It happened before I knew it.

One recent, early Sunday morning, driving to a small church for mass, a gray Ford pickup pulled out onto the blacktop, less than a quarter-mile in front of us.  He was driving at a steady pace and seemed to be matching my speed:  about 55 MPH.  At 6:35 a.m., I was still waking up, so I may have missed an earlier indication of what was about to transpire.

Approaching a sharp left turn in the road, we both slowed down, negotiated the turn, and continued on.  I followed, at approximately ten car-lengths behind.  Suddenly, he threw his left arm out the window, made an uncertain gesture with his arm…then, flipped me off…a sharp, crisp snap of the ol’ middle digit!

“What th—?” I muttered.
My wife asked, “What?”

I shook my head, said nothing, uncertain if I was even awake.  Perhaps I was dreaming?  Maybe I misunderstood.  Within several seconds, out again came the hostile bird, thrown into the air. 

“What on earth is your problem…?” I asked.  My wife replied, “What…?”
“Didn’t you see that…?!” I asked.
“See what?”
“The driver of that pickup…I think he’s flipping me off.  Didn’t you see it?!”
“Nope,” she said. 

Seconds elapsed.  As I explained what I’d just witnessed, we continued following at the same distance.  Soon, we approached another bend in the narrow country highway.  Both slowed, both accelerated at the same pace.  Simple.  What could be easier?

Suddenly, before either of us could say anything, the driver hoisted his erect middle finger yet again…this time, shaking it violently, and making a sort of peculiar corkscrew motion with his wrist.  (I thought that was especially creative.)

Immediately, I looked over at my wife.  She was staring straight ahead, eyes glued to the spectacle before us.
“Well...I saw that!” she said.

This bizarre behavior continued for another three miles, until we approached an intersection, where I needed to turn right.  The bird-launcher leaned into the left turn lane.  I pulled up alongside, to his right, and nudged ahead just enough to see around his pickup.  He was blowing his horn…frantically attempting to get me to look.  He really wanted me to engage with him, if his histrionics, shouting and horn-blowing were any indication.

“You sure that guy doesn’t know you…?” my wife asked.  “Really seems like he must.”
“What’s he doing?” I asked, as I completed the turn.
“He’s waving wildly and yelling,” she answered.
“So…what you’re saying,” I asked, incredulous, “…is that when somebody becomes angry and frenzied, it must be because they know me…?!  What?!”
“I’m just saying, he really seemed to know you.  He looked pissed!”
“Well, let’s see if he follows,” I said. 

In my mind’s eye, I was witnessing an old-fashioned bloody fistfight on the front steps of an aging, pastoral church.  “Perfect…” I muttered.

Alas, he didn’t follow.  On one level, he’d succeeded, I suppose, by occupying my thoughts when I’d otherwise be focused on the music we’d be singing that morning, from the choir loft. A good friend and choir companion, with whom I shared this incident, said, “I’m imagining myself walking up to you, sprawled on the steps, and asking, ‘You’re still singing the psalm this morning, right Carl?’”

“…as I’m spitting out teeth,” I replied.

​Since then, this near-violent display of Sunday morning rage has lingered in my mind…as news of the world plays out before us each day.  War, poisoned politics, mass murder…Uvalde, Buffalo, Ukraine…episodes of man’s willful inhumanity to man, one upon another, draw us ever closer to sheer madness.

Against this toxic backdrop, I’ve been pondering something over the last month…a passage in my calendar planner, as follows:

I have learned, in whatsoever state I am in, therewith to be content.
     -Saint Paul

Tradition holds that this passage, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, was written while he was imprisoned in Rome, between A.D. 59-63.  Confined to prison, facing certain death at any moment, Paul wrote to comfort the earliest Christians of the region of Philippi…his first established Christian community in Europe.  Indeed, every Christian of that time lived in constant danger of persecution and murder.  So, here’s Paul, incredibly, speaking of being “content.”

We know his famous letters – in the King James Bible – to be the closest derivation of the ancient Greek by which he wrote.  Later translations into more modern bibles, whether Catholic or Protestant, moved away from the use of this word, “content.”  Perhaps, in modern times, we’ve found the word “content” to be cognitively dissonant.  Why would anyone – least of all, Saul of Tarsus – speak of his “contentment” when imprisoned…? 

