We’ve come to the last of our fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility, and finally, self-control. From the flourish of love, joy and peace, this last word can feel like a bit of a flump back into reality. What is Saint Paul talking about with this final fruit, self-control?
The Greek word translated here as “self-control” shows up in three verses of the New Testament.[i] Why self-control? Why do we need this? Perhaps the operative question is what happens when our life is out of control? At best, our life will be disappointing, unfocused, and unfulfilled; at worst, we face or create trouble, and run the risk of losing our companions in life or getting lost ourselves. Self-control helps us to live the life we desire to live with intention and purpose – which also can contribute to our growth in all the other fruits of the Spirit.
Since the earliest days of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert, monks have redressed the need to focus life’s energies by developing what they called a rule of life. The word “rule” comes from the Latin regula, describing a way of regulating and regularizing our lives so we can live fully and freely within our own skin and alongside those who companion us in life. A rule of life is like a garden trellis, offering support and direction for a plant, helping it to grow upright and blossom. A rule of life is a document that is both descriptive and prescriptive: descriptive, in that it articulates our intentions and identifies the way of life for ourselves; and prescriptive, pointing us to how we can return to the path and recapture our vision for life when we miss the mark. A rule of life helps bring rhythm, order, and balance to our lives.
We want to cultivate life practices that invite us to live our lives responsively, not just reactively. A rule of life helps us to name up front what we know to be our priorities in life, letting our highest priorities and deepest desires inform what we do, day by day. In the ancient monastic vocabulary we find the Greek word askesis, from which we get the word “asceticism.” Asceticism may sound extreme and off-putting; however, the word simply means “practice.” The English word “exercise” comes from the same etymological root as “asceticism.” Not unlike the exercises we use to learn a sport, or to play a musical instrument, or to become fluent in a second language, so too the askesis of a rule of life gives us structure to hone our best practices in life. A rule of life creates a container that fits your life.
Life is precious and it has a terminus, we know not when. A rule of life mitigates living life regretfully. Bonnie Ware, who is a palliative care nurse, interviewed many hundreds of her patients who had gone home to die. She compiled a list of regrets she heard from those who were dying.[ii] The most common regrets expressed were:
- “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- “I wish I had not worked so hard,” which she heard especially from men.
- “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings and desires, not settling for a mediocre existence.”
- “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
- “I wish I had let myself be happier.”
A rule of life is not some all-encompassing elixir for living life without regret; however, a rule of life will help enormously. It will make a world a difference for you personally and – if you share your life with a spouse, or partner, or other people – you will either come to a common mind and practice, or you will come to a mutual understanding and respect for how to share life.
I’ll give you a sample of the energy and creativity of a personal rule of life that comes from a friend, and with her permission. She is a business executive and married; their children are now grown.
- Her rule of life informs how she and her husband share meals, paying attention to the food, however simple. Breakfasts and dinners are eaten unrushed, with candles lit, allowing space to listen and speak about the day – joy and gratitude; sadness and frustration; questions and conclusions.
- Her rule of life creates greater capacity to take the needs, sorrows, and desires of others into her life, work, and prayer.
- Her rule of life helps her to remember “that the person in front of me, in conversation with me at that moment, is to have my full attention, the undistracted capacity of my heart and mind.”
- Her rule of life recalls her to the practice of listening for both sorrow and joy, strength and struggle in her family, friends, and colleagues.
- Her rule of life helps her to make decisions about her calendar and time, so that there is the necessary spaciousness and freedom from distraction, though not without much difficulty, she admits.
- And finally, her rule of life gives her ways of entering more intentionally into practices of solitude, the nurturing of creativity and delight, and, for God’s sake, times of doing nothing except abiding in God, what she calls “sabbath time.”
If you were to develop (or re-develop) your personal rule of life, here are some suggestions:
- Invite God into the process. Pray as you ponder your life.
- Take time. The goal is not to be perfect, but to be real. There is not a right way to do this; there is only a real way to do this.
- Be gentle with yourself. The intention is to celebrate your life, not to chastise yourself.
- Draft your rule, whether in flowing prose or with cryptic bullet points. Whatever.
- Test the fit of your rule (for a week, or for a month, or whatever you decide), then review and revise your rule.
- Make commitment to a soulmate, to regularly check in with them how goes it.
For your personal “rule of life,” here are some aspects of your life you may want to consider:
- Your relationships. Identify who is (or should be) important to you, and how you practice that importance in the cadence of your life. Consider your relationship to:
- Your family and friends.
- Your colleagues and neighbors; your fellow volunteers, or parishioners, or members of some organization.
- Your enemies. (If you were to tell me you don’t have enemies, I don’t buy it. Jesus had enemies! If “enemy” is not a word in your vocabulary, then incorporate “people who are not helpful to your program,” or “irritating people who get under your skin.” What about them in your rule of life?)
- The maturing of your mind. Jesus said that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”[iii] What of your study in times past has been intellectually formative, challenging, inspiring, motivating that is worth retrieving? And for now, what is going on “out there” that is new, intriguing, stimulating, puzzling, even off-putting but clearly has captured attention – yours or others’? Push yourself. What venues can you access – whether books or audio books, periodicals, podcasts, online courses, public lectures, participation in study groups – that provide intellectual stimulation? How is your mind growing, not constricting, as you age?
- The custody of your body. For many of us, in our younger life our body was like a well-trained personal assistant: responding to our desires and demands, and taking us to destinations near and far, wherever and whenever we chose. Sickness and the limitations that come either in younger life or with aging change the relationship between our soul’s desires and our body’s abilities. We need to keep on good speaking terms with our body. Incorporate into your rule of life the custody of your own body with diet, sleep, exercise, and health care. How will you cherish and care for your body?
- The stewardship of your resources. You have inner resources in your personal gifts and abilities. How can these be cultivated, enjoyed, and shared? You also have physical assets that you hold now and from which you will part at the end of your life. You will likely need to be in communication with your family, friends, and with your lawyer; however also be in good communication with your own soul. Identify practices in your rule of life how you will have, hold, and share the resources entrusted to you.
- The release of your creativity. We say in our Rule of Life, “Each of us has been given the divine spark of creativity and imagination, and as we grow in our conversion to Christ, so should our gratitude and reverence for these gifts.”[iv] What cultivates and expresses your creativity? If you are out of practice, what could you try? To what could you return that you enjoyed as a child? Try some things. You need not be a master. The author, Brian Andreas, writes rather whimsically: “I had a dream and I heard music and there were children standing around, but no one was dancing. I asked a little girl why not? and she said they didn’t know how, or maybe they used to but they forgot and so I started to hop up and down and the children asked me, Is that dancing? and I laughed and said, no, that’s hopping, but at least it’s a start and soon everyone was hopping and laughing and it didn’t matter anymore that no one was dancing.”[v]
- The enjoyment of your life. Many of us began life by playing… and then life became increasingly earnest and complex. What to you is enjoyable? What gives you delight? Some years ago, our late brother Paul Wessinger was asked by a group of students the single-most important practice for thriving in life. Br. Paul was a holy man, and I knew he would respond with some wisdom about prayer and his relationship with God. Wrong! With a rather mischievous look in his eyes, Br. Paul said, “what we need for thriving is a good sense of humor,” and then he laughed heartily. Enjoyment should figure into your rule of life. You’re worth it! I particularly enjoy fun with language. Did you hear how Winston Churchill, after being reprimanded by Lady Astor for ending a sentence with a preposition, retorted, “This is the kind of thing up with which I will not put!”
- The observance of sabbath time. Jesus was formed by the practice of sabbath rest, and he presumes our similar need.[vi] In our Rule of Life, we devote an entire chapter to “Rest and Recreation.” Our sabbath day of rest (which for us Brothers is on Mondays) gives us the opportunity to refresh and deepen our friendships, and it enables us to rest, exercise, and play. Our sabbath observance encourages a space for music, art, entertainment, hobbies, and other for pursuits that interest us. We even say in our Rule that each and every day should include an element of sabbath. Let your rule of life enshrine sabbath rest figuring into every day, something more every week, something more every month, something more every year.
- What else? What else is essential for you that I have not named here? What would contribute to your thriving: something that you need to add into your life; maybe something that you need to limit in your life; maybe something you need to exclude from your life?
Was all this what Saint Paul meant when he named self-control as one of the fruits of the Spirit? I don’t fully know. But I do know that, after thirty-five years of living as a monk, and by a rule of life, I have found a rule of life enormously helpful to me – and to those with whom I share life – in naming and claiming the way we intend to live. When we live not haphazardly, not accidentally, nor just reactively, but with purpose and intention, we have a much better chance at discovering the freedom that God wishes for us, the freedom to be fully alive.
Self-control will help you to claim meaning in life to be fully and freely alive, now.
Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.
- In the course of your own life, whom have you seen that lived their lives with a pattern and practices that you found inspiring or inviting? Why?
- Where in your life do you need to say “yes,” and where do you need to say “no”? (Unless we find the freedom to say “no,” we are really not free to say “yes.”)
- What is your prayer for self-control?
Before we leave, a few final words of encouragement from the Scriptures:
“You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” 2 Peter 1:5-7
[i] The Greek word ἐγκράτεια (self-control) appears as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23, and also at Acts 24:25 and 2 Peter 1:5-7: “For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.”
[iii] Matthew 13:52.
[iv] The SSJE Rule of Life, chapter 44: ”Maintaining Our Health and Creativity.” For your inspiration, SSJE’s entire Rule of Life is available online at no cost: https://www.ssje.org/worship/rule-of-life-resources
[v] Brian Andreas in Mostly True; Collected Stories and Drawings.
[vi] In the Ten Commandments, the longest explanation is given to the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The explanation is given in Exodus 20:8-11 and in Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
We don’t speak much about “humility” these days. For some of us, “humility” might even be an unfamiliar concept. And yet the Greek word that Saint Paul uses to describe this fruit of the Spirit would have been familiar to his readers. The word “humility” appears nine times across the New Testament.[i] Depending on the particular Bible translation, the Greek word is translated as mildness, gentleness, meekness, or humility. None of these attributes gets much positive press in our own time, so we still need to do some homework to understand the word and its invitation for us today.
First, some important context: Saint Paul uses the word “humility” when he is facing capital punishment. He is certainly not a tepid personality, and, in his writings, he can be strident about matters he believes to be good, true, and faithful. Saint Paul tenaciously meets his detractors – and the threat of his own death – face-to-face. And yet we hear him speak of “humility” as a virtue to be cultivated.
