What to wear during a pandemic – by George Lavery

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  (Colossians 3, v.12)

Above all, clothe yourselves with love,  which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3, v.14)

I created this simple graphic in an attempt to visually illustrate the connection between the various garments of Christian Grace.  They are all inter-connected parts of the one circle and bound together by the central core.  Red seemed like the appropriate colour to express the primary emotion at the very heart of this circle of loving care.  Outer clothing is often an expression of our inner spirit.  This is the inner clothing that finds outer expression in our relationships with others.  What this letter to the Colossians is suggesting is that these garments are essential for those who strive to be followers of Jesus.

In any community of faith there are people with different personalities, characteristics, viewpoints, beliefs, hopes and expectations.  They may come from different backgrounds and cultures; they will have different life experiences, and priorities, and preferred ways of solving problems.  Some will be older and some will be younger, some will have young families, some will be retired; some will be married, others will be single, and some will be widowed.   There are a host of differences between the individuals who make up a congregation.  What draws them together in a Christian congregation may be different too.  It could be the desire to explore the mysteries of the spiritual life, to learn about the way of Jesus, and perhaps to become his followers; it may be to find meaning and purpose in their life, or to find some solace in dealing with the losses and griefs they have experienced, or it may be to be with friends and neighbours, to meet new people, etc., etc.  It is significant that the virtues mentioned in this letter to the Colossians, viz. compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and especially love are all related to human relationships.  Christianity is lived out in community with all its strengths and limitations, its joys and sorrows, its successes and failures.  The task is learning how to live in relation to each other and with God.  These virtues are key to fostering a healthy and productive Christian community that will honour the One who came to bring us Good News.

Compassion is the first essential item of clothing mentioned in this letter to the Colossians. The dictionary defines this significant virtue in this way: ‘the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.’  This was a distinguishing characteristic in the life of Jesus himself, and an important part of his teaching.  [e.g. Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24)] In 2008, Karen Armstrong, a highly respected religious scholar, was awarded a TED prizes for her ground-breaking work in the study of various world religions and the ways they interconnect.  Her one wish was to get help for creating, launching, and propagating a “Charter for Compassion”, to be crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.  This vision grew from contributions of more than 150,000 people from 180 countries, and was crafted into a succinct, 312-word pledge that allows room for all faiths. The opening paragraph of the Charter states: “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.  Compassion compels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”  This has become a worldwide movement offering training and courses to enable people to become more compassionate.  The Dalai Lama made this pertinent observation, “Compassion and love are not mere luxuries…They are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.”

Kindness is the next item of essential clothing. Goodness by itself can sometimes appear to be quite harsh and stern, but the Greek word used here means the goodness that is gentle and kindly.  It is the word used when Jesus said, “My yoke is easy” (Matt. 11:30) meaning the goodness that is comfortable, kindly, not pressing.  It is the virtue of the person whose neighbour’s good is as dear as one’s own.  Kindness expresses itself in our relationship with others in what we do, how we do it and when we do it.  If we become aware that our particular approach to someone seems to trigger a very negative reaction, then perhaps we need to re-examine how best we can communicate a kindly word or deed that will meaningfully and constructively speak to that person’s situation.  Timing is also an important consideration here.  Near the end of Jesus’ life, he said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12) Because of his loving-kindness, Jesus did not want to overload them and ‘blow their circuits’.  Later, the Spirit would teach and guide them on the path ahead.  The virtue of kindness is widely esteemed by people from other faith traditions.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, now living as a refugee in India, gave us these insightful quotes: “My religion is very simple.  My religion is kindness.  Be kind whenever it is possible.  It is always possible.  If we remember that others too are human beings like us, we can extend a sense of kindness even toward those we think of as enemies.  The more you nurture a feeling of kindness, the happier and calmer you will be.  When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.  Kindness and a good heart are the foundation for success in this life, progress on the spiritual path, and the fulfillment of our aspirations.”

During this worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 there are all kinds of stories of people doing thoughtful, caring and kindly things to help friends, neighbours, and even strangers.

Humility is an important item of essential clothing, but it seems like a virtue that is difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain.  The word used here means a lowliness or humility of mind and deportment.   It suggests a freedom from pride and arrogance. It includes the quality of having a modest view of one’s importance; regardless of the role or occupation we may have, we are not the centre of the universe, but only one valuable star in the whirling galaxy around us.  From an early age, we learn a way of life through our families, culture, religion, education, vocation, and other life experiences.  We may develop a sense of ownership and even pride in what we have learned. In fact, we may be tempted to assume that our way of understanding and living our life is superior to that of others.  All kinds of wars have been fought over racial, social, cultural, political and religious differences.  I think Mac Davis, the American Country singer/song-writer in the 80s expressed it very well in his satirical song: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”  In our endeavor to wear the clothing of humility it is good to remember two things.  We, and all living things in this amazing and complex universe are simply creatures given life by the Creator, who nurtures and cares for us all.  The steadfast love of God has been there over the eons of time.  Our knowledge and understanding will always be limited, but as we learn more about this vast interconnected web of creation, we are filled with awe, and in humility, we give thanks to the Creator.  The second thing we need to remember is that all people are created in the image of God, and there is no room for arrogance when we are living among men and women who share the same glorious lineage. We are all called to respect and care for each other and all creation.     

