Be Ye Kind

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Last week I had surgery for a total hip replacement. That has been a long time coming and I can now tell I have parts that move the way they are supposed to.  It’s fantastic.

In these past few days I have been absolutely overwhelmed by kindness and care from so many. At the top of that list are my husband, my child, and my friend Alison, who flew across the country to take care of all of us. And then there is the congregation, and my family, and the school moms, and pastors I’ve never met who’ve held me in their prayers, and old friends around the country who have emailed and texted and messaged, who have baked muffins and sent cards and flowers and chocolate, because they know me well.

I am grateful, too, to the hospital staff.  There they were, taking my vitals, checking in on me, telling me it would be okay when my blood pressure plummeted, putting on the helpful/unsexy white support knee socks, encouraging me through all that initial discomfort  and pain, waking me up through the night as they did their job.

You could say that all those hospital people get paid to be kind and caring. That’s true. As a pastor I know that because, in a sense, we get paid to be kind. It’s a big part of our job.

But what if it were everyone’s job to be kind? What if kindness were the true measure of our worth, and not our social status or our bank account? Wouldn’t that be something?

Kindness is there but it’s usually so small that it gets overshadowed by all that’s loud and angry and grumpy. I’m not sure kindness really works on the grand scale but I know it does on the small scale: helping someone get dressed or making a cup of tea. Bringing a magazine with Benedict Cumberbatch on the cover, and another with the newest, best restaurants. Staying away can be kind; so can stopping by.

Once I’m up and around I’m going to spend more time on the small kindnesses. I can’t fix the world. Hell, I can’t walk without a walker and good meds at this point. But I can be kind, and I will.

And you?

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“May I speak with you…”, part 2

OpenDoorLogoYesterday’s post about my visit from Joy was read by many, at least in terms of my stats.  I appreciate the comments, likes, and shares.  Today I received a message from a minister colleague in another part of the state a few hours away.  Joy had visited her, too, a few weeks ago, and my friend had a similar experience of listening to her and helping her out.  I am grateful she let me know.

And then I checked to see if I felt that thing I sometimes feel when I’ve helped a complete stranger: did I feel as though I had been duped, taken advantage of, conned?

In every church I have served,  people come to church to ask for help, some in truly desperate situations and some looking for a handout.  I believe in handouts, to a point; I think sometimes what a person most needs is $20 to buy what they want.  But I also know that sometimes I have helped someone who then tells all his friends who also come seeking help.  Or in one town where I worked, I listened to a guy poor out his soul about his family being innocent bystanders victimized by a crime, only to learn a a few weeks later that another pastor in town had heard the same story from the same guy the year before.

After twenty or so years of pastoring, I’ve decided I would rather err on the side of kindness, knowing that some of the people I help are really not all that desperate. So with regards to Joy, did I feel duped?

No.

Anytime I hear a stranger tell me his or her story and then ask me for help, I know that person might not be telling me the truth or even the whole truth.  I know people take advantage of the kindness of churches and pastors and church secretaries.  I also know that sometimes a church is one of the few places where someone will be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their truthfulness.

My parents were both born in the 1930’s and their early childhoods were marked by the Great Depression.  Neither grew up in families that were neither destitute nor wealthy; my grandfathers were both employed and my grandmothers ran their households with great efficiency.  My dad was one of three children, my mom one of six.  My mother remembers that whenever someone would come to the door looking for food, my grandmother would give that person something – a sandwich, an apple, toast with jelly.  My grandfather worked in construction, and if a day laborer was needed, my grandmother would mention that to the person at the door.

To be kind is to risk being taken advantage of.  To be generous is to choose to use resources for one thing and not for another.  As a pastor, I have a sense that the time I have and the resources I offer are not solely mine; they are part of the congregation as well, and I want to be a good steward of their gifts. And sometimes I act on behalf of the congregation to live out the commands that Jesus gave.

So I don’t know if my Joy will come your way, or when another Joy will present herself to you.  I don’t know what you will decide to do. I don’t know how you will make your decision.  But maybe we all need a little Joy in our lives, for so many reasons.

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“May I come speak with you about a religious matter?”

I was expecting a call like this, on a Monday after the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage.  Our office manager buzzed me.  “There’s someone on the phone who would like to speak with a pastor about a religious matter.”  Sigh.  “I’ll take it.”

“This is Reverend Beth Neel.  How may I help you?”  I usually don’t refer to myself as Reverend Beth Neel, but when strangers call and want to talk about a religious matter, I do like to be clear about my role and authority.

“I’d like to come speak with you about a religious matter.”  We agreed on  the time of 11:30.