So too with Jesus. We read of Jesus using this word when he speaks the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek,” or other translations read, “Blessed are the gentle,” or “the humble,” and at very adverse times.[ii] And yet Jesus is clearly no pushover. In a very paradoxical way, Jesus speaks of the blessedness of gentleness, meekness, or humility as exactly the strength of character needed when facing times of great difficulty, even in suffering.
Here I will translate this fruit of Spirit as “humility,” not as a stand-alone virtue but as a quality of character that needs to be in our soul’s repertoire for us to be fully and freely alive. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”[iii]
The fruit of humility begins with the soil, with the ground of our being. The English word “humility” derives from the Latin humilis, “lowly,” or “near the ground,” humus being the fertile earth. Humility comes from being well grounded in life – this life and the next. In the creation account in the Book of Genesis, we learn we have been created in the very image of God, shaped out of the dust of the ground.[iv] To see the power, and beauty, and splendor that can emanate out of us is a living reminder of how God lives within us. On the other hand, we are also created with the limitations, eventual diminishment, and death that pertains to all creatures. The rabbis teach, “Each of us should have two pockets.” In one should be the message, ‘I am dust and ashes,’ and in the other we should have written, ‘For me the universe was made.’” We have this dual identity, and it is essential we stay on speaking terms with how God has created us in all its complexity.
From the sixteenth century, the story is told of Michelangelo who had been at work atop a scaffolding 50 feet from the floor, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After four years, another day had come to an end. Weary, sore, and full of self-doubt, he climbed down to eat a lonely supper. Michelangelo, whose brilliance as an artist was unmatched, wrote to a dear friend a sonnet that ends with, “Rescue me now. I am not in a good place. And I am no painter.”[v] No painter! I feel only compassion for Michelangelo, and yet he is so much more accessible to us as a person when we know that he, too, lived his life in the balance between immeasurable greatness and humbling limitation. We all have our own versions of this same equation.
Humility reminds us how we all are so much the same, mostly. Jesus preaches one Gospel to princes and paupers alike, and yet Jesus’ Gospel also reverences how we all are so uniquely different from one another. Do not compare yourself. Jesus offers a curious comfort when he says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father… So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”[vi] If I were to tell someone how much they mean to me – “You, my dear friend, are more important to me than sparrows” – I think this friend would be nonplussed. Probably offended. Deeply. So, what’s going on with Jesus’ rhetorical question? In Jesus’ day, when making an offering at the Temple in Jerusalem, the poorest of the poor could not afford the offering of a lamb; so they brought sparrows. Two sparrows were sold for one Roman penny. Two pennies made one farthing. A farthing was 1/64 of a denarius. And a denarius was the average laborer’s wage for one day. A common laborer’s daily wage would buy about 130 sparrows. It would have been one thing if Jesus had said, “You are of more value than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” But no. He says, “You are of more value than sparrows.” Hmm.
Hidden in this curious metaphor is a word of comfort. When you look at the media reports, and see the myriads who live with egregious injustice and suffering, which may seem both appalling and monochrome, they may appear to us not unlike sparrows, one suffering face indistinguishable from the next. To God they have inestimable value, each one, individually. We should remember that precious love as we look upon the masses of suffering people – how we pray for them and act on their behalf, on behalf of at least some of them. God knows them and loves them each by name.[vii]
Some day you also may feel like one of those sparrows as you face your own suffering that is piercing, tedious, and isolating. There may be for us all, sooner or later, a comforting reminder in this metaphor about the value even of a sparrow: that God knows and loves each of us by name and sees in us something distinctive, precious, and of eternal value. In humility, we remember that we are all sparrows – meaningless at times in the accounting of others, but beloved of God.
If suffering teaches humility, so too does another experience we, more likely than not, would wish to avoid: failure. Humility grows in the compost of mistakes and failure. Clearly, we do not always succeed in life, realize our goals, earn the highest marks, much as we may desire. Paradoxically, where I find myself most gifted, insightful, and compassionate has often grown from the redemption of my failures and suffering. Perhaps this is also true for you? Be generous with yourself. The Argentinian poet, Jorge Luis Borges, writes in his Conversations at Eighty about grace in misfortune.[viii] “Misfortune, defeat, humiliation, failure, those are our tools – we are given mistakes, we are given nightmares – and our task is to turn them into poetry. …Every moment of my life is a kind of clay I have to mold, I have to shape, to lick into poetry.” I am not suggesting we emulate our mistakes and failures; but I am saying the last word may be our gratitude for what all has made us real. This is how God knows us. It can also, with time, be what helps us to know ourselves as we truly are.
In humility we recognize that we hold no monopoly on being the giver, the one in power, the one in charge of the situation. Jesus said that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”[ix] We can fall prey to a kind of pride that sees ourselves as a generous giver but as a reticent receiver. We deny others this blessing if we obstruct their share of being both a giver and a receiver in our presence. Saint John Chrysostom, the 5th century Archbishop of Constantinople, wrote that “Jesus, as both a pastor and a friend, not only poured out love but also made himself dependent on others. He possessed nothing, so for his very survival he had to rely on the kindness of his friends and disciples. And in his gratitude for all he received, he affirmed them as true friends and true disciples.” Humility trades in both giving and receiving. It is only when we accept our part in both giving and receiving that we can grow to our full stature as creatures of the earth.
Embody humility. Your body will be your best teacher of humility, if you let it. Your own body is your most intimate companion, and, inevitably, it has good days and bad days. James Joyce wrote tongue-in-cheek about a Mr. Duffy, “who lived a short distance from his body.”[x] Stay on good speaking terms with your body, and you will sensitively help others do the same. Saint Paul, who, in his earlier days had worshiped in the Temple in the Jerusalem, came to see the Temple, not as something to be rebuilt in Jerusalem but rather something to be reborn within us. “Your body,” he writes, “is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”v So how do you practice that embodiment? At the most basic level, revere your body, and offer others this same courtesy. Our body is the edifice in which we enter life, in which we are shaped and formed in life, in which we practice life, in which we will part from this life. Treat your body kindly, respectfully, gently, gratefully, in a holy way, and do others the same. We are precious in God’s eyes, and God embodies us, in both our strength and our weakness. Whatever our body’s repair, whatever our age, we are God’s temple.
Back in my 20s, I took on a spiritual discipline to become humble. I remember a couple of my close friends telling me they found my humility insufferable. “Get over it,” they said. They were right. You really cannot work on being humble. But you can acquiesce to the terms by which God has given you life, which is frontloaded with limitations. Unless we die suddenly at a younger age, we will die diminished at an older age. It is lovely to hear Jesus’ gentle invitation to children – “Let the children come to me.”[xi] Jesus speaks this, not just to 8 year olds but also to 80 year olds. No matter our age, we are children of God, whom God adores. Cooperate with God. Saint Teresa of Avila said that “the only sure test of oneness with God is growth in love and humility.”[xii] Give into your life, on whatever terms it is given to you. This is humility.
We cannot force the fruit of humility to grow in our lives, any more than we can force a plant to blossom and thrive. But we can be attentive to the conditions of life that invite growth, conditions present every day. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century French Cistercian abbot, was asked to name the four “cardinal virtues” for living a holy life.[xiii] In classical philosophy these four virtues were prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Saint Bernard answered, as he saw it: “Humility, humility, humility, and humility.” May the fruit grow within you, from the rich ground of your being.
Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.
- Think of those whom you admire and whom you identify as humble. Why?
- In your experience, what is the difference between humility and humiliation? How might they be connected?
- What for you is the door to humility? How can the door get blocked or barred? How is the door opened?
Here is a prayer of Dag Hammarskjöld, sometime Secretary General of the United Nations:
Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;
Humble hearts, that we may hear you;
Hearts of love, that we may serve you;
Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you. Amen.
Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), from his autobiography, Markings.
[i] The Greek word is πρᾳότης (praotés), e.g., “I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ – I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold towards you when I am away!” (2 Corinthians 10:1).
[ii] Matthew 5:1-11.
[iii] Matthew 11:29.
[iv] Genesis 1:27.
[v] Numbered fifth among Michelangelo’s poems, this was written to a friend, Giovanni Da Pistoia, in 1509.
[vi] Matthew 10:24-33; Luke 12:6.
[vii] Isaiah 43:1; John 10: 14-15. See also Matthew 10:30.
[viii] Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the brilliant Argentine poet, writer, and philosopher. in his Conversations at Eighty.
[ix] Acts 10:35.
[x] James Joyce (1882-1941), Irish novelist, in A Painful Case.
[xi] Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16.
[xii] Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), writing in her Interior Castle.
[xiii] Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) speaking of “cardinal virtues: “cardinal” from the Latin cardo, hinge.
Three words appear repeatedly in the scriptures: faith, trust, and belief. They are like cousins. Faith operates with what the scriptures call “the eyes of our heart.”[i] We read in The Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[ii] Faith in God is a gift from God, not based on external evidence. Faith is a kind of inner knowing. Which is why so many people – even in the face of tremendous fear or overwhelming suffering, even now – have not lost their faith in God. Many people’s faith in God is awakened in suffering, which is such a paradox. Faith is a kind of inner seeing, which can even be counter to the evidence we actually see. Saint Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.”[iii] Faith is about how we are oriented in life, oftentimes our not being able to see clearly ahead, and yet moving ahead anyway in the direction of our trust.
Trust is based on the mind and the memory. Trust comes from evidence that can be seen, experienced, understood, and remembered. “Trust is the core conviction of judgment based on knowledge, instinct, and experience.”[iv] You know what you can trust, and who, and why. We build on the trust from our past, as we lean into the unknown future.
Faith comes from the future, from knowing that God is ahead of us. Jesus says, “Come, follow me,” and Jesus goes on ahead, inviting us to follow. He assures us of his presence, his provision, his power, the eternal place he is preparing to share with us. Faith comes to us from the future of God. Trust comes to us from the past: from what we have seen, known, remembered, and can recognize again.
Faith is a noun; faith is a belief. Trust is a verb; trust is an action. Trust is how we act, drawing on past experience to inform what we do in the present. We don’t wake up in the morning and decide whether we will navigate the day by faith or by trust. We are simply presented with an invitation to respond to God’s presence and God’s action in our life – our life as it has been, as it is now, and as it will be. Faith in God and trust in God come as gifts, God’s gifts, at God’s initiative, revealing God’s presence and God’s provision.
