12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 3
Looking back at my clothing choices in life, they seemed to reflect the earthiness of a casual lifestyle and the expediency of following cultural rules. I’ve always been somewhat of a tomboy growing up with a little brother and a rebel growing up as a military brat. Middle school photos are painful with cat-eyed glasses, bell bottomed pants and mismatched tops. The absolute worst clothing was Baylor in the seventies because of their class dress code–can you believe no shorts! The in thing was bow polyester blouses to go with very thin plucked eyebrows. The 80’s weren’t any kinder with large shoulder pads and big hair. Things changed drastically later doing student ministry so that I could wear flip flops and t-shirts in a very non-formal culture. But in between there was that ten years in India with its very formal culture and what you wear and how you wear it was everything. Imagine being invited to an outdoor church picnic, showing up in what I thought was conservative pants and a long shirt to find out that all the women were wearing sari’s and running relay races in them. Our pastor’s daughter greeted my husband and I saying: “Oh, two gents have arrived.” For me, putting on a sari was a 30-minute sweaty event where I felt like I was tied up in five meters of wrapping and couldn’t move or breathe properly until with great delight I was able to pull it all off.
With a lot of clothing mishaps in life, I find the clothing metaphor in Colossians 3 somewhat difficult. We are asked to put on the character of Christ, which William Barclay calls the garments of grace. “Clothe yourselves with compassion,” (NIV) and “Put on compassionate hearts.” (ESV) The five character traits we must wear are the stuff of human relationships: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. These belong to community life, shared by individuals of varying gifts, experiences, and backgrounds, yet bearing with each other and forgiving one another because we are bound together in God’s love.
Isn’t it so much easier to put on fear, sadness, disgust, anger?! But the MSG version’s earthy wording calls us out on our bad clothing choices: “Your old life is dead, your new life, which is your real life, is with Christ in God. He is your life…and that means killing off everything connected with that way of death: sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy…You are done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete…So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you.”
It all sounds really cool to have the new wardrobe, but it still involves something that has always been really hard for me: trying on new clothes means taking off the old and putting on the new. My husband and I have been meditating on these verses to improve our personal relationship. We have had lots of conversations about how to apply these five character qualities. We took a trip together, just the two of us to unplug from work, enjoy the beauty of nature, and to have time to talk and pray about our personal relationship. We had such a beautiful time together, really, we put on compassion, kindness and forgiveness. Our mantra was “respond not react.”
Then, wham, the first day back to reality, we had a big emotional drama and we threw off the new wardrobe of patience and kindness and went right back to wearing impatience and anger. That day I really lost hope that we could ever fully put on the compassion of Christ. Then that night, we woke up about 3am desperate for reconciliation, we put on humility, we put on forgiveness and love bound us together. I guess that is really what it is all about, we are imperfect people trying to follow Christ and love each other. Col 3:3 sums it up for me, “you have died and your life is hidden with Christ.” The dying to self is so difficult. But being hidden in Christ, going often to a silent place of prayer and presence, is so important to helping us seek the things above and not get tripped up by earthly things such as selfishness, pride, and anger.
How do we put on compassion? Jesus expressed it simply as “Love God, yourself, and your neighbor.” So, how do we practice the Divine Presence to see ourselves as chosen, holy, and beloved, and express love and compassion to ourselves and others?
After leaving university student ministry, I retooled and refocused on Spiritual Formation and mentoring young ministers and missionaries in spiritual practices. I have found contemplative practices, or practicing the presence of God for personal transformation, is how we can source our expression of compassionate engagement with our community and in our personal relationships. Compassion is being moved in our depths by another’s experience and responding in ways to ease suffering or promote flourishing.
However, it is our nature and our culture to see each other through judgements and reactions conditioned by our own needs, desires, and sensitivities. Through contemplative awareness and putting on compassion we can see the other’s longings, fears, wounds, and delights. Compassion engenders truly being seen without filter and reactions of judgment or agenda.
Another really good resource on putting on kindness and patience is found in The Love Dare, by Alex Kendrick, a major part of the plot in the movie Fireproof, 2008. I used the movie as an aid in teaching a marriage class, but my biggest takeaway was finally understanding a real life way of understanding and practicing kindness and patience:
Kindness is an act of love to maximize a positive blessing. Patience is responding in a way to minimize a negative outcome. Kindness is something we do with love. Patience is responding with love not reacting!
“Love is built on two pillars that best define what it is. Those pillars are patience and kindness. All other characteristics of love are an extension of these two attributes. Love inspires you to become a patient person. When you choose to be patient you respond in a positive way to a negative situation. You are slow to anger. You choose to have a long fuse instead of a quick temper. Rather than being restless and demanding love helps you settle down and begin to extend compassion.” (Day 1, Love Dare)
Practice Putting on Kindness and Patience. Use this simple challenge from the Love Dare: The first part of this dare is fairly simple. For the next day, resolve to demonstrate patience and to say nothing negative to those closest to you. If the temptation arises, choose not to say anything. In addition to saying nothing negative, do at least one unexpected gesture as an act of kindness. This week be intentional in practicing kindness and responding with patience.
These last two practices I have posted in the past, but I add them here as a reminder of the practice of Divine Compassion.
Putting on Divine Compassion. For this practice, you need to set aside time and space to be open to the Divine Compassion, the God of forgiveness and love. Find a comfortable place and take several deep breaths allowing the Breath of Life to fill your soul. Rest in the calm of your breathing in and out. Allow yourself to be intentional in your openness. To bring yourself into the presence, you can repeat, “Come, Divine Compassion,” or “O God, you are my God.” Recollect or remember a sacred moment with Jesus when you have encountered compassion, kindness and forgiveness. Rest in that moment. Remember the images, sounds, emotions, or words of the encounter. Sit with this compassionate encounter and feel again being held, forgiven, seen, or understood by God. Allow a symbol of the experience to come to mind, such as a cross, broken bread, or the sound of cleansing ocean waves. Use the symbol to draw you back into the Compassionate.
Practice Putting on Compassion for the Other. Take a moment to search your mind and heart for someone you need to offer the gift of compassion or kindness. As you think of the other, see if there is reaction or judgment that needs to be removed from your thoughts about this person. Clear your mind of these thoughts one by one. How can you offer kindness, patience, gentleness, and humility through forgiveness and love? Sit with this question and imagine putting on compassion toward them. Compassion is being deeply moved by another’s experience and responding in ways to heal hurts or promote kindness. Compassion for the other must come with recognizing that we see others through our own judgments and reactions. In our divisive culture, we are conditioned to react to others, to see only our own position. With this awareness, we must practice compassion by seeing the other’s longings, fears, wounds, and pain without the filter of our own judgment or agenda.