February. For the briefest month of the year, there are a whole lot of celebrations and commemorations. February is Black History Month. Significant. So, too, LGBT History Month. It is also The Great American Pie Month and Library Lovers Month, among others. The second week of February is National Marriage Week, also Jell-O Week. Week three is Random Acts of Kindness Week. February 1 is National Freedom Day and National Dark Chocolate Day; what is freedom without dark chocolate? It is also National Get Up Day and the Korean New Year. We all know Groundhog Day is February 2. National Pizza Day is February 9. February 22 is World Thinking Day. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is February 12; George Washington’s February 22. In case you were wondering, Elmo’s birthday is February 3.
Right in the middle of the month is Valentine’s Day, a day in which we are invited to remember love. Romantic love is particularly celebrated, but when I was a child, a more mundane love was commemorated. Every year during elementary school on Valentine’s Day, we would bring a box or bag to be decorated so as to become a fancy classroom mailbox. We would all bring Valentine cards, one for every member of our class, which we then dropped into those decorated boxes or bags. It did not matter if you really didn’t care for someone in your class. Giving a card to everyone, perhaps with a small candy treat, was required. It was common courtesy and kindness. Perhaps this was a type of random act of kindness, except it wasn’t random. You signed the cards.
Last month I shared with you that among my favorite Scripture texts is First Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.” Love. It is not merely at the heart of the month of February, it is at the heart of our Christian faith. God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Our love for others in the name of Jesus Christ. We love because God first loved us.
What does love ask of us, particularly in this time? Books could be written, but let me offer a couple of thoughts rather than an exhaustive list.
Love asks of us kindness. I have shared before the idea proposed by theologian Robert Neville: “Christianity first and foremost is about being kind” (“Symbols of Jesus: A Christology of Symbolic Engagement”). I would say that being a follower of Jesus is about more than kindness, but never less than kindness, and kindness is central. Given our pernicious polarization, the rivers of anger that seem to be running through our world, and even our denominational divisiveness, kindness is absolutely critical.
Neville elaborates on what he thinks kindness means: “being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent….To be kind is also to be courteous.” Neville goes on to say that being courteous is “an extremely important and difficult virtue in a society as multifarious as ours.” Neville’s book is 20 years old, and it is safe to say that we are finding courteousness more than difficult today.
A central dimension to being courteous is respect. Love asks of us kindness, kindness requires courteousness, and respect is an essential dimension of being courteous. We have deep differences of opinion within our society. We have significant differences of opinion within the church, differences of opinion that will lead to separation. How might we respect one another amid deep differences?
In his book “Flourishing,” theologian Miroslav Volf offers a complex understanding of respect. We can respect a position different from our own by respecting the integrity of that position, taking it seriously, and engaging with it fairly at its best rather than at its worst. We can respect a position different from our own by critically engaging its claims. We can respect a position different from ours as we willingly acknowledge its positive moral effects. Volf offers these dimensions of respect as he outlines what it could mean to respect other religions. How much more should we be willing to offer such respect to those with whom we have a shared faith in Jesus Christ, even if we differ on what that faith may mean?
Volf admits that there may be some positions that are difficult to respect even when we have engaged them fairly. I might offer here a racist nationalism that claims to be rooted in Christian faith. Even then, we might respect a person without respecting their position. Everyone in the class gets a Valentine card. Perhaps kindness asks that we begin, in most cases, with assuming we will find reasons to respect not only persons but their positions, at least in part. Upon serious reflection and engagement, we may get to the place where a position or point-of-view cannot be respected, but let’s not begin there. Regardless, persons are to be respected.
If all that feels a little uncomfortable, I would also say that love asks of us a willingness to be uncomfortable. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus’ message of good news apparently puts us in an uncomfortable place, at least for a time. To repent is to change—to change direction, to change purpose. There is that moment of discomfort when you recognize the need for change. You are not where you want to be. Your life is not what you want it to be. The world is not where we want it to be. Love asks that we remain open to such discomfort in the service of a newer self, a better life, a newer world. Last summer at the Michigan Annual Conference, I invited every United Methodist Church to engage with the topic of racism. I’ve extended the invitation to every United Methodist Church in Minnesota. I preached that “God’s grace is found in increasing our capacity for discomfort.” To get to a better place, to move toward God’s Beloved Community, will require moments of discomfort as we confront our past and its legacy in the present.
The attorney Bryan Stevenson, whose work for racial justice was powerfully portrayed in the movie “Just Mercy,” was interviewed recently about his ongoing work, including the creation of a memorial to the victims of lynching in the United States, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the establishment of The Legacy Museum, which traces the history of racism in America. I invite you to get a little uncomfortable and watch the interview. In the story, Stevenson says, “We can be more than a country of enslavers and lynchers and executioners, but only if we acknowledge that.”
Love asks of us kindness. Love asks of us a willingness to be uncomfortable in the service of a better life and a better world. Love also asks of us to pause from time to time and say “thank you.” I want to thank you all for your service to Jesus Christ through your local churches and other ministry settings in these difficult and challenging days. I know clergy and other church leaders have been doing their best to navigate an unpredictable pandemic, even as our society has made this more difficult when we funnel public health through narrow political categories. You’ve worked to navigate a pandemic, worked to help people stay focused on ministry for Jesus Christ, worked to discuss challenging topics that are an important part of our journey with Jesus, worked to engage people online in new ways. Thank you. Know you are loved—loved wildly by the God of Jesus Christ, and loved by this bishop who is on this journey with you.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church