Every day we will be reminded that life is too much for us, that we are powerless to navigate the day alone. And God will greet us with a reminder from our past, to give us the clarity of trust we need for now. Or God will greet us with a visitation from the future, the gift of faith, often with faith’s companion, hope. Whichever way God comes, whichever word you use, God’s presence and provision makes all the difference. “Faith” and “trust” are words for our benefit. It’s all the same to God, who is as much present in the now, as God is in our past, as God is in our future. It is all present To God. Jesus assures us, “I am with you always”: past, present, future.[v]
The third cousin to “trust” and “faith” is “belief.” Belief may seem like a way to think; however historically “belief” is about how to live. The word belief comes from Germanic origins: “to hold dear, to esteem, to love” (liebenbeing the German word for love). Belief is what you live by and belove. Our beliefs lodge in the depths of our hearts and live out in our lives. Frederick Buechner says, “If you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”[vi] Belief, faith, and trust – distinct in the dictionary – meld in our living. So we read in the Letter to James: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.’”[vii] The Greek word used for “faith” here and elsewhere in the New Testament could also be translated as “trust” or “belief.” [viii] The point being that our faith, trust, and belief will be lived out in our lives and not simply be lodged in our heads. In the early centuries of the church, among the desert monastics of Egypt, a certain brother asked Abba Pimenion, “What is faith?” The old man said, “To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one’s neighbor.”
Our faith, trust, and belief are all gifts to us at God’s initiative. Rather than our getting lost in hairsplitting the further subtle differences in these gifts, I want to now subsume all three – faith, trust, and belief – under the word Saint Paul uses when he names a fruit of the Spirit: faithfulness.
You will undoubtedly go through various stages of faith as you live out your relationship with God amidst “the changes and chances of life.”[ix] As a very young child, I came to understand “faithfulness” from my stuffed toy, a little lamb: “Lamby.” I loved Lamby. And when I learned in Sunday School that Jesus was my shepherd, I made the kind of connection that a three-year-old can make between a shepherd and a lamb: what I would now identify as love, protection, provision, and of never being left alone. Lamby was my icon. So was my paternal grandmother, who exuded love. She adored me, and I her. These two realities – Lamby and my Grandmother – reflected my three-year-old’s systematic theology. And then there came a tragedy: my baby brother died. This was, for me, my first “wound of knowledge” which I could not understand. Mysteriously, God was undeniably present to me, a three-year-old, in this very sad death.[x] … And life went on. I grew up, as have you, and in the best of times and in the worst of times and a lot of time in the middle.
It is important that we stay on speaking terms with God’s revelations in our past, the “Lambies” who helped us to meet God where we were, when we were there. These memory points will be important anchors for our formation. They will be “iconic” windows from our past through which to see the present. In God’s becoming fully human in Jesus – the “incarnation” – God stoops to us, meets us on the plain we can apprehend. If you wake up, some season of your life, having lost the scent on the trail – the gift of faith in God’s presence, power, and provision in your life – go backwards. Retrace your steps back into your experience of God’s faithfulness in your past life. Open the eyes of your heart, which is where God’s gifts of faith, hope, and love abide.[xi] In the 11th century, Saint Anselm of Canterbury described faith as coming from the heart, not the mind: “faith seeking understanding.”[xii] What we believe, we belove. In the SSJE Rule of Life we say: “These hearts of ours are not empty vessels but inner worlds alive with images, memories, experiences and desires.”[xiii] The gift of faithfulness lodges in your heart. Look for it with love.
We hear Jesus saying quite repeatedly that we are to become again like children. What does that mean to you now, child of God that you remain?[xiv] We may speak of our past, going back even to our childhoods: how we were formed and deformed, how we were encouraged and discouraged, how we were rescued and imprisoned. And yet “time” is a creature. Time, as we know it, is an act of God’s creation. What we call “past” is always present to God, and God to us. Reclaim, retrieve, recover how it is that God caught your attention in your past to be able to live faithfully and fully alive in God’s presence, now.
As you grow into this present moment, cultivate the gift of faithfulness, whose seeds were sown into your soul at birth:
- Even if you have not been faithful, God is faithful. If you explore the psalms, you will discover that God’sfaithfulness is named twice as often as our The psalmist prays, “Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds.” Our faithfulness is in response. The psalmist prays, “For your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you.” [xv] In matters of faithfulness, the most amazing revelation is God’s faith in us.
- You may live through a season where you sense you have lost or misplaced your faith. These times are hard, but they are not necessarily bad. They are often necessary as God weans us from worshiping our experience of God. God is always More. God will give us recurring invitations not to clutch at our past experience of God, but to hold the experience reverently in open palms. This is so that God can take our experience, convert it, and return more to us, oftentimes in ways “beyond what we could have asked for or imagined.[xvi] Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”[xvii] God is always More, and God invites us to participate.
- An important way to live faithfully is with confidence. The English word “confidence” comes from the Latin, confidere: “to have full trust or reliance,” Confidence is not cockiness. Confidence is living with both the freedom and power God has bequeathed upon you. Do not live with fear; do not live with apology. Live with confidence, God’s confidence in you.
- Our confidence need not come at a cost to others. Nor should our faithfulness be a threat to theirs. We now live in a world where we have increasing access to people of other faith traditions: Native and First Nation People, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, and more. For so many of these people, who are our neighbors, “faithfulness” (or some synonym) is also a word in their soul’s vocabulary. Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, spoke to the Anglican bishops from around the world at the Lambeth Conference in 2008. Rabbi Sacks said, “We don’t share a faith, but we surely share a fate. Because whatever our faith or lack of faith, hunger still hurts, disease still strikes, poverty still disfigures, and hate still kills.” Rabbi Sacks continued, “‘So it is with faith, if we cherish our own, then we will understand the value of others’. We may regard ours as a diamond and another faith as a ruby, but we know that both are precious stones.”[xviii] I am suggesting here that our posture in the presence of those faith traditions different than ours must be reverence. Revere the dignity of their faith – their faith practices and their faith pillars – and recognize, whatever their beliefs, we are all children of God, seeking to be faithful.[xix]
Krister Stendahl was a Lutheran New Testament scholar and Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden, who also taught for many years at the Harvard Divinity School.[xx] Bishop Stendahl articulated “Three Rules of Religious Understanding”:
- When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for “holy envy.” By that, Bishop Stendahl meant our being open to discover something beautiful, noble, exemplary, inviting that we may find in another faith tradition. “Holy envy.”
As a gift from God, faith is as universal as it is unique, so very personal. Like with all the Fruit of the Spirit, faithfulness needs to be cultivated to bear more fruit.
Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.
- How would you describe the gift of faithfulness (and trust, and belief) you have been given? What life experiences have caused your faith to change and develop?
- In your younger days, how were you shaped in faithfulness? Who were the people, what were the experiences, what were the metaphors and symbols from life and from the scriptures that helped form your faith?
- Beyond your personal experience, what faith tradition or practice intrigues you? Why? What faith tradition or practice repels you? Why?
Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, left us this prayer for faithfulness:
[i] “The eyes of our heart,” a phrase from Ephesians 1:18.
[ii] Hebrews 11:1.
[iii] 2 Corinthians 5:7.
[iv] This quote attributed to Nolan Dalla, sometime member of the diplomatic corps, Congressional speechwriter, and poker expert.
[v] Matthew 28:20.
[vi] Frederick Buechner (1926- ), Presbyterian minister and prolific author, in Alphabet of Grace.
[vii] Letter to James 2:18.
[viii] The Greek word is πίστις.
[ix] A phrase in a prayer from “Compline” in The Book of Common Prayer (1979); p. 133.
[x] A riff on a poem by R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), Anglican priest and Welsh poet.
[xi] The language of Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13.
[xii] Saint Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) was an Italian-born Benedictine monk and abbot, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109.
[xiii] Chapter 20: “Holy Scripture,” in The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.
[xiv] The English words “wholly” and “holy” come from the same etymological root.
[xv] Psalms 36:5 and 26:3.
[xvi] A riff on Ephesians 3:20.
[xvii] Mark 9:24.
[xviii] Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in The Dignity Of Difference; How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (2002); pp. 208-209.
[xix] 1 Timothy 2:5, 6.
[xx] Krister Olofson Stendahl (1921-1984).
[xxi] Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
For more than a century, the SSJE Brothers were entrusted with the stewardship of a large property in the woods of Massachusetts. At the property’s edge was a freshwater pond which would occasionally become bracken. The reason? Beavers. At times the beavers would build a dam blocking the inflow of fresh water; at other times the beavers would build a dam blocking the outflow of fresh water. In either case, the pond would become bracken. I don’t fault the beavers for their way of life, but what works well for beavers can be quite devastating for humankind. We need fresh water to flow through our lives.
For us to be fully and freely alive, we need the inflow of God’s provision, and in many forms; however we also need a complementary outflow of God’s provision, from our own life to others, otherwise our soul will become bracken. We have been created in the image of God, who shares life with boundless generosity. It is of our essence to be generous. We participate in life on God’s terms by cherishing the gifts of life, not clinging to them, not hoarding, but sharing from God’s bounty entrusted to us to steward. There is always more. Our generosity enables others to know life as a gift, and invites them to live their own lives thankfully. Gratitude transforms life; generosity enables it.
The English word “generosity” comes from the Latin, generosus, which means of noble birth, magnanimous, munificence. This is royal-sounding, which is so reflective of the source and reason for our own generosity: God. William Stringfellow, the great lay theologian, lawyer, and social activist of last century, said that “to be a Christian… means living in such a way that life is welcomed as the extraordinary gift which life is, and, then, honoring that gift by extravagance: by giving one’s own life away.”[i] We need to be generous – not just for others’ benefit, but for our own. Giving our lives away mirrors the generosity by which God has created and shared life with us. There is a freedom to be discovered in giving our lives away, If we don’t find the freedom to give our lives away, then, inevitably, we are taking our own life, which is death. Jesus said that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”[ii] Rather than hearing Jesus’ words as a command, hear them as a promise that we will know God’s blessing in the generous sharing of our life.
The opportunities to be generous are countless; however the challenges we may face in being generous probably date back to our family of origin. By word or deed you were taught about the bounty and custody of things: whether to save and cherish, or to share and expend. Most of us learned a combination of both. Some of us were also introduced to fear, whether there would be enough. That kind of fear is irrespective of the quantity of resources at hand. You can be predisposed to be fearful and hoard whether you come from poverty or plenty. No matter how we were formed (or deformed) around living life generously, we have the invitation to cultivate our growth in generosity. Generosity mostly has to do with a habit of heart. The apostles Peter and John encountered a lame man who asked them for alms. Peter responded, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you.”[iii] The invitation is always to have a generous spirit, and this sometimes also takes on tangible form. In the 18th century, John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.”[iv]
We are greeted by endless intangible invitations for generosity in how we anticipate and greet people’s successes and failures. A good many people have been set-up to be failures. For them, failure is an internal state of mind which may have little to no relationship to with how their life and their efforts are perceived. They learned at an early age they were never good enough. Because of this, they will live with that verdict for the rest of their lives – unless they are rescued and told the truth about the beauty and wonder of their lives: who they are and what they do. When you meet people who are living their lives as an ongoing apology, pray for them. Pray for the intervention of God’s light, and life, and love into their lives. If you have continued access to them, pray that you be God’s emissary, to mirror God’s light, and life, and love onto a person’s countenance. Pray that if it is opportune, to find the right words and right way to embody this. Be oh-so-generous to people who are living life as a failure.
