Israeli Rabbi Yisrael Rutman talks about the importance of kindness in Jewish religion and culture. The secular Jewish citizens are prone to kindness, but are also very concerned about not being taken or hoodwinked. If someone does a good turn for someone who really doesn’t need it, that is cause for derision from observers, and they get a great laugh out of it.
Jews of faith, in contrast, are concerned to do kindness no matter what, emulating Abraham, who set up refreshment tents in the dessert–the forerunners of fast food, says the Rabbi–and when people would thank him he would tell them that the ultimate source of provisions was God, a Sunday breakfast mission model. Anyway, the religion that Jesus embraced had/has kindness at its core. You wouldn’t know that by observing life in many or most churches that claim to live by Jesus’ example, but that topic is for another sermon–maybe (as in “maybe” I can make myself wait to preach on the legacy of Pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame!).
February 10-16 of this year was International Random Acts of Kindness week. Who knew? I only discovered this a day or two ago since no one was kind enough to let me know about such an important celebration.
It’s been a few years since I first saw the phrase “random acts of kindness.” It was on a billboard near my church in Baltimore, and the whole message read: “Perform Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” This concept has really stuck with me. I hope it has helped to make me a kinder person.
I used to hear Glenn Campbell sing,
If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say you’re goin’ the wrong way
You’ve got to try a little kindness, show a little kindness
Yes shine your light for everyone to see
And if you’ll try a little kindness, you’ll overlook the blindness
Of the narrow minded people on the narrow minded streets
Words still worth remembering, don’t you think? “And if you’ll try a little kindness, you’ll overlook the blindness of the narrow minded people on the narrow minded streets.”
I don’t think life in the modern world is making us kinder; sadly, I think it’s making us–unless we struggle against the flow– more suspicious and defensive and, thus, irritable and angry. A modern person’s survival motto might well be: “I’m gonna cut you off or tell you off before you have a chance to cause me any trouble.” Being mean protects our vulnerability; being kind leaves it open and positioned for attack.
Maybe some people out there somewhere, certainly not any of us, need more motivation to give kindness a try or a retry after having been hurt specifically for trying to be kind. This could be the practical motivation you need. According to British researchers, kindness breeds longevity. “People who practice kindness and compassion have better general health and live longer,” they say.
David was one of King Saul’s most trusted servants, clearly in the inner circle for several reasons, and David believed he had never given Saul reason to think that he, David, would do anything to harm Saul or the relationship that he had with the King he respected as his national leader whom God Godself had appointed to be in this kingly role. The possibility, though, of having a subject who seemed loyal to turn suddenly and violently against someone in power was not something Saul just dreamed up; this was a constant concern for leaders in the ancient world. Hmmmm, the modern world too, huh?
Saul became jealous of David’s growing popularity, and with the jealousy came anxiety, fear, paranoia that David would try to get rid of him so that David could claim the throne for himself. From the information we have available we shouldn’t think of David as some sort of paragon of virtue across the board. Nonetheless, David was officially a loyal subject to Saul; still, Saul became convinced that David was not what he appeared to be. So, the fearful and angst-ridden King of Israel put together a little army of 300 of his finest men to apprehend David and put him to death. David, in response, had no choice but to run and hide. Fortunately for David there were lots of hills and caves in the general vicinity. Saul was so eager to get David out of the picture that he was himself frequently searching alongside his highly trained hit squad.
One day, while hot on David’s trail, Saul got tired and wanted a little nap, OR he had to relieve himself. Apparently, the Hebrew text can be taken to mean either. In children’s Sunday School, we will keep it as a nap, but here in big church we can consider the possibility that even renowned leaders must, from time to time, find a way to experience the pause that refreshes. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to be either/or so we’re going to be risk-takers, go out on an interpretive limb, and say that while in the cave Saul both relieved himself AND rested a bit.
As it turned out, David had a contingent of soldiers traveling with him as well. How the court musician managed to put together a small army is something I can’t understand, but that’s what occurred. Maybe Saul wasn’t being so outlandish in seeing some things about David that caused him to raise an eyebrow. I mean, after a while–and long before the Simply Music harp method–this growing group that David must have met with regularity and pretty quickly had to stop pretending to be David’s music class.
OK. OK. You get the picture. So Saul is in a cave, and David’s soldiers tell him that this is the best shot he’s ever going to have to get rid of the King. If he waits, the King may well get rid of him; this is his golden opportunity–no reference back to what Saul might have been doing in the cave.
