“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23a
“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
In 2014 I am not taking the fruits one by one, but what it might be to live a fruitful life.
April — Integrity
What is required to live a life of loving kindness, joyful engagement, peaceful and gentle and patient existence with others, true generosity, faithfulness, and personal self-control? First, I believe, it requires a vision of perfection always just beyond reach. Second, it requires a positivity — an attitude and energy for building up rather than tearing down. Lastly, it demands a complete integration of values, thoughts and actions that pursue the first two requirements. When we achieve this fundamental integrity, it will be evident in the fruit we produce. “Moving onto perfection” is not something we can do, but it is what God is doing in and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. All we can do is decide to be open to the possibility, then give ourselves over to the will of God. Simple, huh? The problem is that we are human, and as humans we don’t do humility, servitude, sacrifice or change very gracefully. Perhaps the greatest challenge to living life with integrity is our ability to get out of our own way…
God will not do this without our consent or cooperation. God will not MAKE us perfect, be we can become perfected through God’s love and grace. It still demands that we work on it. It demands mindfulness and intentionality. It demands that we make hard decisions and that we take responsibility for those decisions. We will be faced with choices many times each and every day. These are sometimes straightforward binary choices — cruelty or kindness, hate or love, contempt or respect, intolerance or patience, violence or peace. Often, the choices are complex and unclear — truth or tact, doing what is “necessary” or doing what is “right”, reprimanding or ignoring, speaking the truth in love or protecting someone’s feelings. This is where we provide a framework for our interactions in the world. If we make a declarative commitment — “everything I think, do or say will be to build up, affirm, strengthen, celebrate or generate positive regard” — we set a standard by which we contribute to the health and well-being of our community. This is a choice — it will not happen regularly and well by accident. Will we create that which fosters the fruit of the Spirit or not. No equivocating, no excuses, no “buts” — will we commit to contribute to a greater good or will we demand our own way and deny our responsibility to be better than we otherwise are? Fruit can grow wild, but it is through cultivation that fruit flourishes. It is in the rich and fertile soil of personal integrity that we become the nurturing medium through which God’s work and will can be accomplished.
March — Community
Christian community, what a concept! What would authentic Christian community look like? Would it be comprised of a large number of similar and strikingly homogenous people? Would we look alike, sound alike, think alike, and act alike? That hardly seems possible, given the diversity of God’s children here on earth. Ours is a God of synergy — together we are greater than the sum of our parts. Fruit is a great metaphor for this. Apples, oranges, bananas, pineapple, peaches, pears, kiwi (not to mention adding in berries and melons). Colors, textures, tastes, juice — individually wonderful, blended into amazing varieties. A tragic myth of community is a vision for mediocrity — a desire for comfort, security, and a preservation of the status quo. We don’t want people in our community who are disruptive, who ask to many questions, who try to change things. We don’t want sour or smelly, weird or exotic, immature or overripe. One of the greatest challenges we face is the difference between who WE want in our community and who GOD wants in our community. The problem is, God wants a whole lot of people that we don’t.
But God knows this about us, which is why God doesn’t leave us to create community on our own. By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we are empowered to achieve for God what we won’t accomplish on our own. The odd stranger, the person who holds very different values from the majority, the person of color, the intellectual who questions everything, the poor woman with bad hygiene – how will we ever draw our circle large enough to include them all? Once more, think fruit. If we are serious about honoring God and cultivating true community, God will produce in us some strange and marvelous fruit. Unconditional love that welcomes all, exuberant joy that encourages and inspires, a radical peace-making/peace-keeping commitment in personal, social and global relationships, unshakeable and unwavering patience with those who test us, a gracious kindness that cares for everyone, and a generosity that will stop at nothing to provide for the needs of others will be normal. A resolute faithfulness in the goodness of God and the triumph of mercy, justice and compassion, as well as a gentle and tolerant way of treating the stranger, and a mature self-awareness and self-control are shared by all. This is God’s will for God’s people — and God wants us all to be together, a community where everyone belongs.
February — Balance
Human beings have a very simple decision to make each and every day of their lives “will I make life better or worse?” We do not generally spend much time reflecting on the almost limitless power we wield. I can make a person feel good or bad with a simple word. We can offer a compliment or an insult. We can smile or frown. We can extend patience or irritation. We can make eye contact or remain downcast. We can praise or condemn. We can build up or tear down, gush or gossip, clarify or obfuscate. Simple choices make us a force for good or one to be reckoned with. For person’s of Christian faith, there should actually be NO choice. With Christ as our example and the Spirit as our guide, we should produce only one kind of fruit — good. In what we say, what we do, what we think, what we share, others should know “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
For me, the key to producing the fruit of God’s Spirit requires balance. What I mean by this is the establishment of a stable and consistent equilibrium. I need to take time to decide what kind of actions and reactions I will have during the day. Instead of waiting for the day to happen to me, I determine what kind of day I plan to have. For example, I can almost guarantee that someone driving their car will annoy me, irritate me, outrage me, and generally tick me off. I know someone will be thoughtless, rude, oblivious, or selfish on the road. I know it. It shouldn’t surprise me. It isn’t like I don’t see it coming. If I know it will happen, how will I respond? If I wait and react, it won’t be pretty. But if I prepare and act, I can offer grace, tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness. Why? Because I make a decision to. I find my balance. I don’t get knocked off-center. I can cultivate and produce the fruit I want to share. I know that the lady in front of me at the coffee shop is going to pay for three separate orders with nickels and pennies when I am in the greatest hurry. I know the man at the service station will take four phone calls before he will wait on me. I know that no matter what line I get in at the bank, it will be the slowest moving. I know these things. Why let them bother me when they actually occur?
Luscious fruit is not an accident. It is planted, nurtured, cultivated, harvested and shared. If the world is to know the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit it will only be through the dutiful, mindful and intentional labors of God’s people. Bring balance to your life by bringing balance to your faith, and with your faith firmly planted, bring balance and harmony to a reactive and often less than kind world.
