A Pandemic of Kindness
by Louise Westfall
I felt a pang of sympathy for President Trump recently. In a speech he gave celebrating America’s National Parks, he mispronounced the name of Yosemite…struggling a couple of times with Yo-semite, Yose-mite. Of course there was ridicule and gleeful reposting of the faux pas. But not by me. My heart went out to him because I know what this feels like. There was a time I mispronounced the last name of a deceased man at his funeral. I’ve mangled the names of rock bands, Nobel laureates, and cities in Africa any number of times in sermons, and even made factual errors (for which your gentle corrections are always welcome).
My reticence to mock in this instance was born of self-knowledge. I could see myself in this situation and then feel for President Trump. I could empathize, which is the art of putting yourself in another’s shoes, walking a mile in their moccasins, and recognizing the humanity you share. It doesn’t mean that I will overlook his actions which contradict the faith values I hold, or excuse bad behavior. But it does help me remember that he is human and I am human and that forms a bond which connects us across all differences.
The Scripture text today could be considered as a call for extreme empathy, a pandemic of kindness, if you will. The apostle Paul has spent many chapters outlining foundational Christian truth: how God is for us, loves us unconditionally, and is working to restore the whole creation according to Divine purpose. Now he shifts to our response to this great good news. How are we to act, now that we know God’s love and that we are part of one Beloved Community? How are we to embody in daily actions the commandment to “love one another” as God has loved us? Trust the apostle to lay it out clearly with a list of practices reflecting our identity as God’s beloved. A reading from the letter to the Romans, in the 12th chapter, verses 9 through 21. Listen for God’s Word to you and me. [Romans 12:9-21]
Sometimes the Bible testifies to the grandeur and magnificence of God with soaring language of visionary scope, punctuated in alleluias. This is not one of those times. Here we find plain vanilla words of utter clarity to guide our daily path.
Love sincerely…show honor…don’t be haughty…live peaceably with all…contribute to the needs of others…persevere in prayer… It doesn’t take a preacher to interpret this. It’s a description of people at their finest: acting with compassion, faith, and generosity towards one another. We get it…and mostly aspire to being that kind of person. And I’m betting every one of us can bring to mind a person who fits the description: I’m staring into the homes of a bunch of them right now.
I wonder if the truest test of faith lies not in the big watershed decisions of our lives, but everyday, reflected in the ways we treat others. Certainly the pandemic has brought out the best in us. I’ve heard of young people insisting on grocery shopping for their elderly neighbors; someone buying pizzas for all the emergency room personnel in a medical facility; overall contributions to hunger relief centers are significantly higher. Musicians and artists – denied their usual venues and crowds–have offered their craft for free, from street corners to the Internet. At the same time, fears of uncertainty, frustration with restrictions, and the specter of a future we can’t predict have exacerbated long-standing resentments and caused people to retreat into their bubble. In a difficult time that leaves no one untouched, it’s disheartening that as a nation we have not come together but remain deeply divided, angry and unkind to one another.
Christians are called to a higher standard than simply “tolerating” or “being nice” to people with whom we differ. God calls us instead to active, positive behavior; actually to bless them.
We need to hear the second part of this reading even more acutely. All that stuff about blessing those “other people”–the ones who have hurt or wronged us, the ones we consider “enemies” and would choose to avoid completely seems to be the important word for this time–and the one we keep mispronouncing.
The call to civility is a start–restoring basic courtesy and respect. Being polite rather than nasty in conversations with others helps. But here’s the thing, friends: Christians are called to a higher standard than simply “tolerating” or “being nice” to people with whom we differ. God calls us instead to active, positive behavior; actually to bless them. The apostle was echoing the teachings of Jesus about “loving” ones’ enemies, and going the second mile to care and support them.
It’s one of the distinctive contributions of Christianity to act for the well-being of one’s enemies, to seek their good. Impossible? Yeah, pretty much. I used to be cheered in this impossible task by the verse about “heaping burning coals on our enemies’ heads.” If we have to show kindness to our opponent, at least we can have pride in our moral superiority. Take that blessing, you hateful idiot, and feel embarrassed!
Well, no. It was our parish associate, the late, beloved Stan Jewell who gently clarified the meaning of this reference for me–and come to find out it has nothing to do with shaming one’s opponents. He explained that in ancient Israel, the center of the home was a small fire in a brick or hard clay structure, providing warmth for heating and cooking. The fire was kept going day and night, and if it burned out, you had a domestic crisis. Then you would take a bowl balanced on your head, and go in search of neighbors to receive live embers to re-ignite it. A kind one would “heap” coals into your bowl. So this was one more way to bless one’s enemies! Share your fire with them.
Let that sink in for a minute. It’s the spark that can save the world, and us too. As one of the group who studied this passage put it, “If we share the fire, then we find the embers of our burned out souls re-ignited.” It’s not a zero-sum game–there’s enough fire for everyone. And when we can remember receiving, then it is easier to give.
It’s downright ironic to think of a pandemic of kindness healing the world. It’s counter-intuitive, and requires vulnerability, imagination, and spiritual strength. Yet this is the way you and I get better. Empathy helps us break out of time-worn ways of relating to each other based on microaggressions and one-upmanship. Krista Tippett is a journalist, best-selling author, and host of the public radio program and podcast “On Being.” She considers spirituality and faith as seriously as politics and science, and has interviewed hundreds of people to mine their truths. She suggests that kindness is powered by curiosity–a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions, and allow ambiguity in order to “see” the humanity of the other.
How about it, friends? Are you and I ready to lead with kindness? To ease up on the snark and layer the goodness? To remember the amazing grace poured out upon us again and again, and from that abundant store, share the fire that will light and warm us all.
So help us God!