It’s a perfect afternoon to write a blog. It’s quiet in the dorm right now – it won’t be later when the Super Bowl is on in the lobby – and the snow is falling gently outside. I have a nice view from my desk which helps to put me in the mood to write. A good friend of mine isn’t fond of this time of year. It’s not the snow she dislikes; it’s the scenery when the snow has melted – all the browns and grays of the midwinter landscape. Today she need not worry. The snow is doing a nice job of covering everything. For this friend, the snow is kind as it blots out what she views as barren and dead.
Pondering all that has been in the news lately, there’s a lot in that scenery that I am not fond of: divisiveness, harsh words, abuse, violence, injustice, lack of civility, lies. These seem to make the landscape of life dreary and bleak. They too easily hide the beauty that is all around us if we’re looking. We need the kindness of a little “spiritual snow,” too.
I don’t have a particular resolution to share dealing with kindness yet if we’re honest, all of them are about compassion and care for others. So this week, after sitting in on too many conversations about the evil all around us regardless of which side of the political aisle one finds themselves, I’d like to offer some good words to cover the ugly for a while. This won’t make the desolate landscape go away but, hopefully, we might find it easier to persevere in following Jesus that we see again the landscape of the Kingdom.
Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) shared a reflection on-line earlier this week that I find a helpful reminder for us as followers of Jesus:
an intervention for our disquieted world
A story is told from the early centuries of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert. Some men came to counsel with Abba Poemen, asking him, “Tell us, when we see brothers dozing during the Sacred Office, should we pinch them so they will stay awake?” The Abba said to them, “Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.” This is an act of kindness.
The English word “kind” comes from the same etymological root as “kin.” We are to live kindly with one another because we belong to one another. We are humankind. Living kindly goes without saying for those whom we cherish, identify with, and to whom we feel a sense of belonging. It is easy (or at least easier) to be kind to someone we love. The New Testament word for kindness is defined as compassion, love, full of tenderness, gentleness, goodness.
However if we read the scriptures forensically, we see how kindness redresses how we could otherwise deport ourselves in the presence of those who are different – because of their culture or race, religion, class, education, sexual orientation, or age – or different because of their hopes or values. In the Hebrew scriptures, we read one time, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; however we read in thirty-six places to “love the stranger” (Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34). Jesus magnifies this teaching in his own behavior. He doesn’t exclude anyone, even those who were viewed by most people as despicable. The prevailing reason why Jesus said what he said and did what he did was tender loving mercy, which is compassion: suffering with another because we belong to one another. Whether to the lame or lost, to the pompous or to paupers, Jesus was compassionate (Matthew 6:25-34, 9:36, 14:14, 20:34; Mark 1:41, 4:40, 5:36, 6:34, 8:2f, 12:41-44; Luke 7:13, 10:41). Most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can… which is sometimes quite tragic, even deplorable. “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness” ( Psalm 103:8).
Jesus’ kindness is remembered in the Greek as philonexia, which is “the love of strangers.” Philonexia is the opposite of xenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers. Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for sharing life, living kindly with one another. “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1-2). Philonexia, not xenophobia. Kindness breaks down “the wall of hostility” that otherwise easily is constructed between ourselves and “others” Ephesians 2:14). Kindness arises from compassion, the memory that we are all kin.
Kindness also conveys dignity, by bequeathing worth to others. So many people live their lives with deafening words of criticism, inadequacy, and fear which may echo from their childhoods. They will collude with this indignity unless there is an intervention, an intervention of kindness from someone else. For many people, we must give them dignity before there is dignity in them to respect.
In this, kindness is an act of generosity. Generosity presumes life to be a gift, not a given. We participate in life on God’s terms by cherishing the gifts of life, not clinging to them, not hoarding, but sharing from God’s bounty entrusted to us. There is always more. When we are generous with our kindness, this generosity enables others to know life as a gift, and invites them to live life thankfully. Gratitude transforms life; generosity enables it. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
- Draw on your miracle memory. Reflect on where you were on the receiving end of kindness. Who was kind to you, and why did that make such a difference? Embrace the kindness. It’s never too late to be thankful for another’s intervention of kindness in your life.
