I was not always a very good grandson. But then again, not every one of my grandparents were always very good grandparents either.
Here’s how my family tells the story.
One set of my grandparents lived close by to us, and they were like second parents to us. We saw them every week, sometimes several times a week. We slept over their house, raided their refrigerator, spent pretty much every holiday together, and had nothing but kind words for one another.
But there were another set of grandparents that lived further away and that we didn’t see as often. And so the connection of course wasn’t as warm and friendly. And one time, when no one was listening, that grandmother said to me, “Oh shut up, Steven”. And I was so angry. That didn’t seem like a very grandmotherly thing to say. So I held a grudge against this grandma for years. Didn’t want to see her, didn’t want to talk to her.
The problem was, I was the one that looked bad holding this grudge, because this grandma was really nice. She had all the manners. Cooked us big Sunday dinners when we’d visit her. Asked us questions about our lives. Started small talk. Gave us presents. See this was my Southern grandma, from Western South Carolina. So ‘nice’ was all that she knew.
But her niceness didn’t make me feel seen or wanted, didn’t make space for me, certainly didn’t make me want to give up my grudge. Because this kind of niceness seemed perfunctory, obligatory, even a kind of test, like she was waiting to see if I’d be as nice back to her.
Which, clearly, I wasn’t.
This was nice, but it wasn’t kind.
We’re in the second week of a five-week series called The Jesus Model for Everyday Interactions. It’s inspired by a book our church’s old friend Carl Medearis wrote about this topic. And in the second section of the book, Carl says, “So you want to change the world? Try being kind.” He quotes this legendary military man who said that if you want to change the world, you should start by making your bed. Do the little stuff right, and the big stuff will follow.
OK? Then Carl says, well, if you want to be like Jesus, start out by being nice.
And maybe that’s great advice, but I want to quibble a bit today with this interchanging of nice and kind, as if they are the same thing. I don’t think they are. Not at all.
And so today, I do want to encourage kindness. I want to see how a God who is deeply kind to us might also give us the joy of deeply kind lives as well. Kindness is God’s mode of being with us, because God is simply deeply kind. Kindness is also part of the call of Jesus to people who want to follow Jesus. And kindness is simply, but utterly, transformative.
But it is not the same thing as being nice. Not at all.
When I was in high school, I had an English teacher named Ken Jones. I’ve talked about him before. He made a big impression on me in the way he handled tragedy while I was a student in high school. Both his children died during that era, and his resilience was nothing short of remarkable. We formed an unusually close teacher-student relationship, so I wrote an essay about him when I was applying to college, and the year I left home, we were pen pals for a while.
But what struck me first as his classroom student was that Mr. Jones was not especially nice, but he could be really, really kind. Sometimes, when we walked into class and sat down, Mr. Jones would just sit at his desk and stare us down for a few minutes. He didn’t always seem like he wanted to be there. He could be irritable and kind of depressive. Sometimes he pointed out rude or bad things kids had done somewhere else in the school, and he’d say, Oh, that was person wasn’t trying to bad, but bad people just do bad things, without even thinking about it. This was not nice.
And yet, this man could be quite kind.
We had journals in this class that we needed to write in — a certain number of pages a week, I think — writing about anything we wanted. And we’d turn these journals in every week or two, and he’d check them and give us credit. And at least with my journal, I realized he really read what I wrote. He thought about it. He wrote back to me, engaging my thoughts, taking my 15-year old self seriously, which wasn’t an experience I had had from other teachers. Or really from adults at all.
And that noticing of my thoughts, that valuing of my words communicated to me that I mattered, that I was interesting, that I was worth the attention of someone that seemed more important than me.
And that was kind.
Jesus had this quality about him too. Listen to this short interaction he has on a crowded road when he and his students were travelling together.
Mark 10:46-52 (NRSV)
46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
There’s so much really interesting scholarship around this passage. The meaning of Bartimaeus’s name, the son of Timaeus. The significance of blindness and sight in Mark’s memoirs of Jesus and in some of the other good news accounts as well. The title, Son of David, that this man gives Jesus, and the significance of that being said while Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, the city of David, where he would both be hailed as a king and executed, in the same week.