Sometimes the most generous and helpful gift we can offer others is compassion: from the Latin, compassio, literally “a suffering with another.” We suffer with these people – all the people who show up poorly on our list – because we could so easily be them. We may well be them on another person’s list. We are all so similar. People simply do not wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “How can I screw up my life?” “How can I make things really, really bad for me and for my family and my colleagues?” Life isn’t like that. Bad things happen to bad people and good people alike; and even good people are prone to make some very bad decisions. All of this can have terrible, sometimes inescapable repercussions, like a tsunami of the soul that a person has started but cannot stop. Rudyard Kipling said, “I always prefer to believe the best of everybody. It saves so much trouble.”[v]
Some days, the most generous thing we can offer to another person is compassion – whether or not we actually communicate this to them. My own rule of thumb is that if I find no compassion for a person, I probably do not know enough about them. Jesus said, “be merciful, as your heavenly father is merciful.”[vi] The theology which Jesus confronted in his own day can still surface in our day: that people get what they deserve. I hope not. I certainly hope not – for my own sake. The ancient Jewish mystical, the Kabbalah, says if you give without checking too carefully whether the recipient “truly deserves it,” then God may give to you without checking whether you “truly deserve it.”
Be equally generous with people who are living with success. “Being successful,” by whatever standards, often comes with a cost of alienation, being regarded with jealousy, and with others’ impatience. Those close to us especially need our praise, admiration, and affirmation as they live with success. Generously affirming others’ success does not in any way diminish our own sense of worth. There is room and need for all of us to be successful.
What challenges or impedes your own generosity? There may be several obstacles. One factor may be the enormity of the need of which you are already aware. In whatever type of need – be it with family life and social opportunity; racism and discrimination; access to food, healthcare, education, housing, or employment; whether it concern ecological stewardship; or whatever – the needs are so great and you are so small. Whatever it is you have to give, give it all, all you’ve got, and give it teeming with love. Edward Everett Hale, a 19th century historian and minister in Boston, said, “I am only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” Pray for clarity about your role in provision for some need, in whatever form, and always be generous. Kindness alone is a form of generosity and that, some days, will change someone’s day and maybe their life. And kindness is a provision of which there is always more, as long as we are willing to offer it.
Another obstacle we may face within ourselves is because of what we cling to. An ancient word in the vocabulary of the church is “detachment.” Detachment is not about apathy or indifference; detachment is about cherishing life with freedom, and participating in life on life’s terms. Life is passing. We cannot keep life by clinging to it, no matter how tightly, no matter how hard we might we try. Instead, we learn to truly appreciate the gift of life when we let it go, let it flow from us, in a stream of generosity.
We can grow in generosity by detaching ourselves from the perception that we are the center of things. Life is not all about me, nor is it all about you. We may well live through seasons where we are given a prominent role in the play of life; but that role will inevitably shift and that part will be given to someone else. Be ready to applaud others when that happens, and it will. This is to hold our life, precious as it is, in open palms. Not to clutch. Clutching squeezes life down to smaller proportions. Open palms allow our life to keep growing.
I have friends, a couple, who decided to downsize in their retirement, and their first act was to give away the things they love. What freedom! As for you, hold lightly onto your life and all that gives it meaning – both the tangible and the intangible – preparing to give it up. By giving it up, I am not suggesting you discard or belittle your life. To the contrary, hold your life as precious and give it up as an offering to God, for God to use, in God’s way on God’s time. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, this is called an “oblation,” which is an offering, the presentation of a gift. Live your life as a gift to be shared. St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia, has as its motto: “What we keep we lose; only what we give remains our own.”
I think of a now-departed friend of the SSJE Brothers who was a husband and father, a naval officer, a priest, a brilliant academic, and a prolific author.[vii] He became a seminary president and diocesan bishop, and, both because of his charisma and by appointment, he had a huge swath of influence in both church and society, a man revered for his many, many gifts. In his late life, having grieved the death of precious loved ones; having retired from being a centerpiece in public life; no longer with access to financial resources; having lost his ability to walk, his fluency in speech, and his ability to bathe and dress himself, he was in assisted living. He had been impressive in so many stages of his life, but in this final phase, he impressed me the most: because of how he had readjusted his mission in life. It was a smaller venue, but embraced with his enduring tenacity and energy. Every day his mission was to bequeath his bedside caregiver with dignity, kindness, and gratitude, and with the greatest of generosity. And that he did.
Jesus leaves us with a promise that he is with us to the end. Unless we end our lives suddenly, we will approach the end with diminishment, and much of what we have and hold in earlier life will no longer fit. Review the intangibles that you possess, or that possess you: your access to power and influence, and how you are regarded and included. Recognize these things for the gifts they are, gifts whose use will inevitably change. Give up – that is to say, make as your offering – what you have and hold which you will part from at death, if not before. Let go of these possessions so that you have space to generously participate in the next season of life, which will be, in its own way, just as adventurous as before.
- As you grew up, what were you taught – in word and deed – about generosity? Did you have enough? Did you have more than enough? What happened with that?
- In what ways do you find yourself able to be freely and fully generous? Why is that?
- If you were to set aside your good name, your resources, your other accesses to power and influence, how would you be generous? How do you imagine God’s invitation?
Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Luke 6:38
[i] William Stringfellow (1928-1985) was an Episcopal lay theologian, lawyer, social activist, and prolific author.
[ii] Acts 20: 35.
[iii] Acts 3:6.
[iv] John Wesley (1703-1791), Church of England priest and a leader of a revival movement, “Methodism.”
[v] Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), an English journalist, poet, and novelist.
[vi] Matthew 5:7; Luke 6:36.
[vii] This is John Bowen Coburn (1914-2009). The Coburn Hermitages at Emery House are named in honor of John and Ruth Coburn, his wife.
A story comes to us from the early centuries of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert. Some men came to counsel with Abba Poemen, asking him, “Tell us, when we see brothers dozing when we are at prayer, should we pinch them so they will stay awake?” The Abba said to them, “Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.” This is an act of kindness. Kindness is the melding of mercy, and generosity, dignity – our own dignity and others’.
The English word “kind” comes from the same etymological root as “kin.” We are to live kindly with one another because we belong to one another. We are humankind. Now for most of us, living kindly goes without saying – for those whom we cherish and identify with, and to whom we feel a sense of belonging. It is easy (or at least easier) to be kind to someone we love.
Yet the call to kindness that we hear in the Scriptures – over and over again – is much broader and more challenging. The New Testament word for “kindness” can be translated as compassion, love, full of tenderness, gentleness, goodness. This “kindness” reveals the complexity of human relationships.
It also, in certain ways, reveals the complexity of our Scriptures themselves. Reading the scriptures is often like someone’s sharing with us a copy of a letter they have written in response to someone else. We read their letter; however we usually do not have a full picture of why they are saying such-and-such, what they are responding to, or hoping will happen to their correspondent in the future? In the scriptures, we read so many times that we are to be kind. Why? What is the back story? If we do some detective work, we see how kindness redresses how we could otherwise deport ourselves in the presence of those who are different – because of their culture or race, religion, class, education, sexual orientation, appearance, politics, or age – or different because of their hopes or values. In the Hebrew scriptures, we read one time, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; however we read in thirty-six places to “love the stranger.”[i] Kindness is a corrective.
Jesus magnifies this teaching in his own behavior. He does not exclude anyone, even those who were viewed by most people as despicable. The prevailing reason why Jesus said what he said and did what he did was tender loving mercy, which is a compassion: a suffering with another because we belong to one another. Whether to the lame or to the lost, to the pompous or to paupers, Jesus was compassionate.[ii] Jesus learned from the psalms, “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”[iii]
Jesus’ kindness is remembered in the Greek as philonexia, which is “the love of strangers.” Philonexia is the opposite of xenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers. Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for sharing life, enabling us to living kindly with one another. In the Letter to the Hebfrews we read, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”[iv] Philonexia, not xenophobia. Kindness breaks down “the wall of hostility” that otherwise is easily constructed between ourselves and “others.”[v] Kindness arises from compassion, the memory that we are all kin.
Kindness also conveys dignity, by bequeathing worth to others. So many people live their lives with deafening words of criticism, inadequacy, and fear which may echo from their childhoods. They will collude with this indignity unless there is an intervention, an intervention of kindness from someone else. For many people, we must give them dignity before there is dignity in them to respect. There’s an old Swedish proverb: “In every person there is royalty. Address the royalty, and royalty will respond.”
Kindness rescues. Kindness is a lifesaver. I remember one day standing in a hallway at our monastery, trying to make sense of what was posted on a bulletin board. It just so happened, that day I was absolutely miserable, though I had not shared this with anyone. Another Brother was passing by me; he paused, looked into my face, and asked, “Having a difficult day?” How did he know? I don’t know. Somehow. I turned to him, now with tears in my eyes, and nodded. He drew me to himself, gave me an ever-so-brief hug, looked into my eyes and said, “I’m so sorry.” And then he continued on his way. I, meanwhile, was a transformed man. I was immediately fine, just fine. In that momentary encounter with my Brother’s kindness, I had been rescued. The reason why I had found the day so difficult had not changed; however I was no longer alone, facing my troubles alone. The intervention of kindness had taken about 10 seconds… and yet, I was transformed. Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher in Egypt and a contemporary of Jesus.[vi] Philo said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Kindness rescues.
And this includes yourself. There’s an old proverb that reads, “How you do something is how you do everything.” The proverb applies to the growth of kindness in your own soul. Kindness in some things will lead to kindness in all things – and don’t leave yourself out. Treat yourself kindly. Be generously compassionate toward yourself. You are an amazing person; you are also a mixed bag and, probably, some days you are a mess. An early desert monastic, Abba Mateos admitted that “the nearer we draw to God, the more we see ourselves as sinners.” Don’t let this awareness imprison you; let it liberate you, because God knows and loves you. God reveres you with tender loving mercy, which you need. You need to be saved from yourself every day. Surrender feigning to be your own god. Jesus is your savior, your friend. Cooperate with Jesus by befriending yourself. Practicing this will make a world of difference to you and to others.
