Sometimes gentleness seems like a beautiful animal, peeking through an open door. Elusive, it darts away quickly at the slightest provocation. But more often the virtue of gentleness in public and private discourse seems like an animal on the way to extinction.
Gentleness is a lost art, relegated to the realms of perceived weakness. Yet how many times does a softer word get us where we need to go, rather than a harsh one. In politics and even daily life, it seems like to get ahead you have to be the biggest bully in the room.
Yesterday at Wheaton College near Chicago, our oldest daughter graduated with about 500 others. This has not been an easy year for Wheaton, with a high-profile squabble between a professor and the college over issues of faith and public expression. Many would have wondered yesterday who the commencement speaker would be in this context.
It was Dr. Richard Mouw who delivered the address, the former President of Fuller Seminary. Mouw is known for engaging others in constructive dialogue, including between the Mormons and Evangelical community. He often speaks and writes of holding a “convicted civility”.
Borrowing the phrase from Chicago-based theologian Martin Marty, Mouw spoke yesterday at Wheaton of how Christians can hold to their beliefs with conviction, yet also in a spirit of gentleness. His speech received a long applause at the end, some even standing.
Why is it that we know civility is so important, yet so few practice it? This is of course true not only in the Church, but every walk of life. Have you ever met a gentle politician? How about a gentle salesman? Unfortunately, now even meeting a gentle man or woman of faith seems as rare as seeing a Triceratops dinosaur.
Convicted civility means not giving up what you believe, but holding it with an awareness that the viewpoints of others are also important and to be listened to. I am trying to practice that more in my daily life. Seeing every interaction with another human being as an opportunity to learn the art of gentleness.
I’m grateful for people like Dr. Mouw. I’m also grateful for Wheaton College and their President Dr. Philip Ryken. They continue to work at this kind of engagement. They are not perfect. But what institution is? Thanks to Wheaton for giving our daughter an excellent liberal arts education. May they keep listening. May all of us keep listening in a spirit of humility and gentleness.