Love Kindness: Firm Center, Soft Edges
Jesus calls us to “the receivable life” in Matthew 10:40. How does love and kindness contribute to a “receivable” Christianity in our changing world? Biola President Barry Corey explores the radical call of kindness and the importance of living with “a firm center and soft edges.”
A lot has been said about presidential candidates this year, and, sadly, much of it’s too offensive to utter from this stage without a bleeping censor. Of things I can quote, two different statements from two different candidates recently stood out. One candidate said this, “The President of the United States has to love all of the American people, even the American people who don’t love you back.”
Another candidate said something with a startlingly different tone. Speaking about a high-ranking member of his own party, “I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him, “and if I don’t, he’s gonna have to pay a big price.” I’m not commenting on the platform or agenda of a candidate, just the tone of their words. Whether or not these politicians mean what they say is up for grabs, but their sentiments illustrate an important contrast in ways of looking at love. The first candidate, who has since bowed out of the race, made a statement of unconditional love. Love, even when you aren’t loved back.
The other candidate, still going strong, made a statement of emotional affection that was on a condition. Love as long as the other person plays according to my rules. Love with no strings attached versus affection with provisos. Which of these is the way of Jesus? If the gospels are true, and at Biola we actually believe that they are, then the answer is obvious. It’s a love no matter what love.
Love even for those who oppose you and reject your ideas. Love even for your political, your theological, your ideological enemies. And that is the love I believe we choose to follow as hard as it might be. It’s easier said than done. I recently wrote a book Evan referred to called “Love Kindness” calling Christians to trade culture wars for a culture of kindness.
And this doesn’t mean trading convictions for niceness. Rather, it means discovering the power of a virtue that’s fallen on hard times. One of the things I talk about in the book is the reality that, sometimes, our kindness isn’t received. What happens when we’re kind to others, but they’re not kind back? What happens when we’re the only one interested in having the conversation with those who disagree with us?
What happens when our life of kindness gets the shaft or the cold shoulder, the fist, or the finger? That’s when kindness is hard. That’s when our core of love is tested. See, in this way, the cross, which you are heading toward this holy week, with all of it’s bloody and dark and rugged imagery, is history’s most profound moment of kindness. It was the day love met no matter what. One way, absolute, kindness.
Today’s divisive culture desperately needs a recovery of Christ-shaped kindness, but be warned, kindness, sometimes, doesn’t go over well. Sometimes, our kind overtures are deferred or ignored or rebuffed, unwelcomed and left out to dry, and that’s the risk of kindness. And that’s what makes this such a radical virtue.
Kindness is love no matter what. Our kindness is sometimes accepted, our kindness is sometimes rejected, but our kindness is never forgotten. True kindness is startling, and it’s haunting. A few years ago, a prominent and progressive blogger, who was an LGB ally, wrote some things about me in a speech I gave that, the speech was on human sexuality, and his words were harsh and very difficult for me to read.
But, rather than posting a comment with arguments to outflank his, which I was tempted to do, I decided to reach out to him directly. That’s always, for me, the more difficult choice. And our exchange, which I used with his permission, went like this. “Dear John, if you’re interested in the next few months, “I’d like to have a private cup of coffee with you. “Just the two of us, “with no need for anything to be blogged and no agenda. “I know we disagree on some basic presuppositions, “but I’m open to share some time with you. “You’ve written about Biola and me extensively back in May, “but we’ve not yet met. “May I invite you to a one-on-one conversation, “brother to brother. “Coffee or lunch is on me. “Let me know if you’re interested “by emailing me at my personal address above. “Yours, Barry Corey.”
Later that day, I heard back. “Hi, Barry, I appreciate your, too kind, overture, “and, yes, I would be pleased to meet with you, “in private, as you say, and off the record. “I’m certainly happy to come to your office, “if that works for you. “Thank you again for the gracious invitation.”
A few days later, John emailed me again. “It’s nice of you to invite me up, “especially given that, in my piece about you, “I wasn’t exactly Joe Generous. [laughter] “So, your graciousness, assuming you haven’t invited me up “to shoot me or anything, [laughter] “which, as I say, I wouldn’t exactly blame you for, “is especially affecting.” [laughter] “Dear John, I’m really not a shooter. [laughter]
There were a few weeks of silence and then another email from John and several exchanges between us on one February day. “Hi, Barry, terribly sorry to bother you, “but would you mind sharing with me “why it is you’d like to meet with me? “Have no idea what you might have in mind “for our get-together. “Is it asking too much for you to maybe enlighten me “on that just a bit? “Thanks, hope you’re well.”