Our kindness to ourselves will grow into our kindness to one another. We read in the Letter to the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another.” Start with yourself. Be kind to yourself, and you will “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.”[vii] If those words are too hard for you to receive – about living kindly with yourself from which kindness to others will naturally flow – then reverse the formula. Be kind, generously kind, to those to whom you can be kind. Your repertoire of kindness will grow, and you will eventually catch on. Kindness, even living kindly with yourself, will become irresistible.
One way to cultivate kindness is to use your breathing as respiratory therapy for your soul. Saint Paul writes about “praying without ceasing.”[viii] Use the gift of breathing as way to unclog what is in the way in your soul, and then to help you get on the way to living kindly:
- Breathe out what is clogging the flow of kindness in your soul. (Name what is obstructing kindness. For example, anger, disappointment, resentment, bitterness, fear).
- Breathe in loving kindness.
- Breathe out what is clogging the flow of kindness in your soul.
- Breathe in loving kindness.
- Breathe out what is clogging the flow of kindness in your soul.
- Breathe in loving kindness…
Continue, continue, continue, continue until you come into a clearing.
Don’t wait. Don’t wait to be kind. We only have now. Henri Frédéric Amiel, the 19th century Swiss philosopher and poet, said “Life is short, and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” Don’t wait to reciprocate kindness. Initiate kindness. If you are living kindly, you won’t be “on the take” for kindness, expecting it, demanding it, resenting when it doesn’t appear. Living kindly generates kindness. You simply cannot give kindness away. There is always more. Live kindly, and you will have enough kindness in your heart so as not to be endlessly shopping for others’ kindness. If you are out of practice with kindness, cultivating kindness is like any other practice, whether learning a sport, or foreign language, or craft, or playing a musical instrument. The words “kind” and “kindle” are cousins. Kindle kindness and you will teem with kindness. Lucy Larcom, the 19th century New England educator, said “If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.”
Let kindness flow from you with great generosity. Don’t place any restrictions on the flow of kindness, both the receiving and the giving. Deport yourself with kindness in the face of every living creature, toward the flowers and crops, and trees, to the air and water. In the monastery where I live, I gently touch the flowers and plants as I pass by, and to a number of them I speak to affectionately by name. They are alive! (In my own room, my monastic “cell,” I greet my plant every morning with, “Hello Sweetheart.”) We are living in a time where so many of our values and certainties are being deconstructed. We know too much, and we know too little. We are living on edge. How then shall we live? Round the edges. Live kindly. St. Isaac of Syria, a 7th century monk and bishop, said “Let your heart burn with love for the whole of creation: for humankind, for the birds, for the beasts, for every creature.”
Kindness will round the hard edges of our life, and fill us to the brim, but it will not make all of life a uniform sunny yellow. Kindness has different hues, different qualities. The kindness we bequeath upon our own selves may be quite different from the kindness we share with a family member or close friend, with a colleague or neighbor, or with a stranger. Kindness toward a child may be different than kindness toward an elder. What fits? Do some detective work. For the people in your life who are “other” – the strangers in your life – what is meaningful to them? What language would convey kindness? What about touch and taste? What about certain dates on the calendar – birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations; religious festivals; cultural celebrations – whose remembrance, on your part, would be received so kindly and thankfully. How will you remember these? Doing some homework will be helpful, lest you unintentionally inflict your own values on another person whose values and customs may be quite different. A fascinating conversation to have with another person is about what gives their life meaning. How do they celebrate? Open your ears and open your heart. The experience of kindness is relational. Through kindness, our human kinship becomes obvious.
Perhaps this is why kindness puts us in touch with its cousin: humility. Humility is not a seed; humility is the soil which we share with all of humankind. Saint Paul writes, “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”[ix] The gift of humility will simply come to us in time, in ways in which we are powerless to resist. The English word “humility” derives from the Latin humilis, “lowly,” or “near the ground,” humus being the earth. Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond those who otherwise surround us. And we need to know humility. Because there can be an unrecognized pride within ourselves if we are prepared to show kindness to others, but are unprepared to receive their kindness, as if we have the monopoly on kindness.
Saint John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Archbishop of Alexandria, spoke of Jesus who not only poured out love but also made himself dependent on others. He possessed nothing, so for his very survival he had to rely on the kindness of his friends. And in his gratitude for all he received, he affirmed them as true friends and true disciples. It can be a great kindness to receive from others what it empowers and fulfills them to give. To live kindly is to share kindness – giving and receiving – with great generosity. In the early centuries of the church, a brother in the Egyptian desert asked Abba Pimenion, “How should we practice life?” The old man said, “To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one’s neighbor.” Kindness is of our God-created essence, a necessary intervention for our disquieted world.
- Are there relationships in your life where kindness is lacking? Why is that? What is your invitation?
- Draw on your own memory. Reflect on where you were on the receiving end of kindness. Who was kind to you, and why did that make such a difference? Embrace the kindness. It is never too late to be thankful for another’s intervention of kindness in your life. Communicate your gratitude. If they have died, take Jesus at his word that “Whatever we unbind on earth is unbound in heaven.”[x] Let Jesus be your intermediary through whom you whisper your gratitude for the kindness you received from a departed soul.
- Reflect on your own life: “Am I becoming kinder?” If so, why? How? If not, why? How?
The prophet Micah enjoins us:
“What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.”[xi]
[i] See, e.g., Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34.
[ii] See, e.g., Matthew 6:25-34, 9:36, 14:14, 20:34; Mark 1:41, 4:40, 5:36, 6:34, 8:2f, 12:41-44; Luke 7:13, 10:41.
[iii] Psalm 103:8.
[v] Ephesians 2:14.
[vi] Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE).
[vii] Ephesians 4:32.
[viii]1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
[ix] Colossians 3:12.
[x] Matthew 16:19.
[xi] Micah 6:8.
Growing in patience is something we must learn and re-learn in life. The Oxford English Dictionary hints at some of the richness of the word “patience,” and the diverse experiences it captures. Patience is “the calm abiding, a quiet, self-possessed waiting for something.” Patience can also mean “a constancy in labor, exertion, and effort,” such as we see in an artist honing his or her art. However the dictionary’s primary definition points to how our growing in patience can be a miserable experience, literally. The English word “patience” comes from the Latin patientia, which is a “quality of suffering” – suffering with calmness and endurance, what the scriptures call “long-suffering.” And suffering you often are as you wait hopefully, irritatedly, sometimes desperately for an answer, a resolution, a way forward. This kind of patience also means dependence, exposure, being an object of others’ actions, intentions, or timelines. Living life patiently can be very difficult.
Living life patiently is not the only way to navigate life. Some situations we face in life require aggressive responses now. Meanwhile patience also needs to be an active word in your soul’s vocabulary or you will miss being present to a great deal of life. Life entails so much waiting. When the answer is not forthcoming, when something is not being resolved, when the door isn’t being opened, when someone is not acquiescing, when you have lost any sense of controlling your circumstances, there is also an invitation for patience.
Patience is a way to wait, and we don’t have to look far for models. Waiting figures so prominently in the creation. The gestation and development of flowers and trees; of animals, fish, birds and human beings follows a cadence that resists being rushed. In a dark night, you may wish for the dawn to come soon; but, of course, it will come on its own time. Waiting invites our patience. Saint Francis de Sales, the 17th century Bishop of Geneva, said “What we need is a cup of understanding, a barrel of love, and an ocean of patience.” But patience does not come easily to most of us, for several reasons.
Our need to be patient may confound our own personal sense of privilege. Many people in western society have an ingrained presumption that we should not have to wait. Waiting is unacceptable. Financial lenders happily communicate that “You can have it all, you can have it now, and you should.” There’s no need to delay gratification. You don’t have to wait. There’s no need for patience. The message is that waiting is a problem. Waiting is unacceptable. The ever-increasing speed of the internet symbolizes this. I did an online search on the topic of “patience,” and in less then 1 second, I had about 277,000,000 results for “patience.” But the rest of life is not like that. Life is full of waiting. Waiting invites our patience.
A second reason why patience can be so difficult is because of our eagerness. This is not about agony but about ecstasy as we anticipate something good that is forthcoming in life. We can’t wait for something to happen or for someone to arrive, and we dance from foot to foot in the sheer delight that fills our imagination and keeps us awake. This can be the experience of wonder, the portal of joy, the anticipation of gratitude, the occasion for love. When you are in touch with this delightful impatience, cuddle yourself. Some of our eagerness for an anticipated experience is savoring it in advance. What fun! Eager impatience will take care of itself.
A third reason why patience can be so difficult is because of suffering. When someone says, “I’m waiting on [something],” this seldom comes with a sense of consolation. An imposed need to wait often implies a certain agony, or anguish, or anger. This kind of waiting may also seem vacuous, or unproductive, or useless, and yet life is full of waiting and invites our patience.
I want to invite you to not waste another day of waiting. Waiting is not the collateral damage of unwished-for circumstances. Instead, claim the recurring invitations for patience in your own life. Waiting can be our best teacher. Here are a few of the lessons that you might learn when you begin to not just accept, but welcome times of waiting:
- In the journey of your life, you will have certain plans, expectations, and desires, only some of which will be realized in the way and timeframe you desire. Your life’s journey will also have many unanticipated stopping points and vistas, only some of which you will have chosen, and many of which will bring you to a complete stop. Such is life. American novelist Margaret Runbeck writes, “Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” When you have no choice but to wait, open your eyes and open your heart to what you otherwise would have missed. You do not have what you were waiting for – what is next – but you do have what is now. Be present to what is now, which is also where you will find the companionship of God’s real presence come to you in the waiting. This is the gift of patience. The psalmist says:
“I waited patiently upon the LORD;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.”[i]
- You may be fearful about what is ahead, which you have no power to know. There is actually a certain freedom in this kind of powerless in not God knows. God knows what you do not know, and God knows that you do not know. In the beginning of creation, God separates light from darkness. God creates a cadence of light and darkness to fill each of our days. It is as true about the sky as it is for the soul. We can only bear so much light. We must wait. If there is too much light coming at us, we will be restless and blinded. Light can be as blinding as darkness. You will know only as much as you can bear. When you are in the dark, God is not in the dark. The psalmist writes about God: “Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.”[ii] If you are in the dark about something, your waiting invites patience for the dawning. The dawn will come.
- Our having to wait may be a great kindness of God. The scriptures consistently refer to us as “children of God” (not “adults of God”). Children are not developmentally ready to know everything at once. There is a progression in our capacity to know, which God knows. Saint Peter awakened to this realization. He writes, “Beloved, while you are waiting, be at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”[iii] Our experience of having to wait may, in actuality, be God’s experience of waiting on us until we are ready to know more. Take heart. Wait with patient expectation for God’s steady growth within you. And pray for the gift of patience, the patience that God has, for the other people who come into your life.
