beloved child. You are my treasure. You are special, valuable, precious. I love you.” That’s the message God wants to implant in your soul every day in a deeper and deeper way. And then all those angry people, all those people who mistreat you, all those people who do not understand love because they have not seen this love, all those who people who know God’s love but for whatever reason, lose their focus and act unkindly toward you, all those people, who are not rooted and grounded, cannot get to you because you are rooted and grounded. You are praying and you are knowing that God has this explosive situation in control.

And by the power of the Holy Spirit working in your wounded but healing heart, you can face that person without need for revenge, without bitterness eating at your soul, without shame. You can, by the grace of God, find graceful words to say. You can build up because you are imitators of God, who loves everyone of us, even those of us who have grieved the Holy Spirit with our unkind words, those words we should have never said. You are imitating the God, who as Christ said from the cross, “Father, forgive, for they know not what they do.”

My neighbor wanted to argue over the hedge, over which inches of it were his and which were mine, but I gave it to him. I don’t need that hedge. I don’t need to win the argument either. Someone wisely said, “You don’t have to attend every argument to which you are invited.” I don’t need my neighbor’s approval. I have everything I need, everything I want, everything that will fill me up. I have God’s love, Christ’s example, and the power of the Holy Spirit in me. And I pray that freedom, that joy, that security for all those who would try to drag me downwith wrangling. I’m not going there. I like peace too much. We’re not going there, are we, friends. It’s not worth it. Speak the truth. Speak the truth in love. In love build up one another. In love, take whatever people want to throw at you and know that those arrows cannot pierce God’s child, those wild words cannot wound a soul that is filled up with love, those out of control emotions cannot mess with the fragrant and beautiful love of Jesus Christ, a love that will never, ever, ever end.

Speak the truth in love. Pray for your enemies. Outdo one another in showing honor. Be gentle, tender-hearted and kind. Bless those who persecute you. Be imitators of God, and the peace that God is trying to build in this world will grow.