“Dear John, thanks for asking. “My invitation was meant merely to meet you “and for you to hear from my perch “about Biola’s approach to all matters LGBTQ. “I have no agenda to tell you anything “or counterpoint any of your blogs, “but I do think it would be helpful “for you to hear about places like Biola “and how thoughtfully we’re responding “to our students on issues on sexual identity. “I just thought this would be a conversation “in the spirit of Christian civility, that’s all, Barry.”
“Sometimes I hear from pastors or ministry leaders “who are in the process of discerning “where exactly they stand on the delicate and, so often, “troubling question of LGBT and Christianity.” John wrote back that day. “It happens when they’re moving toward “a change one way or another. “I’m not judging you on this nor presuming to think “you’d care if I was. “But am I hearing you correctly that you’re position, “be it personally or professionally, “hasn’t changed from that which you expressed “via the video of the address of yours “upon which I subsequently “and so obnoxiously, I know, commented? “Not that it matters, really. “It’s just good sometimes to know what to expect, “but, certainly, I am genuinely interested to know, “in how Christian colleges are, rather suddenly, “having to deal with this issue.
“And with this unexpected nationwide flowering “of student groups akin to Queer Biola Underground, “I don’t envy you, I’ll say that. “By which I only mean to show respect “to the depths of your challenges there. “Nor the easiest row to hoe “and not going to get any easier, as you know.” He was right, by the way [chuckles]. “John, I still stand by what I said in chapel last May.
“I also know some of my words weren’t understood “as they were meant. “For instance, the pharisee comment that seemed “to gather much ire was intended as equally pointed “at those in the anti-LGBT camp, “who use Scripture to justify hate, bullying, disrespect, “and scorn toward their gay sisters and brothers.” After not hearing from John for 19 days, just before our scheduled coffee, john wrote again.
“Hi Barry, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I won’t be able “to make our meeting this week. “The truth is that, this weekend, I received a few emails “from family members of gay, life-long, Christians “who understood their sexual orientation “to be at such odds with Christianity “that they felt their only solution was suicide. “I appreciate that you hold the views that you do “on that particular matter, “but I’m, likewise, confident that, “at least for this week anyway,
“I will prove unsuitably intolerant of those views “to be at all suitable company to you. “I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience “my cancellation causes you. “I know how very busy you are “and appreciate the time with me that you have offered. “Best to you.” So it’s been several years now, and, despite additional efforts, I still haven’t met with John. I respect his self-awareness, acknowledging that if he were with me, he’d be, in his own words, unsuitably intolerant of my views.
And, one day, I do hope to have that coffee across the table when he’s more suitably tolerant of sitting down with someone whose beliefs different from his. I think our conversation will be rich in substance and in civility. When Jesus says, as Calum quoted, in Matthew 5, to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,” I don’t think he meant just the ones with whom we war or those who hate us.
I think he also meant to love those whose world views are different than our own. To love those whose lives don’t overlap naturally with ours. To those we love whose deep-seated beliefs are in contrast to our own. What does it mean to love your theological or your ideological enemy? What does it mean to pray with sincerity for those who see things differently than I do? How do we fuse the verbs love and pray in Matthew 5’s imperative when Jesus says “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”? Love and pray.
Truth is, sometimes we do one or the other so that our love is prayerless or our prayer is loveless. The gospel calls us to both. For this is the way of kindness, what I call a firm center, soft edges. Loving our enemy creates the way to build the bridge of relationship. It is the soft edge, and praying for our enemies is pleading with God for a gospel transformation to happen. It’s the firm center. We must do both, grace and truth.
As I heard a well-known pastor say recently, it’s nonsense that we can’t love someone with whom we disagree. Acceptance is not agreement. And, as a German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper, put it, love is not synonymous with undifferentiated approval of everything the beloved person thinks and does in real life. When my friend, Bryan Loritts, heard I was writing this book, he exhorted me. We tried legalism, and that has proven inept and unattractive. Some are trying a warped form of love that renders us saltless.
The only thing that works is a life that embodies grace and truth lived out in relationship with others. Firm center, soft edges. But, I can understand the difficulty that a LGBT person or ally might have in accepting this. To them, hearing the words we’re praying for them may sound insulting. To them, love as accompanied by prayer is love with an asterisk. I can understand why some might even reject any love that falls short of one hundred percent acceptance and approval. We followers of Jesus must not be angered by that.
We must not dig in our heels when we get this response. We can’t control how others receive our love and our prayers. All we can do is make ourself receivable. To love and pray faithfully, quietly, not demanding our response be celebrated or received. I believe part of blogger John’s skepticism and resistance to meet with me comes from years, even decades, of hostile rhetoric and sharp barbs exchanged between sides. Christians, for many years, were quick to shout and slow to listen, prone to polemical arguing more often than simply loving and praying for those with differences of opinion.
