The Candle of Gentleness

We’re deep into Advent now, and getting close to Christmas. We have lit two candles:

the Candle of Patience, & the Candle of Faith. And now I want to light a third: the Candle of Gentleness. Hard to light, as the others have been? Perhaps so . . . at the least for some, for whom gentleness, frankly, is a stretch . . .

But one thing is certain, it’s needed as never before! Desperately needed! And not only just when Christmas is approaching, and we need to be on our best behaviour––lest Santa scant our tree.

Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, the possession of which––by the Spirit––both opens the heart to God; and addresses the world for God. It not only enables us (if possess it we do) to hear from God, and be uniquely sensitive to God––i.e. and hence ready for his Coming, and for plumbing the true heart of Christmas––but to speak for God; and engage for God, and put hands and feet on the Gospel in the midst of a ‘harsh’ (––not ‘brave’––) ‘new world’; a world exhausted by casual brutality, and other works of the flesh––as Paul called them––works like enmity, strife, and fits of anger, to name but a few . . .

Covid time, sadly, has actually sharpened the innate incivility of our age, and civilization: no secret there. One need only turn on the TV, or the computer, or pick up the newspaper, to bear witness to all of the rage, slander, bitterness, cruelty, unforgiveness, and profanity. which we routinely mete out to each other. And righteously so! Righteously so!! In other words, many practitioners of this kind of “over-the-top rudeness” and behaviour not only behave badly (and commend others who do the same) but think themselves perfectly justified in doing so:––as if it were the ultimate expression of self-respect, i.e. the only thing which could possibly stand between them, and being mowed down or crushed by someone else, equally reprobate or profane. “Look out for Number One, or be mowed down.” It’s one or the other. It’s not just the Law of the Jungle, but the “Law of Contemporary Life.” “Stand up for yourself! And yes!! Use a baseball bat if needed.”

Last spring while working on the church garden, I made the sad mistake of nicely asking

“obscenity-screaming passers-by” to please contain their language, and respect the fact that they, and I, were in a public space. I mean, they were giving forth at the top of their lungs. And it wasn’t just the odd f-bomb. Bad move on my part. Bad move. Wow! The explosion that followed was numbing. Needless to say they were deeply offended that I had dared to ask this of them––I mean deeply!! As far as they were concerned, the problem was not the vileness of their talk, but my arrogance as an obvious “church” person in asking them to restrain it. Unsurprisingly, they not only redoubled their profanity, but began to make threats to both me, and the church.

Being a lover of animals from childhood I have always loved the SPCA, created in Britain, by Christians, in the heyday of society formation, i.e. the Victorian era. (As much as we like to vilify the Victorian era, we owe many of our charitable societies to that time in history.)

But I think it’s perhaps time to strike a new society, called the SPCP, or perhaps SPCOA,

i.e. the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to People,” perhaps better rendered as the

“Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to One Another.” Because we are not only all human beings together, but called––by God––to be in relationship to one another, a truth which, lest we commonly forget, has implications . . . And yet we abuse one another, as if there were no tomorrow . . .

For example:

“My friend Amy owns a bakery that specializes in custom cakes,” writes Roz Warren, out of Philadelphia. “Her cakes are exceptional. Fabulous. Each one a work of art. A customer, let’s call her Karen, recently ordered a cake for her 50th birthday. (The name Karen, by the way,

is Internet shorthand for an abusive woman.) On the day of the party, Karen’s husband came to the bakery, picked up the cake, paid for it, and left. End of story? Alas, no. Several days later, Karen phoned the bakery to complain. “You ruined my birthday,” she told Amy. “I hated the cake!”

“I’m so sorry,” said Amy. “What was wrong with it?”

“The design was messed up!”

“What was wrong with the design?”

“A line was crooked!”

“That’s it? One line?”

“It was crooked!!!!”

People are dying on ventilators, Amy thought, and you’re bent out of shape because a line on your birthday cake was crooked? “When you pick up a custom cake,” Amy said out loud to Karen, “if you aren’t happy with the design, we can fix it. Our cake designers are right in the shop. They’ll drop everything and make sure we get it right.”

“I didn’t pick it up,” said Karen. “My husband picked it up.”

