the kindness project

This past Friday night up at camp I was in the fine company of our counselors and senior staff for our annual “Jan Plan” retreat – an overnight when we spend some time planning the upcoming summer.  

Part of the work we do in our planning is to pick a theme for the summer.  I admit that it took us a little time to pick one yesterday morning – it is a big decision after all.  But in the end we circled back around and opted for the theme that was the very first suggestion to come from the week.  Our theme for summer 2013 is a shortened version of Micah 6:8:

“Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.”

I was pretty excited that this was the theme the staff decided on, not only because we can do SO much with it over the summer, but also because it has always been one of the passages of scripture that I am most partial to.  

The other funny thing about this being the theme choice is that  just the other day I tripped across an old sermon that I wrote on this passage several years ago – one that I was considering posting here on the blog.  So I’ll take this as a sign that I should post.  Please read on to hear about my attempt at a “Kindness Project”, inspired by this passage, and maybe attempt the project yourself!

The Kindness Project – January, 2011

As a preacher I try to take different approaches to my sermons depending on the day and the scripture passages I’m working with.  Some days I feel like the passages require more explanation, a little scholarship maybe.  Other days I feel like a story will really help illumine whatever it is we’ve heard read aloud.  And still other days I find something subtle in a passage that brings me in a different direction entirely.

This however, is not one of those days.  On this fine morning I want simply to call your attention to one line of our scripture and say “This.  This is a good idea.  Try this.”

Call it a waste of my seminary education if you will, but the passage we have before us today from Micah provides us with what I consider to be one of the most simple and profound instructions we have about living our life with God, and it is worthy of repeating, and being held up before you from the pulpit.

After reminding his hearers about the ways God has been with them, Micah points to the question asked by God’s people – what can we do in return?  They suggest various religious symbols – burnt offerings and sacrifices.  But Micah, like so many of the other prophets, reminds them that God is not concerned with their religious practices as much as God cares about the content of their lives day in and day out.  He offers them a method for giving gratitude to God saying, “What more does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

So there you have it.  This a good idea.  You might try this:  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.

I could sit down now, but before I do I want to tell you about my experience this week with this good idea.  Though I’ve already shrunk the Micah passage down to this last line, I need to shrink it more, because each component of this instruction could be its own sermon – its own series.  And while I think attempting all three is a good idea, I try to set the bar a little lower for myself and so decided to focus on just one portion of this profound instruction this week: LOVE KINDNESS.

My focus on kindness started on Tuesday as I was preparing my homily on this passage for chapel with the Episcopal Day School students.  You could say I chose to narrow my message to kindness because it was the easiest concept for the kids to grasp, but let’s be honest, I’m the one that needed the easy concept.  At any rate, I felt fairly inspired that morning when I developed the idea to invite the students to take part in a Kindness Project with me.  Standing here, I explained what it means to be kind, and I asked everyone in chapel to join me in being intentionally kind – for the whole day Tuesday.  My Kindness Project included three components.  First, to be kind towards others in words and actions.    Second, to be kind to others in our thoughts.  No saying something nice and then thinking something mean.  And third, to be kind to ourselves.  No beating ourselves up because we don’t know the answer to a question, or because we make a mistake.  I told the adults that the invitation wasn’t just for the students, because Lord knows as we get older we think we know more and consequently think we are right all the time, and consequently at least think unkind thoughts on occasion.  After receiving a little chuckle from the adults I took my seat, pretty proud of myself if I do say so, for coming up with such a smart idea.  My idea was SO smart, that I decided I would extend my kindness project for myself so that it wasn’t just one day, but FIVE whole days until I would take my spot at this pulpit today.  I am a priest, after all, so it seemed appropriate to up the ante for myself in order to set an example for the kids.  Then as a bonus, I could talk to all of you about how flowery and wonderful my life had been for five days because of all the kindness that I was practicing.

I mean it sounds like a good enough idea, right?  Right.  I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING.  I am going to tell you about my five day experiment, but I want to be clear that it is not the story I expected to have for you when I came up with my bright idea on Tuesday.  The only thing I ask is that as I make my confession to you about this experience that you not judge me too harshly – be kind.