December — Love
When we determined that our quadrennial theme in Wisconsin would be “living the fruit of the Spirit” a few pastors said, “Why don’t we just make the theme LOVE — that’s THE fruit of the Spirit; that’s the greatest gift of the Spirit.” I disagree with this reductionist line of thought. Paul does write of love being a “greater gift,” but it does not supersede all others making them irrelevant, nor does the fruit of love fully include joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity/goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Love is one dimension, one facet, that anchors and supports all others — without love, we are in deep, deep trouble. But our penchant to make everything Christian and God-based “love” does not serve us well. We make love mushy and maudlin. We make love sappy and sentimental. We make love all about emotion and intention. But the fruit of love is more substantial than that. Love was not a “feeling” in the time of Jesus and Paul – it was action pure and simple. Real love motivates and activates. Real love costs. Real love bleeds and suffers. The “God so loved the world” statement we all “love” so well is about the tragedy of sacrifice of the good for the undeserving. Love is often unjust, unfair, uncomfortable, and painful. When Micah reminds us that God “requires” us to “love mercy,” this does not mean we are open to the idea that we might be kind and compassionate. It means we will reorder our lives to forgive, serve, and redeem those who don’t necessarily deserve it.
The opposite of love is not hate — love and hate are brother and sister. The opposite of love is apathy or indifference. The antithesis of love is talking about it without living it. Nothing is a greater travesty than reducing love to an emotion, a feeling, an “orientation”. Jesus wept… Christians who spout “love, love, love” from the comfort and complacency of middle-class American couch-potatoism are hypocrites, liars, and false prophets. Love gets us up off our asses, out of our pews, out of our sanctuaries, into the lives of those who have less and need more than we do. Love came down at Christmas, but it got wrapped in tissue paper, placed lovingly in a shoe box, and stuck up high on a closet shelf. Time to get it back out and actually use it for a change…
September — Peace
Living in the United States affords one a privilege that the vast majority of the world does not enjoy — a sense of comfort, security and peace. Of course, this applies mainly to white, middle-to-upper class, educated, insulated, isolated men and women locked up in safe, middle-to-upper class homes in privileged neighborhoods. If you are young, black, and poor you may not know what I am talking about. If you live in one of our inner city slums, you also may think I am crazy. If you are gay or lesbian, you might not resonate, either. But what I am thinking about at the moment are people in Syria and Pakistan and Israel and five dozen places in Africa and specifically Egypt and Iran and Iraq and hundreds of other places where violence and injustice and fear are “normal.” I think of places where soldiers walk the streets with automatic weapons, and where civilians carry weapons in self-defense against real and imagined enemies. I think about a world where people in power positions decide the use of chemical weapons is acceptable and the knee jerk response is to use violence to teach them the error of their ways. I see how fear and anger are powerful emotions that lead us to make our worst decisions. I think about Jesus blessing the peace-makers, and I wonder what Jesus is thinking at the moment. Do we understand peace? Do we understand mercy? Do we understand that the wages of sin is death, and that aggression motivated by fear is one of the worst forms of sin?
Peace is much more than the absence of violence. Peace is an intention of the heart and mind that demands an ultimate commitment of nonaggression, nonviolence, nonvengeance, and nonretribution. It isn’t about getting even, but being even. It isn’t about destroying the enemy, but finding a place where enemies can coexist and come to understanding beyond difference and division. Is it idealistic? Damn straight. Peace is hard. Peace will cost us dearly. Peace will require we change. But peace is a far sight better than the alternatives. If we believe God is God, that Jesus is Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit is more than a nice idea, then we have got to find a better way to live than through war and violence. This is a fruit too sweet and too precious to ignore. Preach peace. Promote peace. Live peace. Be peace.
July — Self-Control
Recently I spoke to a group of teenagers about the fruit of the Spirit, and we talked about those we felt really good about as well as those that were the greatest challenge for us. Patience was pretty high up, but the top spot belonged to self-control. Doing the things we know we should, not doing the things we shouldn’t, saying things we won’t regret, being kind to those who don’t deserve it, controlling tempers — these were the daily battles the young people reflected on. For myself, on a personal note, I have begun a regimen of physical therapy, exercise, and diet all required due to chronic back problems. There is not one thing I am being asked to do that is not good for me in both the short- and long-term. But it is a royal test of my self-control. Red meat, poultry, cheese, saturated fats, sugars (and, oddly, bananas…) are all off-limits. Since starting the diet, I come to realize that there are at least 15 pizza commercials per hour on television — and pizza has never look SO GOOD!
But this has been an interesting experience. I am in pain almost constantly, so I have a regular reminder why this is so important. I have a vision for a better life — better for my wife, for my son, for my friends and colleagues. I don’t want to miss out on the joy and fulfillment that comes from being able to do normal things in a normal way. I am deeply motivated, and when that motivation comes from the heart, it is powerful. I am choosing not to frame what I am doing in terms of sacrifice — what I must do without, give up, deny myself. Instead, I am focusing on what I can gain and what I can enjoy in the moment. Enjoying the food I can eat is much more satisfying and sustainable than pouting over what I can’t eat. I am looking at the physical therapy and exercise as challenge to improve — bit by bit. I track my weight day-by-day with built in incentives for particular milestones (yes, I am giving myself permission to have an occasional lapse without guilt or recrimination — but I have to earn it). Self-control is more about self than control. Control feels negative, but working on “self” — to make it better, stronger, healthier — this seems like a really good idea. And with the help of God and the support of Christian community, and interesting paradox emerges: for me to be the very best “self” I can be, I need a lot of help and support from others. Self-control is not solo-control, but is so much easier when it is the work and interest of a community. I am always amazed at what I can do for others that I simply can’t do for myself, and what I can do with others that I cannot do alone. Perhaps the key to “self-control” is the simple fact that none of us can do it alone.