“Okay, so when your husband got home and you looked at the cake, you could have brought it right back to the shop. A fix like that takes only a few minutes.”

“You shouldn’t have to fix it!” said Karen. “It shouldn’t have been crooked. And I didn’t have time to bring it back. I was getting ready for the party.”

“These days, everyone is angry and frustrated,” Amy said when she told me about this later.

So Amy offered to refund a third of the cake’s price.

“Absolutely not!” said Karen. “I want a full refund.”

“You took delivery of the cake. Your guests enjoyed it.

And now you want a full refund. Because?”

“Because the cake wasn’t perfect!”

“Here’s the problem. In the scary, frustrating Pandemic World we’re living in now, the “cake” isn’t perfect. In fact, the cake––for most of us––really sucks. Some people have adapted.

They’re being reasonable. They’re trying to meet the challenge by being as kind as possible to each other . . . But others demand a perfect cake and will raise hell when they don’t get it!

They project the helplessness and rage they feel about the pandemic onto other targets. Karen couldn’t punish COVID––but she could vent some of her anger by punishing Amy.

What would you have done?”

An unusual story? “Ah, but this woman was a pagan and an unbeliever!,” we church types are of a mind to say, on hearing this story, and other like it . . .A couple of Christians would never do that! Wanna bet????

Before Covid struck we were working through the Book of Philippians in our weekly Bible Study here at St. Andrew’s church. It’s an extraordinary document, the work of a man––the Apostle Paul––who was apparently under a sentence of death as he wrote it. The book is rife with references to his impending death. In any case, I have always been struck by one of the injunctions that concludes Philippians:

“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

The word for gentleness, in Greek is πρᾳΰτης (prautēs). (Just in case you wanted to know.)

And what is gentleness? “Gentleness is a refusal to use power to harm anyone,” writes an expositor, “an unwillingness to wound others, for the sake of vengeance, spite, or control . . .

Gentleness desires that no harm be done. There are careful ways to be bold; non-violent ways to stand up for what is right; and non-manipulative ways to lead, or to convince.”

In other words, above all else, a gentle person is not only profoundly sensitive to the needs and innermost persons, of others––to who they are, and how they might feel––but takes as axiomatic yet another injunction from the Book of Philippians, this time at chapter 2, verse 3, that we are to

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility, regard others as more important than oneself.”

Gentleness, then, is not only the attribute of someone who is sensitive to others, but truly humble; someone not only extraordinary in character, but whose life is––above all else––an “imitation,” of Christ; a living embodiment of he who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary, and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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.”

People who are gentle and humble in heart both listen, and love, and heal––as Jesus did. They really do. They not only find rest, but bring rest, to other people, like one brings a gift:––not only at Christmas, but an any time of the year. For gentleness is not some sort of “concept,” or idea, or notion. To be real, it’s something which is to be embodied; something which needs to be given hands and feet; something which needs to take its place in the real world, and suffer to be practiced . . .

There’s always theory, of course, but then there’s (what the ancients called) praxis. Praxis, the process by which a theory, or lesson, or skill, or idea, is enacted, embodied, or realized. Praxis. It’s a recurrent topic in philosophy. You’ll find it in Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidigger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paulo Freire.

And––dare I say it––the Bible. Moreover, I daresay gentleness is one of the without-which-nots

of our relationship to God.

In other words, as much as I believe that God can cope with our doubts and fears––even the harshest ones––I rather doubt we’ll get very far in our relationship with him by shouting obscenities at God every time something goes wrong. After all, gentleness begets gentleness,

in every relationship.

Mary Poppins was right! A spoonful of sugar, i.e. softness, and openness of heart,

does help the medicine go down, in almost every situation.

Needless to say, when Paul insisted that we not only be gentle––but let our gentleness be evident to all––he was not commending something he was unwilling to practice himself . . . “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you,” he wrote to his friends at Thessalonika, “but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well:––because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship.

We worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone. You are witnesses––and so is God––of how holy, righteous, and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you, as a father deals with his own children––encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”

So this Advent, as you prepare for the coming of the Promised One, light a candle of gentleness,

on the Advent wreath you have been constructing in your own heart.

Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. Be gentle with the Lord, as you seek him for answers. And let your gentleness be evident, to all.