Facets of Faithfulness, VII: Gentleness
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things. — Galatians 5:22–23
In English, we can talk about ‘a gentle man’—‘gentle’ and ‘man’ with a space between—and we can talk about ‘a gentleman’—one word, no space. Did you ever wonder how we got from ‘a gentle man’ to ‘a gentleman’?
The English word ‘gentle’ comes from the Latin gens, which means ‘race,’ ‘clan,’ ‘birth,’ ‘origin.’ As someone put it, the word ‘gentle’ reminds us that we are all from the same clan. “It reminds us of our common humanity—that we are a people, a race, made from this earth that sustains us all.
In the Middle Ages, ‘gentle’ came to mean ‘gentry’: a gentleman was one who had land, family, money, and power, and for that reason owed protection to the unentitled.” A gentleman was, by definition, a gentle man. Gentleness is integral to our common humanity. ‘Generous’ comes from the same source—the Latin gens—race, clan, birth, origin. Generous is what we were born to be.
You know what’s interesting about Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit? What’s interesting about Paul’s list is what’s not there. A lot of good things are included—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so forth—but many genuine virtues are not there.
Strength is not there; power is not there; ambition is not there; industriousness—just plain, simple hard work—is not there. Self-confidence is not there; self-control is, but not self-confidence.
Detroit Tiger fans are not having any fun just now. The Tigers have the worst record in Major League Baseball. Just past the All-Star Break, they are already 28½ games out of first place.
So to make myself a little happier, I scared up some YouTube videos of the 1968 World Series, the zenith of my professional sports fandom—Tigers over the Cards in seven games. I was 11 years old.
And sure enough, there he was—our nemesis, Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinal pitcher for 17 years, Hall of Fame, 251 wins, 3,000 K’s. Struck out 17 Tigers in game one of the 1968 World Series. To put that in perspective, there are only 27 outs in a typical baseball game.
Bob Gibson’s Earned Run Average in 1968 was an almost miraculous 1.12. No one since has even come close. Bob Gibson was so dominant in 1968 that the next year Major League Baseball lowered the pitching mound from 15 inches to 10 to give batters a fighting chance.
Bob Gibson was famously brusque and belligerent, even to his own teammates. Cards catcher Tim McCarver once trotted out to the mound for a conference with his pitcher, but Bob Gibson told Tim to go back to home plate. He said: “The only thing you know about pitching is that it’s hard to hit.”
Batters who faced him at the plate say he was the most terrifying pitcher in baseball. I don’t know maybe since Gibson, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens are more intimidating, but back in the day, Bob Gibson was the most terrifying. He would glare at batters from the mound as if to say, “I hate you more than I hate Satan. I hate you more than I hate Joseph Stalin. I hate you more than I hate Bull Connor.
Gibson was only 6'2", but when he threw a pitch, he stretched his body out so far that the distance between the mound and the plate seemed a lot shorter than 60'6". He was like Elastigirl from The Incredibles, stretching all the way from pitching mound to homeplate.
And he was not afraid to throw at a batter. First-baseman Bill White was Gibson’s roommate when White played for the Cards, but in 1966 the Cards traded White to the Phillies, and the first time White batted against Gibson, Bob threw a high hard one that hit White right under his chin. White says, “That was Bob’s way of saying, ‘We’re not roommates anymore.”
That’s a gift too. Bob Gibson was very gifted; it’s just not the fruit of the Holy Spirit, at least according to St. Paul. You know what’s missing from Paul’s list? All the hard, muscular, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson virtues.
I was going to say that Paul’s list is full of stereotypically feminine virtues and lacks stereotypically masculine virtues, but maybe we’d better stop talking like that, especially after watching Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan at the World Cup.
But gentleness is not necessarily soft, and it’s not necessarily fragile or flaccid. Sorbonne Philosopher, André Comte-Sponville says gentleness is “courage without violence, strength without harshness, love without anger. Gentleness, to begin with, is a kind of peace.”
Gentleness is a kind of peace. Do you see what he means? Do you know someone who can “touch a child or a piano without leaving fingerprints?”
Do you have a colleague who, when verbally attacked, refuses to respond in kind?
