The way of love

Lent is a time to focus on spiritual disciplines. Bishop David Bard calls Michigan United Methodists to intentional focus on the discipline of love through patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, and humility…

For a brief month, there is a lot that happens in February. President’s Day is February 15. The day prior, February 14, is Valentine’s Day. February is Black History Month. This year, as in so many, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 17.

The church season of Lent “began as a period of fasting and preparation for baptism by converts and then became a time for penance by all Christians” (The United Methodist Book of Worship).  Often during this season, church sanctuaries are minimally adorned. “Alleluia” might disappear from worship liturgies. As part of the seriousness of the season, people often pledge to give something up during Lent; usually, something enjoyed like certain foods or chocolate.

How interesting that Lent begins in the same month as Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love often marked with flowers or chocolate or a nice meal. Valentine’s Day and Lent seem antithetical, but love and Lent are not. This year, we have experienced so much loss, and the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic requires us to continue to give up so much. We have given up in-person gatherings where we cannot maintain social distance, continue to give up seeing each other face-to-face without masks, and continue to give up some of our familiar ways of worship. So, I invite us not to give something up for Lent but rather to welcome love more deeply into our lives intentionally and with discipline.

Focusing on spiritual disciplines is familiar during Lent. When we think about spiritual disciplines during Lent, we often think of the traditional practices of prayer, Scripture, and worship. I encourage engaging more deeply with each of these, even when worship needs to be virtual. This year, though, I also invite us to focus deeply on disciplines of love.

In the Minnesota Conference, we are reading Love is the Way by Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  You may remember him as the bishop who offered the homily at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, and if you’ve never watched it, take time to do so this Lent. In his book, Bishop Curry writes: “The way of love will show us the right thing to do every single time. It is moral and spiritual grounding – and a place of rest – amid the chaos that is often part of life. It’s how we stay decent in indecent times. Loving is not always easy, but like with muscles, we get stronger both with repetition and as the burden gets heavier.” (p. 27) The Episcopal Church has developed a program entitled, “The Way of Love – practices for a Jesus-centered life.”

I want to encourage us to be intentional and disciplined in some of the practices of love this Lent. Turning to Paul’s beautiful description of love in I Corinthians 13, I want to highlight four practices. They are patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, and humility.

“Love is patient.”

In my blog last month, I wrote, “patience is a quality of mind open to the wonder, beauty, and complexity of the world.” In a world that encourages immediacy and instantaneousness, patience leans toward responsiveness rather than reactivity. Patience holds together in creative tension “the fierce urgency of now” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) with “a long obedience in the same direction” (Eugene Peterson).

Black History Month allows us to continue the necessary work of racial reckoning in our country.  There is both an urgency to this work and a need to understand that systems and structures, and ways of thinking that have developed over a long time will not simply disappear overnight. This is both urgent work and long work.

According to Ron Heifetz, leadership entails, among other things, managing the pace of change and monitoring the temperature of an organization. All this has to do with patience, which is a discipline of love.

“Love is kind.”

According to his nephew Billy, the novelist Henry James, known for his long, complex sentences and elegant language, once said to him: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian clergyperson and creator of a long-running children’s television program on public television, wrote: “There are three ways to ultimate success. The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” Two creative people whose creativity could not have been expressed more differently agree on kindness’s vital importance.

To be kind is not simply to be Minnesota or Michigan nice, papering over difficulties and differences. To be kind is to be respectful across divides, not to ignore them. To be kind is to see others as generously as possible, even when we may need to oppose their viewpoints. To be kind is to remember that we all are created in the image of God. Kindness is a discipline of love.

“Love… rejoices in the truth.”

We live in a world where every idea, no matter how tenuously tied to reality, can find an audience. We live in the midst of conspiracy theories readily amplified by the algorithms of social media. To love the world is to be curious about its complexity, be willing to ask questions, and use our God-given intelligence. In his book about social media, author Daniel Darling writing about conspiracy theories says: “untruths damage the witness of the church” and spreading them is “corrosive to the soul, damaging to our public witness, and it hurts neighbors we are called to love” (A Way With Words, 136-137). I read with deep sadness the story of a woman in Detroit so caught up in QAnon for a time that she stopped caring for and engaging with her family in ways she once had.

Black History Month allows us to engage more thoughtfully with our history as a nation as part of our on-going racial reckoning. Slavery was practiced from 1619 to 1865. Brutal Jim Crow laws followed Post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South. Redlining policies and sundown towns made segregation a reality in the North. Following Reconstruction, the lynching of Black Americans was part of our social landscape. While these were concentrated in the South, they were not unknown in the North as the 1920 lynching in my hometown of Duluth attests.  Recently the world lost the magnificent baseball player, Henry Aaron, who in 1974, broke Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs.  Aaron received racist letters and even death threats as he neared the record.

As we think about our country, we must include such difficult thoughts along with celebrations of progress made. We need to ask about the long-term impact of such trauma. Being thoughtful, asking questions, thinking is a discipline of love.

“Love is not… boastful, arrogant or rude.” 

We might say love practices humility. Humility is not groveling or feeling bad about oneself. It is about more accurate self-knowledge, about knowing one’s gifts, strengths, beauty, weaknesses, limitations, blindspots. Humility is about openness, understanding that there is always more to learn and more room to grow. Curiosity is also a quality of humility.

These are not the only disciplines of love, but I believe they are vitally important to the well-being of our lives, to the depth of our discipleship, to the vibrancy of our congregations, and the health of our wider world. What might our lives be like if we were more loving by being more patient, kinder, more thoughtful, more humble? How might we live together in the community called the church if we were more loving by being more patient, kinder, more thoughtful, more humble, and how might this enhance our witness? How might we navigate the future challenges in our country if we were more loving by being more patient, kinder, more thoughtful, and more humble?

When Paul pondered what it would look like when God’s Spirit was actively at work in people’s lives, he came up with a list: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

When John Wesley wanted to describe the impact of God’s love, and grace could have in people’s lives, he used the term “Christian perfection,” which he then described like this: the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor ruling our attitudes, habits, words, and actions.

Love and Lent. Disciplines of love. Maybe next month, I will practice the discipline of brevity.

I am with You on the Lenten Journey in the Way of Love.