I was asked to talk to an irate patient. I went to the patient’s hospital room and tried to soothe his ruffled feathers. After all, I am regarded as a very calm person under pressure; a peacemaker. The man claimed we had been experimenting on him during his recent diagnostic test in the department of radiology. I calmly explained the procedure he had undergone and thought I had succeeded in calming the man down. Then, he cut his eyes in my direction, let loose with a long string of vile curse words and called me a liar.
Something popped behind my eyes and anger took over. I wadded up his complaint sheet, threw it at his face where it bounced off of his shocked and surprised eyes and then told him I hoped he died the next day during his surgery. I was in a daze after that and found myself sitting at my desk down in radiology wondering “what just happened?”. As you can imagine, so did the administrators who had sent me to the man’s room to calm him down and answer his admittedly baseless complaints. Instead, I had told the man I hoped he died! Where did that come from? Why had I reacted in that way? How did I allow this man to push all of my buttons?
It is no mystery to anyone that we live in a very angry, frustrated culture. Road rage is at all time highs. Revenge is encouraged and there are revenge “sites” on the internet. Our entertainment glorifies blowing someone away. We’ve taken Dirty Harry’s advice to heart and we hope that someone will “Make my day!” so we can unload onto them. Rage and fury and revenge are the emotions of the day. They fuel the hate and violence in the Middle East. They have spread across the globe in wave after wave of destruction and death. Where did we go wrong?
I want to explore the simple teachings of a rather simple man, a carpenter, a philosopher, a teacher who changed the world. Put aside the trappings of deity and savior we associate with Christ for the moment. Let’s look at his words. Words spoken by a simple man to simple, struggling people. The populace of first century Palestine were not too different from today. They were under repression by a very effective, cruel Roman government. Their king was a vile man with perverted tastes in pleasure and a ready tendency to lop off the head of anyone who displeased him. Their local leaders were strict, legalistic religious leaders who were devoid of compassion, mercy, and love. They were being taxed into poverty; crucified for speaking out against the government; sold into slavery at a whim. In short, these people were ANGRY.
So, why would Jesus of Nazareth, regarded by the people of this era as a future king and conqueror, tell these angry people thirsting for vengeance that the best response to an attack on their person was to “turn the other cheek”? What? Be a coward? Bow to the repressive and abusive leaders around them? Worse, don’t fight back, even in self defense?
This teaching, more than any other by Christ, has been discussed and explored down through the centuries. In fact, it has been claimed that a follower of the teachings of Christ must be a coward if they are true to those teachings. But, I believe, this is a very poor understanding of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I may be a simple man with no deep background in theology or Christian doctrine but I believe there is a deeper, more profound thought here than just turning tail and running.
As a physician I am aware of a condition known as the “fight or flight” response. When we are threatened physically or mentally, our body goes into flight or fight mode. Adrenaline kicks in, the heart races, the lungs bring in more oxygen, blood is shunted from the skin and gut to the brain preparing us to either stand and fight, or to run away. This physical reaction is totally beyond our ability to prevent. But, it is not beyond our ability to control our “response” to this physical “reaction”.
The remarks of Jesus of Nazareth must be taken in context. Not only does he tell us to “turn the other cheek” when we are struck on the cheek, he tells us to go the extra mile, to carry the extra burden. When taken in its total context, there is a deeper meaning here. I believe what Jesus is telling us is to deny our simple, easy “reaction” to fight and to pursue a thoughtful, considered “response”. In other words, don’t fly off the handle! Stop the adrenaline surging and the purely animal instinct to fight or to flee and think. After all, we are human beings. We have considerable options in the thinking category over animals. Why not use a thoughtful response? Why not do the unexpected? Like, turn the other cheek? Or, offer to carry the soldier’s burden for another mile?
