The Spirit of Gentleness

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Yesterday morning, Brandon and I were walking through the farmer’s market downtown when suddenly before us was a man holding a gigantic sign. As people passed by, averting their gaze, he shouted out condemnations and warnings.

“Don’t return to church,” he said as I crossed his path, “Return to the Lord!”

Most of you haven’t met my husband because he is not a churchy person. He had some bad experiences with the church as a younger man and they have forever left an impression upon him. In many ways, he left the church because of people like the man who stood shouting in the middle of the street.

I don’t doubt for one second the sincerity or faithfulness of that man.

I don’t doubt that he is standing there in the street out of an honest desire to bring people to Jesus Christ and to share the message with salvation with them.

But today we are going to talk about not only the message, but the method for how we share God’s saving power with others, and how we should respond when that message falls on hostile ears.

For most of this summer, we have used various biblical characters to exemplify the fruits of the spirit that God has given for ministry. From the healing powers of Peter to the patience of Esau, these ancestors of our faith have been witnesses of how God equips us for ministry.

Today, we are going to learn from example what NOT to do.

As Andrea and Noah just shared with us, the prophet Elisha is a man of God, but he is also a very human being.

In a moment of frustration and embarrassment he lashes out at a group of young boys.

Every time I hear this story, I am reminded that this kind of conflict and tension between grumpy old men and rude young boys is timeless.

From Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace to the character of Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino we catch a glimpse of Elisha’s mindset in this story. Like Eastwood’s character, Elisha is overcome by recent grief, which only complicates his violent response.

But we also have seen the impertinence of those who jeer the elderly, mock the disabled or anyone different from them. Sometimes we try to excuse the behaviors, thinking that boys will be boys, but bullying in any form, at any age, is inexcusable and it hurts.
As I shared with the children, sometimes our first instinct to bullying or frustration is to push back – through words or actions.

And so many of us has let a curse slip out of our mouths in a moment of anger or pain.

Elisha is only human and that kind of response is understandable.

Yet, Elisha is also filled with the Spirit of God and he is new to the whole business of being a prophet. Just days before, his mentor Elijah had been carried away up into the heavens and the mantle of God had been left to HIM.

And Elisha doesn’t quite have this power of God figured out yet. He doesn’t understand, like the prophet Nathan did last week, that his ability has tremendous power to harm as well as help.

Aristotle once said that a person who displayed gentleness would be angry, “only on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

Elisha let his anger get the better of him.

He might have been hurt because he had been teased, but these were children and rather than an “eye for an eye” – his curce called out bears from the woods and killed those children on the spot.

We can look firmly at his actions and state without a doubt they were anything BUT gentle.

The same Spirit of God filled the first disciples when they were sent out on their first steps of ministry. Jesus called them and gave them this charge in Matthew 10 and Luke 9:

“Go to the lost, confused people right here in this neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons…”

Along the way, they were sure to encounter their share of hostile glances and threats. He tells them to not be naïve, because “some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation – just because you believe in me.”

So Jesus also added these instructions. Knowing that they were still new to this work of God, he told them:

“When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”

We imagine they might have followed his advice and performed much better than Elisha had with this power of God within them… yet by the end of the chapter in Luke’s gospel the disciples have already forgotten that Spirit of Gentleness.

When a town will not welcome them, James and John turn and ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven to destroy the people.

Again, we discover rash, arrogant, and excessive behavior, which Jesus quietly rebukes and they move on.

So, what is gentleness and how are we supposed to live it out in our lives.

The The Full Life Study Bible defines gentleness as “restraint coupled with strength and courage.”

Aristotle says that it is halfway between excessive anger and indifference.

It is the kind of restraint that Nathan showed when he confronted David in our text from last week, the same that Paul tries to emulate as he writes to the Corinthians. He asks them: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit.” (1 Cor 4:21).

He could be angry. He could be harsh. As a teacher, he probably knew something about discipline… but he wanted them to repent and transform their lives not out of fear… but out of the love and gentleness that was shown to them.

Maybe that is why I am so troubled by the good and faithful folks who stand in the middle of the street at places like the farmer’s market, shouting out dire warnings at all who might walk by. Because I believe that change comes when we approach one another with a spirit of gentleness and not fear.

In John Wesley’s writing, we see that gentleness in his command to “do no harm.” As our former, Bishop Reuben Job reflected on that command, he writes: “I have found that when this first simple rule was remembered, it often saved me from uttering a wrong word or considering a wrong response.”

He adds, “this simple step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done.”

Maybe that is the key. Gentleness invites us to take a step back and to determine proper response.

And I think that if we are faithful to the scriptures we will find that gentleness should be our response to the world.

In Luke, chapter 9, the disciples remember times when the power of God was unleashed on the people and on communities unwilling to repent or upon people who don’t appear to be on their team. They think that they might be justified in doing the same.

Maybe, they are even thinking back to the horrific mauling of those children by the prophet Elisha.

But “vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35).

