Relentless Tenderness

Last week, I delivered remarks at Danforth Chapel, where the theme was “relentless tenderness,” or the call for all of us to not give up on our love for one another the way Christ does not fail in His love for us. To my surprise, Pope Francis also delivered a message on (revolutionary) tenderness around the same time, a coincidence that perhaps shows this is a subject on the minds of many. Here is what Pope Francis had to say:

“And what is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a moment that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears, the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future….Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.”

Runaway Bunny book coverThe Reverend John G. Fee founded Berea College upon the “gospel of impartial love,” and my hope is that all of us can be as relentlessly loving as that gospel demands. My remarks at Chapel are below, along with a video of the service that includes my wife, Laurie, reading from The Runaway Bunny.

Danforth Chapel
25 April 2017
Lyle D. Roelofs
Relentless Tenderness

Readings

  • The children’s book Runaway Bunny, and
  • Psalm 139:1-18

These days it is considered a compliment to be “relentless.” We use that term to denote utter determination in an admirable way, or at least sort of admirable. The professor who makes absolute certain that every student does the assigned readings by whatever means necessary is “relentless.” The junior who is doing everything possible to get the internship that is vital for his or her career is “relentless.” The basketball team that plays a suffocating defense for an entire game is “relentless.” (Coach Nolan Richardson of U. of Arkansas called that defensive style “40 minutes of hell,” and if you watched the NCAA play-offs this year, the University of South Carolina played that way.)

Another example comes from one of my favorite movies from some years ago. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the movie of that title were pretty bothered by relentless pursuit of a tracker. They kept saying to one another, “Who is that guy?” as they tried yet again to lose the team of men following them, succeeding finally only by jumping off a cliff into a roaring river. You’ll recall the best line of that movie. Sundance doesn’t want to jump off the cliff, and Cassidy asks him why. Sundance says, “Because I can’t swim.” (Clearly he should have gone to Berea!) Cassidy laughs and tells him not to worry about it because the fall will probably kill him. Anyway, they jump and survive and escape the relentless pursuit.

Even when the connotations are grudgingly favorable, however, it is still hard to think of “relentless” as a fully positive characteristic, because it really isn’t. If we are being relentless we are likely not taking a balanced approach to life and its various challenges.

So, today let’s look at two examples of relentless behavior. First, we have the mother rabbit, whose relentless pursuit of her bunny takes them through a stream, up a mountain, into a garden, into the air, across the sea, under the big top, and finally back home. The story is 75 years old, but young children never tire of hearing it and looking for the bunny in each picture. It still speaks truth about parental commitment and a mother’s determined love, too. By the way, don’t forget that Mother’s Day is coming up soon, May 14th.

We see a second example in Psalm 139 where our loving God displays a relentless side, too. He will hear every word we speak, box us in front and back, follow us as high as the heavens or as deep as hell or if we board an early flight (I think that’s what the King James Version means by “the wings of the morning”) or dive beneath the sea. No matter where we go, God’s hand is on us to guide us. Even the darkness is no help if you’re trying to hide from God. And, even as we were being formed in our mother’s womb, God was there, and for that reason are we “fearfully and wonderfully made,” in the lovely phrase again of the KJV.

In the end, we simply have to give way to God’s relentless pursuit, and the Psalmist ceases all the running away to acknowledge God’s precious care and keeping.

How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!

18 If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.

You can just about hear God replying, “Have a carrot!”

So, here we arrive at the redemption of relentlessness. These two examples suggest to us that it is OK, or even more than okay, to be relentlessly tender, to care enough about someone to never give up.

We have two examples, but any sermon writer knows that in order to really make a point, ideas need to come in threes. Fortunately, a third example is readily to hand, because Berea College was founded by a relentless man. The Rev. John G. Fee. Fee was threatened with death by hanging, by drowning, by gunshot, but nothing deterred him from the mission of living out the moral imperatives of his Christian belief, and the conviction that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26), and that to enslave or deny opportunity to anyone was contrary to God’s wishes and his duty. During his time of leading the fledgling college he was separated from his family for extended periods, lost two sons to early deaths, and stood up to angry mobs on more than one occasion. Even Cassius Clay, the wealthy man who supported Fee initially and provided him with the grant of land that was to become the College and town of Berea, came to think of him as too radical in his abolitionist views. Rather than direct confrontation, Clay favored a more gradual end to slavery by means of a Constitutional amendment. Relentless people are hard to get along with, and Clay and Fee eventually had a falling out.

But, surely it is because of Fee’s relentless desire to advance the cause of Christ by working for justice here in Kentucky, that Berea College exists today, and he attracted other men and women to that cause. You could say, really that Berea College itself, because it has stayed true to those founding commitments, remains relentlessly tender.

So, these are powerful examples, united both in the level of determination of a mother rabbit, of God, and of Rev. Fee, but also united in tenderness and love: mother’s love for a naughty bunny, a heavenly Father’s love for imperfect human beings, and an abolitionist’s impartial love for all peoples of the earth.

So that’s how to be admirably relentless, and, of course, I do also want you to be relentless in finishing the work you have left this semester.

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