Mundane Kindness

Whoever gives one of the these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is my disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. – Matt. 10:42

When you study in the library you are exposed to some interesting people. Unless someone gets there first, I sit in the same chair which happens to be situated in an area frequented by women. The Christian fiction phenomenon of Amish romance is alive and well, I tell you, and those seeking it out have worn out the carpet in front of me. There is pretty much always a soccer mom standing a few feet from me, trying to decide which series of rebellious Amish-teenage-pregnant-girls she will run through in the next 24 hours. Usually, I am pretty much ignored unless someone I know happens upon my little corner.

However, about 2 weeks ago now, I cannot remember exactly when, something memorable happened…memorable because it was different. It was the kind of thing, if you told me it would be memorable, I would wonder what you were getting at.
A lady smiled at me. And it was not the smile that says, “we have looked at each other and I am acknowledging this fact.” You know, that smile which is really no smile…where you pull in your lips and nod your head. There was nothing particularly sly about her smile. It contained no eros. And there was no reserve behind it. It lacked any pretension and seemed generous. And though I cannot understand why it was given, after thinking about this moment, kindness seems to be the only explanation I can come up with.
It was just a moment of kindness.
The reader, especially of the Southern sort, may be thinking, “Why is this such a big deal?” Let me begin by pointing out, being smiled at, by strangers, is not unique in the South. I live in Alabama. We are famous for this kind of thing. We smile at strangers speeding past at 70 miles per hour. Maybe it is not a big deal. But it didn’t have the ‘feel’ of social convention.
* * *
I had no need for the smile. My week was going great. My wife was and is full of smiles for me. We laugh and smile with each other and our children throughout the day. There is no shortage of kindness expressed through smiles in our home. And the same is true among extended family. And friends. And when gathered with our church in worship, over a meal or for the purpose of prayer, smiles bound. So it is not as if I was sulking in my chair, laboring away in gloom and was refreshed by a moment of kindness, which was nothing more than mundane.
But let’s suppose I am someone else. Suppose I am someone else, sitting here when the smile leaps out of the life of kindness and lands on me. I have lost my job and I am laboring to scale the smooth, hard face of unemployment while feeding, clothing and sheltering a family. The library has free internet so I can search for a job online. I am a day removed from getting the news I have cancer. Or I have just found out my child has leukemia. A parent has passed away. A friend has lied to me. I am alone. I have no one. Wandering this world, my interaction with others is limited to the goods and services I purchase.
If I were any of the above people, such a smile might be a flower in the desert. Or an oasis. Maybe we could call it “even a cup of cold water” for those thirsty for some kind, any kind of kindness. Any kindness at all will do. The significance of a cup of cold water will be hard to grasp for those who have never been thirsty. If you are in an air-conditioned building full of water fountains and water coolers, a cold cup of water will mean very little. Certainly appreciated when given but forgettable. It will seem ordinary, mundane even. The same goes for smiles.
* * *
Deep down, we do not really think this kind of kindness is important. As far as we are concerned, it will get no press before God or men. It’s the big stuff which looks excellent on spiritual resumés and it’s these we use to determine the authenticity of the faith of God’s people. The smaller acts of kindness? They not only do not show up but their absence is justified by the former. “I know he is a jackass and hard on the waitstaff at restaurants but he gives a lot to missions!” “Oh, well then.” Neither should negate the other. The small acts of everyday nor the noteworthy should make the other obsolete. Both are needed, sure. But one is mundane and therefore forgone. And forgotten. We forget the need. We forget the power. And we forget the words of Christ, who would commend the mundane kindness of a cup of cold water.
I imagine, most cannot see the significant moments of kindness because their lives are so full of the like. The very preponderance of it all crowds out any meaning therein. So we naturally see kindness in the newsworthy acts of philanthropy we either want to receive or be noted for. After all, no one notices the smile…it disappears in a wisp. Poof! It is gone. The cold water is no sooner enjoyed than forgotten in the desire for another. So we forgo these kinds of things altogether. They lack significance in a world we are always being told we can change. Kindness has no cataclysmic effect on the forces of evil in the name of justice. So we leave it off on our way to end injustice. In other words, we want to end war, hunger and poverty in our lifetime. But we do not posses the will to let someone merge in front of us in traffic. And do so with a smile.
* * *
In “a dry and weary land” a cup of cold water is the picture of kindness. Though small, the refreshment is needed, appreciated and not easily forgotten. This is hard because we are prone to define kindness by the largest possible measure. The plumb-line for what is kind is far removed from the stuff of smiles and cups of cold water. It exists in the form of checks and gifts, voluminous and weighty. And all the while, as we plan on laudable acts of kindness, there are moments of opportunity. Perhaps only a smile is possible. A holding of the door. An offer of assistance. That cup of cold water. All mundane, but every single one an opportunity for kindness to break in on a life just as the rays of the sun break in on a morning.
This is part of a series called “The God of the Mundane”