When we take this initiative, we have taken CONTROL of the situation. We are now in the driver’s seat, not the offender. This will throw the offender off his/her game. It might even stop them in their tracks and cause them to rise up out of their primal anger to the higher levels of cognitive thinking. A measured response is far better than an instinctual reaction. Now, I’m not talking about life threatening situations. I’m not talking about self defense. And, I don’t believe Jesus was talking about this either. He was talking about the day to day interaction we have with ordinary people we encounter along life’s path. A measured response gives some degree of respect and a glint of wiggle room to the offender. Often, the problem with the offender is a deep seated problem that is unrelated to the anger that person is showing you. Maybe they need someone to stop them in their tracks and make them consider another option. Maybe they need someone to stop them from reacting and encourage them to respond.
I might be wrong here but there is another verse not uttered by Jesus of Nazareth that is profoundly true,
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Proverbs 15 verse 1. I might be wrong, but in this season of gift giving and peace to all men, why shouldn’t we heed the words of Jesus of Nazareth and turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; repay anger with a gentle word; do the unexpected.
So, what happened to my patient? His son appeared in my office about an hour after that exchange. By then, I had been interviewed by a couple of administrative reps about MY behavior. The son smiled at me and said, “Thank you for standing up to my father. He has run over everyone he meets because he is afraid that he will not wake up from his surgery tomorrow. But, he told me to tell you that he was going to survive just to prove you wrong. So, I know this sounds strange, but you actually helped him by showing him how he was acting towards others. I want to thank you.”
Who would have thought? But, as positive as this may have turned out, I was the one who suffered. I was the one who felt horrible for losing my temper. It may have worked out for the best, but this is the exception, not the rule. Anger seldom has positive outcomes (except when Jesus needed to drive the thieves out of the temple).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Here is what I learned from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth:
RUR — Resist the Urge to React. Rather, take time to THINK and then RESPOND.
Control — By avoiding a blind reaction, you can take some measure of control of the situation (maybe not completely but at least your side of the situation).
Empathy — An expression of anger often is an indicator of a deeper problem and you might just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Looking for the pain behind the anger might help you to understand why this person is so angry.
Love Your Enemy — Here is the HARD thing to do. But, in this teaching we see the necessity of looking at the other person as an individual with a worldview and a motive that we might understand if we were in their situation. It is hard to love someone you loathe; someone who is lashing out at you. But, an attempt to at least understand their point of view and then trying to find a way to respect that person as a PERSON might help defuse the situation. In other words, sometimes we have to do the HARD thing because it is the RIGHT thing!
I can’t sleep!
My back is acting up thanks to the trip to Nashville for Hutchmoot 2012 and having to sleep in two different beds from my own. So, my doctor put me on a 12 day steroid dose pack because I am traveling. Again. One week of work in my “day job” as a radiologist and then I was off this past Saturday to work with my co-author, Mark Sutton, on an upcoming update to our depression book.
But, the steroids may make my back better, but they keep me wide awake every night! I don’t mean restless and cat napping. Wide awake! The entire night!
So, I’m sitting here in my hotel room in Orlando at midnight wondering when the Tylenol PM is going to kick in! So, I thought I would share a profound event from my day. I decided that on Wednesday morning, since Mark would be prepping for a class to teach tonight and would be unavailable for writing that I would do something fun. Just for me.
I had seen the ads on the internet for months so I took a chance and, yes, they had an opening on Walt Disney World’s Wild Africa Trek. This is a three hour tour behind the scenes on the Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney Animal Kingdom. It involves a great deal of walking through narrow trails in the wooded areas around the animal’s homes. And, it involved climbing, leaning over a cliff or two, and crossing creaky rope bridges. I was thrilled! After all, what is a bad back compared to almost getting eaten by crocodiles.
I showed up at 1015 after taking care of bathroom duties (No restroom for 2 hours) and was zipped and tied into a harness by Devin and Eleanor (later switching to Elly as we got to know her!). Now, here is how it works. We follow our guides through winding, narrow trails in the jungle areas to a “cliff” overlooking animals. We’re clipped into a tether so we can “lean” out over the cliff to the animals below.
I must admit, even though the hippos are herbivores, watching the two hippos chomp down on cucumbers, melon, and bananas thrown to them by our guides gave me the heebie jeebies. Those molars and tusks looked rather dangerous. I guess the highlight of that little venture was when “Nacho” marked his territory with a “dung shower”. Yeah, it is what it is.
