Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Temper, Temper

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (Ephesians 4:25-32) transports me to the jury deliberation room for a murder trial, where a teenage boy is facing the death penalty if found guilty for the murder of his father. The initial vote is 11-1 guilty. After some discussion, the lone hold-out proposes a secret vote among the eleven others. If they all still agree, he says he’ll vote with them to make it a consensus. But if it’s not unanimous, they’ll continue deliberating. The resulting vote shows that he has won over one juror. Before long, tempers fray and flare, the heat rises in the room, and the jurors become, as the movie title promises, Twelve Angry Men. It’s a fascinating film, one that would never work in today’s cinematic ADD land, where the scenery has to rapidly change every few seconds to keep the audience’s attention. Here, though, virtually the entire movie (with the exception of beginning and ending scenes) takes place in that one deliberation room. The action consists of 90 minutes of conversation between the 12 angry men. The film-maker’s capacity to create and reveal such emotional depth and range with such a set-up really is a remarkable. It didn’t hurt to have such a great cast – Henry Fonda, Jack Klugman, Lee J. Cobb, and Ed Begley, to name a few. We only know them in the movie by their numbers: Juror #8, the architect who has the initial reasonable doubt. Juror #10, the prejudiced bigot. Juror #5, the young baseball fan. Juror #3, the hot-headed and impatient businessman. I have a particularly vivid memory of a scene where #3 loses his temper, thinking that #5 has changed his vote because he’s soft-hearted toward slum kids, and when #4 suggests that they calm down, that #3 is just “excitable,” #3 shouts back, “Excitable! You bet I’m excitable! We’re trying to put a guilty man in the chair where he belongs and then someone starts telling us fairy tales and we’re listening!”

Paul was writing to some apparently excitable folks when he penned his pastoral letter to the Ephesian church. He was writing to people who were deliberating about what to do about crime in the community. Like a clerk instructing a witness, he begins the passage by charging them to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And then, like a judge instructing a set of jurors, he tells them it’s ok to be angry, but not to sin, or miss the mark, in their anger. And then he gave them some sentencing guidelines: help the people in their community who have been caught stealing find some useful work. Give them a meaningful job. Paul’s final mandate seem to contradict his earlier instruction to be angry, for he concludes the passage by telling them to get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander. The community’s deliberations are to be marked by an absence of malice. Perhaps he is explaining here what it means to be angry and sin not. He goes on to add, Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Maybe the trick is to temper your anger with a dash of kindness and compassion.

That word “temper” is interesting in this context.  There’s more to temper than tantrums and pitching fits of fury. The word started out meaning “due proportion of elements or qualities.” It has to do with balance. “Temper” is something that you do when making chocolate (balancing out the melting and cooling). You also can temper a piano (balancing out the space between the notes when tuning), and you can temper metal (balancing the heating and cooling to strengthen steel or cast iron). Maybe Paul’s counsel on anger has something to do with these meanings and uses of the word “temper” – it is a fine balance of anger and love; justice is tempered by mercy. This balance will strengthen the life of the community. Oh, that we could strike such a balance in our communities today! It is a good Advent wish and prayer. As we gather with family around hearth and home, may our lives be tempered like a well-tuned piano and fine chocolate. Now that’s excitable!

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