In the Old Testament reading for today (which we did not hear but is in your worship notes), God and Moses deal with Aaron and the golden calf. Moses is described in Number 12:3 as someone who excelled in gentleness, and he pleads with God to show mercy – more of that later. Gentleness is I believe a fruit of the spirit much needed in our present world and church, and the rediscovery of what is to be a gentleperson might profit our human communities greatly. So how can we foster this? Firstly, by our prayer – for it is only by God’s spirit that gentleness is possible at all. The great Thomas Merton wrote “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers (he meant his monastic brothers, but it would apply to others of all genders with whom we share our lives) - the more solitary I am the more affection I have for them”.
I wonder, how gentle is your prayer? Have you ever thought about it? I realised I had not and that much of my prayer is not gentle at all. Often my prayer is a litany of instruction – ‘give me peace here! ‘fix that there! – with a please or thank you thrown in only on good days. My prayer – and perhaps yours too – can often be quite demanding, and certainly not gentle. Or sometimes perhaps we do God the great discourtesy of assuming that God is not really interested and so cease to ask at all! Yet God always treats us with gentleness and respect and invites us to show that respect to ourselves.
My friend and wonderful spiritual director Philip Carter told me that in prayer he seeks just four things, gratitude, openness, patience and gentleness. It’s a great checklist. But let’s just stay with gentleness for today. If at the start and end of every day we asked God for the gift of gentleness – gentleness with ourselves, gentleness towards God, gentleness towards others – I believe we would see a change in ourselves and our communities. But first we need to see a change in the language and understanding we have around God. In the story of the golden calf we are told that God’s anger burns hot against the Israelites and it is only Moses gentle intercession that averts disaster. As it is, later in the story 3,000 of those who worship the calf are killed and God sends a plague. This is not a gentle God – this is a God made in the image of the harsh culture that framed those writings. And likewise, when Matthew wrote his gospel, in the harsh glare of the destruction of the temple in AD70, he puts on the lips of Jesus a cruel picture of the Kingdom, as like a tyrannical and fickle ruler, who will condemn to eternal damnation those who wear the wrong thing. This is deeply unhelpful and plays into our human tendency to cast out and separate off those whose ways we perceive to be different to ours and therefore threatening.
We are to choose a different way – the way of true gentleness, whereby we make choices with kindness and not force – breaking the shell of the walnut but leaving the kernel intact. It requires strength with restraint, such that for example in our current battles in the church around LGBTIQ+ people we break the hard, Pharisaic shell of institution and canon, without crushing the kernel that is the body of Christ and all its members. A task that asks for the strength of a hammer and the precision of a scalpel.
So, each day as we dress in the morning, let’s not forget to clothe ourselves with gentleness, for as Philippians reminds us, “let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Amen.
by Penny Jones, Sunday 11 October 2020