A sermon preached on August 30th, 2009 based upon James 1:17 – 27.
Earlier this summer, for a variety of reasons both known and unknown to me, I fell into something of a funk. In this dark state of mind I spent a day in New York City, that teaming, bustle of life and energy, in order to assist my sister as came home from the hospital following her hip surgery. New York can be invigorating or distressing, depending on your state of mind. In this case I felt myself being pulled further into myself. I saw all these “beautiful people” moving with seeming focus and intention, and in comparison to their imagined lives I felt unattractive and aimless, acutely aware of my shortcomings rather than my strengths. I felt as though my interior state was being broadcast out into the world — that a negative energy was eaking out of my soul and a “stay away” sign was sandwiched over my shoulders. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.
I found myself sitting in a drug store waiting for some prescriptions to get filled for my sister, feeling like the proverbial black hole. In this state, I noticed an elderly woman, looking disconcerted. I realized that she wanted to get a product off a top shelf, but wasn’t tall enough to reach it herself. I am tall, and I wasn’t doing anything at the moment but waiting, so I was in a perfect position to offer the woman some assistance. It didn’t take much thought on my part — if it had, perhaps I wouldn’t have acted. I rose and said to the woman, “May I help you?” She was so grateful, and the task so simple — lifting down a package of toilet paper; placing it in her shopping cart. She proceeded to tell me how a store that was closer to her apartment had recently closed, and so now she was forced to come a longer distance to get the basic household items she needed. I didn’t know what to say, but I made a point of intently listening and smiling sympathetically. She concluded her little rant by saying, “And ‘thank you’ for listening.”
Now here’s the truly striking thing: to a large extent, the interaction immediately lifted me out of my funk. I had offered kindness, and it had been received, and in doing so, I got out of myself. I had made a simple human connection, and in so doing found the bridge to cross over out of my personal black hole.
You might wonder why the help I was providing my sister hadn’t done the trick. I think it was part of the equation, but that in this particular instance I needed to make a connection with a stranger to feel again like a part of the human race. In other instances, it may well be the family member with whom the connection needs to be made.
There is something wondrous to me regarding what took place in that day. I was given opportunity to be a giver, to offer a concrete act of kindness for this frail, old woman.
On the surface level, I was the giver, and she was the receiver. I am confident, however, that I received far more than she did in that interaction.
You’ve probably had similar experiences: you’re in your front yard, say, or maybe in the parking lot of the grocery store. Somebody is lost, and stops to ask you for directions. You know where they are trying to get to, and are able to give them clear directions. They are grateful and head on their way, leaving you with a sense of contentment for having been able to do something so clearly helpful to another human being. You ended up feeling blessed.
Our reading from James begins, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” Every generous act of giving, wherever it is found, regardless of whether you are the giver or the receiver, provides contact with God.
If you ask me why I believe in a God of love, I think that maybe above all else it has to do with experiences such as these. At such moments it seems obvious to me that creation isn’t meaningless, that there is a clear intention to it — that this whole big adventure we find ourselves in called “life” is arranged to call us, in our freedom, to find together the way of love and kindness. We are designed to live kindly.
I’ve been reading an interesting little book entitled, The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life, by Piero Ferrucci. Here’s a a part that caught my eye:
“The gifts of kindness and its qualities are various. Why are grateful people more efficient? Why are those who feel a sense of belonging less depressed? Why do altruistic people enjoy better health, and trusting individuals live longer? Why is it that if you smile, you are perceived as more attractive? Why is it advantageous to take care of a pet? Why do those elderly who can talk more with others have less probability of contracting Alzheimer’s disease? And why do children who receive more love and attention grow healthier and more intelligent? Because these attitudes and behaviors, which are all aspects of kindness, bring us closer to what we are meant to do and be. It is so elementary: f we related better with others, we feel better.
“Kindness is a way of making less effort. It is the most economic attitude there is because it saves us much energy that we might otherwise waste in suspicion, worry, resentment, manipulation, or unnecessary defense. It is an attitude that, be eliminating the inessential, brings us back to the simplicity of being.”
Deep down I think we all know this. But as James say, “we are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
James isn’t inclined to a lot of abstract theological reflection, and as such he reads quite differently from the Apostle Paul with whom at times he can seem in conflict.
