July 7, 2019

Facets of Faithfulness, V: Kindness

Passage: Galatians 5:22‒23; Mark 1:40‒45

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By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things.  —
Galatians 5:22‒23


The other day my wife asked me what I was preaching about this Sunday. I said it was the fifth installment in my Fruit of the Spirit series. She said, “So, what is le fruit du jour?”  She studied French in college.

I said, “I’m preaching about kindness.” She said, “What are you going to say about it?” I said, “Well, I’m going to be in favor of it, actually.”

Who’s going to argue with ‘kindness’? What’s to talk about? Well, I’m glad you asked. Kindness might be a dubious virtue for two reasons. First of all, it’s possible that the concept of ‘kindness’ implies weakness. Kindness might mean ‘misplaced liberality.’ Look at those bleeding-heart liberals. Kindness can be indiscriminate and too broadcast. Do we want our drill sergeants to be kind? Our football coaches? Our divorce lawyers?

There’s another reason ‘kindness’ might be a dubious virtue. Kindness might be the Christian virtue most prone to self-deception. That is to say, all people think they’re kind, but we know from everyday experience that many aren’t.

Did you know that friends who knew him considered Joseph Stalin to be a people person? They said he was utterly charming.

This was during the time when even loyal Bolsheviks slept every night with a packed bag or a loaded pistol under the bed, the bag for ten years in the Gulag, the pistol to avoid it.

Really organized Soviet parents in Stalin’s day kept an up-to-date school schedule for their children in case a relative would have to step in to care for the new orphans.

In Stalin’s world, both friends and rivals, both intimates and unknown millions, were, in Krushchev’s words, “temporary people.”

But he was charming. He kept beautiful roses. He read Thackeray, Gogol, Checkhov, and Hugo. He loved Charlie Chaplin’s films. Joseph Stalin could think of himself as a people person. He was a monster with a human face.[1]

I’m actually going to be in favor of ‘kindness’ this morning, but it does have its downside. It can imply weakness and it can be prone to self-deception. But this virtue has its virtues.

Kindness is what we human beings most essentially are. Have you noticed that we use that common English word ‘kind’ in two very different ways? Used one way, ‘kind’ means type, brand, species, or genus.

“What kind of dog is that?” people asked me. “That is a golden retriever,” I told them. “What is he doing in the church office?” they asked me. And I had no answer.

What kind of wine do you drink: red or white? What kind of soft drink do you prefer: Coke or Pepsi?

Kind is brand or type. Kind is related to ‘kin’ and ‘kindred,’ which comes from an old German verb “to give birth to.” That is to say, what is that thing innately, endemically, natively, at its birth? What is that thing by nature?

Later, of course, ‘Kind’ came to mean gentle, merciful, soft, compassionate. Kindness is when your wife dies and both friends and strangers respond with so many graceful gestures—food, flowers, errands, phone calls, notes, a listening ear—that soon you’re weeping almost as much for the beauty of humanity as from the grief of loss.

You know what the connection is between the two uses of the word ‘kind’? Kind is related to kin, which means birth, natural, or native, and so over the years, kindcame to mean ‘well-born’ or ‘well-bred’. ‘Kind’ then means a superior, exemplary instance of whatever it is you are talking about.

When you are talking about human beings, kindness is humaneness. When we are being kind, we are being what we were born to be, what we were made to be. To be kind is to be human, and if you are not kind, well then you aren’t even human. Kind is what humankind naturally, natively, and essentially is.

Do you remember how Shakespeare puns with this in Hamlet?  Hamlet’s first words in the play are “A little more than kin and less than kind.” When Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, also the murderer of Hamlet’s father, now Hamlet’s step-father, calls Hamlet “My son,” Hamlet responds, in a quiet aside, “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”[2] What Hamlet means to say is that Claudius might be kin by marriage but as a regicidal usurper, he is less than kind; Claudius is not an exemplary instance of humanity.

Kindness is a virtue in small ways and in large, close to home and far away, at the domestic and at the global levels. On the last day of school, a class of first graders presented their teacher with a box of beautiful hand-written letters. She thought she would read the letters to the class, but she was so touched, her emotions got the best of her and she couldn’t go on. “I’m sorry,” she said to the class, “I’m having trouble reading right now.” One of her students said, “Just sound it out.”[3]

It was the instruction she’d given them a hundred times when one of them came up against an unfamiliar word: “Just sound it out.” Patience. Kindness. Understanding.

Have you ever found yourself failing at kindness where it matters most and should be easiest? Are you ever kinder to strangers than to those you love most in all the world?

John Gottman tells the story of Rory and Lisa, whose marriage was being tested by Rory’s workaholic ways and his distance from his own family. He didn’t even know the name of the family dog. He was a talented doctor, so Lisa had put up with him for years because she knew he did so much good for humankind.