- Having to wait may prove a purgative for our soul. You will not always get what you want in life. And thank goodness for that. As I reflect back in my own life, I teem with gratitude for so many things I thought I wanted but was denied. I realize had this-or-that, such-and-such have happened, or not happened, I would have ended up in a very different place. T. S. Eliot writes of how we often hope for or love what proves to be the wrong things, and how “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: so the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”[iv]
- Waiting patiently is important in our repertoire for living life fully and freely; however I am not suggesting being passive in life. Waiting patiently is not about bearing one blow, one neglect in life after another, with our only response being a limp resignation. Waiting patiently is not a limp submission. Rather, waiting patiently is an active acquiescence to God’s being at work in our life in ways beyond what we could ask or imagine, including in our waiting.[v] We read in the Gospel according to Matthew, “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”[vi] This is a word of promise. It is not a caution about how God might come to us in the end, but an assurance of how God does come to us all the time. Waiting patiently is so full of promise. We can expect that God will come to us, again and again, even unexpectedly. Look for it; watch for it; wait for it. Simone Weil the great French spiritual writer and political activist of the 1940s, writes, “waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”[vii] Wait patiently with great expectations.
- And finally, one last word about living life patiently, taken from the life of Jesus. Both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds affirm Jesus was born, was crucified, was resurrected, and ascended. Only one word is used to describe his entire lifetime in between those major events: he “suffered.” Jesus suffered. For God to become human, for God to fully identify with humanity, for God to meet us and save us, it was necessary for God to suffer as we do. God suffers with us in Jesus. Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian, said that “God’s love does not protect us from suffering. God’s love protects us in the midst of suffering.”
Suffering is so paradoxical. Suffering can bring such diminishment and distortion to people. Suffering can extinguish their joy, bury their hope, destroy their spontaneity, consume their consciousness. If you have suffered – and we all have – you will know how compromising suffering can be. Suffering hijacks. We want out of suffering. To not want out of suffering is its own illness.
And yet, suffering is not the last word. Usually not. The alchemy of suffering is often so amazing. Because someone’s suffering can also engender in a person such beauty, such compassion, such gentleness, such freedom, such humility, such clarity to be able to be fully alive in the present moment. Jesus tells us he has come to give us “life,” and to give it to us abundantly.[viii] “Life” for Jesus, includes the cross and all the suffering that led up to it. But suffering is not the last word. Usually not. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who wrote with such insight about suffering and death, said that “the most beautiful people we have known are those who have known suffering, known defeat, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths… Beautiful people do not just happen.”[ix] Recognizing the beauty in other people who have known the crucible of suffering, and recognizing the beauty in our own lives that has come from our own suffering, may give us the gift of hope to wait patiently in the suffering that will inevitably confront us throughout our lifetimes. [x] For you to have to wait patiently, yet again, is promising: promising of God’s presence and God’s provision, just as you have known in your past. Is it here now? Perhaps not yet. Just you wait.
- What are some scenic vistas you have experienced when you have had to wait? What is helpful for you to remember from these experiences?
- In the Litany for Ash Wednesday, we ask for God’s forgiveness for “the impatience of our lives.”[xi] What triggers impatience in you?
- Why is that?
- What is your prayer?
- How has your experience of suffering – your own and the suffering you have witnessed in others – awakened the gift of patience?
- Toward yourself? Why?
- Toward others? Why?
The great 17th century English poet and priest, John Donne, left us with a prayer for eternal patience: [xii]
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling but one equal light, no noise nor silence but one equal music, no fears nor hopes but one equal possession, no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity, in the habitation of the thy majesty and thy glory, world without end. Amen.
[i] Psalm 40:1-2.
[ii] Psalm 139:11. See also 1 John 1:5.
[iii] 2 Peter 3:9, 15.
[iv] T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets: East Coker, III, 11. 23-8.
[v] See Ephesians 3:20-21.
[vi] Matthew 24:42-44.
[vii] Simone Weil (1909-1943), whom T.S. Eliot described as “a woman of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints.”
[viii] John 10:10.
[ix] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), the Swiss-American psychiatrist who wrote On Death and Dying.
[x] Romans 8:24-25.
[xi] The Ash Wednesday “Litany of Penitence,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 267-269.
[xii] John Donne (1572-1631), from a sermon preached at Whitehall, February 29, 1628.
The fact that Saint Paul includes the gift of peace among the fruit of the Spirit is a clue that, left alone, we will not know the ongoing experience of peace in our lifetime. Our world, not unlike Jesus’ world, is very unpeaceful, so we need help. The gifts of the Spirit are gifts from the Spirit; we do not have them already, and cannot know them without the Spirit’s help.
In various seasons of our life, the compromise of our peace may be huge – as if our emotions were kidnapped by something or someone. At other times, the impediment to peace may actually be quite small, but nonetheless distracting or irritating, like a pebble in the shoe. Jesus asks, rhetorically, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?”[i]His point is about outcomes. Let’s say your end goal, your heart’s desire, is to experience the harvest of peace. How will this happen? By cultivating the gift of peace which Jesus promises and the Spirit delivers. That’s good news.
But there is bad news before there is good news. The bad news is the context in which Jesus promises us peace. In so many ways, the local, national, and international strife in Jesus’ day parallels our own. In Jesus’ lifetime, his homeland was in crisis and facing a series of catastrophes. The Roman empire was an occupying force. Herod the Great, then his three sons, were the appointed Jewish sovereigns and Roman puppets. They were pernicious. Within Judaism itself, there were factions which resisted and mistrusted each other, compromising any possible peace. And then, even amongst Jesus’ own disciples, there was rivalry and jealousy and unrest. At Jesus’ crucifixion, they splintered and deserted Jesus, which he had anticipated.
This is the backdrop for Jesus’ saying, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”[ii] The world looks for peace on external standards. When the political strife has been quelled, when the laws of the land protect all people, when the boycotts are resolved, when the combatants have laid down their arms, when God’s creation is carefully guarded by all, then we will know “peace, as the world gives.” Or we could say, more personally, when someone’s maligning mistreatment toward us has been confessed and rectified, or when someone’s addiction has been intervened upon and recovery begun, or when someone’s illness has been healed, then we can know peace.
These “external standards” of peace are not bad. Quite to the contrary, they teem with goodness and rightness. However Jesus is not speaking about these external standards of peace, but rather about the internal experience of peace, peace from the inside out. In very troubling, unpeaceful times, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[iii]
Jesus, the Prince of Peace, does not begin the conversation by calling us to make peace. No, Jesus begins with our need to receive peace. We must be peace-receivers before we can be peace-makers. Here’s a qualifier. I am not in any way implying that internal peace and external peace are unrelated. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”[iv] We must be justice makers. In our baptismal promises, we pledge “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”[v] External peace can only emanate from justice. But I am saying that without our internal peace, our labors to make for peace run the risk of becoming the very thing we resist or work to rectify. The cultivation of peace needs to begin within our own heart.
Where is the challenge or compromise to peace within your own soul? “I’ll name three ways that I have come to know – in myself and in others – by which we can unwittingly impede the peace Jesus wants us to receive.” What are your peace impediments?
- First, You may not be on good speaking terms with yourself. You may collude with criticism you experienced as a child or in later life, and you can never win. You may be caught in a cycle of comparison with others, and you always come up short. You may be trapped by regret, or guilt, or shame, or fear. You may be the enemy that Jesus calls you to love.
How to begin? You have been entrusted with a life, a life like none other, and God’s invitation to you is to say “yes” to your life – not the life you think you could have had or should have had, but the life you’ve been given. You need to be your own best friend, and that begins with recognizing the amazing person that you are. Though no one else can do this for you, you may need some help with this. Ask God for a revelation, and then look and listen. That might include your asking someone you trust to show you or tell you the truth of your own worth. You are an amazing person, a child of God whom God adores. You don’t have a lifetime to work on this. Life is short. Get on with this today. Say “yes” to your life.
- Second, you may be harboring pain which has come to you from the hands or heart of another person. You need to be extricated from this, and you may need help with this. Help is helpful. Forgiveness may be a key factor in your own peace and freedom: your forgiving this other person. I am not presuming that this person is asking for forgiveness, nor am I presuming that you even want to forgive this person, but it is in your own best interest to forgive them. Jesus uses a metaphor about unforgiveness: a prison. Someone whom we will not forgive we have locked into a prison, perhaps to punish them. The manifold tragedy is that this person is our prisoner, and we are the prison guard, which means that we are both in prison.
Unforgiveness metastasizes into resentment, which will poison the soul. Resentment literally means “feeling again,” or “feeling backward,” clinging to the painful past, which imprisons us from being fully and freely present to life in the here-and-now. Life is all about now. If you are living with a wound which is encased by unforgiveness, get on with it. Start moving in the direction of forgiveness. Get the help you need. You’re worth it.
As an aside, I want to add a word about reconciliation. I am talking about forgiveness; I am not talking about reconciliation. When a relationship has been strained or violated, reconciliation often presumes forgiveness; but forgiveness does not presume reconciliation. You can forgive someone without reconciling with them. Some reconciliations may not happen soon, or may not even happen in this lifetime, nor should they. It may be too unsafe for one or both parties. But this is where God has all the time in the world – this world and the next – when it is the right and safe time to come together and be reconciled. Forgive. It is in your best interest.
- A third compromise to peace is fear. Fear is very noisy, and exhumes a tremendous amount of our energy. Jesus spoke a great deal about our not being afraid, not being anxious, Jesus does not speak in a scolding way, but in a reassuring way. We’re not to be afraid because we don’t need to be afraid: God is with us. God is with you. You will have provision. Make that word, that truth, part of your soul’s vocabulary: provision. You will know provision. Not to worry. You have the promise of God’s presence and God’s provision, far beyond what you could ask or imagine, according to God’s work within you.[vi] Ask for it. Look for it. Jesus says, “Seek and you shall find.”[vii] Sometimes the simple act of seeking is enough for us to find what was there all along. Jesus says we do not need to be afraid.
The invitation for cultivating peace begins within us. Take Jesus at his word. Be a peace receiver, and you cannot but help to become a peace maker.
- What constricts or compromises your receiving and cultivating the gift of peace? What is God’s invitation to you on this?
- What would help you to receive and retain Christ’s gift of peace? For example:
- As you awaken to the dawn of a new day, a very simple prayer that invites Christ’s peace to inform you and infill you as you make your way through the day.
- Some movement of your body, some posture that you assume in your private prayer or that you incorporate as you walk and work. Something with your body – maybe a bowing, or gesturing, or signing with your hands.
- Some phrase from the scriptures or from poetry that becomes a breath prayer, a kind of mantra that helps keep you aware of your need for peace and Christ’s provision of peace.