This is a really interesting encounter.
But I want to go back to its basics for a moment, the stuff we could march right by in search of deeper meaning.
First off, this is a crowded urban moment. Jesus has arrived in an unfamiliar city and is surrounded by strangers. But his reputation has preceded him and he’s greeted like a VIP. So there are a million reasons for Jesus to keep to himself.
There’s the fatigue of travel, the disorientation of being in a busy, unfamiliar place, the shyness and stress a person from a small town can feel in an urban crowd, and the fact that Jesus is busy and important and on his way somewhere else.
But the somewhere that Jesus is today is the city where the son of Timaeus lives, a man whose disability and his bad breaks in life have left him on the side of the street, begging. And what’s happening in this moment is what we usually do with people relegated to lower status or people whose voice is inconvenient or whose behavior is disruptive… this man’s voice is silenced. His person, his body, his needs are marginalized.
But Jesus centers him. He says: I want to see him. Jesus stops, he stands still, he calls him over, and he asks him, What do you want me to do for you?
It’s not necessarily the smoothest moment. “What do you want me to do?” is an arrestingly direct question. It might not be particularly nice, and so in this, Jesus is more like Mr. Jones than my grandmother. He may or may not be nice, but he is deeply kind – present physically and emotionally to the person in front of him, including the person who interrupts him, deeply interested in the voice and wants and needs of the person in front of him, and eager to help.
And then, in one of these Jesus moments, it happens, the guy can see. But when it happens, Jesus says to him, it wasn’t me, it was you. Your faith, your trust, did it.
I think that Jesus shows us exactly what God is like. Fully present to us, and deeply generous and kind. It’s not the picture of God that our culture or our tradition may have given us, but it’s Jesus and Jesus’ first followers insistence that Jesus shows us the best, the truest picture of God we will ever see.
The God who has time for interruptions. The God who centers the marginalized and hears voices that once were silenced. The God who has time with us, and looks at us and speaks to us kindly.
After all, even when God is seeking change in our lives, which isn’t nice, I suppose, to encourage someone to change, but it can be kind to want more for someone, or to want better for them. But the way God gets us there is kindness. God woos, rather than threatens, encourages, rather than ranting with raised voice. As the letter to Romans in the New Testament tells us, God’s kindness leads to repentance.
Jesus shows us what a kind God looks like.
Jesus also shows us what we can be like – people that mirror God’s kindness to ourselves and others.
So kindness isn’t just a favor to the world – although it is that. It’s not even just a reflection of the love of Jesus to the world – although it is that as well. It’s also us coming into our nature as children of God, made in God’s image. Becoming the kind people we were made to be and that world longs for.
It’s possible, of course, to be both nice and kind. Many of you will know my friend Cate Nelson. She lives in the neighborhood, more or less. She is co-directing our Soccer Nights program for the neighborhood in the last week of June. And she used to be on staff at Reservoir, doing that and all kinds of other things for her work, before she left Reservoir employment to pursue other career interests.
Anyway, when I think of someone who is both nice and kind, one of the first people I think of is Cate. She’s thoughtful, and attentive to the people she’s with, and friendly and good. And she’s especially all these things with children. So if you’ve ever seen Cate with kids, you’ve seen her looking them in the eye and enthusiastically asking them questions. You’ve seen her playing with them and having fun. Perhaps you’ve seen her dancing with them at our church retreat or up near the front at the end of service, in one of our Sundays like today, when our kids are worshipping with us here.
Where so many adults more or less ignore kids, Cate sees them. She doesn’t just say hi and wait for them to move on, but she centers her attention on them, responsive to their person and their voice. If you haven’t seen this before, or if you’d like to learn how to do this, you really need to sign up and join us as a volunteer at Soccer Nights this year. Go to soccernights.org/volunteer and be sure to choose our North Cambridge site, as our church provides some logistical support for a whole bunch of Soccer Nights programs now.
