In this season of love, Bishop David Bard invites us to let the Holy Spirit enlarge our hearts so they stay a little bigger and kinder…
It has now happened twice in the past couple of months. I don’t wear a clerical collar often, but sometimes the occasion calls for it. In the first instance, I helped preside at communion and celebrated a significant ministry at one of our Michigan United Methodist churches. I wore my clerical collar, and I stopped to fill my car with gas while driving home. A woman approached me as I was getting into my car to leave the station. I initially thought she might need some help filling her tank with gas. Why not ask the clergyperson for a little financial help? I was wrong. She approached my car, told me she was driving her three grandchildren to Grand Rapids, and asked if I would mind praying for her. I did.
A few weeks later, I was in a hotel lobby in Charleston, WV, returning from the memorial service for Bishop William Boyd Grove. I represented the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops at the service and wore my clerical collar again. As I was walking through the lobby with another bishop, who was not wearing her collar, a woman stopped me and asked if I would pray for her. She was struggling with a few issues and was waiting for someone to pick her up from the hotel. I prayed for her.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these incidents. Should I wear my clergy collar more, or perhaps less — maybe take it off before leaving the church? Sorry, I am poking a little fun at myself, but truth be told, it can be a bit uncomfortable to be stopped by strangers and asked to pray for their lives. Yet good ministry often involves discomfort.
What strikes me most about these serendipitous occurrences is that people have a deep need to know that someone cares. Maybe the grandmother was more in tune with magical thinking, imagining that the prayer of a random man in a clerical collar might quiet her unruly grandchildren for the next 45 minutes. That did not seem to be the case. Maybe the woman in the lobby was in a skewed frame of mind, not entirely in touch with reality. Again, that did not seem to be the case. In both instances, I experienced the genuine need for people to be cared about, to have someone take time to notice and be kind. Given that the church has not always been kind and caring, I was joyfully humbled to think that these two persons saw a Christian clergy collar as a symbol that someone was a good person to reach out to for kindness and care.
It is Advent again, and we are counting the days until Christmas. I preached in a sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, “Advent asks of us to take time to ponder, pause to attend deeply to the presence of Jesus in our lives. Advent is not meant to simply mark time, but to be a spiritual journey.”
In a world where people feel a profound need to be cared about and where that need can be met too often by cold shoulders or apathetic indifference, might our Advent be a journey into kinder hearts and a recommitment to living with greater kindness, gentleness, tenderness, and love? Knowing the depth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, might we, this Advent, rekindle the fire of that love in our lives, lighting it anew as we light Advent candles this year?
I am aware of the enormous pain and suffering in the world — war, hunger, inequality, poverty, injustice, violence. Kindness feels so small compared to these significant problems. But will any of them be made better by our being less kind? Might larger hearts not also lead to expanded creative thinking to address such pressing issues? I think so.
I think so, not because I am a pie-eyed optimist who ignores the evil, injustice, and oppression in the world, who turns away from the deep wounds and pains in people’s lives. I often hear the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney:
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
I believe kindness matters, that it makes a difference, and larger hearts lead to larger minds because I take Advent and the story of Christmas seriously. God enters our world through a child born in the humblest circumstances. When he grows, Jesus does not command armies but teaches and touches, and lives are changed. At the heart of his teaching is a command to love — love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, NRSVue).
At its best, Christmas carries with it an extra measure of kindness. The world needs it. Everyone needs it. This Advent and Christmas, let the Spirit enlarge your hearts in such a way that they stay a little bigger, a little kinder.