The Joyful Journey

As Valentine’s Day approaches, Bishop David Bard reflects on the importance of gentle, wise and generous heart work.

It was over 20 years ago now that I completed my doctoral dissertation. It has quite a snappy title: “Political Majorities, Political Minorities and the Common Good: an analysis of understandings of democracy in recent Christian political ethics.” For over 400 pages I wrote about Christian theology, Christian ethics and democratic political theory. I have a deep democratic soul, and appreciate the delicate human achievement that is political democracy. This means I also have a deep appreciation for the peaceful transfer of power that happens after elections. It is too rare an achievement in human history.

Regardless of my own political preferences and votes, I pay attention to inaugurations, for they represent this peaceful transition of power. I understand the struggle some have with this most recent election. With many, I do not want to see us “regularize” some of the crudity, mean-spiritedness and exclusionary rhetoric of this past campaign season. At the same time, I want to regularly witness the peaceful change from one president to the next, so I watched some of the coverage of the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Early in the day on one of the networks, long-time political author and commentator, Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, was discussing some prior presidential transitions. He talked about how President George H. W. Bush who had lost an election to Bill Clinton, left a kind and generous letter for incoming President Clinton wishing him well. The Clintons and the Bushs later became friends. President Clinton left a note for George W. Bush, and George W. Bush left a note for Barak Obama. Woodward then noted the importance of kindness and gentleness to political democracy.

I was continuing to think about kindness, gentleness and generosity of spirit as important to our life together in a democracy a few days later when I could not help but notice at a local store that it was filled with hearts. This month is Valentine’s Day, and we are surrounded by hearts – cardboard hearts, sweater hearts, chocolate hearts, and those little candy hearts that we used to give to our school friends that said things like “Be Mine.” Did you ever find it difficult to pick out a good candy heart for those classmates that you really did not like all that well?

Looking at all those hearts, with the words “kindness” and “gentleness” echoing inside, I could not help but think about Christian faith as heart work. God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is at work transforming our hearts – the core of who we are and how we live. Ezekiel envisions the work of the Spirit as the work of softening our hearts. The writer of Ephesians speaks of having the eyes of our hearts enlightened. The work of God’s Spirit in our lives is heart work.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. ~ Ezekiel 36:26

God is at work to create in us softer hearts. Soft hearts are kind and gentle. Soft hearts are characterized by a generosity of spirit. Soft hearts are open hearts. In our lives, and in our communities of faith, having soft hearts means having more open hearts, hearts open to deep listening, hearts open to hearing diverse voices in our world. Isn’t it ironic that in a time when the means of communication have multiplied, when we can use our phones not only to speak with others, but to link to the world-wide web with all its news and entertainment possibilities, we have tended to listen only to those voices that mimic our own? In an age of communication abundance, many of us choose to live in echo chambers. Soft hearts listen to diverse voices, voices that offer differing opinions, that reflect experiences of the world different from our own.

I am a straight, white male. I grew up in a community where the vast majority looked like me, that is, shared my European-American heritage. I am well-educated, and though I am the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college, I was able to attend a state university through the help of a scholarship and working a part-time grocery store job. I will never know what it is like, from the inside, to be female, to be part of a minority culture growing up – particularly part of a racial-ethnic group that has historically been marginalized, to be gay, to wonder as a child where my next meal will be coming from, or to fear that my parents might be deported. Through a soft heart I can, however, hear stories different from my own. Through a soft heart I can listen to those who think differently from me. Through a soft heart, I can hear how God’s love and grace finds a home in other lives very different from mine. Through a soft heart, I can hear how others feel pain and know joy. With a soft heart, I can respond in kindness, gentleness and generosity of spirit. With soft, open hearts perhaps we can hear embedded within different stories a deeper common space where we share hopes, dreams and aspirations for being loved, appreciated, significant, and for making a difference in the world.

Pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you. ~ Ephesians 2:17-18b

God is at work to create in us wiser hearts, hearts whose eyes are enlightened. Soft hearts are kind and gentle and have a generous spirit. Soft hearts are open hearts. Wise hearts also understand that kindness can be difficult. To respond to the hurting of the world requires that we point out the causes of the hurt. Doing justice, a part of kindness, requires acknowledging injustice. Reaching out in kindness to others may mean confronting some of our own inner fears and acknowledging difficult history. Even with the kindest, softest hearts, we must deal wisely with difficult situations in our lives and in our world, recognizing human limitations even as we remain open to the amazing grace of God.

We are doing a whole lot of structural work as Michigan United Methodists, coming up with new rules, revised structures and staffing plans, thinking about office space, and planning a joint annual conference. We want our new conference to equip and connect vibrant congregations, led by and forming bold and effective leaders, and engaged in Christ-centered mission and ministry. For me, though, at the core of all of this is heart work. Vibrant congregations know God’s love in Jesus Christ, and have people whose hearts are being shaped by the Spirit of Christ so that they are soft and wise hearts filled with kindness, gentleness and generosity of spirit. Bold and effective leaders engage in heart work so they can lead wisely and well. Christ-centered mission and ministry is rooted in soft hearts and guided by wise hearts. When we do our heart work well, when we let God’s Spirit do the Spirit’s heart work well, we will not only be better as a Michigan Conference, we will be contributing something to a world desperately in need of softer and wiser hearts, a world thirsty for kindness, and gentleness and generosity of spirit.