June — Joy
Reflect back over the years and see if you remember moments of true joy. How is joy different from happiness? Most people can think of any number of times when they were happy, but joy is a bit more rare and elusive. Joy is transcendent. Joy takes us by surprise — it overwhelms. Joy transforms. But joy isn’t intended to be a rare and precious treasure, only happening from time to time. Joy is a fruit of God’s Spirit, and it is intended by God to be the norm, the standard by which people of faith live. The word “enjoy” in an earlier form did not simply mean to like something or feel pleasure about something. To “enjoy” was to actively bring joy into a situation or relationship. Enjoyment was an infusion of joy. It was not so much about an individual’s experience of something as it was an opportunity for an individual to spread joy. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if our congregation’s today made “enjoyment” a priority in worship, fellowship, study, and service? What if we saw it as our “job” to bring joy into every relationship, every situation? What if joy wasn’t just something we feel, but something we DO? Reframing the church as being “in the joy business” opens a whole new vista. We could give joy to one another. We could give joy to the neighborhood. We could give joy to the town, city or community we’re in. We could give joy to other churches. We could give joy to our schools and our businesses and our governments. We could make producing and sharing the fruit of joy “our thing.” Grab hold of those wondrous, joy-filled moments in your life — what can you do to share that joy with others?
March — Gentleness
When did we decide that honesty and tact were mutually exclusive? We are admonished to speak the truth in love, not blast away with both barrels in an attempt to annihilate and destroy anyone with whom we disagree. Are their emotionally heated topics that we care deeply about and don’t wish to compromise? Certainly, but this does not give us the right to attack, insult, abuse or otherwise do violence to those we oppose. Christians, above all others, should hold this standard sacred. Yet, often some of the most hateful, hurtful and evil speech spews forth from Christian lips. Shame on us. The scriptural instruction to gentleness is so foreign to our contemporary culture. In its original context, the concept of gentility meant the treatment of those in the same tribe or family. To be gentle was to treat others as we would loved ones. What a concept! Scriptural concepts of kindness, mercy, far-feeling (patience), consideration, compassion, etc., were intended to guide us to treat strangers the same ways we would treat family — to extend the reach of our gentleness globally. Jesus pushed the expectation to include enemies and opponents.
Is there ever a justifiable reason to attack, wound, injure, insult, aggravate, assault, disrespect, denigrate, humiliate or otherwise do violence to another? Certainly we defensively try to justify our actions whenever we engage in these acts, but we would do well to reconsider. Just because the world accepts these things as “normal” doesn’t mean that we have to accept them as reasonable or tolerable. We could hold ourselves to a higher standard, adopting only the antithesis of worldly ways. What would it do if Christians committed to care, to heal, to affirm, to praise, to encourage, to admire, to respect, to celebrate, to honor, and to make peace with everyone, regardless of whether we agree with them or not. There is some good in just about everyone. It is our choice whether to look for the good or only to focus on the bad. We have no control over others; all we control is ourselves. Let us choose to be gentle, to be kind, to be loving, caring and giving, and see what kind of world it makes.
February — Faithfulness
The opposite of faithfulness I want to reflect on is betrayal — not the big, hairy, horrendous betrayals of afternoon and evening soap operas, but the day-to-day betrayals that most see as no big deal. What am I talking about? Things like gossip, spreading rumors, emotional triangles we create and participate in, and simply keeping quiet when we ought to speak in defense of another. These practices and many like them violate the core values of faithfulness — fidelity, loyalty, trust, and integrity.
Why do human beings love gossip so much? What do we gain by talking negatively about other people behind their backs? Why do we latch onto salacious rumors and spread them to anyone who will listen? What’s wrong with us? Were we to understand “faith” better, we might understand it is not something we “have” but it is something we “keep.” Keeping faith is the highest form of stewardship. We have been entrusted with the heart, spirit, reputation and emotional well-being of everyone with whom we are in community. To say we believe in God but not to protect and defend God’s children means we really have no faith at all. To believe in God means to believe God, and to emulate the grace of Christ — to treat all others as we would treat Jesus himself.
The true measure of our devotion to God is how well we care for one another. The fruit of faithfulness is the ability to cultivate beloved community and to set aside personal preferences, needs and agendas to contribute to the common good. It is not about what we think of or believe about God. It is the outward and visible expression of what we believe made tangible and real to our neighbor.
We have a very simple decision to make: will we contribute to the toxic, destructive, base and petty energy so prevalent in our culture or will we oppose and refute it? To make a commitment to create an environment of acceptance, love, mercy, forgiveness, peace, justice, fairness, kindness and equality is to be faith-full. Let us strive to be faithful in all that we say and do, so that all might catch a glimpse of God’s grace and glory in us.
November — Generosity
What is the opposite of generosity? Easy – selfishness. And for me, selfishness = sin. I cannot think of one sin that is not nurtured in the fertile soil of selfishness. Selfishness is putting oneself before all others — including God. Selfishness destroys compassion and makes mercy irrelevant. So long as I have what I want, I am okay. I don’t have to care what anyone else has, needs, or wants. Selfishness is the throne of gluttony, greed, jealousy, and ambition. It fosters pride, invites sloth, lays a foundation for an entitlement mentality, and promotes self-righteousness. It demands its own way, cares nothing for the feelings of others, and has to be better than everyone else. It is impatient, unkind, volatile, violent, abrasive and arrogant. Sadly, many of these qualities are the way secular outsiders view the church of Jesus Christ. Those who pursue a prosperity gospel, seek to equate nation with holiness, strive to disenfranchise and judge others have no fruit of generosity to share. The fruit of generosity not give to others rots quickly.