David is incensed. Crazy and crotchety though he may be, Saul is still their God-appointed leader, and they will not harm him even if it means running for who knows how long; however, David did feel the need to make a point with Saul so he enters the cave and finds the King __________–you fill in the blank. If Saul were relieving himself, then he was very engrossed in what he was doing to the extent that he didn’t know David was right beside him in the dark cave; and at this point I’m really hoping Saul is sleeping rather than some of the other options for what he might have been doing when David came upon him. Regardless, David slices off a swatch of one of the King’s garments and hightails it out of there without Saul’s having a clue.
When Saul exits the cave, there’s a bit of a shouting match between the two men in which David at a safe distance waves the swatch and says, “Your majesty, look! If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t be standing here now. I clipped a corner off your garment, and I just as easily could have slit your throat.” As the King realized David was telling the truth, there was a tearful recognition of his royal paranoia and a verbal commitment of some sort to try to see to it that their relationship returned to what it had been in the good ol’ days, when kindness had gone both ways.
There are lots of lessons we might learn from this cave story, but I’d like for us to use it today as a reminder that there are probably some folks whose paths we have crossed in time gone by–maybe last week, last year, last decade–to whom we could’ve been much kinder than we were in a given moment for whatever reason. Those people may have been family members, friends, strangers with whom we were short or rude or dismissive or out and out mean. Maybe apologies after the fact will help, maybe not, but the best way to do this, to the extent that we are able at all, is to live day by day with kindness as our guide, to live with kindness as our way of life.
I had a student a couple of semesters back who didn’t have any classroom manners at all, and at first I sort of tried to deal with the fact that he spoke out loud in the middle of my lectures as if talking to himself and with his talking over his classmates whom he regularly interrupted with information that was largely unrelated to what was being talked about. I’d received no notice of learning differences from the academic affairs office so assumed he was just rude. I kept thinking to myself during his monologues that this behavior could best be fixed with kindness and gentle humor if possible. Didn’t work.
By the end of the second class session, I’d pretty much had it, and my inner kindness resources were all used up. Same with his classmates who were giving up on trying to ask questions or make observations.
I still determined that losing my cool or being abrupt with him–and he was a young adult, not a kid–could lead to nothing good. I didn’t call up that patience from within myself really. I suddenly was aware of two of my grad school professors, teaching in the same department; one was unfailingly kind, and the other was dependably unkind. There was no doubt that students learned much more from the prof who was always kind to them, even though his classroom manner was less engaging than the rude guy’s when he wasn’t be a jerk to one of his students. I thought about that contrast a lot, and it was always clear to me which of those two I wanted to emulate if I ever became a professor. How, though? Perhaps Dr. Cox was so kind because he was confident of his knowledge, AND he was at peace with himself. Not by accident, he became my major professor, and without being a pushover in any sense his kindness continued through seminars, research, dissertation writing, and oral exams. I cannot praise him enough.
A key part of spirituality, don’t you think, is being at peace, which allows us to be gentle with ourselves? Oh, sure, there have been and there are so called “spiritualities,” which were/are nothing more than channels for self-hatred and self-condemnation, ways to beg for divine forgiveness and seek protection from the elements or any other curveballs that life can throw. It’s so sad that so many are thusly engaged.
If we are looking for a healthy spirituality we have to start with kindness to ourselves, wanting the best for ourselves, wanting to be whole within ourselves. Mindfulness is as far as I know the latest and best way of trying to understand what’s at the core of any spirituality; mindfulness is fundamentally a kindness to self–honoring who I am in the present moment.
I don’t think it’s possible for most people–certainly there would be exceptions–to be kind to others unless they are kind to themselves. Those who tend to be unkind to themselves often pass that lack of kindness on to others. Again I say there are exceptions; some folks who are very tough on themselves somehow find it possible to be kind to others.
For most of us, though, self-kindness leads to kindness in relationship to others. The more at peace we are with ourselves, the more we can pass on kindness, and I don’t mean to imply that the only good reason to be kind to ourselves is so that we can be kind to others.
I’m going to be a healthier person if I manage to be kind even when someone is giving me a reason not to be. That’s worth remembering even at church. Some churches are not known for kindness, sad to say. I was trying to learn something about YouTube recently when I stumbled across a video clip of a fist fight in a Samoan church. There are probably more instances of that than are ever reported. You’d think in church of all places kindness would prevail, but I heard about someone not so long ago who left a church because of how unkind the members were in their conversations with each other.
I would say to you that there are people to whom we simply cannot and shouldn’t be expected to be kind–though we should try for kindness whenever we can. The Dalai Lama says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (I am stirred also by another comment he had on the subject of kindness: “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”)
I highly recommend to you that you lean toward the Dalai Lama’s way of thinking here and not mine! But if you falter, as did Saul, only risking an apology and a fresh start will do. I may not be able to offer those, however, until I learn first to be kind to me.