Be kind and compassionate to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
Pat and I attended a memorial service last week for my Aunt Jean. Jean died just a month shy of her 92nd birthday in the close company of her family. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, came of age during World War II, pursued nursing as a profession, married and raised four children. Her life was marked by numerous physical and relational challenges within her immediate and extended family, and in her later years with her own failing body. Yet her life was not defined by these, but rather by her extraordinary kindness towards others. For, you see, despite her external circumstances Jean was a kind person. And it will be for the sacrificial kindness she extended to other people that she will be remembered. It mattered not whether she was attending a suffering patient, binding a child’s wound, caring for a needy family member, or simply mentoring a young mother, she always had an easy smile and a giving heart. The circumstances of her life were challenging, at times heartbreaking, yet she somehow transcended these externals and chose to live a life of compassion and kindness towards others.
As I listened to various eulogies at the service, I couldn’t help but marvel at the strength of character it took to live this sort of life. I wondered how it was that she grew into the person she became? It is tempting to assume that the virtues a person exhibits either come naturally to the individual, or are the inevitable consequences of their environment and nurturing. Perhaps. But I think more often than not it takes work and perseverance to develop a noble character. I have no doubt that Jean struggled at times to serve others sacrificially. Her character was not formed by a one-time, binary choice to be kind to others. Rather, it was a series of small choices everyday of her life to forsake her own needs in favor of another. My memory of her is that of a woman in motion – always working, always serving, but never too busy to care for someone in need. A veritable combination of Martha and Mary to my way of thinking.
It is the function of our heart to make the sort of choices Jean did to help others. As N. T. Wright has written, “Virtue … is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally” – and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically,” as we say.” (After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters). I believe Jean reached a point in her life where kindness was an automatic response, a habit of holiness so to speak.
“Small ball” is an expression in baseball that emphasizes getting runners on base over power hitting. It is a style that concentrates on singles and walks and stealing bases rather than a muscular lineup of home run hitters. In a similar way, we develop habits of holiness by making small choices everyday of our life that aim to make right responses automatic. We certainly need to aim at the right goal, as Jean did over the years. But the implementation requires smaller steps that are within our immediate control. This is easier said than done because our feelings are powerful drivers of our actions – so if we don’t feel loving towards someone we tend not to act in a loving way. But as Eugene Peterson has written, “the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker that we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting.” (A Long Obedience In The Same Direction) Our culture would tell us love is a feeling, but God’s truth is that love is a choice. (For example, see John 14:15)
It has been said that we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what we can achieve in a year. In a similar fashion, I believe we tend to underestimate the changes that can be made to our character over the long haul by the little choices we have before us everyday. Lent, which is a time to recall and reflect on Christ’s sacrifice, has traditionally included some form of fasting for forty days to disrupt the normal patterns of living and move the believer into a time of self-examination and reflection. In our day, an increasing number of Christ followers are choosing a Lenten fast from our electronic world by disconnecting from the Internet, social media, etc. What can seem like a nearly impossible task on Ash Wednesday gets easier as one day yields to another and Easter approaches. Perhaps we should reconsider the impact we could have on our relationship with a friend or family member if everyday for a month we chose to be intentional about our interaction with him or her. Perhaps a hidden act of service, quality time, a word of encouragement, or simply a kind word. For it is on such actions and words that the kingdom of God is built.
I am encouraged to know that there are people like my Aunt Jean in our world today. People who choose to live a different sort of life – one that is other-centered, one that eases the journey of those in need, one that is giving. Such people make the world a better place. And I am challenged to make the small choices everyday to pursue kindness as a virtue worthy of the blessings I have been given. Or as Paul wrote, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)
I end with this postscript – Jean’s caring extended even unto death as she chose to donate her body to medical science.