- Be compassionate toward yourself. You are an amazing person; you are also a mixed bag and, some days, a mess. An early desert monastic, Abba Mateos, said, “the nearer we draw to God, the more we see ourselves as sinners.” Don’t let this awareness imprison you; let it liberate you, because God knows you and loves you. You need to be saved from yourself every day. Surrender feigning to be your own god. Jesus is your savior, your friend. Befriend yourself. Practicing this will make a world of difference to you and to others. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
- Don’t restrict. Deport yourself with kindness in the face of every living creature, toward the flowers and crops, and trees, to the air and water. We are living in a time where so many of our values and certainties are being deconstructed. We know too much, and we know too little. How then shall we live? Live kindly. St. Isaac of Syria (7th century), said “Let your heart burn with love for the whole of creation: for humankind, for the birds, for the beasts, for every creature.”
- Don’t wait. We only have now. Don’t wait to reciprocate kindness. Initiate kindness. If you are living kindly, you won’t be “on the take” for kindness, expecting it, demanding it, resenting when it doesn’t appear. Oftentimes it doesn’t. Living kindly generates kindness. You simply cannot give it away. There is always more. Live kindly, and you will have enough kindness in your heart so as not to be endlessly shopping for others’ kindness. If you are out of practice with kindness, cultivating kindness is like any other practice, e.g., learning a sport, or foreign language, or craft, or playing a musical instrument. The words “kind” and “kindle” are cousins. Kindle kindness and you will teem with kindness.
A brother asked Abba Pimenion, “How should we practice life?” And the old man said, “To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one’s neighbor.” Kindness is of our God-created essence, a necessary intervention for our disquieted world.
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.
Being kind doesn’t mean that we don’t speak out against injustice or work to relieve oppression but it might mean that we consider our words and actions as we do so. Years ago our Ministry Developer Jo Gantzer encouraged our Total Ministry covenant team to recognize the difference between reactions and responses. One has a knee-jerk quality and can cause hurt and misunderstanding while the other leaves room for continued communication and relationship. After hearing this, I bought myself a small, stuffed alligator which I have kept by my phone and computer as a reminder that my words don’t need to snap in reaction to someone else’s perceived emergency or conflict. When I read a post on social media that pushes my buttons, I try hard to breathe first before posting comments that will only add to the fray and exacerbate the problem. I can still speak my mind – or even truth to power – without attacking or belittling. If I’m thoughtful and prayerful, I may even be able to contribute some clarifying comments that might bring healing. But in this climate of “anything goes rhetoric,” it’s not always easy, I know.
The brothers of SSJE added a couple of reflection questions and spiritual practices to Brother Curtis’ reflection:
Kindness has different qualities. The kindness we share with a loved one may be different than the kindness we share with a stranger. Kindness toward a child may be different than kindness toward an elder. What fits? Are there relationships in your life where kindness is lacking?
Search the scriptures for kindness. In the absence of kindness, what is happening, or what would happen?
For your personal reflection: “Am I becoming kinder?” If so, why? How? If not, why? How?
Use your breathing as respiratory therapy for your soul: Breathe out what clogs the flow of kindness (e.g., anger, disappointment, resentment, bitterness). Breathe in loving kindness. Continue, continue, continue until you come into a clearing.
Consistently treat yourself kindly. If that’s difficult, consistently treat others kindly. You will catch on.
The snow is still falling outside my window covering what was left of the dirty old snow and slush and creating a peaceful landscape. Let’s work together to allow our kindness to cover the rude and ugly actions and words that fill our social landscape to foster peace and understanding among our families, friends, and neighbors.
Let us pray –
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life. Amen.