Here’s what I assumed: that this woman, who self-identified as Presbyterian, wanted to talk with me about either the SCOTUS ruling or about what had happened in Charleston.  I confess that normally I try to pass this sort of thing along to one of my colleagues, but it was just me in the office today.

At 10:15 I ran downstairs to look at something in the building, and when I came back up to my office, she was waiting for me, 45 minutes early.  I took one look at her, wearing her down coat on a day when it was supposed to get up to 90, carrying two laden shopping bags, smelling a bit of stale cigarette smoke, and I knew that the SCOTUS ruling was probably the last thing on her mind.

She did mention it, sort of.  She said when she got off the bus in Portland and saw two men holding hands, if her mother had been with her and had seen that, she would’ve had a fit.  So much for hearing a proof-text about the sin of gay marriage.

We talked for an hour.  She poured out her life story without any self-pity, talking about her family, her mom and dad who married and divorced three times.  Her sister, who married the wrong guy.  A Mexican restaurant in the Memorial area of Houston; did I know it?  Her work at a car dealership.  Her time in Oklahoma, in Nebraska, in Seattle.  When she worked at a hotel run by East Indians, and their conversations about the Gideons Bibles and why her boss would need to talk to Jesus if he wanted her to work on Sundays.

After an hour, I asked her what her religious question was.  “Religious?  I don’t believe in God anymore.  I’m so tired I just can’t believe in anything.  I don’t know if I can go on.”  Turns out she had no where to stretch out and sleep; at her age, sleeping under the bridges wasn’t an option.  She tried to sneak in naps at Denny’s or Shari’s, but that’s no rest at all.

“Can we provide a motel room for you for a couple of nights?”  Sure.  We did, and gave her something for some food.  Should I have done more – connect her with social services, give her a ride to the motel?  Should I have done less – tell her we couldn’t help but that I’d pray for her?”  She was grateful for what we offered, said yes with dignity; she didn’t ask for anything more and I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that she really wasn’t looking for anything else.

Her name was Joy, and I don’t know if there was a higher purpose to Joy showing up in my office this morning.  Was it to challenge my assumptions that gay marriage is on everyone’s mind?  Was it to remind me that a big part of my calling as a pastor is not time efficiency but kindness?

Maybe there was no higher purpose.  Maybe there was just a child of God who needed a little help today.  And so Joy came in.  And so Joy left.

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On thoughtfulness and reunions

My friend told me a lovely story today.  Over the weekend she received a letter from a stranger, and the opening line read, “I hope this is not intrusive.”  The letter was from a person working with the state hospital; the hospital has hundreds of containers of people’s cremated remains, and they are attempting to return them to the family of the deceased.

My friend learned that the hospital had her great-grandmother’s remains; would she like them?  She said yes, and plans to take them to the cemetery where her mother and grandmother are buried.  She will go with her daughter and granddaughter to the graveside, and there will gather six generations of strong, beautiful women.

As my friend told me this story, I got a little teary.  Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of the gesture.  I think that’s part of it, but part of it too is this strange thing I have about reunions, even beyond the grave.  (Or at the grave, in this case.)

Now I don’t believe that those cremated remains or any decaying body of flesh and bone have any power in them.  There is no life there; they are going back to the dust from whence they came.  The souls that inhabited those bodies have gone on, I believe, and while the soul makes its home in skin and sinew, it is not confined there.  The souls of my friend’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother have gone on.

And yet.  And yet there is a poignancy to reuniting these ashes with those of a daughter and granddaughter.  I have no idea what happens when we die.  Maybe this faith thing has been one big crap shoot and when it’s over, it’s over.  Or maybe we fall asleep for a while, and wake up when Gabriel blows that horn.  Or maybe we die and boom we go to heaven and the reunion is instantaneous.

If we die and sleep for an eon, imagine the waking up.  Imagine my friend’s great-grandmother waking up, and those ashes and pulverized bones coming together again, kneaded back into vibrant form; imagine her waking up and seeing her daughter and granddaughter with her.

Wouldn’t that be something.

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Kindness/Despair

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
* * * * *
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”

excerpted from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)

despair“Despair is strangely the last bastion of hope; the wish being that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again.  Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore.  Despair is the place that we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive.”
excerpted from “Despair” by David Whyte, from Consolations, 2015

Last fall my friend Lila killed herself.  She was a member of our congregation.  She lived a life I might have had: she was my age, never married, took care of her two beloved cats.  She probably heard that she had such a pretty face, if only she would lose some weight.  She was generous and kind and hilarious and lived with bi-polar disorder until she decided she didn’t want to live with bi-polar disorder anymore and she ended her life.