Are ANY of us truly content in our present state of life, with the many manifestations of turmoil, violence, and uncertainty we face every time we read the news or view social media?  Lest you beguile yourself into thinking it easy for Paul to feel content in his circumstances when writing this, a cursory review of history throughout the Mediterranean region of Paul’s day features bloody conquests, revolt, enslavement, political strife, crucifixions galore…and the compulsory contests of the coliseum, in which “lions versus Christians” always ended in the same bloody carnage.

Does that feel like an environment in which you could be content…?  Nor does it to me.

The complete passage of Paul’s letter (Philippians 4:11-12) goes like this:

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere, and in all things, I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

This cloak of humility in which Paul enwrapped himself had nothing to do with his physical situation.  Rather, the entire passage speaks of a mindset, adopted by Paul – against all odds – by which he could preserve his sanity, his demeanor…indeed, his soul.  It enabled him to offer encouragement and calm the nerves of his followers, amidst unspeakable human suffering and constant danger.

In the days since the horror of Uvalde, there have been at least two more incidents of a lone gunman, attempting to enter a school to disrupt summer programs, and potentially murder children – one in Texas, the other in Alabama.

Clearly, this is a problem that won’t fix itself.  “This” is rage:  blinding, merciless, hostile and pervasive.  By any other name, it is a form of evil.

When people – especially those of us from a Judeo-Christian upbringing – hear the term, “evil,” most think about faith – the perceived antidote.  But even James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in his famous letter:

Faith, without works, is dead.
     - James, 2:26 

The “works” to which James refers is the fruit of faith:  actions that demonstrate integrity of purpose, aligned with God’s will…if we truly believe.  In the case of gunmen with weapons of war, entering schools to commit murder, what are the “works” necessary to bring healing to our country?  Forget “political will.”  Do our elected leaders act in accord with moral imperative, or not?  Think about it.

Many of you reading this have children and/or grandchildren of school age.  What kind of world do you wish them to inherit?  Are you “content” with things as they are?

Graphic art:  "Beyond the Abyss"  - H.J. McEnroe

For the past eleven days, this intersection of rage and contentment has haunted me.  One needn’t be knocked off a horse to be confronted by one’s own demons.  But such confrontation, in the face of all that plagues our troubled world, compels me to wonder:  are any of us truly capable of embracing Paul’s message – a message of contentment – against all evidence to the contrary, from a troubled world?

Indeed, the apparently enraged fellow – launching a blitzkrieg of “angry birds” on an otherwise seemingly peaceful Sunday morning – was likely lashing out after so many perceived injustices.  Something about us driving on the same road, at the same time was – for him – the ubiquitous “last straw.”  Fortunately, for us, he didn’t employ a gun.  But many do.  If we truly aspire to Paul's message of contentment, then we must walk in Christ's footsteps.  For me, in this moment, praying for my assailant is not something with which I feel comfortable.  It is a work in am I.

This last straw, this line in the sand, this “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take anymore” attitude we’ve all adopted, at one time or another…is the demon within us.  The incomprehensible murder of nineteen fourth-graders, the racist murder of African Americans in a grocery store, the indiscriminate murder of Ukrainian civilians – these are what we reap in the absence of contentment…in the presence of evil.

Saint Augustine wrote: “Pray as if everything depended upon God; act as if everything depended upon you.”

Indeed, it is entirely within our reach to become more content – to act in accord with a healthier demeanor, in which we care for each other…thereby, to bless each other on our earthly journeys, helping one another strive beyond the abyss.

The only thing stronger than hate, the only force that can heal perceived injustices, the only antidote for the poison of our present human condition…is love.  It’s been ever thus, in a world ablaze in rage, crying out for healing. Only in love can we ever find contentment.  And only by becoming content – amidst all that imprisons us – can we ever be truly at peace, living as we were designed.

Of course, if my wife is correct, perhaps to know me is to flip me off.  Go figure.
Peace.  Shalom.

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