One Christmas Day, Rory was working at the hospital, of course, and Lisa decided that he might enjoy Christmas dinner.She packed a picnic and brought the kids to the hospital. So there they sit eating together in the waiting room, and Rory turns on Lisa and tells her how much he resents being surprised like this. “Why do you do this?” he wants to know. “It’s so embarrassing. None of the other doctors’ wives would do this.”

Just then a resident called him, and when he picked up his cellphone, his face softened and his voice became helpful, warm, and friendly. When the phone call was over, he turned back to Lisa with renewed anger.

Something snapped in her. It was clear that Rory was capable of kindness, just not toward her, or the kids, or the dog, for that matter. She packed up the Christmas picnic and took the kids home. Soon, she started going out in the evenings without him, and Rory asked Lisa for a divorce.[4] I mean, you can’t stay married to a woman who will interrupt your rounds with a surprise picnic on Christmas Day, can you?

My Uncle Seymour, a preacher and a writer, tells the story about a home with two daughters. The older was beautiful, smart, kind, and successful at everything she attempted. Boys lined up to take her out. The younger was mentally and physically challenged. A birth defect had left her body deformed and her mind less than whole. But her family loved her into wholeness.

Early in every relationship, the older sister took her dates home and introduced them to her little sister, and she would watch their reaction. If they were uncomfortable, awkward, less than solicitous, or even uninterested in her sister, that was the last date that boy ever had with her. She refused to be involved with anyone who was less than kind, less than human.

That older sister is married now. Can you guess whether her marriage is a happy one?[5] How do you evaluate your potential paramours?  Looks, wit, only a perfect 10, only a rich bloke, whether they can tell a zin from a cab or a Verdi from a Puccini? All of that is incidental, not essential, to our humanity. But kindness, kindness is native to our kind.

Shift your perspective from the domestic to the national arena. Did you ever think that your tax dollars would be used to separate infants and toddlers from their mothers and place them in tiny holding cells with 50 other kids, but no bed, no soap, no diapers, no medicine, and very little food? For two weeks?

Did you ever think you would live in a land where it is illegal to give a thirsty person a bottle of water? We have to be careful about what we get used to, or pretty soon we will no longer be exemplary specimens of our kind—humankind.

I put a little Greek vocabulary lesson in your bulletins. The Greek word Paul uses here in his letter to the Galatians is Χρηστος (Chreistos). The New Revised Standard Version translates it as kindness, because that is just what it means. It contrasted with ‘rough’ or ‘surly’.

In the days before legal abortion, the Greeks had a way of dealing with the problem of unwanted children. In Paul’s day, abortions were performed after normal childbirth. You dealt with unwanted children by leaving the full-term, just-delivered newborn out in the forest, where the elements or the beasts would take care of the problem for you. A person who happened upon such an abandoned child before it was too late and cared for him as her own was said to be Χρηστος (Chreistos), kind.[6] This is the plot point that drives Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale.

It was such a charming idea and such a lovely word that it soon became a popular proper name. You would name your son Χρηστος (Chreistos) or your daughter Χρηστα (Chreista)—serviceable, excellent, a good example of its kind.

When Jesus came along, the new Christians started calling him Jesus the Christ—Jesus, the Anointed One; Jesus, the Chosen One of God. The Greeks heard the Christians calling their hero Ιησους Χριστος, (Yesus Christos), Jesus Christ, and thought of it as a proper name. A first name—Jesus—and a last name—Christ. But Christos was such a funny name. The verb behind it meant ‘to anoint’—that is, ‘to pour oil on the head.’  No one named their kids ‘Oiled.’

So when the early Greeks and Romans heard the Christians talking about Yesus Christos, they thought the Christians were saying Yesus Chreistos, Jesus the Kind. And the early Christians, the early disciples of Jesus the Christ? Well, the Romans called them Chreistiani. We are Chreistians. It’s one of those grammatical corruptions that convey more wisdom than anybody ever intended. It’s one of those orthographic errors that actually tells a fuller truth. Jesus Chreist. Jesus the Kind. We are Chreistians. We are, by definition and nomenclature, “The Kind Ones.” Yes?

Lord Jesus, help us to be kind, for everyone we meet is fighting a great battle.  Amen.

Friends, life is very good, but it is also very short. Therefore, be quick to love, and make haste to be kind, for we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us.

[1]This information comes from Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (New York: Knopf, 2004), quoted by Michiko Kakutani, “His Cure-All Was Murder,” The New York Times, April 16, 2004.

[2]William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, sc. 2, ll. 65‒66.

[3]Cindy Bugg, “Thanks for the Help, Reader’s Digest, March, 2015, p. 91.

[4]Slightly adapted from John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Crown, 1999), p. 61.

[5]Seymour Van Dyken, Becoming Like Jesus: Nurturing the Virtues of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B Eerdmans, 1996), p. 103.

[6]This paragraph is heavily indebted to Konrad Weiss, in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), vol. IX, pp. 483‒492.