The other night my daughter and I were cuddled in the comfy chair and we started talking about people she knew who had died.  The list is short, and I am grateful for that.  But being the child of two pastors, my daughter hears about death more than the average eight year old.  She knows that sometimes we rush to the hospital, or are called away in the middle of the night.  She knows that sometimes she has an extended playdate on a Saturday because Mom and Dad are at church for a memorial service.

So we were talking about the people she knew who had died, and Lila was mentioned.  “Mom,” my daughter said, “how did Lila die?” We hadn’t told her.  Maybe at the time we were too bruised to try to explain to a child why someone so lovely would not want to live any more; maybe we didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to face the sadness.  But she asked, and I answered.  “Honey, I’m so sorry, but Lila killed herself.”

Sigh.

“Why?”  “Well, her brain didn’t always work just right, and sometimes her brain made her so wildly happy she couldn’t keep it to herself, and sometimes her brain made her so sad she didn’t think she would ever stop being sad.  I think one day she decided she didn’t want to be sad like that anymore.  I think it hurt so much and she didn’t want to hurt anymore.”  I did the best I could to explain despair to a child, all the while hoping and praying that my child will not ever know it.

This week two different friends on Facebook posted poems/essays, one “Kindness” and the other “Despair”.  They showed up in my news feed the same day, the day I would later have the conversation with my daughter.  I found deep wisdom in both and in a way, they were companions to each other, acknowledging the depth of these things, the paradox of them.  To understand kindness you must first understand sorrow.  Despair is the last bastion of hope.

I don’t want to diagram these words or exegete them but neither do I want to toss them away like last Sunday’s sermon.  They feel heaven-sent in a way, so thank you, Carol and Ken, for being angels in sharing them.

And I wish I knew what Lila would say about them.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here.  We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again.  In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do from the beginning.”

“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then it goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

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The Kindness of Strangers

kindnessSo I’m at Target, because it’s my day off and one pair of jeans evidently isn’t sufficient for our second grader.  Because I have been very, very good at Target, and bought only two pairs of size 6 pants and one package of trouser socks (as opposed to $150 worth of stuff I don’t need) I treat myself to Starbucks which, quite conveniently, is right there in the Target.

The woman ahead of me in line is chatting up quite a storm and I keep telling myself “this extra minute she’s taking will not throw off your entire day’s schedule.”  I breathe in through my nose and breathe out through my  mouth.  I imagine I am one with the universe, but I know this is a lie, because really, all I want is my skinny latte, thank you very much.  There’s only one thing standing between me and my latte, and that is this chatty woman.

She finishes her order, then turns to me and says, “Would you mind signing a birthday card for a complete stranger?  My best friend is stuck in a hotel room all by herself on her birthday and she’s going through a nasty divorce and I thought this card signed by random people would cheer her up.”  I say yes, and get my comeuppance for my impatience.  The Universe is right more often than I am.  We meet at the pick-up counter, and I have plenty of time to sign the card, because her mocha latte with four pumps of peppermint is taking a long time.  While we wait, she asks another few folks to sign the card, and then leaves.

I’m still waiting for my drink, but I notice she is on her way out the door without her Minty Minty Special, so I go after her and ask if maybe she would like her drink.  She smiles, and makes that face I make at least three times a day – I believe we call that “chagrin” –  and I get my latte and go on my merry way.

That was a kind thing for her to do  – to picture her friend ordering room service in her jammies, all alone on her birthday in some generic hotel room and to want her not to feel sad.  She put herself out there, a little bit, risked some foolishness so she might cheer up her friend.  I’ve always appreciated the kindness of strangers; I haven’t depended on it, but I do appreciate it.

So I’ve been wondering how I can be kind to our congressmen and women right now.  Really, they are strangers to me.  Our congressman attends our Christmas Eve service, but other than a handshake, I don’t know him.  I don’t know any of these people duking it out at the capitol.  I know what I think of them, especially those on the other side of the aisle than mine.  But this little voice – maybe it’s Jesus – keeps tickling my brains saying, “You have to be kind to strangers.  And you have to love your enemies.”  Sigh.  Why does Jesus have to make everything so hard?

So I guess I have to pray for all those people, the red state people and the blue state people.  (Honestly, I can never remember which is which.)  I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to pray for God to change them, but I think I’m on the right track by asking God to help them.  I’ll pray for Pam, alone in a strange city in a Hyatt on her birthday.  I’ll pray for her friend, too, because she pretty much made my day.

Here’s to some kindness all around.

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