True generosity costs nothing, but it is not cheap. True generosity demands little but provides much. I witnessed a true act of grace and generosity recently in a small, rural congregation. One of the lay leaders has been outspoken against gay and lesbian visitors to the church, unintentionally offending another lifelong member whose daughter is a lesbian. Other members of the congregation report that the man was hateful in his condemnation of gay and lesbian people, and a division was growing in the church. The woman’s daughter died recently in a tragic accident, and the lay leader was the very first to respond and visit with the woman. He offered true prayers of comfort, asking God to receive “a child of his own making,” and he even paid many of the funeral expenses. I sat with him at a luncheon and asked how the whole incident has affected his thinking. His response was genuine and thoughtful: “I still believe homosexuality is sinful… but when a child dies you don’t force your own beliefs on others. You just love everyone involved and trust God to sort it all out. I love my church family a lot more than I dislike a behavior I disagree with. I could do no less than to offer my comfort and support.”
Regardless of a person’s position on the LGBT reality, this story touches at the heart of true generosity — the denial of self: the same denial Jesus embraced for the salvation of the world. To consider others more important than self, to set aside personal convictions to care for those in need, to value relationships more than getting one’s own way — these embody the essence of true generosity.
August – Kindness
There are almost too many choices when contemplating the opposite of kindness. Cruelty is the obvious first choice. Hurtful words, hurtful actions, hurtful intentions, actual violence — so many ways to abuse power and use one’s resources to injure another. Why would anyone think such behavior is acceptable? Yet, we see it every day. We are in an election year. The political ads are appalling. Hateful, evil, fabricated, distorted, angry, cruel messages crafted with one purpose — to hurt a human being and turn a population against them. One need look no further to see how cruelty has been turned into a cultural art form.
Apathy comes to mind as another choice. Those who I am able to ignore I am able to dismiss and devalue. Placing others beneath my notice or interest is a subtle form of cruelty. To withhold kindness is to be unkind. Sins of omission can be more violent than sins of commission. To pretend that I have no responsibility to my fellow human being is more than insensitive. It is cruelty sublime.
Criticism is a caustic form of cruelty — especially when it is painted as “constructive.” Oh, what deep satisfaction one might gain by letting another know their flaws, foibles and failings. What joy to be able to point out another’s blemishes and faults. Why is it so easy to see the worst in others instead of celebrating the best?
In the Greek, the word we translate “kindness” also could be “gentleness,” but both in their early forms they relate to the fundamental nature of the individual — kindness (or lack of same) is the indicator of the person’s true self. Kindness is not something we DO, but kind is something we ARE (or are not). An appropriate prayer might be, “Lord, make us kind; and when we fail, forgive us and help us to become that which we are not.”
July – Patience
This is an easy one — the opposite of patience is impatience. Ah, but the Greek word we often translate as “patience” is more accurately “far-feeling,” a concept with a much broader and deeper meaning. Far-feeling means acceptance, tolerance, inclusiveness, embrace, rapport and respect. Yikes! Jesus Christ was truly serious about our conduct aligning with our confession. We are truly intended to be loving and grace-filled with everyone! Oh, I know there are some powerfully selfish Christians that say this only extends to people within the fellowship (in context to Paul’s writing), but these people want to ignore the gospel of Jesus Christ altogether. Some narrow-minded fools in the early church wanted God’s grace to be exclusive and limited, but they fell by the wayside as heretics. But I must learn to extend far-felling to all those who refuse to extend far-feeling to others. That is the challenge. Far-feeling or patience, either one, do not depend on the other, but they are fully my own responsibility. Follow my thinking here. If everyone agreed with me, acted as I think they ought, shared my values and beliefs — I wouldn’t need patience. Only those who differ with me try my patience. The test of patience (or far-feeling) is the OTHER — those who are different. If I only extend patience to my fellowship, I am doing nothing extraordinary. It is when I am patient with the most trying, the most vexing, the most irritating that the fruit is fully formed within my heart and soul. I cannot conceive a valid argument against harmony, compassion, kindness, love or grace. It broke my heart at General Conference this year to hear church leaders state on the floor of plenary that only people who accept Jesus Christ as Messiah are children of God. The implication that there are human beings that are not children of God is the most sinful concept I can think of. What part of creation did God not create. What human being on earth is created in an image other than God’s. Who among us has the right to say to another, “you are not a child of God?” Ah, but these people merely test my patience — and, oh yes, they are already part of the fellowship. Our work is cut out for us. It is time to pass the fruit.
March — Peace
The opposition to peace is great — war, violence, anxiety, unrest — take your pick. Peace is one of the most fragile of all the gifts God gives. Broken peace always results in harm. I am not sure peace exists in nature. There is great savagery in creation — from tempest to flood to earthquake to volcano; in insects, fish, mammals, and birds. Violence is all around. A brutal competition for supremacy, power and control. Even in the most basic fulfillment of human need — food, shelter, clothing, food. Violence is natural, peace is the exception. Perhaps this is why Jesus blesses peace-makers. Those who work, strive, sacrifice, invest, commit, and struggle for peace are cultivating a beauteous and wonderful fruit. By the fruit of peace, healing occurs. By the fruit of peace, hope springs eternal. By peace, reconciliation is possible. By peace, the kingdom of God might be experienced here and now. Blessed indeed are those who create peace, for without peace we have no future.
February — Joy
We often view the opposite of joy to be sorrow or despair. This makes sense on one level, when we equate joy with happiness. But roots of the word “joy” come from the archaic “gladden” which originally meant “to make bright” or “to make flawless.” In this case, I think a more appropriate opposite for joy might be apathy or boredom. To be indifferent in a world rich in wondrous sights and sounds, relationships and opportunities, is to truly live a joyless existence. Certainly there are forces at work to make us despair or feel sorrow, but they are only part of the equation, and through the glorious gift (responsibility) of free will, we get to choose whether we will focus on the positive or the negative. We are not victims of life, but co-authors with God to create the life we need to have. I carry a number of chronic afflictions through my daily life. Not a day goes by that I am not in pain. But I decided a long time ago not to let the pain define me. I keep my sense of humor (twisted though it may be). I attempt to be kind to others, pleasant at the very least. I fail sometimes, but more often than not I try to find the ironic, amusing and absurd in life, and nothing makes me happier than to cause others to laugh. Believe me, it would be very easy to give into the pain and complain all the time. But where’s the fun in that?
