One morning last summer I was working at my desk at the church. It was one of those days when pastoring felt so wonderfully fulfilling and joyful. I had been looking out at the forest behind the church, when suddenly I looked down and saw I had a voicemail on my phone.
When I played the message, I was immediately overwhelmed by the anger of the person speaking. A man from town, whom I had met briefly, had recently figured out that I, the pastor of the local church, was gay. He was calling to tell me his feelings about that fact. As his message went on, the venom kept spewing, punctuated only by slurred words. It was about ten in the morning, and I wondered whether he had turned to liquid courage (or liquid anger) in preparation for this phone call.
Curiously, unlike many of the other hateful messages I’d received before, he left me both his name and his phone number, and invited me to call back. I never did, which I sometimes regret. I don’t deliberately expose myself to the anger of hate-filled people, but on the other hand, how sad must one’s life be that you have to angrily call a person you barely know and berate them for who they are? He probably needed a pastor to talk to, but he probably wouldn’t have let me be one to him anyway.
Not taking on the anger of others has been an important part of my spiritual growth. There was a time when a message like this would have been painful. I would have dwelled on it, and let it dictate my mood for days. Now, though I can’t say the bigotry of others doesn’t affect me, I no longer let it control my emotions. I’ll admit that I felt some anger at the man who left the voice mail, but I also felt something much stronger. I felt compassion. And I wished for him that he would find peace; the kind of peace that keeps a person from being so angry at the world that they have to lash out at someone they barely know and don’t understand.
I often wonder what Jesus felt like when people spoke against him. Let’s be clear, neither I nor you are Jesus, but Jesus knew what it was like to be us. Jesus knew what it was like to be hated. He knew what it was like to be the object of anger. And he knew what it was like to be attacked for no good reason. He felt it in ways few of us ever will. But more importantly, he knew what it was to love anyway. He knew what it was to have grace anyway. He knew what it was to hear the worst of what the world thought of you, but to not let it dictate what came next.
In Lent I think about that a lot. I know that peace is possible. A voicemail like this one would have compelled me to a bottle of whiskey in the past. Years later, it’s a reminder that no matter what someone says to me, grace is bigger. I can’t control the anger of others. I can’t make them love me. I can’t make them accept me. But I can choose what I do next. To me, that’s a lot of what Lent is about. It’s seeing the journey that Christ took within himself, free from the judgements of the world outside. And it’s seeing how, in spite of all those things, he was still called to do one thing: to love. And love he did. Even when it cost him all he had known.
I want to be able to love like that. I’m nowhere close yet, but maybe I’m getting better. And in Lent that’s what I pray for: the ability to love others, even when it’s the last thing on earth I can imagine. I love that man who called me that day and said those hateful things. I can’t say I like him much; but I love him. And I love him enough to pray that maybe one day he’ll find enough peace in his heart to love people like me back. Maybe it will never happen for him. But I give thanks for what has happened in me.