- Something that draws on the gift of your senses: an icon or other image on which to gaze; something to hold or touch such as prayer beads, a hand cross; or the sight and fragrance of flowers, or the sound of music. What would help remind you of God’s provision of peace?
- What other help do you need to grow in peace? Perhaps the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (which is about unbinding) or the Sacrament of Holy Unction (which is about binding up); a soulmate or therapist with whom you can speak with freedom and transparency; some kind of program of serenity that helps you stay aware and open to the reception of the ultimate power and provision of Christ’s peace. What help do you need? Ask for it. Receive it.
Nearly a century ago, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr prayed for God’s peace and provision in unpeaceful and troubling times, not unlike now:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that you will make all things right, if I surrender to your will;
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
[i] Matthew 7:15-20.
[ii] John 14:27.
[iii] John 14:27.
[iv] Dr. King’s speech, “Stride Toward Freedom,” 1958.
[v] The Book of Common Prayer (1979) “Baptismal Covenant,” pp. 304-305.
[vi] Ephesians 3:20.
[vii] Matthew 7:7.
[viii] Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), a theologian, ethicist, commentator on politics and public affairs, and long-time professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York.
The gift of joy is a paradox. The Greek word literally means “for the heart, in its deepest place of passion and feelings, to be well.” Joy often brings a deep sense of delight. Yet, whenever you are around people who are very joyful, you will likely see tears. These are tears of joy, wonder, gratitude, satisfaction that come from a deep place in a person’s soul, when someone has experienced a kind of greatness so amazing, almost too great to behold. The soul simply bursts with a release of ecstasy streaming down their face. Of all the things that can be planned in life, tears of joy and gladness cannot and do not need to be choreographed. They simply happen. And it is the same for the tears of sorrow, and tears of pain or loss, burning the eyes like the salt of the sea, and coming from a place as deep and endless as the ocean. Tears of sorrow expose a person’s deepest vulnerabilities, longings, and losses. The paradox of joy is delight so deep it brings tears from the same place as sorrow.
To see someone crying out of joy, or weeping out of grief may sound the well of our own tears. Somehow, we identify with them, being uncontrollably happy for them, which gives us our own joy. Or we may find ourselves suffering with them, which evokes our own compassion, sometimes the memory of our own grief. Saint Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” and in the face of tears – someone’s tears of gladness or tears of sadness – our own tears simply flow.[i]
Tears on the face of an infant may be the first, most revealing sign of how abjectly needy we all are, how small we all are in the face of life, which is so big. We need not be taught how to cry. Crying is how most of us began life. Tears flow through life. Tears transcend. Tears cross all divisions of class, socio-economic background, race, religion, education, age, or stature. Some of us may have been taught not to cry, certainly not publicly, because our tears are too revealing. As adults, we may need to re-learn that crying is okay, even necessary, and certainly nothing to apologize for.
The Gospel according to John includes one of the shortest sentences in the entire Bible: “Jesus began to weep.”[ii] Just several days earlier, Jesus had been told that his dear friend, Lazarus, was gravely ill. On hearing this, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry. He says his friend Lazarus has just “fallen asleep”; his illness will not “lead to death, rather it is to God’s glory.” Jesus stays behind for two more days before setting off. Why does Jesus stall? We don‘t know for sure, but I imagine he stalls for the same reason that I have when given news of some great tragedy that is before me. Many-a-time, when I was a hospital chaplain, I had to pause in a hospital corridor before I walked into a room of tragedy and sorrow. It’s the same kind of pausing I have done when faced with terrible news about a family member or one of my own friends. A pause, just to “get it together,” to be re-centered and grounded before I plunged into a well of grief awaiting me. You may know about this in your own life, of needing to pause before you faced a tragedy.
I think this is what Jesus is doing when he pauses on hearing the tragic news about his beloved friend, Lazarus. When Jesus does arrive on the scene and sees his friend Lazarus very much dead, Jesus spontaneously weeps. He loses it. He has lost his friend. Has he also lost his bearings, or lost his certainty, or lost his courage, or lost his sense of power, or maybe lost his theology? We don’t know. He has certainly lost his composure. Jesus weeps.
We don’t really know what’s behind Jesus’ tears, any more than we can know with full certainly why anyperson weeps. But I find that oh-so-brief moment of Jesus’ weeping – where he is doing nothing and saying nothing – one of the most helpful scenes in the entire Gospel. Jesus’ tears flow so spontaneously, flowing like a river connecting earth and heaven. If we only had the story when Jesus hears of his friend Lazarus’ grave illness, when Jesus arrives on the scene, when Jesus resolves the crisis, when Jesus brings “glory” to God in raising Lazarus, we would have so much less help as we try to make sense out of the endless griefs that fill our own day and our own lives. But instead we read that Jesus weeps.
In our world there are so many people who are not brought back to life: an abandoned infant, a murdered child, an executed prisoner, a soldier or bystander shot, a family washed away in a mudslide, a homeless person who has starved to death, a lifeless loved one who was ravaged by disease or pandemic…. These are not being brought back to life. Not on this earth. Not according to the news. We as Christians do believe in what we call “the resurrection,” that life on this earth is not the end, but that our end is in God where, as we read in the last book of the Bible, “there shall be weeping no more,” and where God will finally “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”[iii] But in the meantime – and sometimes it is a very mean time – there may well be many tears of enormous, unspeakable grief and loss. This picture of Jesus’ weeping may be a real comfort, a real grace, to us as we watch, and wait, and weep with in the world.
When was the last time you wept? You may have un-learned this most natural response to the world’s wonders and its terrors, perhaps even very early on. One of life’s early lessons is how to act in life. We are taught what to do and say, and how to appear and speak as we navigate our way through life. This socialization can train us to keep our tears at bay, most of the time. And yet there are these moments in life when we lose our script and lose our makeup, when we are in the presence of greatness – sometimes the greatest of joys and sometimes the greatest of losses – and we find ourselves uncontrollably moved, or unavoidably stopped, and our watering eyes tell the truth.
Spiritually speaking, such moments are very grace-filled, though they may not feel it at the time. It’s like a dam has been broken within us, something which we have held dearly, or held back, or held up is broken, and what gushes forth out of the dregs of our heart is something utterly real about who we are and what we feel and need. It is not our glittering image but our authentic self. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, this is called “the gift of tears.”[iv] It’s what Saint Paul is talking about when he writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but [God’s] Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighing too deep for words.”[v] God’s Spirit sighing within us. Not solving, but sighing. This is the “gift of tears,” sometimes a costly gift but an incredibly cleansing gift. Whatever you know about tears – your own or others’ – tears are part of the flow of life. Tears may be our best prayers when we witness beauty too great to behold, or a loss so vast we can barely even see ahead. Let the tears come. Use those tears. Learn from those tears.
We don’t need to go looking for tears. Tears have a way of finding us in the best of times and in the worst of times. Those moments in life when we well up with tears, what has broken forth is evidence of a greatness bigger than who we are. Tears give us pause. Tears also give us presence: God’s real presence among us in the face and form of Jesus who weeps. Jesus weeps for us and Jesus weeps with us. God is with us, meeting us in both the sweetest and sorriest of times through the gift of tears. We read in the psalms, “For with you, O Lord, is the well of life.”[vi] Tears come from a deep well within our own soul. Tears are an estuary from God and to God, something which Jesus himself knew. Jesus weeps. He weeps for himself. Jesus weeps for Lazarus. Jesus weeps for Jerusalem. He weeps for you and for the whole world. Don’t run from tears; let the tears run when they come. Our tears do not come out of emptiness; they come out of a very deep well of life, the one from which Jesus himself draws, and his tears flow into joy.
Yes, joy. Remember joy, “the gift of joy,” where we began? You may be surprised that we’ve spent so much of our time on joy speaking about tears – but that is where the paradox of joy comes in. Tears can arise from joy – that’s one paradox. Tears can also lead to joy – and that’s another paradox.
For some of us, at some moments in our life, the gift of joy presents itself with such immediacy in our experience of the beauty and wonder of life. These spontaneous experiences of joy need little cultivation. The joy simply floods our heart and splashes upon our countenance. How thrilling!
We may also reclaim the gift of joy from our memories. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “remember” literally means to re-member, that is to re-attach something from our past to our experience of the present. Re-member. Re-membering your experiences of joy in your past is a gateway to enjoying life in the present. To enjoy is quite literally “allowing the joy in.” Remembering joy often opens the door for more joy.
There is also the gift of joy that comes from the alchemy of tears and suffering. You will only know this in retrospect. When you are suffering, you are often inundated in a flood of sorrow and tears which may even be bitter. Suffering is not joyful. Remembering occasions of suffering in your past which have amazingly blossomed into joy will help awaken in sorrow the hope that joy will return. We don’t hope for what we see or experience in the present; we draw hope from our past. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn… and have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.”[vii] Joy is a mysterious yet wonderful fruit of the Spirit. The height of our joy will often mirror the depth of our suffering. Joy will dawn.
- If joy is an active word in your soul’s vocabulary, how do you define joy? What opens the door of joy and enjoyment?
- In your lifetime, who or what has occasioned the experience of joy – both one-time occurrences and ongoing experiences? (If you can remember the experience, it is still alive within your soul. Reclaim it!)
- Where in your lifetime might you have unredeemed joy, that is, occasions which at the time were very difficult, even bad, but through which have come the undeniable experience of joy? Don’t leave that joy behind. Uncover it, bring it into the light, and let its light shine onto your present.
In the great Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky gives voice to the experience of joy through the words of a dying monk, Father Zosima:
“My Life is ending, but every day that is left me I feel in touch with a new infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my heart quivering with rapture, my mind glowing, and my heart weeping with joy. …Kiss the earth and love it. Love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love everyone, love everything…. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. Don’t be ashamed of that ecstasy, prize it, for it is a gift of God and a great one.”
[i] Romans 12:15.
[iii] Revelation 7:17; 21:4.
[iv] The psalms make reference to an ancient practice of saving the gift of tears: “You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle”(Psalm 56:8).
[v] Romans 8.26.
[vi] Psalm 36:9.
[vii] John 16:20.
Oftentimes Jesus spoke with a one liner, “You have heard it said… but I say,” and what he said was refreshingly good news. If you follow a newspaper or some other media source, you will likely have learned to presume that the news will not be good. NPR reported on a study which researched the relationship between being well-informed with the news and being happy. Are people who spend more time and energy getting more news more happy in life? No. It’s largely the opposite, an inverted relationship: the people with more news are more unhappy. Well, I’m not about to suggest we become news Luddites; but I am saying that good news is remarkable, because there’s so much bad news, and that is as true today as it was in Jesus’ own day. Which is why the good news that people heard on Jesus’ lips was compelling… and people voted with their feet. If Jesus had been a political candidate, we could call it an enormous swelling of grassroots’ endorsement. They followed him in hordes.