Joy is not so much a feeling as a condition. When we are able to dwell in the land of joy, it is impossible to be bored or indifferent. In the glory of God’s creation, it is a sin to feel apathetic. Apathy comes when we lose focus and forget who we are, who God is, and why we are here. There are times when nothing much is happening in our lives. This is when boredom sets in. But there is never a time when we can’t choose to care for, help, serve, engage with, encourage, share with, or be kind to others. If we are proactive in our relationships to our neighbors and friends, we simply will never have time to get bored. So, joy is a choice we make, not something we wait for and hope might come our way. The fruit joy – planted in us by God’s own Spirit — is something that we can cultivate, nurture, tend, feed, water, and grow so that we have more than enough for ourselves and plenty to share with everyone we meet. Apathy, boredom, indifference and doldrums beware — all these cease to exist when the fruit of joy is served.
January — Love
What is the opposite of love? The quick, easy answer is hate, but I’m not sure I believe it. I think the roots of hate go deeper and spring from another source. Some say that fear is the opposite of love, and there is some merit — much hate and violence that we encounter is a result of fear. Others contend that ignorance is the antithesis of love — that when we are ignorant we are incapable of the capacity for unconditional love. This strikes closer to truth for me. But I believe the soil from which hate fear, and ignorance all grow is selfishness. When what I want, what I think, what I believe I know, and what I expect are more important than the wants, beliefs, and needs of others, love is impossible — or, at the very least, a sad shadow of what it should be. Selfishness pushes us to demand our own way. Selfishness causes us to sit in judgment of others. Selfishness generates self-righteousness. Selfishness is sin, and it is extremely prevalent in the human institution known as “the church.”
Churches are demanding institutions, and when selfishness is a driving force, the results are ugly. Change a worship time and see how many people are outraged. When people dislike a pastor, how do they behave? Do they stay home? Does it impact their giving? If strangers visit, especially those from the fringes of our society, how do people respond? Change the music style? Allow children to be noisy in worship? Add big screens to the sanctuary. Rearrange the kitchen. Begin holding members accountable to their vows. Are the reactions loving, tolerant, inclusive, and gracious? If so, you know love. Are the reactions angry, petulant, indignant, or contemptuous? You got selfishness.
When we are defined by love we are more patient, more giving, more open and accepting. Read I Corinthians 13. Love isn’t rude and it doesn’t demand its own way. When our Christian faith is “all about me,” it is grounded and rooted in selfishness. When, by God’s grace, we seek to live God’s love in relationship to others, we know the transforming power of God’s own Spirit. Love casts out fear. Love abolishes hate. Love conquers ignorance. But love can only blossom when we get over ourselves and deny self in favor of a loving God. Love means we deny our baser instincts and rise above our human limitations to become who God truly wants us to be. When self and love become one, what a miracle takes place!
December — Faithfulness
What does it mean to be “faith-filled”? The Greek “pistis” means “a core conviction of integrity or rightness.” Faith is not mere belief, but an assurance. The root concept ties into the concept of a level, stable surface — no chance of slipping or sliding. In this Advent season, I read our scriptures in the initial chapters of Matthew and Luke and I see a world desperately out of alignment, slanted and slewed, tottering on the brink of collapse — threatening to crush those least able to cope. What could possibly bring balance and stability back to such a world? Many things come to mind, but surely the answer could not conceivably be an infant child! At a time calling for great power, for retribution, for displays of authority and might, a helpless baby seems like a terrible choice. But the rightness of God’s wisdom and will transcends our human imagination. Our solution was not provided full-blown and complete. He needed to grow, to learn, to develop, to improve, to become. This is the heart of faith — believing that what we have is what we need and learning the patience and wisdom to allow it to become what God needs us to have. Our modern compulsive, instant-gratification demanding, entitlement-mentality driven culture struggles mightily with such alternatives. Yet, if all our problems are remedied for us, what is the purpose of faith? We all want to “be” — fully formed, complete, revealed and finished — more than we want to “become.” But faithfulness is the outward and visible sign of our growing capacity to “become” more than we already are and everything God desires us to be. God places within us the seeds for an infant faith prepared to grow and mature into something adult and healthy — but it takes time. The fruit of faithfulness is the nourishing, sweet, fragrant gift of becoming. What we will “be” only God — and time — will tell.
October — Generosity
Generosity is an ethos, not an act. Generosity is a value, not a behavior. It is a pity that we so often focus on generosity as something we do rather than as the ground and spirit out of which we live. Generosity is seen not only in what we give and sacrifice, but in the very essence of what we think and say. The most generous person I know is dirt poor. She lives in a trailer in northern Alabama, and she is the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate spirit in the world. She cares for any and all animals she encounters, she helps anyone in need, but more than that, she looks for and finds something good in everyone. She smiles no matter how she feels. She waves to people, she compliments them, she picks flowers and gives them away. She rarely has two nickels to rub together, but she is as likely to buy a small gift for someone who is ill or has suffered a loss as she is to buy herself a loaf of bread. She never complains — she doesn’t even believe she has anything to complain about. This is the true spirit of generosity — a person so content that she can only consider the needs and comfort of others. There is not a greedy or selfish bone in her body. This is truly exceptional, super-human even. Yet, I believe it is the vision and goal God has for each and every one of us. The seeds are planted within each of us to produce the fruit of generosity. And this fruit truly feeds and nourishes a culture of kindness and grace. May our prayer be simple and direct: “Lord, make us generous in all that we think and say and do. Amen.”