Should I Wish Flannery O’Connor Was Protestant?

This is a tough question. For I cannot imagine she would have written what she has and done so with such effect, if she were. Her being Catholic seems to be the place she writes from as much as her being Southern. And yet there is this voice in myself which despises so much dogma of the Catholic church, a tension is there.

I actually do not think she would have written what she did if she had been Protestant in the South. I assume she would have been tempted and told to write something far more devotional, saccharine and sentimental. And here is the irony, she wrote about the Grace and Redemption we have in Christ better than any Protestant fiction writer. Being Catholic made her fiction what it is – Genius. So here is the irony I am stuck with; she, as a Catholic got at the truth better than she would have, if she had been a Protestant. And she got it “out there” more than 99% of Protestant writers.
This is no reason to leave and join the Catholic church. But it certainly should cause us to stop and ask, “What was she believing about God and his creation and Christ’s work of redemption that made such a wonderful body of work possible? And are we believing it? Do we need to? Are we missing out on something”
There are some who will think this is a ridiculous question. “Of course you should want her to be Protestant, her soul is what matters the most and as a Catholic, her soul was at risk.” I assume these folks are the same ones who would have told her to write something different. I prefer to wrestle with this question a little more, all the while, thankful for her gifts.

Novels are for Pastors

My parents did not always buy me the toys I wanted. Dad was a pastor and we never had tons of money, though I never really knew it. But they did buy me books. I went through a period where I was going through Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books like most kids go through video games. I have this one memory of my parents driving me around to various little local bookstores to find one I had not read. This is a precious memory to me because we were on the way to their friend's house and I wanted...needed something to do while the adults talked. I had no siblings near my age. Books like these were my friends. I would pore over them again and again and again. The stories still stand dust-covered in the shadows of days long gone.