So here are some good news clips:
- What’s so compellingly good is simply being found by Jesus. Called by Jesus. Included by Jesus. Loved by Jesus. No qualifiers are front-loaded into the relationship. At the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he meets up with four very ordinary people: the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James, and John on the Sea of Galilee. They hear from Jesus a profound invitation in real time. Jesus wants to be a part of their lives, and they his. Now. Not when they get their acts cleaned up, when they get their boats in order, when they get their spiritual disciplines well honed, when they change their disgusting fish-stinking clothes. No. That would be mixed news. Jesus’ compelling invitation is for now and with no conditions. And it’s true for you, too.
There’s no kind of pre-existing condition that you must satisfy before Jesus will call you, include you, make plans with you, love you. Jesus comes to us, like to these simple fishermen, and what Jesus finds in us he adores. We need not change to be loved by Jesus; but being loved by Jesus will change everything. Love makes us real. Love, only love, heals. And what we see and hear in Jesus is God’s love… for you: love without qualification. And that’s amazingly good news.
Jesus’ good news is repeatedly qualified by the word “repent.” The word “repent” has a little sting. And yet the Greek verb “repent” is actually a word of compassionate judgment. To repent is about changing your mind. Whatever you’re thinking, you don’t have it right. You need to repent, to change your mind and believe something new, namely, some good news.[i] You’ve unwittingly embraced bad news. All the bad news you’ve learned to think about yourself – your unworthiness, your hopelessness, your brokenness; how pathetic, inadequate, lost, and damned you are – is absolutely not true about you. Give it up. Change your mind. Jesus’ use of the verb “repent” implies a judgment on us all, but it’s a judgment of love. Jesus is this eternal change agent come among us to convince and enable you to change your mind and open your heart: that you are lovable and loved for all eternity. Jesus has come to personally deliver that good news to you. Not to the person you might think you could have been, or should have been, but the person you are. Who you are, what you are, how you are, why ever it is you’ve gotten to be the way you are, God knows and God loves. That’s Jesus’ good news for you.
- This is also good news because it’s new; it’s late-breaking news and renewed every day. That Jesus loves you may be old news stored somewhere in the archives of your soul. If pushed, you might say Jesus used to love you, when you were more innocent and less complicated, or that Jesus’ love for you is theoretically true for the most part, or that it’s true with a qualification; however that qualification – something you know about yourself – keeps you from completely embracing the truth of Jesus’ love for you today. Well, this is “the news.” It’s always true and it’s always fresh. Here is the news for you, today, now: Jesus loves you. If you didn’t wake up today with that awareness, I’ve got news for you. Actually, Jesus has news for you, good news. God loves you. Has big plans for you that span all eternity.
In the meantime, where will this good news lead you? Where will Jesus lead you? I wouldn’t know. His invitation to all of us is simply to follow. Your life will unfold one day-at-a-time. That’s pretty much all we can deal with. Just take Jesus at his word: he loves you, and he is with you always.[ii] And between the two of you – Jesus operating and you co-operating – your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength will be infused by Jesus’ light and life and love.[iii] The truth of that good news will absolutely change your life for the better; much better. It will give you strength and meaning for the present, and hope for the future, what you cannot yet see; and it will make a world of difference to you.[iv]
- Your saying “yes” to God’s love for you will make a world of difference to others, too. Saint Paul gives us a wonderful picture of this. He writes, “thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ.”[v] Recall the aroma that simply radiates from baking bread; think of the fragrance that simply exudes from fresh roses. You are the fragrance and aroma of Christ. This is who you are, an emissary of God’s light, and life, and love simply flowing out of you. We have been created in the image of God. God is love.[vi] Let God’s love flow into you and through you. Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek God the greatest adventure; to find God, the greatest human achievement.”[vii] Love living; live loving. Love the life that God has given you, and let God’s love flow through you to others. Let it flow. Let it flow. Let it flow.
- Where love will not naturally exude from you is when you face someone who is unlovable, at least by your It may have to do with their physical appearance, their nationality, their language, their gender, their sexual orientation, their politics, their education, their religious affiliation – whatever it is, you are triggered to notlove them, but rather to exclude or condemn them. Take to heart a kind of baseline understanding towards these people you encounter in life. For example, here’s my own baseline: four personal principles in my viewing others whom I do not love:
- God loves them, and has every desire of sharing eternity with them, as with me.
- They are doing the best they can. They may not have been loved enough in life. They may be acting out the lifescript they were handed. Pray God’s blessing be upon them. (Jesus said, “bless, do not curse.” Cursing someone does not help them change for the better, and it might well change you for the worse.)
- Pray that “the eyes of [your] heart” be enlightened toward them.[viii] What is going on with this person? From what have they come? What are they afraid of? What are they asking for? What do they need? (My own litmus test is whether I find any compassion for this person. If I have no compassion, then I probably do not know enough about them.)
- Pray that “the eyes of [your] heart” be enlightened toward yourself.[ix] My difficulty with someone else might arise because that person is mirroring back to me what I find unacceptable about myself. They help me to see myself more clearly, especially perhaps the places where I need and deserve my own
- And finally, accept that sometimes you still won’t have enough of what it takes to love some of these people whom you would rather banish than love. You are powerless, or at least, you are not powerful enough to pull it off. Saint Paul has a wonderful turn of phrase. He speaks of “God’s power made perfect in our weakness.”[x] When you find yourself powerless to move in the direction of love for someone, rather than despair or condemn yourself, claim this promise of power, God’s power at work in and through your And then watch will happen.
Becoming God’s lover is the conversion of a lifetime. God has all the time in the world for you, in this lifetime and in the next. Ultimately, God will judge us all by love.
You might ask, will God judge us by our love, or will God judge us by God’s love? Hmm. God is the beginning and end of all love. It’s all about God’s love. It’s all God’s love. The founder of my monastic order, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, was a man named Richard Meux Benson. He said, “We cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could we would be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.”[xi] You are a work in progress. Practice being filled with love into all eternity.
- Who taught you about love? What did they do, what did they say? Why was that, for you, an experience of love? In the scriptures, love is written about endlessly. In so many ways, love is described, but it is not defined. You define your experience of love.
- Where do you get in touch with obstacles to love – blocks within yourself toward being loved or lovable; blocks within yourself toward loving others or certain kinds of others? Why the blocks? Bring your awareness into the light.
- What else comes to mind about your growing in love?
I leave you with some words of George Congreve, who became a member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in the 1870s in England. Father Congreve wrote, “The meaning of all my life is its capacity of receiving the infinite love of God, and of making the best return I can. Love is not only the source of our being, but the substance also.”[xii]
[i] To repent – metάnoia – from the preposition μετά (after, with) and the verb νοέω (to perceive, to think; metάnoia means “a change of mind.” To believe – pisteuō – is to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to place confidence or trust, i.e., confidence in Jesus’ good news for you.
[ii] Matthew 28:20.
[iii] Mark 12:30.
[iv] Saint Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:24-25.
[v] 2 Corinthians 2:14-15.
[vi] 1 John 4:7-16.
[vii] Saint Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa, modern-day Algeria.
[viii] Ephesians 3:14-21.
[ix] “The eyes of your heart” is a riff on Ephesians 1:18.
[x] Saint Paul heard Jesus say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
[xi] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824-1915) in the Cowley Evangelist, 1918, p. 53.
[xii] George Congreve, SSJE (1835-1918), a graduate of Eton School and Exeter College, Oxford, came to SSJE in Oxford in 1873.
Fruit-bearing trees, bushes, and plants need to be cultivated to thrive. And this is as true for fruit in garden groves as it is for the fruit of the Spirit which grows in our souls. If we are not cultivating the fruit of the Spirit, which is seeded into our own soul at birth, then we are we are simply experiencing life as dried fruit from our past, or as a sampling of fruit harvested from other people’s lives. Fruit-bearing is also seasonal. Some seasons of life are cyclical. A season of grieving, for example, will hopefully be followed by a time of healing until we come into a clearing. The psalmist says, “weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” As we progress through these the seasons, certain fruit of the Spirit will mature over a lifetime.
In the scriptures, recurring illustrations come from the land – metaphors about farms and fields, gardens and vineyards, trees and orchards, flowers and fruit. We read about soil, seeds, and sowing; about light and darkness; about watering, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. Jesus was well versed in these things, and he has a lot to say. He asks, rhetorically, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?”[i] No. Clearly not. What is his point? Jesus is inviting our reflecting on how then should we live. How do we want to conclude each day and conclude our life? In our relationship to God, we have both partnership and provision for living a whole life. God’s invitation is to collaborate (that is, to co-labor) with God in the cultivation of our soul: in our growing free and fruitful.
This nine-part podcast series follows Saint Paul’s names for “the fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, humility, and self-control.[ii] My hope is that you will find in this series the seeds of encouragement to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit within your soul with practices that will help you thrive in the changing seasons of life.
You may be wondering where is gratitude, which is not named as a fruit of the Spirit? Gratitude pervades all the fruit of the Spirit. Gratitude is the ground of our being. Life grows in the soil of gratitude, and without gratitude, our life will wither. In the beginning, your beginning, God created your life as a gift in which you share. There is no one else like you, and never will be. God is so thankful for you, as for all of us. Our response, in return, is to teem with gratitude to God, every day and in every way. Gratitude grounds the fruit of the Spirit.
Once upon a time a seeker asked the holy woman, Sono, what needed to be done to find meaning in life. She answered, “Every morning and every evening, whenever anything at all happens to you, just keep saying, ‘Thank you for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.’” The man did as he was instructed for an entire year, but then came back to Sono, disappointed that nothing had really changed in his life. “What you told me to do failed,” he said. “What should I do now?” Sono said immediately, “Thank you for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.” On hearing these words, the man was able to open his spiritual eye and returned home with great joy.
Gratitude undergirds all I will share with you. My hope is that you find these reflections helpful in claiming and cultivating the fruit of the Spirit which are God’s gifts to you for living life abundantly. Along the way, I will offer you suggestions for pondering and praying your life, and also, if you choose, for sharing conversation with others. You might find it meaningful to listen to a podcast, one a day for nine days, or one a week for nine weeks, whatever the sequence that is most meaningful to you. How frequently you listen to a new podcast may also be informed by whether you will share conversation with others on these “fruit of the Spirit” themes. Be well.
[i] Matthew 7:16.
[ii] Galatians 5:22-23.