An Angry Tree
Since moving to Nashville, I have come to see that there is a peculiar change occurring in me week in and week out. I have never, ever, gone to a church that was as drenched in the gospel and soaked in the overwhelming grace of Jesus, as Immanuel Nashville. Hear me: they/we are far from perfect. I can find problems with anyone, and anything, ever, and can usually complain about something. But this isn’t a nitpicky sort of thing. I cannot in any way do anything but marvel at the power of God to change me that I am experiencing. And it’s not because of Ray Ortlund or any amazingly well-crafted process or program. In fact, it’s the opposite. There is no formula outside of Gospel + Safety + Time.
This exposure to a rowdy, nearly ridiculous group of outcasts who have all encountered grace through crippling brokenness is doing something to me.
For instance, I have never, ever, considered myself an angry person. Dour? Yeah. Depressed? Yes indeed. Lonely? Aloof? Proud? All of the above. But angry?
And since moving here I couldn’t account for the amount of raw, visceral anger coming out of me at nothing and no one. Just erupting like a bile-filled burst of putrid gas from the depths. And it has deeply confused me for the last seven weeks. Where was this coming from? Why?
I used to make a point of personal pride in saying that no one had ever seen me very upset. It’s true. People thought I was angry when I was just concentrating and would ask what I was angry about. In truth, nothing. But then I read something Ray said as recounted by another man I respect, Jared Wilson:
“Whatever your elders are, your church will become.” — Ray Ortlund
So I am a strange thinker. I tend to invert things to examine their truthfulness. I tend to examine transitive properties. If A = B and B = C then A = C. This sort of geeky hyperlogic runs aground, at times, but sometimes it uncovers something meaningful. And last Saturday, Sunday and then through today, this sort of breadcrumb gathering, Sherlockian self-examination led me to some shocking conclusions.
I am a very angry person. But I’m like a buried coal fire. You can walk around above it, maybe, wondering what that whiff is every now and then. You can take pictures of me and they don’t just seethe with my rage. But it’s there. And it has been since I was young. The gospel, the very message of the very authority of the very God of gods, Jesus Christ, is helping me see it and, hopefully, deal with it.
Some of you know I planted a church in 2013. None of you know the whole story. If you had asked me, in 2013, why I was planting a church, I could have given you an overt and detailed exposition on the church landscape in Montgomery, Alabama, the need for more churches, the passionate drive to make disciples, and to reach the lost. And all of those things were true to some degree.
But I also planted a church (God’s work) full of anger (my way). And I reaped the fruit of it.
I used to ask my provisional elders why my people were so angry. And I assure you, they were angry. To the person, they were usually angry at me (fair) and at God (not fair) and at each other (back to fair). And I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand. And I suffered with it. I wanted to point them to Jesus, repeatedly. I wanted them let go of their rage and their pain. But as the pastor, I couldn’t see my own rage so how on earth could they be expected to? Why should they let go of something I clung to?
I was angry with men who had betrayed me throughout my life and ministry. And yes, men is definitely plural. The betrayals were multiple. To quote Blues Traveler, as one does:
So desperately I sing to thee of love
Sure but also rage and hate and pain and fear of self
And I can’t keep these feeling on the shelf
I’ve tried, well no, in fact I lied… Blues Traveler, Hook
And instead of applying the liberal, free, beautiful and gently surgical grace of Jesus to my anger, I used it as fuel.
I have thought for so long about my failures. My failure to minister well. My failure to those people I loved and still love. I failed because I wanted to do God’s work in anger. I wanted to burn my city to the ground, in a sense, and say that it was fire from heaven.
I was an angry tree, producing angry fruit. And right now? Right now I am in a place of neediness like I have never been. I am in a place where I am not just ignoring the state of my heart anymore. I can’t. And this place where the gospel is touching me on every side isn’t allowing me to burn without consequence. It’s pushing me to let Jesus do what He wants to do in me, painful though it may be.
I wish I could leave you with something other than this bald, truthful sort of bluntness. I wish there was a flourish, but instead, let me give you a verse that lands with a thud:
 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (ESV)