Just Be Kind

A couple of months ago, early on a Saturday morning, I drove over to Plainfield to attend the executive committee meeting at Western Yearly Meeting. As I got close to town, I began to notice yard signs in front of houses and businesses. As I pulled into the parking lot of Plainfield Friends Meeting, I saw several signs in their yard as well. The signs said in big white letters: Just Be Kind.

Curious, I did a little research when I got home to find out who was making the signs and what the purpose was behind them. I learned that the project began as an after-school club and eventually moved to the organizer’s garage. On designated Saturday mornings, as many as two dozen kids, ranging in age from 4-16, come to have breakfast and work together to create the painted signs. It started out as a small project in Plainfield but caught on and spread first across the state and now—according at news report that was posted online—the message has traveled around the world. The group has added t-shirts and keychains as well, and they donate the money they raise to community groups and non-profits in the area. One of the kids involved in making the signs said, “Everybody should learn how to be a little bit more kind because sometimes in hard times, it’s hard to be nice.”

Just be kind. It helps us be nice when times are tough. I think she’s right.

Kindness in our world today is sometimes misunderstood and misappropriated. Kindness is not a sign of weakness or just “going along to get along.” It’s not a means to an end, not part of a transaction, in which I do something nice for you so you’ll do something nice for me. Kindness is not a political position or an ideology or a formula for anything. It is simply a gentle, open way of being in the world that enables us to let down our guard, to let others in, to enjoy each other’s company. When kindness is present in our interactions with each other, we connect more easily, we feel safe, we build trust, we find harmony together. Kindness—and the energy it brings and the environment it creates—is the basis for peace, the starting point of real community.

In his letter to the Colossians, you can hear that Paul was thinking along these same lines. The city of Colosse was a once-thriving port in Asia Minor (which is now Turkey), an important spot on major trade route from Ephesus to the Euphrates River. But by Paul’s time, the city had fallen onto harder days. The population had diminished and other cities in the area had grown larger, becoming marketplaces in their own right. The Gospel had made it to this small town, and a small church had begun to meet. But the people were struggling, confused by some false teachings they’d heard, and so Paul wrote his letter to establish clearly what was true about Christ and help them recognize what was most important—what they needed to focus on–in their new life of faith.

Paul doesn’t start by blaming others “out there” for the problems the church is having. Instead, he tells them that what’s inside them—and what gets created between them—is the most important thing. It is in our interactions with one another, in our intentions and attitudes toward each other, that the kingdom of God can show up in a real way, in real time. Paul tells them—and us—that we are all God’s children, holy and beloved; that we can clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We may or may not choose to act from that reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. This is true because we are we are God’s children—there is that of God in us, and we are capable of shining all those qualities of God right out into a world that desperately needs them.

Paul wanted the Colossians to see that this new life of faith wasn’t about memorizing teachings or living by new laws; it was about creating, nurturing, and sharing a community of love, one kind act, one person at a time.

The Dalai Lama has been known to say, “My religion in kindness,” and that is evident from his gentle spirit and the genuine interest he takes in the people he meets. On his last visit to Indianapolis, he went to a local Buddhist center for a meal after he gave a talk, and when he came out of the building, he discovered that curious people from the neighborhood—which was a low-income area downtown—were lining the streets to get a glimpse of him. One of my friends was present that day and had helped to serve the meal, and she said that even though the Dalai Lama had another meeting he had to get to, when he saw everyone waiting for him, he went out to the street and walked up and down, smiling and talking to the people, shaking their hands and sometimes hugging and kissing them on the cheek or forehead. That’s kindness. Responding in love to the humans within reach of our hearts. The Dalai Lama lives that well. Jesus lived that well, showing kindness on a truly Godly scale.

When we focus on what we have in common, it is easier to be kind. Who among us wouldn’t have gone out the front door that day to have a chance to see the Dalai Lama? But most of our commonalities are closer to home. We all love our families, for better and for worse. We all want to be happy. We hope to be loved. We want to matter. We want life to have meaning. We sometimes struggle and we have hurts that others do not see. We do our best—even if it doesn’t look like it sometimes—and we make mistakes. Mistakes we hopefully recover from. Our frustrations and fears spill out. We are all, equally, in need of grace. We breathe, we hope, we love, we try.

But, understandably, being kind as a matter of course can feel challenging or even risky. It makes us feel vulnerable, soft, less defended. We want to wait to see if someone is friendly, if they are safe, if they can be trusted before we feel secure enough to show some kindness, large or small. The fear and distrust that makes us hang back like that is due at least in part to the state of our public discourse right now. We seem so separate from one another. Positions are polarized. Opinions are loud and running rampant. We may question whether this is the time to open our hearts to people we don’t know who may or may not have views that are different from our own.

But remember what that 9-year-old prophet said. “Everybody should learn how to be a little bit more kind because sometimes in hard times, it’s hard to be nice.” These are those hard times. And sometimes it is hard to be nice. But it is for this time that kindness has come.

Kindness is more than just a smile or an encouraging pat on the back. Kindness means having a welcoming heart, an open and gentle spirit that wishes the other well and keeps looking for that of God in others, certain it’s in there somewhere. The Dalai Lama might call it our common humanity. Paul might point us to the love that binds everything together in perfect harmony. Jesus might tell us that when we’re being kind, we are One with him and with God.

And being kind changes us on the inside too. The energy of kindness softens us, and it gets easier to share and relax and enjoy our days. We smile more often and more easily. We give people the benefit of the doubt when things don’t go our way. That means we don’t fuss and stew as much over slights and infractions; they just roll off of us as something that happened once and is over now. Forgiveness comes easier because we’re less likely to hold grudges against each other. No more tally sheets of who did what to whom. Living kindly also brings a huge gift we may not anticipate at first–it creates a very real feeling of freedom within us. We feel free to love unconditionally, free to start again in any moment, free to create the type of life we want for ourselves and our world. It all begins with kindness.

Our Old Testament scripture today is from the book of Jeremiah, and the verses we heard are tucked away in the middle of a long difficult passage about how unhappy God is with the people who have forgotten him. But here God tells us the true measure of a successful life:

  • It’s not about how much wisdom we possess;
  • It’s not about how strong or powerful we become;
  • It’s not about how much wealth we amass;
  • It’s about whether we understand and know God, this God who acts with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness. This God who reveals the light of Christ in our lives so that we can learn to live, love, and create communities that overflow with kindness, gentleness, and peace.

In the mindfulness groups I lead at the hospital, we sometimes do what’s called a lovingkindness meditation together. It’s a beautiful little prayer practice that encourages kindness toward ourselves, toward others, toward those we feel in conflict with, and toward the world. We first begin by bringing to mind someone who is easy to love. (You may want to close your eyes and do this along with me.)

Picture that person, and imagine yourself looking into his or her eyes, and say to them: May you feel safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy in body and mind. May you live this day with ease.

Now you can put your hand on your heart and offer this blessing to yourself: May I feel safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy, in body and mind. May I live this day with ease.

Now picture someone you’ve been having trouble with. Imagine yourself looking into their eyes and saying: May you feel safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy in body and mind. May you live this day with ease.

And now imagine the kindness from your heart extending to every person in the world and say: May we all feel safe. May we all be happy. May we all be healthy in body and mind. May we live this day with ease.

In other words, let’s just be kind. Let’s want the best for others, the whole world over. Whether we have yard signs to remind us or not.

As we do that, we can trust the peace of Christ is with us, teaching and guiding our softening hearts. And that’s how God’s kingdom arrives, truly, even now: person by person, heart by heart, community by community.

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