September — Love
What are the limits of love? We speak in the church of “unconditional love,” but we rarely mean it. We struggle to offer love to those we feel don’t deserve it. Congregations are ripped apart by those who claim that “God is love,” yet they treat one another with hostility, disrespect and contempt. Whole denominations quiver and quake over the question of gay love — there are definitely limits to our acceptance of “unconditional” love. We certainly don’t want to love sinners, even though that is precisely what Christ commands us to do. And thanks be to God that God loves us, sinners all. It is so easy to love those who are easy to love. Clean people who dress and speak like we do are okay to love. People who don’t make us uncomfortable or anxious or try to change things are lovable. People who aren’t too sick or emotionally unbalanced or disruptive are okay — we can love them. And certainly, we can love abstractly from a distance. Starving children in Africa we love to pieces; its the hungry children on the poor side of our own town we aren’t as concerned with. We love the homeless when they stay out on the street. We love them much less when they come into our church. Unwed mothers? Junkies? Prostitutes? Gang-bangers? Well, we hope someone somewhere loves them, and we would love them if they would just stop doing what they do and straighten up. Then they would be easy to love.
We don’t want love to be hard. We don’t want it to cost anything. We all want to be loved, but loving shouldn’t be difficult or demanding. After all, WE are easy to love. As long as we get what we want and no one does anything to anger or annoy us, we are lambs (and who doesn’t love a sweet, soft little lamb?). God so loved the world that he gave his own son. It cost Jesus his life. Were we worth it? We look at people in our world today, and at some subconscious level we decide whether or not we think THEY are worth it. The simple truth is that real love is costly. Loving the unlovable is the challenge of the Christian faith. Making room for those who have no room, welcoming those whom we would rather not, and giving kindness, compassion, grace and encouragement to those we disagree with and even find offense in — these are not choices we have to make. There is no choice. If we hope to call ourselves “Christian” these are the things we will do, because this is what love is all about.
August — Joy
In a pleasure-driven, instant-gratification-centered, consumeristic culture, we manage to suck all the power and possibility from a world-changing concept such as joy. Joy isn’t happiness. Joy isn’t fun. Joy isn’t pleasure. Joy is joy — chara, in the Greek — which connotes energy, essence, and spirit. Chara is a force. Joy is active. Joy isn’t something we feel; it is something we are and do. True joy is a condition in which we live — a deep, faith-filled knowledge of the goodness and greatness of God. Joy produces in us gratitude, appreciation, thanksgiving, celebration and contentment. Joy satisfies — we no longer strive to fill our lives with material goods and constant acquisition of more. Joy = balance — having what we want by wanting what we have.
Joy is contagious. Where joy prevails, conflict fades. Competition, contention, aggression, suspicion and distrust are all destroyed by joy. We grow to value one another more when our hearts and minds are governed by joy. What a shame we often neglect joy in the church. We speak often of duty and obligation, discipline and sacrifice, but without the counter-balancing gospel of joy, our faith is always incomplete. Let us commit ourselves to being faithful stewards of joy, working to create and increase it wherever and whenever we can.
July — Kindness
Is kindness impossible? In its purest form, it means to treat others as kin — to see others as blood relations. It means that we are all family — related in a fundamental and undeniable way. It requires that we accept one another, even when we disagree. In the context of Judaic law, it means that family and tribe are more important than anything else; in the Christian sphere, it means that we must gracefully embrace and include even those with whom we have serious disagreements. Who deserves kindness? Only those who “earn it,” “deserve it,” or we care to give it to? Nope. Sorry. The test of kindness is how well we extend it to our enemies, our opponents, and our adversaries. Criminals? The should receive our kindness. Sinners? We should love them unconditionally. Those who understand God’s will differently than we do? Kindness is the only way we will find common ground. To be kind is to be like Christ and to witness to the true nature of God. It should never be confused with “nice.” Nice is happy and friendly and wimpy and lame. Kind is powerful and transformative and Godly and sane. It is time for the church of Jesus Christ to become kind — so that the world might know that God truly is love and that there is a place at the table for all who love God.
June — Justice
For many, the concept of justice is a triple standard. Personally, justice means I get what I feel entitled to. I want to be treated fairly, with respect, and I shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable or judged by others. For others, justice is getting what they deserve – especially those I disagree with — they should be punished, controlled, and taught a lesson they are unlikely to forget. Globally, justice is an abstraction, whereby everyone should be fairly treated — as long as they are not getting anything I am not, and as long as they do receive the punishment I think just. Conditional justice is the norm today, however in context it is not a slippery and flexible concept. To “do justice” places a burden on behavior — and not be concerned with whether or not the individual feels treated fairly. This passage isn’t about us — but about how we treat others. And it is a fairly inclusive and absolute injunction that encompasses social, cultural and economic fairness. In the Biblical frame of righteousness, it os doing what is right for all. Justice is a more than isolated actions and behaviors, though. It is more like an energy field — justice is a fair and equal environment, where every participant is responsible for its equilibrium and preservation. Justice really shouldn’t be a choice, but the outward manifestation of the Golden Rule - all treating one another as they themselves seek to be treated. If one receives something that another does not, justice is not being served. If inequalities are “normal,” justice is not being served. If some are judged for their sins while others are passed over, justice is not being served. If we are more concerned with what we receive than what we give, justice is not being served. God calls us beyond merely “doing justice” to “being just” in all our dealings. Think not to your own needs, instructs Paul, but think first of the needs of others. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself. Justice is not just an abstract concept of fairness; justice is who we are called to be as the body of Christ. If one suffers, we all suffer; if one rejoices, we all rejoice — true justice.