Next we arrived at the crocodile enclosure. Here, we had to cross two rope bridges complete with broken boards and holes in the side. Not to worry. We’re tethered in! But, I still felt a little creeped out as I passed over the 23 or so crocs napping just 15 feet below. Then, we were tethered on the “cliff” and just six feet below my leaning body was a huge croc as big as a banana boat! Not to worry! They only eat once a week. But, I was informed that if I fell in, they would bite me, kill me, and then hide my body for a snack later on!
After this perilous but thrilling part of the journey, we were loaded onto our own small open bed truck to drive around the savannah. We stopped and had ample opportunities to take pictures of giraffes, wildebeest, antelope, elephants, ostriches, rhinos, cheetahs, lions, and warthogs. The highlight of the day was arriving at our own private pavilion overlooking the entire savannah while we had lunch. It was so refreshing to sit down in a cool breeze and look out over the animals in the savannah. A great and wonderful adventure that I would highly recommend to anyone.
But, no journey is without its lessons. So, I want to share some of what I learned from this adventure.
Dung Showers — No matter how hard we try in life, there are times when we end up producing a “dung shower”. Nacho, the hippo expelled large quantities of his “refuse” and then would twirl his little tail around like a propeller slinging it in a wide arc to mark his territory. Whenever another male hippos would show up, they knew Nacho had been here!
I thought about how many times we get upset, arrogant, self-righteous, or downright indignant and we have our own “dung showers”. Of course, at the time, we don’t see what we did as “dung”. What we did was justified, righteous “anger”. The affect is just the same. The words, the demeanor, the ill spirit we leave behind among those who are showered is just as lasting. They will remember our outbursts and wicked behavior. In fact, I’m coining a new phrase, using myself. “Yeah, that Bruce Hennigan just hit me with a dung shower. The jerk!”
We mark our territories whether we intend to or not. Or words and actions have consequences and in a world where Christianity is increasingly condemned and looked down upon, it is up to us to find better ways to “mark our territories”. Perhaps with something other than dung? Like, love, understanding, compassion, mercy, empathy, kindness, and so on. So, tomorrow, don’t hit anyone else with a “dung shower”. Instead, shower them with kindness. It’s a much better mark to leave behind!
Rope Bridges Sway — There is definitely a difference between solid ground and a swaying rope bridge. I found out the hard way that if you lean over the side to take a picture of a crocodile the other side of the bridge will move AWAY from you! In fact, you sway DOWN toward the croc! This throws you off balance and you are teetering on the brink of a crocodile snack.
But, solid ground doesn’t shift under your feet. Walking through the jungle up and down slopes, roots in the soil gave me enough traction to keep from slipping. There are no roots on a rope bridge. In fact, our roots do more than nourish us. They steady us. They give us purchase on the shifting ground around us.
Our culture is filled with lies. “What is the lie?” is the question I ask myself often when I am feeling down, depressed, or stressed out. Like the rope bridge, when we lean into the lie, we teeter on the edge of disaster. Instead, we need to rely on our rooted, solid stance on solid ground. All else is shifting sand, as the song says. In today’s postmodern culture, we tend to compartmentalize the world and think that all is NOT related. But it is. We cannot walk on a swaying rope bridge and act like we’re on solid ground. The TRUTH is there is only one way. One solid ground.
Don’t buy into Satan’s lies and his swaying rope bridges. Instead, rely on the solid ground in which we are rooted in Christ; the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Standing on the Brink — I have a picture of my feet at the edge of the cliff that dropped directly down to a sleeping crocodile. He was only about six feet below me. The only way I could get the picture was to lean forward. My harness was attached to a bungie like rope behind me so I could feel the elastic pulling me back away from the cliff. But, I really wanted to get that picture. Suddenly, I lurched forward and for an almost infinite moment, I was falling to my death. I picture over two dozen crocodiles waking up and tearing away bits and pieces of me to hide away in their little pond for a midnight snack. And, there is a lot of me to go around.
