When I was 28, I moved my family to Reynoldsburg from Detroit in 1992 in order that I could attend seminary to become a pastor. The company I worked for, Roadway Express facilitated the move, because my boss had a heart for Christ and wanted to help me become a pastor. So when I showed up on the dock as a supervisor at Roadway’s terminal on Frank Road outside of Grove City, everyone thought I was going to be Ned Flanders from the Simpsons. They were surprised that I was more like Homer, if every other word out of his mouth were a swear word.
One night on the dock, I tore into this new kid, probably about 18, for messing something up in the trailer he was loading in one of my doors. There was a lot of pressure on the dock. When my doors and floor were a mess then the entire operation was negatively impacted. What this kid had done would virtually shut the place down. I could hear my boss now, creatively communicating to me his frustration. So in anger, I told this 18 year old what a worthless human being he was, using words I wouldn’t even consider repeating now.
An older worker nearby who heard me demean and abuse this young guy, said wow. I turned on him, what did you say? Just wow, I thought you were going to be a pastor. Would you talk that way in a church? I am not in a church, I am on a messed up dock because of this miserable human being, again nicer words are substituted here. He just shook his head and said, you don’t get it, at some point we have to see all of our life as if we were in a church. And he left. At 28, I thought no way, am I ever going to be that sort of self righteous, churchy Christian, and went back to terrorizing this poor kid, just trying to earn money for college by working nights at Roadway.
Today is my birthday, I am 51. That incident was probably about twenty three years ago, enough time for me to realize I was dead wrong. The Christian journey is really about seeing all of our life as if we were in a church. Or, put another way, seeing every breath we take as though it were being breathed in the very presence of God. We don’t put on our Sunday clothes, and act one way when we are supposed to be holy, then take them off and act another way when we are safely outside the shadow of our church steeple. The church might not be full of saints, but everyone who calls themselves a Christian should be actively working on becoming a saint. In fact, verse 5:1 could be translated as keep on becoming an imitator of God. Keep on becoming.
We are sealed at the end of the baptism with oil on our forehead, as a sign that the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God lives within us now. This means that we take God everywhere we go. We leave the morning of our baptism with God. And God never leaves us from that moment. Whether we are on a Roadway dock under a lot of pressure, or sitting in the first pew singing Amazing Grace, God is there.
The writer of Ephesians, probably Paul, didn’t expect us to be perfect after our baptisms. He is just hoping we don’t live a life that makes God sad, grieving the Holy Spirit is the phrase he uses in 4:30. Paul believes that what we do with our mouths, maybe even more than our hands, is most often what makes God sad. We talk about free speech, hate speech, politically correct speech, what about Christian speech. What was the old saying when I was a kid, would you kiss your mom with that mouth? Would we talk to someone else that way if we thought God was in the room? Because from the moment of our baptism, God has been.
Paul warns us not to use our speech to tear someone down, demoralize them, make them feel less…human. The way we do this most often is when we get angry. Sometimes we have righteous anger, like the older worker’s anger at the way I was treating a young, inexperienced guy. But often our anger is about our stuff, our shame at being exposed differently than how we want to be seen. I thought of myself as someone who could handle their dock better than anyone else. At 28, I had more years of experience than all of the young college graduates who were dock supervisors. I had a lot to prove, coming from Detroit. My anger on that dock 23 years ago was all about me. It is this sort of anger that is hardest to control and subsequently brings about the words that are most likely to grieve the Holy Spirit, words that make God sad.
Quite simply, our words, all of them, always, even in righteous anger, should be kind. Our words should be full of understanding and forgiveness. When our words are kind, they can transform someone, rather than tear them down. That older worker made an impact on me, because in his righteous anger, he talked to me with care for who I was and who I was going to be. His words changed me, maybe not that night, but it is obvious the effect they had on me. Kindness does that. Nothing I said in my shame filled anger impacted the life of that 18 year old in a positive way. I tore him down, humiliated him, made him feel worthless. This is what happens when only anger and hate instead of love are behind our words.
I am a verbal person, any thought in my head fights to become a word on my tongue. Therefore, anger for me, righteous or shameful, is like a volcano. It has to explode somehow. At my worst still, I snap and I am short with someone, cut them down, humiliate them in front of others. At my best, I walk away, counting to ten. At work I might go into Thadd’s office, close the door and let it rip for a few minutes. Don’t tell Pastor Liz what will surely become part of her job. I hope God has someone to scream at before God gets to me on judgment day. I know myself enough to know what I have to do to find words of kindness instead of hate in my anger.
When Martin Luther reflected on this passage, he emphasized that it was about becoming like God, not being God. “We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.”After I count to ten, vent to a friend, or write an email that I erase, what I am trying to get to is kindness, empathy, forgiveness and grace. I want to be a churchy guy whose words positively impact the lives of others. What that older dock worker and wiser Christian taught me 23 years ago is that the Christian life is lived in our world, not just behind these walls. “We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.” The Holy Spirit has been sealed in my body. She is certainly listening. I hope to make her rejoice and not grieve in the week ahead. Amen.