May — Peace
Do people want peace? How badly? What are we willing to give to know true peace? Will we only sacrifice to gain personal peace, or are we willing to become peacemakers for the greater common good? What will true peace cost us? Do we truly believe that peace can only be won through power, conquest, violence and war? Is peace simply an elusive dream — wonderful to consider but so unrealistic as to make it impossible? We live in a volatile, competitive and dangerous world. The lizard brain in all of us simplifies our engagements into “fight/flight/freeze” options — we don’t like ambiguity so we tend to reduce things to “either/or” decisions. At our most immature, the universe revolves around us, and we focus most of our energies on getting what we want and like. We are takers, and “mine” is one of the earliest concepts we learn. Not a great foundation upon which to build a peace-filled existence. Clutching, grasping, holding, hoarding — living out of a scarcity mentality, seeing “the other” as a threat and a competition, losing sleep over the fear and anxiety of “never enough — make us a certain type of person. Is it any wonder why we need redemption? As wired, we will never achieve the level of selfless consideration necessary to be peace-makers. We need to be reformed, redeemed, and rebooted. That is where the triple punch of personal spiritual devotions, the practice of the corporate means of grace, and the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit come in. First, if we will devotionally and regularly read and reflect on the gospels and teachings of the early church we will catch a vision of a very different way of living and interacting. If we will pray FOR others (instead of about them) we will find it increasingly difficult to dislike them or wish them harm. If we will introspectively consider who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do, we will discover that anger, hate, competition and conflict are egregious wastes of time, energy and spirit. Second, if we will pray, worship, learn and serve in small communities of faith, we will begin to live into the reality of peaceful existence. (This is where I think many large churches lose impact — as community dissolves into audience or crowd, intimacy gives way to anonymity and “we” is nothing more than a collection of “me-s.”) Third, we need to pray for, and trust, God to change us — to improve us, make us better, help us be more kind and loving, compassionate and caring, tolerant and giving, joy-filled and gentle. In concert with this powerful Spirit makeover, peace becomes not just possible, but probable. No one would willingly choose to live a contentious and corrupt life. But as with so many things, if we want to know peace, we must first learn to live peacefully. No one can do it for us, and we cannot impose peace on others (the fundamental flaw in “military peace-keeping” thinking). We can only learn to model the kind of peace we believe God wishes for all of us, and to know in our hearts that as we live with integrity, we plant the seeds that God will multiply.
April — Patience
I want to know the real story with Judas Iscariot. Tradition and a carefully crafted history have cast him as one of the classic, all-time villains, but I cannot escape the feeling that he has taken a bad rap. None of the twelve first disciples were paragons of virtue, intelligence or obedience. What if Judas’s real sin wasn’t betrayal but impatience? What if he simply could not stand waiting any longer for justice and retribution to occur? What if he believed so completely in the promise of a kingly Messiah that he tried to force Jesus to action? Yes, this is all pure speculation, but there is some fairly strong scholarly evidence that the figure of Judas was cast as scapegoat long after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He might not have been the bad guy every one makes him out to be. I think Judas was one of the twelve sho actually believed Jesus was who he claimed to be. I think Judas was committed to the restoration of Israel and he could not wait – literally – for God to make all things right. Imagine it. Jesus came teaching and preaching a radical message of change. He made promises. He cast a vision. He challenged the status quo. He flaunted power in the face of authority. He ridiculed the pretense of political power. For three years — a significant part of the adult lifetime in Jesus’ day. How much longer would God’s people have to wait? What was Jesus waiting for? When would he act? When would all his promises and predictions come to fruition? I think Judas got tired of waiting. I think he felt if he gave Jesus a sizable shove — left him no alternative — Jesus would call down the very angels of heaven to establish his kingdom on earth. We all know how that turned out. What Judas thought he knew, he didn’t — at least, he didn’t fully understand. His is a classic illustration that our ways are not God’s ways. We cannot rush God. When we take control of things not ours to control, disaster results. Patience may be one of the most valuable attributes we can develop, and it may be that without the help and indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit, patience might be impossible for some of us (myself included). I don’t want to wait for God to act. I want things the way I want them when I want them. I pray to God I wouldn’t have been as impetuous and impertinent as Judas, but I am not so sure. When I think I know best, I don’t tend to wait — I jump in with both feet, and often end up making some bad decisions. Perhaps the worst decision Judas made was not to trust and rely on the other disciples. Had Judas shared his thinking with any of them, I have a hunch he might have slowed down and thought twice about his betrayal. In community we can find the patience we lack individually. If we make a commitment to act as part of a larger group and not just do whatever we want to individually, we might just find we make much better decisions. The root of the word “patience” means “to endure, to wait, to persevere.” May God grant us wisdom that we might learn to wait, to persevere, and to endure when our own egos charge us to act.
March — Gentleness
There is a stable of like terms in the Greek that point to similar behaviors that we translate into English as “gentleness,” “kindness,” and “meekness.” Nowhere are these confused with “niceness.” To be gentle, kind, and/or meek was to place oneself in a subservient role — to take full responsibility in a relationship for the other person. These were actually “extreme” behaviors. They hearken to Jesus’ instructions to turn the other cheek and to go the extra mile. They were not instructions for dealing with those you like, but with those “of the world.” To be gentle with opponents, to be gentle with enemies, to be gentle with those you believe to be wrong. Oh my, what could Paul/Jesus/God/the Holy Spirit be thinking! I don’t want to have to treat my opponents with grace, compassion and love. If I believe someone is wrong, I want to make them pay, make them suffer, show them how stupid they are and how superior I am. I have no desire to make my enemies feel better about themselves. I want to defeat them. I want to win at any cost. And so I may pursue such narrow-minded and selfish goals — I simply cannot call myself a Christian and act this way. The fruit of the Spirit is the outward evidence of God in my life, of Christ in my heart, of the Holy Spirit guiding my thoughts, words and deeds. If the fruit isn’t there, neither is the Spirit. I can’t look at a Republican or conservative and hold him or her in contempt if Christ rules in my heart. This doesn’t mean I have to agree with these folks or lay down like a doormat in the face of their arguments, but it does mean I have a responsibility to disagree with them in a way that shows them dignity and respect. The greatest test of my relationship with God in Jesus Christ is never how I treat those I love and admire, but how I deal with those who are my opposite.