On day one, my bright and inspired self felt uplifted about my kindness project for about the five whole minutes it took for chapel to be over.  As soon as the children’s smiling faces were gone and suddenly I wasn’t the only one responsible for what was being said aloud I started to realize the challenge I was in for.  I walked tentatively out into the hallway, almost afraid to encounter someone lest I accidentally think something unkind.  I wish I could tell you that I eased into the routine after an hour or so, but that’s not really the case.  Instead, for the entire first day, I found that I could not speak or think anything at all.  Hard as it was to realize how many unkind thoughts run through my head every day I couldn’t beat myself up for it because I was trying to be kind to myself as well.  I mean really, I could have kept it at one kindness criteria and done myself a favor.

By day two things got a little easier.  I had practiced changing my thoughts around, smiling a little more, exuding love towards the people around me.  I figured out how to talk about an event that had occurred, and my feelings about it, without offering unnecessary commentary about the others involved.  I dare say by the end of day two I even found myself a little smug about how good I was at being kind.  See?  It just takes 24 hours or so to get used to it.  Piece of cake.

By day three I realized that on day two I have been “kind” to myself by taking the afternoon off of work and it is, in fact, pretty easy to be kind to yourself and others when all you are doing is reading a good novel on your couch at home.  Back in my normal routine on day three I found myself awkwardly navigating conversations all day.  Worse?  I realized that I was afraid that people wouldn’t find me interesting because I was being kind.  Yes, you heard me right.  I was afraid people wouldn’t like talking to me enough because kindness was boring.

By day four it was clear to me that all of those unkind thoughts that pop into our heads during the day are actually part of our defense mechanism.  Someone approaches you and says something flippant, or thoughtless, or maybe something you really disagree with, and you immediately think… well, something I wouldn’t say from the pulpit.  And you know what?  You think something like that – something unkind – because its way easier than experiencing whatever feeling is lying beneath a snarky comment.  By day four, unable to mentally escape with some fantasy about telling someone off, I felt vulnerable and raw.  Robbed of my angry inner dialog as a defense, I was left with sadness, hurt, and disappointment.

By day five I had unknowingly achieved one of the other exhortations we are offered from Micah this morning.  By day five, I was walking pre-tty humbly with God.  Unable to do much else, I found my prayer time increasing as I came to grips with what a challenge it was for me to practice intentional kindness.  I would have never guessed how massive an undertaking it would be for me to change my thoughts, my speech, my conversations with close friends behind closed doors.  There’s nothing like a seemingly fun invitation to some school children to help me realize how much of a work in progress I still am, and how desperately I need God’s guidance in my life.

But there was something else I realized by day five.  I realized that five days really isn’t enough.  Because over those days, in the midst of my fascination, shock, mortification, and painful awareness, I caught glimpses of transformation.  The moments were fleeting, because I have only just begun to explore this way of thinking and being, but I saw them.  With more time, I could see how practicing intentional kindness would make the world I live in a brighter place.  Not because I would turn into some kind of Mother Teresa, but because my inner spiritual life would be transformed.  That was the most alarming part of my experiment – realizing how much negativity lives in my head.  But practicing kindness breaks up that automatic pilot, and other change happens naturally.  Love, forgiveness, compassion, justice, and humility are a little easier to come by because you’ve cleared a little bit of space on that mental shelf.  I also couldn’t help but speculate about what our community and world would be like if we were to all be this intentional about kindness – not because that’s how you get by socially, but because it is the standard that God asks for us.  Because it brings about transformation.

For what it’s worth, I missed the goal plenty of times over the last five days.  I have a long way to go.  But I think I might at least keep trying because, if for no other reason, once you’ve started to pay attention to something like this it’s hard to knowingly go back to your old way of being.  And I guess – even though I almost hate to do it to you – I’m inviting you to try this with me.  Even just to see what it’s like – if nothing else, you’ll learn something.

So there you have it.  Your invitation, should you choose to accept it:  Do justice, LOVE KINDNESS, and walk humbly with your God.  This… this is a good idea.  Amen.