For a brief month, there is a lot that happens in February. President’s Day is Feb. 15. The day prior, Feb. 14, is Valentine’s Day. February is Black History Month. This year, as in so many, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on Feb. 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, when we have experienced so much loss and when the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic requires that we continue to give up in-person gatherings where we cannot maintain social distance, continue to give up seeing each other face-to-face without masks, continue to give up some of our familiar ways of worshipping, I invite us not to give something up for Lent, but rather to welcome love more deeply into our lives intentionally and with discipline.
When we think about spiritual disciplines during Lent, we often think of the traditional practices of prayer, reading scripture, and worship. I encourage you to engage more deeply with each of these, even when worship needs to be virtual. I also invite us to focus deeply this year on disciplines of love.
In the Minnesota Conference, we are doing a Lenten study around “Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times” by Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. You might remember him as the bishop who offered the homily at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, 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: patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, and humility.
Love is patient. I believe 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 affords us the opportunity 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 a long work. Leadership, according to expert Ron Heifetz, 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, 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, a Presbyterian clergyperson and creator of the long-running children’s television program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” 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 the vital importance of kindness. To be kind is not simply to be “Minnesota 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 we can, even when we may need to oppose their viewpoint. To be kind is to remember that we all are created in the image of God. Kindness is a discipline of love.
Love rejoices with 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, to be willing to ask questions, to 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,” p. 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 one had. Black History Month affords us the opportunity to engage more thoughtfully with our history as a nation as part of our ongoing racial reckoning. Slavery was practiced from 1619 to 1865. Post-Civil War Reconstruction was followed by brutal Jim Crow laws in the South. Redlining policies and sundown towns made segregation a reality in the North. Following Reconstruction, lynching of Black Americans was part of our social landscape, and 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 magnificent baseball player Henry “Hank” Aaron, who in 1974, broke Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs. Aaron, who was Black, 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 badly about oneself. It is about more accurate self-knowledge, about knowing one’s gifts, strengths, beauty, weaknesses, limitations, blind spots. Humility is about openness, about 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 to 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 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 our future as a country if we were more loving by being more patient, kinder, more thoughtful, 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 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’m with you on the Lenten journey in the way of love.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.