When I go in for a dental appointment, my dentist very graciously gives me drugs that numb the areas where she is going to drill, poke, prod, or otherwise invade. She told me during a procedure one time that she does not want to hit a nerve as she works in my mouth. I don’t want her to either. I would prefer to remain seated in the dental chair, and not be hurled through the roof and into orbit. Last Sunday I preached a sermon on the relationship between bitterness and forgiveness. It has become obvious to me this week that I hit a nerve. No one shot through the ceiling, but there were tears of anguish shed. And I have received a fair amount of heartfelt feedback as well.
During the course of the sermon I shared the following story written by Karisa Smith to illustrate the fact that anger is commonly driven by significant hurt that has never been resolved:
My 4-month-old daughter and I took a trip to the library. She babbled softly as I browsed through the books. As we walked, I heard an older man say gruffly, "Tell that kid to shut up, or I will." Angrily, I responded, "I am very sorry for whatever in your life caused you to be so disturbed by a happy baby, but I will not tell my baby to shut up, and I will not let you do so either."
I braced myself, expecting an outburst from him. Instead, he looked down, took a deep breath, and said softly, "I apologize." He looked up at me with tears in his eyes, and we remained silent. Finally, he looked at my daughter. She smiled at him and happily kicked her arms and legs. He wiped his eyes and said slowly, "My son died when he was 2-months-old."
I moved to sit in the chair next to him. He went on to explain that his son died from SIDS over 50 years ago. He described how his anger grew, leading to a failed marriage and isolation. I asked him to tell me about his son. As he did so, he smiled back and forth with my daughter. Eventually, he asked to hold her. As he held her, his shoulders relaxed, and he briefly laid his cheek on her head. He returned her to me with a heartfelt "Thank you." I thanked him for sharing his story, and he quickly departed.
Her experience convicted me on several levels. If the 4 month old child had been mine, I might have sent him hurling through the bookshelves at the library. Her firm, but thoughtful response made a difference. The very presence of a tiny baby hit a nerve in that man’s life. Why can’t we recognize the hurt that more often than not drives angry outbursts?
In the future, I am going to strive to be more careful. When someone lashes out, I am going to try to do my very best to look beyond the behavior of the moment. Something is driving that anger. I need to see a hurting person instead of an angry person. There is untold story lurking under the surface. And it seems to me that a gentle spirit might just bring that narrative to light.
I don’t have any drugs to administer before sermons. Nor do I have any quick acting meds to give when I meet people as I am doing pastoral care at the hospital, or at the scene of a horrific crime. But I am confident that I will hit nerves. In moments of crisis, anger is a common emotion. I am going to try to be gentle and allow the real story to come out as needed.