Things have not changed much. I still read novels; many of them over and over, year after year. I have added a memoir or two and I always read stories new to me. These stories have become familiar friends, very familiar, for many have been read more than a dozen times. The stories are never knew but it does not matter, I read them anyway, expecting something new. Never disappointed, though the story never changes, I see glimmers unfamiliar, each time.
But there was a time I had an uneasy relationship with novels. I did not stop reading them, but I started feeling guilty about it. Not the kind of guilt which leaves you up at night. But the kind of guilt which keeps you from talking about what you are reading with others. We pastors (and really spiritual people) are supposed to read “spiritual books” you know…not fiction.
Like I said, the relationship was ‘uneasy.’ Mainly because I was listening to some voices which made me think, as a pastor, I had neither the time nor the freedom to enjoy fiction on a regular basis. The responsibility was too great. The urgency was too real. Hell is burning. And you want to read Dumas? But then I would enjoy the warm comfort of a paragraph written by Austen or O’Connor’s ragged Southern wit. The joy of Dillard’s The Maytrees is without equal. And I am always in the mood for a murder of Agatha Christie’s making. Needless to say, the guilt lost out to the beauty and the profound weight of all I had learned about life and writing from so much fiction. Stories have been good to me since my earliest days, where memories run slow and shallow.
But I want to go out on a limb and suggest novels are ‘good.’ They are not just OK. They are good and not just as sermon illustration fodder. They are stories. And stories I assume are good things. We know this because the Bible is a story. Though it has instructions, it is not an instruction book. It is not a “game plan” for your life. It is not a mere roadmap. It is nothing if not a story, the story of what God is doing. Has done. Will do.
And Jesus told stories. Yes, they are parables. But they are wonderful stories nonetheless – full of life and wonder and excitement and reality and fiction and tears and blood and heaven and hell and violence and passion and sin and beauty. All are works of fiction meant to arrest the listener and now the reader.
The Gospel is a story. And we are justified by faith in this story. We have lost sight of the fact that the facts and truths we espouse as believers are of the kind which belong to a story. It isn’t fiction, mind you. But is has more in common with fiction than a religion of lists and propositions alone.
And every life is a story. The rich and poor alike are stories lived, whether told or untold. And if told would be worthy reads. James Joyce taught us this. No one is an abstraction. Our social security numbers and long lines at airports try to convince us differently. But we, ourselves are the stuff of epic tales…every moment worthy of a memoir.
Novels, though fiction, when they ring true, are full of truth. The kind of truth which makes us sit up in bed, underline sentences and read them to your spouse out loud. The label ‘fiction’ only plays at the edges of what it often is.
All of the above begins to give us a glimpse into the help novels and stories can afford pastors (and those who are more spiritual than everyone else). But also, novels can help pastors in the way they write and teach. Most theology books are not distinguished because of how well they are written. No, they are set apart from books on matters doctrinal because of their ability to impart the themes they have set out to communicate. Novels are often set apart (not always) because they have been written well. The novels usually distinguished are those which have the feel of craft.
We, pastors as a vocational set, could use a little instruction in craft. We could use some informal training in how to craft sentences worth remembering and the subtle wielding of words. Our ability to communicate the truths we love and are convinced of, can…will be strengthened by reading fictional stories.
We are not mere information producers for consumers of religious goods and services. We are story-tellers. We tell our story. We tell the old, old story – the story which gives all other stories depth and significance. We are not solely educators instructing students from whom we expect regurgitation of information. We are in the line of those who crafted those 4 marvelous edifices of Gospel. No one who has looked into the well of the original languages can walk away without seeing they did not just write out information they remembered. They crafted. Our sermons, letters, emails, lectures and for God’s sake, our blog posts could stand some more craft in them.
This is not to say all fiction is created equal. But if I have any ability to write, I owe much to Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis. If I can turn a phrase at all I credit Tolkein and Annie Dillard. Certainly some fiction may be not so helpful as others. But this is no reason to not pick up a novel and read some fiction.
Someone will read this and suggest I am telling pastors they should put down their theology texts and pick up Twilight. Let me say with a resounding voice, “Maybe.” Certainly I am saying, we should see novelists and storytellers as gifts from God, who can add much to our ministry. At the least I am pleading for a desire to create a pastoral environment where works of fiction are not relegated to the sidelines of afterthought and leftover pieces of time but are seen as fresh help as we must craft messages of hope and grace.

The Gospel of Something Else Entirely

It’s early in the week and all you can do is wait for the weekend to get here. Well, it’s not all you can do. You can daydream and plan and tell others about the awesome plans you have made. You can trudge through the mundane job before you, with the hope of something better to come; whether it be the lake, the beach, a date or a night out with friends. This is how we live our weeks. Ease of labor is made possible by the promise of a break from it. Monday through Friday we walk through the valley of the shadow of work and school. When Friday comes, we enjoy the good news of the clock, world without end. Till then, we manage by enjoying happy hours, long lunches and a good film but we are wanting something else entirely different from the work week.

