Three hours passed. For most of the morning I sat in this man’s kitchen with his wife hovering close by, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing — always wringing her hands.
I had been places like this before. This man was angry at another man. And their conflict had poured over on to the little church they attended. And now, my host for the morning was pressing an ultimatum on the other members of his congregation. “They can support me or they can get out!” were the approximate words he had used at prayer meeting last week.
So, we sat for three hours and I allowed the angry man to pour out his story. As is common in these conflicts, hearing one side of the story tends to make you think that the person in the room with you is right. But experience tells you that judgment must be withheld until the other side of the story spills out.
That tale was poured over me that afternoon. But it didn’t take three hours. No, within about 5 minutes I learned that the angry man had all of his facts straight. “I did everything he is saying. But I did it 25 years ago. And I’ve apologized for the things I did wrong and the leaders from the church looked into the other things and publicly announced that I acted properly. But I’ve apologized privately to him for those things.”
In a few more interviews, I found that the events in controversy were more than two decades old. Sitting again with the angry man, I asked him if, indeed, apologies had been given — years ago.
“Yes,” he said. “But it doesn’t change anything. He was in the wrong and I don’t want him in my church.”
We had a church-wide meeting on the next Wednesday night. As is often the case, it wasn’t pretty, for a while. People had an opportunity to express themselves. I began to think that we were going to get to a pretty good place, when the man who was at the center of the controversy rose and walked over to where the angry man was sitting. Extending his hand, he said, “I’m obviously not doing something right. I want to ask your forgiveness. Would you please grant me that and shake my hand?”
The forty people in the small fellowship hall drew a collective breath and you could feel the oxygen levels drop. Every one seemed to remember at once the angry man’s vow to never accept this apology or shake this man’s hand.
Suddenly, the angry man’s wife stood and pulled her husband to his feet. Others around her stood with them as she gently pushed her husband’s arm forward. Hands met in that space between the men, though nothing was said.
As the contact ended, the church members in attendance broke into song — “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” People were hugging and crying. Their hearts were lifted as they perceived the conflict to be over.
They didn’t see what I saw from the front of the room. As soon as the song began, the angry man gave a scary look to his wife, grabbed his hat and left the room. The conflict lived. The angry man remained angry. Six months later, a new church was founded in the community made up of the few who wanted the man’s anger to be their central theme.
I made one more trip to that church and to that community. I visited the angry man and I asked him why he couldn’t let the anger go.
“You know, I’ve thought about it. But I’ve lived with these feelings for 25 years and now I can’t imagine waking up without them.”
The angry man died a few years later and he was still angry.
As I pray about my personal conflict, I’m discovering that anger has become too familiar to my daily life. I’m planning to sit down with the object of my anger in the next few days. I don’t know what the outcome will be. But I’m thinking, if I can just release my anger, there would be a lot more room for good things.
To make that release, I have to look at the way that anger works in these long-term conflicts. Most of the time anger is the reaction to some deeper fear. And usually the deepest fears are over the loss of relationships.
Day two, find a time to meet. And instead of waiting until the moment of contact, begin releasing anger now.