Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gentle, Obviously

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

                        Philippians 4.5

A Gentle Giant

I’m not a “born” pastor’s kid. I entered the world the son of a machinist and nurse, both devout Christians in Birmingham, Alabama. Soon after, a strike closed my father’s workplace. It dragged on for months, and out of concern about providing for my mother and me, Dad moved us to Chicago. We settled in a Southside neighborhood called “Canaryville,” a common landing spot for Southern émigrés. It quickly became clear Canaryville and Birmingham were worlds apart. Problems discretely dealt with down South—substance and spousal abuse, runaway children, teen pregnancy, and so on—were public matters. At first, my folks joined an established Pentecostal church a half-hour away. But as they learned of their neighbors’ troubles, they became convinced the neighborhood needed a lighthouse, a haven within reach of the battered souls around them. They prayed for guidance. It took a few years before the call finally came.

Actually, the call came before I was born. As a teenager, my mom heard God beckoning her to ministry. Fear of rejection as a woman preacher caused her to bury her gifts, however. Now, over 10 years later, a second call came—this time with such force she couldn’t escape it. Yet her obedience teetered on Dad’s accepting the call also. He didn’t blink. While Mom devoted her days and nights to study, prayer, and outreach into neglected communities, Dad supported her emotionally, prayerfully, and also financially by keeping his full-time job. Together, they built a congregation of families and young people distressed by poverty, drug addiction, abusive parents, educational challenges, gang life, mental instability, and spiritual hunger. Our house became a hiding place for dozens on dozens seeking shelter from inner city turmoil. (My brother and I once started a list of everyone who lived with us at some point. We quit at 50.) And though Mom took the dynamic lead, Dad’s quiet tenderness and care always reassured those they helped that our church, our home, and our hearts were safe and trustworthy places. He was—and is—in every respect a gentle giant.


This lengthy personal background comes after recently opening Philippians to read, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” My father has exemplified this to me all of my life. By nature, he’s an easy-going guy with the patience of a saint. But ask anyone about his Christian witness, and gentleness is the first to get mentioned. Whether you’ve just met him or known him for decades, it’s evident. There’s no mistaking it for a lesser quality like politeness, or a weakness like passivity. Evident gentleness brings with it pronounced compassion and strength. It displays God’s love and faithfulness in a decidedly human fashion that no one can dismiss and everyone can appreciate. Who in his right mind prefers unprovoked hostility to unsolicited gentleness? Who doesn’t recognize a gentle response is by far a riskier, more demanding gesture than blunt indifference or harsh frankness? Gentleness is a powerful trait. Its subtlety conveys innumerable other virtues—such as respect, concern, and acceptance—that sometimes appear disingenuous when explicitly expressed.

Gentle People

True believers are gentle people. In Galatians 5.22, Paul lists gentleness as a fruit of the Spirit. We produce it. It grows out of God’s presence in us and ripens in open view. Many of us demur from using it, though. Cultural conditioning trains us to regard gentle people dimly, as non-ambitious and unimaginative—harmless, but useless. Because they don’t jump at the chance to show off or stand their ground, we write them off as too weak-kneed to succeed in our overly competitive world. That’s a mistake. But we also make another mistake, one that affects us more directly, when applying this logic to matters of faith.

When challenged—by non-believers and fellow Christians—about our confidence in God’s acceptance and right to believe, competitive instincts are the first to rise. Walking with Christ is the most treasured aspect of our lives. We’re naturally compelled to defend and protect it. These are the most crucial times to hear Paul: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” They provide us wonderful chances to prove our faith by action rather than word. I love Paul’s advice about handling faith skirmishes. “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments,” he writes in 2 Timothy 2.23-26, “because they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” In all we do, we must be gentle, obviously.

Telling the Philippians this, Paul attaches a coda—“The Lord is near,” a not-so-subtle reminder the hour of His coming is unknown. We don’t know how long we have. Nothing is assured. Whether we die an hour from now or live many years to come, if the Second Coming occurs next Monday or millennia from now, we’ve no time for squandering opportunities to make our gentleness evident to all.

My mom, the dynamo, and my dad, the gentle giant who supports her.

(Tomorrow: Try Me)


Annette said...


I'm just catching up. I LOVE this photo! How great to put the faces to the names. This is a great photo! Thank you for sharing it!


Tim said...

They are cute, aren't they? This is their 50th anniversary photo--it really captures their spirit and relationship, I think, as opposed to the two older people staring at the camera...

Thanks for the comment, Annette. I'll pass this on to my folks. They read the blog via subscription and never catch the comments...