And as Paul encourages us,
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12: 19-21)

Jesus responds to the anger and pain of the disciples and gently rebukes them and in doing so, he shows us how we should respond when threatened or encountering injustice.

He is aware of the power of the Spirit that lives within him and he uses it to be gentle to those in need of transformation.

As Stanley Horton writes, “The broken reed He would not crush but would fully restore. The flickering wick of a lamp He would not put out but would cause it to burn brightly again… [Jesus] gently takes the sinner and makes him whole.” (http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/top/fruit8_gentleness.cfm)

That man who stood there in the farmer’s market is correct in naming that there will be a time of judgment. After all, our God is great. God is strong and mighty and I truly hope that there will come a day when all things are made right and justice comes to those who have harmed and destroyed on this planet.

But I also know that only God knows how to unleash that power “on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

And so the spirit of gentleness we are called to embody is to take a step back and allow that work to be God’s.

Elisha tried to be the judge, jury, and executioner when he encountered wrong in this world.

Instead, God’s spirit calls us to embody gentleness by remembering that we are all sinners.

We are all broken.

We are all filled with the power to lash out or shut out.

And way the message of God’s good news of saving grace is shared is just as important as the message itself.

For my husband, the words shouted out in the street did not open up new possibilities for God’s grace to enter, but probably closed him off even more.

As we live out a spirit of gentleness in this world, let us instead do no harm and in gentleness and love give God time to transform the lives we encounter.

Open. #umcgc

I haven’t posted much of substance the past few days. Mostly because there simply isn’t energy to do so.

Two mornings ago, the Council of Bishops presented us with a report we asked them to make.

We took a break and came back to discuss it and one word expressed how it is with my soul: open.

I think emptiness has a lot to do with openness. When you pour yourself out, there is a lot of space left to be filled.

For most of the remainder of the day, we found ourselves lost in parliamentary procedure, mistrust, debate, misunderstanding, chaos, and clamor.

In the end, we adopted the Bishops’ report by 23 votes.

Some of the stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance.

Is openness acceptance?
Am I, are we, collectively grieving the end of The United Methodist Church?

I’m tired and not fully prepared to reflect, but here are some initial asides to explore later:

1) it feels like we both avoided catastrophe.. and like we simply put off the inevitable.

2) Unity in Christ is bigger than unity in a denomination.

3) in spite of our differences, we do incredible discipling and world transforming work!

Going Up?

Are you going up?

Are you… climbing the ladder… increasing in stature… measuring success in leaps and bounds?

Are you going up?

I’m not asking if you are climbing the corporate ladder… or increasing your standing in the community… or raking in the dollars and cents.

Are you going up?

Are you climbing Jacob’s ladder?  Are you increasing in holiness?  Are you more successful today than you were yesterday at obeying God’s will?

Are you going up?

In the United Methodist Church, we have been talking a lot lately about growth and fruitfulness and effectiveness.  And we are focused on those things because… well, lately we seem to be in a downward slide.  Fewer members.  Less money in offerings.  A decrease in the number of baptisms and confirmations. Fewer people entering the ministry.

Down… down… down.

In fact, at General Conference, I heard words like “death tsunami” and “urgency” and “crisis.”

Evidently, downward movement and momentum isn’t a good thing.

We are supposed to be going up…

As a local congregation, the powers that be tell us that we should have more people in worship today than we did five years ago.  We should have more baptisms and confirmations than funerals.  We should be increasing our stewardship of resources and financial giving.  Our numbers should be climbing. In fact, our very own Bishop Julius Trimble set a goal for our conference to have 10,790 new disciples in four years.  That is 13 new disciples per congregation… that is only 3-4 new disciples every year for four years… We should have more new people in more new places.  If we look at our numbers,  they should be going up, up, up.

Are we going up?

I find this to be a very interesting question to think about today, because it is Ascension Sunday.  Today is the day we celebrate that although Jesus died… he rose from the dead!  And not only did he rise up from the grave and walk among us… but about forty days later, Jesus rose up into heaven. He ascended to the father.

And as our scripture from Acts tells us, the disciples who witnessed this amazing miracle were so dumbfounded that they stood staring, mouths wide open in astonisment, faces to the sky.  They stood like that, staring at the heavens… looking up… for such a long time that angels had to come and remind them: Hey! you’ve got a job to do.

We can get awfully obsessed about what is happening up there. (pointing to the sky).

We want to follow Jesus up there and go to heaven.

We want to know that the big guy up there thinks about everything we say and do… or… maybe (eek) maybe we don’t. Maybe we want to hide everything we say and do from up there.

In fact, I bet if you really thought about it, you could plot out the points on your life when you were attaining the heights and growing in wisdom and stature and getting closer to up there.  We could probably plot out the times when we were going up…

There are some half sheets of paper in the pews there and I want to invite you to take one of them and grab a pen or pencil.

I want us to start by drawing a simple graph.  Put an x-axis on the left hand side… this will stand for the highs and the lows of your life.  Now draw a y-axis through there… this will stand for the years you have been here on this earth.