So it’s possible to be both nice and kind, of course. Jesus was nice and kind with kids, and it’s a mark of a follower of Jesus to learn to be both nice and kind with kids. Cate’s one of the people that shows us how.
But if you have to choose just one, nice or kind, pick kind every time. Because niceness is sometimes just politeness. Niceness could be all the appropriate manners of my grandma, with no time or generosity or attention or love under it. But kindness — to see someone, to be interrupted and to give your generous attention and presence and goodness to someone else, well, that kindness is transformative.
My friend Sarah Furste is a pastor at our sister church, The River, in Manhattan, and she was talking recently about the difference between kindness and niceness. And she said this. She said:
“Even though we often exchange the two, there’s a big difference between nice and kind. Niceness is rooted and lack and fear, and emerges from our deepest insecurities. Kindness is rooted in the abundance of love. Niceness ignores the truth of who we are. Kindness emerges from the compassionate essence of who we are.”
Niceness without kindness – social graces, being polite – can actually be a way of avoiding genuine connection with another person. It keeps interactions smooth and unremarkable, which is fine, but not if that’s all they are. That kind of niceness avoids conflict, avoids need, avoids really seeing or hearing or bringing our real selves to the table. That kind of niceness keeps people at bay, because we’re afraid we don’t have enough time or energy. That kind of niceness keeps ourselves closed off, because we’re insecure or disinterested.
But when we’re kind, we’re giving our attention generously, whatever we see or hear. We’re present to the other person with our whole heart and mind, and with all that we are, even if it’s just for 42 seconds. Even small amounts of real, present kindness can be transformative.
I went through the McDonalds drive through the other week, when I was in a rush for lunch. Not the kind of system I want to invest my money into, if you remember that talk from a few weeks, back, and I haven’t gone back to the MacDonalds since then, but there I was.
And I made my order with the disembodied voice through that intercom as you do, and pulled up to the first window to pay, where a young woman smiled at me and told me what I owed. And as I gave her my money, I looked her in the eyes and asked, How are you doing today? A small moment of kindness, right, to be present to a stranger during a commercial interaction.
And then she looked back at me, as she took care of the bill, and she told me, I’m doing really well today, because I’m looking forward to going home this afternoon, and spending time with my mother. She told me that in her country, it was Mother’s Day that day. And so I asked her where that was – her country – and she told me El Salvador. So I told her I hoped she had a great afternoon and wished her mom a happy Mother’s Day.
And then it was time to pull up and get my greasy lunch, and that was the end of it. 42 seconds, tops. Maybe less. But whatever small kindness I may have offered her, I felt like I was the one lifted up by that interaction. I drove away and maybe because it was unexpected, I thought, man, that felt great. Like two real people just connecting for a moment. Her presence, her just being a real person who wanted to connect with me for a moment, was a kindness to me.
Basic human kindness like this, to any person in our purview, this is no small thing, but is at the center of the teaching of Jesus, including what we’ve come to call the Golden Rule.
One more scripture and then we’ll wrap up.
Luke 6:31-36 (NRSV)
31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Treat the customer in the McDonalds drive-through the way you want to be treated. Talk with the retail staff behind the counter the way you would love to have them talk with you.
Treat children the way you wish adults had treated you when you were a kid, or the way you want kids to grow up and treat others.
Talk with your grandchild, or your grandma, the way you want them to talk with you.
Interact with your students or your employees the way you want them to interact with you. Be to your teachers or your boss the way you want them to be with you. But then Jesus continues: Oh, by the way, it’s easy to do this with your friends and family. (Which, for me at least, it’s not. But whatever, Jesus says it’s relatively easy, but this is also the way of Jesus for the people you can’t stand.)
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
To be like Jesus is to be kind to the people who have nothing to give you but trouble. To give your kind attention to people that don’t deserve it.
