Try a Little Kindness

Part Two on Micah 6:8

Love kindness. Try a little kindness. Who comes to mind when you think of kindness? How many of you are thinking about Mr. Rogers? Perhaps you are thinking of a Buddhist teacher like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, or Tara Brach, who urges us to practice loving kindness. Kindness is fundamental to most world religions. Aristotle thought it was a necessary virtue; it is one of the Apostles Paul’s fruits of the spirit and one of the three things God requires of us in Micah 6:8. It’s hard to argue against the value of kindness?

So how are we doing as a society at loving-kindness? On a scale of one to five, how kind are we towards one another in 2022? Why are we so lacking in kindness? I think the biggest reason is judgementalism. Judgment attempts to burden someone with shame and guilt rather than lifting a burden. If I judge someone, I’m saying to them, you are your problem, and you must be your own solution. It’s not on me. I don’t have to be kind because you are responsible for yourself and your situation. (Imagine if God took that approach with you!)

Sometimes we are not kind because we are distracted or tired. We get so world-weary and overwhelmed that we don’t even notice the simple acts which could offer relief and hope. Or we think our actions don’t matter, so we don’t even try.

It can be frustrating to be kind. Not everyone knows how to accept generosity. The person may turn around and mistreat us or use our gift for unhealthy purposes. I served as program manager for homeless services for eight years and almost lost my kindness. When someone ends up on the street, their life is messy. Because of trauma and misfortune, people can’t always find their way to more stability. Shame, addiction, and hopelessness create repeating patterns that appear to be dysfunctional. Frustration sometimes got the best of me, and I became rigid and judgmental rather than kind. Kindness requires us to be steadfast.

Fear can lead us to be unkind. Like the Priest and Pharisee who walked by the man injured on the road to Jericho, we just don’t want to get involved. It could backfire; we might get hurt being a good Samaritan. Years ago, two social scientists experimented at Princeton Divinity School, where an actor pretended to be a homeless man in distress. A group of divinity students was assigned to write a sermon about the parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped the man beside the road. A shocking number of students did not even pause to ask the man if he needed any help. These social scientists, Latane and Darley, coined the phrase “bystander effect.”  They set up experiments that proved the more people you have around who could intervene in someone’s suffering, the less likely they are to feel a responsibility to help. The second thing they discovered is that nothing kills kindness like being in a hurry. In the Good Samaritan experiment, none of the divinity students who were given a tight timeline to write a sermon stopped to help. Those with more time were more likely to ask if the actor was OK. Hurry makes us overlook people. Even if we do notice, we have important things to do, like write sermons on kindness and being a Good Samaritan.

Aristotle said kindness is doing good for someone without any expectation of reciprocity or benefit to the self. Perhaps that is why kindness falls short in our culture. We are all about the self. The ego always finds an angle.

Let’s explore deeper into what Micah possibly meant when he said God requires us to love kindness.   Micah uses one of the most essential words in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament;

Hesed. (It is pronounced like there are two h’s upfront-Hhesed). Translators use several different English words to convey the Hebrew meaning. In the King James Bible, it is mostly translated as “Mercy.”  Mercy is forgiveness offered by someone who has the power to punish or harm. In some contexts, hesed means mercy, as when Moses says to God, have hesed on these people for their sins. More recent translations recognize that the context often shows hesed to someone because they are poor or suffering. They don’t need forgiveness and mercy; they need food, a drink of water, or encouragement. Hesed is translated as “kindness” in those contexts. In the Psalms, the word is often translated as “steadfast love.”

Moses and God talk together about hesed frequently.    In the ten commandments story, remember Moses breaks the first tablets when he finds people worshiping a golden calf. God provides a second set and a blessing in Exodus 34:6, “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed,” which is translated “steadfast love and faithfulness.” It is the primary attribute of God in the Hebrew Bible. To say that the Old Testament reveals an angry God and the New Testament a loving God isn’t entirely correct.

The NRSV uses the phrase “Loving kindness” 30 times of the 260 references to hesed. It’s my favorite translation because it resembles the Buddhist idea of loving-kindness.

Hesed is loyalty and desire for the good towards someone combined with action towards that good. You can’t be kind from afar. You must speak, touch, give, carry.

How can we become kinder?

Step one is slowing down and paying attention. C.S. Lewis once said, “Hurry is not of the devil; it is the devil.”  If we run from one thing to the next, checklist in hand, we might just miss the day’s most important task, to be kind. I appreciate people who get things done, but if they fail at kindness, we must ask if we are doing the right things. If you must stay organized, write “random act of kindness” on your daily list and make sure you check it off. We all need some daily disciple that slows us down. Fifteen minutes of prayer or meditation, a regular walk, a little time to stop and say, where am I and what am I doing?

Step two is to be aware of the hidden burdens people are carrying. Awareness is the antidote to judgement and frustration with people when you don’t feel like being kind. We are tempted to write someone off for the sharp remark, impatience, or rudeness. When someone is being a pain, ask them, “Are you having a bad day?”  When you feel like judging try being curious instead.

Step three is allowing God to be kind to you. It is hard to be kind if we feel like the universe is against us. Here is the truth. It’s not. God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounds in hesed, steadfast love, Not only for the world in general but for you too. Loving kindness is what God is made of. I would have a hard time being kind if I didn’t believe that all the way through my aorta. We must cultivate the moments where we allow God’s kindness to touch us, or we just won’t have that much to give on our own power. Could you use a little kindness this morning? Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine God’s loving kindness present to you. Breathe it in with each breath. There you go. Allow yourself a little smile, push up the corners of your mouth and sense goodness. God is looking at you right now and saying, “I like that one. I think I will send them a little surprise this week.”  Take a moment to say thanks and come back. Start each day with this little exercise.

True kindness is much deeper than niceness. Niceness is just pretending kindness, and it will fizzle. Beyond random acts of kindness, which can be a delight, genuine kindness can heal shame, restore hope, and guard dignity. Think of the difference someone made in your life because they stood by you when others doubted you. Everyone needs an “I’ve got your back person.”  If you have had that experience, to whom can you pass along the kindness? How can you be a bridge over troubled water to someone?

The important thing is to make kindness a habit. The small acts of kindness build the habit, like exercise for your heart, so you have strength when the heavy lifting is needed. Here is a little homework for you. Take a minute and write down some ways you can offer kindness this week. Write it on your order of service or put it in your phone. Who needs some kindness? Write it down, small or great.

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