Meekness, as it is portrayed in the Bible, is a very significant virtue.  However, in modern English usage the word meek is generally regarded as a rather undesirable quality of life.  It suggests a mildness and timidity that is rather submissive and weak. Language is always evolving, and the meaning of words may change over time.  In the Bible, both in the Hebrew of the Old testament as well as the Greek of the New testament, the concept of meekness is a strong word, and is a very desirable virtue to emulate.  Moses, the great leader of the people of Israel, led his people out of bondage and servitude in Egypt through the wilderness on an extended journey that took some forty years to finally reach the Promised Land.  He was considered one of the meekest of men. (Numbers 12:3) Yet this quality was not on account of his timidity, but because of his awareness of his own limitations, and his consequent dependence on God.  His inner attitude was lived out as ‘gentleness’ in his relationship with others.  The full meaning of meekness in the Christian tradition comes out in its portrayal as a quality in Christ, which Christians are encouraged to follow.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we have the familiar saying of Jesus, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:28-29) The word ‘gentle’ used here is the Greek word for ‘meekness’, and is the closest one in modern English to its original meaning.  If you are weary, and heavy laden with the burdens in life, you hope to find someone who relates to you with gentleness.  If you are strong enough, you will be able to be gentle; if you are psychologically mature enough, you will be able to be gentle; if you are wise enough, you will be able to be gentle.

Patience is often defined as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.  It describes someone who is long-enduring or long-suffering, the person who has self-control or the ability of restraint. In our modern society we are often encouraged to be impatient: to want things acceptable to us now, to expect uninterrupted progress, and smooth-sailing along the path of life.  While that may be desirable, it is not reality.  We encounter difficulties and road blocks along the way, and it seems to me that the critical thing is what we do in the midst of those challenges. Helen Keller was an American author and political activist.  She is known around the world as a person of courage and determination in the face of overwhelming odds.  At the age of two, following a bout of illness, she lost both her sight and her hearing. Her world became entirely different; but this was not the end but a new beginning.  Her parents got a tutor for her and she gradually learned what she could do.  She became the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.  She was a woman of high ambition and great accomplishment who devoted her life to helping others.  She offered this observation: “We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.”

The current world pandemic of COVID-19 has turned everything upside down.  Schools, public parks, social gatherings, church services, and all non-essential businesses have been required to close down regular operations.  This novel virus is spreading rapidly around the world, and great efforts are being made by governments, public health agencies, and health-care workers to contain this virus and to help the people who have become ill or in danger of death.  This is a time of exceptional challenge for everyone.  As we do our best to provide the services and research needed to combat this virus, each of us has a vital part to play during this crisis.  In the midst of our efforts to be compassionate, kind, humble, and gentle, we need also to put on the apparel of patience. With God helping all of us, we will get through this very tough period, but it won’t happen overnight.  Restoring peoples’ lives, their health and well-being, their schooling, their businesses, and the economy itself will take time. But perhaps this could be the time when we re-examine our priorities as families, as a church, as a society, as a global community.  Is there a better way to live together, and to express our caring and sharing with each other?

Love. Finally, there is the appeal to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  As William Barclay has shared in his study of Colossians, love is the perfect binding power to hold the whole Christian community together.  There is a tendency of any body of people, sooner or later, to fly apart; love is the one bond which will hold them together in unbreakable fellowship.  It is the mantle which covers and really incorporates all the other items of clothing; each of them is a fragment of the clothing of love.

When one of the professional teachers of the law once asked Jesus about what he thought was the first commandment of all, Jesus’ reply was essentially this; ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and with all your strength.’  And the second was ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Mark 12:28-31) For Jesus, all the law and prophets of the Jewish tradition were founded on these two principles of love.  It was the central virtue at the very heart of a person’s manifestation of faith and life.

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he shared with them his understanding  of love as the greatest spiritual gift and way of living your life in relation to others. It is a love inspired by God’s love of us in Christ. (1 Cor. 13:1-13) This scripture is sometimes referred to as the ‘Hymn of Love,’ and is often used at wedding ceremonies, where people make vows of love and faithfulness to each other.

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese contemporary artist and activist, who is now living in Britain. In addition to his artwork, he has often offered a critical social commentary that has been provocative.  I appreciated his thought-provoking article in the Globe and Mail of April 4, 2020, where he shares his perspective on the current coronavirus.  He says that there is a virus in the body politic that global societies are passing on to one another: “We have lost our ability to cherish one another.” He suggests that this critical time affords us an opportunity to view the world with a bit more wisdom.

When we deal with an unanticipated and devastating crisis involving the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, we need many things – medical equipment, supplies, hospitals, health-care workers, researchers, and all of us in every country and community doing what we can to prevent the spread of this dreaded disease, and to find a way to eliminate it’s harmful effects.

In this letter to the Colossians, we have what is suggested as the essential clothing for followers of Jesus.  Or a more facetious way of describing it might be ‘What to wear during a pandemic.’

Prayer

Gracious, loving and compassionate God help us to have the courage, strength and faith needed to meet every situation in life with the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and above all, the love that is needed, so that your loving purposes for this planet come closer to fruition.  Amen.  

(excerpt from upcoming publication by The Rev. George Lavery)