I’m learning in life that I need to spend less time listening while waiting to talk and more time listening while wanting to learn. John, the blogger, reflects a culture that has become suspicious and distrustful of Christians, often for good reasons. This suspicion and cynicism may or may not be erased over time through our kindness, but that’s the best place to start. So keep trying, even if you get the stiff arm.
We must still attempt to love no matter what. And, though our methods of kindness may be rejected, our attempts don’t need to be abandoned. Paul, the Apostle, writes that “kindness leads to repentance.” It says it right there in Romans chapter 2, and that means kindness calls us to try and retry, to pray ceaselessly, hoping, one day, the moment will come for the conversation to begin. Perhaps, one day, our prayers will be answered, and that initial coffee may be a first step towards reconciliation, redemption, and life in Christ.
But, when Paul says that kindness leads to repentance, sometimes, that’s my own repentance, because, as I lean into the risky way of kindness, as hard as it is for me, I often begin to see others for who they really are rather than who I’ve stereotyped them to be, and I need to repent. I’m still ready to pick up the conversation with John.
As I listen to him, I know I have something to learn on how Christians can best serve those with same-sex attraction, thus the invitation for coffee. As John also responds in kindness, which I believe he will, I hope he’ll be open to listen to me. My hunch is that his RSVP was deferred and not scratched. I hold out hope. Friends, following Christ means we live in an active and prayerful posture of kindness. Christlike love is not a conditional response. It is an obedient pursuit. Kindness is not a random act. It is a radical life.
And, it is a pursuit that comes with risks. Kindness is vulnerable and unsafe. It does not expect a thank you and may even receive a rebuke. It means taking initiative and, sometimes, stepping into a pile of rejection. It is other centered and not me centered. It is always selfless. It is often awkward. It is loving the people we lead, even if they don’t love us back. It is loving our neighbors, our coworkers, the pesky guy on social media who never seems to have anything nice to say, [laughter] and loving all of these people regardless of how unloving they are back.
For me, pride, more than anything else, gets in the way of love, and it shows up, in my version, to be scorned. If I show love and kindness in order to be received and to be thanked, I will give it out but only in doses and in safe spaces. Spaces where I know I’ll be accepted. This is pride, not Christian kindness.
When I love only those who I know will love me back, this is vanity, not the character of Jesus. But, the more I press into loving kindness in situations when I know it may not be received, the more selfless and Christian my posture will be. Paul calls us the aroma of Christ. He says, to some we will smell like life, to others we will smell like death, but we need to keep our Jesus fragrance, which smells a lot like kindness. Smell like Jesus, no matter what. This requires humility, and humility leads us to listen when we want to speak, to be kind when we want to correct.
Kindness does not mean affirming each other’s choices, but it does mean listening to each other’s voices. Kindness should also lead us to pursue relationship with people very different from us and not to shy away from conversations that are difficult. Only through relationship will our love have a shot of being received. Someone once told me that you never lead your enemies to follow Jesus, only your friends, so we begin by kindly making our enemies our friends. As Evan said, Jesus challenged his disciples in Matthew 10:40 saying “Whoever receives you, receives me, “and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me.”
If we are not receivable to those with whom we disagree, how will they ever see in us the profound, reconciling, unmerited, and sin-forgiving love of Christ? We, followers of Christ, the church, are on the front lines of the gospel being heard and received. If we make it hard for people to receive us, how will they ever receive the Father. Whoever receives you, receives me, Jesus said, whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me.
We, followers of Christ, the church, need to make ourselves more receivable and keep making ourselves receivable, even when we’re not received. We, the followers of Christ, the church, need to prioritize kindness in the context of relationships. We need to focus less on battling our enemies and more on befriending them.
If we are always thinking that it’s us against them, we won’t get very far. We can’t influence people who are our combatants. As a dear friend has reminded me, you don’t have to see eye to eye to work shoulder to shoulder. We, followers of Christ, the church, need to seek out relationships with political, ideological, theological opponents. We need to extend olive branches to those who are afraid to be in the same room with us. We need to change our tone and make ourselves more receivable.
We need to extend the invitation for more coffees with the bloggers who criticize us. Our invitation to coffee may be rejected, our receivability my not be received, and, while getting the cold shoulder may bruise our pride, we must hold out hope it won’t stay icy forever. Only God can fully thaw the deep freezes in our hearts, in the hearts of our enemies. For this, we must pray, and we must love.
There’s no place for prayerless love. There’s no place for loveless prayer. Whoever receives you, Jesus says, receives me, and whoever receives me, receives the one who sent me. May we live the radical way of kindness, may we make ourselves receivable, even if we aren’t always received, and may we love no matter what. [upbeat music]