When it comes to boldly loving our enemies, niceness just doesn’t cut it. Jesus wasn’t always nice to his enemies either. Sometimes he told the truth to them, and truth telling isn’t necessarily nice.
But Jesus never dismissed them. He engaged their questions, he looked at them and saw them. He did what he could to disarm them with kindness. This disposition toward kindness and mercy is what God is like, Jesus says, and it’s the disposition and life that Jesus is shaping in us too.
Let’s wrap up with four closing invitations before I pray for God’s help with this.
The first is an encouragement to connect with a kind God. Each week in this series, we’re encouraging you to connect with God’s love for you in some way, and also to be present with that love in your everyday interactions.
The cards each Sunday in this series on the table in the dome are two-sided for that reason as well. So pick one up on your way out if you like.
Anyway, the first encouragement:
When you pray, imagine Jesus gladly attentive to you and your desires – eyes and ears fixed on you.
Likely, if you pray at all, you sit down and start talking to God. Maybe you use your own words first. Maybe you use the words of a prayer you learned. Maybe you sit in a particular place at a particular time of day, as I do. Or maybe you pull out a journal to write things down, or kneel, or take a walk. Or maybe your prayers are mainly spontaneous things you find yourself saying to God while you’re driving your car, or trying to fall asleep, or nursing a baby. All that’s good. God’s available to talk with or think about anytime, anywhere.
But how often to we envision and remember God as attentive and alive and good and interested in us as God really is? If you’re like me, not often enough. So when you’re going to pray, or when you find yourself praying, try stopping for just a minute, and imagining that Jesus is with you and that Jesus is attentive, looking, listening to all you have to say, even the things you’re aren’t sure how to say, with great interest.
I say the word imagining because picturing Jesus with us is important and powerful, but not because it’s imaginary. Actually, this kind of imaging, which has more often been called contemplation or meditation in the spiritual tradition, is really a way of dialing into a greater reality – seeing God as God is revealed in Jesus, making sure we encounter God as God really is.
For a day, or a week, give each person you encounter the 42-second favor of your full attention and kind interest in them.
We’re trying to start the daily things, the small things in this series, because they’re the building blocks to greater things but also because they’re important on their own terms. So really, for as many days this week as you can handle, try simply giving each person you encounter a minute, or even a little less than a minute, of your full, uninterrupted interest and attention and kindness. This is as simple as looking someone in the eye, noticing what you see, maybe asking a small question and engaging the answer. See what this does in the people you encounter, see what this does in you! I’d love to hear your stories. Tell me sometime, or shoot me an email.
Adults, see every kid a full-fledged person who’d enjoy your kindness. Kids, the same for the adults in your life.
Love for children seems to be one of the unique hallmarks of Jesus’ kindness, a mark that you’re on the right path. If you don’t have kids in your life at all, consider treating with kindness the ones you bump into or that interrupt your rhythm in public places. Of consider volunteering for Soccer Nights at the end of June, as I mentioned, or contacting our families’ pastor Kim Messenger and asking about serving in our Sunday kids’ programs this summer or fall. Kim@reservoirchurch.org – she’d love to hear from you.
And kids, I think this goes for you too. The adults in your life are likely annoying to you sometimes. Or mysterious, or busy, or grumpy. But let me tell you that adults are people too – with our own strengths and weaknesses, our own good parts and bad parts and problems. So we owe you kindness, we do, but see if you can be kind to the adults in your life as well.
I mentioned that love for kids is one of the unique hallmarks of the way of Jesus with people. But the other, I shared earlier, is love for enemies.
Jesus doesn’t call for niceness to enemies, but does insist on love.
Again, it would be easy to go big with this and get intimidated. What do we do with people and situations that frighten us or put us in danger? OR the people we really hate, etc?
But in the spirit of this series, again, I encourage you to start small. The people in public life that you don’t know but really can’t stand, maybe even really hate, you don’t have to like them or be nice to them, but consider praying for them when you think about how much you can’t stand them, that God will bring more love and truth into their lives.