Do you know a teacher who wants to teach the school system’s juvenile offenders because he knows that’s where he makes the biggest difference, and can keep order in an unruly classroom not with bluster and rage but with an earned respect that comes from the quietest word and the gentlest touch and the most genuine concern for the humanity of every wayward child in the room?
Do you know a businessman who doesn’t think it’s a waste of time to read poetry every Wednesday afternoon at the nursing home? Do you know a Stephen Minister who will sit there for hours and listen patiently while you unleash a long litany of the world’s injustices?
Do you think we could use a generous portion of this facet of faithfulness just now in our world? Maybe I’m too gentle for my own good but I am just so wounded by the brutality of our public discourse.
“Send her back?” Really? Back where? To Boston, to the Bronx, to Detroit, to Minneapolis? Is that what it means to be a loyal American just now? Divisive? Derisive? Superior? Afraid? White? Christian? And the saddest part of it is that most of the people chanting “Send her back!” are evangelical Christians.
Disciples of Jesus are called to be agents of gentleness, and gentleness is a kind of peace, and contempt like that is not peace.
Gentle doesn’t mean weak or soft. Even our gentle mothers can be tough. You’ve heard of the young man who was getting into some mild trouble during his senior year at high school. His mother laid down the law. She made him study. She made him go to class. She made him take an SAT prep course. She made sure he worked on his college applications. She was always telling him just what to do. One day when he’d had enough, he announced, “That’s it! I’m sick and tired of everybody telling me what to do. I’m gonna join the Marines.” Sometimes mothers are worse than drill sergeants.
I was so moved by the article in The New York Times a while back about the high-powered career woman who gave it all up to take care of her father suffering from Alzheimer’s. She’d been a radio anchorwoman with a large salary, a Mercedes, and jobs in L.A., San Francisco, and New York.
Now her job is to be her father’s primary caregiver. "Nobody asked me to do this, and it wasn't about guilt," says Mary Ellen Geist. "I lived a very selfish life. I'd gotten plenty of recognition. But all I did was work and it was getting old. I knew I could make a difference here. And it's expanded my heart and given me a chance to reclaim something I'd lost."
It expanded her heart, she says. It gave her another chance at something she’d lost. Her father calls her ‘Daughter,’ because he can’t remember her name. She takes him to adult day care, to the barber shop, to choir rehearsal, because though he can’t remember her name, he remembers the old songs.
"I'm here to make my dad feel loved and keep my mom from losing her mind," says Mary Ellen Geist. Her mother says, "She has made our life doable. Sometimes I can't believe she's here.” Mother and daughter comfort each other with white lies. Mary Ellen Geist tells her mother, "I didn't give up anything to be here," but they both know better. When she picks him up from day-care at the end of the day and leads him out to the car, he says, “Daughter, where are you going?” And she says, “No place. Just home with you.”
Where does that gentleness come from? You know what I think? I think gentleness comes not from weakness, but from strength. I think it comes not from impoverishment, but from abundance, spiritual abundance.
Gentleness comes from God. We who know ourselves to be graced can be gracious. We who know ourselves to be loved can be loving. We who are secure in God’s great love and grand plan for our lives can lay aside the instinct to grasp after what we think the world owes us, our instinct for self-preservation and self-defense, our obstinate allegiance to our own inflexible agenda.
Gentleness, to begin with, is courage without violence, strength without harshness, love without anger.
Or as the prophet Micah put it, “God has showed you, Mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. To walk gently on this earth. That is our raison d’être. That is why we are here.
Marilyn Chambers McEntyre, “A Gentle Word,” Weavings, XIX, July/August 2004, p. 29.
Roger Angell, quoted by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Baseball: An Illustrated History (New York: Knopf, 1994), pp. 396–397.
André Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life, trans. Catherine Temerson (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), p. 186.
A line from John Leonard, quoted by Joanna Adams, “Christian Faith and Human Sexuality,” a sermon preached at Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Georgia, January 13, 1985.
Adapted from Dennis Bresnahan, in Reader’s Digest, December, 2005, p. 75.
Jane Gross, “Forget the Career. My Parents Need Me at Home,” The New York Times, 11-24-05.
Not the words, but the idea, in this paragraph, comes from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, op. cit., p. 26.