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Cultivating Compassion, Freedom and Courage, and Gratitude in Tough Times

It is yet another Monday of what will most likely be a difficult week. There are many issues of concern, much to be worried about with both the pandemic and politics. In recent days, however, I’ve found myself less anxious than in the past, as I’ve leaned on these words from the late Marcus Borg’s final book, Convictions:

“Centering in God transforms us. It changes us. It produces what Paul called ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ and ‘the gifts of the Spirit.’ It is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘You will know them by their fruits.’ The fruits of centering in God are many and intertwined, but the most important are compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude. Sequencing them is thus not about their relative importance; they all go together.” 

Usually, when I’ve thought about fruitful spiritual character, the words that come to mind are a traditional list of traits from Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Over the years, I’ve heard many sermons on these nine qualities of mature spirituality, with preachers always urging hearers to grow in these characteristics as evidence of faith.

Marcus’s list – compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude – both surprised and spoke to me. I wondered why he chose them instead of the more traditional nine.  Although I certainly aspire to those four virtues, I hadn’t really thought of them in relation to “centering in God” or the “fruit of the spirit.”  But Marcus believed them foundational to the most important thing – “loving what God loves, participating in God’s passion for a different sort of world” – to live a life of justice and mercy woven into the fabric of the world.  These fruit – compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude – are about far more than our own personal character. Yes, they are virtues that grow from the mealy soil of our own souls, rooted and grounded in God, as dispositions cultivated over time. The four fruits aren’t just about our individual spiritual well being, however. These fruits feed others.

Cultivating the fruits of compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude seem just right at this moment. Compassion is neighbor-directed love; freedom and courage are the power to resist anxiety and fear; and gratitude awakens our senses to gift and wonder.  I can’t think of any four things I long for – that I need – that we need – more right now.

As a backyard gardener, I know that growing fruit is part grace and part hard work; part mystery and part practice.  But it does take focus. During the spring and summer, I have to pay attention to the garden. Life centers on soil and vines: weeding, watering, fertilizing, shooing pests away, watching and waiting as fruit ripens. Like the garden, “centering on God” takes focus, attention, and nurture on (what theologian Paul Tillich once called) the “Ground of our being.”  That is, of course, part mystery.  But it is a practice, too.

I wish I could wave a wand and the coronavirus would disappear; I would like our political and economic crises to likewise vanish.  But, that of course, is called “magical thinking.”  Instead, I want to center down this week, and cultivate compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude.  To center on God isn’t an exercise in spiritual escapism; rather, it is to grow the love, fearlessness, and humility that feeds a hungry world.

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