Turns out, Devin had tapped me on the shoulder to get me to turn around so he could take a picture of me with the crocs in the background. As far as he was concerned, I was never in danger. But, my imagination took that little lurch and pushed me straight into one of those old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies where the bad guys feed the crocs.
Lesson learned: God has us on a tether. We have a path to walk that is straight and narrow. But, true to our nature, we like to wander to the edge of that path to check out that exotic odor, or that enticing flower, or that alluring seduction. And, when we reach the edge of the cliff, we have this false sense of security that we are still within God’s will. We feel the tug of the tether and yet, we lean further and further over the pit. There, waiting below, disguised in his lies is Satan. He has his mouth open, his eyes gleaming, just waiting to tear us apart!
And then, God taps us on the shoulder. He awakens us from our trance and we lurch with the unexpected realization that we had almost gotten taken in by Satan again. Again! When will ever learn? Be mindful of the tether. It is there for a reason; a connection to God through His Holy Spirit who holds us back from oblivion because God loves us. Thank you God for a tap on the shoulder.
As humorous and hilarious as the chapters were in “Night of the Living Dead Christian” the Interludes were powerful and moving. It is in the Interludes that Matt Mikalatos brings home the goods. Here is an excerpt from one of the first interludes with the “werewolf” Luther Martin about his father, a pastor.
“My father’s inflexibility, his unpleasable nature, and the paucity of sincere affection all haunted my youth. But as Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, “A man knows when he is growing old because he beings to look like his father.” I can look back now, and insights about my father’s nature and intention become clear to me. He did not intend to teach me theology at the expense of a relationship with himself, or for that matter, with God, though that is what he did. He did not meant to drive my brother out of the house or out of the church, but that is what he did. He did not mean to take his anger and grief about my brother’s prodigal lifestyle and use them to turn the screws on my own theological education, but that is what he did.”
Further on Luther says, “My entire life reflected on him, it seemed, and when I first learned the story of my poor brother, Marty, standing up in the middle of a service and declaring himself an atheist before walking out the door, never to return, I immediately envied him, understood him, and pitied him for his flamboyant dramatic streak.”
Matt goes on to uncover one of the most powerful truths about those who have chosen to be atheists in this revelation from Luther:
“You ask me why I hate my father. I can only say that hate, loathing, disgust, all these words would be too strong to explain my feelings for my father. I have felt these things and moved beyond them to a sincere and placid lack of thought about him.”
Recently I had the opportunity to hear Frank Turek speak on his apologetic ministry. I was stunned when he said that when a person rejects God so many times and crosses that threshold into an area where God removes His forgiveness, then to that person God no longer exists. It’s not like God is still there hovering hoping for the person to change their mind. No, God removes His presence. God leaves the person alone which is exactly what that person wants! The person truly becomes an atheist because for him, God no longer exists!
I never thought of it that way but this idea comports itself with Romans 1. And, here, in this ditzy, crazy, monster filled book, Matt Mikalatos nails it! Dinesh D’Souza in his latest book, “Godforsaken”, says that atheists are really “wounded theists” hurt by someone, most likely their father. They look at God through the lens of the pain that was dealt to them in the name of God by their fathers.
Some readers may find the humor and rapid fire story of “Night of the Living Dead Christian” too much. But, it is worth the roller coaster ride just to pause and soak up the Interludes. Here, Matt reveals a powerful truth by “showing” not “telling”. The truth that we are often hurt by those who love us the most and in that hurt, we look at a loving God through fractured, splintered lenses. We see God as we see our flawed fathers and mothers and brothers and pastors and friends and sisters. We see God as someone we would just as soon have a “sincere and placid lack of thought about him.” Read those quotes again and then read the book.
Do you know someone who has walked out the door and away from God? If so, why not extend to them a loving hand; a helpful heart; an understanding that Matt extends to a lonely, hurt werewolf whose idea of God is that of a hateful, disgusting father. Sometimes when these questions arise, it’s not answers they seek. It’s understanding and connection and empathy. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the ending of this book, not in detail to spoil it, but in substance to understand the most powerful Interlude.