As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord – has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12-13, NRSV)
For a very short time I served as a chaplain to a fire company and EMT (Emergency Medical Technicians) squad. I didn’t do a whole lot, but whenever I went out on call I had to “gear up” the same as everyone else. The protective helmets, coats, gloves, boots each served a crucial purpose, and none were expendable — even though they were cumbersome and uncomfortable. I think of “suiting up” in such a fashion every time I read this short passage from Colossians. Having worked for over twenty years in conflicted congregational and conference settings, I know how important it is to go into such situations fully equipped. What I have come to believe is that this should be the “standard uniform” for all spiritual leaders, not just those facing conflict. Our churches need to be safe, healthy, affirming environments where people can learn and grow. If that is ever going to happen, it will be because the leadership is appropriately attired and accessorized.
Note that Paul doesn’t assume that compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience come naturally to us — we need to “put them on” — to clothe ourselves. And clothes that we don’t wear often can sometimes feel very stiff, uncomfortable and foreign. New clothes need to be broken in — we need to take time to let them conform — to become normal and natural. We need to be wearing the “costume” of Christian leadership constantly, not just at opportune times.
Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience need to be viewed as verbs — action words, not just nice ideas or feelings. True compassion is more than just sympathy or empathy — it moves us to act. Biblical compassion generated sharing, caring, giving, helping, sacrificing, and going where the need was felt. There is nothing passive about compassion. Kindness, likewise, moves us to BE kind to others, especially the stranger or the foreigner. Showing kindness only to those who are kind to us doesn’t cut it.
Humility may be the greatest challenge in our Western church culture today. It means that we literally view others as better than ourselves, and it is the antithesis of judgmentalism and exclusion. We live to serve should be our mantra. Openly accepting another human being, even when you think that person is wrong or sinful may be the one thing we simply cannot learn to do in our modern church. To allow someone else to “win,” to be validated, to be affirmed when we think they are evil or misguided? It isn’t the American way! We must conquer those with whom we disagree. We must win any and all arguments at all costs. We must show everyone else the error of their ways. And when the dust settles?
Meekness doesn’t fare much better. Meek means weak, wimpy, cowardly, and embarrassing to most modern thinkers. Who wants to be meek? Soft-spoken, calm, quiet, shy people exist to be taken advantage of, right? Ah, but the non-anxious, non-competitive, non-violent presence is exactly what our contentious and convoluted world needs most. The complexities of human community require someone to stay grounded in love when everyone else goes off half-cocked. We need to anchors to hold us fast in stormy times. Meek doesn’t mean weak, but grounded. The meek do not demand their own way. They don’t blame and accuse. They refuse to insult or attack. They are a witness to Christ’s Spirit of reconciliation.
Patience — or what the Greeks called “far-feeling” — is an almost super-human tolerance for disagreement. For those who teach, patience means holding fast to what is good and right and true and not getting defensive when others don’t see things the same way. Beating people into submission is not the same as welcoming people into the family. True faith isn’t a debate to win. Our job is to scatter the seed — to offer Christ wherever we go — knowing that some will fall among the weeds, the stones, on the footpath, but also some on fertile soil. You can’t rush the natural and organic progress of planting and growing. Impatience won’t make things better.
Human beings are difficult at worst, imperfect at best. What good does it do us to get mad at each other? What do we gain by attacking one another? How does turning disagreement into debate, conflict, and outright war going to help us become the body of Christ? We all sin and fall short of God’s vision for who we should be, so we had better learn how to forgive each other — and ourselves — if we ever want to become the people God needs us to be. Forgiveness isn’t just a nice idea — Paul makes it a mandate. To learn to say “I’m sorry” and mean it may be the most important lesson we can learn in the short-term. And not “I’m sorry you’re so stupid,” or “I’m sorry you’re a jerk” — we can’t be sorry about other people. We need to be sorry that we fail to clothe ourselves appropriately as Christ’s own body.
My challenge and my wish is that each United Methodist congregation would make a commitment to pray, study and reflect on what it would take to be clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. I would encourage us all to create a covenant of forgiveness — holding one another accountable in love. If our congregations could become centers for kindness and compassion, what a glorious witness we would provide to a broken and contentious world. If we could be humble and meek and patient, what a counter-cultural alternative we could become to our “reality TV obsessed” society. If we could become know for our forgiveness and acceptance, what an oasis of grace and love we could be.