February — Humility
Ha! I fooled you. You thought I would choose love again because of Valentine’s Day, didn’t you? Well, I thought I would head a different direction. Three things have come together to shape my thinking around humility. First, it’s Black History Month. I have been reading some incredible articles about the struggles not only for equal rights, but often the struggle just not to be treated like vermin. There is much to be ashamed of in our not-too-distant past, and what I realize more and more is that blaming, arguing, condemning, debating and debasing are not going to get us anywhere. There is little to be gained by exerting all our energy to relive all the atrocities and injustices done before. Everyone on every side has to get over him/herself and commit to work together to create something new and different. It isn’t that the past doesn’t matter; but that the future is all we have to work with. I cannot undo anything done by my ancestors — I can’t even apologize for them. All I can do is forge the healthiest, most respectful, empowering and loving relationships with the people I meet today. I am embarrassed and appalled by the way people are treated based on ethnicity — I am committed to doing everything in my power to change it.
The same is true with gender inequalities (the second reality check). I work in a church and in a conference where I hear people claiming on a regular basis that we have conquered racism and sexism, that in fact we have swung the pendulum too far in the compensatory direction. Bologna (baloney)! We may have legislated behaviors, but we haven’t touched many attitudes. Cultural sensitivity and political correctness aside, we are still a long way from treating all people equally. Note I do not say all people are equal. We live is a world of enormous diversity — of knowledge, strength, economy, health, influence, etc. Only a fool would believe all are equal. But equal treatment? The commitment to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and decency? To eliminate prejudice and patronizing bias? We can work on that. We can improve. We can become better. But not if we continue to believe that other people are inferior in fundamental ways. The fact that we still debate the issue means we don’t get it. It isn’t “an issue,” it’s relationship and values. It is whether we think more highly of ourselves than we ought. I listened to a woman speaking about Women’s History Month (March) and she made a statement that brought me up short. This was a woman speaking to women’s rights and women’s heritage, saying, “We must celebrate the achievements of women to show that we are as good as any man. We must highlight those areas where we have risen above our station.” What? These statements seem to indicate that the speaker thinks that it is exceptional for women to perform as well as men (I am sure that is not what she meant), but there are way too many people in our world that think exactly this.
The third factor inviting me to think more humbly is a situation where one side is accusing the other of “sin.” Once more, behavior based on human mores (with a total disregard for sound theology) cause one side of the Christian family to sit in judgment on the other side. The “judge not lest ye be judged/log-speck” dynamic is set aside. “Us” is good; “them” is not. Somehow one sides sins aren’t as egregious as the others. Gleefully, stones are cast, because obviously Jesus wasn’t talking about “us,” only “them.” And then we have the audacity and cowardice to hide behind the Book of Discipline. Carefully selected and horribly misconstrued scripture is our sword-weapon of choice; the Book of Discipline our caked and crusted shield. We choose to live by law, not by grace; to walk by sight, not by faith — to refuse to meet in the middle and admit that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and to seek together what God might be speaking to us today as a discerning Christian community. No, we don’t want unity or harmony, we don’t want to witness to love or grace. We would rather win. We need to be right. For me, I would much prefer living in community with sinners seeking to become like Christ than with those who feel they have arrived and are somehow superior to those who think differently.
I need to spend more time with the Christ who broke down all the dividing walls of hostility. I need to set aside my judgmentalism and work more on my forgiveness. I need to allow the seeds of God’s spiritual fruit to be planted in my heart, but first I need to be humbled — prepared to receive such a blessed gift — that I might one day produce the fruit of the Spirit that will feed and nourish other sinners just like me
January — Self-Control
I walked into a Burger King restaurant last week to have lunch. I was traveling, and my eating habits most resemble those of an unsupervised 8-year-old when I am on the road. I know I should eat better, but, well, you know… Anyway, I asked for a chicken sandwich and a diet Coke (see, I at least pretend to make an effort) and the spritely counter attendant happily chirped, “Chicken sandwiches are two for the price of one — so you get a second sandwich FREE!” I tried to explain to her that I didn’t want two sandwiches — that this would be too much food — and she got a shocked and puzzled look on her face. “But it’s free,” she croaked. “I don’t care,” I replied. “But, why not?” she pressed. “If I get two sandwiches, I will eat two sandwiches, and I don’t NEED two sandwiches, so I don’t want a free sandwich,” I explained. Incredulously she responded, “But it’s FREE.” I finally took the sandwich and offered it to a young mother with four kids who gratefully accepted it from me, but the experience stayed with me through the day. How in the world do we exercise any measure of self-control in a culture constantly encouraging us to consume, to binge, to over eat, and to acquire to excess? I saw a promotion for 72″ plasma screen TVs that cost $200 less than 60″ screens. We have to have computers with MORE storage, FASTER phones, all the high-end electronics, the best cars. Our American Idol/reality TV/twenty commercials a half-hour culture constantly works to make us dissatisfied with what we have so that we will strive ever harder to get more. What’s the answer?
For me, it is a capacity issue. More is only enticing if I am feeling a lack or a void or a hunger. There is that proverbial “hole-in-the-soul” we try to fill. And it will not go away simply by denying it. We DO need to fill it with something. What I believe our Christian faith offers as an alternative is community — relationships that give us satisfaction, fulfillment, and enjoyment. If I can find ways to engage in good, meaningful conversation; enjoy festive table fellowship; work on engaging projects; and have opportunities to rejoice and celebrate, then I won’t have much time to worry about what I don’t have or fill my time with mindless television and endless shopping. The key to self-control is community. Together we can be stronger than we are individually. I can join other like-minded people fed up with the constant quest for MORE, and find support and encouragement that strengthens my resolve not to buy, buy, buy just because I can. I know I NEED a lot less than I have or consume, but often that doesn’t stop me. I believe we can replace that which depletes our life with that which truly fills it — and people will always satisfy more than “stuff.”