And we most likely have a spirituality in the same vein. We eagerly await doing spiritual things and being involved with spiritual enterprises. We look to the future. We look away to something outside of what we are doing. Regardless of where we are and what we happen to be doing, we must wait for something else or be somewhere else to have a spiritually significant moment. It is here, we are believing the gospel of something else entirely.
There is one understandable reason for this. The gospel is in fact something else entirely. It is entirely outside of our opinions, for the good news of the Kingdom is out there regardless of our belief in it. Also, the gospel is the message of God working and rescuing and changing us because we cannot do it ourselves.
But there is also a problem here. The “gospel of something else entirely” steals the significance of now and here. Now gives way to later. Here loses out to there. The present moment and the place where that moment passed are stamped with insignificance. The significance of here and now are relegated to the credit of those who only saw them previously as later and there.
I buy the bread for communion. And I buy it from a big box store on my way to where our church meets on Sunday Mornings. It is easy for me to focus on the fact I am getting bread for communion which will take place a few hours later than when I buy it. What is not easy for me to focus on, are the moments strung together as I am buying the loaf of bread. How do I respond to and think about the sleepy “greeter” who barely acknowledges my existence as I enter the store. Am I thankful for the cool air of the store. Do I stand in wonder at all the food before me? Do I long for everyone to get the heck out of my way so I can get there? There. There is where the importance lies.
This is no call for navel-gazing guilt. What I am after is a life of moment-by-moment significance. I’m after good news of the Mark 1:15 sort. The Kingdom of God is at hand. I am part of this kingdom. I am not waiting to be part of it when I die. I am not more a part of it when I am in church listening to a sermon or eating this bread. When I buy the bread – any bread – I am involved in transactions which are Kingdom transactions.
This changes everything. No longer is the gospel the promise of something else entirely. It is now the message of now. Now you are redeemed. Now you are living as a member of the Kingdom. You are disciplining your child, taking a bath, paying bills and cutting grass as a member of the Kingdom of God and of his Christ. And the reason this changes everything is because now everything is now part of this life in the Kingdom.
Every mundane moment sitting uncomfortably between those of ecstasy, spiritual or otherwise is now worthy of attention. It is no longer necessary to live on the fumes of the spiritual high that was or look forward to a future hit, we have now the fellowship of the King. Every act is now of Kingdom consequence.
Sure, there will be times when “getting this” will be like finding needles in haystacks or pulling teeth. But this is when I think the message of the gospel for now – this moment – is singularly good news. It does not only offer promises of the future but holds out promise for now, even now when you cannot see the goodness of the news, it is still present. “You are still loved by the King.”
If it is true the Kingdom is at hand then we had better get rid of the “gospel of something else entirely.” The gospel of “going to heaven and not hell” and the “gospel of feeling great while listening to sermons and worship songs” is woefully inadequate.
I agree, it is great news, we, followers of Jesus are not going to hell and instead are promised a glorious eternal existence. And I’ve nothing against enjoying sermons and worship songs…well some worship songs. But one is a gospel dealing with only later and the other leaves me in the position of experiencing the indwelling presence of my God at Church or if I have my headphones handy. What about now? While I am eating with my family? Sitting in the library? Mopping the floor? Doing homework? Shopping for a new belt?
When people would walk away from the Christian faith, I used to find it odd. And it is still compelling and lovely enough for me to be astonished. However, now I do wonder. I wonder why they would stay if the faith they are adhering to is all about something else entirely. Oh, your faith can be about now, if you give your life to Jesus fully and go oversees to tell others about him. Or go into full-time ministry as a pastor. But, if you’re a banker or doctor or a barista, well, you only get Sundays (maybe Wednesday nights), the drive home if you listen to Christian music and the annual missions trip. But there is nothing for the bulk of our lives. They are unspiritual, which must mean they are devoid of the Spirit of Christ, our King…our Savior. Our friend. What happened to all the good news? A life of millions of millions of moments that are of no consequence is terrible news.
I advise no one to walk away. But what I do advise is a rejection of the gospel of something else entirely – the gospel which has nothing to do with all the times and places which are not typically called ‘spiritual.’ I enthusiastically advise a rejection of any gospel which demeans the day-in and day-out labors of homemakers, who must scrape up last night’s mac-n-cheese off the floor, courtesy of the resident toddler, by suggesting such a thing is not of eternal consequence. When in fact, they are pushing back the fall, itself.

"I Have No Desire To Be A Missionary Or A Pastor"

Ever said this? Chances are, you have. But not out loud. Out loud you said, “I do not feel called to the ministry or going overseas or…” But down deep the idea of being in ministry or marrying a minister sounded like a particular division of eternal torment you were not so inclined to visit.

And I think it’s OK. Fine, even. Actually, I would call it “good.”
But I know why you feel this way. You are supposed to want to do ministry. And if you do not want to cast off the wares of the west and head east to convert the heathen you are carnal, unspiritual or have not read the newest book to make you feel guilty about whatever profession you have chosen. Listen, the only legitimate excuse you have for not wanting to do ministry is lack of ability. For why would you not want to do something so needed?! Or so the reasoning goes.
But we should all be OK with those who do not want to be in ministry and celebrate their decisions. Maybe we should ordain plumbers and poets, I don’t know. But what I do know is I want only pastors who want to be pastors down deep for the same reason I only want the guy who fixes my brakes to love working on cars and mine specifically. I do not want him despising his work and longing for something more spiritual.
Just go ahead and love God and do what you want.