James is more of a nuts and bolts — the hands-on mechanic in contrast to the theoretical physicist. “Be doers, not just hearers, of God’s words,” says James. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…”
I take “orphans and widows” to be shorthand for human beings who are vulnerable, and I think that in a certain sense, we are all orphans and widows. We are underneath everything quite fragile. But contrary to the world’s way of seeing things, this is not a bad thing: it is in our vulnerability that we also find the tenderness of kindness.
Ferrucci continues: “Kindness has to do with what is tenderest and most intimate in us. It is an aspect of our nature that we often do not express fully — especially men in our culture, but also women — because we are afraid that if this vulnerable side comes to light, we might suffer, be offended, ridiculed, or exploited. We will find rather, that we suffer by not expressing it. And that by touching this nucleus of tenderness, we enliven our entire affective world, and we open ourselves to countless possibilities of change.”
James reminds us that the truth is, after all, fairly simple. If there is something kind and helpful that you can do, then, by God, do it. It is often the case that the kindness we were created to express gets blocked with the very people with whom we live the closest. There are a lot of good books that couples can read to help heal a troubled marriage. In essence, what they all say to readers is, “If you want a happier marriage, start being kinder to each other.” That can sound like a gross simplification, but the problem in marriages — or in any significant relationship for that mater — often comes down to a failure to pay attention to the varied expression of kindness in the relationship. James declares, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” We assume we know what kindness would sound like, look like, in our relationships, and then we become angry when either we aren’t getting what we are looking for in terms of kindness, or our expressions of kindness aren’t being appreciated.
In these marriage self-help books, you will find help in communicating regarding what kindness looks like for one another, so that the couple can begin to be more effective in expressing that kindness. Often we find we’ve been pretty dense about these things. We get locked into focusing on a very limited expression of kindness, when kindness is conveyed in a variety of forms, including, giving a compliment, taking the time to listen, doing stuff that needs to get done in the overall economy of the relationship, going to a job that supports the family, praising a job well done, expressing gratitude for the kindness of the other, saying the words, “I love you; I’m really glad you are a part of my life.”
Often times it is very little things that we can do that our partner would find great joy in, but we haven’t taken the time to find out what these things would be, stubbornly determined that our partner begin to better recognize what we have already been doing before we will consider adding to our repertoire. And often times we just assume our partner ought to know exactly what we need from them in terms of kindness without our having to tell them; but this simply isn’t the case.
It is a common complaint that when we turn on the news, what we hear about is bad news. Particularly the local news programs, which seem to have this obsession with reporting on murders and accidents and such, thereby seducing our attention and ratcheting up the fear that works against our natural tendencies towards kindness. You don’t hear much on the news programs oof the simple acts of kindness that hold this world together, or the creative attempts that many countless dedicated individuals are making to try and solve the big problems that plague society. The bad news, of course, is real, but the good news is real as well, and often overlooked, and along with it, the motivation to be a part of the solution is missed as well.
A couple of days after the experience with the old lady in New York, and in a better rame of mind, I took Fred to a doctor’s appointment. It was an office shared by several doctors, and so there was a big waiting room with many people, and as I sat there I began to make a point of watching for the little acts of kindness that are right there in front of our eyes, easily missed. And this is some of what I witnessed in the course of a couple of minutes: A Hispanic mother taking care of her three little kids, pausing to express concern to a pretty young blond teenage girl that her name might have been called by the receptionist while she was outside taking a cell phone call… A little girl of three, the youngest of four children with a mom, who, with great animation began to sharing something important with me, and me pleased to hear what she had to say, but just not getting it. The tired looking mother, watching, smiled and interpreted: “‘Goofy high-fived me.’ We just got back from Disney World” … A woman passing by, picking up the magazine this same mother had dropped… A stranger holding the door for another stranger.
Watching for these simple acts of kindness, my soul was strengthened, as I experienced the grace of the Father of lights.
How might our lives feel differently if each day we began our day with prayer, reframing what our coming day was ultimately all about? That instead of accomplishing a lot, or winning, or whatever, the simple objective of the day was to give and receive kindness?