Alright… now I want to give you a minute… just a minute… to roughly sketch out and plot some of the most successful and least successful times of your life… the highs and the lows.  Think about this first graph in worldly terms – jobs and education and family and success… but also those times that were difficult like deaths and struggles with work or school.   Just hit the most important and significant things for you right now.  And when you are finished, connect the dots…

Okay… now I want us to make a second chart… right there on the same graph is fine.  If you want, switch writing utensils with a neighbor so you can plot out your graph in pen or pencil or something different. This time, plot out your spiritual highs and lows.  When were you closest to God (ie: highest on the chart) and when were you farthest from God?  When did you grow in grace?  When did you backslide? And for some of us, that includes times when we didn’t even know about God – a long time where we were flatlined at zero…  I’ll give you a couple of minutes for that…

Now, I want you to look at your graph and answer the question… are you going up?

Could someone else in this world look at that graph and tell if you were going up?

Have the things that you have said and done, the life that you have lived… is it worthy of what is up there?

Have you felt a struggle in YOUR life… always trying to get closer to up there, always trying to reach the point where you have “made it?”  Do you worry about how many highs and lows you have in your spiritual relationship with God.

To repeat the question we have been using all morning – are you going up?

I believe that this is a trick question.  Or rather, I believe it is the wrong question.

Because you see in the end, we are NOT judged by the upward curve of our slope.  We are NOT judged by the number of good deeds we have done.  and we are NOT judged by the number of bible verses we have memorized…  We are not judged by how long we have been close to God.

The irony is… in order to go “up to heaven” we have to be willing to be low and humble… we are judged by whether or not we have accepted how utterly unacceptable we are… and by God’s grace that dwells within us…

Somewhere this week, I read that holiness is not actually a characteristic that describes us.  We are not holy.  We can not grow in our own holiness.  The only thing that makes us holy is God.

As we sang right before this message… Only Jesus is worthy… only Jesus is good… and only Jesus has the power to save us, redeem us, transform us and welcome us home.

Sometimes we get so focused on trying to do the right things in order to get up there, on living the right kind of life, that we forget it’s not about us at all… it’s about Jesus and what he has done.

And the Ascension story reminds us that Jesus goes up…. not us.

In their preaching helps this week, the General Board of Discipleship reminded us that heaven is not really “up.”  As we know from our modern scientific inquiry – and I quote from the GBOD: “If Jesus went “up there,” he would have frozen to death, suffocated, been dangerously irradiated, or ripped to shreds by black holes (if he got that far!).”

The universe beyond the clouds is not a friendly place.

But what we forget with the language of going up… of ascension… is that this is really the “language of enthronement.”  In the ascension of Jesus, he rises not simply from the grave, but up to his full authority.  He no longer walks and talks among us but he is now “seated at the right hand of the Father.”  He is no longer simply the prophetic carpenter from Galilee, but he has risen to his fullest stature as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

And that kind of a Jesus… that kind of a holy, awesome, powerful being… that majestic and awesome Lord up there… well, he can share holiness.  He can bestow grace.  He can transform lives.  He can save.

The only reason we can go up…. is because he is already there.

And because Jesus has been raised from the dead… because Jesus has ascended to the Father… because he has demonstrated not just his power, but also his deep and abiding love for us…

I sometime worry that we focus so much on whether or not we are going up… whether we are climbing the ladder… whether we are increasing in stature… that  we stand staring at the heavens with our mouths gaping open.

well, we don’t have to worry about whether or not we are going up anymore.  We don’t have to graph out our successes and failures on a chart.  We don’t have to plot the trajectory of holiness.

As the angels come and tell us – Hey – what are you still looking up for… you have a job to do!

And the Lord of Lords and King of Kings does have a job for us.

It isn’t something we have to do to earn his love or to become more holy… but it is something we do out of deep gratitude for what we have already been given.

The job is simple… Jesus tells us: Go, be my witnesses.  Tell the world about what I have done.  Love them because I love them.

Rev. Mindi from rev-0-lution.org tells about a sign she saw once in England.  It read:  “We believe in life before death.”

We can get so caught up in life after death, in what happens up there and whether or not we are going up there, that we forget about this life.

Jesus invites us to live before we die.  He invites us to go and share and tell and bless and love.  He invites us to not only live, but to share new life with the broken and hurting of this world.  As Rev. Mindi wrote: “This is why we work for justice and peace in this world.  This is why we stand against hate and stand for love.”

We do not work for the Kingdom of God in order to get up there, but because that Kingdom has already come down here and already dwells in our hearts.  Because the King of Kings already lives in our hearts.

Because he has gone up, we can get down and dirty and engage people in the real mess of their lives.

Because he has gone up, we can stop worrying about whether or not we are saved and we can simply tell people about Jesus and invite them to get to know him and us better.

Because he has gone up, we can stop counting dollars and cents and we can start measuring how deep our conversations are, how real our expressions of love are, and how many people we have shared the story with.

Because he has gone up, because he is Lord of Lords, because “up there” there is really not “UP” at all… but is a completely new way of living and thinking and being… well, because of Jesus – we can truly live before we die.